Burmese Lessons: Excerpt
In a quiet street near Sule Pagoda, a woman smiles at me for no reason. I smile back and stop walking. She whispers to the little boy playing on the ground between us. He hops forward and takes my hand, pulling me up the steps past his mother (his aunt? a neighbour?) toward the entrance of a narrow cement building.
At the threshold he stops. I stop, too, and crane my neck to look inside. Surrounded by flowers, the Buddha sits at the back of the small dark room. Gazing up at me inquiringly, the boy does a little faux bow, suggesting I bow also.
Why not? I slip off my shoes to enter the candle-lit place, then kneel and genuflect three times. The woman and child and a few other children stand behind me, framed in the doorway. After I bow, the little boy claps his hands. The others laugh with real pleasure. At the boy? Or at me? Or with delight that I am willing to pay homage to the Buddha? The boy, then two little girls, then two more boys and a toddler come barefoot into the room, sidling against each other in shyness. I think I’ve happened upon the neighbourhood shrine for children. Soon there are a dozen kids clustered around me in the candlelight. As flowers surround the Buddha, I am encircled by thin brown limbs, open faces, an assortment of wide or cautious smiles.
Thus I learn my destiny. I will never leave this city. I will return to this street and find a house here and adopt children as beautiful as these ones, or as beautiful as these spirits, it doesn’t matter if they have cleft palates and missing limbs, I will love them, I will live here until I die. The small Buddha smiles and smiles out of his cowl of jasmine and marigold; his eyes are half-closed, like a newborn drunk with milk. As is the custom, I light more incense, a candle, and bow again. The room is small, the air close and cloying, filled with the sweetness of joss sticks and flowers and candle wax. I wipe trickles of sweat away from my nose, my chin, my neck.
What are their names? I do not know.
How do you say What is your name? in Burmese? I will learn that soon, maybe this afternoon, or tomorrow.
My knees and elbows touch the children; the children put their hard little hands into my hands. One small girl climbs into my lap, pure affection, but the others tease her. She quickly tumbles off my crossed knees, embarrassed. Pyramids of oranges and apples sit before the Enlightened One, along with cups of bright yellow liquid, and an elaborate, gold-edged tea set, each cup full of tea. Yet the Buddha never drinks. A dozen children and two women stare at me as my eyes adjust to the dim light. Just behind me, in the street, sunlight pours down the hot cement steps. But I am in another world now.
A heavy lady with tattoos on her arms and a wad of betel in her mouth squeezes into the cramped room; somehow there is more space to accommodate her. That is the nature of life in Asia, there is always more space. She places a glass of the fluorescent yellow liquid before me and urges me to drink. I take a small sip. She smiles. The stuff is very thick, sweet, and cold. Three of the older children bow again, three times, to the shrine. Then they back away, out of the house.
A few minutes later, they return with a tray of food separated into lacquered black bowls: deep-fried nuts and beans, roasted sesame seeds, pickled tea-leaf. A tiny silver spoon matches each portion. The tattooed lady hands me a checkered napkin. The room becomes even darker as the entrance crowds with neighbours who’ve come to meet the unexpected visitor. An earnest boy who wears very large, heavy-framed glasses—owl eyes, the kind I used to wear, too--leans into the room and asks in the most pure-water English, “Excuse me, Miss, hello, are you a Buddhist?"
“Not really. But when I was a teenager, I lived with a Buddhist family.”
He opens his eyes very wide. “In Burma?”
“No. In Thailand.”
“Oh, I see, I see.” This is a voice, an inflection, from another era, colonial, English, a time when white women in high-waisted dresses held handkerchiefs to their damp brows, and sipped the iced tea and lemon brought to them by boys like this clever one who asks me, “Did you like to live with Buddhists?”
I reply, “I did. Very much. It was a long time ago, when I was just a little older than you.”
“And Buddhism remains with you.” A flawless sentence, and true.
“Yes. I loved my Thai family. And the Buddha believed in peace,” I add. There is an irony, mentioning peace in Rangoon. Yet when he turns to translate, I hear only sincerity in his voice.
Our listeners murmur approval, or at least interest. The tattooed lady lays a soft, shiny hand on my inner arm. “Hla-deh,” she says. I echo, “Hla-deh,” in response, trying the word out. All the children laugh. I turn to each of them and say this word, which elicits giggles, shrieks, downcast eyes from the older girls. They hide their faces behind each other’s shoulders.
Keen to make conversation, but also shy, the earnest bespectacled young man says over the children’s black heads, “Please excuse my broken English. I study only one.” He corrects himself immediately, “I study alone.”
“But you speak English very well. Please excuse my broken Burmese.”
He smiles, translates for the benefit of the neighbours. Then he excuses himself. “I am going to fetch my best friend. He would like to meet you. He is a teacher.”
