My grandfather, Alex De Souza, from the Goan village of Sangolda, was a typical early emigrant to Burma. At his parish school, he had studied Portuguese, Konkani, Christian doctrine and sacred music. He went to Rangoon in the first decade of the 20th century. This was an era of silent movies, when live musicians with excellent sight-reading skills were needed to provide the background music to the films being screened, from printed scores provided by the producers. Musicians were also needed for the orchestras that played in hotels and clubs, and in British military bands. Talented Goan musicians found ready opportunities in the large cities of British India, of which Burma was then a part. In Rangoon, living in a ‘chummery’ (bachelor lodgings) to begin with, Alex joined a string quartet of violins, viola and cello, playing light chamber music such as Strauss waltzes, Hungarian dances, Gypsy airs, Italian ballads (cancions), Iberian tangos and the like for formal luncheons and dinners at the Strand Hotel and Pegu Club.
He soon was offered more-lucrative opportunities to play background music for silent films in larger orchestras at the Excelsior and other movie theatres in Rangoon. Socially, he came in contact with a well-off, and much anglicised, De Souza family, residing in the Indian upper-class Bauktaw suburb of the city. They also owned a holiday home in Kalaw, a lovely hill station perched at nearly 4500 ft on the western rim of the Shan plateau, to which they would retire every sweltering Burmese summer. The family had four well-educated and stylish daughters, Mary, Maud, Kate and Agatha.
By and by, Alex fell in love with Mary, who was willing to marry him provided he got a ‘steady’ job (meaning in an office, preferably with the government). So, this is what he set out to do. To improve his command over the English language, a prerequisite for any such appointment, Alex spent his spare time working through primers, books of grammar and composition, then moving on to children’s stories by Hans Christian Anderson, then Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy. After some time he was appointed as a proofreader in the Government Printing Press in Rangoon, and he married Mary soon after. Alex continued with selective musical engagements during this time, which did not interfere with the job; eventually, he rose to the post of examiner-in-charge of the Press.
Mary and Alex had three children, named Martin (my father), Michael and Margaret. All of them attended a Baptist missionary school in Rangoon, side by side with their musical studies. Margaret qualified as a piano teacher, while Michael could play violin and double bass but instead went into pharmacology, becoming a partner in the firm of E M De Souza & Co Rangoon. Martin, meanwhile, had seriously taken to the piano, but with an interest mainly in popular dance music, particularly in the balladic style popularised by Charlie Kunz. He developed a special affinity for the music of George Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, though he also loved to play the classical works of Chopin, which he would often play late into the night.
In December 1931, Alex’s entire family visited Goa for the decennial exposition of the body of St Francis Xavier. The following month, however, instead of returning to Burma with the rest of the family, Martin joined a band from Goa, which undertook seasonal contracts to play dance music in nightclubs of Bombay and Delhi. In 1934, Martin married Florence (Florie) Luis, then a student in Bombay. The couple returned to Goa where, while Martin went on and off contracts, Florie stayed with her maternal aunt and her family. My sister, Anne, was born there in August 1937. Two years later, in September 1939, when Florie was seven months pregnant, Martin began to make preparations to take his little family to Burma, having decided to make his home in the (by then) highly developed hill station of Maymyo, about 25 miles east of Mandalay.
In 1896, Maymyo was selected as the official summer capital of the government, and a railway line from Mandalay through Maymyo to Hsipaw and Lashio, near the China border was laid in 1903. Inevitably, this gave further fillip to the hill town’s development. Turkish prisoners of war, taken in Europe during the First World War, were brought to Maymyo by the governor of Burma, Harcourt Butler, and used to create a magnificent 432-acre botanical garden set beside a large lake. All of this eventually attracted a permanent population of some 6500, along with several schools, mission hospitals, churches and clubs, as well as hotels catering to the annual summer influx of more than twice that number. By 1939, the year Martin and his family headed to Maymyo from Goa, some 25,000 residents lived in the town.
After the train journey from Goa through Castle Rock to Londa, and another longer one across the Deccan to Madras, the rough sea voyage to Rangoon proved too much for Florie. She delivered a premature child – me – on the open seas between Madras and Port Blair, in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Apart from playing the pipe organ in church, Martin soon formed his own quintet, with piano, bass, drums, trumpet and saxophone or clarinet. The band’s first assignment was to play weekends at a hotel called the Candacraig, though they also played elsewhere for weddings, dances and balls, particularly during the summer when the hill station would be bustling with crowds seeking refuge from the heat of the Burmese plains. It was a good life – almost too good to last. And so it proved, when the Japanese advanced swiftly into Burma during World War II, setting to flight the British forces.
