9: Growing Up

Only when the Dhurzi (Indian tailor) arrived to measure me for shirts, shorts, suits, etc. was I told that I would soon be going to a boarding school in Mandalay. Sheets, pillowcases, towels, handkerchiefs, Eton collars, table napkins, stockings, socks, a boater etc rapidly came together. With all this happening, I must have been very dim because it came as a great shock when I found myself seated in a first class compartment with the Revd. Edmunds, the riverine Chaplain, who was taking me to St. Mary's church of England school for boys at Mandalay, his headquarters. He used to hold monthly services in Monywa and called at our place on those occasions, when the question of my schooling must have been gone into. The arrangements they had decided upon had culminated in my heading for a new school completely and utterly different from the one I had known.

A side-wheel paddle steamer ferried us across the wide Irrawaddy at Sagaing (the great Aka bridge would not be built for many a year) and on the ferry I tucked into a huge lunch. Having left home at 6 in the morning, I needed that feed in spite of coffee and biscuits provided in between by my host.

During that day-long journey the conversation was all on Revd. Edmunds side. I had little to say beyond a 'yes' and a 'no' here and there, some times wondering if I had not misfired. It was not that I was ill at ease at this my first railway journey; in other circumstances I would have enjoyed it enormously. The simple reason I was nervous tongue-tied and ashamed was my lack of English. Had Revd. Edmunds spoken In Burmese I would have been an excellent travelling companion. With father so much away I had spoken nothing but Burmese, learning very little English at school where it was taught as a second language with phrases in textbooks such as:

'A fat hen ran'

With an illustration of a large English hen bearing no resemblance to the scraggy Burmese fowl. The book had apples and pears, foxes and sheep but no mangoes or papayas, leopards or bullocks, The more Revd. Edmunds tried to put me at ease with light conversation, the more frustrated, ashamed and uncomfortable I became. The journey was a nightmare. How he must have rued the day he had gaily volunteered to rearrange his programme of services to accompany me to school. Now and again, my thoughts would leap forward wondering how I would manage at the English school. At the Mandalay Railway station, we got into a gharry (horse drawn carriage) to be driven 2 ½ miles into the heart of Port Dufferin, which housed my school, the central jail, the Government house, many barracks, Officer's messes and the Burmese Royal Palace. I Has taken in by a kindly matron who showed me my dormitory, bed and locker and left me to unpack. I had arrived.

As I sat on my bed quite alone in that dormitory of some 20 beds, the thickly falling unusual rain adding to my intense misery, imminent tears were whisked away as if by magic, at the sound of a voice asking me in Burmese where I had come from. From that moment Dick Mundt was to become a life-long friend. I had so greatly funked the first day, the first week, the first month with little or no English that the relief of having Dick and half a dozen other boys more or less in the same boat as myself was tremendous. The big black cloud hovering over me had vanished. Years later I was to come across an apt passage: "The Lord tempers the wind for the shorn lamb."

I was placed in the lowest form of the school, the third standard. I did badly from the word go, always at or near the bottom of the class for the first three-quarters of the school year. Then quite suddenly and miraculously, impositions, detentions and canings ceased to be my lot. I began to do better. Somehow the damage caused by the fracture must have healed much to my great joy and relief. But I was quite unprepared for what happened at the end-of-the-year concert and prize distribution. When my name was called I hid, thinking I would be given a dunce's cap; but the head prefect soon had me on the stage. There, in the glare of the lights, in full view of the school and masses of other people. I was shaking hands saying Thank you, bowing and walking away, my head in a cloud, my chest sticking out a mile clutching a prize book in my hot hand. Miracles of miracles, it was a form prize I had won for the highest marks scored at the final exam of the year.

