One of the drawbacks of studying at a boarding school is that one is condemned to rising at the crack of dawn for the rest of one’s life, even on Sundays and other holidays. Having been hauled out of bed at an ungodly hour from the age of six to the sound of a braying bugle, and stumbling sleepily around trying to brush my teeth, while looking for a matching pair of socks to wear with the running shoes, and hopping along, accomplishing the difficult feat of slipping into a pair of shorts on the run, it is difficult in later life to lie in bed in silent contemplation of the day stretching ahead of oneself. While I didn’t exactly spring out of bed with a cry of happiness each morning, I always found myself sitting, head in hands, wondering why I was up when the watch showed 5 a.m.! It did not help that the sun was shining brightly at that time, Indian Standard Time being at least an hour behind the sun in Manipur.
After a minute or two of gloomy contemplation of these longitudinal realities and their implications, my face would clear as the warmth of the day seeped through the cold walls of the bungalow. Rising, I would quickly complete my morning ablutions. The morning cuppa would have to wait since the orderly would still be deep in slumber. The other option was to walk over to the DC’s bungalow across the road.
One day, deciding that a hot cup of tea was what I needed, I pulled on my walking shoes and walked out into the sunny but cold morning air. Swinging my arms about in what I imagined was a gymnastic loosening up routine, I crossed the road and entered the DC’s bungalow compound.
This was a large tract, occupying the crest of a small hill overlooking the rest of the town, and it was dominated by the bungalow that was built on five-foot stilts. This left a space under the bungalow that became home to an assortment of the flora and fauna of the region. The luxuriant vegetation had defeated the efforts of the staff to keep this nether region clean and shrub free, and one could only speculate about the dangers that lurked within. Domingo was known to start from deep slumber and bark at the floorboards – at some unseen foe lurking below – while on occasion, the cat’s fur would rise and stand on end, she having probably heard the slither of a snake underneath. Or the DC himself would be roused from sleep by a titanic battle under the floorboards between small armies, rending the silence of the night with their yelps and snarls and howls and hisses.
The bungalow itself was modelled on the tea garden bungalows of Upper Assam, with a wide veranda running all round the house. The deep-set walls had wide windows and doors, leading into tastefully decorated spacious rooms. I did not have eyes at that time of the day for the aesthetic accomplishments of the DC, but was intent on locating the cook in order to get a cup of hot tea. Finding the Nepali cook already brewing a pot of tea, I returned to the drawing room to wait. On sensing my presence, Domingo barked from the bedroom that he shared with the DC, which probably woke up the DC, for I could hear the soft slap of slipper-clad feet on the wooden floor. The door to the bedroom opened and the large form of Domingo bounded out to examine me, and after a few sniffs reassured him that I was non-threatening, he shambled off down the steps to the far end of the garden.
The cook appeared with a tray and two steaming cups of tea, which he placed on the table. The previous day’s newspaper – which would have arrived the previous evening from Imphal – lay neatly folded alongside. The DC appeared in his dressing gown, loose pyjama bottoms dragging on the floor. I stood up and greeted him, which he answered with a smile. Seating himself in his easy chair, he opened the newspaper and, sipping his tea, enquired about my colleague who had not yet risen from his slumber. Silence fell while he absorbed himself in the contents of the day-old newspaper, reading about things that had happened two days ago in a world that appeared suddenly very remote. I reached over and picked up a several-weeks-old copy of the Illustrated Weekly of India and desultorily leafed through the contents before going through the comic strip section that I had never missed since early childhood. The minutes passed in this fashion, till the silence was broken by the loud barking of Domingo. The DC rose to take a look and, returning after a few minutes, invited me to join him out on the veranda.
The front of the house faced a large, square open space, bordered by flower beds. Beyond the square, the ground rose on all sides, creating an amphitheatre-like arena, where the only drama was when an enraged Domingo chased a particularly annoying cat across the ground and up a tree, or when a foraging squirrel was ambushed by a stalking cat, or when a mouse was caught in the claws of a swooping owl. These small tragedies (and victories) played themselves out unnoticed by the humans sharing the same compound. On one side of the square, the ground sloped up a little way and then flattened out for a short distance where a flagpole stood, before rising again, only to fall away steeply on the far side to the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) camp below. The DC narrated with ill-concealed glee his attempts to bombard the camp with ‘rockets’ and other firecrackers during the previous Diwali. Naturally, the soldiers could not retaliate, and must have seethed in impotent rage while the brilliantly coloured rockets rained down with impunity from the DC’s compound.
I sat in one of the cane chairs arranged around a low table and looked out over the morning landscape. I found we were at one of the highest points in the valley housing the town of Tamenglong, the headquarters of West District. In order to see the rest of the town, I would have to walk over to the top of the knolls that framed the lawn. It was not yet six in the morning, but the sun appeared to be quite high and the birdsong had started to get muted as the foraging birds slowly departed for shelter from the sun that could be quite sharp even in winter. The DC appeared lost in thought as he gazed out at the mountains that seemed to rise like waves into the far distance. In that part of Manipur, the mountain ranges run parallel, separated by deep valleys cut by swift rivers. This made communication difficult. Roads were scarce, with most touring having to be done on foot. And as we found during the tours we went on with the DC, the villages were spaced a day’s march apart.
