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  MY EXPERIENCE IN MANIPUR  by Jim Au


 
 GETTING THERE IS HALF THE FUN CATCH AND RELEASE : A DAY IN THE TOWN
 MOURNING THE MOTHER STAND AND DELIVER
 FIRST IMPRESSIONS DANCE THE NIGHT AWAY
 CHECK, CHECKMATE PARTING THOUGHTS


GETTING THERE IS HALF THE FUN

And there I waited, and waited... in the San Francisco International
airport.

I had flown down from Portland to San Francisco expecting to pick up my
U.S.A. passport at the Korean Airlines ticket counter, and then depart a few
hours later on my next flight out of the country.  I had to do this because
in addition to flying to India, which was my main destination, I was also
traveling to the Republic of Uzbekistan north of India and had to get a
special visa stamp from the Uzbek Consul in New York City.  They had sent my
passport via the express mail service that claims "The world on time", but
when I got to SFO, no passport.  If no passport, then no leave the U.S.A.
If no leave the U.S.A. on time, that is, within the next day or two, then no
join group of sixteen other persons entering Manipur on the special entry
permit.  I realized the serious nature of this situation, and I felt very
desperate.  Besides frantic calls to the Uzbek Consul, all I could do was
wait.  After a day of anxiously waiting, I missed my flight to Calcutta via
Seoul.

This immediately took me back three years to the first and last time I tried
to get into Manipur.  That was in 1994.  That time, I thought that our entry
permit was all set up and there would be no problem getting in.  I was
wrong, and I ended up getting kicked out of Manipur, put on the next plane
out of the capital city Imphal and sent back to Calcutta.  I waited then
too, but my waiting turned first to shock, then anger, then depression.
Inspite of that mishap, I did end up spending about six days with a bunch of
Meitei students in Haryana at their school.  These guys and gals are some of
my best friends from Manipur to this day.

But that thought was not comforting to me on this beautiful, windy day in
the Bay city.  Instead, I called an uncle and spent the rest of the day at
his home.  With all this "free time" to wait around and see if Federal
Express would come through in time, I turned to my Bible which I was reading
through.  I happened to be in Exodus, which is about Moses leading the
nation of Israel out of slavery from Egypt.  They happened to be camped next
to the Red Sea as they could go no further eastward.  All of a sudden, they
realized that the most powerful army on earth at the time, the Egyptian
chariots, were closing down upon them, within a day's striking distance.
The people bitterly complained to their leader, but Moses turned to God in
prayer.  God told him that he would deliver them and show his awesome power
in this somewhat impossible situation.  Hopefully, you know the rest of the
story.  In my own desperate situation waiting for my passport to show up, I
felt like my back was up against a little sea called the Pacific Ocean.  Who
the enemy was in this case wasn't as clear to me.  Like the people, I wanted
to complain, but instead, like Moses, I prayed and trusted that God would
deliver me so I could see Manipur and her beautiful people for the first
time ever.  In the midst of unseen trouble, I felt he was very close to me.

The next day, I awoke with a positive attitude, knowing that even if
everything failed, still I had done my very best to gain entry into Manipur
yet once more.  As my uncle dropped me off at the curbside, sure enough, the
stewardesses at KAL proudly held up my passport in a FedEx envelope as I
approached with all my luggage.  I breathed a sigh of relief, thanked God
quietly in my heart, and proceeded to the gate.  As it turns out, FedEx had
put my "next morning" letter into the basket marked "two day delivery".
They still haven't refunded my money.

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MOURNING THE MOTHER

Awaiting my early morning flight into Imphal a few days later, I had some
time to take in the world event that was happening literally across the
street.  Mother Teresa had just expired, and my hotel was only a block from
where her body was to be carried out into the streets of Calcutta.  I didn't
want to miss my flight, but neither did I want to be deprived of a unique
chance to say "good-bye" to Mother for all her love and sacrifice she and
her nuns gave to the people they cared for.  The streets were already full
of people at five in the morning.  I was not able to see any more than the
place from which her casket would emerge before checking myself into a taxi
headed for the airport.  Still, with all the flowers and banners and
pictures of her everywhere, I felt deeply connected to her passing, knowing
all the world was watching.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

I had about one hour to meet my traveling companions in the Calcutta
airport.  They were from the southwestern U.S.A. and most of them knew each
other.  I knew it might be difficult for me to "instantly" become part of
this group, but my mind was made up to do my best.  Our flight into Imphal
through Silchar was uneventful, but the approach to Imphal airport was as
beautiful as the first time I remembered three years prior.  This time, I
think I was able to spot Loktak Lake to the south.  I explained all about
the floating islands to Tim who was sitting next to me, but he must not have
understood its uniqueness because he didn't show any interest at the time.
As before, I had a hard time to spot Imphal City from up in the air.  I
simply didn't know where to look relative to the airport below.