Discarding his usual Victorian reserve, my father showed unusual warmth and much excitement when I proudly produced the prize. Mother had tears in her eyes but said nothing. Only then did I realise how greatly he and mother must have worried over me. How many a sleepless night must they have spent over my bad end of term reports when before the accident I had been quite a bright lad. The thought that their son might turn out to be a near idiot must have been constantly in their minds. Now all that was past, relief and joy could take over from anxiety and sorrow. I was overwhelmed with gratitude, my heart overflowed with thankfulness, Mine had been the privilege of bringing home a momentous book: "The Old Curiosity Shop."

In the excitement of my first homecoming, I had not missed granny, that tiny petite bundle of cross-grained, quick tempered, impatient, impetuous, imperious loving femininity. Slim built and all of 4 foot 11 inches in height, she was a great favourite with us as she defied our parents and spoiled us all.

"Where is granny?" I eventually asked.

Father said that perhaps mother should tell me the story. Intrigued, I pricked up my ears,

In the course of trading, granny had come across U Kyaw Mo, a dark skinned gentleman with thick eyebrows and heavy black moustaches. As mother described him, the strongly built virile gentleman came to mind on the occasion of his first visit just before 1 left for Mandalay. He had come on some transaction or the other. As time went on his visits became more frequent much to the amusement of the children Who began teasing granny who in turn had begun to spruce herself up, wearing her finest longyis and taking ages to do her hair and eyebrows whenever he was expected. Mother was not amused. Then one day granny came to mother with a proposition. A friend had pledged some gold bangles for a loan from her of 500 rupees but was unable to repay the loan at the moment, just when granny required 500 rupees to pay for some beans which she had bought. Would mother take over the pledge and let granny have the money. Mother obliged. About three months later mother had a sudden call for cash. As granny was also short, she promptly took the bangles to her usual chettyar as pledge for a loan. 'The bangles were weighed, then re-weighed, a frown deepening on the chettyar's face, He said:

"The bangles feel light. Do you mind if I make a small nick in one?"

Though mystified Mother readily agreed. Of what could the man be thinking?

With a jeweller's file the chettyar made a nick and in it placed a drop of straw coloured liquid. In a moment the colour changed from straw to green. His face distorted with anger he shouted:

"Daw Ngwe Nyun, I never thought you would stoop to this: bringing me as a pledge gold washed copper bracelets."

Mother was so overcome that her incoherent explanation hardly carried conviction. The hot walk back from the market and shopping centre did nothing to damp down the towering burning rage that was consuming her. She, a bogadaw (wife of and Englishman) could have been had up by the chettyar on an attempt at cheating and this all through her mother's doing, a mother she had done everything she could for. There was an unholy row. Granny wept, wailed, nearly had a fit; but mother was adamant, She poked and pestered till she had got the truth, The bangles belonged to U Kyaw Mo who seemed to have disappeared a few weeks before. Give grandmother her due, she had no idea the bangles were spurious. But she was inconsolable, she had been wrongly accused, she, a poor defenceless widow, put upon by everybody, she would end her useless life. If ever she ate a mouthful of rice in her unnatural daughter's house, may she be cursed the seven curses, so on and so on.

No one dared to go near her. Dusk was falling when mother asked one of the children to go and coax granny, only to return saying she was not to be found Night came, with relatives, neighbours and friends enquiring and searching for her everywhere. At first light, the well was inspected in case granny had jumped in, the riverbank and the railway line produced no clues. Then that afternoon a small slight Buddhist nun with red-rimmed eyes walked into the house, More tears all round, but no recriminations. Granny had made straight for a little known nunnery, cut off her long thick hair, had her head shaved and had donned the robes of a nun as a gesture of having given up the world, the flesh and the devil. She divided her time between the nunnery and our house and when I saw her the next day, she, looked far happier than she had since grandfather's death, There was peace and calmness about her that had never been there before. She remarked how tall I was growing, enthused over my prize and made me feel quite important. I was told that she would always be at the nunnery the day before the Sabbath to join other nuns in doing the rounds of houses receiving gifts of raw rice, money, peas, beans etc. towards their subsistence. Though done on the spur of the moment, she was to remain a nun for the rest of her life.

