Lost and Found
This story was written as the capstone project for a creative writing class I took in 2018. My first fiction piece, it is an amateurish effort and I hesitated to post it here. In the four years since this was written, I have not written any better stories, or worse ones for that matter. I publish it as my sole fiction writing. The story is totally made-up, but my mother was born in Rangoon, like the protagonist of the story and I have taken inspiration from her memories of her childhood in Rangoon.
Now and then, a memory comes back to me. The memory is of a moment, from decades ago, during the hot wet October of 1941. I cannot remember all the details of the scene, like the color of the dress I was wearing or what date or time it was, but the emotion I felt then, I remember like it happened yesterday. I am 14. I am standing on the deck of a steamer boat, named Victoria I think, with peeling paint and discolored with algae and rust. My mother Uma and I are holding each other and sobbing. My father Rajan, with his fatalistic outlook, more subdued, one arm around us, the other raised and waving at my brother Uday standing on the pier in Rangoon harbor on the Bago river. My brother, normally cheerful but now solemn, is waving back at us and mouthing something we cannot hear. My mother and I gesticulating and yelling through our sobs, “Get on the boat with us, now, please.” However, the noise level is deafening with people streaming into the boat, yelling at each other as they struggle for space. Soon my brother is lost in the crowds and shoved out of the dock by British policemen wielding batons.
We were in the midst of World War II. My parents and I were leaving Burma. Just weeks before, the Japanese army had taken Malaya to the South, and soon after reports of their build-up on the Asian front were all over the news. Every day we were hearing rumors about imminent Japanese bombings and raids. When my family got together with other families, we huddled around the radio listening to the news. Adult conversations were mostly about the coming war. There was mad panic about our futures in Burma. The adults debated leaving or remaining in Burma. A few families prepared to leave as soon as possible. Uday, who was working as a journalist, would tell us scary stories about how the British were woefully unprepared to defend Burma as they were busy defending their country against Germany. He told us British nationals were being evacuated secretly. Some families we knew had left already although they had to do it the hard way, taking a bus to the frontier town Sitwe, and then who knew how. We don’t know if they made it to safety or not. They could not get on reliable transportation, neither ship nor train — those were reserved for British citizens first, then for Anglo-Indians and eventually for people like us — ordinary colonized Indians and Burmese. But there were too many of us and the transport options had reduced with the increase in conflict. So, spots were offered by lottery. My family was thrilled when we were picked to go on the fourth ship leaving for India. But then Uday came up and said he did not want to leave with us. We just could not understand this. We pleaded with him. We told him that he might not be able to get out of the war if he didn’t take this chance. Uday was stubborn. He kept coming up with reasons. Like how his journalism career was picking up and how war was giving him lots to report on. He thought the Japanese would easily take over Burma without a lot of violence and they would be better occupiers than the British. Lots of people were talking about how the Japanese would liberate Burma and give it independence. Subhas Chandra Bose, the Indian nationalist leader, was on the side of the Japanese and it would turn out well for us. Our parents were not convinced, and as for me, the thought of leaving my beloved brother behind was unbearable. My mother, unable to convince my brother to leave with us, said she would not leave without him. After a long stand-off, Uday and some of our friends convinced us that we should leave first and Uday will follow us later. Some other families we knew were staying behind too. For some of them, there was no place to go. They had lived in Burma most of their lives. They had property. Most of their friends were still there.
My parents had arrived in Burma from the south of India in 1921 with my brother, then a small child. I was born in Burma in 1927. Burma was exploding with economic activity and many Indians migrated there in search of better opportunities. The British were expanding the railway network and Rajan, my father, found a position as Supervisor responsible for making sure the trains were scheduled, kept clean and ran on time. My family found a home with the expat community in East Kamayut. As it often happens among expats, the Indian community stayed together and did activities together. My mother found a group of women who shared her interests. My father was immersed in his work. My brother Uday was the extrovert of the family. He made friends easily. He had Burmese and British friends in addition to Indians. He quickly learnt to speak Burmese. After school he hung out with his friends, visited the markets, enjoyed street food and played soccer. Overall, I enjoyed my childhood in Burma. Even as a young child I showed signs of being an outgoing kid who liked to get into things. I made a lot of friends. We were innocent and had a lot of fun. School was not taxing. Dad was immersed in work, mom was in poor health and she relied on my brother to look after me. Uday was of course generous and gave me a lot of freedom. I fondly remember the three days of the lighting festival in October. We celebrated this festival every year that I can remember. The monsoon season had ended, the air was cooler and less humid, the nights were magical with the houses and the streets lit up in many different colors and decorated with ribbons, balloons, flower baskets and what not. Markets were full of people just walking about, buying things and stopping to chat with people they knew. Oh, and that wonderful food. It was during these festivals that I developed a taste for Burmese food like atho and mohinga. There was music and dance. My family and the families of friends celebrated a lot during these three days. Even dad and mom enjoyed the occasion and we spent many hours cleaning, decorating and lighting our house for the festival.
