The Indian Diaspora in Myanmar

Although Hindi film songs seem to be popular in Myanmar, Hindi is not a language anyone seems to be familiar with. So when you hear Hindi, Bengali, or Gujarati on the road you know for sure that the speaker has some connection with India. As I rushed through a market in Mandalay, I passed the eatery you can see in the featured photo. I’d just lost track of The Family, and peeped in to see whether she was sitting in this unlikely place. The man at the far counter greeted me in Hindi, letting me know that he was of Indian origin.

A Bihari migrant in Pyin Oo Lwin in MyanmarI’d run into another Hindi speaker in Myanmar before this. A happy young man driving a horse carriage in Pyin Oo Lwin called out to me in Hindi. As I turned, I saw he was wearing a big grin. We introduced ourselves; his name was Mahesh. He said that his grandfather had come to Myanmar as a groom in the British army and never went back to his village. Mahesh knew that a town near his ancestral village was called Arrah. This is in the western part of Bihar. His father succumbed to the charms of a Burmese girl, and now Mahesh is married to one as well. His family speaks Hindi at home, and, of course, they watch movies. He’s never been to India.

I’d also had a similar run in with Abdul, who owns a grocery store in Pyin Oo Lwin. He called out to me in Hindi. He is also a third generation resident of Myanmar.A shopkeeper from Uttar Pradesh in Pyin Oo Lwin in Myanmar He was not very clear about why his grandfather had left India. During the years of British Raj people were uprooted from their villages in India and sent across the world for many different reasons. Abdul’s grandfather may have been one of these victims of imperialism. Abdul knew that his ancestral home was near a town called Faizabad. This is in present day Uttar Pradesh in India. His grandfather and father married other Indian immigrants, as did he. They spoke Hindi at home, and he’s never been to India.

Bengali mosque next to the Sule Pagoda in Yangon in MyanmarI guess there is a concentration of immigrants in the region around Mandalay. I met another pocket of immigrants in Yangon. The mosque which you see in this photo stands right next to the Sule pagoda in the centre of Yangon. Large friendly letters across the front say that it is a Bengali mosque. I suppose that many of the people who come here have ancestral homes in present day Bangladesh. I did not meet any of them, but it is conceivable that there is a small number of Indian Bengali muslims in the same jamaat.

I ran into many Indians at the mosque of Bahadur Shah Zafar. We wanted to see the grave of the last Mughal emperor which is inside this structure. Prayers at the Bahadur Shah mosque in Yangon in Myanmar We arrived when prayers were on, and had to wait for a while. As I waited I noticed a boy wearing a white and gold cap which looked like it could belong to a Bohra of Gujarat. Next to him was a gentleman in a dark shirt who looked Indian. I looked more carefully at the jamaat (congregation) and thought that several of the faces could be from parts of India: some Bengali, some Gujarati and maybe a few from other parts of North India. This kind of guessing is terribly error-prone in Myanmar with its incredible human variety. After the prayers finished I chatted with several of the people. Most were businessmen, and several were of Gujarati origin. They are better off; some have travelled to India, but think of themselves as Myanmarese. While I talked to the Gujaratis I could hear a little Bengali in the background, but they were gone by the time I finished.

Apparently there are many Tamil and Telugu immigrants to Myanmar as well, but I did not run into any. I found later that many Indians were expelled from Myanmar by the military government. They were barred from holding administrative posts or joining the military, and are not considered to be citizens of Myanmar. I understand that the current civilian government has not changed these policies as yet.

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Walking through Yangon

Walking through an unknown city is always a great way to spend time. How else could I know that in Yangon even street-side eateries give you a pot full of tea with your lunch? How else would I begin to suspect that townies hid their faces when a foreign journalist took their photos; a reflex that persists even after democracy is back?

Jumble of building styles in YangonOutside the Colonial centre of Yangon every street is a jumble of architectural styles. Sagging buildings from the first half of last century share a frontage with modern buildings: some are high-rises, others are pre-fab commercial units faced in glass and metal painted concrete. Some of the architecture dates from a few decades ago. We saw these two high-rises next to each other. Decaying high rise in YangonOne was modern, the other was probably thirty to forty years old, and already ripe for demolition. This gave me one answer to my question about why Yangon was such a small city. Most cities in Asia are huge sprawls. In comparison, Yangon is like a town from the 1960s with the traffic of problems of the 1980s. The answer that this building gives to the question is that construction was costly and shoddy during the lifetime of two generations. Yangon never grew, and now it will probably do this at thrice the rate that the rest of Asia manages. How would it cope? To see that I took a walk through the Colonial centre of the city.

The town hall of Yangon

By all accounts the centre of the city is Sule square. Strange that the invading British would plan the centre of Yangon around one of the most revered temples in Myanmar, but that is one of the contradictions of Imperial Britain in India and Burma. Right next to the pagoda is the imposing town hall (photo above). The restoration of this building and the ones next to it are done with loving care. Book store in central YangonThis lovely bookstore reminded me of Kolkata. Outside of Kolkata, Mumbai and Yangon I would be hard put to name a town where there is an almost untouched colonial era district. I say almost, because the building just behind this is modern. It is interesting that the central district still has a large bookstore: banks have not yet taken over. Post office in central Yangon Two blocks down, there was a massive colonial-era building which served as a post-office. It had not yet been restored, but seemed to be in good repair. The colour scheme was no different that what you might see on a similar building in Kolkata.