Leaving the DC with his thoughts, I strolled out into the lawn, mug in one hand, a lighted cigarette in the other. I walked past the flagpole and climbed the little knoll. From there, I could get an excellent view of the CRPF encampment, and beyond at the town, which consisted of little more than a collection of houses strewn untidily in the valley, joined by irregular brown lines, presumably roads. Smoke rose in steady pillars from cooking fires, and morning sounds of human habitation had replaced the sounds of nature. However, one noise that was ever present in any urban habitation was completely and noticeably absent – the hum of vehicles. Once in a while, a jeep would roar out of the CRPF camp, or a scooter tear the morning silence with its typical tin-roof-rending growl. Less frequently, a heavily laden truck would groan up the road. Sound carries long distances in the hills. As children, my brother and I could pinpoint the position of every vehicle as it negotiated every curve and slope and hairpin bend near our house in the plantations.
The smells of cooking wafting up from the CRPF camp reminded me that I was hungry too. I was just about to begin wondering when breakfast would be ready when I heard the DC call me. Gulping down the last of my tea, I hurried down and found him standing near the flagpole. One of the Nepali boys working in the house hurried up with a bundle under his arm, which I saw was a faded tricolour. The DC smiled and said, ‘You will now witness a much-loved ritual of the frontier areas: the hoisting of the tricolour in the morning. The flag represents the awesome majesty of Government with a capital G, and will flutter splendidly all day, come rain or sunshine, till it is lowered at sunset, only to be hoisted again the next day, and so it will measure the days as they flow, one into the next.’
This was an unusually long speech by the DC’s standards, and very warm and almost emotional. My surprise must have shown, for the DC grinned and gestured to me to look at the lawn. There, marching towards us was Domingo, followed by the cat, then a duck and a rooster. Bringing up the rear was a goat. The ragged line halted and waited patiently when Domingo abruptly stopped to get over a veritable frenzy of scratching. Once he resumed his sedate walk, the troop followed and, as we watched in fascination, the creatures wheeled around and stood facing the flagpole. Now the parade was apparently called to order and we waited expectantly for the next manoeuvre.
It was then that I discovered that the Nepali with the flag had vanished. The DC, guessing the reason for my perplexity, gestured with his head upwards, and there, to my utter astonishment, I saw the lad shinnying up the pole like the toddy tappers of Kerala, with effortless and gravity-defying ease. As I watched transfixed, the lambu set about the task of fixing the flag to the pole. There appeared to be two tiny metal hooks fixed on the pole and he concentrated on the task of tying the flag to these hooks. It was obviously not an easy task, especially with one’s legs wrapped round a slippery slender flagpole perched about a dozen feet off the ground. He completed the task, watched solemnly by the DC and me, as well as the formation led by Domingo. As he started to shimmy down, the DC’s sharp voice brought him up short.
‘Ji shaab?’ he enquired.
‘Bahadur, I’m afraid you will have to do it all over again.’
The boy looked puzzled and examined his handiwork again, and found the knots secure. As he started to come down, he was again arrested by the DC’s dry, patient voice. ‘The flag is upside down, my friend,’ he said genially. The lad climbed back up and peered at the flag, which looked perfectly fine to him. Finally, through a combination of gestures and mime, the message was conveyed, and he gave us a huge smile as he retied the flag, correct side up. This time he looked down uncertainly and, sporting a wide smile on getting a nod from the DC, shimmied down, landing with a thud. He backed off a couple of paces and, in what can only be described as an attempt to lampoon the military, jerkily goose-stepped backwards, coming to attention with a thumping of both feet, and his arm flashed sideways and across in marionette-like movements till he completed what was easily the most impressive salute I have ever witnessed, his open hand vibrating like a tuning fork. It took a great effort not to break out laughing, and I could see that the DC, despite seeing this exhibition every morning, had not tired of it either. Domingo and troop impassively looked on, not having broken ranks yet. When the youngster finally lowered his arm, the DC thanked him formally and turned to return to the shade of the veranda. I waited to see what the rest of the parade would do, and saw Domingo turn to give an enquiring look to one of the troop. Someone, possibly the duck, appeared to say something, and the troop dispersed in an orderly fashion, going off in different directions.
We returned to the cane chairs, and the DC continued with his reading as if he had just participated in a normal flag-hoisting ceremony of the kind carried out daily in a hundred other locations in the country. I sat silent, my head full of the surreal tableaux I had witnessed. Finally, more out of a desire to start a conversation than anything else, I asked, ‘That’s a fine cat you have, sir. What do you call her?’
‘Billi,’ came the dry response. ‘And the duck is called Batak, and the goat, Bakra. The rooster doesn’t speak Hindi, and answers to Kozhi!’
Silence reigned once again as I digested this information. I could see the tricolour fluttering and snapping in the brisk wind that had started to blow. The lawn was deserted and quiet. Another day had started in Tamenglong.
Buy ‘On a Clear Day You Can See India: The Little World of the District Official’, C. Balagopal’s engaging account of his adventures in remote and overlooked areas in the north-east of India here.