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The People Elsewhere

Unbound Journeys with the Storytellers of Myanmar

Lucas Stewart

In a five year journey all across Myanmar, Lucas Stewart travels from Yangon in the south to the northern limits of Kachin State in search of the literary luminaries of the country’s recent past. He bonds with censored and jailed writers, poets, publishers and booksellers, recording their stories of heritage and resilience. In his conversations with students at an Aung San Suu Kyi rally or sharing stories with a Kayah farmer in his village house, the long-suppressed literatures and languages of minorities such as the Chin, Kachin, Shan and others shine through. The People Elsewhere is a vivid tableau of time and place, and an ode to the ethnic richness of Myanmar.

Penguin Books/Viking

…This book isn’t a memoir but a weaving of two stories. On the one hand it is a simple journey through the writers of a country that is undergoing a transformation many thought would never come; this is a story set in the ‘now’, where change can be seen and touched. The other story is much more complicated: it tells of a country in which the ‘now’ is not as important as the ‘before’, where history and the lessons learnt from it, cannot be easily set aside or forgotten…

Lucas Stewart, The People Elsewhere, Viking, 2016

Available from Penguin/Viking and in digital formats from Amazon.

 

Praise for ‘The People Elsewhere’:

‘Lucas Stewart’s book is an exquisite map of the many literatures of Myanmar, of the human impulse to express oneself through story and song… In scenes alternately warming and harrowing, it braids travel, history and literary criticism in a most ingenious way to give us an unforgettable portrait of a country long forgotten by the world.’

Chandrahas Choudhury, Author of Clouds and editor of India: A Traveller’s Literary Companion

‘The People Elsewhere is a vigorous and compelling travel parable … In a vivid and tenacious tour through some of the country’s militarily-sealed borderlands, Lucas Stewart explores with great generosity and kinship how previously banned or censored languages are still being preserved in some of remotest and educationally-marginalised areas in the world.’

James Byrne, Co-editor of Bones Will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets

‘Lucas Stewart’s journey across Myanmar offers a fascinating insight and a rare glimpse of life through its storytellers … Anyone wanting to discover Myanmar’s rich cultural heritage and how these endearing, diverse and remarkable peoples did more than just survive will find this an important and essential read.’

Nick Danziger, Photojournalist and Author of Danziger’s Travels.

More by Lucas Stewart:

The Act of Insanity – Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Issue 25

Shadow Signatures: A Legacy of Burmese Pen Names – The Bamboo Sea

Hidden Worlds – The Irrawaddy, July, 2014

Myanmar’s Literary Talk Shows – The Diplomat, May 2014

The Kachin: Culture of the Mountain Lords – The Dissident Blog, March 2014

SADAIK A digital manuscript chest for all things literary in Myanmar

 

Further Reading:

Burma or Myanmar? Burmese or Burman? – U Khin Maung Saw

Between Two Fires – Ludu U Hla (The Caged Ones, Orchid Press, 1998)

Modern Burmese Literature – U On Pe (The Atlantic, 1958)

 

burma-15

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Royal Court of Ava 1

Lokanīti – The Nîti Literature of Burma

The Lokanīti was one of the most venerated works in Burma. It belongs to the Pāli non-canonical literature; to the gnomic literature of Burma. Today it is known more by its name than by its contents. It is most probable that it was prepared for a king’s ācārya (religious instructor), in order to help him discourse on ethics and polity, to pronounce moral maxims and give advice. Since it was in use in the royal courts of India, it could have been introduced into the court of Ava

Ludwik Sternbach S.O.A.S Bulletin, Vol. 26, No.2, 1963

  ‘The Lokanîti and Dhammanîti embrace a miscellaneous collection of subjects, and serve as suitable handbooks for the general reader for the study of prudential rules and principles of morality. The former is taught in almost every monastic school in Burma, and printed editions of it have helped considerably to extend its popularity. That a work of the kind should have charms for the Buddhist is not to be wondered at. He firmly believes that his future happiness depends upon his behaviour in this present life, and relies more on practical deeds rather than on the faith which his religion demands; and nothing could be more suitable to his wants than a literature which lays down for him, in pithy stanzas, and often in metaphoric language, a number of simply-worded apophthegms which are to shape his career in this world and fit him for a better sphere of existence when he leaves it ..’

James GrayLokanîti, Trübner & Co, 1886

Further Reading:

Burmese Proverbs – Hla Pe

The Pali Literature of Burma – Mabel Haynes Bode

A Burmese History of Buddhism – Mabel Haynes Bode

A Burmese Tract on Kingship – Ryuji Okudaira and Andrew Huxley

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Burma_5c_revenue_stamp_from_Japanese_occupation

It was during the dark days of the Japanese occupation in Burma. We had been married only two years and we were beginning to settle down. Ko Latt had a nice job, but our dreams of a bright and happy future were shattered by the war. We found ourselves without a home, without jobs, in fact without anything except a mischievous toddler who was always hungry-. We were lost in the great maze of wartime life.

At that time many people who had never been in business before turned petty traders and seemed to do well. Some kind friends tried to help us by giving us goods to be sold on a commission basis. Easy money, no doubt. It seemed like child’s play. But look what happened. A customer would come to our roadside stall and go over our wares with critical eye as if she would not take them even if we gave them away for nothing. With a look of contempt she would ask, “How much are you asking for this laundry soap?”

“Five cakes for one kyat.”

“What a price! Let’s see, how about giving me six for one kyat, ten pyas?”

It made my head swim. I pressed the mental accelerator but it refused to budge. I blushed and stammered, “Yes.” If I sold at a loss, I couldn’t help it. Even then my troubles were not over. The customer went on bargaining.

“What about five for eighty pyas?”

“Yes, yes, take them, take as many as you like!” and I added a few strong words under my breath.

Our business career seemed to be made up entirely of similar scenes. Let me not go into humiliating details. Suffice it to say that we got into all sorts of scrapes. Our wares were pinched. The day’s figures would not add up right. Only our son enjoyed the fun. He took the rags used for packing, wrapped himself up in them and ran along the pavement dancing with glee. We had to laugh at the little rascal in spite of ourselves.

It is easy enough for people who are well off to sing of poverty, love in a hut, and so on. We who have gone through it have no sentimental illusions. “The worm in the ground knows every tooth of the harrow. The butterfly above preaches patience.” Poverty, to say the least, is very uncomfortable.

After a while we managed to get employment in one of the government offices. By that time Allied air raids had begun and we had to shift from one place to another, losing some of our few belongings with every move. At last we settled down in a ramshackle shed in the suburbs. It was close to our office building so I could work and still keep tabs on our son at home. When the air-raid sirens sounded, I would rush home and take him to a safe shelter.

In spite of the raids, we were happier because we were no longer unemployed. We had the dignity of being government servants although our joint salaries barely paid for the daily necessities. It was difficult to believe that we had to live on the edge of starvation. Could such things really happen in Burma, a land flowing with milk and honey?

