Tiger’s Last Journey
Maung Kyaw Sein
My father, Lieutenant Colonel (Retd) Maung Kyaw Oo, passed away almost a year ago in March last year and in accordance to his wish, we laid him to rest beside his wife of 61 years – my mother - who had passed away the June before. We carried him in a rented ambulance in a plain wooden coffin which was draped in a simple checked cloth. There was no military fanfare, although my father had served three armies – the British, the Pakistani and finally the Bangladeshi. Fittingly though, his escort in the ambulance included a recently retired Lieutenant Colonel and his son-in-law, a serving Brigadier General. The rest of my family followed in a micro-bus.
The trip was long, all the way from the Dhaka Combined Military Hospital (CMH) mortuary to the village of Choudhurypara at the southern reaches of Bangladesh. By remarkable co-incidence, the route took us by places that were landmarks in my father’s life. From the exit gate of CMH, the ambulance swung right into the main artery of Dhaka Cantonment. It was somewhere near here that the East Bengal Regiment was raised on February 15, 1948. My father was one of the original officers of the Senior Tigers of 1st Bengal on that day. Over the course of his long career, he served in other units of the regiment – the Junior Tigers, the Baby Tigers, the Lucky Tigers, back with the Seniors as the second-in-command during the 1965 India-Pakistan war – and the place where raw recruits from the villages of Bengal are turned into Tigers, the East Bengal Regimental Centre (EBRC) in Chittagong Cantonment. The ambulance sped along and soon reached the old Station Head Quarters. It was to this post that my father came out of retirement to help the fledgling Bangladesh Army get organised and served out his last Army assignment as station commander of Dhaka Cantonment. A grateful Army gave him his long overdue promotion and he retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. The ambulance left the Cantonment and plunged into the city traffic. There is much wisdom in setting off on a road trip at the crack of dawn. Our small two-car convoy easily negotiated the cauldron that is Jatrabari, crossed the bridges without much trouble and even with the utterly chaotic traffic beyond Daudkandi soon reached the outskirts of Comilla Cantonment. It was here that my father was sent in 1966 to raise a new battalion of the East Bengal Regiment – the Lucky Tigers of the 6th Bengal. Hours later, we stopped for a cup of tea at the EBRC Mess in Chittagong Cantonment, one of the places he loved most. He had presided over the Mess, given and attended innumerable parties, played tennis on its courts and run young officers ragged in its squash courts. It was also in this Mess that they bade him farewell when he retired from the Pakistan Army on 23 March, 1971. We crossed the Karnaphuli and three hours later, we were in Cox’s Bazaar. In early 1966, the citizens of the resort town gave my father a hero’s welcome when he returned from Pakistan after the 1965 Indo-Pak war . The rest of the trip was thankfully uneventful. At last, full 14 hours after we left Dhaka, the ambulance pulled up in front of the brightly lit temple outside Choudhurypara. The village was my parent’s retirement home for over two decades until they came to live with my sister in Dhaka. The next day, in a Buddhist funeral, a solemn occasion, but also a celebration of the long life of the departed, my father came to rest beside his beloved wife. There was a last twist in the tale. In accordance with our custom, the casket in which his coffin was placed and the bamboo platform on which they were carried, were set on fire as his coffin was being laid in his grave. Suddenly, a loud noise brought us to a stand still. It was the bamboo joints exploding as it burned. It sounded remarkably like a gun salute.
East Bengal Regiment
It was not planned that my father’s final road trip on this earth would take us past places that told his life story. It was sheer co-incidence. But there is no serendipity in the legacy he left us: his impeccable honesty and integrity, his generosity, his selflessness, his voracious reading habit, his love for good food, his sense of style. The greatest lesson I learnt from him, however, came from how he conducted himself in what must have been the two most intense disappointments in his life. When my father was posted to Comilla Cantonment as a Major in 1966 to raise 6th Bengal, it was taken for granted that promotion would soon follow. In fact, his favourite tailor was so sure of this that the new set of uniforms that he ordered from them arrived with an extra set of holes in the epaulettes for a Lieutenant Colonel’s pips. A few months later, another officer arrived to take over command. The Pakistani Army brass did not trust a non-Muslim to command a battalion, never mind that during the 1965 war with India they did not hesitate to exploit him by splashing his picture in all Pakistani newspapers for the propaganda value of “A Buddhist Major fighting the Hindus alongside his Muslim brethren”. In the annals of the East Bengal Regiment, my father remains one of the very few Majors to have raised a battalion. That the new commanding officer was an old friend may have helped or may have rankled. Fact was, my father was pipped at the post. His reaction was typical. Like a true soldier, he took his orders and settled down to do his duty. Almost a decade later, after he retired from the Bangladesh Army in 1973, my father got a job as the Chief Traffic Manager of Bangladesh Road Transport Corporation (BRTC). Not used to the iron discipline of Army ways, the rank and file at first chafed. But he soon won over the confidence of the key stakeholders, including the all important union bosses who often accompanied him on surprise late night inspection visits to the bus depots. Things slowly turned. Revenues increased, corruption declined and for once, the busses ran relatively on time. He was also responsible for hiring, an assignment that often put him under pressure from the ubiquitous “influential parties” which he resisted as best as he could. In the end, the “influential parties” had the last laugh. When the chairman of BRTC finished his term, my father was widely tipped to take over and in fact served as the acting chairman for about a month or so. To the dismay of the rank and file though, he was passed over. The permanent replacement though was a senior policeman. My father paid him a courtesy call, taking me with him. Like in Comilla Cantonment in 1966, he took his orders and pledged his full cooperation and support to his new boss. For him, one must do one’s expected duty to the best of one’s ability. It was a spring morning in 1995 and I was having an amiable conversation with my colleagues in the staff canteen of a University College in Norway when I was handed a slip from the central switchboard. It asked me to pass on a message to a student in a class I taught. Someone else was teaching that particular session that day and my colleagues thought it fine for us to finish our discussion and I could well deliver the message after lunch. Besides, it was the class break then – not an ideal time to get hold of any student. But something propelled me otherwise. Call it instinct, or maybe it was a deeply ingrained lesson in the inner recesses of my memory. I got up immediately, took the elevator 7 floors down, crossed the street and found my way to the classroom. Someone pointed out the girl to me and I gave her the message. She looked at it and straightaway left the room. I forgot all about it until I got an e-mail from her a week later. It read “Thank you for passing on the message that day. It was from the Emergency at the hospital where my father had been brought in after he had a heart attack. I reached him just in time a few minutes before he died. Thanks to you I was able to say goodbye to him. We were very close”. I was just doing what I was supposed to do.
Godspeed on your travels, old soldier, my guide and my father. I hope to meet you again in another life, if I have earned enough merit to be born in the same life as yours.