The glorious sunset on the Chindwin River has always uplifted the heart. The reflection of the breath taking, ever changing beauty of colours suffusing the surface of the smooth fast flowing water with bright, glowing, gleaming hues, has always brought peace to the soul and quiet to the mind.
The circle administrator, the hereditary Taikthugyi, U So Ya, a tall, well built middle-aged man of presence and authority, gazed at the sunset from the large veranda of his substantial house of teak, a hundred yards from the bank of the Chindwin in the village of Massein. The alchemy of the sunset worked on him as usual, transmuting the usual peace and quiet once more into a daydream. He quickly became immersed in the folklore of long ago events concerning his clan, his tribe and his people, the Nanchao. Even in repose, the longish light-brown face with high cheekbones, thick black eyebrows and slightly slanting eyes looked stern. His firm belief that he was the reincarnation of the Chieftain who had led his clan on the mass migration in the distant past had made him live the part. He thus wielded his authority more in the manner of an autocratic chieftain of old, than a mere administrator over eight headmen of village tracts in the Massein Circle at the end of the 19th century. Everyone who came in contact with him felt his personality, prestige and presence.
Having taken two or three turns on the veranda he seated himself on a smooth finely woven cane mat. U So Ya let his thoughts return to the time thirteen centuries or more ago when his forbears lived in the high tableland of West China.
They had been roistering, rumbustious, warlike tribes of the famous Nanchao people, who by their courage, feats of arms and military prowess had turned back wave after wave of Chinese troops and would-be Chinese settlers. The Chinese been mauled so badly had that they had given up the fight, extended the hand of friendship and signed a treaty of peace and co-operation. The young men of Nanchao, having proved to be exceptionally good fighters would be taken into the Chinese Imperial Guards, given special status and privileges, handsome wages, clothing, uniform, arms, board, lodging and generous leave. For their consent to this arrangement, each chief would be given gold, silk, woven goods, utensils etc. according to the number of recruits supplied by the clan concerned.
The arrangement had worked well, so well in fact that when the Nanchao stronghold was attacked by a large raiding party from the north, there was not a single young warrior in the place. Had it not been for the ferocity, tenacity and courage of the women and older men of Nanchao, the stronghold would have fallen. The shock to the tribal chiefs, who had been leading comfortable lives cushioned by Chinese gold and consumer goods, was great indeed. Tribal elders and tribal chiefs met, consumed much food and liquor through a long day and a longer night, noisily exchanging charges, counter-charges and recriminations. Finally they reached a momentous decision. The young men would be recalled from the Imperial Guards at once to spearhead a long, long trek, family by family, clan by clan, tribe by tribe, far to the south-west where two large rivers and fertile plains were said to exist. Eventually, U So Ya's tribe had reached the Chindwin River in Upper Burma, driven out the Chins and Nagas living there and had settled in and around Massein. Other Nanchao tribes each with its chief, had settled higher up the Chindwin, or moved into the Kalay and Kabaw valleys. All these chiefs owed allegiance to the overall Chief, otherwise 'Big Chief', termed the Sawbwa made his headquarters at Yazagyo at the junction of the Kalay and Kabaw valleys, or Shan Kingdom of Yazagyo. Later on, the whole area had become the Tai or Shan Kingdom of Yazagyo.
U So Ya had been told all tribal folklore by his father and grand- father from childhood, and this he would one day hand on when he had a son and heir. Were they flashes of real memories of the past? Or did his mind make up images of the time he was in the Chinese Imperial Guards; of the long, long trek, of the many fights, skirmishes and battles on that march, of the first glimpse of the Chindwin as he stepped on to the top of Zibyutaung mountain range at the head of his clan thirteen centuries ago? He could supply so much more detail of that time, much more detail than any tale of folklore he had heard. Others may doubt; but in himself he was absolutely certain he was none other than the reincarnation of the Chief. Reaching this stage, his day dream would dissolve and end with the question: "For what purpose, have I come back here and now?"
The tribe had prospered and grown and spread. Massein and related villages were stockaded, entrenched and defended places to ward off the constant attacks of the Chins and the Nagas who wanted to get back their territory. The Tais had mounted counter-raids to rescue those taken prisoner by the enemy, as well as to make slaves of Nagas and Chins they captured in the process. Then in 1056 AD the great Burmese Warrior-King Anawrahts had conquered all the Shan Kingdoms of Upper Burma, including that of Yazago and made them all part and parcel of the Kingdom of Burma, with golden Pagan as its capital. Nine centuries or Burmese writing, Buddhist scriptures, Buddhist monks and Burmese culture had slowly and imperceptibly changed the Tais or Shans of the Chindwin into Burmese. There was nothing of the ancient Nanchao left for him to recognise in his people, was there? So why had he come back?
When King Anawrahta conquered Yazagyo, the then tribal chief of Massein had become a Taikthugyi, a Burmese post under the Burmese Governor of the Chindwin at Monywa. And now, after all those centuries, he had become a Burmese Official on the sudden death of his father, speaking and writing Burmese. At a comparatively early age of 25 he had had to travel down to Monywa, report his father's death and receive his formal appointment order from the hands of the Burmese Governor.
Sometimes he had wondered whether he should have raised the Tai flag when he was younger, full of fire and enthusiasm, to inaugurate a Chindwin Shan state to join the other Shan States to the east-states such as Hsenwi, Momeik, Hsipaw and so on. With hindsight he realised that he would never have had the support he needed; the people had lost all fire in their bellies; not a trace of the old Nanchao spirit remained. There had been a great chance when he was 27 and 28 years old during the chaotic days of the reign of King Theebaw and Queen Supayalat. Then the Shans of Wuntho, Kamaing and Mogaung had had nothing to do with the central Government, and the King's writ ran no further than the fort walls of the palace at Mandalay. Word had come that Queen Supayalat and her mother had engineered a palace revolution. They started massacring strong and competent Princes and would-be heirs to the wise, peaceable and deeply religious King Mindon. Then they brought young Theebaw from the monastery where he had been a novitiate and placed him on the thrown, Supreme power had gone to Supayalat's head. She ruled; ruled badly; as an ignorant, uneducated, silly young woman, With little or no contact with the world outside the Palace, could be expected to rule. 'Off with his head' was one of her favourite expressions; an order carried out by willing and cruel men she had surrounded herself with. But the chance had gone when in 1885, the English had captured Mandalay and its Palace, without a shot being fired, taking King Theebaw and his Queen into captivity in India. Thus the last part of Burma had been annexed, the Arakan and lower Burma having been taken in two earlier English wars against the Burmese.
The Burmese Governor had gone. An English Deputy Commissioner with Subdivisional Officers and Township Officers under him now administered the Chindwin District. The Superintendent of Police was English, so was the Divisional Forest Officer. U So Ya's appointment as Taikthugyi had been confirmed by the new administration; his rank, status, prestige and responsibilities remained undiminished. English Officers had toured his area and camped at Massein, treating him as man to man in a fair and reasonable way, somewhat different from the servility that the Burmese Governor had expected and had never got from him. Even so, they were foreigners who had usurped the Burmese throne. Fair words and fair dealings could give way at any time to harsh measures; foreigners could never be trusted.
U So Ya stood up, walked up and down the veranda for a few minutes before going into the living room. On clapping his hands, several young women brought in steaming dishes of rice, curries and hot soup.
He had already seated himself at the low round table set for the evening meal when Daw Nu, his wife and their three daughters, Ma Nyun, Ma Hla and Ma Mya joined him and seated themselves on the cane mat covering the teak floor boards. After lightly washing the fingers of the right hand in the silver bowl of water brought by a servant girl, they commenced to eat the rice and bits of curry with their fingers while helping themselves to curries and soup with spoons in the bowls.
U So Ya's stern face had changed and relaxed into benevolence as he looked at his eldest daughter, Ma Nyun, a beautiful girl of 16, the daughter he doted on. She had become the dearest love of his life. He felt that her beauty, grace, quickness of mind and cleverness should have grown and flowered in the Palace at Mandalay where she could easily have become a lesser queen. However, by deposing King Theebaw, the hateful English had prevented that ever happening. Being insular he despised all foreigners; but the English would merit the greatest measure of his hate, the fires of which he would keep alight and burning.
My grandfather, John Keely was born in the parish of Tuddenham, near Dereham, Norfolk in 1808. We do not know his background, what his father did or how many brothers and sisters he had. I wish I had shown more interest and visited Norfolk earlier on when I lived in Bexley to make enquiries. Perhaps someone younger with a keen interest could fill this gap.
By the time John reached his teens, the Napoleonic war in Europe was over; British traders were making good progress in the East and Far East and the penal settlement in Australia was growing with more and more emigrants from England arriving to settle. A mounting need for more troops to ensure security, law and order became paramount. At the time, recruitment into the army was organised at country fairs in such towns as Dereham, where on the 23rd of September 1825, at the age of 17, a sturdy, tall, likely young fellow enlisted, received the Queen's shilling, and became a recruit with the 63rd Regiment of Foot. Then on the 10th May 1828, now fully trained, he embarked with his Regiment for New South Wales, Australia, where he was to serve for six years. The Regiment moved again on the 21st November 1846, this time to the East Indies where the English traders needed protection from the Dutch allied to some of the local rajahs. How long the Regiment remained there is not known; but it was eventually despatched to India to help the East India Company to expand, to protect its trading posts and pro-English rulers. Finally on the 21st November 1846, after serving 20 years and 70 days with 18 ½ years foreign service, John Keely, became a Queen's pensioner and was permitted to remain on in India.
On leaving the army at the age of 38, he was appointed Overseer of Guindy Park, the estate and official residence of the head of the East India Company in Madras. Soon after taking up his appointment he married Priscilla Harris and in 1846, a baby girl was born to the couple. Their second child, a boy, was born on the 25th May l856 at Guindy Park, Vepary, Madras and christened Thomas Harris.
When the British Government took over the East India Company in 1858, Guindy Park became the Government House and the home of the Governor of the newly created Madras Presidency. John Keely remained Overseer. One of his duties was to look after the rifle range, the butts, targets etc. of the estate. On the 6th April 1858, he was in attendance at the butts while the Governor and his guests were at rifle shooting practice. During a lull in the shooting, John held out the red flag to stop further firing so as to enable him to emerge from his shelter, mark and signal the scores, on the targets; something he had done hundred of times. But this time, just as his hand emerged from the shelter, a rifle went off and a bullet went clean through his wrist. Two days later he was dead of lockjaw at the age of 50, as anti-tetanus serum were unknown in those days. My father Thomas Harris Keely was two years old when his father died. Five years later, when he was but seven, he became an orphan with the death of his mother.
Being the son of a Queen's pensioner, he was eligible for education at an Army institution and since his father had died while serving the Governor of Madras, arrangements were soon made to send him to St. Lawrence's Asylum, Lovedale, Milgiri Hills, Madras Presidency. There he was given a modest education with plenty of games, gymnastics and athletics to promote physical growth and fitness. Thomas did well in his studies also in games; but his best achievement was as a gymnast gaining first place in his final year.
Just about the time when Thomas was in the top form an Official of the Telegraph Department of India visited St. Lawrence's Asylum, with a view to recruiting young men into his Department; the fast expanding telegraph service needing a large number of recruits. All boys of 16 and above were assembled, each given pen and paper and instructed to take down about ten lines of dictation at slow speed. My father and nine others were chosen to become apprentices to the Telegraph Department solely on how legible was their writing and how correct was their spelling. None of them were asked whether they wished to become telegraphists. They were told they were now apprentices and that they would proceed to Bombay for training. Orders had to be obeyed: had that not been hammered into their heads for the past ten or eleven years of their Lives? Anyway, my father said good-bye to St. Lawrence and Lovedale with a glad and expectant heart. He could smell freedom and the prospect was enchantingly sweet.
For 3 years of apprenticeship however, it was not complete freedom: far from it. They were placed in twos and threes in boarding houses chosen by the Department, their leisure as well as work, supervised. In addition to sending and receiving messages, the apprentices had to do fieldwork accompanying parties surveying and constructing new telegraph lines, thus learning the use of the theodolite, making and reading of plans and maps, siting of camps and dealing with local labour etc.
At long last the apprenticeship was over.
My father completed his three years training, had passed all his departmental examinations and been appointed a full time telegraphist in Bombay, where he remained for several years. Thereafter, he was posted as Assistant Telegraph Master in various towns of the Bombay Presidency and later on, as Telegraph Master.
I was never told when and where he married while in India but there was a marriage and a couple of children. It turned out to be a complete disaster, and so unhappy did my father become, that he volunteered for foreign service in Upper Burma, which had been annexed by Britain in 1885, and which Has considered too turbulent and unsettled for wives. He arrived in Mandalay in 1880 at the age of 34 and worked there for several years. During that period his wife died in India. In I900, he was posted to Monywa, the District Headquarters of the Chindwin, to supervise the construction of a telegraph line from Monywa, along the Chindwin valley, then through the Kalay and Kabaw valleys to Imphal in Manipur State. This would link Rangoon with Calcutta, the then headquarters of the Governor-General of India and Burma. By then a regular steamer service along the Chindwin river, between Monywa and Homalin had been established serving such centres as Mingin, Massein, Kalewa and Kindat etc. All engineer stores, camp equipment, provisions, medicines etc. were carried by these flat bottomed, stern-wheeler paddle steamers, with my father changing jungle headquarters as he took the telegraph line further and further north. Then in the autumn of I901, the steamer tied up at the large village of Massein and discharged its passengers, goods and masses of equipment and stores. My father was one of its passengers. He was six foot in height, lean, with a long heavily moustached face, in which his blue eyes contrasted strikingly with his tan.
He was now a Deputy Superintendent of Telegraphs and very much his own man. He walked quickly along the bank and chose the shade of a large Koke-ko tree for his camp and instructed the Overseer and his gang to get on with it. Within a couple of hours, tents had been pitched, equipment and stores put away under cover. Thomas Keely opened two office boxes, took out notes, note-books, plans and maps for next day's work, saw to it that everything was tidy and each thing in its place. He then left to stretch his legs to take out the kinks resulting from three days of idleness in the restricted space of the steamer.
He walked along the riverbank, admiring the brilliant ever changing hues of the setting sun and enjoying the song of birds in the cool of the lovely autumn evening. Then suddenly he halted, all eyes; stunned, struck by the most beautiful being he had ever seen. For him the hues of the sunset and the song of birds had vanished.
Sixteen year old Ma Nyun had just emerged from a swim in the river and was standing erect, arms upraised to gather and knot her waist long black hair. Her tall, slim shapely figure outlined by the wet longyi (sarong) which clung from breast to knee; with droplets of water seemingly loathe to leave the ivory skin of her beautiful face. Becoming aware that she was being stared at, Ma Nyun looked up and viewed the stranger with wide-open near-black eyes under thin finely arched brows for a long moment. Then, in keeping with her innate modesty, she lowered her eyes and moved away to the foot of a large banyan tree. There, she quickly drew on a dry longyi over her head and body, fixed the top across her breast as high as the armpit, slipped down the wet garment and picking it up in one smooth movement, placed a towel over her shoulders and walked away without a second glance. Thomas Keely continued to stare. Her poise, graceful carriage and the lithe, smooth glide of her walk made his breath come faster with added admiration after the shock of suddenly encountering such beauty of face and figure. Middle-aged now, with little or no close contact with the opposite sex since his disastrous misery of a marriage, the dazzling encounter aroused all the love and passion which had lain dormant for so long. 'Love at first sight' is but a pale imagery of the volcanic eruption that had taken place. Even so, natural caution and long practised self-discipline made him watch his step. He must think this over. He was in a strange country, moving in strange waters, knowing but little of the manners and customs utterly alien to him. As he turned over the problem in the quiet, peace and seclusion of his tent that night a glimmer of hope appeared. Dick Chapman the District Superintendent of Police, Monywa, was a close friend; someone who by the nature of his work and length of service in Burma would be able to give him all the advice and information he so badly needed.
A fortnight later, when Thomas Keely boarded the steamer at Kalewa, he was hailed by a square thickset Englishman, Richard Chapman, a close friend. There was a broad pleasant grin on the square face, while the hazel eyes under dark brown thick eyebrows twinkled as he exclaimed:
"Hello Tom. Welcome. Didn't expect you. Thought you were up in the Kalay valley."
As they shook hands, Tom said:
"How very glad I am to see you, Dick. It is a great bit of luck for me to find you here. I had to leave suddenly for crucial stores and equipment."
Dick waited for an explanation of Tom's unusual first remarks but none came. For a few more minutes they chatted and then separated to change for dinner.
The Captain having retired to his cabin after coffee and brandy, two friends lit dark brown Burma cigars, leaned over the rails and gazed at the flowing river, silvered by the light of a half moon. Dick broke the long silence:
"What's Wrong Tom? At dinner your thoughts seemed miles away; couldn't get a word out of you. Any why were you so glad to find me on board?"
"Been trying to make up my mind to ask for your help and advice, Dick. A fortnight ago, I landed at Massein and saw a most beautiful girl who had just come out of the river from a swim. I have fallen for her very badly and can't get her out of my mind. She is Ma Nyun, daughter of the Taikthugyi. I don't know what to do."
Chapman whistled, then said:
"You are in big trouble. But first, what are your intentions? Follow the example of many others and take a mistress?"
Tom's startled face was an answer in itself. He said:
"That thought never entered my head, I am madly in love with her Dick and I want to marry her."
"Right. That's one hurdle cleared: no mosquito net marriage. You haven't been long enough in Burma to know of the customary law among the Burmese. A man and a woman setting up home and living together are considered by the community as properly married. There need be no ceremony of any kind. However, as a rule there are celebrations. Relations, friends and neighbours are invited to drink green tea, eat sweetmeats and pickled tea with the couple seated in their midst. In some cases there will be the tying of the hands together in token of wedlock, or the bride will feed the groom with a little cooked rice and vice versa to demonstrate the care with which each will look after the other. In the case of better off people, a Manipuri soothsayer may be engaged to tie the hands and to recite prayers and mantras for the future happiness of the couple. I take it you are not thinking of such a marriage."
