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HindustanTimes Thu,18 Sep 2014

Burma Karma, the age miracle

LJ Singh, Hindustan Times  Chandigarh, January 17, 2014
First Published: 09:44 IST(17/1/2014) | Last Updated: 09:49 IST(17/1/2014)

An age miracle happened during the Raj. Before Independence, many of our countrymen, mostly lower-middle-class artisans from Punjab, were into small business and services in the other British colonies such as Burma (now Myanmar) and East Africa.

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They served in police, railways and other departments, and settled in adopted homelands after retirement. During World War 2, many had to flee Burma and start life all over again.

As Japan invaded Rangoon (Burmese capital, now Yangon), a Punjabi working in a government workshop there went back to his family in Amritsar, where his first-born son was employed in a similar facility. From Karam Singh, the foreign-returned became Burma Karma to friends and neighbours.

Able and fit (his reward for a simple and indulgence-free living outside India), Burma Karma started looking for work in Amritsar itself. He applied for a skilled job in his son's organisation. He expected to get it easily because of his experience and service abroad.

In those days when formal education was a rarity, people hardly kept any documented proof of date of birth. Even parents would be guessing when asked about the children's age.

For the technical jobs of carpenter, fitter and mechanic, the suitability was judged by actual hands-on trial. The word of the appointing and interviewing authority, mostly an Englishman, was final and binding. Burma Karma had confidence in his ability, even though he was somewhat reticent before the English Sahib in charge of employment.

With his confident posture and satisfactory answers in a smattering of English, he passed the test. A long period of authority, power and privileges had fortified the English belief that they couldn't be wrong, and since they couldn't communicate in Punjabi, the officers would record the applicants' age by guess.

Our protagonist was a strapping man of agile bearing, who in shimmering black dyed and well-tied beard, looked younger than his years. The employing English officer was impressed with his personality, and so judged his age based on that positive observation.

After Independence, another organ of the government took over the workshop along with the employees and their service record. With time, both son and father gained years, but believe it or not, now the son was older than his father in service books.

It appears that when the son had joined the service, a different English officer must have judged his age, and it seems the junior had made a different impression from father by not working on his physique.

And so when the son retired, his father, our protagonist Burma Karma, was still serving.

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