In addition to sending me to Britain for the Literature Seminar in 1985, the Council sponsored a lot of travel for me over the years. Much of this was to Britain, for two training programmes in 1988 and in 1991, and for the Triennial Conference of the Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies at Canterbury in 1989. I believe ACLALS had originally been set up to look also at literature in other languages, but obviously that was a massive task and meanwhile the corpus of writing in English from all over had grown so significantly that keeping up with that alone was already proving difficult.
Many papers at the Conference indeed involved close study of obscure Commonwealth writers by European academics carving out niches for themselves. Many were the bubbles that were blown large in those years, that soon burst without trace, the glamorous young lady for instance who read the same extract at an interval of three years from the only work she had produced that had been deemed significant, the almost white Australian who claimed to be of aborigine ancestry and declaimed about persecution, the supposed masterpieces that had won the Booker Prize and proved unreadable.
But there were also great moments, presentations by and conversations with scholars of distinction, the half Indian Singaporean Edwin Thumboo and the Creole West Indian Eddie Baugh, marvelously erudite Indians including Meenakshi Mukherjee, Yasmine Gooneratne herself, the charming British Alistair Niven who had first recognized Punyakante Wijenaike’s talent, and perhaps most significant, the dynamic Australian Anna Rutherford who had basically nursed the whole enterprise from its early tentative days. Sadly none of the writers I thought really great ever turned up at the various events I attended, Naipaul or Rushdie or Achebe, or even good ones like Coetzee or Michael Ondaatje, but Peter Carey used to attend, and once Wilson Harris, who read an incomprehensible extract from a poem, which I was told was par for the course.
The literature component of Baumgartner’s extravaganza in Islamabad had been much more satisfying in that respect, with Anita Desai and the Pakistani Parsee Bapsi Sidhwa (whose novel of partition, ‘Ice-Candy Man’, later reissued as ‘Cracking india’, is one of the best of the genre) and Chitra Fernando, who subsequently contributed a lovely collection of children’s stories for the British Council Student Reader series I had started. She was a delightful and generous person, who had also written some striking short stories for adults. I wanted to borrow one of her themes once for a story of my own, and asked her, and received the most gracious reply, indicating that she thought it a compliment, since there were distinguished precedents for such literary influences.
In addition to Canterbury, the Council sent me also to ACLASs Conferences in 1986 to Singapore and in 1992 to Jamaica – which allowed exploration of the Mayan monuments in Guatemala, which a kindly consular officer allowed me to enter without a visa, from Belize, which I could enter without one. In the latter country, in the obscure village on the Guatemalan border I had come to in hope, I came across a Sri Lankan restaurant, which was owned by relations of Glenville Kemps, who had married my mother’s cousin Enid. Glen and his family were now settled in England, while his kinsman, who had also served the British Army in its supplies branch, had then continued his service abroad, ending in Belize, the former British Honduras, where he had then settled. That strange coincidence has given me much food for thought over the years, the extensive reach of British colonialism, and the ease with which people could shift countries and perspectives, whilst still retaining what were to them the significant aspects of their own culture.
From Singapore I had travelled to Burma, which was a strange adventure in 1986. Everything was run by the state, which closed down completely after office hours. This meant that, if you had not got into a hotel by then, you could not stay anywhere. This created a problem in Mandalay, for I had decided to take the night boat down to Pagan, but when I got to the river at twilight, after a marvelous day seeing the sights, there was no boat in sight.
Such cancellations were a regular occurrence I was told by my guide, a delightfully enthusiastic youth called Koko Mynit Swo, who told me also that I could not take the train, since I should have bought the ticket in advance from the tourist office. I could not now get into a hotel, and he could not put me up because that required police permission. My suggestion that he buy a train ticket himself, and pass it on to me, was also rejected on the grounds that his identity card number would be written on the ticket and this was liable to be checked in the course of the night.
All this was explained with great cheerfulness, as I felt increasing despair. Finally however he suggested I try to buy a ticket myself, since the railway clerks might not realize I was a foreigner. The suggestion worked. I cannot remember if they asked me for my passport, which would have given the game away, though since the whole business was clearly a game, which one played with greater or lesser intensity, depending on one’s mood and predilections, the question was doubtless academic.
I went then, in great discomfort, to the railhead at Thane I think, which we reached around midnight, and was then allowed to doss down in a cheap lodging house which did not care for formalities such as registering guests. The next morning I had an appallingly uncomfortable ride in a jeep to Pagan, which proved fantastic, and justified all the discomfort. I walked for ages, and found too amidst the ruins a fresco depicting the invasion of King Parakramabahu the Great, the only instance as far as I know of colonizing tendencies on our part.
I was utterly exhausted at the end of the day, even after a welcome beer admiring the sunset across the Irrawaddy. The owner of my guesthouse, who spoke remarkably polished English, which I had not expected for he was dressed always in traditional but very simple Burmese costume, suggested a massage. The masseur he indicated was a wizened old woman but I was glad I overcame my doubts. She was much stronger than she looked, and pummeled and pressed and pulled and pushed so that I felt quite renewed at the end of an hour.
I was reminded of the episode when I met Aung San Suu Kyi early in 2011. She was tiny and looked frail, but obviously had a will of iron. We can only hope she will get an opportunity to pummel and push Burma into shape again.