Book of the week
Child prodigies in learning, the arts and sport have been well documented. Children's outstanding achievements in more troubled areas of life are less well known, perhaps because they can give rise to feelings of guilt that young people have sometimes had to put up with so much. Those children who day after day look after sick parents, for example, may be rewarded by occasional bursts of publicity, but on the whole no one wants to know.
It is also often the case that children who have proved themselves prodigies at getting by against all the odds show no wish to re-visit their troubled past as adults. One such is Stephen Brookes, who in 1942 at the age of 11 managed to survive a 300-mile barefoot trek from Burma to India, constantly harassed by a ruthless Japanese army. Only now has he felt able to write an account of this experience.
Brookes was the youngest of 11 children, the son of a British Army surgeon and a Burmese mother. This mixed marriage was unpopular with other expatriates, and some of the poor treatment the family received during its wanderings may have been related to prejudice. But on the whole, the chief architects of the children's misfortunes and, paradoxically, their main saviours were the irascible Major surgeon, William, and his equally obstinate wife, Ma Sein. Faced with several offers of airborne escape once the wartime situation looked hopeless, the major still chose to stay at his medical post. Because Ma Sein refused to leave her 70-year-old husband, part of the family found itself travelling back towards the Japanese army when everyone else was escaping in the opposite direction.
Young Stephen knew something was wrong, but was up against something more than adult-entrenched authority. Total warfare, with its sudden break from ordinary civilized life, has a way of turning many normally sensible people - generals and civil governors included - into obsessives fixated on the one big idea, however fallacious, to the exclusion of other concerns.
With the Japanese only two hours away, Stephen's parents finally decided to take those of the family still at home - Stephen, his brother George and sister Maisie, and make for the remote Indian border. They had first to get through the jungle swamps of the Hukawng Valley, known colloquially and for good reason as the valley of death. Enemy aircraft machine-gunned the refugees from above. On the ground, bands of Chinese soldiers ambushed them for the few possessions they had left.
The paths they followed were often near impassable, with swollen rivers to cross once the monsoon season started (the area had an average annual rainfall of more than 100 inches). All the time, they saw corpses at the side of the road - of the 500,000 refugees who started this trek, fewer than 250,000 survived.
The Brookes family almost made it intact, however,and for this Stephen salutes his indomitable, unpredictable and impossible father, still imposing strict family discipline every day but also loving and loyal.
While sickening with malaria, Major Brookes continued to treat other patients until he finally died of blackwater fever. By this time, the family was lodged in an internment camp while the authorities debated what to do next. Weakened refugees, forced to bed down with the already dead or dying, were meanwhile suffering from a cholera epidemic.
Finally a decision was made to move on, now that the Indian authorities had relaxed, limiting the flow of refugees to 500 a day (by the end, they had accepted around 200,000).
The story ends with Stephen meeting his first American soldier on Indian soil. Soon after that the family broke up, its members by now unable to speak to each other about the terrible experiences they had been through. This book represents an end to that silence.
Ma Sein eventually returned to Burma and her children scattered around the world. Stephen won a scholarship to La Martini re College in Lucknow, briefly taught science at a girls' school in Malaya, and in the 1950s made his way to London, a scientific assistant's job at the Ministry of Fuel and Power and an RAF commission. He later had a career in business, returned briefly to India and, before retiring in 1995, ran sports activities at the Cambridge Centre for Sixth-Form Studies.
He was helped to survive through a mixture of his father's militant Baptist beliefs and his mother's more fatalistic Buddhist acceptance of the eternal wheel of life. He later came to reject religion, but his account is shot through with Biblical imagery. The berries from the "Chinese lanterns" - the plants he secretly collects and eats - are the forbidden fruit of the Book of Genesis; he nearly dies from their poison.
His father is sometimes the angel of death, at one stage preparing to shoot his family rather than let the Japanese capture any of them. At some of the worst moments, Stephen chants family slogans - such as "Steady, the Buffs" - as a way of steeling his resolve. It is his devotion to the idea of the family, shared by his parents, brother and sister, that gives him the will to carry on.
When his father dies, Stephen becomes the leading male, given that George is lame (somehow he survives too).
Europeans commonly know more and care most about 20th-century European disasters. This story is about what happened to those who were once part of the outer reaches of the British Empire but who got left behind in a wartime confusion of wrong-headed decisions and military blunders. The refugees currently seen so regularly on the television screen will no doubt be writing about their own triumphs over adversity in the future. Stephen Brookes has composed his account now - written with simplicity, understanding and surprising good humour, it deserves to be read.