Miss Burma tells the story of modern-day Burma through the eyes of Benny and Khin, husband and wife, and their daughter Louisa. After attending school in Calcutta, Benny settles in Rangoon, then part of the British Empire, and falls in love with Khin, a woman who is part of a long-persecuted ethnic minority group, the Karen. World War II comes to Southeast Asia, and Benny and Khin must go into hiding in the eastern part of the country during the Japanese Occupation, beginning a journey that will lead them to change the country’s history. After the war, the British authorities make a deal with the Burman nationalists, led by Aung San, whose party gains control of the country. When Aung San is assassinated, his successor ignores the pleas for self-government of the Karen people and other ethnic groups, and in doing so sets off what will become the longest-running civil war in recorded history. Benny and Khin's eldest child, Louisa, has a danger-filled, tempestuous childhood and reaches prominence as Burma’s first beauty queen soon before the country falls to dictatorship. As Louisa navigates her newfound fame, she is forced to reckon with her family’s past, the West’s ongoing covert dealings in her country, and her own loyalty to the cause of the Karen people.
Based on the story of the author's mother and grandparents, Miss Burma is a captivating portrait of how modern Burma came to be and of the ordinary people swept up in the struggle for self-determination and freedom.
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When, nearly twenty years earlier, Louisa's father saw her mother for the first time, toward the end of the jetty at the seaport of Akyab — that is, when he saw her hair, a black shining sheath that reached past the hem of her dress to her muddy white ankles — he reminded himself, God loves each of us, as if there were only one of us.
It was a habit of his, this retreat from cataclysms of feeling (even lust) to the consolations of Saint Augustine's words. Did he believe them? When had he felt singularly loved, when since he was a very young boy living on Tseekai Maung Tauley Street in Rangoon's Jewish quarter? Even his memories of that time and place were unsatisfying: Grandfather reciting the Torah in the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, Daddy behind the register at E. Solomon & Sons, and the wide brown circles under Mama's eyes as she pleaded with him, her only child, Be careful, Benny. Dead, all of them, of ordinary disease by 1926, when he was seven.
Be careful, Benny. Mama's terrified love had kept him safe, he'd felt sure of it, until there was nothing between him and death, and he was shipped off to Mango Lane in Calcutta to live with his maternal aunties, daughters of that city's late rabbi. Their love was nothing like Mama's. It was meek and bland and threw up little resistance to his agony. So he took to throwing up his fists, especially when the boys at his new Jewish primary school taunted him for his strange way of speaking, the odd Burmese word that decorated his exclamations.
His aunties' solution to "the problem of his fists," and to the way those fists brought other boys' blood into their house ("Jewish blood! Jewish blood on his hands!"), was to pack him off again, to the only nearby boarding school with a boxing program, Saint James' School, on Lower Circular Road. The location was a comfort to his aunties, who mollified their anxiety about the school's Christian bent by insisting that no institution of serious religious purpose would ensconce itself on a road whose name sounded, when said briskly enough, like Lower Secular. "And no more Jewish blood on his hands," they reminded each other with satisfaction.
And they were right. Over the next five years on Lower Secular his fists found everything but Jewish blood: Bengali blood, English blood, Punjabi blood, Chinese blood, Tamil blood, Greek blood, Marwari blood, Portuguese blood, and Armenian blood — lots of Armenian blood.
Poor Kerob "the Armenian Tiger" Abdulian, or whatever his name was. In a swollen gymnasium that reeked of feet and stale tea and wood rot, seventeen-year-old Benny fought him for the crown in the Province of Bengal's Intercollegiate Boxing Championship, and never had one young man's face been so rearranged physically in the name of another's metaphysical problems. Before going down in the first round, the Armenian took a left to the chin for the loneliness Benny still suffered because of his parents' deaths. He took another left to the chin for a world that allowed such things to happen, and another just for the word "orphan," which Benny hated more than any anti-Semitic slur and which his classmates cruelly, proudly threw at him. The Armenian received a right to his gut for all the mothers and fathers, the aunts and uncles and grandparents and guardians — colonized citizens of the "civilized" British Empire, all of them — who banished their young to boarding schools like St. James in India. But none of these jabs could vanquish the Tiger. No, what sent the Tiger to the mat and all the spectators to their feet was an explosion of blows brought on by something Benny glimpsed in the stands: the entrance of a young, dark St. James' novice called Sister Adela, to whom Benny had hardly spoken, yet who — until today — had arrived precisely on time for each of his fights.
He took her presence at his matches as some kind of exercise of devotion on her part — to him or to the school (and by extension God?), he wasn't sure. Now, as the referee began to shout over the collapsed Armenian, Sister Adela positioned herself in her white habit near a group of students whose raucous display of support for Benny only illumined her stillness, the alertness of her black gaze presiding over him. But when the match was abruptly called and Benny struggled to free himself of the spectators flooding the ring, she slipped out of the gymnasium, unnoticed by all but him.