Uday and I were close in spite of our age difference. I looked up to him. He enjoyed playing peek-a-boo and other childish games with me. On weekends he would take me to playgrounds and markets. One memory is still vivid. For my thirteenth birthday, my brother arranged a surprise for me. Under the guise of taking me to visit a temple and then see some relatives, he took me to this place by the beach. We went into a tent and there were my closest friends. The tent was festooned with balloons. All the food items I liked: mohinga, samosas, biriyani, falooda and of course a lovely chocolate cake. We had music and dancing and then we climbed onto floats and were gently rocked by the calm waves of the protected bay. We spent an entire day there and really enjoyed ourselves.
Uday was 17 when he finished high school and entered college. Once he started college our time together reduced. His studies kept him busy. He joined clubs and made friends with some serious people who had a nationalist drive. I noticed he was less frivolous and read more. He studied English and Political Science and wrote for the college magazine. I could see he was becoming more independent and more vocal with his opinions. Dad and he often got into arguments about politics. Uday was turning more critical of the British occupation and took an active interest in the freedom movement in India and its leaders like Gandhi, Nehru and Patel. Dad and mom had a hard time coming to terms with the changes they saw in Uday. They were afraid he would get into trouble. Dad and mom prized safety and caution. Uday began to see this as a weakness and would sometimes comment sarcastically to me about it.
World war 2 broke out in 1940 and for all of us life was never the same again. The war action was far away in Europe, but that was all the news was about. The British army stationed in Burma and India were doing military exercises and were being shipped to the European front. Soon we heard about Japan’s military actions in the East and their slow but steady march westward. For me, looking back, this was when my life of innocence ended. I was thrust into the world of adults and exposed to their anxieties. People were going out less and staying home more.
* * *
On Yangon harbor, Uday disappeared among the crowds. Sorrowfully, Dad, Mom and I turned to secure our space on the ship. There was hardly any room left, yet people kept streaming in. The officers had a hard time managing the crowds. We found a corner in a hall where we deposited our few items of luggage and spread out sheets for lying down. We knew there would be no privacy on this trip. Finally, the officers managed to close the gates and ship pulled back from the dock. The week it took us to reach Chennai was one of the worst experiences of my life. It was noisy, smelly, and hot. We hardly got any sleep. Food was limited and poor. To conserve water, they turned on the water to the showers only for an hour. There were days we could not shower. On the other hand, we shared our family story with others on the ship and since we shared a common threat we bonded with some of them. One of the girls I met on the ship is a good friend to this day.
It was a big relief to reach Chennai after a week on the ship, although when we arrived the skies were dark most of the time and it poured from the skies almost without end. The streets were water logged and water came up to my ankles when I walked in the streets. We had arrived smack in the height of the monsoon season. It was my first visit to Chennai. My parents had been away for over a decade and it was like a new city for them as well. Although we spoke the language and my parents had grown up there, we felt like strangers and were treated as outsiders. My dad had a cousin with whom he’d exchanged letters with a few times a year. We sought him out and spent a couple of days with him. We found a small house for rent and moved in. My father joined the railways again, but the job was more junior than the one he had in Burma. Mom had not recovered from the separation from Uday. She was constantly worried about him and gloomy all the time. I don’t recall her smiling at all. I was lonely, separated from friends and missed Uday a lot.