"Of course not. I want to marry her in church; but as she is a Buddhist, that will not be possible, It will have to be a civil marriage."
"Hey, lot so fast, Tom. Hold your horses," exclaimed Dick. "Have you yet spoken to her? Sent any messages or engaged a go-between?"
Tom's face fell as he diffidently answered:
"I have seen her only twice since that evening; but have not had the chance to speak to her. Anyway knowing no Burmese what could I have said? However, I am absolutely certain there was a change from the initial normal glance a fortnight ago, to one of appraisal and interest in the last look she gave me. That look made my heart miss a beat, before she had to look down and turn away. If only she had remained looking longer how much more could I have learned. But what's this about a go-between? That would certainly be a help."
Dick was glad of the darkness that hid his grin. By force of will he managed to suppress the laughter that welled up at the thought of his friend wanting to marry a Burmese girl he had only seen from a distance. But this was serious business for Tom, and so he had better put his whole mind to the problem. He now spoke slowly and rather solemnly:
"Oh Tom, Tom; you certainly have produced a near insoluble problem. To start with, you can't just walk into U So Ya's house and say 'I love your daughter. Please give your consent to our marriage' Nor can you waylay Ma Nyun and in your broken Burmese say '1 love you, will you marry me?' as you might be able to do elsewhere, say in England. Custom in this country does not permit of such action. Marriages are arranged between the parents of the boy and girl. You, having no parent here, cannot have it done that way. Next U So Ya is a proud man, proud to be a direct descendant of the Chiefs of his clan. As a foreigner, he would consider you ineligible. Furthermore, you are a member of the nation that usurped the Burmese throne and assumed mastery over his country. I can't see U So Ya accepting you.
Getting more and more impatient as objection after objection piled up, Tom said with some impatience:
"What about the go-between? He or she could find out how matters stand?"
"Let's leave the go-between out for a bit. Have you thought of the consequences of your marrying a Burmese girl? The old fogies at the club will ask you to resign while the memsahibs will know neither you nor your wife. What sort of a life will that be for you and Ma Nyun? Don't forget several honourable men like you who married Burmese girls had postings to Godforsaken places in the wilds or have had their promotions considerably delayed if not put off for good. For goodness sake, think things over before going any further. Why not give up this idea, take leave and get yourself a nice English girl for a wife?"
There was a long silence broken eventually by Tom's earnest impatient voice:
"You don't understand one little bit do you? How must I prove to you that 1 have fallen madly in love? At times I feel she bewitched me with that first look. Either that or we are soul mates to be joined together as soon as possible. 1 dare not contemplate being refused. Please, Dick, understand that there will be no other woman for me. And I don't care a damn if 1 have to resign the club. As for the memsahibs, well, you know what 1 think of them. So please, please, bottle up any further objection and find away of helping me."
He took a last puff of his cigar and threw the butt into the river. Chapman took some little time to re-arrange his thoughts. He had done his best to show his friend the problems facing him; but if Tom still insisted on going through with this madness, he was duty bound to give the help asked for. He was a quick thinker; a solution surfaced.
"So be it Tom, The wife of the Inspector of Police of Kalewa comes from Massein. The couple can travel down with us and drop off there tomorrow while we go on to Monywa. I can brief the Inspector's wife en route and give her enough information for her to be a convincing go- between. A fortnight later, when you get back to Massein, you'll be able to find out how matters stand. How's that for a start?"
"Sounds splendid. Thank you Dick" exclaimed Tom adding, "For the first time in a fortnight, I feel good. At last, there is away ahead."
Daw Sein, the Wife of the Inspector of Police, was the daughter of a Timber trader of Massein and had known Daw Nu U, So Ya's wife for many years. Daw Nu took Daw Sein's visit as the usual one the latter paid whenever she came to stay with her parents.
"And how' are your children?" Daw Nu asked when both had sat down on the finely woven smooth mat in the front room with the usual array of betel box, salver of cheroots, ash trays, matches, and a clean spittoon for the betel leaf chewer.
"They are growing very fast" replied Daw Sein. "Two of them are at school now."
They spoke of various people, recent happenings, and local gossip while sipping Shan tea from china tea bowls till conversation flagged somewhat because of Daw Sein's pre-occupation with the object of her visit. Suddenly she felt she could wait no longer and got down to business:
"We are old friends, you and I. I know you won't take offence at what I have to ask, Have you and U So Ya any plans for your daughter Ma Nyun?"
Daw Nu was taken aback. Could her friend be acting go-between? Incredible!
"No, He have no plans. Ma Nyun is still young. Besides, U So Ya dotes on her and has had such big ideas. He keeps saying she could have lent grace and beauty to the court at Mandalay, But "why do you ask?"
"Oh, Daw Nu, I won't beat about the bush. There is an Englishman who has seen Na Nyun two or three times. He says, he loves her and wants to marry her in the Deputy Commissioner's Court at Monywa, The Deputy Commissioner personally performing the ceremony."
Daw Nu was shocked surprised and dismayed.
"What Englishman?" she asked with sharply rising tone of voice.
"The Wundauk (Superintendent) who is in charge of constructing the telegraph line from here to India arrived last month and set up camp on the river bank. He has many overseers and hundreds and hundreds of men working under him. By our standards he must be very rich. Should she marry him, Ma Nyun will be very well off."
Daw Nu mulled over the information for several minutes then spoke softly and slowly as if she was thinking aloud:
"U So Ya will never agree. He hates all foreigners. Most of all the English because they are our masters having replaced our own King."
"Let's leave U So Ya out of it for a moment shall we? Instead we could ask Ma Nyun. Since he has seen her three times, she too must have seen him and formed some opinion of him, If she rejects the idea straight away then it's all over; but should she have been attracted, even ever so little, there is a chance that it will grow. Then she could work on the Taikthugyi."
Her mother having called, Ma Nyun came and sat with them. After greeting Daw Sein, she looked inquiringly at her mother, who after a moment's hesitation explained:
"Daughter, we have something important to tell you. Although only 16, as the eldest of three, you have taken your position seriously and have almost shed girlhood to become a young woman. Several mothers of sons have dropped hints but I have paid no attention to them, You are beautiful and one must expect young men to be attracted to you and ask their mothers to speak for them. But now, something quite different has happened. Have you seen the Englishman who arrived last month and set up camp on the river bank?"
Ma Nyun frowned for a moment, then replied:
"Yes. I had come out of the river after my swim when 1 felt someone staring at me, So I looked around and there he was, very tall, staring with bright blue eyes. 1 turned away, changed and came home, Since then I have seen him twice, still staring hard at me, Why do you ask?"
Daw Sein Has about to speak when Daw Nu gestured with her hand and said:
"Well, this Englishman says he loves you and wants to marry you. He asked his friend the District Superintendent of Police to help him, as he knows no Burmese nor our ways to be able to tell you this. As a result the Police Superintendent asked Daw Sein and her husband to speak for him. Have you anything to say about this?"
"Oh mother, what can I say? I don't know him or anything about him. Besides it is not for me to choose. As a good and obedient daughter, I am bound by custom to accept whatever arrangement you and father make."
Daw Sein now interposed:
"He is a Wundauk with many overseers and workmen under him in the Government Telegraph Department, He is therefore a man of substance and good prospects, He is eminently suitable from that point of view. But your mother tells me that your father hates all foreigners, most of all the English, This means he will never agree unless and until you can persuade him. You are the only person who could make him change his mind; there is no one else."
Ma Nyun was quick to reply:
"Oh Auntie, how can I go to father and ask this of him when I don't even know the man? Besides, if I have to marry, I'll have to leave Massein and go and live among strangers in Monywa,"
Daw Sein waited for a few moments before asking:
"Have you anything against him? Did he give you an unfavourable impression when you looked at him? Don't be shy to tell us your inner thoughts since it will help your mother and I to decide what should be done for your future,"
There was a long pause as the girl with eyes downcast reflected and carefully chose her words, "I have nothing against him, Nor did I dislike him. As our eyes met, I thought what a kind person he must be."
It was a bold suggestion to make; but if she was to do her job thoroughly it would have to be made, Daw Sein said:
"In that case, Daw Nu, do you think they should meet in my parent's house? I realise it is most unusual and against our custom; but this is an unusual case."
Daw Nu looked worried and much perturbed; The indecision that clouded her face took time to clear. She then said:
"It will be terrible if U So Ya finds out. You know what a temper he has - a throwback to the clan chiefs of old, Perhaps you could arrange one meeting to help Ma Nyun to know her own mind. Would you like that, daughter?"
"Yes mother. I think it, would be a good thing. If I am to be able to influence father, I would have to say I like the man and explain we met accidentally. The Englishman could have some work with Daw Sein's father, couldn't he, while I happened to be visiting Daw Sein,"
The two older women looked at each other with the same thought passing through their minds, They were thinking, 'there must have been much more than a mere look on Ma Nyun's part and eyes do speak at lightning speed.
"You are a clever girl, daughter, very quick and helpful. That is What we will do," said Daw Nu.
Meanwhile at Monywa, Dick Chapman was giving Tom a crash course in Burmese manners and customs. He also had some worthwhile advice to give.
"Do you know, Tom, there is a section in the Penal Code punishing anyone violating the modesty of a woman with fine or imprisonment or both and that by even trying to hold the hand of a Burmese woman, you have committed such an offence. Custom even forbids, a young woman from sitting near a man, leave alone close to him. So watch out, No display of affection or love as, we westerners know it when you meet her. The rest I leave to your good sense and Daw Sein's advice. Fortunately she has a little English and her husband will be able to fill in the blanks."
True to expectation, U So Ya exploded when Daw Nu told him that an Englishman wanted to marry their daughter, Ma Nyun.
"A foreigner, an Englishman at that: it shall never be, Knowing me you should have known better than to entertain such an idea, You should have rejected the proposal outright,"
Dan Nu, small, petite, still pretty in her thirties, was, used to her husband's outbursts. Though only 4 foot 11 inches in height she had a quick temper, a fiery spirit and the courage of an Amazon, all qualities her husband had tested invariably to his cost. In measured tone's she answered:
"Had I not told you, you would have been angrier still with the accusation that all this was, being done slyly and behind your back. Calm down. Tell me, is there anyone is this village you would have Ma Nyun marry? No, of course not. And don't talk any more of Courts and Palaces."
He had calmed down a trifle when next he spoke:
"But we know nothing of him. Nor what sort of a life our daughter will have. Worst of all, she'll have to leave Massein if she marries him! Anyway, what nonsense to talk of her marrying him. Ma Nyun is my daughter, very like me, thinks like me and will never want to marry an Englishman, an enemy of our country."
This was too good a chance to miss, Daw Nu couldn't have done better had she written the lines for him to speak, She quickly said:
"Then why don't you ask her?"
U So Ya assumed his most authoritative air when Ma Nyun had seated herself near her mother and looked up expectantly at her father, who solemnly said:
"Your mother tells me an Englishman wants to marry you, You know how I hate the English. Being like me and as my favourite daughter, I feel sure you won't have anything to do with him. However, since the proposal has been made, I feel it my duty to ask what you think of it."
Ma Nyun was very like her father in many ways, she too could make up her mind and stick to her opinion. She thought very carefully, then spoke slowly in a soft voice:
"Father, it is very difficult for me to gainsay you in anything. I have always been a good obedient daughter. But in this matter, my future is at stake. I have met the man and we have spoken a few words to each other at the home of Daw Sein's parents. I like him. I feel he is a kind person who has a lot to offer. Even so, I leave the decision to you and mother as a dutiful daughter should. I feel certain, however, that I will never have a better offer,"
U So Ya's face was a study, One moment it showed annoyance, then anger, then bitter disappointment to be followed by a deep stillness and introspection. She should have been, but was not, of like mind. That was most annoying, Then the thought of the Englishman daring to do this to him greatly angered him. But then she was no more a child. She had grown up and he himself had acknowledged that she was sensible and clever. She therefore had every right to decide and voice her own opinion, Saying more or less that she was attracted to the Englishman, she still respected her parents, and left them to decide instead of pleading for him to change his mind and give his consent.
"You have spoken well, daughter," he said. "Leave us now to talk over the matter, Be patient. It may take much time before we come to a decision,"
Saying "Thank you, father and mother," she bowed to them and left.
The two factions (the descendant of the clan chief and the doting loving father) in U So Ya were at war and everyone connected with him suffered in consequence. At the meeting of village headmen in his charge, he was impatient, cross and faultfinding instead 0f being his usual self, the genial, urbane kindly supervisor. At home he was abrupt, given to long silences and sudden eruptions of words to his wife, favouring one or the other side of the problem he was wrestling with, Ten days went by and still there was no decision. After one of his outbursts, he said:
"Why should my daughter go to Monywa to be married by the Deputy Commissioner? They can be married here in our home according to our custom, that is if I decide to give my consent."
Daw Nu, noting the change in the direction of her husband's line of thought was quick to reply:
"It is necessary to protect our daughter's reputation and to secure her rights as a legally married woman. You must have heard of girls living with foreigners. They consider themselves to be properly married according to our customary law; but everyone else considers them to be a kept woman, mistresses in fact, and treat them accordingly, You wouldn't want that for Ma Nyun, would you?
The journey down to Monywa, which we have not seen for some years, will be well worth the trouble. After the marriage we could go and worship at the great and famous Shwezigon pagoda."
"That's all very well; but where will we stay? With our three girls, there will be five of us."
"That's no problem. Have you forgotten U San Ya, the Timber trader, who has stayed with us so often? How many times has he tried to persuade you to take us and stay with him for all sorts of occasions such as the annual festival of the Shwezigon? And his wife, Daw Khin, who has also stayed with us, is such a dear. We will be very comfortable living with them and further we could have given them an opportunity to repay all the hospitality they have enjoyed here." Daw Nu ended feeling more hopeful; her husband's thoughts were proceeding along the right channel,
That night after he had been lying awake for several hours, U So Ya woke his wife and simply said:
"Ma Nyun can marry that Englishman," then turned over and went to sleep. The fond father had won, Daw Nu lay awake for a long time, her mind engaged in sorting out the many matters, which had to be attended to. She was very glad she had been awakened,
Daw Sein and her husband, the Police Inspector, met the steamer and informed Thomas Keely that U So Ya had given a tentative consent, which could either be confirmed or withdrawn according to the outcome of interviews between him and Ma Nyun's parents. At any other time such an interview would have been an embarrassment to Tom, but now that the glimmer of hope had begun to kindle the encounter was doubly welcome. His eyes shone and he was ready to set forth at once. He was told however, that the meeting would not be till 9 o'clock the next morning and that he would have to exercise restraint and be patient. They explained that that particular time and day had been chosen by the astrologer as the most propitious for all parties. Tom was longing to catch sight of Ma Nyun within minutes of the steamer tying up and he cursed the astrologer many times in the course of the night,
Next morning when the Taikthugyi and Tom me, the two took to each other against all odds of such an outcome. Moreover, Daw Nu liked what she saw of him. He was asked the usual questions by parents considering a proposal of marriage in Burma: Where was he born? Who and what was his father? Where were his parents now? How many brothers and sisters did he have? What about uncles and aunts and so on, Of course they already knew he was a Government Official quite able to support their daughter comfortably, U So Ya was glad her daughter was marrying the son of a soldier, Hadn't she come from a long line of leaders and warriors? They sympathised with Tom when they heard that his father had died when he was only two and his mother when he was only seven years old. It did not escape U So Ya's notice that Tom had worked his way up to the present position in spite of having been orphaned at such a tender age. This was no slacker. He had no brothers and only one sister. Ma Nyun, though present, remained silent throughout. This however did not prevent her eyes from speaking for her. As for Tom, the way his eyes remained riveted on Ma Nyun's face, made his appear to be answering her questions rather than those put by her parents,
There were several more meetings between Ma Nyun and Tom in Daw Nu's presence with Daw Sein ever ready to interpret. Finally arrangements for the marriage were made and the date fixed. The Deputy Commissioner issued a public notice to the intention of Thomas Harris Keely and Ma Nyun, daughter of U So Ya, of Massein, to marry on the 25th May 1902 under the provisions of the Christian Marriage Act. U So Ya, Daw Nu, Ma Nyun and her sisters Ma Hla and Ma Mya reached Monywa ten days before the fixed date. They were warmly welcomed by U San Ya and Daw Khin and their son Maung Kyaw, who though only I5 could not take his eyes off Ma Mya, just 13. Their host and hostess took the Massein party everywhere, shops, bazaars, monasteries, pagodas, even the railway station where they saw a railway train for the first time. What a splendid time they had,
The Deputy Commissioner's room in the large long timber building housing the District Offices had not seen so many pretty girls decked out in jewellery and finery as when Ma Nyun and her sisters arrived. Ma Nyun wore a fine thin, white, short muslin jacket over a white bodice and a jade green silk longyi with its usual black band on top. Over her jacket she wore a long pink stole made of finest gossamer silk. Her thick black hair was wrapped round and round on her head to make a neat pile about five inches high by seven inches in diameter, with a diamond studded comb at its base. She also wore small diamond earrings, several thin gold bracelets, a pair of gold anklets and green velvet Burmese slippers. U So Ya wore the customary long passo of thick pink silk, similar in length and width to the Indian dhoti but worn somewhat differently. Over this he wore a thick cream silk short jacket. On his head a pink thin silk gaungbaung (turban) to wrap round the top knot of hair, it being customary for older men to wear their hair long in those days. The thong type of slipper with the thong separating the big and second toe was his leather footwear. He also wore the silver scabbard and silver handled sword of honour that he had inherited with his past to make him look the man of substance and authority he was. Tom and Dick, who had been awaiting the arrival of the bridal party, were vastly impressed by the beauty of the girls, but after the first general glance, Tom could not take his eyes away from the face of his bride. She was far, far more beautiful than he had ever seen her.
