ANNA J. ALLOTT
Burmese Storytellers and the Censors
The effort necessary to remain uncorrupted in an environment
where fear is an integral part of everyday existence is not immediately
apparent to those fortunate enough to live in states governed by the rule
of law—Daw Aung San
Suu Kyi, Freedom from Fear
Copyright © September
All rights reserved.
Printed in the
Library of Congress Catalog Card No.: 93-086228
ISBN 0-934638 12-3
Cover design by Myo Myint Oo
featuring stories by seven Burmese writers,
selected and translated with an introduction and explanatory notes
by Anna J. Allott, Senior Research Associate in Burmese Studies,
the largest of more than
one hundred Centers worldwide
that make up International PEN
(poets, playwrights, essayists, editors, and novelists),
is a membership association of
literary writers and editors.
As a major voice of the literary community,
its membership defends freedom of expression
wherever it may be threatened.
It would have been impossible for me to have written this report and to have gathered together all the material translated and discussed in it without help from many colleagues and friends. It has been a privilege and a pleasure to work on behalf of so many talented and sincere Burmese authors, and we hope that they will not feel that our translations misrepresent them.
I must not fail to acknowledge the contribution of the Press Scrutiny Board of Myanmar Naingngan which has provided the stimulus for the appearance of this collection, and whose operations have fortunately directed my attention to previously unpublished as well as published material.
As is customary, the translations have
undergone a process of literary editing, and in some cases shortening for
reasons of space, by American PEN's Freedom-to-Write program director Siobhan Dowd. I
am most grateful to her and PEN for initiating the project, and for the patience and
care that she has devoted to the task of editing it. I would like to express my
—Anna J. Allott
PREFACE TO THE INTERNET EDITION
Ten years after the publication of 'Inked over, Ripped Out', the private, non-government publishing scene in Burma is flourishing and developing along new lines; a new type of weekly news publication called 'gya-neh' (from English journal) has become very popular, some serious magazines have disappeared, for example 'Thint Bawa' (Your Life), banned when its editor fled the country; others have acquired many extra pages of glossy western-style advertisements. Most noticeably, prices of books and magazines (see page 15) reflect the continuing and disastrously high inflation rate - a monthly magazine now costs from 300-500 kyat per issue, small-size fiction paperbacks cost 300-400 kyat, and a standard-size 400 page soft-cover book of memoirs costs 1500 kyat. Books are rarely published in hard-back.
Censorship, however, remains as harsh and as arbitrary as ever, with the additional burden that evidence of the censor's work must now be concealed. There are no more inked over passages, only occasional blanks where, say, a cartoonist's name has been removed from the contents page; and pagination is now continuous as ripped out pages of magazines must be replaced by the exact number of new ones before the issue can go on sale.
The new-style weekly news tabloids ('gya-neh') provide readers with full and up-to-date coverage of world events, with a large amount of international and local gossip, but with only severely restricted items of home news. Nothing ever appears about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and little or nothing about local disasters, epidemics, crop-failures or price-rises. [For names marked with a *, see the appendix.]
—Anna J. Allott, July 2003
The purpose of this publication on Burmese writing and Burmese censorship is to enable the work of certain Burmese authors, writing since the imposition of military rule in 1988, to be read by a much wider audience than is usually the case, and also to show, through their own words (in translation), how they are continuing to find ways to express their true feelings about what is happening in their country in spite of the very strict and repressive system of censorship that exists there.
Of necessity, in a country where no direct
criticism of government policy or of individuals who hold positions of power is
permitted, writing is frequently allusive or ironical, so much so that even
Burmese readers not keyed into the clues may not appreciate the point of a piece,
still less those Burmese who have been living abroad for some time, and still less
the foreign reader. A writer in
The stories and poems selected for
translation have been brought to my attention by a number of lovers of Burmese
writing. Some of them have been identified by the readers as carrying a
political message, often hidden to the casual reader or to anyone unaware of the issues
being addressed in them. Where these pieces have been published in
Many of the writers featured here already have their works subjected to close scrutiny by the censors and are identified as being persons to watch. The publication of their works in English, together with my interpretations of their works, may result in their future writings being submitted to even greater scrutiny for hidden meanings. I can only apologize for further adding to their difficulties and stress that the allusions and hidden meanings that I have identified in these stories are drawn from my own interpretation, supported by discussions with other readers, and do not represent explanations by the writers themselves.
Inevitably, the stories represent a very
small part of all works written since 1988. They are untypical, in that the
majority of pieces published in
Brief Historical and Political Background
Press and Media: Before and After 1962
During the time he was the prime minister in the 1950s, U Nu had maintained a small department called the Press Review Department. Its job was to read through newspapers and periodicals so that government departments might respond rapidly to what was being said about them in the Burmese press. It also read through published books. Only on one occasion, toward the end of 1961, did U Nu attempt to restrict press criticism by suspending the newspaper Htoon Daily and detaining its editor, U Htun Pe.
For about a year following the army coup in March 1962, the Revolutionary Council allowed the journals to continue publishing more or less without restrictions. Evidently it was waiting to see what kind of a press it received; it also had to develop a new national ideology and decide on policies for ruling the country. In April 1962, the Revolutionary Council put out its policy statement, "The Burmese Way to Socialism," and in July it launched its own political party, the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP). The few civilian politicians who agreed to support the Revolutionary Council were mostly of the left, some were even former communists: their training in Marxist-Leninist politics together with their skills with language and propaganda greatly influenced the language and ideas of the new Burmese brand of socialism.
In February 1963, after a crisis within the
Revolutionary Council, Brigadier Aung Gyi resigned and the government adopted a less
tolerant line toward the press. In March, three newspaper editors were
arrested, and in May the Nation (the most influential daily paper) stopped
publication, allegedly because of a failure to pay taxes. In July 1963, the
government announced that all departmental journals would soon cease publication,
all official information would be included in new, government-sponsored dailies,
shortly to begin publication. In August 1963, U Law Yone, the editor of the Nation,
was arrested. The first number of the government's Lok-tha Pyei-thu
Nei-zin (Working People's Daily) appeared on
The Burmese press now had its new marching orders—a suitable metaphor for what had in effect become an arm of a military government; henceforth, under the direct control of the Ministry of Information, its task was, and has remained until today, one of "mass organization, agitation, and objective news dissemination" (Guardian Magazine, March 1972). Article 157 of the Burmese constitution (adopted in 1974) stated: "Every citizen shall have freedom of speech, expression, and publication to the extent that such freedom is not contrary to the interests of the working people and socialism." This has meant that for thirty years the press in Burma, and of course radio and television as well, have been totally controlled by, and at the service of, the government, which has used them to explain official policies, to inform the people of only those facts it deemed important or beneficial for them to know, and to exhort them, ad nauseam, to work harder and to make do with less. Until September 1988, the goal was a "socialist society"; since that date, the word socialism has disappeared from all official statements and has been replaced by the "three main causes" (see below).
System of Control over Publishing Established under the BSPP after 1962
One of the first tasks of the newly organized Ministry of Information in August 1962 was the promulgation of a new Printers' and Publishers' Registration Act, which repealed the preceding acts. Under this act all printers and publishers were required to register (within ninety days from October 15) and to present two copies of all published books—later increased to five—to the Press Scrutiny Board (PSB). The PSB was made responsible for reading all published books, periodicals, and magazines, and was given the power to forbid their distribution. In 1966, the PSB was enlarged to about thirty persons, and in 1970, it was put under the direction of the Ministry of Home and Religious Affairs.
At that period and up to the
present, book publishing in
Except for books on politics, economics, and religion—which had to be submitted in manuscript form before publication—all books were submitted for the PSB's scrutiny by the publisher after they had been printed. The publisher had to hold the work until he received clearance to distribute it. Today, in 1993, this is still the position for some books and all magazines, except that now three, not five, copies must be submitted.
This system creates a very strong pressure on the author to censor himself; if the PSB orders changes in the text, or the deletion of entire stories or articles from collections, the alterations have to be carried out on books which have already been printed and bound, at great cost to the publisher. And, if the work is banned altogether, then the total printing has to be destroyed.
This unsatisfactory situation was exacerbated in the 1970s by the increasing cost of paper, and publishers became ever more unwilling to risk publishing books, especially more serious and socially responsible books, that might incur too heavy a loss, either because the public did not buy them or because they were unlikely to be passed by the PSB. The more the government exhorted writers to produce "nation-building works" (taing-pyu pyei-pyu) and "works beneficial to the people" (pyei-thu akyo-pyu), the fewer serious works were issued by the publishers.
Provision of Explicit Guidelines for Literature and the Media—1975
In an attempt to reduce the uncertainty about what would be rejected by the PSB, in July 1975, the Ministry of Home and Religious Affairs issued a new set of guidelines for authors and publishers. This "memorandum to all printers and publishers concerning the submission of manuscripts for scrutiny, issued by the Printer's and Publisher's Central Registration Board," makes very clear the extent to which the government was now seeking to restrict freedom of expression in the country. The text reads as follows:
The Central Registration Board hereby informs all printers and publishers that it has laid down the following principles to be adhered to in scrutinizing political, economic, and religious manuscripts, and novels, journals, and magazines. They must be scrutinized to see whether or not they contain:
1. anything detrimental to the Burmese Socialist
2. anything detrimental to the ideology of the state;
3. anything detrimental to the socialist economy;
4. anything which might be harmful to national solidarity and unity;
5. anything which might be harmful to security, the rule of law, peace, and public order;
6. any incorrect ideas and opinions which do not accord with the times;
7. any descriptions which, though factually correct, are unsuitable because of the time or the circumstances of their writing;
8. any obscene (pornographic) writing;
9. any writing which would encourage crimes and unnatural cruelty and violence;
10. any criticism of a non-constructive type of the work of government departments;
11. any libel or slander of any individual.
It is hardly necessary to point out, first, that almost any written statement or piece of descriptive writing could be objected to under one or another of these headings, and second, that the decision to label something "harmful" or "detrimental" would, of necessity, be arbitrary and depend on the whim of each individual censor. And indeed, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, one of the main difficulties faced by Burmese writers has been the arbitrary nature of the decisions made by the PSB—quite apart from the necessity of observing the eleven, vaguely worded prohibitions above. A further difficulty was that certain censors, fearful of being reprimanded by their superiors for letting through some unsuitable material, would tend to reject or ask for changes in what should have been perfectly acceptable texts. There is one amusing story from the mid-1980s about a book review that resulted from an overzealous censor trying to adhere rigidly to the eleventh guideline which prohibits slander or libel. Book reviews were considered to be writing of a personal nature, so the PSB censor insisted on asking a certain author of a book under review if he had any objection to the review, before giving permission for the review to be published. A short while later, the then-chairman of the PSB (a colonel who had recently been moved to this post from the military intelligence), taking this as a precedent, demanded a similar letter of no objection from Theik-pan Maung Wa, an author who had, in fact, died in 1942.
Another absurd incident was the recent banning
of a series of articles recounting the legends connected with several famous
By 1982 the process of censorship in
The Events of 1988
By the beginning of 1988 there were signs that the members of the PSB were becoming more relaxed about their responsibilities, and were even permitting the publication of some pieces critical of the Burmese government and economy. Private individuals and organizations were able, without difficulty, to obtain licenses to start up the publication of new monthly magazines — the most lively field of literary activity in Burma — with the result that by mid-1988 over ninety different magazines covering literature, fiction, the film world, pop music, home and family, religion, foreign news, and technical and scientific matters were being published. Obtaining a license meant that the Paper and Printing Corporation would release an allocation of paper at the controlled price to the license holder.
In March, a wave of prodemocracy demonstrations occurred on the university campus in which a young student, Maung Hpon Maw, was killed and hundreds of others were arrested; some met their deaths in police custody.
In early May, there appeared a very
influential "unofficial" document, a forty-page open letter from former
Brigadier Aung Gyi to U Ne Win, in which the writer made clear to U Ne Win just
what a disastrous state the Burmese economy had been reduced to under his
leadership. A few days later, on May 13, an official report of the committee
investigating the death of the student Maung Hpon Maw in March was released.
This admitted that the student had indeed been shot by the security forces, that 625
students had been arrested by the end of March, but claimed that by May most of
these had been released. Gradually, through May, June, and July the students'
protests became stronger and more widely supported. On June 21, following eight days
of peaceful protests by the students who were pressing for the release of all
those still detained since March and a new inquiry into the behavior of the
police during the March demonstrations, there was another violent
clash between students and the authorities on the
These were times of excitement and hope for those seeking a freer and more democratic regime. Slowly, act by act, the government was being forced by public opinion to give more truthful reports of what had taken place, to admit mistakes, and to rescind hastily imposed decrees. By the middle of August, after more bloody confrontations, during which many civilians (some say thousands) died, Dr. Maung Maung, a civilian lawyer, took over as president and there was a lull in the violence. Former Brigadier U Aung Gyi, who had been arrested after his frank letter to U Ne Win, and others who had been temporarily detained, were released, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (the daughter of Aung San, the leader of the postwar independence movement who was assassinated in 1947) addressed her first mass rally at the Shwedagon Pagoda on August 26.
On August 25, 26, and 27, 1988, no newspapers appeared. All the workers were out demonstrating in support of four demands: the resignation of the government; the formation of an interim government; the holding of multiparty elections; and the right to publish freely. The official newspapers that reappeared after the break were much changed—they were reporting more accurately what was actually happening. At this point the first unofficial news sheets also began to appear, with much fuller detail, with graphic, even lurid photographs, and containing many expressions of personal opinion, as people lost their fear and became prepared to speak out, sensing that the changes they were asking for might be within their grasp. Nearly one hundred such unofficial publications have been recorded and are available in a collection in the British Library The earliest of these is dated August 27, the latest September 21, 1988; the honeymoon period of press freedom lasted less than one month.
Journalistic activity continued to increase in intensity and effectiveness, almost as if the free, unofficial publications were spurring the official press to give more accurate information. And indeed this is what government employees working in radio, TV, and the press had just gone on strike for: the right to put out accurate information about internal events. They knew, as everyone else knew, that for years the picture they had been presenting to the Burmese public had borne little relation to reality. In the exciting atmosphere of what was hailed as the Burmese version of glasnost, they too wanted to be able to speak freely and truthfully. The official press began to carry numerous pictures of peaceful demonstrators marching in Rangoon, lists of their demands and, more worrying, accounts of widespread looting on a massive scale, with shocking incidents of mob revenge. As yet, the press contained little analysis or comment. Indeed, some of the leaders and feature articles were staggeringly irrelevant, as if they had been written to order months in advance. The unofficial press, however, carried all this news and much more: dramatic photographs of the demonstrations taken from Asiaweek, long interviews with opposition leaders including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, feature articles about the British Broadcasting Service's World Service, and about how elections are conducted in Western democracies. Most important, there were courageous personal statements by older Burmese journalists, silenced for so long, of their reactions to events and to Dr. Maung Maung's speeches. They wrote about the abuses of the present system, about the desperate need to find a solution to the nation's problems, and about the need for the army and the people to work together.
But tragically a new solution was not found. On September 16, amid more bloody confrontations in which the military brutally slaughtered many civilians (again, estimates vary), the government ordered all military, police, and public servants to resign from the Burmese Socialist Programme Party— many civil servants had already done so—and to return to work. On September 18, the army seized power from the government of the country, and General Saw Maung became the chairman of a new governing body, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Burma has remained under the SLORC control ever since, despite the results of the 1990 elections, in which Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, won a commanding majority of the vote.
On September 19 and 20 there were no official newspapers, but by September 21, the old-style Lok-tha Pyei-thu Nei-zin (Working People's Daily) was back—a newspaper that contained little in the way of real news and nothing in the way of objective comment. In April 1993, the SLORC decided that, in order to shed the paper's socialist image, it should be renamed Myanma Alin (The New Light of Myanmar), the name of one of Burma's leading nationalist newspapers in the 1920s and 1930s.
Publishing and Censorship after 1988
During the heady months of August and September 1988, many regular contributors to Burma's numerous monthly magazines were drawn into helping with the numerous unofficial publications, with the result that many magazines temporarily ceased publication. After the SLORC's seizure of power, a considerable number of leading writers decided to continue their political activities and took up functions in the emerging political parties, which left them little time for ordinary writing. At the same time all "socialist" journals and magazines put out under the aegis of the Burmese Socialist Programme Party ceased publication. Prices were rising and publishing became more expensive.
The PSB, however, although a creation of the Burmese Way to Socialism, far from being disbanded, was strengthened; it tightened its supervision and continued to censor all publications in accordance with its previous guidelines, merely dropping the word "socialist." If anything, the PSB now appeared to writers in Burma to pursue ever more restrictive policies, becoming extremely sensitive to hidden meanings and democratic ideas in stories, poems, and articles. With each fresh instance of censorship, writers and magazine editors would be forced to alter their future approach.