Chennai was a big outpost of the British in India and so they had a well-staffed administrative office in the city. We had heard that occasionally army and administrative officials went between Rangoon and Chennai transporting supplies, people and letters from British subjects. My dad and I visited this office weekly to inquire about news from Burma and letters from Uday. Most of the time the news wasn’t good and there were no letters from my brother. We got lucky on one such visit — two letters from Uday written weeks apart. The first letter was written a few weeks after our departure from Rangoon. This was somewhat upbeat and written in Tamil. He said the feeling among the residents was that the Japanese arrival was imminent — within weeks and they were not likely to face much resistance. The residents were confident that Japan would liberate them from the British and hoped that they would return the country to the Burmese. My dad explained that it was just as well the letter was in Tamil — he was sure the British authorities were reading and censoring the letters. The second letter was less upbeat. Uday was trying to reassure us he was safe and that we were wise to leave when we did, because the people who attempted to leave later had no scheduled transportation available and experienced great hardship. That was the last we heard from Uday. Shortly afterward, we heard on the radio that the Japanese had occupied Burma. We realized that we would not hear from Uday again, for a while at least. The news drove my mother further into depression.
After a year in Chennai, we moved south to a smaller city, Trichy, where my dad found a better paying job with the Railways. Trichy was provincial compared to Rangoon and Chennai. But I got used to the place over time and after a year improved my Tamil a lot. I made a few close friends and completed high school. Just before I entered college my mother died, never having recovered from the separation from Uday. I suspect my father was equally tormented inside though he generally presented a stoic appearance. Just before I entered my final year of college he followed my mother to the grave. The previous year I had become interested in a man a year older than me. After my father’s death, our romance blossomed and we decided to get married. I had a family again.
Before my father passed, we made several attempts to contact Uday, but without luck. By this time the war had ended. The Japanese had surrendered and Britain reclaimed Burma. It took a few years for transport and communications between Rangoon and Chennai to be restored. My husband came up with the idea of placing advertisements in major city newspapers in India asking my brother to contact us. We did that a few times a year in the beginning. And then it became an annual ritual on my brother’s birthday.
* * *
Last Saturday, it was Uday’s birthday. We came to Chennai for the annual winter concerts as we did virtually every year. My son Rahul came with me this time with his wife and children. I had planned to do what I usually did on Uday’s birthday — visit a temple, make an offering in his name and pray for his discovery. My son, however, had other plans.
“Ma, did you know Chennai has a Burma Bazaar”, Rahul asked.
“I have heard of it. Why do you ask?”
“I hear there’s good Burmese food in that area. It would be a nice way to observe Uncle Uday’s birthday. Anyway, we haven’t eaten Burmese food in a long time.”
I said, “Oh, I don’t know. I want to have a quiet day. Visit the temple in the evening and go to a concert.”
“Come on Ma. The kids are excited about the idea. Remember, you used to like atho and bejo a lot. There’s a place that makes it great, I’m told.”
“Well? OK”, I gave in.
We made our way to Burma Palace, a hole in the wall near Burma Bazaar. The five of us squeezed around a narrow table. The walls of the restaurant had assorted pictures of gods Ganesha, Lakshmi and Rama. Then there were, jarringly, pictures of film stars of years past. On one wall, family pictures and pictures of scenes from Burma. I mostly took an interest in the scenes of Burma. Most were black and white weathered, probably from much handling, and of the post-war period — there were from about ten years after my family left Burma.
We ordered fried atho and plantain soup to begin with. Not quite authentic, but close enough to bring back memories of eating atho with Uday on a Sunday afternoon at the beach. A couple with their grown children walked in and occupied a table next to ours. I could not help but overhear snatches of their conversation. Apparently, they were observing the birthday of the older man’s father. I gathered he was deceased, because they spoke of him in the past tense. They spoke of his love of Atho. Apparently, they had the tradition of visiting this restaurant on his birthday each year. I was curious and couldn’t help myself. I hesitantly approached them and asked if they used to live in Burma.
“No, my father did,” replied the man, and continued “for several years…”.
“What years did he live there?” I asked.
“I think he went there as a child in the 1920s and lived there till the mid-1940s”
“Oh. Was he in Rangoon”
“Yes, most of the time”
We paused, and then he said, “I’m Arvind by the way. This is my wife Rani and my sons Vish and Jagan”. Rani and the boys smiled and waved.
“Oh, I’m Usha and this is my son Rahul and his wife Shruti and my grandchildren Shashi and Vimal.”
Our families waved at each other.
“Did you live in Burma too, Aunty?”, Arvind asked.
“Yes, I was born there and left there around 1940” I said, and added: “I lived in Rangoon, too”.
“What was your Father’s name”, I asked.
“Uday Raman”, he said.
My heart skipped a beat, my pulse was racing. I grabbed the back of a chair to steady myself. My son Rahul quickly moved over to hold and steady me.