The boy is gone and another woman enters, beautifully dressed in a lavender blouse and purple sarong. First she genuflects before the Buddha, lights more incense, a candle. Then she turns and bestows upon me a radiant smile. Speaks. I don’t understand a word. After a moment of peering quizzically at my face, she rises, and disappears into the back of the house. For this is a house, a family dwelling; only its small, open-to-the-street sitting room serves as a shrine.
She returns with a round pallet of stone, a thick stick of wood. It must be thanakha. The people, especially the women, wear it as a kind of powder, to absorb sweat, to protect their skin from the sun. Ground into a paste, it has a faintly sweet fragrance and a texture like fine wet clay. I wonder if it has healing properties; former political prisoners on the Thai border told me about using the paste on their scabies and insect bites while incarcerated. Men don’t wear it in an obviously cosmetic manner, as women do, but every man was once a small boy, and his mother smeared the delicate cream on his bare skin before he went outside to play.
Now the woman splashes the smooth stone pallet with water. She pushes the heel of her hand against the soft wood; there is already an ivory wedge opened in the bark at the base of the stick. She rubs the thanaka against the stone in slow circles, adding more water every few seconds until the ground wood have become a creamy paste. We watch her silently, almost solemnly, though she is smiling. It’s a simple, daily thing, something all the women do, but it becomes the first ritual of my arrival, a ceremony attended to by children, women, the Buddha himself, glowing there, half-smothered in jasmine and yellow flowers. The woman mimes putting the paste on her own face, then gestures at me, at my cheeks, asking if it’s all right. I smile; she smoothes the hair away from my face. Her fingers are soft and cool. The intimacy of the act makes my chest tighten. The stranger, in whose home I am sitting, with food and drink spread out before me, touches my face. Without design, or lust, or craving. Just thanaka: to share beauty.
She pats the wet stone, then touches me again, smearing the mixture on one cheek, then another. She makes two spiralling circles. Then sits back on her bare heels to look at her work. Touches the stone again and draws another ivory line down the centre of my nose. “Hla-deh! Hla-deh!” The aspirated h at the beginning of the word makes the word soft, a breath, though the first syllable has a bright, rising tone.
I point, with my chin, at her. “May-May hla-deh!” May-May means mother. My voice elicits more laughter from the children, the women, the lady of thanakha, the boy in large glasses, who is back, I see when I turn around, with his friend and a few more neighbours. They all stand at the entrance to the house-shrine, peering in. The woman with tattoos claps her hands.
This is my first day in Burma, my first two hours in Rangoon.
Hla-deh is the first lesson the people give me. It is the word for beautiful.
* * *
Here is Chinatown, with its blue and green buildings, wooden shutters and elegant roofs, looking very romantic and old in the gold-leaf of dusk. The paint on the buildings is new, thin and lime-based, making the white-washing both literal and figurative. The State Peace and Development Council recently decreed it for all the buildings of Rangoon. Not so long ago, the SPDC also forcibly moved entire communities of the city’s poorest people into primitive shanty towns on the periphery of the city so that foreign visitors like myself are not burdened with the sight of them.
But even if all the poor people were still here, I would not be able to see them, because darkness is falling quickly, as it does in the tropics, and falling hard, as it does in Rangoon, because none of the streetlights on these streets are working. I take a moment to get my bearings and consult my map, which happens to have several errors on it. That is, if I’m reading it correctly. Soon I am rushing around in the dark, flustered and big-eyed and without composure, approaching and retreating from the wrong pools of light and people, my glasses slipping down my nose.
But I do find my dinner party, finally, when San Aung sees a woman stumbling by on the broken pavement and calls out, “Miss Karen,” accent on the second syllable, Ka-REN, like the ethnic group that has been at war with the Burmese military for half a century. I approach the table, smiling and sweating in equal measure as I greet everyone, a dozen or so dinner guests, gathered together by San Aung, who is not in his fifties at all but is a good-looking man of perhaps thirty-five with high cheekbones in a long Indian face. With his gorgeous head of gleaming hair and his immaculate clothes, he looks like a movie star. He is wearing a pale blue pinstripe shirt and a dark blue longyi; both seem to have been lifted off an ironing board five minutes ago. He shakes my hand three times, then lets go and turns to introduce me to the others, giving me condensed biographies as we make our way around the table of mostly Burmese writers. But a lawyer is also here, and a history professor who works at the Japanese embassy (the pay is much better, the university is in shambles), a burly ship’s captain who loves Gorky—he announces this immediately, as an intellectual credential—a woman who collects Burmese folktales, and a Swedish journalist, Anita. Even though she’s sitting down I can tell that she is very tall.
