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OUR LITTLE FRIEND

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ITAMACHA
"Our Little Friend"
A Short Story by M. K. BINODINI


Ita-macha, our Little Friend, left yesterday.

Laishram Megha's truck dropped them off at the Northern Oil Depot. Mishralal took with him all he could. The rest he sold off very cheaply. Some, I saw him give away to his friends. It didn't look as if he'd be coming back. Taking Little Friend by the hand around the Neighborhood, Mishralal had met everyone. He must have cried a lot: his face was puffy and his eyes were red. Outwardly he said - "I'll be back... I just want to keep the family there for a while...."

As for his wife Kasturi, I couldn't tell whether she was happy or sad. What with her head all covered and all, and her new baby in her arms, she took her place on the truck. That's all I can say since I saw her but briefly. Yesterday, she, too, dropped in on a couple of houses and said "Namaste, Namaste," like it was the proper thing to do.

But what about our little Itamacha? She poked her head out of the truck and called out to everyone she saw. She said to her friend Ibemsana, Laishram Megha's daughter, "I'll be back at the Spring Festival. My friend, I'll bring you a Jaipuri sari.... Grandma, it's a holy scarf for you, isn't it? ... All right ... Yes, yes; I'll get you one... And tell Bung-Bung he's not touch my dolls ... I won't have it...." Our little Itamacha, she left very happily.

*

Mishralal was born in Manipur. His mother Suko, and his father Biharilal, died in the land they came to call their own. Aunt Suko was great fun to talk to; she loved to tell stories.

Suko's father, Krishnaprasad, had come to Manipur as a young man. So related Suko when she delivered the laundry. Our garrulous Suko often sat down for a while. And for quite a long while sometimes. She said a certain Chaonu, a Temple Estate Manager, while at Binabon, had become very fond of Krishnaprasad. And it was this Chaonu, the Temple Estate Manager, who had brought Krishnaprasad over to Manipur.

"Though my grandfather - Baba's father - was only a washer man, he was quite well-off. He had four donkeys to carry the wash." Since the Jamuna River was some distance off, Suko's grandfather used to do the laundry in the canals after the plowing season was over. "The canal waters were very clear," Suko said, "The blue water was such a pretty sight as it rushed across the fields."

Following in his father's footsteps, Krishnaprasad began to launder as well. It was then he got to know the Meiteis when he began to wash clothes for them. The rest of the family had soon followed him to Manipur. Suko said she also had a younger sister called Sari. As Suko-Sari they had been celebrated. "Sari died young, right here in Manipur." And so on....

"They say our Baba was the very first washer man to come from the Homeland. All the Bara Sahibs only wore kapra washed by Baba and no-one else", Suko used to say with pride.

Aunt Suko had yet another trade. She made ovens. She made them at home and sold them every now and then. They did take some time to make but they were very durable. They saved on firewood. I, too, bought one for ten rupees. It was really very good. I have no idea what kind of ovens they were.

After Krishnaprasad died, Suko's husband came to live in Manipur to take over his father-in-law's business. Biharilal not only couldn't speak Manipuri, he was not very smart. He was a timid man. If people had to be pressed to pay their bills, that job was left up to Suko. If somebody had to be confronted, it was Suko's job again. And so it was for Suko that people brought khechri rice during the Kang Festival.

Maybe it's because they work so hard, but they say these washermen don't live very long. They could still be very around, Suko and her husband, but they died early. Their son, Mishralal, was a young man at the time but already married. His ten-year-old wife was still over at their Homeland, it was said. So Krishnaprasad's grandson, Suko's son, Mishralal, had lived in this Neighborhood from the day he was born. Of course, every now and then he would go back Home but never in the summer, he wouldn't. "No, it's very hot there, it's not like Manipur," Mishralal would report after he'd been back to his Homeland.

One time, after Aunt Suko had spent two or three months in her Homeland, Gayadham, she passed around two or three pieces of sweets to each of her friends, saying that a grand-daughter had been born to her. That granddaughter was our Little Friend, Ramdulali. After the mother and child were brought over, Mishralal found a largish house near the Laishrams' hotel and rented it. The house itself wasn't in great shape but it was quite spacious. It had a small courtyard so at least the washing could be hung out there to dry. We then knew Mishralal would settle down for good.

I said to him one day, "Mishralal, now that you have a wife and family, I suppose you'll have to stay in Manipur for good. Don't you leave us now... "

"Where would I go, Sister? When all my ancestors have been left on the banks of the Imphal River, where could I go? The River is now my Mother and my Father", he answered with unexpected grace. I was really quite surprised.

