- Dharampal / Comrade Burmee
I came to India on January 8, 1965 as an Indian repatriate from Burma. My friends call me Burmee as I came from Burma. The coup took place in Burma in 1962 and every bit of business was nationalized.
Every businessmen left for home in the evening after closing his shop or establishment. (There was not a single factory in my birthplace Tannggyi, the capital of Southern Shan State). One day in 1962, when the shopkeepers returned to open their shops, they found to their astonishment that two military personnel were on guard at their shops and they were asked to hand over the keys. It was announced that everything was nationalized and nobody, not even the Burmese nationals, have the right to run any business.
The bazaars and eatery shops were allowed to run as before as it involved no direct business but were dependent on traders to buy their stuff, prepare it and sell.
The same day the currency was changed and the entire nation was in a fix and all were finding it very hard to digest but there was no rebellion. Everything was accepted as Gods’ will.
My parents had settled in Burma in late 1920s and I was the youngest in my family. My elder brothers and sisters could not get proper education because of the War. They were unable to settle in one place.
I was born after the second world war and my parents were able to send me to proper convent school, St. Anne’s Convent High School, run by Italian missionaries. My entire schooling up to matriculation was done in this school. I was in first year of college when I was refused the citizenship though I was born there and was a state football player.
Though no one was asked to leave the country, people started leaving the country for their countries of origin like India, Pakistan, Thailand, Australia and other countries. In the same way my parents thought of sending me to India as they thought my future in Burma was very dim.
I joined the Railways when the transition from steam to diesel and again to electric locomotive engines was taking place. More importantly, I am also one of those railway workers who has not only been a witness to, but has been actively involved in the most glorious and militant period of labour politics in India.
I was appointed as a loco cleaner on March 3, 1965 in Old Delhi loco shed. Though the duties of loco cleaner was to clean the steam locos, rubbing the engines, to collecting the token from the time keeper. The job was almost like a contract work. Once a group of cleaners had gathered, a jamadar would distribute the work to everyone. The other part of the engine to be cleaned meticulously was the smoke box from the wastes that had gathered there. But apart from merely cleaning it we had to make it shine too, and because of my English language skills I was put to work as a telephone attendant. After sometime I was asked to work as coal checker. My work was to note the amount of coal in tonnes in the incoming trains, to keep a record of the loaded coal etc. For almost three years I continued this job.
In January 1968 I was transferred to Tughlakabad (TKD). I was allotted a quarter at the railway colony in TKD. My quarter was very close to my heart for many reasons. My entire working period as a fireman, Diesel Assistant, trade unionist, political activist, happened during my stay there. The best part is that I met my lifelong friends there. Hard work apart, I enjoyed my days off, always involving myself with one activity or the other. At times I went to workers colony, where many of the firemen and drivers whom we used to call Purabias because of their specific local dialects, stayed. I still am not clear to which part of India do they belonged to. Usually they would prepare a chillum (a pipe to smoke marijuana) and sing songs in their own language which I used to enjoy. I still remember a few lines. On other days I used to sit along with my colleagues and over a peg or two and sing Ghalib or Cliff Richard. Because of my Burmese background I still could not write Hindi. I could only speak it. In order to sing Ghalib’s poetry I used to write it in Roman English, understand the meanings and the pronunciation and then sing. For me life without music is just not possible.
Once in a month I used to take my family for a movie or trade fair or whatever outing was possible. At times I used to go to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and spend the night with my student activist friends. I happened to read Zola’s Germinal and to my surprise the Railway Colony was almost the same. The abuses, the quarrels, the fights among the workers were the same.