My brother A u was five years older than me, but I never really thought much of the age gap between us. He was both a father and a friend to me.
I was born a sickly kid. “We cried with joy when you uttered your first sound – you were five months old by then,” Mother had told me. I was also one of the first kids to get medical care from the missionary hospital. I don’t know if that’s a record I should be proud of, but, unlike my brother, I really don’t have other big achievements to brag about. I’m bad with numbers and can never seem to get my calculations right. I was a quick language learner though, which came as a surprise, considering my slow speech development during my early years.
Now, I am 13 and a bit shorter than the boys of my age. Because of my height and because I am shy, I used to be the target of bullying, especially by the big boys in our neighbourhood. My brother always made sure that the bullies got what they deserved. After my tenth birthday, I stopped making friends altogether, because I had A u.
It wasn’t just me who thought highly of my brother’s wit, his ability to complete every task and to fulfill all the duties that came his way. Everyone I knew thought so too. He knew about almost everything and there was not a problem in the world that my brother could not solve. Whenever someone has something to fix or repair, or any kind of dilemma to work out, they’d ask for my brother’s help.
“Kima will know what to do about it,” said everyone. “We can always request Kima to do it.” He was liked by everyone, and every mother with a daughter secretly wished that he’d become their son-in-law one fine day. I would beam with a deep sense of pride and admiration whenever I happened to hear people praising him. For nearly three years, A u had attended the school run by the missionaries, and he could fluently converse with the English people. I, on the other hand, was saved from the daily schoolwork because of Api’s strong opposition to the English missionaries. “Sending Kima to their school is enough. I don’t want both my grandsons to be brainwashed by those foreigners,” she had said, and Mother could not say another word. She had faced enough criticism from my grandmother that my brother and I had been baptised, as my parents had been.
Api always made sure that she was given due credit for my brother’s rich knowledge about everything under the sun. When people remarked on what a fine young man my brother had become, she’d say, “It’s because of all the tales and songs I put into his head. One is bound to be wise and sensible listening to them for so many years.” But we all knew how hard my mother worked to raise us right after Father passed away.
It was difficult for me to imagine what my father had been like since he had died two months after I was born. He was taken by tuberculosis. The doctors had him locked up in isolation in a small cabin in Durtlang, with other patients who suffered from the same disease. He had spent his last days in loneliness. “What a cruel way to go,” I’ve heard people whisper. Sometimes I wonder if it was the pain of loneliness or the tuberculosis that had killed my father.
It was when my father was taken away to Durtlang that Api had come all the way from Lunglei to stay with us for a few weeks, which turned into a month, and then a year, until she decided to live with us. “We are plagued by the same fate, me and your mother. We’re born to be widows, maybe that is why we are so good at it,” she would often tell me. It was impossible to guess how old Api was. She claimed that she was born in the year the Scottish girl Mary Winchester was captured by Bengkhuaia, the Lushai chief of Sailam. But my mother said it was impossible because Api’s younger sister was already a year old when Mary Winchester was taken hostage. It didn’t really matter to me. She could have been anywhere between 70 and 100. I could not recall a time when she looked younger or older. She has been old for as long as I could remember.
I didn’t mind that I had never known my father; some might say I haven’t fully understood the downside of growing up fatherless. But with my brother by my side, I never felt the lack of a father. My brother had the kind of courage which gives you a sense of comfort even in the worst situations and the darkest of times.
It had been late November about three years ago, and winter had already been around the corner when one evening, our neighbour Nu Rami had come rushing through our door. “I am so worried. My husband has not come home and it is already past dinner time,” she had said. Nu Rami said the last that she had seen of him was when she had given him his carefully packed lunch – a handful of boiled rice and fried pumpkin – not knowing that it might be the final thing that she would do for her husband.
“Do you think they have taken him?” she had asked my mother as tears swelled up in her eyes. Pu Ngaia and Nu Rami were one of the big traders in the town. People came from far and wide to buy knives, machetes and other farming tools from their shop. A year earlier, Pu Ngaia had been among the traders who were jailed for opposing the British administration in the Lushai Hills. He was one of the people who had gone to Shillong to meet Rev. Nicholas Roy and given reports about the English occupation in the Lushai Hills, which they had been protesting against. They had wanted to be part of the Assam Council and Pu Ngaia was quite determined to leave Aizawl if the sap continued their occupation.
For a brief period, we had all thought that the couple would move to Assam to flee from sap rule. Pu Ngaia strongly believed that life in Assam would be far better than living under the control of white men. “When we move to Assam, we will live in a tall building,” Nu Rami would boast as she waltzed into our kitchen after dinner a few times every week. When the English soldiers had come to arrest her husband and jailed him for three months, she realised that the dream of tall buildings in Assam was over.
Excerpted with permission from Postcard from the Lushai Brigade, Hannah Lalhlanpuii, Duckbill.