Although the ceremony was carried out by the Deputy Commissioner in English as well as Burmese, it did not take long. Tom's hand trembled as he placed the wedding ring, holding his bride's fingers and firm hand for the first time. Ma Nyun looked up, gazed into his face and blushed, a faint tinge of pink colouring the ivory. Then the register was signed, witnessed and it was all over, Since her marriage had given her a higher status the bride would now be known as Daw Nyun to the Burmese and not Mrs, Keely, as a Burmese woman does not change her name on marriage. People would refer to her as Bogadaw (wife of an Englishman) Daw Nyun to differentiate her from other Daw Nyuns,
Hand in Hand the bride and groom left the room, followed by the others carriages belonging to the two doctors, dogcarts and pony-carts had been borrowed or hired for the party which proceeded to Dick Chapman's house where the reception was being held. Champagne had been provided and U So Ya who had been a heavy drinker when much younger enjoyed several glasses of it. Ma Nu and the girls, however, were teetotallers as befitting good Buddhists and so were provided with tea. They made up for the champagne by taking second helpings of the wedding cake that had come up from Mandalay. As most of Tom's friends and wedding guests spoke Burmese well there were no awkward situations. The reception was a great success with U So Ya chatting to all and sundry, Dick Chapman taking special care of Daw Nu and her two girls while Tom took his bride round the room to introduce her and show her off. The bride and groom then left for Tom's bachelor home to stay for a few hours, to change into everyday garments, have a meal before going on board the steamer due to leave at first light,
The trip right up to Homalin and back to Massein would be their honeymoon There was no happier person than Tom in the whole of the Chindwin. The shy bride would have her first taste of the English way of life in the first class cabin and dining saloon of the steamer. It was most fortunate for her that no one else was travelling first class on that trip to witness her initiation into eating several courses in one meal with different articles of cutlery instead of with the fingers as she bad been used to. In the event it proved neither awkward nor painful since Daw Nyun was most observant, very intelligent and a quick learner. Besides, the Captain of the steamer who spoke Burmese well and shared their meals was kindness itself to the bride, whose beauty he had fallen for. He was able to help in many ways by being able to explain matters strange to the eastern bride. Everything went well and smoothly for the honeymooners along that long stretch of waterway with its ever-changing scenic beauty ending with a marvellous view of the distant snow covered perfect cone of Scaramati mountain, seemingly rising out of the river many miles away. To the bride with nine centuries of inherited Buddhist belief in Karma (fate) as background, this new sharing of life would be an extension of having shared lives in past existences, both spirits or souls bound together for good or ill. To the initial attraction had been added liking and now wedded love would weld her to him as no church or civil marriage could ensure. Belonging to one of the most emancipated of women in the world, Daw Nyun, as a Burmese wife, would share as an equal partner with her husband. If so inclined, she too would work and earn and do well, since it is a well known fact that the Burmese woman has a better head for business than the Burman, who generally turns over his salary, wages or earnings to his wife to manage the family finances. Tom would soon come to realise that he had as much to learn and adapt to, as his much loved bride.
During the fortnight or so before the marriage, Ma Nyun and Tom had had discussions with the help of Daw Sein as to where the couple would live after the honeymoon. It was decided that since Tom would be keeping his headquarters at Massein for some time, a small house should be built in U So Ya's large compound, where the couple could live instead of in the tented camp. With regard to his tours, Ma Nyun had insisted that she accompany him as long as she was fit, the reason being that she was jungle-bred. She could thus oops much better than Tom, This arrangement pleased everyone. Tom would have his wife with him; the parents would have their daughter close to them when they returned from tour. With this in mind, Tall had ordered jodhpurs, jackets, shirts, shoes and socks for Ma Nyun from a firm in Mandalay. The first time out on ponies Tom was much surprised and very happy to find that his wife was a good horsewoman. He had not known that she had had the run of her father's stable for some years. Each tour would last for a month or six weeks, with one or two changes of jungle camps. Most of the work being through virgin jungle there were many encounters with wild animals. One day while both were on ponies a hundred yards apart, with Daw Nyun bringing up the rear, a huge tiger calmly strolled across the path half way between them. Needless to say Daw Nyun pulled up sharply and sat round-eyed and rigid only to gallop to her husband as soon as the animal had disappeared, After that she never lagged far behind,
Tom too learned much in this period. One day Tom's group was on top of a small hill with a clear view of a mile or so of the telegraph line that had been erected that day. Tom and Ma Nyun were seated at the entrance of their tent in deck chairs noting the newly strung copper wires gleaming gold in the light of the full moon, when they observed a large dark patchy shadow obscure the clearing along the telegraph line. It turned out to be a herd of elephants crossing the clearing from one side of the jungle to the other. A moment or two later they could see a young elephant leave the herd, put his trunk round the telegraph pole and pull. This having failed, he used his head and weight to push down the pole, still without success, At this point, a huge tusker shouldered the young bull aside, put his trunk round the pole and yanked with all his might. He then used his head with no effect since cross stays had been bolted on to the bottom of the poles then buried deep. The herd then moved away to the satisfaction and amusement of the watchers. Much to their surprise however they saw the herd return some little time later, each animal emptying its trunk-full of water at the base of the pole, As the big tusker still made no impression, the herd left again to bring more water. This time the tusker used his head working round the pole till he had loosened it. Then with a mighty pull he tugged up the pole and dragged it away. Some ten poles were treated in the same way and by the time the herd left, there was a lovely tangle of copper wires and telegraph poles. The next day, Tom took out his maps and notebook to search many miles to find a line that would avoid elephant trails.
On return from one of these tours, Tom and Ma Nyun found that Daw Nu had given birth to a girl, the son and heir to the Taikthugyi having been born the year before. The girl was named Ma Su while the boy was always known as Po So although he had been given a long name to accord with favourable aspects of the signs of the zodiac at the time of his birth,
A few weeks later, Daw Nyun had to give up touring with Tom as she was big with child. She lived in the new house that had been built for them with Ma Hla, her younger sister for company. When her time drew near, however, she moved into the parental home. My father was in the dreaded Kabaw valley contending with Malaria, mosquitoes, leaches, sandflies and the non-arrival of stores and equipment, when at Massein I entered the world. I did so with such a loud cry that neighbours rushed in to see if an ogre or Balu had been born. The explosive cry had been building up during the few seconds it had taken the midwife to discover and remove the caul from my face, The great event took place on the 13th of March 1904, a Sunday,
To regulate her humours, My mother was dosed with a strong suspension of turmeric powder in water within minutes of my birth. A fire of hardwood logs was already alight in a giant "saucer" of glazed earthenware, burning merrily and providing more than sufficient heat to keep the young mother from catching a chill. Once the room was really warm, the patient was smeared from neck to toe with a paste of turmeric to ensure retention of body heat and to destroy any source of infection, It would be 72 hours before the yellow paste was removed.
Meanwhile, U So Ya had noted the exact time of hearing my yell and called for a freshly out piece of palm leaf. On this he inscribed with a steel stylus, the time, the day, the date, the Burmese month and year of my birth and the name of Aung Gyaw. This name being in keeping with the day on which I was born: names being given according to the alphabet or alphabets astrologically pertaining to that particular day.
One of the more exciting occasions in the life at Massein had to do with the annual visit of U Pon Na, an elderly Manipuri astrologer. U Pon Na's father had been an astrologer in the Burmese Court where of necessity he had to be very good at fortune telling or soothsaying, whichever suited the occasion. Such small palmscripts as that inscribed by U So Ya would be handed over to the zodiac at the time of the birth and make a record of the same on larger palm leaves stitched together. One side would contain details of the time, the day, the date etc, of the birth, an astrologically correct name and an invocation for the person concerned to live to the age of 120 years. On the other side there would be a circle with the position of the signs of the zodiac and two sets of tables, one on each side of the circle. These tables were to be consulted and used by any astrologer at any time thereafter when asked to tell the fortune of the owner at the horoscope. When U Pon Na came over with my horoscope, be predicted that I would end up as a high Government Officer provided I survived various accidents and illnesses up to my 12th birthday. U So Ya took the opportunity of this visit to produce Po So's horoscope made two years earlier for a forecast. U Pon Na said Po So would become a leader of men, well thought of, with many followers and could make a name for himself, To the old clan chief this was heady stuff.
Very little of consequence is planned or started until an astrologer has been consulted. The horoscope or horoscopes would be produced in times of illness, accident, misfortune or when some business deal is being considered. They were consulted not only to know the likely outcome, but for advice on what should be done to avert danger, disaster, an unsuitable association or marriage, or to ensure a safe journey when danger is seen to be threatening. Thus when Po So was sweet on a girl with no background and quite unsuitable, and with the danger of his eloping with her, the astrologer was consulted. He advised Daw Nu to purchase a young hen and present it to Po So as his very own pet to feed, keep and look after. Within ten days, the affair with the girl was over. In the case of a serious illness, the astrologer has been known to suggest the purchase of live fish equal in number to the patient's age plus one to be released in the nearest lake or river. By saving the lives of the fish, his own life would be saved. Or the astrologer might suggest the construction of a bridge across a stream to enable foot passengers to cross dry shod, an act of merit which would enable the patient to cross his stream of illness. Each suggestion or recipe would be tailor made to placate evil influences and strengthen the good influences of the stars.
Work on the telegraph line made good progress. Two lines of approach to Imphal, one up the Kalay valley through Tiddim, Fort White and Bishanpore and the other along the Kabaw valley, through Yazagyo, Htinzinn, Tamu and Sibong had been surveyed, roughly mapped and blazed. The next stage would be the work of extensive tree felling and jungle clearing; work which could be carried out without my father's immediate supervision. He thus took the opportunity to move down to Monywa with wife and son and establish his headquarters once more. At Massein there were tearful farewells, granny Daw Nu weeping copiously more for her grandson than her eldest daughter leaving her while U So Ya's face grew longer and grimmer than ever as the steamer drew away taking his beloved daughter.
On the journey downstream, the howls of fright with which I greeted the deep booming signal of the steamer on arrival and departure at places of call greatly distressed my mother and displeased my father as he wondered what manner of son he had sired.
Mother was a good manager, scrimping, scraping and saving all she could of my father's salary paid monthly to her under his instructions, as he was so much away. After a couple of years, on one of his more extended stays at Headquarters, the parents bought a building site of about an acre containing a well of sweet water, a great asset as Monywa had no piped water at the time. The waterman, with his large wooden cask mounted on a bullock cart would call daily on houses, just as the milkman, baker and other tradesmen did. As father had been able to save fairly well during the period he lived alone, there was o bar to the parents having a house of their own. Father drew up the general layout and the plans 0f the house and left them with mother to carry out before leaving for another long tour. Mother called in Burmese masons, Chinese carpenters and Indian blacksmiths besides getting in all necessary materials for good progress to be made. As the building site was only a call away from our rented place, mother was generally to be found with the workmen. To my impatient little mind, it took ages and ages for the house to be built, but with mother in the driving seat it must have been accomplished in the least possible length of time. At long last, we moved into a large new home with light airy rooms to my pleasure and joy, since I hated the dark gloom of the house we had rented. There was so much to see, so much to do, to inspect, to explore, and so many opportunities to get into everyone's way, that I was bubbling over for many days. How I enjoyed bathing at the well with all and sundry, till found out. It was not a done thing for an Englishman's son to bathe at the well with any and everybody. Didn't we have two brand new bathrooms where I could bathe to my hearts content with water carried there by servants? Nor was I allowed to join the crowd of youngsters chasing paper kites, adrift as the result of the cut and thrust of kite flying. Neither was I allowed to chase descending fire balloons with the crowd at the festival of lights, for the simple reason that they were riffraff the scum of the streets.
I was however, permitted to go to the Wesleyan Anglo-vernacular middle school where some of the same riffraff were scholars. The school was run by an English couple, with help from young English women who came for a year or two in ones and twos, to be replaced when their term was up. Practically all the teaching was done by Burmese staff in Burmese. A prayer and a hymn would start the morning school and another hymn would close the evening session. We were taught maths, geography, history, scripture and general knowledge with a little English as the second language, too little to deserve the Anglo in the name Anglo-vernacular of the school.
During my second year of schooling, there was much to-ing and fro-ing and excitement. A disastrous fire spread by gale force winds had destroyed the whole of Massein village, gutting Grandfather's fine timber house, barns full of paddy, corn and pulses and sheds of carts, agricultural implements etc, He had nothing but his agricultural lands left. He decided to sell up, resign his appointment as Taikthugyi and accept mother's invitation to come and live with us. Since Buddhism prescribes that respect, obedience and service be willingly tendered by children to parents, elders and monks, the Burmese consider it a privilege to care for their parents in their own homes. In our case it was not just the two grandparents who would be coming. Their two daughters and son would also have to be accommodated. A little thing like that never worried mother, who at once called in carpenters, weavers of bamboo matting and arranged for an immediate supply of house posts, beams rafters, timber planks, bamboos, cane and nails. A long building with a veranda running its length was broken up into rooms for the two grandparents, their three daughters and their son. Mother and my two aunts, Ma Hla and Ma Mya, were older than their brother, my uncle Po So; while Ma Su the youngest was but a few months my senior. Even so, what a difference those few months made in her wisdom of the world and of the occult. It was great fun having so many people, relatives not just friends, living so near us in the same compound. No wonder I used to dash off chasing kites or fire balloons; It must have been because I was lonely. I quickly became grandfather's favourite. He was tall for a Burman, near six foot, spare and wiry with high cheekbones, well opened eyes and a bridge to his straight nose, making him look more Aryan than Mongolian. Instinctively, I respected his patent air of authority and paid special heed to his kindly admonitions and advice: I, who had never taken kindly to any advice or word of criticism. The wealth of stories he never tired of telling gave me hour upon hour of delight. With the proceeds of the sale of their land, Granny commenced trading with the help of old friends along the Chindwin. Grandfather stood by to give advice when Granny thought fit to ask, but by then the business would be in such a tangle that mother would have to be called in to help.
U San Ya, the timber merchant and Daw Khin his wife welcomed U So Ya, Daw Nu and family with open arms on the latter settling into their new home in Monywa. Not only did they wish to return in some measure all the hospitality they had received on their visits to Massein, but also as old friends they felt for the Taikthugyi at his great loss and wished to make up in any way possible. They saw to it that the newcomers were quickly made part of the Monywa society and invited to weddings, shinpyu, ear-boring, purification of-the-house ceremonies by their new friends, occasions where children also met.
The instant attraction between Maung Kyaw and Ma Mya when they first met on the occasion of Daw Nyun's wedding had developed. The development was duly noted with satisfaction by Daw Nu and Daw Khin, who missed very little in interpreting quick shy glances full of meaning on the girl's part and the open admiration displayed by the boy. Then, of course, sisters of both girl and boy would tease, make sly digs and by other means keep the affair going.
When Maung Kyaw had to leave home to attend High school at Mandalay, there was much heartache, Maung Kyaw as not permitted by custom to tell Ma Mya that his love for, her would remain intact nor could Ma Mya reveal anything of her feelings for him in speech. This was where his younger sister, Ma Shwe, who adored him as most eastern sisters do, came in. She carried verbal messages before he left. Occasionally, he would write to Ma Shwe giving his news, not so much to keep her informed as to have Ma Mya kept in touch. Then of course there were the long summer holidays when he would be home. By the time he had passed his High School Final examination, the parents of both parties had agreed that theirs was a good match. U San Ya and Daw Nu had learned that Maung Kyaw, who had been living with his uncle, U Saw at Mandalay, would be a partner in the Timber firm of which the two brothers, U San Ya and U Saw were partners. U San Ya bought the logs which came down the Chindwin in rafts, selected the best to be sent by rail to Mandalay, where U Saw would convert them into first class timber at his mill. Meanwhile the rejects would be cut up by U San Ya at his Monywa mill for the local market. U Saw also dealt with rafts of teak logs from the Shweli and Katha forests, sending on first class teak 'squares' to Rangoon by rail, for export to the west, and keeping what remained for the Mandalay market. All in all it was a thriving business, the ramifications of which Maung Kyaw had taken in while living with his uncle. With business booming and more travelling than he could cope with, U Saw needed a partner and Maung Kyaw was at hand, he had proved to be as good as a son, a son U Saw had longed for but did not have.
The marriage of Ma Mya and Maung Kyaw took place in our house in 1906 when Maung Kyaw was 20 and Ma Mya was 17, Being only two at the time, I remember nothing of it, but was told all about it when I grew a little older. All the well known people of Monywa and close friends from Massein came to the function, where they were served with various sweetmeats, pickled tea with sessamum seeds, broiled peanuts, fried garlic, cooked sessamum oil etc., to be washed down with small bowls of plain Burmese tea. Large cheroots specially made for ladies and smaller dark brown Burma cigars for the men were provided. For those addicted to chewing betel, betel boxes containing betel leaves with an upper tray of small silver bowls containing chopped up betel nut, cloves, cardamom, cutch paste and a special silver container of slaked lime were left here and there together with clean spittoons near at hand. Children, and there were many of them were provided with sweet limejuice sherbet to wash down the sweetmeats they ate in quantity.
There was no special ceremony. As each guest arrived he or she would go past the dais and have a few words with the young couple, then take his or her place on the carpeted floor. Although there was no ceremony as such, the eating of pickled tea mixed with all its bits and pieces by the couple and all adults is considered a must to be in keeping with an age-old custom. You have eaten pickled tea together with witnesses; you are married. It is as simple as that. Having eaten the pickled tea which the bride had mixed using the sessamum Seeds, peanuts, fried garlic and lacing the mixture with oil, the couple left the dais to mix with the guests, From then on guests could take leave. Some did but many remained to chat, gossip and exchange news with no time limit set. As guests left, each lady was given a gossamer fine silk Pawa (stole) while each man received a silk gaungbaung (head scarf) as a token of their having been witnessed to the marriage, It was not customary for the guests to give presents to the bride and groom.
