It began before it had begun, Louisa’s reign as the nation’s beauty queen. With still two months before the big pageant, the papers began to feature her “special” status as the “image of unity and integration,” vaguely referring to her mixed heritage, all but denying her affiliation with the Karens (or the Jews) particularly.
“They’ve got us,” Benny several times found himself muttering guiltily to himself during these days. He’d wanted, with this Miss Burma business, to have something to write about – or so he’d claimed; but it turned out he’d only given the Burmans an angle. Or, no, a weapon. A weapon of Burmanisation. A weapon against revolution. For if Louisa, as the racially indistinct product of assimilation, was already a symbol of a “higher form of unity,” as Aung San had once put it (one that might serve “national tasks and objectives”), then her winning the pageant would be an argument that racism in the country didn’t exist, that there was no discrimination to fight against.
Just as appalling was Khin’s seemingly wilful blindness to the discrimination behind the media’s fixation on Louisa. By all appearances, Khin was hoping that the media would soon similarly fixate on her! In the weeks running up to the pageant, she began to take tremendous care with her dress (adorning herself in some of the flashier shawls and sarongs she’d professed to be assembling for Louisa), and emerged from her bedroom every morning with increasingly youthful styles of hair and makeup. She was basking in a reflected light, experiencing the thrill of being an object of interest by proxy – all while the actual object (at least at home in Benny’s sight) appeared determined to pretend that she herself was not being thrust perilously into celebrity.
It’s nothing, Louisa’s easygoing manner and laughter seemed intended to reassure him, as he hid from mental pictures of her posing on some garish stage, in some garish bathing costume, hands on her hips.
Only once during this period did he see a twinge of similar horror pass over the girl’s face – when Khin found the two of them at the dining table and thrust forth a magazine featuring the upcoming pageant’s “front-runners,” including a giddy-looking Louisa being crowned Miss Karen State.
Their family had been granted two special tickets to the Miss Burma pageant, and Khin had somehow contrived for him to have permission to attend (though she’d insisted on telling everyone – including Louisa – that he’d made the arrangements, so shamed was she, he thought, by his ineffectualness). So it was that on the day of the event, hours after Louisa and Khin had left, he found himself abruptly free. Or at least rather free, his “escort” being one of the Burma Army soldiers who manned the guard hut at the bottom of his drive. How very strange it was – strange and somehow ominously touching – when, at the bottom of that drive, the escort slowed his truck so that his fellow guards could sincerely applaud for the father of their nation’s prospective beauty queen.
Evening was falling by the time they approached the Central Railway Station. Already a crowd was coming over the road leading to the stadium that had been named for Burma’s liberator and protector of the populace, Aung San. Looking out his window at the commotion, Benny had the strange impression of taking in alternately a collection of individuals – a mother tugging at the hand of a young child, a delicate man hawking snacks, a police officer sectioning off a side street, a legless girl being wheeled along by a dog – and a collective force. The urgency and excitement in the air were undeniable, and in spite of his own cynicism (and in spite of the armed soldiers patrolling the road up ahead), Benny felt the tug of elation.
It was breathtaking, the vision of this panoply of peoples, young and old, able-bodied and destitute, blameless and criminal – all taking possession of the streets.
It was also irrational and oddly undemocratic, this impulse of thousands to catch a glimpse of whoever was crowned; the poorest among them wouldn’t possibly be able to pay for even the cheapest tickets. But there was nothing rational or democratic about beauty itself, Benny told himself. And still, beauty was not classist or racist. From the looks of it, these people were prepared to adore whichever girl, of whichever origins, became their queen. Perhaps beauty alone had the power to transfigure people so. And yet, Benny reminded himself with a shudder, there was something insidious about beautifying the country’s image by means of a girl, whatever her background, for somewhere in the darkness beyond the delta, innocent people continued to be shot and killed.
Half a block from the stadium, the truck came to a stop beside a jeep where two soldiers were waiting to escort Benny through the overspill of would-be spectators surging from the station. The narrowing evening was giving way to a deeper darkness, heightening the assault of sights and sounds and smells on Benny’s desensitised soul. Soon, he was marshalled past a throng of beggars being rebuffed by a guard, through a stadium gate, into a tunnel, and out into an arena, where – in the shadows of an enormous stage that had been erected – he discovered Khin seated in a lower section of the packed stands. She claimed him with a look of relief as he stumbled toward her along the narrow aisle, and he was overcome by a feeling of belonging, of being bound to her by years of experience. How easily he’d forgotten the powerful pleasure she’d so willingly given him, the sensual offering of loyalty and children. Intoxicating, not just their early years, but all the years until his imprisonment – years when they had given themselves over to the lives they’d remade in order to be together.
Now, approaching her, he seemed to see every one of their children’s faces in her own still-lovely one. And when he sat on the hard bench between her and a heavyset man, and she leaned in to say something in his ear (“Did you see Katie Ne Win? She’s sitting with him”), he was immediately comforted by the familiar sound of her voice and by the clean scent she was wearing, undercut by her own, almost undetectable deeper fragrance.
That feeling – of renewed appreciation for his wife, of closeness with her – only grew when at last the stadium lights went dim, and a hush came over the assembled thousands, and sweet music began to sound over the loudspeaker. It wasn’t long before yellow floodlights shot up from the stage, and then a procession of bathing-costumed girls appeared before them. Many of these girls, he saw with a pang of sympathy, were too heavily made up; most wore smiles that were too theatrical; some tottered and swung their hips, as though to impersonate feminine confidence and magnetism; others cast defeated glances at the audience or blinked out at the darkness as if to find reassurance there. Then Louisa emerged in a simple white suit, and it was as if a switch were thrown...And was some amplification of lighting responsible for her skin appearing so luminous? Her smile seemed to reach out past him and across the stadium, to reach out as if to fling the gates open and let everyone in.
Excerpted with permission from Miss Burma, Charmaine Craig, Penguin Random House India.