The Reincarnation of Maung Hkin


WHO would have thought there was a woman in the case?

‘Who is he, Babu?’

The old man was squatting on the ground behind his tile, looking up at us with a glint of fire in his eyes. He was not like the rest of our tame Bengali jail-birds. Not only was his face different, — wide cheekbones, olive skin, eyes a bit oblique, — but there was a vigorous, breezy air about him: big mountains and forests and precipices in the background. Not one of our flatfooted Delta folk.

‘This fellow, sir?’ responded the fatbellied jail superintendent, Babu Hari Kishto Mozumdar, in his fluttering white garments. ‘ Yes, sir! He is a Burmese!— a prisoner from Burma, sir!’ and the Babu gave a wave of his plump brown hand, indicating far-off barbarian strands: ‘he is a daghee!’

‘What is a daghee, Babu?’

The Babu colored with pride and pleasure under his brown skin. He loves to instruct the white person.

‘A convict, sir! A life-convict! — It comes, I believe, sir, from the Perzyan’ — that is how Hari Kishto Babu pronounces Persian — ‘ the Perzyan, dagh, a wound. Our predecessors used to brand them, sir!’

‘Our predecessors’! — The Babu meant the Moguls.

The old Burman’s eyes leaped from my face to the Babu’s. He was getting a bit restive, though he sat very still, rather like a frog on a water-lily pad.

‘What is his name, Babu?’

‘We call him Manmathan, sir!’ —

Again the patronizing wave of the hand. Instantly the old fellow was on his feet, with a vigor that made the Babu jump back and turn gray.

‘Sahib! My name is Maung Hkin!’

The old chap spoke surprisingly good Bengali.

‘ The foreign name is difficult for us,’ the Babu palliated. ‘Therefore we have adapted it, speaking of him as Manmathan.’

‘Maung Hkin! My name is Maung Hkin!’

The old man was getting angry.

‘Maun Kin!’ the Babu attempted, cowed.

‘Maung Hkin!’

I tried to follow the sounds exactly. The old man was mollified and smiled.

‘They would take even my name, these Bengali —’

I hastened to interrrupt. ‘A good name! A very good name! What is its significance, Maung Hkin?’ And I laid my hand on the old man’s shoulder.

He seemed rather to like it and smiled again.

‘I was born,’ he said, ‘at Magwe, on the Great River, on the day of the moon! Therefore I am called Maung Hkin — “he who awakens love”! ’

I looked at the old man, — sallow, white-haired, wrinkled, withered, a mat of grizzled hair on his breast. ‘ He who awakens love’! Then an etymology flashed into my mind.

‘ Babu! What is the meaning of Manmathan?’

‘It is an epithet, sir, of the God of Love!’ and the Babu rolled his eyes; ‘of Kandarpa, “whose bow is of flowers, with honey-bees composing the string.” The name signifies “the one who pounds the heart.”’ He laid his plump paw just above his stomach, as if he too had suffered wounds.

‘There!’ I said to the old man. He was by this time considerably pacified. Perhaps the Babu’s poetry did it. ‘Manmathan is exactly the same as Maung Hkin! One is Sanskrit; the other is Burmese!’

‘Sanskrit, Sahib? Not Bengali?’ he asked a bit querulously.

‘Pure Sanskrit! Kalidasa, is n’t it, Babu?’

The Babu beamed and showed his white teeth. Every one likes his quotations recognized.

‘Well,’ the old fellow accepted it; ‘if Manmathan is the God of Love—’

And with that he sat down on his heels again behind the square tile.

‘A fiery old person!’ Hari Kishto Babu commented; ‘a highly irascible old person!’

We left the old Burman and went on down the line. We had a hundred of them, in four rows, squatting in the shadow of two immense peepul trees, a flat tile nine inches square topping a little mound of earth in front of each of them. That is our jail provision for dinner-tables. On each tile, two large flat leaves were laid, by way of dishes.

Presently the two cooks emerged from the cook-house, and came toward us, blinking, through the glare of sunshine. To each man the cooks, who also were prisoners, doled out, from big earthen pans, first a little hill of wellcooked rice, then a heap of curried vegetables and fish.

‘Who are your cooks, Babu?’

