By: Mohana Gill
Myanmar is a country not many people know about. It is situated in South-East Asia and is bordered on the north-east by China, on the east by Laos and Thailand, on the south by the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, and on the west by Bangladesh and India. This is the country I was born in and where I spent the first 20-odd years of my life.
This is the story of my grandfather, whom we called Nanaji.
My grandfather came to Myanmar with the British Army during World War I. He was a young Rajput man named Shiv Singh.
The Rajputs were a martial race in the period of the British Raj. This was a designation created by administrators that classified each ethnic group as either “martial” or “non-martial”. A “martial race” was typically considered brave and well built for fighting, while the remainder were those whom the British believed to be unfit for battle because of their sedentary lifestyle.
The name “Rajput” is derived from the Sanskrit word “rajputra”, meaning son of the ruler. The Rajputras constitute a class of nobility. The Rajput clans emerged as a dominant community in north and western India in the colonial period. During the time of the British Raj, the government accepted them and recruited them heavily into their armies.
When he was a young man, Nanaji was very tall, very handsome and of regal stature. By the time we got to know him, he was an old man but still very regal and smart.
As far as I can remember, my grandfather was a very serious old man with a white flowing beard. He had very little contact with us, his grandchildren. We were in awe of him, even frightened to talk to him. He had his special chair in which he sat every day. He had his meals brought to him at precisely the same time every day and he went to bed every night at the same time. We could tell what time of the day or night it was by watching him eat and go to sleep.
We were told that there were three things that he did not like nor tolerated in the house. He did not like anyone in the house to have any alcohol beverage. I remember my father, who liked his beer, making sure that he only had it when Nanaji was not around.
The other thing that he was intolerant of was smoking. Anyone found smoking was not very popular with him. He also made sure that no one played cards in the house. In fact, if he ever found a deck of cards, he would go berserk.
Later on we were told the reasons why he was against these three things. He believed that if one consumed alcohol it would mar his ability to think and he would not be able to make the correct decisions. Smoking, of course, because it is not very healthy and causes a cough. Finally, he was afraid that the children would get into the habit of playing cards and start to gamble. He believed that gambling in any way was a very bad habit.
He had such a profound influence on me that even today, while I can go into a casino, on principle I do not place any bets. It has become a habit, I guess. And, I do not drink any alcohol and, of course, I do not smoke.
When the war ended, Nanaji decided to remain in Myanmar. He married a local girl and had two daughters. His wife, my grandmother, died when my mother was just five years old. He decided not to remarry as he was afraid that a stepmother might not treat the children well. My mother was the younger of the two girls.
Being in the army, he was posted from one place to the next and took his girls with him. When my aunt was 16, Nanaji got her married to a wealthy settled man of 40. The condition was that she would bring her younger sister along with her.
The two sisters were very close and Nanaji lived with all of us. We all made sure that we were quiet when it was his resting time.
We had a funny relationship with him – of love, fear, respect and curiosity. But, as long as he was alive, we all felt protected. We knew that we were safe because Nanaji was there to protect us.
Then one morning we were told that he had died.
Nanaji died in his sleep and no one knew about it until the next morning. We were too young to understand the meaning of death. Suddenly there was a lot of hustle and bustle, people coming and going, priests and chanting, and flowers and funeral arrangements. We watched all that was happening without really knowing what it meant.
As the cortege left the house, at the gate we saw there were a lot of people from the army. They formed a kind of arch through which his coffin was taken. As the coffin reached the arch, there was a 21-gun salute for him. We thought it was great fun, all those army people and the guns firing.
We were told that when he fought in the war he was awarded a medal for bravery. That was the reason he was honoured and hence the gun salute.
It then dawned on us what a great man he must have been. He had fought for his country and was indeed a very brave man.
That was my Nanaji, who sat in the same chair every day, did not talk much, yet if he could and if we wanted to, he would have told us so many stories of his younger days and the war. We would have listened in awe and we woud have admired him.
But, even today, when we think of him, we think of what a great man he was and we are all so proud that he was our Nanaji.
I am reminded of this quote by Nicholas A. McGirr: “Death truly does have life, and walks with and lives through us every day.”