Finding Miss Burma

Finding Miss Burma

An excerpt from the new novel Miss Burma.

Adapted from the cover of Miss Burma. Courtesy the publisher.

There she is, Louisa at fifteen, stepping onto a makeshift stage at the center of Rangoon’s Aung San Stadium in 1956. Give yourself to them, she thinks. And immediately one hand goes to her hip, her head tilts upward, her awareness descends to her exposed thighs, to her too-muscular calves, now in plain view of the forty thousand spectators seated in the darkening stands.

Give them what they need, her mother told her on the way to the stadium. And Louisa understands that her mother meant more than a view of her gold high-heeled sandals (on loan from a friend and pinching her toes), more than the curves accentuated by her white one-piece (copied from a photo of Elizabeth Taylor). Her mother meant something like a vision of hope. Yet what is Louisa’s appearance on this garish stage, during the final round of the Miss Burma contest, but a picture of something dangerous? She is approximately naked, her gleaming suit approximately concealing what should be private. She is approximately innocent, pushing a hip to one side, close to plummeting into indignity.

A tide of applause draws her farther into the light. She pivots, presenting the judges and the spectators beyond them with a view of her behind (ample thanks to her Jewish father, who sits with her mother somewhere in the stands nearby). Before her now are the other finalists, nine of them, grouped in the shadows upstage. Their smiles are fixed, radiant with outrage. “The special contender,” the government paper recently called her. How strange to be dubbed “the image of unity and integration,” when she has wanted only to go unremarked—she, the mixed-breed, who is embarrassed by mentions of beauty and race. “We never win the games we mean to,” her father once told her.

She pivots again, crosses the stage, moving through a cloud of some nearby spectator’s smoke, her eyes landing for a moment on her parents. Daddy is slumped away from Mama, his balding head slightly turned, his docile look catching hers. Though under house arrest, he has contrived special permission to be here. It is even conceivable that he has somehow arranged for the pageant to be fixed. Beside him, Mama, with her demurring aspect, appears anxious, overly engaged in the proceedings. She seems to lift off the edge of her seat, her eyes alight with pride and accusation and something resembling anguish. Move! she mutely cries from her perch, as though to avoid capture by Louisa’s recriminating glances.

And Louisa does move—past her parents, downstage, to face a view of the smiling judges and the rows of eyeglasses glinting up at her, the rifles in the hands of the soldiers manning the stands. It feels nearly benign, the applause that gives way to a flurry of coughs; almost sweet, these whiffs of someone’s perfume, of putrefying garbage and dampness beneath the field; even liberating, this offering of herself, of her near nakedness. Aren’t they all compromised in Burma? They have been through so much.

Several minutes later, before the crown is placed on her head, it occurs to her that the spectators could be worshipful congregants—or penned beasts—and she has the instinct to escape.

But here is a sash being slung across her shoulder. Red roses shoved into her hands.

A camera flash.

“Miss Burma!” someone cries from the far side of the stadium, as if across the darkness of what has been.

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:

Dearest Benny,

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. It is true that no human love can be as untroubled as God’s don’t you agree? Try as I am trying to think of God’s love whenever you are blue. Oh I know you will do the opposite! Well let this be a test and a reminder that true rebels are unpredictable. I told myself I COULD NOT FACE your match when I learned my father would come for me but then I changed my mind. Did you have to be so hard on that boy? You can’t imagine how very very very very happy it made me when you beat him so happy I am crying all over again. Oh Benny. Pray for me.

Your very dearest Sister Adela is now a wife.

In faith,

Pandita Kumari (Mrs. Jaidev Kumari)

He sailed for Rangoon later that year, in June 1938, when a cyclone crossed the upper Bay of Bengal and swept his steamer into its violent embrace. With each pitch and lurch, he leaned into the wind over the upper deck rail, purging himself of his choked years of loneliness in India—years that had ended with his rebellious proposal to his aunts that he convert to the faith of Saint Augustine (whose God he truly hoped loved him as uniquely as a parent), followed by their retaliatory proposal to perform his death rites. By the time the cyclone passed and he caught sight of the placid mouth of the Rangoon River, he nearly felt dispossessed of what had been.

