AN Indian merchant in Rangoon recently gained considerable local fame by paying (so one version of the story goes) 210,000 kyats for a five year-old Alfa Romeo which the Revolutionary Government of Burma was auctioning off. "And the funny thing is," my informant, an Asian diplomat, said with only the faintest trace of a smile, "the engine block cracked after two weeks." I was so intrigued by the high price (at the official rate of exchange it's about $46,000) that I asked several other people if they had heard of the Indian and the Alfa. Everyone I spoke to had heard, and other, lower prices were quoted, but the difference was only a few thousand dollars. Even if the Indian had bought his kyats from a pouch-wearing Tamil money changer on a Singapore pavement, at three or four times the official rate, that is still a lot of money to pay for a used car with a defective engine block.

Burmans, and foreigners in Burma, compulsively quote prices. In a country where no overt political talk is tolerated, it is a form of political discussion. "See this motorbike?" I was asked (it was a ten-year-old Triumph). "Guess how much?" I named a fair price. The Burman cleared his throat with pleasure, spat, and took me by the wrist. A month before he had paid 4500 kyats (approximately $935) for the battered machine. Then he lifted my wrist and said, "Omega"—a nice eye for watch brands: another Burmese characteristic—"how much?" I told him it wasn't for sale. We were standing at the foot of Mandalay Hill, before two towering stone lions and a sign FOOT WEARING IS FORBIDDEN. I took off my shoes—"Stockings too," said the Burman apologetically—and socks, and began climbing the holy stairs. He kicked off his rubber sandals and followed me, muttering, "Omega, Omega."

And spitting. "Foot wearing" is forbidden, but bicycles are not—provided they are pushed and not ridden—and neither is spitting. Dodging great gouts of betel juice, I climbed, and soon others joined us. A troop of boys quickly took up the Omega chant. On every landing there is a temple, a soft-drink stall ("Dagon Pure Orange—Bottled in Rangoon With Distilled Water"), and a sugar-water machine which squeezes split canes in a contraption that resembles an old laundry wringer. Halfway up the hill I stopped, had a Super Soda, and examined some statuary in wire cages, life-sized plaster figures, brightly painted and horrific as a Tiger Balm ointment tableau: a supine figure sticking his tongue out at a crow perched on his chest and tearing bright blue intestinal coils, yards of shiny hose, from a gaping hole in the man's belly; another satisfied man with a cutlass, squatting next to a disemboweled deer. I slipped a coin into a cast-iron machine, and three figures in a window were set into motion: a clockwork man swept a path with a wire broom, a clockwork saffron-robed monk shuffled on the path, and a clockwork devotee raised and lowered his clasped hands to the monk.

We set off again, stopping once for a boy to piss on the sacred hill (according to legend, Buddha climbed the hill and pointed down at what was to become the Center of the Universe, later Fort Dufferin, and now Burmese Army Headquarters for the Northwest Command). In the temple at the top of the hill, where there is a massive gold Buddha pointing toward the army barracks, I collapsed onto a bench in the 106-degree heat. I was surrounded by Burmese quoting ridiculously high prices for my watch. Very clearly I said, "My mother gave me this watch," and in a moment they were gone.

They had told me how much they had paid for their longyis, how much their shirts cost; I turned the conversation to politics for, since the textile industry is nationalized and all the prices are determined by the government, surely this was a political matter. They were silent. One said, "We can't say," and that was that. I had broken the rules by mentioning politics; one must mention only high prices for government goods. In a Burmese house in Mandalay, I asked about former Premier U Nu. "That," said my host, "is a political matter." He smiled; end of conversation. His son, a law student, broke in: "Burmese people! Happy people! Never solly, alway jolly!" He told me afterward that his father had been destroyed financially by General Ne Win, the present Premier, and had decided to spend the rest of his life "in meditation."

Mandalay, according to the official Revolutionary Government Guidebook (printed in Calcutta by Sri L.C. Roy at Gossain and Company, 7/1 Grant Lane), "is now inevitably putting on a mantle of modernity." I was dining one evening in Mandalay with some doctors. Outside the hotel, on the dirt road (the Guidebook: " ...curiously enough, alphabetically named A, B, C, D etc.") where that morning I had seen a dead dog, its hindquarters in a paper bag, a tonga clattered past—a pony cart with two tiny kerosene lamps aglow next to the driver. The doctors worked at the Mandalay General Hospital (built in 1924), and their talk was of amoebic dysentery and hepatitis. I asked about cholera. The doctor next to me said, "This isn't the season  ...but it's coming."

"We have been suffering, oh, we have been suffering," said a doctor across the table. He poured himself a glass of warm Mandalay Pale Ale. "Suffering. Not for a decade, but for a century, I should say. For a century. "

I was interested, and asked him to explain. This produced a silence at the table. A fork scraped, and finally there was a voice: "Mr. Paul, where are you domiciling?"


In Rangoon (the Guidebook: " ...Mandalay has not the fast tempo of Rangoon"), crouched on the steps of a huge mock-Edwardian building, were a languid prostitute and three pimps. "Go-betweens," said the Burman with me. I made a feeble joke about the girl, wondering aloud whether she had been nationalized yet. "Social and economic upheaval," said the Burman, raising his hands. I asked about the buildings around us: so many, so empty! "Social and economic upheaval," he said. I asked about the disenfranchised Indians; his reply was the same.

The decrepitude of the buildings in Rangoon is almost grand. The surfaces are shabby, but the shapes are extravagant, and the workmanship is obvious (Corinthian columns support one veranda; another, very graceful, is of wrought-iron lyres); their dereliction has splendor. Some have spires and others a score of ambitious balconies with pockmarked balusters or flowery balustrades, peeling yellow shutters, and lines of motionless wash hung out to dry—the clotheslines strung from the blossom of a cornice to the studs of that ornate pillar. Dates and names are given in medallions at the top of each building: 1903, 1914, 1922, 1927; Irrawaddy Chambers, Dawson's Bank, and The Chartered Bank (both painted out but legible). The defunct Burma Herald Building is high and whitewashed; and black metal urns decorate the parapet of the roof. The General Hospital is a seedy palace with towers and spires, bridges and buttresses and yellow cornices and parked in front are three tongas, a 1936 Chevy, and fifty patients. The High Court and the Secretariat, both with domes and spires, red brick, yellow trim. And dozens with names like The Suleiman Building, The Abdullah Building, Arya Samaj Hall, The Neogy Building; those signs are painted out too, and green government signs in white Burmese script are hung on the porticoes: National Bank, Revolutionary Government Reading Room, National Teak Marketing Board. On Sule Pagoda Road, there is a bizarre three-story building that would have made Wren wake up screaming: mullioned windows, crazily framed and blacked out, lozenge-shaped openings in crenellated towers, red battlements. This building bore two painted-out plaques—J. E. de Bain and The Castle—and one green government signboard—National Insurance Company.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

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

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus