My visit to Manipur happened more by chance than by any serious planning. One fine day in the month of November, I opened the newspaper to see the screaming headlines of Air India announcing flash sales and in my haste to get tickets, mistakenly selected my destination as Imphal, thinking it to be the capital of Nagaland where I actually wanted to go. One would think 24 years of quizzing students on states and their capitals would have taught me something , but it seems like the sheer frenzy of online sales overwhelms all common sense (https://hereandthereness.wordpress.com/2015/11/10/alice-in-discountland/). So I landed up with Air India flight 889 with a Delhi-Imphal ticket for a little less than Rs 3200 all inclusive.
On 15th January 2016, I took off on a solo trip to the tiny state of Manipur in Northeast India. Its bounded by Nagaland on its north, Mizoram on its south, Assam on its east and Myanmar on its west. The flight took four and a half hours with a stopover in Guwahati. I had an aisle seat and was lucky enough that the seat next to me was vacant throughout my journey. During the first leg of the flight from Delhi to Guwahati my co-passenger was a young Assamese fellow returning from Dubai on his annual vacation, and we got to chatting. He was working on a construction site of a new hotel in Dubai and he told me about his deplorable living conditions, his fierce boss and how this time he had saved enough and was planning to buy his Mum gold bangles. From Guwahati onwards, I had a new co-passenger.
His name was Sanjay and he belonged to Darbhanga district of Bihar but as he was working in Imphal for the last fifteen years, he considered himself a local. When he learnt that I was planning to stay at Hotel Imphal he categorically informed me that it was a very wrong decision and took it upon himself to call his friend and book a room at Hotel Nirmala for me. All this happened as the plane was taking off, and I was taken aback at his concern and kindness and how important it was to him that I, a total stranger should have a good time in his adopted city. We parted ways at Imphal airport and till date I carry with me this memory of kindness from a total stranger and co-traveller.
Bir Tikendrajit (Imphal) International Airport
At the tiny Bir Tikendrajit (Imphal) International Airport, I seemed to be the only tourist. I walked out of the airport, hailed an auto negotiated a sum of Rs 200/, reached Hotel Nirmala and checked into a neat and clean standard AC double room for Rs 700/.
As I had the entire afternoon and evening to myself I dumped my small suitcase and armed with my camera set out to my main destination, Ima Market, a ten minute walk from the hotel. The sight which met my eyes as I approached the market, was something I had never anticipated despite my assiduous research. A riot of colours, and women everywhere. Sitting cross-legged, hawking, laughing and talking amongst themselves, completely at ease. How delightful! I have come to realise that as a woman (especially alone, as I was then), I feel a certain calm relaxation in women-dominated spaces, and the Ima market put a spring in my step.
The Ima Market (mother’s market) is also called the Khwairamband Bazar or the Nupi Keithel (women’s market) The stalls all manned by traditionally dressed women called ‘Ima’ (mother) were selling fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, fish and dried fish, local herbs, clothes, woolens and even traditional costumes.
Wrapped in scarf-like innaphis and sarong-like phaneks, their foreheads marked with elegant streaks of sandal paste and their teeth stained from chewing kwa (betel), the women’s laughter and chatter rang out over the hubbub of haggling shoppers, their footfalls, and the traffic noise across the street. Ima Keithel or the Mother’s Market has long been a part of Manipuri tradition, by some accounts dating back to the 16th century.
I learnt that the market had been severely damaged in the earthquake of 6.7 magnitude which struck Manipur on 4th January this year and one of the sheds was barricaded off for ongoing repair work. The women who had stalls in that segment of the market were now selling their wares on the street while waiting for the repairs to be completed.
Language became the biggest barrier as I walked around and tried to talk with the women. Neither Hindi nor English worked and as I was fast losing hope of managing to do any shopping until I met a traditionally dressed Manipuri woman who was there with her friend shopping. What made her stop and speak to me as I struggled with lots of hand gestures and single words of Hindi, I shall never know. A teacher of Hindi in a Manipuri school she also worked at the AIR station in Imphal. She became my guide and interpretor and led me to the shops selling beautiful Manipuri chaddars which I wanted to buy and convert to a chunni.
It soon got dark. I could have spent many more hours in Ima market but the women were all packing up their wares so I too headed back to my hotel. My co-passenger had told me that right across the street from my hotel was a hole in the wall outlet selling the most amazing chicken rolls and I must try them. So heeding Sanjay’s advice I went to OK Chicken stall and bought two rolls for Rs 40/. Packed tightly into a roll was fantastic spicy grilled chicken. Total value for money. This was going to serve as my dinner. Reaching Hotel Nirmala I was pleasantly surprised that they were upgrading me from a Rs 700/ room to a Rs 1200/ room. The manager was so kind and helpful and genuinely wanted me to have a great time in his hotel.
I am not a person who has great faith in God or man, but during the last twenty four hours I felt that some mysterious force was determined to look after this mad woman who had embarked on her first solo trip and had flown 1720 km to the easternmost corner of India. Right from being dropped at the Delhi airport by my husband’s friends(thereby saving money on the taxi ride), to having an empty middle seat on a long flight (thereby being able to stretch my legs and contort myself into all sorts of positions), to being guided by a total stranger to a new hotel (which was cheaper and better located), to having a total stranger, a Manipuri lady become my guide and interpreter and later my friend in the Ima Market(thereby I managed to do some shopping), to the hotel upgrading me at no extra charge to a better room….and tomorrow my daughter’s friends’ family would come and take me out in their car and we’d visit Andro and Loktak Lake and other places…someone up there was sure looking after me.
Hotel Nirmala, MG Avenue, Imphal 795001, Manipur India. Phone No 03852458904,2459014: