IN HIS EPIC NOVEL, The Glass Palace, which chronicles the history of colonialism and its aftermath that made Burma, Malaysia and India the countries they are today, Amitav Ghosh dates the political connection between India and the country that now calls itself Myanmar to 1858, when the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was exiled to Rangoon. My own Indian family’s link with Burma began about four decades later, at the end of the 19th century. In flight from drought and famine in Gujarat, my ancestors migrated to the first sliver of Burma annexed by the British: Akyab, on the Arakan coast. The British needed Indian capital and labour to exploit the riches of Akyab—rice, teak and precious stones—and they encouraged enterprising Indians to pursue business opportunities in Burma that were still much more severely controlled in India proper. My Gujarati merchant family thrived.
Eighty years ago, on 4 December 1930, my father was born in Rangoon. He attended the Anglo Vernacular Gujarati School, and remembers as a highlight of his childhood garlanding Jawaharlal Nehru, who visited Rangoon in 1937 with his young daughter Indira. It was the same year that Britain separated Burma from India and made it a crown colony, but this made little difference to my family’s life there. It was not until the Japanese bombed Rangoon on 23 December 1941 that they had to flee, joining hundreds of thousands of panicked war refugees scrambling to return to India by boat or on foot. They were among the 500,000 Indian men, women and children who tried to leave Burma during the war; between 50,000 and 100,000 people died attempting to do so. The onset of World War II had dealt my family’s fortunes in Burma a severe blow, but it was the coup carried out in 1962 by General Ne Win—whose successors still rule the country—and his order to expel all Indians and nationalise their assets that finished them off.
My family’s business office was located on Mogul Street, which runs parallel to China Street in the heart of old Rangoon. Indian and Chinese merchants lived cheek by jowl in harmony in Rangoon for generations, largely indifferent to the policies of their governments. When I visited Burma in 1998, Japan had become the most visible foreign presence; Japanese brands were everywhere, and the high-ranking members of the military junta had made the Toyota Land Cruiser their vehicle of choice. The citizens and consumer products of the United States, India and China were conspicuously absent.