A glimpse into Burma
Author - Charmaine Craig
Publisher - Penguin Random, Rs 499
The transformation of Burma through the tumultuous tides of history, through war and colonialism, is presented in this novel through the eyes of Benny and Khin. An excerpt:
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.
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