Miss Burma

The Miss Burma idea came about several months later, in early 1956, when they were hosting a dinner for a small gathering of friends, one of whom asked what Benny proposed to keep himself busy with, to which Khin spontaneously answered, “With his thoughts, of course.”

She hadn’t meant to be derisive, but all she’d seen Benny do since his house arrest was sit and scratch out the occasional line in one of his notebooks (notebooks she’d peeped at to find an impenetrable morass of his tangled English script). Anyway, her mocking tone with Benny and his with her had become something of a habit, so she wasn’t surprised when he, seemingly unable to restrain himself from deriding her in turn, surveyed the dining table with a sort of glee and said, “Khin would no doubt rather I spend my time drumming up business from within my new prison. Or, if I really must engage my higher faculties, she’d probably be happier if I were to join the government’s scribes and report for the Nation”—the Rangoon Nation being one of the country’s sanctioned newspapers. “You would prefer that, wouldn’t you, darling?” he said, turning to her. “Just think of what I’d write. Perhaps a little ditty about the Miss Burma pageant later this year—if I could somehow contrive a way to go and watch it.”

His outburst—which she’d heard over a pounding in her ears—seemed to have taken him aback more than it did her; yet on the heels of it came a suggestion that deeply injured her: “Or, even better,” he pressed, while his friends hid their embarrassed faces over their soup bowls, “I could do much as you once did, my dear, and get to work on a campaign making our Louisa over and entering her into the beauty pageant.”

Louisa was their eldest child, and long remarked for her beauty. Several years earlier, Khin had entered the girl into a child pageant, organized by the wife of a local district commissioner, in order to maneuver Benny’s release from Insein Prison, where he was being held because of his efforts on behalf of Khin’s persecuted minority people, the Karen.

“She’d have to win Miss Karen State first,” one of his friends now helplessly put in.

“Why not use her loveliness to our advantage?” Benny said, ignoring him.

It was a new low for him, these depths of cruelty to which he sank; not quite submerged within their murkiness herself, Khin made out obscurely the resentment he must have felt toward her since she’d sacrificed some of their daughter’s innocence for the possibility of his release—a release he hadn’t actually wanted, Khin suddenly glimpsed. And now he was stuck in this house with her.

“Now that I think of it,” Benny said to the table, “Louisa becoming Miss Burma would give me something useful to write about, wouldn’t it?”

“Come now, Benny,” his friend said, sweating over his soup. “Hang this beauty pageant business—”

But Benny was too far into an argument that, once made, he’d never be able to take back, she feared. “It would certainly give Louisa—and us as a family—a platform in the international sphere, wouldn’t it?” he sputtered. “Yes, that would be ‘an angle,’ as the Americans put it. Might even get us back in the government’s good graces. And the money! It’s no secret that I’m an utter failure as a businessman, that Khin has had to make terrible sacrifices—”

“Stop,” she heard herself say weakly from her end of the table.

Her face was trembling, and it made her all too aware of how pathetic she must have appeared, like a debased servant who’d been made by her master to impersonate the mistress of the house.

“I can’t deny that the idea of Louisa being crowned appeals to my vanity,” Benny kept on. From his tone it wasn’t at all clear that he was still speaking facetiously. “To think of our daughter’s picture looming on their billboards . . .”

To think of exactly that, for Khin, was suddenly to imagine herself becoming even less distinct. The more pronounced her daughter became, the greater the shadow she would cast. But she said, “If you’re so convinced, Benny, I’ll see what I can do about it.”

And, God almighty, did she ever proceed to do just that!

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