Gujarat’s ‘Rangoon Wallas’
By Ketaki Pant
26 June 2014
Historic links between Gujarati Muslim merchants and Burma point to an alternative vision of economic engagement in the region.
Gujarat appeared centre stage in the months leading up to the Indian national elections this year, contested between the incumbent Indian National Congress, the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a host of other alternative and regional parties. As Indian voters lined up to cast their ballots, they turned their attentions to the western Indian state of Gujarat and its long-standing Chief Minister Narendra Modi, whose unprecedented campaign became the focal point of the elections. On May 26 he was sworn in as the new Prime Minister of India.
Modi, the touted frontrunner during the election campaign, built his brand on the idea of the ‘Gujarat Model’. Roughly defined as a composite of Modi’s policies, including a purportedly tough stance on corruption, minimal government interference in the economy and a vision of Gujarat as an exclusively Hindu ‘rashtra’, this model is credited for Gujarat’s supposed exceptional economic growth. Modi now proposes to implement it on a national scale.
Modi supporters gush about smooth roads, high growth rates and lack of corruption. But many Indians are sceptical about such claims, especially as they continue to stand in the shadow of the coordinated violence against Gujarati Muslims in 2002 and the systematic destruction of their property and businesses, which, many claim, occurred under Modi’s watch and with his approval. Critics of Modi also argue, based on Gujarat’s malnutrition, infant mortality and poverty indicators, the so-called high-growth rate figures are flawed and belie state policies that discriminate against minorities, workers and the poor.
Though critics are sceptical about the veracity of Modi’s model, there has been little interest in considering alternative forms of identity and economy from within Gujarat itself, historically a powerhouse of economic growth. While Modi is routinely criticised for his anti-Muslim policies, there has been little effort to examine the rich history of Islam in Gujarat or to consider the role Islam has played in Gujarat’s economy. As someone who has devoted much of the last ten years to the study of this region, I am struck by this stark absence in the national conversation around Gujarat. Part of the problem is the conflation of Modi’s ‘Gujarat Model’ economic platform with the rich and varied economy Gujarat has historically authored through its diverse mercantile groups.
Historians K N Chaudhuri and Ashin Das Gupta have shown us that Gujarat was a major international region of trade and commerce even prior to the arrival of European trading companies. Art historians, including Ruth Barnes, Steven Cohen and Rosemary Crill, have long written about Gujarat’s vibrant trade in precious textiles, which were in high demand in markets across the Indian Ocean. Gujarat’s coastline, dotted by ports like Khambat, Surat, Bharuch and Diu, was a major node in international trade networks. Gujarat’s various state-building projects, including the Muzaffarid Sultanate (1391-1583), offered low taxes on trade, excellent port services and hospitality toward itinerant merchants, including Armenians, Jews and Muslims from across the Indian Ocean who made their homes in Gujarat. Up until the 18th century, Gujarat’s ports were very much like 19th-century Singapore and 20th-century Dubai: they were commercial hubs and trans-shipment points. Gujarat’s Hindu mercantile castes developed the commercial acumen they are famous for today in the crucible of this outward-looking economy. This is a phenomenon that we can trace to a more familiar contemporary figure: Dhirubhai Ambani. Hamish McDonald’s controversial book The Polyester Prince links Ambani’s formative commercial experiences learning the byways of the souk (market) in Aden, a major seaport of Yemen, to the creation of Reliance Industries, the second largest public limited corporation in India.
But beyond these national icons of business, Gujaratis and Gujarati Muslims in particular, like the Vohras, Bohras and Ismailis, have been amongst the most mobile and cosmopolitan of mercantile groups. They have tenaciously pursued economic opportunity abroad, linking Gujarat to the wider world. Instead of considering Gujarat’s economy in political language promoted by the Hindu Right, this article shifts gears and travels along backroads, along rivers that once connected hinterland Gujarat to the Indian Ocean. I am interested in looking at Gujarat as a place in which people have always lived along the seam of networks formed by the economy. I want to trace how this economy is both intimately imagined and inhabited; how it is recollected in memory and embedded in circulating objects. Wandering through Variav – a town in coastal Gujarat inhabited by Muslim merchants – and its historic homes, which were connected to colonial Rangoon before the expulsions of the 1960s, I find myself in the realm of a quite different economy and narrative of globalisation, one richly told by three generations of women.
The dominant discourse around the election presented voters with a false dichotomy: a ‘choice’ between economic growth represented by the Modi-led BJP and minority rights associated with the Congress and other parties. Variav and its residents show us that both a capacious definition of belonging and a desire for commerce have always been two sides of the same coin, at least in Gujarat.
Memories of Rangoon
Variav is a qasba, a satellite of the port of Surat, and is located ten kilometres from the Indian Ocean along the Tapti River. Today, it is home to mostly Vohras, Sunni Muslim merchants who were once active in Rangoon (officially Yangon), Burma.
