My grandfather was a second generation Marwari businessman in Burma. His family moved to Burma looking for greener pastures, when the trade route going thru Rajasthan dried up and they were left with no means of earning. This is the ordeal lot of families in Sekhawati Region of Rajasthan faced. Sekhawati Region consisted of towns like Bikaner, Sikar, Sardarsahar, Jhunjhunu, Fatehpur, Pilani, Ramgarh and so on. It was because of the trade route drying up, we see Marwari businessmen in every nook and corner of India. Migrating to other parts of India was not by choice, but because of compulsion. It was, for sure, a plight.
My grandfather was in timber business. He used to buy tree lumbers of Burmese Teak and get them sawn on contract in saw mills in a town called Moulmien in Burma. He used to ship these to Calcutta. His father and younger brother were based in Kathgola in Calcutta. Kathgola, as the name sounds, was a timber market (Kath in Hindi means wood and Gola – Center). Burma Teak is hardwood and is called king of woods. It was supposed to be the best wood for furniture.
My grandfather bought a composite saw mill in Moulmein from an English Company in the year 1926. The owner of the company Anglo Burma Teak Company had decided to go back to England. The property was huge in the sense that a road ended there. On the back side was River Thanlwin. It made it convenient to bring in timber from the forests, towed by a steamer. Lumbers were stacked and tied which became a floating platform; it was then hooked to a steamer. The compound had owner’s large colonial house, houses for staff, saw mill, timber stacking yard, a shed and fodder storage area for elephant, two jetties, steamer deck and a small garden.
When my grandfather informed his father about the purchase, he was very angry and was worried from where the money would come for such a huge property. It was then that my mother was born. This announcement condoned the first one and the family indulged in rejoicing, for she was the first child in my grandfather’s generation.
Life in that small colonial town was very good and peaceful. People had time to relax in the evening. Men used to play cards in clubs or with friends in one of the homes. Women, as usual, were involved in the house affairs. My mother grew in this free environment, having a host of Burmese friends. She grew up more like a Burmese girl and spoke Burmese fluently.
There was a small but not insignificant population of Marwaris, Gujaratis, Punjabis and Keralites along with Thakurs and Brahmins from Eastern Uttar Pradesh.
Moulmien is now called Mawlamyine. It is the main gateway to South Eastern Myanmar and is on the mouth of River Thanlwin.
Moulmien was called ‘Little England’ in colonial times. Both Moulmien and Rangoon were capitals of the once British Colony of Burma and that has left the city with a treasure trove of colonial era architecture.
The British chose Moulmien as their capital after the first Anglo-Burmese War, because of the safe harbour it offered at the mouth of the Salween (Thanlwin) River where it enters the Gulf of Martaban.
Between 1826 and 1852 the British built Government Offices, Churches and a massive prison in Moulmein.
As a child, I remember Moulmein as a small beautiful town, surrounded by hills and rivers. The city had a mix of Burmese and Colonial architecture.
Being a Buddhist country, the city was dotted with huge numbers of large beautiful Pagodas.
In the mornings, you could see many Buddhist monks of all ages going house to house for alms, as per the tradition. Every Burmese house had a small temple or alters of Buddha. Every boy had to be ordained for certain period as a Buddhist monk and had to live away from family.
People were peaceful, pious and fun loving. As men are the world over, they loved drinking in the evening. Their dress was simple – a shirt and a lungi to wrap around. Formal dress top was different which went along with a cap.
It was a female dominated society where the men moved to bride’s house after marriage. Women were invariably beautiful and knew how to carry themselves. In the evening they would cover their face with a cream made out of herbs, to tone up their skin.
The Japanese invaded Burma in 1942 and occupied it up till 1945 during World War II. Fearing safety most of the Indians residing in Burma moved back to India. My grandfather also moved to India along with his family. His property was taken over by the Japanese and was made Regional Military Headquarter. After occupation, when my grandfather moved back to Moulmein, his found his house in a very bad condition, steamer sunk and one of his pet dog blinded by a bayonet. Japanese were very cruel and more than 200,000 people died during occupation.
