A fresh evaluation of the Burmese narrative through the female perspective: Interview with Nilanjana Sengupta

by Zafar Anjum

Nilanjana SenguptaThe Female Voice of Myanmar: Khin Myo Chit to Aung San Suu Kyi by Nilanjana Sengupta (Cambridge University Press, India) is a scholarly treatise on Myanmar. The book will be released in late September in Singapore. Sengupta is a Visiting Scholar at Asia Research Institute (National University of Singapore).

There aren’t many Indian writers who write on Myanmar, so this is an important work of scholarship. The publisher describes the book as a “commentary on the evolving state of Myanmar and female thought from colonial times to the present, seen through the eyes of four Burmese female activist-writers”.

The book presents a female perspective on the history and political evolution of Myanmar. Through an exploration of the literary works of four carefully selected women activists— four major voices in the book: Khin Myo Chit, Ludu Daw Amar, Ma Thida, Aung San Suu Kyi—who have also been prolific writers of their times, the book seeks a fresh evaluation of the Burmese narrative.

Tell us about your interest in Myanmar? What got you started on this project that tracks the lives and thoughts of four strong female voices of Myanmar?

If I really dig long and hard, I think my interest in Burma stems from a childhood spent in Calcutta. Frequent references to Burma are to be found in old Bengali literature when under the British, Rangoon or the beautiful mountainous town of Maymyo (later renamed Pyin U Lwin) was an alternate home to Bengalis; when many Bengali families considered Bengal to be their janmosthan (place of birth) but Rangoon to be their karmosthan (place of work). I cannot forget the Burma of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel Srikanta—a place where the hero comes of age and is forced to redress his moral and ethical perspective. Or the letters Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose wrote to his brother in 1925 when he was imprisoned in Mandalay, marvelling at the social status of Burmese women.

So if you ask about my interest in Burma, I would credit it to a strict mother who insisted I read Bengali literature at length before delving into anything Western!

Your book is a commentary on the evolving state of Myanmar and female thought from colonial times to the present, seen through the eyes of four Burmese female activist-writers. What kind of image of Burma emerges in the process?

femalevoiceBefore I answer your question, I would like to digress a little and mention that although apparently the key protagonists of my book are the 4 women authors —Khin Myo Chit, Daw Amar, Ma Thida and Aung San Suu Kyi about whom I write— the central focus remains Myanmar throughout. This is primarily because I find all four women to be consistently preoccupied with Myanmar and in fact, I have often been amazed at the extent of their preoccupation. I mean, wouldn’t it surprise you if a woman, supposedly writing an emotional letter to her prospective husband, merely speaks of the debt she owes her country? For that is what Aung San Suu Kyi does; in the 1970s, long before her political role in Myanmar, she famously writes to Dr Aris, “I only ask one thing, that should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them”.

And as for the image of Myanmar that emerges when we look through the eyes of these 4 women—it is an evolving one. When Khin Myo Chit or Daw Amar writes about growing up in British Burma, despite the underlying tension and angst at the burgeoning British influence, the images are warm, colourful ones. Khin Myo Chit for instance writes of early mornings spent in her grandmother’s home in Sagaing when yellow robed monks from a nearby monastery arrived at their doorstep and her grandmother ladled steaming hot rice and boiled peas soaked in sesamum oil into their black lacquered alms-bowls. The child Khin Myo Chit would watch as the monks walked on in a solemn single file and women from every house down the street came to take part in this act of merit. In contrast is Ma Thida’s perspective. Born in 1966, she would not know a Myanmar that was not militarily controlled and her first memory would be of strife—of the Sino-Burmese riots which began in 1967. And again in Aung San Suu Kyi’s contemporary writing, a more positive picture emerges—of a Myanmar attempting a transition towards partial democracy.

How did you zero in on the four major voices in your book: Khin Myo Chit, Ludu Daw Amar, Ma Thida, Aung San Suu Kyi. Can you share with us some interesting aspects of their lives?

