Sunday, 16 October 2011

5. NEW LEAVES SHOULD NOT BE RIPPED BY THORNS

   ‘Shan state’s cherry-blossom covered hills
      Are happy home to many races.
      Shan and Kachin, Mon and Kayah
      All gather there with smiling faces.’ 
      The melodious sound of the children singing ‘Happy Home’ drifted out of the white-washed brick church and into the surrounding air. Ah-tar had never heard the song before. But she could see that they were all joining in together, even though some voices were faint and some made no sound at all.
      The children started the song afresh. They were showing no signs of flagging, unlike Ah-tar, who was exhausted just listening to them. Some were sitting on the floor, some kneeling, some squatting, some sitting with their legs out in front of them, some cross-legged, some unsteady on their wobbly legs, some supporting themselves on crutches. Ah-tar looked on compassionately. Then, when she saw one child had a white cotton bandage wrapped around her eyes, she realized that not all of them might be able to see her.
      ‘This child can’t walk. He’s had polio.’
      The sister picked the boy up, holding him under his armpits to show his weak legs. Ah-tar recalled the various things she had been taught in medical school about testing tensile strength, tissues, reflexes and so on. But she was out of practice17, and could do nothing to help the poor child.
      ‘Perhaps he would get better if he was given physiotherapy. If he practices walking regularly, his legs should get stronger.’
      When she heard Ma Suu’s suggestion, the sister flashed a faint smile. Ah-tar did not want or need to hear the sister’ answer. Ah-tar knew that whatever the sister said, it could not hide the fact that they were in an orphanage, a ‘Happy Home’, on Ye-aye-kwin hill in Taunggyi.
      ‘A doctor used to come and examine them once a month. This one’s nine. He’s been like this since he was born.’
      Another poor little girl was brought to them. She was a sweet little thing, about three years old, with wide eyed and a swollen chest.
      ‘Do you get tired easily little one? Do you get a tight chest or a fever?’
      ‘Thinn Thinnn, answer the lady.’
      The little girl didn’t reply, so the sister answered for her. She often got tired, she said, and breathless. Phrases like Tetralogy of Fallot were hidden in the dim distant recesses of Ah-tar’s mind but she guessed that the child had got congenital heart disease with a weakness of the four chambers of the heart. If that was the case, Thinnn Thinn should undergo an operation. All they needed to do was take her to a pediatrician at Taunggyi Hospital.
      These two are twins. This is the oldest. We’re not sure if he has eyes because his eyelids are always shut. The younger one’s OK though. These two over here are blind too. There are eight boys in their family, three of them here, five at home. The third’s eyesight isn’t too good either.
      ‘Who are the parents?’
      ‘They live in Hopong Township. They’re very poor.’
      The sister was expecting all of Ah-tar’s questions, but she nonetheless took great care in answering them fully. Ah-tar felt sad when she heard the answers: ‘eight brothers’… ‘parents very poor’  .. ‘three of them live here’ … ‘two of them are blind’  .. ‘the other one can’t see too well’. Thoughts raced through her mind. Clearly they weren’t orphans.
      Instead, they had been abandoned by their parents, pushed out of the family nest, and denied the warmth; attention and tender loving care which the other five children were receiving. Was it because they were handicapped? What had they done to deserve this? Why were the children and their parents so poor? What had they done in their former lives? And what would these children do once they were older? How would they survive? How had they come here in the first place? She had so many questions she wanted to ask, so many thoughts racing around her head, but the tears were welling up in her throat and her sorrow made her silent.
      ‘This one’s blind too. She helps look after the children and does the cooking.’
      ‘Well aren’t you clever! And how are you today?’ Ma Ma Suu clasped the blind woman’s hands close to her chest and greeted her warmly.
      ‘I’m well. How are you, friend?’
      ‘You mustn’t call the lady ‘friend’.’
      ‘Of course she can.’
      ‘Friend’. Ah-tar had traveled with Ma Ma Suu on many trips. Most of the people who came along on the trips, and the people that they met on the way referred to her as ‘Ma Ma Suu’, ‘Aunty Suu’, ‘Daw Daw Suu’, or simply ‘suu’. The sister had felt uncomfortable and tried to stop the blind woman from calling Ma Ma Suu ‘Friend’ but Ma Ma was not in the least bit bothered. Ah-tar wanted to tell the sister that it was OK. This blind woman did not know who Ma Suu was. She called everyone who showered kindness on her ‘ Friend’. And why not? It was a beautiful term for all the friends that this woman had, even though she did not know their faces.
