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Archive for September 2014

Book Review: Indra Sinha’s “Animal’s People”

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The names Chernobyl, Minamata and Bhopal serve as powerful reminders of the damage that humans can cause others through the careless pursuit of progress and a callous disregard for the well-being of the victims when things go terribly wrong.

The facts of these disasters, however convoluted, have been probed, recorded and widely reported by journalists. But newspaper and television reports – due in part to space and time constraints – tend toward the reductive, with journalists often simplifying complex situations to help the public more easily digest unfolding events. As a result, there is little leeway in the news for profound exploration of the human costs of disaster.

Where journalism falls short, well-crafted fiction can fill the gaps by getting into the heads of major and minor players, thereby providing deep insight into the effects of dire situations on those whose views might otherwise be neglected. As American writer William Faulkner said, “The best fiction is far more true than any journalism”.

Novelist John Gardner explored this idea in the collection of essays On Moral Fiction (1978): “In a democratic society, where every individual opinion counts, literature’s incomparable ability to instruct, to make alternatives intellectually and emotionally clear, to spotlight falsehood, insincerity and foolishness – literature’s incomparable ability, that is, to make us understand ought to be a force bringing people together, breaking down the barriers of prejudice and ignorance, and holding up ideals worth pursuing.”

Such is the case with Indra Sinha’s novel Animal’s People, a fictionalised account of the aftermath of the 1984 disaster in Bhopal, India, in which a chemical leak from an American-owned plant on the night of December 2-3 resulted in thousands of deaths, some immediate and others occurring weeks, months and even years later.

Sinha’s novel, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007, is set in a fictional stand-in for Bhopal called Khaufpur.

The action takes place 18 years after the disaster – chemicals remain in the ground and the water, and residents continue to suffer and die from their poisoned environment. The survivors and their damaged offspring still wait for assistance from the American owners of the chemical plant, as well as from corrupt Indian authorities who care more about protecting foreign investors than helping their own people.

Our guide through Khaufpur is a first-person narrator known only as Animal, born just a few days before the leak and found abandoned in the street in the aftermath of the disaster, his parents presumably killed by the gas cloud.

Raised in an orphanage, Animal seems like a healthy child until the age of six, when he is suddenly wracked by pain and fever. The mystery ailment twists his spine until he is forced to walk around on all fours. With no proper medical facilities in the area, Animal’s condition remains undiagnosed and uncured.

As a result of his dog-like posture, the other children in the orphanage start calling the boy Animal, a name, and a persona, that sticks through the intervening 12 years until the novel’s narrative starts.

Animal is an entertaining but brutal (and often foul-mouthed) narrator, recounting the horrors of death, poverty and oppression in relentless detail. Early on he warns the reader, “If you want my story, you’ll have to put up with how I tell it,” adding, “If a person leaves things unsaid so as to avoid looking bad, it’s a lie.”

This is his way of saying that the truth must include the whole story, however unpleasant or offensive, and that censorship through omission is still censorship. Those who are embarrassed by the realities of life in Khaufpur are admonished to “throw down the book in which these words are printed”.

Readers who can handle the blunt language and embrace the novel will be treated to an enthralling, instructive and harrowing story of social justice pursued in the face of impossible odds.

Animal, who has spent most of his life as a dumpster-diving street rogue, becomes involved with Zafar, a university-educated activist who has given up a cushy life to live among the poor, helping them organise in their fight to force the factory owners to take responsibility for the effects of the chemical spill.

Animal willingly falls in with Zafar’s crowd, not because he’s interested in politics but because he wants to be near Zafar’s girlfriend Nisha, with whom he falls in love. Animal, who had always thought himself content to roam the streets on all fours, suddenly develops a desire to find a cure for his ailment so he can once again walk upright, which he thinks will help him win Nisha’s love.

Once within Zafar’s orbit, however, Animal can’t avoid getting caught up in the greater social struggle at a moment when the poor residents of the city, after a fruitless 18-year crawl through the Indian legal system, are growing tired of waiting for corrupt politicians to come to their aid.

