For Bengalis in Yangon, memories of a long-gone era

The 125-year-old Durga Bari Temple in Yangon is the cultural capital of Bengalis in the city

Durga Puja is still celebrated there with gusto

Recently in Yangon

“Nearly a dozen Durga pujas are held in Rangoon, but ours is the best,” 84-year old Murari Mohan Lodh declared proudly. “We offer ‘bhog’ (the vegetarian Bengali meal offered to the gods) to thousands, including many Burmese, during the Puja days,” he added.

It was a Sunday afternoon in September. Lodh and his octogenarian friends Promod Nath and Nihar Ranjan Charabarty were discussing the nitty-gritty of the upcoming Durga Puja, the biggest cultural festival of Bengali Hindus, at the 125-year old Durga Bari Temple in Yangon.

Durga Bari is the cultural capital of Bengalis in Yangon, and a reminder of a forgotten era when Bengalis were the most prominent class in Myanmar’s services sector.

“My father came here from Noakhali (now in Bangladesh) to work for the railways, during World War I. I was born in this city and my son died here,” Lodh says.

For him and his friends, Yangon is still Rangoon, Myanmar is Burma, and they refuse to relate their identity to either West Bengal or Bangladesh. “We belong to undivided (pre-Partition) Bengal,” he insists.

“Those were different times. Most of the professors, doctors and advocates were Bengalis,” recalls Nath. He had graduated from the Tagore College in the city, which was affiliated to Calcutta University.

The college doesn’t exist anymore: it was nationalised by the military government in 1964. The military junta later used the college to house some government departments.

Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, one of the greatest Bengali writers, lived at Botataung in downtown Yangon. The area was later converted into a military camp.

In much the same way, the heritage of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and Azad Hind Fauz have been all but wiped out.

This is the city from where in 1944, Netaji raised his famous slogan, “Give me blood and I shall give you freedom.” Rangoon was then under Japanese occupation.

Nath still recalls the excitement in the air before the INA marched to India through the Moreh border in Manipur. “There were many INA camps in the city. One of them was very close to the Durga Bari temple at Street 49,” he recalls.

Nothing of that remains today. Well, almost nothing, except the “House of Memories Restaurant” at 290, U Wisara Road, where Netaji met Myanmar’s National Hero General Aung San, father of the current State Counsellor and Nobel Prize winner Ang San Suu Kyi.

It then belonged to the family of Dina Nath, who was later convicted by the British. Everything else — the house where Netaji spent most of his days in Yangon, the INA camps – has vanished. No one knows why the Indian government didn’t come forward to protect these sites.

But how are Hindu Bengalis faring in today’s Yangon?

Lodh says they are respected in Myanmar. But merely 300 to 400 people from the original migrant families are still in the city. There are some 3,000 more who are Arakanese Hindu, who share their history with Chittagong in Bangladesh, and speak a dialect that is distinctly different. “Most of them have forgotten Bengali,” he said.

So why did the Hindus leave the country? They blame it on the “panic” created by the Indian government soon after Independence and the feeling of homesickness in Bengalis. “Äll my Bengali neighbours left Burma in a hurry,” Chakraborty remembers.

Who knew that the space vacated by Indians would be filled by Chinese, Koreans and even by the same Japanese who were once feared in Myanmar? And that Indians will now have to jostle for space with later settlers.

Published on September 21, 2017

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