Book Title: And He Opened the Window
Author: Binapani Thokchom
Translated from Manipuri by the Author
His sister supported him with all the necessary things. Whatsoever he needed, she would bring them for him. There was frequent shortage of food and many other items; sometimes, he used to eat cooked rice with a little salt. He understood the hardship of the travel by his sister between Ningthoukhong and Impha. In those days it was either the bullock cart or on foot. Gobardhon did not stray from his studies. He understood when his sister could not bring food in time due to the lack of transportation. At that time, he would remember the Sanskrit Slokas from Mahabharat once taught to him earlier … how Arjuna only saw the eye of the bird he was aiming at. Inspired by this thought he resolved only to complete his studies.
By the first month in the eighth standard, he had completed learning The Beginners’ English Grammar which was introduced by the British authorities for the local people. He also finished gaining knowledge of a1gebra thoroughly. He asked his teacher to give him a: Higher English grammar; a Bengali teacher gave it to him. Gobardhon and the other students of Class Nine were fully prepared to go to Shillong for the Matriculate examination because there was no competent authority to conduct the said examination in the state. No one from the state had passed the Matriculation examination then.
One day, His Highness Sir Churachand Maharaj and Boro Sahib-Shakespeare made a surprise visit to the school. Everyone began to sense some exiting or emergency news to be announced. A little later, it was announced that some students would be sent to Dibrugarh to study medicine. The session was starting immediately, but for the study of medicine, one had to pass the tenth standard. Boro Sahib solved the problem; he said he would take an examination equivalent to the tenth standard. The examination took place at once and Boro Sahib invigilated the exam himself, and thereby two students – R.K. Bhubonsana and Gobardhon passed the examination. Boro Sahib was pleased, nodded with appreciation on seeing the answer paper. He remarked:
“I have found crude gold pieces in Manipur, this remote and primitive land. Very good!” He said mockingly but he was content in his heart. But the students whispered to each other while they were sitting in the verandah:
“Is there any good to be trained asa doctor?”
“Ours is a society full of. prejudices against holy and unholy practices. OhI It is doubtful, whether it is good or bad to practice as a doctor outside our land among the sick and the dead. The school seems to be run by the untouchable Malesha also.”
Another student said, “If someone goes beyond the norms of the society, he is always found guilty and caned at the back, half naked in the market place.”
Hearing these, Gobardhon and Bhubonsana were in a dilemma. Gobardhon pondered upon the matter just like an insect in a dark cavern. However, he decided to obey what his elders advised him as he was a polite and obedient student. Finally he and Bhubonsana had to go to be trained as doctors. R.K. Bhubonsana was a very brilliant student from Nagamapal, Imphal. Both of them were to get trained and pursue the medical degree at Dibrugarh Berry White Medical School.
The practice of Allopathic medicine was introduced in undivided Assam way back in 1838 by the East India Company of Great Britain. The establishment of the famed Berry White Medical School at Graham Bazar area of Dibrugarh in 1900A.D. opened the opportunity ofimparting modern Allopathic Medical Education in the whole North East India.
Gobardhon and Bhubonsana were offered a scholarship of Rs. 10 per month; their seats were also reserved. Gobardhon was supported mainly by his sister. His sister Thokchom Leima despite all the arguments and confusion stood by him and gave him moral support.
“Go Gobardhon! Join the training!” said Thokchom Leima. She arranged everything for him.
So one month before, every arrangement had been made by the officials. They had to travel through the new road from Imphal to Dimapur on a bullock cart. The journey would take a whole month; so necessary materials like utensils, earthen-pots, rice, pulses, chempak (flattened rice), dried fish, salt and gur were packed. The village elders did not stop advising; they instructed him not to eat at the Phirangies canteen because the food might be prepared by the hands of the untouchables Phirangies. Bhubonsana and Gobardhon did so and they had carried enough food to eat for a whole year. But, at the beginning of the second year, there was shortage of food stock and they started eating in the hostel canteen with other students. On the other hand, they got more and more busier with their studies. Both of them could save money from the scholarship of Rs. 10 given by the state government. They were compelled to dress in uniform especially in school function; so they wore British style suit along with necktie and waistcoat.
