My grandfather was a rebel who married my grandmother against the wishes of his parents and moved away from his family to Burma in his early 20s. It wasn’t a love marriage … he just decided he would marry only her. She was in her late teens. He tried his hand at various jobs and settled in one with the railways there under the British Raj. He was in a position of some influence because he lived in a good house, owned some cows and was ‘respected’ by locals too.
When the war began and people were asked to leave, he went to the local store and exchanged the cows for some boxes of condensed milk that would see his family through the journey of about 4 weeks across the border. This was probably one of the smartest things he did in his life.
Then they got together whatever little they could and left on foot …they –my grandfather, grandmother and five little children – two daughters and three sons – my father being 8 years old then and the youngest brother around 3 or younger because my grandmother carried him on her hip.
People carried some utensils, clothes and other small things that they could, leaving behind everything else that made up their homes. The journey was over hills and through forests, mosquito ridden, filthy from all the defecating and strewn with dead bodies. Many people just collapsed from disease and exhaustion. There was money – notes and coins on these bodies – left behind by families of these dead people for the last rites. There was no provision for cremation or burial. So the families walked on…
My dad recollected that one night when his mother had to use the makeshift washroom, she asked my father to wait outside with the baby. As he waited, he heard a bomb fall at a distance...he called out to his mother …and then he saw the blast…and then a man running really fast – on just one leg – not realizing that the other had been ripped away by that bomb ...and then he fell. I vaguely remember him relating this scene to me once.
Drinking water was scarce along the way. One morning, my grandfather asked the family to rest and tied two biscuit cans on a pole to carry across his shoulder and left to get some water. He had to walk a distance and climb up and down a hill to get to the water. The family waited – fear in their hearts -for him to return. When he did finally, it was night and they mixed the condensed milk with the water he brought and drank it.
When they arrived in Calcutta, they went straight to the station like everyone else. There were people everywhere - on the platforms, on the roofs of the trains, inside the compartments – everywhere…just wanting to go wherever those trains could take them. My family went to Kerala. When they arrived in Kerala, the youngest child passed away from dysentery and typhoid. My grandfather got reinstated with the railways in Gujarat. My grandparents settled into their normal lives again and even had two more daughters.
All these men and women who saw each other and their children through such dark times and stuck together till the end...are these not the real love stories?
From what I’ve managed to Google up, millions of families crossed over from Burma that fateful year. So, my father’s wasn’t one of a few. Not that this makes the story any less important…on the contrary…
Whatever little I’ve gathered is from my mother…her conversations with dad about this crossing over from Burma [a place dad called Pongi chao – that I am unable to find on the maps of Burma online] to Calcutta in 1943. It is all in bits and pieces – so not a well edited story. It is not a ‘me too’ piece either…it is a story that I felt I had to tell. I guess it is similar to what refugees from any war ridden country would have to relate and so will perhaps serve to underline how sad and traumatic war is for those who ‘survive’ it.
Much of what I couldn’t fathom about my dad came from this past, I guess - his simplicity, dislike for ostentation, strong interest and opinions on diverse matters, his reserve, the quiet demeanor in spite of a simmering temper, his love for his family, his fears, his strengths, his courage, etc. RIP Dad!