Burma Chronicles

Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle, published by Drawn and Quarterly, 2007

Burma-Chronicles

In the political context of South-East Asia, the paradox of distance in proximity tends to invoke the relationship between India and Pakistan. Distracted by the noise of their allegations and denials, by the murmurs of peaceful negotiations, and by the nostalgic glorification of a lost brotherhood- I have almost completely ignored the silence that emanates from our neighbor to the east, Myanmar. The socio-historical ties between India and Burma have often emerged in literature that was either written during or later set in the historical epoch of British colonialism.

Yet, never have I examined the wall of quiet oblivion that presently cordons off the nation, preventing clarity of vision. Whatever news trickles out in the international sections of the daily newspapers goes only so far as to create a vague and grim picture of a tyrannical military regime. So, what is life like in Myanmar today? What are the everyday joys and sorrows of the Burmese people? What elements of cultural convergence and divergence do we share? These and many other such queries were raised in my mind on reading a certain graphic novel, that made me conscious of the peculiar brand of amnesia I was suffering from.

Guy Delisle’s Burma Chronicles (2008) unbolts a casement offering such a rich view of Myanmar that it pauperizes the jagged visions filtering through the chinks of international news. By profession an animator, cartoonist and graphic novelist, the Canadian artist vividly records the experiences gathered during his year-long stay at Burma. The opportunity to observe the country from such close quarters emerges when Guy’s wife, Nadège, a doctor affiliated to Médecins Sans Frontières- France, is made in charge of a health program run by the NGO in the south-eastern parts of the country. The experiential arc of this autobiographical graphic narrative moves from a state of ignorance to that of an intimate understanding of the lives of the Burmese people.

One of the umpteenth features of interest in Delisle’s work is his incorporation of elements from various genres of literature: it is at once a travelogue, an ethnographic study, a piece of ground-zero journalism and a memoir. Although there are scenes captured inevitably through the lens of a curious westerner touring the cities of Rangoon, Moulmein and others, there is a significant attempt at relegating such tourist-like aspects to a quick gloss. On the contrary, Guy’s primary interest converges in juggling with such perspectives as afforded to him by his roles as a parent, as an encouraging husband, and also as a graphic artist working from a place where internet is slow and power shortages are regular. These and many other unique lines of sight illuminate different facets of day-to-day existence in Burma.

Although the dictatorial political environment of Myanmar unavoidably forms a conspicuous part of the over-all experience, it is by no means the only aspect that is harped on. However, this is not to imply that Guy presents a one-dimensionally optimistic, apoliticized picture of Myanmar, for there are quite serious references to the atrocities perpetrated by the exploitative, eccentric, discriminatory and corrupt military dictatorship. But, as everywhere else in the world, here too the determined flow of life follows the permutation and combination of moments of adjustment and rebellion. In the context of a country held in the iron-grip of constant bans, monitoring and censorship, Guy maps the location of veracity somewhere in the insightful hypotheses and rumors circulating amongst the general populace.

In addition to these, since a major portion of the narrative is set in Rangoon, we get glimpses of the down-town with the stately buildings and the well-planned roads intersecting at right-angles- legacies from the Imperial past which inevitable remind us of other cities built by the English. Even the presently faded facades of some of these pieces of colonial architecture, their conversion into government offices, the entangled mess of wires atop electric poles and street lamps, and the sudden discovery of rare vintage cars bear an uncanny resemblance to the present view and experience of metropolises like Calcutta. Besides these, there are other nodes of cultural contact. The tradition of wearing “longyi”, the habit of chewing betel nuts and staining the walls red, the celebration of a water festival reminiscent of Holi, and the presence of shrill-voiced street hawkers vivify the feeling of déjà vu in an Indian reader.

In totality, Burma Chronicles is a memorable experience. The balance of humor and seriousness, the focus on daily practices, the ambiguous relationship between the past and the present, and the bold underscoring of the simple humanity, friendliness and hospitality of the Burmese people- all make the graphic novel a gripping and meaningful engagement.

