The Japanese bombing on Christmas 1941 shakes up Rangoon’s little Indian community. Prominent among them is the Anklesaria clan, staunch believers and loyalists of the Crown and the colonial way of life. Their family includes Jehangir, his wife Goola, and their 14-year-old daughter Khorshed.
Dr Jehangir is the port health officer of Rangoon and a key member of the city’s top brass. He moves within circles of influence and his work brings him in close contact with the city’s top officials. Their house has a formal lawn, a tennis court, and a large lawn used for garden parties. His neighbours include the Accountant General of Rangoon, a few embassies, and a small cottage used by American pilots to support the Royal Air Force. Jehangir is slow to believe in the fallibility of the British Empire and hesitant to leave this life of comfort. But in the aftermath of the bombings, he puts his wife and daughter on the next ship to Calcutta while he stays on to keep the docks functional and help with the war effort. He stays even as his office staff and domestic help leave, and the embassies around his home empty out.
While this act in itself is heroic enough, Anklesaria goes several steps further. In the choice between his values and self-preservation, he chooses the former and signs up as a special agent of the empire. His mission: combating the outbreak of cholera and any other epidemic threatening the British Army and the refugees. The retreating forces must bet against three major odds: the Japanese, low supplies, and the outbreak of monsoon.
In detailed prose, the author Tehmton Mistry captures Anklesaria’s extraordinary journey across a picturesque land at war. Mistry paints such a tender portrait of a man saying goodbye to his home, in the certainty of it being looted, and to his disappearing way of life that the reader almost feels nostalgic for what was a period of occupation.
Mistry deftly interweaves the larger historical narrative with the personal memoir of an older relative to provide a succinct account of the Japanese invasion of Burma and the evacuation of the British forces. He delves into army tactics on both sides including pincer movements and Japanese guerilla tactics. As Anklesaria travels across Burma with the army, we get a sweeping look at the last days of the Raj replete with sausage breakfasts, Whitehorse cigarettes, Austin saloons, and ‘Europeans Only’ Gymkhana clubs. We travel through the vast landscapes of Burma, stopping at the cultural sites, eateries, and clubs and get a firsthand account of the pecking order as dictated by the Burra Sahibs. There is also a whirlwind tour of Maymyo, a hill station popular with the British bureaucracy. As Anklesaria travels through Maymyo with its elite clubs full of the landed gentry he wonders if the war in Burma and England has indeed ended. Viruses, the history of epidemiology, instructions on how to deal with outbreaks, and the management of a medical camp that’s combating a pandemic despite a severe resource crunch are all part of the narrative.
While the book is based on a true story, Mistry introduces fictional characters and events at key points to push the action forward. This has a profound effect on the ability of the prose to pull the reader in. It balances the gravitas of the story with the levity of small moments, jokes, and anecdotes. Rather than relying on narration Mistry expands the cast, leading to breezy, light-hearted sections within the overall structure. At a few points, the reader feels like they’re reading a detective caper as a result of Anklesaria’s life being stranger than fiction. This is especially so in the section featuring the abbot at the monastery where Anklesaria and his companions take shelter. He happens to have his own information network and knows as much about the war as they do.
Perhaps the only shortcoming in Mistry’s prose is a tendency to overshare Jehangir’s thoughts, an approach that hampers the flow. The reader wishes the Anklesaria’s journey to the medical camp hadn’t been quite so long drawn but what he achieves there is miraculous. He employs a variety of innovative tactics including creating information volunteer groups, using army resources, and even hijacking local festivals to stop the spread of a pandemic amongst the retreating masses. As he follows the refugees, the doctor witnesses the toll of war on a road littered with corpses in varying stages of decay.
His journey is cut short when his car is stolen and he is left stranded in the jungle trying to cross over to the Indian border. He must brave the hilly terrain, fight infections and disease, overcome leeches and starvation to make his way back to his family. Given the number of fictional characters who keep Anklesaria company throughout the book, one wonders how lonesome the journey actually was. Still, Dr Anklesaria loses none of his joie de vivre even when he finally reaches Mumbai and has to start from scratch within the Indian medical community.
His is a story filled with courage, grace, compassion, and an inherent sense of duty above all. It is rare to find an individual who has gone through so much and has emerged with his humour, optimism, or faith in humanity intact. This is an extraordinary tale told by a promising debut author.
Percy Bharucha is a freelance writer and illustrator with two biweekly comics, The Adult Manual and Cats Over Coffee. Instagram: @percybharucha