Archive for December, 2012

Of Fanás and Forecastles: The Indian Ocean and Some Lost Languages of the Age of Sail – 1 of 11

December 10, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)



[This is an extended version of a talk delivered at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in 2007. It was later published in the Economic and Political Weekly and is also reprinted in Eyes Across the Water: Navigating the Indian Ocean, ed. Pamila Gupta, Isabel Hofmeyr & Michael Pearson, Unisa Press, 2010]




‘Dutch Galleon showing both a forecastle (left) and aftcastle (right) off Mauritius’, 1600-1630, Hendrik Cornelisz Vroom (Wikimedia Commons)



Bangladeshis, like Armenians and Gujaratis, often tell stories about the unexpected places where their countrymen are to be found. One location I have never heard mentioned however, is a website maintained for the benefit of the Australian ‘family history community’: it was there that I came upon the ship’s manifest of the William Stewart, a 596 ton vessel that arrived in Sydney on November 8, 1854, having made the journey from England to Australia with a crew of forty-four.[i]





Manifest of the William Stewart


The ship was captained by one Mr. Charles J. Riches, and had only a single mate, a Mr. Webb, of London. Of the others on the list only a handful (possibly seven or eight) were white sailors: the rest were lascars of various grades.










Who then were these lascars? The brief notations on the list reveal more than might be expected: although most of them were Muslims, there were some Christians and Hindus among them too. The oldest was a man of 48, from Sylhet, in what is now Bangladesh, and the youngest was a 16-year-old from Madras –  but for the most part these men were in their twenties and thirties, by no means young, according to the standards of an age when English and American seamen commonly began their careers in their teens. The seniormost lascar was one Serang Mohammad, a thirty-two year old sailor from Bombay; next in seniority were the two tindals, of whom one was from Chittagong and the other from ‘Bamnell’, a place that has the distinction of being unknown to Google. For the rest, twelve of the lascars were from what might be called undivided Bengal – places such as Sylhet, Barisal, Noakhali, Calcutta and Howrah. Another six were from various ports along the east coast of India, including Madras; one of the seacunnies, Roderick by name, was probably a burgher from Colombo; two others were from Goa; two were Malay; two were probably Arab-African; and another two were, in the vocabulary of the time, ‘Manila-men’, meaning Filipino.

The crew of the William Stewart  was by no means exceptional in its heterogeneity. The Tynemouth, a steamship of 1228 tons that sailed from Hong Kong to Australia in 1858, had a crew of 70, of whom thirty-six were white sailors, all English except for four Germans. The others were lascars of various grades, of whom seven were from Bengal. As for the rest they were from places too various to list severally: Daman, Cochin, Gorakhpur, Mungher, Bencoolen (off Sumatra), Massawah (in East Africa) and so on.




Three Lascars of the ‘Viceroy of India’ (1929) (Greenwich Maritime Museum)


On lists like these the term ‘lascar’ has so wide an application that we might well wonder where the word came from and what it meant. The term would appear to be an Anglo-Indian adaptation of the Persian/Urdu lashkar/lashkari, meaning ‘soldier’ or ‘army’.[ii]












In passing between languages the word appears to have taken on the connotation of ‘mercenary’ or ‘hired hand’ and was applied in this sense to a certain kind of sailor.  The transition seems to have occurred first in Portuguese, in which the words laschar/lasquarim have been in circulation since about 1600 CE: as with many other nautical terms, it was probably through a Lusitanian route that it entered English[iii]. The nautical usage of the term is however, distinctively European: in the Indian subcontinent, for example, the word is still generally used to mean ‘army’ or ‘militia’.[iv] The extended meaning of ‘sailor’ would appear to have been introduced to the subcontinent by Europeans; when thus used today, it has a touch of both the exotic and the archaic. In sum, the word ‘lascar’ as used on the manifest of the William Stewart, belongs to two kinds of jargon, the nautical and the colonial, and its meaning is specific to those contexts.




