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Photograph by Fan Ho (何藩)

The Ventriloquist

IN THE YEAR of Keng Shen, I happened to visit Yangchow. One evening a friend introduced me to a famous ventriloquist named Kuo Mao-erh. I invited Kuo and my friend to my quarters at the inn, where we dined and drank together until a late hour. After the meal, Kuo agreed to favour us with a display of his talents. A large silk screen was placed to the right of our table. Kuo took his position in the shadows behind the screen, while my friend and I sat in pleasant anticipation…

A long silence is broken suddenly by voices; two men are meeting on the road. The greetings are loud and boisterous. One of the men, older than the other, invites the young man to his house. They walk down a rough road, enter a gate and cross a small courtyard to a house. A door slams shut. Wine is poured. The two men talk and joke.

The young men protests. “Too much drink,” he pleads. The other laughs. More wine is poured. Cups clink. The wine is sipped and guzzled. The guest gets to his feet. He moves unsteadily and his host assists him to the gate. Laughter. Goodbyes. The young man staggers down the road. The gate is closed. The bolt slips into place.

The young man stumbles along. He slips, sprawling to the ground. Silence. A second set of footsteps approaches. The newcomer’s foot strikes something soft. A curse. A drunken groan. The newcomer reaches down, assisting the drunken man to his feet. He helps the man walk down the road.

They halt. The drunken man is half-dragged forward, then propped against a wall. The other steps back. “Ho! Watchman! Open the city gates!” No reply. Somewhere in the distance a dog barks. Others join in. Still more dogs add to the chorus – some young, others old; some close by, others a long way off.

The watchman shuffles along the wall. He climbs down. A large gate swings open. The newcomer assists the drunken man along. At a house, they pause. The newcomer pounds on the gate. Nothing stirs. He pounds again. Louder. The gate creaks open. A man curses. Wrong house. More dogs join in the barking.

The drunken man is helped to a second house. The newcomer pounds again. The gate opens. A young woman thanks the man for helping her husband home. The man chides the drunkard and then he takes his leave. The gate closes. The bolt slides into place.

The young woman, panting, struggles with her drunken husband. She drags, pushes, cajoles him across the courtyard and on into the house. She helps him into bed.

“Tea!” he moans.

The woman goes into the kitchen. A fire crackles; the tea hisses and it steams. It is poured into a cup. The woman returns to the bedroom. The drunken man has passed out. He snores. His snores rise and fall with a thunderous din. The woman sighs. She grumbles. She returns to the kitchen where she pours the tea back into the pot. Back to the bedroom. She blows out the lamp. She slips off her clothes. Now there are two sets of snores.

A temple gong breaks up the serenade of snores. The hour of the Rat. A cow moos. The bed creaks. The young man groans. He vomits, groans again, then he vomits again. “Tea!” he wails. The woman snores on. He mutters. Curses. The bed creaks a second time. Once again – two sets of snores rise up.

The cocks crow. First one, and then another, and finally many others, each one crowing in a different key. The bed creaks. The woman yawns. She pulls her slippers from next to the bed. They squish. She shakes them and a slippery, watery bile plops onto the stone floor. An angry cry. Curses. The woman reaches over; finds a second pair. She gets up, dresses and goes into the kitchen. Kettles clack, fire crackles and food is sliced and chopped.

Outside a pounding, on the gate. “Almost dawn,” a voice shouts out. “Get that lazy son of mine up. It’s time to slaughter the pigs.”

The woman shakes her husband. He grumbles, dresses and leaves the house to accompany his father to the pig pens. Food is thrown in for the swine. Grunting and squabbling, they fight over the slops. Sounds of slurping and of gulping. Water being drawn up from a well. Water being poured into a kettle. A fire crackles. Later, water boils.

A pig now squeals. The young man grunts and curses. The squeals grow louder. “Tie him good!” the old man warns. A knife is being sharpened on a whetstone. Now an axe. A desperate final squeal – cut off midway. Silence. The soft sound of blood flowing. Now an axe chopping bones. Now a knife slicing meat. Finally, meat being washed.

“Dawn,” the old man announces, “Time to set up the counter.”

Silence.

In time, there are sounds, distant at first, then growing nearer. The shuffling of feet. Loud voices rise. “I’ll have the ribs.” “How much?” “Did you save the feet?” “No, too much!” “Where’s the kidney and the liver?” “No, not that cut.” “When was the pig slaughtered? Last week?”

Coins clatter on the wooden counter. “Where is the head?” More coins clatter. “Some pork for a roast?” Fresh meat slaps against the wood. “Yes! That’s the piece.”

The sounds grow in intensity. Many voices join in. The voices and the sounds all blend – cutting, chopping, the clatter of coins, questions, answers, laughter, cries, insults – until they are all running together in a great, unintelligible jumble. Then…

Nothing.

Silence.

At last the act of the ventriloquist is finished.

Master of the East Pavilion

Translated by Gene Z. Hanrahan

50 Great Oriental Stories, Bantam, 1965

‘Master of the East Pavilion’ is a nom de plume, which has successfully cloaked the identity of the author ever since this tale was written; shortly before the end of the nineteenth century.

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people-elsewhere_front-cover

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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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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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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