Saturday, June 30, 2012

Book 101, Myanmar: "Letters from Burma" by Aung San Suu Kyi

I'm in Southeast Asia again! Literally (flew home this morning) and bloggularly! Just in time to attend PinkDot tonight, where I'm manning the booth for IndigNation.

Speaking of human rights, I read this baby on the plane. Terribly fortuitous time to be covering such work, I thought, given the recent release of The Lady, not to mention the actual release of the Lady herself.

But the collection of essays begins oddly, more like a travelogue than a document of human rights violations: she describes a pilgrimage to Thamanya in Karen State to visit the holy teacher U Vinaya: the bumpy Pajero ride at dawn, the history of the district and the delights of eating vegetarian food at his monastery.

The letters weren't written during a period of house arrest at all, you see: they date from a one-year period from late 1995 to 1996 when she'd been recently released after incarceration for six years (she would later be held for nine more years, some in actual prison). Each one was published as a weekly column in a Japanese newspaper, and indeed she frequently makes direct reference to her Japanese audience, discussing their aesthetics of purity, their rapid economic development, her objections to their nation's investment in Myanmar despite its undemocratic regime.

I had fears at first that this was going to be another upper-class, spiritual encomium to the nation, not unlike Treasures of the Thunder Dragon. But of course the Lady weaves details of NLD's struggle for democracy amidst the charming descriptions of the Thingyan water festival and the changing of the seasons. To explain inflation, she gives us a mouthwatering account of traditional fried rice breakfasts, with meat, prawns or eggs, then reveals that today even the eggs are no longer affordable to many families, let alone the meat and prawns.

And then, of course, history invades the story. University riots cause further arrests among the NLD, blockades in front of her house and the houses of her co-leaders, the infamous incident where government-paid thugs fire into the windshield of her departing car.

The miracle of course is that there is so much good humour she describes in her accounts: how the gatherings each week at her door and the comedy performances at the NLD celebrations are threatened by violence and arrests and kangaroo trials, and yet people continue to turn up, laughing and singing so merrily that even the government spies start to join in. It makes me think of the cheerfulness at SDP rallies in Singapore, but we've never lived under as desperate conditions as the Myanmese (I will continue to use "Myanmar" until there is an official change; it is the word I have grown up with and I believe political realities deserve recognition).

One final note: I've occasionally played devil's advocate by pointing out that Aung San Suu Kyi is not in fact extraordinary in her endurance; that many of her fellow activists in Myanmar have suffered far worse than she. She's privileged by her parentage, her class, her ability to speak English, her sex, her beauty, her marriage. But she knows this. She recognises the terrible effect of incarcerations on the families of the politically imprisoned, and admits that she worries little about her own children, growing up guarded by the human rights protections of Europe.

I honestly don't know if she'd be an effective president of a democratic Myanmar, but truth is, reading this book gives you a sense that she's a great leader already - intelligent, compelling, but never vain, never less than compassionate.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote: Visitors to my country often speak of the friendliness, the hospitality and the sense of humour in the Burmese. Then they ask how it is possible that a brutal, humourless, authoritarian regime could have emerged from such a people. A comprehensive answer to that question would involve a whole thesis but a short answer might be, as one writer has put it, that Burma is indeed one of those lands of charm and cruelty. I have found more warmth, more wholehearted love, more tenderness, more courage and more caring concern among my people, as we hope together, suffer together and struggle together, than anywhere else in the world. But those who exude hate and vindictiveness ad rave about annihilating and crushing us are also Burmese, our own people.

Next book: Sunthorn Phu's The Story of Phra Abhai Mani, from Thailand.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Book 100, Sri Lanka: "The Legend of Pradeep Mathew" by Shehan Karunatilaka

I'm in New York City and hey! Guess who just hit triple digits in his reading list? (Not aiming for quadruple digits, thank you very much.)

I've also ditched Anil's Ghost for purely practical reasons: it gets only a three-star rating on Amazon; this year's Commonwealth Writers Book Prize winner, by contrast, gets four stars, and also costs US$3.00 less as a Kindle book. Very useful these e-books are, when you're on the move.

Still, I'm not altogether sure if I've made the right choice. And it's not just the way this book is so heavily entrenched in the world of cricket, which I care not a whit for (its original title was Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, from the cricketing term). It's the rambling, rather directionless-save-for-the-Macguffin-of-a-hunt-for-the-legendary-cricket-bowler-Pradeep-Mathew nature of the book. 
No lush Ondaatje prose here: instead we've got the alcoholic sportswriter W. G. Karunasena, dying of liver poisoning and being a bit of an arse about it, indexing and cross-referencing and chronicling his search for Sri Lanka's greatest unsung cricket hero, blacked out from the historical record (literal blackout during the airing of a documentary on the guy!) due to grudges and anti-Tamil prejudice.
What's comforting on the other hand is the knowledge that I'm learning loads about what the country's like now, with its middle-aged middle classes still clad in banians and sarongs, with its multiplicities of Tamils and Sinhalese and Buddhists and Christians and Muslims and Hindus and English and yes, even a few Chinese. With its terrorism and its corruption and its decay; with its intermarriages and expatriations and thwarted dreams of glory.)

