A letter to my daughter

By Nirmalya Roy (L&T-MHPS)


When I read “Discovery of India” by Jawaharlal Nehru for the first time, I was amazed by its concept…. a father, who is a freedom fighter and locked up in prison by the colonial government, is writing words of wisdom and knowledge to her 13-year-old daughter from his lonely prison cell, and through those letters he is virtually teaching his daughter the history of India and its traditions, …. it’s just an amazing concept, nothing like I have ever read before.

I hate to read published letters of eminent persons or writers, my experience had not been good, as they are, more often than not, full of personal details and information which no one is interested about. Many unpublished letters of Tagore used to get published in the Anandmela magazines during the 1980s when I was a teenager and a regular reader of that magazine. Those letters were so boring, I used to hate them. I used to wonder how come those letters survived to publish till the 1980s and came to haunt readers like me who had no interest in Tagore’s personal information. He has already created so much trouble for us students by writing so many poems and novels, which we, like it or not, have to study and prepare questions and answers for passing the exam. He should have had the decency to not intrude our fun time of story reading in magazines and burden us with his dry and boring personal letters.

But the Discovery of India was nothing of that sort. Personal information was bare minimum, just enough to show that those were indeed letters and not excerpts from his lectures or research papers. So it remains one of my favourite books, and inspires me to learn more about our past

Whereas the letters in the Discovery of India was mainly about the history of our country, this effort of mine would be to narrate some of the incidents of our country and relate them to the story of our family, and hence will be somewhat personal, as well as informative.

The earliest stories that I have heard about our family is about grandpa’s job in Burma, modern-day Myanmar, which was administratively part of British India at that time. My paternal grandfather worked there as an overseer, basically a non-technical assistant to a surveyor. A surveyor is a person who measures land and provides a layout for construction. So grandpa must have worked in civil engineering projects of the Railways in Burma in those days like I have worked in the Power Projects here, but Dad did not tell me any specifics of grandpa’s stay there. Only thing I know is that grandpa and his two brothers worked there. Then grandpa had a quarrel with his supervisor. Grandpa was a bad tempered and proud person, so he did not care for his job and left it. He didn’t have enough savings, too. So back in India he had a tough time managing the family expenses. But somehow he got a government job through a family friend, and things were manageable, though it was far from affluent. Grandpa continued to have scuffles in his job, but because of his family burden, his was a big family with 5 sons and 4 daughters, and because of advice and guidance of his friends, he did hold on to his job this time.

I guess grandpa worked at Burma during the late 1920s and early 1930s, though Dad did not tell me the exact dates. He must have left Burma before World War 2 started in 1939 and definitely before the Japanese invasion of Burma in Dec’1941/Jan’1942. I don’t know whether he was in Burma during the Rangoon riots of 1930 against Indian migrants, I guess he was not affected by it after all. His two brothers, it seems, stayed behind in Burma for an even longer period, but they too must have come back before the Japanese invasion of 1942. They brought back quite some fortunes when they returned and ultimately settled comfortably in Calcutta, near Tollygunge Tram Depot, very near to our present home, as you know.

Grandpa never had good relations with his brothers after he returned to India (he must have felt that they did not support him during his bad times), and that continued in the times of his sons also, Dad and uncles did not have any interaction with their cousins. I got to know about them as late as 1989 ( I was appearing for 10+2 exam at that time) when one of my cousin uncle, Biplab kaku (son of grandpa’s younger brother) came to attend the last rites of grandma. I was shocked to know that Dad had so many cousin brothers and sisters, that too first cousins) and they had lived so near to our home for so long a period, and yet I knew nothing about them. Afterwards, Biplab Kaku and kakima visited our Tollygunge home (the rented house near Estacy Nursing Home) several times, and I visited their home beside the Tollygunge Tram Depot once or twice. They collectively had two big three-storey buildings – one built by grandpa’s elder brother and the other by his younger brother. There were many cousin uncles and aunts; I literally lost count of, living in those two houses. I remember one of the uncles was a commercial pilot; I saw his pictures but did not meet him as he was not at home during any of my visits. The eldest uncle, Ramu Kaku, was of Dad’s age, or may be a little younger. He was a professor in the Ceramic Engineering College. Kakima, his wife, was a lovely lady and his son was about 3 / 4 years younger than me. But sadly I could not connect to anyone. May be I shared little bit of intimacy and connection with Biplab Kaku and Kakima, and their little son Neel, but not with anyone else. The scar of 50 years of ignorance and lack of contact was too great an impediment to overcome, though Biplab Kaku and Kakima seem to try a lot to connect. Gradually the connection faded away once again and specifically after Biplab Kaku was transferred out of Calcutta.

