Deciphering Place in Numbers: A Rosetta Stone in Annual Budget Reports

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DSCF3635The opening pages of  the  1877-1878 report from the Superintendent of Lighthouses in British Burma reads like a novel:

“The most noteworthy event in the history of the year was the total destruction in 1877 of the Krishna Shoal light-house , on the south coast of Pegu.”

While this report was extracted from the “Proceedings of the Commissioner of British Burma in the Revenue Department”, it contained these wonderful narrative and descriptive elements:

“This light-house, built throughout of iron, and supported on screw piles, stood on the south-eastern point of the shoal from which it takes its name, the depth of water round it at low water being three fathoms, with a rise and fall of 12 feet, and a tide running six knots and hour. It was begun in 1868 and completed in May 1869 at a cost of 16,000 pounds , the light being shown for the first time on 10th June in the latter year.”

Previous inspections  suggested vulnerability due to scouring, and while  subsequent repairs were carried out by the Public Works Department, they  proved insufficient.  Another noteworthy event that year, (though apparently not the most noteworthy) was the murder of Mr. E.R. Woodcock, “the only European ligthkeeper stationed at Table Island lighthouse,” by one of the “menial employees” there.  There were both civil engineering and criminal mysteries to unravel in this tale!

I came across this Report on Lighthouses off the Coast of British Burma in the India Office Records at the British Library. Thought it was before my grandfather’s time working on lighthouses there, I read these pages with deep interest for the texture they contained.  John O’Brien, the archivist of the India Office Records, shared with me that many of the reports and correspondences of the 19th century carried a level of detail that later ones in the twentieth century lacked.

I was curious to know if similar accounts existed for public works projects in Burma in the 1920s and 1930s. O’Brien pointed me to an index of the Proceedings of the Government of Burma, Public Works Department which contained reports of correspondences until 1924. I requested the volumes from 1919-1924. In each of these volumes there was a section called “Establishment,” which included notes about engineer appointments and transfers, as well as a section on “Accounts”.

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Researching the India Office Records at the British Library- Time and Timelines

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photo 1Eager to resume research from where I left off on Saturday,   I  arrived at the  British Library  bright and early at 9 am on photo 2Monday morning.   However, it didn’t open until 9:30, so grabbed some Vanilla Roobois Tea with Soy Milk at the Last Word cafe in front of library.  It was kind of fun watching the queue form of other researchers/writers  ready to start their work.

Once opened, we locked up our bags in the locker room and  I proceeded to the Asian and African Studies room with my clear plastic photo 4bag, only to discover on Mondays, this reading room doesn’t open until 10. (9:30 am the rest of the week).  Took the extra minutes to peer down from the top floor, and also  do a bit of wandering around.  I discovered a Map room that I hope to further explore.

photo 3When the Asian and African Studies reading room finally opened, I had a chance to meet Margaret Makepeace, the Lead Curator of East India Company records, who I had connected with over twitter @UntoldLives.  [Check out  the Untold Lives Blog]  She introduced me to John O’Brien, Curator of Post 1858 India Office Records, who had been of great help to me via email preparing for this trip.  It was nice to finally meet in person and discuss my project.

I then got straight  to work.  During the  early part of this week, I was largely been going through the yearly “Civil Lists,” where I had first located my grandfather’s name.  These volumes are broken into quarters for each year.  There is an index buried toward the end of each quarter, so I can look up “Narayanan” and find the listing of my grandfather, though the correct page number is not always provided.  I’ve found that his name can be listed in several locations 1) Under Burma Engineering Service 2) Under the Geographic Division where he was stationed 3) Under Officers on Leave, if he had taken any leave.

I’m slowly making my way through his entire service record, compiling notes in a massive spreadsheet, tracking changes over time.  I’m learning all the places he was posted, sometimes what project he was working on (i.e. lighthouses) changes in his salary, when he passed his Hindustani exam and received an ( h.) next to his name, when he passed his Burmese exam and received and (h.) ( b.)  next to his name.    I am grateful for each tiny fragment I am learning.