Used book store on the streets of central YangonThe streets were full of informal commerce, vendors selling food, toys, socks, sun glasses. The sight of a row of pavement stalls selling used books reminded me of Mumbai in the 1980s, when I, and probably a million other people, would buy books mainly from such vendors. That past is now as foreign as Yangon.

Merit vendor in YangonIn direct contrast to such familiar sights was a vendor who brushed past me on the road, carrying cages full of birds on his shoulder. I followed him for a few paces. They were not birds which you might want to eat. Nor did it seem likely that several Burmese every day would impulsively buy a couple of birds as pets. It turned out later that this was a wonderfully cultural con. A devout Buddhist would gain merit by buying a few birds and releasing them. The birds are quite tame, so after release it would be easy for this man to catch them again for merit recycling. I guess the net result is that the vendor gains money and loses merit: something he is willing to risk.

A grand but dilapidated building in central YangonRestoration work had not yet covered all of Yangon. As we approached Strand Road, and the river front, we passed this magnificent but dilapidated building. Some enquiries led to a tiny crumb of information: that it belonged to a famous Jewish merchant from India before independence. It was sold to a local businessman, and was later bought over by a general. The Baghdadi Jews of Mumbai were great merchants in the late nineteenth century, and left their architectural stamp on downtown Mumbai as well as the Bund in Shanghai. None of the names I mentioned made any sense to the people I talked to. I’m sure the urban history of Yangon is documented well enough that one can trace the history of this building.

District court on Strand Road in YangonRight on Strand Road was this vast and crumbling building. The locked doors and the man sitting on the steps smoking reminded me of Kolkata in its worst decades. This was apparently the District Court, locked up for the weekend. I asked why a district court is crumbling away when a post office can be in good repair. There was no real answer to that. Myanmar lost decades, and it is beginning to catch up. If this district is restored and put to use, it may become a major cultural heritage: the only place on earth where the architectural style of the Raj remains untouched.

Little canteen in downtown YangonYou can probably tell by the shadows in my photos that it was now well into the lunch hour. The street food scene was buzzing. I discovered a little canteen which seemed to be full. It looked clean, and the inside was full of purposeful bustle: waiters and waitresses went back and forth, and there was a low rumble of conversation between diners. I didn’t go in, but one of the waiters noticed me and posed for the photo you see here. The place looked like a typical inexpensive eatery from my days as a student in Mumbai. Bakery in downtown YangonJust a little before I’d come to this, I saw a van come to a stop outside a building and two young women get down to unload trays and carry them in. I got a look at one of the trays as it was carried in. It was full of bread. I followed them in, and it turned out to be a cafe. It was busy with customers and uniformed waitresses. I was tempted to sit down there for a quick lunch. But the previous day I’d had lunch at a similar place, and I was planning to try out a Burmese-Chinese place in an hour. I clicked a few photos and said a reluctant goodbye to the cafe.

This had been a successful walk. I saw a slice of Yangon which emphasized the common recent history of the countries along the Bay of Bengal, and found out a little about everyday life in the city.

Life under the Sule Pagoda

The Sule pagoda is a stupa right in the center of Yangon, apparently by design, since the British city was built long after the stupa was established. The Family elected to go inside, whereas I took a walk around it. Visitors to the stupa climb a set of stairs before they can see anything. At the road level, below where the devout throng, lies an interesting commercial world.

Guitar shop under the Sule pagoda The first interesting shop I spotted contained guitars. The stupa was a futile hiding place for revolutionaries in the uprisings of 1988 and 2007. I heard from survivors of both generations about their experiences under the military dictatorship. None of them talked about the shops below the pagoda. I guess guitars did not play as much of a role as in the mild rebellion which threw up this year’s Nobel laureate in literature. Myanmar’s rebels had an altogether harder time. If you happen to be in Myanmar, you might find it useful to seek out survivors of the revolutions and the bloody pogroms which followed: we who live in democracies could learn a lot by listening to such people.

One young man told me a joke which got three brothers arrested and tortured. A man goes from Myanmar to India to see a dentist. The Indian dentist treats him, and then says that it was a simple procedure, and perhaps the patient could have tried to consult a dentist in Myanmar. The patient says he couldn’t because he is not allowed to open his mouth. The framing of the story was ironical, but it drove home the point.

Camera museum under the Sule pagodaA third of the circle down I came across a photographer who owned a cabinet full of old cameras that he had labelled a camera museum. I had a little chat with him: I’m always happy to talk to photographers. He spoke good English, and told me that digital cameras were extremely expensive in Burma till about five years ago. But now smart phones and digital cameras are coming into the country fairly freely. We did see evidence of this in the form of people glued to their phones at odd places. The museum was interesting to look at: all photographers have this in common.

Then there was a line of three or four astrology shops. They were empty of clients in the middle of a morning. I asked one man whether I could take a photo, and he readily gave me permission. Others were more keen to tell me of my future. I declined; I like my future muddy. At one of the entrances to the pagoda I came across two ladies with baskets of birds. Apparently you can buy a bird and release it to gain merit. Wonderful commercialization of religion: one person racks up demerits in the next world and money in this, whereas more gullible people do the opposite!

Eventually both The Family and I were happy going round the stupa. I got a glare when I suggested that I was more down to earth. No, the right way to say this is that she was closer to heaven.