‘I can’t think of my children anymore’
Esther Par Lai wakes up at 4 am, when the neighbourhood is asleep. She walks around her flat, closing windows and pulling curtains. Then, the former “headman” of a village in Myanmar shuts herself in the kitchen and draws the latch behind her. She feels safe — it should be alright to make the traditional dry fish curry for her grandchildren now. “The landlords complain about the smell of the fish curry we cook. They force us to shift. I cook for my grandchildren. This is their food,” she says. They have moved home 13 times in eight years.
The fish is a delicacy to the Chin, hill people from the Chin state of western Myanmar. Persecuted for following Christianity, the Chin have been fleeing the country since 1988. In India, they form one of the vulnerable refugee groups. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are approximately 5,000 Chin refugees in this country.
Only Esther’s closest associates and support group workers know that she represented one of the smallest pockets of resistance who stood up to the military government that took over Myanmar in 1988. “During the time of the Myanmar Constitutional Referendum in 2008, I was a woman leader. We decided, at a meeting in my house, that we would not give votes to the army to endorse the proposed constitution. It was not good for our country or our grandchildren,” she says. The army found out about the meeting.
On a day Esther was attending a birthday party, a woman rushed in to tell her that her son and a daughter had been taken away by soldiers. “From the spot, we left our village. I had my Holy Bible with me because we pray during celebrations. Luckily, I had kept my Myanmar identity card and some money in it. I could only bring those with me,” she says.
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They travelled by foot and, by evening, crossed over to Mizoram. A week later, they were on a train to Delhi. Accompanying her were eight grandchildren, the eldest 10 years old. The grandchildren are Esther’s obsessive project. “As my children were taken by the army, I can’t think of them anymore. I have my grandchildren to think about so that they can educate themselves and earn by themselves,” she says. The house they live in, in west Delhi, is without memories or photographs. The missing family — parents of some of the children — are not spoken about. “What we do is work hard to make the future better,” she says.
The 75-year-old has returned to a farmer’s discipline. She wakes up at 4 am and cooks snacks — Myanmarese samosa, pakoda and fries — to sell to a shop. She speaks only the native Hakha, but it hasn’t stopped her from going out and looking for business. Esther earns around Rs 10,000, which pays the rent and school fees. Three of her grandchildren have finished Class X.
Her two-bedroom home looks out at a sweeping vista of rooftops, brick walls and construction scaffolds. In her village, there had been only hills covering the view and no colour except green because “we used to farm on the slopes”. “If my grandchildren can be educated, they can look after the country. I am old and will die soon. I have to think of the future, for ourselves and for the country,” she says.
‘We are always in between’
Johnny is as tall as the doorframe and, at 18, hopes to grow a couple of inches more. It would help on the basketball court where the wiry young man is easily the star. “I knot my hair on top when I play. It looks good. It’s a man thing, na,” he says, pulling his fringe over his face in a way that it covers his eye.
His eyes have caused him problems. “In school, boys call me Nepali, chinki, even, kanchi. There are so many abuses. If they call us kanchi, I don’t know how to explain it because they don’t speak English and I don’t speak Hindi. So, we fight,” he says.
School for children is one of the main focuses of the refugee communities as education is seen as a means to a better life. Johnny’s family and a support group enrolled him in a school close to his house in west Delhi where, the boy, then 10, and his brother sat and tried to follow the teachers speaking in Hindi, but, failed to make any headway. Every weekly test brought in the same dismal result. “If we fail also, they say nothing because we are different from the other students,” he says. He dropped out in Class X, and, a few months ago, got a job in a garage cleaning cars. He earns Rs 5,000 a month.
Johnny walks in the seams between two nations. “When I think back also, I cannot remember anything except a football ground on the flat top of a hill,” he says about his home in Myanmar. His experience of India has also been limited due to language barriers. “I once dreamed of becoming an engineer. I am a school drop-out. Now, I don’t dream,” he says. At home, nobody talks about his parents. “Life is hard. If you can struggle, you will be able to struggle all your life,” he says. His grandmother is trying to teach him the national song of Myanmar, but he doesn’t want to learn it. “It is in old Myanmarese language, and I don’t speak it,” he says. His Hakha is as broken as his Hindi but his Mizo and English are good. “Most of the Burmese staying in west Delhi speak Mizo,” he says.
Will he study further? He shrugs. Does he want a better job? “Maybe,” he says. “I don’t want to move back to Myanmar because we have no houses or farms left. It will be difficult to start a new life. I cannot feel at home here because we are refugees. We are always in between,” he says. Does he like the Myanmarese dry fish curry his grandmother cooks? Johnny screws up his nose. “Chicken biryani is better,” he says.