‘We shall not starve’: Keeping the tradition of humanity alive

During the national lockdown which started since March 24, 2020, there had been rounds of distributions of essential items in our neighbourhood either from the Government’s side, people holding positions of power or by aspiring politicians.

In our impulsive urge, three of us decided to visit households in our locality to ask for material contributions to be distributed to the less fortunate in the neighbourhood. This happened few days ago. Armed with a plastic bucket and two gunny bags, we started on our mission. As we had hoped, every family greeted us warmly, in fact, welcomed us happily as we were the popular faces who had earlier taken part in the distribution of rice, bleaching powder, cooking oil, salt and water, etc. on three occasions. So, they thought we’re there to give them something again. But when we explained to them about our intention, they were perplexed. From shock to amusement and disbelief to serious contemplation – as we explained to them that they would be part of a service to help the poor and the destitute without overburdening any singular person or institution and that the list of the donors would be announced publicly.

By the time we reached the fifth household, more volunteers from our village joined us. That eased us a lot. Till then we were carrying on our shoulders whatever the good folks contributed. In a locality where there are 181 households (under the jurisdiction of the local club, Kongpal Chanam Leikai Development Organisation), we willfully visited only 74. And mind you, these cannot be called the “rich” in the true sense of the word. These are hard-working families who only have enough to sustain themselves. Few incidents humbled us extremely. Take, for instance, there was this gentleman who told his wife to contribute from the chengphu (traditional Manipuri rice pot) saying, “We must give away the best when people ask for charity”. Then, there was this kind lady who had already given us dal, potato and onion, but chased us and gave rice on learning that we mostly prefer rice than other items. Almost everyone wanted to give Meitei rice or money, which we refused.

We collected 115 kilograms of rice, two bottles of mustard oil of 250 millilitre each, 30 kilograms of onion, 50 kilograms of potato, half-kilogram of fermented fish, 10 cabbages, a handful of beans and fresh garlic, one stick of tree beans (yongchak) and a chunk of plantain stem. There were other assorted items like cucumber, brinjal, a packet of detergent powder and a packet of turmeric powder. KCDO was kind enough to donate 18 bottles of mustard oil and four kilograms of onion.

Next day, we went around distributing whatever we have collected equally to 23 households – eight on our side of the locality and the remaining across the Kongba River belonging to a different village. Widow-run-households constituted the highest number –victim of either armed conflict or HIV-AIDS. The rest consisted of families headed by differently abled individuals, families afflicted with cancer and debt-ridden families.

During the national lockdown which started since March 24, 2020, there had been rounds of distributions of essential items in our neighbourhood either from the Government’s side, people holding positions of power or by aspiring politicians. As we admitted, our involvement in the earlier three occasions was on behalf of our club, KCDO. In the first instance, our club was entrusted in distributing rice sent by our local MLA, Shri Nahakpam Indrajit Singh, quotas of rice for the BPL (37) and AAY (13) cardholders. The cardholders did not utter a word of protest when we informed them that their share was to be equally distributed  (13 kilograms per household) to the 181 households. All they said was, “These are dark times and one should share”. In the second instance, we distributed water offered by the Hon’ble MLA to every household. The third occasion was when we distributed five kilograms of rice, one kilogram of dal, a packet of salt and 250 millilitres of mustard oil to the 181 households plus to 10 select old-age people from the club’s fund. In the club’s absence, distributions were made by the MLA himself, Ward members, Pradhans and Upa Adhyashak of the Panchayat, and further by two social workers cum aspiring politicians.

However, as we went around distributing the items without any fanfare to the select 23 households, we learnt that some good folks had already distributed rice exclusively to the widows. Over and above, some other groups had also distributed rice, cabbage, radish, beans and potato to every household on both sides of the river. Here, I am not talking about the promised quota of PDS items under NFSA, PMGKAY and OMSS or distributions carried out by the sitting MLA, Panchayat members, would-be-politicians, SHGS or local clubs. I am referring to the distributions carried out by youths who had collected money for a different purpose, or by a group of families of a clan, or by a group who runs a marup (a form of co-operative society).

Learning about these brave individuals, I also remembered my childhood school friends who are abroad or outside Manipur who had extended their hands to help my villagers. Although I declined, I realised these are the people – the poor who wholeheartedly shared their quota of rice with us, the esteemed 74 individuals who graciously contributed, the unknown youths, leishabis and pakhangs, who are able to sacrifice their Thabal Chongba and Marup paisa, the Mou-nahas (young married women)who sacrificed their Shumang Lila, and my friends who although they had never visited Manipur and although afflicted by the same pandemic were willing to be of help – who redefines humanity. Over and above, what I initially perceived to be a local phenomenon of sacrifice turned out to be a universal practice in Manipur. Everywhere people have extended and continue to extend their helping hands in their own capacity without making a noise.

I cannot not help but remember what Robert Brown wrote about Shinglup (anassociation that oversees the last rites) and other lups (community-level associations or clubs) in his book, Statistical Account of the Native State of Manipur and the Hill Territory under its Rule, first published in 1873. He remarked, “In the event of a villager sinking into a state of extreme poverty, these clubs supply him with necessary food. In sickness, they look after him, and when dead, provide the wood, etc. for his last rites. In this way, although many of the inhabitants are very poor, actual starvation or fatal neglect is rendered impossible.”

Lockdown on account COVID 19 pandemic is likely to be lifted from Manipur soon. During this period of lockdown what each one of us has learnt is immense. Our pro-active Government did everything, not only to contain the spread of the deadly disease, but also to contain deprivations and destitutions. But credit goes to the simple folks who in their inner core have imbibed the age-old values of egalitarianism from our forefathers as Brown pointed out. That ultimately have rendered impossible starvation or fatal neglect. Here, none shall die of starvation, in fact, none had died so far. And this, we owe to our rich tradition and the spirit of humanity. besides, I express my gratitude to my friends, N. Jatishor Singh and Toijam Biren Singh, for their impulsive yet noble thoughts, and the Executive Members of KCDO for their forbearance.

First Published:May 22, 2020, 1:10 a.m.