Late for Nowhere

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Posts Tagged ‘Queen Supayalat

From the archives: Yangon welcomes ‘Glass Palace’ author Amitav Ghosh

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Despite his huge popularity in Myanmar, Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh is NOT among the authors who will be participating in the Irrawaddy Literature Festival in Mandalay from February 14 to 16. Nevertheless, the festival and the accompanying interest in Asian literature provides a good excuse for me to post a story I wrote for The Myanmar Times based on a visit by Ghosh to Myanmar in November 2012, during which he spoke at the Indian embassy in Yangon.


Amitav Ghosh speaks at the Indian embassy in Yangon on November 15, 2012.

World-renowned Bengali author Amitav Ghosh gave a talk at the Indian embassy in Yangon on November 15, focusing the discussion on his novel The Glass Palace, which follows events in Myanmar from the Konbaung dynasty to the modern era.

Ghosh is the award-winning author of seven novels in the English language, as well as five works of nonfiction. The Glass Palace, published in 2000, has been translated into more than 25 languages, including Myanmar by writer Nay Win Myint and retired forestry official Hteik Tin Thet.

Ghosh took the stage at the embassy to tremendous applause, and began by commenting on how much the atmosphere of Yangon had changed since his last visit 15 years ago.

“It’s like going from one planet to another,” he told the audience.

He also commented that he thought it was “really miraculous” that so many people had read The Glass Palace, and that it has been translated into so many languages.

“When I was writing The Glass Palace for years and years, I would sometimes think, ‘What am I doing? Am I mad? Who’s going to read a book about Indian laborers who were in Burma 100 years ago?’” he said.

Ghosh told the audience that the book really began in a “very lonely little house” in Kolkata, India, where his uncle’s family lived after having fled their home in Burma when the Japanese attacked in 1941.

“My uncle was an entrepreneur and founded a very successful timber business in Burma, but when the Japanese bombed Rangoon on December 24, his timber yard caught fire and he lost everything,” he said.

“He had to move back to Kolkata, and he and his wife and his son moved into the this tiny house. It was a strange thing to see this person, who was accustomed to being rich, as his life slowly dwindled. I used to sit by his bedside and listen to his stories.”

Ghosh said his uncle introduced him to great writers such as Maurice Collis, Knut Hamsun, John Steinbeck and Nikolai Gogol. He later found that these same authors had “an enormous impact” on Indian writers as well as famous Myanmar authors such as U Mya Than Tint.

He said his uncle, like many Indians, had been “haunted” by his experience in Burma. 

“When they came back to India, which in many ways is a hard and difficult place, they would remember Burma as a place of great softness, kindness, gentleness,” he said.

“These memories haunted exiles everywhere, and my family were also exiled from what is now Bangladesh. But there was something different in the quality of the memories that people carried back from Burma. There was a yearning, a wish to reconnect, to be back.”

Ghosh said his trip to Myanmar 15 years ago was prompted by these stories told by his uncle.

“At a certain point in my life I wanted to write about this uncle of mine, this man who had been pouring these stories into my head for 20 years. It was at that point that I first came to Myanmar,” he said. “It was an extraordinarily powerful and intense experience because I was fortunate to be able to meet many wonderful writers, such as Saya Mya Than Tint.”

He said Saya Mya Than Tint’s writing ended up having an enormous impact The Glass Palace.

“Our interests coincided in many ways. He was a writer who had a deep interest in people and real life. When I left his house he gave me a mimeographed, translated version of the book he was then working on, which was called Tales of Ordinary People,” he said.

“For this book he went out and interviewed people, almost at random. These are wonderful stories that come alive in this book. Many of the little stories that went into The Glass Palace were inspired by Saya Mya Than Tint, and I feel a deep sense of gratitude toward him.”

He said Mya Than Tint, Ludu U Sein Win and other writers he met on that trip would talk at great length about the press scrutiny board and the techniques of government censorship.

“These were writers who had struggled with very deep and intense literary questions, of modernism and language, and they were going to this office where there was a young military officer who had hardly read anything in his life, and whose principal interest was golf. If he didn’t like what you had written, he would roll it up into a ball and hit it with a golf club,” he said.

“But these writers told me that censorship was impossible. If you’re a writer who knows his work, you can always find a way to say what you want to say. And that is one of the great challenges of writing … Your language becomes more and more symbolic, and in that sense more and more modernist.”

Ghosh said his writing of The Glass Palace was also driven by the question of what happened to King Thibaw and Queen Supayalat after they were exiled to Ratnagiri, India, following the surrender of Burma to the British in 1885.

“One of the reasons I write fiction rather than history is because there aren’t really historical sources for the things I write about. With Thibaw’s life in Ratnagiri, there’s so little material. One really does have to try to imagine it. This is the great challenge of writing fiction,” he said.

“When I started writing those bits about Thibaw, I said to myself, how am I going to write in the voice of a man who is so immeasurably distant from me? What do I know about what he was thinking?”

He said he found inspiration from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s book August 1914: “In that book, there’s an amazing 100-page monologue that happens in the head of Czar Nicholas just before the fall of the Romanov dynasty. And that really inspired me. I thought, if Solzhenitsyn can do that, then why can’t I?”

Ghosh added that he preferred to depict characters who took action to change their lives.

“I think people aren’t victims. Even when they live in very difficult circumstances, they try to make the best of it. When I met Saya Mya Than Tint and Ludu U Sein Win, this became very real for me because they lived through unimaginable difficulties. But Saya Mya Than Tint was not filled with self-pity, he was not thinking of himself as a victim, he was trying to get on with life,” he said.

“I think it’s very important, when you write about people who are in difficult circumstances, not to sentimentalize them. It’s easy to think that people who are poor, who are suffering, have forgotten laughter. But people in very difficult circumstances also smile, laugh, love and live.”

Written by latefornowhere

February 11, 2014 at 2:43 am