Whenever summer school vacation and Thadingyut1 come around, I longed to visit Ko2 Khant’s village.
After all, when I was a schoolboy I always went there during holidays.
His village was not that different from other villages of Myanmar but because of my friend Ko Khant, his village was vastly superior. Even in the blistering heat of summer he could make me laugh; he would tell me wonderful stories.
He was just an ordinary-looking, rough countryman but he had a dignity about him and a pleasing expression. He was friendly and had a great sense of humor. Everyone in the village liked him: they called him Elder Brother Khant or Younger Brother Khant as the case may be. He was a confirmed bachelor and as he was the oldest unmarried man he became the unofficial leader of the young lads of the village3. Up to the age of forty at this time of writing, he lived with his widowed mother. He would sometimes say,
“Mother would tell me that as a single guy I should be out having fun, so I had to go out but actually I’m no young buck, even my eyesight is going!”
He and I would loiter on the lane the village girls pass to fetch water, just to watch the pretty ones. He would tease all of them, calling ‘younger sister’ or ‘niece’ according to age. None of them minded; they would joke right back or smile and cut their eyes at him. What a lot of girls he knew! How lucky, I would think in envy. But not all girls were nice to him.
“You, watch out now,” one girl would say to him on sight.
“Hey, what’s up, girl? Should I just tell everything to everyone in the village, eh?”
At his reply she would get madder.
“You dare! You just dare! I’ll get ya!”
She was the only one who looked daggers at him, this young Ma Hla Aye, niece of U Thudaw, the Head of Ten Households4. I became curious as to why Ko Khant, loved by all, should be on such bad terms with this girl. When I asked him, he just chuckled sheepishly and refused to answer: “Aw, you don’t want to know.”
That only piqued my interest.
“C’mon, Elder Brother Khant, lets hear some enlightening words.”
He would keep on laughing slyly.
“It’s nothing, boy, I don’t want to tell you. One word will unravel the whole thing.”
‘What whole thing? Please, please, tell me. Let me in on the secret.”
He still refused to say anything but kept laughing as we walked on. I kept begging him so much that he finally said,
“Oh, well, if you want to know so badly I suppose I’d have to break my promise and tell you.”
He paused to light his pipe and then we both sat down under the shade of Thabye trees growing in a circle.
“It happened last Water Festival, y’know,” he began.
He gave a few puffs on his pipe. I waited patiently.
“So, during the festivals as you know all the villagers went to the masteries to fast and keep the Buddhist precepts. Some mediated, some counted pray beads so no one’s really left in the village. We, y’know, us lads, we’d go from one monastery to the other as if we were deeply religious but we’d eat from the monks and the donors, and then we’d choose a shady spot to take a nice long nap after stuffing ourselves.
“Well, last year, Mother went off to the monastery early so I cooked and brought over her lunch. Afterwards, I felt too lazy to lug the lunch box back home so I thought I’d just nap at the rest house at the monastery. But I couldn’t sleep with all these people around so I thought I would borrow a smooth mat from the monk and take it to a shady spot to sleep. When he saw me the monk thought I had come to keep the fast and first he was happy about it but not when I asked for a mat He said to me, he said, so you’re going to sleep like the dead, hey? No hope there, you go and sit and count prayer beads. If I saw you asleep I’d thrash you.
Well! What could I do? I said I wanted to but had forgotten my own beads at home so could I borrow his?
“He gave it willingly, quite pleased that I was being good. So what if I couldn’t get the mat? I was not about to make him mad enough to thrash me, so just I took the prayer beads and slipped them around my neck and walked away. I had to find a spot far from the monastery; if that monk saw me sleeping he would thrash me, he’s known me since I was a kid and I wasn’t about to risk it. So I kept walking and walking and came to the pond on the southeast of the monastery, you know that pond, right?
“You remember how thickly the Thabye trees grow on the banks and how their branches lean over the waters? I thought I’d sleep under the tree but I saw a glimpse of yellow so I climbed up on a large branch hanging over the water. I couldn’t easily be seen in the spreading branches. I leant back against the tree trunk, hung up my new shirt on a branch, not wanting it to get wrinkled, and I tucked up my brand new longyi up over my thighs. Phew! The breeze was so cool. I did try to count the beads but I didn’t want to doze off and drop it so I placed it around my neck. Then, feeling good and comfy I was just about to…”
At that moment Ma Hla Aye came back for another haul of water and went past us stomping her feet hard on the ground and glaring at Ko Khant. He stared after her, murmuring, “I’d like to clip the ear of that little chit,” and laughing softly to himself.
“Go on, Elder Brother, what next?” I urged.