When we landed, I was surprised at how long it took for our permits to be
processed before we could leave the airport.  It must have been over a half
hour.  When we were finally summoned to gather our bags and take them to the
bus parked outside, I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by my good
friend Shyam.  With permission, he rode the bus seated next to me as we
hastily spent the next few minutes catching up on each other's lives.  He
lives out in Sagolband Tera, so it wasn't difficult for him to come see us
all at the hotel.  In fact, not long after we checked in, several other
friends came and found me in our room.  It was a nice reunion, as I hadn't
seen them since their graduation from Grace Bible College two years prior in
Haryana.

For about a day, all that I knew of Imphal was to be seen from the third
story balcony of our hotel.  I could see and hear the traffic on the main
road going up through Thangmeiband, and a few passersby.  I could see
thatched houses with tin metal roofs, palm trees and green hills in the
distance.  It was a warm, wonderful feeling to be here at last.  But I felt
like I had hardly begun to experience the Manipur I had studied from afar
for years before.  I wanted more.

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CHECK, CHECKMATE

My interest in Manipur has been and continues to be focused on the Meitei
people.  This is not to say that I'm not interested in other peoples also.
But my main interest and concern is for the Meiteis.  So how did I react
when our guide explained that our particular Restricted Area Interline
Permit would not allow us to go outside the boundaries of Imphal city, nor
were we to approach any Meitei people during our seven day stay in Manipur?
I was not happy.  I could hardly believe my ears.  Did we come halfway
around the world just to be told, "No, you absolutely may not visit the
people you came to see"?  I quietly approached Dan, the leader of our group,
to see if anything could be done to get around these seemingly artificial
restrictions.  His gentle wisdom suggested we stay with the plan that had
been laid out for us, and that somehow God would have to be the one to work
things out for us to be with Meiteis.  I conceded to his decision.

But that would not be the end of the story for us and the Meiteis on this
trip.  Indeed, God's hand did move for us to see and be with Meiteis.  My
own planning and efforts to get around the restrictions could not have
produced a better experience in Manipur that I had looked forward to for so
long.  It was not in fact our efforts as a group that put us into direct
contact with so many Meitei people, but rather their own efforts to come our
way when they learned that very first day of the restrictions being placed
on us.

The next two days for our group were filled with meetings and more meetings
to prepare us for the week ahead.  Our purpose as a group was simply to
share our own experiences that we had had in coming to know the Lordship of
Jesus Christ in our own lives.  That would mean opportunities to travel
somewhat around the city of Imphal and visit in homes here and there, which
I eagerly looked forward to as I felt virtually stuck there at the hotel
under the restrictions placed on us by the government.

The first break came only on our second full day, a Sunday.  The day began
for me visiting a Thangkhul Baptist church within walking distance from the
hotel.  After a hearty hotel lunch, we had a meeting in the hotel open to
the community at large, with the agenda of discussing how we together as
Meiteis, non-Meiteis and foreigners could do a better job in bringing this
blessing of Christ to the people of Manipur.  Of the dozen or so leaders
from the community, only two were Meitei, and some of my good friends also
showed up, at my invitation.  The sharing and spirit of unity in this
meeting were good, but it was the meeting that took place after the official
meeting that was so amazing to me.

When our long meeting ended, we all sat around talking to each other for
awhile.  One by one all the non-Meiteis and members of our group left.  All
that remained then were my Meitei friends, and also Glenn and his wife who
had lovingly worked in Manipur for so long, and me.  As I don't know but
about ten words in Manipuri, I couldn't understand exactly what they were
talking about so energetically with each other.  It turns out they had the
idea that if we as foreigners couldn't go to see them and hold meetings for
them and other Meiteis, then they would hold a grand meeting for their
community and invite us.  I marveled at the energy, enthusiasm and teamwork
they put into discussing plans and making decisions as a group.  It seemed a
perfect plan, yet I could see they would have to act quickly to make this
happen.

