Khwaja Mohammed was five when he and his family were forced to leave Burma. It was 1964: he is very clear on the date. A military government had taken power in Burma (now Myanmar) two years earlier and adopted an ultra-nationalist approach which placed the country in isolation for a generation. They also expelled much of the Indian-origin community – perhaps as many as 200,000 people – in what amounted to ethnic cleansing.
Between the world wars, the sea routes across the Bay of Bengal had carried huge numbers of Indians eastwards particularly to the labour- and capital-hungry countries of Burma and Malaya. Sunil Amrith (in Crossing the Bay of Bengal) has described this as ‘one of the world’s great migrations’:
Far more people crossed the Bay of Bengal than any other part of the Indian Ocean. Of the nearly 30 million people who left India’s shores between 1840 and 1940, all but two million of them travelled back and forth between eastern India and just three destinations: Ceylon, Burma and Malaya. This was overwhelmingly a circular migration around the Bay of Bengal. The migration of labor, in turn, made the region the most economically important segment of the Indian Ocean world.
The impact of the Second World War and then of competing nationalisms closed down these migration routes and ruptured what were once close links – economic, social and cultural – between India’s eastern seaboard and Burma.
By 1931 the Burmese capital, Rangoon (now Yangon), had become a mainly Indian city. Burma’s Indian community spoke an array of languages – Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Bengali, Oriya – and among them were groups which practised all of India’s principal religions. During the Second World War, when the Japanese occupied Burma, many Indians sought to escape. A few wealthy traders were able to buy a passage on a steamer heading west. Most were not so fortunate. About 140,000 people of Indian origin embarked on a nightmarish journey north to Assam in what was then British India – more than one-in-four of them failed to survive the trek.
When Khwaja Mohammed’s family was pushed out in a second exodus in the 1960s, they also made their way to where their forbears had come from generations earlier – to India. He now lives in Chennai (previously Madras), the main city in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu and once one of Asia’s great trading ports. Rangoon-returned traders set up what’s still called Burma Bazaar, a market which now specialises in mobile phones and electronic goods. And while the market’s association with Burmese refugees is much diminished, its name is a reminder of the links which once stretched across the Bay of Bengal.
In Chennai, however, the enduring cultural trace of the Burma-returned is culinary. Khwaja Mohammed works at a stall just a short walk from Chennai’s port – and even closer to Burma Bazaar – which specialises in a Burmese-style dish called atho.
There’s a cluster of seven open air Burmese food stalls which make and sell atho. It is in essence a noodle salad, adapted – as dishes so often are when transplanted to a new setting – to fit in with local tastes and produce. A foodie website describes atho as ‘made with grated carrots, cabbage, fried onions combined with garlic oil, chilli powder and lime juice. The orange noodles are mixed with these vegetables (almost always by hand) and the Atho gets its crunch from the addition of bejo, a crispy deep-fried snack crafted with rice flour and a sprinkling of peanuts’. There’s a thick warm sauce infused with banana stem to ladle over the noodles. A generous plateful sells for 60 Rupees – that’s about 70 pence.
The stalls also offer other Burmese-style food. Masala eggs are boiled eggs with the yolks taken out and replaced with spicy fried onions. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the stalls did brisk business in the evenings. All being well, they will soon be back in operation.
Khwaja Mohammed, a Muslim, says there are Hindus and Christians among his co-workers – all from families that were once based in Burma. At his home, Burmese is still spoken alongside Tamil and Hindi. At other stalls, the younger workers are a little hazy about the personal links with Burma – but most are aware of a grandfather or uncle who made the journey back across the Bay of Bengal.
You can get atho at beach counters and roadside cafes but the stalls in the back streets opposite Chennai Beach station are at the heart of the city’s Burmese culinary tradition. This is in an area known as George Town – after King George V – and earlier as Black Town, in distinction to the ‘white’ locality of St George’s Fort where most of the European community initially made their homes.
George Town is an area of huge diversity. Within a few minutes stroll of Mohammed’s stall there are churches (Protestant and Catholic), Hindu mandirs, small mosques and a Jain temple – though the synagogue that once stood on Coral Merchant Street has now gone. Among other nearby buildings are an eighteenth century Armenian church where, until last year, there was an annual Orthodox mass, and Gokhale Hall, established as ‘a political gymnasium’ a little over a century ago by Annie Besant, the British radical, suffragist, Indian nationalist and Theosophist.
There are still almost a million people of Indian origin in Myanmar – about 2% of the total population. Some inner-city areas of Yangon have a distinctly Indian feel. But the community no longer has the prosperity and influence it once enjoyed. While in Chennai, the Burmese noodle stalls are the most tangible remaining imprint of the once close bonds bridging the Bay of Bengal.
Sunil S. Amrith, Crossing the Bay of Bengal: the furies of nature and the fortunes of migrants, Harvard University Press, 2013
Renaud Egreteau, ‘India’s Vanishing “Burma Colonies”. Repatriation, Urban Citizenship, and (De)Mobilization of Indian Returnees from Burma (Myanmar) since the 1960s’, Recherche en sciences humaines sur l’Asie du Sud-Est, 22/213, pp 11-34,
Yamuna Matheswaran, ‘India meets Myanmar at a bustling bazaar in Chennai’, Atlas Obscura, March 2020
Andrew Whitehead is an associate editor of History Workshop Journal and teaches for a semester each year at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. An earlier version of this piece was posted on his blog: https://www.