[ii] See for example: Albert Barrère, & Charles Leland: Dictionary of Slang , Jargon & Cant, Ballantyne Press, 1889, & Sir Henry Yule, & A.C.Burnell.: Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary Of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words And Phrases, And Of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical And Discursive, (new ed. edited by William Crooke, B.A. London: J. Murray, 1903). The Persian lashkar is often traced to the Arabic ‘askari meaning ‘soldier’ but this seems an unlikely link to me. The other possibility is that it is the Arabic ‘askar/’askari  that derives from the Persian lashkar (such, indeed was the opinion of no less a philologist than the great Sir Henry Yule, of Hobson-Jobson). But this seems even more unlikely to me, for if this were so then there would have to be some accounting for fact that the Arabic word had, in the course of its travels, lost one consonant – ‘l’ – and acquired another, the guttural ‘ . There would have to be an accounting also for the plural of the Arabic word ‘askar/askari  which is asâkir (while lashkar can be used as a collective).

[iii] Cf. , The Oxford English Dictionary.

[iv] Some subcontinental dictionaries do not even list the nautical meaning of the word. See for instance, Dr. Shaikh Ghulam Maqsud Hilali’s Perso-Arabic Elements in Bengali, (ed. Dr. Muhammad Enamul Haq), Central Board for Development of Bengali, Dhaka, 1967.





Another Country: Writers and Censors in Burma, 15 years later – part 2 of 2

December 6, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)



On Nov 17 this year, the Burmese writer Ma Thida and I went to visit the offices of the Press Scrutiny Board in Yangon, the seat of the country’s once-feared censorship authority.



Press Scrutiny Board, Yangon, 1996


I was curious about the building because I had heard so much about it from Burmese writers,











including Ma Thida who has endured some terrible moments there.




Ma Thida at a Yangon bookshop with her newly published prison memoir


She has spent many years in jail because of her writings, and her memoir of her prison experiences has just been published in Burmese (she is now collaborating on an English translation).














Ma Thida’s publisher, San Mon Aung, drove us to the Board’s office building.



Entrance to the Press Scrutiny Board premises, 15 years later













Nobody stopped us or asked any questions as we drove up to the building.






Press Scrutiny Board’s offices, Yangon, Nov 2012





At the entrance we ran into a team of journalists from al-Jazeera –





Ma Thida with al-Jazeera journalists




they too were touring the building, filming and interviewing people as they pleased.








Inside, many rooms were empty,







and the few censors who remained seemed embarrassed to be found doing whatever they were doing.










At the end of our visit a newly-appointed member of the Board, Myo Myint Maung, came running down to meet us –










I was told that he is himself a celebrated young poet (the censors of the past were junior army officers).










While walking around the building I recalled a meeting with one of Burma’s most revered 20th century writers:




Saya Mya Than Tint at his home, Rangoon, 1996


the late Saya Mya Than Tint.


A friend of mine, U Tin Maung Than, a magazine editor, had taken me to his house in Yangon in 1996. When I was introduced Saya Mya Than Tint said: ‘I know your name – I’ve read something of yours.’












I was astonished. In those days Myanmar’s censorship regime was so draconian that very few foreign books or magazines percolated into the country: they were routinely confiscated at the airport. I found it hard to believe that something of mine had succeeded in slipping through the censors’ dragnet.

But Saya Mya Than Tint was sure of it. He told me to wait and went to his study. A few minutes later he came back with a copy of a magazine (I think it was an issue of Granta). Inside was an article that I had written.

I was dumbstruck. ‘Where did you get that?’ I said. ‘How did it get past the censors?’

He told me the story: in Yangon, as in India, there are many rubbish-buyers who go around the city buying up discarded household goods, including books and paper. Saya Mya Than Tint had befriended the buyers who serviced the city’s diplomats, some of whom received books and magazines through embassy couriers. In this way he had ensured that he always had a steady supply of foreign books and magazines!