Back to school after Christmas and then on with football, hockey, cricket, swimming, scouting, regular hours of work and study, I enjoyed boarding school life to the full. On Saturdays we had the freedom of the fort. We could fish in the many canals and tanks of the palace grounds, visit the many and varied rooms of the palace, climb the watch tower, view royal garments and other exhibits in the palace museum, watch soldiers and officers at parades, obstacle courses, bayonet practices (the 1914 - 1918 war was still on) and make friends with jolly Gurkha troops whose barracks were not far from our school. Dick Mundt and I had many a feast of puree (wholemeal pancake) and potato curry given us by our Gurkha pals only a few years older than we were.

Then there were the summer holidays of three solid months. Banging an empty kerosene tin did not amuse me anymore. With father now retired, the two of us were about to came together in a companionship that grew stronger and pleasanter as time went on. Gone was the stern unbending Victorian father of the old days when he was home for short periods, demanding instant obedience and servility. We took long walks together early mornings when, after a little chit-chat, stories of his boyhood, adolescence and as a young man would flow readily from father making the long walks appear so much shorter and more enjoyable. He too had fractured his skull. Much to my surprise I learnt that he had been the star gymnast of his year at school. There had been a display by the senior gymnastic team before a distinguished gathering when in the final act on rings, one of the ropes had given way dropping him head first on to the gymnasium floor. He carried his head with the slightest of slants to the right as the result of this mishap. No such story was needed to put me off gymnastics! I already knew I was hopeless, getting completely lost whenever 1 was upended,

Many of these walks had to do with agricultural land. Father and mother had agreed that investing in such land would ensure an additional income to the retirement pension. But as to how it was to be done was heatedly argued and endlessly talked over for months and months. At the start of one of my summer holidays, I came in at the tail end of it all. There had been heated words, a big flare up.

Father's idea was to obtain a grant over 150 acres of wasteland on long lease from Government, clear and drain the particular low-lying area and bring the lot under cultivation with hired labour. A second home would be built there, where he would actively supervise the workmen and where he would keep his draught bullocks, plough cattle, ploughs, harrows and other paraphernalia of agriculture. In fact he would become a farmer, pure and simple.

"What" exclaimed mother, "a Boh (Englishman) to stoop so low beneath his status as to become a humble cultivator! No, never. I couldn't stand being known as a cultivator's wife."

Her own idea was to buy holdings of ten to fifteen acres in various localities which she would let to tenants on previously agreed fraction of the crop as rent. There would be no bother; she would sit back and get her share at the time of harvest, without losing the dignity and status of a Bogadaw.

The quarrels and heated arguments ended in a compromise. Father could apply for the grant of land, demean himself by actively farming, occupying his 'second homestead' which mother called a mat shack she would not move into. She, on the other hand, would commence buying suitable holdings for her own scheme. I was too immature to realise that a house divided could not prosper and thought at the time what a good idea it was for each person to be able to do his own thing.

With a 30 year grant of land from Government on generous terms in his pocket, father bought plough bullocks, draught bullocks, ploughs, harrows etc. and commenced clearing the higher ground on which the buildings for the farm would be put up. They would include a superior mat and thatch hut for father, sheds for cattle and implements, stores etc. and buildings to house the workers. Them came the clearing of the low lying area a much more difficult business, while all, this unusual activity was going on, a topic of much local talk, a group of fishermen chuckled to themselves.

The rains came at the usual time but in this part of the so-called dry zone it did little more than lay the dust. The ground remained stone hard. The Chindwin fed by heavy rains much further north, however, was rising, water crept up small and large ditches, small and large creeks and within a week father's land was a lake,

He was jubilant, "Good" said he, "All that lovely silt will produce marvellous crops of wheat, haricot beans, butter beans, onions and chick peas."