Sinha is careful to illustrate exactly what is at stake for the characters in this fight, not only for Animal, Zafar and Nisha, but also for a wider cast of downtrodden people who have trouble envisioning brighter days ahead.

“In the Kingdom of the Poor, time doesn’t exist,” Animal explains. “Hope dies in places like this, because hope lies in the future and there’s no future here, how can you think about tomorrow when all your strength is used up trying to get through today?”

But Sinha also manages to delve into the convoluted logic and sentiment that keep the people from giving up the struggle, even when key players don’t see eye to eye on matters of principles and tactics.

Zafar, for example, is seen by many residents of Khaufpur as a saint for giving up his comfortable life to help the poor, but he also reveals his paranoia and ideological rigidity when he organises a boycott against a free health clinic that opens in the neighborhood.

Free healthcare is just what the suffering people need, but Zafar believes, without any supporting evidence, that the American doctor is collecting medical data for the chemical company.

Animal raises his voice against the boycott, seeing the opening of the clinic as the only development in years that could bring some relief to his neighbors and, he frankly admits, that might help correct his condition. He worries that Zafar’s decision is causing the people to “suffer for nothing” and argues that “noble ideas” don’t dull pain or cure illness.

Zafar also counsels nonviolence, but Nisha speaks for many frustrated residents when she warns, “Maybe you remember such a thing as justice, but in my lifetime there’s been no sign of it. If we want justice we’ll have to fight for it in the streets.”

Indeed, as the story unfolds, the game of brinkmanship between the oppressed and the authorities intensifies, inevitably resulting in an outbreak of unrest that seems more necessary than tragic. Even lovesick Animal concedes that “there are times to be afraid and there are times when you can be pushed just so far”.

Predictably, the police blame the agitation on “Hindu extremists” who have “come from outside to sow hatred and divide your community”. This is a refrain familiar to anyone who has lived under despots, who are forever shifting blame from where it belongs and onto the shoulders of some unfortunate minority group demonized as a phantom menace.

While the street riots spread, the story remains focused on the personal concerns of the characters. Where journalists are keen to document ideological invective and body counts, Sinha opts to explore the complexities of human psychology.

In the midst of these community-rattling events, Animal’s main concern is rediscovering his own humanity in a world in which a human-engineered chemical disaster has caused him to be perceived as something less than a whole person.

With chaos ruling the streets, Animal’s inner turmoil sends him fleeing into the forest to confront his own Dark Night of the Soul, a personal rebellion against human life, human society and the power of the gods. This journey of transfiguration seems the last chance for Animal to come to terms with his own core being, to give up his desires for the impossible and learn what it means to live as a responsible person rather than hiding behind his sub-human persona.

While Animal’s People does focus on the fate of the narrator, the author remains cognizant of the fact that during times of social upheaval, everyone’s humanity is at stake, whether they are agents of repression or have sided with the revolutionaries.

It’s the manner in which people conduct themselves when pushed to the brink that really counts, and in such situations anti-humanist ideology all too often trumps compassion: Leaders, police, soldiers and normal people alike are all capable of descending into evil and depravity, after which they must spend the rest of their lives seeking redemption for the horrors they unleashed.

It is a lesson that, by the closing stages of Animal’s People, remains unlearned by the Indian authorities who send in the army to “clean up the mess”. As Zafar says, “Whatever happens they are ruined beings, their souls are already dead.”

Written by latefornowhere

September 24, 2014 at 7:56 am

Artist Aung Myint: Facing the collision between observation and intuition

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From the start of his career as an artist, U Aung Myint has favored free expression over cautious conformity.

It all began when he met Ko Khin Maung Yin, a pioneering experimental artist well known for his relentless pursuit of creativity at the expense of material comforts.

“I liked his works, so I asked him how to paint,” U Aung Myint said in an interview at Inya Art Gallery, which he cofounded in 1989.