That evening, the proud schoolmaster hosted a feast in Benny's honor. Leg of lamb, roasted potatoes, trifle for pudding — those were the Western dishes that Benny could hardly taste because he was directing all of his attention to the tip of Sister Adela's fork, which she repeatedly used to probe her uneaten dinner while stooped over her corner table with the other nuns. Only once did she meet and hold Benny's gaze, her focus on him so sharp and accusatory that he felt every flaw in his face, especially its swollen upper lip, the result of the one right hook the Armenian Tiger had managed to land. Was she angry at him?
As if to deprive him of an answer to that question, her father came to take her away the next morning. She left in a deep pink sari that clung to her hips and set off the impossibly black strands of hair falling from the knot at the base of her neck, the most elegant neck Benny had ever seen. A queen's neck, he told himself over the following few weeks, as he tried and failed to assert himself in the ring. Remarkably, his desire to fight had followed Sister Adela right out of the stands.
A month later, a letter from her arrived:
Do you remember when I came across you sitting in the library talking to yourself? I thought you had become one screw loose because of all the pummeling your head receives. But no you were going over the lecture on Saint Augustine and you were saying God loves each of us as if there were only one of us. Well you were saying it with a good amount of mocking but I have seen from the start that you are a very sweet and immensely gentle being. And maybe you were thinking what I have come to. That sometimes it is necessary to go without human love so God's love can touch us more completely. It is true that no human love can be as untroubled as God's don't you agree? Try as I am trying to think of God's love whenever you are blue. Oh I know you will do the opposite! Well let this be a test and a reminder that true rebels are unpredictable. I told myself I COULD NOT FACE your match when I learned my father would come for me but then I changed my mind. Did you have to be so hard on that boy? You can't imagine how very very very very happy it made me when you beat him so happy I am crying all over again. Oh Benny. Pray for me.
Your very dearest Sister Adela is now a wife.
Pandita Kumari (Mrs. Jaidev Kumari)
He sailed for Rangoon later that year, in June 1938, when a cyclone crossed the upper Bay of Bengal and swept his steamer into its violent embrace. With each pitch and lurch, he leaned into the wind over the upper deck rail, purging himself of his choked years of loneliness in India — years that had ended with his rebellious proposal to his aunts that he convert to the faith of Saint Augustine (whose God he truly hoped loved him as uniquely as a parent), followed by their retaliatory proposal to perform his death rites. By the time the cyclone passed and he caught sight of the placid mouth of the Rangoon River, he nearly felt dispossessed of what had been.
At the wharf, he was met by an employee of B. Meyer & Company, Ltd., a lucrative rice-trading house based in Rangoon and run by one of his second cousins. The employee — a young Anglo-Burman called Ducksworth — was chattier than any fellow Benny had encountered. "They didn't mention you were a heavyweight!" Ducksworth exclaimed when Benny insisted on lifting his own trunk into the carriage drawn by two water buffalo (he'd had the fantasy of being met by an automobile, and stared with some envy at one idling on the road). "Mr. Meyer should have put you to work hefting bags of rice instead of pushing a pen! Not a hopelessly boring job, being a clerk — nor a hopelessly low salary. Enough to live respectably, to take care of your board and lodging at the Lanmadaw YMCA. Well, you wouldn't want to live anywhere else. A lot of jolly fellows, many of them British officers, half-whites. You're ... half Indian?"
Before Benny could answer, they were caught in an afternoon downpour, and Ducksworth busied himself with helping the driver raise the rusted metal roof of the carriage. In any case, Benny thought, better to avoid the subject of his race. He wasn't worried about bigotry — Mr. B. Meyer was a shining example of Jewish success — but he was tired of wearing a label that no longer seemed to describe him. His Jewishness was like a feature lost to childhood; it had been part of him, to be sure, but he saw no recognizable evidence of it in who he had become.
Ducksworth was eager to take him under his wing — just as eager as Benny soon became to take flight from anything constraining his newfound freedom in Rangoon. Over the weeks that followed, Benny discovered that if he did his job well, if he worked very hard at pushing his pen, and then was adequately polite to the fellows at the YMCA (where he was the youngest boarder and roundly liked) — if he rewarded Ducksworth with a few generous smiles or minutes of attentive conversation, he could escape into the city on his own. And so every evening after supper he found a way to flee down Lanmadaw Street to the Strand, where, amid the grand official structures and residences built by the British, his pace slowed and he drank in the evening air. He was thirsty, desperately in need of replenishing himself with the kind of sights he'd missed while shut up at St. James'— sights that had become so foreign to him he felt himself taking them in with the embarrassing curiosity of a newly transplanted Brit: the men sitting on the side of the road smoking cheroots, chewing betel, or singing together; the Indians hawking ice cream and the Muslim shopkeepers reading aloud from their holy book; the stalls advertising spices, canned goods, and umbrellas varnished with fragrant oil; the clanking workers in the passageways; and the buses, the trishaws, the bullock carts, the barefoot monks, the Chinese teetering past on their bicycles, and the women in their colorful, tightly wound sarongs, transporting sesame cakes or water on their heads and even meeting his shamed eyes with a grin. How closed in he had been on Lower Circular!