Plates of food are already arriving, heaps of greens and noodles and two whole fishes. And a pile of twisted glistening stuff: very possibly a platter of silver worms. The ship’s captain and a very rotund poet make a place for me between them and once I’m seated the momentary introductory quiet closes up with voices again, like steady waves after a lull. Deep streams of Burmese--ochre and copper and deep red--rush around me, and English (angular and green) strides out into the air, directed to Anita, the journalist, to myself, and to a man I’d assumed was part of the local contingent but who is, in fact, Johnny, a Filipino photographer employed by Time magazine.
Everyone is talking about books and writers, passing the names back and forth like gem dealers handling sapphires, rubies, emeralds, marvelling at the riches. Though at the mention of Tolstoy and Anna Karenina, San Aung pushes out his delectably full bottom lip in contempuous-Frenchman style and huffs, “But it was too much, all those characters. I couldn’t keep them straight. There were too many of them at the beginning and too many at the end.” He laughs. “I did not read the middle, but I’m sure it was the same problem.”
The ship’s captain, clearly a great admirer of the old Russian writers, is scandalized. “But that is how Tolstoy . . .” he looks right at me, open-mouthed, searching for the word on my white face; apparently he finds it. “That is how Tolstoy recreates the world,” he says. “He fills his books with people. All the people of the real world are on the pages, living and talking. Yes, there are many of them: when you read his books, he takes you to his Russia. That is why he is so great. And Gorky, too, all the different kinds of people live in his work, not just one class or another class.”
He keeps talking, describing some minor female character in Anna Karenina (a book I couldn’t finish, impatient as I was with all the characters) with an intriguing mixture of passion and delicacy, as though he once had an affair with her but would never be so crass as to come out and tell us that.
I think I must have got it wrong. Is he really a ship’s captain? He talks like a professor.
I tell him, “Listening to you makes me want to be a writer.”
He replies with great seriousness, “You already are a writer. How fortunate!”
“But writing is hard work. And lonely. There may be a lot of characters in a story or a book, but the writer is always alone with them.” I look around the table. “And it’s too much work, not enough money.”
My fellow writers at the table nod their agreement. But I know that none of them are spoiled as I am spoiled: by early success, by government grants, by the notion that a writer might actually make a living from her work, and, most extraordinarily, most abundantly, by freedom. Yet still I complain. In Burma! It’s disgusting.
But true. Lately I’ve found my enthusiasm for my calling on the wane, partly because I know I’m stuck with it. Most of my life will be spent in a room in front of a computer, tapping out the visions in my head, reworking scrawls from my notebooks. This notion once filled me with unparalleled delight. Now it just makes me want to get out of the room and meet someone for a drink—preferably someone who looks like San Aung.
I look around the table at the other animated faces. Tall Anita is flushed, the tip of her nose is red; did she eat a chili? The folktale collector is talking across the table to the lawyer, who nods and grunts every few sentences (ah, I know it well, the Asian male grunt: so expressive, so full of feeling!) to show her that he’s listening. He is also staring, as I am, at the woman’s plump mauve mouth. I wonder if she is married. Or if he is? Possibly they are married to each other.
Good travel is like good reading; you go inside a new world and cannot resist it. This will implicate me, I think, chopsticking a load of delicious oily noodles into my mouth. I love eating with strangers. Nothing but sex brings people together so quickly; dining is usually more friendly and lasts longer. People are still chatting, but the steaming fish has displaced the miracle of Tolstoy. Under a gloss of sweet sauce and dark skin is delicious white flesh, fat flakes of it without too many bones.
The poet spoons a tangle of worms onto my plate. “Excuse me,” he says, his voice reminiscent of Tom Waits’, a rough engine idling the vocal cords. “This is the custom. You have not taste this yet. Delicious. We make sure you eat. I still do this for my daughter.” He means placing the finest morsels of food on her plate, feeding her. When he smiles, his narrow eyes sink into folds of heavy eyelid. He has great bulldog jowls, too, a wide lumpy nose, and a few dribbles of a previous meal staining his shirt. He smells like a tea-shop during the early morning rush: earthy and smoky and surprisingly sweet, as though he had an Indian pastry in his breast pocket. Which in fact he may have: there is something lumpy in there. He has not stopped smoking his cheroot since I arrived. Many Burmese people are beautiful. If not truly endowed with good looks, they have the straight-backed slender grace that passes as beauty. Therefore it is refreshing, even reassuring, to meet this man.
“I’m very sorry, but can you tell me your name again?”
“I am Tin Moe,” he answers. And now I recognize him. Sayagyi Tin Moe, the famous, beloved poet laureate of Burma, imprisoned for five years because of his writings and his support for the National League for Democracy, the political party headed by Aung San Suu Kyi. He was on a list of imprisoned Burmese writers that PEN published a couple of years ago; Ma Thida, a young woman writer, was on the same list. Tin Moe was released; Ma Thida is still in prison.