See, …. I got diverted. The story was actually about grandpa and his brothers and their job in Burma. Many Indians like them went to Burma during the period from 1885 to 1937. In 1885 the British conquered the whole of Burma after the Third Anglo Burmese War with the help their Indian Army. Immediately thereafter they brought in thousands of Indian workers into Burma for her economic development. Indians from all over India, Bengalis, Oriyas, Assamese, Hindustanis, Panjabis, Tamils, Telugus, Malayalis, Gujaratis, came to Burma in search of jobs and fortune. Due to this huge influx of Indians over the next four decades, by 1930 the total number of Indians in Burma was more than 1 million. In comparison, the population of native Burmese was a mere 9 million only. Half the population of Rangoon, the capital of Burma, and Mandalay, the erstwhile empirical capital of the Burmese kingdom, was Indian. Indians were in important governmental offices and positions, they controlled the trade, they constituted the major workforce. The native Burmese were outnumbered and left out from the economic boom. This sudden change in demography caused great panic and resentment among the native Burmese populace which resulted in bloody riots against Indians in 1930/1931, and a strong demand to detach Burma, which was administered under the British India so long, from the administrative unit of India.

The Government of India Act, 1935 took care of that demand, among other things, and separated Burma from India. Finally in 1937 Burma was formally detached from India, and started to be governed separately by the British. But the dominance of the Indians in trade and administrative jobs continued even thereafter.

Then in 1942, the Japanese military conquered Burma from the hands of the British. The Burmese revolutionaries and resistance forces assisted the Japanese in their conquest. The Indians were now in a precarious situation. So long they had helped the British rule over Burma and exploit her resources, reaping a portion of the spoils of development along with the British, leaving out the native Burmese populace mostly. Now that the British were gone, the Indians were afraid that the natives will pounce on them to extract their pound of flesh while the conquering Japanese forces, on the other hand, will also look upon them as friends of old British rulers and hence would prosecute them ruthlessly at the very first opportunity.

This great fear generated a mass exodus of the Indians from Rangoon and other areas of Burma as soon as the Japanese forces set foot there. It was a great ordeal, to travel from south Burma on foot, for there were not many ferries to travel on sea (and the few which were there were preoccupied by the fleeing Europeans), all the way north, crossing the forests and mountains of North Burma and reaching the Indian border at Kohima, a border city of the North East Frontier Province of British India, present day Manipur. It was a 1000 km trek by ordinary family people, including children, pregnant women and old persons, which even trained soldiers would fear to undertake. More than 50% of the half a million trekkers perished on the road and those who could ultimately make it to India were in very bad shape. It was an epitome of human endurance. There were no refugee camps built by the British Indian government on the Indian side of the border. The evacuees were helped by non-government social workers only. Most of the refugees never went back to Burma. But some of them did go back after the end of the war. But they, as well as the other Indians who dared to stay back during 1942, were not treated well after Burma became independent in 1948. They were treated as resident aliens and were discriminated against in many ways. As a result, the population of Indians in Burma came down gradually thereafter

Finally, in 1962 the government of Burma was taken over by a dictator through a military coup. During that period the military dictator ordered the expulsion of most of the Indians from Burma. Present day Myanmar has very few persons of Indian origin.

The long march by ordinary Indians from Southern Burma to Kohima in 1942 was mostly forgotten by the rest of India. We remember the march of Netaji’s INA soldiers through Burma to North East India but not of the ordinary Indian evacuees. I came to know about it from a marvellous book by Amitava Ghosh, The Glass Palace. It’s a book worth reading. It sensitises us about how Indians achieve significant economic development in a foreign land and then loses everything without a fight. Same things have happened earlier in present-day Malaya, Bali, Sumatra that is present-day Malayasia and Indonesia. But those are separate stories

So we come to the end of our Burma story. But before we end, …… did you know that the Teak woods found in the virgin forests of Burma are of great demand in India, and when a furniture seller tells you that the wood is Burma Teak, you know where it is from.

And another one, …. the last Mughal Emperor of India, Bahadur Shah Jafar II, was exiled by the British, after the end of Sepoy Mutiny in 1857, to Burma and spent his last days at Rangoon. Similarly, the last king of Burma was exiled to India after the Third Anglo Burmese War in 1885, and spent his last days in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra.

So far so long.


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It is awe inspiring story. Kept me engrossed till the very end. Marvelous work.