I arrive in Variav in an old beaten-up Maruti van. It rattles on the road that winds along the river. The previous week, while conducting research in another qasba on the banks of the Tapti, I heard about a place that was entirely populated by ‘Rangoon Wallas’, merchants who once lived in Rangoon. This was 2012 and I was in Gujarat doing fieldwork for my doctoral dissertation, exploring merchant homes as alternative spaces of Indian Ocean history. Rohinton Ruwalla, a Parsi, who himself lived in a beautiful 17th-century home, told me that he had heard about the havelis (wooden houses) of Variav. He contacted a friend, Mr Patangwala, who would be able to drive me to Variav and introduce me to some of its residents.
We arrive in Variav around eleven in the morning under a beating sun. At first glance, Variav looks more of a village than a town. In front of me stands a collection of wooden and stucco havelis built around a mint-green mosque. The havelis are distinctive in style: they are two- or three-storeys high with carved teak pillars framing the entrances and otlas (raised porches) leading up to thick carved darvazas (carved doors). They are painted in bright colours, and cut a striking picture set against the river and its sandy embankment.
Given the proximity to the Indian Ocean, Variav’s homes were historically oriented to currents beyond their shores. In the 19th and 20th centuries, a majority of Variav’s families had at least one member away working in Rangoon. Families were often reunited as people returned to get married, spend Ramadan and Eid with family, and check up on ancestral property. This was a place that was constantly in flux: the city’s population ebbed and flowed with the arrivals and departures of its Rangoon residents.
Mrs Esmael née Keekeebai*, whose home we are welcomed into, was born in Rangoon in 1937. She visited Variav for the first time at the age of five, when her family returned to Gujarat to wait out the Japanese invasion of Burma. She spoke fluent Gujarati but recalls the shock of small-town Gujarat. She was accustomed to the wide thoroughfares of Rangoon and found herself in a town arranged around a single mosque. After the war ended, her family returned to Rangoon. But the return to Gujarat foreshadowed events to come.
A decade later, Mrs Esmael was married. She remembers her early marriage years fondly, particularly getting together with friends and going on Sunday picnics. She said that Sunni Muslim Gujaratis kept together in Rangoon. They attended the same mosques and formed merchant organisations. Her family was part of the Sunni Surti Barra Bazaar, a mercantile organisation that provided a common meeting point for Sunni Gujaratis in Rangoon. The organisation coordinated a range of activities from mediation in commercial disputes to community events and feasts.
Burma was declared independent in 1948 soon after Mrs Esmael’s return from Gujarat. And the years following Burmese independence were prosperous ones. Many Gujaratis, like Mrs Esmael and her family, had lived and worked in Rangoon for generations and saw no reason to leave. Like many post-colonial hopefuls in new nation states across Asia and Africa, they saw a burgeoning age of prosperity unfold before them. The leader of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, Aung San, though tragically assassinated six months before the Burmese independence, persuaded many Gujaratis that there was a place for them in independent Burma. After World War II ended, Gujarati families began contributing in the process of rebuilding Burma. Mrs Esmael’s family came into a great deal of wealth at that time. She recalls lockers full of cash and precious stones. Life continued at a good clip. She went out and watched cricket matches on the weekends.
As the decade wore on, seemingly isolated incidents of theft and violence against Gujaratis and other Southasians began to occur. Looking back today, Mrs Esmael cannot put her finger on how and why things deteriorated so quickly. She can only recall that there came a point when she felt unsafe walking in Rangoon on her own. From that memory she jumps forward to the last days before her family was expelled from Burma.
What Mrs Esmael does remember quite clearly is the enormous wealth that was left behind: lockers full of rubies, diamonds and emeralds; carved teak wood furniture; and almaris (cupboards/drawers) full of expensive clothing. The return journey on ship – sometime in the 1960s – took Mrs Esmael and others first to the port of Calcutta. From here people scattered. The Gujaratis amongst the returnees found their way back to western India from where many regrouped and travelled to Europe and North America. Mrs Esmael returned to Variav, to the stucco home her family had built three decades earlier, now the only remaining material texture of their wealth from Rangoon.
After the initial meet-and-greet over chai and biscuits, after introductions and inquiries about the nature of my research and my motivations for finding out more about Variav and the lives of its returnees, I am taken on a tour of the haveli by Mrs Esmael’s granddaughter Sara.
