by Kenneth Wong
In the early eighties, in a suburb of Rangoon, our family became the third household on Ye Kyaw Road to acquire a television set. We could afford this luxury, the latest to appear on Burma’s black market, because my uncle, who briefly dabbled in Japanese and Taiwanese electronics, was able to secure a heavily discounted unit from a cash-strapped smuggler. Knowing full well our purchase fell outside the scope of private commerce sanctioned by Burma’s tightfisted socialist government, we tried to complete it with a prudent measure of discretion. But we failed. Our housemaid informed the other two families that she would no longer be coming over for episodes of her favorite romantic comedy because she could now catch it at our house. In a small, intimate Burmese community, this was as good as publishing it in the newspaper.
When we pulled up in a taxi, our neighbors met us with broad, expectant grins. Thrusting their eager, brown hands in the air, they offered to haul the box from the car to our front gate, a distance of roughly ten feet. Every inch of the journey was beset by the volunteers’ disagreement over the proper distribution of the load overhead; each protested that he was not given enough of the burden to share. They had good reasons for insisting. Our apartment, unlike the other television owners’, was conveniently situated on the ground floor, easily accessible from the street, and spacious enough to accommodate a sizable crowd. The neighbors were counting on the practice of reciprocity, the basic social principle in Burma, to be invited back on movie nights. After they had set the weight down, and after they had been repaid with a generous quantity of Indian spiced tea for their unsolicited labor, they quietly sat, like obedient courtesans in a harem, and observed the installation, much hampered by the difference of opinions among the technical experts.
Each of the other two families with television sets had graciously dispatched someone to help us. The son of the first recalled that it took his family a whopping six hours to get reception. The nephew of the second boasted that it only took them four. We were confident that, between the two of them, they could get our unit up and running in two hours, three tops. We were wrong. After the fifth hour, they swallowed their pride, chasing it with complimentary cream soda from our fridge, and admitted defeat.
The beleaguered experts appealed to the auto mechanic across the street. Most of us had witnessed, at one time or another, his tenacious struggle to jump-start his uncooperative jeep. Every morning, he stood before the parked car with its hood up, like St. George before the dragon’s gaping jaws. Sometimes we heard him shouting profanities as if he were uttering magical incantations to subdue the beast. Other times we saw him reaching deep into the fiery throat of the monster, where the carburetor emitted sparks, to dislodge an extraneous object or disentangle a jumble of intestines. In the aftermath of this bloody battle (sometimes it literally drew blood), he could be seen crouching before a plastic basin, washing the dark diesel oil off his bruised arms with admirable equanimity. We thought surely a man who had tamed such an automobile ought to be able to conquer an electrical device, but even the reckless knight, in time, proved no match for our obstinate apparatus.
My father, a bank clerk who had no business meddling with mechanical matters, ventured to decode the manual that came with the product. He was educated at St. Paul’s missionary school when the country was still a British colony; consequently, he was stuck with the Victorian English that seldom suited the vernacular of the common folks. After a brief encounter with the manual’s colloquialism, which appeared to be a Japanese copywriter’s imitation of American English, the honorable cleric, too, retreated.
Eventually someone realized there was nothing wrong with the machine; the rooftop antenna needed adjustment. This was hardly surprising, as there was a large pigeon population in Rangoon that made constant use of clotheslines, drainpipes, and antennas in ways for which they were not intended. The birds perched on them, flew into them, pecked at them, fought with them, knocked them senseless, and so on. There were two floors above the living room; we posted six volunteers at various places along the stairs. With his sarong secured in a double knot, the mechanic braved the monsoon drizzle and climbed the corrugated tin roof. Then he started twisting the crucifix-like contraption several degrees at a time.
In the living room, there was great excitement as the buzzing snowfall on the screen was replaced by multiple images of a dignified Burmese gentleman, the news anchor, with blue skin and orange hair. His voice floated in and out and his torso bounced up and down as more adjustments were made. My uncle sent instructions up to the mechanic through the volunteers, who successively relayed his words like couriers posted along a medieval highway. Sometimes the messages were altered: “Turn just a couple of notches to the left,” my uncle would shout, based on the method that had been producing progressively better results; by the time it got to the mechanic, it became, “Turn it to the left as far as you can.” Other times, the message didn’t arrive in time: “Stop it right there,” my uncle screamed as soon as the image came into focus; by the time it reached the executioner, the newsman was, once again, headless and quartered. When he was finally anchored to the center, and his face had reacquired flesh tone, we celebrated the victory with loud cheers and clapping that echoed throughout the street. Awakened by the commotion, the pariah dogs began to bay, providing background harmony for our chorus. My mother sent me off to buy Samosas to serve with another round of soda and tea.
I headed for the Hindu temple nearby. The temple keeper’s wife, who sold fritters by the pound, greeted me with a smile, not even bothering to hide her grotesquely misaligned teeth stained with red areca juice. I placed an order that was three times the size to feed our household.