“It’s so good to meet you, U Tin Moe. I’m honoured to be sitting with people who love books so much. And with such a famous poet! I didn’t expect to be so lucky on my first trip to Burma.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you. It is our pleasure.” He motions toward my plate with his chin. “Your eels will be cold, Miss Karen. Please eat them.”
“Those are eels?”
The captain, who has been listening to every word, interjects, “Babies.”
“Really?” Poor things! But baby eels are easier to consider than worms. Trying not to look cautious, I take a mouthful and chew: they are salty, faintly crab-like, and sublime.
My fellow diners have started talking about writers again: Havel, Kundera, Faulkner, have I read them, and do I like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and why, and who else have I read, who is my favourite writer? Someone makes the joke that Marquez, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, was competing with Tolstoy for the greatest number of characters, to which San Aung responds sharply, “That’s another novel I could not read, life is too short.” Then he asks my opinion about several Swedish authors whose works I’ve never read and I admit that I’ve never read them instead of pretending I have.
When the waiter brings new dishes, of prawns, a broccoli-like green stir-fried with garlic and ginger, and spicy eggplant, new discussions arise with the fragrant steam. We eat and talk, turning to each other as we swallow, laughing often, over many comments and turns in the conversation, our voices grower louder and louder until Sayagyi Tin Moe says, “It’s very good, to talk about all these books, these writers.” Laughter is still trailing out of his mouth, his eyes are shining. “But this talk makes me think of all the books that Burmese people cannot read.” He heaves a big sigh and leans forward to pick up his cheroot again. He scrabbles in his breast pockets for a lighter. “So many of our own books are banned now. Many names cannot be printed. Her name. No one is allowed to publish her name.”
The table has fallen silent and we attend him, respectfully, knowing who the unnamed woman is. His time in prison had as much to do with his unequivocal support of Aung San Suu Kyi as it did with his writing.
“Did you know,” he turns to me, “that each new book a writer produces here must be copied out four times and given to four different censors? For a Burmese writer, that is a great expense. Then each censor puts lines through any offending passages. After that, the manuscript has to be rewritten without those passages. This is not the way any normal writer likes to write. It's the way the censors like to write. One of my friends, a very popular novelist, not a political writer, had to write her last book five times. It almost drove her crazy. But she had to do it. She wants to write her books. She doesn’t want to go to jail and get tuberculosis.”
“Like Ma Thida,” I say quietly.
“Do you know her?”
“I know of her. One of the reasons I’ve come here is to find out more about her. I do some work for a group in Canada that has made Ma Thida an honorary member, and we’re lobbying the Burmese government for her release.”
“No; PEN Canada. It’s an international organization. I’m a member of the Canadian chapter.”
“Ah, yes,” someone says, “They support U Win Tin also.” U Win Tin was detained at the same time as Suu Kyi began her house arrest. His sentence was recently extended because he had made an attempt to inform the U.N. about the appalling conditions of Burmese prisons.**
“Ma Thida and I worked together,” says the old poet. “She is like a daughter to me. She’s a dear woman, and a fine writer.”
“Do you know much about her situation?”
“The tuberculosis is under control. She has access to medical attention.. But she also has some . . . I don’t know, some female problems. I’m not sure. She suffers with that but she is doing a lot of meditation. For many hours a day, meditating, that is how she survives in the prison.”
“Vipassana meditation,” clarifies the folktale collector. “That is how Buddhism helps many political prisoners.” She lowers her voice. “While the Lady was under house-arrest, she used to sit vipassana every day, for some hours. Do you ever meditate?”
“I try. But I’m not very good at it.”
She laughs. “That’s normal. We need to practice every day, or it remains very difficult. Sometimes I go into retreat at a monastery near Mandalay, and by the end of two weeks, I start to feel calm!”
Sayagyi Tin Moe gives a dragonish snort. “By the end of twenty years, you would be very, very calm.”
“No,” says the woman reflectively. “I think I would be insane.”
“Insane in Insein,” intones San Aung in a jokey voice. Insein is the name of the prison where many political prisoners are held, including Ma Thida.
Sayagyi Tin Moe says, “If you are a writer in this country, going to Insein is an occupational hazard.
“I am not allowed to publish anymore, not even magazine articles. My old poems are in the schoolbooks but my books are banned.” He looks across the table, and says something to the folktale woman, who breathes a few words, very quietly, a consolation or a whispered condemnation, I don’t know. It’s not the moment to ask for a translation. Everyone at our table is silent, as though in a show of respect to all the banned words and writers, which throws the noise of the street and the voices of the other diners into sharp relief, the ongoing clatter of plates and cutlery, the hum of gaslights and music playing nearby.
Suddenly the poet lifts his hands up like an orchestra conductor. “Keep talking! Talk, talk.” He raises his voice. “It is a good thing to do. We can still talk!” Then he has such an energetic coughing fit that he has to put down his cheroot. After recovering, he lifts up the dark green cigar until it is directly in front of him, and whispers, “My good friend.” Then to me, “It is like a companion. The tea shop, the cheroot, and the writing. They go together.”
