One night, the shells fell on the street they lived in. The next morning, they found a portion of their house badly damaged. It prompted Thamma to start the family on the long walk. It was days of trekking, hitching rides, hiding when bombers screamed overhead.
One day, there was intense Japanese bombing. Thamma decided it was too dangerous to continue. When they arrived back in Taunggyi, the family had to report to the Japanese commander. “Join the Japanese military services and you can get back to living in your house and get rations or else," was the ultimatum.
The brothers joined various services and had to wear the Japanese uniform.
Burma 1943. The INA arrived on a recruiting and fund-raising mission. All the brothers and most of the other boys and young girls signed up. They now wore INA uniforms.
Burma 1944. The Allied Forces had begun turning the tide of the war. In one Allied air force raid, their house got bombed again. The family was back to living in the jungle, foraging for food and supplies.
There was great celebration as the Allied troops walked into town. Now they needed men and services. Soon enough, my father was wearing the uniform of a warrant officer in the British Army.
Burma, 1962. The family lived together in the grandly reconstructed house. There were two cars, two motorcycles, five live-in house help. They had rebuilt a great life.
As we were growing up, we would often ask our family elders how they managed to live through all that and bounce back the way they did. Most of my understanding of what it takes to be resilient comes from my family’s stories. Here’s what I learnt from them:
Live in the moment and survive the present: They were focused on surviving in the situations that they found themselves in. So, if it meant joining the Japanese Army or the British Army for rations, food and safety, so be it. It meant quickly moving on from situations and adapting to new realities, learning new survival skills. So today, if you have to slash the price of something, bring down expenses dramatically, learn a new skill rapidly or offer a service you had given up some time ago, so be it. Believe and know that it just has to be done. Surviving the present and adapting will open up new avenues.
Find the circle of strength and nourishment: The family was an enormous support system. My father spoke about how when one of them was scared, another sibling would provide the positive impetus to see everyone through. ‘This too shall pass’ became an act of faith. We too need to find the circles that help to keep us strong in these times. If you do not have family around, do you have friends? Suspend judgment of people who are in the circle, support each other. It is as okay to feel scared as it is to not feel scared. Seek professional help if required.
Helping and serving others: During the war my family was at various times part of and serving larger communities. The brothers had different skills which they used to help the communities they were part of—administering medical help, running community kitchens or raising funds for the INA. What is it that you can do? Do you write well? If so, write a positive piece and share. Can you sing? Are you a good listener? Call and speak with those who are alone and without family.
Have a sense of purpose: Purpose can come from serving others or keeping your family together or having a dream or goal. It helps to keep hope alive. For Thamma keeping the family alive and well was what mattered. My father and uncles had their own dreams.
What are you looking forward to? Don’t give up. Modify if necessary, add time but don’t give up.
Find moments to really enjoy: Baba used to speak about the picnics and the games they used to play in the encampments. The laughter, often without any reason, helped them forget the screeching of the dropping bomb. Indulge in some tomfoolery or watch a movie that makes you feel great, or do something really silly to release tension. Makes for a wonderful today and great memories.
Look after self: This wasn’t something I ever heard overtly from my family. Good physical and mental health is key to being resilient. The right food, proper hydration, physical exercise and getting some mindfulness practices going, will help. Find what works for you and keep at it.
Seventeen years after the war ended, the army took over. There was a drive against Indians. That’s a story for another time.
The writer is a CEO coach, leadership trainer and consultant for organisational behaviour. Views expressed are his own.