“Wh..what? that is my brother’s name,” I stammered.
“Were your parents, Uma and Rajan?” he asked.
“Yes, Yes.” I said.
“Oh, yes. My dad is your brother. My dad frequently spoke about you,” Aravind said, and continued: “He had been searching for you ever since he returned to India.”
I was speechless for a moment. “Uday is no more?”.
“Yes, aunty, sorry to say he passed away four months ago. I wish he’d have lived to experience this moment and meet you.”
Tears formed in my eyes and I staggered. Rahul and Aravind supported me.
After a long pause, I continued: “Oh, you know, I have been dreaming of the moment when I would meet Uday again…now, it is too late.”
I was lost in my thoughts barely registering what Aravind’s family and Rahul and Shruti were saying to me.
After a while, Aravind offered: “Please come over to our home, I can tell you about my dad. We have a lot to catch up on.”
So, we finished up at Burma Palace and Rahul followed Aravind to his house. We settled into his comfortable home in an upscale neighborhood in North Chennai. Aravind continued his father’s story:
“My father often told me how difficult it was for him to separate from you and his parents. I think the sadness and anxiety really only hit him a few days after that day when he had to say good bye to all of you.”
“How did he manage? Who took care of him?”
“He moved into an apartment. But he had close Burmese friends. He often mentioned Thein Kyaw. There were a few others.”
“After he was separated from you, Auntie, my dad plunged completely into his journalistic career. He wrote for the Rangoon Gazette, the most prominent English language newspaper of the time. He and a few journalist colleagues made forays to the war front.”
“That must have been dangerous. Uday was always a bit wild” I chuckled.
“Yes, that he was” Aravind smiled and continued, “Really there wasn’t much of a war. The Japanese army was able to march relatively unopposed. The Burmese and Indians in Burma had mixed feelings about the Japanese invaders. In the beginning there were hopes that the Japanese would liberate Burma from the British and help them establish an independent country. My dad skirted a fine line in his reports keeping his reports of Japanese progress matter-of-fact. Soon disillusionment set in. The Japanese set up a puppet government in Burma and it became clear they were there to ransack Burma for its natural resources. They did not care for Burmese aspirations. Soon Japanese atrocities occurred and dad, disappointed, wrote highly charged pieces against the Japanese. The Japanese started rounding up people hostile to them. While it is not known whether they had dad in their sights, his friends warned him to be careful. So, he went underground, so to speak.”
Aravind paused, overcome with the memory, and continued: “With help of a few Burmese friends, he moved to Sittwe, a town on the western coast. During this period, he felt depressed with his hopes of a journalism career halted, and without the company of family and friends. He explored ways to get to India and come in search of all of you. He had hoped his letters in the early days had reached you. He did not receive any letters from you and felt very sad that he did not know how to locate you. He explored ways to get to India. But it was too dangerous in those days.”
“I don’t know how many he wrote, but we received two of his letters. Weeks after he had written them. My father wrote him a few letters and delivered it to the British administrative office in Chennai. I suppose Uday did not receive those letters.” I added.
Aravind continued: “After dad had been in Sitwe for about a year, the British army re-captured Burma. This gave dad an opportunity to find his way to Chennai. It took him 3 weeks to get to Chennai. He spent about 6 months looking for you and your parents in Chennai.”
I replied: “Yes. In 1943 we moved south to Trichy. My mother was in a state of depression and spent most of time in bed. Life was difficult. My father did not have a stable job. So, we decided to move to Trichy where my dad had some relatives. My dad eventually found a job with the Railway administration there. I joined high school there and started a new life. But Uday was always in our thoughts.”
I continued: “We met a few people who returned from Burma. They faced a lot of hardships. There was no proper transportation. They walked part of the way, and hitched rides until they got to a train terminus. Many got very sick along the way. Some of them knew of Uday. But we got contradictory reports from them — one of them said the Japanese had detained Uday, another said he moved away somewhere close to the Indian border, another said he was still in Rangoon. We didn’t know what to believe. Dad and I visited the British office in Chennai for news every two months. But nothing. There was nothing.”
I paused and continued: “What year was it when Uday came to Chennai?”
“1944, I think.” “He said it was really hot and humid. I think it was summer, June or July”?