‘They are Khotriys, sir,—men of the Warrior-caste — in jail for felonious assault, sir! Before them, we had Brahman cooks — much higher caste — but they were released last month.’

Yes! In this heathen land dinner is a rite, even in jail, which only a highcaste man is fitted to administer. I rather fancy the notion.

Behind us, a stir and raised voices. Two or three of the men rose to their feet. Others simply revolved their gleaming dark eyes toward the noise.

I turned quickly on my heel. Our rugged old friend Maung Hkin was the centre of it, drawn to his full gaunt height, wildly brandishing his fist in the face of one of the cooks, who, for a man of the Warrior-caste, looked rather abashed. The Superintendent Babu and I hurried over to them and, I am convinced, just saved the Warrior-cook from getting his head punched.

To the Babu’s evident displeasure, I laid my hand on the old man’s shoulder. He started and wheeled quick round on his bare heels. His fiery eye met mine; when I smiled, he suddenly quieted down and looked deeply ashamed, blushing a kind of olive brown.

‘What is the matter, Maung Hkin?’ I asked.

‘This Bengali—’ he began, flaring up again.

I cut him off. ‘Yes, I know! What has the Bengali done?’

‘He has stolen my mutton!’

The old man’s face was dark with indignation. Hard put to it not to burst out laughing, I turned to the Babu.

‘This man is a Buddhist, your honor,’ he explained, with a slight Brahmanical sneer, ‘and he eats sheep. It is prepared for him each day. — Where is his sheep?’ He turned haughtily upon the brow-beaten cook.

‘His sheep is in the kitchen. I cannot serve it! It is against my caste!’ the Warrior-cook explained.

‘Who usually serves it?’ I asked.

‘We had a Mohammedan boy, Khoda Baksh!’ the Babu explained. ‘But he is in hospital. He is sick, your honor. ’

‘Come, Maung Hkin! Come, Babu!’ I found a solution. ‘We shall get it from the kitchen ourselves!’

We crossed the glaring sunlight, plunged into the redolent darkness of the brick cook-house, and found the mutton stewing in a little earthen pot over charcoal. Maung Hkin stooped to lift it, burned his fingers on the rim of the pot, and laughed happily — until he saw the Babu laughing. Then he laid the little pot down and rushed at the Babu, who precipitately fled.

I grabbed the Burman by the arm; his withered body swung against me. He was trembling with wrath.

‘Bengali pig! Bengali pig!’ he panted, his eyes on fire.

I held him tight, remonstrating. ‘Maung Hkin! Maung Hkin! You would hit a Bengali ?

It was as if I had accused him of maltreating a child.

He was quieting down, when Hari Kishto Babu came striding back with two up-country warders armed with batons. At the door, he stepped behind them, pushing them in first. Had I not been there, unpleasantness would have supervened. There was one quick way out of it.

‘ Babu! ’ I said, magisterially, ‘ I have ordered Maung Hkin to solitary confinement, for insubordination! Get the keys of the cells! Maung Hkin, bring your mutton and come! ’

The old Burmese followed trustingly, while the Babu bustled off for the keys, his white garb fluttering, in heart exultant over his enemy, — of whom, to tell the truth, he was horribly afraid.

I took the bunch of big, well-oiled keys, opened the cell-door myself, to soften it to the old man, signed to him to go in — and then had an idea.

‘Babu,’ I said, ‘I shall see to this man! Go to the office and get the accounts ready for me! I shall go over them minutely!’

The Babu went off haltingly, with an uneasy mind. He is quite honest, is Hari Kishto Babu, but he has a haunting fear of what might happen if some day the accounts should not come out.

There was a low bench at the back of the cell, which was a quiet, cool little chamber, like a garden-house, well fitted for meditation. I bade Maung Hkin sit down on the bench, followed him into the cell, and pulled the door to, leaving a space of six inches. I watched him eat his mutton, daintily, with his lean finger-tips, which he then carefully polished on his one garment — rather like blue bathing-trunks, with white stripes. Then I sat down beside him on the bench, and pulled out a cigarette case. Maung Hkin’s eyes sparkled as he watched me, but he said nothing. In cells, smoking is strictly forbidden. I lit a cigarette, drew in the scented smoke, and puffed it out in a blue cloud in his direction. He sniffed it up gleefully with his big round nostrils, murmuring, ‘Ah!’