(Incidentally, the author reportedly lives and works in Singapore, and laments several times about how Colombo has declined since the colonial days of Ceylon, when it was the envy of our city; now Changi Airport and Mandai Zoo have far outstripped his nation's counterparts.)

Oh, and the whole thing's a metatext too. The book is a chronicle of its writing, and even extends *SPOILER ALERT!!!* beyond the fictional author's death*SPOILERS END*.  And though Karunatilaka claims he's fictionalised the names of everyone in the book, he's allowed the fiction to bleed from the page into virtual space: there's info on Mr Mathew online, too.

Better not go on too long. Attending my friend Edward Rueda's wedding in a few hours. Gotta go!

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote:  The answer to my wife's question is of course a no. I would go down ina  hail of bullets for her and for Garfield many times over. And while Aravinda de Silva has delighted me on many an occasion, I wouldn't even take a blister for him.

But the truth, Sheila, is bigger than both of us, whether it be written on the subway walls or on the belly of a lager lout's T-shirt. In thirty years, the world will not care how I lived. But in a hundred years, Bulgarians will still talk of Letchkov and how he expelled the mighty Germans from the 1994 World Cup with a simple header.

Sport can unite worlds, tear down walls and transcend race, the past, and all probability. Unlike life, sport matters.

Next Book: Aung San Suu Kyi's Letters from Burma, from Myanmar.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Book 99, Maldives: "A Hero In Time" by Royston Ellis

So I'm back from Makassar, and am illuminated by the glory of Eastern Indonesian culture. (Honestly, we always talk about Java and Bali, sometimes Sumatra or Borneo or even West Papua, but never Sulawesi.) Hopefully I'll find some time to divulge what I learned about bissus and lontaras and the epic of La Galigo. But not now: I'm flying off in another few hours to attend my friend's wedding in Long Island. Yessir, I'm a travellin' man, island to island to island, that's me.

On the topic of island nations: the UK and Maldives! I've finished this historical novel by a lesser-known British beat poet, published in Singapore, chronicling the life and adventures of Mohamed Thakurufaanu, the 16th century Maldivian nobleman who fought off an eight-year Portuguese occupation of the islands and founded the Utheem Dynasty.

Frankly, it's not a must-read. Nothing distinctive about the prose, nothing profound about the ideas, nor anything terribly captivating about the characters, who're portrayed as mostly paragons of virtue or black-hearted villains. But Ellis claims his narrative is based on the oral traditions regarding this 400 year-old national hero: methinks he wants to translate the spirit of these little-known legends rather than modernise or subvert them.

(It is of course interesting to observe the slippages between our ideas of virtue and Mohamed's. There's this whole bigamous romance going on, with his courtship of Princess Sitti Mava to be his second wife, but Ellis makes his first wife an active force in fostering this union so we won't feel she's being oppressed. Then there's Mohamed's desire to rid the entire land of infidels, slitting the throats of anyone dares to drink wine or who doesn't speak Dhivehi. Author puts a lot of effort into making us side with a genocidal fundamentalist freedom fighter, fo' sho'.)

There's very little Maldivian history on the Internet; you'd think their proximity to India and their tourist dollars would've given them the resources to pour out their souls online. So I can't actually tell how much Ellis has made up and how much is genuine legend: did the widow queen Kamba Aisha really strike the fatal blow that killed the would-be-usurper Tuffashana? Googling the names only turns up a review of this novel, here.

Okey-dokey, enough blabbering. Must pack. Ah, but if only someone chronicled Singapore's pre-colonial/colonial history this way! Methinks Isa Kamari did so in Malay, but his Infopedia article doesn't say much.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote:  Kamba Aisha grabbed the sword from his hand and pulled him off balance as he tried to turn. He stumbled; she raised the sword and drove it between his shoulder blades. Pushing on it with all her might, she forced him down on his face until the sword was buried in his back, up to its hilt. He died skewered to the sand.

I could not die at the hands of a traitor," she said to his body. "I have saved our country and our innocent people from you."

She turned as a Portuguese soldier burst into the room, his sword drawn. "Ah," she said, a smile spreading over her face. "I die at the infidel's hand. God is great."

