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  • Aug 22, 2014
  • Updated: 10:27am
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FICTION

Book review: Letters From a Burmese Grandfather, by Randolph O'Hara

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 March, 2013, 5:26pm

Letters From a Burmese Grandfather

by Randolph O'Hara

Orchid Press

With the end of the military dictatorship and the possibility Aung San Suu Kyi might become president, Myanmar has become a hot news story.

The military junta that had ruled since 1962 cut it off from the outside world, leaving the rest of us with little knowledge or understanding of this ancient kingdom.

Now we have an opportunity to learn of the life of the court in the early years of the 19th century, just before the country became a British colony. This is described in 16 letters by an elderly man who recounts his life as a royal page to his young grandson.

Author Randolph O'Hara was born in Burma in 1940; as a young man he fled difficult circumstances to start a new life in Hong Kong. He joined the government in 1967 as an assistant librarian, gradually working his way up, before retiring as deputy director of the Urban Services Department (Culture) in 1999. He was awarded the MBE in 1997 for his services to culture.

After his retirement, O'Hara continued his involvement in the city's cultural life, playing an active role on the board of directors of the Hong Kong Ballet. He died in 2011.

During the last years of his life, he researched the culture and history of the country he had left as a young man. This resulted in six novels, of which this is one, using the device of letters.

The grandfather describes the Buddhist festival of lights. "The moon was particularly brilliant, there was a strong scent of lilies everywhere and the whole palace, surrounding walls and the villages were lit with candles and short open cotton wicks soaked in oil.

"Young people paraded everywhere in their finest clothes, to call upon their elders, to show obeisance to them by raising their two hands, palms together, to their forehead and then kneeling and touching their forehead to the ground."

This is a show of respect to parents, teachers and elders; the author of the book remembers it with pleasure because it was his first festival with his new wife.

The letters that describe the court are the most interesting because they recount a life that has gone forever - ceremonies, festivals, legends and rituals intimately connected with Buddhism, which has left an indelible mark on the country. One describes a performance by 28 marionettes, centred around a love story with song and music from an orchestra.

The final letters are not romantic. They describe the war with British India that led to Burma becoming a British colony and the abdication of the last Burmese king on November 29, 1885.

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