Equally as interesting is what is not contained in these records.  I learned that from July 1929- August 1930, my grandfather took a 13 month leave of absence.  Part of it was paid (A.P.- Average Pay), then H.P. (half pay), then unpaid.   There were other leaves noted during his service, but none of this length.  What did he do? Where did he go?

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Dispatches from London- An Introduction to the British Library

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DSCF3564Greetings from London!

Several years ago when I was pursuing my MFA at Hunter, I attended these research seminars that were meant to show  the many resources available to us as creative writers.  I tried to make the best use of that time, attempting to find records of my paternal grandfather’s work as a civil engineer in Burma, before he quit to join the Freedom Movement in India. I was looking for historical documents that could shed light and add detail to tidbits of family narrative.  Most of my searches came up empty then.  I sent queries to other librarians, historians and scholars about my particular interests in Burmese Public Works projects and life in the 1920s and 1930s.  The responses I received were warm and inquisitive.  While they themselves did not have information that could help me, most thought my best bet would be the India Office at the British Library.   Since then, I’ve gathered more fragments of family history about this time which resulted in some answers, but even more questions,  pointing me once again to the British Library.   So here I am in London with the support of a Literature Travel Grant  (Thank you Jerome Foundation!)

The vastness of the  collections housed here—the legacy of colonialism—is  both impressing and unsettling.   With a  list of questions and gap-filled narratives, I arrived at the library with both hope  in the possibility of what I might find, but also fear of what I may not.   The fear is two-pronged: 1) that some records are truly and forever lost  and 2) that they are in fact here, but I won’t be able to find them.

I have spent a great part of the past year perusing historical records from a much smaller archive researching a different writing project, and even on that small scale, I never felt I had enough time to satisfy my increasing curiousity.  How does one even begin navigating the archives of an empire?  The British Library can be a bit overwhelming and distracting for inquisitive and wandering minds.  I’m trying to stay focused on the quest at hand, and not veer off into the stacks on Tamil literature, the encyclopedia of Hindu Architecture or Indian Cinema.  I thought I’d share some of my experiences from my first day. Read the rest of this entry

Notes from the Field: Hippocampus Magazine

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Screen Shot 2013-01-31 at 7.22.42 AMMy essay “Pile Driving, Poetry, and Poultry” was featured in the January issue of Hippocampus Magazine, the online journal of memorable creative nonfiction.  Happy New Year!

My essay was selected to be included in the “Most Memorable” section.

Woodstove House had this to say about the piece: “I loved reading about a vegan working on a construction site

Thanks for reading!

On Being Jolted

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Earlier this week, an emaciated  60-ft finback whale was found on the shores of Breezy Point in the Rockaways.  Rescuers and local residents of this area recently ravaged by Hurricane Sandy  kept pouring water on this sick animal.

There was just so much devastation this year,” said Diane Bassolino after using a water bucket to keep the creature hydrated. “We just wanted to see something survive.”

The whale, however, did not make it.  We don’t know much about her (even her gender ), why there was no food in her stomach, why she washed onshore, or where her pack was. One report estimates she lived 90 years.  There are many things she must have seen, so many changes she must have witnessed.  She  was buried  in the sand dunes near where she beached herself.  I wanted to witness the burial,  but learned  it was already over.  I, however, was not done mourning, for her and so many others this year…

Our hearts are still aching for the people of Newtown, Oakcreek, Aurora and all the ones that came before.

Earlier this year, I saw The Island President, and the inspiring Mohammed Nasheed reminded  us that Male, the capital of the Maldives, is no higher than Manhattan. He warned, “What happens to the Maldives today is going to happen to everyone else tomorrow.”     And it did.   We witnessed destruction in the Rockaways, Coney Island, Staten Island and lower Manhattan.  It was an awakening. A struggle is emerging.

The gifts you’ve already been given in 2012 include a struggle over the fate of the Earth. This is probably not exactly what you asked for, and I wish it were otherwise — but to do good work, to be necessary, to have something to give: these are the true gifts. And at least there’s still a struggle ahead of us, not just doom and despair.

And as this year comes to an end, among the many losses we mourn is a young Indian woman,  a physiotherapy student  who was the victim of a brutal gang rape.  We don’t know much about her either. Nilalanjana Roy writes a powerful tribute to this anonymous woman:

 Let there be an end to this epidemic of violence, this culture where if we can’t kill off our girls before they are born, we ensure that they live these lives of constant fear…Don’t tell me her name; I don’t need to know it, to cry for her.

