Saturday, September 9, 2017

Chaobi, the Pheiding-ga Lallonbi's Daughter

Chaobi, the Pheiding-ga Lallonbi's Daugter 

A Meitei Folktale Retold


A long long time ago, in the land of Meitrabak, there was a young widow who lived with her three children. The eldest was a daughter, the middle child was a son and the youngest was an adorable little girl. No-one remembers her real name as she was only referred to by her trade, as Pheiding-ga Lallonbi--the Pheiding-ga tradeswoman. Every morning, she used to get up before the sunrise and set out for the distant town of Pheiding-ga where she sold hamei--sweetmeats made of rice powder for a living. She would then return home by sunset and prepare dinner for herself and her three children.

Life was hard, and it wasn't easy for her to manage her household with the meager earnings she got selling hamei. She longed for those carefree days when her husband was alive, and often, she found herself daydreaming. She'd be transported to those once endless days of fun with  her friends and the ching-hi parties where all the young girls and women would brew pots of the traditional head wash of ching-hi beside the community pond or by the river. She and her friends would then wash their hair with the poultice and then take a dip in the water. After this, some of them would invariably get some seasonal fruit and prepare a fruit salad or a singju and everyone would partake of this, laughing gaily and sunning themselves in the mellow afternoon sun. Back then, how shiny and black her hair used to be! Now, her hair was all frazzled and prematurely gray due to hours of sitting in the sun trying to sell some hamei. The consolation was, she was still young and her beautiful, sad face was still unmarked by age.

She sat daydreaming again and was transported to her childhood even as she sat down with her wares in a corner in the busy marketplace in Pheiding-ga.

"How much for the hamei?" She awoke from her reverie and saw a handsome man standing in front. She flushed in embarrassment at being caught daydreaming, and managed to mutter "One sel." The man was enthralled by this young tradeswoman's beauty and said, "Fine! I'll take them all!" Saying thus, he gave her a pouch without bothering to count the money and walked off with the hamei.  The woman checked the contents and was thrilled to see the handsome amount of a 100 sel-- this by far exceeded the cost of her hamei.  She'd be able to buy her children new clothes and some nice pengba fish for dinner.

The next day, she was back at the market in Pheiding-ga, as usual. She was soon lost in the hubbub of the busy market and it was almost late afternoon.She had not sold anything yet. She wondered whether she'd be as lucky as she was the previous day or whether she'd have to go back home without a sale. Just then, the man from the previous day came by again and wanted to buy more of her hamei. Needless to say, he bought all her wares for a handsome sum.

This went on for a full month. And there were changes. She'd started dressing more carefully and she looked forward to the late afternoon when the handsome nobleman would come to buy her wares. More and more, she caught herself day dreaming about him and found herself combing her hair often to make it shinier. She often wore a lei-nachom of sweet smelling ginger lily behind her ears and often left her hair untied, like a maiden would. She didn't care that people had started talking about her changed demeanor. Nor did she care much that her household and her children missed her care. All she could think of was the nobleman and what he may be thinking of her.

On the first day of the second month after he first bought hamei from her, he expressed his desire to marry her. He didn't know that she had three children to look after, and when he asked after her family, the besotted woman, alas, didn't mention that she was a widow with three young children. So, when he asked her to come away with him to get married, she went with him, leaving her wares behind in the market of Pheiding-ga, vowing never to look back and never to become a tradeswoman again. It was the start of a new life for her.

***

But what of her young children?

It was sunset, and way past the time for the Pheiding-ga Lallonbi  to return home. The eldest daughter, Chaobi, was a bit worried as her little sister was hungry and had started crying for their mother. She looked in vain beyond the gate, but didn't find the familiar figure of her mother returning home as usual. As she was the eldest of the three children, she quickly went to the kitchen and started the kitchen fire. She scooped out one meruk-ful of last --the last one, she realized, and hoped her mother wouldn't forget to get some rice--and proceeded to make it for dinner. She then made a chamthong of mustard leaves which she had plucked earlier from the kitchen garden in the backyard to accompany the rice. Soon, dinner was ready, but her mother was nowhere in sight. She didn't dare go outside in the dark to look for her, although her heart was beating in her throat. Nor did she have answers to her siblings questions, "Cheche, when will Ima come back?" "Cheche, where is Ima?" She ignored the questions and quickly served them dinner and leaving some for her mother in the cooking pots, proceeded to join them for the meal. She was worried as her mother didn't arrive even after they had finished their dinner. Whatever had happened to her mother? As it was getting late, her siblings started yawning and huddled close to her, and said "Cheche, tell us a story" As she told them the story of Pebet, the children soon nodded off to sleep. She put them to bed, and threw a blanket over them. She then crept close to her youngest sister and holding her, was soon fast asleep.

