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Land of teak and gold

Burma of memories and stories is often a fabulous place

Written by Ipsita Chakravarty | Published: June 6, 2012 3:17:56 am

Burma of memories and stories is often a fabulous place

Bhupen Das,my great-uncle,had once lived in what was then called Rangoon. Since eyes glazed over and people left the room every time he started his “Borma” stories,not much is known about his time there. He did leave behind a book of Bengali verse,bravely titled Oh Burmese girl. Many Indian families have similar stories — great-uncles posted in Burma some time in the remote past,ancestors who had settled there for generations,land and villages that had once been home.

Perhaps because of the gemstones the region is famous for or the actual gold that many Indian settlers brought back or the rice that always grew in plenty there,in many of these stories,Burma is remembered as “a golden land”. Fortunes were made in Burma. Prized Burma teak furnished affluent households. In “At large in Burma”,Amitav Ghosh speaks of an uncle who had lived so lavishly there he was nicknamed the “Prince”. The romance around Burma was also preserved because most of the Indian families settled there had to leave. After 1962,when military rule descended on the country,it became an unreachable place.

Yet until 1937,Burma was a province of British India. The wave of Indian migrations in the 19th century started after the British took parts of Lower Burma in 1826. Much of the Indian population grew around the increasingly busy port in Rangoon. Tamil coolies manned the port,Chettiar money-lenders were part of the commerce that surrounded it. Trade in rice,wood and silk also brought Indians to Burma. When Upper Burma fell in 1885,the whole region became a province under British India. Thousands of Indians streamed into Burma,filling government posts. By 1931,it was home to more than a million Indians.

The Bengali novelist Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay worked briefly as a government clerk in Burma. Later,he would send many of his protagonists there. The young Srikanta goes to work in Rangoon,and the revolutionaries of Pather Dabi (1926) run a secret society in Burma. It is that place on the margins where rules could be broken,where adventure could be found,where a generation of educated Indians could hammer out their personal and political identities. In Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Dalia”,it is a land where history is sublimated into romance and a Mughal princess marries an Arakan king. Burma also crops up in Chittagong folk songs; it becomes a familiar point of reference in popular culture.

In little over a decade after 1931,the influx into Burma would be reversed. Indians living there would have a much darker experience of the golden land. In 1937,Burma was separated from British India and when the Japanese bombed Rangoon in December 1941,the British prepared to leave. Many Indians decided to follow suit. But planes and boats were mostly reserved for the evacuation of the British. For the thousands of Indians who decided to return to their homeland,the journey had to be made on foot. There are few written accounts of the Long March of 1942,says Ghosh,and hardly any by the survivors themselves. The horrors of the march — days without food,people dropping dead on the way through sheer exhaustion,roads that lay through forests where the very air was poisonous — may never fully be documented. But some stories remain.

Mala Mazumdar,who now lives in Kolkata,says her grandfather and her uncles moved to Rangoon in the 1920s to work in the construction business. When the war broke out,they were among the families who decided to leave. Her grandmother was the last person on the last boat to Dhaka. But her father,grandfather and uncles had no choice but to walk. The journey from Rangoon to Imphal took two months,after which they made their way to Dhaka. Mala’s grandfather went missing en route and her father went back to Imphal to look for him. He was found at a refugee camp in Imphal,left for dead among a pile of bodies. Mala’s father had gone back in 1945 as the family still had property in Burma. It was only in 1965,after the government had taken away everything they owned,that he was forced to move back to India.

But the traumatic experience of Burma seems to be cauterised from memory. As Ghosh recounts,the Prince,later living in relative poverty in Kolkata,would always return to that one idea — the golden land. For the Indians who lived there,Burma seems to be recalled with intense longing — perhaps the same longing that spurred my great-uncle to questionable verse and prompted Mala to visit Burma last year. Family histories and popular associations in India are still threaded with memories and experiences of Burma. With the two countries rebuilding ties,maybe new stories will be added once again.

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