On the periphery of Indian history


Title: Burma Boy

By: Biyi Bandele

There is a Nigerian renaissance in writing, it seems. Helon Habila won the Caine Prize last year, and Helen Oyeyemi, 22, has written two novels about ghosts and spirits of the kind Wole Soyinka alludes to in “Ake”. But to see how global African writing is, try Biyi Bandele‘s “Burma Boy.”

Growing up in Bombay, I learnt how Subhas Chandra Bose reached Hitler’s Berlin, seeking his support to overthrow the British from India. Hitler was preoccupied – he had millions of Jews to kill, Britain to bomb, and Russia to swallow, so he asked Bose to try Japan. Bose went east, and in Singapore he took over the Indian National Army, formed earlier by Mohan Singh. The Japanese offered words, and not much else, to the INA, and its march towards India began late – by then the Japanese were stretched, and Wingate’s Chindits succeeded in halting the INA: its sole incursions in India restricted to a few surreptitious flag-hoisting ceremonies on Indian soil.

Burma excites novelists: Melvyn Bragg, in “The Soldier’s Return”, told a nice story about the British soldier in Burma. Amitava Ghosh, in “The Glass Palace,” brought to life the men who joined the INA. But what we don’t learn in either is the role of Africans – boys like Ali Banana, who was 14, and modeled on Bandeye’s father.

These soldiers, yanked from tropical Africa, suffered humiliation, racism, and were scarred for life. Their stories have remained hidden. Bandele’s writing is important precisely for casting light on that periphery of Indian history, to show how complex and global the world already was in the 1940s.