This novel tells the story of a mixed-race family and their trials and tribulations in Burma / Myanmar from the colonial period (before the Second World War) through the early 1960’s when a civil war was in progress. The father / husband, Benny, is ethnically Indian, religiously Jewish, works for the British, but was born and spent his early childhood in Burma. He marries a Karen woman (i.e. of the Karen tribe.) The central (and titular) character is the couple’s first child, Louisa. Louisa is a beauty, and for various reasons – none of which reflect her own preferences – she ends up a beauty queen and national celebrity.
What is fascinating about this book is how the many levels of humanity – from the individual level (e.g.Louisa / Miss Burma) to the international level – play into each other. At an individual level, each member of the family finds his or her life intruded upon by the nation’s conflicts. Benny ends up a prisoner of war of the Japanese and then later a prisoner of the Burman ruling regime. He feels beholden to the Karens because of a combination of factors involving repaying of debt, familial obligation, and friendship. Louisa ends up in the pageant – in part — because of the question of whether the leaders and Burman citizens are really serious enough about unity to allow a non-Burman into that high-status role.
At a national level, there is a rapid succession of changing situations. First, the country needs to thwart the Japanese invasion. Next, they must throw off the British colonial yoke, and, finally, Burma must figure out what kind of nation (or nations) it will become. The Burman leader wants to consolidate the country, while many tribal groups, including the Karen, want independence. Benny’s family is tied up in this conflict, in part, because of their Karen connection, but also the fact that Benny was able to exploit the post-war economy to his advantage and became rich after the war. This makes him, and his family, both important and simultaneously loved and despised.
At the international level, America and other global powers have interests in keeping Burma from disintegrating into tribal sub-states. In the early post-war period, these interests are largely economic, and involve the preference to have a solitary trading partner for Burmese goods. However, later, as “domino theory” takes center stage in American foreign policy, the interest shifts to thwarting the spread of Communism. (“Domino theory” was the idea that if a non-Communist government fell, others would proceed in a chain reaction throughout the region. It was a little simplistic, but reflected the anxiety of the times and was a large part of the justification for the Vietnam War.)
I found this book gripping and fascinating. The international intrigue and family tensions both work together to make an intensely readable work. Without getting into the ending, I will say that it feels a little bit rushed and anti-climactic. However, the events of the book give it plenty of tension overall, and there is a logic to the place the book ends. It is emotionally powerful to see how this family is repeatedly torn apart and must come together again through great difficulties. We also see how obligation and sense of duty play themselves out, often trumping other considerations.
I would highly recommend this book for readers of fiction, particularly those with interests in historical fiction and works that offer insight into a nation and a culture.
I’m not sure / can’t remember whether this was on the Indian or Myanmar side of the border.
Orwell’s novel is about the ugly face of empire. It takes place in a Burma that was administered by the British as part of their Indian colony—but it’s in the waning days of the Empire, much to the chagrin of the entitled and chauvinistic European characters of the book. Most of the characters are shockingly racist and life abroad hasn’t broadened their thinking in any discernible way. The notable exception is the lead character, John Flory, whose best friend is Dr. Veraswami (an Indian medical doctor and government official) and who is unique among the British for being able to see the native ways as anything other than primitive and preposterous.
However, the hero is deeply flawed. Flory is a coward, and in the early pages of the novel is unwilling to support the nomination of his good friend Dr. Veraswami for membership to the expat’s club because many of its more vociferous members will be damned before they admit a brown person. Flory is also a bit morally loose for the taste of his early post-Victorian comrades. He has a birthmark that he’s constantly trying to conceal, and whose presence we are led to believe is crucial to his lack of confidence. While the main intrigue is provided by a plot by an unsavory Burmese official named U Po Kyin to undermine Dr. Veraswami and bolster his own stock among the whites, it’s Flory’s story that we are following. The reader hopes that Flory will develop the confidence needed to rise to the occasion—he being the only likable person in the cast (except perhaps Dr. Veraswami, depending upon how put off one is by the Indian doctor’s borderline Uncle Tom-ish obsequiousness.) Flory’s relationship with a young woman plays an important role in his story and sometimes it seems she may spur him to heights while at other times she looks to be his downfall. Flory’s conundrum is that the more virtuously he behaves, the more a target is painted on his back.
While the book is set almost a century ago, I found that it has something to say today. While the times have changed and the Empire is long dead, there are times that the long shadow of this period can still be seen in the current era.
