I hoped to find someone who I can talk to about Burma during my trip, and I found someone where I least expected myself to; the house I was staying in. I was looking out for someone who lived through different eras of Burma and would tell me in detail about how life was in a country which fell from economic stability to stagnation. I didn’t want to ask any of my relatives because they’d have more or less the same thing to tell me. I wanted someone from a different background, someone who didn’t want to live to become rich and who lived life satisfactorily. And I did find him; he is the night watchman of my uncle’s family, Mr. Akber Ali Khan.
All it took for me was to ask him ask his name, after that, conversations between us came naturally. Just greeting him was enough; I’d find myself sitting outside with him and chatting unmindful of the time; after all he was one of the few people with whom I could converse in Urdu or Hindi and English so fluently in that country. Of average height, he looked another ordinary Burmese Indian (there are many in Burma). But there was much more to him, more than what anyone could see.
His father was a Pathan who came to Burma through the British army which he had joined prior to India and Burma’s independence from the British Raj. He told me his father was 6’5 in height. Being 6’2 myself, I couldn’t help imagine him. Pathans are known for their huge and herculean physiques, but 6’5 was something I’d never seen in my life (actually, seen taller). Our conversation actually started with him telling me I resembled his son, who was few inches shorter than me apparently. I could sense happiness in his voice as he spoke to me and I was more than happy to speak to him. His joy brought a little happiness in me that I was able to make someone happy just by speaking to him. He called me Yunus Bhai, I didn’t like it: I never like anyone addressing me with anything other than my name if they are older than me. Anyway, his 67 years of age showed on his face. The reason I was immensely interested in knowing about his life was because he had seen Burma fall from its zenith of economic stature to its current scenario.
My grandfather had told me many anecdotes from his life when he was in Burma and when he was very wealthy. He had returned to India because the Burmese government has nationalized everything and sent many Indians packing home. Most of those Indians were businessmen. Even today those of Indian descent living in Burma are businessmen, most of their origins rooted in Tamilnadu and Gujarat. But Mr. Akber Ali Khan was different. He had an surprisingly warm smile on his face every time I saw him, I could see that he was content with his life. What amazed me the most after a I spent some time conversing with him was that he was one of the few people who used to speak to me in English (Burmese people don’t concentrate on English communication). As I enquired, my curiosity got the better of me and we had a very detailed conversation about him. Here’s what I learnt from him.
He studied in a Burmese school, which back then, under the British rule taught good English, and a week after he joined university, it shut shop because the government was taken over by the ruling military faction; the same faction that destroyed the country from within. As he grew up, he watched his towering and brave father live and teach him things. His father was a doctor, Dr. Sher Ali Khan. He was a Kashmiri Pathan muslim. I was profoundly surprised that a Pathan had chosen to live in a country like Burma. Not only that, his father even got married in Burma, 4 times apparently. He shared many stories about his father, about how brave and pious he was. As good as he was, his anger was equally ferocious. Not afraid of anything or anyone, his father truly stood up to his name, Sher Ali. How cool! I thought to myself, here was a man who not only was named after a grand animal, but was also a grand human. The reason why Akbar uncle was fond of me was because apparently my height reminded him of his father. He was surprisingly short, I asked whether his mother was short and there was the answer to my question. I guess not much of dad’s genes had passed on to his siblings or himself.
Both he and his father had lived through stages of the country where protests were rife and had been quelled by the government with oppression. It was a wonder that this man knew so much about everything. One thing he told me surprised me; that Burmese rulers had many Indians working for them, because apparently they were aware of the fact that Indians are more loyal to their masters than Burmese people. Given the many examples of my country’s fellowmen, it wasn’t so hard for me to believe. Akbar uncle had worked as a watchman at a hospital for almost two decades. His father left behind a legacy of 17 children out of whom a little more than half are alive today. He and the rest of his brothers and sisters never differentiated between the mothers. He had been with only two and one still remains alive today, who he loves very much and takes care of.
Out of his four children and according to him his second son resembles me, and that’s probably why he probably lights up every time I speak to him. His youngest daughter just passed school and the older one just got married and has a degree in biotechnology. He didn’t tell me much about his oldest son. After everything he told me, I just had one question, the question which I cannot and am afraid to ask others who are looking to become wealthier every day, but never happiness.; I’m afraid to ask because I’m never sure whether the answer will be honest or not. I asked him whether he was happy and had lived a good life. To my surprise, his answer was yes and he told me that he couldn’t have lived more happily. This, coming from a man who is the night watchman of my uncle’s house. Surprisingly, I have known people who are still complaining about life in spite of having so much. Little do they know that true happiness comes not from money, but from the heart when it is truly happy and at peace.
And as for his job? He is more than happy to work for a man who lets him offer namaz 6 times a day. He appreciates the fact that he is working for such a good and open hearted man and his family. He is fond of his work and does the best he can everyday. His happiness stems from what I could only say is a zest for life. I don’t think I could ever smile if I worked like that.
What bothers me most is that, his whole life could have shaped differently had it not been for the government’s military regime. He would have been a university graduate who would have had a bright future. Nonetheless, I’ve now learnt that life is truly unfair to most and I am appreciative of the fact that I’m holding a laptop and typing away about what I feel like. To all those of you who wondered why I chose journalism, here’s the answer. IF it’s not for people like me who make known about others through words, the world would have been truly ignorant.
And as for Mr. Akbar Ali khan, he still works diligently and happily for my uncle.