At the beginning of the second year, Bhubonsana decided to leave the medical school. During the course of medical study, each and every student had to keep a human skeleton in their hostel room. It was a dictum made by the school authority; They had to perform operation on human corpses every day. So, a human skeleton was hung on the wall of the hostel room of Gobardhon and Bhubonsana. This horrified him each night. Being brought up in orthodox Meitei families, they were hypersensitive in dissecting the dead bodies. Bhubonsana told Gobardhon that he could not tolerate the study any more. Gobardhon had decided to continue his study. And he tried his best to persuade his friend, he asked him to be patient till the course was completed. But it was in vain. Bhubonsana said,
“I don’t like this kind of job; I wanted to become a teacher, my friend!”
Bhubonsana quit medical school and left the Berry White School forever. Gobardhon was very shocked and later felt very depressed when his friend left him alone in the medical school. He was left all alone, he felt as if his one and only friend had abandoned him. Now his only friend was the books lying on the table. He consoled his troubled mind by saying to himself that he was there only for the sake of his learning and he should gather enough strength and will power to accomplish what he had started and what he had come for.
During the course, Gobardhon’s mind was occupied and he felt sorry with the thought of how much hygiene was neglected in the Manipuri society, how the Manipuris carelessly led a carefree life. He feared their ignorance. He himself grew up under the guidance of ignorant elders. He saw many deaths in his childhood: kids and young women, village elders and his own mother losing their lives when the cholera epidemic spread like wild fire. But the Meitei society said it was an epidemic caused by the curse of the evil spirit. There was cremation of bodies at every corner of the village. Gobardhon often saw in his childhood the leaves of Tairen tree being hung outside the doors of the Yumjao (big thatched house). The Tairen tree leaves were considered to be a negotiator of the evil spirits. Newly converted Meitei Hindus had a superstitious belief that chanting “Hari Nam” would resolve all their problems. The Hindu preachers made them believe in the perception. So they thought that chanting Hari Nam would protect human beings from the deadly disease too. As a remedy, the villagers burned incense and chanted hymns, sacrificed chicken and lambs to the evil spirit. Despite everything, the number of death could not be controlled and the cholera epidemic took all the lives it came for.
Gobardhon was now all eager to finish the course of his training. He thought that God had destined him to be a doctor. He would use his knowledge to save the Meitei society. He wanted to bring about a change, a little light in the dark society.
In the year 1914 Gobardhon became Dr. Thokchom Gobardhon LMP. He made the first step in the journey of his profession by joining the Sana office (Royal Palace office) where the medical cell was attached and the cell was run by Dr. Ganesh Babu, a Bengali doctor of the royal palace. He then went to the royal Darbar to pay respects and to introduce himself to His Highness the king Churachand. The king was sitting in an armed chair along with some dignitaries in the garden when Dr. Gobardhon bowed and touched the feet of the king. The king looked at him and smiled. The king glanced at the very handsome and dignified, fully matured, young man. The king thought the young man was distinguished and had a charismatic glow at his face. The -, king said to him.
“So, you are the first doctor of Manipur”
The first year was a very confused year for Dr. Gobardhon. He had to organize a home to live in. His father Chaonu had purchased a plot of land at Loklaobung at the cost of Rs. 250 earlier; there was a readymade house of thatch roof in the plot. Now he needed a wife to live with him, but he was being treated as an outcast by his own society at that time.
Meiteis were very hostile towards the British or foreign rule. When the First World War was about to begin; the warlike situation extended throughout the world. In India too, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Netaji Subhaschandra Bose and many other freedom fighter raised their voice in opposition to the British government. It was a hot debate in Manipur also. People of Manipur disagreed with their own king for following the rules and regulation of British political agents Boro and Chhoto Sahibs. Some people wanted democracy, for the people by the people… so some leaders joined the political party. They did not like to return to the monarchy again. But the women of Manipur openly opposed the British type of administration. In an incident, one woman came out of her house and pushed one official who was a water collector, into the pond. She said:
“Why are you taking tax for water? Do you know water is our right? Do you understand we are not your slaves?”
