Doublespeak in Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), was a way in which an oppressive regime brainwashed its common population. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), people were fed ‘soma’ and taught rhymes in praise of the intoxicant so that they would live in a state of morbid obedience. In both the books, rebellion or democratic principles were non-existent. The contexts in these novels were based on world orders around the two world wars and while much is being quoted from Hitler’s and Himmler’s regime to create parallels, the fact that we are witnessing the triumph of democracy gets lost in the goriness of the events.
‘Hum Dekhenge’ has been at the fringes of a controversy with a panel condemning the non-Hindu status of the poem. Faiz Ahmed Faiz had written this poem against the Zia regime in 1970s to inspire people to look forward to better days – a secular attempt to energise people weighed down by the burdens of tyranny. Intolerance for another world view seems to stare us in the face and generate endless violence and bloodshed. This situation brings to mind a story written by Satyajit Ray which won him national and international acclaim in 1980 — a dystopic story but with a positive end — a story that earned kudos as a film called Hirak Rajar Deshe (In the Land of the Diamond King). It is a sequel to the 1969 production of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne — another one of Ray’s highly regarded and awarded masterpieces.
Hirak Rajar Deshe depicts a totalitarian regime by the Hirak Raja or the Diamond King who brainwashes people with the help of a machine called ‘jantarmantar’ and a weird scientist who feeds rhymes into it, rhymes like these, which could be perhaps seen as eternal because they seem to be playing out the current reality with all the attacks on universities and their inmates —
Lekha pora kore jei, onahare more shei
(Those who study, die of starvation)
Janaar kono shesh nai, janaar cheshta britha tai
(There’s no end to learning, so to try to learn is pointless)
San Lin Tun is a writer from Myanmar who wants to create a school of writing in “Myanmar English”. He writes and publishes in English. Recently, he published one of the few novels in English written and published within the Burman borders. The novel is historically important because you do not find too many novels published in English within Myanmar, though San LinTun very humbly calls himself, “a third-generation writer in English”. His novel, The English Writer, brings to life CJ Richards, a civil servant who turned writer during the last days of the British Raj, about a time when Burma was part of the Indian empire.
The storyline shuttles between 2016 and the early twentieth century. Richards’s story is related to two young men very deeply interested in literature, called Oo and Lin, by an older man well-versed about the author’s life, U Aung Aye Myint. The setting brings to mind Satyajit Ray’s famed detective Feluda ( based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes) who would consult his uncle Sidhu every once in a while to unearth a mine of information on any given issue. However, Uncle Sidhu was based on Mycroft and the discussion was mostly not literary as it is in San Lin Tun’s novel and the visits were repeated. Here the story is given at a single sitting.
Flavoured with contrasts between the eras and cultures of the Raj and current day Myanmar, we get a glimpse of a country where bookshops still seem to thrive and young men roam about in longyis, their traditional wear. The style of writing reminds one of Henry Feilding’s Joseph Andrews though rendered in modern Myanmar English. The story is direct and detailed with minimal layering used to add realism to the telling.
One of the most interesting observations made by the protagonist Lin, who develops a curiosity about Richardson after reading his poems, is a comparison he makes between this writer and George Orwell, who was also stationed in Burma.
After reading the poetry book, Lin wanted to find more books by the same author. He found that the author’s sentiment towards local people was quite different from other foreign authors who wrote about Burma.
Especially George Orwell, who wrote a novel set in Burma of that time. The novel was so well-known that almost every visitor enjoyed reading it. But Lin disagreed with some of the points in the novel, mainly those concerned with the portrayal of Burmese characters.
It is interesting to note his observation because when one reads Orwell’s Burmese Days, one reads more about the British stationed in Burma and not really the Burmese. The sketch of Burmese is used by Orwell to expose the cruelty, the harshness and the lack of sensitivity in his own countrymen. The Burmese and Indians are coincidental. They are there to play out the stories of the pukka sahibs at the Englishmen’s club.
We are told C J Richards wrote because he missed his life in Burma. Even to this day, expats find it difficult to go back and settle into their own countries. Described as the adult third culture kids’ (ATCK) syndrome, the term applies to people who evolved a hybrid culture like Richards in San Lin Tun’s novel or the protagonist John Flory and even the pukka sahibs in Burmese Days. They evolved a culture in between their country of birth and the country they spent their lives in. This was first identified by Ruth Useem in 1950 and the syndrome is evident in CJ Richards who does not like living in England after his retirement and keeps reliving his Burmese days with his writing and occasional trips to Burma. Born in Burma, CJ Richards finds many positives in the local culture as does Flory in Burmese Days.
We have seen such characters in stories written during this period by authors who lived and grew within the Indian subcontinent but did not belong to the local culture. However, perhaps, very seldom have we experienced such a positive account given of a British officer by the people who suffered under the regime of the Raj. To explain his unique stance and the culture of Myanmar, Sanlin Tun gave us an exclusive interview.
What made you pick the life of CJ Richards as a subject for your book?
I firstly found his poetry book on Burma/Myanmar and he called that Rainbow Land and Other Burma Verses. When foreign writers visit or pass Yangon and write about Burma or Myanmar, they mostly write in prose, not in poetry. This was one of the reasons I became interested in the author. But I could not find any relevant facts on his life though I searched the Internet. I wondered why he had sunk into oblivion though he had a number of his literary works. That made me curious. So, I thought that it would be nice for me and other people to find out more of his life and I decided to reconstruct it through the medium of a novel.
I started when I was around four or five and haven’t stopped since. It’s not a job. I no longer have a say in the matter. I am never allowed to stop writing. I think writing. I sleep writing. It’s both a blessing and a curse. I can never switch off.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
There are several. My latest fictional work – Marina Bay Sins – is a psychological crime thriller. I’m fascinated by our ongoing ability to do extraordinarily profound and stupid things, to be knowingly selfish and selfless, to be kind and cruel, often at the same time. That’s the character bit. As for the plot, well, I find the hypocrisy of Marina Bay and all it represents rather nauseating. I’d have more respect for the place if it held up a sign that read: “We’re here to take money from the addicted, the desperate, the vulnerable and the incorrigible, and we don’t really care where the money comes from.” At least that’s honest.
My latest non-fictional work – Saving a Sexier Island – is a funny/poignant tour around the island’s finest and weirdest heritage and historic sites and it’s an unapologetic call to arms. Save it or risk cutting the umbilical cord to our nation’s soul.
Third, my children’s book series, Abbie Rose and the Magic Suitcase, is in the process of being adapted by an international TV network. The children’s books involve characters that are cheeky, irreverent, inquisitive, funny, clumsy and often wrong – i.e. they are REAL children, not one-dimensional archetypes. And children have related to the characters, which is wonderful. Plus there are distinct environment themes in the series that are very important to me, but are presented in a subtle fashion without battering the kids over the head with them. As with most audiences, if you make them laugh, you might make them listen.
Michael Bank in The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 23, No. 2, June 9, 2014
As I was researching Nineteen Eighty-four in Chinese, I wondered whether Orwell ever wrote about China. His interest in India, where he was born in 1903, is well known, and he served in the Burma Police after leaving school and before becoming a writer, but my guess was that China didn’t concern him greatly. But when I went to the British Library to check in his massive, 20-volume Complete Works [CW], I was surprised to discover that he wrote quite a lot about China and its fate under Japanese occupation, in particular when he was working for the BBC’s Eastern Service during World War II.