Censorship of writings was not always enough. In July 1989, when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was put under house arrest, several leading writers who had been actively campaigning with her in the National League for Democracy were arrested. Among the most famous of these was U Win Tin (former editor of the NLD newspaper), who is still in prison, and Maung Thawka, a poet and short story writer who died in June 1991 during his imprisonment. Some have since been released: Maung Ko Yu (in early 1991), Daw San San Nwe (in mid-1990), and Ma Theingi (in April 1992). Others have since been arrested (for a list of those currently detained, with brief biographies, see the Appendix).
It is well known that there is a blacklist, supplied to the PSB by the military intelligence, of authors and people whose work may not be published at all, and whose names may not even appear in print. Neither the work, nor even the name of someone currently in jail may appear in print. And the same restriction also applies to some (but not all) released writers, for example, Daw San San Nwe, one of whose stories appears in this collection. Others who were outspoken in their support of the prodemocracy movement, such as U Pe Thein* (whose gentle humor and wisdom makes him Burma's best-loved cartoonist), have been totally banned from appearing in print. For such people this means that they have been prevented from earning their living in the way that they had been doing before. In March 1993, these restrictions seem to have been lifted in certain cases, but not all.
An example of the great harm done to the literary life of Burma is the case of an anthology of short stories that was published in December 1991, issued in memory of an outstanding woman writer, MoMo (Inya), who had died suddenly in March 1990. The book, The Best Short Stones of the 80s, is a collection of previously published works and included the work of thirty-seven carefully selected authors. However, in between the time of choosing the authors and that of printing the book and submitting it to the PSB, three of the selected authors were arrested. The result was that the publisher was forced to rip out their three stories from the already printed and bound book. The author's names also had to be blanked out, using silver ink, from the table of contents. A fourth story, about a noted political figure, Thakin Kodaw Hmaing, was also torn out, since he had, for unclear reasons, become a persona non grata. Even more pettily, throughout the volume, wherever a story was listed as having first appeared in Pe-hpu-hlwa, a magazine which had been shut down by the SLORC, this name also had to be obliterated. The final assault on the volume, before it was permitted to go on sale, was to the cover: an image of MoMo's head, embossed on a medallion, had to be covered over with a strip of gold paper, because the PBS feared that the Burma's reading public might be reminded of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the Nobel Peace Prize she had recently been awarded. This volume was an exceptional publishing venture, presenting as it did a carefully chosen selection of the best short stories of the 1980s in a large-format, highly-produced volume costing an unusually expensive seventy-five kyats. Future generations of Burmese readers will doubtless decry the mutilations to the volume at the PSB's behest.
As well as the blacklist, there is since 1988 a new range of topics that may not be touched upon in non government-sponsored writing. (The government, however, reserves the right to write on all topics.) Off-limits topics include: democracy; human rights; politics; the events of 1988; senior government officials; the BSPP (the word "socialist" was actually blanked out of the phrase "socialist realism" in the foreword by Daw Amar to a book of short stories in 1992); the Nobel Prize or anything that might bring Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to mind (a story in which the heroine's name was "Ma Su" had to be ripped out of a magazine); criticism of the SLORC or of military personnel; "immorality," such as references to two unmarried people living together; prostitution in Burma; and any other topics determined unsuitable by the PSB.
The interference with an author's right to decide about his own work starts at the petty level of spelling. For example, the word do ("we" or "our," as in do-bama, meaning "we Burmese," an evocative usage), may only be used by those in power, while ordinary writers must just use the spelling to (which has no nationalist overtones). The interference also affects such final decisions about books as the cover design: too much red is not permitted, boys must not be wearing trousers, young couples should not be shown kissing. A further indignity endured by authors is that every book and magazine is obliged to carry on its first or second page a series of government slogans, starting with:
The Three Main National Causes are nondisintegration of the Union, nondisintegration of national solidarity, and the continuing maintenance of national sovereignty;
and ending with the hypocritical statement:
The emergence of the state constitution is the chief duty of all citizens.
Sometimes the SLORC's inclination to put words into writers' and editors' mouths goes further—magazine editors have frequently had pressure put on them to publish government-sponsored articles intended to foster the reader's national pride and to preserve traditional Burmese culture in the face of growing Western influence.
Soon after the announcement of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in October 1991, the PSB instituted an objectionable new rule by which authors have to submit biographical details together with their manuscript. The form requires them to state if they have engaged in political activity or if they have served a prison sentence, in which case their work may well be rejected. Editors of magazines are also required to countersign these forms, with the aim of flushing out banned authors who are writing under a pseudonym. Political acceptability, rather than literary merit, is what enables a work to get into print, and editors of monthly literary magazines are increasingly embarrassed by the changes they are obliged to ask writers to make, especially in cases of senior and respected authors.
Monthly Magazines, 1992-93
The vigor of Burmese literary life can best be judged by looking not so much at novels as at the monthly literary magazines. These are very different from the government-controlled daily press. There are at least twenty of them appearing regularly, all privately published except for three or four, which are government-subsidized and which have to compete with the private ones. Printed on poor-quality paper, with only the cover in color, the magazines feature poems, cartoons, general articles, foreign news features (more and more lifted from Time and Newsweek), copious pictures, gossipy reports of film and popstars, both Western and Burmese, and short stories in great quantity. In any one month as many as a hundred new short stories may be published: the short story is the most popular and important literary genre in Burma today, a fact which this report reflects.
At first sight the foreign observer may well wonder why the readers are so fond of these story magazines with their demure Burmese beauties on the covers. But two reasons then become evident. First, the "scrutiny" procedure is different and less discouraging for authors than that for full-length books. It is the magazine editor who chooses the material for each issue, has the magazine printed, and then submits it for censorship. If the issue is not passed for distribution, or has to have some pages or passages deleted, it is the editor who bears the responsibility, and the publisher the expense. For an author, it is less disheartening and time-wasting to have a short story rejected by a magazine editor than to have a full-length novel turned down by the censors. Second, the rather dull national newspapers, with their lack of hard, national news reporting and their continuous exhortations to the population at large, have turned people toward the magazines, where they find in the short stories the same kind of reassuring reflection of the ironies and problems of their everyday lives that we in the West have in our daily tabloid press, and more especially in our radio and TV dramas and soap operas.
Another reason for the popularity of the short story and the cartoon storybook is economic. The price of paper has risen steeply, as have other publishing costs. In 1992, a novel could cost from forty-five to sixty kyats and the average price of a monthly magazine is twenty-five to thirty-five kyats. This is expensive for their usual readership—for example, a junior civil servant earning seven hundred and fifty kyats a month. Nor are there any lending libraries as such. The government has opened some reading rooms but these are mainly for government publications. Most readers, therefore, elect to hire books and magazines at between one to five kyats a day (for instance, a sixty-kyat book costs five kyats a day to hire) from small neighborhood shops, and they therefore require a quick and easy read so that they can return the book or magazine on time. Thus, short stories are more sought after than lengthy novels, since the hiring of the latter could add up to be just as much as the cost of buying the book. Some serious writers feel that publishers and shops renting books favor lightweight love stories and thrillers, but it is also a fact that the quality, the variety, and the significance of Burmese short stories have greatly increased from the mid-1980s onward. Several of the writers represented in our selection have been able to reprint collections of their magazine short stories in book form.
The Mechanics of Censorship
It does not help the image of the PSB that it has its offices in the building that housed the Kempetai (the Japanese secret police) during the Japanese occupation. All books and most magazines are submitted to it after printing, in itself a powerful incentive to self-censorship. Each of the twenty or so censors has the authority to reject a work; doubtful cases are put before the full board, which only meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays. More tricky decisions are passed to the deputy minister of home affairs or even to the military intelligence for further consideration, particularly in the case of certain controversial writers. This can mean delays in passing magazines, which aim to make a regular date each month. Reasons for rejection are not given but can usually be found out unofficially from the members of the board, by the publishers (who develop a working relationship with the censors). There is a feeling among authors that it is a good idea to offer some sort of present, or even a good meal, to a censor to help one's piece through; this, of course, does not apply to people on the blacklist or to forbidden topics. Any story, poem, cartoon, passage, or word not allowed by the PSB has to be eliminated before the work can go on sale. This is done by ripping out pages, by gluing them together, by inking over with silver paint, or by sticking opaque tape over the offending item. This ripping and blanking out is carried out by the publisher, following the instructions of the PSB. After the pages have been torn out, they are sent back to the PSB which counts them (to ensure that none have been left in or distributed separately), and then destroys them. The PSB "knows" how many copies have been printed, and this destruction means that censored authors are often unable to receive the ripped-out pages of their stories.
In fact, the stated number of copies printed, a figure that appears in every single publication, is not the true number at all. Take, for example, an issue of a monthly magazine. First it is put together and printed—two thousand copies on its monthly allocation of paper bought from the government at the official price, and ten thousand copies on paper bought "outside," i.e., on the free market (at a higher price). Twenty to thirty copies are given to the censors. Now there will be various outcomes. The issue of the magazine may be passed, in which case the two thousand copies are shown to officials and counted to ensure that all the official allocation of paper has been used up, after which the magazine (or it may be a book) hits the streets—all twelve thousand copies. This is the simplest outcome. The PSB may say that certain items are to be inked over or that certain pages are to be ripped out. In this case the offending item must be blotted out with silver ink or ripped out of every single copy (the official two thousand and the unofficial ten thousand); in the case of ripped-out pages, two thousand must be returned to the Scrutiny Board to be counted (while the ones torn out of the ten thousand unofficial copies will be surreptitiously destroyed); if the issue is banned altogether, all two thousand copies will be returned to the PSB to be destroyed, and the ten thousand unofficial copies will again be destroyed surreptitiously.
The losses that can be incurred by the publishers are clearly very great, so there is immense pressure on editors to select only such contributions as will be acceptable. The resulting frustration and offense felt by writers has led many to cease trying to write anything of a controversial nature; those who find they cannot write without being controversial are effectively banned.
Magazines: Recent Closures and a Progovernment Newcomer
After 1988, all publications overtly linked to the Burmese Socialist Programme Party ceased, but two long-established, government-subsidized magazines, Mya-wadi and Ngwe-tar-yi, continued to appear, together with the official veterans' magazine, Sit-pyan. These now strike people as old-fashioned and tend to gather dust on government reading room shelves. Between 1988 and 1990, a number of new, privately owned magazines started up, but in the worsening economic situation of 1992 they, too, have closed down, including one of the best loved, Shumawa. Other magazines were able to adapt their style to suit the tastes of the younger readership in the late 1980s; one such, Pe-hpu-hlwa, was particularly successful until its newly appointed editor, the poet Tin Moe (see the appendix), was arrested in December 1991, since when Pe-hpu-hlwa has been banned. A new type of magazine, well established since the middle of 1991, is perhaps the most lively character on the Burmese publishing scene; with titles such as Wealth (Dana), Burma's Wealth (Myanma Dana), Guide to Prosperity (Kyi-bwa-ye lanhnyun gya-neh), the Burmese reader is presented with pictures and accounts of the capitalist world outside which were only previously available in glossy foreign magazines. Many of the articles are translated from Newsweek and Time magazine, others are by Burmese reporters and also contain short stories. In fact, the increasing amount of technical and news material translated from Western periodicals has allowed these magazines to function more as Western dailies. The paper is rough, gray, and recycled; the grainy black-and-white pictures are unclear, and the small print hard to read. But the Burmese can now read for themselves, in Burmese, how one survives working in Japan, or what the groaning supermarket shelves in the U.S. are like, or how the sex industry in Bangkok and Malaysia operates—this last with a surprisingly candid account of the large number of Burmese girls who have chosen to leave their country and become part of it. The activities of the Burmese abroad and in Burma can be described in these "business" publications in a way which, it seems to me, would not have been accepted by the government two or three years ago. For instance, Guide to Prosperity (December 1991) carried a thirty-page article about the cross-border trade between northern Burma and China at Shwe-li and Mu-se, with maps and photographs.
There is one recent newcomer to the publishing scene that does not have to contend with the multiple obstacles of checks on authors, the filling in of forms with biographical details of all contributors, predistribution scrutiny, silver-inking, or torn-out or glued-together pages: This is a new monthly literary magazine called Myet-hkin-thit (A New Sward, i.e. fresh ground). In early 1990, a group of students that had fled to the Indian border returned and gave a press conference during which one of them, U Soe Hla Thin, expressed the wish to start a magazine in which they would reveal their experiences. Shortly after, Myet-hkin-thit appeared, edited by a certain Hpo Kan Kaung. This person is suspected of being a military intelligence official who had been detailed to join the fleeing students and then "return to the legal fold" with them as part of his duties. The first issue of this magazine carried the supposedly true story of Papima, a girl student who went to the jungle with a group of friends, and who had her morals, her world, and finally her life destroyed by contact with the evils of Bangkok and the Karen National Union and Democratic Alliance of Burma rebel forces in the jungle. The story, intended to persuade those who took part in the democracy movement to abandon their struggle, has since been made into a lengthy TV film and is shown at frequent intervals on Burmese television.
Myet-hkin-thit is characterized by stories that criticize and attack the student movement, written supposedly by students from Rangoon University or the Rangoon Institute of Technology. It also frequently features articles that describe in minute detail rape, corruption, and murder in foreign countries, with the aim of discrediting those very countries that are calling on the SLORC to respect the rights of Burmese citizens. In February 1993, it carried a highly tendentious and inaccurate piece directly attacking a Western diplomat (not named) for asking questions at the official opening of a new section of railway line.
Burmese writers work in an atmosphere of uncertainty and apprehension. Freedom to write according to one's sensibility simply does not exist. In the words of one writer: "In Burma, every writer, every poet, every cartoonist is always ruled by the fear that what he has written will not get past the censor. Almost every freely created work of art is subjected to censorship." The only way for a writer to address one or more of the many taboo subjects is through the construction of metaphors, and, in resorting to these, she or he can only hope that the veiled meaning will be discerned by the reader, but not by the censor.
The actions, of the PSB, the existence of the blacklist, the setting up of Myet-hkin-thit, the imprisonment of leading authors and journalists, and the detention under house arrest of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi are all evidence of the importance of the written and spoken word in Burma. They show how much the military men fear the power of the pen and how hard they are fighting to win over the hearts and minds of the ordinary people.
In recent months, there have been signs of change: some writers have been released from prison and some whose work could not be published a year or two ago may now write again. Perhaps, if more writers were to risk putting forward to the PSB articles and stories that touched on hitherto taboo topics, and if they were to request that the censors give more explicit reasons for their prohibitions, and if, finally, the government were to enter into a dialogue with publishers and writers that would address how the parameters of what topics are currently allowable might be extended, the rigid censorship currently prevailing would be eroded and finally ended. Perhaps such a dialogue would also enable the government to appreciate that, if it wants to develop a true democracy in Burma, it is essential that writers be accorded the possibility of critical comment.
For the present, however, the government would appear to have the more powerful weapons in the fight between the censors and the censored. But in the end, the stories translated here will, in all probability, be remembered and their authors esteemed and cherished long after the dictators and their censors have fallen from power and been discredited.
The Advertising Wagon
NE WIN MYINT
This apparently simple, but in reality subtle story about the return of a man to his native village on the west bank of the Irrawaddy River is very evocative of the dry and dusty villages of the dry zone, the heartland of Upper Burma. The narrator notes that nothing much has changed in the twenty or thirty years since he has left for the capital, except that the traveling cinema has been replaced by the video parlor. Since 1988, thousands of video parlors have sprung up in villages throughout Burma. Many of the machines run off batteries since the villages do not have electricity. The owner charges three to five kyats per person and an audience of a hundred or so crams into a small hut to watch. Hundreds of low-budget videos are shot in Burma each year, mostly simple love stories and action pictures, which are unlikely to fall foul of the censors. The foreign videos that are shown are usually easy-to-understand action pictures, although most recent, well-known films from the West can be obtained on video (usually as poor copies of pirated videos bought from Thailand). In the jade-mining town of Hpakan (Hpa-kant) in Kachin State, which attracts fortune seekers and drug addicts from across the country and is renowned for its frontier atmosphere, it is even possible to see Last Tango in Paris. There are many neighborhood rental shops in the larger towns, charging about fifteen to twenty kyats per night for foreign videos, and fifty kyats for Burmese ones. Although the law requires all videos to be submitted to the censors, uncensored foreign videos are available, and from time to time there are clampdowns by the authorities, such as occurred in early 1993. Some video parlors show pornographic videos.
A shortage of film stock in the last ten years has meant that many directors have switched to making videos. Despite the advent of video, cinemas showing Burmese films, Western action movies, Indian love stories, and Chinese kung fu films (the political and moral content of which must be passed by the Press Scrutiny Board before they are released for screening) still exist in most towns and have long lines outside. Many of the cinemas were once privately owned and were nationalized in the 1960s. Some new cinemas have been built in the main towns but even in the larger and modern buildings, the projection equipment still sometimes sticks in the same way that is described in this story. In the villages, however, the traveling cinema or bioscope troupe has almost died out, replaced by the video-player, just as the introduction of films in the 1920s and 1930s led to the decline of traditional puppet shows.
