Khomdram Gambhir Singh is the most well-travelled man in Khumbong. He’s seen it all: the Qutb Minar in Delhi, the Taj Mahal in Agra, and the Gateway of India in Mumbai. He’s seen things no one in his village, in a corner of Manipur, could dream of.
Among them, was the infinite expanse of the Arabian Sea in Mumbai, filled with, in the man’s own words, “bada bada jahaaz”. Big, big ships.
There’s another story that has done its rounds in Khumbong market: that once there was a dinner in film star Dilip Kumar’s house, and Gambhir, then working with a catering service, helped cook for the feast.
Now 65 and toothless, Gambhir neither denies nor confirms the tales. In the year since he’s returned to Khumbong, after a four-decade-long escapade, the initial enthusiasm of telling his story has wound down.
For almost three months after his return, guests from Khumbong and afar would visit his home, a thatched hut at the end of the little lane in the village. Gambhir would appear on local primetime news, kitted out in western formals, and gently answer every question. He was Manipur’s missing man, who had been found 40 years later, singing on a street in Bandra.
“Is Bombay even further than Delhi?”
Forty years ago, Khumbong — located about 30km from Imphal — was a village so tiny with relationships so interpersonal, that rarely did people disappear without warning.
Yet, Gambhir had always been the square peg in the round hole. “When he was young, it was normal for him to disappear for 5-10 days at stretch,” says Manitombi Longjam, Gambhir’s elder sister. Fed up of his eldest son playing truant, their father arranged for Gambhir to enlist as a rifleman in the Manipur Rifles in the late 1970s. “But he would run away from the barracks too,” she says.
That is how Gambhir disappeared then. First, for a few days. And then, forever.
“We thought he would come back, like he always did,” says 60-year-old Manitombi, who runs a pakoda and tea stall in the heart of Khumbong market.
On a Friday morning, Manitombi is just setting up her shop. Near her, women lay out their wares in shops adjacent to each other, propped up on a concrete platform under a tin roof shade. Surrounding them are mobile repair shops, grocery stores and the barebones but quintessentially Manipuri “chak” or rice hotel, a food stall that serves a simple meal of rice, fish and boiled vegetables.
“Do you know he was married once? My brother… was a really strong man. Could lift boulders that no one else in the village could,” says Manitombi, “I expect he will come around soon to ask for a pakoda.”
When he does, Manitombi will chide Gambhir for speaking in Hindi. “We don’t understand it — why can’t you speak in Meiteilon?” she will tell him. And her brother will smile, and ask her for Rs 10: a daily ritual that has taken shape over the past year.
In April, Manitombi wept through her brother’s grand homecoming. “Tachao (brother), did you forget us all? Ema (mother) died thinking about you,” she asked.
Gambhir only smiled. Nobody found out why he had left. Some say it was the bad marriage, others say it was a series of disagreements with his father. “But maybe he just wanted to live freely,” says Manitombi.
The family looked everywhere when Gambhir went missing in 1978 but the police, perceived with suspicion by the simple villagers, were never informed.
Almost three years after he left, a letter arrived from Delhi. “It was from my brother. He said he all was well,” says Manitombi, “We didn’t know where ‘Delhi’ was but our neighbour, Devadas, said it was a nice place.”
The news did much to calm down their mother. The same year, Devadas, who was also Gambhir’s childhood friend, went to Delhi on work. But, just three days before his arrival, Devadas was told, his friend had packed his bags and left for Mumbai.
“Is Bombay even further than Delhi?” Gambhir’s mother had asked. She realised she would never see her son again.
“I am from Manipur”
“Jaane vaalon zaraa, mur ke dekho mujhe, ek insaan hoon main tumhaari tarah.”
In the video that went viral and brought Gambhir home, he on Bandra’s Hill Road, singing a song from Dosti (1964).
“I had shot it just for kicks,” says Firoze Shakir, 68, from Mumbai. “At the end, he blurts out that he’s from Manipur.” That evening sometime in October 2017, Shakir, a photographer for 25 years, uploaded it onto his YouTube channel. It was one among thousand videos which Shakir had shot, to uncover what he calls the “invisible” in Mumbai.
“I remember when I first saw Gambhir. A group of kids were teasing him. ‘Nepali’, they jeered. He said, ‘I am not Nepali, I am Indian — I am from Manipur.’”
Shakir would photograph Gambhir whenever he saw him begging on Hill Road; sometimes he would give him money. “I could tell he was an alcoholic. And since I had a similar history, I could relate to him.”
In his initial months back in Manipur, a common request from his visitors would be for him to sing. And Gambhir would comply by gently singing hits from the 1970s.
But lately, the singing has stopped. Sometimes he hums, observes Sheila Khomdram, who is married to Gambhir’s nephew and lives in the same house. “Sometimes he asks me to fetch a cigarette,” she says. Otherwise, he likes to be left alone, and goes for long walks around the village.