Unfortunately when the level of the Chindwin eventually dropped, father's land still remained submerged except for about 10 acres around the buildings. For years it was the practice of fishermen to construct a dam across the main drainage of a large area of low-lying ground to keep in the breeding and growing fish, this year was no exception. Father filed applications for the removal of the dam before the Township Officer, the Subdivisional Office and the Deputy Commissioner without success. The fishermen had been there from time immemorial and had prior right aver a newcomer - cultivator. The dam remained till the end of the fishery season, too late in the year to plough or to plant. While the Revenue Court proceedings were going on, father had not been idle, Into the patch of ten acres, he put all his frustrations, the hired men, the bullocks, the ploughs and harrows, and produced some sort of crop quite incommensurate with the outlay. Even so he went on for another two years despite the knowledge that to make a success of the scheme he had to cultivate the full 150 acres. He did this so as not to surrender to mother who kept telling him that he ought not to be dabbling in something he knew nothing about.

At the start, mother was more successful. Then gradually difficulties began to mount up. For subsistence before harvest, the tenants relied more and more on loans from mother, At harvest they would be unable to payoff these loans because they had other pressing debts to pay. Also they had to keep back something to live on; but that did not prevent them from coming again and again before harvest for money. Debts mounted. The assessment of the harvest for the share-out between the landlord and tenant turned out to be an unreliable business. Mother had her own personal assessor who received a percentage of the crop as his fee. So had the tenant. When the two assessors came to an agreement after considerable discussion, the size of the crop became established. There was always a feeling that mother's assessor, being a cultivator himself always leant towards the tenant as evidenced by the fact that assessments on mother's holdings, acre for acre was much smaller than those in neighbouring holdings. Then there were droughts, insect pests and low prices for whatever mother had asked to be planted, while what she had not planted fetched very high prices. All in all it was a soul-wearying business and matters dragged on and en as they do in farming till the facing of the truth could no longer be postponed. Buying land in boom years and selling in the slump was a costly business, more costly than father's investment in bullocks, ploughs, harrows, huts and sheds had been. All in all, a lot of money had been lost. The end of it all brought peace, tranquillity and a measure of happiness to the household,

With farming buried good and deep father used the peaceful tranquil time to start on the study of Hinduism and Buddhism, subjects which had intrigued him over the years. As usual he went into it in a big way, obtaining more and more books, going to the extent of learning Sanskrit to enable him to get to the heart of the matter, discussing Hinduism with Indians and Buddhism with Burmese, Indian and Chinese Buddhists. By now he was fluent in Burmese and could carry on long discussions with venerable Sayadaws on the more abstruse aspects of Buddhism. He used to lie in a solid teak and cane longsleever, a large black cheroot in his mouth and a fat book resting on his chest, hour after hour, day after day, for weeks at a time without getting fed up. By the time he had got to the nub of these religions, a new movement had come into the world.

Father's was just the right background for the Theosophical society, which had taken people by storm in India, Britain and Europe and in no time the Monywa branch had been formed with father as one of the founder members, Very quickly he was elevated as President. A motley bunch used to meet at a Chettyar Hindu Hall not far from us, the Indian Post Master, the Indian Head accountant of the Treasury, three chettyars, two Burmese doctors, three Burmese and two Indian lawyers, four Burmese teak traders, a Chinese Mill owner and my father. A close study of the writings of Madame Blavatsky and later of Mrs. Annie Beasant revealed many errors, contradictions, misstatements to father and his co-Theosophists. They were up in arms. They decided on lines of attack and who else but father should be asked to carry out the correspondence. Father loved it. He charged into the fray much enjoying the putting together of closely reasoned arguments backed up by the greater knowledge they had of Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity. The correspondence grew in volume and acrimony as father nailed home cogent argument after cogent argument. The monthly meetings, fully attended, were a source of much interest and enjoyment for the members whetting their brains and pitting them against the founders of the movement. What a dreadful day and what a blow to his enjoyment it was when the final letter arrived to say the correspondence was at an end. Thick dark clouds had blotted out the glorious sun he had basked in for so many months.

