A road to Mandalay

Akham Bonbirdhwaja Singh *

A group of Meitei Family in Mandalay, Myanmar in October 2014
A group of Meitei Family in Mandalay, Myanmar in October 2014 : Pix Courtesy - R.K. Shivachandra

It is said that Rudyard Kipling had never been to Mandalay, he was only near Rangoon (now Yangon) and around as he was leaving for home from Calcutta, Rangoon was the first port of call. By then, just after third Anglo Burmese war and Myanmar was under British India fully. He was charmed by the beauty of Myanmar and Burmese girls and he wrote the poem "Mandalay" and it was one of his most famous poems, a super hit.

"Come you back, you British soldier,
come you back to Mandalay,
Come you back to Mandalay where old flotilla lay,
can't you hear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay"
appealed to everybody not only to Britishs oldiers.

Many singers including Frank Sinatra enlivened the poem as a song, re baptised it as "On the Road to Mandalay". Mandalay is an alien and exotic place, somehow associated with a sweetness everybody wishing to endear it, it has become a brand of exoticness. An eightyfour storied luxury hotel in California has been named after it. If one has to think of a name of a city which sounds popular yet alien, then he has it in Mandalay.

Going towards Mandalay from border town of Morehby road, one would wish that the "Bus to Mandalay" really materialise soon. There is a real nostalgia when one hit the trail of the medieval period routes of the forefathers. All along to almost Kalewa, on the right hand side, one would see the lovely hills of Manipur in the yonder, we meet our own Manipur River too, why should not one feel nostalgic.

But there is also a reason to feel sad, sad for a different reason, seeing the impoverished diaspora, dwindling diaspora, facing serious dilemma for two and half centuries. The Christian brethren in Khampat area seems to be much better off and prospering.I think the diaspora was better off in the past, there are stories that during second world war, the Kates got organised in to clandestine outfits and went on helping the INA and Japanese against the colonial British for liberation of the "motherland".

"My name is Purnimahazari, Gotra...." the sweet little girl said. Anybody you ask the name, however broken is the Manipuri in which they reply, they won't forget to tell the Gotra. If one doesn't know the Gotra, she or he won't find a matrimonial match.

The diaspora society is so strict, more than Jewish society in pre world war ii period. May be that is a necessity or tradition brought three centuries ago from their "motherland", by then the Meiteis being new converts to Hinduism, social barriers were very rigid. "Purnima, you say Hazarimayum, not Hazari" my wife told her two days later when we became a bit familiar.

"Hazari is okay" I told. Her Burmese name is Khin Sandi Soe, everybody seems to have a Burmese name or certificate name. She passed graduation in science and completed a course in fashion designing. She presented a ladies shoe made by her to my wife. Self employment, it is another necessity I think as Kates do not get government jobs there.

"You come to Sangai festival this year"my wife told Purnima, "you bring a lot of shoes as much as you can make, we will buyeverything you bring" she was invited. Purnima's mother, Ratnabatti, a comely lady and attractive in her early fifties, with proper nose and forehead chandan and all, accompanied Purnima to our hotel.

She used to drive a scooty type of bike, very common in Mandalay and Tamu, for both male and female. Both mother and daughter agreed; may be due to the emotion of the moment, they were really earnest. Who wouldn't like to come to Manipur for a darshan of Shri Govindajee? I am not sure if I can give enough credit to the Indo Myanmar association, but the fact is that due to their relentless efforts, now the diaspora is again trying to speak their mother tongue in spite of hurdles and difficulties.

"My name is …., my Gotra is …., my Burmese name is….." he tried to say in Manipuri. "Excuse me, can you repeat?" I asked as what there was heavy Burmese accent and I couldn't grasp anything and I switched on my voice recorder.Then he said in English, "My name is Bishnulatpam Shyamsunder Sharma, Gotra Sandilya. I am a lawyer, pleader. My Burmese name is Wyi Kyin Maung Yuk (It is a transcription from the recorder, spell accuracy of the name is doubtful)".

"Good" I said, "my daughter is also a lawyer. Are you practicing in the High court or district courts?" He said that he works as astrologer from home, not as a pleader. Very rare qualification for a Kate there. The Brahmin society here are known as Kate Paona, their astrological skills were recognised even by the royals and elites in the past.