It may be recalled that the first reaction of the Manipuri people to the establishment of British Rule was active hostility. They showed the hostility by burning many buildings of British officers. In March 1904, some people burnt the new bungalow of the Assistant Political Agent Mr. J. J. Dunlop. He shifted to another bungalow. In July 1904, they burnt all the sheds of Khwairamband Bazar which housed the stalls of 3,000 women. In August 1904, they burnt the bungalow to which Mr. Dunlop had shifted. The Political Agent offered a reward of Rs.500 to anyone who could give clues leading to the detection of the culprits. Later, he ordered the people of Imphal to rebuild the second Bungalow. The Political Agent’s order was disobeyed. According to the Political Agent, Maj Maxwell, the Rajkumars had all along been disloyal to the British Government. Since the Manipuris paid taxes, the said Bungalow should be rebuilt from the public exchequer. All bazaars were boycotted from 29 September 1904. In the month of October, about five thousand women requested political agent to revoke his order. He refused. The six Rajkumars who encouraged the agitation were arrested and banished from Manipur. The people did not rebuild the bungalow. The agitation against the British atrocity, like levying taxes in many ‘;Nays and force labour, by Manipuri Women is known as the First Nupi Lan.
It was holiday for Rath ]atra festival. Dr. Gobardhon was excited about the festival, remembering his childhood days when he used to be one of the enthusiastic devotees pulling the two ropes attached to the “Kang’, the chariot of Lord Jaganath, his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra. The “Kang’ would stop at the gate of every house and families would offer fresh fruits, sweets, garlands, flowers, incense stick etc., there would be a short devotional song with traditional instruments and just before the song would end children following the Kang would dive into the offerings and enjoy the triumph. The traditional food during the time of Rath Yatra is “Khichari’ a kind of rice item and Ooti curry made with pea and sliced bamboo shoot. So Dr. Gobardhon was impatient to join the celebration to get his share of the Khichari and Ooti which was being prepared at every temple for offering to lord Jaganath. He dressed himself in complete traditional clothes suited for the festival, he wore a white Kurta and white Dhoti with Chandan on his nose and forehead, and stood at the road side. Though he had dark complexion, he was gorgeous and had good physique. He was just about enjoying the celebration when he saw a Brahmin lady known to him from his childhood, her name was Thourani Ibeni. They both exchanged a casual smile. Gobardhon said to her:
“Ibeni, can I have some Khichari and Ooti ?”
“Oh, yes! Come along! But you will have to wait outside the gate while I go in and get the offerings for you, because now you have become an untouchable.”
At this remark, Gobardhon suddenly felt shocked, awkward and speechless for some time. He pondered over the remark, why was he considered untouchable, what was the crime he had committed. He tried so hard to follow the norms of the society; even when he was studying in the medical school avoiding the students’ mess of the hostel, and prepared his meals all alone near a well. He was concerned about the excommunication and purification in the Meitei society. That day, he came home with a heavy heart and tried to figure out a way to solve the problem of people calling him an untouchable. Ultimately, he decided to approach to the king of Manipur with an application, so he headed for the royal palace with the written application in his hand. After reading the application, the Maharaja in his gloomy countenance and in a serious mood said:
“Don’t worry I will let Brahma Sabha solve this problem!”
On the next day, the Brahma Sabha made a proclamation:
“If anyone regard Dr. Thokchom Gobardhon as an outcast he or she would be severely punished by the king; he is not an untouchable, he is a doctor, and therefore he will treat all patients of Manipur.” By order Brahma Sabha
The proclamation was written on a placard and hung at every banyan tree in the town and at every market place all over Manipur. A copy of the same was also handed over to Gobardhon for his personal use. After this public declaration, no one dared to call him an outcast openly at the risk of spending their time behind the bars. However, he was still considered to be an agent, a domesticated monster of white people, and a semi-Phirangee. Eventually, he became adapted to the teasing people; they called him a “Black sheep”. They also sarcastically referred to ‘his house as Babu Mayum (Babu means Britishers and Mayum meaning house). Dr. Gobardhon dressed himself in British style clothing; he mostly wore a brown suit. He purchased two horses by paying twentyfive rupees each. He named his horse Mangebi. The colour of his horse was maroon-brown colour. He used the horse in travelling around the valley. People of Manipur looked at him with a frightening face at every nook and corner of the lanes whispering to each other,
“Look at the way he rides, he is galloping very fast”.
