Sunday, 16 October 2011


‘I can’t believe how much toothpaste you just put on that brush! There’s almost nothing left in the tube.’
      ‘That’s because you have to use a lot of this Chinese toothpaste to have any effect. If you bought us Burmese Pepsodent we’d only have to put half as much on.’
      ‘I don’t buy it because it’s too expensive. Particularly, when you waste it like that. From now on, don’t use so much, OK?
      ‘But Mu-um, we’ll end up with bad breath.’
      ‘In my day, we were taught that speaking the truth was the best breath-freshener of all. It makes your mouth smell a lotus flower. In your grandfather’s day, we brushed our teeth with charcoal powder, salt and a twig. We always had fresh breath and our teeth never went bad.’
      I know I shouldn’t jump in but I can’t help myself. My grandchildren get very cross with me when I open my big mouth. But if there are things I see that I don’t like, I tend to speak my mind. I do try to hold my tongue. But I was getting sick of my daughter squabbling with the children just then. It seems to have shut them up. My daughter’s gone back to her cooking and my grandson is cleaning his teeth.
      I prefer Pepsodent myself. The flavor and the strength of it are better than that Chinese Fuhayana Yagao stuff. But it’s not for me to say. My daughter’s in charge of the house now. It’s up to her how she runs it. There was a time when she depended on me. Not any more though. I’m the dependent one now. She tells me ‘Daddy, don’t use the Burmese Hmway soap for washing. Can’t you use the Chinese Hungari soap?’ So I switch. If she says I’ve got to eat bean curry and fried fish, who am I to argue? She’s in charge. I’ve just got to adapt.
      The trouble is, this flat is so small. It’s not that I necessarily want to go back to having the space I used to have in the house in Moulmein. But I would like a bit more room to breathe. We’re up on the third floor, and it takes time to climb the stairs, so I haven’t been able to take walks since I arrived in Rangoon. I’ve had to get used to sitting out on the verandah on my father’s old rocking chair. From up here, all the people and their cars look very small. I can’t make out any detail because my eyesight’s not so good any more. The verandah is on a mezzanine above that.
      So because we’re so high up, I end up and cooped up in here day in day out, either wandering about the flat or sitting out on the rocking chair, gazing into thin air and thinking. My father handed down this rocking chair to me. It must be about eighty years old. My daughter and my grandchildren tell me the whole flat looks like an antique shop.
      The front of the flat by the Buddha altar for example, has as embroidered cloth that’s drapes over the altar that’s about sixty years old. I made it myself. And the kerosene lamp with its glass cover on the next shelf down must be about seventy years old. I’m always telling my grandchildren that they should take more care of these things and respect them. After all, they’re antiques, three or four years older than them.
      Nonetheless, one of my grandchildren has already broken one of the lamps. They never take care of them; they just don’t understand how valuable they are. And their so-called apologies just add insult to injury. They go on and on: ‘Oh Grandpa, why are you getting so upset about an old lamp, which doesn’t even give out any light? Don’t get so worked up about it.’ Is that meant to soothe me?
      If you come into the parlor, you’ll see two wall-clocks. The first is particularly unusual because it has Burmese numbers on the face instead of English ones. I often wonder if it’s the only one in the world. It’s always been my favorite, ever since I was little. I was very upset when the face was ruined during the Japanese occupation. It was after my father died and I was distraught and half-wondering if it was a sign that I didn’t deserve to inherit his possessions. Then I had an idea. I got an aluminum saucepan lid from the kitchen and cut out a circle and marked it out with a compass and painted on the numbers on the dial with a couple of tins of gold and silver paint I bought down the market.
      I realize that it’s looking a bit shabby now and the chimes don’t sound as good as the clock my son-in-law bought. I know the dial’s ugly, and I keep on have to repair the pendulum because it sticks. I enjoy doing it. It requires a lot of concentration. But it irritates the rest of them. They can’t see why I bother, considering we’ve got another clock, which works. They just don’t understand.
      There’s a saying ‘Anything that breaks can be fixed.’ But my daughter’s family can’t bother to fix things. They’re too lazy. They aren’t interested in looking after the things, which their great- grandfather has handed down. That’s where we differ. In my family, we always took care of the possessions and traditions, which had been handed down to us. For example, in my day, we played with toys, model trains, airplanes, tables, chairs, ships, tape recorders and record players, dolls and tea-sets which had all been handed down through the generations. They were all looked after well until they reached my grandchildren who have destroyed them.