The strong belief the Burmese have in nats or spirits often puzzle foreigners who find such belief completely opposed to the pure form of Buddhism practised in Burma, Both the Tais who came before and the Burmese who followed into Burma had been animists for centuries. They believed in the spirit of the mountain, of the river of the lake, of trees, of the house, of the well, of ancestors and evil spirits, who had to be respected and placated should any of them be offended. The local medicine man would be able to identify the offended spirit and suggest ways of placating it. Perhaps the sacrifice of a pig would take away the aches, pains and fever with which his patient had been struck. For a lesser affliction, the sacrifice of a chicken would do the trick. Every hamlet or village would also have its witch or witches,
The pure form of Buddhism which everyone took into his heart and mind and which had boon practised for over nine centuries should by now have stamped out all traces of animism, but not so. True that in lower Burma, where life is more hectic, people have not the time to bother with spirits and beliefs in them have dimmed. But in Upper Burma, when external influences of the British annexation was far less, every village still has its Nat-sin (spirit house). Here a lot of the houses will also have a coconut gone brown and shrunken with age, festooned with red and white hanks of cotton yun, as a token of their allegiance to Bo Bo Gyi, the chief nat of Upper Burma.
Instead of hundreds of different spirits such as those of river, lakes etc. the number has shrunk to 36 principal Nats some of them ex-kings, one a mighty ex-blacksmith, for whom ceremonies and festivals are held. But over and above these, the guardian spirit of the house is held in respect and veneration. From conversations of parents, aunts and others, children learn of the many good and evil spirits jostling about on roads and paths; spirits which might attempt to come into the house with them. To prevent this, the children are told to dust their feet at the foot of the stairs, stamp with each foot and say PHWAT, PHWAT powerful magic words that will make the spirits run away. The children would also have learned that people dying sudden deaths through accident, murder, childbirth etc, might and could become malignant spirits, which could be made to serve unscrupulous medicine men, through their knowledge of mantras and black magical rites. The knowledge thus gained would have come in dribs and drabs and would sink in without causing any great fear of spirits, stored away in the mind to be brought out and looked at should unusual events and accidents take place. After these, either an astrologer or a Buddhist monk would have to be consulted.
Little wonder then that in play, Burmese children have games in which spirits figure. My father was away en tour and mother and aunt Daw Hla had gone to a wedding of some importance, looking grand in their diamonds, their best silk longyis and snow white short jackets and long gossamer silk scarves. They had taken ages to do their hair, make up their faces and draw their eyebrows much to the impatience and annoyance of Ma Su, my young aunt, who I could see was bursting with Something exciting. At long last, the four of us, Ma Su, Hilda my sister, Ma Pu our cousin and I were left to ourselves. The whole house was ours. Ma Su burst out with the idea that had been nursed to exploding point.
"Let us call up Ma Lay, the little spirit."
"How do you do that?" I asked, Black eyes shining with excitement. She replied:
"It's ever so easy. Roll a Thinbyu (a small fine mat of unusual smoothness and pliancy) tie a longyi upside down round its middle, stick a switch of hair on top and invite her to come and take possession,"
Fired by her enthusiasm, I was all for it.
"Yes, let's" I exclaimed but Hilda, a spoilsport if there ever was one, had other ideas. Quite bluntly she said,
"You can't be present, Ma Lay comes only to a gathering of females, She will never come if a man is present."
She crushed my look of disbelief by saying:
"Granny said so. So there."
"Though obviously upset I could see that Ma Nu was not giving up, She was concentrating hard, A minute later, her brow cleared and her face lit up. She said:
"Of course he can make the fourth, How silly not to have thought of him as a boy, a mere lad, a child nothing to do with a man, So it should be all right," with my sister remaining obstinately silent, Ma Nu added:
"Let's try anyway, We will soon know."
The fine mat was quickly rolled, the bottom of the skirt tied to the middle, with the span wide black skirt-top touching the floor, a switch of hair was tucked in firmly between two layers of the mat and all was ready. Having settled down in a tight row five feet or so from the upstanding mat, Ma Nu chanted the invocation in a high pitched monotone:
"Oh, Ma Lay, once a child like us and always the friend of young people and children, be gracious and pay us a visit, Please nod to show you have arrived."
With rounded eyes and bated breath we stared unblinkingly at the rolled mat. The last syllable had just been uttered when our eyes widened with wonder and amazement. The rolled mat slowly leaned towards us and slowly righted itself. My sister's whisper grated sharply in the silence:
"What are you going to ask?"
There was no reply, Ma Nu was all concentration, with eyes riveted on the mat she again chanted in the same high pitched monotone:
"Thank you for coming to us, Ma Lay. May we ask some questions, please? A nod towards us for yes and a movement from side to side for a no." Again the mat leaned forward and righted itself,
"Will I get through my exam?" A nod.
"Will I have to return to Massein?" The mat leaned sideways and righted itself. I couldn't wait any longer I whispered,
"Ask, will I pass my exam." A nod,
"Will I change schools this year?" Sideways movement. Many more questions were put and promptly answered (all perfectly correctly as it turned out) until we ran out of questions. Then, remembering that Ma Lay had been a talented child dancer in life, Ma Nu invited her to perform for us.
The dance commenced with a graceful bow, the end of the hair flying forward, touching the floor then flying back as though attached to a real head. Then in the manner of old world dances, the mat swayed and slithered in slow elegant rhythmic movements to be succeeded by graceful little hops, Soon however the tempo quickened, Ma Lay was obviously enjoying herself. Imperceptibly she edged closer and closer to us until something brushed against my cheek. I felt my hair stand on end, my spine crawl and my skin turn ice-cold. In a flash I was out of the room, racing down the stairs to the safety of the cool silent living room on the ground floor. The others raced after me, but at the landing Ma Nu stopped, courageously turned back, raced up again and slammed the door shut with a crash. Our breaths came loud and fast, we had had a fright. Still panting, Ma Nu gasped:
"Ma Lay was already at the door when I slammed it shut," It was cousin Ma Pu who voiced our fears,
"Do you suppose Ma Lay will harm us in some way? She is probably angry with us."
"Hush," Ma Nu whispered, "She is our friend isn't she?" We were only half convinced, We strained our ears to catch the tiniest sound of movement on the bare hardwood floor above us but all was silent. Suddenly my thoughts switched to mother and aunt on their way home, I said:
"When the grown-ups get back they will see the longyi on the rolled mat with the switch of hair and punish us for meddling in these things." No one spoke. So I continued, "Ma Su, you are the eldest. You are our leader, You started the game, You go and tidy up,"
"Oh, no" she retorted full of fight and eyes flashing, Next second she was a very different person, Softly and cajolingly she pleaded:
"I am only a little girl, You on the other hand are a big brave boy, You go, Please, please."
I meant to keep it to myself but at this point I had to produce it:
"It wasn't the mat that touched my cheek as it went by. It was a small soft plump hand that stroked my face. That's why I ran. No, I will not go.
Did they understand? No, of course not, Ma Nu tittered before remarking slyly,
"She was showing you that she loved you, You should be greatly flattered and pleased. Now, be the big, brave lovely boy that you are." Then changing her tone she ordered imperiously, "Go and tidy up,"
The unmistakable loud laugh of aunt Daw Sein a little way off brought matters to a head. Without further argument we crept up the stairs slowly and nervously in a tight little bunch. We turned to statues at the creak of the stairs, but the sound of loud laughter coming closer spurred us on. Together Ma Nu and I pushed open the door to find the mat still rolled, the longyi in disarray and the switch of hair in a corner as though flung there in disgust, Then we heard mother's voice, They were now very close. Ma Nu became all courage, In a flash she had twitched the longyi away, laid the mat flat and put back the switch of hair in its place. All of us were looking out of the window at the birds on the banyan tree when mother looked in to ask:
"Have you been up to mischief?"
Gazing steadfastly at the fascinating birds, I replied,
"Oh, no, we have been playing at questions and answer,"
About a year later I rushed into a pair of cross beams at the end of the ground floor veranda after forgetting to duck my head in my urgent desire to show something very special to grandfather. I picked myself up, not knowing nor wondering how I had came to fall. I did notice that everything seemed so much darker and that a whole lot of crows were flying around close to me creating an awful din as I walked slowly to the other house. Seeing my head, face and shirt covered in blood my grandfather gave a shout:
"What have you done to yourself?" Then running to me, he picked me up in his arms and ran to our house, I was ill for weeks with a fractured skull I do not remember anything of my illness or my convalescence, but I clearly remember its after effects on me.
Then it was back to the Wesleyan Anglo Vernacular school as a day scholar, where we sang hymns in Burmese morning and evening to the same tunes I sang in English later on at Mandalay. Returning for football after a quick tea at home, annual sports and finally Christmas whisked the year away. As early summer was always very hot, Upper Burma schools closed for three months of April, May and June. Three months of idleness for a chap like me meant endless scrapes, escapades and trouble all round. My favourite form of amusement during the hottest part of the afternoon, for instance, was to beat time on an empty four-gallon kerosene tin as I marched round and round the house playing soldier, greatly to the annoyance of my parents, grandparents and others enjoying their siesta. But not for long. Father had a wonderful idea which mother as a staunch Buddhist enthusiastically endorsed. A couple of days later, I joined some thirty or forty Burmese boys studying the three R's and rudiments of Buddhism at the Laydat monastery about 20 minutes walk from my home. We sat on mats spread over hard tamped down earth beneath the monastery, which was built on six foot stilts, and repeated the lessons as loudly as possible after our leader. It resembled a screaming contest to start with, but by and by the noise of learning became muted, when a couple of thumps on the floor above would make us renew our vocal exercise. In place of slates we had blackened wooden boards 8 inches wide by 12 inches long, on which we were taught to write clearly and well. Similar to other monasteries, this one had a pack of well-cared-for dogs, fed on the leavings of daily offerings. They paid for their board by being excellent watch and guard dogs - a necessity for many isolated monasteries. Having had dogs of my own, I tried to play with the leader of the pack, a fine beast with a handsome head. I suppose that in his turn he played with me for as I turned to run, he bit me in my left thigh. There were shouts and yells from the other boys and the dog slunk away. 1 was taken up the stairs and placed before the presiding monk who called far cold water in a silver bowl. Taking it in his hands, he muttered some mantras and incantations then asked the lay caretaker to place a silver rupee in it. Under instruction, the rupee was then placed over the two holes made by the fangs and kept pressed down for a couple of minutes. At the time I wondered why the monk himself had not used the rupee instead of all the rigmarole of instructions having to be given. I learned later that one of the ten precepts the monks observe every day of their lives is not to touch money in any shape or form. The monk had a good look when the rupee was removed, saw that all bleeding had stopped and told me I was all right. 1 got up and unaided went downstairs without feeling any pain and joined the others, I went home at the usual time that evening: brave, blooded, fully cured and full of myself. No one spoke of hydrophobia: hadn't the far-famed Sayadaw (Abbot) treated me? For the rest of the holidays, my little adventure cut short the attendance at the monastery: I stayed at home.
Mother was worried. The astrologer blamed her for not consulting him before sending me to the Laydat monastery; the business of the dog or even worse was there to be seen as large as life in my horoscope. He would have recommended a monastery well to the east and not to the south of the house. And that was how mother changed to the O-ta-lon monastery for observing the Sabbath. It meant travelling by bullock cart to cope with the two miles of road and all the food, mats, carpets, cushions etc; the cart journey making it so much fun for us children every Sabbath. On the morning of the Sabbath grandmother, mother and aunts would be up in time to cook masses of rice and many curries both for the monks and us. Literally translated, O-ta-lon means one pot, a very poor monastery indeed to boast of owning only one pot. A wandering holy monk with a quest and only one pot to his name came across an ancient pagoda in dense jungle and found enshrined within a much more ancient small image of the seated Buddha. His quest had ended. He made a small clearing, built himself a mat and thatch hut in the peace and quiet of which he meant to meditate and study the scriptures. But it was not to be. The jungle saint and seer was soon discovered. The fame of the recluse and the holiness of the tiny image was noised abroad to such good effect that practically overnight the hut turned into a large teak monastery with a many-tiered spire. There were also several large wooden savats (rest houses for visitors) built and offered as gifts by the many rich people desirous of acquiring much merit by supporting such a holy man and shrine. The monk remained a quiet, humble old religious man ready to cure illnesses, to help anyone in trouble and to settle the many quarrels and disputes among families of his congregation. A huge image of the Buddha looked down on the wide bare teak floor, which on Sabbath mornings would be packed with a mass of worshippers taking their eight precepts for the day by repeating them after him. This would be followed by a few well-known prayers said together, after which would be the sermon, listened to with rapt attention by one and all. The congregation would then break up and then disperse to their particular areas in the zayats where they would spend the rest of the day,
Our early breakfast of fried rice and various bits and pieces before leaving home had all but disappeared by 9:30 AM. What with the bullock cart ride and all the precepts, prayers and the sermon, 11 am, when we would get down to the real business of filling ourselves, was much too far off. So sweetmeats of many kinds and plain tea were consumed to fill the void. Then between 11 and 12 noon there would be an orgy of eating to repletion. On the stroke of 12 however, all food would be put away and the fast would then end officially at midnight; but to most people the fast would last till breakfast the next morning. The afternoon would be passed in the quiet perusal or reading aloud of the scriptures, discussions on the five-fold path, or recalling interesting aspects of some particular existence of Lord Buddha such as when he was the king of the elephants. These tales were recounted at length in the jatakas, or more generally sleeping off the unusually heavy meals of the morning. The in the cool of the evening, the carts would be repacked with pots, pans, plates, mats, carpets etc. and away we would be drive: home. Many a Sabbath night have I sneaked down to the meatsafe for a fill-up when hunger had chased away sleep. But it was invariably after midnight that I made my move, after all one of the eight precepts I had recited after the old monk had stipulated a fast of 12 hours.
There was an unwritten law that all Burmese boys should spend at least three years of their 'teens' as day-scholars at monasteries, not only to lean the rudiments of Buddhism but also the three R's. Burma had the highest literacy rate in the East up to the start of this century when new secular schools took over and monastic schools fell into disuse as second class institutions. Then there was the widely held belief that exceptional merit would accrue to anyone who sponsored a lad to don the yellow robe and become a novitiate. All but the poorest would undertake this, while the very rich would generally sponsor several lads of poor parents to accompany their sons so as to gain more merit still. The boys would be dressed as Princes in royal robes, ride in procession on gaily-caparisoned ponies to the monastery, accompanied by singers, dancers and musicians. Arrived there, all the trappings of royalty would be removed, heads shaved and yellow robes donned. This Shinbyu (monk-making) ceremony, generally took place a few days before the commencement of the Buddhist lent (about May) during which period the novitiates remained in the monastery, Thus for the space of three months they were given a crash course in Buddhism and the duties of monks. At this stage they are known as Koyins and their first duty was to go round the village or part of the town every morning with their begging bowls. Parents, aunts, sisters and relatives would be on the look out for their very own Koyin as they came on the rounds to sigh, to drop a tear and be uplifted by the thought that the little man in yellow robes, with eyes downcast and without a flicker of recognition, had placed his foot on the first rung of the long, long, long ladder reaching upwards to Nirvana. Most Koyins feel that they have done their duty at the end of lent lasting three months and return home. Some however would stay on and become Upazins (monks under training), a fewer of them again would go on to become Phongyis or monks. All monks are celebrant; but no stigma is attached to the act of renouncing monkhood to marry and settle down with wife and children even after years of monkhood. It is to remind everyone that Lord Buddha was a Crown Prince very near the throne when he decided to leave his wife, new-born son and the palace to become a wanderer seeking a new way of life, that youngsters are dressed as Princes and taken in processions before entering a monastery,
It seems strange now, that with all the contacts I had with monasteries and with a very staunch Buddhist of a mother, I was never asked whether I would like to be dressed in royal robes for the Shinbyu ceremony. Maybe it was thought wrong for and Englishman's son.
The summer holidays after the dog-bite, I became a day-boy at the O-ta-lon monastery, two miles there and two miles back along a rough slightly metalled cart track with miles of fields on each side right out in the blue. Once out of Monywa, I would hardly see a soul. I enjoyed those walks, throwing stones, running in fits and starts or creeping up just as fancy and imagination took me. At the monastery, beside Buddhism and the three R's, we learned bits and pieces such as fortune telling. One small segment in the art consisted of a whole string of rhyming couplets that had to be committed to memory. Suppose a ring had been lost on a Saturday morning, there would be a couplet that would fit and give an answer. In this particular case, it was my granny who missed her ruby ring on Saturday morning. I was able to tell her within seconds that it had been stolen and she would never get it back. Many years later, the old cook who had been our family servant ever since we came to Monywa came to see me when I was home from college. In the middle of our conversation, he slapped his thigh and said:
"I have just remembered something 1 have been wanting to tell you after your granny died. You know that ruby ring which was lost. You said someone had stolen it, I had, because two men were threatening to beat me up if I didn't pay my gambling debt to them, It was there lying near the stairs where it must have been accidentally dropped. So I took it and I was so afraid you would say it was I who had done it." Well, well! Our neighbour came to say that she had lost her bracelet and could I work out something. I fitted the time and the day and the bracelet to a rhyme and told her to search around the root of the calabash plant in the north-west corner of the garden and in minutes she was back shouting with glee and holding up the bracelet. Another time, I was able to tell Daw Mya, my aunt to look for her earring in a corner of the kitchen and there it was, Quite uncanny. The pity of it is that once the monastery days were behind me, the rhymes and couplets vanished from my memory.
Two years my senior, Uncle Po So was more a brother to me than an uncle. We had been born in the same house at Massein but did not come to know each other till grandfather U So Ya moved to Monywa after the disastrous fire at Massein. Needless to say, Po So being his son and heir held a special place with him, more so now that by his own act, he had deprived his son of the hereditary post of Taikthugyi, an ancient and honoured one. As the first grandson, the son of his most loved daughter, I came next to Po So in his affections.
