Monday, May 18, 2020

Ma Thein Shin – Chapter (6)

(Direct translation of late Naing Win Swe’s “Ma Thein Shin Si Pote Pay Bar”.)

(On 6 January 1966 General Ne Win’s Revolutionary Socialist Government in Burma foolishly prohibited the civilian populace from transporting, storing, distributing, and trading of 460 basic commodities including the staples such as rice, peanut-oil, and salt. Farmers and producers were forced to sell their produce only to the government which rationed everything to people through so-called people shops. Commerce died suddenly and black markets thrived and widespread starvation started killing people. Hta-nyet (jaggery) was one of those restricted commodities and a large scale smuggling trade of Hta-nyet had developed overnight in Middle Burma where most of it is produced.)

Winter 1969

Late winter days had arrived and in the heavy dawn mist the train appeared to be struggling by carrying a seemingly heavy load. The snowy cloud were now covering the faraway western mountain ranges.

Train was on the return trip from Kyauk-pa-daung and the setting sun was almost dying once the train reached Shew-lin-ban Station. I was sitting beside Nyo Nyo and doing the cash accounts of my one day work at the same time wondering what Nyo Nyo was thinking about deeply in her innocent mind.

Without her telling me I could correctly guess her ongoing day-to-day troubles. The worries from deep inside of her were plainly showing up on her little round face. In last few days her little face was visibly becoming paler and paler as her money troubles mounted over time. Usual brightness in her eyes was nearly gone. She wouldn’t laugh as before when her friends were laughing. She even stopped talking to them as her unhappy mind had weakened her outer appearance.

On the trains she just stared out the windows as if she was withdrawing from the life. Her fading red shirt was fraying at the edges. I could feel her eyes filled with tears even when I was just seeing her back. Without expensive coconut oil her long hairs were now untidy and flying all over in the wind as the coconut oil prices went up ten times last year alone.

She sometime put cheaper peanut oil in her hairs and tired to stay away from me so that I would not smell the whiff of horrible peanut oil from her hairs. She was ashamed of peanut oil from her hair but she still put it in her hairs.

Her mother’s asthma had been getting worse over the years and without any medicine her incessant coughing was becoming unbearable for the whole little family especially at nights. While sitting beside her I could imagine her sad thoughts streaming I her little mind.

“I want to buy a medicine for mother. But where is the money for medicine coming from? If money would come down like rain it’ll be great!” She might be wondering?

“A small bottle of medicine would cost me five kyats at least. Mother is so horribly thin now. Last night she was coughing the whole night. She was so exhausted from the coughs I had to massage her chest. There is no flesh on her chest, where are they gone, just skin on bones? Without medicine she could die any time soon.” Her mind might be full of worries for her dying mother.

“Somewhere not far from our village, I heard, people were starving they had to dig up the wild roots to eat. And some fell down the hole, they said, and they were so weak they couldn’t climb back out and died there. Horrible way to die like that!” She might also be thinking about the horrible bad luck fallen upon other starving people.

She might also be wondering, “Mother will die sooner than later the way she is now, I think. Anyway people die all the time and maybe dead is better than suffering. But I don’t believe mother wants to die yet. Just this morning when I left home she was looking up from her bed at me as if she had confidence in me and I would bring back her medicine tonight. She even said last night that I should carry four or five viss of Hta-nyet which would give me at least four or five kyats. Enough for one course of medicine for her. I need to buy text books for brother too. And we have no kerosene left to light.”

“But if I carry Hta-nyet I will have to give in to their dirty demands. I could end up a loose girl or even a whore. Smuggling is a bad job. Even now people are looking at us girls working on the trains like we are bad girls. Being a smuggler I could end up in Hell also. In eight layers of hell I could be burned in boiling oil…… oh… if Hell is close I could get some oil from there and sell it in Taung-dwin-gyi. No….. I could get arrested for that…. Cooking oil also is a restricted good,” She seemed to be drifting hopeless in her nightmarish thoughts.

