Small-time farmer Hemam Thabali is a harried man. He tells me he is being chased by history-hunters who know him as the owner of the Thabali House in Moirang, south of Manipur's capital Imphal. The house was the headquarters of the Indian National Army (INA) led by Subhash Chandra Bose. Thabali House is also an architectural feat — its thick earth-and-bamboo walls and ceiling keep the cottage naturally air-cooled on the hottest of days.
History: 45 km from Imphal, Moirang was the headquarters of Netaji’s Indian National Army. Colonel Shaukat Hayat Malik (poster above) of the INA hoisted the Tricolour for the first time on Indian soil on April 14, 1944, in Moirang.
But taming temperature is the least of Thabali's worries. The most famous home on Hemam Lane is now crumbling. "We are unable to maintain it," says 60-year-old Thabali.
Prior to 1947, the Meiteis inhabiting the plains of present-day Manipur and the Nagas in the hills around had a common enemy — the British colonialists. In 1944, they found an ally in the INA. The Thabalis offered the INA what they had — a 1,200-sq-ft ancestral home for the INA officers to control the war against the British. Hemam's uncle, Nilmani, also joined the INA.
The INA lost the war, but the Thabali House, fortified by Bose's 'rebels', stood on. In the 1990s, his life-size statue at the memorial was blown up. For Manipuri nationalists, he had become a symbol of India, by then the "colonial force".
Moirang's prime attraction is the temple of a pre-Hindu deity, Thangjing. It is also the home of legendary lovers Khamba and Thoibi, the Meitei Romeo-Juliet who inspired a graceful dance form.
Tourism brochures promote the dance and Loktak lake, part of the world's only floating wildlife preserve, on the northeastern edge of the town. But they don't add the foot-note that the lake is a rebel hideout. Bad for business, I guess. They don't talk of the Thabali house either. The brochures mention the INA Memorial Museum, though. "Netaji's mysterious disappearance after the INA hoisted the Tricolour on 14 April, 1944, brings many to this museum," says Padmabati, 60, the caretaker. "Many ask how he reached Manipur of all places."
The INA memorial has galleries dedicated to freedom fighters — 17 from Manipur. The list includes its first CM, Mairembam Koireng Singh.
For the young, Netaji and the INA are a brief chapter in text-books. College student Mairembam Sanjana, who lives close to the memorial, says: "I know about the INA complex, but never been there."