This story has been interpreted by some readers as a comment on the failure of successive Burmese governments to respond to changing economic conditions and to modernize the country. The difference between the old regime (the BSPP) and the new (the SLORC) is felt by many in Burma to be merely one of name, and in this story the son, Than Doe, is taking up where his father left off, touring around the village making exaggerated claims and inaccurate statements in the same manner as the SLORC boasts about its (non)achievements. The implication could be that the SLORC is touting the same old message, in other words adhering to the same ideology as the BSPP—"like father, like son"—and is not even bothering to get a new wagon, but attempting to attract the villagers merely by sprucing up the old one with a coat of paint. It is also tempting to see in the painting over of the old cart a reflection of the SLORC's general policy of cosmetic change, which merely serves to disguise fundamental failings. Visitors to Rangoon and Mandalay will at once notice widened and repaired main roads, smartly painted walls, and new public parks, but will find the squalid and decrepit side streets unchanged. At the start of the story there is little hint of its underlying theme, but by the end, the implication will be clear to most perceptive readers.
The author (whose real name is Khin Maung Win) was born in 1952 in Upper Burma in the oil town, Yenan-gyaung. He began his writing career in the early 1970s with an article in Mo-we; since then he has contributed some fifty articles and well over a hundred short stories to Burma's numerous monthly magazines. Many of these short stories have been reprinted in three collected volumes. In addition to working full-time as a government servant at Brick Factory No. I, Insein, just north of Rangoon, where he now lives, he continues to write short stones and articles.
Ten years on, Ne Win Myint has moved back to Upper Burma, now lives on the outskirts of Mandalay and writes full-time.
* * *
Nothing had changed. As we climbed uphill from the landing stage, we came upon a little knot of horse wagons preparing to take passengers to the village, and once everyone had clambered aboard, the driver shouted, "Gid-dyap!" and off we rode. After forty minutes of bumping and swaying along the roads, the names of the villages began to sound familiar and I saw that the look of the houses we passed had not altered at all. We came to the steep-edged canal, which took water down to the river, and there below us, facing onto the river, was a monastery, of a style common to Upper Burma. Scrub plants, spiny acacias, and wild rushes with silver arrow flowers grew near here, and at this point, I could tell our journey was one-third of the way completed.
The road to Than-gaing and Kounzaung probably held little fascination for the other travelers, but for me, each view was precious. My companions on the wagon were chattering about the Yenan-gyaung market across the river, about prices in Rangoon, and the dance troupe performing in Magwe, about pulses and beans, sesamum, the cost of cotton, and about the latest pagoda festival. I paid them little attention, so intent was I on absorbing the changing sights around me. Along this route were acacias, the most handsome I had ever seen, which, with their bright golden trunks and dark leaves, stood out starkly from the parched landscape of the dry zone.
Soon the wagon was rattling up over boulders as big as pint-sized rice pots; wherever the surface allowed it, the horse would break out into a quick trot. The rhythm of the road and the sound of the acacia leaves rasping across the tarpaulin on our wagon were, I noticed, the same as ever.
As we approached Kounzaung village, the view opened out: along the eastern horizon sprawled the line of the Irrawaddy, and to the west was the green blur of a banana plantation. In the distance, smoke from a rice mill mingled with the white clouds overhead. When we reached the mountains of bran ash outside the mill, the horse and wagon turned onto the highway, passing a concrete signboard, so muddy as to be barely legible, saying, "Welcome To Kounzaung." It had stood there for years, looking with a kind of blank distaste on the modest bamboo and thatch houses by its side.
At this point we reached one of the side canals that flowed across joining the Moun Creek to the main Irrawaddy River to the east. During the growing season, these canals were full of water—otherwise they were quite dry. When I was a child, I loved to bathe in this canal; it was a jewel in the dry zone, with its abundance of precious water. On its bank were ranged mango trees, a few snack shops, a sugarcane-juice stand, and a tea shop where they brewed thick, sweet tea.
Just after the wagon had cleared from the high brick bridge across the canal, an open space appeared to the right. Once this had been the spot where movies were shown. In those days, the village had no electricity, of course; but with the help of a generator, we nevertheless managed to see literally hundreds of movies... movies with names like The Outlaw Hpo Thein, Lady Aung Hpyu, Humble But Brave, The Villager Po Htoke—and many more. Now, all that remained was a bald patch of ground where not a blade of grass grew. It didn't look as if any movies were shown these days.
I remember that this spot used to be filled with large plum trees; we'd play there under their shade, collecting fallen fruit, dawdling away the day until the schoolteacher came to check up on us. As soon as he appeared, we made a run for it, tripping up in our rush to escape and getting a beating if we were caught. Later, the orchard was sold and the plum trees were cut down. They were felled during the very month the trees were most laden with huge clusters of fruit; everyone in our school was aghast when our plum trees, in whose shade we had all played, were destroyed in one fell swoop.
The spot, glimpsed from my perch on the wagon, brought memories flooding back. How we had all loved it when a movie came to the village (although none of us, save those who had been to the city, called them movies; to us they were bioscope)!
I remember how Aunt Sein May's news spread like wildfire a couple of days in advance: The bioscope from Rangoon is coming! When the troupe arrived, its members took on her son, Khin Oo, as an odd-job boy, and Uncle Sein set about connecting the amplifier (the village's only one, lent out by the pagoda trustees). We children were so excited that we forgot about going home for meals. We were all waiting for the moment when Uncle Sein would take one of the keys from the chain hanging at his waist and open up his box of gramophone records, revealing neat rows of disks. Even before the needle hit the deck, we knew what the first record would be: Oh, Where Is My True Love Gone? sung by accordionist Ohn Gyaw, of whom Uncle Sein was an ardent fan. We would plead with him to play Sky Don't Rain Your Rain Just Yet, a village favorite despite the fact that it was about a problem we rarely encountered in the dry zone. When they heard the gramophone start up from the back of the bioscope shed, the market traders began packing up, the girls picking beans in the fields longed to get off early, and the old men playing billiards, drinking in the toddy shops and sitting around in the teahouses, prepared to make a move.
The bioscope troupe members began testing their equipment a day before they opened. First they erected the screen and then they hired a wagon, usually from U Kyauk Maung, a local aficionado of the bioscope who was obsessed with the actor Shwe Ba He told anyone who'd listen that he was saving up to go to Rangoon to meet Shwe Ba, and if you so much as mentioned that you'd caught a glimpse of Shwe Ba (whether it was true or not), he would instantly invite you round to his house for a meal. If it turned out that you'd actually exchanged words with Shwe Ba, you could have regaled yourself at his expense for a week. If the bioscope people were showing a Shwe Ba movie, his feet barely touched the ground. From the moment he hitched up his horse in the morning, all he would talk about was how "that ol' Shwe Ba was gonna knock out Lor' knows how many men" that very evening! He stuck dog-eared stills on the signboard on the front of the bioscope shed, provided liquor, ordering toddy from Kani or Thazi, and attached posters with the name of the movie on the sides of his wagon, where they flapped in the breeze. So intent was he on all this preparation that he often forgot to feed and water his horse, not to mention himself. Early in the morning, you could catch him setting off for the outlying villages with an enormous pile of leaflets on the wagon, grinning all the way.
By the time Uncle Sein had put on the love song and U Kyauk Maung's wagon had driven by, our hearts were racing with anticipation.
As soon as we heard the rattle of the wagon advertising the bioscope coming from the cemetery on the western edge of the village, we rushed out onto the road, hitching up longyis, to pick up one of the leaflets that had been scattered from the wagon. There would only be enough for one child in a hundred, but we still hoped to be lucky enough to get one—often they'd get torn in the scramble, but, once patched together and stuck up on the matting walls, a throng of people would gather round to look. Sometimes the flyer featured action scenes that did not even appear in the movie it advertised— and sometimes the blurred photographs contained actors in royal costumes, as if a dream sequence had been injected into the plot, a sequence there was once again no guarantee of actually seeing on the screen. But how was a young boy to know that a movie had half its scenes missing? The movie would have been worn out through hundreds of showings throughout the district: the reels would have been snipped and stuck together again, and when there was no continuity between the frames, or when frames that had been promised in the stills on the flyer were nowhere in evidence, we would vent our frustration by yelling "Stop stealing our pictures!"
"Tonight, for one night only, coming to the royal, gilded town of Kounzaung, for aficionados only, The Outlaw Hpo Thein, starring our country's best-loved actor, a true man of the people, the inimitable Shwe Ba!"
The wagon turned the corner where the banyan tree stood and I could already make out the names of the pagoda trustees on the rim of the loudspeaker. And there was U Kyauk Maung, gripping the reins, ringing his brass bell, and flinging out flyers. He had called our village "a royal, gilded town"—only someone with U Kyauk Maung's imagination could come up with a phrase like that. He certainly had a way with words: our dusty village of bamboo huts was "regal" and "golden." The elders smiled and my father called him a crazy, but couldn't help admiring his ingenuity. U Kyauk Maung scattered flyers maverickly, and more of them when girls were in the vicinity.
"Tonight come and watch the sheriff and outlaw Hpo Thein vie with each other to the bitter end. Don't waste a minute! Don't bother to dress yourselves up! Just come as you are, right now!"
Our excitement lasted until the advertising wagon had disappeared into the distance.
When the bioscope troupe first came to our village, old U Kyauk Maung just drove the advertising wagon around in silence; but after he had spent time with the promoters from Rangoon, who taught him the tricks of their trade and tried him out as a speaker, he even outstripped the professionals. From then on, he was on his own. More often than not the movies he lauded were in reality no good, and his announcements became a mixture of lies and truth, until sometimes, when we reached the cinema, we discovered the movie he advertised and the one we saw were entirely different. That is why the villagers soon came to distrust U Kyauk Maung's hype, but, with the troupe coming only once every four or five years, what choice had they but to go and watch, and even though they knew he was lying, to put up with it?
To make matters worse, U Kyauk Maung would make false claims, such as that the group had acquired a brand-new projector—but when you checked with Khin Oo, the odd-job boy, he would tell you it was still the same old one. Sometimes the film was shaky, and it was invariably blurred. Sometimes the picture appeared upside down, and sometimes the frame was divided on the screen, with the bottom half at the top and the top half at the bottom, waists above heads. They would readjust it, and when a reel came to an end, the show would stop while they loaded the next one onto the projector. The program was due to start at eight on the dot, but they didn't even start to play the records until ten: they would play both sides, so that the wait seemed eternal, and as soon as the national flag had been shown and we'd had just one preview, the lights would go on again, and the records would go back on. But people were very tolerant. By the time the movie started again, the projector would break down, or the film would snap or burst into flame, or the reels would have been put on in the wrong order, or would have to be rewound.
All day we children used to play around the entrance to the bioscope shed and the troupe would have us fetch them tea or sugarcane juice, until gradually we became friends. A real treat was to be brought into the projection room—and if you were very lucky, you might even be given one or two inches of old film that had been snipped off. It was in the projection room that we would find U Kyauk Maung drinking, sometimes even dead drunk, or playing cards, or hanging out with women. When I told this to father, he remarked, "That guy is going to the dogs."
Soon U Kyauk Maung stopped working with his wagon altogether and only used it to advertise the bioscope. You could see the wagon parked in the shade of the Tama tree, his horse hitched up nearby, and the shafts of the wagon sticking up into the air the whole day long.
I was still reminiscing well after the wagon I was riding in had left the site of the bioscope behind. I decided to strike up a conversation with the driver.
"Saya-gyi, have you been driving your wagon long?"
"Now let me see—some four or five years, I'd say. And what about yourself sir? Are you from these parts? You don't strike me as being a local."
"I was born here. But now I live in Rangoon, and I'm just back on a visit. Tell me, do you know the wagon driver U Kyauk Maung?"
"Surely—but he's been dead some time now. He used to drink too much. He caused trouble for the village until the day he died."
"He was a good man once, but as soon as he started mixing with the bioscope troupe from the city, he went to the dogs. He had a real way with words—and they couldn't manage without him. But when they stopped showing the movies, he was left behind, a drunkard addicted to liquor, toddy, and cards." The women behind us had fallen silent and were apparently listening to the driver's remarks. By now we had passed through the center of the village.
"Then he turned aggressive. He picked fights and was caught stealing cows. He'd turn up at football matches brandishing a knife. You name it, he was up to it. In the end, the village had had enough of him. Nobody could be bothered with him. He had to sell off his horse and house and his business went down the drain; he was ruined. The one thing he kept was his wagon, swearing to bequeath it to his son Than Doe."
Than Doe? I remembered I had been at school with him.
"So where does Than Doe live now?" I asked.
By now we had reached the rest house on the western edge of the village. I remembered the well by its side, and after we had passed it, we had to stop to wait for a herd of goats that was being driven along in the hot sun, raising swirls of dust in its wake.
"See that hut over there? That's Than Doe's place."
I looked down and saw a small hut built in the shade of a tamarind tree. Outside it stood an old wagon, its shafts pointing skyward. A weather-beaten man, paint pot in hand, was painting the wheels. Our wagon driver guffawed. "Speak of the devil! Than Doe's giving his Pop's old wagon a lick of paint!"
I couldn't make out Than Doe's face at that distance, but I could tell the man was a typical peasant, rough and tanned.
"Of course he's repainting his father's wagon," broke in one of the women. "U Mya from the next village has bought one of those video things from Rangoon, and he's planning on having a show tomorrow or the day after. He asked Than Doe to use his wagon for advertising it, and even bought him a new horse."
The driver grinned. "Than Doe certainly has his father's gift of the gab!"
The herd of goats passed us by and we set off again. I stole one last look at the spot under the tamarind tree where Than Doe could still be seen repainting his father's old wagon.
He's Not My Father
NU NU YI
The world over there are ill-fed children who use their wits to obtain money for food, as in the following story. The young boy, Shrimp, seems content with his life, tough though it is; he works hard for his extra pennies, relishes the chance of a good meal, and plays happily in the mud on the river bank with his friends. The point of the story, however, written as recently as May 1992, is not to make us aware of his poverty but, instead, of the fate of his father, which is merely hinted at in one or two short sentences. The Burmese reader will understand that the boy's father had been forcibly press-ganged by the army to serve as a military porter at the front. The town of Hpa-an, the capital of Karen State, lies in Lower Burma on the Salween River, about thirty miles north of Moulmein. The surrounding area has been finely combed by the army for men to serve as porters, and, as a result, many families in Karen and Mon states send their sons to Rangoon to avoid the draft. In the story, the busloads of travelers from Rangoon are probably on a pilgrimage to the Than-min-nya Mountain, where there is to this day a monk who is held in great respect because of his exceptional piety. During the dry season as many as five thousand people per day may visit him, coming from all parts of Burma.
The author, Nu Nu Yi, was born in 1957 in Upper Burma, in Ava, one of the former capitals of Burma. From the time of the publication of her first short story, "One Little Longyi (Sarong)" in 1984, she has shown a special talent for conveying the feelings and attitudes of young people growing up in poverty.
Those bigger kids are real bullies. They act like the whole landing stage is theirs, like they can call all the shots. They think they have some kind of right to wash all the cars that come across on the ferry from the other side of the river, as well as the cars from Rangoon. It just isn't fair.
If I had it my way I'd put an end to those three bullies, Saw San Htu, Naing-Oo, and Hlaing-Gyi. I'd beat 'em up, drag 'em by the hair, and shove 'em under the water, just like in the videos. Then we'd see if they'd still push and shove, grabbing the cars other boys had gotten to before them. I'd love to do it, I really would. Sure, the three of them are older than me and they all act tough, but they don't scare me. I took them all on at one go and beat them so bad they went rolling in the dust. But I got paid for it—they really gave it to me afterward. Luckily the bus drivers came and pulled us apart, but since then, I haven't dared pick another fight even though I hate their guts.
The other kids feel the same, they're just too chicken to take them on.
"Go ahead, clean those stupid buses," I mutter to myself as I squeeze the wet rag in my hand and throw it down, glancing sideways at them. Look at them, with their buckets and cloths, going all out at three Hilux line-cars, impatient to get to the next lot of cars first. The cars they do never look clean and shiny. Their job isn't even worth the five kyats they get—the drivers only give them the money because they don't give their cars a second look—they just shut the bus door and drive off again.
The ferry today is taking real long over there on that other bank. I'm expecting my friend's bus to be on board—my friend, get it, because I'm the only one who cleans his bus for him. He's mine. I buy him his quid of betel and his cheroots and he gives me ten kyats for doing it, and some betel too. Let's hope my friend's on this ferry 'cause then I'll be home free. I'll have ten kyats from him plus the five I already have from cleaning that other car today, which means I'll have enough for my morning meal. The best is the curry at Daw Nan Sein's Zwegabin restaurant. It's great—pork, fish, beef, all for fifteen kyats. I can have whatever I like, and for twenty I could stuff myself full. Now a bus from Rangoon has pulled up—I'll run for it. The three big guys haven't finished their other job yet, and I'm sure I can easily beat the other kids to it.
