Along the footpaths of Orwell and Neruda…

A couple of weeks has passed since the Irrawaddy literary festival which attracts writers and publishers around the world to Myanmar, an east Asian nation that has contributed enormously to global literature since its colonial times. 

As an author who had spent a few years, hearing the life changing encounters of famous authors such as Pablo Neruda, George O’Weil , reading stories like “Return to Mandalay” of Rossana Lay, while working on my book “Rain of Fire” -the story of a Rohingya who fled Northern Rakhine to Cox in Bangladesh, I was always in an urge to explore the foot-prints of fellow authors in Myanmar, and navigate its ancient roots of global literature. The day I had a book sining event in famous Inwa books and cafe in Yangon, I was approached by a reporter from Myanmar Times- San Lin who is also an author, and simultaneously involved in a great initiative- Yangon Literature Walk. After a brief chat, and a photo with a signed book, he said to me “Lets meet tomorrow at hotel Shangri-La, I will take you on Yangon Literature Walk. 

It was a sunny day, in the last week of November 2018 when met San Lin in Shangri-La hotel which is strategically coated on the Sule Pagoda Road in the heart of the downtown of Yangon, still known as Rangoon, the commercial capital of Myanmar formerly known as Burma. San Lin Tun is a freelance Myanmar-English writer of essays, poetry, short stories, and novel. He has published a few books in English including ”Reading A George Orwell Novel in a Myanmar Teashop and Other Essays” and his latest novel is ”An English Writer’’. And I was lucky that I stuck up a casual acquaintance with him shortly after a book launching event in Yangon, and his invitation for the famous, Yangon Literature-walk was undeniable. “So I will see you tomorrow, morning at eight in the lobby of Hotel Shangri-La” he was brief and reassuring. 

“I nodded while giving him a signed copy of my latest release; Bayan”. 

The following morning, I was awakened before the crake of the bangs of crows that occupies every standing tree in Yangon, and, after grabbing my morning coffee, I went down to the lobby. In his well-knotted lungi and white cotton shirt, green Shan bag on his shoulders, San was already waiting at the lobby. 

‘We will cross the road from here, and then there will be a walk around three hours approximately…” San said looking up in the sky; the sun was gradually conquering the blue skies above the city of golden Pagodas: Yangon. 

“Coming from a tropical country, and also having lived in Yangon, and several other places in Burma, the harshness of Sun in the dry season was not new to me. Yes, the heat began to grow with every step we made, as we moved across the Bogyoke Market, heading towards the famous 33rd street, the upper block where best publishers and book shops lay and famous Wuthering Height tea shop existed. Turning into the 33rd street, San stopped just in front of a faded beige color building which still held its double-faced outlook; it was a structure, for some unknown reason, would cause a doubt at first sight. “This is a temporary church where American Missionary Adoniram Justin stayed for a while, now its occasionally used as a cinema hall’ San Added facing 33rd street that looked straight through the balconies full of cloth ropes and hanging orchids of old five-floor apartment buildings that were partially consumed by the moss as if to show the stranger the might of the tropical rains falling on this part of earth or the poverty in most of the population; in most of the buildings the paint was almost invisible, and orchids and colourful clothes in balconies, fused with flashy signboards of the shops at the sound floor has added some colorfulness to the fading beauty of the buildings. And hooting taxies, bells of rickshaws and timorous smiles of locals added a unique liveliness to the atmosphere.

“Shwe Yin Aye Moant Lat Saung” the first time a human voice loud enough to be called a scream, I head right behind me. Its Shwe Yin Aye, a sweet, street food mostly consumed during Tyanjan, water festival, san cleared my doubts. “Shwe Yin Aye is the name of the food, which is considered as a snack often given as a gift. Walking passing old publishing houses, listening to descriptive explanations of San, I was forced to think that the publishing industry in Myanmar is already deceased; once-prestigious printed book tradition is fading away. ‘We can’t blame the smartphones, tablets and the kindle reading…, the world is changing, but…” yes I picked what he swallowed. “the pleasure of reading a paperback…?’ That is what you meant?” 

‘Yes”. Sharing certain personal preferences, and how the dynamics of the world impose new conditions one individuals, some sort of pensiveness was provoked in us. Here we have to turn right, San had noticed I was kind of lost in looking at a back alley of an apartment building that was used as a dumping site by its residents. 

“Before the military time, we would use the back alley for literature talks, but now, we no longer use it”. Said San while turning into the main road next to an intersection and an over the road pedestrian cross. Once you are on the bridge, you can see the epicentre of old literary circle and, Sule Pagoda at your right shinning with its golden glow, you are facing the Armenian district before the world war II. During the colonial time, segregation was a part of the city plan, each ethnicity has their quarter, Hindus, Muslims, Burmese, Armenians, etc. Lost in a multitude of thoughts on the centuries-long social impact of colonialism in Burma-such as Arakan Rohingya crisis, my eyes were transfixed at the skyscrapers along the main street, while some thoughts about the lost scenic beauty of simple colonial structures were glooming together in my mind. “Down there, is the place Orwell used to visit whenever he came to Yangon, he was based outstation and he frequented his Burmese wife here”, that was much more than what I had heard about him. Retracing the steps of Orwell, going on a psychic journey on The Burmese Days, and trying to see the colonial policeman, not the writer who fused into Burmese society during his stay; San, as a contemporary writer, showed a keen interest in the literature of be-gone days, and his profound knowledge on little yet interesting things that may easily slip from an ordinary guide was an added value to my experience. Looking at the building where the tea shop that was frequented by Orwell was, we had an interest discussion on Burmese days, and then, I remembered by collage author Rosanna Lay who wrote ‘Return to Mandalay. ‘This is a land that spellbinds the authors” I said. 