Once the train left Myo-Thit the reddish disk of sun had disappeared. And darkness of night appeared. During those days seeing her was like seeing a sad painting. I felt like I couldn’t even breath sitting beside her. She and me were now connected through an invisible string through which her sufferings were affecting me.

In early days whenever she innocently smiled the little blue sapphires in her earrings dangling over her dimples shook and sparkled. But later her sufferings had stopped her from smiling like before and the little gem stones seemed to be faded. Then one day the earrings disappeared from her ears. She was finally forced to sell her last piece of jewellery.

That day her face was not as bright as before and her smiles had completely disappeared. But I could sense the sudden relief of heavy emotional load she’d been carrying for a long time for she managed to by medicine for her sick mother and textbooks for her kid brother.

When I finally managed to sit beside her after all my train duties she smiled at me and asked me to read the description on the medicine bottles, “These are Moulmein-U-Shwe-Kyay medicine bottles, hopefully these are genuine. Mother was taking them from the beginning till she was forced to stop. I bought ten bottles and got some discount. Can you please read it for me. My little brother could read, but not too well. Read it slowly so that I could remember. You are always boasting about how fast you can read. Okay, read it slowly please.”

While I was reading the description on the bottle she moved closer to me and paid serious attention. If she wasn’t so clear about some words she asked me to repeat it again. The smiles on her sandalwood-paste covered cheeks then were sweet and bright. But those smiles wouldn’t last too long, I’m afraid.

“My pineapples are bringing me only about three four kyats a day. How can we live on that little money? What do I do now. Worrying about living day-to-day is just tiring. I’d better not think about it.”

I was not looking forward to worsening days on the train but the days finally came. Every morning once the train left Nyanug-Do I sat down with them for lunch. Knowing the rice she brought along for us was out of her meager earnings I couldn’t swallow it well, even though I also bought more expensive dishes to go with her rice.

Later when her rice became mixed-broken-rice I deliberately not mentioned it to her. The worse day was when she ran out of even the broken-rice. She also basically ignored me let alone smiled at me while eating. I knew something was wrong when she started untying the rice package slowly. Inside was broken rice mixed with corn and split-pea instead of usual white rice. What poor people called three-colored-rice. There were a few green chilly instead of a usual meat dish.

She didn’t even raise her head while eating the so-called three-colored-rice. Then she bit a whole chilly to hide the tears in her eyes and said, “Oh, too hot!” Looking at her sad face I suddenly remembered the novels I read of the starvation and hunger. I thought about the characters from Jack London’s “The People Of The Abyss.” Then I realized those books were written not just as a good read but letting us know the real injustice and cruelty of human societies.

I picked up a big chilli and bit it, “Oh, too hot!” The tears came into my eyes also. But she seemed worse as she started crying. I just would like to tell her, “It doesn’t matter anymore, if you really want to carry Hta-nyet, please do it. Only about five viss a trip.”

There was no way out. But I still couldn’t block my troubled mind from worrying that she could end up like other girls and become a ruined girl with life worse than a whore. I looked at the faces of Thin Thin and Nu Nu sitting and eating with us. I knew the sad fact that they were forced to sleep with at least fifty police and custom officers since they started carrying that lucrative and profitable Hta-Nyet on this train.

In my mind their faces were mixed with the faces of other Hta-nyet smuggling girls like Ma Aye Thwe, Tin Tin, Ma Aye Myint, and Ma Aye Shwe. I now felt like they were the crying People Of The Abyss.

(Prominent Burmese writer and poet Naing Win Swe (1940-1995) was killed in a jungle on Thai Border in 1995 by Burmese Army after he took to the jungle in the aftermath of failed 8-8-88 Uprising.

The legend is that, as he lay dead on the battleground his comrades picked wild flowers and covered his remains with the flowers before they retreated as they didn’t have enough time to bury him.

This fictionalized semi-autobiographical novel vividly depicts the utter sufferings of a society under the brutal Socialist System as both the rulers and the ruled become the hapless victims of that Evil Ideology called Socialism where State Controls almost everything and People Starve.)

Ma Thein Shin – Chapter 7