Reshmi Banerjee talks to a relative about his “Burma years.”
I have always known my uncle as a man of few words. Gentle, unassuming and dignified. So it was with a bit of hesitation (arising out of respect) that I requested if he would talk to me about his ‘Burma years’. My uncle instantly and happily said yes. Within a few days, he arrived on time at my place with his charming wife (I was conducting the interview from my home in Delhi). Both seemed calm but excited about this impending conversation. My main aim was to know more about Myanmar and both share and update my knowledge, a regular exercise for a social science researcher. He seemed eager to reminisce about his old home and wonderful memories of a country which was still quite close to his heart. As the evening progressed into a chilly winter night in Delhi, the pace of my pointed enquiries and endless questions picked up but so did his meaningful answers and colourful revelations. I soon realised that my effort to remain detached (as often taught to social scientists while conducting interviews) was crumbling as I seemed to get sucked into an un-usual narrative that was being woven right in front of me. I quickly decided to let go of myself and feel the story, to allow myself to dream of a place which I had never seen. As my uncle slowly started un-wrapping the magic of nostalgia, we began to enjoy the criss-crossing paths that the journey was taking us through; each turn proving to be surprising!
Manoj Dutta, my uncle (currently a construction management specialist in a renowned private sector enterprise in India) was born in 1944 in Hsipaw (in Northern Shan state, 200 kilometres north-east of Mandalay). His father was a medical doctor (Dr. Manindra Chandra Dutta) and his mother (Mrs. Minoti Dutta) a home-maker. The family settled in Kyaukme, a small valley town in northern Shan state where there were 18 Bengali families (17 from Chittagong and his own family from Faridpur – both currently in Bangladesh).The town was beautiful with four hillocks encircling it and natural tea plantations dotting the landscape. My uncle fondly remembered his wooden home with lots of available land surrounding it, the presence of a water well and an Oriya servant. Telegraph and telephone services were on a contractual basis. His father, being the first doctor in the town, exercised a huge influence in the neighbourhood (both with the townspeople and with the local authorities including the police).
Although his father never spoke Burmese, he mingled around. In contrast, his mother was fluent in the language and was active in various organisations like the child welfare association and women’s welfare association. Most of the births at that time took place at home with the doctor considered as the child’s second father. Thus, his father was highly respected. First God; – second, Doctor; – third, Teacher (Saya) – that’s how the pyramid of importance and respect was established by the simple town (his father was also lovingly called saya). The matriculation examinations were held in one centre in the whole district and the question papers used to be kept in the treasury. Being a respected doctor, delivering the sealed question papers from the treasury to the examination centre was also one of his many duties.
The hill people would come down to the valley for three months out of the year (March to May) to not only trade with the town-folk but also to get their diseases treated. This practice seems to continue in many parts of North East India and Myanmar even today. It seems that the town was hit by the dreaded disease cholera in those days (between 1944 and 1948). Vaccines were brought from Mandalay as the town did not have its own stock. His father became a very busy man, having to inject the drug to everyone personally (since nurses were not allowed to give injections – by regulation of the civic authority).
His father in his bachelor days had also spent some time in Tavoy (now known as Dawei, a city in south-eastern Myanmar and the capital of Tanintharyi region), an area known for tin mining and in Kemansa (near the Chinese border). His mother was not born in Burma, but was brought up there while her father served as a post-master general in both Akyab (now Sittwe), capital of Rakhine state and Maymyo (now Pyin Oo Lwin). Their marriage and the birth of their first two children (which included my uncle as the second child amongst seven) coincided with the tumultuous period of the Japanese invasion and occupation of Myanmar. According to my uncle, the Japanese looked for two things in a place – firstly a doctor and secondly eggs (Murgi’s deem in the Bengali language). The Japanese would often turn up at my uncle’s parental home in Kyaukme for food. His mother would have no option but to serve them food, Luchi (deep fried flatbread made of wheat flour that is typical of Bengali and Assamese cuisine) being prepared every-day. My uncle giggled with delight when he fondly remembered his mother mixing chillies into the food one day to deter the constant intrusion by the Japanese.
1942 not only saw Japanese bombing but thousands of Indians trekking on foot from Burma to India. My aunt’s paternal grandfather was one of them, walking from Tagehle near Rangoon, across the Chin Hills to India. The Burmese were quite happy that the immigrants were departing but the intellectual class was not really thrilled. In 1948, my uncle’s mother and his siblings returned to Patna (in the state of Bihar in Eastern India) only to return again to Burma when his father decided to go back. But things had changed, the law had changed. A foreigner could not own land in independent Burma. Despite this, the family continued to live in the small town peacefully with no violence against them.
Education was highly valued in Kyaukme with going to the university considered a great achievement. The hill station of Maymyo located in the Shan highlands (now Mandalay Division) had a significant Anglo-Indian population and some of the best boarding/missionary schools (St. Albert was for boys, St. Joseph was for girls and St. Michael was the co-educational school). Thus, the hill town was shortlisted for my uncle’s schooling (he and his elder sister studied at St. Michael). He went later to Mandalay University for his higher studies (only three students including him, went to Mandalay University from their small town). In those days, one went directly to university after high school. There were many Indian professors in Mandalay, with Rangoon having even more Indian academics. Mandalay University had many small associations with Sunday excursions being regularly planned. My uncle spoke fondly about those glorious days when he would be part of such exciting adventures.