We had rice, but cooking oil, a product of Upper Burma, could not be secured. It became so scarce that we had to be content with animal fat. How I hated that abominable grease floating on my curries! After passing through stages of impotent fury, rebellion, and frustration, I resigned myself and invented various ways of cooking eatable dishes with leaves of sweet potato and roselle. Ko Latt was wonderful. He took things like a philosopher. When we sat down to meals, he would look at the steaming dishes and say, “Yum yum, it smells delicious.” He always had something nice to say about my cooking. This braced me up and I went on creating masterpieces.

As for clothes—bed sheets, tablecloths, and even curtains had to be made into something to wear. Our son had his shirts made from old napkins.

The war raged on and things went from bad to worse. Japanese paper money flew like dead leaves–only it did not fly our way. Yet petty traders, merchants, commission agents were flourishing. I saw them with stacks of money, spending like mad.

One day I ran into a woman who had once been my servant sitting at a little stall. She looked prosperous, much fatter and darker than when I had known her before. She did not see me at first as she was busy with her customers. When she recognized me, she could hardly hide her surprise at my shabby appearance. I writhed under her stare and mumbled something about dried fish which I had no intention of buying. Too late I realized I could not afford it and I blushed as I fumbled with my purse. The woman composed herself quickly and asked me where we had been all the time, and how was our little son. Before I knew what was happening she had made me a present of a package of dried fish. I was too embarrassed to say anything. I just handed the bundle back to her, but she laughingly pushed it into my basket. On the way home, I shed tears enough for those dried fish to swim in.

That night it rained heavily but we were glad that we did not have to worry about air raids. Our roof leaked but we managed to find a dry corner for the child. He slept soundly, surrounded by tin cans into which the rain leaked in musical drops. I lighted our ancient kerosene lamp and Ko Latt lit up a cheroot. After taking a few luxurious puffs he opened an old book of humorous stories and began to read aloud. But I hardly heard; I was brooding over the morning’s incident and a wave of self-pity came over me.

Ko Latt read on, but he must have sensed what was going on in my mind, because I listened silently without comment, without chuckling. As he shut the book, I broke out, “Why don’t they ever come our way? I mean the Jap banknotes. This morning I saw our old servant woman. She’s making lots of money. She’s now fat and covered with jewels. You would hardly know her—you’d take her for a maharaja’s elephant.”

Ko Latt laughed. “Well, thanks for warning me. I might have tried to ride on her back.”

But his joke fell flat. I was too depressed. Ko Latt peered at me through his horn-rimmed spectacles, with one lens cracked. “I know how you feel, dear, but remember this can’t go on forever. We have to do without many things but we still have each other and we have that little rascal,” he said, pointing at our sleeping son.

I felt ashamed. “I’m sorry I can’t take things as bravely as you do. It just seems heartbreaking to live like this when other people are rolling in money. Look at those brokers and agents. Most of them can’t even write their own names. They don’t have any capital either. A broker just goes around asking people if they want anything and if he, the broker that is, gets it, whatever it is, for them, that is the ones who want something, then he, that is the broker, gets a commission.”

Ko Latt laughed. “You’re talking like a character in that book.”

“Can’t help it. I’m such a goof about business. What I mean is some people make piles of money that way. And the ones who get it know that the Jap notes are mere scraps of paper, so they are buying gold and diamonds at any price.”

He looked puzzled. “What has that got to do with us? We have no diamonds or gold to sell.”

Sometimes Ko Latt is a bigger goof than I. I explained to him patiently, “If we can find someone who wants to sell gold or diamonds and someone, I mean another person, who wants to buy, we might get a commission that would be five or six times our joint salaries. We could get a good tin of sesamum oil with the money.”

My good man smacked his lips. “Oh, for a taste of real sesamum oil! I’m so sick of the smell of lard. But where can we find someone who wants to buy diamonds and another who wants to sell?”

I was glad I had driven home my point. I just smiled, and said: “Leave that to me.”

I shall always remember the look in his eyes as he said, “I know I can always rely on you.”

Yangon 1948

So it began. I discussed the matter with my office mates, who were as hard up as we were. Ko Ba Than, who worked at the next desk, encouraged me. “Don’t lose heart. You have only one child and I have three. My family couldn’t possibly live on my pay. It’s my wife who does it. You know her. She hasn’t had a college education like you—she just writes enough to sign her name—but she’s amazing. The other day that neighbor of ours, the fishwoman, wanted to buy a pair of diamond bracelets. She told my wife she would give up to one lakh for them. My wife found someone who wanted to sell jewelry and made a bargain for ninety thousand. She took the bracelets to the fishwoman who gave her the whole lakh.”

“So your wife made ten thousand out of it!” I cried. Ko Ba Than smiled. “More than that! She also got a 25 percent commission from the seller. Just a day’s work. Child’s play.” I’m no good at figures. 10,000 + 25/100 X 100,000 . . . . I struggled and gave it up. If I was to do this kind of business, I must have pencil and paper.

Ko Ba Than continued, “You can do this sort of thing, too. If my wife can do it, why can’t you? You are much cleverer. With an intellect like yours . . . there is nothing you cannot do.”

I was flattered. Ko Ba Than was a wise man, a good judge of Homo sapiens. Next day I called on his wife. She was a simple, unassuming little woman, whom I liked very much, partly because she gave me a feeling of superiority. She seemed to be very glad that I, who belonged to a higher intellectual level, had condescended to take an interest in such mundane matters. She gave me all the information. “It is very easy, Ma Ma, not so difficult as working in an office. Many people have asked me to get things for them. One wants a 13-carat diamond. He will give one lakh per carat with 25 percent commission. If you can strike a bargain with the seller for less, you can keep the difference.” I reeled. Even without the extra money the commission would come to 25/100 X 100,000 X 13!!!

Ba Than’s wife was as cool as a cucumber. She was used to this kind of thing. “Just try to get a 13-carat diamond, Ma Ma. If you get it, please contact Mr. Ebrahim.”

That night I discussed the matter with Ko Latt and we were full of hope. We planned the campaign. First we would go to Thingangyun to see a lady who dealt in jewelry. There was no bus service and Thingangyun was five or six miles away. This did not matter, for we owned a two-wheeled mechanism—a bicycle by courtesy. Its forebears were distinguished. We could trace their genealogy as far as an auspicious alliance between a kingly Raleigh frame and aristocratic Humber wheels . . . but decadence had set in with intermarriage with mongrel spokes.

The tires had been worn through so we had had to put pieces of raw rubber round the rims. These were called “solid tires,” good in their own way—no need to pump them up, no punctures, and they last a long time. They also got stretched now and then so that we had to cut them shorter and fasten the ends with a piece of wire. This was easy for a handyman like Ko Latt. He can fix anything with a pair of pliers, a hammer, and an interesting oration in strong language. I play an insignificant role in such great undertakings, standing by with absorbent cotton and iodine, at the same time improving my vocabulary.

On Sunday morning we got up at dawn and began our journey. I sat on the rusty rear-fender rack with my son on my lap. Ko Latt pedaled along on the bumpy road with a song on his lips. I hummed the time and the child was agog with excitement. “The lark’s on the wing; the snail’s on the thorn; God’s in His Heaven—all’s right with the world!” It was a nice ride.

