Romancing the ordinary

The monsoon months in Burma are no less colourful or eventful than they are in Pakistan and India.

Intezar Hussain June 21, 2011
The column last week about mangoes and jamuns got some unexpected attention. Qasim Jafri remembered and has shared several verses about mangoes by the late Syed Muhammad Jafri.

Another friend, who read the column in translation, called just to hear Iqbal’s verse referred to in it. Yet another wanted to know more about the significance of Aung San Suu Kyi’s relish for jamuns.

To answer the latter, let me refer to a short story by Krishan Chander. The protagonist, an artist, is described as having a romantic bent. Accordingly, the narrative about his romantic love proceeds. However, the story ends with a totally unromantic statement about the artist remembering Sheila as he chewed on sugarcane ganderis.

The point is both ganderis and jamuns are stuff you associate with the commoner. Suu Kyi’s name conjures up images of her commitment and struggle for democracy and her Nobel Prize etc. But once upon a time she was also a columnist for a Japanese paper. She wrote about democracy and her efforts for its restoration but then pointed out that our lives are not all about politics.

Other concerns take up most of our days and nights. No nation can be limited to a narrow description. People have to have their private worries, their cultural interests and their intellectual pursuits. They also have to have some spiritual vision.

“There is after all,” she concluded, “a human face to our efforts as well.”

The columns, later published in book form as “Letters from Burma”, may be seen as an attempt to show the apolitical human face of her struggle. They afford a peep into the daily lives of the Burmese people. You learn about their hobbies and interests as well as their mundane worries. You learn about things like roofs leaking during torrential rains and how the lady of the house hurries to place a vessel wherever she sees a leak.

Reading the column is experiencing the romance associated with the monsoon rains – the songs and the swings – as well as the domestic anxieties.

Other columns speak of tea houses of Rangoon where intellectuals hold forth amidst cigarette smoke and the tinkle of teacups. Reading her account I thought of our own Tea House. It seems that writers and intellectuals everywhere socialise in the same way and exhibit the same traits. See: cigarettes, tea and intellectual discussions.

Then she talks about the Burmese people’s devotion to religion. She mentions Buddhist monasteries, monks, mendicants and priests. She mentions her own dedication to religion, remembering pilgrimages to Buddhist temples and describing her meetings with priests and monks.

And the jamuns? Well, we learn that the monsoon months in Burma are no less colourful or eventful than they are in Pakistan and India. So many joys and worries are linked to the season, including its mangoes and jamuns.

This is not to suggest that there are not other fruits, but the romance associated with these is rather unique. From Khusrau to Ghalib and from Ghalib to Iqbal mangoes have enthralled our all poets. But Suu Kyi’s favourite fruit is jamun. Some people may be reluctant even to count it among fruits but the lady had longed for them since her childhood. She only got to eat them to her heart’s content when she was in Delhi for her studies.

*Translated from Urdu

Intezar Hussain An eminent Urdu fiction writer who writes short stories and novels, and also columns for newspapers in English.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


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