Myanmar today stands at the crossroads; where conflict and change are becoming daily occurrences. The book by Nilanjana Sengupta comes at an appropriate time where she sensitively takes up the challenging task of presenting the lives of four strong and resilient women who played the role of ‘catalysts’ in their own country. She not only examines the history and political evolution of Myanmar through a female perspective but also allows us to understand the individual journeys of growth and self discovery of these four remarkably talented and determined women writers. The informative biographical sketch of each gives us a glimpse of their early influences, internal struggles and external/outside limitations with their stories often overlapping with each other. The author’s reflection on their published and hitherto unexamined writings (some in English and much of it in Burmese) offers us a deeper understanding of the transitions and turmoil occurring in their respective socio-political environments along with changing culture and attitudes; thereby nourishing our perception and knowledge.
Nilanjana begins with ‘the voice of a closet feminist’ by covering Khin Myo Chit’s editorial journey where Khin Myo Chit used the power of storytelling, wit and implied irony for writing her social commentaries. Her questioning of the deep undercurrents of gender discrimination (both in the literary and political spheres), unwritten laws of self-censorship, peripheral position of women in the nationalist space, and curbing of human intellect and spirit shows an easy familiarity with which she explored western literature and culture which she explored in her writings, often juxtaposing the local cum traditional with the western which was at times also the modern. Cosmopolitan and prolific, she was passionate about the twin themes of feminism and trans-national literary culture, both of which were marginalized in her times.
The ‘voice of unity’ covers Ludu Daw Amar’s foray into writing which was much more direct and confrontational. She often dissected a socio-political problem well and left her readers with the possibility of a solution. She continued to criticize the government through her writings (she was editor of the Ludu newspaper), launched a series of major works (on Burmese traditional arts, history and culture of Upper Burma), and wrote a column on international affairs with translations forming an important component of her body of work. She, unlike Khin Myo Chit, continued to celebrate traditional Burma and was hesitant in raising the issue of modernity of women. Again unlike the previous author, she never really gave an opportunity for people to know her closely and thus readers were left to wonder as to how she had evolved. Both the writers, born in 1915, studied in the University of Rangoon and had different learnings from their participation in the anti-British student movement which in turn shaped their future perspectives.
The book further delves into the life of Ma Thida (born in 1966 and grew up in General Ne Win’s socialist regime) who interestingly wore several hats (medical doctor, writer and journalist) and offered a creative space for her readers who were at liberty to interpret her writings. Although she grappled with issues of identity throughout her life, her post-structuralist literary style filled with symbolism and imagery was instrumental in generating a culture of social engagement with short stories being her preferred genre. Her story titled ‘the voice of hidden truths and changing times’ is apt as it denotes the transition occurring in Myanmar society where attempts were being made to involve the civilian citizen in the process of governance with a new receptivity to change.
Finally the story features Aung San Suu Kyi, the voice of a pragmatic whose enormous gift of logic and practicality influenced both politics and personalities. The author touches on Suu Kyi’s views on British rule in Burma, traditional Burmese education, nationalism, social cum moral regeneration, and economic growth based on respect for community. Her insistence on democracy first, development later along with an emphasis on changing political values amongst people is well written by the author.
Nilanjana also successfully places Aung San Suu Kyi as one among the tradition of female writers in Myanmar instead of placing her in a unique position. Like the other three writers, Aung San Suu Kyi was also trying to examine society and nationalism through her writings and displayed bouts of endearing vulnerability. The author brings out the writer/scholar qualities in the much loved leader which probably have been overshadowed over the years by her political identity as a powerful and popular opposition leader. The democracy movement of 1988 is an important juncture where all the four stories coalesce; where Khin Myo Chit and Daw Amar (in their seventies) are at the height of their literary careers, Ma Thida takes up serious journalism and Aung San Suu Kyi returns to limelight (Ma Thida becomes the NLD appointed chronicler of events/record keeper for Aung San Suu Kyi’s campaign trails in 1988-89).
The book’s strength is its refreshing and inspiring narrative which clearly puts forth two powerful ideas: firstly that empowered women can empower an entire generation, thus reinforcing their important role in society; secondly the written word can influence, shape and mould the human mind. The power of the pen can transcend the might of the sword by creating a thinking nation and thereby a free one. Nilanjana’s attempt to explore Myanmar’s intellectual history in an alternative way through the literary works of four women writers thus proves to be an interesting and innovative endeavour.