Fortunately, the lady—let’s call her “Auntie” – was at home. We explained our quest, promising her a share of the commission if she could find us the jewel. Auntie seemed to be interested at once. She could certainly get it, she said, and told us to come again the next Sunday. She gave us a disquisition which might easily have been entitled, “How to get rich quick.” She emphasized her points by waving her big hands and shaking her head a great deal. Her bracelets jingled and her diamond earrings sparkled. I watched her fascinated, although the child was bored to tears. Ko Latt had to take him outside and try to interest him in the marching Japanese soldiers. At last neither father nor son could stand the boredom any longer; they came in and cut short the juiciest pep talk I had ever heard.

Business being over, we hurried home; because it was an unusually fine day, an ideal day—for bombers. We were only a few blocks from home when the air-raid siren wailed. Ko Latt pulled the brakes suddenly and the three of us rolled into the roadside ditch. Luckily, we were not seriously hurt. My son, used to this kind of thing, did not even cry. As it happened to be only a reconnoitering plane, we had time to get into the shelter before a big formation of bombers followed.

Japanese forces entering Burma (Myanmar)

The week wore on with the usual air raids and meatless meals. I went about in an arithmetical haze, working out sums. Even when I shut my eyes, multiplication signs flew to and fro.

We sallied forth again the following Sunday. Auntie was smiling happily. She had found it. She knew a person who had a 13-carat diamond to sell. She told us to bring Mr. Ebrahim the Sunday after that. This was all we wanted that day, but I would have liked to listen to Auntie’s how-to-get-rich-quick talk. Ko Latt gave me his you-do-no-such-nonsense look and led me firmly away.

We came home full of high spirits. How nice it was to have such a lucrative job to do on Sundays. Each week end brought us nearer to fabulous wealth. If everything went well, we could even resign from our jobs and devote all our time to big business. We were rudely shaken from these rosy dreams by a distress signal from the bike. The next moment, we found to our dismay that the bare rim of the wheel had parted company with the solid tire. Ko Latt got off the bike, and I ran and picked up the poor tire, scorned and despised, yet so useful! I held it in my hands like a snake and cried, “Look, it has stretched! What are we going to do?” Ko Latt examined it, and like an expert pronounced the verdict. It was a hopeless case, since we had no tools, not even a knife to shorten it. We did not want to risk our teeth for they must be preserved for the plentiful days to come. There was no time to waste since bombers might come any minute. We put the child on the bike and pushed along the road. He at least enjoyed the ride, playing snake charmer with the tire.

This incident had a bad effect on Ko Latt’s morale. His temper did not improve even when we got home. He was fed up with the whole thing. I tried to brace him up as best I could.

“Next Sunday will be the last day of our quest. We shall do business with Mr. Ebrahim and come home with bags full of money. Of course, Ba Than’s wife must get a share. She is the informant, a sleeping partner. Oh, everyone will be on velvet. I know we shall succeed . . .”  I would have gone on with my talk, shaking my head, waving my hands like Auntie, if Ko Latt had not curtly told me to get the tools so he could repair the tire.  Since no bracelets jingled and no diamond earrings sparkled, my words did not carry much weight.  Once the bicycle was repaired Ko Latt was his amiable self again. We sent word to Mr. Ebrahim to come to us the next Sunday.

Somewhat to our surprise, Mr. Ebrahim arrived at the duly appointed time, also on a bike. Ko Latt happily told him how we had managed to locate the diamond and Mr. Ebrahim looked impressed. He listened silently, stroking a beard so luxuriant that no one would have suspected the presence of a mouth had not a cigar stuck out of the foliage.

So the two bikes rolled out along the road. When we got to Auntie’s place, she had two young men with her. One was her Cousin Sonny, a youth in the early twenties, with a long Valentino crop of hair. His face was conspicuously powdered and he wore a pink shirt with gold studs and an imitation silk longyi—a gaudy affair, also pink. He sat smoking a cheap Japanese cigarette, talking only a little, as if we were all not worth the bother. So much for Exhibit A. The other was a Sino-Burman with a pale, dissipated appearance. His name was Ko Set Khwan. He wore a Hawaiian shirt and long pants. On his nose was a pair of rimless spectacles. He looked prosperous with his diamond studs, rings, and a heavy gold watch chain. He was standing beside his bicycle which was properly fitted with real tires. He must be the owner of the diamond.

After the introduction, Mr. Ebrahim asked Ko Set Khwan to exhibit the diamond. But Ko Set Khwan asked him explicitly if he were the buyer. I cannot remember the details of Ebrahim’s answer, which was of a lengthy nature. I was filled with admiration as I listened to him and wondered why he was not a leading diplomat. But Ko Set Khwan was not at all impressed; he just kept demanding if Mr. Ebrahim himself were going to buy it. I was awed by the man’s strength of character—a strong silent type, this Ko Set Khwan.

Mr. Ebrahim’s diplomacy gave way to unconcealed annoyance and he moved his head so vigorously that his beard rose and fell like a cataract on his chest. At last he could not avoid the issue; he had to admit that he was not the buyer. It was a friend who wanted to buy the diamond. Ko Set Khwan firmly asked to be taken to the said friend. Mr. Ebrahim tried to evade this request but at last he had to give in.

Auntie’s face was a study. She must know the details of this business. As she could not come along, her Cousin Sonny would accompany them. It became clear to us that we must also go along with them or we would be left out. The four bicycles – Mr. Ebrahim, Sonny, representing Auntie, Ko Set Khwan, and Ko Latt with me and the child on the rack—made a fine procession as we rolled along the road studded with bomb craters.

As we passed a teashop where four or five men were talking rather loudly, we heard one of them say, “Can’t you get business done without these damned brokers? To hell with them! One is bad enough and now you have half a dozen of them . . . ”  That was it, but I didn’t care. I was set on the royal road to Xanadu.

We reached an imposing house and Mr. Ebrahim alighted. We all followed his example. They all went up, but my son and I stayed downstairs to watch over the bicycles.

A few minutes later, they all came down again, muttering in consternation. My eyes eagerly sought Ko Latt’s but he looked away. My heart was heavy. I dared not ask, because as in ancient Greek dramas, scenes of tragic intensity should be suggested rather than represented. Our friends were speaking loudly and wildly, each of them talking at the same time, so I could not make out what they said.

As we prepared to get on our bikes, Ko Latt muttered something about the mistress of the house still not being the buyer. She knew someone else who . . . Our eyes met and saw in each other’s depths the long trail leaching into the bottomless stomach. Then Ko Latt shrugged his shoulders.

We gave up the trail and, somehow, we have lived to tell the story. Still, I feel sorry that I never held in my palm a 13-carat diamond in flesh and blood—or rather, carbon and whatever it is.

Translated by H. Conar

50 Great Oriental Stories

Bantam Books, 1965

Daw Khin Myo ChitDaw Khin Myo Chit  (ခင်မျိုးချစ်) 

Further Reading:

Cigars and Cheroots – An extract from ‘Colourful Burma’ by Daw Khin Myo Chit

Khin Myo Chit – Articles about her writing and work by her granddaughter Junior Win

The Women of Burma – Daw Mya Sein (The Atlantic, 1958)

Shadow Signatures (A Legacy of Burmese Literary Pen Names) – Lucas Stewart

Modern Burmese Literature – U On Pe (The Atlantic, 1958)

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Dai Village

A Weasel & A Rare Swan’s Eggs

Forest covered the surrounding area for as far as the eye could see.

