A gentle breeze blew over a simple home with a thatched roof in a green village on the outskirts of Yangon (once called Rangoon). It was the winter of 2003, and I was in Myanmar, a country then considered a pariah by the western media. Such was the disdain for the country still popularly known as Burma that even travel guidebooks had a section debating whether foreign tourists should visit the country that kept Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi behind bars. I ignored the boycott calls and spent a few weeks in what was one of the most fascinating places I had ever been to.
That particular December afternoon, I was invited for a traditional Burmese lunch in this small village where everyone socialised with their neighbours. I had known about the once-large Indian community in the country and the story of how they were forced out by dictator Ne Win, but I had no clue at that time the country still had a small and visible Indian minority and a Malayali community that still numbered close to 25,000.
As soon as I started eating lunch on that pleasant afternoon, I heard the voice of Malayalam actor Mammootty! Neither was I under the influence of intoxicants nor was my mind playing tricks on me. The house next door had a Malayali family, my hosts said, and loved watching the latest films from Kerala on pirated video CDs.
I was introduced to the middle-aged mother who said her parents migrated to the country in the 1930s. She spoke flawless Malayalam, as did her husband and two children. I didn’t get much of a chance to interact with the family, but when I asked about how the Burmese people were, she said the society like any in the world comprised of all types of people. Just as I was about to leave the home of my Burmese host, the Malayali lady came running with a packet of banana chips and murukku, which she said she made herself. She also gave me a bottle of Star Cola, which was Myanmar’s own version of Thums Up, a cola that was enjoyed by people in a country where Coke and Pepsi were banned.
Back in the heart of Rangoon that evening, I decided to drop by the Bharat Restaurant, which was famous for its marble-topped tables and simple south Indian cuisine. The owner, a charming gentleman, also extended a great deal of hospitality to me when he found out that I was a Malayali from India. At that time, he was planning to visit India to find a groom for his daughter, complaining about the fact that Burma didn’t seem to have any suitable Malayali young men for the young girl who had a very good job at an embassy.
Over the next half an hour, the owner spoke to me in detail about how Rangoon once boasted of such a large diaspora that there were entire community-wise neighbourhoods from different parts of India. Yes, the city actually had an unofficial Malayali street, where all the Keralites lived. In 1962, when Ne Win evicted Indians from the country, he made exceptions for those running pan shops, teashops and hair-cutting saloons!
As I spent more time in the Burmese capital, I met Malayalis from many walks of life. The boxing coach at the YMCA was a third-generation Malayali from the northern part of Kerala. From my interactions with him, I could tell that he was well integrated and happy in Burmese society.
Of course, these were the fortunate people who were allowed to stay back in the early 1960s. For years after I left Myanmar, I met people who spoke about the loss and yearning for the country that was really a golden land for them. “Burma for us is what America is for people in this age - a land of abundance and opportunities,” said a neighbour with origins in Coimbatore, whose mother was forced to leave by the regime.
What I clearly noticed from these Malayalis and Tamilians who came back to India from Burma was that they seemed to move on and live purposeful lives. My neighbour’s mother ended up opening a large school in Pune. One of Kerala’s greatest Burma-born sons is award-winning author U. A. Khader, who was born to a Malayali father and Burmese mother. Those who can read Malayalam should get their hands on 'Ormakalude Pagoda', a touching travelogue that highlights his nostalgic experiences when he visited Rangoon after a gap of 70 long years.
I was one of the fortunate few to have seen Myanmar when it was close to being the way it was in the 1950s and 60s. The authoritarian forces that totally controlled the country until very recently made sure it was isolated from the rest of the world for decades. In 2003, Burma felt like it was in a time warp. I spent four weeks and stayed in basic and clean accommodation for a grand total of $288. There was a degree of serenity and beauty there that was untouched by the scourge of mass tourism. As each day passes and more chartered tourist flights land in the country, the old-world charm vanishes from this land, but thankfully, the warmth and hospitality of the people of Myanmar remains a constant in a changing country.
For us to really understand the magic of pre-1960s Burma, more former residents of the country need to pen their memoirs.