A Christian school such as I went to being objectionable, Po So attended a state middle school where his religious beliefs would not be tampered with. It was only out of school hours that he and I could be together. Grandfather was one of the strongest bonds between us. He would keep the two of us agog with his own doings in the past or the folklore of his people - the Nanchaos, He would say:
"Of course the original migrants had to fight their way through to the places they finally occupied, They had came thousands of miles, had taken many, many months and fought hundreds of battles along the way."
"When they reached the Chindwin they had to deal with the Nagas and the Chins who had settled there. With their superior weapons and training, our young men had very little trouble in throwing them out; but could not rest on their laurels because the enemy kept coming back. All our villages had to be fortified by erecting stockades, watchtowers and clearings had to be made in which we constructed cunningly camouflaged pits and traps to stop them from taking us by surprise. Keeping the river between them and us was a help. Even after centuries, they kept coming, not because they wanted to re-occupy their original homeland but to gain heads."
"What heads?" asked Po So,
"Our heads. They were head-hunting" grandfather explained, "'They believe the spirits of their fathers, uncles and so on have the power to inflict illnesses and accidents if they are neglected. Since placating these spirits every so often by sacrificing chickens, goats, pigs and bullocks was ruining them, someone thought of getting the head of a complete stranger and placing it above the entrance of the house to frighten away the spirits. It worked, The house with such a head, had no illnesses or accidents. Heads of complete strangers of other people became much desired possessions. So every year, at the end of the monsoons, bands of braves will travel as far away from their homes and tribes as possible and get the desired heads. Even in my youth we had to defend ourselves against such parties. They will not kill women or children but take them prisoner. If this happened we would have to track them down, attack their village and rescue those taken prisoner. They were stirring times."
Grandfather was a natural storyteller. He filled our heads with the prowess of the Nanchao, the Tais and Shans as they came to be known and the campaigns into India by conscript armies penetrating deep into Manipur state and Assam, bringing back gold, silver, loot of all, descriptions, hostages and prisoners. The then Taikthugyi of Massein had taken a large contingent of conscripts from his area and done so well in the fighting and planning that General Bandoola had presented him with a sword of honour. With great pride, he showed us the sword of shining sharp steel encased in a silver mounted scabbard of embossed decorative work, and a beautiful silver hilt.
All these stories, tales and much folklore created a strong nationalistic element in Po So's make up as he grew up. As for me, the hours spent with grandfather was most interesting and that seemed to be about all. Of course I shared his pride in the old Nanchao warriors and the doings of his ancestors. But for Po So the kind of questions he asked and requests for the re-telling of certain episodes in the life of great kings such as Anawrahta, Kyanzitha, Alaungpaya and his special hero, General Bandoola, indicated much pride in his heritage and patriotic fervour which made all foreigners lesser beings to be despised as of no account. They augmented and reinforced the pride of race he had inherited from his father, the reincarnation of a Nanchao tribal chief. It is a measure of the closeness of relationship that Po So did not work up a hate for the Englishman who had married his sister, when he was already beginning to question the right of the English to govern Burma. Naturally, all this was not apparent to me at the time, they remained at the back of my mind to be recalled and vividly remembered in the light of later events,
Po was too serious and senior to play with us in the games I have already related. However, he and I played football, cracking each other's spinning tops, making and flying kites, and other boyish activities. Naturally he was my hero till such time as when our lives parted again.
We were soon to worry over grandfather's health. For some time now this active man bad loved nothing better than to sit and gaze and though still erect and sprightly enough when he moved, he tired very quickly. More and more of his time was spent resting. According to grandmother, the loss of everything he owned, in the fire, had not been such a mortal blow as the act of stripping himself of the power, prestige and authority of being the Taikthugyi, a position his forefathers bad occupied with great distinction for many generations. Having to live as a mere nobody in Monywa was the last straw. His pride had received a mortal blow. He gradually went downhill till he had to be carried to the large ground floor room of our house for quiet and easier care. Though our family doctor, Dr. Po Mya, an excellent medical man, strongly backed by my father, had said the only chance of saving grandfather was for him to be admitted hospital, grandmother and mother would have none of it. There was a widely held belief that no one left the hospital alive! True in a way since only the dying and the desperately ill would be taken there. The patient decided to stay put.
Eventually, the evening of the final crisis arrived. Several astrologers, including two venerable Phongyis renowned in that field, agreed that should he live through the next day, he would have many years before him. There are no secrets in a Burmese household, I knew this just as my aunts, uncles, mother and grandmother did and what was more I was determined to stay up and see grandfather live past midnight. I changed many lamps and companions during that long watch, dropping off to sleep and waking up in starts to glance hopefully at the 8 day pendulum clock high up on the wall sounding the same eternal tick, tock, tick, tock, without the slightest variation to show that it cared. Starting up from sleep for the last time, the clock showed 11.30. Grandfather was lying on thick silk cotton-filled mattresses placed on a wooden platform 8 feet by 8 feet by 18 inches high in the middle of this large room making hardly any movement now. His breathing Has shallow, somewhat noisy and fast while his eyes remained closed. There must have been about 26 of us in that room, relatives, servants, near neighbours as well, there to wait, to watch and if possible to help, everyone willing on grandfather to live. A little before midnight, grandfather stirred, turned and tried to raise himself while we watched with bated breath. Dad put his arm behind the frail body and then as he straightened grandfather up, there was a dull rattle and his head fell back. In the awesome silence that ensued the clock struck its twelve measured strokes. Everyone started to cry.
Eight days after the funeral, twelve Phongyis were invited to our house to carry out the freeing-of-the spirit ceremony, and stay on for the morning meal - the usual arrangement, Neighbours and friends had also been asked to witness the ceremony, join in the prayers and share a meal. Prayers were said, relevant extracts of Buddhist teaching were read, mantras and incantations were recited by the monks in unison to ease grandfather's spirit from the ties of this world. According to current beliefs, when a person dies, his spirit is not whisked away into another existence nor does it wait in some limbo for his number to be called, but hangs about tied to his wife, children, grandchildren, properties and unpaid debts. The deeper his love for them, the stronger the ties and greater the difficulty for the spirit to get away. The scriptures, mantras and incantations are considered to be enormous help to the spirit who is there taking it all in. By the end of the ceremony, it becomes convinced that everything including his loves and attachments are transitory and impermanent and hey presto, he is free to go. Not so with grandfather, his ties and bonds must have been much tougher,
Some two months after the freeing-of-the-spirit ceremony, Hilda and I were gardening when young aunt Ma Su and cousin Ma Pu came running to us full of excitement and glee.
"What's up?" we quickly asked.
Bursting with great news, eyes shining Ma Nu gasped between pants,
"Granny is about to use the heavy brass vase to put questions to the spirits."
With need to hasten, we ran up the stairs then crept to the door of the front room, where a shelf on the eastern wall holding vases, candles and an ornately framed picture of the gilded image of Lord Buddha, acted as an altar. Sure enough, granny was there with a near solid heavy brass vase in front of her, She was facing the altar in a kneeling position, while mother and Daw Sein knelt just behind her with hands uplifted, palms together. Granny closed her eyes and softly intoned:
"Oh guardian spirit of the house, my late husband U So Ya is said to have taken his abode in the large neem tree to the east of this house..."
"Ah, ha," I said to myself, "So this was what the grown-ups were talking about late last evening." At the time I had not been very attentive; but after an effort, the conversation came back to ms, Mother had said:
"The Sayadaw (presiding monk) of Laydat monastery, had a word with me at the Treasury Officer's house after the house-cleansing ceremony, He said:
'I used to see my old friend U So Ya on the tamarind tree in the Myo-wun monastery, but the other day, I was surprised to see him on the largest neem tree to the east of your house. He seemed somewhat bothered. As he was dressed in full white, he should be far away from this world. I have been wondering whether family ties are holding him back from rising to a higher place,'
Aunt Daw Sein had been quick to comment:
"The Sayadaw is renowned for his wisdom, piety and learning. Father must be on the tree,"
Granny had then remarked:
"Tomorrow I will make sure."
And so we watched and listened with mounting excitement and expectation as granny concluded her intoned request:
"Should this be true, may this vase become as light as a feather."
Grandmother placed her right hand on the slim neck of the vase and made as if to lift. The next instant she was falling backwards with the vase right up in the air, Had not mother and aunt been just behind her there would have been a nasty accident. Somewhat shaken but still determined, granny replaced the vase on the floor lifted her hands once more in supplication, then intoned:
"If he is on the largest neem tree to the east of the house, please make this vase as heavy as a mountain."
Tugging and pulling with her right hand having failed to shift it, granny used both hands, She panted and perspired with the effort but to no purpose. The vase would not budge but remained as heavy as a mountain. Granny rested a moment or two before intoning:
"If it is true, please make this vase light." She had another go; the vase came up easily.
As quietly as we had come, we stole away. So Grandfather was on the tree, my neem tree, the tree I had chosen as my very own in a line of ten along the fence. It was a lovely full-leafed lush tree, perfectly rounded and beautiful in its symmetry, yielding tiny whit blossoms of haunting fragrance in early spring and cool jade-green foliage in hot summer. I had been thrilled to bits three days before watching a swarm of bees, actually witnessing them swarming and forming a hive as big as my fist on a tiny branch just below a large thick limb jutting out across it. And when granny said that it was a sign of very good luck, I bubbled with joy.
"Let's go and see the tree" suggested my sister. "Perhaps he will show himself to us,"
With a pained look on her face, a look warranted by her slight seniority and greater knowledge, Na Su exclaimed with some impatience:
"Don't be silly. Only holy monks can see spirits. However, there is no harm in going there."
We stood before the well-shaped leafy tree and stared silently for a long time. We thought, perhaps we might see a shadow or a wisp of grandfather. Ma Pu finally broke the long silence:
"Shouldn't we offer grandfather something to eat or drink? He may be hungry or thirsty."
Here was another chance for Ma Su to show off her greater wisdom. With studied patience she spelt it out for us:
"You heard he was dressed in full white. That means he is much above and beyond such earthy things as food and drink. He is never thirsty nor hungry."
This was terribly disappointing. There was grandfather most probably seeing and hearing us and yet we could do nothing concrete as a means of greeting him. Oh, what could we do to show we cared? After a long silence, Hilda for once came up with a sensible suggestion:
"We used to take him flowers when he was alive, Why don't we offer him some now?"
Into an old jam tin half full of water we quickly stuffed some jasmine and small roses, but who was to take this offering? I quickly got in:
"Ma Su, you know far more about these things than I do. You make the offering."
"Not at all" was her short uncompromising answer. "When did you hear of a female making an offering when there was a male present. You are a male, off you go,"
I don't like being ordered about. Just as I was about to refuse, the small beehive in its precarious position under that huge branch caught my eye.
"All right" I said in a martyr's voice and marched to the tree as bold as brass. Having placed the flowers at the foot of the tree a sudden thought of a white-clothed arm getting hold of me made me walk back more rapidly than I had gone, Arrived where the girls were, I made them kneel, then kneeling myself, I intoned in a high-pitched voice:
"Oh grandfather, please accept these flowers as a token we care. But please could you do something for us, If you are really on the tree, please break down the large branch above the beehive without disturbing the bees,"
As I uttered the last word, there was an appalling sound of tremendous rending and cracking followed by a terrific crash of a huge branch falling to the ground, We were off before the dust could rise and I was the first to burst into the living room. Mother clattered down the stairs, Daw Hla rushed in from the bathroom, granny came from the kitchen to try and make sense of the tale the three of us were trying to tell simultaneously at the top of our voices. Eventually we made sense then trooped out altogether not knowing what to expect. As requested, the huge branch had been broken off from the trunk, a great jagged white gash showing where it had been and was now prone on the ground. And there in the bright sun, all by its little self, was the small beehive quite undisturbed shining and glinting and winking at me.
Arrangements were quickly made. The most highly thought of Phongyis from 15 monasteries arrived three threes later and carried out the freeing-of-the-spirit ceremony to such good effect that however much I tried after that I never could get grandfather to do the simplest thing for me.
On the opposite bank to Monywa, four miles inland there was a delightful old-world Pagoda in the middle of nowhere, to confer a special blessing on its pilgrims and worshippers. It was also famous for its large brown monkeys with scarlet bottoms, Grandmother and mother decided on a pilgrimage to this Pagoda to gild a small part of the image of Buddha within it to ward off some calamity seen in their horoscopes by one of their astrologers. For us children, it would be a wonderful picnic especially as several other families had decided to join. Cooking started early, the ladies having got up at 4 AM and by 7 AM, we were on our way in bullock carts to the river jetty. On the small steam ferry boat, families and heads were counted and recounted before we could push off. Carts, which were waiting for us on the opposite bank, took us, our food and all the usual paraphernalia through stretches of scrub and sand, patches of thick jungle, more scrub and sand. Eventually we got to the tiny village at the side of an outcrop of rook, which held innumerable caves inhabited by monkeys. Without the least fear of us they were more than tame. Several prowled around in the zayat coming near us and the food ready to grab and walk off with anything they fancied. A youngster of eight who had strayed from the protected area suddenly set up a howl of fright as he was being pulled and pushed towards a cave by several monkeys. Everyone started shouting "Ma Ni, Ma Ni" and in a couple of minutes it was all over. May Ni, a large very ancient female monkey had suddenly appeared, chattering and exhibiting every sign of rage, cuffed one, tweaked the tail of another and bit a third abductor. She then took the little boy by the hand and brought him to the steps of the zayat, It was an excellent example of a matriarchal society run by the almost human May Ni, who was as famous as the Pagoda.
With everything packed, heads counted the long line of ten carts set out in good time to get us home in daylight. All went well in the first hour with the sun shining brightly; but suddenly the sky became overcast and in minutes, a thick black cloud descended to ground level blocking out all light. Hours later we were still wandering around, still nowhere near the bank of the Chindwin and for the last half-hour we had been hearing the unmistakable roar of a tiger. A last, even the head cartman had to admit that he was hopelessly lost. A halt was called, then in the light of many little flaring naked kerosene lamps with cotton wicks in tin cans, the head cartman commenced a catechism, Had anyone quarrelled and used filthy language? Had anyone used the precincts of the pagoda as a lavatory? Had anyone climbed the solitary tree in front of the pagoda, a tree said to be holy and sacred? Had anyone jumped up to pluck a fruit from a tree or leapt off one? There was a babble of voices - didn't you climb that tree? Didn't you jump off the pagoda wall? Weren't you two quarrelling? Etc. etc. At last the cartman shouted above the din,
"All right, all right, It is obvious we have offended the nat (spirit) of the place, He showed his anger by producing this unusual thick darkness for us to get lost in. Moreover he has got the tiger to roar as a warning that we should apologise, otherwise worse will befall us. We must make some offerings and ask pardon, Is everyone agreed to my doing this?"
"Yes" shouted everyone, loudest of all, we the children, scared out of our wits, very tired and wanting to be safely home.
The head cartman collected some food, fruit and cheroots, placed them on a large plate, squatted on the ground near the cart, then raising the plate with both hands he called out:
"Oh spirit of Pho-wun-daung please forgive us for unwittingly offending you in many ways. We ask your pardon. Please accept these our offerings and, as a token of your forgiving us, please show us our way home."
To be considered as one with him all of us had our palms and hands placed together during his prayer. Prayer over, he moved some ten yards or so away and reverently placed the offerings in a pile, then returned to our cart. But instead of picking up the reins, he called to the bullocks to move, And move they did, smartly veering to the left and going lightly at a trot without the slightest sign of hesitation. A few minutes of this and the full moon suddenly emerged from fast clearing clouds and there, twenty yards ahead of us was the roughly metalled cart tract we had been seeking for so many hours, lost and found again.
Only when the Dhurzi (Indian tailor) arrived to measure me for shirts, shorts, suits, etc. was I told that I would soon be going to a boarding school in Mandalay. Sheets, pillowcases, towels, handkerchiefs, Eton collars, table napkins, stockings, socks, a boater etc rapidly came together. With all this happening, I must have been very dim because it came as a great shock when I found myself seated in a first class compartment with the Revd. Edmunds, the riverine Chaplain, who was taking me to St. Mary's church of England school for boys at Mandalay, his headquarters. He used to hold monthly services in Monywa and called at our place on those occasions, when the question of my schooling must have been gone into. The arrangements they had decided upon had culminated in my heading for a new school completely and utterly different from the one I had known.
A side-wheel paddle steamer ferried us across the wide Irrawaddy at Sagaing (the great Aka bridge would not be built for many a year) and on the ferry I tucked into a huge lunch. Having left home at 6 in the morning, I needed that feed in spite of coffee and biscuits provided in between by my host.
During that day-long journey the conversation was all on Revd. Edmunds side. I had little to say beyond a 'yes' and a 'no' here and there, some times wondering if I had not misfired. It was not that I was ill at ease at this my first railway journey; in other circumstances I would have enjoyed it enormously. The simple reason I was nervous tongue-tied and ashamed was my lack of English. Had Revd. Edmunds spoken In Burmese I would have been an excellent travelling companion. With father so much away I had spoken nothing but Burmese, learning very little English at school where it was taught as a second language with phrases in textbooks such as:
'A fat hen ran'
With an illustration of a large English hen bearing no resemblance to the scraggy Burmese fowl. The book had apples and pears, foxes and sheep but no mangoes or papayas, leopards or bullocks, The more Revd. Edmunds tried to put me at ease with light conversation, the more frustrated, ashamed and uncomfortable I became. The journey was a nightmare. How he must have rued the day he had gaily volunteered to rearrange his programme of services to accompany me to school. Now and again, my thoughts would leap forward wondering how I would manage at the English school. At the Mandalay Railway station, we got into a gharry (horse drawn carriage) to be driven 2 ½ miles into the heart of Port Dufferin, which housed my school, the central jail, the Government house, many barracks, Officer's messes and the Burmese Royal Palace. I Has taken in by a kindly matron who showed me my dormitory, bed and locker and left me to unpack. I had arrived.
