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.
On Bogyoke Aung San Street (formerly Montgomery) the Central Jail is being pulled down. The workmen were surprised to get a visitor and willingly showed me around the six enormous cell blocks which radiate in clumsy spokes from a central courtyard and administration building. They pointed out scratchings on the cell floors made in the teak planks by bored prisoners, the Burmese equivalent of tic-tac-toe. One man told me the place was one hundred seven years old—the seven gave the date a certain credibility; in fact, I couldn't imagine the Burmese pulling down a building less than a hundred years old. The only market in Mandalay is the Zegyo Bazaar, designed and built in 1903 by an Italian, Count Caldrari (who was also the first secretary of the Mandalay Municipality). I stole a small sign from over a cell door in the Central Jail. It reads: 56' BY 26½' BY 12'—CUBICAL CONTENTS 17967—ACCOMMODATION FOR 28. It is only a short hop from the Central Jail to the Pegu Club, now an Officers' Mess of the Burmese Army. The Pegu Club was to Rangoon what the Selangor Club was to Kuala Lumpur and the Tanglin Club to Singapore (but these two are still going strong). The sentry said that he would have let me look around, but as it happened, a senior officer (the sentry bulged his eyes to illustrate how senior) had just arrived and was inside.
"What is your country?" is a question the stranger will ask as you pass him on the street (also: "Change money—good price?" and "Want girl? Chinese, Burmese, Indian, anything?"). To frustrate Omega-hunters and those (many it seemed) who desired to buy my trousers when I refused to sell my watch, I said that I came from Singapore. They know that Singapore is mostly Chinese, and the Burmese have opinions about the Chinese. "Chinese, let me tell you about the Chinese," said a Burman whose name was U Georgie. "They save a lot of money, a lot of money." He made a wrapping motion with his hands and then threw the invisible wrapped thing away. "Then they throw it away. Gambling." He looked at me. "How do the Chinese make money? Easy. A Chinaman wants a cheroot. He sees a broken one in a monsoon drain. He picks it up and wipes it off. He smokes it. He saves a few pyas. Easy. And Indians. Do you know what the Indians do with their women ...?"
All the Burmese have racial opinions, but this is not unusual in a country with such a mixed population and with cities yet divided into ethnic districts: Chinatown in Rangoon; a walled-in Gujarati community in Mandalay announcing its vegetarianism with a sign BE KIND TO ANIMALS BY NOT EATING THEM; Tamil and European districts, the most elegant being the American compound for Embassy personnel. (There is an American Club and a private American commissary which stocks peanut butter and cornflakes. The lowliest person at the American Embassy has a car and a driver—officially, Rangoon is "a hardship post.") Whole towns in Upper Burma are populated with Nepalese—the remnants, children and grandchildren, of demobbed colonial soldiers.
A very large number of Burmese speak English. I met several enterprising fellows who had started English Institutes (they were civil servants; their "Institutes" started classes at six in the evening). In Nyaungu, signs in English announce a literacy campaign; the English is for the many tourists who visit Nyaungu's ruins. (It is expensive to be literate in Burma—a cheap Burmese paperback costs at least one U.S. dollar.) I complimented one pavement bookseller on his English; pleased with the compliment he recited this sentence: "I am enduring exposure ... to the sun's powerful rays ... before I reach my destination." He removed his spectacles and repeated it, looking at the sky.
Much of their English may be learned from British and American films. On the train to Mandalay I met the manager of a Bhamo cinema. "Cowboy films are very popular," he said. An Anthony Quinn Western ran eighteen days, four shows a day, in his cinema. "Maybe the Burmese like Anthony Quinn," I said. No, said the manager: The Visit (Anthony Quinn and Ingrid Bergman) ran only two days. He was returning to Bhamo after a week of film-going in Rangoon and was anxious to discuss the films he had just seen: What A Way to Go (an all-star cast, including Shirley MacLaine, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum); Our Man Flint ("America's Playboy Hero!"); The Adventurers (Alain Delon, from the book of the same name by Harold Robbins); King Kong Escapes (directed by Ishiro Honda); Five for Hell, Cosa Nostra, An Arch Enemy of the FBI ("The Untold Story of the FBI's Crackdown on the Kings of Crime ..."). There are many Indian and Burmese films, and there is a fairly large Burmese film industry (the pictures of film stars adorn the temples they have visited), but all Burmese films have to include at least 60 percent socialism (a Burman's statistic: I didn't question it).