“Well, I was just beginning to doze off when I heard someone walking into the pond,” he said. “So I looked down and there she was, who else, Ma Hla Aye…heh heh”
He puffed at his pipe, heard the gurgle of spit in it, covered it with his palm and twisted the stem. He soon had it going.
“So, this girl thought she was alone and she came to bathe.” He began to chuckle and not knowing anything I joined in.
“Are people allowed to bathe here? Isn’t that the monastery pond?” I asked him.
“No, this is another one where anyone can bathe; it’s just that everyone’s away so it was deserted that day. The drinking-water pond is nearer the monastery.”
“So, so, go on,” I said.
“I peeped through the leaves, and she looked as if she did not bring an extra longyi/’ he said.
“Really! So? Then…?”
“Well it’s not so difficult, you just pull your longyi up gradually as you sink down into the water and when the water’s up to your shoulders you pull your longyi over your head so it’s kept dry,” he said. “Then you toss it on a branch. She thought she was alone so she did just that and was swimming around. I was afraid she would see me and tried to kept still but a red ant got me on the leg!”
“Aha! You’ve had it!”
“I tried to rub out the ant but somehow I let go of the branch and I fell into the water. My longyi got caught in a branch and I fell without wearing anything.”
I shouted with laughter. “You’ve had it! You’ve had it!”
“I’ve had it all right, she couldn’t move from where she was and I couldn’t climb out.”
“So how did you manage it in the end?”
“Oh mygod…I told her to keep her head under water and that I would climb out to get my longyi but she said she couldn’t hold her breath that long. When I told her I would keep my head underwater while she fetches her longyi, she didn’t trust me not to look. Actually, I really didn’t want to keep my head down,y’know?”
“So what did you do?”
“Then I heard the monk scolding some kids and I got scared, in case he came upon us…”
He relit his pipe carefully.
“Then she started to accuse me of climbing the tree to watch her bathe, though I said I was there first. She shrieked at me, that little chit, although I explained and explained, and I was standing there in the water with the prayer beads around my neck. I wanted to laugh at myself but dared not. I was wondering how to get my new shirt and new longyi and when I made to move away to let her get her longyi, she shrieked to me to stay still. ..so I dared not move.”
Just then Ma Hla Aye came back with her pot full of water. I had no idea if she knew we were talking about her but I wanted to laugh so much I had to turn my face away and started to snicker. Instantly a quarrel broke out between the two.
“No at all, we’re talking of something else,” Ko Khant protested when she accused him.
“You sworel You’ll be cursed with what you sworel Snake will bite ya and lightening will strike ya!” Ma Hla Aye screamed.
Ma Hla Aye, looking so pretty with Thanakha5 plastered on her face, became so embarrassed she lost her footing and her pot fell from her head. She got really mad at that and began to hurl pot shards at us so we both ran for our lives.
As soon as we reached my house, my aunt showed me the letter from my mother saying I must come back home at once as my Grand Uncle and Aunt had arrived from Mandalay.
I packed hurriedly as I had to leave immediately for the railway station, which was 5 miles away. I wanted to ask Ko Khant to take me to the station in his cart so that he could tell me the rest of the story but he said, “later” so I left the village feeling rather dissatisfied. After that I hardly saw him again and when last year, Ko Khant came to town on business and I asked him, “Please, tell me how you got out of that pond,” he was talking to my parents so he just smiled and said, “You still remember that! What a memory!” but told me nothing.
I was left with this unsolved problem of Ko Khant and Ma Hla Aye still waiting the water and if I were to die right now, I’m damn sure it’s going to be an easy death.
(Selected Myanmar Short Stories – Translated by Ma Thanegi)
1. Religious festival of lights in October
2. Male prefix to name of young men and older. Not formal.
3. When the community has to organize night watchmen for fires or to work together for celebrations etc. the village lads and girls are ready-formed teams, each led by someone older who is still single.
4. One rank lower than headman.
5. Makeup paste ground from Thanakha bark, fragrant, cool and often worn as sunscreen.
Comment: The above story is taken from a collection of twenty-five Myanmar short stories translated by Ma Thanegi. I read this short story a few weeks ago and like the narrator, I’m also curious about the ending. I apolgoize to the original author and the translator for posting without asking permissons, but I wanted to share this online. Even though the book costs less than $4, I think it’s rare to find in bookstores abroad. Even in the city, I was lucky to come across it since not every shop has it on display. I also wanted to buy another book by the same author, but I was unable to find it again, at least at that bookstore in Hlaedan. I’ll post more short stories, but not all. It takes time ‘cuz I don’t have a scanner and I have to take the photos of the texts and scan by using OCR. Even then, I had to retype some paragraphs as OCR couldn’t scan everything.