Halloween party ideas 2015

[By Pi HELEN*, for INPUI-News&Info]

Part One

I was born in Manipur, India, in1966. I am Hmar, a subtribe of the Mizo who are one of several Tibeto-Burman hill tribes in the North-East frontier of India. The town we lived in, Churachandpur, was comprised of a group of villages, each predominantly inhabited by one subtribe. My mother was a nurse at a small crumbling hospital close to our house. It was the only hospital in all of Churachandpur and seemed very grand at the time. Like my sister Mawi and brother James, I was born at home because it was the done thing at the time for nurses to have home births with their nurse friends in attendance. My other brother David was born in a hospital only because we were in Calcutta for a few months and mum had no nursing contacts there. My father was a civil servant at the time and when he moved to Delhi to train for the Foreign Service, mum returned home to Manipur with us. I was four years old.

Then, as now, the only way to get to Manipur from Delhi was via a six-hour plane trip and Dad could only afford to visit once or twice a year. Mum worked hard to support us and farmed us out to relatives and neighbours whenever she was rostered on the night shift. Sometimes I slept on a gurney in the corridor of the hospital.

We lived in a one-bedroom brick bungalow provided by the hospital and grew potatoes, beans, eggplant, chillies and a bit of corn in our front yard. The neighbour's garden across the road had a little baby grave and I used to stare at the spot and wonder where the baby ghost was. A bit further down, some people kept cows for milk or raised piglets and chickens. Our house was one of several on the street to have indoor plumbing and electricity but most people got by with outhouses and kerosene lanterns. Cooking was universally done on a hearth.

The dirt road in front of our house led to a small river across which lay a cemetery. Funeral processions were therefore a regular sight from our front door and it seemed like it rained every single time, turning the path into sludge. Someone once told me it was the sky weeping for the dead, which made sense at the time and still does because it seems to rain whenever a friend dies these days. Sometimes I followed the mourners to the river and watched the proceedings. The only family funeral I recall going to was Pipi's (grandmother). The wake was held at the old family bamboo stilt house in the village of Saidan and mum has a photo of me, wide-eyed by the coffin. For some reason, talcum powder had been sprinkled on Pipi's eyelids.

My first school was Model School. I didn't know what the word model meant; it was just a sound, a name. We were taught in English and also learnt the Manipuri and Hindi scripts. I liked Hindi because I thought it was the prettiest and found Manipuri difficult. The English alphabet was easy in comparison and we were taught to write in the copperplate style.

We were not allowed to speak our dialects at school in order to expedite our education in English. Since no one in my class knew more than a few English words like apple, ball and cat, there was little conversation within the teacher's hearing. During recess, my friends and I would escape to the far end of the playground to chat. Around teachers, we might manage "Come" or "Go", which always sounded awkward and unnatural. It wasn't when we moved to Delhi that speaking English became an everyday necessity in order to communicate with the other peoples of India. By the time I was a teenager, I dreamt and thought exclusively in English.

No one around us had toys as such, but nature provided us with many playthings. We wove little cages for grasshoppers out of long grass, scratched lines in the dirt for hopscotch and chased rainbow-coloured dragonflies by the river and fireflies around bushes at night. On monsoon days, I liked to sit on the verandah with a hen cuddled in my arms and amuse myself by popping its head under its wing so it would fall asleep. I have no idea why but it worked. I later discovered to my surprise that a game we played with five pebbles is known as Knucklebones in the West and that the pieces could be bought from a shop. I have since learnt that the game is the origin of dice, a Chinese invention, and was played everywhere from ancient Greece to Mongolia.

Storytelling around the fireside was a favourite evening pastime in Manipur. The most popular tales were about a legendary village idiot called Sura and ghosts grown-ups claimed to have seen with their own eyes. Mum thrilled us with one about an evil spirit with red eyes who lurked near the outhouse at her nursing school in Assam. The supernatural world of our animist ancestors remained a casual part of life even though everyone was Christian and supposed to have left pagan concepts behind. In 1970, our people had been Christian for 60 years prior to which the tribes lived a life of subsistence in the jungles, punctuated by raids and counter-attacks.

