The old man looks as if he has not a care in the world. His eyes under those bushy eyebrows are serene. I wish I had some of his calmness. He seems to have found the answer to the riddle of life … even though he had had the lion’s share of life’s sorrows.
He had lost his wife just before the war. His only daughter had died in child-bed during the war. When the Japanese came, his eldest son had been forced into the labour corps and taken to work on the Thai-Burma railway, where he died. His second son joined the Burmese Army and served through the resistance, and survived. Today he is one of the Brass Hats in the Defence Services. He came home only once after the war to assure his old father that he was alive and well. After that he was so busily occupied that items in the newspaper and a stray letter or two were all the old man had of his son.
He sits there now, more like an old weathered ship than a tragic wreck. “Hey, lon-ma-lay (lass) do come down and have tea. Don’t you feel lonely upstairs? They will be here soon,” he calls out.
“They” are the neighbours who come every night to sit on the bamboo dais and talk over the pot of plain tea. I join him on the dais and he hands me a lacquer bowl of tea leaves mixed with toasted sessamum grains, fried garlic crisps and groundnuts.
“Find it a bit dull here?” he asks. “You used to play and prattle when you were a little girl. You’ve become quiet now.” He sighs, “Of course, you are grown up … a lady with English education and all that … a sayamagyi.”
“Oh, no, I feel the same little girl who came down there with my parents for holidays,” I laugh.
We turn to greet the patter of feet from jolly neighbours. Tea is passed around as they talk and smoke their fat cheroots. I find this exhilarating, like the breeze coming over the paddy fields.
It is during interesting gossip about a young gallant from town trying to win the village belle when my host cut in, “Tomorrow is pre-Sabbath, have you got rice grain ready for the nuns?”
As with village folk, the gossip is dropped as they discuss the alms they will offer to the nuns who come for their alms rounds every week.
I am exasperated. They have left the hero of the story waylaying the girl as she went to draw water from the well, walking down the shaded lane with water pot on her head and her long tresses swinging behind her.
“I have some good jaggery for the nuns … poor dears like it,” says Daw Mi, a kindly lady of 60 summers, mother of many children and a granny many times over.
“I hope Ma San Dar will come,” says Ma Pu, a spinster of uncertain age, “she seems to be very happy with her nun’s life.”
The talk turns to Ma San Dar, the nun. I am not interested in her. I want to hear what happened to the village belle and her waylaying swain.
My host asks me, “You remember Ma San Dar? That’s her new name as a nun. Her name used to be Ma Lay. The young girl who used to come and play with you.”
I nodded vaguely.
“I feel sorry for her. She is alone. It’s a pity she did not marry. What a waste of good-wife material,” Daw Mi sighs.
Ma Pu defends, “I think hers is a good life. She has no cares, no burden of a family. She has peace, perfect peace. How I wish I could be like her.”
“Pray, do not go and become a nun yourself,” says U San, a stalwart widower in his early 50s.
Daw Mi winks and says, “Well, why don’t you do something about it?”
Ma Pu gives her a pinch in the arm.
“I think being unmarried is such a waste,” insists Daw Mi rubbing her arm with one hand and returning the pinch to Ma Pu’s massive hip with the other.
U San suppresses a chuckle. “Poor Ma Lay …” he says, “I think it’s her mother who made a mess of everything. I never saw such an unnatural mother. She just hated her own daughter. I simply can’t understand.”
“You men never understand,” says Daw Mi after a puff on her cheroot. “It started before Ma Lay was born. Ever heard the talk about Ma Lay’s father having a love affair where he had gone to work?”
My host pours more tea and says, “You mean about a man’s dead sweetheart being born as his daughter? Oh, you women believe in any superstitious nonsense.”
I am suddenly revived by the smell of a good story.
Ma Pu asks, “Is it not possible for the dead girl to be reborn as a daughter in her lover’s family?”
“I do not say it is impossible,” my host answers, “but you cannot be sure. You women talk as if you saw the dead girl going into the tum’ of her lover’s wife.”
Well, Ma Lay’s mother saw, in her dream, the girl coming to sleep in her arms. She believed it was her husband’s sweetheart born again,” insists Ma Pu.
