“The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma” by Thant Myint-U

The River of Lost Footsteps

I really, truly loved this book. Let me tell you why. Myanmar is India’s neighbour alright but this is the first time I came across a book written by a Burmese author. It is both historical and personal and tells us what has been happening in this closeted country during the last 100 years. The legacies of British colonialism, the brutalities of the Second World War, the bloody civil war of the late 1940s, the Chinese invasion in the 1950s, independence in the 1960s and subsequent rule by the military are laid bare with rare insight and political acumen.

India and Burma have overlapping histories and a common experience of British occupation. Having lived in India all my life, I had read history and understood international relations through my own special nationalist prism. I found Myint-U’s perception of historical events refreshingly different and authentic too.

The book provides much food for thought. The author points out that like Bahadur Shah Zafar, India’s last emperor, who was exiled to Rangoon, Burma’s last king, Thibaw, was exiled to Ratnagiri in India. His description of the fall of Singapore in 1942 to Japanese forces is revealing: “Despite all the frenzied preparation (at the expense of Burma), the ‘impregnable fortress’ of Singapore fell on 15 February, and Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, with knobby knees and in short khakhi trousers, surrendered at the Ford motor factory to the much smaller force of General Tomoyuki Yamashita, the bull-necked ‘Tiger of Malaya’. No fewer than seventy-thousand imperial troops – British, Australians and Indians – had been defeated by thirty thousand Japanese.”

The author informs us that the Buddha died in 484 B.C. at the age of 80 after eating contaminated pork. When Chandragupta Maurya defeated Alexander’s general Seleucus Nicator and a peace treaty was concluded, the Macedonians “ceded most of the occupied territory in return for five hundred elephants.” The Burmese word for college, tekkatho is derived from Taxila. When Pagan was at the height of its glory in the 12th century, the kings and nobles wrote in Sanskrit and Pali and experimented with various Indian scripts until finally the Burmese language was reduced to writing (with a script from South India).

In 1106 when a delegation from Pagan reached the Chinese imperial court at Kaifeng, the emperor ordered that they be accorded the same rank and respect as the Cholas of South India. (The author calls them Colas. I guess he too is a victim of Americanization!) However, the Grand Council observed that the Colas were subordinate to the Sri Vijaya Kingdom of Sumatra whereas Pagan was now a big and independent kingdom. (This was one hundred years after Raja Raja Chola built the Brihadeeswara Temple at Thanjavur.)

In 1657 following the death of Shah Jahan, when Aurangzeb seized the throne, his brother Shah Shuja fled to Burma with his family and was sheltered by Sanda Thudamma, the king of Arakan. The king soon fell in love with Shah Shuja’s daughter Ameena and asked for her hand. Shah Shuja was horrified – and planned a coup in response. The plot was discovered and Shah Shuja fled to the jungle, where he was captured and killed. The princesses ended up in Thudamma’s harem, but soon afterward the king suspected another plot and slaughtered all the members of the Mughal royal family, including a visibly pregnant Ameena. A furious Aurangzeb besieged the Burmese kingdom. A year later when Chittagong fell to the Mughals, two thousand Arakanese were sold into slavery.

Ayutthaya, the capita of Siam (named after Ayodhya of the Ramayana), was razed to the ground by the Burmese in 1767. In the 18th century they were on an invasion spree – they routinely invaded Manipur, and on one occasion almost wiped out the entire population. In 1817 they occupied Assam.

Here’s something I really need to share: “The modern war rocket started its life, not in the West, as one might expect, but in India. In 1799, as the British laid siege to Seringapatam , Colonel Arthur Wellesly (the future duke of Wellington) advanced with his men toward a small hill nearby, only to be attacked by a tremendous barrage of rocket fire and forced to flee in complete disarray. When the fortress finally fell, among the enormous loot sent away to England were two specimens of Mysorean rockets.” This triggered a vigorous R&D program at the Royal Woolwich Arsenal and an improved version soon emerged – the Congreve rocket. Eight years later Copenhagen received the first shower of 40,000 rockets. In 1812 Washington DC was bombarded, burnt, and captured for the day. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The author can be forgiven for saying that Bihar is the birthplace of the Buddha. It was Gautama’s karma bhumi after all. What if he was born in Lumbini in Nepal?

Overall Assessment: Absolutely brilliant.

The River of Lost Footsteps – A Personal History of Burma
AUTHOR: Thant Myint-U
PUBLISHER: Faber and Faber Ltd., Bloomsbury House, UK

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

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