-Aritra Mukherjee

aritra

Swooping from Right: Chris Nolan’s Dubious Superhero

The Dark Knight trilogy, directed by Christopher Nolan, 2005-2008-2012

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A recent broadcast of the Chris Nolan directed Dark Knight Trilogy got me thinking once again about one of my most favourite things: the imbrication of cultural artefacts within structures of ideology and paradigms of power. While such entanglements exist for most American superheroes, Batman aka Bruce Wayne (perhaps along with Tony Stark) remains one of the most conservative ones around and the last film of Nolan’s trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, actively nurtures a deeply right-wing agenda that vilifies popular social movements, castigates the history of revolutionary struggles and even indulges in standard Hollywood Orientalism.

The entire plot-line of The Dark Knight Rises is premised on Bane and his gang capitalizing on the seething discontent of the people against the prevalent elite of Gotham City, of which Bruce Wayne is unabashedly a member, as indicated early in the film by Selena Kyle, the Catwoman. She categorically warns Bruce Wayne that “There’s a storm coming” and further adds “You and your friends better batten down the hatches, cause when it hits, you’re all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large, and leave so little for the rest of us.” Released in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 and several such other anti-capitalist protests across the world, it is impossible not to relate the events in the film to the events that were unfolding then. The connections become all the more obvious when Bane and his henchmen literally attack Wall Street and then rouse the rabble by urging them to take back from the oppressors what is rightfully theirs. However, what follows in the wake of this apparent revolution in Gotham City, is a reign of terror, murder and destruction, which seems to suggest that popular discontent and attendant rebellious movements can only intensify disorder and any attempted redistribution of property will only invite unrestrained mayhem.

Incidentally, as pointed out by Jonathan Nolan, Chris’s brother and co-writer for the screenplay, the mayhem in Gotham was modeled on the turbulence during the French Revolution as depicted in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. In fact, so closely does the film reference the French Revolution that there are even scenes of revolutionary justice in front of a people’s tribunal, presided over by the Scarecrow, which offers nothing other than protracted or swift executions. Popular discontent based on class-antagonism thus becomes conflated with criminality and rebellious leaders get equated with psychopaths and the glorious legacy of the French Revolution is consigned to the annals of anarchy without any recognition of the radical re-ordering of society that the French Revolution sought to bring about and the kind of injustice it attempted to abolish. Furthermore, unlike the French Revolution, the revolution in Gotham is less a product of popular action and more a mobilization of the people by a typical ‘evil’ mastermind, Bane, behind whom, of course is the figure of Miranda Tate/Talia al Ghul, a member of the Gotham elite. It appears that the ordinary citizens of Gotham cannot even plunder the elite without their own consent.

While many of these insights have already been pointed out by several other commentators, what remains missing is an acknowledgment of the typically Orientalist slant that Nolan’s film also retains. Alfred informs Bruce Wayne that Bane hails from a prison in a “more ancient part of the world”, and the costume of the inhabitants, with turbans and overalls, the chants of the prisoners (apparently in Moroccan) as well as the desert-like landscape of the prison immediately hints at the imaginary resemblance between Bane’s origin and the Arab world. The orient is thus re-deployed not just as a space of backwardness and savagery but also as a potential threat to the civilization of the West, perfectly in keeping with the rhetoric of Samuel Huntington. The Orientalist paradigm becomes even more blatant through the figure of Ra’s al Ghul whom we encounter in the first film of the trilogy. Despite the Arab name, Ra’s al Ghul and his League of Shadows are seen operating out of some secret hideout in the Himalayas, possibly in Bhutan which again emphasizes the typical Orientalist strategy of homogenizing the differences within Orient. No other explanation exists for equating the country of Gross National Happiness with an international organization of crime and catastrophe, apparently operating for centuries. The fact that Miranda Tate is actually Talia al Ghul is also significant as it plays upon the entrenched racist fears of miscegenation and the perceived threat of westerners being indoctrinated by extrinsic forces that threaten national security in U.S.A., England or such other countries. In fact, Talia’s possession and attempted use of a nuclear bomb may even be said to allegorically represent persistent American fears regarding the nuclear arsenal of Iran, North Korea and such other states.

The entire Batman franchise of Christopher Nolan thus operates as an ideological validation of the entrenched myths and prejudices of an orthodox establishment beneath the veneer of wondrous gadgets, an amorous subplot and a spurious rhetoric of justice and philanthropy. In the process, the films collectively embody the crisis of imagination in the new millennia where even a back-handed acknowledgment of crisis in capitalism only yields further manifestations of the status-quo’s repetition-complex.