Three days later, on Wednesday, the meeting took place just as they had
tirelessly worked for.  And it was grand.  There was even a large banner out
in front of the church meeting hall that we and about four hundred Meiteis
assembled in.  They came from far and wide, by bus, by taxi, by bike, by
foot, from all over the valley.  It started with a group of eager, young
Meitei musicians singing beautiful Manipuri songs to us.  Then we all joined
in singing worship songs together in Manipuri and English.  I loved the
address by pastor Ibobi about how it must be our love for the Lord God and
for the people of the land that motivates our work, not our love for
organizations or who gets the credit.

For me, the highlight was being asked to stand up on the stage and share my
own story and thoughts to this beautifully garbed assembly.  In my spirit, I
was overwhelmed to think that after more than eight years of planning and
preparing to meet these lovely people, at last here I was standing in their
midst, free to share whatever I wanted.  With much emotion, at least for me,
I did share my vision about how I hoped that every person there might become
free to dream and work together for the day when all Manipur might
experience the true freedom and glory that come through knowing Jesus
Christ.  As I looked out upon this great gathering, I knew that many prayers
I and others around the world had prayed for Manipur were already answered.
Here, I thought, is the future of Manipur, those who will serve their own
people and do whatever it might take to see this blessing of God peacefully
brought to their land.  My challenge to them was that they might allow God
to bring forth in them new and creative expressions, through songs, stories,
dance and art, of their faith and devotion to their God, and that these new
expressions in Meitei style might bless the whole Meitei community and the
whole world.

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CATCH AND RELEASE:  A DAY ON THE TOWN

If only for the meeting that my dear friends had put together for us, I
would have been completely satisfied with my visit to Manipur.  It was even
better than that.  On Tuesday, the day before the meeting, they quietly came
into the hotel and asked our group's leadership, both Dan and our guide, if
they could take me out for the afternoon by car to "see some things".  I was
surprised to learn the answer was 'yes'; for a few hours I would be free to
be with my Meitei friends.

After sharing a typical and quite delicious lunch of rice, fish, dal and
fruit together, we proceeded over to the main temple near the Palace
grounds.  It was a beautiful and massive structure, with something like
intricate prayer wheels suspended on poles high overhead.  Later on that
week, I noticed these "prayer wheels" all over Imphal.  One of the priests
insisted that we remove not only our shoes but also our socks to be able to
walk freely around the temple grounds.  We were just in time to witness a
worship ritual.  The bell tower began to ring loudly, the priests blew on
their conches and the huge doors of the main building opened, revealing
several large and ornate statues.  The participants had already lined up in
two rows, men on one side, women on the other, each holding a brass plate or
bell.  At the right moment, each person began to ring his or her instrument
vigorously, and the resulting sound of the proceeding was loud and
tumultuous.  Inspite of the din of the ritual, the faces of most of the
participants, especially the younger women, seemed to me withdrawn or
forlorn.  We stayed and watched awhile before leaving.

Next, we went to visit Shyam's family in Sagolband Tera.  This was more than
a friendly visit, for I also learned a lot about how in Meitei custom, the
different brothers' and sisters' houses are constructed and placed somewhat
around a square courtyard, with one side of the square containing a kind of
large, covered patio reserved for special events and meetings.  He pointed
out altars placed in specific locations, as well as the looms that are
apparently common for all families to have.  As we shared tea together on
his porch, Shyam told me about how he was the first in his family to follow
Christ, and how to that day, about half his family had also decided to
follow in his footsteps.  I felt warmly welcomed by all his family members
and got the chance to see many parts of their home.

After a pleasant visit, we headed up to Langol where is situated a somewhat
more affluent housing area.  My friend Premjit had built a worship center in
that neighborhood and we were going up there to pray and bless his ministry.
I was nearly in shock to find out that only he and a few women from the
community were responsible for its construction, yet it was a lovely bamboo
and thatch structure, simple and beautiful.  The place was surrounded by a
fence of bamboo pieces woven into a fascinating design.  Inside, the
colorful decor of paper streamers and banners was still in place from a
recent celebration of its inauguration.  Not too far from these beautifully
kept grounds, we all gazed out upon the break taking view of the Imphal
valley.  All surrounding this lush valley were the rugged hills glowing with
the myriad of banana trees and other greenery that covered them.  Inspite of
the beauty before us, we were all praying together for peace and blessing to
come upon this valley, knowing that beneath the surface of this lost
paradise were countless political, economic, ethnic and spiritual struggles
deep in the hearts of most of the people living there.

