Daily Archives: 30 March 2004

Vignettes from a Rural Burmese Childhood

Above the fireplace in Grandma’s kitchen, beneath the sooty shelf (our houses lacked chimneys, and the smoke had to find its own way out through holes cut in the gables) hung a huge amount of dried meat — beef, wild boar, rats, fish, game birds, moles, snakes — and above that were herbs of all kinds. In the corners of the store-room were huge bags of pounded rice, while big pots of rice-wine were being brewed, swamped with clouds of rice-wine gnats. We had no trouble from mosquitos there, for they hate the yeast that rises from the rice-wine as it brews. Beneath the roof, sheaves of maize and millet hung from the beams on bamboo poles. Grandma’s cat always roamed above the beams protecting the grains from rodents. Geckos and wall-lizards were constant visitors to the walls — propitious and sacred creatures that preyed on small insects. The floor of the house had to be swept every day with elephant-grass brushes. [p. 59]

On summer nights we watched the burning of the mountain slopes by the slash-and-burn farmers on the other side of the lake. The red trails of the fires seemed to devour the water of the lake and the stars of the sky like some mythical monster. The fires were reflected in the lake, so that the whole scene had a special quality of terror and mystery. It seemed to me as though half the world was burning. The fires burned for many nights in succession, and I often woke during the night to watch the changing pattern of the flames. The fragrance of blossoms from the orange tree often swept past the house on the evening breeze as we slept in the open on the balcony or in the tree-house. We also washed and ate in the open — there were not many mosquitos in our town. Wild grouse, cuckoos and summer birds called their mates from bushes and treetops, while the sounds of the cicadas and bees were unbearably loud.

Why do I have such vivid memories of a burning world? As usual, these were not just my personal response, but were shot through with the beliefs I had inherited. The Padaung are haunted both by the Christian idea that the world might come to an end, and by their own ancient beliefs about fire: ‘When the forest burns, the wild cats rejoice.’ This is a vision of civil disorder and of those who would exploit it. Fire is one of the ‘five enemies of man’ in Buddhist tradition — but it is also a power we revere, a power to cleanse and renew. [pp. 53-54]

The jungles to the west of the town and the lake to the east were our playgrounds. We used to pick seasonal wild fruits and play hide-and-seek. But our special pleasure was war games. Inspired by all the government warnings about the rebels lurking in the jungles around the town, we enacted guerrilla raids and attacks, abductions and killings.

The war games became reality later, when we witnessed real fights between government troops and rebels very near our town. We were intensely excited, because each fight seemed ridiculously like a game, except that real people got wounded and killed. Perched on tree branches on the tops of hills, we watched the clashes as if they were football matches. We cheered and shouted while people were slaughtering each other in earnest in the valley.

We organised dangerous games for ourselves. We built small carts with wooden wheels for downhill racing. The carts were like modern go-karts, but with no steering wheel or cover. Of course we wore no protective clothing. To make the carts run faster, we greased the axles with a slimy liquid chewed from the bark of a gum tree. The steeply descending track was strewn with tree-stumps, barbed wire, cacti and bamboo. Worst of all, the track skirted an electricity pylon mushroomed with landmines at its base. No one managed to finish the track without getting hurt. Two boys were killed. Another of our games was to use long poles to prod and explode the landmines around pylons. [pp. 48-49]

SOURCE: From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey, by Pascal Khoo Thwe (HarperCollins, 2002)

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