– Abin Chakraborty

Verses, in solidarity with the teachers and students of JNU

Sayan Aich pens verses in solidarity of the teachers and students of Jawaharlal Nehru University, India.

Students protest at JNU
New Delhi: JNU students agitating for the release of the Students Union President Kanhaiya Kumar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi on Tuesday. PTI Photo by Kamal Singh(PTI2_16_2016_000176B)

There is a tri- syllabic wind that blows,

And cries out,

Kash- Mi- Ri

Ve- Mu- La

Je- En-Yu

Ma- Ni-Pur

Mi-Zo-Ram

Se-Di-Tion

Pe-Ti-Tion

Ja-Dav-Pur.

The tri- colour lies scattered

In Black and White,

A case of simple mathematics.


Slap me with a charge my people,

Slap me with a ban,

If I don’t speak or love like you,

This is all you can.

The fingers point and the slogans ring,

The rivers cry out too,

I carry your flag like a shroud,

And wear your bullets too.

Come and teach me what it means,

To be loyal and be free,

The sun has set, the moon in shards,

My being cleft in three.

One for Kashmir, One for Manipur,

And the other thrown down south,

Your nation has stifled mine,

Forcing words in my mouth.

You teach me what I should say,

Tell me what I should do,

I wear sedition like a scarf,

And anti- national bullets too.


The Country to which i will return,

Will have saffron fields all over

The morning Azaan will be muted

The Fridays will be those,

Four days of the month

When blood will flow

To purge the country,

To which I’ll return.

The country to which I’ll return

Will have a single God,

One religion,

And one definition of love.

Rakesh and Prakash Can’t hold hands

Amina won’t love another Anand,

December 6th celebrated in over 330 towns,

The country to which I’ll return.


A wind is blowing and the spring showers kiss my soil,

And today many questions lie interred in my soil.

The night air is haunted with songs sung in Kashmir,

No more roses, but bullets grow in my soil.

Weave around me a shawl laden with twinkling stars,

Angels that have fallen, must find their graves in my soil.

The chains adorn my being, like jewels on a bride,

My feet stuck in mud, refuse to walk with my soil.

Some words don’t heal, like some tears never dry,

Your tears weep at night, the words buried in my soil.

History is a selfish child, all its toys and ploys,

Oh Zafar, you might know, it has hidden in your soil.

– Sayan Aich

 

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker, published by Other Press, 2012

Originally writteSendker_ArtofhearingheatbeatsFINAL1n in German and translated into English by Kevin Wiliarty, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is Jan-Phillipp Sendker’s attempt at mythopoeia. Set mostly in Burma, modern day Myanmar, the story revolves around the lives of Tin Win and Mi Mi and their extraordinary love for each other. It is a bildungsroman that traces their lives from their childhood till their death and the many obstacles and hardships that they endure both individually and together throughout their lives.

Sendkar starts the novel on a note of mystery; a Wall Street lawyer suddenly disappears to the utter dismay of his wife and daughter and is untraceable. A few years later the wife discovers a letter addressed to a certain Mi Mi in Kelaw, Burma, following which the daughter decides to investigate into her father’s disappearance. The investigation takes her to the sleepy town of Kelaw where she meets with another mysterious character U Ba with whom she shares the narrative voice in the novel. After this, the tempo of the novel drops and the apparent whydunit eventually reveals itself to be a tale of enduring love.

In some parts Sendker’s ability to depict emotions is both laudable and touching. He is equally brilliant in his depiction of the trials of a blind person, especially someone who had once known the power of sight: “He paced out his pathway, calculating distances and drafting mental maps….It didn’t work…As if someone had rearranged the furniture overnight.” Both Tin Win’s and Mi Mi’s characters have been endowed with a strange vulnerability and pathos.

