7: Childhood

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.