I met his eyes, — fine, honest old eyes they were, — smiled, laid a hand on his bony knee, and handed him the cigarette, saying, ‘It is permitted!’

He smoked it long and lovingly, inhaling and holding the smoke in his lungs, then letting it filter out through his nostrils.

Finally I said, ‘Maung Hkin, tell me the story of your coming here!’

At first he hesitated, looking down, his cheeks dull brown. I laid my hand on his.

‘That is why,’ I said, ‘ I have brought you here — away from the Bengalis!’

‘Yes, Sahib! A light people, like the fluff of the silk-cotton tree! — or like the Bunder monkeys in the jungle.’

‘Or like the peacock that cries before the rain?’ I suggested.

The old man chuckled, delighted, as he puffed at my cigarette. Then he fell into a reverie, seeing things far off and long ago. I was careful to keep silent. At last he began to speak, and his voice came over the spaces of the years.


‘It was on account of her, my beloved, that I was brought here! — Ma San Nyun, her name was; born like me on the day of the moon; therefore the moon-god drew our hearts together! She was very fair and small and merry, very lovely to the eyes. And I think that, in the beginning, her heart was mine. For I was a fine young fellow in those days, Sahib, worth any girl’s eye, and I had boats upon the great river, in the grain-trade, and all things prospered with me! And I loved her and had it in my heart, when the young moon that drew us should come again, to persuade her, and carry her off with me to the forest. But one of your own people, Sahib, a masterful man and cunning, came between us. He was hunting elephants in our mountains, and he stayed three days at Ma San Nyun’s village. When he departed, she was gone also; and never since then have I set eyes on her or heard of her.

‘ My heart was full of thorns and fire. I left my boats there on the river, with the grain in them, to rot, and took to the jungle. We were fifty men, well armed, with good flint guns, and we made the villages along the Great River and through the hills pay tribute to us, or, if they would not, we fought them for it! And, Sahib, in the rush of the fight, when bullets were singing about our ears and men were shouting to each other through the smoke of burning huts, I forgot the face and name of Ma San Nyun, and my heart had peace. But in the evening, as we lay about the camp-fires in our hill fortress, reckoning up our spoils, her face would come back to me, small and merry and lovely, her eyes like stars, and then the fire broke out again in my heart, and gnawed me like a leopard. Then I wandered out into the night, moaning to myself, and all the time her face was before me, beckoning to me.

‘Just before the red of the dawn she led me to her village; and it came to me, as I lay there looking through the undergrowth, that, if I burned the village, her face would leave me, and I would have rest in my heart. It was the dry season then, at the end of the month of flowers. So I made fire — I had my gun with me — and ran from house to house in the gray of the dawn, setting the red torch to the thatch and the palm-leaf matting of the walls; and as the smoke surged up into the sky, the dogs began to bark, and the whole village broke forth in an uproar, with shrieking and cries, and it brought great quietude to my heart. I could have fled then to the river, and escaped, going back to our band, but the fire held me, for it was burning the pain out of my heart! So I crouched there behind a tree, watching the red tongues licking along the eaves of the thatch, when the dogs found me, and came howling about me. The watchmen ran to the sound. One I shot, and wounded another, hitting him with the butt of my gun — I was a good man, in those days, Sahib! — and would have done for more of them, but a stray bullet caught me, and I fell. But my heart was cooled and solaced by the flames. As the houses burned down to ashes and blackness, so did my pain burn out; and as the village was gone, leaving bare jungle, so her face was burned from my heart, leaving peace. Then I knew I had done well.

‘These Bengalis would not know how killing solaces a man; but, Sahib, you understand! And then they carried me away in chains, and I was sent hither, but there was laughter in my heart! And here they love me, as one who has fought well, for many times I have told the tale. But of her, of Ma San Nyun, I have not spoken, — never until to-day! Now the Sahib must go, for it is not seemly for the Sahib to remain here with an old daghee like Maung Hkin. Do not fear, Sahib! I will do no violence to the Babu! I will sleep and dream.’

‘Very well, Maung Hkin,’ I replied, as I rose and patted him on the shoulder. ’When the sun sets, I return and open the door. In the meantime, farewell! It was a good tale, such a tale as warms the heart!’