Skender however has failed to sustain this throughout the novel which is riddled with clichés found in love stories. The hero is blind but brilliant and has the power to hear heartbeat; he could hear the heartbeat of an unborn chick inside an egg. Similarly Mi Mi could roll cheroots that had magical powers. U Shaw, Tin Win’s uncle is the stock villain who separates the lovers and actively tries to disrupt their relationship. Su Kyi becomes that ever-sacrificing mother-figure who disappears from the novel once her job is done and is only declared dead in the end. There is also the stock figure of the monk who at once led a dissipated life and had eventually turned to religion to find solace.

The aficionados of love stories would love The Art of Listening to Heartbeats, especially its ending where Tin Win and Mi Mi embrace, both now in their fifties, and they die together with Mi Mi’s heartbeat echoing in Tin Win’s ears. But others might find the story sentimental and cloying. Besides cutting down on these excesses, Sendker could perhaps have cut down on some of the tedious descriptions.

Sendker has tried to create an equivalent of the famous Romeo and Juliet or Antony-Cleopatra, the love depicted is idealistic and magical and befits the sleepy, fairytale town of Kelaw, far from the humdrum life of New York. With Myanmar in the news for all the wrong reasons, discernable readers might like to concentrate on the depiction of Myanmar and the plight of Burmese living in small towns in the country.

That, at least, is no fiction.

– Shafia Parveen

shafia parveen

The Book Thief

Directed by Brian Percival, 2013

Film Review The Book Thief
This image released by 20th Century Fox shows Ben Schnetzer, left, and Sophie Nélisse in a scene from “The Book Thief,” about a girl who loves books. (AP Photo/20th Century Fox, Jules Heath) ORG XMIT: NYET714

When Markus Zusak’s bestselling book was adapted into a film in 2013, eyebrows were raised. It remained to be contended whether Brian Percival’s direction really deserved the Academy and whether the powerful cast had actually even managed to portray the realities of Germany through the Hitler years. Yet, as Hans Huberman (Geoffrey Rush) winks at a terrified girl cowering in the corner of a car, it becomes impossible not to fall in love with the restrained story-telling that becomes a microcosm of life in a country waging war against itself.

The opening shots of the film zoom in through a breathtaking panorama of white clouds into the whiteness of train smoke and fallen snow in which a little boy, a child of communist parents, is buried. The sister, Liesel (Sophie Nelisse), ‘borrows’ the gravedigger’s fallen book marking the beginning of her career in book-stealing which opens up into a new life with the non-offending, pure German couple on Himmel street. As Death voices over, one does get ‘interested’.

The new family consists of an accordion playing painter and a ‘saukerl’ spewing, thunder-cloaked woman called Rosa (Emily Watson). The best friend to-be (Rudy Steiner played by Oliver Stokowski) plays street football and lives dreams of being a runner as great and dark as Jesse Owens – never mind the increasing tumult surrounding racial politics involved in window-smashing in the entire neighbourhood. His wishes, like those of the other children, are innocent and dangerous in an increasingly xenophobic state spurred by the machinations of greatness. Thus surrounded, the new-comer enters school, dreaming of returning to her mother, beating up notorious bullies and racing for life in the mean.

The film weaves a wonderful tale of conciliation through loss and replacement. Thus Liesel’s illiteracy is reversed by Hans’ gift of a painted dictionary, and the loss of the brother by the arrival of the secret with a red book and long coat. Since fairy godmothers could hardly exist in warring Germany, the Burgermaster’s wife, becomes a clandestine if misunderstood protector, opening her library window even on the chilliest of days, to let the elf sneak in. Each is united by the knowledge of suffering at the hands of a common enemy who is sometimes mocked in childish whispers.

In an expert juxtaposition, the film posits frightening facts of Nazi persecution against the limited perspective of games or choir performances. A football match fires up the street when Nazi officers try to round up basements hiding Jews. Both Liesel and her papa stake their lives for the latter, time and again, conferring a dignity that established Jews as human. The film shines through at moments like these: when human beings reach across to others, irrespective of the side of the boundary they found themselves in. So, Liesel brings the weather to Max, holed up in his cellar, building a snowman, playing Christmas by the glow of candles and Rudy jumps into a freezing river to rescue for Liesel, the gift from a rival. The message is sent across when Max roams the streets alone, enjoying his free walk under a star-lit, shell-dropping sky.