As I sat on my bed quite alone in that dormitory of some 20 beds, the thickly falling unusual rain adding to my intense misery, imminent tears were whisked away as if by magic, at the sound of a voice asking me in Burmese where I had come from. From that moment Dick Mundt was to become a life-long friend. I had so greatly funked the first day, the first week, the first month with little or no English that the relief of having Dick and half a dozen other boys more or less in the same boat as myself was tremendous. The big black cloud hovering over me had vanished. Years later I was to come across an apt passage: "The Lord tempers the wind for the shorn lamb."
I was placed in the lowest form of the school, the third standard. I did badly from the word go, always at or near the bottom of the class for the first three-quarters of the school year. Then quite suddenly and miraculously, impositions, detentions and canings ceased to be my lot. I began to do better. Somehow the damage caused by the fracture must have healed much to my great joy and relief. But I was quite unprepared for what happened at the end-of-the-year concert and prize distribution. When my name was called I hid, thinking I would be given a dunce's cap; but the head prefect soon had me on the stage. There, in the glare of the lights, in full view of the school and masses of other people. I was shaking hands saying Thank you, bowing and walking away, my head in a cloud, my chest sticking out a mile clutching a prize book in my hot hand. Miracles of miracles, it was a form prize I had won for the highest marks scored at the final exam of the year.
Discarding his usual Victorian reserve, my father showed unusual warmth and much excitement when I proudly produced the prize. Mother had tears in her eyes but said nothing. Only then did I realise how greatly he and mother must have worried over me. How many a sleepless night must they have spent over my bad end of term reports when before the accident I had been quite a bright lad. The thought that their son might turn out to be a near idiot must have been constantly in their minds. Now all that was past, relief and joy could take over from anxiety and sorrow. I was overwhelmed with gratitude, my heart overflowed with thankfulness, Mine had been the privilege of bringing home a momentous book: "The Old Curiosity Shop."
In the excitement of my first homecoming, I had not missed granny, that tiny petite bundle of cross-grained, quick tempered, impatient, impetuous, imperious loving femininity. Slim built and all of 4 foot 11 inches in height, she was a great favourite with us as she defied our parents and spoiled us all.
"Where is granny?" I eventually asked.
Father said that perhaps mother should tell me the story. Intrigued, I pricked up my ears,
In the course of trading, granny had come across U Kyaw Mo, a dark skinned gentleman with thick eyebrows and heavy black moustaches. As mother described him, the strongly built virile gentleman came to mind on the occasion of his first visit just before 1 left for Mandalay. He had come on some transaction or the other. As time went on his visits became more frequent much to the amusement of the children Who began teasing granny who in turn had begun to spruce herself up, wearing her finest longyis and taking ages to do her hair and eyebrows whenever he was expected. Mother was not amused. Then one day granny came to mother with a proposition. A friend had pledged some gold bangles for a loan from her of 500 rupees but was unable to repay the loan at the moment, just when granny required 500 rupees to pay for some beans which she had bought. Would mother take over the pledge and let granny have the money. Mother obliged. About three months later mother had a sudden call for cash. As granny was also short, she promptly took the bangles to her usual chettyar as pledge for a loan. 'The bangles were weighed, then re-weighed, a frown deepening on the chettyar's face, He said:
"The bangles feel light. Do you mind if I make a small nick in one?"
Though mystified Mother readily agreed. Of what could the man be thinking?
With a jeweller's file the chettyar made a nick and in it placed a drop of straw coloured liquid. In a moment the colour changed from straw to green. His face distorted with anger he shouted:
"Daw Ngwe Nyun, I never thought you would stoop to this: bringing me as a pledge gold washed copper bracelets."
Mother was so overcome that her incoherent explanation hardly carried conviction. The hot walk back from the market and shopping centre did nothing to damp down the towering burning rage that was consuming her. She, a bogadaw (wife of and Englishman) could have been had up by the chettyar on an attempt at cheating and this all through her mother's doing, a mother she had done everything she could for. There was an unholy row. Granny wept, wailed, nearly had a fit; but mother was adamant, She poked and pestered till she had got the truth, The bangles belonged to U Kyaw Mo who seemed to have disappeared a few weeks before. Give grandmother her due, she had no idea the bangles were spurious. But she was inconsolable, she had been wrongly accused, she, a poor defenceless widow, put upon by everybody, she would end her useless life. If ever she ate a mouthful of rice in her unnatural daughter's house, may she be cursed the seven curses, so on and so on.
No one dared to go near her. Dusk was falling when mother asked one of the children to go and coax granny, only to return saying she was not to be found Night came, with relatives, neighbours and friends enquiring and searching for her everywhere. At first light, the well was inspected in case granny had jumped in, the riverbank and the railway line produced no clues. Then that afternoon a small slight Buddhist nun with red-rimmed eyes walked into the house, More tears all round, but no recriminations. Granny had made straight for a little known nunnery, cut off her long thick hair, had her head shaved and had donned the robes of a nun as a gesture of having given up the world, the flesh and the devil. She divided her time between the nunnery and our house and when I saw her the next day, she, looked far happier than she had since grandfather's death, There was peace and calmness about her that had never been there before. She remarked how tall I was growing, enthused over my prize and made me feel quite important. I was told that she would always be at the nunnery the day before the Sabbath to join other nuns in doing the rounds of houses receiving gifts of raw rice, money, peas, beans etc. towards their subsistence. Though done on the spur of the moment, she was to remain a nun for the rest of her life.
Back to school after Christmas and then on with football, hockey, cricket, swimming, scouting, regular hours of work and study, I enjoyed boarding school life to the full. On Saturdays we had the freedom of the fort. We could fish in the many canals and tanks of the palace grounds, visit the many and varied rooms of the palace, climb the watch tower, view royal garments and other exhibits in the palace museum, watch soldiers and officers at parades, obstacle courses, bayonet practices (the 1914 - 1918 war was still on) and make friends with jolly Gurkha troops whose barracks were not far from our school. Dick Mundt and I had many a feast of puree (wholemeal pancake) and potato curry given us by our Gurkha pals only a few years older than we were.
Then there were the summer holidays of three solid months. Banging an empty kerosene tin did not amuse me anymore. With father now retired, the two of us were about to came together in a companionship that grew stronger and pleasanter as time went on. Gone was the stern unbending Victorian father of the old days when he was home for short periods, demanding instant obedience and servility. We took long walks together early mornings when, after a little chit-chat, stories of his boyhood, adolescence and as a young man would flow readily from father making the long walks appear so much shorter and more enjoyable. He too had fractured his skull. Much to my surprise I learnt that he had been the star gymnast of his year at school. There had been a display by the senior gymnastic team before a distinguished gathering when in the final act on rings, one of the ropes had given way dropping him head first on to the gymnasium floor. He carried his head with the slightest of slants to the right as the result of this mishap. No such story was needed to put me off gymnastics! I already knew I was hopeless, getting completely lost whenever 1 was upended,
Many of these walks had to do with agricultural land. Father and mother had agreed that investing in such land would ensure an additional income to the retirement pension. But as to how it was to be done was heatedly argued and endlessly talked over for months and months. At the start of one of my summer holidays, I came in at the tail end of it all. There had been heated words, a big flare up.
Father's idea was to obtain a grant over 150 acres of wasteland on long lease from Government, clear and drain the particular low-lying area and bring the lot under cultivation with hired labour. A second home would be built there, where he would actively supervise the workmen and where he would keep his draught bullocks, plough cattle, ploughs, harrows and other paraphernalia of agriculture. In fact he would become a farmer, pure and simple.
"What" exclaimed mother, "a Boh (Englishman) to stoop so low beneath his status as to become a humble cultivator! No, never. I couldn't stand being known as a cultivator's wife."
Her own idea was to buy holdings of ten to fifteen acres in various localities which she would let to tenants on previously agreed fraction of the crop as rent. There would be no bother; she would sit back and get her share at the time of harvest, without losing the dignity and status of a Bogadaw.
The quarrels and heated arguments ended in a compromise. Father could apply for the grant of land, demean himself by actively farming, occupying his 'second homestead' which mother called a mat shack she would not move into. She, on the other hand, would commence buying suitable holdings for her own scheme. I was too immature to realise that a house divided could not prosper and thought at the time what a good idea it was for each person to be able to do his own thing.
With a 30 year grant of land from Government on generous terms in his pocket, father bought plough bullocks, draught bullocks, ploughs, harrows etc. and commenced clearing the higher ground on which the buildings for the farm would be put up. They would include a superior mat and thatch hut for father, sheds for cattle and implements, stores etc. and buildings to house the workers. Them came the clearing of the low lying area a much more difficult business, while all, this unusual activity was going on, a topic of much local talk, a group of fishermen chuckled to themselves.
The rains came at the usual time but in this part of the so-called dry zone it did little more than lay the dust. The ground remained stone hard. The Chindwin fed by heavy rains much further north, however, was rising, water crept up small and large ditches, small and large creeks and within a week father's land was a lake,
He was jubilant, "Good" said he, "All that lovely silt will produce marvellous crops of wheat, haricot beans, butter beans, onions and chick peas."
Unfortunately when the level of the Chindwin eventually dropped, father's land still remained submerged except for about 10 acres around the buildings. For years it was the practice of fishermen to construct a dam across the main drainage of a large area of low-lying ground to keep in the breeding and growing fish, this year was no exception. Father filed applications for the removal of the dam before the Township Officer, the Subdivisional Office and the Deputy Commissioner without success. The fishermen had been there from time immemorial and had prior right aver a newcomer - cultivator. The dam remained till the end of the fishery season, too late in the year to plough or to plant. While the Revenue Court proceedings were going on, father had not been idle, Into the patch of ten acres, he put all his frustrations, the hired men, the bullocks, the ploughs and harrows, and produced some sort of crop quite incommensurate with the outlay. Even so he went on for another two years despite the knowledge that to make a success of the scheme he had to cultivate the full 150 acres. He did this so as not to surrender to mother who kept telling him that he ought not to be dabbling in something he knew nothing about.
At the start, mother was more successful. Then gradually difficulties began to mount up. For subsistence before harvest, the tenants relied more and more on loans from mother, At harvest they would be unable to payoff these loans because they had other pressing debts to pay. Also they had to keep back something to live on; but that did not prevent them from coming again and again before harvest for money. Debts mounted. The assessment of the harvest for the share-out between the landlord and tenant turned out to be an unreliable business. Mother had her own personal assessor who received a percentage of the crop as his fee. So had the tenant. When the two assessors came to an agreement after considerable discussion, the size of the crop became established. There was always a feeling that mother's assessor, being a cultivator himself always leant towards the tenant as evidenced by the fact that assessments on mother's holdings, acre for acre was much smaller than those in neighbouring holdings. Then there were droughts, insect pests and low prices for whatever mother had asked to be planted, while what she had not planted fetched very high prices. All in all it was a soul-wearying business and matters dragged on and en as they do in farming till the facing of the truth could no longer be postponed. Buying land in boom years and selling in the slump was a costly business, more costly than father's investment in bullocks, ploughs, harrows, huts and sheds had been. All in all, a lot of money had been lost. The end of it all brought peace, tranquillity and a measure of happiness to the household,
With farming buried good and deep father used the peaceful tranquil time to start on the study of Hinduism and Buddhism, subjects which had intrigued him over the years. As usual he went into it in a big way, obtaining more and more books, going to the extent of learning Sanskrit to enable him to get to the heart of the matter, discussing Hinduism with Indians and Buddhism with Burmese, Indian and Chinese Buddhists. By now he was fluent in Burmese and could carry on long discussions with venerable Sayadaws on the more abstruse aspects of Buddhism. He used to lie in a solid teak and cane longsleever, a large black cheroot in his mouth and a fat book resting on his chest, hour after hour, day after day, for weeks at a time without getting fed up. By the time he had got to the nub of these religions, a new movement had come into the world.
Father's was just the right background for the Theosophical society, which had taken people by storm in India, Britain and Europe and in no time the Monywa branch had been formed with father as one of the founder members, Very quickly he was elevated as President. A motley bunch used to meet at a Chettyar Hindu Hall not far from us, the Indian Post Master, the Indian Head accountant of the Treasury, three chettyars, two Burmese doctors, three Burmese and two Indian lawyers, four Burmese teak traders, a Chinese Mill owner and my father. A close study of the writings of Madame Blavatsky and later of Mrs. Annie Beasant revealed many errors, contradictions, misstatements to father and his co-Theosophists. They were up in arms. They decided on lines of attack and who else but father should be asked to carry out the correspondence. Father loved it. He charged into the fray much enjoying the putting together of closely reasoned arguments backed up by the greater knowledge they had of Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity. The correspondence grew in volume and acrimony as father nailed home cogent argument after cogent argument. The monthly meetings, fully attended, were a source of much interest and enjoyment for the members whetting their brains and pitting them against the founders of the movement. What a dreadful day and what a blow to his enjoyment it was when the final letter arrived to say the correspondence was at an end. Thick dark clouds had blotted out the glorious sun he had basked in for so many months.
Had I been a little older, a little more mature or had more time with him I might have learned a great deal. I did learn, however, that though there were many gods for the mass of Hindus, to the comparative few who had delved deeply, there would be the suggestion of a supreme being, God, who for example could be likened to an immense ocean, droplets from which were our souls or spirits or whatever they could be termed, going through innumerable lives and existences being cleaned of dross, until they were sufficiently purified to be able to return to the ocean. Buddhism I was surprised to learn was not a religion; it was a philosophy, a way of life. Lord Buddha, a strict Hindu, who from childhood had been protected and isolated from every kind of pain, suffering, decay and death, suddenly came face to face with these realities of life, realities which made a deep and lasting impression. The caste system which consigned the lowest and most numerous class to the level of animals or worse, also troubled him greatly. Through deep meditation on the eternal cycle of birth, suffering and death, he received his enlightenment under the Bo tree after forty days of fasting and the end of months of wandering in the forest. A new way of life of service and complete abnegation of self through the control and mastery of the desires of the senses. He also taught the law of Karma which regulates the kind of existence and the manner of the life in a new life. A sizeable balance of merit through the many good deeds done over the demerits in the previous life would mean a happier, more comfortable and more reasonable sort of life, whereas a preponderance of demerits through evil deeds will mean the reverse. By doing more and more good, less and less evil, by study of Buddha's teachings, by meditation and final mastery of the desires of the flesh, through many, many existences, Nirvana is attained. Nirvana being a state of peace, tranquillity and a great calm beyond imagination. Apparently happiness does not come into it because it is something felt, something hankered after, something to pull the spirit back to earth and another existence.
At one period, I had taken all this sustained intensive study to mean that father was seeking a more satisfactory religion; but I was way off mark. It had merely been an intellectual exercise from which he had derived much pleasure. Not only that, but these studies had also greatly strengthened his Christian faith.
My teachers could not understand why I was working so hard in the seventh standard and I would not let on. That summer I had met Arthur Yards, a ship's engineer who had come home to Monywa after a long session at sea. He, the brother of Edward Yards, a class mate of mine, gave the two of us wonderful descriptions of the world he had seen, the adventures he had had as a ships engineer and nothing else would I be. After his middle school examination, he had been apprenticed to the Dallah dockyards, Rangoon, where he had qualified. So I was all agog when a telegram arrived from the Revd. N.K. Anderson, the Chaplain of Mandalay, who was my godfather, to say that not only had 1 been successful in the middle school examination but that I had obtained a scholarship to go on to High School. This made things very awkward. For months now, I had been dwelling on becoming a ship's engineer and had told everyone about it at home. Mother of course was against it. She never fancied me as a filthy greasy engineer like the fitters she had seen at the local saw mills. Besides, she kept harking back to what U Pon Na, the famous Manipuri astrologer of Mandalay, whose father had been the King's astrologer, had seen in my horoscope. According to him, I was marked out to be a high official in the administrative branch of Government service. Anything else was utterly irrelevant. Though he had never said so, father also must have had some reservation, and now that my godfather had suggested what he himself would have desired he went about persuading me rather cannily. There was no laying down of the law; none of the Victorian business, Instead of a rather stubborn irascible son, fit to be bawled at by an irate father, he spoke to me as if I was a great friend of his, treating me as an equal. I gave in, to mother's great joy and to father's obvious relief. This would mean another three years of schooling, the 8th, the 9th and the 10th standards in preparation for the High School Final examination; three years to be endured now that I could not be an apprentice at the Dallah dockyards.
After the first term in the 9th standard, I came home for the summer holidays to find father a shadow of his old self. As his weekly letters full of news had not contained the slightest hint of any illness, it came as a great shock. Mother put the cause of the illness to a change of diet from meat to vegetables as the result of his study of Hinduism; but as father had made the change three years before and as he had told everyone how well he felt all along, that wouldn't wash. But now he was not able to stomach even vegetables without discomfort. He suffered from long bouts of abdominal pains and slept badly. Eventually on doctor Po Mya's insistence father was taken to the General Hospital, where I spent most of each day keeping him company. On his bad days very little would be said; but on good days, and there were quite a few of them, he spoke gaily of the days of his youth, told stories against himself, laughed and cracked jokes. But I could see he was going downhill, Dr. Po Mya still playing hopeful said diagnosis was difficult, while the Civil Surgeon kept up a cheerful appearance when he came on his rounds. Mother and I lived from day to day without questioning. Then one afternoon when I got back to hospital after lunch, I found father blue to the lips and shivering with cold. A large window had been left open by a ward servant and through this, a tropical rainstorm had blown, soaking him and the bedclothes, A complete change of clothes, a bed packed with hot water bottles, then a hot drink, rallied father remarkably quickly. In a couple of hours he was fairly comfortable. Contrary to expectations, father was full of beans the next day. Much to my surprise he said:
"I feel very much better. After yesterday's experience, I am sure we can manage far better at home, Both the doctors have agreed to let me go home. Will you bring me my clothes this afternoon and ask mother to have a bed made up in the upstairs front room. It will be cooler there."