He used to ride thirty to forty miles every day, up and down the countryside and reached every corner of the valley. He went to Thoubal, Yairipok, Kakching, and the most difficult ride was Imphal to Kakching. Suddenly, the Cholera epidemic broke out. So, he had to station himself at Kakching. All his belongings were sent to him by a bullock cart and it took two days from Imphal to Kakching. He worked very hard to control the epidemic. He employed a co-worker to help him, his name was Tomal Compounder. Together they composed and made medicines till late night, even then there was shortage of medicine. Luckily, his hard work paid off and the dreadful epidemic came under control.
In a short period, he found out that there were many small and different indigenous tribal groups in Kakching area. One of these groups was the Maring community. They were hardcore indigenous people who had never ever experienced chemical medicines. The community Maiba (shaman) used to treat sick people using various customary techniques like medicinal plants, chanting hymns and prayer, performing rituals for the good and evil spirits etc. The people shared a very strong bond with the Maiba and had full trust in him. The most difficult point was that they would never talk to any outsider or to another community about their problems or illness. Dr. Gobardhon, however, learnt that many people had lost their precious lives with simple, vulnerable and contagious diseases.
Dr. Gobardhon and his co-worker Tomal babu discussed on how to persuade the Maring tribe to take treatment and medicines for their illness till late at night. Tomal babu told Gobardhon that the chief of Maring tribe lived in a big thatched house alongwith sixty of his family members under the same roof. The problem was that the big house had an entrance door only with no windows or ventilation. Dr. Gobardhon was eager to meet the chief. So, the next morning he went with Tomal to the Maring village. Tomal was right about the house of the Maring chief. It was indeed very big.
The chief had five sons, all of them were married with children. Dr. Gobardhon could see the young grandchildren of the chief playing around the house. When he looked into the house from the entrance door it was dark, he could not see anything but he could hear coughing sounds of children. When Dr. Gobardhon enquired with the chief as to who were not in good health, the chief casually replied:
“It is just a simple cough”.
The coughing sound increased and it was not one, all the children suffered from coughing. Dr. Gobardhon then examined everyone who was coughing and took their history; he finally found out that they were suffering from asthma. Gobardhon requested the chief, if he could make windows and ventilation in the walls of the house as a first step of treatment to the disease but the chief casually replied again that windows and ventilation were not necessary. The chief said that he would call upon the Maring Maiba who would exorcize the spirit causing the illness by sacrificing white pigeons and black chicken. According to the logic of the chief, the evil spirit that had entered the body of the child was hungry for flesh and blood, so by performing a sacrificial act the evil spirit would get what it had come for and the child’s body would be abandoned. After saying these lines the chief casually returned to making his handcrafted bamboo basket.
At Kakching, there was shortage of medicines and appliances. Despite the shortcomings, Dr. Gobardhon was determined and worked very hard for the betterment of the backward society. His co-worker compounder Tomal helped him greatly.
One day, Tomal made a suggestion to him:
“Dr. Babu, the Maring tribe are arrogant people, they will never believe what we say. What we can do is to force them by saying that if they do not agree to take treatment, we will report to the king of Manipur.”
Dr. Gobardhon replied:
“Well then, let’s do it!”
Very soon, a rumour had spread that the Maharaja of Manipur was going to warn the Maring community. Any death caused by illness and disease would not be accepted and if so happened, the chief would be summoned to the palace. Soon after this, the big thatched house of the chief was renovated with windows and ventilation. Dr. Gobardhon started treating the asthma patients and they admitted to him that they were feeling much better after getting fresh air from the windows and ventilation. After these incidents, half clad men, women and children surrounded the doctor and looked at him with a suspicious and curious eyes and murmured among themselves,
“Should we trust him?”
“Maybe he is right.”
Author and translator