“You are also spell-bound,” San said leafing through my draft manuscript of Ran of Fire, Odyssey of an Exodus, written on the Rohingya crisis.  

“There are many more who wrote on this land of golden pagodas, and beautiful women”

He winked.

“That was a wink of an eighteen years old, not a father of three children, a man of fifty”

San did not reply, instead, he broke into a peal of laughter, and diverted the conversation to another famous author. Pablo Neruda, a well-celebrated Chilean poet and Nobel laureate for literature in 1971, lived in Rangoon, long before he became world-famous for his poetry, Neruda served as Chile’s honorary consul in colonial Yangon from 1927 to 1928, before he headed to Colombo, Sri Lanka where he served in the Chilean consulate till 1930 from 1929. 

 ’“According to his writing, Neruda, who spent most of his time in Yangon living on what was then Dalhousie Street —today, Mahabandoola Road, was appalled by the British colonial occupiers who he later described as “monotonous and even ignorant.” This view was shared by many Myanmar at the time, large numbers of whom were actively resisting colonialism with strikes and protests, all of which were put down with brutal force.

The combination of his Latin American origins and his radical politics meant that Neruda was far from the typical westerner living in colonial Myanmar. His distaste for the British Empire was on full display in his poem “Rangoon 1927,” which describes both the city and the famous Strand Hotel, a popular gathering place for the colonial elites, in stark terms”’ San continues standing next to the balcony of a refurbished old building, that was facing today’s department of state administrative affairs of the government of Myanmar; during the colonial era, it has served as heart of British rule in Burma. 

The sun had mounted on the top of the sky, and the tar on the road had become sticky, and we were lucky that it is a Sunday, there were no many vehicles on the road and city remained dormant and the noisy hooting and flying clouds of dust that would be added to the atmosphere in the busy downtown had been thinned. San gave me a piece of paper, and said: “read this, and discover how Neruda felt about the places where we walked across”. 

‘“The street became my religion. The Burmese street, the Chinese quarter with its open-air theatres and paper dragons and splendid lanterns. The Hindu street, the humblest of them, with its temples operated as a business by one caste, and the poor people prostrate in the mud outside. Markets where the betel leaves rose in green pyramids like mountains of malachite. The stalls and pens where they sold wild animals and birds. The winding streets where supple Burmese women walked with long cheroots in their mouths. All this engrossed me and drew me gradually under the spell of real-life”’. 

The narration was picturesque, I imagined what San was explaining to me showing different quarters; the literature walk gave me nearly every tiny bit of ingredients which could complete my visualisation. Thanks to San I had, in my mind, exactly what Pablo Neruda witnessed in this city that holds a lot of untold stories about eminent authors who lived or visited this city.

“Authors, they love to chat, right?” San wanted approval.

“Yes,” it was me.

“The tea shops were the places where they used to meet their friends, readers and other authors, its a part of Burmese literary cycle and those foreign authors who lived-in Burma also enjoyed the tea shop culture” San described slowing down, and then he stopped near a tea shop.

“Let’s have a cup of tea”. He invited me to have a cup of chai, and the next one hour we sat and had a literary talk flowing the long-lived Burmese tradition of literary talks. “The publishing industry in Myanmar had gone downhill after the military coup, and new authors face a lot of challenges in getting their work published, It always ends with frustration and, most of them do not try the second work” As a place where a lot of internationally renowned authors have left their traces and wrote about, Burma, as much as it does with the colonial history of Great Britain, has contributed to English literature. And, in Burma, literature, and Culture, irrespective of its cultural and ethnic diversity do remain embedded, and there is also a culture of ‘reading’. And a good number of skilled local authors have emerged from this eastern Asian nation, though most of their work remains limited to Burmese language, and there is a new generation of authors and translations who try to think beyond the horizon but their limit remains within the barriers remain within the frontiers of Myanmar; a limited number of them have reached Thailand and a few neighboring countries. Besides lack of supportive policies, foreign sanctions that prevent Myanmar nationals being able to publish using online platforms like Amazon, or Lulu, and working with foreign publishing companies. “its a stock of literary resources but there is no hope at the horizon…” San said sipping his chai. I felt that Burma is an ancient library; its walls are gradually being covered by moss, making once firm cement losing apart, and invading Kaka-bodhi trees that grew in the widening cracks, and racks are halfway covered by the termites mounds and the books under the thick layer of grim and dusk are being covered by the cobwebs of time; only rats and the silverfish make use of them. With those gloomy thoughts in my mind, we delightfully finished our tea-shop chatter and walked towards 37th street where there are bookshops. “Bagan bookshop, this is one of the most famous ones here”, San greeted the man in the shop “Minglabar”. Bagan bookshop is a place to visit, and it reminded me of a second-hand bookshop in the old city of Colombo, Kharkiv or Pune; the bookshop seemed remaining in the fixed three decades back. 

Walking around the downtown, across vibrant markets, the streets that Pablo Neruda felt’ my religion’, meeting warm and simple people with radiant smiles, accompanied by one of the famous contemporary writers of Burma, I winded up Literature walk in Yangon with a positive thought of coming to Burma every year for Irrawaddy Literary Festival, country’s topmost literary event. 

I thanked San for showing me the unknown from the city where I lived for over 2 years. Yangon-literature walk was a unique experience that unveiled the colonial heritage of the country, bringing life to Rangoon of the 1920s, revealing the rich history and well-known sites in the heart of the city and most importantly the foot prints of the fellow authors, and the enormous and invaluable contribution that Burma has given to the global literature. 






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