Sunday, 16 October 2011


 I long to return to Pagan. 
      I first visited Pagan as a child. However, all that sticks in the memory is that it was hot and I had a good time. It was only when I was in high school that Pagan started to mean something more to me than that.
      We were reading an anthology of poetry in our Burmese class, which included the text by Saya Zawgyi called ‘Pagan Market’. I was enthralled by the text, which compares rich and poor, and says that people who are educated, selfless and looked up to, even though they have no material wealth, should be called ‘the rich who have nothing’, while those who have many possessions but are greedy, uneducated and bullying should be called ‘the poor who have everything’.
      The text continued:
      ‘In the golden land of Paukkan2
      Dotted with pagodas and stairways,
      Crisscrossed with creeks,
      Golden paddy grows
      And Buddhism flourishes’. 
      The text described how Nga Htwe Ru, Lon Let Peh, Nyaung-Oo Shwe Pi and the heir apparent, Kyan Sit Min3, through their leadership, created a country of compassionate citizens and, under the unifying influence of King Anawrahta, made Pagan magnificent and Burma famous throughout the world.
       This text awoke my interest in Pagan, and I decided that I would seize the earliest opportunity to return there. 
      The opportunity to visit the Pagan I had encountered in the pages of the history books and on the silver screen came in 1986. This was the Pagan I knew from my dreams.
      ‘Gautama Buddha is new Buddha. Original Buddha is kneel. Near is no smiling. Wayer is smiling.’
      Mi Mi Kan, one of the children at the pagoda who acted as a guide to foreign tourists was explaining in her broken English about the recently carved Gautama Buddha. The original statue was carved as if kneeling. From close by the Buddha had a calm expression but the statue of from further away, he appeared to be smiling. In Burmese, Mi Mi Kan could reel of the facts like a computer. I felt sorry for her and the other girls like her who I got to know, and wrote about. 4
      I also came across teenage girls like Yee Lwin, struggling to make a living by selling empty condensed milk tins, second hand bric-a-brac and cheroots, or by weaving bamboo matting and making lacquer ware.5 Then there was Mar Cho and the young girls like her, toiling in the hot sun down at the brick kilns on the bank of the Irrawady, earning money to buy food for the family and put their younger brothers and sisters through school.6
      I have recorded the tales of girls like Yee Mon and Chaw Htwe, selling lacquer ware guaranteed to last only a year, made of bamboo instead of cardboard and using a glue made out of neem oil 7 instead of sticky rice. They were not trying to cheat their customers. They were simply catering to those for whom a low price was more important than durability.8
      I also wrote about poor little Aung Nyunt, who had only one set of clothes, his white school shirt and green school longyi. He tried his best in school so that he could escape the fate of his grandfather, who spent his days walking the cow around and around his hand-operated oil-mill.9
      Throughout Pagan I came across signboards written in English, stalls selling items from abroad and antiques which might or might not be what the stall-holder claimed, puppet shops furnished with armchairs and an overhead fan, snatches of conversation in foreign languages, hasty transactions in dollars on the black market. Seeing this, I commented that this 1986 Pagan, this 20th century Pagan, was a Pagan hidden under plaster in which the new generation, led by the village headman and his followers10, had neglected the ancient murals.11 I told myself to stop wishing this could still be 12th century Pagan. It was important to be objective and accept that it was only natural that Pagan would change over time.
      But as a writer at least, I found much to satisfy me in 1986 Pagan. 
      Ever yearning to return to Pagan, I went back there in 1987, but only for a brief visit.
      This time I also met children from beyond Pagan, from Pakokku and Myinmu, dressed in dirty T-shirt and women blanket-sellers who were willing to exchange a blanket for a cheap watch and a hat. I was depressed to see how weak-bodied and weak-willed they were and it depressed me to hear how they addressed the foreign tourists with their hopeful ‘Hello?’s.12
      During my absence I had been thinking about Mi Mi Kan and her smiling face, and had calculated that by now she should be in the second year at school. I was saddened to discover on my return that she was in fact selling gold and to try to read, even if she couldn’t keep on going to school. But it was depressing to see her there.