“It’s like that in Canada, too. And Greece. Writers love to smoke and drink.”
“An international brotherhood,” remarks the lawyer.
“And sisterhood,” adds the folktale collector with her mauve smile.
Sayagyi Tin Moe turns his big head to me and asks, “Will you write a book about our country?”
Memorably, I answer, “Uh . . . I’m not sure. I’m . . .” How to dodge the question with some grace? “Right now, I am still reading books about your country. I have so much to learn.”
Now the tea arrives, and plates of fruit. The end of the evening has come, but the lawyer asks me about Noam Chomsky, which in turn leads to a discussion about the failures of democracy, and how those failures are preferable to the bloodier failures of dictatorship. As the tables around us empty, we’re talking about art. Anita describes the beauty of the Musee D’Orsay (her long hands in the air like white sculpture) and Sayagyi Tin Moe invites us to a gallery opening. San Aung says he knows a group of painters, and asks if I would I like to meet them. The fruit is finished and we are drowsy—the old poet has nodded off, twice, snoring so loudly that he wakes himself up again--but still hungry for more information, more news, more evidence of the ongoing life of the world, and how their own country, how they themselves, are connected to that world, the realm of freely-circulated ideas and books and newspapers and technologies. Freely circulating people, in fact—Anita and Johnny and myself bring the worlds we live in with us. In an isolated place like Burma, this kind of meeting is also communion that vivifies, renews, the way colour comes as a glorious, mind-sparking pleasure after weeks in the monochromatic ward of a hospital.
The boys who clean and stack the night tables are swishing rags over the wood and cracked formica and sluicing the dirty water down the gutters. Our party cannot stretch the evening any further, we need to sleep. No, no, the folktale collector says, shaking her head theatrically and pressing my hand, you must not walk back to your guesthouse, San Aung will see you home, he has a car.
Goodbye, goodbye. We turn to each other with a curious mixture of formality and friendliness, not quite bowing but almost, smiling, too, laughter igniting without reason, just the punchiness of being so tired, so pleased with the company. Now-mak dwei-may, I say, which brings another laugh, the colloquialism comical in the mouth of someone who cannot speak the language, See you later. The poet shakes my hand and whispers in his gurgling-over-gravel voice, “Very quickly you will learn Burmese. That will help you.”
“Help me what?”
“Write the book.”
months later, in a jungle camp on the Thai side of the Thai-Burma border
During the next week, I visit briefly with Maung and his colleagues over lunch or dinner; we spend one long afternoon in the radio operations hut. With a copy of Gorky’s My Universities in hand, I learn about how far the signals reach, how often the operators are able to listen in on SLORC radio communications, how SLORC sometimes decodes their signal and listens in on them. Sometimes the two sides find themselves on the same wavelength and talk and swear at each other.
During these comradely visits, I inwardly congratulate myself on my maturity. During meals, Maung and I occasionally slip off a flip-flop and touch our feet together under the table. What a thrill. It seems we are engaged in a chaste, public courtship for the benefit of his comrades, for the military camp itself. It is natural, in this world, that my behaviour will determine their approval of me. They are a family, after all, formed and bonded through experiences I can only imagine, no matter how much I may know of the details. Part of me strongly rejects the notion that I need to be approved of; that I need to satisfy an entire group’s requirements in order to show my love for their ipso facto leader.
I remind myself that if I were a Burmese woman, I probably would be more accepting, more patient--qualities that are valued in every Theravadan Buddhist culture. Women are expected not to just exhibit those traits but to embody them. I pride myself on my ability to adapt but in fact this pride is false: I don’t like adapting when it means acting out some kind of charade. I don’t like adapting to celibacy when my lover and I have been apart for two months already. On several of these hot afternoons, I daydream longingly, traitorously, of Greece. I wish I could teleport myself out of this bamboo camp to the edge of the Aegean, blue water spread out, waiting to be entered by men and women who live more easily in a conjoined realm of body and heart.
What a load of romantic crap! But I indulge in it as I sip my warm water and wonder when constipation becomes a serious problem. (It’s been two days since I’ve had a meaningful visit to the stinky latrine.) Romantic crap or not, the extrovert’s tendency to intertwine emotion and body works well in Greece, land of loud talkers, big huggers, passionate hand-wavers.
I shake my drowsy head back and forth. Snap out of it. I’m not on the edge of the Aegean. I’m on the edge of Burma, with cheroot smoke in my nose, in my mouth. Why not? An information officer offers me one and tamp down the tobacco and snap off the end like I’ve been doing it all my life. We light up and smoke as he shows me a few snapshots of his battalion’s first few months in the jungle. He explains how the populations of the camps become part of the smaller dissident populations in the cities. Individuals move from one camp to another, from camp to town or city, from city back to camp, bringing books, mail, supplies, job assignments, and news.
