Author: Jan-Philipp Sendker

Publisher: Other Press

ISBN: 9781590-519646

                                      Burmese Folklore- Burmese Identity

For once, I’ll begin with the physical appearance of the book. It’s a paperback. The cover is an earthy maroon with a centerpiece embossed in a gold boundary containing the title in golden letters. The rest of the cover is embossed with motifs all in gold, interspersed with pictures of the animals, real or imaginary, that find mention in this book. The interior is also unusual, with letters in the same earthy maroon as the cover. Each chapter starts on the right hand side with an elaborate design around the title and the following text.

I mention the above in such detail, for the physical appearance of this book speaks volumes about its’ contents. The title itself  Long Path to Wisdom suggests a hidden wellspring of strength that is contained within Burmese folklore. This strength is a sense of identity. It is this source of identity that has sustained the people of Burma over decades of being ruled by a very autocratic military dispensation. In this book, the author attempts to resurrect and re-vivify this sense of identity through bringing Burmese mythology to the light of day.

To this end, the author has collected stories from the realm of folktales, parables and legends, along with a collaborator called Lomie Kanrath. The author’s son, Jonathan and his friend, Janek Mattheus also pitched in with their own collection of stories, gleaned from several conversations with the local folk. The best 55 of all these stories were put together with a team effort, in this book.

The stories in this collection are not unlike other mythological collections of stories. The author himself has mentioned similarities with the collections, Grimms Fairy Tales and Stories by Hans Christian Andersen. To these, I could add Aesop’s Fables and the Panchatantra from Indian folklore. Some of the stories are almost identical with the ones in the above collections while some involve identical scenarios, but with differing outcomes. The story of Hansel and Gretl in the Grimms fairy tales is one in the former category. All this probably goes to show that the same challenging situations are encountered in different cultures and the mindsets are not too different, regardless of their geographical proximity.

The major themes of humanity come into play. Love. Faith. Greed. Trust. Betrayal. Forgiveness.”

Most of the stories presented in this book involve kings and queens, beautiful princesses, handsome princes who win the princess’ hand in marriage after performing a difficult feat, failing which, the result would be death. There are also many stories involving animals, trolls, dragons and nats, the latter being a Burmese elemental spirit. Reincarnation is an accepted fact and many of the characters that figure in this book, have past lives in different forms.

With great feeling, the author, in his epilogue to this book, compares the Burma of 1995, when the country was facing worldwide sanctions, to the more trade-friendly Burma of today. With the ensuing liberation, the author bemoans the loss of a lot of quality time when families communed with each other, when grandmothers told stories to their grandchildren. Today, in the flurry of activity that characterizes our times, these stories and the atmosphere they invoke, are a casualty to the dictates of a questionable prosperity.

This book is well-written and as mentioned earlier, the unusually beautiful cover sets the tone for the rich material it contains. It is an easy and illuminating read and is very evocative of the mindset of a local variant of the Buddhist culture.

Warmly recommended.