At the wharf, he was met by an employee of B. Meyer & Company, Ltd., a lucrative rice-trading house based in Rangoon and run by one of his second cousins. The employee—a young Anglo-Burman called Ducksworth—was chattier than any fellow Benny had encountered. “They didn’t mention you were a heavyweight!” Ducksworth exclaimed when Benny insisted on lifting his own trunk into the carriage drawn by two water buffalo (he’d had the fantasy of being met by an automobile, and stared with some envy at one idling on the road). “Mr. Meyer should have put you to work hefting bags of rice instead of pushing a pen! Not a hopelessly boring job, being a clerk—nor a hopelessly low salary. Enough to live respectably, to take care of your board and lodging at the Lanmadaw YMCA. Well, you wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. A lot of jolly fellows, many of them British officers, half-whites. You’re . . . half Indian?”

Before Benny could answer, they were caught in an afternoon downpour, and Ducksworth busied himself with helping the driver raise the rusted metal roof of the carriage. In any case, Benny thought, better to avoid the subject of his race. He wasn’t worried about bigotry—Mr. B. Meyer was a shining example of Jewish success—but he was tired of wearing a label that no longer seemed to describe him. His Jewishness was like a feature lost to childhood; it had been part of him, to be sure, but he saw no recognizable evidence of it in who he had become.

Ducksworth was eager to take him under his wing—just as eager as Benny soon became to take flight from anything constraining his newfound freedom in Rangoon. Over the weeks that followed, Benny discovered that if he did his job well, if he worked very hard at pushing his pen, and then was adequately polite to the fellows at the YMCA (where he was the youngest boarder and roundly liked)—if he rewarded Ducksworth with a few generous smiles or minutes of attentive conversation, he could escape into the city on his own. And so every evening after supper he found a way to flee down Lanmadaw Street to the Strand, where, amid the grand official structures and residences built by the British, his pace slowed and he drank in the evening air. He was thirsty, desperately in need of replenishing himself with the kind of sights he’d missed while shut up at St. James’—sights that had become so foreign to him he felt himself taking them in with the embarrassing curiosity of a newly transplanted Brit: the men sitting on the side of the road smoking cheroots, chewing betel, or singing together; the Indians hawking ice cream and the Muslim shopkeepers reading aloud from their holy book; the stalls advertising spices, canned goods, and umbrellas varnished with fragrant oil; the clanking workers in the passageways; and the buses, the trishaws, the bullock carts, the barefoot monks, the Chinese teetering past on their bicycles, and the women in their colorful, tightly wound sarongs, transporting sesame cakes or water on their heads and even meeting his shamed eyes with a grin. How closed in he had been on Lower Circular!

Painfully, it struck him that his aunties had stopped routinely inviting him to Mango Lane long before his talk of conversion, and that the intoxication he felt here was partly due to his burgeoning sense of belonging. In truth, he knew little more about Burma than what he’d learned in history classes: that the region had been settled centuries (or millennia?) ago by a medley of tribes; that one of the tribes, the Burmans, had dominated; and that the problem their domination presented to everyone else had been solved by the British, who’d taken possession of Rangoon nearly a century before and who continued to rule by staffing their civil service and armed forces with natives. The very names of these tribes bewildered his ignorant ears: Shan, Mon, Chin, Rohingya, Kachin, Karen (these last pronounced with the accent on the second syllable, it seemed to him—Ro-HIN-gya, Ka-CHIN, Ka-REN), and so on. He could no longer speak more than a few phrases of Burmese—English had always been his language (though he could make his way with the Bengali and Hindustani coming out of the odd shop). But as he passed the people gossiping in their impenetrable languages and playing their energetic music, he felt seized by a powerful sense of understanding. It was something about their friendliness, their relaxed natures, their open courteousness, their love of life, their easy acceptance of his right to be among them, elephantine as he must have appeared in their eyes (and hopelessly dumb, miming what he wanted to purchase). He had the sense that wherever they had come from (Mongolia? Tibet?), however many centuries or millennia ago, they had long ago accepted others’ infiltration of their homeland so long as it was peaceable. Yet he also had the distinct impression that they’d never forgotten the dust of homelessness on their feet.

“Damnable citizens,” Ducksworth often grumbled at the Lanmadaw YMCA, where every night after dinner the fellows would gather in the close, teak-furnished living room and fill their glasses with cognac (purchased, Benny learned with a pang, from E. Solomon & Sons, where his father had worked). Invariably, they would begin a game of bridge, and as they played and smoked and drank into the early hours, they would talk—about girls, about politics, about the splendor of the British Empire, the great Pax Britannica, which kept this country running with the ease and beautiful regularity of a Swiss clock. “Unlike China,” Ducksworth cut in on one of these nights, “with Manchuria overrun by Japs. What the devil do you think Hitler’s up to by favoring the Japs, anyhow?”

