"Like ... "—his speech came in bursts and grunts; his fuddled brain couldn't seem to keep track of more than four words at a time—" ... I try to talk to you ... you know, I try to"—a batting motion with the hands—"I try to hit in ...but, Jesus, you're heavy"—a weighing gesture—"you Asians are really heavy ... hung up on gadgets ... heavy ... I can't talk to you. You're too ... heavy ..."
Then why was he in Pagan?
"Getting ... some really good vibrations," he said. "There were some ... good people here ..."
"Yes. Buddha," said the architect.
He was off to Katmandu very soon, he said. But surely Nepalese were Asians? No, he said, he was going to Katmandu to meet up with the Hog Farm, an American commune which had just set up there.
The tourist trade, just beginning, might manage to accomplish what Kubla Khan, centuries of Chinese invasions, British colonialism, and the Japanese occupation could not do—make the Burmese solly instead of jolly. I was talking to the barman in the long bar of the Strand Hotel; I was wondering what was the name of the song the Bengali orchestra was playing in the empty lounge (was it "Roses From the South"?), and he was saying, "I don't know, but it's an old tune." A tall American walked in resolutely and shook a fistful of chits in the barman's face.
"You've made a mistake. I've just worked it out. I've been drinking with my friends for half an hour and the bill comes to twenty-five American dollars. That's impossible."
The barman put on a pair of glasses and examined the chits. "Almost a hundred kyats. It's correct."
"That's highway robbery."
Wearily, the barman took a tattered drink menu and handed it over. "Here are the prices. You work it out. You'll see it's correct."
"You're cheating me! This is outrageous."
"I am not cheating you," said the barman, weariness giving way to annoyance. "This is a government hotel. Those are government prices."
"Then you should get a new government!" The American threw down the required amount and left as the barman, raising his voice, said, "They'll lock you up for that."
In Asia a city should be judged not by the number of rats scuttling in its streets but on the rats' cunning and condition. In Singapore the rats are potbellied and sleek as housepets; they crouch patiently near noodle stalls, certain of a feed: they are quick, with bright eyes, and hard to trap.
In Rangoon I sat in an outdoor café toying with a glass of beer and heard the hedge near me rustle; four enfeebled, scabby rats, straight off the pages of La Peste, tottered out and looked around. I stamped my foot. They moved back into the hedge; and now everyone in the cafe was staring at me. It happened twice. I drank quickly and left, and glancing back saw the rats emerge once more and sniff at the legs of the chair where I had been sitting.
At five thirty one morning in Rangoon, I dozed in the hot, dark compartment of a crowded train, waiting for it to pull out of the station. A person entered the toilet: there was a splash outside; the door banged. Another entered. This went on for twenty minutes until dawn, and I saw that outside splashings and pools of excrement had stained the tracks and a litter of crumpled newspapers—The Working People's Daily—a bright yellow. A rat crept over to the splashed paper and nibbled, then tugged; two more rats, mottled with mange, licked, tugged, and hopped in the muck. Another splash, and the rats withdrew; they returned, gnawing. There was a hawker's voice, a man selling Burmese books with bright covers. He shouted and walked briskly, not stopping to sell, simply walking alongside the train, crying out. The rats withdrew again; the hawker, glancing down, lengthened his stride and walked on, his heel yellow. Then the rats returned.
Cheroots are handy in such a situation. Around me in the compartment smiling Burmese puffed away on thick green cheroots and didn't seem to notice the stink of the growing yellow pool just outside. At the Shwe Dagon Pagoda I saw a very old lady, hands clasped in prayer. She knelt near a begging leper whose disease had withered his feet and abraded his body and given him a bat's face. He had a terrible smell, but the granny prayed with a Churchillian-sized cheroot in her mouth. On Mandalay Hill, doorless outhouses stand beside the rising steps, and next to the outhouses are fruit stalls. The stink of piss is powerful, but the fruitseller, who squats all day in that stink, is wreathed in smoke from his cheroot.
A shortage of cheroots might provoke an uprising; no other shortages have so far. Food is cheap and seems to be plentiful; and inexplicably in the Dry Zone, four hundred miles long and seventy-five broad, where it had not rained for over five months, one sees Burmese pouring pailfuls of water over their heads to cool themselves (I tried it: one shivers with cold for a minute and then dries and continues to gasp and perspire in the heat). In Mandalay the source of water is the moat which surrounds what used to be the Golden City: the moat is a bright putrescent green, and I was advised by a Burmese doctor not to touch it but to go on drinking Super Soda.
There are shortages of everything else: spare parts, electrical equipment, anything made of metal or rubber, and worse, cotton cloth. In the YMCA in Rangoon one is given a room; the fan is broken, cockroaches frolic in the adjoining shower stall, and on the bed is a dirty mattress. The mattress cover is torn; there are no sheets, no pillowcases. The manager is helpful; he says, "Sleep downstairs in the dormitory. There are no sheets there either, but it only costs two kyats." I demand sheets. "Expensive." he says. But the room is expensive! He demurs: "All the sheets are at the laundry."
And the sheets are at the laundry again in Mandalay, at Maymyo, at Nyaungu, and Pagan. But on the lines of wash in these towns there are no sheets.
There are Germans here, a Burman told me, studying ways of increasing textile production. In the meantime, I said, you could import cloth. "No, no! Burmese socialism! We import nothing!" And yet, in the Rangoon Airport, while I was waiting for my suitcase, I saw four large wooden crates. The stickers showed that these had just arrived, airfreight, from Japan, and each contained 1200 yards of blue poplin. For whom? And why airfreight? No one knew. And the tourists' buses and tourists' cornflakes and the brand-new bull-nosed Dodge army trucks that one sees Burmese army officers using for ferrying their families to the temples: made in Burma?
I was in Rangoon at the suffocating height of the Burmese summer, which may account for my impression of the city being one of lassitude and exhaustion. But Richard Curle used those same words when he visited in 1923. In Into the East (preface by Joseph Conrad) he speaks of the city over which hovers "so queerly the breath of stagnation." The rats and pariah dogs wait for the cool of the evening to scavenge; during the day only the crows are active, soaring in the blazing sun, in a perfectly cloudless sky. It must have been a bustling place in the twenties, as those dates on the medallions show and as Curle maintains ("'Boy, give me a chit,' resounds here and there ... "); but the medallions have been painted out, and the green signs of the Revolutionary Government have begun to fade and peel. The city is moribund, flanked by coffee-colored rivers on which there is not a shadow of a ripple; and most of the buildings in Rangoon are demonstrably more decrepit than the eleventh-century temples at Pagan.
But the people—generous, hospitable, curious, so alert and quick to smile, neatly dressed in a place where all cloth is at a premium—they are in such contrast to the dead city that it is as if they have, all of them, just arrived and are padding down those sidewalks for the first time. Their appreciation of the city's few beauties is acute: the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, the several lovely cathedrals, the Scott Market, the flowering trees in Maha Bandoola Park—clusters of heavy yellow blossoms hanging in bunches on the trees like grapes on a vine. In Maha Bandoola Park there is an obelisk, the Independence Monument. "Look at it closely," said my Burmese friend.
I looked. "Very pretty."
"Look again," he said. "You see? It's not straight. It bends."
The remark was, I decided, profoundly political. He had said that he drank beer once a year, one bottle. I asked whether he had had this year's bottle yet, and when he said no, we went to the Strand Hotel—both of us for the first time (but he had lived several blocks away for thirty-five years)—and squandered three dollars on two small bottles of pale ale. A few hours later the orchestra was playing Rudolf Friml, and down Strand Road clattered a 1938 Nash.