“The dead are not dead if we have loved them truly. In our own lives we can give them a kind of immortality.” – Felix Adler
Many Elphinstonians would want to know.
I met Phungton Shaiza (Shaiza – to most of his friends) in 1982 when I took admission in First Year Junior College (11th), Elphinstone College, Mumbai – “Elphi”. He was sitting with his head down, his shoulder length hair hanging down over his face. His full-length t-shirt and jeans didn’t proclaim his gender. I used to be intimidated by girls back then – I was 15 ½.
The class was packed and I had no option but to sit with the girl with glossy tresses. She looked the quiet, shy sort. The “girl” looked up as I sat down and with great relief, I noted the wispy fledgling moustache and the few hopeful strands of hair that were his beard. Shaiza was to become one of my closest friends in my growing up years through junior college, under-grad and then post-grad – a lifetime of 7 years.
Shaiza used to live in Telang Hostel, Churchgate – which in those days was the boys’ hostel for Elphi. He became a regular feature at home. My late mom liked him because he could eat all that she would serve on his plate and praise it. She liked boys with good appetite and good hearts.
Shaiza was a man with a golden heart. Courteous, gentle, wise and helpful. Girls liked him for his chivalry and keen wit. He valued friendships and soon created a good network of friends in Mumbai, despite being from remote Ukhrul in Manipur.
He was a wonderful host. His hostel room was a den for many of us. He would often cook copious quantities of spicy pork or chicken curry and rice on a small electric heater he had. The hostel had a “no-cooking” policy but somehow, it didn’t apply to Shaiza. Anyone who visited his room on the days he cooked was welcome to the food. We mostly ate straight out of the cooking beakers, using old newspaper as a sort of napkin-cum-plate. As long as you wanted to eat, drink, listen to music and laugh, you were welcome to Shaiza’s room.
His hallmark response to anything you wanted or wanted to do was either, “Of course – why not?” if he approved. If not, he would just say, “Tchhah! Forget it!”
Shaiza was the person who brought North East India to my consciousness. His home town Ukhrul didn’t show on any atlas I owned. He often spoke about his tribe – Naga Tangkhuls –Manipur, Nagaland and other North Eastern states, their culture, food and politics.
He used to get for me candied berries and salted seeds from Ukhrul that I really loved. He also got some other pickled stuff that I wouldn’t touch – like white-ants chutney. I wanted to visit his hometown but that was like planning to go to the moon in those days. Didn’t happen.
He was a gentleman but that didn’t mean he didn’t pack a nasty punch or kick in a brawl. His Wushu skills were phenomenal. I had just started learning Karate in 1982 and Shaiza taught me many a practical trick of street-fights. He was a reassuring friend to have by your side in “ticklish” situations that sometimes boys get into.
Shaiza became an integral part of my Teenage Wasteland.
We finished post-graduation and went our separate ways. For years we lost contact with each other except by some stray word of mouth information.
I reconnected with Shaiza on phone when I came to North East on my posting in 2017. Another Elphinstonian and close buddy, Brig. Ajay Pasbola was posted in Arunachal at that time. We all connected. Ajay and his wife visited Manipur and met up with Shaiza. He told me the wonderful host in Shaiza was very much present even after so many years.
Shaiza and I touched base on phone from time to time over the past 4 years. After many failed plans, my wife Shampa (who was also in Univ together with Shaiza and me) and I visited Ukhrul in Feb. 2020 – just weeks before lockdown. We will never forget the warmth, love and hospitality shown by Shaiza and his wife Juliet during our 3-day visit. It was like the decades of not meeting didn’t matter. It was an amazing get-together with him and his beautiful family. He made us feel so special!
I am glad my last memories of Shaiza are of the fantastic time we had in Ukhrul last year and of his subdued, mischievous smile as he waved good bye to us. He had loaded me with packets of candied berries and salted seeds that I remembered from our growing up years.
“Let’s meet soon!” he called out as our car pulled away. I nodded and waved back.
I didn’t know that was the last time I was seeing my buddy from Teenage Wasteland. Since 39 years.
Shaiza passed away after a valiant and 10 day battle against Covid early this morning in an ambulance rushing him from Ukhrul to Imphal. The funeral is in Ukhrul today. All my prayers are with his lovely wife, Juliet Shaiza and kids.
I know, if anyone deserves to go to heaven, it is Phung Ton Shaiza, Naga, Elphinstonian, friend, and always a gentleman.
– Of course, why not?
Adieu friend. REST IN PEACE, PHUNGTON SHAIZA.