      Myinkaba village was even more depressing. It had been reduced to heaps of earth and rocks, bamboo guttering, holes in the lacquer and the gilding gone? Were the bamboo frames being diverted to make the props and fencing which held up the walls of the pits where the gold was being panned? There were plain black trays around, but they were for panning gold, not for betel. The hands, which had once inscribed intricate designs of flowers and zodiac signs, rubbing in the red mercuric oxide, were now withered and ruined by daily contact with the mercury used in the gold-panning process. I could do nothing for them.
      I shared some cake and sweets with Daw Amar Sein, Yee Mun and Hla Yee, and exchanged a few pleasantries. I promised that I would come back soon. But I could do nothing more. I wrote the goodwill of the village of Myinkaba.13 I tried to reassure myself by thinking that the kindness of Pagan still existed.
      As for those of my friends whom I didn’t meet this visit, there was nothing I could do for them. I still imagined how they must be doing. Yee Lwin, who was always so shy, would be exhaustedly switching from one job to another to make ends meet. Mar Cho would be checking for gaps in the kiln as she struggled to support her family. Yee Mon and Chaw Htwe would still be knocking up lacquer ware from paper and rice that would last a year, taking no pride in their handiwork. Or perhaps they would be panning for gold. And Aung Nyunt in his white and green school uniform would be working his father’s oil mill. This much I could guess.
      I preferred to recall my last visit in 1986. I had mixed feelings about the Pagan I saw in 1987. 
      In January 1988, I received a letter. ‘Dear Niece, We’re back making lacquer in Myinkaba. There are more tourists this year. Things are looking up.’
      So lacquer ware and Myinkaba were once more re-united! My hands holding the letter trembled with delight. I wanted to return at once, and see Pagan golden once again. I wanted to write again about it, so that everyone in Burma would know what Pagan meant. That was my ambition.
      But I did not make it back to Pagan, and did not have the chance to write - I was not free to do so. Medical school was still open, and I had to attend. I hoped that I would at least get some more letters from Pagan, but none arrived.
      From February to July I waited for another letter. The hospitals stayed open. In April I was sure that one would come. I was disappointed. The schools re-opened in June. I wondered if the children had been able to attend. In July the medical school closed. But still no letter came. And still I couldn’t make it to Pagan.
      I was not free then. We were not free then. I wanted to be free. We all did.
      I stopped thinking about Pagan when august came round. I forgot to write. The struggles of the people of Pagan were being replayed in the streets of Rangoon, but they were twice as bitter and terrible.
      By September, Pagan was barely a distant memory. How could I worry for the children of Pagan, when I was worried for the children of the whole of Burma? They all wanted to be free, just as I did. My mind was with Pagan, and my mind was with the rest of the country. I dreamt of the Pagan of 1986, and even the Pagan of the 12th century. But I had to put aside my dreams of Pagan for the time-being.
      In October I gave up some of my freedom for the sake of our freedom. I was not the only one gripped with nostalgia for 12th century Pagan. There were many others like me. We were intent on not simply being nostalgic. And I was determined that we should do more.
      Then, in November, we were able to revisit Pagan once for a flying visit. Well before we got there, I was itching to arrive. Once we had passed Kyaukpadaung, I took off the scarf, hat and sunglasses I was wearing for the journey. I did not want protection against the sun and wind of Pagan. I was happy to breath in its dust. Our schedule gave us only three hours stopover in Pagan. Hence my desire to taste the merest flavor as soon as possible.
      We passed Mye-ni-aye, Tet-thein and Nyaung-oo hospital. I greeted them as old friends. I saw the neem trees; I opened my mouth wide and gulped in the bitter air of Pagan to refresh my senses. I was contented once more. I was back.
       Pagan welcomed A-ma14, but paid no attention to me. The road from Nyaung-oo to Pagan was lined with 20th century citizens of Pagan. I was happy to see my beloved citizens of Pagan loved freedom, loved A-ma as much as I did. Not one of the crowds was there to see me. But that did not concern me. I could bask in the warmth of their greeting for A-ma. Unlike 1986 and 1987, I did not need to wander the back alleyways of Pagan to meet the people. They were all here, lining our route, here to see A-ma, here to see us into their heads and hearts. This was the Pagan I had hoped to find, a Pagan, which my writings could never capture.