Though he never states it directly, I understand there is a slow drain of people out of the jungle. As the SLORC buys more weapons, swells its ranks continually with young destitute soldiers, keeps troops near the border into the rainy season—which traditionally has been a period of détente—the ABSDF armed battalions grow smaller, more worn-out. Without more new recruits, without any chance of victory through armed struggle, it’s hard to keep a guerilla force alive.
Beside the the soldiers fighting in the jungle and the undercover agents sent back into Burma, ABSDF’s other powerful battalion consists of people whose weapons are made of words. They are information officers, public relations people, historical record keepers clipping and sorting and keeping notes for Burma’s unofficial history. It is a curious thing, to enter a small house in a dusty Thai town and discover dozens of metal bookshelves sagging with carefully labelled files. Political events. Business deals. Overt and subtle shifts in the regime’s chain of command. The names of the dead. The missing. The presumed dead. The names of the imprisoned. Records that no one inside the country can keep. The men and women who build the files and fill the metal shelves believe that someday there will be a place in Burma for the truth they have so carefully preserved.
I am conscious, too, that there will be a time when a few of the men and women I’ve met here will write about their experiences. Khaing Lin still composes poetry, sometimes, in the evening, and occasionally jots down her thoughts on her life here, as it is now, as it was before she left her country. “But I am often tired, you know. There is . . . how do you call it, when something is missing?”
“Yes, but another word. A lock. A lock on inspiration?”
“A lack! You mean a lack of. A lock is on a door, to keep it closed.”
“Hmm. The lack of, yes. But also the lock on. I would like to write but it is hard. When I was in Rangoon before the strikes and nothing ever happened to me, I wrote pages and pages. Now so much happens, but it is painful to write, and tiring. Sometimes too hard.” She physically shakes herself—her head, her shoulders, even her arms loosen and lift off her lap as she attempts to rid herself of the difficulty.
Though it is impossible to shake. I spend long hours with Khaing Lin, December, the other women and children in the camp. Each bird-filled green morning burns into a silent, hazy afternoon, the heat so thick it’s hard to breathe, especially when the water-boiling fires are going. During these hours, of sweat and thirst and physical discomfort, I repeat to myself: almost ten years in the jungle. I consider living this way for one. Could I do it for one year? Doubtful. I think of the rainy season. This far north the cold season would be bone-chillingly damp. Every morning, I stretch my aching back and hips, wondering how long it takes to get used to sleeping on bamboo. A decade? I don’t have that long.
One of the hardest things is the smallest, the most trifling.
We have to haul the water up from the stream. All right. I do this task on the sly, otherwise Khaing Lin refuses to let me have the buckets, saying a guest shouldn’t have to haul water. Frankly, no one should have to haul water up that fucking hill. The first times I attempted to ascend the kicked-in steps with the full buckets, I fell on my ass—twice. I lost so much water that I had to go back down to the stream and refill. But it’s not the hauling or even the falling that bother me so much.
It’s the drinking water. The stream water has to be boiled long and hard. In this heat, 40 to 45 degree celsius, the water never cools. I don’t like freezing cold water; I don’t need ice. But it’s dispiriting to drink bath temperature water when you are sweating and thirsty at midday.
As our cauldron comes to the boil, I offhandedly mention this to Aye Aye, trying to frame it as an observation.
She laughs at me. “You are suffering with the hot water. Oh, me, too. We are used to it but it is still bad. I went to Chiang Mai a couple months ago. With December. She was scared of ice cream! She didn’t know anything could be so cold. It is a strange life in the jungle.”
“Do you ever wonder what might have happened if you had stayed in Burma? Do you think it might be better?”
“You mean more easy?”
Is that what I’m asking? I nod.
“But inside Burma the people are less free. If you want to do political work, even if you don’t go to prison, you are a prisoner. The country is still closed, though tourists can visit. I might have been sent back to prison if I had stayed.”
“You were in prison?”
“Not for so long. Just two years.”
Just two. Only two. “I didn’t know.” A bolt of shame drills up through my chest and into my throat. I can’t say a word in response. I am such a suck!
“Decembaa!” Khaing Lin jumps up and grabs the little girl, who is too close to the fire. She reprimands her sternly, then sends her off to play. “I worry she will fall into the fire. Aie! What a disaster, so far from a hospital.”
Danger aside, cooking on the open fires is a time-consuming, physically draining task, like washing clothes by hand. Those clothes, I discover, also include the rags women use during
“That’s the way it is in the jungle.” Khaing Lin shrugs. “Simple living.” We’re washing clothes in the stream, which runs shallow at the edges, as streams will, and deep in the centre, where we bathe in the evenings. Mid-morning, it’s already too hot; we sprinkle our faces and heads with water. Thump-thump, thump-thump-thump: bunched cloth beaten against flat stone, fistful after fistful. When Khaing Lin sees my ochre and black sarong with its design of peacock-like birds, she takes the material in her hands and examines the unprinted side. “It’s from Burma, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. I bought it in Rangoon.”
