Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2012 > The Vulnerable Side of Suu Kyi

Mainstream, VOL L, No 50, December 1, 2012

The Vulnerable Side of Suu Kyi

Monday 3 December 2012


The Nehru Memorial Lecture, given by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on November 14, 2012 in New Delhi, was a master class performance. It was measured. It was poetic. It was political. It was philosophical. It did not employ the rhetorical flourishes so favoured by orators nor did it pander to the conceits of the audience and manipulate their emotions just to get their applause. In fact the tone of her delivery was almost constant, with just a little blip for irony, a brief chuckle for humour and an occasional whiff for nostalgia. The large assembly of India’s power elite was at Vigyan Bhavan. They had come to hear her speak. The honesty with which she spoke made one feel that she was not speaking to us. We just happened to be there. She was delivering a soliloquy, another one of those long chains of thoughts that she had given voice to during her periods of house arrest. She was speaking to history.

Much has been said about her gentle reprimand to the Government of India for not supporting her during her difficult times. Much has been written about her steadfastness to the Gandhian principles of ahimsa and satyagraha. And much has been commented upon with respect to her childhood closeness to Jawaharlal Nehru and to the aspirations of a young post-colonial state.

This political side to her was summed up, by her, so well when she asked us to help her country walk down the same road that we in India had walked, to democracy and freedom. How could we even hesitate to offer her our solidarity? But it is not the politics that I want to speak about here. I want to understand her being and in doing so understand the being of those who make history, not because they chose to, not because it is thrust upon them, but because history itself requires such agents for its own survival.     

That ‘Lonely’ Impulse of Delight

THERE are three ruminations that ASSK offers in this wonderful lecture from which we can get a glimpse into her being. It is these that I want to write about. The first pertains to her dispute with Nehru on a line he quotes in his Discovery of India from the poem ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ by W.B.Yeats. It is one of her favourite poems and when, in the solitude of her house arrest, she read Nehru quote it as ‘that lovely impulse of delight’ that ‘turns to risk and danger and faces and mocks at death’ she felt that Nehru had misquoted it. The word in dispute was ‘lonely’ not ‘lovely’. Let me quote her at some length so that we may enjoy the elegance of her prose, the gentleness with which she conveys her disagreement:
“I had remembered the words as ‘that lonely impulse of delight’, and I could not check to see which version was correct as I did not have the poem to hand. To me, ‘lovely’ changed the entire meaning of the poem. I wished I could have discussed the matter with Nehru himself. Was it not essentially lonely, rather than lovely, to delight in what would seem at least inexplicable if not outright undesirable, to most of those around us? …. Was ‘lovely’ a misprint in my copy of Discovery of India or had Nehru misread the line?”

And so while the above passage gives us a glimpse into that inner world of her being as she struggles to answer the question of what it is all about, it is the words that followed the above quoted passage that quite enslaved me.

“To mull over the meaning of a word, to build a whole philosophy on the interpretation of a poem, these are pastimes in which prisoners, particularly prisoners of conscience, engage, not just to fill empty hours but from a need to understand better, and perhaps to justify, the actions and decisions that have led them away from the normal society of other human beings.”

‘To build a whole philosophy on the interpretation of a poem’ is a sentence that tells you that she has developed her philosophy in making the link between ‘lonely’ and ‘death’, a philosophy that renders issues of fear and courage, expectation and disappointment, choice and its denial, irrelevant. In this majestic statement ASSK tells us that she lives in a zone that has moved beyond such issues, a zone where one does what one’s conscience tells.

You Do Not Choose To Do

YOU know you have to do it. You just do it. That is why the poem ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ is one of her favourite poems. I read it for the first time after I heard her recite the few lines from it. Through it I understood her better as I think I did Gandhi, and Mandela, and Martin Luther King, and Vaclav Havel and Andrei Sahkarov.