As I left him, the old man was happily chewing what was left of the cigarette.

At sunset I came back and unlocked his cell, having in the meantime harassed the blameless Babu concerning his accounts, which, though irregular in shape, with some vouchers missing, were in substance accurate. Wherefore the Babu was properly subdued when he came with me for the old man, and hung a little behind me, lest the ‘irascible old person’ might flare up again. But Maung Hkin had had a good nap, and went off quite quietly for his supper.

It must have been about nine that same evening when, after a comfortable dinner, I was sipping my coffee and turning over the pages of a monthold Graphic, in the cool stillness of my veranda. The crickets in the trees along the square had ceased their vesper concert, and the mosquitoes, happily, seemed to have gone elsewhere.

Something moved out under the flame-flowered acacia across the grass, and then came toward me through the gloom, emerging into the circle of lamplight as an extraordinary pillar of vivid green. It was old Maung Hkin, draped in a heavy piece of green baize, that looked as if it had come straight off a billiard table. I admit I was somewhat taken aback.

‘But, Maung Hkin!’ I expostulated, rising. ‘You have no business to be here! You ought to be in jail!’

‘It is well known, Sahib. But — I had need to talk with you,’ he answered with innocent earnestness.

’That’s all very well, Maung Hkin! But how did you get out? And where did you get this?’ I twitched the end of his baize shawl. It is not of the kind we furnish to our — guests.

‘The Babu was going home, Sahib,’ he answered gravely. ‘ He stood at the gate!’ Then a glint of humor lit his honest old eyes. ‘He would have delayed me. Therefore I — butted him in the stomach, and — borrowed this! After we have talked, Sahib, I shall return, taking this back to the Babu!’

‘Maung Hkin, this is highly irregular. I am afraid I shall have to put you back in cells to-morrow!’

‘It is well, Sahib!’ The old gentleman grinned. ‘ I have other stories, of the old days! There was the raid on Bwe, and the fight for the river boats, and the meeting with the elephant herd; many stories, Sahib! But that is for to-morrow, in cells! I have other matter to-night; it cannot be said to a Bengali!’

‘ All right, Maung Hkin! Go ahead! I am listening!’ And I made the old man sit down beside me, where I could watch the play of his fine wrinkled old face in the lamplight.

Maung Hkin’s face, sallow, wrinkled, rough-hewn, grew pensive, almost melancholy. No; that does not express it: an unworldly light glowed in the fine old eyes, and he seemed infinitely remote from the earth.

‘Sahib!’ his deep voice began, after a long pause which I was careful not to break, ‘Sahib, the time has come for me to die! It was revealed to me this afternoon, while I slept!'

I was a bit startled. There was nothing weak or sepulchral in his tones as he brought it out in wellrounded Bengali: —

’Amar morite hoibe! Shomoy achhe!

He spoke it well, but with an outland tang.

‘Nonsense, Maung Hkin!’ I finally broke out; ‘why on earth should you die?’

‘Because my time has come, Sahib. None lives beyond his appointed hour! Karma! — The Sahib knows the law.’

I saw that it was no use protesting. The old man had made up his mind, — and might die of that alone. However he had come to his conviction, he was palpably convinced.

‘Your time has come, then, Maung Hkin?’

‘Even so, Sahib! The time has come! Therefore my petition is this: — let me not die here among strangers, among these Bengali— ’

‘Never mind the Bengalis, Maung Hkin! Your petition is —?’

‘That I may return to my own land, Sahib. My heart is hungry for the hills. Let me see again the big forests, and the Great River, slipping through the heart of the forests! Let me go back to the village of Ma San Nyun, that I may see it once more, and die in peace!’

The tears gleamed in the old man’s eyes, as the bright lamp-light fell on his face. He was too proud, or too unconscious, to wipe them away; but when he laid his hand on mine, it was trembling.

Well, a Deputy Magistrate of the Second Class cannot say to a life-convict, ‘Go home to your own village, and die in peace!’ however much he might like to say it. I tried to explain that to Maung Hkin, with the reasons of it; but he persisted in his prayer and his belief. He was so firmly convinced that I finally gave him a halfpromise to see what could be done. He was so happy over this that in his gratitude he told me a vigorous tale of his old band, and how, on a raid, they had spitted a fat headman with boarspears; then, after we had sat a while in the darkness, lit only by the circle of the lamp, I bade him good-night and escorted him back under the stars to the gate of the prison. We made up a story to mollify the Babu, who was really very offended about being butted in the stomach, and we gave him back his green baize shawl, of which he is prouder than if it were the finest Cashmere. Only, I think he wishes it was scarlet. Both are fashionable now.

