On the Road to Mandalay
Portraits of Ordinary Peopleby
Mya Than Tint
Ohnmar Khin and Sein Kyaw Hlaing.
1987-91, First English translation 1995. 284 pp., maps, colour illustrations by U Win Pe. 21.5 X 15.2 cm., softbound.
ISBN-10: 974-8299-25-2 $23.00
Book review by Martin Morland
(Planet Myanmar Website, September 1996)
As Anna Allott’s Introduction to On the Road to Mandalay makes clear, Mya Than Tint is probably Myanmar’s most prolific writer. Her interview with him at the beginning of the book describes his career, inevitably chequered by two periods in gaol; “inevitably” because he was once a member of the Communist Party and then a strongly left wing sympathiser, in General Ne Win’s Myanmar. He makes the point in that interview that these stories, describing the vicissitudes of ordinary Myanmars from a wide spectrum, are written for a Myanmar audience, to help Myanmars in different walks of life, in the country and in the towns, understand each other.
Censorship in Myanmar, as in other countries with authoritarian regimes, is designed to cut out anything that could be interpreted as being at variance with the party line. But a lot else gets left out more or less by mistake. To play safe, the State-controlled mass media in Myanmar cover only stories that redound to the credit of the State, or describe the wicked deeds of its enemies. A whole area of politically neutral information only gets published in the weekly and monthly magazines, often with sadly small circulations. Collections like this one fill an important need for Myanmar readers.
Most of the stories tell of great hardship, from poverty or dislocation and worse caused by the long-running insurgencies. There are recurring themes—young couples in love almost always seem to have to elope to escape from the opposition of one or other set of parents, but usually get looked after by relatives and often get accepted back by their parents in the end. There are many stories of the heroic efforts of women deserted by their husbands or whose husbands have died, struggling to bring up a family with no state support system but often great kindness on the part of neighbours. The reader gets a good picture of the intricacies of the bazaar system, of the flower sellers and the hangers-on employed on the buses and the trains. But there are more exotic trades too- in the theatre and on the waterways and working with elephants. In one story towards the end of the book—‘Bitter-sweet smell of success’—the interviewee complains that the people the author writes about are all too ordinary—why not include famous artists and actresses? But then the lesson from this same interview is clearly that money does not bring happiness, and one suspects that the author’s choice of subject reflects his own belief in that truism.
The translation is excellent, with a minimum of explanatory footnotes and a useful short glossary at the back. U Win Pe’s illustrations are elegant and evocative, particularly the one on page 86 showing approximately 49 passengers in and on a pick-up truck built to carry 15.
NB - Mya Than Tint passed away at 9.15 p.m. on 18th Feb 1998
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