Malavika Karlekar is one of Aung San Suu Kyi's oldest friends in India, having known her from 1960 when they were both students at the Convent of Jesus and Mary. They went on to study BA (Hons) in Political Science at Lady Shri Ram College and then read PPE together at St Hugh's College, Oxford.
As Suu Kyi creates history in Myanmar by finally entering the country's parliament after almost three decades of struggle for democracy, here's Karlekar's account of knowing Suu Kyi as a young girl and their friendship.
When I spoke to Aung San Suu Kyi on November 15, 2010 - a couple of days after she was out of house arrest - it was as though we'd been chatting every now and then through the years. The truth of course was different: for obvious reasons, I'd hardly been in touch with her over the last 22 years - the last time I spoke to her on the phone was when her husband Michael Aris died in 1999. That, to my mind, is the power of a friendship that spans so many decades, in spite of all the vicissitudes and breaks along the way. I feel sure that when we meet (hopefully in the near future) we'll pick up where we left off all those many years ago.
And we do go back a very long time - 1960 - when we were young girls growing up in the afterglow of a Nehruvian India. Days stretched beyond school (Convent of Jesus and Mary in New Delhi) as we would often meet over the weekends. I remember Suu as she was known, as a quiet, obedient girl with a great flair for creative writing. She would come to school in the Ambassadorial Mercedes driven by Wilson, her hair in two neat plaits and just a trace of arrowroot on her face. Madame Aung San or Daw Khin Kyi as she was also known was the Burmese Ambassador to India and Suu and she lived in 24, Akbar Road. Five close friends would spend lazy Sunday afternoons gorging on delicious Khao Suey though the dried prawn delicacy was a bit of a trial.
I've often been asked whether Suu displayed any of the qualities that were to make her the courageous and principled woman of 1988 and after. In fact those of us who were her close friends have discussed this many a time and have concluded that while we were always aware that she was the daughter of the maker of modern Burma, she never spoke of a life in politics. In fact, if I remember right, her interests were highly literary. But what I do remember is her upright posture, never an adolescent slouch, and great pride in lineage. `I will never be allowed to forget whose daughter I am,' Aung San Suu Kyi would often say. History proved her right.
As we went on to study together at Lady Shri Ram College and then St Hugh's College, Oxford, I watched her evolve into a self-confident, attractive woman with very definite ideas - and an irrepressible giggle. Later, we spent many days together when I stayed with her, her husband Michael Aris and sons Alexander and Kim in Oxford or when she came to India, sharing old memories and chatting about things we shared in common - as well the odd gossip session! We rarely spoke of Burma or of Burmese politics - though we did exchange notes on our concern about our aging mothers.
It was not till 1988 that Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as a political persona - and of course, there has been no looking back. The other day, on one of the rare occasions that I was able to get a phone connection to Rangoon, we were chatting about ourselves and where life has taken us. Suu said, `I went to the doctor the other day for a check up; he was amazed at how fit I am. I suppose it's all those years of enforced rest that has kept me in good shape'. I was speechless; which politician would speak of house arrest, imprisonment and isolation as enforced rest? Only someone who has a quirky sense of humour and an ability to take life head on - both qualities that Aung San Suu Kyi has in more than ample measure!
Malavika Karlekar has been a university teacher, researcher and editor and has studied at the Universities of Delhi and Oxford, UK and is Co-editor, Indian Journal of Gender Studies. She is the author of a number of books and Curator of Re-presenting Indian Women 1875-1947: A Visual Documentary based on over 300 archival photographs for the Centre for Women's Development Studies.
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