Songs from the basha
The British made their first stand against the Japanese on the Salween River around Moulmein, after which they were driven westwards along the coast road to Thaton and across the Sittang to Pegu. There, a second defeat led to their evacuation from Rangoon on 7 March 1942 as well as a retreat through Prome; refugees of Indian origin had already made their miserable way on foot over the pass in the Arakan Yoma to Taungup near the Bay of Bengal, and were then evacuated to Chittagong. Still others fled north towards Mandalay, with the intention of continuing the journey and crossing the border into India.
Not wishing to join the exodus, Alex took his daughter Margaret, his wife and her sisters (Maud, Kate and Agatha, who had remained spinsters) to Kalaw. Michael joined them soon after. This hill station would escape unscathed during the war, being out of the direct path of the advancing Japanese forces. With such small children (Anne was then five, I was three, and Benedict was just a year old), Martin had considered it impractical to join the gruelling exodus to Manipur. Nor could they have joined their relatives in Kalaw, as all access to it from Maymyo had been blocked by this time. Instead, he shifted the family to one of the Gurkha-dominated villages called Mogyibin, on the outskirts of Maymyo, even as the Japanese entered the hill station on 8 May 1942 and made the former governor’s mansion into a headquarters.
Soon, a few other Goans, similarly stranded in Upper Burma, also came to reside in the vicinity of Mogyibin. Here they all constructed bashas (Burmese thatched bamboo huts built on stilts) for themselves, and survived for the next three years largely by growing maize and utilising whatever savings they had hoarded. Paper currency, both British and Japanese, had very little value during this period, resulting in uncontrollable inflation. Gradually, barter trade became more common.
Of all the Japanese-occupied countries, Burma suffered worst during the invasion. Many of its towns were reduced to ashes by air raids, while Burmese oil wells, mining equipment and river transport were deliberately destroyed in the so-called ‘scorched earth’ policy of the retreating British. The complete stoppage of Burmese rice exports, through the failure of the Japanese to take it, led many to take up subsistence farming. The peasantry also lost many of their cattle through military requisition for food and an epidemic of rinderpest. Malaria-control measures ceased during this time and there were epidemics of smallpox, cholera and bubonic plague, against which the authorities were forced to take drastic preventive measures.
In December 1942, British Brigadier Orde Wingate, with a special training force named the Chindits, marched from Imphal to Tonhe on the Chindwin River to carry out a campaign of sabotage and destruction on the Mandalay-Myitkyina railway. For weeks thereafter, the Japanese Kempetai (military police) routed the Chindit advance and, in the course of a military search by the Kempetai, one Captain Tanaka visited Mogyibin, including Martin’s basha. Seeing a piano in a village like this made the officer wonder whether it concealed a wireless transmitter or receiver, and Tanaka asked for it to be stripped to its bare components. Martin not only complied, but also demonstrated its true nature by playing a sad Japanese tune – ‘Sado okesa’ – from a songbook he had purchased a few years earlier at a festival organised by the Japan-Burma Friendship Association.
Martin went on to play all the tunes in the book, to the delight of the officer and his companions. Martin then explained that his family hailed from Goa, a colony of the Portuguese, who were neutral in the war. Thereafter, Captain Tanaka would occasionally stop by the basha with members of his troop, bringing sweets, sake, quinine tablets (there was a malaria epidemic in the area) and even a Japanese doll for my new sister, Theresa, born in July 1943. They would stay on to listen to Japanese songs, often wearing sad, nostalgic expressions. They even taught me to sing a catchy Japanese military march, ‘Ima koso-u teto senso ono’, which I still remember.
In time, Martin was given a paid assignment to play these and other Japanese songs twice a week at the Candacraig Hotel, back in Maymyo. To facilitate his movement, he was given a new bicycle and, more importantly, an ivory seal with his name and occupation embossed in Japanese script, which he used to pass through the several security check posts along the way to Maymyo.
On 1 August 1943, the Japanese declared Burma an independent country under the presidency of Ba Maw. Brigadier Ne Win was made commander of the Burmese National Army. There was no talk of reviving the Constitution of 1937 and, in any case, real control was in the hands of Gotara Ogawa, formerly a cabinet minister in Tokyo, who became the ‘supreme advisor’ to the Burmese government. Present at the independence ceremony was Subhash Chandra Bose, who had formed the Indian National Army (INA) and held meetings in Maymyo telling the audience about the Indian struggle for independence.