The British officials in neighbouring Burma often sent their people over to survey the land and to build roads and bridges. Thus Britons, Burmese and Indians appeared in Banana Vale with their frequent taxes and other ‘fees’ which the widowed innkeeper had to pay. To her annoyance, unlike the Han merchants and grooms, these tax collectors not only flirted with her but tried to cheat her out of her money, and this disturbed and angered her more than anything.

Then, one day, an opium trader on the border, who was a frequent guest at the woman’s inn and who’d had his eye on the well-to-do widow for a while, took it upon himself to protect her from their demands.

“You cheat! How come she has to pay so much?” he argued on her behalf with a Burmese tax collector, telling him in a foreign language, “I tell you, I’ve been to both Myitkyina and Mandalay! I know how it works! You think that just because she’s a widow, you can take advantage of her like this? Well, listen, you can’t cheat me, can you?”

“It includes some wine money too,” the Burmese tax collector was forced to admit, seeing that the opium trader knew what he was talking about.

“Wine money? Nonsense! Why should there be any wine money? Do you deliver wine? I’ll bloody sue you if you don’t! Besides, even if you did include wine money it still wouldn’t come to that much!”

The Burmese man hummed and hawed but decided not to push his luck and left with only the tax money. The woman was naturally very grateful. From then on, every time she had any trouble with foreigners, she would look for the opium trader who was always helpful and attentive. He even brought back silk for the woman and her daughters from the big cities he visited, and left part of his savings with the woman for safe keeping. Every time the opium trader stayed at the inn and had his meals there, he would say, “Let’s eat at the same table. We’re all one family, there’s no need to lay another one.”

Gradually, he became a member of the family and when he thought the time was right, he proposed to the woman. She didn’t feel upset, on the contrary, she felt that to deal with the British officials and the Burmese tax collectors she really needed someone like him around. She knew he wasn’t a simple person like her second husband, but as long as she kept her money and valuables out of his reach then he wouldn’t be able to do her much harm even if he did decide to make any trouble in the future…

So the woman agreed and he moved in with her.

After he had become the innkeeper, life became much more leisurely for the middle-aged opium addict. He spent most of his time lying in bed like a lazy snake puffing away on his pipe. When he did get up, he would put on a pair of leather slippers and shuffle off to the meadow and the vegetable garden, his pipe dangling from his lips. If he saw the woman and her daughters with sweat running down their faces as they ploughed the fields and cleared the meadow, he would do nothing except say half-heartedly that perhaps the meadow needed to be widened this year or better vegetables ought to be planted.

His work-shy nature soon became insufferable. Fed up of doing everything, the woman decided that things couldn’t go on like this…

Feeling that it was improper to complain directly, she began to moan and groan about the business instead.

Unable to understand what she was getting at, he insisted they hire a man-servant.

The woman inhaled deeply before answering coldly, “You don’t understand. Ours is a small business and we eat what we produce. Things are hard enough today – how do we know how we’re going to manage tomorrow? How can we possibly afford to hire a man-servant? We would have done it a long time ago if we’d had the money, in which case we wouldn’t have needed you here to help.”

The man’s eyes narrowed…

“But I heard that you’ve saved a lot of money.”

“How can you believe that rubbish! To hell with such rumour-mongers! You know that I’ve lost three husbands and I have had to feed and clothe their children all by myself. Yes, OK, I’ve starved myself in order to save a little here and there, but those foreign bastards tax me on everything. Like water, every penny I earn flows their way and I’m left with nothing!

He fell into a sceptical silence…

“Then you can use my money to hire a servant.”

“You’d be better off saving it for yourself,” the woman sneered, “After all, you’ll no doubt be needing it for that pipe of yours, won’t you? No, we are already lost, don’t you worry about us.”

Time passed but still nothing changed. So, one day, instead of beating around the bush, the woman asked him point-blank to help her with the work.

It didn’t go down well.

“No chance,” he snapped, folding his arms, “I tell you: my family hasn’t touched a hoe for three generations, let alone swept up dung. No, I cannot and I will not help.”

He could have been more tactful, but when he thought about the woman locking all the money away and hiding the keys he couldn’t help exploding.

The woman arched her eyebrows…

“And just who do you think your family is exactly? The royal family?”

“Haha, yes, very funny,” he sneered, “If they were, then what would I be doing here getting all worked up about your damned cheek?!”

Full of indignation he hurled his pipe into a wooden box.

“What, you’re offended?!”  the woman glared,  “Look at yourself! What kind of man do you think you are? You just lie around all day puffing away on that bloody pipe and eating all our food. With you around, my children and I are doomed! I swear, you’re just a ghost that my children and I had the hellish misfortune to run into when it was dark.”

“It’s not your bloody money I’m smoking is it!” he yelled back at the woman, pummeling the bed with his fist, “Screw you!

Oh! So you think you can frighten us with your threats, do you? I’ll have none of your yelling and banging in front of me!”

Although these arguments put a strain on their relationship for a while, they soon made their peace like any other couple, at least superficially. In spite of everything, the woman still felt that, however greedy and lazy the man might be, he was useful in dealing with foreigners. So in the end she let him have his way.

Yet, in less than six months, he had puffed away all his savings in his opium pipe. He had become more and more dependent on the drug and now smoked more than ever. He asked her for money shamelessly, saying that he knew how much money she had and smoking wouldn’t cost her much. She knew she couldn’t keep everything from him, so following his train of thought, she said, “I just want to save some money so that we can hire a servant. You don’t want me to slave away like a horse, do you? Also, look at Fusheng, he’s nearly thirteen now but he just plays around all day. What are we going to do about him? I was planning on picking an auspicious day and sending him to one of those modern schools in the city. We’ve suffered more than enough through not being able to speak another language!”

She had not actually been that keen on sending her son to school and all she really wanted to do was to save the little money that they had. But since she’d been pressed to give a reason, she had to make it sound as if she’d already made up her mind…

“Send him to modern school?!” the man spluttered with disbelief, “You can’t feed a common weasel rare swan’s eggs! How much money are you going to need for that?”

He had always found the boy, who never called him ‘Dad’, a nuisance, which he could well have done without…

“Listen,” he said, “I’ve got an idea: let the boy help you with the work. Isn’t that better than hiring someone else? Look at him: he eats so much every meal and he’s not a small child any more. If he doesn’t want to do it, just give him a damn good beating. Anyway, I don’t think he’ll end up doing any better for himself, even if he does go to school. You know what they say, ‘like father, like son’. I mean, what else is he good for besides sweeping up horse dung? No, don’t look at me like that, I’ve been thinking of telling you that for quite a while, but I knew that you would shield him! Let me tell you this: that lazy little devil has long been nothing but a poisoned thorn in my side!”

Little devil?” The woman countered, “So what? You don’t take care of him anyway! However much he may eat, you haven’t so much as provided him with a bite. I just don’t want him to sweep up dung, I want him to go to a modern school and make something of himself. Just see if you can stop me. And I’m going to send him there early next month!”