"Can I clean your bus, sir? Do you want it washed?" I yell, as a small yellow minibus pulls up in a cloud of dust. I'm the first to catch hold of the door on the driver's side. But just as I'm asking, another boy pushes his way up to the bus door and I have to elbow him out of the way.
"Can / clean your car, sir?" he shouts. "I'll make it really shine!"
"Look, you, I said it first, it's mine," I say.
"Your name's not on it, is it? Who said it was yours?"
"Who cares less, I got here first." I give him a great shove and he falls headlong in the dust.
"Hey, hey, boys," scolds the driver. "What the hell is all this? Get out of my way. I can't even open the door."
"Sir, sir, please let me clean your car, please sir."
"No way! Stop it—I don't want it cleaned. And don't come shouting around me again. Hell! Why is the ferry taking so long?"
The driver slams the bus door shut and walks off. Bang goes my chance of earning five kyats. I sidle toward some of the passengers who are getting off the rear of the bus. There's only a handful of them, it looks like a special charter bus. Next to the bus, an old fellow is brushing the dust off himself and he drops his scarf without realizing. I pick it up, quietly squeeze it up in my hand along with the car cleaning cloth, and quickly move away.
"Beautiful isn't it? Just look! The Salween River and Zwe-gabin Hill behind."
"Oh yes! Is Zwe-gabin Hill that real pretty one over there?"
"That's it, yes!"
As soon as I hear them I realize the travellers are new to these parts. I casually wander toward them and stand near a young woman wearing a neat pair of sunglasses. She shifts her gaze from the opposite riverbank and looks down at me.
"This is Myaing-gale on this side of the river, isn't it?"
"Yes. And Pa-an is on that side," I reply.
"And does the big car ferry take very long to get across?"
"Yes, it sure does. If you want to cross quickly you should leave the bus and get on a motor boat over there. I'll go get one if you like."
"No, wait a moment—don't go. We're not sure what our father wants to do yet."
Another flop. Seems there's no way I can earn a few kyats today. My next meal is going to be a problem, I can tell. All I can do is to sit here and wait for that ferry to come across. Please, please, let my friend's bus be on it.
"What's your name, boy?"
"Shrimp," I say.
"Shrimp? What kind of a name is that, Shrimp? How old are you?"
"Where do you live? Do you work at this jetty?"
"Yes. I live over there, in one of the huts by the side of the railway line. I live with my uncle—well, I used to live with my uncle, but not right now. Most times I hang out here at the jetty."
"What about your parents?"
"My mom's dead and my father went away to work—at least that's what they all said. He's never come back."
"Oh, you poor boy. Don't you have any brothers and sisters?"
"No, I'm an only child."
By now I can tell the sunglass lady is feeling sorry for me. Things are looking up.
"Hey! Shrimp. What are you doing?"
Hell, now I'm in real trouble! That's my big sister coming down to wash at the landing stage. She runs up to me, shoulders bare, wearing aunty's big longyi tucked around her chest. The sunglass lady turns to look.
"Go away," I shout. "Leave me alone—don't come and wash round here. That's my . . . my cousin," I add to the sunglass lady.
I hope my sister can't hear what I'm saying, because if she does, she'll never understand and she'll say I'm talking nonsense, and then it'll come out that we're brother and sister, and I'll be in a real mess. And what if it comes out that our mom's down in Rangoon, that she's gone with one of my kid brothers to stay with our relatives? The only thing I haven't lied about is my father—and if the sunglass lady finds out that I'm a liar she won't feel sorry for me any more.
"So where do you sleep at night, Shrimp?"
"In among the stalls. Or I go and sleep on board the ferry."
"Have you ever been to school?"
"No, never, but I know how to write my name. I know the alphabet. The watchman on the ferry taught me."
"That's good. Here, take this, Shrimp. Go get yourself something to eat."
I've made it. She's giving me a whole ten kyats. Now I can go and get some food. Boy, I'm famished!
When I finish eating I run over to the motorboat jetty. The ferry still hasn't pulled in.
"Here, Aunty, give me your bag, I'll carry it for you," I say. "Sir, are you going across, sir?"
There are heaps of us shouting noisily as we skip around the motorboat jetty. As usual Saw San Htu and his gang are trying to beat us to the motorboats. I spot the lady with the sunglasses and her friends. They're getting into a motorboat, just like I told them.
"Here, Miss, your bag, give me your bag, I'll carry it for you."
"Why, yes, yes. Thank you, Shrimp."
I hold the prow of the motorboat steady until all the passengers have boarded. Once the boat is full and the engine starts up, I jump into the bow of the boat. The young woman asks me if I'm going all the way across with them. Shaking my head, I stretch out my hand toward the owner of the motorboat who slips me a one kyat note. Scrunching the note up in my hand, I jump into the water, and the people in the boat scream as they get splashed with water. I'm used to them screaming like that. I swim back to the river bank where there are people playing about and bathing. I climb out at the spot where kids are sliding down the steep, muddy bank straight into the water.
It's a thrill to shoot down the mud slide into the river. Once I'm down in the water I just feel like staying there, and one time I went down so fast that my thigh got gashed by a stake.
"Shrimp! Shrimp!" That's my sister again, just when I'm having such a good time sliding down.
"What is it? What do you want?"
"Quick, quick, come over here." I've no idea what it is, but she looks awful, almost as if she's seen a ghost. I decide to go with her, even though I was just getting into the sliding game.
"What is it? Tell me."
"Over there at the side of the restaurant, Shrimp. People were all looking at something, so I went to look ... and ... someone ... someone was lying there, a grown-up."
"I know. He was there last night. I saw him. So what?"
"Oh, so you saw him. You . . . didn't you know? That's our father." My sister's face puckers and I can see tears gathering in her eyes.
"What?" I'm shocked. Surely it couldn't be. "No it's not," I say. "You must be dreaming."
"But they say it is. Come on, come with me, I'll show you."
She pulls me along behind her. At the side of the restaurant where we usually eat, a man is lying under a lean-to, where he's been since last night. We push through the crowd and stand there.
"Look at him, carefully. They say it's our father."
I look. The man's hair is very long, his cheeks are deep hollows and his stomach is sticking out. His knees are swollen up and his legs are spindly. No way, that man isn't my father. I've often noticed that grown-ups like him come and lie near here, and this one's no different.
"Daddy ... Daddy! Please answer. Maybe
he's dying. Oh, Shrimp, talk to him, it's Daddy!"
"No, I don't want to. Why are you calling him 'Daddy' when he's not our father?"
I turn and run away from my sister, who's in floods of tears by now. That man is not my father, it can't be.
Over there, the ferry's finally docked and I can see that my friend's bus is on it. Now I'm sure of an evening meal.
At night, I am lying tossing and turning on the deck of the ferry, looking up at the stars, as the ferryboat watchman comes on board. I hear the sound of his sandals and see the flash of his torch.
"Hey, Shrimp, are you asleep yet?"
"No, not yet."
He sits down beside me puffing on his cheroot till it glows bright red.
"You know the man who was lying under the lean-to by the restaurant last night? Well, he died."
Well, what difference does it make? What does it matter if he's dead? I can hear the sound of waves lapping, coming from the darkness of the river. When I was little I used to come to swim at this river bank with Daddy—he used to wrap his arms around me, tight. But what does any of it have to do with me now? What is there to cry about? It wasn't my father. I know that man wasn't my father.
U WIN PE
U Win Pe is generally agreed to be one of Burma's most popular storytellers, whether it be as a film director, a maker of video movies, or a short-story writer. Now in his mid-fifties, he is, by his own admission, something of a jack-of-all-trades; he has at various times been a journalist, cartoonist, gem dealer, musician, arts administrator, film director, painter, and writer. He grew up in an artistic family and learned Burmese classical music before he began primary school. He attended Mandalay University, studying first natural sciences, then philosophy, political science, and philosophy, but he left without a degree because, as he said in an interview, he was "painting, making music, and involved in politics."
His first job was as a cartoonist on a left-wing daily newspaper. When the paper was nationalized he went to work in the jade mines owned by his father-in-law. At the age of thirty-one he was appointed to the post of principal of the State School of Fine Arts, Music, and Dancing in Mandalay under the Ministry of Culture, which gave him some six years of experience as a government servant under the Burmese Way to Socialism. He left this post to take up filmmaking, an activity that gave more scope to his creative imagination and his many talents.
U Win Pe now divides his time between film direction, painting, and writing short stories, turning to the latter two during breaks in his filming schedules. He first started writing short stories in the late 1980s, when shortages of film stock left him with time on his hands. More recently he has returned to films, but concentrates on video films, for which it is much easier and cheaper to obtain the necessary equipment in Burma. Cinema's loss has been the gain of the literary world. U Win Pe's varied career has furnished him with a richness of experience that gives power and authenticity to his short stories: at the same time his artist's eye enables him to paint a scene vividly in just a few lines. Many of his stories are amusing sketches of mostly male Burmese life, told in simple language, rich in dialogue and comic situations. The tales are often set in the tea shops that are the venue for what remains of political debate in Burma. Since 1991, the tea shop owners have been told that they will be held personally responsible for anyone found discussing anti-government politics on their premises, and the omnipresent informers have practically stifled discussions. Though he now lives in Rangoon with his wife and five children, he still writes mainly about Mandalay and the surrounding towns and villages of Upper Burma.
Ten years on, U Win Pe has left Burma to live in America. He is now the most popular member of the team of Burmese broadcasting from Radio Free Asia in Washington to Burma.
The short stories by U Win Pe that have been translated here, as with many others written by him, may seem on first reading to be accounts of fairly unimportant events happening to ordinary folk. The stories move rapidly, and often comically, at first; but the situation can change suddenly. What was simple becomes complicated, even violent, brutal, tragic, and above all unexpected. By the end of the story the reader may find himself wondering if there wasn't perhaps a deeper meaning to the series of events described.
Certainly in at least two of the stories published here it is possible to discern a political message, even if the author himself did not intend it. In "The Day the Weather Broke," a story set against a menacing background of turmoil in the elements, a young boy tries to save a wild bird from the storm. The bird is killed by the house cat, and the gentle young boy is driven by his anger at this senseless killing into a fury of hate for the cat, which he tries to kill in his turn. The end, as is usual for U Win Pe, is unexpected. Why then did this story strike such a chord with many Burmese readers? Why was it selected as the best story of the month (out of a total of 120 stories) in April 1990 by one of Burma's leading critics? It seems possible to take the sequence of events as a metaphor for the happenings of 1988: the ordinary, normally gentle people of Burma tried to rescue and protect the frail bird of democracy that was brought to them in the storm; the heartless killing of the bird by the cat calls up images of the killings all over the country by the army, which in their turn provoked violent and bloody reactions by ordinarily peaceful citizens; and perhaps the ultimate fate of the cat represents the secret wish of many of the readers.
The point of "A Pair of Specs" was, in its original publication, driven home by a forceful illustration of a large foot smashing to pieces a pair of glasses. This is a humorous account of how a younger man becomes first embarrassed by, then fed up with, and finally enraged by his older acquaintance constantly repeating how kind he has been to buy a pair of glasses for his young friend. They were not a gift—the young man had provided the money, but the older one demands more and more exaggerated acts of gratitude from the younger man until in desperation the latter tears the glasses from his nose and stamps on them, telling the older one never to come near his house again. It is only on a second reading that it strikes one as a reflection of the way that the SLORC incessantly claims to have saved Burma from disintegration (in 1988), and to have merited the undying gratitude of the people.
The third story, "The Middle of May," could be seen as an ironic illustration of a saying that has been often heard in Rangoon in recent years: in Burmese malok, mashok, mapyok, which can be rendered "don't do anything, don't get involved, [then you] won't get fired." It suggests that the best way to keep out of (political) trouble and avoid personal loss and suffering is to keep one's head down and avoid taking any initiative.
In his second collection of stories, published in November 1992, the humor is still present, although more sardonic, while the theme of violence and violent death appears more frequently. As his Burmese critic said, from his deceptively simple, often comic narratives there emerge powerful images of the greed, anger, and stupidity of human life.
The Day the Weather Broke
U WIN PE
There was no particular reason why young Hpo Nyo had climbed up onto the roof of his house—it was far too early in the day for kite flying. It was only about one o'clock and still very hot up there. By four or so the conditions would perfect, cooler, and there would be a breeze.
As he stepped out onto the roof a curious foreboding came over Hpo Nyo. The southern half of Mandalay town was in bright sunshine, while the northern half, including his family's house, was in the shadow of a massive black cloud. The sky was dark and threatening and there was not a breath of wind—even the topmost leaves of the t. :e in the compound of the mosque next door, which grew as high as the roof, were still. The black cloud was no ordinary one; beneath it all was still, but in the sky above, the wind blew fiercely, as if there were a storm in the heavens. For a short while the edges of the dark cloud turned red, and then whatever it was that had raised such turbulence in the sky seemed to descend to earth.
The temperature dropped, there was a gust of wind, and the southern part of Mandalay passed from light into darkness. The wind grew stronger. The weather was about to break. Hpo Nyo waited fearfully to see what would happen. Birds were darting this way and that among the storm clouds, panicked by the sudden change. High in the sky, where normally only kites and kestrels were at home, shrikes and bulbuls were flashing by. Hpo Nyo felt afraid; his hair was flapping in the violent wind. He had just decided that he should get off the roof when a small blue bird fell at his feet, exhausted from fleeing the storm. Without stopping to think, Hpo Nyo ran to pick it up. It was a bird from the jungle such as he had never seen before, a pretty thing, half-dead with fright. But in his hands the bird seemed even more frightened, opening its beak and staring in terror.
Hpo Nyo took it across to the corrugated iron shelter by the stairwell and, scooping some water out of the pot that was kept there, he tried to coax the bird to drink. Very gently he blew warm air on it by way of reassurance but it still would not drink.
Hpo Nyo realized that this was a bird rarely seen anywhere near a town; it had been blown in from the jungle by the storm. If it did revive, he could not just release the bird from the roof, as it would be lost and bewildered among the unfamiliar houses and buildings. He would have to make a special trip into the countryside to set it free. In the meantime he would keep it safe, perhaps under a wire food cover, and once it lost its fear, it would surely take food and water. Then he could put it in a wicker cage and take it on his bicycle to somewhere distant, like the foot of Yangin Hill—and how happy the bird would be to be released out there!
By now the rain was lashing down furiously. Hpo Nyo descended the steep staircase cautiously, holding the little bird as gently as he could. Today there was no one at home. Downstairs, he picked up the food cover from the table and moved toward the bed, planning to make a place for the bird there, but just as he was about to put it under the cover, it freed itself from his hands and flew upward. In its panic it hit against the walls of the room, now this side, now that, not daring to alight anywhere. At first Hpo Nyo tried to recapture the bird, but the more he chased it, the more panic-stricken it became, until he realized that he was terrifying it and causing it more suffering; so at last he stopped and stood quietly watching it. The bird went on flapping around, although a little less wildly, apparently seeking escape from these strange surroundings which were so unlike its own familiar forest foliage.
All at once, through the iron bars of the closed gate at the top of the staircase, Mi-net, the family cat, appeared. It caught sight of the fluttering bird. Hpo Nyo shouted at it to shoo it away, but to no avail. Mi-net bounded up onto the top of the cupboard and made a spring for the bird as it flew past. Hpo Nyo went after the cat, trying to hit it, but the cat paid no attention to him and continued to chase its quarry, leaping from the cupboard to the crossbeams, from ledge to window sill. The bird, more frightened than ever, fluttered around desperately. Hpo Nyo shrieked at the cat and, in the confusion, Mi-net pounced on the bird, which let out a shrill cry. Hpo Nyo lunged at the cat and kicked it with such force that it landed with a thud against the brick wall. The bird slipped out of its grasp. Hpo Nyo quickly retrieved it and saw it was gasping for breath; the cat's claws had dug deep into its fragile body and it was wounded on the neck where the cat had bitten it. Just as Hpo Nyo was examining it, the little bird's neck fell, broken, in his hands.
Hpo Nyo laid the bird down on the table. Turning to look for the cat, he glimpsed it shooting under a cupboard. He grabbed the broom from the corner of the room and then remembered that, since all the doors were shut, the only way out was a small ventilator in the wall—and it was too high up for the cat to reach anyway. Even if the cat did manage to get up there, it would never survive the fall into the back alleyway of the mosque next door.
Hpo Nyo was determined to teach the cat a lesson, and, goaded by the sight of the dead bird, he lashed out at the cat viciously, landing a blow at every other swipe, as the cat dashed about the room. But after all a cat has nine lives—somehow it kept escaping him. Hpo Nyo, his anger rising to a murderous fury, found he no longer merely wanted to teach the cat a lesson. Mi-net, leaping to escape Hpo Nyo, scratched him on the hand and drew blood—which only made matters worse. Hpo Nyo determined to finish the cat off with one good blow. Mi-net saw that the message in Hpo Nyo eyes spelled death. The boy cornered the cat, took aim, and was preparing to strike when the cat looked up at Hpo Nyo with wild glaring eyes. Realizing that the cat had no other means of escape and was going to fight back, Hpo Nyo hesitated. In that split second Mi-net sprang onto his shoulder and from there leapt ten feet up to the ventilator. Even for a cat, the leap was no mean feat. Mi-net must have used every ounce of remaining strength to do it. Hpo Nyo turned in fury and whacked the cat out through the ventilator with his broom and could not tell whether the cat had fallen into the alley or jumped. Whatever had happened, it was a long drop.
