Everything Starts Somewhere

BurmeseDays

Everything Starts Somewhere

Everything starts somewhere.

I grew up in the oral storytelling tradition and my paternal grandfather told me many stories about his Kuchi Kathiawar village in Gujarat, India when I was growing up in East Africa.

My paternal grandfather also told me stories of his travels as a young man to Rangoon, Burma.

Note: In the next chronicle in this series, Toasting my Grandmother, about my maternal grandmother, I mention my maternal grandfather, who was also a wonderful storyteller. My maternal grandfather also emigrated to East Africa. However, he emigrated not from village India but from Gwader, on the Arabian Sea, bordering Oman, Persia, Afghanistan and India.

burmans

19th Century sketch: “The Manners and Customs of the Burmans”

Everything has to start somewhere.

An idea for a first novel.

An idea to emigrate to another country and to begin a new life.

I was born in Kenya because my grandfather emigrated from village India to British East Africa. However, Africa was not his first choice. It was Plan B. His Plan A, his first choice, was Burma.

Which means I could have quite easily been born in Burma had he decided to remain there.

My grandfather was born at the turn of the last century and when he was 17, in 1925, he decided to seek his fortune in the lumber business in Rangoon, Burma and spent several years there, some prosperous, some not. In the end, he decided that the alternative to escaping from the poverty of the Indian village he grew up in was to seek his fortune in East Africa.

His hopes of making his fortune in Rangoon never came to fruition and so he decided to opt for going to East Africa since in those days, Burma and East Africa were all part of the British Empire. There was only an Empire passport so he could travel and settle in any region within the vast Empire. A few of his villagers emigrated to Hong Kong, or Fiji, or South Africa.

Viceroy

19th Century sketch: “Viceroyal Visit to British Burma”

Rangoon brought him no fortune but it brought me a treasure trove of stories when I was a boy. He told me stories about his years in Burma in the 1920′s and so I have always been fascinated by Burma during this time. There were Burmese Indians from Gujarat and Punjab, Gurkhas from Nepal, Pathans from Pakistan… all descending upon Burma at that time.

eton-wall-game-1921

Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell), top left, before an Eton wall game, 1921

Everything has to start somewhere.

An idea for a first novel.

BurmeseDaysGeorge Orwell and my grandfather were a few years apart in age.

And when George Orwell graduated from Eton in 1922, he accepted a five year commission in the Indian Imperial Police in Rangoon, Burma.

Yes, George Orwell started out as a cop.

He did this because he could not afford to go to university. And this experience formed the core of his first novel, Burmese Days. The book deals with the rigid racism and rigorous regimented rule of the British Raj in 1920′s Rangoon. For me personally, it is a fascinating book and here is why:

I have two separate accounts of that time period: my grandfather’s version from the Indian oral story-telling tradition, and Orwell’s, from a Western tradition in the form of a novel.

Orwell Archive

Orwell, pictured in his school days at Eton, was born in India and schooled in India before Eton

Kathiawar village in Gujarat, India, where my grandfather grew up before going to Burma

Kathiawar village in Gujarat, India, where my grandfather grew up

The fact that my grandfather and Orwell were in the same place at the same time is a fascinating concept to contemplate. And there is one fact that corroborates from both their accounts – there was a lot of reverse racism against young white policeman in Rangoon.

burma-police-training-1923

Orwell, standing 3rd from left, in the British Imperial Burmese Provincial Police, 1923
Burmese football game, early 1900's

Burmese football game, early 1900′s

When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter.

-- George Orwell in Shooting an Elephant

In his essay “Shooting an Elephant” Orwell describes racial tension in Burma in the 1920′s:

shoorE

“As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once. In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were thousands of them in town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.”
 
elephant2

Everything starts somewhere.

Colonialism started somewhere, racism started somewhere, hatred and war starts somewhere.

Perhaps the healing of the wounds on both sides of centuries of British colonialism, on the British side, and on the Indian side, starts somewhere. Perhaps that “somewhere” can be vigilantly searched for and discovered, in a readiness, a preparedness, deep within us, to start.

Perhaps we can finally start the healing process only when we are finally ready to start.