In all the stories about the 23-year-old rape victim as India’s Braveheart, it’s worth remembering this. She had no intention to be a braveheart. She didn’t want to become a flickering candle on some dark street corner. She didn’t want to become a symbol. Of sorrow. Of hope. Of our shame. Of anything really. Those are all identities we have given her. She just wanted to go home. Perhaps tell a friend what she thought of the movie she had just seen.

There  was something in her story that shook  all of us.  S. Roy continues:

“Let’s not question why this jolted us more than other rapes now. Let’s be thankful we are capable of being jolted.”

This is a year that we have collectively  been jolted by single events that were not singular in nature—acts that have been or may become too common.  Though, we are still trembling from the aftershocks,  S.Roy reminds us,  “We learned that it is possible to shake a country out of its apathy.”

ABC Dosa

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Poster by Anil Gupta

On Columbus Day, I had a chance to see Amrit Singh’s new film Dosa Hunt: The Greatest Hunt for South Indian Food in NYC ever Committed to Film.  Singh compiles an all-star cast of indie musicians who seek out the best dosai the city has to offer.   For Singh, the film is about more than just dosa— it serves as a “cultural artifact.” In a discussion after the film during its opening weekend, Singh said Dosa Hunt was “a device to get a pretty remarkable group of guys together, a group of guys who couldn’t have been imaginable ten years ago, at least not to me as a 15-year-old kid, loving music.” Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil and No Doubt’s Tony Kanal, “were the only guys who had a face that looked anything like mine in the arts,” Singh said. Just as dosa, historically the lesser-known Indian food in America, is starting to make its mark, the film is a testament to the arrival and success of its multicultural cast in the music scene.

Check out my piece at Open City,  where this Dosa Hunt continues. Singh, and a couple of the other film stars, Ashok Kondabolu and Vijay Iyer discuss their favorite dosa spots and more.  As for me, my favorite dosa is from Thiru Kumar at NY Dosas.  What about you?

Aung San Suu Kyi in Queens

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Just after dawn on Saturday Morning, my brother and I arrived at the gates of the Colden Center at Queens College, where Aung San Suu Kyi was schedule to speak later in the morning. A crowd had already started to form. Burmese Americans traveled from near and far to greet her. Some camped overnight with picnic blankets and lawn chairs. The queue was colorful, dotted with vibrant sarongs and longyis matched with sandals and sneakers.   I spotted a tote bag bearing Aung San Suu Kyi’s face on one side, and her father, Aung San on the other.  Some came carrying red flags with the golden peacock, the symbol of the National League for Democracy. A few hundred had arrived and a few thousand were expected  to fill the hall during her Burmese address at 10:30 Am.

Prior to this, there was an event in English at 9 am, organized by Queens College at their Lefrak Concert Hall. Congressman Joseph Crowley, a Queens College graduate, hosted the program. Crowley, wearing a Saffron colored tie for the occasion, noted he, like Aung San Suu Kyi, was currently in the minority party in our legislature, and that maybe he and Daw Suu, the leader of Burma’s opposition party, should exchange notes. Crowley acknowledged both Secretary Clinton and former first Lady Laura Bush’s support for Burma, and hoped for more bipartisanship on this issue.

When Crowley  learned of Suu’s visit to the U.S. to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, he told her the people of New York wanted to see her. “We want to give you a very warm, a very Queens, New York City welcome.” Actress Angelica Huston read from Suu Kyi’s seminal essay “Freedom from Fear.” Christine Quinn, the first female speaker of NYC’s City Council, offered her gratitude to the newly elected Burmese MP.  The city council has been active on fighting repression in Burma, and  Quinn acknowledged comptroller John Liu in the audience who has been addressing this issue with respect to the city’s pension funds.

Quinn went on to tell Daw Suu the ways in which she has helped the city of New York. “To see what you have been through with an unbelievable amount of grace and dignity…It gives all of us strength and courage… and reminds all of us that faith and perseverance are always rewarded, ” Quinn said.  “I hope you know what you have done for the 8.4 million people living in New York City…Reminding us that we have power. Reminding us that our voice maters and we are citizens of the world… we are in your debt every day.”