In the alleyway below there was some barbed-wire fencing on which the cat might well have landed. Hpo Nyo, broom in hand, rushed down the steep stairs. When he got out into the back alley, he could see through the torrential rain that the cat was struggling to free itself from the barbed wire. Just as Hpo Nyo approached, Mi-net succeeded in breaking free and streaked toward a clump of mimusop trees and out of sight. Hpo Nyo let out a curse, and banged the broom handle against the barbed-wire fence post.
With strength born of fear the cat darted through the trees and jumped over the main wall of the mosque compound. What happened to the cat Hpo Nyo never found out. It was set upon and bitten to death on the other side of the wall by a pack of dogs from the house of Saya Kyaw, the painter. Nor did he learn its ultimate fate—some drunks staying over at Saya Kyaw's quietly cooked and ate Mi-net and never breathed a word about it afterward.
A Pair of Specs
U WIN PE
Ah, just in time! Over here, Maung Chu! Now, how many are we? There's—let me see—six of us. Hand over some money, for tea, Maung Chu. I've bought the specs you asked for."
Was I glad to hear that: I hadn't been able to see things clearly at a distance for a while and had asked Uncle Thein to buy me a pair of glasses in Mandalay since there were none to be found in Mo-hnyin. I took the glasses from him and put them on and found that they were a perfect fit. When I looked into the distance, what had previously been just a blur was suddenly crystal clear.
"Uncle Thein, was the hundred kyats I gave you enough?" I asked. "I hope you didn't have to spend any of your own money? These glasses are excellent. I'm very grateful to you."
"I know, I know. I took great care to ensure that they were the correct prescription. I even went several times in person to Ko Chit's (the king of opticians) and picked them out myself, bargained with him and got them for just eighty kyats. But you'd better forget the other twenty kyats, as I've already spent them."
"That's fine, Uncle Thein. Hey, Maung Than! Here's some money—go and buy us some tea!"
And I was grateful to him. The glasses were just the thing, and at last I could enjoy my surroundings again. Uncle Thein then proceeded to explain at length to the assembled company just how much trouble he had taken to procure the glasses, how he had searched here and there, questioning this person and that, and of course, in turn, I thanked him again, expressing my deep gratitude and stressing how embarrassed I was to have caused him so much bother.
This all took place on the day that Uncle Thein got back. The next day I met him again at the ahlu-offering ceremony at Daw Hla Meh's place. Naturally, I was showing off my new glasses to the crowd there, and as soon as Uncle Thein caught sight of me he called me over gleefully and had me take the glasses off so he himself could show them around. Everyone exclaimed at their smart design and the fine quality of the glass itself, while Uncle Thein recounted the story of how much trouble he had gone to in purchasing them, just because they were for me. So, of course, and as was quite proper, I had to say thank you all over again, to Uncle Thein's immense satisfaction.
That evening Uncle Thein turned up at my house with two friends from Mandalay. "We've come for supper," he announced. There was nothing unusual about that, of course. I arranged to send out for some rice and curry from a stall, and Uncle Thein suggested that it would be grand to have a bottle of rum, seeing as it was just the right time of day for a drink. Fine, no problem, I agreed. We could all have a rare good time of it. I sent someone running off to buy liquor and some tasty snacks, soda, ice—the whole works. But as we sat down to drink somehow I felt just a little piqued.
"Well, fellows, just help yourselves," said Uncle Thein. "Don't hold back. Maung Chu is my very good friend. Why, without those specs I bought him, he'd be no better off than a blind man—wouldn't be able to see a thing, would he, and worrying day in day out that he might be run over by a car or a bicycle. Isn't that right, Maung Chu?"
He was off again. Actually, I was giving him a meal only because it was our traditional Mo-hnyin way of showing hospitality. He was only an acquaintance, after all. To tell the truth, I was beginning to feel downright fed up. And yet he just went on relaying his story, drinking rum, and presently his two friends chipped in, agreeing that glasses were in short supply in Mandalay at present, very difficult to track down, and prohibitively expensive. They concluded that I was lucky to have acquired them at all. And so, there / was, in my own house, yet forcing myself to smile and nod and say thank you, thank you, although I didn't feel in the least like saying so.
The next day was even worse. I had given a ring to a broker to sell for me. A buyer had offered to pay seven thousand kyats. Uncle Thein cut in saying he liked it and would buy it for six. The broker told him that he would have to make sure I agreed with his offer, but Uncle Thein assured him there would be no need for that since I was in his debt. He had just bought me a pair of specs on this last trip, he said, and now I was so grateful to him that I didn't know how I could repay him. Anyhow, I decided that since I had only paid four thousand for the ring, if he liked it, then I might as well let him have it for six. The next thing I heard was that, without even waiting to get back to Mandalay, he resold the ring in Mo-hnyin for eight thousand. A fine way to behave!
On the eve of the sabbath day I ran into Uncle Thein sitting with a bunch of gem dealers in the market. I hastily made a detour to the north side of the market to avoid them. We all know what would have happened if he had seen me. By then, I was sick of the sound of my thanks, let alone his voice.
I started avoiding him generally, taking care not to run into him. He would go all around the town like a gem dealer does, and I had to keep running off to get out of his way. But I continued to hear the reports. Wherever he went he repeated the whole story—how I was in his eternal debt and was trying to think how to repay him. "Why if you think about it," he would say, "You could even say that I saved his life. After all, he's so blind that if I hadn't bought him those glasses he would certainly have been knocked down by a car one of these fine days." He spoke as if he were Thagyar-min, the king of gods himself.
Now, I really couldn't stomach this kind of talk, about how I was casting about for a way of recompensing him. What on earth did he expect from me? I'm not normally reluctant to show my gratitude, nor am I a begrudging type, but this business had gone too far. Wherever he went, he went on and on and on about those glasses, and wherever I turned I kept hearing over and over again what he'd been saying. I even had a dream in which he was ordering me to take off my glasses in public: I woke up from the dream in a cold sweat.
The next day, my nephew Thaung Shwe dropped by my house on his way back from the station. "Uncle," he said, "six of Uncle Thein's friends were on the train today. They seemed to have been drinking the whole way, and when Uncle Thein met them at the station, they were very rowdy. He was telling them just to let him know if they had difficulty finding somewhere to stay, because, he said, he had this friend Maung Chu, with whom he could fix it up for them to stay. I'll come over and stay there myself,' he added. When his friends were a little reluctant, Uncle Thein said there was absolutely no need to worry because he had done a tremendous favor for this man, Maung Chu."
"Never mind," I said. "Let them come."
Thaung Shwe was a little surprised at my response, but said goodbye and left. Two hours passed from the time of the train's arrival, but there was no sign of Uncle Thein and his friends. Later I found out that they had been drinking in a liquor shop—what admirable characters! He and his six pals didn't arrive until four o'clock, by which time they were quite drunk. I was waiting outside for them in front of my house.
I stood up, just in front of Uncle Thein, and taking off the glasses he had bought me, I threw them to the ground and stamped on them with my heel once, twice. thrice, four times. Uncle Thein and his friends were aghast.
"Now look here, Uncle Thein," I said, keeping my anger in check. "Did you see what I just did? I beg your pardon for ever having asked you to buy me a pair of spectacles. I shall never again venture to ask you to buy me a single thing. Now, never come near my house again. That's all I have to say."
When I had finished I went inside and closed the door. Uncle Thein and his friends muttered something to one another—I have no idea what—and then departed.
And that was the last time I had any dealings with Uncle Thein. I heard that when he got back to Mandalay he told people: "That man Maung Chu from Mo-hnyin is a terrible fellow, you know. Out of the kindness of my heart I bought him a pair of glasses, but even though they fitted him perfectly, he just took them and smashed them up. I can't think what possessed him. I believe he must have gone quite mad."
The Middle of May
U WIN PE
It is hot in Mandalay in the middle of May.
By two in the afternoon, the heat is at its height and the tarmac on the main road in the Bawdigon Quarter is melting. There is not a soul to be seen. Everyone with an ounce of sense stays indoors trying to keep cool as best they can.
It was at this time of the day and year that a flatbed truck, loaded down with pots of flowering plants, was rumbling east along the A-road There was no other traffic and it was going at quite a rate when a clay pot balanced near the edge of the back suddenly fell off. It landed on the hard, dirt road and smashed into smithereens. The soil inside scattered everywhere, and the little green plant lay denuded, just as if someone had pulled it up from the earth and shaken it free of all the soil clinging to its roots.
The truck driver braked sharply and the tires gave out a screech, piercing the stifling silence of the neighborhood. People from the surrounding houses came running out to see what was up. The driver's mate sprang down from the cab and looked back at the broken pot—the debris was already a full fifty or sixty feet behind. Instead of running back to pick up the pot, he glanced up at the driver with annoyance and said, "It's in bits, boss."
"What sort is it, one of the big or little ones?"
"Forget it, then. Jump in!"
The heat had made them impatient and with another screech of their tires, they were gone.
The people who had emerged from the nearby houses were left looking on in silence at the plant and the remnants of the pot. Seconds, minutes passed. No one made a move.
The plant was at least eighty feet away from the house of Nyo Hmaing, who, like everyone else, was standing staring at the little plant as it lay forlornly in the afternoon glare. Nobody seemed inclined to venture out onto the road to retrieve it. Without any appearance of haste, he slowly walked up to it, and retrieved it, while the others followed his every movement, saying nothing. It was only when he had just about regained his house that the trouble began.
"Maung Nyo Hmaing! Give that little plant to your old Aunty, there's a good fellow!" This was a woman whom Nyo Hmaing couldn't stand the sight of, and he had no intention of doing her any favors.
"I certainly won't. I picked it up because I wanted it for myself," he retorted. He had barely gone ten paces before he was accosted again, this time by the bailiff, Ko Wun, who called out to him, inviting him into his house for an evening drink. As soon as Nyo Hmaing had accepted, Ko Wun said, "So, what will you do with that plant?"
"Pull off all the leaves and make a salad, naturally," Nyo Hmaing replied sardonically.
"Oh, come now: all I wanted to say was, if by any chance you don't want it, could I have it?"
"But, of course, I don't want it; why else would I have risked sunstroke retrieving it?"
"Ko Wun, don't waste your breath talking to this freak," butted in Ko Wun's wife. "If you want a plant go and buy one yourself. There's hardly a world shortage of them!"
So Ko Nyo Hmaing decided to leave and had walked as far as the bicycle shop down the road when Law San, the Chinese businessman, came scurrying out of his noodle shop across the road.
"Nyo Hmaing!" he called. "Won't you give me that little plant?"
Nyo Hmaing reflected with irritation that only a few minutes ago, not one of them had gone out of their way to pick up the plant—they had all just stood around gawking at it. It was only after he had rescued it that they had all decided they had a claim to it. He looked at Law San in silence.
"My collection of potted plants is almost complete," explained Law San. "But I'm missing one of this sort. And, after all, what on earth would you want with it? You've never grown anything in your life."
"Ah, but you see, I've just decided to make a start."
"Now, do be reasonable, my dear Ko Nyo—this one plant won't add up to much. You can't make oil from one grain of sesame seed, you know."
Nyo Hmaing noted how silver-tongued Law San could be in Burmese when he wanted to be. "If you were so keen to have it, why didn't you run out and pick it up yourself?" he demanded.
"I was just about to, but I thought I might look rather foolish if I went out there to pick it up and then you—"
"Precisely. That's precisely how I felt, but now that I've done it, I certainly don't intend to hand the goods over to you. No, sir: I'm going to grow it all by myself." And Nyo Hmaing walked off before Law San could get in another word.
Outside his house, he found Ko Khant waiting for him.
"I can't believe this!" he exclaimed.
"I know, I know," soothed Ko Khant. "Isn't it extraordinary how everyone expects you to hand that plant over to them for free? Well, listen, pal, I'm prepared to buy it from you. How much do you want?"
"You're no better than the rest," replied Nyo Hmaing. "I'm not giving it away, I'm not selling it, and not even wild horses will drag it from me! So what have you to say to that?"
Ko Khant was startled and decided the heat must be affecting his poor friend's nerves. Up until now money had been his way of getting everything he wanted. He beat a hasty retreat into his own imposing residence.
Nyo Hmaing turned into his gate and noticed Ma Tin Kyi and her son Po San from across the street observing his every movement. Ma Tin Kyi, he knew, was a determined type and her six-year-old took after her. He hurried indoors and, without delay, took the plant into the backyard where he shoveled some earth into an old tin pail and reset the plant, watering it carefully. As he was working, he caught the sound of young Po San wailing across the street.
At four o'clock, Ko Nyo Hmaing spruced himself up and as he set off for the town hall on his scooter, he vaguely noticed Dr. Tin Maung's jeep parked outside Ma Tin Kyi's house. He returned home at eight, the worse for drink (as was not uncommon on his nights out with his friends). He crawled into bed to sleep it off and was dimly aware of the sound of Po San crying next door. At three in the morning he woke up with a tremendous thirst and, as he drank down two glasses of water in quick succession, he noticed the lights were on in Ma Tin Kyi's house. He could still, he thought, make out the distant sobs of Po San.
He didn't wake up until seven, and pricked his ears up when he heard that Po San was still crying.
"Nyo Hmaing! Open up, Nyo Hmaing!"
It was Ko Pyar from the bicycle repair shop.
"Nyo Hmaing, you're the only man in town who can save him!"
"What on earth are you talking about?"
"Didn't you hear Po San crying all night long?"
"What of it?"
"He won't stop. He's got a raging fever. He's in dire shape!"
"I remember I saw that Dr. Tin Maung was around last night," allowed Nyo Hmaing.
"That's right. He did everything he could, but it wasn't any use. This kid hasn't got any ordinary fever—he apparently just wants that plant you picked up off the road yesterday. It seems Ma Tin Kyi told her son to stop badgering her about it, whacked him one, and then he started up bawling. He's cried himself into a raging fever, even though it's all in his head. I tell you, he could die for absolutely nothing."
As Nyo Hmaing stared in disbelief, wondering what to do, he seemed to hear Po San's wails growing fainter and fainter. He snatched up the tin pail, and rushed over to Ma Tin Kyi's house. He very deliberately placed the plant next to the bed where Po San was stretched out, emitting exhausted sobs.
Po San, look what Uncle's brought you. Just what you wanted, isn't it? So stop crying—that's more like it! Come, have a little sip of water."
And so it was that Po San's life was saved. Nyo Hmaing found himself assuring Ma Tin Kyi—who professed her profuse apologies over the affair—that giving away the plant was nothing, not even a trifle, and that the main thing was that Po San had been saved from a meaningless death. When at last he returned home, he threw himself into an easy chair, contemplating the fact that this was not the first time something along these lines had happened to him; the affair of the potted plant contained many points of similarity to the manner in which he had once, many years ago, lost his girl.
The Children Who Play in the Back Alleyways
SAN SAN NWE
This story was written early in 1989 for the
magazine Eit-met-hpu; it was not passed by the Press Scrutiny Board, however, and was torn out
after printing. The author, who came to prominence in the mid-1970s, was arrested on the same day as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and
spent ten months in prison. Since
her release her work has not been allowed into print and she maintains her family—her husband died
in 1992—by trading.
In 1994 San San Nwe was re-arrested together with her eldest daughter and sentenced to seven years in prison. She was finally released in 2002 and now lives in Rangoon with her daughter and family, and is much recovered in health.
During the prodemocracy demonstrations in 1988 there was one particular death, among the many, that had a special impact on the academic community in Rangoon. The son of a teacher at the university was sitting drinking a cup of coffee in a tea shop on the campus when he was fatally shot in front of his friends by a stray bullet from a passing military vehicle.
The story alludes to this, and the children's mention of the color of the young man's shirt implies that the shirt was stained red with blood. At the time the story was written an evening curfew was in force from 9:30 p.m. The curfew was finally lifted completely only in November 1992. The story seems to suggest that whatever efforts the SLORC makes to ingratiate itself with the people by building public parks and children's playgrounds, it mil not succeed in wiping out the memory of the unnecessary bloodshed and the army's cruelty. Indeed the clearing away of small houses and familiar corner shops and cafes only leaves a greater feeling of resentment. The final lines are surely heavily ironical.
* * *
On evenings when the electricity goes off in our neighborhood, the streets are usually full of people. Our homes are cramped and the lack of light inside encourages us to seek out the early evening breeze on the street where there is more space and light.
When power cuts occur on moonlit nights, nervous types like myself breathe a little easier—the sound of the children's laughter seems louder and more vivacious, and the teenagers strum softly at their guitars, playing not only the latest hits but also the old familiar tunes that tend to linger sweetly in the air, lifting the heart, yet bringing sad thoughts.