And what of the six-year old Ramdulali? She was always at the Laishrams', all the time. She was best friends with Laishram Megha's daughter Ibemsana. They played together. People teased her, calling her Itamacha, Our Little Friend, so that she became known to all as Itamacha, erasing Rmdulali, her given name. Everyone called her Itamacha. She was everybody's Little Friend, old and young.

"Itamacha."

"Yes?"

"Itamacha, have you eaten?"

"Yes."

"What did you have to eat?"

"Roti bread."

"Did you like it?"

"No, I like rice."


And yet another time.


"Itamacha."

"Yes?"

"What did you have for dinner today?"

"Mother ate roti. Baba and I had rice. Mother doesn't like rice. Why doesn't she like it? Isn't she funny?"

"And for the curry?"

"Baba, the two of us had ironba. Baba likes ironba a lot, you know."

"Did it have dried fish in it?"

"Of course!"


"Then you are unclean. If you eat dried fish you can't come here any more!", teased lbemsana's older sister.

Little Itamacha burst into tears. We had quite a job calming her down.

*

All children are all lovable. But the lovable child is something quite different. That was our little Itamacha. Looking at her one thought of a little fawn. Of a baby squirrel. The wagtail bird. A lively child, her tiny little mouth was never still. A talkative child, Ramdulali.

But the outrageous thing was that little Ramdulali, a mere child of six, was often sent out by her mother Kasturi to gather cowpies.

"Isn't that woman just horrible! Imagine sending her little child to gather cow-dung! She could easily be run over - see how close the road is," said Ibemsana's grandmother.

But Ramdulali's mother was a regular memsahib. She wouldn't even deign to come out of the house. Not once did she help her husband with his work. She was terribly aloof. And did someone say she came from quite a well-to-do family? And what with Mishralal as timid as he was....

"Taking after that half-witted father of his, that's what," those who had known Mishralal's father would say.

But the truly obnoxious thing about Kasturi was that whenever our Itamacha stayed out a little late playing with the Meitei children, Kasturi would always, without fail, come and stand by the gate, with her head all covered and all. Not once did she come inside the couryard.

"Eii Ramdulali! Aao-na, come along!" "

"Just look at that woman. Isn't she horrid!", the women would say.

In fright, Ramdulali would drop her toys playthings and scurry away. Ramdulali was afraid of her mother.

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However - and this may not be generally known - from the very day of her arrival, Kasturi was never at home in this land. The flavor of this life was not to her taste. We knew right away, Kasturi could never love the Imphal River. She was an alien. In the story of this ancient river she had no place. This woman of the scorching sun, this mahua flower of the sands - she was no takhellei flower, she was no sangbrei blossom. Her sharp fragrance was not for us. She was a nobody.

*

So Ibemsana's grandmother, the roadside vendor, would often croon to our little Itamacha: "My pretty princess... a child of the prickly weed is my grand-daughter...." and then she would laugh uproariously.

She would Itamacha a piece of candied fruit. Ramdulali would lick at it sparingly, her little nose-ring sparkling in the sunlight by the vendor's stall at Lamlong Bazar.

And I will let you into a little secret. There was yet another reason for the friendship between our Itamacha and lbemsana's grandmother. Whenever the old woman made dolls as she often did when business was slow, our little Itamacha threaded the needle for her. She also brought cow dung for coating the clay oven. She picked scraps of cloth from the tailor's. It was enormous service indeed. And so our Itamacha got all her dolls for free.

And what Itamacha loved best of all - true, she also liked eating khechri rice during the Kang Festival - was extorting money during the Spring Festival. And what her mother Kasturi disapproved most of all was her grabbing passers-by in the streets by their sleeves. Uncivilized, barbaric behavior, she probably thought of it. Every so often she would call her in. And every time our Itamacha would run out into the streets again:

"Here I come a-begging! Give me money!"

Ramdulali's pigtails would fly.

It was last year that Ramdulali began to take to the streets with her Meitei friends during the Spring Festival. This time she went absolutely crazy. She was in the streets all the time. When lbemsana's grandmother bought a sarong for her granddaughter, she got an inexpensive one for Ramdulali as well. It was bright scarlet. How it became her dark, glossy complexion! Truly, I'm not being funny. It really suited her. Her large, kohl-smeared eyes darted over the passers-by: Whom to catch? She even ran along with her friends after the big young men. She was always the first to grab a man's shirt.

"Hey, this one looks like a mayang Indian, doesn't she?"

Giving her a twenty-five-paisa coin, the young man freed himself and went his way. Ibemsana's grandmother, selling chili salad and fritters by the roadside said, "No, no, no! Don't you call my granddaughter a mayang!"