Saya Mya Than Tint was then 67. He had been imprisoned for nine years under the Ne Win regime. Some of those years were spent on the infamous Coco Islands, where prisoners were made to forage for their food. Yet his intellectual hunger, and his thirst for books, remained undiminished – if anything they had been enhanced by his experiences. He took immense pride in staying abreast of what was being said, thought and published around the world.

When it was time for me to leave, Saya Mya Than Tint gave me the manuscript of a forthcoming English translation of one of his books: a series of vignettes, based on random encounters, it was then called Tales of Ordinary People. It was later published in English under the title On the Road to Mandalay. It is a deeply humane, revelatory book and everyone who is planning to travel to Burma should put it at the top of their reading list.

Saya Mya Than Tint died two years after my meeting with him. My  encounter with him was to leave a lasting impression, not least because of his insights into the minds of censors. I often recall one of his observations: repression, he said, establishes a bizarrely paradoxical  relationship between censorship and fantasy; the censor becomes the true fantasist; the writer becomes the realist. ‘In an authoritarian culture,’ he said, ‘people lead two-track lives. Intelligence is gathered constantly, everything is known, yet the rulers use their information only to produce lies. It is like log-rolling: one lie makes another lie and it goes on like that until everything is make-believe. The rulers retreat into a world of illusion where they cannot see reality.’

Even in Burma, where so many writers have suffered terribly at the hands of the junta’s censors, few endured such appalling privations as Saya Mya Than Tint. Yet, what was most instructive to me about his attitude towards the censors was that he did not see himself as a mere victim in relation to them. He saw the relationship between writers and the regime as a contest, a struggle in which the censors did not necessarily have the upper hand. Words are, after, all the battleground on which the war is waged, and the lay of this land favours the writer, not the censor. On this territory writers can always find ways of eluding their adversaries.

During our meeting Saya Mya Than Tint talked at great length about one of the strategies that Burma’s writers used to outflank the censors: it drew upon a custom with a long history. In the past the kings of Myanmar used to pay homage to writers and scholars on a certain day of the  year. In modern times, this ‘day’ has come to be stretched into a period of several weeks, during which writers and artists make public appearances around the country, delivering talks and holding recitations and readings. These gatherings are organised locally, and funded by public contribution. The tradition is so deeply-rooted that the military regime was never able suppress it outright, although it did ban literary meetings from time to time. The writers and artists who spoke on these occasions were careful to avoid explicit mention of politics; they discussed political matters only through allusion, oblique references, satire and humor. ‘Because we are allowed to say so little in plain language,’ said Saya Mya Than Tint. ‘We have to find secret languages with which to communicate with our audience. And even though we never speak directly about the situation, the listeners understand exactly what we mean.’

It is certainly a fact that in spite of the terrible risks, Myanmar’s writers resisted the censors with astonishing fortitude and courage. Many defied the regime openly, disregarding the threat of jail sentences:





Saya Ni Pu Lay at the entrance to Mandalay’s storied Ludu Press


to this day people talk with awe of the intransigence of the legendary writer Luda Daw Amar (mother of Saya Ni Pu Lay and co-founder, with her husband, Ludu U Hla, of the hugely influential Ludu Press in Mandalay).













Other writers used Burma’s cultural traditions in resourceful ways to keep political debate alive. As a result, the ruling junta was never able to put a stop to political discussion, despite all its efforts. In the end, it was the infinite cunning of language itself that was the censor’s most potent adversary. Myanmar’s experience in that period is proof that the greatest enemy of the absolutist state is the complexity and inventiveness of the human imagination.

Now that those days are gone – forever, I hope – and Burma is suddenly the focus of the world’s attention, I find it saddening that the talk about the country is so much focused on politics, money and power rivalries. Myanmar’s writers, and all that they did to keep their compatriots’ spirits alive seem hardly to figure in the story, at least in the manner of its telling in the international media.

Would it be possible to speak of the end of the Soviet Union without mentioning Solzhenitsyn? Can we think of the fall of the Iron Curtain without thinking of Milan Kundera and a host of other writers?