Though I should have read something into the sudden change in the attitude of the doctors, I did not. Instead we were filled with relief and joy. With just a little help from me, father managed to walk from Dr., Po Mya's car to his bed upstairs. The next two days were the happiest we had know for several weeks; the pains had ceased. Mother was asked to cook a beef and pork dish which he had enjoyed years ago - no, the cook wouldn't know how - mother had to be the one to cook it. He enjoyed every mouthful of the reasonable helping he had taken and what was more there were no after effects,
But the next day started badly, Before 7 in the morning, father was in such pain that he insisted I go for the doctor at once. The excruciating pains had now gone down to the legs. He was in agony. I rushed out and rushed back, The doctor was with us within the hour. When the legs were examined I was horrified to see them black and blue. He gave some pills for the pain but the pain would not budge, He then applied belladonna plasters to the legs and gave more pills. The pains went on. Mother called the doctor to the next room and begged him to give father a painkilling injection. There were tears in his eyes as he said:
"I wish I could. It will kill him. Why hurt him any more." He and father had been good friends for over 20 years, Asking me to call him if father got worse he left quietly.
Even then I did not realise how desperate matters were. It was a hot windless day. Mother kept wiping the wet forehead with a large handkerchief squeezed out in Eau de Cologne while I kept giving him sips of water, in between pains for an hour or so. Gradually the plaster and the pills began to work bringing a measure of relief. His breathing became less irregular; soon he was asleep. Mother and the children were at the foot of the bed while I was at the head when at about midday father stirred and in a firm voice said,
"Prop me up, I can't breathe,"
I lifted the wasted body with one hand and arranged the pillows with the other as I had done times out of number before and let him down gently. The eyes which had remained closed suddenly opened wide as if something very important had to be said, the next instant he straightened up a trifle and opened his mouth to its widest extent as a rattle welled up the throat. His mouth closed and his chin dropped to his chest. I couldn't believe it; I could not take in. Automatically 1 rearranged the pillows and placed father back on the bed, then went to mother who was sobbing, sobbing, and sobbing while unending tears coursed down her cheeks, My sisters and my brother began to wail, It was his birthday the 25th May,
A large number of people, many I did not know, came to offer their condolences and to have their last look at father laid out where grandfather had been laid out before. There was so much to do so many things for me to attend to that I was run off my feet, on the day of the funeral as the result of a garbled message to the effect that the coffin could not be ready. I left the home at 7 in the morning and cycled at breakneck speed some three miles only to find that everything was under control. The funeral procession started out on time without a hitch. The Civil surgeon read the funeral service attended by a handful of Christians and a large gathering of Burmese, Indians and Chinese of other faiths and members of the Theosophical Society. Though numbed and dulled with the constant misery which had oppressed me since father died, the solid silent emptiness of the house chilled me to the bone on this hot summer afternoon on the return from the funeral. Had every stick of' furniture been removed while we had been away, the emptiness of the house would have made far less impact. In the days that followed my eyes could not stay away from the solid teak longsleever,
Back at school there was considerable leeway to make up as father's illness, death and funeral had meant missing several weeks of schooling. The need to work more and study harder left little time for moping. However the problem of what I should do to get immediate gainful employment after the High School Final was seldom out of my thoughts. Then in the October holidays, I was given a holiday trip on an Irrawaddy Flotilla Company's bazaar boat to Bhamo and back. On that trip I had the company of Mr. Smailes, a very senior Conservator of Forests, who enlarged and glorified the wonderful life of a Forest Officer. If selected I would be sent to Dehra Dun, India, for two years at the expense of Government and return as a gazetted officer of the service. This meant that I would be off my mother's hands within a few months. As my selection depended greatly on how well I did in the exam, I waited for the results with much anxiety. It was Dr. Po Mya who hurried over one morning with a copy of the Rangoon Gazette to congratulate me for having been placed fourth in order of merit for the whole of Burma and for being awarded one of the twelve collegiate scholarships. In great glee, I pointed out to mother that I was certain of being selected for the Forest service. Instead of being pleased she was horrified I was bound to do a lot of shooting and take many lives. She could not bear to think of the thousands upon thousands of horrid existences in which I would have to suffer as punishment for all the lives I would have taken. Besides, she had her sights firmly fixed on the post of that high-up official in the Administrative Department of Government, Deputy Commissioner or even Commissioner for me; certainly not someone having to live in the jungle with trees to work with. She would be so proud of me as a Deputy Commissioner, whereas she could feel nothing but shame for a Forest Officer dyed with the blood of his slaughtered victims,
At this juncture, my godfather, the Revd. N. K. Anderson, now Archdeacon, Rangoon stepped in. After congratulating me on my success he wrote to say that the Rangoon Diocesan Council had awarded me a bursary to enable me to make use of the scholarship I had gained. He further added that recruitment to Dehra Dun had ceased, that High school Finalists would now have to do two years in the intermediate science before offering themselves for selection for a Forestry degree at the University. I had only one course open he said, get ready and come and join the University. I could stay with him for the few days before I settled in. Mother was a little happier, As we had never talked about my going into further studies she was understandably confused. However, for mother the forestry business was out of the way for two years and anything could happen in between.
The Rangoon University Act, severing our ties with the Calcutta University, to which Rangoon College had been attached, had recently been passed, giving us out own University of two colleges, the University College and the Judson College. Not knowing a thing about subjects, courses, careers, or anything to do with higher education, I went to the University College to register and there milled about asking other Anglos (that is how we termed ourselves) from Mawmyo, Mandalay, Moulmein and Rangoon, What they were intending to do. Science seemed to be the thing. For medicine chemistry, physics, maths and biology; for Forestry chemistry, physics, maths, botany; for Engineering chemistry, physics, maths and higher maths; and so on and so on. To me science appeared to offer more openings, whereas Arts subjects such as Geography, History, English, Philosophy etc teemed to lead nowhere. So I applied to do science, taking chemistry, physics, maths and compulsory English. This way I could have a base for getting into the Forestry course.
About this time, mother went into the new and lucrative business of running passenger buses with the help of her old friend and chettyar for the part of the capital needed. For quite a time everything went well. Not only was mother able to pay the interest every month but also something towards the principal. Then more and more buses came on the road; competition grew keener, fares were cut, drivers and sparemen pocketed more and more of the fares collected until earning fell much below expenses. One morning, while worrying where the next lot of interest would come from, Mother looked up at the click of the gate and saw a venerable old man dressed in full white walking up the path. She took him to be the usual old gentleman spending the last of his days working as a layman in a monastery to acquire merit, not only through good works but also through meditation in its peace and tranquillity. She therefore had no hesitation in opening the front door even before he could knock.
The old man, straight, tall and erect for all his years, came in and sat down on the smooth mat on which had been placed in readiness the usual betel box, a lacquer salver of cheroots, matches and the inevitable spittoon for the use of the betel chewer.
"Which monastery do you represent, venerable Sir?" mother asked as she seated herself some four or five feet away. The kindly faced old man answered in a surprisingly strong voice:
"Though I have worked for several monasteries in the past, I have not come on a mission from one of them today. I have come because I heard you were recently widowed, have seven children to feed, clothe and educate and at this juncture you are in trouble. Helping widows and orphans being one way of gaining merit, I have come to help you."
Mother couldn't believe her ears, Her face cleared as realisation sunk in, she exclaimed:
"Oh how, good of you, venerable Sir. Yes, I am indeed in bad trouble" and went on to explain her predicament in a torrent of words, The old man was all cheer and comfort:
"Take heart" he said soothingly, "I am here to help you to prosperity and ease. There is only one condition: whatever has to be done must be kept a dead secret. Not a soul must know of it, Can you Keep a secret in that way?" The voice ended on a sharp imperious note.
"Oh yes, oh yes" eagerly cried mother. "With happiness and peace of mind at stake nothing will prise the secret out of me."
"I believe and trust you" he said, his tone becoming amiable and friendly again. "However, I must impress it upon you that should you fail me in this, the spells and charms working for you will the work against you and you will be ruined. But first of all there is a formal question I must put to you: Have I your permission to do what is necessary in your house by way of spells and charms?"
"Most certainly" replied mother without a moment's hesitation.
"In that case, these are what you have to get and what you have to do and what you are to have ready." Two days later, mother spent two agonising uncomfortable hours with aunt Daw Hla, who had walked straight into the kitchen in her usual breezy manner. Taking in everything with one comprehensive glance she had exclaimed:
"What is all this, sister? White pancakes, brown pancakes, pork curry, beef curry, hanks of white cotton yarn, hanks of red cotton yarn, a sheaf of dry tobacco leaves, a bunch of bananas, betel nuts, a coconut, cooked rice and raw rice. Looks as if you were preparing for some black magical rite." With a straight face and in a level matter-of-fact voice mother answered:
"You do talk rubbish. These are the offerings the astrologer asked me to make when I consulted him about my grave financial trouble. I'd do any thing to get myself straight again,"
"Not black magic, I trust" Daw Hla playfully remarked as they proceeded to the front room there to have their usual natter. Mother was on pins and needles in case the old man turned up; but at long last her sister left,
Quickly mother cleared her dressing room of her dressing mirror, the grinding stone for making face packs, small billets of sandal and other sweet smelling woods for face packs, switches of false hair, eye black, eyebrow brushes, combs, hairpins etc. taking care not to leave the slightest trace of her occupation. Having swept out and cleaned the room, something she had never done since she always had servants or little maids to help, she took a breather. She then brought in all the articles seen by her sister, who left out only one article, a brand new galvanised tub of about twenty inches in diameter by a foot deep. This she half filled with clean water, and left the room carefully closing the door behind her.
Five minutes later, the old man arrived with a heavy paper-wrapped rectangular parcel in his hands, He nodded to mother then went straight into the dressing room gave a quick glance and said he was pleased with the arrangements, then locked himself in.
After a few moments of silence, mother became aware of a deep-throated voice chanting softly, so softly that try as she could she could not make out a single word. Even when the voice was raised in sharp command as it happened several times, the words made no sense. At long last there was silence for several minutes, then the door opened, The old man beckoned and mother went in. She was surprised and somewhat dismayed to see two large flat rectangular bricks used many centuries ago in Pagoda construction lying immersed in the galvanised tub, because bricks from Pagodas are deemed to be too sacred to be brought into a dwelling house. The tub with large beeswax candles burning brightly on each side of it had become the centrepiece with everything else arranged around it. The hanks of white and red cotton yarn draped and festooned the bananas, coconut, raw rice, tobacco leaves, betel nuts etc. giving the place a festive air in the light of the candles. Concentrating on taking it all in, the old man's voice startled mother.
"These two bricks are from an old and much venerated pagoda. You must ensure that there is always sufficient water to cover them. By dawn the candles should have burnt out. When that happens collect and throw away all the cooked food plus the bananas leaving all the other offerings where they are. One last thing, keep the room locked, on no account should anyone but you enter. I shall leave now. Take heart, everything will go well with you from now on."
"Oh thank you, thank you," exclaimed mother, eyes bright with unshed tears of happiness and relief, "How can I ever repay you for all you have done for me?"
"Keep to my instructions and keep the secret, That will be repayment. In due course, I shall receive my reward." Saying which, the old man opened the front door and was gone,
Now that everything was over, mother waited impatiently for Mi May, a little girl of 11, a distant cousin, companion and maid, who had been sent to Aunt Daw Hla for the day to keep her out of the way. She had done enough work for the day and wanted Mi May to get the bath ready and do something about food. Mother heard her steps in clogs and sighed with relief.
It was a miracle. Money flowed in as never before, over and above paying all expenses, the interest and a fair bit of the capital, there would be something for her and a lot more for her children. She went about with a buoyant step and a light heart, spreading cheer wherever she went. She could pay the chettyar the next day and in preparation took out the steel cash box from the teak chest, counted out 20 five-rupee notes, locked the box, placed it in the chest and locked that. She then tied the note in a handkerchief, placed the bundle under the pillow and got into bed. Mi May had been sound asleep whilst mother was thus engaged.
At the chettyar's the next morning, mother pushed the bundle of notes across saying:
"You'll find a hundred rupees there; thirty for interest and seventy towards the principal."
She was quite unprepared for the chettyar's next remark:
"Oh Daw Ngwe Nyun, had it not been for those gold-washed copper bangles, I would have taken this as a joke, look there are only 12 five rupee notes here not twenty as you will have me believe. What are you trying to do?" And he was right, Yet she was sure and certain she had bundled twenty notes the night before. With an abject apology, she returned home for more money.
It was very worrying, The next payment she had to make for petrol and other supplies, she again counted out the exact amount needed wrapped the money in a handkerchief and placing it under the pillow, went to sleep. The next morning, she opened the handkerchief and counted the cash very carefully only to find thirty rupees missing, Adding the missing thirty from the cashbox she went out and paid the bill. There was no discrepancy there. Each time she kept money out overnight, varying sums from a third to a half of the money would disappear. There was only Mi May in the house with her, a house bolted and barred from inside, And Mi May was absolutely innocent. Besides, all this had started after the old man had done his spells and charms, He did say he would get his reward in due course. Was the missing money his share? As the disappearance of the money was connected to the spells, it was impossible for mother to consult anyone. Besides even with the money disappearing as it had been doing there was still sufficient for her needs and something over, she was far better off than before the old man came. So why worry? Mother had reached this decision with some relief and would not have troubled herself at any more disappearances, had she not been brought up with a jolt one night. Looking through the open doorway of her bedroom after waking suddenly, mother saw a young woman of about 18 walk by in the passage to the front room. A minute later, she was back again, but this time She was walking to the room at the back of the house. Mother rubbed her eyes to brush away the dream; but there was the young woman passing by again as if on sentry-go. It was no dream. With chilling spine and spreading gooseflesh, mother took in the long black hair hanging down the back to the waist, the red longyi tied over the breast up to the arm-pits, the pretty face marred by wildly staring eyes and the graceful unhurried steps for perhaps the fifth time of passing the bedroom door. Then drawing together the last vestiges of fast-draining courage, she shouted "Mi May, Mi May", leapt out of bed and flashed the electric torch up and down the passage there was nothing to be seen. Hearing Mi May's voice sleepily asking "Did you call, Auntie?" steadied mother who said:
"Yes child. Come into my bed. I have had a nightmare and feel somewhat nervous." Mi May curled up and was back asleep in minutes leaving mother to sit up and keep watch with a heavy torch in her hand. Every time she dozed, the thought of that slim brown hand of the girl in red feeling for the bundle of notes would startle her into wakefulness: the torch would go on and there would be nothing strange to see. By and by sleep would take over for a spell the wakefulness. At first light Mi May was sent off to summon aunt Daw Hla, who arriving out of breath was greeted with:
"I am so glad you are here, I couldn't have stood it another hour" from mother.
"What is it, what happened?" shouted Daw Hla excitedly. With Mi May in the kitchen, mother told her tale.
Having closely followed the story with Ahs and Oohs Daw Hla wrung her hands at the end and said:
"Oh sister, what have you let yourself in for? I did say you were indulging in black magic, It seems it was worse. You explicitly gave that old devil permission to bring an evil spirit into your house. He was no charitable old man. He must work with the devil. The only person who can save us is the Sayadaw of Laydat monastery, Let's go to him as soon as we have breakfasted."
The Sayadaw looked very grave as mother ended her story. There was silence for a long moment; he then spoke in a voice of deep concern:
"I am hoping, we will be in good time. You are fortune to have been given a glimpse of the spirit that would sooner or later have mortally harmed you. She had probably died of childbirth or been cut off in her youth in sudden death - either murder or accident. After such a death the spirit is unable to fit into normal niches and wander about desperately looking for a place. It is then that an evil man versed in black magic uses his art to inveigle and bind the lost spirit to be at his beck and call and do his bidding. Up to know, it has been money. But sooner or later she would have claimed her right as her wage to kill you and consume you in order to free herself from his bondage and bind you to him in her place. Your stars must have been in good aspect for you to have been able to come to me before real harm had been done. Maybe merits gained in previous existences Here helpful. Now return home, hand the two bricks over to the two Koyins (novitiates) I am sending with you. Throw the water from the tub well away from the house and burn every scrap of offerings still left, again in the compound burying the ashes deep thereafter. Take this amulet as protection against evil. Invite the guardian spirit of the house to return and do his duty. He had to leave 'when you gave permission to the wicked old man to do his will. I am certain those bricks will turn out to have been taken from a cemetery duly inscribed with cabalistic signs and spells, which I will annul and destroy. Once this has been done, the guardian spirit of the house will be able to evict the evil spirit. Both of you must stay in the house to back the guardian spirit and support him. Do not be frightened at noises of strife: the result of good work being done. Remember the amulet will protect you both.
Mother and Aunt carried out the instructions to the letter. As darkness deepened so did their nervousness rise, Locking every door and window, the two sisters huddled together in the big bed, listening to the increasing bangs, thumps and groans from the dressing room. Then at midnight peace and silence descended on the house, with a grateful sigh of thanks to the guardian spirit the sisters sank into deep sleep.
The song of birds woke them up. It was daylight with Daw Hla exclaiming:
"I feel a great load has been removed from my head. I feel so good." But mother felt different, Yawning, she slowly sat up and said:
"I feel tired, heavy, listless and unrefreshed. I suppose I had better get up" and followed her sister to the bathroom. They had just got dressed when there was a heavy-handed knock at the door. Opening it, mother was startled and frightened by the tall, erect old man pushing past her into the room in a towering rage. Gone was the benevolence and gentle air of helpfulness. His eyes flashed with an evil glare, while the upper lip curved in a snarl as he faced mother and spat out the word:
"You traitor, you wretch. You breaker of promises; it shall be the worse for you." At this point Daw Hla pushed into the room and shouted:
"Don't you dare to curse my sister. It will be the worse for you anyway, you evil hearted, vile, horrible, devilish black magician. Get out of this house you monster, see this amulet, It protects us from you. I will burn you with it if you don't leave." So saying she moved forward pointing the amulet at him but before she could reach him, the baleful fire in his eyes died, the lips drooped, the upright man vanished. Cowered and bent, showing all his years and more, the old man shuffled away never to be seen again.
