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The Englishman’s Cabbage

By Malangba Bangormayum

In my neighbourhood, there was this elderly man who used to play pranks on us kids. He used to wear frightful masks and tap on our shoulders from behind. Once, he told us a story about an Englishman who was stationed in Manipur. He maintained a vegetable garden, according to the story. The time for him to leave Manipur, for good, came as it came for all Englishman serving the crown at that time. Though he knew that he had to pack his bags and retreat, yet he did not fail to water his garden of cabbages the day before. The word this elderly neighbour used for the particular vegetable in the Englishman’s garden, in my vernacular, could mean cabbage, cauliflower or any other vegetable of that family. Yet, I have a strong feeling that it must have been cabbage that he meant for he too had a good cabbage patch coming up that year. And it was the month when kids, under the full moon of Yaoshang, go to steal cabbages among other things. The story-telling could have been a case of an elderly man owning up the responsibility of telling kids, stories that could have a positive impact, or it could just have been a case of delivering information so that his patch is saved, or both.

We knew that the British were here. We also knew that the Japanese were here. We learnt it from the stories that our grandparents told us. There were many stories – some horrific. When we grew a little bigger many of my friends started hanging out in the War Cemeteries. I tagged along once in a while and spent my time looking at the well maintained grass. I also read the lines engraved on the headstones. 17…, 18…, 19…, when they died. Too young and too far away from home, I felt. There was pathos in what was felt, which was no doubt helped by the second hand smoke of what was being passed around gingerly from hand to hand, in the background.

The tomato patch in my wife’s kitchen garden has come out really well. The three sacks of cow dung that she forced me to bring on our fashionable car – which is on loan and on repayment plan for seven years – have finally paid off. I have tomatoes morning and evening. I even have tomato salad with my afternoon tea. It went on for some weeks till I noticed a pain on the heel of my right foot. There is a history of uric acid related problems in my family. I went to the clinic. The doctor advised a couple of tests. The uric acid level was on the low side. In fact, the reading was touching the lower margin. The tomatoes are not to be blamed, it was clear. I have resumed with the tomatoes with tea. If you have not tried tomatoes and black tea, you have not tried anything.

Last December, I needed to dress sharp for an event. I had to wear the Englishman’s attire – coat, suit etc. sans the tie. I needed a pair of black leather shoes for the dress-up. A good friend gave directions to a Bihari cobbler’s shoe-shop on the banks of the river Nambul. He advised me not to pay a rupee more than 500 for any pair whatsoever. Speaking very good vernacular, the Bihari cobbler offered me homemade khaini which I declined. It was my four years running of quitting khaini, and I could not afford to fall into that home-made temptation. I found a pair to my liking. He quoted 1000. I said 500 hundred, as my friend asked me to. He said 800, and so on the bargain went. Seriously, deep inside I was asking how someone could make such a fine looking pair for 500. If I ever manage to make anything like that I won’t sell it for a fortune. I have had such feelings with Chinese goods. How do they make LED table lamps for 150 rupees, I have asked. Just imagine the number of middle man between the Chinese manufacturer and the Moreh dukan. If you deduct the profits made by these middlemen, how much would have been the factory pricing? This question and the attending feeling were, of course, mistimed. I paid 600 hundred for the pair.

Missus did warn me not to wear that pair often. “You cannot get even a decent pair of sandals for 600. Something must be wrong. It cannot be good for your feet. You will develop foot odour”, she said. She was wrong about the foot odour, but right that something bad would happen. My nagging pain, which started before World Cup, Brasil 2014 and which is still there now, was because of that pair of shoes. The name of the condition is Plantar Fasciitis: what a name for such an irritating condition. My wife’s tomatoes are not to be blamed. Marital accord has been restored with the discovery of the culprit.

I am glad that she is an avid gardener like my mother. Though there are some differences in style of gardening, they share a common enthusiasm. I like listening them share tips and results on gardening. I like my mother’s style of gardening. She does not make much sound about it. She pops in a seed here, sticks a stem there and the next time you turn around they have luxuriated. Sometimes it fails, as all things do. What I like about her style is that she is neither unduly disturbed when what she plants fails, nor erupt in joy when it blooms. She plants not for competition; she gardens not for fame or fortune. There is an unmistakable aura when she tends to a plant. Peace follows her when she moves amongst her plants, which grow without any plan.

A question, which never occurred to me before, has been troubling me lately. What happened to the Englishman’s cabbages?




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