It is indeed possible to criticize the intactness of the corpses of Rosa and Hans at the end of the film as unrealistic. Exploding bombs (even when they look like video game graphics) would leave bruises, at least. One however forgives Rudy’s dramatic swoon and the slightly contrived air of the book-fire scene when the film escapes from an easy surrender into melodrama into a subtle exploration of the triumphs humanity over the precipice of destruction, loss and betrayal. Nice, indeed, has nothing to do with Death. But life, as the film depicts in breath taking shots, is transfixing. The Book Thief is a wonderful wishful story relaying the multifaceted wonder of life, an act of reclamation and memory.

– Pritha Mukherjee

The Groaning Shelf; or a Shelf-Confession of a Bookhoarder

The Groaning Shelf and Other Instances of Book Love-Pradeep Sebastian, Hachette India, 2010.

Tsundoku is a Japanese word which signifies the constant act of buying books, but never Groaning-320x500reading them. Letting your books pile up and colonize the space around you, an uncontrolled disorderly growth that makes you a second-class citizen in your own room. It shouldn’t require much of an intellectual leap to deduce that I am an archetypical “tsundoku-ist”. Not to say that I never read, but my manic bookbuying sprees far exceed my capacity of ever actually reading them. I justify the habit by saying that I am stocking up if ever I am unemployed. But I know that I would not read most of them, unless they literally are the last books in my collection. Collection is the right word; I collect books, I acquire them and I hoard them. They are not always antiquarian or rare editions (because I cannot afford them), but each book is special in its own way. Even the most insignificant book is special in its utter insignificance. One of the primary reasons behind this is that I have always been very interested in books as objects and have found high pleasure in the sheer physicality of them. Some avid readers find it a little distasteful to treat books as objects, and rever well-thumbed, dogeared, underlined and annotated copies of books handed down through generations of readers.

Not me. I like my books neat, pristine. I never bring a pen or pencil near them. The only mark I ever make is when I write my name and purchase month and year inside each new book. I don’t even do that if it is an old used book. They command their own respect.

I buy books whenever I can. And sometimes even when I can’t. Most of my friends avoid bookstores when they are out with me because they do not want to be late for dinner. (Some of the shopping experiences would make amusing anecdotes). Given my nature, the genre Books on Books, rightly described as the “bibliophile’s dream genre”, has obviously become one of my all-time favourites. Reading these books are often like finding refuge in a space made for the same category of convicts, who have dared to confess that they love books for how they look and feel, and not (always) for their inner beauty.

I had read Pradeep Sebastian’s The Groaning Shelf & Other Instances of Book-Love four years back, I think, and I remember finishing the whole book in one sitting. It is a bit odd and uncouth to write about a book I haven’t read in the recent past, but what the hell! It is a massively enjoyable read, and one of the very few books coming from an Indian author in this genre. He travels from Walter Benjamin to Nicholas Basbanes, from famous book thieves to book jackets, marginalia to some other zany, superbly entertaining topic and never for once bores. Stylistically superb, this sparkling white object comes with untrimmed edges to give you that privileged feeling of a pre market-ready book.  At a point in the book, Sebastian talks about untrimmed edges in books, and you cannot help but relish the self-reflexivity of it all. Apart from the object-side, the book is highly recommendable for anyone with little or no familiarity with the genre because of how it approaches the reader. It is a superb example of nonfiction writing. Sebastian takes a calm, genial stride towards the reader and doesn’t bombard them with pedantry. From the definition of bibliophilia to the intricacies of it, he takes you on a lavish, funny, witty tour and you enjoy each moment of it.

For me, this book was a treasure trove. Not only was it a brilliant read, it gave me the names of so many other authors and books! Nicholas Basbanes and Anne Fadiman, both of whom write about books in their own delightful manner, are names I got from this book, and highly recommend to anyone interested in the genre. I also came to know of a book called The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana written by Umberto Eco, which has since become one of my favourite books. I suggest The Groaning Shelf to anyone who wants to know which page is the colophon of a book, what a recto is and what is a verso, which are the books with most sought-after dust jackets and how and why first editions are so important.

Mine is a first edition hardcover. Just saying.

P.S: I looked the book up on the Internet. Google books has excerpts of it, which you can read here.

– Souraj Dutta