The writers of Myanmar played just as significant a part in bringing about the changes that are now sweeping the country as their counterparts did in Eastern Europe and Russia. That this is so little recognized says a great deal about the world’s vision of culture in Asia.







Another Country: Writers and Censors in Burma, 15 years later – 1 of 2

December 3, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)




On November 14 this year, I returned to Burma/Myanmar after 15 years. During my time there I thought often of the opening sentence of L.P.Hartley’s novel The Go-Between: The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

I had last visited Burma in 1997 and the trip did not end pleasantly.





I had interviewed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was then under house arrest,













at her home on Yangon’s University Avenue.




This had brought me to the attention of the secret police, who followed everywhere from the moment I stepped out of the house. My greatest concern was for my notes and tapes, which I thought might be confiscated when I went to catch my flight out of the country, so I enlisted the help of a friendly diplomat who was kind enough to stay with me until I boarded the plane.







A few months later my article, At Large in Burma, appeared in The New Yorker. After that it became public knowledge that I had done something that was perhaps even more offensive to the junta than interviewing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. I had spent time on the Burma-Thai border,



Students and Karenni insurgents on the Burma-Thai border. On the far right is the commander of the KIA, Ko Sonny (Sonny Mahinder Singh).

with  rebel students of the ’88 movement and a troop of armed insurgents, the Karenni, who were one of the many ethnic groups that were then fighting the Burmese army.










In the years that followed I did not bother to apply for a visa again. Even if it were granted I knew that I would be watched if I went to Burma. This meant that my friends and acquaintances might get into trouble if I tried to contact them. I could see little point in visiting the country if I could not meet the people I knew.

In the meantime, my novel The Glass Palace was published and in the succeeding years I heard that it had found many readers in Burma. In 2009, I learnt to my great surprise that the novel was actually being serialised, in translation, in a popular Yangon magazine, Shwe Amyutay, with illustrations by the artist Wa Thone. In August 2010, the novelist Robert Coover, organized a series of Burma-related events at Brown University, to which he invited the writer Ma Thida, and the publisher of Shwe Amyutay, Saya Myo Myint Nyein, and the translator of The Glass Palace, Saya Nay Win Myint .


It was in talking to them that I understood that Burma was changing rapidly under President Thein Sein.



With (from r to l) Saya Myo Myint Nyein, Ma Thida and Saya Nay Win Myint, Brown, 2009

I had of course heard that the regime had been easing up a little of late – but similar rumours had circulated many times before, and I had assumed that the changes would be largely cosmetic.











But after talking to Ma Thida, U  and Saya Ne Win Myint I understood that something genuinely momentous was under way in Burma.





Saya Nay Win Myint reading from his translation of The Glass Palace, Mandalay, Nov 18, 2012

Then, earlier this year, I learnt that Saya Ne Win Myint’s translation of The Glass Palace had been awarded the Myanmar National Literature prize (see my post of February 25, 2012).












This was extraordinarily meaningful to me and it made me eager to return to Burma.




Reader with a copy of The Glass Palace, Yangon, 2012



So on Nov 14 there I was again, at Yangon’s Mingaladon airport, on that same patch of tarmac that I had last crossed fifteen years before. And within moments of arriving it became clear that I had come to a different country.











What is this new country to be called, ‘Burma’ or ‘Myanmar’? In the past I had generally used the former, following Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s preferred usage. But it is now my feeling that the two names should be used interchangeably. This is my practice also in other instances of renaming – for example, with the city of my birth, Calcutta/Kolkata. In conversation, as in writing, I sometimes say ‘Calcutta’ and sometimes ‘Kolkata’. I did this even before the city’s official name was changed, and I don’t see any reason to alter that practice. After all most places have multiple names, and it makes sense that the official usage should sometimes change, to reflect political and cultural developments. But this does not mean that other names should be expunged from memory – on the contrary, I feel they should be actively recalled. As far as I am concerned the more names (and words) that there are in circulation, the better it is all around.

