Extract from the novel "In the shadow of the monk"
The author Helena Thorfinn's latest novel "In the shadow of the monk" takes place in Myanmar during the short time that the country opened up to the outside world. In this short extract, we are in Yangon in Myanmar and the year is 2016. Katja has just arrived from Sweden after having lost her job and is settling in with her nephew Simon and his girlfriend Trish at “Bonnie´´´´ s House”. She is burnt out and in need of a break.
Helena Thorfinn worked for many years as a journalist at SVT, the Swedish public service television channel and the Swedish newspaper SvD, among others. Since then, she has worked internationally with human rights. Between 2014 and 2017, Thorfinn lived in Myanmar and this stay has given rise to her third novel.
They all took a seat around the dining table and Bonnie pulled out a chair near her own especially for Katja, slapping the seat with her hand. Steven came over with the grilled meats and sat down, too.
“Tell me, tell me – I want to know everything about you! Everything!” Bonnie kept her eyes locked on Katja who, in turn, threw a helpless glance at Simon. She didn’t really have the energy to tell her entire life story just like that.
“Katja is a bit tired, I think,” Simon cut in and turned to Bonnie and Steven.
“You’re the ones who should tell her – living in Burma for twenty years and knowing everything about superstitious military men and mad monks. Let Katja step off the plane first.”
The conversation, which had started in Swedish, slid over into English. For the rest of the evening, Katja could keep a low profile, simply smiling and nodding a little in the right places, which suited her perfectly. This was a family used to making room for whoever happened to sit down at their table, and it was given with no need for an explanation.
Bonnie was a stout woman who – despite her ample body – in many ways resembled her slender daughter. Both had brown eyes and freckles as well as an obvious authority and presence that created a pleasant atmosphere around the table, and probably anywhere they went. Unlike others, Katja thought, before she was sucked into stories of Bonnie and Steven coming to Burma with two children in tow and finding the dilapidated house and starting to renovate it.
Back home in their Minnesota congregation, they’d drawn lots about who would go where to reinforce the local Baptist communities. There had been ten different destinations – everywhere from Rwanda and Kenya to Indonesia and the mountain villages of Thailand. Steven had pulled out a note saying “Rangoon”.
“We had to go home and get our map out,” Bonnie giggled. “I’d never heard of ‘Rangoon’ before, and a week later we were on our way. Now Burma is our whole life, or Myanmar, isn’t that curious? It’s enough to make you think of the way fate plays tricks on us. Not something I would’ve guessed when graduating from high school back home in good old Gothenburg.”
“So you’ll stay?” Katja couldn’t help but ask and Bonnie laughed, translating the question for Steven.
“If we’ll stay here? What do you think, honey?”
“As long as it pleases the Lord, we’ll keep doing His work in...” Steven gathered himself to reply, but was interrupted by his daughter.
“I for one am building my company here, that’s for sure. The whole world wants to be in Myanmar, why leave now? When things are finally beginning to happen.” Trish leaned across the table and helped herself to some more salad. “ParamiTech is almost ready to celebrate its second birthday, and that makes us one of the more established tech actors in the country. Everything is happening fast and we have to keep up. We’re staying! And for Simon...”
Bonnie looked at her daughter.
“What happens if you don’t?”
“Well, if you don’t ‘keep up’?” Bonnie crossed her arms in front of her full bosom and looked amused. She winked knowingly at Katja. “What happens if you’re the smallest tech actor?”.
Trish looked at her mother and rolled her eyes before turning to Katja.
“Mom thinks Simon and I should whittle mobile phones out of teak and grow organic mango here on the property,” she explained with poorly concealed irritation. “It won’t happen. ParamiTech has a five-year plan and I’ve made some cool recruitments over the past year. Including a classmate of mine from Stanford, Aiden, who’s probably to be considered the sharpest coder in Asia. We’re ready for the 4G expansion. The Burmese are going from isolated illiterates to social media artists in just a few months. And now is the time”. She underscored her words with a finger pointed down into the tabletop.
Simon turned to Katja and clarified:
“And for me, this is the place to be. Lots of aid organisations moving in, and all the big embassies and UN bodies are expanding. Even Sweden has opened some kind of office under the embassy in Bangkok. These are new times in Myanmar. So we’re staying!”
He fell silent before turning to Bonnie, with a mischievous smile.
“Though I’d love to grow mangoes with you Bonnie, I would. And I’d love to steal Trish away from her smartphone sometimes and give her one made of teak instead.”
Laughing, Bonnie blew a kiss across the table at Simon. Steven cleared his throat and tried to get a word in once more:
“I would urge everyone to practice some caution, we don’t know what the military has planned. I don’t trust the generals for a second. Suddenly they’re back again, suddenly...” Steven raised a finger while shaking his head. “I think you’re all a bit too...”