Sara is 19-years old and has just returned from a busy day in Surat, where she works as a partner in her father’s travel agency. She bustles into the room while we are drinking chai. She is professionally dressed, and her head is fashionably wrapped in hijab. She has a bubbly personality and greets her guests warmly. She is keen to hear about my research, and she too reiterates the great wealth that was lost when her family left Rangoon, though the events we discuss occurred many decades before she was born. Over the course of several visits, I rarely see her mother, who is often busy cooking, and I never meet her father. He owns several businesses and is generally away on work. On my last visit, Sara tells me her father is in Rangoon: ever since Burma has relaxed its borders, many from Variav have made trips back to reunite with relatives who were left behind or chose to stay. When I ask Sara if she will accompany her father, she tells me that it has always been her dream to return to her grandmother’s city.
After washing up and changing into something more comfortable, Sara offers to show me the house. Like many Gujarati havelis, the house is oriented around a central axis (often a courtyard) and the family apartments are tucked away in the privacy of the second floor. Vaulted staircases and dark attics make the haveli seem like a maze from the interior.
Male visitors are entertained on the first floor, separate from the family area upstairs. As a female, I was immediately granted access to the women’s apartments upstairs, but as I take the tour, I get a sense of the ways the haveli is organised – in equal parts around hospitality and privacy.
As Sara walks me through the home, I encounter material remains of the history Mrs Esmael narrated to me. There is a large wooden chest, once used as a trunk for travel, gathering dust in the corner of one of the bedrooms. Glass cabinets built into the wall in many rooms display steel dishes and painted glass vases that Sara tells me were brought back as mementos of Rangoon. Much of the furniture is made of teak wood. And when Sara opens a trap door to the attic, she tells me that many of the wood beams used to construct the house were imported from Rangoon in the 1930s. Sara’s tour of the house is oriented less around the architectural layout of the rooms and more on this trail of objects, which, like Mrs Esmael, once travelled across the Indian Ocean. These objects function as material metonyms: a travel chest, mementos of Rangoon, and teak wood, in quite different registers, point to a life once lived somewhere else, now collecting dust in the recesses of home and memory.
After my initial visit, I return many times to Mrs Esmael’s house in Variav. Over the course of these additional visits, I also visit the homes of other families who have an association with Rangoon. One afternoon after lunch, Sara and I visit the home of three sisters who are distant relations of Sara’s family. They are in their fifties and have never been to Rangoon, but they are excited to sit down and chat with me about the place they came to know through their father who spent his early life there.
Like Mrs Esmael’s home, the three sisters live in a house that is crammed with traces of the city. They too have carefully preserved the many objects that their father brought back with him, and when he returned to Variav permanently, they remember his recollections about playing cricket in Rangoon. When he left Rangoon, he managed to carry with him the many medals he won as an ace cricketer, which are displayed in a glass case. The sisters offer to take them out for me to photograph, but instead of photographing the medals, I turn them over in my hand, feeling the texture of the inscriptions and the weight of the metal.
When it is time to leave, my gaze catches a peculiar image painted onto a teak wall cabinet. It is a river. But upon closer inspection, I discover that it is not the Tapti which flows a stone’s throw away from the house, but the Irrawaddy, many thousands of miles across the Indian Ocean, as it cuts through Rangoon. Perhaps it is a reproduction of a postcard their father brought back as a keepsake. The river dominates the image and two country crafts float in the water. There are steps leading up to what looks like a shrine, and a footbridge leads across from one side to the other. A colonial clock tower stands tall across the bridge.
The sisters haven’t married. And though I do not pry, they explain to me that they would rather live in the home their father built than be “married-off” to some stranger and leave Variav. Their mother is still alive but ailing and they are happy to live amongst this tight circle of women. Perhaps the waters of the Irrawaddy that dominate the cabinet mark a nostalgia for a different location, one that is long gone, and yet one that the sisters prefer to the life that unfolds outside. Though Sara’s energy is infectious and they are quickly drawn into asking her many questions about her work and news of relatives now in the UK, their home possesses the atmosphere of a strange and beautiful twilight.
The homes of the Rangoon Wallas were built in the 1930s after a half-century of travel and trade in Rangoon. Mrs Esmael tells me that perhaps the most striking of the buildings from this period is Madha Mansion, a large, now abandoned, colonial-era mansion. Madha Mansion spurred a boom in construction activity, which gave rise to the havelis that today cluster around the mosque. Wealth remitted home from the frontier economy of Rangoon in the early decades of the 20th century gave Variav a new complexion, the same one that today is saturated with the past.
The Madhas also built the Variav Water Works, which brought running water to homes in 1930. It was commemorated by a souvenir photograph, a black-and-white image of a silo-looking structure. In one of the homes I visit, it is mounted on the wall in a gilt frame.
