Before the violence, our village was what you would call sleepy and sequestered. A place beyond the touch of modern growth is now revered as a thing of splendour, but back then, that was our existence. That place is no more. A past. Almost unreachable within our memory, with no hope of seeing it again. Those gleeful winds of our memories exist but only as phantom shadows, flickering behind our immediate disquietude.
All we can see and feel are the fire and smoke from the place we escaped with only our souls packed in our bodies. Some even left their slippers behind. They must have been like our Mam Boinao, never failing to tell us to remove our shoes or slippers while stepping inside his house. He was known to be “the cleanest man in the village”, a badge of ridicule given by the men who said their wives were his only unsuccessful competitors, but he wore it with pride.
For miles we ran; just anywhere away from the debris was our destination. The sound of gunfire mimicked the crackers we burst during festivals, but they were not. Crackers throw up sparks and laughter, but the bullets were meant for our flesh. Some were wounded, they yelled. No one stopped to look anyway. Doing so would only make one dead body two.
I wish I had the privilege to think tranquilly and present all events accurately so that our readers could feel the horrors of that night. But such accuracy needs far more than just the mere privilege of tranquillity, I realise now. Bear with me, all I can remember is that after running the whole night, we were told to form a haphazard line, begging the army trucks to pick us up and drop us anywhere away from the village.
By then, I was alone. I had lost my family and friends in the crowd. Nobody healthy enough to run had the time to mind anyone else. I was sure that my parents were with my grandmother. My brother had yelled at me to run without turning back. He was right behind me but when I turned around, the person next to me in the queue was a pregnant woman, poking my back with her protruding belly every time the crowd pulsated in protest, voices yelling to be picked up.
In other circumstances, I know I would have offered her the place in front of me or made way for her, sending her ahead of anybody else. That day, it didn’t happen. She stood behind me, her belly poking me. People yelling and crying. The baby churning inside the mother’s belly. I jumped on a truck at last.
I do not recall how I reached the camp in the middle of nowhere. The army cadets put us in a tent with more than a hundred people. I am not sure how we managed to sleep that night. I am sure none of us slept. What I can distinctly remember is the smell of sweat and earth inside the tent. Another particular incident I remember from that night is my frantic search for a clean teak leaf to take the rations that the cadets provided. I don’t know what I ate that night. It went straight into the burbling acid. At least it calmed the grumbling.
We were asked to go towards the nearest town. I left with a group of some 40 people. By the time we reached the town, it was noon. A large gathering of town volunteers welcomed us. For the first time, I got a thin bedding to sleep on. Inside a giant community hall, ironically curtained with the kind of screens used during weddings and festivities, I hid my weeping.
We stayed there for days. There came news of shortage of water and of food and also of riots breaking out in several other places. We hardly complained. What would we complain about? We hardly had anything left to complain about. Where to begin? Our houses were burned in a night. All I could think about was a way to reunite with my family. As a person who rarely makes friends easily, I was destined to curl up in the farthest corner of the hall and listen to people speak of many things that happened to many villages. Just a few days earlier, there were no specific people that we strongly disliked. It seems absurd that people like us, who had little more than food and a few warm clothes, had so little to complain about. We had our squabbles and disagreements, but nothing foreshadowed the loss of everything we ever had.
But things are different now. Our enemy burned our houses, they say. Our enemy attacked us, they say. I couldn’t stand up and say I never had an enemy in my life. I decided to agree with them instead.
We did nothing to earn it, but we do have enemies now. Those who let our houses burn and those who burned our houses. Those who chased us away from our homes. Those who had been brewing hatred in their hidden cauldrons won, pouring the poison of divide into all of us. I just wished I did not feel so lost and numb, so numb that I could not even hate at that moment. The reality of my loss, our village’s destruction, hadn’t settled in my mind.
I don’t remember how long I spent in that camp. Appreciation for the volunteers who took care of us, despite the many shortages, grew stronger. There was grim news of a malaria outbreak in some other camp. We were told not to let the mosquitoes bite us but there were many who slept without nets. I prayed that the mosquitoes that bit me were not part of the gang carrying the parasite.
Then came another bit of news—we could go towards the city if we wanted. They said there were better camps there. I jumped on the first vehicle I saw. I shifted from one camp to another. Nothing they said about the city being better was true. By now, I was dogged by the sickening worry that I would never reunite with my family after coming all the way to the capital. Something told me that my brother was out there defending our village from the attackers. The way he yelled at me never to turn back was suspicious. He must have decided to stay behind.
