Charade in Churachandpur*
Fifty year ago when I left Gwalior on that hot May night for Delhi on way to the National Academy of Administration Churachandpur was, if at all, only a feeble blip on my radar, somewhere from far away – from the general direction of North-East. The region was so fuzzy in my consciousness that I couldn’t have put my finger on the place on an atlas and, what’s more, wouldn’t have been able to tell a Mizo from a Khasi or a Naga. It was only when in that summer of 1961 I met in the Academy fellow-trainees – Rominthanga, James Michael Lyngdoh, Thang Khuma Tocchawng and many others – that I became familiar with the region and the people who inhabited it.
The last named, Tocchawng (unfortunately, no longer around), became a very good friend right in the Academy and also, incidentally, a (Indian Postal) Service-mate when the services were allotted. He was of Mizo parentage, though was virtually a Khasi having spent most of his early years in Shillong, the most cosmopolitan of North-Eastern towns. Endowed with a mobile visage, he was urbane to a fault and was an excellent companion. Having travelled outside his native regions, he could speak a smattering of Hindi that enabled him to mix around easily with those in the batch as well as in the Service. At Saharanpur, during professional training at the Training Centre we played a lot of tennis and badminton together. After the games he would regale us with those 1950’s mushy, romantic Nat King Cole numbers that continued to top popularity charts even in the ‘60s. He didn’t have that “incandescent” voice “King Cole” was known for but it was good and deep and he sang really well. Among his favourites were “Mona Lisa”, “Love is a many splendoured thing” and “Rambling rose,” all of which were (and even today are) my favourites.
Over time, as we went to hold field jobs in different states, the link between us became a little tenuous, but the warmth endured. Telephone calls, though few and far between, strived to keep the relationship alive. At the middle level of our respective careers both of us happened to converge at our departmental headquarters in Delhi, making the old ties once again vibrant.
Years later, when we had made it to the Senior Administrative Grade, it was he who informed me of my posting to Shillong even before the regular orders arrived. I was to replace him as the chief of the departmental outfit there. Around the late 1980s Shillong was considered a bad posting for a non-tribal, more so for a Bengali. Thoroughly refined as he was, Tocchawng was quick to commiserate with me, assuring me that I would not find it problematic as, he said, “I was not that kind of a Bengali” – knowing as he did that I was offspring of a Bengali who had migrated out of Bengal long years ago. Nonetheless, I was at once reminded of Jimmy Lyngdoh once jokingly asking me in the Academy, “You’re not from Sylhet, are you?” Sylhet, now in Bangladesh, is only 60 miles away from the border town of Jowai in Jayantia Hills. Apparently, most of the Bengalis settled in Shillong hailed from those parts and, I suspect, for the ‘qualities’ of their head and heart, were thoroughly disliked by the locals.
Having heard so much about Shillong from friends, acquaintances and seniors in the Service I looked forward to the posting though it was a transfer that took me from the Western coast of the country to virtually India’s far eastern end. Shillong was indeed a different world, easily one of the finest of the places I ever worked in. I had six of the seven north-eastern states in my jurisdiction, each different from the other. I had necessarily to travel a lot and that was time consuming, distances being long and roads mostly wretched.
One such trip took me to Manipur. At Imphal, one day finding myself free, I decided to take in Churachandpur, a district town to the south-west about three hours away by a rather bad road. Throughout my career I have had this penchant for visiting out-of-the-way units, situated whether among the snow-laden conifers on the heights of Kashmir or within coconut groves in the depths of Konkan, which were hardly ever frequented by inspecting officers. Accompanied by the local director and an inspector fluent in Manipuri we decided to surprise our unit there.
Churachandpur was like the usual run of small towns, inhabited predominantly by Mizos, perhaps because it was close to the state’s border with Mizoram. While driving down the bouncy road, curiously, I was surprised to see Mizo women walking about wearing fancy and delicate footwear despite the road’s terrible condition. Somewhat gratuitously, I thought to myself that shoe-menders had for them a great market in the town.
Finding the departmental unit doing well we turned back for Imphal. On our way back we came across a wayside part-time post office and walked in to check out its operations. The postmaster, an elderly Mizo, was assisted by his two young daughters, all looking very vague and deadpan, wearing typical poker faces. While the father answered all the questions the daughters looked for and produced all the documents. The Q&A was, however, three cornered as all of them were ignorant of both English and Hindi. The inspector did the job of an interpreter. It was a torturous process lasting about a couple of hours.
Everything seemed to be hunky dory. We prepared to leave and as I conveyed our appreciation to the postmaster for his good work I saw for the first time a faint flicker of emotion on his face. Soon, he visibly relaxed. Thawing, his eyes brightened and his gait changed noticeably. A bit of new life seemed to have been infused into him. Quickly shuffling across from a respectable distance he had all through maintained he came closer and asked “Sir, where is Mr. Tocchawng these days?”
Aghast, we were all rendered speechless. The man spoke faultless English – after feigning ignorance of the language for all of two torturous hours. Seeing the shock on our faces the father and the daughters burst into uncontrolled laughter. Even the two daughters were fluent in English having been educated in a Christian missionary school.
It was unbelievable – an incredible charade played out with consummate artistry by each of the three protagonists without so much as even a hint of a flap. The director progressively became crimson with the rage that built up within him but somehow did not go ballistic. Seeing the family having a good hearty laugh I couldn’t help grinning – marvelling at the facile ease with which a part-timer with two of his young off-shoots in a remote Manipur village made suckers of as many as three of his departmental seniors.
*A brief version had appeared earlier in The Pioneer. Later the full length article appeared in the Souvenir of Gloden Jubilee celebrations of the 1961 Indian Civil Services batch brought out in 2011