“At a big market?”
“No. Just a little shop on the street near my guesthouse. A tailor. But he had some nice material. His wife sewed the waist for me.”
She looks carefully at the broad tube of black fabric at the top of the sarong. “It’s very well-done. Two stitches, everything sewn inside.”
“Yes. I forgot the word” She hands the cloth back to me. “We all need new clothes. We get clothes from the charities. From Europe, from the United States. Sometimes very nice. Sometimes . . .” Her voice trails off delicately.
“Sometimes,” I venture, “unbelievably ugly! So ugly no one wants to wear them, I bet.”
Her eyes flash mischieviously. “You are very naughty.”
“I’m just honest!”
“Naughty.” For good measure, she says it in Burmese, too, and shakes her head.
For a while we wash in silence. Even though we’ve wet our hair, our heads are baking under the sun. But it’s lovely down here, by the water. Light refracts shreds of rainbow through the spray. We squint as we talk, raising our voices above the squelch from wet t-shirts and longyis.
“It’s hard work,” I say, and stretch my back.
“Yes. I like it though. I love to have the clean clothes.” She dunks a lime-green shirt into the water, lifts it up and down, wrings it out. “That was my most difficult thing, with living in the prison. So dirty. We never had enough water for washing. There are more bugs in prison than in the jungle.”
“Where were you?”
“Insein. When I got out, I knew I couldn’t stay in Burma. I was too angry. I was a strike organizer at the university. When the MI picked me up, they wanted to know all the student union names I knew. Four different groups of men interrogated me, tortured me over two weeks.”
The most common form of torture in Burma’s prisons is the beating. I have heard so many different kinds of beatings described to me, in such careful detail, that I sometimes dream of them. I am in the cell, watching, unable to say anything, unable to stop what happens.
But such a dream is not really a dream. It is an invisible truth made visible by the imagination.
Beatings with the fists, with boots, with sticks, with leather belts. Beatings standing up, beatings squatting down naked with hands clasped behind the head. Beatings tied or handcuffed to a chair. Beatings until the individual's face and body are bruised and swollen beyond recognition. Beatings until the kidneys or the liver or the spleen or the intestine are irreparably damaged; beatings that cause permanent paralysis. Beatings with a black hood over the head. As though the victim in the interrogation cell, through her actions and her voice, has become her own executioner.
Khaing Lin wore such a hood through several days of torture. It made everything worse, which was the point. The water flows past us, murmuring. I look at the long-limbed trees; their blade-like green leaves point to the red mud. Her words are sometimes inaudible, drawn away by the water. “Eventually, I told them. The names of the other students.” She is still ashamed. “But they had those names already. So they kept torturing me.”
They didn’t care about the names. I’ve learned that through my other interviews. This is a fact I wish I did not know. I would like to believe that people are tortured to some purpose. A purpose would not make the torture less criminal, but it would make it nominally less senseless. I would like it to be more like a Hollywood film, where the hero, through his brave silence, keeps safe the secret formula, or the secret name, or the secret whereabouts of the treasure.
But in the real world of interrogation, there is rarely a secret. The acquisition of information is almost never the point. In the drama of torture, confession resembles the climax, but it is not the climax. The drama affirms only one resolution, the same one it begins with: that the regime will use absolute violence to wield absolute power. The individual represents her whole society. What can be done to that sentient representation, the human being? She can be eaten, cut, electrocuted, prodded, forced, forced against herself so that, finally, there is no language left, only moaning, weeping, crying out. Then silence.
Forged through brutality, through destruction of flesh and spirit, the climax is silence.
Khaing Lin stares at her hands under the water.
We sit beside the stones black with wetness, electric blue and ochre and lime-green whorls of fabric piled beside us. We’re so far away from that time. Yet it is here, in her voice, in her lit eyes. “What they do is unbelievable. But you have to believe it, don't you?
“They hit me on the very top of the head. Over and over, until they got tired. Then someone else would come. They did it softly at first, like water torture, then harder and harder, until I was about to fall down. But I was not allowed to fall down. Eventually, I lost my consciousness. After I can’t remember what happened. There is a hole. In my memory.” She taps her head and barks out a strange high-pitched laugh. “A hole in my head!”
We look at each other for a long moment. Then we both turn our heads at the faint sound of a voice from downstream. But no one is there. It’s just the water, talking. Khaing Lin does that distinctive body-wave again, head, arms, long slender torso as though she is shaking herself out like a carpet. Then she pulls another piece of longyi through the funnel of her fist and begins to pound the cloth against her stone.