The new Burma abounded with signs of change – but the moment when the difference between the Myanmar I had known, and the country I had landed in, became most starkly apparent to me was when I visited the offices of the Press Scrutiny Board, the seat of the country’s censorship authority.

The mere fact that I could writed that the last sentence is itself an indication of the significance of the changes that are currently under way in Burma. Fifteen years ago I would no more have conceived of entering that office than I would have thought of breaking into Burma’s most notorious prison, the jail at Insein. The censor’s office was then a place of dread: people’s voices shook with fear when they spoke of it.

At that time the ruling military junta was known as SLORC – surely the most expressive acronym since Ian Fleming’s SMERSH ? – and the Press Scrutiny Board was the instrument through which it controlled the country’s media and publishing houses. The Board wasn’t the junta’s invention however – like many of Burma’s institutions of repression it was established by the British during the Second World War. But in the course of its evolution the Board had brought into being a regime of censorship that was, in a primitive and brutal way, one of the most intrusive and repressive programs ever devised to control thought and expression.

Under SLORC and its successors every  word that was printed in Myanmar (or not, as the case may be) had to be filtered through the offices of the Press Scrutiny Board: twice in the case of journals and magazines; three times for books. Those who ran afoul of the censors were often sentenced without appeal: nowhere in the world were writers consigned to jail as frequently or with as little cause as in Myanmar. Many of Myanmar’s best-known contemporary writers, such as Ni Pu Lay, Nu Nu Yi and Ma Thida spent years in prison.

Politics was not the only forbidden subject for Burmese writers; the censors prohibited them from mentioning any aspect of life that could be interpreted as ‘negative’ – poverty, illness, corruption, destitution. So broadly were these rubrics interpreted that anything at all could be banned at the censors’ will. Stories about suicide, for example, were strictly prohibited, as were references to moonlighting, or the high price of medicines – or indeed, any of the minor difficulties of everyday life. But the censors’ decrees did not stop at content; they extended to literary form and even grammar. A well-known modernist writer who tried to experiment with the placement of verbs in his sentences once found himself denounced for ‘abusing the Burmese language’.

The subject to which the censors were most sensitive, was of course, that of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.




U Tin Maung Than & the writer Ju, 1996

U Tin Maung Than, a well-known Burmese writer and former editor of a Rangoon literary magazine told me this story fifteen years ago: once, at a loss for a inoffensive cover design, he had picked a picture that seemed to him to have no connection whatever with present day Burma: it was a photograph taken on the other side of the world and featured a penguin on an ice-floe.









But even this was banned – the solitude of the penguin was interpreted by the censors as an oblique reference to the plight of Aung San Suu Kyi.







Daw Suu section, Yangon bookshop, 2012



(Today bookshops have entire sections devoted to Aung San Suu Kyi.)









On my earlier visits I had discussed the Press Scrutiny Board at great length with Yangon’s writers, editors and publishers. Their stories haunted me: I became fascinated with the workings, as it were, of the censorial mind. It seemed to me that the concerns of the Press Scrutiny Board revealed a great deal about institutions that seek to control the thoughts and words of others (and of course, such institutions exist everywhere, in different guises).

My publisher friend, U Tin Maung Than, had spent many nerve-racking hours with the censors, waiting for them to pass judgement on the proofs of his magazine. One day, in January 1997, I persuaded him to point out the building where he and his colleagues endured these ordeals.






Press Scrutiny Board, Yangon, 1996


At considerable danger to himself he led me past the gates of the Press Scrutiny Board’s office building, and I surreptitiously took this picture.









It was only very recently that the censors were unseated. In August this year, on the heels of many other dramatic changes, came the announcement that private publications would no longer be censored: .

But the Press Scrutiny Board still exists, and is still housed in the same building, although it now performs only a few routine functions. When I learnt that it was now possible for visitors to look around the building, I knew at once that I would have to go.




ucuz ukash