The noise of the young children running here and there, chanting in shrill voices, often disturbs me, though, and I have to shout angrily at them to be quiet and to go away, but they just move on somewhere else and carry on their laughing and playing, noisily arguing, never tiring of devising endless games. I guess I'm glad the scamps can play so happily, yet at the same time I get a little anxious—the scrub and long grass where they run around playing hide-and-seek is full of vipers and scorpions, and the spot just behind our row of little houses is a favorite with the mongooses.
The children of our neighborhood are quite familiar with mongooses but all the same it could be nasty if they stepped on one in the dark. Even though mongooses don't usually attack people they will react violently to being touched, biting back if they are hurt. They say mongoose bites are hard to heal. Only last year a child who had been bitten by one died before reaching the hospital. And children have such short memories, don't they? They are heedless and quickly forget things that have happened to them. They haven't learned to feel fear.
Almost all the kids from our neighborhood, including my two, are little devils. They decide for themselves that their homework needn't be done properly and they just fool around, getting up to whatever mischief beckons. We parents, at our wits' end, have given up trying to do anything about it.
Tonight, I see the kids playing recklessly. They could easily come to harm—the dim, yellow streetlights and the faint twilight make the main road treacherous, with its passing cyclists and sidecars plying for hire; and in the back alleys and on the patches of waste ground there could be scorpions and snakes. But wait a minute! Suddenly I remember—isn't there somewhere just up the road where they could play to their heart's content? Isn't there a seesaw, some swings, green grass, and beds of colorful flowers, just about to bloom, and benches, with fresh paint just about dry by now?
They could play on the swings, singing the old nursery rhyme:
Seesaw, sit on the plank,
one foot up, one foot down:
Show me the way to Rangoon Town.
Here they could shout, let off steam, and make as much noise as they liked.
Leaving the shade of an almond tree, I emerge into the dappled moonlight onto the tarmac road and look around in search of the children.
"Hi, Ko Zay! Hi, Johnny!" I call out. The people nearby look up to see why I'm raising my voice, but I take no notice. "Boys, come back, bring your friends, all of you come over here."
With a patter of feet the children come running at top speed and gather around me, panting for breath. My youngest son, Moonface, throws his arms around my waist.
"What have you got for us to eat, Mommy?" he asks.
"Always looking for food!" I reply. "No, I called you because I won't have you playing in the back streets in the dark. Come on, all of you, we'll go to the park at the end of the road. There's much more space up there. Come on, I'll take you."
“Oh, but Mommy!" he protests. His little arms round my waist loosen.
"I'm afraid to go." The tremulous words come from a little one in the group.
"I'm not afraid, but I did see something," says one of the older boys, Ko Zay.
"What are you saying—afraid of what?"
"Oh, Mommy, you know. It's... it's... Ko Chan Aye! He was a very good friend of ours."
"Yes, Aunty!" says another. "He always helped us when we were flying our kites. When that big boy was with us no one dared to try to beat us. Our group was the champion at kite flying in our neighborhood."
"Chan Aye used to fly kites and do his schoolwork too, and if he ever went into a tea shop it was only just for a moment!"
"And Aunty, he died in a moment too. I can just see him now."
As their voices clamor, one after another, I, too, imagine that I can see the boy: his friends are carrying the lifeless body out from the tea shop. But Chan Aye is no more. And the tea shop has gone too. And along with the tea shop, the nearby Arakan noodle stalls and the betel and cigarette sellers have vanished. They said the itinerant sellers, with their stalls scattered in a makeshift manner here and there, were spoiling the neighborhood's tidy aspect, and so they made them clear out. And all that remains is this area of leveled ground, which they've turned into a children's playground, an expanse of green grass with seesaws and swings, and neat beds full of tired flowers.
"It's the best place for you to play. What's wrong with it? Come on, let's go."
"I'm afraid to go." It's the same little boy as before.
"What are you afraid of, silly?" I scold.
"I'm not afraid—but I can see him there." It's the older boy again.
"What do you mean, 'see him'? You mean you're imagining his ghost?"
The children are quiet. Taking advantage of their silence, I begin to lecture them in true adult fashion: Have they ever seen a ghost? I, for one, never have. There aren't any ghosts. Ghosts simply don't exist.
"Oh, but Aunty, that's only because when people die, the family makes lots of offerings to the monks so that the dead person doesn't end up as a ghost. Ko Chan Aye's family was too poor. . . ."
"Stop that! Don't talk nonsense. There absolutely are no ghosts. If you don't believe me, just go and play there every evening. Come on now, I'll take you there."
"That's enough now. You're just being stubborn. In this age of modern science there's no need to be afraid of ghosts."
"But Aunty, scientific ghosts are more frightening, we've seen them in video movies."
"All you kids ever do is watch those videos!"
"I don't feel like playing any more," one of the children says. "I can see Ko Chan Aye right now, with his bright red shirt."
"But he was wearing a white shirt!"
"No, it was red!"
"Stop arguing—it's already half past nine."
The children scamper off to their homes and I hurry home too, my heart heavy. I can't help wondering what more can be done to persuade those children to use that playground. I wish I wasn't such a born worrier.
Somehow I must get them to put all these notions out of their heads.
And somehow I know it will fall to me alone to do it—for, as a writer and mother, I guess I'm the only one around here that can exorcise these particular ghosts.
NYI PU LAY
Nyi Pu Lay is the only writer represented in
this collection who is currently imprisoned. He was born in about 1952, the youngest
of five children of Ludu U Hla and Ludu Daw Ama, two famous Burmese left-wing writers and intellectuals from Mandalay. Ludu U Hla, who died
in 1982, spent several years during the
1950s as a political prisoner. His eldest son, Soe Win, was also a political
prisoner in the 1960s and 1970s and later joined the Burma Communist Party. He
was kitted during the BCP purges in the Pegu Yoma. His second son, Than
Chaung, is also in exile. One daughter is a doctor in Pakokku, and the other
works in the Ludu family publishing house in Mandalay, together with her mother, who is one of Burma's most respected
Ten years on, Nyi Pu Lay is back home with his family in Mandalay, living in the house of Ludu Daw Amar, having been released from prison in February1999. He is writing and publishing short stories and novels.
Unlike his elder brothers and sisters, Nyi Pu Lay showed no interest in schoolwork or in writing as a boy. He preferred to spend his time playing soccer and drawing. He only began to write in 1985, after his father's death, when he rapidly became popular for his satirical short stories, two collections of which have been published (in March 1989 and September 1990), each illustrated with his own pen drawings. On December 25, 1990, he was arrested upon his return to Mandalay from a trip to Pagan with a group of six friends, including writers Htun Lu, Kyaw Yin Myint, and Kyaw Soe Win. The group was taken to Rangoon by train. The others were released after a week, but Nyi Pu Lay was charged under section 17(1 and 2) of the 1908 Unlawful Associations Act, which concerns contact with illegal organizations. It is unclear what evidence, if any, was submitted to substantiate the charge, although it had been alleged in one of the government publications that in 1984 he had sold a ring belonging to BCP member Kyaw Mya. It is believed that, in reality, he was arrested because of his family's political pedigree and his satirical writing. Until December 1991, he was held in Insein Jail, in Rangoon, but was then transferred with a number of other political prisoners to Thayet Jail in central Burma, a town that is difficult for his relatives to reach in order to visit him. He is serving a ten-year term.
In addition to his artistic talents, Nyi Pu Lay is a keen soccer player and has also represented the Mandalay Division in cycling. He is married with three children.
"The Python (Sabagyi-hmwe)" was published in 1988 and appeared again in Nyi Pu Lay's second collection of short stories. The python of the title refers to the Chinese and Sino-Burmese businessmen, drug traffickers, and gem dealers who are disliked by many Burmese, since they are perceived as moving into Mandalay and squeezing out the Burmese: laundering their illegal profits by investing in property, they are seen as driving up house prices to a point where the Burmese, who are struggling to make an honest living, are forced to sell up and move out of their old family houses, in prime downtown sites, to the outer suburbs, the "new pastures" of the story, many of which have been newly built on former paddy fields. Since 1988, when Nyi Pu Lay wrote this story, the influx of the Chinese has increased as a result of the SLORC's deals with the Wa and Kokang, who are ethnic Chinese from the Northeast Shan State, the main heroin producing area.
Mandalay Burmese resent that their city, the former royal capital and a symbol of Burmese independence, is becoming a satellite town of Yunnan Province in China. Although it is never explicitly mentioned in the story that U Myo Khin, the house buyer, is Chinese (he is described as a recent arrival in Mandalay), it is made clear by the mention of his green ring (jade), his red car (good luck for the Chinese), his yellow skin, his heavy accent, and his struggle to read Burmese. His illegal business activities are indicated by the fact that none of his money bundles have been through the bank; if so they would have been fastened together with staples, not tied together with tough string. U Myo Khin, the python, arrives with his money in a snakeskin or Penang bag, which refers to the scaly texture of a synthetic material commonly used to make holdalls in South-East Asia.
It is a bitter irony that an author who voices the anxieties of so many of his fellow countrymen concerning the undesirable results of failing to control the production and trade in opium should be locked up in prison.
The front door, which was always kept closed, had been opened.
Sitting in the front room, U Taw Daw was gazing vacantly out onto the road. The armchair in which he was reclining had once belonged to his father. Rather than cover it in nylon or cloth, his father had upholstered it in leather so that it would endure years of use. In the days when the cover had been new, the leather had been stiff and strong smelling. His father had sat there throughout his many discussions concerning all shapes and sizes of beans and pulses with his broker friends. Here, his father had read his way through the newspapers of the day: Ludu, Baho-si, Man-khit. And here, he had riffled his way through the piles of bank notes bearing the signature of the then-treasury secretary, Maung Kaung. In those days, they had lived in a big wooden house on stilts, painted with creosote. When he had grown up, his father had pulled down the old house and built a new two-story brick building, and it was in this home that U Taw Daw had learned all he knew about chick and pigeon peas and every variety of bean.
Nowadays, the armchair's leather cover had been worn as soft as velvet, and although the leather was not burnished or polished, the color shone out of its smooth surface, and the seams had all but sunk into the material. Contact with years of longyis had frayed some of the stitching, and the padding at the head of the chair was stained brown with coconut hair oil. The embroidery on the headrest was his father's own handiwork, and the stitches were so regular that one might have thought they had been sewn by machine.
The clock that his father had used to teach him how to tell the time was still attached to the east wall. To this day, a piece of paper was attached to the base with the red letters SUN in his father's hand, boxed off in blue pencil -- it was a note to remind him to rewind the clock once a week.
Although the face of the clock had begun to yellow, the black Roman numerals still stood out clearly. Second by second, it still kept good time. Two of its hands told the hour, and a third pointed to the date: all three still rotated correctly and today the third hand was pointing to the fifth day of the month.
U Taw Daw sat gazing around him at the house, the compound, the furniture, all the household goods and kitchen utensils, down to the thermos flask and betel box—everything he saw had been left to him by his parents.
His thoughts then turned to his younger half brother, U Aung Toe, and his nephew, Maung Thant Zin. U Taw Daw's business had been sliding downhill for some time. Despite the fact that none of the three had any weakness for gambling or drinking or other forms of entertainment, they still had to dip into their savings from time to time, and, while dipping in on the one hand, they were still trying to earn on the other, but little by little, like an evaporating mothball, their bundle of savings was diminishing. Nowadays, they had to work hard just to repay the money that they had borrowed.
Business was not booming. He bought when the price was high but then all went awry and the price of his stockpiled beans didn't rise as it should have, so that when he sold his beans, he failed to make a profit. In fact, business was a disaster. Although he could bear one bad year, or even two, after three or four bad years on the run, he was in deep trouble. Just as a boat cast adrift must be chased by another boat, so, the sums of money that had drained away had to be chased by more money. And once he discovered he was no longer able to send good money after bad, what was to be done? He and his wife had often discussed this very question. The first person to come up with advice had been Ko Nyi Aung, one of their relatives, who was a property broker. "Uncle," he had said, "I could easily get you eight hundred thousand kyats for this place of yours."
When U Taw Daw had heard this, he had flown into a rage and came close to beating him. "Get out! Get out!" he had spluttered, his face bright red with fury. But it had only been a little misunderstanding between age and youth. Ko Nyi Aung had not taken offense, and had apologized to his uncle, saying that he had no idea that he was so attached to the place. Soon after, he was to be found coming and going in his regular manner, and he never missed coming with gifts for his elders on festival days.
Outside in the road, the bicycles streamed past. U Taw Daw's house was close to the petrol pump used by the buses plying the routes all around town, so that buses from all lines rumbled by outside. This was the business quarter of Mandalay, full of brokers and merchants, and full of warehouses, bean-processing factories, oil mills, wheat mills, car-maintenance workshops, and video parlors. In the huge fire of 1984, their house had been spared. As he gazed out onto the road, U Taw Daw shivered and put on his jacket. The workers from the bean factory across the road had started to lay out a tarpaulin to spread out the beans. On the roof of the building, he noticed a row of pigeons sitting gazing expectantly at the tarpaulin, waiting for their supper.
Through the fence posts of the compound, U Taw Daw caught sight of his wife returning from the market, twenty minutes earlier than usual. From afar, Daw Daw Thwin tried to gauge her husband's expression. He had been gloomy for many days, but in the last two or three, his despondency had become more obvious.
Carrying her basket by her side, Daw Daw Thwin went straight in through the house to the kitchen at the back. Neither said a word to the other. Sitting in his armchair, U Taw Daw continued to stare out at the road. Usually, when Daw Daw Thwin returned from the market, he would get up to open the gate of the compound for her, and help her with her shopping basket. "What are you going to cook for me today, Ma Thwin?" he would ask, and she would perhaps reply, "Shall I cook us up some fish with some nice sour soup?" Or, if it had been a day when she bought pork: "I thought I'd cook you a bit of that pork curry that you like, dear." Whatever dish Daw Daw Thwin suggested, U Taw Daw invariably responded, "Mmm, that'd be just fine." But today, they behaved as if they were hardly on speaking terms, like a couple on the verge of divorce.
Suddenly his reverie was interrupted by the appearance of his younger brother, U Aung Toe, smiling broadly and asking him how he was. "Uh, well enough—where's young Maung Thant Zin?" he replied.
"He's coming along later, he went off to buy a quid of betel." U Aung Toe took a look around the house. U Taw Daw inclined his head towards the brass betel box and said, "There's plenty in there." Then he resumed his gazing at the road.
When he heard two honks of a car horn, his heart skipped a beat and he turned his head to look. But the car sped on past, without stopping in front of the house. Every time he heard a car horn, his stomach gave a lurch, and
he would turn to look, and check his watch.
Maung Thant Zin arrived, his quid of betel making his cheek bulge. "Uncle, what curry is Aunty Thwin cooking for us today?" he asked, his words rendered virtually unintelligible by the betel quid. "I'm sure you're going to give us something delicious today, aren't you?"
U Taw Daw tried to smile. "Of course, we're planning to," he said.
The conversation stopped. No one uttered a word. The two older men just stared glumly into space, while young Maung Thant Zin silently studied the house. The photographs were still on the walls. The bed, the furniture—all were where they had always been. The room was as silent as a morgue, the most recent arrival having been infected by the miserable thoughts of the two older men. He stopped chewing his betel quid, and didn't even get up to spit out the juice.
A car pulled up in front of the house, the latest model, in bright red. The sound of the engine running was barely audible. U Taw Daw's jaw sagged and he murmured, "I think this must be them." The other two turned to look. The driver of the car glanced up at U Taw Daw and another face appeared next to his. From the moment the car pulled up at the doorstep, U Taw Daw felt like a patient who had just been told that his cancer was confirmed. Ko Nyi Aung climbed out of the car first, while the other man raised the windows and gently closed the door on his side, quite unlike the slam Ko Nyi Aung had given on his side.
"Uncle! Uncle, I'm so sorry we're a little late," Ko Nyi Aung was calling. U Taw Daw said nothing, forcing a smile. In fact, they had arrived on the dot.
"It's my fault we're late, I'm afraid. I had some business to finish concerning a building in the Chan Aye Tha Zan Quarter." Ko Nyi Aung's voice echoed around the silent room and his booming tones seemed at odds with the surroundings.
Ko Nyi Aung quickly took stock of the situation, realizing everyone was putting on a brave face. Daw Daw Thwin came bustling out of the kitchen, asking "Maung Nyi Aung, did you eat before you came?" The others knew she was simply looking for words to fill the silence. Disconcerted, Ko Nyi Aung replied that he had just eaten. Thant Zin handed him a betel quid. The other man had brought in a holdall made of a rough, scaly fabric, the kind that some termed a snakeskin bag, others, a Penang bag. As he watched the newcomer, U Taw Daw felt his breathing become even more constricted, as if a weight were bearing down on his chest. Again he forced a smile.