There was something distasteful about Ducksworth, Benny thought. He was too eager to laugh, to lose himself under the annihilating influence of tobacco and drink. The fellow would never bloody his fists for anything, had he even the mettle to believe in more than a decent pension and a decent meal and a decent-enough game of bridge. No, his lightness appeared to be how he survived, how he sat so easily with not treating anyone but a white or a Burman quite as a man—and how he managed to get away with championing the imperialism that more and more of the Burmans were beginning to revolt against.

Just the other day, Ducksworth had been taking a break for tea at the firm when he’d revealed the shallowness of his convictions to Benny. They’d been alone in the office; Ducksworth had put his feet indecorously up on a chair, raising his teacup to his pursed lips; and Benny had decided to broach the subject of the law student, a Burman fellow at Rangoon University—someone by the name of Aung San—who’d begun raising a ruckus about the British presence. “A solidly anti-empire nationalist sort,” Benny had added rather breathlessly. “They claim he’s starting some sort of movement, saying the Burmans are the true lords and masters—Britons be damned, and everyone else along with them.” By “everyone else,” Benny had meant people like B. Meyer and him, and also the Muslims and Indians and Chinese and, well, the natives who’d been here for centuries, some before the Burmans. “It’s not anyone else’s country,” his new friend had disdainfully replied, reminding Benny that Ducksworth, born to a Burman mother and an English father, had a uniquely dominating perspective.

Yet Ducksworth was habitually unwilling to go so far as to side with the Burmans; it suited him better to sink into the plushness of the Pax Britannica. Indeed, during their conversations, each time Benny came close to the point of pressing him on political matters, Ducksworth would slip away into the haze of his tobacco-drenched musings about the fine pleasures of British tea (which he bought from an Indian) and British cut crystal (which he hadn’t any of) and British manners (which he rarely displayed). And, generally speaking, Benny had to admit that British rule did nurture a spirit of tolerance that appeared more to benefit than to harm many of Burma’s citizens. Certainly there was a kind of caste system, by which the white man was on top and the Anglo-Burmans just beneath them; certainly the British had the deepest pockets; but there was also freedom of religion, an equitable division of labor when it came to British civil and military service, and, for the most part, a general prospering of every sort. From the little Benny had read since landing back in Rangoon, he understood that the Burman rulers whom the British had conquered had shown no such charity (even of the self-interested sort the British practiced) to those they’d overthrown.

“I say, Benny,” Ducksworth said on this particular night, when no one rose to his question about Hitler’s favoring of the Japanese. “Have you put in that application?”

They’d begun to play the cards he’d dealt.

“What application?” said Joseph, one of the others who worked at the firm and lodged at the Lanmadaw.

“Benny doesn’t take our work seriously, Joseph—too ‘stifling,’ too—”

“Well, it is!” Benny said, hiding behind his hand. “What application?” Joseph repeated.

“To His Majesty’s Customs Service,” Ducksworth answered. “It does have a distinctive ring, doesn’t it? You’re too bloody lazy for that sort of thing, Joseph—but not Benny. And wouldn’t he look dashing in a white uniform?”

Was Ducksworth mocking him? He’d been the one to urge Benny to apply for a junior position, so impatient was he to convert Benny to his chosen faith of imperialism.

“What’s the point?” Benny said. “The English will be out soon enough.”

For a moment, Ducksworth only peered at Benny over his cloud of smoke. Then he said, “Your problem is that you believe in right and wrong. Don’t you know evil will find you no matter what?”

It happened now and then in Benny’s wanderings that he caught a glimpse of a cheek, neck, delicate hand, or sweep of black hair that could have been Sister Adela’s. One evening in November—when the rains had fallen off and he’d wandered beyond the city limits—he noticed a girl walking swiftly along a deserted side street, tripping in her fuchsia sari as though her attention were on something higher than the procession of her feet. Up the steep hill leading to the Schwe’ Dagon Pagoda, he found himself shadowing her, until he was sure she had become as sensitive to his presence as he was to hers: two tuning forks, each dangerously setting off the other’s vibrations. The ground leveled off, and she scurried along a concrete path toward the pagoda, glancing back at him as she fled up a dilapidated set of stairs. Instantly, he saw that her terrified eyes were nothing like Sister Adela’s, and the spell was broken. She disappeared into the golden entrance, set between two enormous griffins covered with horrifying pictures of the damned. “Are you a fool?” he heard. When he looked back at the entrance,

he saw an Indian man facing him. The man’s long lax hands, hanging against his gaunt frame, were not a fighter’s, nor was the fierceness in his amber gaze. Rather, there was something wounded about him, ruined. Benny felt awfully ashamed, awfully sorry. “Are you a fool?” the man said again, in an English thickly accented by Bengali.

