The Prince of the Prison

A story

Just two years before I served a term of imprisonment—for the third time—at the Central Jail, more by fate's design than accident I became acquainted, as this narrative will unfold, with a young maid of the Shan State.

On that fateful day, at twilight, when the golden sun had just hidden its face behind the mountains to the west of the river, I was occupied in trimming the plants in my betel-leaf garden. Looking up from my work, I saw a fair and comely maid of about twenty summers or so hurrying toward me. She carried a leather bag, the weight of which had obviously almost exhausted her. Panting, she cried, "Uncle! Uncle! Please permit me to hide in your garden for just a few minutes!"

"But what ails you, Niece, and why—"

Before I could complete my sentence she continued, imploringly, with a tinge of despair in her voice, "Please, please . . . allow me to explain later . . . where may I hide?"

Although to harbor one who, as I was convinced, was evading arrest is criminal according to law, I deemed it incumbent that I, a full-grown man, should help the weaker sex in distress. Quickly I led the girl through my hut to a not too deep blind well behind my compound. Just in time! I was barely back in my hut when a subinspector of police and a constable, both on cycles, drew up and inquired whether I had not seen a girl with a leather suitcase pass by. I gave them a negative answer, which did not even go down cum grano salis for they proceeded to search my hut and compound for some considerable time. But, in the gathering darkness, they did not detect the well and, giving me a suspicious look, they withdrew.

After waiting half an hour, lest the police return, I helped the trembling girl out of the well and led her back to my hut. I then served her with the meal I had prepared for myself, while I inquired the cause of her flight from the clutches of the law. She told me that her name was Ma Nan Nyunt. A few months earlier she had for some pressing reason left her native haunts in the Shan State to take shelter in the Kemmendine ward of Rangoon. There she met a wealthy Chinese merchant. This man showed her great kindness, inviting her to live in his home and conferring upon her all the rights and privileges of a daughter. Her foster father, though to all appearances and general acceptance a man of standing and influence in social circles, was in truth the head of an opium-smuggling gang. To her sorrow she gradually learned that he was also a forger of currency, mastermind of a group that sneaked gold into the country, director of a pack of pickpockets, a dealer in stolen goods—in fact he had a finger in every type of shady deal and malpractice. Playing upon her gratitude, this crafty paragon of vice slowly but surely assigned to her certain duties which automatically drew her into his gang of criminals. As the days passed, the tasks entrusted to her became of a more and more confidential and serious nature, immersing her deeper into the underworld.

On two occasions she had made a bold bid for freedom and normal life, but each time the business magnate had little difficulty in drawing her back. Wealth covers a multitude of sins and far and widespread is its dragnet. Strange to say, after this she was taken more into her master's confidence and private affairs, which not only demanded complete secrecy but called for such wit as could more than match that of any intelligence or counterintelligence group known. Escape being impossible, she resigned herself to her lot and served her captor so loyally and diligently that willy-nilly she was "raised'' to the status of one of his concubines.

Having unfolded the major part of her story, Ma Nan Nyunt was profuse with her thanks for the little service I had rendered.

"There is no need to thank me so much," I replied. "I only did what becomes a normal man, offering shelter to one who stood in dire need."

Making a gesture of obeisance, as is the practice of people of good heritage and upbringing, she asked for permission to leave. I assented, and, thanking me once again, she left the hut and was enveloped by the night. On the following morning, as I was about to partake of a preparation of betel pickle, as is my habit after drinking plain tea, I took up the betel box and in the second layer saw two hundred-kyat notes. It was a pleasant surprise.

Time passed, but with no contact or news of the girl I had aided. Then, a few months later, for having been a bit too rustic-like in teaching an autocratic township officer good manners I was awarded eighteen months' rigorous imprisonment at the Central Jail, where my old comrades and satellites welcomed me warmly.

 The Central Jail was then run by a European, Major Arbuthnot, the Superintendent, with Mr. Dawson, a Eurasian, as Chief Jailer and Mr. Jalan, an Indian Christian, as Deputy Jailer cum Physician. Major Arbuthnot occupied a government bungalow on the very summit of a hill not far from the jail, where, with a squad of prisoners, I was regularly detailed for duty.

One day, having learned from the Third Jailer, U Ba Ko, that a woman—a notorious opium smuggler sentenced to a year's "R.I."—would be keeping its company, I was on the watch for her arrival. At about 5:30 P.M. I saw the prison van, the ''Black Maria," draw up to the prison enclosure. In it were three men and a woman carrying a baby. Though she had a shawl drawn over her head as she passed by where I was working, I caught a brief glimpse of her face. It seemed familiar, but I could not place her. She, on her part, started with surprise, as though she recognized me, but said nothing.

That night I tossed about, unable to get to sleep, trying to pin-point the girl whose face I had seen—known somewhere, some time in my life. Then like a flash it came to me: this was the very girl whom I had helped evade the clutches of the police—the girl who in sheer gratitude for my trivial service had left me two hundred kyats.

Making some inquiries next day, I learned that the charge against her was the smuggling of a lakh's worth of opium. It was said that she brought the drug down by boat from Upper Burma and was caught by the excise authorities when the steamer reached Rangoon.

The twenty-odd women prisoners, with only their two women warders to keep an eye on them and the occasional round of the jailers on duty, enjoyed a fair percentage of a kind of freedom and privacy. No male prisoner was allowed to be seen in their portion of the jail. However, fate contrived a means whereby in the face of all these restrictions I again met Ma Nan Nyunt.


IN JAIL I was permitted to read and practice the directions contained in the books Nayathakhi and Nayamala, the Burmese Materia Medica, and other tomes of the East on medical science, for which I had a bent. Times out of number prisoners afflicted with normal ailments successfully responded to my treatment. Few are aware, but it is true, that it is very difficult for a sick prisoner to obtain permission to undergo treatment in an outside hospital. Therefore I was in great demand among the prisoners, and as my usefulness increased with the number of successes so did the favors and privileges shown me by the authorities. I was even allowed to go outside the jail to collect herbs for my medications.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.


A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.



More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In