The Prince of the Prison

A story

By Dagon Shwe Hmyar

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.

2

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.

One day, while I was cleaning the office of the Deputy Jailer, the Chief Jailer's peon came in and told me that I was summoned by his boss. I followed immediately and, on reaching his room, shikoed, as was the practice, and then stood at attention. The Chief Jailer unfolded a piece of paper and said, with a smile: "Well, Maung Pho Thein, it seems you have become a great physician in this jail."

This sent the blood racing in my veins; what was in store for me, I wondered? The Chief continued, "Here is an application from the women's section of the jail. That woman who arrived some days ago in connection with an opium case is nursing an infant. The child is not well, and she wishes to consult you even before our physician. As attending to the sick is a charitable act, you have my permission." He paused for a moment, and then continued, "These women who come to the jail with infants not only bring trouble on themselves but also upon us. But what is to be done? A child must bear the sins of its mother."

I nodded in assent. "As you have commanded, Thakin," I replied and bowed out of his room.

Putting a few phials into my bag, I proceeded to the women's section, accompanied by the Third Jailer's peon, Najut Singh. We were met at the door by Ma Khin Sein, the Wardress, who led me in. A portion of the huge barred walling of the jail had been screened with blankets, converting it into a little room, and there I found Ma Nan Nyunt with the baby in her arms patiently awaiting our arrival.

Najut Singh had halted at the door and even the Wardress stood at a respectable distance. I seated myself on a stool and Ma Nan Nyunt presented the infant for my inspection. It was a boy. It had a high fever and symptoms which indicated influenza. I gave the mother a pulverized compound of herbs, to be administered with her milk, and some medicine for external application.

Breaking the silence, Ma Nan Nyunt asked, "Do you remember me, Uncle?"

"Yes, but why did you leave two hundred kyats in my betel box?"

"That is but a small return. Please do not talk about it. By the way, for my child --is there any cause for anxiety?"

"None at all. Only carry out my instructions."

"Thank you very much, Uncle."

I turned to go, but she halted me and whispered, “Uncle, there are things I want to consult with you about.''

I glanced at the Wardress apprehensively.

"Do not worry," she went on. "They have been 'fed,' and will be both deaf and dumb."

"Very well, Niece," said I.

"Please, Uncle, promise that whenever it is necessary that I should see you you will come."

"I shall do my best," I replied.

"My friends here," she continued, "have told me all about your powers and privileges. I am counting on you, depending very greatly on you, as no woman has ever depended on any man."

Ah, the strange workings of fate!

3

WEEKS passed, and I had almost forgotten Ma Nan Nyunt, when I was sent for again. This time, on examining the child, I observed that it had fever but no accompanying symptoms. While I was striving to get to the root of such a peculiarity, Ma Nan Nyunt smiled, and whispered, "Nothing is actually wrong with him, Uncle. I have brought about the high temperature. I put an onion under his armpit and kept him in the sun for quite a while. I did this because I wanted to consult you on a very important matter."

I turned round to look at the warders. Reading my thoughts, she said that I had nothing to fear from them as they had all been "squared up," and were remaining at a distance to enable us to talk.

"If that is so, go ahead. What is it that you wish to consult me about?"

"First, let me ask you," she said, with a smile, "how have you sized me up?"

"Well, Ma Nyunt," I said, "I do not know why, whether due to a misunderstanding with your parents, or on a secret mission, you forsook your native place for Rangoon; but once there, I think that fate threw you into the clutches of a man of evil means, resulting in your being jailed."

"Correct, Uncle. Every surmise of yours has hit the nail on the head. My mother was the second mahadevi of a sawbwa. The Lord of the Sunset loved and cherished my mother and the affection he showered on me even far exceeded his love for his sons. Thus I grew in the warmth of his concern and protection. Then, with one cruel stroke, fate deprived me of my mother who suddenly took ill and died. Well, as the saying goes, it does not rain but it pours. Shortly after my mother's death an officer of my father's bodyguard suddenly developed a soft spot for me, and it seemed that my father was inclined to approve. Determined not to be the chattel of a man nearing the half-century mark, I hid most of the precious gems which Mother had bequeathed me, sold my gold and other valuable ornaments, and headed for Rangoon. What happened to me, how I fell into the clutches of a wealthy Chinese resulting in my imprisonment here, must now be clear to you. Part of it I told you when I first met you in your hut."

"Yes, that is all quite clear. Now, how do you require my assistance?"

Holding up the baby, she said, "Here, this little infant --I want him out of this jail and back in the care and protection of his grandfather. As for mc, having been deprived of the essence of life --I shall never have genuine love and a happy home—it matters little how my journey ends. Nor do I care now to mend my ways. Please, Uncle, by any means you can contrive, get this little mite out of this jail and back under the wing of his grandfather. As for the Chinese, his father, some evidence must be produced that his child—who was conceived by a mere process of nature—died in this jail."

While I was giving an attentive car to all that Ma Nan Nyunt said, I kept up a pretense of feeling the pulse of the child and rubbing his little chest with salve. Then I asked: "Even if I can manage to get this child out of these prison walls how, in the name of the powers you hold sacred, can I send him to his grandfather in the Shan State?"

"There is a man in the city—one U Yan We of Ahlone—who was once in my father's employ. If the child is entrusted to his hands, the task will be as good as done."

"But then, what about evidence to show that the baby died here in jail?"

"That you will have to contrive, as I am only a stupid woman. But you must find a way. I do not want my flesh and blood to grow up in jail, and then, when out of it, to wallow in that depraved underground world of his father. Oh, Uncle, let me alone be saturated with evil! Let not my son share my lot! The grandson of the Lord of the Sunset must grow up in the Shan State as befits a Shan."

"Your plan is great and admirable, Niece, but not easy to execute."

That is true, Uncle, and for that very reason I have sought your assistance. Do not be baffled. In this world there are only a few things which money cannot achieve."

She then drew out a little bundle which she had hidden in her bosom, and handing it over to me quickly, said: "Here, take these three precious gems which I have always hidden in my breast. Do what you will with them . . . only take the child to U Yan We. He is trustworthy and capable of taking my son to his grandfather."

When I was back once again in my cell, I opened the little packet and discovered two large, shining diamonds of the first quality. In luster and size they were identical. I had never set eyes on diamonds of such brilliancy and likeness. And the third stone was a blood-red, flawless ruby. The diamonds, at prewar value, would have fetched at least five thousand kyats each. The ruby was above valuation. Putting the precious stones safely away, I sat up practically the whole night trying to work out a scheme for the task that had been set me.

Next morning, as I went to carry out my routine duty at the office of the Deputy Jailer, I passed the Chief Jailer's house where his little daughter, called "Baby," was playing with a toy dog made of wax. This toy was a gift I had purchased for the child myself from a Chinese one day when I was allowed out to collect herbs. The Chief Jailer had been pleased and whenever he asked the baby, "Who bought you the puppy?" she would point her little forefinger at me. Then, like a flash, the plan which I had been racking my brains for struck me full and square in the face.

4

THE following week I was again detailed on duty with a squad of prisoners to work at the Jail Superintendent's house. The warders who accompanied us were Najut Singh, who was very intimate with me, and another Indian. When we were about to pass the house of the Chinese sculptor Ah Foung, I told Najut Singh that I wanted to have a few words with my Chinese friend. Directing the other warder to proceed slowly with the men, he stood by the front gate while I went into Ah Foung's house. Luckily he was at home. Quickly I explained to him my need and assured him that I was in a position to pay well for his aid. I also arranged with him to search out the man U Yan We and bring him to his house at the same time next week.

As Najut Singh and I followed up the squad that had been sent ahead, I realized that it was necessary to pill the warder "wise,'' to some extent at least, to my plan, and also to "feed'' him adequately in order that the complicated scheme might go off smoothly without a hitch.

The next week, I touched in again at Ah Foung's place and was relieved to discover that he had indeed managed to find and bring U Yan We. I needed only to mention to this worthy man a few things about Ma Nan Nyunt and in a short space we became thick friends. Though over fifty years of age, U Yan We was well built, full, and firm, lie had a frank, cordial air, and honesty was written all over him. I lost no time in handing over the three precious stones with the request that they be sold in the shortest time possible. I told him of Ma Nan Nyunt's ardent wish and what she asked him to do.

He took the gems from me and, holding them against the sun, said in a husky voice, "So the hand of destiny has forced the girl to part with her family jewels." He paused for a bit and then continued, "Only the sufferer can fully appreciate the extent of his stomach-ache. Yes, U Pho Thein, I shall have them disposed of within a week."

The following week I met U Yan We again. Handing me ten thousand kyats, he said, "This is not even half of what the stones should fetch, but when one is in need, and also in a hurry, a very wide margin has to be allowed."

Calculating the "palm grease" that was now in my hand, I decided to use it in the following proportions: three thousand to Mr. Jalan; two thousand to U Yan We; one thousand for myself to defray expenses in working the scheme; three hundred to Najut Singh; five hundred to the Wardress; one hundred to Ah Foung for the wax baby; and the balance into the hands of U Yan We to hold for Ma Nan Nyunt when she would be released.

A fortnight later I began to put my plan into motion. At first, Mr. Jalan, the Deputy Jailer and physician, expressed great reluctance to being made a partner in such a scheme, but the feel of crisp currency notes to the tune of three thousand kyats soon awakened his sympathies.

Nature abetted our plan. The hot season had set in, and because of the intense heat and sudden change of weather, smallpox broke out in the neighboring quarters of the city. Following my instructions and using the old onion method, Ma Nan Nyunt caused the child to develop a high fever. At the same time, she kept him outside the curtain for an hour or so, where he was at the mercy of the mosquitoes. This brought about red pimply eruptions all over his body. Detailed by the Chief Jailer to take care of the child's illness, I submitted that it was not afflicted this time with an ailment common to children but with smallpox, which called for segregation. On this grave report, Mr. Jalan was, of course, called in to examine the baby. But he had been so well "greased" that he not only transferred Ma Nan Nyunt and her child to a distant room all to themselves, but also insisted, as a protective measure, that the whole jail staff and even all the prisoners should be vaccinated.