Had I been a little older, a little more mature or had more time with him I might have learned a great deal. I did learn, however, that though there were many gods for the mass of Hindus, to the comparative few who had delved deeply, there would be the suggestion of a supreme being, God, who for example could be likened to an immense ocean, droplets from which were our souls or spirits or whatever they could be termed, going through innumerable lives and existences being cleaned of dross, until they were sufficiently purified to be able to return to the ocean. Buddhism I was surprised to learn was not a religion; it was a philosophy, a way of life. Lord Buddha, a strict Hindu, who from childhood had been protected and isolated from every kind of pain, suffering, decay and death, suddenly came face to face with these realities of life, realities which made a deep and lasting impression. The caste system which consigned the lowest and most numerous class to the level of animals or worse, also troubled him greatly. Through deep meditation on the eternal cycle of birth, suffering and death, he received his enlightenment under the Bo tree after forty days of fasting and the end of months of wandering in the forest. A new way of life of service and complete abnegation of self through the control and mastery of the desires of the senses. He also taught the law of Karma which regulates the kind of existence and the manner of the life in a new life. A sizeable balance of merit through the many good deeds done over the demerits in the previous life would mean a happier, more comfortable and more reasonable sort of life, whereas a preponderance of demerits through evil deeds will mean the reverse. By doing more and more good, less and less evil, by study of Buddha's teachings, by meditation and final mastery of the desires of the flesh, through many, many existences, Nirvana is attained. Nirvana being a state of peace, tranquillity and a great calm beyond imagination. Apparently happiness does not come into it because it is something felt, something hankered after, something to pull the spirit back to earth and another existence.

At one period, I had taken all this sustained intensive study to mean that father was seeking a more satisfactory religion; but I was way off mark. It had merely been an intellectual exercise from which he had derived much pleasure. Not only that, but these studies had also greatly strengthened his Christian faith.

My teachers could not understand why I was working so hard in the seventh standard and I would not let on. That summer I had met Arthur Yards, a ship's engineer who had come home to Monywa after a long session at sea. He, the brother of Edward Yards, a class mate of mine, gave the two of us wonderful descriptions of the world he had seen, the adventures he had had as a ships engineer and nothing else would I be. After his middle school examination, he had been apprenticed to the Dallah dockyards, Rangoon, where he had qualified. So I was all agog when a telegram arrived from the Revd. N.K. Anderson, the Chaplain of Mandalay, who was my godfather, to say that not only had 1 been successful in the middle school examination but that I had obtained a scholarship to go on to High School. This made things very awkward. For months now, I had been dwelling on becoming a ship's engineer and had told everyone about it at home. Mother of course was against it. She never fancied me as a filthy greasy engineer like the fitters she had seen at the local saw mills. Besides, she kept harking back to what U Pon Na, the famous Manipuri astrologer of Mandalay, whose father had been the King's astrologer, had seen in my horoscope. According to him, I was marked out to be a high official in the administrative branch of Government service. Anything else was utterly irrelevant. Though he had never said so, father also must have had some reservation, and now that my godfather had suggested what he himself would have desired he went about persuading me rather cannily. There was no laying down of the law; none of the Victorian business, Instead of a rather stubborn irascible son, fit to be bawled at by an irate father, he spoke to me as if I was a great friend of his, treating me as an equal. I gave in, to mother's great joy and to father's obvious relief. This would mean another three years of schooling, the 8th, the 9th and the 10th standards in preparation for the High School Final examination; three years to be endured now that I could not be an apprentice at the Dallah dockyards.