Painfully, it struck him that his aunties had stopped routinely inviting him to Mango Lane long before his talk of conversion, and that the intoxication he felt here was partly due to his burgeoning sense of belonging. In truth, he knew little more about Burma than what he'd learned in history classes: that the region had been settled centuries (or millennia?) ago by a medley of tribes; that one of the tribes, the Burmans, had dominated; and that the problem their domination presented to everyone else had been solved by the British, who'd taken possession of Rangoon nearly a century before and who continued to rule by staffing their civil service and armed forces with natives. The very names of these tribes bewildered his ignorant ears: Shan, Mon, Chin, Rohingya, Kachin, Karen (these last pronounced with the accent on the second syllable, it seemed to him — Ro-HIN-gya, Ka-CHIN, Ka-REN), and so on. He could no longer speak more than a few phrases of Burmese — English had always been his language (though he could make his way with the Bengali and Hindustani coming out of the odd shop). But as he passed the people gossiping in their impenetrable languages and playing their energetic music, he felt seized by a powerful sense of understanding. It was something about their friendliness, their relaxed natures, their open courteousness, their love of life, their easy acceptance of his right to be among them, elephantine as he must have appeared in their eyes (and hopelessly dumb, miming what he wanted to purchase). He had the sense that wherever they had come from (Mongolia? Tibet?), however many centuries or millennia ago, they had long ago accepted others' infiltration of their homeland so long as it was peaceable. Yet he also had the distinct impression that they'd never forgotten the dust of homelessness on their feet.
"Damnable citizens," Ducksworth often grumbled at the Lanmadaw YMCA, where every night after dinner the fellows would gather in the close, teak-furnished living room and fill their glasses with cognac (purchased, Benny learned with a pang, from E. Solomon & Sons, where his father had worked). Invariably, they would begin a game of bridge, and as they played and smoked and drank into the early hours, they would talk — about girls, about politics, about the splendor of the British Empire, the great Pax Britannica, which kept this country running with the ease and beautiful regularity of a Swiss clock.
"Unlike China," Ducksworth cut in on one of these nights, "with Manchuria overrun by Japs. What the devil do you think Hitler's up to by favoring the Japs, anyhow?"
There was something distasteful about Ducksworth, Benny thought. He was too eager to laugh, to lose himself under the annihilating influence of tobacco and drink. The fellow would never bloody his fists for anything, had he even the mettle to believe in more than a decent pension and a decent meal and a decent-enough game of bridge. No, his lightness appeared to be how he survived, how he sat so easily with not treating anyone but a white or a Burman quite as a man — and how he managed to get away with championing the imperialism that more and more of the Burmans were beginning to revolt against.
Just the other day, Ducksworth had been taking a break for tea at the firm when he'd revealed the shallowness of his convictions to Benny. They'd been alone in the office; Ducksworth had put his feet indecorously up on a chair, raising his teacup to his pursed lips; and Benny had decided to broach the subject of the law student, a Burman fellow at Rangoon University — someone by the name of Aung San — who'd begun raising a ruckus about the British presence. "A solidly anti-empire nationalist sort," Benny had added rather breathlessly. "They claim he's starting some sort of movement, saying the Burmans are the true lords and masters — Britons be damned, and everyone else along with them." By "everyone else," Benny had meant people like B. Meyer and him, and also the Muslims and Indians and Chinese and, well, the natives who'd been here for centuries, some before the Burmans. "It's not anyone else's country," his new friend had disdainfully replied, reminding Benny that Ducksworth, born to a Burman mother and an English father, had a uniquely dominating perspective.
Yet Ducksworth was habitually unwilling to go so far as to side with the Burmans; it suited him better to sink into the plushness of the Pax Britannica. Indeed, during their conversations, each time Benny came close to the point of pressing him on political matters, Ducksworth would slip away into the haze of his tobacco-drenched musings about the fine pleasures of British tea (which he bought from an Indian) and British cut crystal (which he hadn't any of) and British manners (which he rarely displayed). And, generally speaking, Benny had to admit that British rule did nurture a spirit of tolerance that appeared more to benefit than to harm many of Burma's citizens. Certainly there was a kind of caste system, by which the white man was on top and the Anglo-Burmans just beneath them; certainly the British had the deepest pockets; but there was also freedom of religion, an equitable division of labor when it came to British civil and military service, and, for the most part, a general prospering of every sort. From the little Benny had read since landing back in Rangoon, he understood that the Burman rulers whom the British had conquered had shown no such charity (even of the self-interested sort the British practiced) to those they'd overthrown.
"I say, Benny," Ducksworth said on this particular night, when no one rose to his question about Hitler's favoring of the Japanese. "Have you put in that application?"
They'd begun to play the cards he'd dealt.
"What application?" said Joseph, one of the others who worked at the firm and lodged at the Lanmadaw.
"Benny doesn't take our work seriously, Joseph — too 'stifling,' too —"
"Well, it is!" Benny said, hiding behind his hand.
"What application?" Joseph repeated.
Excerpted from "Miss Burma"
Copyright © 2017 Charmaine Craig.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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