On the next day, with some natural hesitation, I took Maung Hkin’s matter up with the Collector Sahib. At first the Collector Sahib was astonished. Then he began to laugh. Finally he said, —

‘Oh, I remember the old chap! Nice old person! So he thinks he is going to die? Looked hale and hearty when I saw him!’

I pressed my plea. The old man was perfectly harmless. He had done twenty or thirty years. Perhaps there was really something in premonitions. And this Delta country was appallingly flat for a hillman!

Well, the upshot was that the Collector Sahib allowed himself to be talked over, and we made up a most persuasive memorandum to the Lieutenant-Governor, in fact urging him to let a murderous old person loose on society.

In a week or two we received an answer. ‘In consideration’ and so forth and so forth, Maung Hkin might go free. It being understood, though not baldly expressed, that he must go home to his village and die.

That was just what he wished to do. There was a moving scene of leavetaking in the jail-yard, for he was called ‘the father of the prisoners,’ and he had spoken the truth when he said they all loved him — in part, I think, because he kept Hari Kishto Babu in bodily fear. But the Babu parted from him without regret.

I drove him over to the junction and bought him an intermediate ticket to Calcutta, — which was extravagant, — also giving him directions to take the steamer thence to Rangoon, and up the Great River among the hills. Poor old chap, I thought, as I drove back through the dust and the sunshine from the junction, there was no ‘Burma girl a-waiting’ in his case!

The old man haunted my thoughts a while. Then, with the stress of small criminal cases and excise matters, and with the hot weather coming on, I am afraid he dropped into the background and got forgotten.


On yet another evening, I sat reading in the cool of the gloaming on my veranda, in the fortunate absence of mosquitoes, — though big moths insisted on battering themselves like wan ghosts against my lamp. A dark apparition flitted across the grass and — my old friend Maung Hkin stood before me, his hands folded, his eyes fixed pathetically on mine. A faint aroma of bazaar tobacco suggested that this was not his ghost.

I looked at him in wonder.

‘ Why, Maung Hkin! I thought — ’ I began.

‘It is true, Sahib!’ the old man said, very apologetically, and with a quaver in his deep, strong voice. ‘I tried! I tried hard, for a month, for two! Lying, every evening, on clean straw. But — I am healthier than ever! Therefore, Sahib, I have returned! I must go back to jail, to Hari Kishto Babu!’

There was the sting! His voice showed that.

‘Oh, but, my good old friend, that is impossible! You know we got you pardoned! You have no more business in jail now than I have! Less, indeed, for just at present I am Acting Governor! ’

The old man stared. I went over it again and again. It was in his heart that he had been let out to die. He had not succeeded in dying. Obviously, he must go back again! Finally I got him to grasp the idea. He was distressed.

‘But, Sahib,’ he asked tremulously, ‘where shall I go? I cannot die in my village! I cannot go back to the jail. What is to become of me? I must go somewhere, Sahib! You would not have shame put on my head before the Bengalis?’

I interrupted, in the flash of a sudden inspiration.

‘Maung Hkin, you are a follower of the Good Law?’

The old man bowed reverently.

‘Even so, Sahib! And of the noble Eightfold Path!’

‘Good! Then you know what Punarjanma is? — Reincarnation — He who dies, shall be born again?’

‘Yes, Sahib! In a new body. . . .’

‘Not always in a new body, Maung Hkin!—There was Vishvamitra, of the Warrior-caste, who was reborn a Brahman — in the same body! And the sons of Nabhagarishta, who, being of the Merchant-caste, were reborn as Brahmans, and the children of Dhrishta — ’

The old man was impressed by my authorities.

‘Is it so written in the Scriptures, Sahib?’

‘It is so written, Maung Hkin!’

‘What, then, is the Sahib’s order?’

‘This, Maung Hkin! It was revealed to you that your time was up; that you should go to your village and die?’

‘Even so, Sahib! It seemed to me that it was so revealed.’