Upon our descent from the hillside, we went to visit in the home of a
well-to-do family who was in support of my friends' various ministries and
endeavors.  There I met new friends like Putul and became acquainted with
the Thangkhul mother who had married into this affluent Meitei family.  She
apparently was a close friend to the former chief minister of Manipur.  It
was her son who was our faithful driver.  Finally, we headed over to the
flats that Robindro, Tampakleima and her brother Shyam were living in at the
time, to share a meal and spend more time together praying.  I felt very
humbled to see their modest living conditions, but was blessed all the same
by their hospitality and warmth.

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STAND AND DELIVER

The day after the big meeting, the same sort of thing happened.  My friends
came quietly into the hotel early in the morning and asked permission to
take me out on the town for the day.  Once again, I was quite surprised to
learn I was free to go, instead of staying with our group to engage in the
various home visits around Imphal as we had been doing all week long.  This
day, I had heard our group was invited by Baptist leaders of the area to
enjoy a feast featuring local style dancing.  I was also supposed to show up
just before lunch at our guide's school for a tour of the new buildings
under construction and a group photo.  What this day had in store for me was
far beyond what I expected.

First, my friends and I wheeled over to the Gospel for Asia school just
within the Imphal city limits.  Little did I know, I was about to become
their next guest speaker.  Of the hundred or so students there in that
crowded bamboo classroom, about thirty were Meitei.  I shared a challenge to
the students to persevere in their work and ministry regardless of how many
obstacles they might encounter.  Their response to me as indicated by their
faces seemed neutral, but I'm sure they were in as much shock to see me, a
Chinese American foreigner, as I was to speak to them impromptu, "cold
turkey" as we would say.  Afterwards, we visited in the residence of the
school's principal for some while.  My friend Luckson is his nephew and he
had been giving most of his time to helping out in the school.  It was good
to see him one last time.

By now, I felt a bit anxious as it was just before the time I was to show up
for the group photo with my American compatriots.  I urged my friends to get
moving, but driving through Imphal was slow going and we had to cross what
seemed like from one end of Imphal to the other to get to our guide's
school.  Just as we pulled into the school area, the bus containing our
whole group was pulling out.  I had missed the group photo.  I felt so
badly, but what could I do.  I talked to our guide, and again to my
surprise, he assured that I should go on and be with my Meitei friends.
Here, the man who clearly said we must not intentionally go to be with
Meiteis for fear of government restrictions was telling me:  Go on.  I did.

We had not yet eaten any lunch since leaving our guide's school.  I was
feeling weak from lack of food, but my friends pressed on to the south in
their minivan, heading for some unknown destination.  At a certain point, I
was certain we had passed the airport, and therefore were heading beyond the
limits of Imphal City.  They asked me if I wanted to go see Loktak Lake
together, or if I'd prefer to visit a family among whom one of the daughters
had recently come into their fellowship.  I felt it would be a flagrant
violation of our group's entry permit to go as far as Loktak, although I'm
sure under different circumstances I would have considered giving anything
to go there.  I simply stated I thought it would be better if we visited the
family.  As for Loktak?  Next time, I said.

It was a Hindu holy day, and most of the family members were at home.  The
elderly grandfather was in the entryway of the main house teaching some old
Hindu songs to the grandchildren, who were mostly girls.  As they patiently
went through this exercise, I was sitting in the parlor with my friends,
waiting for something to happen.  I could see that the women were busily
trying to get a meal prepared.  That gave me some hope, but once more I had
no idea of the role I was to play in this setting.

Under the cover of the special patio in the courtyard, we had a feast served
on banana leaves of rice, fish and "iromba", a special dish which I had
earlier told my friends was a favorite of mine.  I tasted it in 1994 with
Meitei friends made in Bangalore, all of whom were now in Manipur.  It is
the nearest thing I could describe as Manipuri salsa, a spicy vegetable dish
that is eaten with rice or fish.  When the meal was over, they told me I was
to stand up and give a talk to any members of the family willing to listen
to what I had to say.

