Our old teacher
Myanmar is under the spotlight as Ann Suu Kyi is finally set to have a say on her country’s affairs. She made big sacrifices to ensure democratic rights for common people and in the process becoming an inspiration for countless young people around the world. Myanmar has been under international scanner in the past decades but this time it brought back one childhood memory.
The only time we had a private tutor coming to our home was when I was in grade 3 and my elder sibling was in the 4th. He was an old man in his sixties with balding head, thick eyebrows and a hardened face that bore marks of tough journey his life has endured. Our association lasted less than a year but I still have some memory from those early days. His primarily role when I think back was to help with our homework and engage us in some routine activities. As a consequence we were disciplined about our afternoon study sessions, something that continued all through our student life.
For us he was irritatingly punctual, never missing to turn up at the correct time every afternoon. My sister once demonstrated how easily ink from her pen got soaked into his khadi kurta. I thought it was a sweet revenge but her argument was that she was verifying if he washes his clothes.
At times he shared some of his life experiences and the one that I remember vividly was his escape from Rangoon on foot. In 1941 when Japan was planning to attack British administration in Burma, he told us the law and order situation in Rangoon worsened rapidly. Indians with the scars of Burmese riots of the past decade still fresh, panicked and prepared to leave. The Japanese air raids on Rangoon in December that year created chaos. The perception of people was that the British would withdraw leaving behind the Burmese mob to plunder the Indians. A mass exodus started.
The British administration restricted the exit through waterway to British and Anglo Indians only. With the railroads bombed, they were left with no other choice but walk on foot. Even the shorter road known as the “White path” were reserved for army and other government personnel. They were forced to take the long and perilous path called the “black route”. It was a long trek through the mountains and forests in the north. They were clearly not prepared for such a journey. The transit camps along the route were running above capacity. Rainwater trapped in the layers of banana plants once saved his life inside a dense forest and many a times they improvised in order to filter stagnant water.
People moved in closed groups of trustworthy companions and mostly within their tribes. The worst sufferers were women, children and many perished on the way. There were no one to remove the corpses as people left behind their deceased. Some even walked off to save their life without completing the cremation of their own children. Their state of the mind was such that no one even bothered to remove the gold ornaments from their dead before marching away.
It was too difficult for young minds to reason such miseries inflicted by human on fellow beings. There were lessons to be learned from the story our father had explained, “You need to believe in yourself and have determination to successfully make a journey of such magnitude. When one is struck between a rock and a hard place with no alternatives, one gets enormous strength to fight for survival”, he told us.
Unfortunately, people around the world continue to push others to make such perilous journeys and they continue to perish in large numbers.