“We were in Trichy then. I don’t remember when we were in Chennai. So difficult to think we were in the same city at the same time, but missed each other. Our families’ lives would have been so different if we had re-united. Mom never recovered from her depression. She slowly withered away, fell sick and died in 1945.”
“I am sorry to hear that, Auntie. You all have suffered so much. I’m sorry that you could not meet your brother in his lifetime. It would have made him so happy.”
“Yes.” I was quiet for some time, thinking about what could have been. “But I am so happy to have met you and your wonderful family. Looking at you, reminds me of Uday. You have the same eyes and face. He moved his hands in the same way as you, when he spoke.”
“Please continue about your Dad.”
“In Chennai, he was wondering what to do with his life. He looked for jobs. He contacted people who had returned from Burma or knew people who had. Nothing worked out for him.”
“Then he came to know of a fellowship offered by the Times of London. He applied and was surprised to be selected. He went to London for the two-year fellowship. He was offered a job with the Times soon after he completed his fellowship. He spent three years in London covering domestic politics. There, he met my mother who had arrived from India to study in London and after a short courtship they married. My father was transferred to Hong Kong to cover the far east. During this time, he placed ads in newspapers in South India looking for his family. But he did not receive any response.”
I paused briefly and said: “We placed ads in the newspaper too. But I suppose we were not lucky”. My eyes fell on family pictures on the far wall. “Can I see a picture of your dad and mom?”
Aravind produced a few different pictures taken at different stages of life. There was one with Aravind, Uday and his wife. Aravind might have been about ten in that picture. Uday looked much as I remembered him but of course about 20 years older. The same thick brow, pursed lips, wavy hair, but with grey at the temples, a trim moustache. The face was slightly uplifted as though he was reproaching the photographer. His eyes however showed the weariness of a life which has seen its share of struggles. The face broader with age. His wife had dark vivacious eyes — eyes that seemed to be at peace with the world and ready to laugh out. Hair swept back and clamped behind her neck.
“Your mother looks beautiful.” I remarked.
Aravind smiled and nodded. “Yes, she was. Unfortunately, she died not long after the picture was taken.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. How did she die, if I may ask?
“She had a severe bout of pneumonia. She was asthmatic also.”
I told him I felt sorry for her suffering and asked him a few questions about her. I regarded the picture again and said: “Uday looks just as I remember in this picture.”
In the most recent picture he seemed to have aged rapidly and his eyes had a slightly unfocused and distant look. Aravind noticing my gaze added, “That picture was taken after Dad developed Alzheimer’s disease.”
This news struck me deeply and tears welled in my eyes. Aravind continued, “This was hard for him and for us, but we had the satisfaction that he could spend the last years of his life with us. He was losing his memory but he would speak your name now and then.”
“How bad was the Alzheimer’s? Was he physically healthy?”
“It got progressively worse. There came a point where he would not remember who we were. Physically he remained healthy but he needed help with his daily routines. We could not leave him alone at home. There were some things he could remember well. For example, we had people from London visit him one time, close friends of his. I did not mention my parents lived near London for many years after they moved there from Hong Kong. Dad appeared to remember them and while he could not speak clearly, he was able to recall some of their shared experiences in London.”
“And there was an address which he would say out loud now and then. We could not figure out why.”
“Oh, what was the address?”
“83 Madhavan Salai.”
I was speechless. “That was our address in Trichy” I blurted out, “Until 5 years ago we lived there.”
“That’s incredible! How could he know that?” Aravind wondered.
I thought for a moment. “He must have seen our ad in the newspapers! Every year on his birthday, we put up a “looking for” ad in the newspapers.”
My son Rahul’s family and I developed a close friendship with Aravind’s family. We met frequently and did things together. Now and then, we would reminisce about Uday. Each time I learned something new about Uday’s life. Luck plays her hand in unexplained ways. Although it was not my fortune to reunite with Uday while he was alive, I am happy to have met his son and through him learnt about his life. I have a sense of closure now. I wonder what Uday thought when he saw our ad in the newspaper. It must have affected him somehow if he had to remember our address. Did he only pay attention to it because he saw his name and picture? Did he realize we were looking for him and could have contacted us? Was it his inability to communicate that stopped him from contacting us? These are questions that I will never know the answers to and I must come to peace with that.
Rahul and Aravind proposed to take me to Burma to visit places we lived at. I am not so sure I want to go. Burma is a different country now. The military is running it and life for the common people is quite miserable I hear. I prefer to keep my memories.