*

Mishralal was popular with all the people in the Neighborhood; they were fond of him. Born as he was in this land, and what with his good nature, there were some who even included him in their feasts and festivities. And he for one never missed contributing ten or twenty rupees whenever the Neighborhood community shared some expense.

Once Mishralal was invited to the Laishrams' Ancestors' Feast. With the Laishrams it was almost as if he was a part of the family. And he never took any money for ironing Megha's clothes. That day, he brought his daughter Ramdulali along. I don't know who taught him to do so, but he had dressed her in a little silk sarong. For all you know he may have made her wear one given to him to press. A washerman's family never lacks clothes to wear, they say.

Ramdulali sat down in the children's row. She did not sit with her father. Most children love to eat uti and so did Ramdulali. When the Brahmin cook came in with a brass pail to serve something, little Itamacha said, "Sir, more uti please!"

"Upon my Mother! And I thought you were a mayang Indian, nose-ring and all! But this isn't uti - I'll get you some." Plumping down a pakora for her, he went away.

Ramdulali was so embarrassed, her face dropped lower and lower until it was almost in her food. As they were coming out to wash their hands, Ibemsana said to Mishralal, "You know Uncle, the Reverend Sir said he thought Itamacha was a mayang and she nearly cried."

The moment she heard this, Ramdulali burst into tears, sobbing. But instead of calming her down, her father doubled over with laughter and carried her home in his arms.

*

It was around this time that bad luck befell Mishralal. It was as if mongba, the Bird of Ill Fortune, had flown into his house. Munna, Kasturi's younger brother, Mishralal's brother-in law that is, arrived from the Homeland one day. It was thought he would go back after staying a few days. But he didn't. More than three months passed, and he did not leave. A year passed, and still there was no word of his going. Being brothers-in-law, Mishralal couldn't just tell him to leave. On top of that, Mishralal was rather hen-pecked by Kasturi. As for Munna, dressed very smartly, and with a Hindi book in hand, he would sit around the hotel. Not once did he offer to help his brother-in-law with his work. Rather lacking in good sense, that young man. And quite a cocky fellow as well.

Whatever he said, he compared this land with his own, mocking and jeering. At times he got drunk and picked fights with the boys from the Neighborhood. Mishralal's wife Kasturi pretended not to know any of this, not to see any of this. Mishralal began to get worried. He timidly suggested if sending Munna back to the Homeland and finding him a wife might not be such a bad idea. Kasturi flared up in anger; she started a fight. Mishralal confided these family matters to Laishram Megha one day: "I don't know what to do, Babu, I am in a real fix...."

One day Munna was seen at the movies wearing a pair of corduroy jeans a boy had brought over for a press. He was beaten up badly. Instead of being embarrassed, Kasturi blew up: "It wasn't as if their clothes were really taken or something! So what if he wore it for a while.... What kind of a place is this anyway....?"

One time the Neighborhood boys said, "Elder Brother Mishralal, don't get us wrong, but send that brother-in-law of yours back to where he came from." When she heard this Kasturi said, "I'm not dying to stay here anyway. One shouldn't stay in this place where our family members can't even visit. Let's go back to the Homeland."

The matter was discussed. We'll go, we can't, let us go... Kasturi said, "Let's just go." Mishralal said, "Let's think it over, what would I do there to earn our livelihood?"

Munna wasn't the least bit concerned. Chewing a zarda 120 paan and fooling around, he hung around the hotel when the girls walked by on their way to school,

I don't know what was finally decided but it got around that Mishralal was going back to his Homeland. Perhaps he thought of putting on a show of going to get rid of Munna, and then coming back. But it didn't look like it. He began to sell off his belongings. For all you know he could no longer put up with Kasturi's nagging. From the very day of her arrival she had taken her first step to leave. She really disliked it here in this land.

*

Mishralal and his family left for their Homeland Gayadham yesterday. Even now I can vividly see our little Itamacha Ramdulali. How she left us, laughing, on Laishram Megha's truck; how she talked to everyone around; how she spoke of the presents she would bring for them when, tomorrow, she returns....

People told me that a day or two before, Mishralal, holding his daughter Ramdulali by the hand, had stood at his washing-dock on the Imphal River. I hear he wept. But our Itamacha had skipped on ahead of her father.

But there was one regret. We never heard what Kasturi had to say. We never reached each other, never touched each other.

Ita-macha left happily, our Little Friend of Imphal River. She left no debts; she owed nobody anything. She left very happily in Laishram Megha's truck.