A small proportion of the larger family gathered, so I shared about my own
experience of getting to know Jesus Christ as a young teenager, and how that
affected my whole life.  It was not a religion I was seeking, but I wanted a
personal relationship with God through Christ.  Five of the girls from
various parts of the family stood up to indicate they wanted to have this
same relationship.  We prayed with them as a group and also individually,
including one young woman who had just lost her husband to AIDS.  Then, an
unexpected thing happened.  All this while, the elderly grandfather was
sitting at the opposite end of the courtyard watching our proceedings.  When
we had concluded, he walked over and asked for prayer as he was suffering an
internal ailment.  His action seemed to give credence to all we were doing
as followers of Christ, and it validated the step of faith in Christ that
some of his granddaughters were now taking.  His coming forward led to all
the family members, some forty or so, coming out from their houses to gather
around and see what we were doing.  There on that Hindu holy day, it seems
the warm light of God began to shine from within some of the faces in that
lovely family that I won't forget to this day.

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DANCE THE NIGHT AWAY

By now, it was nearly evening.  I had missed the opportunity to join my
group back in Imphal for the special feast.  As such, I didn't even know
where this feast was taking place.  Instead, my friends and I all went back
into town and they showed me the women's bazaar.  It was fascinating with
all the foods and goods being offered in the crowded open stalls.  Night
fell all too quickly and my desire to stay longer was cut short.  Now I had
one final chance to meet up with my American group on this Thursday, before
we were all to leave Manipur the following day.  All the while, my friends
were saying that a special performance of Lai Haraoba was taking place in
town that very evening.

Wanting to save face with my group, I directed my friends to search out a
certain Baptist center where I was sure that a meeting was to take place, to
be hosted by our group.  After much weaving in and out of narrow streets, we
arrived at a fairly large worship center which seemed filled to capacity.
But, no American group was there.  They had not yet arrived.  It was already
late, well after the stated meeting time, so we waited.  After a long wait,
I thought it would be pointless to sit there all night in case my American
friends didn't show up.  So at my word, we got back in the car, and off to
the Lai Haraoba dance we went.

This colorful performance is fascinating as it visually illustrates
according to the Meitei world view the creation of the world and other events
and personalities related to "startup".  I was fortunate to have my digital
camcorder along at the time.  All the time before that, I had carried only
my trusty Pentax 35mm camera to shoot color slides.  This would be one of
the very first times for me using the camcorder.  We arrived at the brightly
illuminated performance site, which was a large outdoor stage covered neatly
by a large white tent, with a medium-sized temple at one end.  My friends
went directly to the performance organizers and asked if this guy from
America could have freedom to visually record the event.  I had complete
freedom to go about the grounds, only I was not to walk into the temple
itself.  What little we saw of this lengthy series of dances and songs was
utterly fascinating to me.  Long before the performance was to end, my
friends wanted to go back to one of their homes for dinner.  Just as we were
walking out, a whole procession of young girls very ornately and cutely
dressed walked in.  I turned on my heels and went back to take some video
footage of them.  When the girls' mothers saw me with my camera, they had
the girls pose especially for me after each one had gone up to the temple to
bow down and offer a sacrifice.  Finally, we all headed off for rice and
curry, which at this late hour our empty stomachs were eager to take on.

Later that night, I briefly shared with my roommate Jim (What! Two Jim's in
one room!) about the dance I had witnessed, and he also with me that he
enjoyed seeing a Thangkhul dance inspired from former headhunting days.
What a day.  What a night.  Inspite of having missed nearly the entire day
with my group, the day I spent with my friends was unforgettable.  I felt
very rich and full inside.

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PARTING THOUGHTS

Our seven days in Manipur were very full.  We had very little time for sleep
or rest, but I would constantly say to my friends, "I didn't come to Manipur
to sleep."  Late almost every evening and then early the following morning,
I would meet with one or more of my friends and other newly made friends to
talk about the uncertain condition of Manipur and what we could or should do
about it.  Though I didn't ask for it, people were constantly coming to me
and wanting to talk things over.  I tried my best to give time to everyone
who asked for some time with me, for I knew that after I left, communication
would be much more difficult by post.

Of course, I want to return to Manipur soon someday.  I still correspond
with many Manipuri friends, both old and new, in my desire to see a
practical plan materialize for the spiritual and sociopolitical rebuilding
of this great land.  For now, I fondly remember the few days when my feet
were on Manipuri soil and I tasted the food and relished being with the
people and was immersed in its rich and beautiful culture.  Those days and
the friends that I have there are like precious and priceless jewels that no
one can ever take away from me.



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