Every night, we said our prayers and every Sunday, mum handed each of us a coin for the collection at church. Christmas was the year's biggest community event and we all looked forward to it. Children were allowed to stay up all night and play while grown-ups held prayer and hymn-singing marathons in open-sided tents. After the Christmas Day service, the congregation enjoyed a feast in the church grounds, paid for by contributions from each family. The heavenly meat stews and rice were cooked in enormous pots outside the church and served on banana leaves which laid out in lines on the grass before us. It was the happiest time of the year.

Mum got angry if she saw so much as a speck of dirt on us and so for the most part, we were unusually clean children. We envied other kids' messy freedom but rarely braved mum's wrath to join them. There were tuberculosis-infected people not only in the hospital but also in our neighbours' homes; cholera, malaria and small pox were also prevalent. Mum developed a permanent phobia of germs so when we were eventually introduced to the marvel of a washing machine, she continued washing everything by hand and used the machine only for a final rinse. She simply didn't trust it to do as good a job as she did and I have no doubt she was right although it seemed pointless at the time.

Dad brought us city clothes when he came home on visits. The most memorable ones were identical turquoise pantsuits for mum, my sister and me; the pants had enormous flares while the belted shirts featured numerous paisley prints. Mum has a hilarious colour-tinted photo of the three of us wearing our so-called elephant pants by the papaya tree in our backyard. Dad also bought Mum fashionable dresses, saris, handbags and heels which she mainly wore for formal photographs. Like most people, we normally wore simple clothes sewn by the local tailor or a puon, a sarong-like cloth woven by a relative. Fancy clothes were impractical on dirt roads and leech-infested grass, much less for fetching water from the spring when the tap ran dry.

The city clothes did have a kind of intrinsic value though; they brought home to us a tangible sense of a big world out there, different from everything we knew in our pocket of hills. I guess that's what Dad had in mind because we did get to go see and live in that world and we were forever changed because of it.

Part Two

When I was nine, we moved to Delhi to live with Dad. Arriving late at night, our one-bulb-a-house eyes were dazzled by the mass city lights. Dad's flat was in a high rise complex for Foreign Service officers and the first thing I noticed in it was a large humming object. It was a refrigerator, one of those 60s models with curved edges. The second thing I noticed was that it gave off a mild electric shock when I touched the handle. Other dramatic new experiences followed: television, fabulous ancient buildings, grand shops, chocolate, hippies and so on.

We also discovered that many Indians look down on tribals; reasons could include our difference in race, the 5000 years of Indo-Aryan/Dravidian civilisation, and the fact that we don't fit into the Hindu caste system. Consequently, our ethnic classification on official forms is Scheduled Tribes and Backward Classes, a peculiarly Indian English term.

There was a tiny English-language library close by and although there wasn't much variety, I was a frequent borrower. Mostly I read Mills and Boon novels and lots of the exquisitely illustrated comics of stories from the Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. These fantastical comics were as ubiquitous in India as Beano and Marvel were elsewhere; the Mahabharata, a single poem in Sanskrit, is four times longer than the Bible and packed with fascinating legends of gods, demons, heroic princes, damsels in distress, anthropomorphic animals and such like. I also learnt the story of Buddha thanks to a comic.

Part Three

A year later in 1977, we moved to Nairobi, Kenya on Dad's first posting. The three-bedroom house which came with it seemed enormous after the 6th floor flat in Delhi. It had a terrace on the roof from which we could pluck mulberries and look down at the immaculate lawn and its tidy agapanthus edges. Outside the gate a sign threatened trespassers with prosecution and at night, a security guard took up position by the garage with a gentle Alsatian called Jolly. By then, new things no longer astonished us; we simply absorbed them into the fabric of our everyday lives.

Dad's job required him to travel occasionally around the country to visit Indian-owned factories and businesses and he often took the family with him. It was our version of a family holiday; we travelled by car, stayed in motels, and got to see the country and wildlife. In Mombasa, we stepped into the sea for the first time and at Lake Nakuru, we were enchanted by thousands of pink flamingos. Like the Grand Canyon, the Rift Valley escarpment is spatially weird because the land drops abruptly deep into another world and there you are, standing on the edge.