Frankly there are many female authors of Burma who write with conviction and strength. There is Ma Ma Lay for instance who was remarkably close to the culture of her country, or Daw Mya Sein who was very analytical. Among the contemporary authors there are the equally thought-provoking Ma Sandar, Mo Mo (Inya), or Ju. At first, the decision to choose the 4 women I chose as representative voices of their times was more of an instinctual one. But with time, as I read more of their writing I was drawn by their literary style and individual philosophy.

Personally one of the things that interested me was how the family and geographical backgrounds shaped the voices of these four women. Their stories overlap and flow into each other as seamlessly as the four seasons of the year. Daw Amar and Khin Myo Chit shared the same birth year (1915) and went to the University of Rangoon a mere couple of years apart from each other. Yet they came away with very different learnings from their involvement in the anti-British student movement and this shaped their latter day perspectives. Khin Myo Chit would be one of the first Burmese authors to write about gender sensitivities while Daw Amar, as editor of the Ludu Daily would be vocal about the post-1948 political scenario. The democracy movement of 1988 (8-8-88 Movement) is the point where the 4 stories coalesce. By then Daw Amar and Khin Myo Chit are at the zenith of their literary careers. Ma Thida, on the other hand decides to take up serious journalism while the democracy movement unravels around her and the same movement propels Aung San Suu Kyi, till then a keen observer and a reluctant participant in Burmese politics, into the limelight.

How did you go about researching this book? Did you face any difficulties?

I think this project was one of the most difficult ones that I could have taken up, and perhaps for the same reason, it was also deeply satisfying. Language was a major barrier, since, to truly understand any of these authors, their Burmese writing needs to be read and assimilated. Khin Myo Chit and Aung San Suu Kyi write partially in English while the two others write almost entirely in Burmese. Besides, there was of course the issue of research sources. The state-run libraries of Myanmar are not easily accessible to foreigners and because of the country’s turbulent past a lot of the archival records have been ruined.

Have you covered the disturbing ethnic violence that has kept Myanmar in the news in recent times? Don’t you think that the Rohingya issue has tarnished the image of Myanmar the world over?

Of course I have covered the issue of ethnic violence and particularly that of the Rohingyas in some detail. I would have had to since now that is uppermost in people’s mind. It is almost like—if there is no Rohingya issue there is no Aung San Suu Kyi! What I have attempted is not a justification of Suu Kyi’s stance (or maybe as most would argue, her lack of it) vis-a-vis the Rohingyas but an unbiased portrayal of the on-the-ground situation as it stands today, a narrative that reflects the issue in its full complexity rather than the simplistic story of death and destruction which has caught the eye of the world media.

How do you see Myanmar’s future?

Since 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi, with the support of much of the Burmese population, had expressed an interest in securing the presidency after President Thein Sein. There has been a lengthy and ongoing debate on the process of amending the 2008 Constitution. But as 2014 moved to 2015 and such constitutional change seemed unlikely, there was speculation that after the elections of 2015, the Speaker, Shwe Mann would take over as President of the country and continue as the Chairman of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Suu Kyi, with her National League for Democracy Party (NLD) would possibly sweep the polls, and with no clause in the 2008 constitution preventing her from taking the position, would take over as Speaker at the Pyithu Hluttaw. An understanding between Shwe Mann and Suu Kyi could have also meant avoiding a potentially destabilising outcome of an election win for the NLD. But in a recent move, the Speaker Thura Shwe Mann has been removed from the leadership of the USDP, which leaves former President Thein Sein arguably in a stronger position, likely to be considered for a second term. All eyes are on Myanmar as the country prepares for the national elections scheduled on November 8th. The results of the poll will tell who will hold the seats in Myanmar’s bicameral parliament with 330 constituencies for the lower house and 168 constituencies for the upper house for the next five years.

Long years ago, in an otherwise rather anodyne piece of writing titled, My Country and People (intended for a juvenile readership, first published in 1985 by Burke Publishing Company, London with the title, Let’s Visit Burma), Aung San Suu Kyi had written, “However, with its wealth of natural resources, there is always hope for the future. And that future lies in the hands of its peoples (italics mine).” I think her view has remained unchanged and I would take the liberty to echo the same conviction.


One comment

  • Thanks Zafar, particularly elated to see a video of one of my recent favourites, Romesh Gunesekera on the same page.

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