“He told me that you can do what you want to do. ‘It is your artwork,’ he said. ‘Don’t copy the work of other artists. Whatever your inspiration, you can do what you want to do.’ I liked this idea very much, so I tried to create my own work.”

U Aung Myint, 68, has made a career out of doing just that: The self-taught painter eschewed traditional figurativism and instead began experimenting with various styles and media as a means of exploring social, political and economic issues.

As a result of this adventurous approach to his work, U Aung Myint became a well-respected, groundbreaking contemporary artist in his own right.

In 2002 he won the Jurors’ Choice Award at the ASEAN Art Award in Bali, Indonesia, for his “Mother and Child” series, and his works have been collected by the National Art Gallery of Malaysia, the Singapore Art Museum and the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum.

“I’m always searching for more and more experiences. Many kinds of artworks have developed in other countries, but not here. So I want to look and search for new art experiences,” he said.

Over the years, his work has included both representational and abstract images, and easily discernible influences range from the whorls of the Myanmar alphabet to abstract expressionism.

The latter influence is most apparent in a series of works he created in the early 2000s that strongly evoke the mid-20th century “drip” or “action” paintings of American artist Jackson Pollock.

One of U Aung Myint’s drip canvases from 2001 was on view at the recently closed “14 AM” solo show at TS1 Gallery at Lanthit Jetty, but the main focus of the exhibit was the more recent “Faces” series, which was started in 2012 and is still ongoing.

The “Faces” paintings tread the line between representational and abstract, and they help illustrate the breadth of U Aung Myint’s experimentation by hearkening back to early 20th century modernist expressionism in both their style and the somber aura they project.

This melancholic mood stems from the artist’s use of black paint and indelicate brushstrokes to create facial expressions that are predominantly and disquietingly neutral in aspect.

While the bleakness of some of the paintings is broken by swaths of red, others are so dark that the faces are barely discernible.

A statement from TS1 Gallery informs us that this series of paintings offers “a reflection on the personal intrigue and trauma of a changing populace coming face to face with the global”.

U Aung Myint provided a simpler interpretation of his work by explaining that he was inspired by “looking around and seeing the many different expressions” on people’s faces, and by his desire as an artist to “show these differences”. In other words, they are the product of keen observation of the physical world.

That’s not to say that the images can be considered purely objective. The artist said that much of his inspiration is rooted in the intuitive impulses of his own mind.

“When I paint, my hands and my mind are different. They express different things. It depends on my mood,” he said. “The painting comes out while I work. I paint without intention. Sometimes I’m surprised by what I create.”

U Aung Myint’s self-professed inspiration for these paintings – observation and personal mood – calls into question whether the third ingredient suggested by the gallery statement (Myanmar’s transition) is pertinent, or whether it’s merely a symptom of the current madness for imposing contextual meaning in light of the provisional liberalisation under way in the country.

It’s not much of a stretch to accept the relevance of this third element – U Aung Myint is no stranger to tackling social or political issues – but doing so raises questions about the fine line between objectivity and subjectivity that, at least on the surface, seem difficult to reconcile.

How can an artist determine what thoughts are behind the faces observed in the street?

If a passerby’s brow is furrowed, is it because he’s mulling the implications of coming face to face with the global, or is he concerned that his teenage daughter has just eloped with the punk next door?

Would the “Faces” series have turned out differently had it been created, say, 10 years ago, long before Myanmar’s accelerated collision with the rest of the world?

It might be posited that while U Aung Myint is “observing” physical faces, he is choosing (consciously or unconsciously) to depict only those he believes to best represent the zeitgeist of the so-called transition period.

Such an interpretation would help explain why most of the paintings depict a sea of subjects rather than a single portrait, and also why there is a certain sameness to so many of the faces.

If this is indeed the case, the mood as filtered through these angst-infused images is fairly bleak.

But even this explanation is belied by U Aung Myint’s own take on why the facial expressions lack dynamic range.

