I’m writing my first real introductory paper to my “South Asian diaspora in Myanmar” project. I’m exhausted, but at the same time, I feel at peace. I feel in my element.
History and anthropology have very rigid hierarchical ways of presenting facts. Not stories, as they claim, but facts. And the trouble is, I’m not interested in the project of telling facts. Facts leave a people nude and up for display for the hungry gaze of anyone walking by. That’s what Western discourse has largely done for the last two centuries. Taken peoples and presented them as “facts”, compressing them into objects, and propping them up in display cases for all to hungrily, consumingly, gaze upon.
This gaze. This gaze that consumes and rips and slices through and breaks pieces off. This gaze has a revolting, barbaric quality to it.
Colonialism was a large project and institutional violence was an integral part of it. This compressing of people into objects, however, was a small piece of the larger project. A past time taken up by elites whose money was managed well by others. Elites who were actively, directly participating in the larger project of colonialism. Not indirectly by this telling of facts. They were directly participating in this project, by dictating what sentiments should be conferred on the colonized, and by directly deciding the fates of the colonized.
It was a past time.Something one did in cozy libraries on large estates. A past time.
But story telling isn’t a past time. It is a time honored tradition without which, communities, peoples, civilizations would perish in the dust, never again to be known anything else other than objects.
It is a time honored tool that was used to survive. They told stories, charged their descendants with the enormous job of remembering. And if you know anything about memory, about story telling, and about the raw human aspect of it, you would know that these are incredibly holy and sacred spaces where not all are allowed to walk into.
I’m interested in the project of storytelling. That part is in my blood, otherwise, I wouldn’t feel so at home.
However, what is strange, is the environment. I am working in an environment which has systematically dispossessed my own community a hundred times over by compressing them into facts. I have a sense that I need to undo this doing, this compression of people into facts.
I’m trying to decipher the language which would allow me to undo (at least just a little of) the terrible wrong that has been done.
Three women telling me parts of a large, complex story. A mother and a daughter. The daughter continuously interrupting her mother to explain, to explain, to explain.
Is that a co-optation of voice, I thought vaguely (in secret from myself) to myself, or is that a desperate desire to speak that has yet to find it’s venue.
The third woman told me (after hearing what I was doing), “write about this. Write about this”. And across two oceans, she commanded, she dictated.
Write about this.
Every river must flow. Sooner or later, every river must flow. It will either flow underground for years before someone finds it, or it will break through the surface. And when it’s done flowing, it will quietly dry up and quietly disappear.
It will leave a mark.
Voices are like that I think. Dispossessed voices, unheard voices, trampled down voices. Sooner or later, they will find their venues. They will either burst out or they will quietly flow and and if no one hears them in their lifetimes (why doesn’t anyone think of this as a tragedy, why doesn’t anyone have mass funeral prayers over these unheard voices), they will leave a mark. An echo. Through generations. Etched in a forgotten memory. A pendant. A crumpled letter. An engraving on a buried wall.
Voices will find their way to the surface. Voices will find a way to be heard. This I believe. This I believe with a deepening spirituality. And so in accordance, I hope I am able to honor their sacredness as befits them.
(Though sometimes I get afraid. Of my own limitations).
In 1939, deadly anti - Indian riots broke out in Rangoon, killing many. Unlike the ones in 1929, these were not about labor relations, but about a presumed religious conflict.
"There was no conflict that I know of. We lived in Sule, and we saw nothing. Perhaps there were skirmishes far off. But not in the neighborhood certainly. It was quiet.
Of course, I was a child. There is little I can remember now.”
(So the mother told me. And I pondered. Was there a story that was missing, hidden in plain sight? There were riots, we know this, because there are records of it, but here’s a woman who lived in the heart of Rangoon telling me she saw nothing in Sule.
I confirmed with her daughter. Family narrations figured the various travels during this time into World War II and then into Partition and after. But no riots. There have been no riots from this time in collective memory.)
(How could it be? What is this that I’m looking at? What is this that I’m looking at?)
"I’m a politician, not a saint", Aung San Suu Kyi on being an icon, and of the various protracted conflicts that has seized her country. She has been criticized for her evasiveness on the issue of the Muslim prosecution in Myanmar. In the meantime, the government has also systematically ejected NGOs that may be able to document what is really happening on the ground. Asked, the Burmese Government stubbornly gives numbers of casualties much lower than Human Rights Watch activists.
[9:17:17 PM] QJ: Oh u could write abt this…nurses…like doctors usually are supposed to take an oath, as far as I’m concerned
[9:17:38 PM] QJ: To treat anyone or care for anyone disregard their race, religion etc etc
[9:18:09 PM] pb: mm. this is true
[9:18:17 PM] QJ: And the nurse services I called for my baby…they asked me what race I am. I get really offended
[9:18:34 PM] pb: huh. did they ask anything else?
[9:18:39 PM] QJ: Actually they r asking if I’m muslim or not
[9:18:52 PM] pb: did they ask if you were muslim, your race, or both?
[9:19:40 PM] QJ: They ask Luu Myo…which can be translated as race, but in myanmar it is very mistaken as Kalar or Indian if u r muslim
[9:19:55 PM] pb: mm
[9:19:59 PM] pb: i understand
[9:20:09 PM] QJ: Yeah write abt that too
[9:20:17 PM] pb: i will. thanks :)
[9:20:23 PM] QJ: I had surgery n my nurses left cos i was muslim
[9:20:37 PM] pb: did they. wow!
[9:20:52 PM] QJ: Yeah days post-op
[9:21:11 PM] QJ: Mind u, i dont have anyone at my house except my husband n they know
[9:22:16 PM] QJ: Enjoy your dinner, I’m chewing my meat
There’s a larger story here that I’m being asked to tell. That I’m compelled to tell. I just have to decipher the language of the story so I can retell it. So I can pass it on.
As I write my paper, I define everything. What is Indian. What is kalar. What is diaspora. How did these people came about to be. How did they came to remain where they did.
And so I play with the structure of the hierarchy of the environment. If I define everything as meticulously as possible, is there a chance that my writing will not be bastardized? But that is a secondary consideration. The primary consideration is setting up structures, definitions, so I don’t bastardize my own work.
It’s a work in learning in progress. I wonder if I’ll really ever get it right.