The next day Mr. Jalan announced that the child's condition was critical and it must he carried to his house for administration of oxygen. The whole jail was by now in mortal terror of contracting smallpox and the prisoners expressed their reluctance, in no uncertain manner, to carrying the infected child. It was here, to the pleasure and relief of all, that I volunteered. On arrival at his house, Mr. Jalan took us into his room where I unwrapped the baby, who had returned to normal and, with a smile on his face, was playing with his tiny fist. Looking at the child, I marveled at the heart and ambition of his mother, and the peculiar part they were forcing me to play.

There was no time for daydreaming. I turned the child over to U Yan We, who was there ahead of us, according to plan. I then dressed the wax dummy, which was exceedingly lifelike, in its clothes. I even took care to take the real baby's amulet and tie it onto the wax imitation.

The exchange completed, I hastened back to the jail, swathing my burden in the blanket so that the deception could not be detected. When the Chief Jailer saw me returning, he wrinkled up his nose and signaled to me to hurry. All the prisoners, male and female, took good care to keep at a respectable distance from me. Even Najut Singh and the Wardress, who had been drawn in as accomplices by the lure of gold, made a pretense of fighting shy of me. Thus I was able to hand over the wax baby to Ma Nan Nyunt and reassure her anxiety with the news that her child was safe in the hands of U Yan We. Before I left, I whispered a few important instructions into her ear.

When I returned to the office, the Chief Jailer asked me whether the child was better. I gave him a negative answer and added that, personally, I nursed no hopes for its recovery. He seemed surprised, and asked, "How is it that when I looked at the child the other day, I did not notice any smallpox eruptions?"

"Yes, Thakin, that is the very reason why there is no hope. According to the Materia Medica, the eruptions must show up ad lib., or the case is fatal. The doctor must cause these eruptions to show up with his medicines. If the child is breast-fed, the mother must be treated."

"Did not Jalan treat the child to produce that effect?"

"I think he did. He took the child into his room for about an hour. The doctor knows best, Thakin." 

"Yes, we must now pray to God to spare the rest of us. I personally loathe and fear this disease. Well, well, you may go about your work."

Next morning, at about 5 A.M., a woman's piercing cry rent the air. It was Ma Nan Nyunt. She was shouting and wailing, "Baby, you have left me, your poor mother, to face the sordid world alone," and other similar woeful phrases.

Mr. Jalan was summoned, as was I, and, with several warders we proceeded to the women's section. All remained behind while the doctor and myself went behind the curtains where Ma Nan Nyunt was. On seeing us, she redoubled her wailing, calling upon the doctor to restore life to her child. So convincing was her grief that I was fully persuaded of the truth of what has been written by the sages about the wiles of women. To render a fair account of Eve's caprices, art, and craft would need volumes. Mr. Jalan only lifted a little corner of the wrapper which covered the body and after the briefest of glances turned his face away. Then after making out the death certificate, he left.

Being an elder among the prisoners and acquainted with the jail regulations, the task of bringing about the burial fell on me. It was the work of only a few moments for a prisoner-carpenter to make a tiny coffin. The corpse was sprinkled with disinfectant, then wrapped in cloth and packed around with charcoal dust.

By nine o'clock all was ready. Taking up the little coffin in my arms, I proceeded toward the cemetery in the jail yard, led by another prisoner who struck the brass cymbal according to custom, and followed by the bereaved mother, whose lamentations continued unabated, and a few of the other women prisoners as mourners. A shallow pit had already been dug, and the coffin was lowered into it and covered as I recited the five precepts and a few other brief last rites.

A few months later, when the time of my release was at hand, I secured permission to wish good-by to Ma Nan Nyunt. She told me, her eyes brimming with happy tears, that she had received word that the child was well and safe with her father, the Lord of the Sunset. She insisted that a thousand kyats to defray my expenses in the undertaking was far too little, and that I must take at least another thousand from the sum set aside for her. I thanked her from the very depths of my heart, but assured her that I could not accept a pya more. Though what I had done was criminal according to law, I deemed that service which allays the mental or physical anguish of a neighbor and does not bring about any loss or damage to another is no crime especially when it does not interfere with or impede the administrative functions of the country.

One month after my release from jail I gave vent to my gypsy spirit, sold my little garden, and left for Upper Burma. I have not since obtained any news of Ma Nan Nyunt, whose child, as the authorities can certify and have recorded, died in jail. Yet, as I write this story, I can see vividly in my mind's eye the wax image I buried in the cemetery in the Central Jail and also that chubby little child—the "Prince of the Prison"—in the loving and competent care and protection of his grandfather.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1958/02/the-prince-of-the-prison/306836/