Monday, September 17, 2007

Burma story: The River of Lost Footsteps

Have been reading Thant Myint-U’s The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma. To be honest I haven’t been able to maintain full concentration throughout the book – especially in the passages dealing with contemporary politics – but there are some compelling old tales here that should be of interest to both the amateur historian and the engaged traveller; when you visit a place where prominent tourist attractions include big statues of very impressive-looking kings and generals from ancient and medieval times, knowledge of the back-stories helps heighten the experience.

One of the things I found intriguing was Thant’s observation that in Burma dwellings are frequently torn down and reconstructed to look as recent as possible. This is in contrast to most cities around the world, where one sees tangible pride in a sense of history; in signboards proclaiming the age and significance of a very old building, for instance. Thant says the opposite is very often true in his land, where a “Built in 1991” is more desirable than a “Built in 1921”. “One can travel the length and breadth of the country and be hard-pressed to find a single nonreligious structure more than a hundred years old.”

This might seem paradoxical for a place with such a rich history, but Burma is a complex country as this book repeatedly reminds us – full of contradictions, constantly struggling to reconcile its past with its present, “isolated yet always with the possibility of connection”. “Isolated” because of the great horseshoe-shaped arc of highlands bordering the Irrawady River valley, the daunting mountain ranges and the pestilential jungles. “With the possibility of connection” because from the earliest recorded times, people have found their way to this land, and a way to make use of it. Burma has never been completely out of things – it was, as Thant points out, a component of the Buddhist world that linked Afghanistan and the dusty oasis towns of the Silk Road with Cambodia, Java and Sumatra, with scholar-officials in every Chinese province, and with students and teachers across India – but it has had to make a constant effort to stay in touch with the outside world, especially in the last century. (The outside world, in turn, has sometimes found it convenient to forget Burma altogether.)

“There were times,” Thant notes, “when Burma and the Burmese were a part of things, engaged, learning and contributing, and there were times, like now, when the country stood nervously on the margins, looking from far away at growth and creativity elsewhere...Now the conversation was shrinking. Burma would be left largely to talk to itself.” He believes it is necessary to examine the past to make sense of present-day crises and his book begins with a landmark event in Burmese history, the British takeover of 1885 (involving subterfuge and pretext-finding of the sort that also marked the recent US invasion of Iraq) - but he then takes us back in time to the foundation of the very first kingdom thousands of years ago by an Indian prince named Abhiraja, who headed east with his people after defeat by a neighboring kingdom.

The chapters that follow give us not just an outline of a country's history but glimpses into a personal history as well – the story of some of the members of Thant’s own family over the last hundred or so years. (His maternal grandfather went from being a small-town schoolmaster to becoming the Secretary-General of the UN in the 1960s, while many of his father’s ancestors were courtiers who served at the Court of Ava for nearly two centuries.)
I enjoyed the candid yet restrained way in which Thant mingles the personal with the larger picture; it makes for a friendly approach to a text that might otherwise have become very academic and alienated readers who don’t have a strong interest in the country. While his book doesn’t offer easy solutions to Burma’s problems or a clear vision for its future, it’s elegant, mostly easy to read and as informative as any single-volume history of a country can be.


  1. This book sounds interesting..
    Read a nice piece on Burma by Amitav Ghosh -'Dancing In Cambodia At Large In Burma' .

  2. Talking of Amitav Ghosh, the cover picture looks very similar to the one on Ghosh's "The Glass Palace"

  3. Hi Jai,

    Ah, Burma, Burma. I read a couple of other very good books on it a few years ago: Alan Rabinowitz's Beyond The Last Village deals with his effort under the aegis of the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Bronx Zoo to setup a nature reserve in the wartorn northern highlands of the country. He deftly interleaves science, history, and politics (amazing that the corrupt thugs that run the country even gave a second's thought to the protection of its animals, most of whom are slaughtered for export to China to feed its predilection of using almost any body part from any creature as an aphrodisiac), and personal stories to evoke grand landscapes and beautiful peoples.

    The other book is by Andrew Marshall, The Trouser People - A Story of Burma In the Shadow of the Empire, which deals mainly with the life of a Victorian adventurer, George Scott, and Marshall's own experiences in following his footsteps (much the current trend in travel writing, I guess, following the footsteps of some explorer of yore). But Marshall is an astute student of history even if not very analytical, and writes humorously of his trip from Rangoon to Mandalay, and the tribal villages past drug traffickers, girly boys, ex-head-hunters, monks and the everpresent SLORC.

  4. I was thinking about that cover picture too, i wonder if it some famous bridge or location. Glass Palace is a pretty ordinary novel but gives a very good introduction to modern Burmese history too.

  5. Alok: Yes, its the U Bein bridge. Its one of the largest teak bridges in the world or something like that.

  6. The dragon land--burmese food rocks. it's great to go to a foreign land--i remember when I went with my family to bhutan they called my brother Bunty & babli:)

  7. Correct Veena. It is U-Bein Bridge. Located at southern part of Mandalay.
    Appreciate you all's interest in Burma history and its issues.

    Gyanand Sapkota

  8. That bridge is gone now... large part of it had collapsed and hard to fix because of its use of long posts of teak, which is becoming increasingly rare commodity even in Burma.

    Chinese and Thais have been cutting down teak tress in Burma for too long for their furniture exports to the West.

    1. U Pein bridge is Still standing & visited by hundreds (if not thousands) everyday by local & foreign tourist near & afar. Some sections were collapse due to wear & tear but good length of it still standing & passable.

  9. U-Baim bridge? What utter rubbish! It is actually U Pein bridge. Pein in Burmese means thin or skinny. U Pein in Burmese can be translated as Mr. Thin or Mr. Skinny in English.
    What happens is this: the Burmese letter 'pa' is often pronounced 'Ba'. For example the ancient royal capital Pagun (mispelt Pagan) is pronounced Bagun by the Burmese. so in the case of U Pein, it has been mispronounced and spelt U Bain. There is no such thing as U Bain bridge.

    By the way Thant Myint U does not really know Burmese history.
    He was a council member of Britain-Burma Society, that helped him into Cambridge to do PhD in Burmese history. His dissertation is actually a common knowledge. Why it is presented as a PhD thesis makes mind boggle. He is not a scholar of distinction at all. Only because his mother is daughter of U Thant ( should be spelt Thunt) he was exalted as someone special. He is not really.