One day, Captain Tanaka informed Martin that the officers of the Indian Independence League wished to stage an entertainment programme for men about to leave for the front. They were to be present at the fall of Imphal and be there to line the route at Bose’s triumphant entry into Manipur. It was to be an open-air show, and Martin was requested to accompany, on piano, singers performing patriotic Indian songs. When it eventually came together, the programme began with humorous satire on the desperate situation of the British Indian Army, while BBC (‘Bluff & Bluster Corporation’) bulletins were parodied with clipped British accents.
By all accounts, the audience laughed hilariously. When it came to the patriotic songs, however, it turned out that the singers, among them Prem Sahgal, the military secretary, had more enthusiasm than musical talent. After the introduction, they all started in different keys, though Martin bravely played on through the cacophony. Later that evening, just as the programme concluded, the moon came up – and with it, the bombers. One bomb struck very close to where the girls of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment had been staying, blocking their entrance. When the debris was cleared away and the girls crept out of the air-raid shelters, they saw their building had been reduced to matchwood.
Welfare and return
During the next two years, dramatic events began to unfold. After American forces (‘Merrill’s Marauders’) captured Myitkyina airport and General Joseph Stilwell’s army recaptured the China Road, the Japanese started to retreat from the north. By January 1945, the whole of the northern area was cleared of Japanese soldiers, and these areas were brought under the Civil Affairs Service (Burma), which appointed welfare officers – mostly drawn from former British government servants, still in the country – to interact with the common people and ensure that government assistance reached them.
Martin applied for the post of welfare officer, was selected and moved his family into one of the empty houses in the elite southeast quarter of the town. The old rented house they had lived in before the war had been one of the casualties of a stray British bomb. Nearby, however, the church remained unscathed, and as residents began to trickle back into town, Martin resumed playing the pipe organ for Sunday services. As a welfare officer, Martin was assigned to communicate with former residents of Maymyo who, like himself, had taken refuge across Shan state, as well as the hundreds of European or Eurasian prisoners of war. (The latter had been held by the Japanese in camps just beyond Mongyo, along the Burma Road.)
Martin had to bring all the refugees and prisoners of war to Mongyo, accommodate them temporarily in hundreds of specially erected bashas, and register them for rations and other civil supplies. Then, he had to send them to Assam by military transport over the Stilwell Road, if they so desired; if not, he brought them to Maymyo, where they were to be accommodated in the hundreds of houses left vacant in the exodus of 1942, or in wooden cantonments built on open grounds. For this work, he was provided with two ‘deuce and half’ military trucks and the requisite complement of drivers, cleaners and armed security guards, all Gurkhas.
Martin was also able to visit Kalaw to assure himself of the well-being of the rest of the family, including Maud, Kate and Agatha. In the meantime, they had adopted two Burmese orphans, named Colette and Esther. Martin returned with Alex and Margaret in time to celebrate Easter in Maymyo. In due time, Martin was designated welfare officer for Amherst district, and reassigned to the Tenasserim coast, in the southernmost part of Burma. Numerous camps existed in this area holding former prisoners of war, particularly those who had been used to build the railway on this route (later made famous by the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai).
During this time, Martin shifted his family from Maymyo to Moulmein, where my youngest brother, Anthony, was born. Martin also took me back to Rangoon, where I met, for the first time, my grandmother Mary and uncle Michael, my grand-aunts Maud, Kate and Agatha, and adopted cousins Esther and Colette. The family coordinated plans to repatriate to Goa, as had been decided. The grand-aunts were the first to sail, and they were already settled in a house in Panjim by the time the rest of the family reached Goa in the summer of 1948 – excluding Michael, who decided to remain in Rangoon.
Margaret soon resumed her career as a piano teacher, while also becoming an accompanist very much in demand. In general, though, there were scant employment prospects in Goa, including in music. So, Martin decided to return alone to Rangoon, on receiving an offer of a job as chief cashier for the United Commercial Bank, registered in Calcutta. The bank had reopened its branch in Rangoon after the war, only to find that most former employees had left the country with no desire to return. During the years he worked this position, Martin sent regular remittances to his family, while visiting Goa every alternate year.
In 1962, Portuguese India, including Goa, was formally integrated into the Indian union and, soon after, the United Commercial Bank opened its first branch in Vasco da Gama. So, Martin was able to move home, where he was accommodated in the same position in which he had served in Rangoon, until his retirement.