A missing complaint — 40 years later
On Sajibu Cheraoba (which Manipuris celebrate as the start of a new year), Gambhir’s younger brother, Kulachandra, was preparing fodder for cattle in the fields. At a distance, he could see his neighbour, Atom Samarendra, running towards him.
“Do you know this man?” Samarendra asked, as Gambhir’s delicate voice crackled through the phone. His brother started crying.
Soon word spread around Khumbong that someone from their village was in Mumbai. A nephew was sent to Manitombi’s home. “He came running to me with his Facebook and said ‘Indocha (aunt), your brother has been found.’
What Manitombi saw was not Facebook but actually a video on YouTube, but the 69-year-old refers to all phones with big screens as “Facebook.” “It didn’t take me a second to recognise him. The eyes were unmistakeable. He always had my mother’s eyes.”
“Our village’s local WhatsApp group — where the video first appeared —was inundated with messages. We wanted to find this photographer,” says Samarendra, explaining how a professor in Arunachal Pradesh had first noticed the video, which was then sent to a resident of Khumbong who put it on the group.
Soon another WhatsApp group — “Find Gambhir” — was formed.
Meanwhile, in Mumbai, Firzoe Shakir received 200 odd friend requests overnight — all from Manipur. “I did not understand the sudden requests. So, I kept ignoring them.” Then one Twitter user told Shakir that his video had gone viral. And that was that.
Back in Manipur, Samarendra took Kulachandra to the Patsoi police station in Kumbhong. And finally, 40 years after he had disappeared, a missing complaint was filed in the name of Gambhir Singh.
Thank You, Whatsapp
To piece together Gambhir’s life of 40 years is a difficult task. Some parts, even he doesn’t remember. “Before Delhi I was in Mizoram. I spent about three years in Delhi working in a canteen by the Railway Protection Force,” he says, “I never had enough money to make the journey back home.”
When he did manage to collect some money, Gambhir did consider returning home, until he heard of Mumbai. “I thought to myself, if I had come this far, why not go see Bombay too? If I survived in Delhi, I would survive in Bombay too.”
He reached Bombay by train, one evening sometime in the early 1980s. He remembers being amazed by the staggering Victoria Terminus. Over the years, Gambhir worked in a tourist company, a catering company, and as a mason before injuring his knee in an accident. “I guess that was the when he became weak,” says Arambam Amitabh Singh, the police constable from Manipur who had gone to receive him in Mumbai.
Till Arambam arrived, the Mumbai police had kept Gambhir in an Ashram fo destitutes and the aged. “When I spoke to him in Manipuri, he couldn’t believe it. It was a language he had not heard in 40 years,” says the police officials. Gambhir admits that he would sometimes sit in a corner and speak to himself in Manipuri.
When Gambhir landed in Imphal airport, there were hundreds waiting to receive him. A video of him shows him squinting in the bright April son as elderly women garlanded him, many in tears.
The crowd behind held up signs. A few read: “Thank you Mumbai”, “Thank You YouTube” and “Thank you WhatsApp”.
The Delicious Chak Hotel is where Gambhir spends most of his time these days. “Whenever he comes, I feed him, give him clothes, give him money and sometimes a drink too,” says Devdas, “He’s my best friend — pyaar se paalta hoon. I look after him with love.”
With Devdas and his wife, Gambhir talks about Mumbai — Khar and Bandra, Juhu Beach and Shah Rukh Khan. “He wants to go back,” says Devdas, “I tell him — brother, if you go back you will die. You are ill and old.”
A few months ago, Gambhir took Rs 2000 from Devdas — and made a run for it. He was found in Senapati before his family brought him back home.
But Gambhir insists he will go back one day. He talks of how Bombay is free; how it is kind; how he, a homeless man, never spent even one night hungry.
One of the very people to have moved out of Khumbong (he got a job in the Manipur state emporium), Devadas sees his friend’s point. “In Manipur, the air and water are clean. It is home. But outside, the roads are big, and the facilities are better. In Delhi, you know what’s happening throughout India. Here you don’t find out for days.”
In Khumbong, the National Highway 57 that cuts across the village has helped develop the area. While farming is the main occupation, the new generation is slowly moving out of the traditional economy. “At the end of the day, it is the government job everyone wants,” says Samarendra, who himself is a government employee.
While the Nineties saw the separatist militancy at its peak, things in Manipur are marginally better now. Cafes have started opening in Imphal, shops remain open beyond 8 pm and curfews are not as frequent they were a decade back. But in these rural areas — like Khumbong — life remains more or less the same.
In his initial months back home, Gambhir would tell his brother, “Let’s visit Bombay.” Kulachandra would reply “How is there time and money for that?” In the market, the stories of his bravado are now being replaced with questions.
When he meets us again, Gambhir isn’t in the mood to talk. “What is there to talk about?” he asks, before cutting the interview short and heading out on to the main road. It begins to drizzle, and before long, the rains lash out violently.
Gambhir is drenched, but he walks on, oblivious to the thunder and rain around him. “He will be fine. He’s a survivor,” says a villager.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Arriving Somewhere’