On the trail of the exiled Burmese King Thibaw and his family in India.

They wanted him comfortable, but forgotten,” says Sudha Shah, recounting how Burmese King Thibaw’s life was “micro-managed” by the British during his exile in British-occupied India. While in power, Thibaw was used to his riches and audiences, while Queen Supayalat was used to giving away cloth, gold coins and rubies.

In exile, the King was given “pocket money” — even that, monitored by the British. Biscuit cans given every day by the British were “regularly sold for cash” by members of the royal family, says Sudha, recalling incidents narrated to her by its descendants.

Intrigued by the life lived by the Burmese royal family after the king was deposed, Sudha researched into their life in India: How they coped with living like commoners; the food they missed; and the loneliness of life in a strange land. The exile lasted for 31 years.

On a royal trail

Sudha's research led to her book, The King in Exile: The fall of the royal family of Burma. The book took shape over seven years of hard work, where she pursued “every new clue”. “I felt like a detective on a trail… there were times when I couldn’t sleep at night because I had to make a phone call the next morning… wondering, will this person have some information,”she recalls.

Sudha traced the royal descendants to far-flung places such as Ratnagiri, Kolkata, Chennai and Kalimpong, and visited places of significance in Burma as well. She went to the jetty from where King Thibaw was taken away. “I had to do that walk... that route he was taken out and led away,” she says.

The sources for the rich details in the book are in her cupboard — files and documents, hand written letters from descendants of the family, music played at the palace, and pictures of the royal family. Such information was hard to come by.

There were four surviving grand-children when she started, of whom two died during the course of her writing. The descendants are in their 80s now. “I did not do the book sequentially or chronologically. As soon as two descendants died, I got scared…. I said, I need to write the last part first, which is about the people today,” she says.

The human side

All the incidents narrated by the descendants, though, are not included in the book. “I wanted to write with sympathy towards the family,” she says. How the King’s faith in religion helped him cope with exile; the depression of the Queen; why two of the daughters had inappropriate affairs — the older Princess, in fact, had a child with a palace gatekeeper.

Author Amitav Ghosh (whose writings inspired Sudha), has said in his review of the book: “It is in essence a family story, centred on five women whose lives were waylaid by history.” Sudha adds, “All the Princesses moved me. King Thibaw and Queen Supayalat and the four princesses were the main characters, but Tu-tu (the first Princess’s child) played a large role too. Her story is very moving. She was very affected… that she was an unwanted child... And you can imagine what the repercussions are today if there is an illegitimate child. In 1906, the repercussions were so much more… she always felt discriminated against…”

Tu-tu is known as the ‘Mother Teresa’ of Ratnagiri. “Eighteen unwanted babies were deposited at her doorstep… she was an impoverished woman, but poverty did not inhibit her generosity... It wasn’t just babies, it was animals, dogs…she looked after sick animals, sick children whose mothers had given up on them…”

Travelling for research, Sudha found in Chennai, where the third Princess was born, that the mansion the family had stayed in, located in present-day Nungambakkam, had been pulled down, she says.

Sudha learnt how to write on the job, and edited the piece about 10 times. There is a point in your life when you have the time, she says.

Her business, export of ayurvedic beauty products, was not doing well, and she was thinking of winding it down. But she didn’t have any idea what to do next.

What started as curiosity about the Burmese royal family became a pre-occupation, then her passion. “I’m glad to have found a passion..whether it is late in life or early... some people never find their passion.”

(This article was published on August 2, 2012)
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