She could and would have kept her anger under control had he not been so foul-mouthed about her son.

“Anyway,” she continued, “Who are you to say that my son’s not school material? Shut your filthy mouth! I tell you: scholar-officials are not born that high and even emperors and ministers come from small cowherds. You’re not going to keep my son down. No, I know what you want: you don’t want me to spend the money on him just so that you can puff it all away in that damned pipe of yours! Well, your plan’s failed again!

Bloody hell!” the man snapped back at her, “You really are thick as shit, aren’t you? OK, go ahead, go on, send him there tomorrow, see if I care! You really think he’s going to go far in this world? Right… Of course… I’ll make sure I keep my eyes open because I can’t wait to see that!”

So, to keep his pipe burning, he quarreled with her every day. Sometimes the woman would back down and throw him a wad of notes, which he would grab from her and mutter coldly, “You don’t have to treat me like a beggar, you know? You just wait till I’m doing business again. Yes, you’ll see, just one deal will bring me in a fortune and I’ll pay you back all the money you’ve lent me with interest and not a penny less. Believe it or not, there was a time when more money passed through these fingers every day than you’ve had in your whole life!”

“Then go back to the old days and stop bloody asking me for money!”

Ha! You think I’d be sorry if I left you? I’ve been thinking of taking off for weeks!”

“Go on then! Do it! I’ll burn joss sticks to thank Heaven and Earth!”

When quarreling and fighting were of no avail, the man would now just steal. Any money lying around would disappear immediately and inevitably made the woman more vigilant than ever. Locking up every trunk and box which contained her savings, the woman moved them into her elder daughter’s room to prevent the man from finding them. She then gave the keys to the trunks and boxes to her elder daughter, who hooked them on to a belt which she wore underneath her clothes.

With no money now left lying around, he had to get his opium on credit from passing traffickers and, when desperate, he mixed the ashes with water and drank that instead. They certainly weren’t the best of days for the addict and the only way he could deal with his constant craving for opium was to drink the wine that was supposed to be for the customers and send himself into a stupor both day and night. Having had a son by him by then, the woman just ignored him, however intoxicated he was. But the rest of the children cursed him behind his back, calling him ‘the boozer’ and ‘the chimney’ and prayed for his death so that he would stop stinging them like some vicious insect.

Soon the traffickers started leaning on him heavily to pay them back their loans. Scared of what they would do to him if he didn’t, his addled mind could think of only one way out – to steal the keys to the trunks and take it out of her savings…

So, one night, when the inn was quiet and everyone was asleep, he lit his opium lamp and, fortified by wine, went to prize open the daughter’s door. In a tropical place like that, the doors and walls were made of bamboo, in order to let a breeze pass through. It didn’t take much to get the door open…

Carefully, holding his opium lamp, he crept into the room and found the girl in a deep sleep, covered only by a thin skirt that left her legs exposed. He had always loathed the girl, calling her a tramp and other names, but now staring at her lying there, he found her young figure bewitching. And when he lifted up her skirt and looked at her naked body underneath, his intoxicated state made him forget all about their kinship.

The violent urge of his flesh pushed him towards the girl’s body…

You bastard!… You drunkard!You beast!You…”

Her daughter’s loud and desperate cries woke the woman up. Immediately, she realised that the thief in their midst was at work again. Springing from her bed, she grabbed a heavy stick and called Fusheng.

Fusheng! Get up! Now! That drunken wretch is stealing our money!”

When Fusheng awoke and realised what was happening, he too jumped out of his bed and ran after his mother with a pair of scissors in his hand.

Inside the daughter’s room, the opium lamp sat on the desk gleaming with a faint, yellowish light. The woman thought that if he hadn’t stolen anything then she would just give him a mild beating and then she would let him go. But when she saw what he was actually doing, she was overcome with the most furious anger. Pulling the drunken addict off her screaming daughter, she threw him down on to the ground and gave his vital parts a severe and bloody pounding.

Fusheng, young and innocent as he was, just thought he was stealing their money, so was standing by the door, with an angry look upon his face. It was only when he saw the drunken wretch lying on the floor, groaning with his bare backside in the air, that he realised what had been going on and flew into a rage.

Rushing forward, Fusheng stabbed the man in the back repeatedly with the scissors in his hand, until the drunkard finally stopped kicking and screaming and Fusheng had assuaged his long pent-up anger at the thieving, perverted addict and his nefarious ways.

“Are you in pain?” the woman asked her daughter anxiously, stroking her hair softly.

“Y-yes,” sobbed the daughter, burying her face in her pillow, “Yes Ma, I am…”

Shaking with rage, the woman didn’t hesitate and picking the stick back up again, brought it crashing down upon the back of the man’s head. He let out a moan but soon was quiet and motionless, blood oozing out from his neck, his mouth, his back and groin. Bending down the woman examined him for a while then her face turned white with both shock and fear.

“W-what are we going to do now? The beast is d-dead…”

Tears fell from her cheeks. For an instant, her long stored hate and spite vanished and she found herself forgiving him. Gone too was her courage and her heart sank. But when she glanced at the wide-open, bloodstained, wrathful eyes of the dead addict, she came to her senses.

‘How could it be my fault?’ she thought, ‘It’s all because he couldn’t control himself!’

When she caught sight of his shamelessly exposed and bloodied privates, hatred and contempt filled her heart again. Her courage returned, she quickly tied his body up with a rope and hooked it to a shoulder pole. She asked her elder daughter to help her carry the corpse and told her son to light the way. They were to bury him in the mountains and that would be that. The woman’s heart was empty now and her only thought was to get it done as quickly as they could.

Outside, it was still pitch-black and the mountain path was slippery with rain. By the time they had reached the mountainside, the heavy downpour had become a torrent, which crashed down on the nearby forests with a terrifying sound. Thunder and lightning silver-plated the valley and the forests, and at every crack, flash and rumble they jumped with terror as if their very souls were being absorbed by the elements.

‘Is Heaven venting its anger because I killed my husband?’ the woman thought, ‘But why? Why?! I did the right thing! He was a beast! He raped his step-daughter! He wasn’t human!’

By the time they had struggled to the top of the mountain with the corpse, she felt as if she didn’t have the strength to even hold the hoe. But thinking once more about what the man had done, she immediately found what little strength did remain inside her, and started digging the grave, when…

Ma! Ma!” screamed her son and daughter, shivering with fear, “What’s that?! What’s that howling over there? Ma! It’s a leopard! A leopard!!

Dropping the hoe, the woman lost her heart and strength instantly. Pushing the corpse down the other side of the mountain, she ran home with her children as fast as they all could, and as far away from whatever beast was lurking out there in the darkness, as it was possible to be…

The next morning when the woman got up early to clean up the inn, as well as the dead man’s belongings, she felt little grief or guilt. She only felt the man had got what he deserved and that justice had been done.

Fusheng, who usually woke up late, also got up early to help his mother with the cleaning. When he saw her wrapping up the addict’s paraphernalia, Fusheng walked over and took the pipe and opium cup out of his mother’s hands.

“Ma, let me have these.”