      If I say that to them, though, they make all kinds of excuses about how toys are meant to be broken, and how they’ll be doing a favor to the next generation because they’ll get given new ones, which are better. They never admit they’re done anything wrong. And it’s not just me they’re disrespectful to. They’re just as rude to their parents.
      I’m amazed by the behavior of my oldest grandson. He’s even been known to ask me if he can borrow my Red Dragon cheroot to light his Chinese Min Lee cigarette. In the house! In front of his father! I’ve read enough foreign books to know about things like rights and freedoms but I think that my grandchildren could do with learning how to behave. For example, they should remember that knowing is one thing, but seeing is another. I wouldn’t encourage them to smoke even in private, but I certainly draw the line at the boy blowing smoke in his father’s while he’s talking to him. He’s not the only one though. For example, I’ve seen father and son sitting together drinking Chinese whisky. I know what goes on. But I shouldn’t get upset about it, really. After all, they feed and clothe me and house me and when I’m sick they send me to the doctor. If he prescribes drugs, they buy me Indian or Chinese medicines. And once a week or so they slip twenty-five or fifty kyats into the pocket of my Chinese flannel shirt. My daughter clearly doesn’t think she needs to ask my permission before she does something. She just tells me about it afterwards. After all, she’s the boss. I’m just the old man sleeping on a mat in the room with the altar.
      Ah, here comes my granddaughter. She’s carrying some paper and a biro and a ruler. She probably wants me to draw up her timetable. I enjoy doing sketches and copying designs and advertisements. They know that, and that’s why they often ask me to put their names on their exercise books. This one likes to get me to do a neat version of her rough timetable. Sometimes I get so caught up in drawing maps or pictures of Maha Bandoola or illustrated manuscripts that I wonder where the day has gone. It takes a while, particularly if I add color. They always want me to add color.
      This one’s forever changing her homework timetable every other day. She pins them all up on the wall by her bed. There’re layers on layers of them building up. But it’s not often that I see her doing any homework. She goes to school, and then comes home and goes to tuition and comes home and goes to bed. It must be because of that she keeps changing her timetable. But she never takes the old ones down, even though she doesn’t follow them. She just keeps putting one on top of another.
      ‘Grandpa? What are you thinking about? Are you asleep?’
      ‘Would you do this for me? Will you make it look nice? MY red biro’s run out and I’ve only got blue and black. Will you buy me another one?’
      ‘Well … how much is it?’
      ‘Air France is six kyats, Horse is five kyats, and China is three kyats.’
      ‘In my day, we had Myawadi ball pens.’
      ‘Yes, yes, Grandpa. Now can I buy one?’
      ‘OK, here’s three kyats, go and get a red one.’
      She snatches the three kyats from my hand and ran out of the room without replying, other than to say ‘Make it look nice, won’t you? I pick up the timetable she’s left behind, thinking to myself how I’ll have to tell her once again when she gets back that all this redrawing he timetable is pointless and is just a waste of time and ink and paper unless she makes a timetable she can stick to. I know what she’s going to say though. ‘Grandpa, those old timetable are no good any more. I can’t use one, which is no good. I want to start again with a new idea. I’m the one who has the ideas. Your job is to put them down on paper and make them look pretty. My job is to plan the timetable- and maybe study too if I find the time. She’s always so obstinate.
      Anyway, there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m just the grandfather around here. I should do my best to love them like I love their mother. If this is what they want me to do, so be it. After all, it’s not exactly exhausting work drawing out timetables, even if it does take me all day. It’s a sort of meditation. It helps me put my mind at rest. At least it keeps me under control.
      ‘Grandpa, I’ve brought you a red pen.’
      She hands me a red China biro. Since I can’t meditate1 in front of the altar, I’d better concentrate my mind on coloring in the red bits on her timetable.
 Ma Thida (Sanchaung)
1988, August, Youq-shin-amyu-te magazine,
This is a tale of Burma’s increasing economic dependence on China as cheap Chinese goods flood Burma’s markets, to the distress of many Burmese.
                                                   This was translated by Sein Kyaw Hlaing and polished by Vicky Bowman.

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