In 2004-7, I met with a number of elderly Parsis who shared memories of their families’ lives in colonial Burma. Some recalled fleeing to India during the Japanese invasion of Burma in World War II. Burma (today Myanmar) was a key site in my book on Parsi legal history.
Many of those I met have now passed away, but their stories have stayed with me. Here are some of the most memorable, shared in anonymized form for the sake of privacy:
- On being part of the Parsi community in colonial Burma:
- In general, Parsis who migrated to Burma from India loved it there. Along with Singapore, they considered it one of the best British colonies to live in.
- Some Parsis who grew up in Burma felt more comfortable speaking Burmese than Gujarati or English, even years after leaving.
- In Rangoon, one narrator went to the fire temple as a child every day. There were lots of other Parsi kids, so they would all play together. They would also help make chapatis for feasts at the fire temple. It was nice and huge. When the Rangoon Parsis first came to Bombay, they were a bit shocked by the difference in Parsi culture. Families fought; Parsis fought in Bombay. You would not hear a daughter and mother-in-law screaming at each other in Rangoon.
- On the Japanese bombing of Rangoon in WWII:
- There was always a warning siren when bombers were coming. In the early days, this gave people time to run out of houses and into the trench-bomb shelters that had been built along roads (the trench was covered with tin and grass camouflage). But gradually the warning siren and the bombs started coming closer and closer together, so that ultimately there was not really time to take cover. Initially the Japanese didn’t bomb. First they dropped pamphlets telling people to get out, to leave their homes. The next day, they started bombing. The narrator’s father was working for the ARP [Air Raid Precautions], which meant that he went around telling people how to properly keep the blackout procedures. Not even a cigarette was allowed to be seen from above! All the windows were covered in black paper. People even had to cover over the cooking fire so its glow would not show. They had lots of practice.
- On leaving Burma:
- One family owned a printing press in colonial Rangoon. They lost everything, including the press, when they fled Burma during WWII. They left on one of the last three ships out of Burma. The other two were torpedoed by the Japanese. But the family’s ship crossed safely, arriving in Chittagong. Then the family took a train to Calcutta. They continued to Bombay, reaching the city in 1943. In 1945-6, they returned to Burma, when an amnesty was declared by the Japanese. But by 1947, almost everyone who was going back to Burma had again returned to India. After that, there were only about 40-50 Parsis remaining in Burma. Before the war, there had been about 300-350 Parsis in Rangoon. Not even half went back to Burma. The Parsis who stayed after the war were the ones who had no connection to India. Some of the men married Burmese, Anglo-Burmese, or Karen women.
- Another family fled Rangoon over land. There was a physician in this family, and when everyone fled, people wanted to stick close to him in case they got sick.
- Another family that made the overland trip was in the jewellery business. They carried the most valuable jewels from their business in a small suitcase. One man carried this suitcase and guarded it with his life. He would sleep on it every night, using it like a pillow, in the jungle. Even years after the war, once safely in India, this man’s family knew that they should never sneak up on him when he was sleeping. He still had the instinct to attack–from the days when he had to guard the suitcase of jewels.
- One person who fled Burma ultimately settled in an Indian city that was inland. They wanted to live in a place where no one could ever disturb their family again. This meant avoiding the coasts.
- Another family left Rangoon in the winter of 1941-2. They were part of the last group that got out of Burma. Anyone who stayed after that was stuck there for good. This family lived in a commercialized area with lots of rice markets, so the area was a target for Japanese bombers. They had to flee for the suburbs. Initially, they thought they were just going to the suburbs for 4-5 days, and then would return to their home. But in fact, they were pushed out further and further, and were never able to go back home. As a result, they did not have the chance to pack food or bring any photos. Around 13 Dec. 1941, they moved out to a Parsi lady’s bungalow in the suburbs. Then they traveled with her to Mandalay, where there was no coast, so no ships. So they had to trek from there. The trains were all bombed out, and there was no going back. The British didn’t disappear, but they didn’t help either. For example, they did not provide any food or water for the trekkers. Nothing was organized by the British for the trek. The family was part of a massive group of 20,000-25,000 people all moving together. They had all kinds of terrain to cross: shallow rivulets in canoes, hills, forests (with dangerous animals). They had nothing to eat or drink with them. How did they get drinking water? If someone saw a little water fall, everyone would rush to it and it would get all muddied up. Then the narrator’s family would have to strain it and boil it, reducing its volume by half, before they could drink it. There were whole days when they had nothing to eat and nothing to drink. The narrator did not know how they survived, and got goose bumps thinking about it now. Everyone had to be inoculated for cholera—it was compulsory, given that there were so many people and no sanitary provisions. They were literally starving. Imphal was the first trace of civilization. It was the first time they saw a house or a road in a long time.
For more stories, see Fali S. Nariman, Before Memory Fades…An Autobiography and excerpts reproduced in Fali S. Nariman, “The Great Trek,” Parsiana (21 Aug. 2010). Here is a list of Parsi tombstone inscriptions from Burma. I also recommend the remarkable memoirs of Parsi lawyer, P. D. Patel, My Fifty Years in Burma (1954), which describe surviving in Japanese-occupied Burma. Please e-mail me if you would like a copy of my 2017 article on Patel’s memoirs: firstname.lastname@example.org
For the larger context, see Hugh Tinker, “A Forgotten Long March: The Indian Exodus from Burma, 1942,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 6:1 (1975), 1-15.