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.