“Well, my dear, such things might happen,” my host says gently. “It is neither strange nor unusual. We are all creatures moving in this cycle of birth and death. We move along the unending cycle as humans, animals or devas (celestial beings) according to our merits. We meet other beings as we move along hating or loving one another. Each of us has had countless existences previous to the present, with more to come after this life is over. We have met, loved and hated, parted and then met again in this cycle. So what’s strange in the man’s sweetheart being born again as his own daughter? It is the Law of Karma.”
“Of course,” mumbles Daw Mi, “but it spells tragedy for the family.”
The company fall silent. I can no longer bear to be left in ignorance, so I ask what happened to Ma Lay and her parents. It is not at all a strange story. Ma Lay adored her father and he doted on her, while he would not suffer so much as an unkind look from her mother. Her mother became jealous, being constantly reminded of her dream and the gossip about her husband’s love affair.
” I think the woman was just unreasonable. Even if Ma Lay were her husband’s sweetheart reborn, she had then become their daughter. There should be no cause for jealousy,” says Ma Pu.
“You are right,” says U San. “The woman should remember that the two were father and daughter, regardless of what they had been in the previous existence. We all go along in this cycle. Who knows, you and I might have been brother and sister, or father and daughter or … er … you know what I mean.”
Ma Pu swallows her tea the wrong way and splutters.
Daw Mi tries not to smile, “Yes, you are right. We move along in this cycle of rebirth. We meet one another as friends, relatives or enemies as we go along. Ma Lay might have crossed her father’s path as his sweetheart. A slight cough or sneeze from her father sent her fussing. She did not seem to like her mother, who beat her and abused her. Father and mother fought over her.”
Daw Mi rambles on about these quarrels, with eager contributions from the others. When she begins about a fight on a Sabbath day, someone remembers the one on New Year’s Day … As it is getting late, my patience runs out. “Where are Ma Lay’s parents now? I ask.
“Both dead,” reveals Daw Mi. “Her father was stricken by paralysis and her mother left him and took a new husband. She died a few years later. Although bed-ridden, her father lived on for a long time. Ma Lay stayed with him to the end. She sold vegetables and did odd jobs to support them but she seemed happy and contented. Long before he died she had already made plans to become a nun. She nursed and looked after him for 20 years. When he died in her arms, she accepted his death without bitterness. She had found peace at last.”
“But you thought it was such a waste of good wife material just now?” I ask playfully.
Daw Mi smiles and winks at Ma Pu. ” I mean Ma Lay’s life is a good one. She’s all right for herself. But she had so much good in her that some man might make good use of. Some man might be made very happy if only he were not blind and foolish. Men can be such fools. They do not see the good qualities in a mature woman.”
She looks meaningfully at U San, who looks wistfully at the moon. She goes on with her homily on the pleasures of having a good woman as wife, but my host cuts her short.
“Well, Daw Mi, everything happened according to the Law of Karma. Love, hate and sorrow come and pass like storms. You can always find peace and quiet if you wait patiently enough. Ma Lay suffered but she found peace in a nun’s life … at last.”
Everyone assents. Ma Lay, in spite of her sufferings, was the triumphant one. She had her adored father to herself in the end. With her duty done, she found peace as a nun.
My host pours the last dregs of tea into his cup, “It’s getting late. Ma Pu, my lass, don’t you feel frightened going home by yourself? That big tamarind tree is said to be haunted; U San, will you see her home?
The company disperses. In my room I sit down on my bed wondering — was Ma Lay her father’s sweetheart reborn? A shaft of moonlight falls on the wall where a photograph I had sent my host on the occasion of my graduation hangs. An all-knowing face with cap and gown looked back at me with patronising amusement as if to say, “Ma Lay has Electra Complex.”
“Electra Complex, my foot,” I mutter. “Stop talking through that scholastic cap! Why can’t you accept things like the simple folk, the Law of Karma and the cycle of rebirth?”
I look out of window. Down the village lane, half hidden by trees, I see U San and Ma Pu walking side by side. They keep decorous distance. I watch them with interest as they approach the haunted tree. All of a sudden, something crashes through the boughs sending a startled Ma Pu into the arms of U San. The couple fade into the shadows.
Before I can recover from my surprise, I hear a discreet chuckle among the banana grove and catch a glimpse of a black and yellow figure under the leaves. I giggle happily and retire, leaving the elderly cupid to do his work.