“You can look at people’s faces, and some are sorrowful and some are happy. I tried to show this, but I cannot now. I don’t think I’m a qualified artist,” he said. “Faces are very difficult to catch. I think I will try to create more artworks in the series to catch these faces.”

U Aung Myint’s professed lack of self-assurance is not uncommon among artists who are happily and heavily involved in the throes of the creative process.

As such, it is clear that the “Faces” series is a work-in-progress that will continue to evolve, and that its place in the artist’s own canon, and more broadly in Myanmar’s contemporary art scene, is yet to be ascertained.

Written by latefornowhere

September 22, 2014 at 8:46 am

The delta’s wild coast: Mawtinsoun Pagoda

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Mawtin Point sports two golden pagodas: Mawtinsoun Pagoda on a hilltop overlooking the sea, and Phaung Daw Oo about 100 meters offshore. The latter is said to mark the spot where King Alaung Sithu – who ruled Bagan from 1113 to 1160, and was renowned for his wide-ranging travels – once berthed his royal barge.

These pagodas teem with activity during the annual Mawtinsoun Pagoda Festival, held in the week leading up to the full moon of the lunar month of Tabaung (February or March). But during our visit we had the wild, beautiful coast virtually to ourselves.

We climbed the covered stairway up to the platform, which was exposed to light rain and a riotous gale howling off the sea from the southeast. We admired the view and paused to light some candles at a shrine under the curious eye of a deaf, elderly pagoda attendant who was happy and helpful in a way that is rarely seen outside of Myanmar.

We descended a steep, narrow stairway from Mawtinsoun and waded out to Phaung Daw Oo along a concrete walkway that was slippery with algae. The footing was rendered even less sure by the steady assault of waves rolling across Mawtin Point from two directions at once – the Bay of Bengal on one side and the Andaman Sea on the other.

Before we departed the coast, we stopped at the lone restaurant onsite, a modest hut with a dirt floor and one item on offer: steamed rice and fried eggs. Our bellies full but unsatisfied, we then hastened back to Pathein at all possible speed, inspired to make the return journey in less than five hours by the promise of a decent dinner and a few bottles of beer.

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Written by latefornowhere

September 12, 2014 at 3:05 am

Along the road to Mawtinsoun Pagoda

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We spent one day of our trip to Pathein visiting Mawtinsoun Pagoda on the southwestern tip of Ayeyarwady Region.

It’s possible to get there by boat along the Pathein River at a cost of only K3500 for locals and foreigners alike. Such a trip requires an overnight stay near the seaside pagoda before returning to Pathein the following day, and local authorities will call ahead to arrange basic monastic accommodation for travellers.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for an overnight trip, so we took our minivan instead. I had imagined this to involve a simple drive on a straight road through deltaic flatlands, but the outbound trip turned into a five-and-a-half-hour odyssey on a surprisingly twisty, hilly and increasingly bumpy road through farmland and the southern reaches of the Rakhine Yoma.

Along the way we saw rice farmers working in the fields, as well as local entrepreneurs transporting bamboo down tributaries to the Pathein River.





Written by latefornowhere

September 11, 2014 at 3:43 am

The surreal allure of Royal Lake Park

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We dedicated an hour of our visit to Pathein to wandering around the delightfully surreal environs of Royal Lake Park.

Near the entrance were pavilions erected by various government ministries aimed at flaunting their good works to the public. In a strange way, the setup reminded me of the exhibits at Disney World’s EPCOT Center, but less rooted in reality than the dreams trapped inside Walt Disney’s cryogenically frozen head.

I was not disappointed to see that the mouldering government displays were completely ignored by visitors, and that the porticos in front of each pavilion had been commandeered by young couples snuggling and whispering behind strategically deployed umbrellas.

Other items of interest at the park included a sculpture of a battle tank made from discarded cans of insect spray; the Bay of Lovers, consisting of a decrepit boardwalk arcing toward a statue of a naked mermaid endowed with bountiful golden breasts; a waterlogged mini golf course; lakeside cabins from which emanated the banshee wail of daytime karaoke aficionados; and a whimsical graveyard of half-sunken, duck-shaped paddle boats long past their prime.