      As luck would have it, I bumped into Mi Mi Kan, once of the ‘rich who have nothing’. Our car had stopped outside the Ananda Pagoda, and I had jumped out oblivious to my companions. I paid my respects quickly to the Buddha and then ran off towards the western moat calling out ‘Mi Mi Kan? Mi Mi Maw? Mi Mi Khaing? Mi Mi Naing? Zaw Gyi? Has anyone see Mi Mi Kan?’
      I hadn’t expected her to be this thin and dark, or her eyes to be so dull. But she was my Mi Mi Kan for all that.
      How are you, Mi Mi?’
      ‘What are you doing nowadays? You’re thinner.’
      ‘What about you? If you’re not going to school, what are you up to? Are you OK? I know I haven’t written, but it’s because I haven’t had the time. I will write, I promise. Is there anything you need? Make sure you look after yourselves and be good. Have you kept my letters?’
      I was babbling away, walking back to the car, holding her hands as I spoke. But she seemed a bit withdrawn.
      She’s panning gold’ said Mi Mi Khaing nonchalantly. I stopped walking, and gripped her hands tight.
      ‘Your car’s leaving….’
      The car was waiting for me. I waved to the children, but none of them waved back. Was it because they had forgotten me? Or was it because they had forgotten everything? My inability to help the children of Pagan left me close to tears. Did they think I had forgotten them?
      I missed Pagan even as I stood there. 
      We paid a short visit to Pakokku after our stopover in Pagan, crossing the Irrawady in a single-decked ferry into which they packed us like sardines. But I was happy nonetheless. I knew I could be happy because the people around me were people who would listen to me, who understood. They wanted to be free as well. I hadn’t known them long, but they were all in the same boat, on the same journey as me, seeking the same truths. During my visit in 1987, I had taken a double-decker ferry to Myinmu feeling like a crow amongst the herons. Now I felt happy, as if I was among peacocks.15
      But I was disappointed not to see any women selling blankets when the ferry pulled up at the jetty in Pakokku, calling out to the herons on board ‘Brother? Blankets!’ in hope of a sale. I had hoped to find out how they were getting on, and have the chance to talk to them.
      We gazed out at the people of Pakokku standing on the jetty with mixed feelings, pleased by the turnout, but concerned about how we would be able to walk through such a large crowd. But I for one felt that if the crowd was so big, my blanket-sellers must be in there somewhere. After all, if they’d been brave enough to walk shoeless with thanakha-smeared cheeks amongst the mocking herons, surely they’d have the guts to step out in a crowd like this, all demanding the right to live freely. I was sure they’d be here somewhere in the crowd as it jostled towards us, holding out garlands of jasmine. But I failed to find them there, and left sadly. 
      The return journey from my 1988 Pagan trip filled me with despondency. I had seen Mi Mi Kan, no longer the young girl in green and white, now a gold-panner, shrunken and dark, like a flower deprived of water. And then there were Yee Lwin, Mar Cho, Yi Mon, Chaw Htwe, Aung Nyunt, A-may Thin and Daw Amar Sein, and the blanket sellers and food vendors of Pakokku. All my ‘rich having nothing’, where were their lives going? And mine as well?
      But I didn’t dare consider this for long. I didn’t have the time. I just hoped that they would be spared the pain of being ‘poor with nothing’ and that I could do something about the rich.   
      A couple of days after I returned from my trip, I received a letter from the children of Pagan:
      ‘Dear Ma Thida, We are writing because we have been thinking about you. We hope you and all your family are well. Mi Mi Kan and her family are well. We are writing on her behalf because she can’t write herself…’
      I wasn’t happy to hear that. As far as I knew, she’d been in the second form when I’d visited in 1987. It looked as though she’d dropped out of school in 1988 and starting gold panning to earn some pieces of silver. Couldn’t you even stay long enough to learn how to write? Was it so long ago that you were in school? My friends and I had to leave our school for a while reluctantly, but you were kept away from school for long time.
      Maybe having nothing meant learning nothing. Or forgetting everything. But there was more to it than that. Mi Mi Kan may not have been materially rich, but she had a good character and morals, she was generous and content. So she was rich, despite having nothing.