Not surprisingly, the cinema manager had an American accent. He was on his way back to Bhamo to screen That Darn Cat, which he had picked up from the Film Distribution Board of the Revolutionary Government. We were having a lively talk about films, and I was marveling at his knowledge of directors and actors. The train had just stopped at Toungoo, where we had each picked up a supply of cold Mandalay Pale Ale which we were drinking (he through a straw) in the Buffet Car of the train. Our talk was interrupted by the train guard, who told the manager to take his beer elsewhere: it was forbidden to drink beer in the Buffet Car. The reprimand was in Burmese, but the tone was unmistakable and I started to creep out with my bottles. Both train guard and manager were deeply hurt; both motioned me to my seat and urged me to drink. And the manager said, "You are an exceptional case."
Tourists are welcome, treated with enormous courtesy, invited to Burmese homes, photographed, and squired around and given special privileges. I was told that I needn't worry about getting a seat on the plane from Mandalay to Nyaungu because if the plane was full I would be given the seat of a Burmese who would be ordered out and requested to wait for the next plane. This sounds much worse than it works out in practice: on the Fokker Friendship from Mandalay to Nyaungu I was the only passenger. The pretty stewardess spent the trip eating her lunch (which she invited me to share) from a palm leaf. I asked her how she liked her work. "Sometimes," she said, "I get fed up."
Package tours fly in daily from Bangkok, and the tourists are whisked by plane from town to town where waiting Japanese buses take them from sight to sight; then lunch from a hamper packed in Rangoon; then a hotel (average price about $13 a night, with breakfast). "See Burma in Four Days," is the boast of one travel agency in Bangkok.
"Wake up, Father, here's the plane," I heard an elderly lady say to her sleeping husband at the airport in Nyaungu. The man was curled up on the bench next to her. One sees the package tourists in most of the large towns; they have an exhausted cheated look in their eyes, and many seem beyond caring what Burma has to offer. It was fun to watch the American man, sixty-five if he was a day, playing solitaire with his back to the blood-red sun spectacularly dissolving into the Irrawaddy at Pagan. But not all the tourists come in packages, and most of Burma's visitors fit V. S. Naipaul's description, in An Area of Darkness, of the "new type of American whose privilege it was to go slumming about the world and sometimes scrounging, exacting a personal repayment for a national generosity."
I witnessed an American girl being asked by two Burmese whether they could buy a piece of batik cloth from her. Their price seemed fair; she was burdened by a bulging rucksack; but she was unreasonably indignant. I asked her why she didn't sell. "When I go to a place," she said, "I don't expect to give people things. I'm a guest—I expect them to give me things." Her next stop was to be Calcutta.
In Pagan I spent some hours with an American hippie. Here was no scrounger; he had just come from New Zealand and Australia, where he had been, he said, "dealing" (selling drugs). He showed me a wad of money and a sheaf of air tickets. One ticket was for Switzerland, "where we have a villa." He wore only a pair of shorts, and his hair was fixed with what my mother used to call bobby pins. I learned a little bit about current LSD prices from him after he pointed to my head and said, "You got this temple here ... you should find out what's inside it...." I noted his figures: a dealer gets one ounce of acid; this costs $2000 but is good for making 4000 tablets ("tabs," "hits") which can be sold for five to seven dollars apiece. He was thoroughly contented with his lot; his grievance was with Asians, whom he had come to dislike. He explained this to a Burmese architect who was in Pagan to supervise the building of a luxury hotel: "I used to think you Asians knew where it was at ... and now I been all over Asia and, like, now I can see you're all f----- in the head."
The architect became attentive.
"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.
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