This period of 1942 to 1945 was very critical for our family, as during this period my parents got married. My father was studying in Calcutta in St. Xavier’s and was also involved in the family business, as well as in independence movement.
Nani Bari word itself carries lot of excitement. All the children during summer holidays look forward to go to their maternal grandparents’ house. Why not? Change it provides loaded with tons of pampering.
My two brothers, my sister and I were a privileged lot. My mother used to go to her parents in Burma once in two years. We kids, obviously went with her. From Allahabad it was train ride to Calcutta, from there by Union of Burma Airways to Rangoon. From Rangoon, a short flight to Moulmein. Also getting visa every time was a big hurdle. My grandfather had to pull lot of strings in Rangoon to obtain visas for us.
My grandfather was always there to receive us at Rangoon Airport. What an imposing personality he was! Tall, lanky, receding grey hair lines, he used to stand erect. I always looked up to him. I had the confidence, that he is the one man who can do and manage any and everything in this world. I always dreamt to be like him. From Rangoon, we were taken to Moulmein by another short flight of UBA. Train and road journey from Rangoon to Moulmein were considered dangerous.
First thing which was organised for us were white boxer shorts and Burmese lungis. We have to be like Romans in Rome. Why boxer’s short? This is the question which comes up in mind. We were supposed to wrap the lungi around our waste. As an insurance plan, we were to wear shorts, just in case somebody pulls away our lungi or it decided to open on its own.
My grandfather’s working area was ground floor. First floor was the residence. It was a huge teak wood and concrete house with back veranda facing the river. All flooring end to end was of Burma Teak. Furniture was very simple and functional.
The household had four Malayali maids, with origin from Kerala. I remember they were Christian and my grandmother had no problem with that, though she was a very religious lady.
Staff in the mill consisted of Burmese, Muslims, Hindus, Christians from Kerala and Thakurs from Eastern UP. The mill had one elephant to pick up lumbers from the river and stack them in the compound of the mill. The mill had two jetties, one each for low and high tide and a large steamer. Steamer was used to bring in lumbers from the forests.
Work would close at sharp 5PM with the whaling of a siren. I still remember a Chinese guy, who would come exactly at 5PM. Dressed in white, donning a white cap, he would carry salted peanuts in a white wrap around bag. Below the container holding peanuts, there was a small mud stove, with burning coal, to keep the nuts warm and crispy. Even today I have not been able to wipe out the memory of that Chinese peanut vendor nor the taste of warm salted peanuts.
My grandfather’s working dress was a white dhoti and a white shirt. After business hours, after bathing he would change into a lungi and a white vest. Sheets were spread on the floor and he along with his senior staff, neighbours would sit in a circle to play cards. A servant’s duty was to light up a chilum and ensure that it remains lit. Turn by turn the card players, rather gamblers, smoked it. Surrounding my grandfather would be four of his pet dogs.
My grandfather was a thorough professional. He would mount the elephant, whenever the lumbers were to be picked up from the river. It was quite a tedious and dangerous job of keeping the elephant on the nerves. Mahaout could not manage the elephant at this stage. My grandfather had the knack of managing the elephant. I always thought he spoke elephant’s language. In the evenings, he would swim and float in the river. We kids would sit on the jetty and watch him swimming and floating. Along with us sat a bunch of Burmese kids dipping fishing rod in the river.
My mother would become a different person while in Moulmein. She would also wrap around a lungi and chat with Burmese neighbours in their language. She would go around meeting and spending time with her childhood friends, most of whom were Burmese. The life for her here was quite in contrast to her life in Allahabad. Actually, we also did not need her in Moulmein.
My times at Moulmein remain very nostalgic for me, memory of which will remain with me throughout my lifetime.