“Just foolish,” Benny responded. “Where does your father work?” “Forgive me, sir—”

“I insist that you take me to your family!”

Now the man descended the stairs and drew close, so that Benny could smell the tobacco on his breath.

“Are you stupid?” he said more quietly. “Terrorizing a child who only wants to light a candle for her mother? You should be honoring the dead yourself. What do you imagine they think when they look down and see you behaving this way?” His questions seemed to chase one another out of his throbbing heart. “Don’t you know that when no one is present to be strict with a man, he must be strict with himself?”

Benny hadn’t intentionally avoided his parents, or the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue in whose cemetery they lay. A few nights later, he ventured to the Jewish quarter, where the bazaar was still in full swing. His eyes flicked over the flares of the vendors’ stalls, up to the rickety buildings’ timber balconies, which his father had predicted would be burned down one day. (“You wait and see, Benny. Careless, so careless with their flares, these street peddlers.”)

Farther up the road he soon found E. Solomon, shut up for the night and somehow less commanding than it had long ago seemed. He peered through the dusty window of the dark store at the rows of liqueurs and whiskies. Whenever he’d managed to keep his hands off the merchandise, his father had rewarded him with a bottle of orangeade. How he’d loved the way the marble in the bottle’s little neck gurgled as he swallowed down the sparkling, syrupy drink. Daddy had been head cashier at E. Solomon, which provided the British navy with drinks and ice from its wells on the riverbank. (“The navy keeps us safe, Benny. And how do you imagine their sailors relieve themselves from the press of this heat? Our ice! Our fizzy drinks!”)

At the corner of Tseekai Maung Tauley, he stared up at their old second-story flat, from which Mama had peered down on him while he’d played here with the other boys. She’d never been a doting, fussing type; no, her love was more even-keeled than that: a stroke on the cheek, a brush of warm lips on his brow. But her counsel had lavished him with love, with attention and praise. (“You must not just think of yourself, Benny. Only animals just think of themselves. The worst sin is to forget your responsibility to the less fortunate.”) She had seemed to carry her sacred separateness from man’s lower impulses in the hollows of her frail, perpetually melancholy face; in her slow movements; in the way she watched him, as if already from the remove of eternity. Generosity and charity—those had been her trading posts. How often had she packed a basket of fruit for the less fortunate? How often had she plaintively prayed for the sick before the candles forever being extinguished by fretful Daddy, who had lurked around their flat almost deferentially? Mama had loved to sing—quietly, unassumingly—and her voice had drifted from the window down onto the graced street. And then . . . silence.

Benny’s feet fled to narrow Twenty-Sixth Street, where he found the dark outline of the menorah and the words “Musmeah Yeshua” over the archway of the grand white synagogue. Musmeah Yeshua—“brings forth salvation.” The meaning came back to him along with his grandfather’s counsel that he must not hesitate to flee to this refuge in times of darkness. He couldn’t remember where any of his loved ones were buried in the cemetery, but again his feet discovered the way, along a path through the overgrowth, to the tree under which they lay. As he knelt, he touched the cold headstones inscribed with Hebrew he could no longer read, and then he pressed his forehead to the rough stone of his mother’s grave. “I am right here beside you, Benny,” he could almost hear her say.

The world of the dead was something he could reach out and touch; he had only to give it attention, and it reached back out and met him.

For a long time, he sat with his head against the grave, his mind quiet, attentive, sensitive to the wind and the birds and the life in the overgrowth. It must have been a few minutes past dawn when one of the synagogue’s caretakers saw him asleep, and Benny woke with a view of light-suffused clouds before a rock hit him on the cheek. “Indian!” the caretaker shouted at him. “Tramp! Scat! You’ll find no sanctuary in this place!”

Charmaine Craig is a faculty member in the Department of Creative Writing at UC Riverside. A former actor in film and television and a Burma activist, she studied literature at Harvard University and received her MFA from the University of California, Irvine. Her first novel, The Good Men (Riverhead), was a national bestseller translated into six languages. 

Excerpted from Miss Burma © 2017 by Charmaine Craig; reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.