      ‘We were all so happy to see you the other day…’
      I felt depressed to read those lines. I could not even summon up the energy to correct the spelling mistakes.
      ‘I think it was last August when the tourists stopped coming, and business was bad, that was when we had to start panning gold with the others. The rice price was going sky high, to 24 kyats a pyi, and because there are a lot of us at home, we couldn’t afford anything more than boiled rice, and later not even that, just boiled maize seed’.
      I couldn’t carry on reading because my eyes were filled up with tears and my legs felt like jelly. We were busy at the time, going here and there from dawn to dusk, making our parents’ crossed-eyed, but at least we could still afford to eat, or even go out to a restaurant and share a dish with a couple of friends. Unlike the children of Pagan.
      ‘We were depressed by that, but after your group came and left, the price started to fall a bit, and now it’s getting better. We’re starting to see more tourists arriving, so don’t worry about us’.
      But I want to worry about you children. All the children. The ones who have only one set of clothes, their school uniform, and who have to stop selling gold leaf and start panning gold, the ones who are reduced to eating maize seed instead of rice, who smile when we visit Pagan as if they are happy, but who are so much in need.
      And what about the children of the people in the delta who don’t even enough paddy for this year, let alone seeds for the next? And the fishermen in Tenasserim whose fish stocks are disappearing fast, leaving them alone with nothing but water? And the people who live near the borders, shan, K ayah, Karen, Mon, Burman and Rakhine, living under the omnipresent threat of forced porterage and labor? And the public sector employees in the town who, because of their dependence on a paltry salary, must sign away their freedom to speak or to listen? The students, their parents and their teachers who are deprived of a true education? Those seeking freedom but are forced into stricter and stricter confines?
      Let me feel for them - for them, and for my fellow writers who are unable to express what they are seeing and feeling.
      My dear children! I failed to come and see you in Pagan. I failed to write about your current lives. I am so sorry for that failure. Please forgive me.
      I hope that we will meet again, but only when we have true freedom. We must all got to work together to bring freedom to all those who want it in Burma today.
      I mean it, children. I miss Pagan. 
      I had been longing for Pagan since the beginning of the year. But I knew that I could do no more than long for it, for I had to work hard to get rice on my plate.
      During the 1989 monsoon, I met Pagan Maung Maung, a photographer who knew Mi Mi Khaing. We only spoke briefly.
      ‘How are they, the children? And Pagan? I want to go back, but I can’t afford to. I wish I could do more, but I can’t write about it.’
      ‘You should come back, come and visit, and write about us. Nothing much has changed. Most of the children still aren’t going to school. The gold panning’s not up to much. Lacquer ware isn’t doing as well s it used to. There’s no paddy grown locally, and the oil price is the same as on the open market. What else? You’ll have to come and see for yourself. A few things are unusual. For instance, we had a death from malnutrition the other day, a starvation funeral’
      So that was Pagan- 1989. I got the picture. I understood what was happening. I wished I could go and see for myself. I longed for Pagan.
      But I would go there, maybe in 1990, maybe in 1991. I knew that by hook or by crook, I would set foot once again on the soil of Pagan. I should not waste my time longing for Pagan. I would be back some day. 
      I long for Pagan.
      In 1986 I told myself that it was pointless to continue to wishing for the return of 12th century Pagan. I regret that now.
      In 1987, I called Pagan the ‘Golden Land of Kindness’. I no longer see it that way either.
      For me, Pagan is now the Pagan of 1988 and 1989, a Pagan of bad times. I feel for that Pagan.
      I truly long to Pagan for “those poor who have everything.” 
        “In ancient Pagan
      Under good King Anawrahta
      The Burmese were adorned with jewels
      It was a sight to be proud.” 
      I long to return to that Pagan.
 Ma Thida (Sanchaung)
Written 27.2.89 to 16.7.89, but never submitted for publication in Burma on the ground that it would not have received permission. But it was published in Amerasia journal, UCLA in January 2003. That was also translated to Catalan and published in PEN Catalan’s periodical.
This was translated by Ko Sein Kyaw Hlaing and polished by Vicky Bowman.

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