8: Sundry Experiences

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.