TV in Kenya was much better and I loved Dallas, the Three Stooges and the Monkees in among the Swahili soap operas and colourful presidential pageants. When Jomo Kenyatta, the revered president and former freedom fighter died, the country shut down and we watched thousands of distraught people on TV as they streamed past the president lying in state. With fears of social unrest, the mantle of president was quickly passed on to the vice-president, Daniel Arap Moi, an intelligent looking man who was to eventually become corrupt.

My sister Mawi and I attended Highridge Primary where I enjoyed geography and found history riveting, especially the parts about the slave trade. I also read every Enid Blyton, Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew book in the school library. On the occasions I was kicked out of class for talking incessantly, I smuggled a novel out in the cavernous pocket of my school tunic; maths was the best to get kicked out of because it was two periods long. Sometimes I got caned instead of being sent out. Class trips to the national park on the outskirts of Nairobi were a lot of fun. Lions, giraffes and other animals roamed the vast grassy landscape around us and ignored the babble from our bus.

At school, we soon found reason to be grateful we didn't look like other Indians – the African kids often bullied them at school. Although everyone knew we were Indian, our Tibeto-Burman appearance over rode it in their eyes and we were often asked if we knew kungfu. With few Oriental Asians in Kenya at the time, we were a novelty and bypassed their historical dislike of Indians. Most Kenyan Indians were descendants of indentured labourers imported by the British to build railroads and improve trade routes between the colonies. Insurgent Kenyans were bitterly opposed to the railroad and after a hard fought independence, they resented the continued presence of the Indians. By the 1970s, Kenyan Indians were mostly middle class and, like British colonials who remained in Kenya, tended to consider themselves above the natives. We, being fresh off the boat, had no such hang ups and gravitated towards Africans because they were lively company.

My best friend was a bad-tempered girl called Jane from the Luo tribe. She had no hesitation getting into a fistfight if anyone crossed her but I thought she was cool. We hung out at my house after school and sometimes I went to her house to listen to her brother's records. It was there I first heard the heavyweight sounds of Isaac Hayes and Millie Jackson. Another favourite was Miriam Makeba, the exiled diva of South Africa. Other than cool records, Jane's home seemed grey and sterile, a contrast to the tiny but vibrant flat of the High Commission's chauffeur George and his wife who lived near us. They had a Dolly Parton record I loved called Daddy Was An Old Time Preacherman and allowed me to play it whenever I visited. I was so familiar with them that they fed me ugali, the polenta-like staple dish of maize meal and sukuma wiki, a delicious stew of greens. It's possible they tolerated me because I was my father's daughter but I believe it was because they were genuinely kind people.

Other good friends were Somali sisters Kamar and Katra. They attended the American International School and I once spent a day there with them and was astonished to see pupils chewing gum and putting their feet up on their desks during class. Such an attitude at my school would have earned a solid caning. When we moved to Saudi Arabia in 1980, my sister and I met another lively pair of Somali sisters, Dhol and Deha, who turned out to be Kamar's extended cousins.

25 rollercoaster years later, I live a simple life with my Kiwi family in the serenity of Aotearoa. I don't miss the past because it's always with me, a filter through which I see the present and try to make sense of things. My siblings live in New York, London and Assam, and my parents have retired to Delhi. I lost touch with all my childhood friends over the years but lately, a couple of them have tracked me down thanks to the wonders of email. Dhol is now an economist in Washington and Jasmina is a businesswoman in Nagaland, near Manipur. We are all mothers now; older, sadder and a little wiser but one thing remains constant: the irreverent sense of humour that brought us together so long ago.

[Editor's note: Pi Helen, daughter of Pu L Keivom, memoirs make an interesting read. It full of nostalgia, and yet very positive about the present and future]

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  1. amen n amen!i read helen's memoirs b4 it was uploaded onto da net.i loved it then.i love it now:-) n i'm sure it'd b gr8 if a gr8 many schoolkids read it 'cause they'd b so grateful 2 read dis great great read.Dont stop till u drop.helen(n hey hey helen!dont u ever drop.ok?). Puia


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