The slap across Nemkina’s face
A short story by Monica Ingudam
I was never good at speaking up in class while I was in School. It wasn’t like I didn’t know the answer to the questions the teachers posed. I knew the answers to most questions but I was scared to speak up. I don’t know whether it was the education system or the culture I grew up. Children then were encouraged to listen while the elders and teachers spoke. The teachers and elders spoke almost 90% of the time. Listening was encouraged. Agreeing without questioning was even better. So I became a listener, a very good listener. I had my questions, lot of questions but those questions didn’t leave my lips and mostly it stayed in my mind.
I was in 9th grade. Many things happened that year. To start, that was the year my mother coaxed me to cut my long straight black hair to a smart “Boy’s cut” as she called. My mother has her way with words. She took me to a beauty parlour at Paona Bazaar in Imphal, the first I have ever gone. The beauty parlour was on the first floor, on top of a cycle shop. It had pictures of beautiful Korean girls with fancy hairstyles on the walls and big mirrors all over. I sat on the big black rotating chair and I could see myself in the front mirror and also see the back view of my hair in the mirror behind. I have never seen these different angles and views while cutting my hair. My haircuts before were by my neighbors, and mostly they made terrible mistakes like cutting my front bang too short. So I had a good reason and opted to grow my hair then. My hair seemed much longer in the reflection and the skilled guy with a girlish voice started cutting my hair. He chattered, and I pretended to listen, but I wasn’t. My heart started sinking watching him cut my long hair which he picked strand by strand and clipping the remaining hair with the fancy long clip. I felt like crying and I wasn’t sure why I agreed to cut my hair. But I didn’t cry, and said nothing. I went through the haircut, the haircut I picked myself pointing to poster of the beautiful Korean girl on the wall. Mother and the guy with girlish voice were praising on how smart I looked with the new hair cut. I nodded and looked at my reflection with the short “Boy’s cut” hair. My pink and white threaded sweater which I had got for Yaoshang (Holi) that year seemed a little mismatched with my new hairstyle. I followed Mother and walked down the small steep staircases.
Nemkina was aghast to see my hair cut at School and she didn’t hide her disappointment. And that is what I loved about her. She would say what she felt and I could express mine easily to her. She was in the boarding school and we shared secrets. And those secrets remained with us. Secrets she had told no one but me, as we play on the luscious green grass right in front of the cave. The cave with the stone statue of Mother Mary with a white robe. This was one of our favorite spot, a spot where the loveliest flowers bloomed. Nemkina’s father was no more, and her mother had gone “mental” as she puts it. Namkina said her mother had witnessed him burn alive. This happened during the ethnic clashes between the Naga and Kuki tribals in Manipur. She said she was lucky to be alive and escaped the massacres. Tears welling up she added that thirteen children abandoned by panic-stricken elders, were burnt alive in her village, the Taloulong village at Tamenglong district. And so I was told that I should never tell the others which tribe she belonged. She had the fear of being identified and fall in the hands of the haters.
Though Nemkina was grateful to the nuns for taking her in and providing the best shelter and education, she hated getting up early do the chores specially on the cold winter days where she had to sweep and mop the school floors. She was bored of the food too, eating boiled mustard leaves on most days then. She would give me Rs 2 from the money her uncle had given her on the rare times she got visitors to get her favorite sweet puff. I would get a pack which had 10 pieces, take 2 pieces for myself and give the 8 pieces packed nicely. Each puff piece was 25 Paise if sold separately, so that would make 8 puff pieces for Rs 2. My math was perfect and I didn’t feel the need to tell her then, that I ate 2 of the delicious puffs sprinkled with crystals of sugar. I felt I deserved it for the errand I was running for her. I would pass it to her and she would smuggle it back in her school bag to her boarding room. Probably she would have shared the puff with me but the puff was so tempting and I couldn’t resist those huge crystal sugars glaring back at me with the “eat me” look. I think Nemkina knew it but she played along by not sharing. Because if she didn’t know, she would have shared at least one puff, but she didn’t share.
It was an afternoon class after the break and I can’t quite recall if it was a Math or Science class. But It was Sir Kumar’s class. He took Math and Science. He was a non Manipuri teacher with pepper grey hair. Most of the non Manipuri teachers were from south India but Sir Kumar wasn’t. I was not sure where he was from, maybe from somewhere in North India. I thought he was very intelligent. He was very good in explaining the concepts. I could follow, visualize and understood what he taught, as he wrote with chalks on the black board. I respected him as a teacher and held him at a high place. That afternoon, he was in a foul mood. One moment he was teaching, standing near the black board and suddenly he rushed to where Nemkina was sitting after he caught her dozing off. He started yelling, asking her to explain what he was teaching. He saw her notebook and threw it on the floor. Nemkina stood abruptly. I could see her movement as she was sitting diagonally from where I was sitting. Sir Kumar slapped across Nemkina’s face once followed by a pin drop silence in the class. Before I could recover from what had happened, I heard another slap and he turned to the class to ask if anyone was listening.
He was so angry and I was scared that he was going to hit Nemkina again, so I stood up and walked towards the front where the teacher’s table and chair was placed and put my notebook on the table. He walked away from Nemkina towards the teacher’s table and sat on the chair. He asked me some questions which I answered looking straight into his eyes and he gave back my book and said “Bold, very bold Laishram Tonu Devi”. I continued looking straight in his eyes without blinking as I took my book back and said “It’s Tonu Laishram Sir”
After that day, my friendship with Nemkina and my respect for Sir Kumar changed. I was filled with guilt. I wasn’t sure whether I was guilty because I didn’t speak up for her to alert about the incident to an elder or for not talking with her about the incident, which might have made her feel better. I asked many a questions before I slept and had many sleepless nights “Why didn’t anyone speak up for her? Why didn’t I speak up? The class was full. Sir Kumar must be a coward, he must have picked Nemkina because he knew that she didn’t have anyone to speak for her. But If Sir Kumar had done this to Neeta or Christine who had influential parents, there would be a protest and he would have been expelled not only from the School but maybe even out of Manipur. No one, including myself spoke up for Nemkina. What kind of friendship are we talking about? I had failed her, as her friend, as a human being. I should have spoken up for her. And I carry the pain and humiliation of that slap with a deep guilt even today. I am sorry Nemkina.
Collection of short stories written by Monica Ingudam. These stories are fiction based on Life’s this and that focusing on Manipur and the people of Manipur.