Burmese Days


Burmese Days

Oral and Written Storytelling

The Brick Project perceives the curriculum category of ‘Literature’ as one that includes both written (literary) as well as oral storytelling traditions. I grew up in the Oral Storytelling tradition and my Indian grandfather told me many stories about village India when I was growing up in Africa.

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

Note: In the Teacher Thoughts article, A Pioneering School Teacher, about my maternal grandmother, I mention my maternal grandfather, who was also a great storyteller. My maternal grandfather also emigrated to British East Africa. However, my maternal grandfather emigrated not from village India but from the port of Gwader, on the Arabian Sea, bordering Oman, Persia, Afghanistan and India.


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 am interested in the African continent because I was born there.

I was born there because my grandfather emigrated from village India to East Africa. However, Africa was not his first choice. It was Plan B.

His first choice was Burma.

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.


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, Pashtuns from Afghanistan, Pathans from Pakistan… all descending upon Burma at that time.

Everything has to start somewhere.

An idea for a first novel.


George 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, which elucidates the rigid racism and rigorous regimented rule of the 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 Western tradition in the form of a novel.

I have two separate accounts and viewpoints of that time period: my grandfather’s version from the Indian oral story-telling tradition, and Orwell’s, from a Western (British) literary tradition in the form of a novel. This is a good example of the full scope and potential of future Brick Project Literature Curriculum.

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.

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