Aung San Suu Kyi received a standing ovation and assumed her place at the podium. Dressed in dark green and black Burmese dress, with flowers in her hair, she addressed the crowd unscripted, giving a glimpse into the way her mind worked.

She began talking about her love of New York when she had lived here many decades ago. “I loved the city at a time when people thought it was terrible. It was the only city in the world where I never got lost.” When she first arrived in 1968, she remembered her surprise to see that New York, a city of skyscrapers, did in fact look exactly like the post cards. She had a similar feeling when she was brought to Insein Prison for the first time. She was surprised that prison was just like the places with iron bars she read about in books. She recognized the similarity in these two moments, not to say that prison reminded her of New York (it did not), but to note that we can be surprised when we discover first hand that things are just like what we have been told. This applies too to the struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma.

“Many young Americans take it [democracy] for granted,” she said. “I always say to my friends who live in democratic countries: ‘Don’t take it for granted.’” She felt that those who didn’t vote showed “a lack of respect for a right you should guard with your life.” Democracy requires practice and we must practice our duty as a citizen. “Duty may sound like a boring word,” she said, “but duty is very stimulating if you really think about what duty is.” She argued challenges are exciting, and “the greatest challenges are the ones where you have to struggle with yourself.

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The Dancing Peacock

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“As a child I would stand on the veranda of the house where I was born and watch the sky darken and listen to the grownups wax sentimental over smoky banks of massed rain clouds… When bathing in the rain was no longer one of the great pleasures of my existence, I knew I had left my childhood behind.”- Aung San Suu Kyi

Peter Popham’s recent biography of Aung San Suu Kyi, The Lady and the Peacock, touches briefly upon this childhood. Daw Suu lost her father, the venerable Burmese General, Aung San, in 1947 when she was only two years old, “too young to remember him.” Some of what she does remember, she no longer trusts as her own memories. “I think this may be a memory that was reinforced by people repeating it all the time. In other words, I was not allowed to forget.” As she would be constantly reminded in the many decades that came after, she was her father’s daughter, but it would not be until her mother’s death in 1988 , that she would come to realize the duty and responsibility of this role.

Popham captures the young Suu, searching for purpose in her early years in exile, first in school in Delhi, where her mother was appointed as Ambassador to Burma by the ruling leader Ne Win (presumably to get Aung San’s widow out of his way) and later at college in Oxford and working for the UN in New York. Popam notes that it was on a visit to Algiers while still at Oxford that Suu got her first exposure to struggle:

“Here was the politics of liberation, being enacted before her eyes in all its passion and difficulty. For the first time in her life her sympathies and energies were fully engaged, however briefly, as a participant in the sort of struggle that she was to find waiting for her in Burma twenty three years later.”

Before marrying Tibetan scholar Michael Aris in 1972, she warned him that one day she may need to serve her country.

“I only ask one thing, that should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them.”

It would not be for many years that she would come to realize that need. Reflecting on her domestic life in England prior to her return to Burma in 1988, Suu said:

“We called someone vicious in a review for the Times Literary Supplement. We didn’t know what vicious was.”

When Suu returned to Burma at the age of forty-two to the bedside of her dying mother, she witnessed her homeland in the midst of a revolution. Some of the most engaging parts of Popham’s narrative are from what comes after: Suu’s beginning days in politics on the campaign trail with the newly formed National League of Democracy. Aris was unable to join his wife on this journey as he left for England to take care of their two sons, but encouraged Suu’s companion and assistant Ma Thanegi to keep a diary to keep him in the loop. Popham included large excerpts from these diaries, and they are filled with charm. Thanegi kept a record of the details of daily life, what they ate, where there was a proper bathroom (Suu told Thanegi she should write a book about the loos of Burma), and the silliness that emerged when two people spent a long time together in close quarters on the road. Thanegi observed subtle moments of Suu remembering the family she left to serve her country. We witness both Thanegi’s and Suu’s refreshing honesty and sense of humor in these pages.

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