With his departure, mother's sense of heaviness and oppression vanished. So did her new-found prosperity. She must have had a balance of piled up merit because on selling up the business she was able to pay off all outstanding bills and the chettyar's loan. The principal she had put in at the start had been her only loss.
Having registered as a science student, I was allotted a place in a hostel on Pagoda road within easy reach of the main college buildings on Commissioner's road. It was just opposite the Jubilee Hall built to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, where dances, concerts, plays, boxing tournaments etc. were held much to our enjoyment when funds permitted. Pagoda road ended at the world renowned Shwedagon Pagoda which gleamed and glinted down at us from half a mile away; while about the same distance from us but in the opposite direction stood the large Anglican Cathedral. We were certainly well situated. Our hostel, a converted dwelling house, held 8 Anglos, 3 Indians and 19 Burmans; the 30 of us accepting one another without question and becoming one big amicable family.
With lectures and study during working hours and football, hockey, tennis, athletics and social activities in leisure time, two years flashed by with the Senior Intermediate science examination suddenly descending upon us. Having obtained distinctions in English and Chemistry and doing fairly well in Physics, Maths and Burmese I felt confident of being selected for the Forestry Degree course. The Registrar, however, had a shock for me. The course would now take three years, a preliminary year of field training before the actual degree work having just been introduced. The prospect of three years of study if I wanted to be appointed to the Burma Forest Service instead of an Honours degree and a job at the end of two years, needed much mulling over. Somehow the call of the gun seemed to grow fainter while the pull of the great outdoors and the magic of the jungle grew weaker the more I thought, till finally I decided to ditch Forestry. Mother was the first to learn of my decision. It gladdened her heart to know that her son would not have to go through a lot of awful existences. She said:
"U Pon Na, the famous astrologer, will yet prove to be right in his predictions despite all your efforts to prove him wrong,"
I smiled at this because I had decided to do Honours Chemistry that would lead me to an Industrial or an academic career. The question was whether Professor D.H. Peacock, head of chemistry, a tartar by all accounts, would accept me. He hummed and hawed, played hard to get, then grudgingly consented. I felt he was cutting me down to size in case the distinction in his subject had gone to my head.
There was another change for me. Several hundred of us were moved to new purpose-built hotels well out of Rangoon in the vicinity of the Kokhine lakes, an area in which the new University and College buildings would eventually be constructed. College buses took us every morning to Commissioner's road and brought us back in the evening. Each hostel had cubicles opening on to wide verandas and contained a large dining hall, the usual cooking and toilet facilities. An assistant warden was in charge. Had it not been for the wide views of the wood which we had from the verandas, we would have felt we were in a jail as our hostel like others had high steel link fences, not to contain us within but to keep out the large community of thieves, dacoits, robbers and dangerous criminals whose jungle homes we had usurped. In the early days, many a time did a bunch of us chase thieves with hockey sticks as our weapon against their knives. We were completely cut off from the fleshpots of Rangoon and had to content ourselves with swimming, rowing, football, hockey, tennis and athletics, each in its season. Being much bigger made than the average Burman, I did rather well at sports. Of course there was study as well; study which we could not neglect with Professor Peacock pushing us the way he did. Then the convocation, the honours degree in chemistry, but not the end of University life. While marking time before I decided what I wanted to do, I took the job of demonstrator and Tutor in chemistry and an assistant warden of a hostel, the rowdiest and the most unruly of them all as it turned out, greatly to my discredit with the principal Dr. Schloss.
During the Summer vacation, I had done some work at the labs of the Burma Oil company's refinery at Syriam to see if I had a bent 1n that direction. The repetitive nature of the analytical work of low grade, which most of the chemists there were doing, went against my grain. I wanted to be put into research, but from what I could see that type of work would not come my way for many years. At the moment it was reserved for young men coming out from England. Still it was something to mull over.
I was still playing with the idea of becoming an industrial chemist when several men of my year turned up with an application form to sit the Burma Civil Service (administrative branch) exam for me to fill in. I hummed and hawed but was pressured into joining them. And on the last day for filing of applications and with half an hour to spare before crediting the exam fees at the Treasury, I handed over the application and paid in the cash.
To prepare for the examination to be held in the first week of October, I went to Maymyo, a very pleasant hill station with a large box of books. Maymyo had been chosen, not only for its climate but also because my true love had gone there for a holiday. I was totally, completely and desperately in love and could not bear to be separated from her for the whole month of the college vacation. However, with much pushing on her part I did manage to do some work, At the end of the month, all the work I had put in seemed to have been wasted. When I presented myself at the railway station to catch a train that would get me to Rangoon two days before the examination, I was told that floods had breached the line at various places and that trains were not running. Rain had continued to fall and there was no likelihood of any through trains for some time. I could, however, smile somewhat wryly at the thought that old U Pon Na was going to be wrong. After all, if I couldn't get into the examination hall I couldn't be appointed to the Burma Civil Service, could I? Anyway, for form's sake if for nothing else, I presented myself at the station the next day. The line was still breached. With very little hope left I went again the following day and to my great surprise was ushered into a compartment on the first train to do the 430 miles to Rangoon since the floods. We got into Rangoon dead on time - five minutes past 8 - and at 9 a.m. I was in the hall to answer when my name was called.
Chemistry, physics and maths papers were not too difficult; but I could have done with proper study of subsidiary maths instead of a last minutes shot, because I lost 30 marks on an easy question in maths through being unable to remember a simple formula in calculus. Political Science, Education in India and Huxley's 'stream of life', however were new to me, I had not given them sufficient study, whilst managing to do some inspired bluffing in the written stuff, I floundered badly in viva. That is where they catch chaps with but a skin of knowledge of a subject. Two or three deft questions and there you are naked and exposed. There was the business of the period in time when the animal nearest Homo Sapiens first walked the earth. Each successive guess I made was more widely and wildly off the mark. Two things saved we. The board must have made some allowances for my not having done biology for one thing and for another. Professor Fraser who had been my lecturer in English was a member of the board. He could have done a little explaining on behalf of a chap who had never touched political science or education or Darwin's theory. After I had floundered in answering questions put by the other two members, Professor Fraser asked me:
"Have you ever watched monkeys in a zoo?"
"Yes" I answered.
"What, in you opinion, motivates them?"
"Instinct" I replied shortly.
"What motivates you?" was the next question.
"Logical thought and intuition."
"Indeed. Do you seriously believe there is all that difference between you and one of them?"
On that note of laughter and hilarity I left the room feeling that my written stuff could not have been that bad.
The results of the examination appeared in the Rangoon Gazette early in December. I had been placed third on the list. Then on the 13th January 1928 a notification in the Burma Gazette appointed me and two others to the Administrative Branch of the Burma Civil Service. So I had just scraped home. The same notification posted me to Thaton, the Headquarters of Thaton District for training.
"What did I tell you" exclaimed mother jubilantly, "U Pon Na's prediction has come to pass in spite of all you did. But what troubles me is his further prediction that you will become a high-up Army Officer and as such you will be in grave danger of losing your life. But how can, say, the Deputy Commissioner, Monywa become the Battalion Commandant of the Military Police, Monywa?" (the military police being the nearest thing to the Army that mother could think of). I am thankful that this prediction never once entered my head to worry me for the next 15 years.
But I must return to life at college again for another facet, From my earliest years, I had observed MODESTY being drummed and drilled into my younger aunts, cousins and sisters, It was immodest for a girl to look straight at a boy or a young man. Sitting or standing near a male was forbidden. Even if a boy is seated 15 feet away at the other end of the room, a girl is forbidden to sit on the same floorboards at her end of the room, There must be no touching of any kind. Modesty is held to be so precious to a Burmese woman, that a man can be convicted of "violating the modesty of a female" by the mere attempt at holding her hand and punished with fine or imprisonment or both. Growing up in this atmosphere, I must have come to the conclusion that girls should be left to hold on to their modesty and to ensure this I kept well out of their way. Arriving at the University, I was still of the same mind even though I was now dealing with Anglo girls and not Burmese. The annual picnic and the dance which followed a fortnight later, organised by us Anglos, for Anglos, were occasions for boy meet girl; but in my case nothing came of it, Either I was plain stodgy or was just unresponsive due to my background. I continued to stick to football, hockey tennis, swimming, rowing and athletics.
In my second year, a Girls' Friendly Society Hostel, sponsored by the Anglican Church, opened its doors to house some 12 to 18 Anglo working girls, just around the corner from our hostel. Within a fortnight of this event two of our thick-skinned and more adventurous hostel mates had established contact and pretty soon most of the Anglos of our hostel were on visiting terms. I assiduously kept away; but one evening in a weak moment, my pal Lynsdale pressured me to go with him to the G.F.W. fancy dress dance dressed in the unoriginal but the easiest obtainable costume - that of a Burman. And there, I danced time after time with a most captivating, lovely, beautiful harem girl with glorious eyes full of fun and witchery, But alas, at the end of the evening Lynsdale had this to say to me:
"There is a handsome young lawyer, Ernest by name, she is fond of and there is said to be an understanding."
I went off my food, a very rare occurrence with me. I couldn't settle to anything. I was restless, impatient, bad tempered, depressed. I had never ever been as miserable as this, all because I wanted to be in the company of this harem girl who loved another. Stern discipline kept me in leash. It was all of two weeks before I had to give in and make for the G.F.S. And there she was as cool as a cucumber and most friendly. I don't know what I had expected, but not quite that, I suppose I had expected her to know how much I cared. However she appeared to like my company (which was a solace) and, learning that she liked going out in groups, Lynsdale and I arranged for her and her friend to go with us to the zoo, the pictures, football matches and on Sundays to attend services at the nearby Cathedral. So we drifted on as good friends even after she had left the hostel to join her mother on the latter's return from England. Her mother's place being so far from the University, Lynsdale and I could not visit her quite so often but we were able to stay longer and enjoy her mother's lavish hospitality. By and by Lynsdale dropped out. Then after the absence of about a fortnight. I was horrified to find her terribly ill, a mere shadow of her former self. As her mother's old-fashioned doctor had not done her any good, I dashed off to the General Hospital and collected Dr, Otman (who I had known through his nephew, a college pal) to give her proper treatment. It was, touch and go. During one of the long watches at her bedside, it suddenly came on me how much I loved her and how desperately I wanted her to get well and smile once more I would do anything, anything in the world to have this happen. At long last she recovered; she to proceed to Darjeeling to recuperate for six weeks, I to return home for my vacation. She came to see me off at the railway station and as I bent down to kiss her, I saw heaven in her beautiful, clear trusting eyes. In that one moment, with that one look and without a word spoken, Vanessa and I must have plighted our troth. We both became good correspondents. Vanessa gave details of all the picnics, parties, dances, trips to see Everest from Tiger Hill etc, she was enjoying. While one part of me was happy at her happiness the other part of me was in a turmoil of jealousy of the lads with her and frustration at not being able to be there. Knowing these feelings to be senseless and pointless did not make it easier to bear. When at long, long last we met again in Rangoon, how glorious Vanessa looked after the splendid holiday she had had in the bright scintillating tonic air of the Himalayas. A couple of days later, my heart missed a beat when she showed me a large diamond ring another, Ernest, had given her. Had she got engaged? "No" she said. Then how come the ring? "Ernest made me take it, to think over his proposal and to send for him if the answer was a yes" And now? "I am about to pack it and return it to him by insured post," she said. I breathed a great sigh of relief. Memories of our separation and Darjeeling were soon behind us and the months slipped away. December with my success in the B.C.S. examination was now upon us. What was the point in waiting when I had a job in my pocket? Vanessa and I fixed the 26th January 1928 as the date for our wedding at the little Anglican church at Monywa. But the plan had to be changed. The arrangement for calling the banns had to be done by post for the Riverine Chaplain to do the needful. Arriving back at his headquarters after a three weeks tour, the Chaplain realised on reading my letter that the third banns could never be called in time and telegraphed the news to me. And that is how Vanessa and I were married on the date fixed by Donald Burman Petch, I.C.S., in his capacity as the District Magistrate and the Registrar in the same court room as my father and mother had been married so many years before. There was a jolly reception which went on for hours; then late at night we were escorted to the railway Station where we slept in a specially reserved first class compartment on the train due to leave at six in the morning. At 5 a.m. our friends were back again with sandwiches and flasks of hot coffee for a final goodbye. They had yet to get to bed.
Married and together at last the journey to Mandalay passed quickly. Dinner at the station, then we were on the Rangoon train, with a coupe to ourselves we were comfortably ensconced as the mail train pushed itself along hour after hour. After some hours of fitful sleep I finally woke up at 2 a,m. unable to drop off again. A quarter of an hour later, there was an almighty crash, my head and body were jerked into the pillows and the padded bunkhead as the train came to a sudden stop. Vanessa, thrown out of her bunk, rubbed her eyes and sleepily asked, "what's happened?"
Pressing the light switch proved useless. We were in pitch darkness. It was not much better when I let down a window as it was a dark moonless night outside, a night of eerie silence. Then the screams, yells and cries of pain and agony yelled up from below and pierced the thick night. Getting out of the compartment, I flashed my electric torch here and there and discovered that ours was the first carriage on the line. Two passenger bogies had been flung across the bridge while the steam engine and several third class passenger coaches crammed with people were lying, a mass of wreckage, in the dry bed of the stream some 40 feet below.
One of the passengers, the Revd. B. Case, a Minister of the American Baptist Mission, who knew what had to be done, took charge. He found the emergency kit of crowbars, axes, saws, hammers etc. from the Guard's van and organised the pulling out of the dead and living bodies from the wreckage. He sent off the utterly useless Guard of the train to walk the mile or so to the Kyauktaga railway station to rouse the station staff to warn other trains of the derailment and to ask far a relief train. Others he sent off to bring back whatever first aid supplies they could lay their hands on, and then dived into the wreckage. Suddenly the safety valve of the engine blew, spewing super-heated steam through the wreckage scalding all those trapped above the engine. As the weak light from the east gradually seeped on to the scene, the extent of the disaster became more and more evident. Long after dawn when the relief train with Engineers, railway gangs, doctors and orderlies arrived we had already pulled out some 30 dead and 60 badly injured. We extracted a completely unharmed baby from the arms of the mother, the upper part of whose head had been neatly sliced off. Another woman in a standing position had been squeezed as flat as a pancake in the carriage on the other side of the bridge but her face, head and long thick black hair flowing down her back were untouched. People with broken legs, broken arms, injured faces and contused bodies had to be manhandled and given the roughest of first aid without splints, without stretchers and with inadequate bandages to start with. Then at long last the relief train and fresh men had arrived to take over.
By 7 a,m, we were due to walk across the sleepers of the hundred-foot-long bridge; but Vanessa in her shocked and sleepless state was in no condition to face what would have been an ordeal in normal circumstances. Help however was at hand. Reggie Hard who had been with me at St. Mary's, Mandalay, so many years before literally bumped into me at this point. Told of our predicament, he said he was on the Railways and that this was no problem. Out of nowhere it seemed he produced a rail-trolley, complete with trolleymen; and we were able to cross the bridge in comfort. It was Hard who told me that the removal of fishplates from the lines at the bridge-approach had caused the derailment. It was subsequently established that the derailment had been planned to wreck a long paddy train that was to be looted; but because a fault developed in the engine, it had had to travel over the crucial points fairly slowly and thus escaped derailment. The guard remembered a distinct bump as his van at the end of the paddy train approached the bridge and reported the matter at the next railway junction but at that time of the night, no one had bothered. The bump of course had parted the lines and when the mail train came at speed it left the rails at that point and plunged into the streambed. How the two carriages got across the line is a mystery to this day; but the break in the vacuum brake system thus caused, stopped the carriage in which Vanessa and I had travelled on the very brink of chasm,
We encountered another piece of luck at the Kyauktaga railway station where the relief train was drawn up and where there was not even a waiting room. An English couple living there found us and took us to their home a short distance away. Fresh towels, soap and plenty of hot water put new life into us. And to cap it all the dining room had toast, hot coffee, bacon and eggs and fruit waiting for us. I hadn't realised how empty I was till I got a whiff of the aroma of that food, I fell on it; but poor Vanessa could not manage anything more than a bit of toast and a cup of coffee. We were so bemused that we could not remember our mothers who would be getting news of the greatest disaster that the Burma Railways had ever had. It was the two Samaritans who questioned us, took addresses and sent an express telegram on our behalf to allay the fears and anxieties for our safety. On leaving the kind couple words failed us when we tried to thank them; but they understood. Then we were on a train once more for Rangoon, which we reached weary and worn out that afternoon to be besieged by many reporters swarming the main platform for eyewitness news. Then some food, a bath, change of clothes and another train, Rangoon-Moulmein, and we were on the final leg to our destination, Thaton. We were able to have a hot breakfast at the Railway refreshment room soon after we arrived at 8 a,m, and wonder of wonders our kit booked at Monywa in the luggage van had arrived with us. Reggie Hard must have got his men to move the stuff from the van of the derailed train to the relief train. We had been extremely fortunate; neither of us had even been scratched and at every turn when help was needed there it was waiting on us. Even so it was a little tough for two on a honeymoon.
We settled into the rambling old wooden rest house otherwise called the Dak Bungalow till such time as we could find a house to rent, engaged a cook, Maung Chan, we were to keep with us for the next 7 years till he died on us at Mawlaik. Thus commenced our married life. The next day I was in the office of the Deputy Commissioner, Thaton District, starting on my training of two years as a member of the Administrative Branch of the Burma Civil Service.