Finally, I was taken into a camp at a college. These are well-maintained institutions in the city so the amenities were sufficient even for the 140 of us staying together there. The riot marked its second month at that camp. I became accustomed to greeting the people who came to donate whatever they could. There were also those who came to celebrate how much they could donate and shower us with many things. I am glad we humans have this vice, pride, which sometimes makes us do good. Except for the effort it took to hide from their cameras or their aggressive requests to stand in lines, I was glad they came. They brought me things I needed, some very desperately, to survive. Nothing about returning home or reuniting with my family was discussed. I had not spoken to anyone about it either.
A few elders made sure that I never missed meals at the camp. “Have you eaten?”, they would always ask. In our culture, this question is a form of greeting; only lately have I realised that this simple question is encouragement to move on with life.
It was another normal day at the camp. We were commanded to prepare the vegetables for our meal. We all had our duties and we did them diligently. It was the least we could do. Some felt bad about the burden we placed on people by having our houses burnt and staying for free in a camp that was supposed to be their place of education. I was not one of them—that was not my burden—but still, I did my part. I sat with the others and began cutting the chives.
A group of people came as usual. They were no longer visitors for us. Some had forged strong friendships with them. If not for the bloodshed, they would never have crossed paths. One lived in the spectral world of an urban dwelling, while the other tilled the earth, eyes fixed on the soil and the sky. My shyness limited my interactions. They, too, were careful when they talked to us. Once I showed my unwillingness to respond, they let me be. And so, I lived in the camp as the person who rarely talks or interacts.
When the riot turned three months old, I received news of my parents. I asked to be reunited with them and capable people arranged it. I went to a nearby village, where I was reunited with my family. They were all safe and sound, except for my brother. I asked where he was and my mother said he went to answer the call from the other side of the river. In riddles and proverbs, do our elders speak. I asked no more. Away from the capital, my mind tricked me into thinking I was closer to my home and things would improve in a few days.
Like little droplets of dew on winter mornings, memories of my village began to shimmer. I began missing home.
We did not have much but at least we always had charcoal for the winter. There was no charcoal fire in the camp. My mind wandered back to the last moments in my village. Up the hill we went for our Lunar New Year supplies. The reverse happened during Christmas. Hordes of our neighbours in the hills would come down to our tiny market to shop for their gifts and to feast. The chatter and the banter would ring out during those holiday mornings. I repeatedly poke the memory of happy times, worried that it now only lives in my head.
The fires and the smoke and bullets and dead bodies went on for many nights. Those who could have protected our right to survive were not to be found. Who were we supposed to hate and kill? I sat by the riverside when the sun blessed us. I wondered if my brother was still alive. If he was dead, who would bring that news to us? I heard that innocent women and children were not spared. I heard that our neighbour Mam Boinao was missing—dead, his few family members staying with us in the same camp assumed. I heard a lot of things every day.
There was a visitor who wrote stories as a profession. I knew who she was; I had just never spoken to her. She knew I rarely talked or paid attention to anything other than food and camp chores, but she never gave up trying to sit with me. Her awkward giggles and strange way of asking questions drew me in. For some reason, I accepted her acquaintance.
One day, we sat by the river, gazing at the hills, painfully tall, hopelessly far. She had come with her aunt, who pointed: “Look at that line of engellei blooming across the foothills. It is as if the juncture between the hill and the plain is bleeding. The flower is blooming uncontrollably. Painting everything as red as our blood…”
I waited for the writer’s response. She sat quietly. She looked down as if too overwhelmed.
“My brother is out there defending our village, he is yet to be found…” I began.
She turned, surprised. I rarely spoke unless pestered with a question.
I knew she wanted to feel things, everything in detail. It was a painful passion she nurtured.
She told me about another aunt who had gone out on to the streets at night to guard the village. Her husband, who would earlier get drunk and beat her, had been transformed by her bravery and made meals and tea for her.
“Who would have thought. We always learn something different.” She chewed the words as if it meant more than just an event narrated.
What she learnt from the bleeding engellei, I was not sure, but her overwhelmed face told me she needed me as much as I needed her.
I began to tell her my story. Many a story will come, and for us, even one being heard counts, she said at the end of our little exchange on the riverbank.
Linthoi Chanu (Potsangbam Linthoingambi Chanu) is a writer from Manipur whose work includes Tales Of Kanglei Throne (2017), a collection of short stories, Wari (2019), and a fantasy fiction novel, Wayel Kati (2023). Her central area of interest includes Manipuri folklore, legends and mythologies, which she has often retold in modern settings.