The man placed the bag on the bench and Nyi
Aung carried out the introductions: "Uncle, Aunty, this is Ko Myo
Khin." As U Taw Daw was wondering what to do next, the newcomer stretched out his
hand towards him. Caught off guard by the unexpected gesture, U Taw Daw rose hastily from his armchair and grasped the proffered hand. When he touched it, he noticed how cold and clammy the palm
was, the skin as soft and supple as a girl's. U Aung Toe broke in, "Sit down, please, sit down in this chair here." "Yes, sit down, do sit down, Ko Myo Khin," urged U Taw Daw.
The room again fell silent. Each smiled at the other, although they had not a thing to smile about. "It's all wrong that we should be silent like this," thought U Taw Daw, and he blurted out, "Ko Myo Khin, are you from these parts? Were you born in Mandalay?"
No sooner had he asked the question than he realized he had made a mistake. He felt embarrassed at the thought of appearing unduly nosy.
"He says he hasn't been in this city long, Uncle," interrupted Ko Nyi Aung. After a while, Daw Daw Thwin went back out into the kitchen again. The newcomer simply smiled.
From the moment Ko Myo Khin had stepped through the doorway, they had all been sizing him up. Quite young; in the prime of his life; maybe about forty or so. On his wrist he wore a gold watch which was set off well by his yellow-toned skin. On his left ring finger was a bright green ring. He was smartly dressed, and U Taw Daw guessed that his clothes must be quite expensive.
Bundles of bank notes were plainly visible, protruding from the snakeskin bag, and U Taw Daw was thinking that once he took this money, the house and land would no longer be his. He and his wife would be forced to move out to the so-called new pastures in the suburbs that were more in keeping with their financial means.
Ko Myo Khin started to undo the string tying up the bag containing the money. U Taw Daw wondered if Ko Nyi Aung had mentioned that they wanted to stay on in the house for another two weeks. He had assumed that the buyer would not pay up in full until they actually moved out, so would he hold some back? He took the handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the beads of sweat from his brow.
U Myo Khin tipped out the contents of the snakeskin bag onto the long table on which U Taw Daw's father had once displayed samples of his beans and pulses to the other brokers. Holding up the two corners of the bag he shook it out until the last bits of dust came tumbling out with bundles of money. Three or four bundles fell off the edge of the table. Of all of the bundles of green, turquoise, crimson, and brown notes, the crimson notes predominated. If anyone had asked, U Taw Daw would have had to admit that he had never handled so much money in his life.
His eyes glazed over and he stared straight ahead without seeing a thing. He was remembering the people to whom he owed everything, his parents, and was only brought back to earth by the voice of U Myo Khin. What was that the man had just said? U Taw Daw started and stared about him wildly.
Ko Nyi Aung repeated what the buyer had said. "Ko Myo Khin says he brought the money along without counting it properly first. He just bundled it up. So Uncle Aung Toe and Thant Zin should check it carefully. Whatever's missing, you're just to say. He'll make up the shortfall."
U Aunt Toe put a little water in a teacup and put it down next to him so that he could wet his thumb and index finger as he counted the money. Thant Zin spat the betel juice into the spittoon. They started to count the money and Ko Nyi Aung made a move to close the front door so that people outside would not be able to see them counting. But Ko Myo Khin indicated with a wave of his hand that it should be left open.
Ko Myo Khin was apparently suffering none of the agonies being endured by U Taw Daw; he was sitting calmly on the wooden chair, and far from inspecting the rear of the house, he did not even bother to inspect the immediate interior. This was the first time he had stepped across the threshold; yet here he was, behaving more like a man who had just come home to his own hearth than someone buying a house.
U Aung Toe and his son were counting the money deliberately, placing the bundles of money to one side after each had been counted. U Taw Daw sat wondering if it would help any if he took part in the counting of the money rather than just looking on. He knew that in his present state of mind it would be easy to make a mistake. But he felt a need to assuage his misery by some methodical counting. He brooded over the merits of joining in and finally lifted his eyes which had been glued to the floor. He had come to a decision.
He would count the money. That way, the whole business would be over more quickly. Ko Myo Khin and Ko Aung Toe and everyone else would leave the sooner and he would be left in peace.
The first thing he did was to search for a bundle of notes stapled together by the bank. But he failed to find a single one. As he reached for a bundle,
Ko Nyi Aung immediately glanced across at his uncle in surprise, as if to say that this was no way for his uncle to behave. U Taw Daw, who could not bear to be on the receiving end of such a look, pretended not to notice. His hands were trembling so much that it was only with concentrated effort that he succeeded in untying the bundle and started to count ten kyat notes. Holding down the bundle with the heel of his left hand, he turned the notes over one by one with his right index finger as if his fingers were climbing stairs step by step. This was the method that his father had taught him. Carefully he counted the thousand notes and found neither a note short nor a note too many. U Taw Daw picked out another bundle and as he counted, he could feel Ko Nyi Aung's eyes upon him. Ko Myo Khin stood up and wandered out to the car, as if the counting of the money had nothing to do with him whatsoever, as if he knew without a shadow of doubt that the counters were not going to try and pull a fast one. He did not even look back over his shoulder. U Taw Daw wanted to call across to his brother and nephew to make sure that they counted correctly, but in Ko Myo Khin's absence, perhaps it was better to say nothing so that any misunderstanding could be avoided.
Ko Myo Khin walked back to the house carrying a gold cigarette case which he had left in the car. U Taw Daw realized with embarrassment that he had neglected to offer his guests anything to smoke—although, on reflection, Ko Myo Khin did not strike him as the sort who would accept the offer of a cheroot. Meanwhile, the bundle he was counting only seemed to contain ninety-eight notes. He scratched his head and then began counting again very slowly from the beginning. As he counted, he was praying that there would not be any missing after all. If there really was a shortfall, what was he to do? Should he mention it? U Aung Toe and his son had been counting for some time, but he hadn't heard them say that they had found any shortfall. U Taw Daw had previously been wetting his fingers from U Aung Toe's teacup; but now he counted this bundle again, using his own spit.
He stopped at nine and heaved a huge sigh of relief, not bothering to recount the last note which remained under his finger. He fished out his handkerchief from his pocket and took off his jacket. Ko Nyi Aung looked the other way and lit up a cigarette offered to him by Ko Myo Khin.
As they counted the money, the seconds ticked by and started to mount up. By now they had counted about a quarter of Ko Myo Khin's pile of money and so far not one of them had said that a bundle was short.
Next, U Taw Daw picked up a bundle of forty-five kyat notes, while Ko Myo Khin picked up the newspaper and started to read. Ko Nyi Aung inhaled his cigarette with a long, drawn out breath.
U Taw Daw had counted the bundle carefully. One forty-five kyat note was missing. This time there was no mistake. One forty-five kyat note, out of a pile of over a million. It would be embarrassing to mention it. He held the bundle in his hand and wondered what he should do. "It had to be my bundle, didn't it?" he thought to himself and looked over to Thant Zin who was counting his bundle. "There's one short," he whispered and held up a single finger as he passed over the bundle. The finger shook imperceptibly. Ko Myo Khin lowered his newspaper and looked up.
Almost unable to contain himself, U Taw Daw followed Thant Zin's every movement and counted along with him under his breath. Thant Zin was clearly a faster and more accurate counter than himself. The bundle under his fingers passed from thick to thin. U Taw Daw was on the edge of his seat asking "How many? How many?" like an accused man waiting for the sentence to be passed down. He and Thant Zin arrived simultaneously at the final figure. Thant Zin pushed the incomplete bundle across to Ko Myo Khin saying, "Here, you count it too," but the latter simply smiled and slowly shook his head. Reaching into a bundle of money he was keeping separate, he pulled out a forty-five kyat note and handed it to Thant Zin.
As the pile of counted notes grew, so did U Taw Daw feel his strength ebbing away. U Aung Toe said that his bundle was two notes short. Thant Zin made as if to count it again to be sure, but Ko Myo Khin again just smiled, and, saying something which U Aung Toe could not understand, gestured with the palm of his hand that it would not be necessary to recount it and took out two fifteen kyat notes. He appeared not to want to waste any time. He lit up a cigarette and returned to reading the newspaper, looking like a man without a care in the world, quite unruffled, more like an automaton than a human being.
All that could be heard was the sound
of the old clock ticking and the quiet rustle of notes. U Taw Daw finished a bundle
and decided that he could not count another note. Leaning back in the armchair he
looked long and hard at this man, Ko Myo Khin, who had come to buy his house
for eleven lakhs when four months ago
it had only been valued at eight. Ko Myo Khin was still perusing the
newspaper, his lips moving as he read as if he was spelling out each line word
"Did Maung Nyi Aung mention that we would like to stay on here another two weeks?" asked U Taw Daw.
The money counters stopped with their fingers in midair. Speaking in the same slow manner as he had been perusing the newspaper, Ko Myo Khin said something that none of them understood except Ko Nyi Aung, who repeated it for their benefit: "If you want to stay on another two weeks, you can stay. I will still give you the money now in full. But please make sure that you move out on the day you say you will."
MO CHO THINN
The author of this story, a geology student in her early twenties, is the youngest daughter of poet Tin Moe*, who has been in prison since December 1991. He is a prominent supporter of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the party she founded, the National League for Democracy. Poems that he wrote in her honor during 1988 and 1989 were copied and distributed by students in December 1991, at the time of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. This seems to have been what finally provoked his arrest. The references in the story (both at the beginning and end) to the writer's parents, and to the difference between the comfort of her own childhood and the relative poverty of her own children, are the more poignant when one bears in mind the above circumstances, and also the fact that her mother has died recently, during the time of her father's imprisonment. Mo Cho Thinn is one of a number of young writers who turned to writing during an enforced three-year vacation while the universities were closed.
It had been raining all day without a break. At times like this, she would have loved most of all to be curled up in bed with a book, but it had been a long, long time since she had been able to lose herself in a good story. Nowadays, she couldn't spare a moment for such luxuries. All she could think about was how to get through the day and how to get her youngest boy, who was suffering from dengue fever, to the doctor at the clinic.
When she was a child, her parents had taken such good care of her that she had never wanted for anything. Admittedly, standards of living had been higher then. She wondered sorrowfully if she would ever be able to do the same for her own children and comforted herself with the thought that it was hardly her fault if times and circumstances had changed. Even though there were only four of them in the family, she still couldn't seem to make the money in her purse last to the end of the month—she sometimes felt as if the coins and notes had grown wings and flown away. In spite of keeping strict tabs on everything she spent from one day to the next, she still found that the minute she opened her purse her heart would start to pound.
Luckily her husband always ate whatever she cooked for him without grumbling, and she did her best to give her children the odd little treat. When she was young, her mother had put no restriction on what she and her brothers and sisters ate— sweets, snacks, or curries, they could have whatever they wanted. While they had to follow certain rules in other things, when it came to food, their parents believed that they should be denied nothing. And now she herself found that she simply couldn't feed her own children with the lavish generosity of her mother. If any food was left over from supper, she had to hide it so that the children couldn't see it—and yet it made her miserable to have to stint them like this.
Today was the twenty-sixth. There were still three or four days until the end of the month, and the trouble was she had no money left—it had run out.
To make matters worse, her small son had been feverish since the previous night and had now become delirious. She was scared. Where was she going to find the money to take him to the doctor? Her husband had promised to come back early from the office to take their child to the clinic and she had said "Yes, darling," quite calmly, but when he asked her if she had enough money, she had felt like bursting into tears. She hadn't wanted him to know there was not a penny in the house: he gave her all his salary, without keeping back anything for spending on drinking or other pleasures. But nor did she think it was her fault that she couldn't make the money last—he knew about her constant efforts to economize.
As soon as he left for the office, she rummaged in the tin trunk where she kept her longyis, took out four that, the night before, she had determined on selling, and rushed out to the Kemmendine night market. The quicker she got it over and done with the better—she didn't even wait for the rain to stop. She had her work cut out to cajole the children into staying behind with their next-door neighbor, Ma Yee.
She had never been to the market before and felt uncomfortable. In one hand she held her umbrella and in the other her longyis wrapped up in several layers of newspaper. She was convinced all the stall-holders were staring at her,
"Over here, lady! Have you come to sell some clothes?"
She braced herself and walked on—she didn't want to sell her clothes to a man. She knew she would never forget her discomfiture at that instant. Everywhere there were old clothes festooned from the stalls. Stall-holders were lounging around, arms folded, and a few were vigorously shaking out second-hand longyis.
"Come over here, dearie! You'll be OK at my shop! Show me what you've got. Is it women's longyis, men's longyis, children's tops—I can't give you much for tops—women's longyis, is it? Oh dearie, those styles are really out-of-date. Don't tell me you've brought acheik longyis too? Nobody wants those nowadays."
"But they're quite new!"
"Well, they may be brand-new but nobody wants them these days, all they want are batik ones like this. Yours are a bit old-fashioned, dearie. . . ."
The young Indian stall-holder kept up a steady stream of talk while she shook out the longyis, even though they were already perfectly clean, and examined them for holes or stains. Meanwhile, she stood by in an agony of fear that someone she knew might see her: her whole body was trembling with shame and she longed to disappear into thin air. These were longyis she had only ever worn once or twice before her marriage and then put away because she had never really cared for them.
The woman was taking forever in her close scrutiny of them—first the brown one with the small floral print, then the dark blue one. A picture of her little boy's face crossed her mind and she turned her head away. Now the stall-holder was holding up the mauve longyi with the acheik pattern, the one her husband had said made her look like a true Burmese beauty; but she didn't want to look like a true Burmese beauty, did she? Hadn't the woman said nobody wore them anymore?
"Well, dearie, how much do you want for them?"
"You tell me what you'll give me and if I like the price, I'll sell."
"No, no, you tell me what you want and we'll take it from there."
"But I've never sold a longyi before!"
The discussion went on, back on forth, until at last she said, "All right, I want one hundred kyats for each longyi."
"Ha, ha, that's real funny!"
The mocking laugh shook her to the core. Then she became angry. Hadn't the woman told her to name her price?
"Look, dearie, think a bit first: How could I pay you that much? I wouldn't even get that much when I resold them."
"These longyis cost me a fortune when I bought them and they're still as good as new. How much are you prepared to give me?"
"One hundred for all four."
"Do you really mean just one hundred kyats for all four longyis?"
"That's right." She reached out and grabbed the Indian trader's arm, which was already busy putting the longyis into a plastic bag as if the deal had been done.
"Give me back my longyis! There's no way I'll sell them for that."
"Well, how much do you want then?"
"I've already told you, and if I don't get my price, I won't sell them at all."
"Now look here, dearie, we're a respectable stall and I'm worried that you might fall into the hands of a broker."
"A broker? What do you mean?" The stall-holder was still clinging to the longyis—after all, there was a good profit to be made out of them.
“OK, two hundred kyats for the lot. Take it or leave it; and I'm only giving you this price because we're friends and I know you'll be a regular customer from now on."
"No, thank you. I'll try another shop."
She wrenched the bag from the woman's hand and moved on quickly, leaving the saleswoman behind talking in a high pitched voice with some of her colleagues: what a mean type, she thought, the sort that would push a man under when he was drowning. Tears began to well up in her eyes as she walked down the length of clothing stalls without stopping again, her umbrella in hand. She had no desire now to find a sale: the rain had been pouring all day and she was at the end of her tether. She would just have to get a loan from Daw Myaing next door and somehow pay the interest—so much for her resolve never to be a borrower. Would she, then, have to join the ranks of all those other women who were in the habit of creeping secretly to Daw Myaing's house?
Just then someone grabbed her arm. "You're here to sell clothes aren't you? Come over here." She let herself be led off by a shifty looking woman who took her into an empty shop with nothing on display. For the second time, she removed her longyis from the bag. This trader showed no inclination to waste words and gave the longyis a quick examination.
"How much?" she asked.
"Four hundred kyats for the four."
"No way. No more than three hundred."
So the unprepossessing woman wasn't so bad, it seemed—she had not had to argue and her price hadn't been beaten down too much. After they had agreed on three hundred and fifty, another woman came up and asked what the agreed price was. "She and I are together," the shifty woman explained, clasping the bag of longyis to her chest. "Give her the money, I have to go," she added, and so saying, she disappeared hurriedly into the rain. The other woman reached inside her blouse and took out some five kyat notes and explained absently that she didn't have that much money on her.
Suddenly it dawned on her what was happening—the two women were obviously the brokers the first stall-holder had warned her about.
She ran as fast as she could down the length of the row of clothing stalls. "Give it back. Give me back my bag of clothes!" she shouted.
"Why should I? You sold them after all!"
"Hey! Someone give her her money then!" The woman cackled so loudly everyone in the marketplace could hear. She felt deep shame and almost wanted to go home, tearful and empty-handed. She felt just like a beggar, insulted and humiliated. They were calling her a thief.
No: she wouldn't stand for it. She was going to get her clothes back, even though the stall-holders seemed disinclined to lift a finger to help.
Catching the woman off-guard, she snatched back her bundle and made her way briskly toward the bus terminal, trailed by the shifty woman who was swearing at her profusely. To anyone who didn't know what had passed, it looked as if she were the thief, but, gritting her teeth, she said nothing and boarded the bus, leaving the woman standing and cursing at the bus stop.
