Bangla Tuesday, March 31, 2020

This novel brings Burma to readers so authentically that it could have been non-fiction

Burma Independence Army enters Rangoon, 1942

The Lacquered Curtain of Burma, Eugene Lawrence’s debut novel is, in parts, about the life of a minority family – the man being a Malayali and the wife a Karen – in a relatively peaceful Burma, and about their flight to India once the oppressive junta takes over. In a broader way, however, this novel is an account of the history and politics of Burma aka Myanmar.

In a long chapter titled “The General”, there is a step-by-step description of how the junta takes over the freedom and lives of the people. Burma being a Buddhist nation, “where the cow was venerated as a sacred animal”, Buddhists “shied away” from beef – it was known as dark meat – which was banned during the term of Prime Minister U Nu. However, the junta rule in the earlier half of the 1960s saw beef being sold openly in markets in Rangoon, eliciting excited responses from those who ate it.

No one saw anything strange in this event, there was no “noticeable outrage from the public.” And while the people were happy with the easy availability of a cheap source of nourishment, the soldiers – much to the people’s shock – started shooting and poisoning stray dogs to, apparently, make Rangoon a cleaner city. Yet, “people soon recovered” from this shock too and “returned to their routine and preoccupation with daily living”.

The third shocking event involved pushing out beggars and those suffering from leprosy from the “modern and fashionable” shopping areas of Rangoon and their apparently being “administered with poison injections…and…cremated en masse.” The preamble to this domination culminated with the firing on the students of Rangoon University ,who had stood against the junta.

The bodies of the dissenting students were “not released to [their] parents but [were] buried in unmarked [graves], their dreams to die with [them] in anonymity.” After this began the crackdown on businesses owned by the Indians and the Chinese, and the military takeover of schools “to inculcate a generation of students and teachers alike in the values and morals of the dictator’s socialism.”

Then, but now

This act of cleansing or making an ideal country did not happen in an instance. It began with a grabbing of power and then, gradually, those who wielded power suppressed the freedom and rights of the people and took steps to ensure that there was no voice of dissent. And all this while, the common people could only gape in despair, for they had not raised their voices when they could have. But why didn’t they?

Apparently, because the events that started the suppression did not appear to be consequential enough, or did not directly involve the people who could have, had they tried, stopped or at least opposed that suppression. This procedure, which seems in line with the now well-known ten steps to the rise of fascism, along with the initial apathy of the people, can of course be seen quite regularly around us now, nearly six decades after the events in Lawrence’s novel took place.

The Lacquered Curtain of Burma is a period piece, and yet it seems relevant to our times because of the themes it engages with. However, there is so much information in Lawrence’s writing that the novel – which opens with the assassination of Aung San in July 1947 and ends with Aung San Suu Kyi’s issue with the Rohingyas in 2017 – is weighed down by how much it attempts to say.

A multicultural Burma

The central character in the novel is a man named Immanuel Stanley David. David is of Malayali ethnicity, hailing from Calicut (present-day Kozhikode) in Kerala. An aspiring singer, he had migrated to Burma via Singapore and Malaya, apparently to pursue a career in music, but had in fact ended up doing odd jobs because there was no future in music once World War II had started, plunging South East Asia into chaos. Ultimately, David’s identity became – as a captain of the Japanese Army told him – that of “an adventurer”, and he enrolled as a captain in “a non-combatant unit of the Indian National Army”.

After surrendering to the British in a village in Burma, David started his life afresh, marrying Dora, a white Karen woman from the southern part of the country, and starting a family. The white Karens are one of several minority ethnic groups in Burma. At the time Burma became independent, “[the] colonial conquest of the British, World War II and the subsequent occupation of the Japanese had removed the lid of isolation off [the] more predominant of the ethnic peoples – [like, the Kachins, the red Karens, the Shans, and the white Karens] – exposing their significance and aspiration to a stake in the country which was on the threshold of independence.” Aung San had “come to realise that unless the interests of these people were represented on the national forum, the nation would be besieged with hostilities within most of its borders.”

Lawrence presents an insightful view of the multicultural society of Burma, and his novel held my interest while he was writing about the various ethnic groups and of the Dora and David’s family life. There are engrossing passages about how David procures a goat from a Burmese village and how Dora’s village had converted to Christianity. David and his wife and children serve as the mediums through which the events in the novel – be it David spending days with his companions from the INA in a Burmese forest waiting for the British army to arrive, or David and Dora finding success in their professional and personal lives, or their family leaving Burma for India on “a decrepit cargo vessel” – unfold before the reader. 

Memoir versus fiction

These portions have a soothing lucidity about them, so much so that the politics in the plot could be felt and understood even without being explicitly mentioned. It is when Lawrence actually discusses politics – from General Aung San to the Karen National Union, from General Ne Win to the State Law and Order Restoration Council, from Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy to the current Rohingya crisis – in a somewhat academic way that the narration seems to falter.

It is clear that Lawrence’s novel is ambitious and deeply political, and that the politics of Burma cannot be separated from its plot. Also, there is something personal in the way he writes about David’s family, so that it seems to be coming from either an insider or a person who has suffered it all. I looked up Lawrence on the internet and found out that his father too, like David, “had arrived in Burma with the Indian National Army during World War II, and married his mother, a Karen.”

This might put to rest any question about the authenticity of the sufferings of the Indians and other minorities in Burma as written about in the novel, but it also made me wonder if The Lacquered Curtain of Burma, with a journalism-like narration in its several parts, would have worked better as a non-fiction book, perhaps as survivors’ accounts of their travails in junta-ruled Burma, complete with endnotes and family photographs. Nevertheless, Lawrence deserves praise for bringing together the personal and the political into an informative work.