The second rumination illustrates her sense of self-deprecation. One must not take oneself too seriously if one truly seeks to understand the cosmic order of things, she seems to imply. Again let her speak for herself:

“During one of my periods of isolation, I jotted down on a piece of paper that if I could be sure of one, just one, totally trustworthy, totally reliable, totally understanding, totally committed friend and colleague, who would keep faith with me and with the cause in which we believed throughout the vicissitudes of this existence, I could challenge the combined forces of heaven and earth. In isolation, one tends towards melodrama.”

Storming heaven for assurance, looking for trust and believing in it when, on the contrary, betrayal is what one experiences, seeking affirmation that the cause is worthwhile when loneliness is all pervasive, and yet, when the moment passes, there is no self-pity or anger, just irony and humour. Irony and self-deprecation make for good governance. This is not a relation-ship that has been probed and needs to be. That is why Nehru was a great prime minister and why Mandela demitted office after only one term.

It is in commenting on her third set of ruminations, however, that I feel least confident, not because I am diffident about my interpre-tation, but because I feel I would be intruding, a trespasser. She did not make the connection that I am going to make. In fact she deliberately held back from making it. Yet in every sentence, every word, the pretend stoicism of her face, the suppressed quiver in her voice, one could tell that what we were hearing was, in fact, autobiographical.

ASSK wanted to share her private angst with the world, in an indirect way. That is why she discusses this episode in her speech. That is why I make bold to offer a connection between what she said and what she left unsaid. The extended account of Nehru being offered a deal by the regime, on his staying in jail rather than going to look after Kamala, on his belief in the cause of freedom for his people, on his existential pain when he had to face his possible disloyalty, when he had to confront the question of which is his greater obligation to an ill Kamala or a subjugated people, to a suffering family or a suffering people? Aung San Suu Kyi was talking about her own existential dilemma, of the painful choice she had to make when she chose not to return to England when Michael Aris was suffering from terminal cancer. She saw in Nehru a soul mate. Listen to her coded telling of her story.

The Said and the Unsaid

“IN 1934, while serving one of his many terms of imprisonment, it was suggested to him ‘through various intermediaries’ that if he were to give an assurance, even an informal one, that he would keep away from politics for the rest of the term to which he had been sentenced, he would be released to tend to his ailing wife. This roused a deep indignation in the proud independence fighter:

“Politics was far enough from my thoughts just then, and the politics I had seen during my eleven days outside had disgusted me, but to give an assurance! And to be disloyal to my pledges, to the cause, to my colleagues, to myself! It was an impossible condition, whatever happened. To do so meant inflicting a mortal injury on the roots of my being, on almost everything I held sacred. I was told that Kamala’s condition was becoming worse and worse and my presence by her side might make all the difference between life and death. Was my personal conceit and pride greater than my desire to give her this chance? It might have been a terrible predicament for me, but fortunately that dilemma did not face me in that way at least. I knew that Kamala herself would strongly disapprove of my giving any undertaking, and if I did anything of the kind it would shock her and harm her.”
“The above passages fascinated me. The monu-mental egoism: ‘my pledges’, ‘my colleagues’, ‘myself’, ‘the roots of my being’, ‘everything I held sacred’. The briefest appearance before an impartial court of conscience before deciding that he would be doing Kamala more harm than good by doing what was repugnant to his principles. And of course Kamala’s own words put the seal of approval on his decision…. Yet in full awareness of the egoism and some possible self-deception on the part of Nehru, I have to confess that I wholly endorsed his stand on the matter.”
That Daw Aung San Suu Kyi chose to share these reflections with us is a measure of her greatness. She could have avoided talking about this episode. She could have chosen to discuss something more impersonal. The lecture was already so rich in philosophical insight and so poetic that excluding this story would not have made it any less valuable. And yet she included it. She placed her most vulnerable persona before the scrutiny of the world’s cameras. She did this in India. This was her tribute to Nehru. And to the struggling peoples of the 

(Courtesy: The Tribune)

The writer is the Director of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62 Privacy Policy Notice Addressed to Online Readers of Mainstream Weekly in view of European data privacy regulations (GDPR)