“No!” she replied, “Listen, you won’t learn anything good through them. No, Fusheng, I really am going to send you to one of those modern schools. My son, I would be so proud of you if you worked hard and made a success of yourself.”

Usually, Fusheng would have insisted on having things his way, but today he didn’t. Like a good son, he handed them back to her.

“OK, Ma,” he nodded, “Now, let’s throw these away!”

Ai Wu

Extract from:

Banana Vale, Panda Books, 1993

Banana Vale - Ai Wu

…The mountains in western Yunnan and Burma were originally known as the Savage Mountains. Everywhere was primeval forest with not a human trace. It is not known when the Daying River rushed into the Bamo plains through the Savage Mountains and flowed into the Irrawaddy River – along whose banks a southern silk route was established. It took three or four days to travel along the road on foot.

I worked for six months at a place called Cogongrass Fields, which was situated in a small valley by the Daying River, and from where it took three or four days to get to Ganya. Ships from Bamo penetrated as far as the Burmese hinterland to which the railways reached so that exotic goods could be transported back to Bamo and thence to Yunnan. From Bamo and on into Yunnan Province, transportation of goods relied totally on horses, so some people had set up large horse ranches.

In the morning and at dusk, vendors and their horses would come to the inn for the night, creating a hubbub of noise at the otherwise lonely Cogongrass Fields. I was alone in Bamo with no means of earning a living, so, upon the introduction of a fellow provincial of mine – a sedan-chair carrier – I went back to Cogongrass Fields and became a sanitation worker and part-time shop assistant. The Ganya Flatlands, which the Daying River passed through, were rich farming land. In the slack season, groups of Dais would bring local products to sell in Bamo. My task was to take care of them and ensure they slept soundly and rested well.

Cogongrass Fields and the Daying River were under the jurisdiction of the British, so workers in charge of transportation and the repair of roads were stationed there, but the British officials made one tour of inspection to the Cogongrass fields only every two or three months. Consequently, Cogongrass Fields became a resting place for drug traffickers, smugglers and horse thieves. As I became familiar with them, we talked about everything and kept no secrets from each other. Thus, I witnessed the dark sides of society and at the same time the innate kindness of those living on the fringe.

I wrote down my experiences in the Jingpo Mountains and during my travels, compiling my stories into a collection called, ‘Journey to the South‘…

Ai Wu

March 14, 1992, Chengdu

Stillwell Road Map

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The Great Guest - Tin Moe

 

‘On the few occasions that this translator met the poet Tin Moe in the 1970s in Rangoon, Burma and in December 2000 in Melbourne, Australia I did not directly enquire from him as to the ‘occasion’ or the ‘trigger’ which prompted Tin Moe to pen this enigmatic poem, though I have heard a few stories about the ‘origins’ of the poem. These include the claim that Tin Moe penned it at a road-side tea shop when someone ostensibly stated ‘The cigar’s shortened, the sun’s brown’ and Tin Moe supplied or added the last line of the poem of ‘sending back’…’

‘It was only around early August 2009 several months after Maung Swan Yi’s poem was first published that I came across the (to me and in the original) affecting reminiscence by Maung Swan Yi of his two friends. Only after reading Maung Swan Yi’s poem did I become aware of the actual circumstances pertaining to the composition of the poem.‘Shortened Cigars Stained with Nostalgic Tears’ confirms the ‘story’ that I have heard that some person other than Tin Moe composed or at least stated the first two lines of the poem…’

Myint Zan

Shortened Cigars Stained With Nostalgic Tears

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Between Two Fires

Between Two Fires

When I first met Saw Htee Byan in Rangoon Central Jail in 1956 he was just twenty-four years old. He was a strapping young man with a stocky build and a healthy complexion. His mother was Karen and like most Karens he possessed a fine melodious voice. At my request he sang several Karen songs while accompanying himself on the guitar.

After we had grown better acquainted he readily recounted to me the story of his life.

*

My grandfather was a village headman in Pyapon during the administration of the Hteebyan District Commissioner. Because I was born at this time I was named Saw Htee Pyan. My birthplace is Amar village which is about thirty miles away from Bogale Town, Pyapon District. My father’s name is Ko Hla Shein and my mother’s is Ma Ngwe Khin or Naw Yon Mu. My father is pure Burmese hailing from Upper Burma and my mother the daughter of a Karen Headman. My grandfather, U Po Bylu was well known in the area, being a headman who had been awarded a double barreled shotgun by the government for meritorious service. My father was a carpenter. He had come to repair the paddy barges belonging to my grandfather and had fallen in love with my mother. Grandfather approved of the match, and had them married with a proper ceremony.

I was the first child to be born of their union. My grandfather doted on me and named me Htee Pyan (“The umbrella returning” Commissioner, because practically all accused who appeared before him were sent to prison and only their umbrellas returned home).

Amar was a Karen-Burmese village of about two hundred houses. While it boasted two Buddhist monasteries, it had no secular school. When I was five years old my grandfather died and we moved to a village about fifty miles away called Kanyin-tabin. This village also had about two hundred houses and there were both Karen and Burmese families in the village. However, the Burmese far out-numbered the Karens, of whom there were only twenty households. My father set up shop as a carpenter, while my mother opened a small school to teach Karen and Burmese.

About the end of the Japanese occupation I was ten years old, and had acquired three sisters. The person charged with the anti-Japanese Resistance in our area was a man named Bo Kyaing. This officer attacked the Japanese prematurely and in reprisal they came and razed our village to the ground. We had to flee to another village thirty miles away called Myit-nga-hseik. Father set up a general provision store there, in partnership with five friends from Ohn-bin-su village near Pyapon. My mother no longer taught school and I had to attend the Karen school in the village.

Grandfather had been a pastor in the Karen Christian Church. Before he died he had managed to convert my father from Buddhism to Christianity and my father now became a pastor as well. He could deliver very fine sermons both in Burmese and Karen.

At about this time the political situation took a turn for the worse, and one day hearing gunshots, I ran home to find that rebels from the Karen National Defense Organisation had attacked our home. Father had managed to escape unscathed, but of his five Burmese friends, two were found dead inside the house while the remaining three were found outside also dead from gunshot wounds. Mother was inside the house weeping. The rebels pointed their rifles at the me and shouted, “How about you? Do you want to be a Burman or a Karen?” Only by replying that I wanted to be a Karen was my life spared. They then carried off all our property, leaving only our clothes, some salt, and a basket full of rice.

The K.N.D.O rebels then left after ordering the village militia to deliver the corpses to Pyapon. The militia had been organised by the government, but its members were Karen. They took the bodies to the Pyapon police station, where they reported that my father Ko Hla Shein had murdered his partners and absconded.

Meanwhile my father was hiding out in the jungle without food and water, not daring to approach the vicinity of human habitation because the story the K.N.D.O rebels had spread and had turned every man’s hand against him.

I travelled to Pyapon to see my father’s younger brother who was a Lieutenant in the Army and related the true story to him. My uncle came with me to view the corpses to make sure that father was not included in their number. Then he accompanied me back to the village, together with a squad of soldiers to search for him.