And returned to Bangkok:
At the end of the day, tens of thousands of parasites are munching away in the back of my neck, in the major arteries in my thighs, in the veins in my hands. I slowly get dressed and go outside, carrying with me a plastic bag, because I’m not sure how much longer I can keep myself from throwing up. There are two kinds of people in this world: those who can abide vomitting, and those who cannot. I belong to the latter tribe. Swallowing, I step into the elevator. Swallowing, I step out. I don’t have the strength to walk down the soi and catch a real cab on Phaholyothin, so one of the motorcycle boys gives me a lift to the Tropical Diseases Hospital. I see nothing of the near-accidents and mad weavings; my head rests heavily between his red-vested shoulderblades.
Soon enough I enter a waiting room full of sick people on wooden benches and plastic chairs. Rather than being depressed by this familiar scene, I’m happy to be among fellow sufferers, out of my empty room. Most of the folks here don’t look as poor or as dejected as the ones in the Mae Sarieng community hospital.
A young male attendant takes me to someone who pricks my skin with a needle, and ushers me back to my bench.
Either I doze for half an hour or the results come fast. A commandeering female voice barks out my name. I approach the desk, behind which sits a stalwart nurse with an old-fashioned nurse’s cap mysteriously affixed, as though by glue, to her bouffant hairdo. She glares up at me over her reading glasses. “Go back home.” She sounds annoyed, as if I’m faking it and wasting her time when she could be helping real sick people.
In eloquent response, my lower lip trembles. I am so raw with illness and the unexpected gut-wrench of self-pity that I only want to lie down on a hospital bed and have a nurse—a gentle, loving one, not this sergeant-major—bring me water and pat my hand.
She sees how upset I am and softens her tone by a quarter of a degree. “Whatever is making you sick, we don’t know. Dengue fever? Maybe. Malaria?” She raises her splayed hands in that seemingly universal gesture of ‘who knows?’ “There’s not enough of it in your blood yet. Mai pen lai. Go back home and come here again when you are sicker. We need more parasites.” I should have listened to Maung and waited until tomorrow.
The next morning the paracetamol doesn’t seem to be controlling the fever very well, and nothing controls the chills. I take three more tablets and look at the clock. Ten. My temperature is 104.
At four in the afternoon, sicker, nauseated, and newly afflicted with diarrhea, I return to the hospital on the back of another motorcycle-taxi. What am I thinking? I am thinking that it’s much faster to get there on a motorcycle; all I want to do is arrive and be placed in a hospital bed.
Once more the blood test shows nothing conclusive. “Have you thrown up yet?” the sergeant-major nurse asks.
“I hate throwing up.”
Her eyes needle me. Pursed lips convey her thoughts: Not only are you faking it, but you are also a brat. “Come back tomorrow, after you puke.” I don’t think to check myself in and get sicker in the hospital. I don’t even know if that’s an option. It’s not a hotel. I return to the apartment, where I keep a bucket by my head.
I shiver under the blanket and towel; I burn in my underwear on the cool parquet floor. The rising throb of invasion marches into my joints and muscles, lays siege to the viscera behind my eyeballs. It occurs to me that this is how dying begins. Gruff Tennyson spat out the words, “This is how our children die.” Ah, yes, I remember now. This is the disease of the border. This suffering is the ritual, the rite of passage, that should marry me to the cause as effectively as a wedding.
I cry for a long time, for myself and beyond myself, for the people who have described their small roles in Burma’s history, their immensely painful stories from the camps and the prisons and the interrogation centres. Why do I know these stories? Why do I know how the world becomes inverted, wrong, transforms into hell, less and more than hell, because hell implies some awesome rendering of justice whereas the tortured students, the terrorized villages, the starving slave porters are savaged for . . . what? To what purpose, the regime’s twin addiction to violent power and greed?
I cry because I have learned not only the horror of evil but also its oppressive stupidity, the sheer waste, the way it takes promise, intelligence, youth, all human rightness and possibility and destroys them—consciously—tears them apart and swallows them down like Saturn devouring his children. What can I wield against such a force? Scratches on paper. My good intentions are laughable. Such powerlessness makes me angry, and beyond my anger is despair, a grief that cracks open my ribcage and pins me to the bed.
It’s the same feeling I had on the phone with Maung, but managed to swallow down. It has returned in full force. I can’t howl, because I’m too sick, but finally I permit myself the relief of weeping, the freedom of being sad. What is inside me? A fracture, from my left shoulder across my chest. Invisible traces of Burma and the border. Parasites the doctors cannot see.
Is this not what I wanted, what I have always craved, to be transformed? The change I sought when I first went to Burma is complete. It is an irrevocable alteration: the fever has seared something into me, burned something out. She is gone, the one who could go forth so easily, so readily, wishing to enter another world and opening herself to it completely, like a door or a flower.