Now, Hingchabi, the demoness had been witness to their predicament. Hingchabi often preyed on children whose parents were not around, and she was filled with glee at the prospect of not one, but three children to feed on. She used her powers to take on the guise of the Pheidingga Lallonbi and knocked on the door. Chaobi heard the knock and said, "Who is it?"
"Why, it's your mother, come quick and open the door!" came the answer.
Chaobi opened the door and let her in, "Why are you so late, Ima?"
"Oh it took such a long time to get home as I was very tired. Let me go to sleep now" replied Hingchabi and quickly climbed into bed, next to the youngest child. Chaobi too went to sleep.

Chaobi had gone into a deep sleep when she heard a faint repetitive sound. It was the sound of someone eating something crunchy.
"Ima, what are you eating?" she asked.
"Oh it's just some lotus roots that I got home." said Hingchabi as she continued to chomp.
"Can I please have some?" asked Chaobi.
"Here!" said Hingchabi, as she handed Chaobi something in the dark. Chaobi realised with horror that it was no lotus stem but the little finger of her youngest sister. She realized that this was not her mother but some supernatural being who was feasting on her sister. She smothered a sob, and realized that she and her brother would be next and it was up to her to save themselves. She thought and thought and came up with a plan.
She woke her little brother and said to Hingchabi, "Ima, we want to go and pee."
"Oh! you can go but I am not going out in this cold."
Chaobi quickly got a long rope and tied it around her waist and her brother's , handed over the end to Hingchabi and said, "You can pull this rope when we are done." Hingchabi was pleased she didn't have to go out and interrupt her feast. So she said, "Alright. Don't be too long."

So the children went outside. It was midnight. Chaobi took care to close the front door. As soon as they were outside, she untied the rope around their waist and tied it to the wooden pillar on the verandah of their sanglen. She then made a hole in the pot that her mother used to store water outside the courtyard, so it made the sound of dripping. When Hingchabi called, "Are you done yet?" Chaobi said, "Not yet" and the sound of the dripping water fooled Hingchabi while the children made their way out the gate. As soon as they were out of earshot, Chaobi told her brother, "That's not Ima. That's a demoness who will eat us, so we must run to our neighbor Ibok's house." And they ran off down the lane toward's Ibok's house, which was a mile away.

Hingchabi wondered why the children took so long. She'd just finished her meal when she realized that the dripping sound had stopped. "Children, are you done?" she cried. There was no answer. She tugged on the rope with all her might and the house came crashing down on her. She was stunned, but not hurt. She'd been tricked! She shook off the debris and flew up and looked all around for the children and she spied them running hand in hand towards the neighboring house. "You just wait!" she shouted in a terrible voice and flew towards the children, now in her own form. The children were tired, and they saw Hingchabi flying towards them just as they climbed the gate of the neighbor's house. They called, "Ibok, Ibok! Save us! Please open the door!" from the gate as they ran towards the front door.

Ibok was a kindly old lady, a wise woman who could heal folks and knew spells to ward off evil. Waking up, she heard the children's cries and looked out the window to see the children running as fast as they can, stumbling and getting up with a terrified look on their faces with Hingchabi hot on their heels. Ibok didn't waste any time and she had just opened the door when Hingchabi reached the courtyard of her house. Hingchabi reached out to grab the children just as the children jumped up the verandah and scrambled to safety indoors. Ibok quickly slammed the door and locked it with a magical charm to keep evil away. Hingchabi had to grit her teeth and go back as the house was protected by Ibok's magic spell.

And that is the story of how quick thinking Chaobi, the daughter of the Pheidingga Lallonbi, saved herself and her little brother from Hingchabi's clutches.

Glossary

Meitrabak - old name of modern day Manipur. Literally means, the land of the Meitei
Lallonbi - tradeswoman
Hamei - a traditional Meitei sweet made from ground rice flour
Meruk - small Meitei bamboo basket to measure rice for cooking, dimensions may be 5"X5"
Chamthong - brothy preparation of seasonal vegetables with ginger, chives, salt and smoked fish
Lei-nachom - a corsage of sweet smelling flowers that Meitei ladies wear behind their ears or in their hair.
Ching-hi/Cheng-hi - traditional Meitei herbal shampoo made with rice water and herbs
Sel - currency used by Meitei in olden days


The Indian Blogger Awards 2017