Sunday, 16 October 2011

1. Earth

When we are away from the earth (the land) - flying in an airplane, or sailing in the middle of the ocean – what is longed for most is the earth. Indeed, being far from the land brings such insecurity.
We may compare ourselves with a frog for whom the whole world is the pond. For us, the earth is our whole universe. The earth is our security, our shelter, our haven. It gives us everything we need. 
For how long, and since when have we been on such intimate terms with the earth? We could say it has been since we first lived on earth. We stood on the earth, we walked on the earth and we lived on the earth. Moreover, we talked about the earth; we still talk about the earth and will continue. We call the earth, mother. 
Of the earth we will not run out of words to say. 
Tales of the Mother 
We first heard tales of the earth told by our mother while we were in her chest.
We heard the tale of the earth-mouse. We remembered the story of the female earth-mouse who went looking the universe over for a suitable husband, only to come back down to earth to marry an earth-mouse. She became, for us children, a patriotic earth-mouse. 
We heard the story of the fox, in Myanmar term called “earth-dog”. The one typical characteristic of the earth-dog is its cunning. By its cunning, it could catch the deer. It could even deceive the king of the jungle, the tiger. Growing up we all heard the saying, sour grapes. It too reflects the cunning of the earth-dog, the fox. We also accepted the earth-dog as the one who neglected the earth’s patience and forgiveness.
We heard the story of the two brothers, Byatwi and Byatta, who, after eating the alchemist Zawgyi’s human shell, came to possess superhuman powers of flying through the air and going deep underground and coming out again. At first we were in awe of their superhuman powers. But at the end of story the king, who thought they would threaten his throne one day, killed them. Then our interest in those powers was buried deep under the earth. 
The earth might sometimes take the role of the avenging angel or the punisher. Look at the story of Devadat, the Buddhist’s brother-in-law. We heard how many times he tried to kill the Buddha. He was a symbol of disloyalty, dishonesty, brutality and ingratitude. In the end even the all-forgiving earth could not bear him and swallowed him up and sent him to hell.
These are the stories our mother told us. There were many stories of wrong-doers whom even the all-forgiving earth could not bear and punished.
Tales of the Teacher 
From the mother’s bed-time stories to the teacher’s school-time stories, we heard about the earth.  
Consider the proverb: When two buffaloes fight, it is the earth-bound grass that suffers. It depicts the consequences of the wars between the great powers and the suffering of the people who are caught in between. There is also the saying: The orchid, that proud flower that blooms so high upon other trees is but a parasite that sucks the earth’s nutrients through the tree trunk. And then there’s also the earth-worm, who lives upon the earth, eats the earth, and vomits the earth back upon the earth. What would you call that? Would we say, fidelity?
According to the history we learned, there were also slaves of the earth who worked the ground like cattle. The rich landowners drove the poor slaves in herds. There is a saying: The cattle will be spared only if the tiger has pity. That is the kind of fate in store for the slaves of the earth.
We also heard phrases like earth tax, water tax, and human tax. As secondary school student, we thought that the kings were so greedy to collect this tax money as though they could own the earth, land and water.
Even though we terminated imperialism, there was colonialism. We sacrificed our lives for many years to win back our independence. Drawing a country’s map couldn’t compare to protecting its independence. For me, drawing our country’s map was like honoring a duty to it.
Time comes when one outgrows the tales of the mother and the teacher. We go out into the world. We see how different the real world is from the world of stories. Look at the example the earth-mouse. Very few love stories in real life end this way. We discover that the world is dominated by cunning foxes who grow richer and more powerful every day.
There are many people like the brothers Byatwi and Byatta. They were destroyed by their intimidating strength. People like Devadat walk freely on the earth. Where is the earth from our story? Where is the avenging earth? Even though I am ever unsure about the ability of the earth, I want now to subtly pull open the earth to swallow people who are like fox and Devadat.
There is very little the earth-bound grass, and very few earthworms. But buffaloes still to fight on the earth-bound grass. Some earthworms no more vomit the exact amount of earth as they are.  
And there are many like the orchid in our surroundings. They are always proud of their bearing. The orchid, though a parasite, makes the tree beautiful. But those people who are like the orchid always neglect the other’s existence.
There is no slavery now. But there are still masters and slaves. There are those carpet baggers who make profit by exploiting the needs and misfortunes of the people.  
I don’t need to draw a map now. But I am learning that some millionaires have very short roadmap to get to this point; some who fight for a piece of land end up with a space in the earth as a tomb; and, some ever use the fruits of the earth but never take care of the earth. 
We still remember a lesson from elementary geography that taught us only one fourth of the surface of the earth is land and the rest is water.
If this is so, the earth (the land) must be very small indeed. But for me, the earth is still the whole world, the island, the haven, life in its entirety. Being on the earth still brings me a sense of security. For those who have never seen the earth from outer space, or flown, or sailed, the earth is still the whole world. What would we call that? Would we call that feeling ego? A narrow kind of ego? 
I would love that kind of ego and might call it as the love upon the earth.
 Ma Thida (Sanchaung)
1988, July, Thabin magazine
That was translated by Dr Khin Maung Win, edited by author herself and polished by Janine Oshiro.

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