Talking of self employment as means of livelihood there, there is a chance that two or three young people can train themselves as guides for the people coming from Manipur because all the Manipuri tourists would love to take a day or two off from the itinerary and spend exploring the Kates and Kate Paonas habitations. I am sure that there shall be more and more tourists coming to Myanmar from Manipur. If one or two stay homes are set up, that could also be good source of income and employment.

"My name is Hidangmayum Shitalkumar Sharma, Gotra Bhardwaj". He was the lead singer in the troupe in ahoratra previous night. His accent was much better, but not as good as that of Purnima and her mother. "the lead singer now is my son in law, GurumayumM adanshyam" he said pointing to the sankirtan; "very good" I said.

Everyone in the congregation, even a young boy in the Eigya Sundergopal's mandap seems to know the sankirtan, of course the Mandalay version, it can be said. It has deviated so much from the one in vogue in Manipur. The deviation is quite natural and obvious, as it has been undergoing its own gradual evolution in complete isolation here in Mandalay away from the so to say mainstream.

Still, it is a Sankirtana, a binding force of Kates here, particularly Kate Paonas. "This is this is Giri Goverdhan, this is Radahakund, Shyamkund ….." EigyaMadangopal used to say, describing small abode, miniature Brindavan that Eigya Sundergopal made near his mandap inside his premises.

I wish Eigya Sundergopal lived longer and did more for the diaspora there. There was a small pagoda near that. I am so unfortunate that I never met him, whatever accounts of him I could gather were from interactions with members of Indo Myanmar Association.

In fact, during the briefing on the eve of the trip to Mandalay, we were advised that carrying some local items would be good, I and my wife took quite a few Pungou Phaneks, Khudeis and Manipuri video cassettes and we derived a lot of pleasure in distributing them to our long lost brethrens in eigya's mandap.

The Meiteis have been staying there for two and half centuries or more, but not less. Some went as captives, some were invited by royals and some as specialists in various fields and some perhaps as part of matrimonial entourage. There were also settlements in other places like Rangoon, Shan, Tamu, banks of Chindwin, near Shamjok and near the borders of Manipur.

Many have disappeared or converted, but whatever is left as Kates, now they have become a part of history and those Manipuris are part and parcel of Myanmar. In fact, Myanmar has been convergence of many civilisations and cultures, the Burmese Indian Communities, amounts to about 2% of the population according to latest census of Myanmar. A boy who drove us was a Kate who recently got converted in to Burmese, who still remembers a few words of Kate language, called us Mama (maternal uncle), wished us greeting "Ming-glaba"; we also greeted "Ming-glaba".

As we frequented Sundergopal Sharma's Mandap, we needed local transportation; we used his open pick up van, sitting on the deck floor, cross legged. That was a common and cheap transportation, but for us it was free, courtesy of Brajagopal Sharma (Burmese name Soe Thein Tin, available on fb), Eigya Sundergopal's son, a very nice young man.

Of course, transportation is not costly in Mandalay at all. Anyway, courtesy is sometimes compelling, one has to accept it. We enjoyed the ride that the boy offered; also took a lot of photographs with his vehicle.Our hotel, Hotel Marvel is over the Mandalay Railway station, it is one of the best hotels there.

Mandalay, though the second largest city of Myanmar, still have meter gauge railway and there was no crowd in the railway station. On reaching our hotel, we said "Chezu Timareh, thank you". Getting down, I said "Yabare, yabare", yabare is like "yare, yare, (okay, okay)" in Manipuri . Myanmarese language is very similar to ours and very sweet.I was just wondering if this boywould ever become a Kate again.

Mandalay is not the best city in Myanmar nor the most beautiful tourist place but it has many charms. There are beautiful places like Bagan, Pegu, Yangon, Ngapali etc. but Mandalay is so special to us. "Come again" was the last words from those present in the Eigya Sundergopal's "walhousang" on the last day. Every was feeling that happiness of finding lost kins was about to be over.

We had the last feast on the day of our departure there, many of the people of Bamon Khunjao of Mandalay were present. Though the sojourn was brief, a sort of parting heavy heart was there, unspoken, all of us wished to come again one day and this time to get down to Ningthi and touch its waters and meet these brethren once again.

* Akham Bonbirdhwaja Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer can be contacted at bonbir01(AT)rediffmail(DOT)com
This article was posted on 28 June, 2018 .

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