6: Changes

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.