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