Trish interrupted her father, looking across the table and digging her eyes into his.
“Dad, don’t be such a wet blanket. The military has everything to gain from opening up the country. They don’t want Myanmar to become a Chinese puppet state. Come on. It’s happening now, everything we’ve longed for. Look around, it’s happening!” She swept her arm out toward the street. “The military is staying in their barracks, aren’t they? They’ll let things get more democratic, step by step. The times they are a-changing, Daddy. Everything is possible now.”
“That’s what you keep saying,” Steven mumbled. He’d gone back to eating, but looked mistrustfully at his daughter across the table. “This is one of the world’s most cruel and isolated military powers. There are countries that have armies and then there are armies that have countries. These overlords aren’t used to not being in power.”
The table fell silent for a moment, and Trish’s jerky movements oozed irritation as she ate. This was, apparently, a discussion they’d had before.
From the street outside, Katja could hear someone strumming on a guitar and she recognised the fumbling chords to “Hey Jude”. Bonnie listened and hummed along a little.
“He’s getting better. That’s Soe, one of our apprentices here, who wants to become a rock star,” she explained to Katja as she topped up their wine glasses. “You’ll meet him tomorrow.”
Steven sought Katja’s gaze across the table.
“You asked if we’re staying here? We’re so grateful the Lord has let us come to this amazing country, and as long as the Lord wants our services, we’ll gratefully receive the days he gives us. So far, the government is letting us do our work and...”
“But, really, why are they letting you stay? 87 per cent of the population is Buddhist, isn’t it? Why do they indulge you, when they want to drive out Rohingyas and other Muslims?” This time it was Simon who interrupted him with a question. “What do Christian organisations have that Muslims don’t? I’ve never understood that.”
“There have been Christian communities in Myanmar for hundreds of years, both the Karens, in Kachin and in Chin there are communities that...”
“Yes, and remember Ola Hansson, Katja – he was Swedish!” Bonnie added and grabbed Katja by the arm.
“Exactly. A Swedish man who spent thirty-five years first creating a written language for the Kachin peoples, then translating the Bible for them. A great deed!” Steven said. “A great deed. He’s a bit of an idol for the Kachin peoples.”
“And here. In the neighbourhood?” Simon nodded out into the darkness. “Why are they letting you stay? Really?”
Steven cleared his throat again. Katja thought he looked like a friendly cartoon character, with sad eyes and drooping cheeks.
“That’s probably in part down to Bonnie,” he shot his wife an appreciative gaze. “With her love of people and, well... But it’s also because they believe we are governed by the laws of karma. They see that we feed the kids off the streets, which is a kind of dana – charity – and we share our knowledge. That way we improve our karma, and the Burmese know about things like that.”
“We’re in the Buddhists’ good books, in other words.” Once again, Trish interrupted her father – who did have a rather roundabout way of expressing himself. “Dad only preaches to those who are already believers, and the Buddhists can live with that. The Rohingya on the other hand. That’s a different story.”
Throughout the evening, a Burmese man had been stalking near the table, alternately helping Steven with the grill and sitting in a rattan chair a little further off. Close enough to hear, but far enough not be part of the conversation. Katja wasn’t clear on whether he belonged to the family or the servants.
Suddenly he was standing by the table.
“Their name is not Rohingya. We call them Bengalis.”
With a wide smile, he leaned across the table and grabbed a chicken wing from a serving plate.
Trish was quick to respond.
“Quit it, Zaw.” She sighed and looked at her dad.
“I’m just telling you like it is. They’re not Rohingya – they’re Bengalis. They belong in Bangladesh, not in Buddhist Burma. They’re of a different kind. Your Christian colleagues are Burmese. They’re not.”
He spoke softly and firmly, in nearly flawless English. He could have been in his fifties and wore his black hair in a bun. Katja thought he looked nice and, judging by the family’s reactions, they weren’t surprised by his sudden appearance.
“Zaw, I think the Rohingya have a right to call themselves whatever they want. We have...” Steven sighed and looked at the man with resignation in his eyes, but Bonnie was quicker.
“Zaw, not tonight. We’ve just been joined by Katja, Simon’s aunt.” She turned to Katja and splayed her arm out toward Zaw. “Katja, this is our friend U Zaw. Or Zaw Htoo Myint. He lives here and you’ll see him around every day. Zaw is our first and best Burmese friend, artist and former political prisoner. One of Aung San Suu Kyi’s most loyal for many years. Now, he’s my right hand in everything.”
Zaw turned to Katja and flashed her a friendly smile.
“Mingalaba. Welcome to Myanmar.”