That night, as she was writing in her diary, her thoughts returned to her parents and the memory of them brought to mind a quotation from a novel she had once read in which another father once told his daughter: "From the things we do with the best intentions can come bad consequences."
This story was
printed in Shumawa in August 1990 and then torn out at the command of the Press Scrutiny Board.
The reason given was that it was insulting
to doctors, placing them in a dishonorable light. Ataram (a pen name) is a doctor herself and frequently writes
stones about her experiences. The story recalls three instances where women
suffering from poverty and ill health,
compounded by large families, appear from their medical histories and their exigencies to be prime candidates for
sterilization and want it for themselves. The medical student is uneasy with
the thought of suggesting sterilization to these women, although they so
obviously need to stop having children. Abortion is illegal in Burma
(note the case of Win Tin, a newspaper editor currently
in prison for, among other charges, "sheltering a girl who had had an illegal abortion"—see the list of
detained writers in the appendix), but the number of abortions
carried out is quite high, estimated at between 250 and 400 per 100,000
births. Burmese people still regard sterilization and abortion, both of which are
discouraged in Buddhist teachings, as unnatural and unpleasant
procedures, and they are taboo subjects. The medical student in this story pities the
women who are not concerned with the ethics of sterilization or abortion, or
with the medical arguments for having one; they understand only that they need
to be sterilized because they have too many mouths to feed as it is. The
author likens them to someone who is forced to try to earn a living by rowing a
ferryboat—a job requiring great skill—in spite of knowing nothing about
how to row a boat.
"And how would you advise the patient?" our teacher was asking.
"We would tell her to come back to the hospital if the bleeding started again and to take things easy; and not to lift anything heavy."
"I ask you! You mean you would tell her to take it easy, when she has five children, nobody to take her place, and makes a living selling mohinga?"
"Well, at least to rest as much as possible."
It was a long time since we had read our textbooks and we couldn't remember the specific problems associated with the patient's illness, so we were just trying to bluff our way through by drawing on our general knowledge.
"No, no, no," our teacher protested. "What advice should you really give? She has been pregnant seven times, borne five children, and lost two; she has had postpartum hemorrhaging like this before with her previous pregnancies: what should she do for the future?"
We fell silent. Everything we had ever learned from our books seemed to have scattered from our heads, leaving us incapable of thought. Surely we had already suggested all the treatments we knew of?
"Sterilization, of course," said the teacher. "Shouldn't you suggest sterilization?" She turned to the patient.
"Now, Daw Khin May U, the students think that if you get pregnant again, you may have another hemorrhage after giving birth. After all, you already have five children. They are asking if you want to be sterilized."
"Yes, yes! I'll put in my application."
When we had heard the word on our teacher's lips, we had laughed somewhat shamefacedly at not having thought of this simple solution; but when we heard the patient's eager reply, we couldn't help letting out a gasp of surprise. There wasn't anything to be surprised about and yet we were still surprised. Ever since we had come to the hospital, sterilization was a word we had become used to hearing bandied about quite openly. When we filled out the medical-history forms, starting with the usual question, "Why have you come to the hospital?" quite a considerable number of women answered, "To be sterilized." Some would say it quite boldly, others as if ashamed, and still others with tired resignation.
So it wasn't an unexpected response: it was an obvious answer for patients like this one to have given, considering their standard of living, their lack of basic education, and their brood of children, one coming on top of another, the mother, all the while, in a precarious state of health with any number of gynecological problems, and on top of all this the worrying prospect of yet another new, weak baby. Taking all this into account the word sterilization had come to trip off our tongues quite easily. But when our teacher actually asked us what advice we would give, when faced with the prospect of our having to give the advice ourselves, it was not, we found, so easy to utter it.
"My dear, with that weak heart of yours, you'll get exhausted if you keep walking about. Come and lie down. The doctors would like to ask you some questions."
Her name was Myint Myint U, she said. She was forty years old, with rheumatic heart disease: the valves on the left side of the heart had failed under the strain, she was pregnant, and clearly exhausted.
"Myint Myint U, how many pregnancies have you had?" we asked.
We were all amazed—here was a woman of forty with nine children and one on the way.
"When did you get married?"
"And are all the children alive?"
"I had two miscarriages and one died in a car accident when he was seven." A tear rolled down her cheek and her breathing quickened.
"Don't cry, my dear. You mustn't cry, because if you do, it will make you more tired."
"I had to leave my two youngest behind, alone, at the house next door. And I wasn't able to leave them anything to eat, because I was too ill to sell my fried food at the market before I came to the hospital."
"Myint Myint U, when did you first learn that you had heart disease?"
"I've known about it since my second pregnancy."
We looked at each other in shock: incredible!
"And when all the other children were born, didn't you have any trouble? Were the deliveries normal, or did you have any caesareans or forceps?"
"No. They were all just normal. But I did feel tired—terribly, terribly tired."
So ill, and so many children—and yet she had managed to give birth to them all without assistance. It showed courage. And yet, I couldn't help thinking, it was not a courage born of understanding; for this woman, undereducated and totally unaware of the extent of her illness and its consequences, not to mention its effect on the fetus, such courage was born of ignorance.
Hadn't even one health expert, recognizing her condition, offered her advice— that is, suggested the by now quite standard remedy of sterilization? Shouldn't they have demonstrated a little courage, as opposed to negligence, when they had attended her during her births?
"And you had all the children at home by yourself, with just a midwife, did you?" I phrased the question deliberately, being certain of her answer.
"No. They were all born in Hospital."
For the second time that day we were all shocked. The hospital Myint Myint U mentioned was a special one, in special surroundings. Nevertheless, even though she had been treated in a reputable hospital, it was still possible that she had been attended by untrained birth attendants.
"Who helped you with the births?"
"Why, the doctors, of course," she replied.
"And they didn't tell you to apply for a sterilization after your second or third child?"
"No. I didn't even know that I could. If I'd known that I was going to suffer so much I would have done it. But please, let me go home now. The two little ones are all alone."
Our gasps of concern drowned out her small, sad voice. "But what about your husband? Where is he?" we asked.
"He was killed at the front."
Those of us who considered ourselves quite knowledgeable, and who had intended to prescribe the previously unmentioned treatment of "sterilization," now realized it was too late. Too late, much too late, for us to be using this word now. We knew that for this woman with her wretched life and pain, it would be forever too late. So, out of our concern and embarrassment, the word we had always been reluctant to utter remained unspoken.
"It seems you have just had an operation," I asked another patient.
"An ectopic pregnancy. It was in my gut!" she replied.
It was Monday morning, and I was examining the new patients who had been admitted in the course of the weekend. Leafing through her medical notes, I saw the pregnancy had been in one of her ovaries.
"How many children do you have?" I asked.
"Four. And during my first pregnancy, and again during my third, our house burned down. Twice, I had to run to escape the flames, and twice we lost everything, all at once. After the first fire, we lived in a small lean-to in Kamayut.A year after the second fire, we got a plot of land in Hlaing-tha-ya where my husband, who's a master carpenter, built us a small hut. One day, I fell into the water, while I was carrying the little one under my arm—we were lucky not to drown, both of us. And this time too, I'm lucky not to have died. The doctor said I was just in time. They operated on me straight away.
According to her notes, her fallopian tube and ovary on one side had been removed. There was every possibility of another normal pregnancy, or indeed another ectopic one. With four children, her home burned to the ground twice, surely she herself had no interest in becoming pregnant again? I decided then that this time at least I would utter that word that had so far refused to trip off my tongue. For her, unlike the others, it wasn't yet too late.
"Now look, Mrs .... "
"Well . . . you see — that time you nearly drowned?" Once more I found myself recoiling from using the word.
"Yes; when I fell in the water, I went right to the bottom and ] thought I was dead. I was holding my baby in one arm and it must just have been luck that brought us back up. We can't have been destined for death just yet. When I resurfaced, I grabbed hold of the wooden edge of the ferryboat and clung to the little one and we were both all right."
"Why did you fall in?"
"The sampan overturned. It was bound to happen. The people who were rowing it hadn't a clue what the job involved.
Her answer, about their not knowing what was involved, reminded me of the ready reply of Daw Khin May U who had said, "Yes, I want to be sterilized." Had she known what being sterilized involved? Or was she motivated merely by her hunger? And I thought about Myint Myint U, who had stolen out of the hospital without permission, more worried about her hungry children at home than about the baby she was carrying.
"Are you thinking of having any more children?" I asked. My earlier determination to mention the word was already evaporating even though I already knew in advance that her answer would be No.
Tin Moe is a well-known poet, essayist, and editor of the banned literary magazine, Palm Leaf Manuscript, which was closed down by the government one month after he became editor. He was a National Literature Award winner, a literary consultant to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and was active in the National League for Democracy. He was arrested in December 1991 and, seven months later, was sentenced, on charges that are unclear to PEN, to four years in prison. In February 1995 he was released from prison.
In 1999 he was allowed to leave Burma to visit his daughter, by then married in Belgium; he decided not to return and has since travelled widely in USA, Japan, UK and Norway and is based in Belgium. His recent poems have been published in USA and Japan.
U Win Tin, a former editor of Hanthawati newspaper, served as secretary of the executive council of the National League for Democracy, and vice-chairman of Sarpay Thamagga (the writers' association). He was active in the prodemocracy demonstrations in 1988, and a key advisor to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. He was arrested on July 4,1989, and sentenced in October 1989 to three years' imprisonment with hard labor on charges of harboring a woman who had had an abortion (abortion is illegal in Burma). However, his colleagues believe that the true reason for his arrest lies in his opposition activities. In September 1992, he reportedly was in poor health and denied medical attention. His sentenced was reduced from eleven to ten years in a 1993 amnesty.
In 2003 U Win Tin is still languishing in prison as he steadfastly refuses to sign any undertaking that he will not engage in politics if released.
U Ohn Kyaing, also known as Aung Wint, was editor of Bohtataung Daily and also worked with U Win Tin (see above) on Hanthawati before retiring in 1988 to become a member of the National League for Democracy's Central Committee and a Member of Parliament for Mandalay South East. He was arrested on September 6, 1990, and, a month later, was sentenced to seven years' hard labor because of his participation in demonstrations in Mandalay in August 1990.
Nyi Pu Lay, whose story, "The Python," appears in this collection, is a satirical writer and artist. He was arrested with six others on December 25, 1990, and later sentenced to ten years' imprisonment on charges of being in contact with illegal organizations. The sole evidence brought against him was the authorities' allegation that, in 1984, he had once sold a ring that originally belonged to a member of the Burmese Communist Party. He was initially held in Insein Prison in Rangoon, but, in December 1991, he was moved to Thayet Prison in Central Burma.
Ten years on, Nyi Pu Lay is back home with his family in Mandalay, living in the house of Ludu Daw Amar, having been released from prison in February 1999. He is writing and publishing short stories and novels.
Myo Myint Nyein is the publisher and editor of What's Happening? magazine. He and his colleague Sein Hlaing, were both arrested on September 24,1990, and both were sentenced to seven year's imprisonment because of their publishing activities. What's Happening featured articles about culture and short stories, and contained a poem by a well-known writer, Min Lu, which lamented the killing of innocent civilians and deplored the brutality of the military (Min Lu was also arrested but has subsequently been released).
In 2002 Myo Myint Nyein was released and is now able
to resume his publishing work.
Zargana, or "Tweezers," is Burma's most popular comedian and satirist who writes all his own material. He was arrested at his home on May 19, 1990, after completing a stand-up comedy performance at Yankin Teachers' Training College Stadium in Rangoon during which he told jokes about the Minister of Information. He was sentenced to five years' imprisonment and is currently in Insein Jail in Rangoon. His wife is reportedly allowed weekly visits. He was previously imprisoned between October 1988 and April 1990 because of his participation in the prodemocracy movement. Zargana was released in the early 90s and has been working as a film producer.
 'A kyat is a unit of Burmese currency containing one hundred pyas. A U.S. dollar is worth about six kyats on the official exchange rate. Unofficially, one can purchase between eighty and one hundred kyats per dollar. A middle-ranking civil servant will earn between one and two thousand kyats a month—it is not enough to live on, when one considers that a simple meal costs about forty-five kyats.
 See P. Herbert, South-East Asia Library Group Newsletter, no. 34-35 (December 1990, page 25).
 The wearing of trousers, as opposed to a longyi, may be interpreted as a reference to a member of the military personnel; thus cartoonists are never allowed to depict men in trousers.
 Many members of the Karen people, one of Burma's ethnic minorities, are members of the Karen National Union, which has been fighting a civil war in the jungle area along the Thai border since 1949. After the events of 1988, many students and other prodemocracy demonstrators fled to the jungle and were given shelter by the rebel Karens. That same year, some of them, along with prodemocracy groups abroad and other ethnic armies, joined the Karen National Union to form the Democratic Alliance of Burma.
"The Advertising Wagon" was originally published in Burmese in Pe-hpu-hlwa, July 1990. Translated by V. J. B.
 6Bran ash is used as an abrasive for cleaning.
 Shwe Ba was an actor famous for his action movies in which he would take on entire armies. He was especially popular with rural audiences
 Since Burmese peasants particularly enjoy films with large numbers of costume changes, film producers would often add scenes of little relevance to the main plot in order to achieve this.
 A shelter providing shade from the sun for travelers, often pilgrims, and thus usually close to a pagoda.
 "He's Not My Father" was originally published in Burmese in Shwe Amyu-te, May 1992. Translated by Anna J. Allott.
 Line-cars, or line bus cars, are small, all-purpose vehicles with a closed driver's cab but an open, flat back suitable for transporting goods or people. They have become very popular cars to import (from Japan) because they incur much less an import tax than an ordinary saloon car. Once they have imported these cars into the country, most owners put in seats, cover the back, and use the vehicle as a small bus. The word line refers to the regular route each one takes.
 Chewing quids of betel is common among the Burmese. To make a quid of betel, a Burmese person will take a betel-vine leaf, smear a little slaked lime on it, place on it a finely chopped betel nut, add a little betel juice and maybe some tobacco. The leaf is then folded and stowed inside the cheek; the Burmese occasionally squeeze the stuffed leaf between their teeth, and reddish saliva will build up, which the betel chewer will spit out either into a spittoon or else onto the sidewalk.
 "The Day the Weather Broke" was originally published in Burmese in Yok-shin tei-kabyar, June 1990. Translated by Anna J. Allot
 "A Pair of Specs" was originally published in Burmese in Shwe-amyu-te, August 1989. Translated by Anna J. Allott.
 An offering of food to the Buddhist monks on the occasion of a person's birthday, a wedding, or the initiation of a son into the monkhood.
 "The Middle of May" was originally published in Burmese in Anawa, May 1988. Translated by V. J. B.
 One of the main
streets in Mandalay leading from the jetty on the
 "The Children Who Play in the Back Alleyways" has not been previously published as it was not passed by the PSB. Translated by Anna J. Allott.
 0n the day fixed for a person's funeral, monks are invited to the deceased's house where they will preach a sermon to the assembled company-as many monks are invited as the family can afford to offer alms to. The alms may be in the form of a lavish meal, or robes and other necessities, or both. Burmese Buddhists believe that offering alms to monks brings merit to the donor, and they also believe that people can share merit they have acquired with a deceased person by uttering the words ahmya, ahmya ("an equal share"). The more merit a person has at the time of his death and in the seven days that follow, the better his chance of a good rebirth. If he has too little merit, he is likely to be reborn as a ghost or as an animal.
 "The Python" was originally published in Burmese in Tha-ya, June 1988. Translated by V. J. B.
 One Lakh equals 100,000 Kyats
 "Heartless Day" was originally published in Burmese in Myanma Dana, November 1992. Translated by Anna J. Allott and V. J. B.
 Acheik means "wavy" and acheik longyis are longyis with wavy or hook patterns. They are woven in Upper Burma in Amarapura, near Mandalay, and were traditionally worn by royalty. They are still often worn at weddings, especially by older women, and at official functions.
 "Hard Labor" was due to be published in Burmese in Shumawa, August 1990, but was not passed by the PSB. Translated by Anna J. Allott.
 Mohinga, the national dish of Burma, is rice vermicelli in a fish soup. Bowls of it are sold at roadside stalls, or by vendors who carry their cooking apparatus on a bamboo pole slung over their shoulder. It is often taken as breakfast by workers or schoolchildren on their way to work or school.
 Although not explicitly stated, it is clear to the reader that it is a hospital for military families.
 A district in central Rangoon.
 The largest and poorest of the new towns outside Rangoon to which a lot of squatters have been moved by the authorities since 1989. To reach it, it was necessary to cross the Hlaing River by ferry or small row boat although a new bridge is currently under construction
 That is, they were only doing it to try to make a living. One of the outcomes of moving Rangoon's poor to new settlements like Hlaing-tha-ya, where there is little or no industry, has been to increase their costs and traveling time to reach the work places back in Rangoon. The apparently straightforward, but actually rather skilled job of ferrying people across the river in row boats is one of the few employment opportunities available for the unemployed.