      ‘These two help out with the children and the cooking as well.’ The two ladies smiled proudly. One was a hunchback.
      ‘This one’s from Hopong too. He can break firewood using his feet.’
      The man was well built and sturdy but his arms were unusually short.
      ‘Did your mother ever mention anything to you when you were little, for example, that she took strong medicine when she was pregnant with you?
      ‘Why, Ah-tar, do you think this is a Thalidomide case?’
      The man shook his head. She realized it was a highly unlikely explanation. After all, where would you get medicines like that in a place like this?
      ‘His father died when he was young, and his mother got cerebral malaria and went crazy. But there’s nothing wrong with him.’
      ‘Oh…I see.’
      The sister pointed out another little boy to Ah-tar. He was a sweet little thing, with a thin layer of thanaka18 on his face. Again, there was nothing wrong with this little boy except that his parents were very poor and, once again, it was this which had brought him to the orphanage.
      ‘This one is a bit backward for his age.’
      In this case it was the child, and not the parents, who had the mental problems. But as with the rest, he had ended up abandoned here at the orphanage.
      ‘This one is blind too, but he can sing and play the guitar quite well. He wants to sing you a song he wrote about his life.’
      The man sat on a deck chair with his head bowed low over a hollow guitar. He was about the same age as Ah-tar. He began to pluck the guitar strings and then to sing quietly in a tremulous voice: 
      ‘As I walk alone in life
      I think about my family.
      I’ll never see my mother again,
      Nor my father, nor my brother.
      That thought makes me sad. 
      Father, where are you now?
      I want to see your face.
      Mother, please come back to me.
      When your letter came
      I cried and cried. 
      So I walk alone today
      The entire world forgets me.
      I wish I had some parents
      To wipe away my tears. 
      Father, where are you now?
      I want to see your face.
      Mother, please come back to me.’ 
      There was a lump in Ah-tar’ throat and the tears rolled down her cheeks. Her lips were trembling, and she could not muster a sound. She didn’t need to hear any more, or ask any questions. The man’s song ‘Father, where are you now?’, ‘Mother, please come back to me’ painted as full a picture as she needed of life in the orphanage.
      ‘Ah-tar, it’s getting late. We’d better make a donation and then get going.’
      Ma Ma Suu sighed as she spoke. They were both choked up with emotion at what they had seen. Ah-tar nodded and they walked out to the front of the building through the children, the orphans, the abandoned, the disabled and retarded. It was not their fault that they had ended up here. Their parents were poor, or sick, or insane. But it was the children who ended up neglected and deprived of love, living in this orphanage, hoping that someone would become their parents.
      Ah-tar felt deep sorrow for the children. While it might be the parents or the children who had the financial or physical or mental problems, it was always the children who suffered. There is a saying ‘A leaf gets torn whether it falls on the thorn or the thorn falls on it’. In this instance, the thorns had fallen. The young leaves. The young children were innocent. They had committed no crime. But there were still thorns- poverty, sickness, incapacity- that ripped them apart. If places like this orphanage did not exist, who would take responsibility for them and prevent them from being homeless? 
      ‘Thank you, thank you
      To our friends who take care of us.
      We wish you good health and happiness
      And that we’ll all meet again.’ 
      The children’s farewell rhymes followed them out. They wished them well, with heartfelt goodwill.
      The evening sun was low and falling behind the range of hills. The hunchback woman took Ah-tar’s hand and shook it warmly.
      ‘Do come back won’t you if you’re in the area? We’ll be waiting.’
      ‘I won’t wait until I’m in the area. I’ll be back before then.’
      It was a heartfelt promise. As the song went ‘We’ll meet again…’
      Ah-tar offered up a little prayer on behalf of all children, that they should not be abandoned in an orphanage despite having committed no sin. ‘May they never be punished for sins which they did not commit.’19
 
Dedicated to my fellow Shans whom we met on the White Pagoda in Taunggyi, 23-2-1989.
 
 Ma Thida (Sanchaung)
Published in Youq-shin-amyu-te magazine in June 1989. This story is totally based on the real event that happened during the campaign trip of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in February 1989. Writer traveled along with her. Only the ending is added while writing the story.
This was translated by Sein Kyaw Hlaing and polished by Vicky Bowman

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