Most of the Indians in the town had a second Burmese wife or mistress. Many had married Shan women, thus intermarriages were prevalent. Two festivals were celebrated with a lot of pomp and show. The three day water festival, Thingyan, in April and Thadingyut, the light festival welcoming Buddha in October, which coincided with Kali Pujo (the Bengali festival celebrating the power of the goddess Kali). The most important festival of the Bengalis, Durga Pujo (a five day festival celebrating the goddess Durga) was also celebrated with the idol being specially transported in a truck from Mandalay to Kyaukme. Cheroots (cigars) were made by the local women who would sit in a group of fifty and make them of various sizes. Often they would sit in a truck (as a team) and roam around the town. The Dutta family was also close to the monks and religious leaders of the town. They had adopted a monastery situated on top of one of the hills in their area. My uncle remembers the festival in September when the monks would assemble at dawn. Donation was by lottery with people registering themselves in order to give alms to the monks.
The peaceful life enjoyed by the family in a small town was however disrupted with the 1962 military coup. The Ne Win government adopted a socialist pattern of government with the exploitation by foreigners (Indians and Chinese) considered as one of the primary reasons for bringing about economic, social and political change. It was decided that no foreigner should be allowed a means of living, thus my uncle’s father’s license to practice medicine was cancelled overnight. His car and stethoscope were confiscated and his father came under the supervision of the local authority. In 1964, nationalisation occurred. My uncle remembers listening to the special announcement made on demonetisation on his Japanese radio. This was a huge blow which further gave impetus to the exodus of Indians from Burma (which had already begun the year prior). Indian Airlines started daily flights (up from their previous 2-3 flights a week) with many Chettiar families flying back to Madras (later renamed Chennai) in southern India. Ships sailed from Burma to Madras free of cost. Many families returned to Calcutta (later renamed Kolkata). My uncle interestingly observes that most of the Indian immigrants living in Burma in the 1960s were never planning to settle in Burma. They were regularly sending remittances back home by over-invoicing imports from India. He also recollects the protests which broke out in Mandalay University on the 7th July 1963. The University shut down with students including him being sent home. The ‘anti-outsider’ attitude was widely prevalent and the censorship of the press was evident. My uncle’s father was officially given 20 Rupees (0.2 Pounds) by the Burmese government. His home, his belongings and his hard earned savings were taken from his control. He would get teary–eyed in his later years whenever anyone mentioned those trying times.
My uncle arrived in Calcutta in August 1964. It was difficult for him to get into college as the impression was that Burmese “returned” students were a nuisance (this was on account of some students who had disobeyed hostel rules). Moreover he did not know the Bengali language as fluently as he knew Burmese. His struggles in Calcutta were evident when he wrote to his father in Burma stating that “India is a country not for you”. The dark clouds enveloping his life however had a silver lining when his father informed him that he had passed his school examination in Burma with distinction in Chemistry. He also managed to get admission (one year pre-university) to St. Paul’s college in Calcutta. His siblings arrived in India in December 1964, to a difficult life in the Dumdum area in North Calcutta. Creating a space for himself and his siblings in a new land was a harrowing but important learning experience for him. He vividly remembers how he managed to find a doctor from Burma for his toothache in Rafi Ahmed Dental College in Calcutta, a moment when he felt strangely happy and connected to the only place that he had known as home for the past 20 years – Burma. He also recollects how his pre-university results were with-held for a day because of migration certificate issues and administrative hurdles. This is a challenge which even now Burmese refugees regularly face in schools and colleges in their adopted countries.
By January 1966, the entire family had shifted to India. My uncle’s father’s only possession when he had left India for Burma was his medical certificate. That ironically was the only prized possession that he carried with him when he returned to India. Life took a new and hopeful turn when the family set up their new home in Chandannagore (formerly spelled as Chandernagore, a corporation city and a former French colony located about 35 kilometres north of Kolkata in West Bengal) with a new medical clinic in Bhadreswar (a town and a municipality in the Hooghly district in the state of West Bengal). His father would narrate the happy experiences and incidents of Burma to his entire family but would never share the pain of separation and up-rootedness. His mother would do the same – remember the cheerful days when she would go on horseback to deliver medicines to the local people in Kyaukme. Both tried to keep the country alive in their hearts by focusing on the positive rather than dwelling on the negative.
When I asked my uncle what he misses most about Burma, he promptly replied that he would love to go back as his father’s memories were embedded in the country. His years of turmoil during this period of transition made him realise the inner strength of his own family. “We struggled but we came out of it stronger” was a statement which spoke volumes of the hardships that the family endured. He further observed that the political turmoil of the past had continued till the present, troubling the country by creating new challenges. However what he saw as the absence of religious violence in the earlier eras had been replaced by communal disharmony. His admiration for Aung San Suu Kyi for her unwavering determination was clearly visible when he said- “She never gave up”. This was also probably reflective of the attitude that he himself had displayed in his own life.
The formative years of one’s life provide the training ground for harnessing the ability to deal with the uncertain future. It also shapes and influences our perspective and daily decision-making. Although my uncle considers himself a pessimistic person (termed a cynic by his wife), I have always found his cautious nature to be a sign of wisdom and foresight. These qualities were undoubtedly the result of the challenges that he faced at a young age. I also discovered another facet of his personality – that he was talkative! He talked for nearly four hours, sharing his memories. It seemed as if Burma had opened the floodgates of feelings and expression in him. Home is where the heart is. Probably a big piece of his heart still lies in the land of the Irrawaddy. His emotional farewell from Burma is a part of innumerable such experiences that people of this region have witnessed. Many still remain unheard and untold.
Photo by Abhishek Shirali 2013