October 19, 2021

KITAAB

Connecting Asian writers with global readers

Essay: Reading ‘Les Miserables’ in Myanmar–Lessons in Nationalism with Aung San Suu Kyi

2 min read

by Nilanjana Sengupta

angsuukyiI was fortunate to be a part of the first Irrawaddy Literary Festival – the first of its kind Myanmar has known in perhaps half a century. It was organised at the Inya Lake Hotel, Yangon in February 2013. Winter and early spring are the traditional seasons for literary talks, or sarpay hawpyawbwe in Myanmar. This particular morning was cool, the air having lost its chilling bite and indolent, white cotton-ball clouds were reflected in the blue waters of the Inya Lake. Aung San Suu Kyi arrived amidst unprompted and seemingly unending applause – she was the festival patron and was to participate in two of the panels.

During the course of discussion she confessed to her lack of admiration for the character of Ulysses and in the same breath declared Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean to be an all-time favourite. This was greeted with surprise and the possible reason for her rejection of the cultural icon of individual self-assertion over a petty French convict, jailed for his 40 sous theft, whose climactic act of heroism consisted of carrying his former enemy through miles of Parisian sewers, was debated at length. I too wondered… till late into the night, the thought going round in slow, concentric circles in my mind even as I kept a wary watch for the gecko I had spotted crawling the walls of my lonely hotel room. Uff, I will think of it tomorrow, I finally decided, why does everything in Myanmar have to be so complicated?

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