Madha Mansion is set against the Tapti River. It is an enormous house, quite different from the smaller houses closer to the mosque. The house appears to be a mix of several different architectural styles. The oldest part of the house is a colonial-style bungalow with a veranda running around its perimeter. Its architectural features, like much of Gujarat’s architecture, are a mélange of different styles, combining Portuguese and late-Victorian ornament with local Gujarati woodcarving and masonry. The Madhas seem to have tacked on additional structures to expand the more humble bungalow. The additions dwarf the bungalow shell and give the house a formidable look. There are staff quarters at the rear of the compound. The roof is caved in and the once tended grounds are overgrown with weeds and trees.
The house’s interiors are covered in cobwebs and thick dust. Like the more modest homes I have visited, Madha Mansion is also chock-full of relics. But rather than buffed to a shine and treasured in glass cabinets, these relics are debris from another time. Walking through the remnants, it is clear that these objects are not spurs to memory. In the formal living room downstairs, there are cabinets full of plates and bowls, part of an elaborate dining set, embossed with the family’s crest. On a table sit two coal irons rusting. There is a large iron safe in another corner of the room: open, empty. The stained glass windows are still intact and bathe the room in hues of orange and red. Pigeons too have made this their home and the corners of the rooms are caked with their droppings. There is a modern-style bathroom on the ground floor with a rusting metal pipe for a shower. Despite the dust, I can make out the black and white tiles. Several wooden staircases lead to the top floors, but have been deemed too unstable to climb.
Though much of the furniture is gone, either appropriated by townspeople or sold to antique dealers, the remainders of the house make it seem like it was suddenly evacuated, unexpectedly abandoned. Mrs Esmael is not specific about the fate of the Madhas. She simply says that after leaving Rangoon they travelled to the United States, where they now live in San Francisco. They have not returned to Variav but have also chosen not to sell the valuable land on which their home now decomposes. Mrs Esmael still hopes that Variav’s first family – who once brought running water to the town – will one day return.
Variav was built on profit from trade on one of the British Empire’s most lucrative frontiers, and its residents today experience the fissures of the imperial – and now national – economy through the remains of their homes. Scapegoated in the 1960s as a rentier class who exploited the local Burmese, the Rangoon Wallas found themselves unwelcome in the city they considered home. Forced to return to Gujarat – either to remain in Variav or try their fortune once again elsewhere – they continue to cast in their lot with the volatile currents of the global economy.
One day, almost two years after my first visit, I come across two references to Variav while perusing the Kisseh-i-Sanjan (History of Sanjan), a 17th century Parsi narrative poem, composed in Persian by Bahman Kaikobad. It has been translated and republished in several editions and is a major source of history of the early years of Parsi settlement in Gujarat. The text in front of me is a 20th-century edition, published by H E Eduljee. In the appendices I find an entry titled “The Massacre at Variav” which explores historical narratives of a massacre of Parsis, circa 1700 CE. The two main narratives, by historians Sorabjee Mancherjee Desai and Framjee Dosabhai Karaka, both of whom wrote in the late 19th century, tell us that in the 11th century, Parsis settled in a town called Variav on the banks of the Tapti a short distance away from Surat. The massacre occurred during a Parsi marriage festival when either a local raja’s troops or tribal warriors attacked the Parsi festivities, destroyed the town and killed many men and women. According to Karaka, the tragedy was mourned annually in Surat, where it lived on in historical memory, at least till the time of his writing in the 19th century.
As I read this other history of Variav, which transpired several hundred years before the Rangoon Wallas built their homes, it reminds me that Gujarat’s qasbas, seemingly small towns near rivers and ports, have always been in motion, constantly morphing into new shapes. Whether felled by cataclysmic events or simply the slow erosion of time, past versions are shed and places are borne anew. New itineraries are constructed along older routes. And memories of this history tell of both the opportunities and disappointments of a place and people tethered to the mercurial currents of a world beyond India. Remnants of this constant change become stuck and congealed in odd and obscure places, as I experience in the homes of the Rangoon Wallas. It is in these surprising, living locations that we glimpse Gujarat’s rich and varied history and economy, which can never be the ownership of a single religious group or faddish political figure.
As Narendra Modi takes the reins of the national government and attempts to cleave a path forward for India’s economy, which has dwindled to an anaemic five percent rate of growth, he would do well to look back at his home state with different eyes, through the experiences of old merchant families who are intimately acquainted with the perils and possibilities of economic success. As unlikely as such a scenario might sound, the ambivalent and impossible longings of the Rangoon Wallas set a precedent for imagining such a strange reversal and rebirth.
* Names have been changed to protect the identity of my informants.
~ Ketaki Pant is a PhD candidate in the department of History at Duke University. She is currently at work on an ethnographic history titled Homes of Capital: Merchants and Mobility in Indian Ocean Gujarat.
~ Acknowledgements: Research for this project was made possible by generous support from the Wenner-Gren Foundation and an Ernestine Friedl Research Award from Women’s Studies at Duke University. For their insightful comments I am grateful to Anupama and Rajesh Pant and Catherine Talley.