‘And the Law of Karma is sure?’

‘The Law is sure!’

‘Very well, Maung Hkin! This is the order! You must die, and be reborn — in the same body, like Vishvamitra and the rest! And then you must remain with me as my servant!’ The old man blinked. Then he ruminated on it. It gradually began to tickle his fancy. And it suited my book exactly, as our own Punaswami wanted to go home to Madras. Then an idea came to me, suggested by the classic name of the departing butler.

‘Your new name is ready for you, Maung Hkin! It is Punaragami — He who comes again. A very auspicious name!’

At first the old man was suspicious.

‘Not a Bengali name, Sahib?’

‘No! Pure Sanskrit. The tongue the Lord Buddha knew.’

With bowed head, the old man thought it out.

‘It shall be even as the Sahib orders. The new name again, Sahib?’

‘ Punaragami — He who comes again.’

‘It is well, Sahib! I, who was Maung Hkin, am now Punaragami, reborn in the same body! ’ He did not try to quote my precedents, but I could see he had them impressively in mind, feeling that he was one of a highly distinguished gathering.

Presently, he began to laugh softly to himself, evidently greatly relieved. He had not really wanted to go back to jail and Hari Kishto Babu, but, honest old chap that he was, he thought he was in duty bound, since he had not made a success of dying.

So I let him sit awhile, and smoke one of my cigarettes, and gossip of his journey, and then I had him snugly installed in the servants’ quarters. The departing Punaswami had been to Mandalay and spoke a little Burmese, which delighted the old man, and they became fast friends. He did not reflect that that tongue now belonged to his past incarnation. I did not remind him.

A week later, the Waldrons were to pass through the station, on their way up to the Hills.

‘Colonel Waldron married a native, you know!’ gossiped dear old Gilber Sahib; ‘very pretty woman! Took her home, and taught her English!’

We were knocking the billiard balls about at the Club.

‘Any kiddies?’ I asked.

‘No kiddies! and ever so much better though it’s hard on her! That sort of thing often works out all right for the parents. But it’s likely to hit the kiddies hard! ’

We gave the Waldrons a dinner at the Club. Everybody liked them both. Colonel Waldron, tanned and irongray, was fit as a youngster, and told us stories of old-time hunting in the Arakan Hills. Mrs. Waldron had the prettiest manners, and spoke the prettiest English — a little thing, merry, graceful, with just a touch of gray on the temples. Rather becoming, I thought. Not so dark as a Sicilian, and with a touch of Japan in her face, but perfect in all our Western ways.

Old Maung Hkin came with me to the Club dinner, with my knives and forks stuck in his belt, as the custom is, and stood behind my chair.

After the soup, when he should have been supplying me with deliciously flavored, but abominably bony, Gangetic hilsa, I noticed that the old man was absent from my elbow, and looked round the room for him. There he was, in the corner, his eyes riveted on Colonel Waldron’s face. His glance flitted to Mrs. Waldron, then back to the Colonel. With sudden misgiving I saw his face darken, and his fingers played restlessly on the ivory handle of the dinner-knife in his belt. Was the old homicidal fury coming on him again? Then the truth flashed into my mind. We were in the very midst of a tragedy!

I called him sharply. The first time, he hardly heard me. I called him again, imperatively. He winced, rubbed his hand across his eyes, and came slowdy over to me, dragging one foot after the other.

‘That is forgotten!’ I said, speaking in his ear. ‘It was in a former birth!’

The old man shivered, gave himself a spiritual wrench, and answered in a rather shaken voice, —

‘Even so, Sahib! It is of a former birth! It is forgotten!’

Then he went quietly to the kitchen to get me some fish.

He served me sedately, with his wonderful docility, for the rest of the meal. But his eyes were perpetually wandering to Mrs. Waldron’s face.

When dinner was over, the old man did a beautiful thing. We were gathered on the Club veranda. Mrs. Waldron was sitting in a low wicker chair, in a bower of young palm trees. I was talking to her about the Alps. Maung Hkin came over and gave me a light for my cigarette. Then, very quietly, he knelt before Mrs. Waldron, took her hand — she had beautiful hands — and brought it to his forehead. It was his forgiveness of Ma San Nyun. And the full grace of it lay in his silence.