Recently one of my Delhi friends gifted me a woolen bag (samtu khao) with the spear motif. The motif was in red on a luscious chrome green background. She had been on a trip to Nagaland and had picked it up as a souvenir for me.
It brought back those green-skirted days of school life in Manipur when such bags were a necessary everyday item. It was very common as school bags: locally produced, readily available, affordable, came in varied patterns and did last long. They came in vibrant colours – red, green, blue, black with lovely patterns. Some of the more fancy designs had flip-flop fronts. Nearly everyone used these bags. They would hang on the sides of three-wheeler auto-rickshaws with screaming school children. 8am to 9am in the morning and 3pm to 4pm in the evening – these little vehicles with their noisy passengers were regular features of the Imphal roads of those days.
Sturdy, convenient, foldable and gender neutral, these bags could be seen being in use during the festival of kang (rath yatra in Manipur) by young or old as they followed the little carts of the neighbourhood Hindu temples. They would use it to siphon whole fruits or garlands (of peas, lotus fruits) offered to these mobile temples. More often than not, these had a second life as they were re-used. At home, my mother made use of our old, threadbare bags for airing dry seeds for the vegetable gardens and for consumption.
Around the time I was doing my M.Phil., these items had made its appearance in Delhi as exotic pieces either available at select openings that dealt with products from the Northeast region or as badges marking the wearer as someone who has had a peep into an otherwise strange world. It was more visible in certain circles or as part of certain ensembles – noticeably in circles that favoured ethnic wear. I have often seen it paired with flowing skirts, loose kurta – pyjama/pyjami, loose cotton pants. It seems prominent in social works and related circuits. I guess it did not quite fit into the mould of the corporate personality but leaned towards the people who favoured the ‘jhola‘.
As I looked at the green bag, I wondered when was the last time I had seen it being used in Manipur. The image of a ‘Tangkhul-Nurabi’ scene at a Lai Haraoba ritual leapt out in my mind. In this ritual play, the man essaying the role of the male protagonist ‘Tangkhul’ had a black sling bag but there was another character ‘Tangkhul manao’, the younger brother. This second character had used one such faded old green bag as part of his costume. Slung across the shoulder, the long belt had been knotted to make it short so that the bag stayed hugged to his body. For the onlookers, it did not strike as an oddity but rather gelled with the character in the ritual play that mixes the stricture of ritual with comic elements drawn from everyday life.
The woolen bag as an item of everyday consumption came from the not-so-long-ago past (and may even be lurking around in certain corners of the present) as opposed to the bamboo baskets of a long-ago past frozen in time.
The woolen bags have long since disappeared from schools but they have made a re-entry as mementos of seminars and workshops or souvenir items for tourists or fashion statements for others.
My brand new green bag seemed to ask me – now, tell me what am I to you?