For most people in Burma there is a sense of what is Indian, before there is any knowledge of India: the fluorescent-lit biryani restaurants along Fraser Street in Rangoon, the austere Mogul mosque and the fantastically-coloured Kali temple two blocks away, the elegant old ladies in faded saris speaking an unintelligible language, a style of men’s lungi, the distant forbears and slightly different countenance of a close friend. India is less a contemporary neighbour and more an old connection, the Indian-ness still everywhere a vestige of former times.
The interconnected history of India and Burma is by and large untaught in schools and so not present in people’s thinking. The links of trade and ideas across the Bay of Bengal, from the Bengal, Orissa and south India to the Irrawaddy valley, go back millennia, but only a handful will associate the Pallava-inspired Burmese alphabet or the hundreds of Pali loanwords in Burmese with India itself.
Even the shared colonial experience is largely forgotten. There is sometimes a photograph — like the one of a boyish and beaming U Nu sitting reverentially next to Mahatma Gandhi at Birla House; or a story, like the one of Pandit Nehru giving General Aung San (on a stopover in Delhi) a greatcoat to wear in London, worried that the young nationalist leader would otherwise catch cold during his talks with the Attlee government. But little else is remembered, from the exile of Bahadur Shah Zafar (his tomb is less than half a mile from where I am writing this), to the visits of Rabindranath Tagore, to the exploits of Subhas Chandra Bose and the INA.
My great-grandfather studied at Calcutta and my grandfather grew up reading books and newspapers brought every week by steamer from Bengal. This was a hundred years ago, when parents dreamt of sending their sons to Darjeeling for school, in the hope they would then go on to Oxford or Cambridge and returns as officers in the ICS. It was a time when India represented a kind of modernity and Indian intellectuals and institutions seen as a bridge to the wider world.
Now there are official ties and official schemes, of new highways and waterways, and government-led efforts to promote friendship and secure cooperation, or at least the promise of cooperation, along distant borders. But the personal ties have vanished. Bangkok and Singapore are far more familiar than any Indian city. And however distant in the imagination Calcutta is today, the northeast of India is even further away. Assam and Manipur are places in the schoolbooks, sites of royal conquests, not real places just next door. The idea that in northeast India there are cultures and societies so similar to Burma’s would be alien to all but a few.
And as we this week celebrate India’s Independence and think about Partition, we might recall as well the earlier partition of 1937, that separated Burma from India and began the process of severing the many layers of contact. No one in Burma regrets separation from India and Burma’s emergence a little over a decade later as an independent nation. But as we think of the future, we should perhaps regret the foreignness that has developed.
As Burma reopens to the outside world and takes its initial steps towards democracy there is a fresh opportunity to refashion our very ancient ties. Both countries will only benefit.
(The writer’s latest book is Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia. He is chairman of the Yangon Heritage Trust.)