In 1941 M.P. Mariappan started walking home. He was in his early 20s, a southern Indian man who had emigrated with his father to a small village north of Rangoon, Burma, in the late 1920s. But after the start of World War II, the Japanese began marching across Southeast Asia, from British Malaysia through Thailand. Soon they would reach Rangoon, and the Indians in Burma, who numbered close to 1 million people according to a 1931 census, worried that they may never see their families again. Mariappan decided to head home, which was 1,700 miles away.
A train took him as far as Pyay, north of Rangoon. From there, he had to walk to Akyab near the Indian border, on a roughly 200-mile mountain path. "It was a terrible area to cross," Mariappan says in Ayya's Accounts: A Ledger of Hope in Modern India (Indiana University Press), which documents his journey. "Hardly anyone came or went along this route. … There was only jungle, climbing up and falling deep down once again, through endless thickets of bamboo."
The Indian exodus from Burma is an underdocumented 20th-century migration. At least 400,000 Burmese Indians attempted the trek, and an estimated 10,000 to 50,000 people never completed it. Mariappan did, becoming a fruit merchant in Madurai in southern India. His son became a doctor who moved to America, where his grandson was born. That grandson became an anthropologist interested in the socioeconomic history of southern India, Johns Hopkins Associate Professor Anand Pandian, co-author of Ayya's Accounts.
"I never thought I'd write a book with my grandfather," Pandian says during an interview at his office. He notes that he's co-authored work with his dissertation adviser and with colleagues, standard practice in academia, but "the mere fact of being able to take on someone who dropped out of school in the eighth grade and sold fruit all of his life as a collaborator and co-author, that's what is valuable about anthropology as a discipline. There are modes of inquiry we can enter into where we can actually produce knowledge collaboratively with people who are very differently placed in the world than ourselves, whose stories and insights have the capacity to displace our own ideas about what is worth knowing in some pretty profound ways."
Ayya's Accounts is an updated and revised English edition of the more memoirlike Tamil version published in 2012. This English version expands the scope of the Tamil original, which was more of a memoir alternating between Pandian's interviews with his grandfather, conducted chiefly over two weeks in 2008 in India, and Pandian giving context to that story with a timeline of photographs.
It was only after a review of the Tamil edition by anthropologist Robert Desjarlais that Pandian began to appreciate the ethnographic insight his grandfather's story offered. Pandian notes that his grandfather, and he himself, comes from a family of the Nadar caste, merchants and professionals today but who, a hundred years back, would have been derided as lowly tree-climbing, booze-making Shanar. "This community that we belong to is important in the anthropological literature on India," Pandian says. "It is one of the few Indian communities whose radical historical transformation over the last 150 years has actually been documented pretty thoroughly. It is a pretty powerful story of what can happen when certain overlapping forces of change come together."
As noted in the lovely afterword written by Veena Das, the Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins, Mariappan's story is "witness to the stupendous changes that took place in the caste to which [he] belonged, in the political systems of nations in which he tried to make his home, and to the way aspirations changed as each generation tried to make a different future for itself."
"I never thought of [the book] that way, and there is a tremendous sense of gratitude that I have just in the perspective his story has given me," Pandian says. "The sweep of his life is pretty vast. And finding the small place that I have in the vastness of that canvas is both a profoundly unsettling and incredibly reassuring thing, to be able to concretely imagine yourself in a larger sweep of history."
In fewer than 200 pages, Ayya's Accounts—"ayya" is the Tamil word for father, which Pandian adopted to address his grandfather because that's what his father called him—covers Mariappan's extraordinarily ordinary life, his moving to Burma with his father, the journey back, and his becoming a fruit merchant and a husband, father, grandfather. Throughout, Pandian intertwines his grandfather's voice with his own, weaving his memories into his grandfather's and the history of the Nadar people. The result of that mediation is a profoundly compact read, a book that Pandian writes is born out of a concentrated period of interviews but, in some ways, also born of his 17 years of research into southern India as an academic, "slowly laying its roots below the surface of his life and mine, preparing for the right moment to break into the light."
That right moment opened a small window of opportunity during their two-week period of interviews in 2008, when Pandian's grandfather was in his early 90s. "He was already at a point when he could remember the distant past far more effectively than he could remember the present," Pandian says. "That window has closed. It was closed by the time the Tamil edition of this book was launched. And that's a big deal. I feel lucky that I had the resources and the time to be able to do it when it could be done."
Ayya's Accounts comes out in April, and the Tamil edition was recently picked up as a trade paperback in India.
Pandian should be commended for making the time to produce this document. Life moves people around so swiftly now that few people make the effort to listen to the story of what led to their coming into the world. Fewer still get to share that story with such affecting eloquence. "On a very personal level, knowing that my children, my cousins' children, may be able to pick up a book like this and marvel at this history, at profound displacements that made possible the present that we all take for granted," he says, "there's certainly a lot of satisfaction in that."
A reading by Anand Pandian at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 27, at Red Emma's (30 W. North Ave.) marks the launch of Ayya's Accounts.