Sunday, 4 December 2016

Escaping hectic city life for Burma with Jan-Philipp Sendker

I have a real fondness for reading about Buddhism, beautiful temples, and real and imagined retreats. I love the thought of taking off from a busy life and landing in a quiet spot in nature with plenty of time to sit and think. To look out the window. Tend to some plants and flowers. Brew coffee the long way and sip it slowly. If I can make my idea of a retreat come to life, I usually do. If not, I'm satisfied with imagining it.

As a teenager, I’d imagine the worlds of Haruki Murakami and Tan Twan Eng while greedily wishing they wrote more. Now, a few years later, there are a few aspects of my favourite fictional worlds consciously woven into my life. I live by the mountains, nurture my love for good coffee, and try to keep the yellow chrysanthemums on the side of my house in flower.

But I still read these books, continue dreaming, and remain on lookout for similar novels to lose myself in. One such find was A Well-Tempered Heart by Jan-Philipp Sendker, the sequel to The Art of Hearing Heartbeats.





I read this while travelling around Portugal this November, starting in Lisbon and heading north up to Coimbra and Porto. I bought the book fairly unenthusiastically, expecting it to be just an acceptable piece of holiday reading, but soon fell into the story's unravelling.

A Well-Tempered Heart continues ten years after The Art of Hearing Heartbeats left off, when Julia Win returned from visiting Burma (or Myanmar), her father's native country, to her life as a successful Manhattan lawyer. 

Back in America, Julia is lost, exhausted, and faced with a relationship that's just ended and an unsatisfying job. When she hears a female stranger's voice in her head during a business meeting, Julia knows she has to do something about it. The voice asks questions that Julia has been trying to avoid: Why do you live alone? To whom do you feel close? What do you want in life?

Julia returns to Burma, reunites with her brother after a ten-year absence, and finds her story interwoven with a Burmese woman named Nu Nu who had also found her life turned upside down. It's a story about the human heart and love in its many manifestations: for others, for the world, for life, and for ourselves.

- - - - -


After a fairly unremarkable first chapter or so, I turned the pages faster as I delved into questions of a life well-lived (“What is important to you?”) and cheered on the big-city-lawyer-turned-soul-searcher as she pondered life and love in Burma. And like her, I soon fell in love with the country's stories, its human connectedness and perhaps above all, the scents, colours, and flowers:

"The morning sun beamed through the bushes. The leaves of the banana plants seemed greener, their fruit larger and yellower. The hibiscus and the bougainvillea had never looked so beautiful. A warm breeze caressed her skin..."

Despite all the of hardship and echoes of hard times, there's red hibiscus and wreaths of fresh jasmine, and as Julia is "filled with a lightness that I had not felt in years", we too feel replenished and mindful of how our body is feeling:

"I felt better in the monastery than I had for a long time, in spite of the physical strain, in spite of having a wooden crate for a toilet, in spite of the absence of a shower. I slept well. Had neither backaches nor headaches. At times I was filled with a lightness that I had not felt in years. Amy would probably have described me as “deeply relaxed.” Moe Moe brought hot tea and a fresh hibiscus blossom to my bedstead every morning. Later she would tuck the blossom into my hair."

If we’re not at this very moment in a monastery or a paradise of flowers, birds and loved ones, reading books like A Well-Tempered Heart shows we can still forage through the private garden of our imagination. With the winter months upon us, this is just what I was looking for.





"The courtyard was teeming with flowerbeds and hedges blooming in stunningly beautiful colors. I saw rosebushes, yellow and red hibiscus, oleander, violet bougainvillea, gladiolus, and amaryllis..."


A possible companion book: Search Inside Yourself by Chade Meng Tan

I read A Well-Tempered Heart at the same time as Search Inside Yourself: Increase Productivity, Creativity and Happiness by Chade Meng Tan, which turned out to be a beautiful idea. Chade Meng Tan provides dozens practical lessons and exercises in mindfulness and looking inside ourselves, while Jan-Philipp Sendker illustrates characters that have strengthened their minds to an incredible degree. If you enjoy reading fiction and non-fiction in parallel, I'd keenly recommend these two as a pair.



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