The gateway to fun for the whole family.


A signboard enumerates the pleasures that wait within.


The government displays are completely ignored by park visitors.


Golden frog: Relaxing or doing situps?


The insect-spray battle tank.


The golden mermaid.


This is how climate-change-induced sea-level rise might affect the sport of mini golf.


Pig parts for lunch by the lakeside.


Sunken ducks.


This is easily the ugliest statue of independence hero Bogyoke Aung San I’ve ever seen, sporting a pointy Ultraman-like head and a face that bears no resemblance to the man himself.

Milling around Pathein

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Ayeyarwady Region is known as the “rice bowl” of Myanmar, and Pathein is home to a number of mills where paddy is processed and the rice is bagged for shipment overseas or to other parts of the country.

It seemed like no visit to Pathein would be complete without seeing one of these mills, so we dropped by and asked for a quick tour.


Another action-packed day of filling bags at the rice mill.


View from inside: Rain falls on the dock where rice bags are loaded onto boats for shipment.


Sticks are handed out to keep a tally of the number of bags loaded for shipment.


A religious shrine on a tree near the loading dock.


Eon Productions has revealed the latest sporty James Bond car for the next movie in the 007 franchise, to be titled “Rice Mill Royale” and set in Pathein.

Written by latefornowhere

September 9, 2014 at 5:10 am

Pagodas and parasols in Pathein

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A young vendor waits for pilgrims to purchase coins to toss into the wishing well at Shwemokhtaw Pagoda.

Pathein does not boast a huge number of breathtaking tourism sights, but it is home to the 40-meter-high Shwemokhtaw Pagoda, one of the most important Buddhist shrines in southern Myanmar. The city is also famous for its parasol workshops, the most famous of which is Shwe Sar, which traces its lineage back to craftspeople who made umbrellas for the last king of Burma in Mandalay in the late 19th century. Finally, St Peter’s Cathedral, established in 1872, is worth a visit for its striking forest-green stucco facade.


Buddha image at Shwemokhtaw Pagoda.



Parasol at Shwe Sar workshop.


Putting the finishing touches on a parasol at Shwe Sar workshop.


Mossy statuary at St Peter’s Cathedral.

Written by latefornowhere

September 8, 2014 at 4:27 am

The laid-back buzz of Pathein

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The Pathein waterfront has been described on some tourism websites as “bustling,” but according to my own observations, life along the docks operates at a pace that is substantially sub-bustle – “lethargic jig” might be a more appropriate description. Some scenes along Strand Road:


While women haul rocks from a barge …


… men sit nearby and play games.


Saturday night action on the Strand: Gathering at a teashop to watch football on TV.


Ever Smile: Distributor of flammable (and barely drinkable) rice wine.

Written by latefornowhere

September 5, 2014 at 2:52 am

On the Pathein waterfront

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Pathein’s waterfront as seen from out on the Pathein River, with Shwemokhtaw Pagoda in the background.

Pathein – the fourth biggest city in Myanmar and the capital of Ayeyarwady Region – is not considered a huge draw for tourists. On the contrary, it’s mostly known as a place travelers pass through on the way to the beaches at Chaungtha or Ngwe Saung, with perhaps a brief stop to see the workshops where the famous Pathein parasols are made by hand.

This week three Burmese friends and I decided to spend a couple of days exploring the city and the surrounding area. Monsoon was still in full swing, but we didn’t let the frequent rainfall dampen (nyuk nyuk) our efforts to take photographs.

The most interesting way to reach Pathein is by boat from Yangon, but the overnight journey takes about 20 hours and we didn’t have that much time to spare. Instead, we drove a hired car, which took about 3.5 hours each way. The frequent buses from Yangon make the trip in about four hours.

More views of the waterfront:




Written by latefornowhere

September 4, 2014 at 4:15 am