The exodus of Indians from Burma was a grave human tragedy whose story deserves to be told.
The massive human cost of people moving from Burma to India in the backdrop of the Japanese invasion has never been documented properly. Some 10,000 to 50,000 people perished on the hurried march to India. They were largely ignored by Public sector historians in India. The conditions of Indians in Burma was portrayed in films like Shabnam (Hindi;1949), Parasakthi (Tamil; 1952) and Dhumuha (Assamese;1957) yet the harrowing trek on foot to India has never been acknowledged.
Debendranath Acharya’s Assamese novel Jangam provides a view of the dystopia that remains of the Exodus from Burma, particularly of the most difficult route taken through the passes of Hukawng valley into Ledo or Lekhapani in Assam. The work was published as a serial in a magazine called Prakash [Prokax]. It went on to win the Sahitya Akademi award in 1984 three years after the author’s death at the ripe age of 44.
Amit R Baishya recently translated this masterpiece into English for speaking to a mass audience, especially in today’s India that wants to know the hardships of their Hindu ancestors in colonial India.
The wealthy Indians flew back through air and sea along with the British administrators. Common Indians, many of whom were forcefully indentured and sent there returned on foot. Other than this dangerous route the author talks about, some took the route from Arakan to Chittagong and others through the Chindwin Valley into Manipur.
Hukawng Valley, the norokdwar in the novel, was described by the British official as ‘track of red, sticky clay (which) ran through miles of dark green tunnel.’ The onward monsoon made the surface so muddy that people would sometimes sink up to their thighs and even strong men could not make more than seven miles a day.
Leech bites, dysentery and malaria increased the suffering of the refugees until tired people just lay down and died.
‘Corpses lay everywhere, and there were no jackals and vultures to pick them clean….All other forms of animal life seem to have abjured this pathway, save for scores of beautiful butterflies that cover the bodies in a sea of colour’
The protagonists of the novel encounter numerous ‘grinning’ corpses infested by bugs, at different stages of decay, from the just dead to skeletons. They encounter the remains of a mother and her infant suckling on her breast, frozen in time.
Then were these innocent beautiful butterflies, who established their kingdom [‘Xamrajyo’] over the dead nourishing themselves on the corpses of the fallen when all other scavengers seemed to have forsaken [‘porityag’] this pathway. They were neither afraid of the living nor disturbed them anyway.
Contemporary accounts and survivor testimonies match the amazing dichotomy of beauty and death. Bayly and Harper recount that ‘butterflies in Assam that year were the most beautiful on record’, blooming as a paradox and enhancing the feeling of ‘macabre as they flitted among corpses’.
A Goanese survivor recalls the experiences of his naïve brother who spotted a huge conglomeration of butterflies at a spot and expected to see a bed of flowers. Needless to say, what he saw horrified him.
The novel is masterfully woven around the imaginary family of Ramagobinda. His father belonged to an impoverished village in colonial central India. The annexation of Burma to British India provided an opportunity for getting rich by labouring in the Irrawaddy basin. ‘The lands harvested goals and pearls grew in the trees there’ was how Burma was imagined. Yet, colonisation is hardly a stand-alone affair. It involves co-opting the parochial elites and creating a set of intermediary collaborators who stand to gain from the whole affair. In Burma’s case, these were Chettiar money-lenders from the Madras Presidency who lay siege to three million hectares of paddy fields in the Irrawaddy basin. The vicious cycle of loan, mortgage and rent reduced local farmers into penury. For labourers like Ramagobinda and his father, the situation was no different. He had to work on mortgaged lands and see the bulk of his grains shipped to the money-lenders. He stayed poor like Ramagobindo. The Japanese invasion provided an opportunity for the side-lined locals to re-assert themselves. Naturally, it took an ethnic turn and all Indians became subjects of brutal hostility.
His father having died there, he does not have any idea of his homeland. Circumstances force him to shift from his hamlet Manku along with his old mother, his pregnant wife Lacchmi and their firstborn Thanu. Thanu brings along his kitten Mini.
The family is torn apart. His old mother who was insistent on taking the photo of their Ishtadevta along could not take the strain. She succumbs on the way.
Lacchmi gives birth but gets separated from her child when British military officials take her for emergency medical treatment. Ramagobinda discovers an attachment to his newborn for the very first time, a face that he hasn’t even properly registered. Thanu gets seriously ill. The sense of despair drives Ramagobindo to insanity. He forgets if Thanu is lost or Lacchmi or both. He sees Thanu in the cat Mini and kisses and caresses it on his chest with paternal affection. Meanwhile, the group organically becomes a large family as they share and function together. They are able to heal Thanu and reunite him with his father.
Lacchmi is located in a makeshift hospital tent in Assam along with her baby. However, her mental state is no different than her husband’s. The couple is unable to recognise each other and the author leaves their final fate in ambiguity. Their role is replaced by surrogates who take on the job of looking after the children. An Anglo-Burmese girl, Ma-Pu takes on a maternal role. She is assisted by Father Berry, a pastor whom she begins to regard as a father. Another young farmer named Chinti who accompanies the mad Radhagobindo develops a love for Ma-Pu and takes on a paternal role.
The novel thus ends on a positive note with the formation of a family immersed in humanity that traverses ethnic and religious identities.
The novel is crucial in depicting the peculiar nature of Indian nationalism very beautifully. Indian cultural ethos never emphasised an over-arching national loyalty but an unflinching devotion in following Dharma. The Indian Nation State is no different from the surrogate family that develops at the end of the novel whose fate has been amalgamated to each other in the process of their inter-twining life trajectories. The Hindu civilisation that is embodied by Ramagobindo’s family gets substantially altered by the cruelties of fate. Their journey through difficult terrain is reminiscent of India’s journey through time.
Debendranath Acharya also masterfully skills the weaving of Assamese Hindu identity with Indian nationalism. Assam in this novel is a homeland for the tired Indian souls, their final refuge, a safe haven where they can celebrate their being alive. Assam had been invaded by the Burmese numerous times. The Assamese imagination blends into the sublime negative portrayal of the Burmese as ‘others’ who take to ethnic cleansing of Indians. This is very telling because he penned his novel at the height of Assamese sub-nationalism when the period of Assamese independent kingdom and Lachit Borphukons victory over Mughal India fed the secessionist movement.
The novel is a must read not only for History enthusiasts but also for common lovers of fiction, who will find a crazy mix of thrill, adventure and human tragedy skilfully weaved into the narrative.
Link to the book: Jangam: A Forgotten Exodus in Which Thousands Died