In case you haven’t read too much about Myanmar before you go there, rest assured that you can catch up on your reading. At every place where there are tourists there are also vendors selling books. Exiting from a temple in Bagan I sat down to wear my shoes and found a stone lion next to me with books piled up on its rump. George Orwell’s Burmese Days is available in as many languages as Amitabh Ghosh’s The Glass Palace. I’d liked the second one quite a bit. I presented a copy to my oldest uncle when he was about 90 years old. He read through it in a week and discussed it at length with me over the phone.
In preparation for my trip I read a few other books. There was a graphic novel (although novel is not quite the right description for a travelogue) by Guy Delisle called Burma Chronicles which I enjoyed reading. It largely confined itself to Yangon, but described the cartooning scene so empathetically that I regretted missing the exhibition of cartoons in Yangon later when I saw an article in Myanmar Times (featured photo).
There are many books written about the last years of the military regime. They are mostly despairing about the chances of a restoration of democracy, and from today’s point of view somewhat dated. I read several, but one which I liked because of the sympathy with which it described ordinary people of Myanmar was Rosalind Russell’s book called Burma’s Spring: Real Lives in Turbulent Times.
I read about Burma’s millennium old history from a book by the historian Thant Myint-U called The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma. The author is the grandson of U Thant, once Secretary General of the UN. The personal part of this history was about the last thirty years. This book is a very good introduction to the history of Burma. Its recounting of recent history meshed with personal accounts that I heard while travelling. I recommend this book very highly.
The books provide a context, but it is travel and talking to people which make a trip come alive. Here is a story I was told by a man in his late twenties. A Burmese man goes to India to get his teeth checked by a dentist. The process is simple, and the dentist says “You could probably have this done in Myanmar” The man replies, “I’m not allowed to open my mouth there”. I laughed. My companion told me that the man who told this joke was arrested and put in prison for five years, and freed only on the restoration of democracy.
That’s the past. Young people are growing up in a new country. There is no guide book to the new country yet, and that’s a problem. Nothing prepares you for the Burma of today.
I emerged from yet another temple and sat down to put on my shoes. Next to me a pre-teen girl desultorily tried to sell me a book. When I told her I’d read them she went back to her phone. I heard the music she was playing and asked whether it was Burmese. "No, K-pop", she said. She switched to something else: "Burmese" she explained. I listened to a song which was, to my untrained ear, similar to the other. Then she switched to something else. "Bollywood. I like the dance" she told me. I recognized the tune. It had been popular a few years back. This was performed by a Burmese boy band in drag. George Orwell, kings and generals seemed far away.