After the first term in the 9th standard, I came home for the summer holidays to find father a shadow of his old self. As his weekly letters full of news had not contained the slightest hint of any illness, it came as a great shock. Mother put the cause of the illness to a change of diet from meat to vegetables as the result of his study of Hinduism; but as father had made the change three years before and as he had told everyone how well he felt all along, that wouldn't wash. But now he was not able to stomach even vegetables without discomfort. He suffered from long bouts of abdominal pains and slept badly. Eventually on doctor Po Mya's insistence father was taken to the General Hospital, where I spent most of each day keeping him company. On his bad days very little would be said; but on good days, and there were quite a few of them, he spoke gaily of the days of his youth, told stories against himself, laughed and cracked jokes. But I could see he was going downhill, Dr. Po Mya still playing hopeful said diagnosis was difficult, while the Civil Surgeon kept up a cheerful appearance when he came on his rounds. Mother and I lived from day to day without questioning. Then one afternoon when I got back to hospital after lunch, I found father blue to the lips and shivering with cold. A large window had been left open by a ward servant and through this, a tropical rainstorm had blown, soaking him and the bedclothes, A complete change of clothes, a bed packed with hot water bottles, then a hot drink, rallied father remarkably quickly. In a couple of hours he was fairly comfortable. Contrary to expectations, father was full of beans the next day. Much to my surprise he said:

"I feel very much better. After yesterday's experience, I am sure we can manage far better at home, Both the doctors have agreed to let me go home. Will you bring me my clothes this afternoon and ask mother to have a bed made up in the upstairs front room. It will be cooler there."

Though I should have read something into the sudden change in the attitude of the doctors, I did not. Instead we were filled with relief and joy. With just a little help from me, father managed to walk from Dr., Po Mya's car to his bed upstairs. The next two days were the happiest we had know for several weeks; the pains had ceased. Mother was asked to cook a beef and pork dish which he had enjoyed years ago - no, the cook wouldn't know how - mother had to be the one to cook it. He enjoyed every mouthful of the reasonable helping he had taken and what was more there were no after effects,

But the next day started badly, Before 7 in the morning, father was in such pain that he insisted I go for the doctor at once. The excruciating pains had now gone down to the legs. He was in agony. I rushed out and rushed back, The doctor was with us within the hour. When the legs were examined I was horrified to see them black and blue. He gave some pills for the pain but the pain would not budge, He then applied belladonna plasters to the legs and gave more pills. The pains went on. Mother called the doctor to the next room and begged him to give father a painkilling injection. There were tears in his eyes as he said:

"I wish I could. It will kill him. Why hurt him any more." He and father had been good friends for over 20 years, Asking me to call him if father got worse he left quietly.

Even then I did not realise how desperate matters were. It was a hot windless day. Mother kept wiping the wet forehead with a large handkerchief squeezed out in Eau de Cologne while I kept giving him sips of water, in between pains for an hour or so. Gradually the plaster and the pills began to work bringing a measure of relief. His breathing became less irregular; soon he was asleep. Mother and the children were at the foot of the bed while I was at the head when at about midday father stirred and in a firm voice said,

"Prop me up, I can't breathe,"

I lifted the wasted body with one hand and arranged the pillows with the other as I had done times out of number before and let him down gently. The eyes which had remained closed suddenly opened wide as if something very important had to be said, the next instant he straightened up a trifle and opened his mouth to its widest extent as a rattle welled up the throat. His mouth closed and his chin dropped to his chest. I couldn't believe it; I could not take in. Automatically 1 rearranged the pillows and placed father back on the bed, then went to mother who was sobbing, sobbing, and sobbing while unending tears coursed down her cheeks, My sisters and my brother began to wail, It was his birthday the 25th May,

A large number of people, many I did not know, came to offer their condolences and to have their last look at father laid out where grandfather had been laid out before. There was so much to do so many things for me to attend to that I was run off my feet, on the day of the funeral as the result of a garbled message to the effect that the coffin could not be ready. I left the home at 7 in the morning and cycled at breakneck speed some three miles only to find that everything was under control. The funeral procession started out on time without a hitch. The Civil surgeon read the funeral service attended by a handful of Christians and a large gathering of Burmese, Indians and Chinese of other faiths and members of the Theosophical Society. Though numbed and dulled with the constant misery which had oppressed me since father died, the solid silent emptiness of the house chilled me to the bone on this hot summer afternoon on the return from the funeral. Had every stick of' furniture been removed while we had been away, the emptiness of the house would have made far less impact. In the days that followed my eyes could not stay away from the solid teak longsleever,