Some young cowherds informed us that a man had been seen sleeping at nights in the cemetery of nearby Char-gyin village, and making our way there quietly, we saw that it was my father. “Father! Father!” I called out to him, but he took fright and ran away. However the others immediately gave chase and finally succeeded in capturing him. Since he was wanted by the authorities my uncle had to surrender his own brother into custody.

After a month’s investigation the government published its findings declaring that my father was innocent of the crime, and that the K.N.D.O’s and the militiamen were the murderers. The relatives of the victims wanted action to be taken against the real culprits, but they could not be found. Ever since the news broke that my father was innocent, the militiamen had refused to obey all summonses issued for their appearance at the Pyapon police station. Father was released from custody, but he no longer dared to return to the village. Mother also was afraid to join him. Their separation dates from this time. I remained with my mother. I hear that father is living in Rangoon but I know neither his address nor his present occupation.

*

Although father had been a pastor he had put me in the Buddhist monastery school. He said that he wished to see his son brought up as a Buddhist. Accordingly, during the Japanese occupation I was novitiated together with seven other boys in a grand ceremony.

*

When I returned to the village with mother the Karen insurgents asked me: “Are you going to stay here, or do you wish to move to a Burmese village?” I had to reply: “I would like to stay in this village please.”

To make both ends meet, my mother had to sell the five cows that we had left, and with the proceeds buy a garden plot which we worked for the next two years. At the end of this period the Communists attacked Myit-nga-hseik village and so we returned to our original home in Amar village where we took up catching shrimps for a living.

Having grown up in Burmese villages I could not speak Karen when I was young. On going to live with my mother and her relatives my cousins found out that I could not speak Karen and ostracized me as a Burman. Occasionally I would be punched and kicked by the older boys. When my mother complained to her brother about this he summoned all of us and explained to the other children that I was the son of their aunt and a Karen also and that I did not know their language because I had been brought up in a Burmese village. He urged them to help me learn Karen instead of ill-treating me because I could not speak the language. He then turned to me and said that from that day on I was not to speak a single word of Burmese and that every time I did so I would be caned, and also fined one anna. For a long time I found great difficulty in communicating with the people around me. My uncle would talk to me in Karen asking me to fetch something and I would have to rush to my mother and ask her in a whisper what it was that he wanted. Then I would run to him and say in Karen: “Here it is, uncle.” His face would be wreathed in smiles and he would rattle off some long sentences, none of which I understood.

Finally my mother had a brilliant idea and had me enrolled in the Karen village school. The schoolmaster was a very sympathetic and kindly soul, and took my education in hand. I worked very hard under his tutelage, with the result that now I can speak and read Karen more correctly than any of my cousins.

When I reached manhood I was enlisted as a member of the local security force set up by the Karens to maintain law and order in our area. I was appointed leader of a platoon. One day a member of my unit got drunk and held up a Chinese merchant from Bogalesetsu. On my next trip to this town to deliver dried shrimps I was stopped by armed police and searched. They also proceeded to my hut where they uncovered a revolver and three cartridges. I was arrested straightaway. At first they charged me with the unsolved murder of a man named U Than Maung, but I could prove my innocence on that charge and so it was dropped. However the Chinese merchant came forward to accuse me of robbery and the magistrate sentenced me to two years imprisonment.

I have been working as a carpenter in the prison. When I have served my sentence I intend to go back to shrimping, at which I can earn up to fifteen kyats a day.

Being a Karen-Burmese I often encounter armed partisans of both sides. The Karens want to kill the Burmese and the Burmese feel that the only solution is to exterminate the Karens. It saddens me greatly to hear such talk. Having witnessed how my father and his friends had to suffer at the hands of Karens holding narrow sectarian views I find it difficult to forgive the Karens. On the other hand I have seen how cruel the Burmese can be and that makes me embittered at them. When Karens suffer I feel resentful and when Burmans suffer I feel resentful also. Sometimes I wonder whether racial strife and civil war will ever be ended.

*

Ludu U Hla

Extract from:

The Caged Ones

Translated from Burmese by Sein Tu

© Orchid Press, Bangkok, 1998

ISBN 974-8299-15-5

The extract above is reproduced with the kind permission of Orchid Press.

It may not be reproduced, copied or used anywhere else without the written permission of the publisher.

The Caged Ones - Ludu U Hla

Ludu U Hla (1910 – 1982) was born in Nyaunglebin in lower Burma. In 1933, he began publishing a magazine named Kyipwa yay (“Progress for Youth”), which continued until the beginning of the second World War. In 1939 he married Daw Amar.

During the war, Ludu U Hla translated into Burmese and published Ashihae Hino’s “War and Soldier”, the first book ever published during the Fascist occupation.

After the war, he began publishing the fortnightly journal Ludu, which means “The People” and from which his pen name Ludu U Hla originates.

An avid collector and publisher of folktales, Ludu U Hla collected around 2,000 folktales of the peoples of Burma and published around 1,500 folktales in a total of 43 books. In 1963, he was awarded the prestigious Burmese “Sarpay Beikman Literary Award” for his collection of Arakanese folktales.

Alongside this vast undertaking, he wrote 54 books, nine of which were biographies of prisoners he met whilst jailed for political reasons in the 1940s and 1950s. Before he passed away, he also left more than 500 unpublished folktales and seven unfinished manuscripts to his wife.

Haung-chaine-hte-ga-nghet-nge-myar (“The Caged Ones”), from which “Between Two Fires” comes, was originally published in Burmese and won the 1958 UNESCO Award. In the book, Ludu U Hla recounts with great compassion the life stories of sixteen young prisoners he met whilst in Rangoon Central Jail. Told in their own words, these accounts outline and explain the social pressures and reasons why these unfortunate young people had been driven to a life outside the law.

Because I have written a lot about the prisoners, I do not want the reader to assume that I am wholly on the side of the criminals. But what I wish to make clear is that though they may commit atrocious crimes, they are not animals. I strongly believe that they should have a chance to be re-accepted among their fellow citizens should they repent.”

Orchid Press

Orchid Press was founded in 1981, originally as White Orchid Press, by Hallvard K. Kuløy, a former United Nations executive who lived and worked for many years in Asia.

A specialized publishing house devoted to books related to Asia, Orchid Press publishes and provides readers with affordable high-quality editions of important works on the art, culture and religions of Asia.

For more information, please visit their website: Orchidbooks.com

 

Further Reading:

Between Holidays and Hell – Aung Zaw, The Irrawaddy, May, 2003

The Karen: Prospects for a Durable Peace

– The Karen National Union, Burma Debate Vol. III, No. 6, 1996

A Window to the Past – Stuart Alan Becker, Myanmar Times, January, 2015

Ludu and I – Bo Bo Lansin, The Dissident Blog, March, 2014

Ludu Daw Amar: A Burmese Literary Figure of Conviction and Courage – Myint Zan

Ludu Daw Amar: Speaking Truth to Power – Min Zin, The Irrawaddy, October, 2002

 

 

 

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Three Days at Inya Lake Hotel

Three Days at Inya Lake Hotel

(The First Irrawaddy Literary Festival)

Day One

There’s no need to mention the February heat. It is still as hot as ever.

Who wants to live in this heat? It always makes you sweat.

