We erected our Yaoshang* beside a banyan tree. Every night, we stole** vegetables and fruits from the kitchen gardens in the neighbourhood. More daring outfits even attempted poultry.
That day, we decided to steal cabbage from a cultivation out in the fields, far from the owner’s house. We zeroed in on a local uncle’s crop that his daughter used to sell every dusk at the village market. We sent out some younger members to do a quality assessment of the produce. The feedback was positive. This uncle, a former tailor, was a strongly built man with some height. I once saw him push an Ambassador car to ignition by himself, and a football burst when he took a corner kick in a match for the elders. In hindsight, he was the local macho minus the rowdy part. The actual location of the asset (aka the cabbages) was near a stream, some 100 m from his house. A discontinuous line of trees was the only barrier in between. It was all fallow rice fields beyond.
We got up at around 2 am and headed for our adventure with a couple of jute bags. The objective was to fill them with cabbages. En-route, a nervous member quipped that the uncle had a hole in the wall of his bedroom through which to keep an eye on his cultivation. I don’t know how he got that troubling information but it was in the nature of secrets to get leaked all the time. We reached the plantation area from the opposite side of stream as the uncle’s house. One knowledgeable member instructed us to feel the cabbage heads first and choose only the harder ones. So, we got into character and started cutting the hardest heads of the lot. We assigned one member to keeping an eye on the direction of the uncle’s house. Then, suddenly we heard a loud cry: “Be where you are! You ill-begotten sons of scoundrels!” and saw flashlights coming from the dreaded direction.
“Run or die. Don’t forget the knives,” I shouted.
I picked up whatever I could and ran; and jumped into the stream. I lost my knife there itself. Others were on their own putting their souls on their feet. Upon reaching the safety of the other side of the stream, we heard a loud slapping, so loud that it must have dislocated the jaw receiving it. The jaw belonged to a comrade who was caught. This was what he told us the next morning.
I too began running immediately after the flashlights like the rest of you. Then I hit my big toe (this toe of his was unusually big) against a stone and fell down. I couldn’t even agonise the pain vocally. Left without any means, I pulled myself along the coarse earth and hid among the cabbages. I thought if I lower my head to the level of the cabbage heads, they would camouflage me out in the dark. It appeared I hadn’t noticed, in the heat of the moment, my shoulders and hip towering up so high. But that cunning man acted as if he didn’t see me. He came and sat down nearby; and started feeling the cabbage heads like a mad man. Doing so, he reached for the cabbage just next to me. He grabbed it viciously, as if to crunch it, and uprooted the whole thing with a single pull. Then, he retreated back, sat down to lit a bidi and smoked it so tediously. At this stage, I had lowered my head so low, I was burying my face in the soil and was grunting dust in and out. Suddenly, he took hold of my head with his two big hands, squeezed it along the jawlines and said, “ Hmm, this one is very hard,” and started twisting my head. I was sure he was going to kill me. Then, he held me by the ear and slapped me across my face, and said, “We’ll see when I tell your mother.”
* Yaoshang: Manipuri name of Holi, the Hindu festival of colours. It also refers to the huts burnt on the penultimate day. Boys usually live out the entirety of this festival in these huts.
** Stealing is permitted during this festival as a custom. It is rarely, if ever, reprimanded.