3: Problems

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."