The traffic jams only make it worse. Whenever you think about getting away from the downtown bustle, it is always this frustration comes to mind. What a thing! Everything is stuck, nothing moves.

I am heading for the Inya Lake hotel where for the first time a literary festival called ‘The Irrawaddy Literary Festival’ is being held. Both international and local writers are going to be participating. I think it will be marvelous to take part in this festival.

At the entrance of the hotel, I look for my senior writer, Sayar Lay Ko Tin who has invited me to come to this occasion. I see several people gathered round, buying books from assorted book stalls but I don’t see him.

San Lin Tun!”

I turn around and see Sayar Lay Ko Tin walking towards me. We shake hands and he gives me an identity card to wear. I look at it and smile to see my name on it, as we both make our way into the lobby.

Entrance

There are several tables set out on the terrace. We choose one of them and sit down to discuss the topic we have to present at the panel discussion. Our session is at 11:30 after the poetry session.

My senior writer suggests we go and listen to the first session which is sure to be interesting. He says that we will leave half-way through and then walk up to Ruby Room A where we will present our topic after the poetry session has finished.

Excuse me…”

A foreign voice interjects.

Here, is it alright to call out ‘psk…psk…psk…‘ to a taxi driver?”

Looking up, I am really surprised to see who it is. It is Vikram Seth. I feel really thrilled because he is the one writer I really hoped to meet at this festival. What a chance!

It’s OK,” I reply, “as long as the custom permits.”

He seems to like my answer and smiles at me when I speak to him. I tell him I know him because I have read and admire his books. Another surprise is that the famous writer, Jung Chang is with him. She looks fabulous in her pink blouse.

When they see our ID cards, they learn that we are Myanmar writers and we talk about the festival and literature until we hear the announcer’s voice coming from the Sunset terrace where the opening ceremony is about to be held.

There, the British Ambassador makes a speech, remarking upon the significance of this festival, followed by a speech by U Pe Myint.

All the audience applauds their well-chosen words.

U Pe Myint - Irr Lit Fest

We enter the ball room where the poetry panel discussion is being held.

It is spacious and there are many people sitting there, listening to the four members of the discussion panel – the editor, James Byrne, the translator Ko Ko Thett, the moderator Zeyar Lynn and a female Filipino poet. They talk about the nature of the poems in ‘Bones Will Crow‘, a collection of Myanmar poetry which Arc Publications has recently published.

It is very interesting and I would like to stay longer but my senior writer is now pointing at his watch.

It is time to leave and we walk upstairs to Ruby Room A.

Bones Will Crow - Ko Ko Thett-1

At first, there are only a few people there, but, by the time we are ready to start, nearly every seat is taken.

The topic of our discussion is “Translation and Adaptation,” and after my senior writer has introduced us both, Ko Thet Oo begins the discussion.

I feel it goes very well and many interesting points are made.

*

In the evening, I sit out on the terrace and reflect upon the day.

The atmosphere here is peaceful yet stimulating.

Away from the daily pressures of the busy city, creativity seems to flow unimpeded.

Yes, everything appears more vivid to me.

The lake in the background. The sunlight dancing on its green ripples. The walkways fringed with palm trees. The small wooden bridge that protrudes into the lake. The men and women standing and sitting on its boards, drawing and writing.

I feel sure that this experience will linger in my mental mouth, far longer than these three days.

Hotel walkways

Day Two

I am thinking about whether I should buy the novel, ‘Two Lives’ by Vikram Seth.

I am confused because I only have a limited amount of cash but would dearly like to read the book and for him to sign it for me.

Putting it back down, I decide, for now, to make do with the photograph I took yesterday of Sayar Lay Ko Thin, Vikram Seth, Jung Chang and me together. I will buy the book later.

Unfortunately, I cannot. For when I do return, the last copy has been sold.

Books

At the festival, there are many foreigners.

They outnumber the local people, but I think it is good that they are here.

Out on the terraces, some are seated in front of a Myanmar puppet show, some are listening to Myanmar classical music being played by a young local woman upon a Myanmar harp, and some are sitting on the lawns, talking and playing with their friends and children.

The mood is relaxed and carefree and the air is an inclusive one.

The festival appears to be not only affecting me.

*

Sitting in the shade and drinking a glass of sweet iced tea, my mind goes back to the panel discussion with Jung Chang this afternoon.

In the audience there were both young and old people.

But the person I recall most clearly, is the female Japanese photographer who was trying to get the best shot she could of the lively discussion.

Although I watched her keenly, she paid no mind to my attention.

Rather than her looks, it was this modest manner which made such a strong impression on me.

modesty

Day Three

It is nearly the last session of the last day of the festival and I have to attend it.

It is the panel discussion with Vikram Seth and I want to ask him a real question.

At 4.30 PM, the discussion starts and I listen carefully, making sure to take notes.

The moderator is discussing with him the nature of his fiction. His answers are illuminating.

When I met him, he asked me how I had first discovered his work. I told him that the first thing I read were some of his poems on poemhunter.com. I liked them very much, so decided to read his novels. During our conversation, Jung Chang also told me that she’d heard that her book “The Wild Swans” has been translated into the Myanmar language. I told her that indeed it had, but, sadly, the translator had now passed away.

After the discussion, Mr Seth takes questions from the audience. There are many people who want to, so, I have to wait my turn before I ask him mine.

Do you have any advice for future writers?”

Live and write,” is his reply.

I thank him for his answer; it is inspiring enough.

*

The festival now comes to a close, as it began, on the Sunset terrace.

To an orange backdrop of the setting sun, the writers, organisers and the people in attendance listen to the closing speeches then bid farewell to one another before the curtain comes down on the festival and the darkness falls.

Leaving the hotel alone, I hear a quartet playing jazz in the lobby bar.

Like my mood, the melody is lively and happy.

Strolling slowly down the driveway, which winds its way to the gate of the hotel, I reflect upon my own experiences over the last three days.

Irrawaddy…”

I smile and nod to myself.

Live and write, live and write…”

Maybe the future will come about as I wish, or maybe not. No one can be sure.

For the time being, what matters is to stay focused and determined.

Yes, I feel I have become more mature.

San Lin Tun

End of the festival

About the Writer

San Lin Tun is a Myanmar-Mon national and lives in Yangon. He was educated at Yangon Technological University and the International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University (I.T.B.M.U). He is a freelance writer, whose articles can be read in the Home and Services Journal, as well as a poet, whose poetry can be found on poemish.com (under the pen name of J-Boon), and also a Short Story Workshop Instructor for the Hidden Words, Hidden Worlds project.

 

Further Reading:

The Lady, the Writers and the Ex-Prisoners – FreeSpeechDebate, February, 2013

Literary Festival Encourages Bolder Writing, Open Debate

– Bill O’Toole, Myanmar Times, February 2013

Literary Festival Reflections – Lucas Stewart, SADAIK, February, 2013

Burma’s First Literary Festival is a Milestone – Petra Halbur, Bonfire Impact, February, 2013

A Literary Festival in Myanmar? – Sarah Hoffmann, Pen America, January 2013

Burmese Bards to Boycott Literary Festival – Kyaw Phyo Tha, The Irrawaddy

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