Barack Obama was on a visit to his paternal homeland Kenya some years ago, toward the end of his presidency. It was rather refreshing seeing him at dinner in Nairobi in the company of his cousins, indeed a whole brood of relatives from his father’s side of the family. Earlier, on arrival in the Kenyan capital, he cheerfully embraced his half-sister Auma soon after he was welcomed by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. The moment was poignant. Here were three Kenyans together; and one of them, through sheer luck or the workings of destiny, happened to be the leader of the most powerful nation in the world.
There are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in one’s philosophy. That is how Hamlet enlightened his friend Horatio in the Shakespearean scheme of things. And so it is that you wonder about the workings of fate. What if Obama’s white American mother and native Kenyan father had not met and fallen in love? What if Bill Clinton had not been conceived in his mother’s womb before his father lost his life in a road crash? And would Aung San Suu Kyi go through her long suffering, stirring the fires of democratic revolt in her native Myanmar even as she suffered, if she had not returned home to care for her dying mother?
Ah, well! This talk of Myanmar brings back certain memories about the country. People of my generation were in school then, too young to understand the world or geopolitics. All we knew, back in 1962, was that General Ne Win, the army chief, had taken control of the country and had deposed the civilian government of U Nu. In those days, Myanmar was known as Burma; and for all of us in what used to be undivided Pakistan, Ne Win became a familiar figure through his frequent visits to the country. He was always being welcomed at Chaklala airport in Rawalpindi by President Ayub Khan. For us, still in school, watching the images on newspaper front pages of foreign dignitaries arrive in and depart from Pakistan was a thrilling affair. Personally, I made it my particular hobby to cut out the pictures of these important visitors from the newspapers and paste them in what came to be known as my album.
When we think back on the 1960s, it is with a combination of awe and shock. Ne Win, always in dark glasses, gave little hint that he was a dictator. But, then again, how were we, as children, to understand what the term ‘dictator’ meant? Which reminds me: on the day President Kennedy was shot in Dallas, the principal of the missionary school we went to called us together after recess and told us we would be sent home immediately. We asked him why. And he told us the President of the United States had been assassinated. We shouted ‘hooray’ and whooped for joy. We thought something good had happened to the president (and we didn’t know his name). The principal ordered us, in forbidding harshness, to be quiet. The president had been murdered. That is what he said. Now, if that were the case, why did he have to use a word, ‘assassination’, whose meaning we did not know at all? And we were yet a good few years behind teenage!
Going back to Burma, in 1962 I did a lot of flipping through the newspapers that my father subscribed to. It was through such activity that I was made aware of something called the Cuban missile crisis, that America and the Soviet Union were giving each other dirty looks. It was a thrill to know what the abbreviation ‘USSR’ stood for. When I told my father that it meant Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, he looked very happy. But on the day I told my mother, on a day in 1964, that Robert Kennedy and his wife Ethel had arrived in Cairo for a visit with all their (then) ten children in tow, my father pulled me up by the ear and warned me never to lie about news or embellish it in any way. I had, you see, added the children bit to the story. My father found nothing in the newspaper that could substantiate my claim.
These days, I have with me a work on the history of Burma. The book, The River of Lost Footsteps, is by Thant Myint-U. On my last visit to London a few months ago, I got hold of a copy of the book at the bookshop, Arthur Probsthain, owned by the family of my friend Michael Sheringham, a reputed scholar on China. Thant Myint-U is the grandson of U Thant. And it was in 1962 that I first became acquainted with the name U Thant. He was secretary general of the United Nations and came from Burma. I am not too sure, but I was told by my elders that secretaries-general of the UN had to be individuals from neutral countries and Burma was then a neutral country. Ne Win and U Thant became, therefore, two incongruous symbols of Burma for me. And U Thant only whipped up in me a desire to know of his predecessors. And soon I was committing the names Trygve Lie and Dag Hammarskjoeld to memory. It would be years before I knew of the mystic that was Hammarskjoeld. In those days, there was much talk of a place called Katanga, of a thuggish Moise Tshombe disrupting politics in a free but chaotic Congo. I only came to know of Patrice Lumumba sometime later, though I had little idea of his place in history and the manner in which he had died.
Just as Burma became part of my consciousness in the early 1960s, towards the middle of the decade it was China that took my fancy. Chou En-lai undertook, in 1964, an extensive tour of Africa, much of which was swiftly emerging free of its colonial fetters and being reborn as independent countries. As I recall, it was a fairly longish trip. And in that same year, I remember, Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt (then called the United Arab Republic), and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev beaming out of a photograph as they inaugurated the Aswan Dam. It was also the year when Khrushchev would be ousted from power by three men ---- Leonid Brezhnev, Alexei Kosygin and Nikolai Podgorny. For a number of days after the coup in Moscow, earlier images I had seen of Khrushchev and Brezhnev together kept coming back. Brezhnev seemed to be very loyal to Khrushchev. I wondered where Khrushchev was after he had been removed.
Such are the associations, at least some of them, that people my memories. Everyone has such nostalgia welling up somewhere deep in the consciousness at times, I am sure. Our school teachers took us to see the movie Summer Holiday in summer 1963. We loved Cliff Richard and his songs and secretly wondered if we could someday be as famous as he was. I listened to songs on the radio but for the life of me could not figure out how such people as Talat Mahmood and Mohammad Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar could squeeze themselves into being midgets, enter our radio set and sing those beautiful songs. I even tried taking a whole radio apart to get at the ‘truth’.
Former US President Obama made a trip to Burma a few years ago. It ruffled a nest somewhere in the heart. The American president was born in 1961. It was the year when, perched on my cousin’s shoulder, I had a glimpse of Queen Elizabeth II when she came to Dhaka. The place was the gate of President’ House, which later was to be Ganobhavan, beside Ramna Park.
Thirty six years after that evening in 1961, on a cold, grey winter’s day in London, it was a privilege speaking to the British monarch at Buckingham Palace.