I’d recommend this book for readers of historical fiction and particularly those interested in the past and present of areas under colonial rule. Orwell builds interesting (if often despicable) characters and the book has a well-developed and interesting narrative arc.
In 1767 the Ayutthaya Kingdom of Siam fell to the Burmese. Burma occupied Siam only briefly because Burma’s king, King Hsinbyushin (a.k.a. King Mangra), was forced to withdraw his troops to combat a Chinese invasion to his homeland. The Thais were fabled to be valiant fighters and even had a numeric advantage, but they were easily put into disarray by Burmese forces. Even King Mangra was said to have declared that he couldn’t have taken Ayutthaya had the leadership of the opposition been more effective. [Keep in mind that even if he did say this, it might have been more a dig at his Thai counterpart than an expression of his true feelings.]
The Burmese captured a many prisoners during their Thai campaign and true warriors were particularly coveted as prisoners. One such fighter was Nai Khanomtom (fyi: it’s also written Nai Khanom Tom.) Nai Khonomtom was renowned for his skill in Muay Boran, an early Thai fighting style related to Muay Thai. This made him a logical choice to headline for the Thais in a tournament that would pit Muay Boran against Thiang–i.e. the indigenous martial arts of Burma (e.g. Lethwei and Bando.) The tournament would be part of King Mangra’s seven day festival in honor of Buddhist relics, the festivities of which would also include plays, comedians, and sword fights.
Nai Khanomtom was pitted against a Burmese champion, a man who was clearly the audience favorite. Timed rounds didn’t exist in those days. Fights stopped when one of the fighters was physically unable to continue, and not before. The Burmese fighter wore a kind of sarong that was the usual attire for the men of Burma, and Nai Khanomtom wore a loin cloth tied up in the traditional Thai style (see the statue pic above.) Each fighter wrapped only ropes on their forearms and hands, and each may have had some padding over the groin–though not as insurance against an accident, but because crotch kicks were fair game.
Nai Khanomtom began with a Wai Kru, which perplexed the Burmese. Wai Kru is a pre-fight ritual that has several purposes, the most important of which is to show respect for one’s teachers, deities, and the audience. The practice can take several minutes and some variants of it can be physically demanding.
When the fight started, Nai Khanomtom charged over the fight space taking the fight to his opponent and laying down a barrage of kicks, knees, elbows, and punches. By some accounts, his victory was declared invalid by a judge, who’d been distracted by other festival events (and who–no doubt–wasn’t pleased by the swift defeat of the Burmese champion.) The decision was made despite the fact that the Burmese fighter had been knocked unconscious.
The King was thrilled by the fight and offered Nai Khanomtom his freedom if he could fight nine more Burmese fighters. Nai Khanomtom didn’t get breaks between these fights, and as soon as an opponent went down the next was queued up to come after the Thai fighter. And so it was that Nai Khanomtom took on the Burmese fighters in an ironman fashion. The last of his opponents was a famous martial arts master teacher from Rakhine, a coastal region in Burma’s southwest. Nai Khanomtom went after the Rakhine master with flurry of kicks. It’s worth noting that in those days Burmese fighters were said to have relied much more heavily on hand strikes than kicks, and so the kicks may have given Nai Khanomtom a range advantage while presenting his opponent with attacks that the Burmese fighter was less practiced at defeating.
At the fight’s end, King Mangra honored his agreement, and Nai Khanomtom was granted his freedom and provided safe-conduct back to Siam. There are varying accounts that say that Nai Khonomtom returned home with either two Burmese wives or a number of his fellow prisoners as an additional payment for providing a spectacle that the Burmese king found gripping. In these accounts, Nai Khanomtom is usually said to have turned down a cash payment.
There’s a quote that’s often attributed to King Mangra that goes, “Every part of the Thai is blessed with venom, even with his bare hands he can fell ten opponents.” [FYI-It should be noted that seeing the same words quoted by several sources isn’t proof of truth, because the quotes could have a common (and false) point of origin. So take it all with a grain of salt.]
[Note: The details of this story vary. So you may hear–or have heard–a slightly different version of events. The exact details are likely lost to history and–when that happens–embellishment may creep in. That said, the variations that I’ve heard are neither great nor particularly significant. It’s also worth noting that these events are celebrated in Thailand every March 17th on what is called Boxer’s Day or National Muay Boran Day.]