 Next book: Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost, from Sri Lanka.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Makassar International Writers Festival (13-17 June)

I'm flying off this afternoon for Sulawesi, Indonesia (the Celebes, for those of you stuck in colonial times), to take part in MIWF 2012!

I've been invited by Lily Yulianti Farid, whom I bonded with at festivals in Ubud and Singapore in 2009. She writes in Bahasa Indonesia: the volume below is Lontar's excellent translation.

Other folks I know (or have read) who'll be at the festival: slammer Omar Musa (AU), short story writer Xu Xi (HK), memoirist Bernice Chauly (MY), poet Jennifer Mackenzie (AU) and Elizabeth Pisani (US), the fabulous HIV activist and author of The Wisdom of Whores. I'm afraid I don't know the Indonesians. But I'll get to know them! (As long as they speak *some* English. Malu lah, gua tak boleh cakap bahasa nasional Singapura.)

Friday, June 8, 2012

Book 98, India: "Theater of Memory: The Plays of Kalidasa"

First heard about Kalidasa at the age of thirteen in Sec Two, when our history teacher talked about the Guptas. Bought this book in my senior year of college; had wanted to register for a colloquium on South and Middle Eastern texts but didn't have the time, so ended up buying the second-hand course pack instead. Seven years later, I'm finally reading it!

And it's great to finally find out what the big deal was over Sakuntala and the Ring of Recollection, the divine drama of forgetting that so entranced Goethe. Also wonderful to learn the legend of Urvasi Won By Valor, whose heroine's namesake is a seriously cool queer activist.

But surprisingly, my favourite text is probably the only non-magical one: Agnimitra and Malavika. In a way, it's because this is the least complex tale: it's about a king who's lusting after a beautiful servant girl, thwarted by the rival queens in his harem - but who discovers in the end that she's a noble princess in hiding, hooray, big wedding! Also happens to have quite a bit of comedy, and some plum female roles, including the intellectual nun Kausiki - easy to imagine a girl-heavy student group attempting this (and doing a semi-decent job of it, but oh well).

The other two...well, according to the intro, they're  natakas, or heroic romances. They're about semi-divine kings who fall in love with nymphs. Again there are barriers to their love conquests, making for some pretty romantic seduction and hiding scenes - but the focus is on tragic destinies: Dusyanta is cursed to forget that he married Sakuntala; Urvasi is cursed to leave Pururavas for the heavens as soon as he beholds his son.

The tragedies aren't allowed fulfillment, however - in Urvasi, a heavenly reprieve is granted, an annoying deus ex machina not unlike Athena's trial at the end of Aeschylus' The Oresteia. Sakuntala, on the other hand, is disappointing because it takes such pains to assure us that Dusyanta is a worthy, just king, whose forgettery is not his fault: quite different from the more ambivalent version of the legend in the Mahabharata, in which he's much more of the prototypical knock-up-yo-baby-momma-and-leave asshole.

None of Aristotle's Poetics and catharsis here; what we've got instead is a dramatic theory from the Sage Bharata's Natyasastra, which has the aim of assuring us all that the social order is hunky-dory, no problems, stop asking difficult questions, boy. Which of course rankles with a rebel like myself.

Also the weird fixation on male perspectives: despite the titular centrality of the women in these narratives, it's the desire of the king which is paramount. Sakuntala barely gets any screen time weeping before she's spirited off; Dusyanta discovers the ring of recollection and goes mad with grief, wailing and weeping and painting pictures of his beloved. Pururavas actually gets two scenes of elaborate lover's agony: in one of them he dances the carcari dance and wildly questions the animals and plants, with Urvasi only popping up at the end apologising for being turned into a creeper. (Yeah, it's a little nuts, but great literature tends to be as such.)

Did learn an awful lot from this book, though. Did you know that there are still ancient theatres cut into caves in Eastern India, with murals still on the walls? And that playhouses were allegedly invented on the command of lord Brahma, because demons tried to break up the first play? A divine world indeed.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote:

SAKUNTALA: I've thought of a verse, but I have nothing to write it on.

PRIYAMVADA: Engrave the Letters with your nail on this lotus leaf! It's as delicate as a parrot's breast.

SAKUNTALA (miming what Priyamvada described): Listen and tell me if this makes sense!

BOTH FRIENDS: We're both paying attention.

SAKUNTALA (singing):

I don't know
your heart,
but day and night
for wanting you
love violently
my limbs,
cruel man.

KING (suddenly revealing himself):

Love torments you, slender girl,
but he completely consumes me -
daylight spares the lotus pond
while it destroys the moon.

Next book: Royston Ellis's A Hero In Time, from the Maldives.