The year was 1956. I was studying in St. Mary Convent and a boarder in Don Bosco School. St. Mary was a girls’ school, Don Bosco was a vernacular school; not yet English medium. Vacations were a big problem as papa then working in Assam Police could not always get leave to take me home. It was the Durga puja vacation most boarders had left for their respective homes. Only a few of us were still waiting to go home. I was the youngest. I waited eagerly for papa to take me home.
Father Burns came to the dormitory, informed someone had come to take me home. I was thrilled but did not know who it could be. The school authorities knew Papa. It could not be him. I got ready ─ rushed down. Whom do I see ─ Ibai Sonamani, my brother in law. I was pleasantly surprised. Can one forget those memories? That would not be the last. It was only the beginning. That was the beginning, every time papa could not get leave to take me home, Ibai Sonamani would be there.
Relationships are difficult to define. Some say they are made in heaven. I do not know. For me relationship is both intellection and emotion. I know only one thing ─ they are made on earth. Much will be spoken and written about late E. Sonamani; the quintessential Oja, poet, author, litterateur, administrator etc in the next few days as the world knew him. As the person who won the National Sahitya Academy Award for his book Mamangthong Lollabadi Maningthongda Lakudana, a man who authored more than 40 books including translations, so on and so forth. There will be many with tear-lined eyes waiting to pay obeisance as is customary. That is for the world. I write about him as my Ibai, my brother in law, as I have known him over the years.
E. Sonamani came into my life when he married my cousin sister late Rajkumari Kamalasana Devi on 22 March 1949, youngest daughter of my second uncle Rajkumar Sanatomba Singh, Barsenapati of Manipur (Yaiskul Lakpa in 1946, Barsenapati from 1949 till he died in 1965). Theirs was a beautiful love story that ended happily unlike many in those olden days. I was a little over a year old. Those days I remember him more because he was very fair while my cousin Kamalasana tanned. That was the talk in the family. He was educated and a favorite of my father because of his academic qualification. In turn, Ibai respected my father a little more because he was the only one educated among my four uncles and most of all for the audacity and courage to work with the British Assam Police. Papa sought for his views on many things, while Ibai valued Papa’s advice. The respect and trust was mutual.
Over the years, he became part of the family in many more ways than one; shared the family’s travails, happiness, and tragedies, and my family in turn shared his. The bonding grew. He became a son more than a mere son-in-law. For us children, he was an elder brother than a brother-in-law. I remember him visiting us at various places papa was posted in Assam, in Tezpur, Dergaon, Sibsagar etc just to see us.
My special gratefulness goes to him for making me acquainted with Manipur’s history, ethos and sensibilities that time and circumstances had wrapped them away from me as I left Manipur with my father in 1953 to get English education in erstwhile Assam. With the sensitivity and articulation he mastered, he knew what a young aspiring child like me needed. I learnt to love Manipur through those interactions.
The last time I saw him was in November 2019, when Neerja and I were at Imphal to attend my niece’s (sister Memcha’s daughter) marriage. He gave me some of his books. One was ‘Hazari’ translated into English by Bhabendra Longjamba and the other “Jahera” by Hijam Anganghal translated from Manipuri to English. Though weak and feeble, we spoke, laughed. I still remember his words in Manipuri ‘Matamna aibu yamna sangna license pire, adugumna nangbusu pigasannu’ (Time has given me license to live long, may it also give you the same). The last time he spoke was a few months ago inquiring about Neerja and my health during the Covid-times before he became unwell.
There is so much to write about him. But for the moment, this short Requiem and tribute is ‘just’ enough to remember him. To remind that here was a sensitive human being, a soul who loved Manipur and its rich traditions, which he tried to reflect and preserve through his writings, most of us may know but cannot express. Emulating a life like his is difficult.
As the curtain on him closes on life’s stage, the stage where he performed will all be quiet and perhaps deserted like all things. But for me, I see him behind the curtain of time ─ still enacting the various scenes, characters and stories he gave life to, dead words he resurrected to form poems many will still remember. As I scribble these few lines, I know they will not be enough to speak about him. And as others fill up pages writing for him, for me, I still see his smiling face at the boarding school gate at Gauhati Don Bosco come to take me home for the vacation. Ibai Sonamani lives on for me.
With his passing and my cousin sister having passed away on 3 March 2008 a chapter in the history of my family closes. And for Manipuri Meitei literature, a bright star has set. May his soul rest in peace!