“What’s happening at your house?” she inquired.
“We just got a television,” I answered.
“Acha, it must be very exciting,” she said. “Do they show Indian
In Burma, whenever someone said they, it was understood as a reference to the country’s government. Nobody wanted to acknowledge it by its official name; everyone used the ambiguous pronoun, spitting it out like a piece of undercooked liver: they just confiscated the rice mills in Mandalay; they are limiting gasoline rations next week; they are suspending Newsweek deliveries because there’s an article about the student uprising. It was always us against them. Depending on their whims, we prospered or failed, rejoiced or grieved, lived or died. Everything happened at the mercy of this nameless entity.
“Sometimes, on Saturday nights, they show Bollywood musicals,” I answered.
“I love musicals,” she said, throwing several extra pieces into the
That was the first of many special treatments I would receive in the weeks to follow. The snack-shop proprietor gave me a large bag of pickled plums for the price of a small one. The noodle-stall owner gave me extra servings free of charge. Some bullies who used to tease me came to make amends. In my afternoon chess matches against a regional champion, I mysteriously started to win. The cheroot merchant, who knew I wasn’t the least bit interested in his homemade tobacco sticks, encouraged his youngest daughter, whom I was very much interested in, to befriend me. The only person who remained indifferent was the Hindu temple keeper. As I understood, he had previously made a pledge to Krishna to shun all American movies, so he had no cause for fraternizing with me. But his wife continued to tip the scale in my favor whenever I went to her for fritters.
The state-run Burmese Broadcasting Services was the only television network for the entire country. The early lineup between 5:00 and 7:00 p.m. was made up of local news (propaganda), world news (heavily censored), and a talent showcase (mostly amateurs). The more adult-themed, prime-time lineup from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m. boasted episodes of Columbo, Charlie’s Angels, and Little House on the Prairie. Our living room quickly turned into a community theater. The transformation was courteous and orderly, if not entirely consensual. Children came from near and far, some bringing their own cushions and mats, to reserve their spaces. Sometimes they squabbled among themselves, but the disputes rarely spilled into the sacred area—the two rows of chairs in the back reserved for our family and a close circle of friends, which, by now, encompassed the mechanic, the chess champion, the cheroot merchant, and those volunteers who came to help on delivery day.
Over time, our guests seemed to work out a system of seating priorities. It included some fairly complex rules: they had a way of recognizing returning viewers; they gave precedence to those willing to stick around for uninteresting programs (such as live coverage of military parades); they had a waiting list. They even had a pecking order. We discovered this when my mother handed them the leftover Samosas. The plate did not get passed from one row to the next as logic dictated; it took instead a zigzagging path that left us in confusion. They were all very civilized.
There was also another mob, which we referred to as “the little barbarians.” They invaded every square inch of concrete outside our windows and front gate. This group consisted largely of neighborhood tramps and urchins, lurking around, peering in. They left their marks everywhere, but especially in the crosshatches of the collapsible gate’s iron frame. We tolerated them but found it impossible not to show our disapproval. They mocked Columbo’s slurred speech and stuttering, which we found endearing. They jeered when theyoungest child of the Ingalls family fell and tumbled down the hill in the opening sequence of Little House on the Prairie. We had grown quite fond of that little girl and didn’t share their sense of humor. We also caught them giggling at the cheroot merchant, who could never remain awake during local news. It was one thing for them to ridicule fictional characters, quite another to make fun of those in the television owner’s inner circle.
The barbarians’ chattering also threatened to drown out thserenades of the pop-star wannabes. The nimble ones among them frequently climbed onto my mother’s beloved gardenia hedges. They were constantly shifting and moving like restless nomads. The girls usually left in throngs when the talent showcase was over; then the boys, like a pack of hyenas, quickly jumped into the vacated spots to gawk at Charlie’s perky Angels. The transfer was never orderly. One night a fight broke out between two adolescents, both of whom claimed Farrah Fawcett as their fantasy girlfriend. Their pugilistic approach to conflict resolution, so different from the peaceful hierarchy of those inside, left us horrified. It convinced us we had to do something. But what? Their illegitimacy gave them the upper hand. If somebody inside misbehaved, we could do a number of things: we could turn the culprit out, suspend his or her viewing privileges, or banish him or her from the living room altogether. This method wouldn’t work with those on the outside.
As collective punishment, we shut the venetian blinds on the windows previously left open to accommodate them. We left the front gate alone, because we felt it would be incredibly rude to cut them off completely. But closing the blinds meant foregoing the cool breezes that brought relief from the stifling heat; we anticipated a good deal of discomfort for ourselves. Accordingly, we urged those in our inner circle to bring their own fans when they came over. Since it was customary to distribute commemorations in the form of paper fans to mourners at Burmese funerals, our friends arrived the next day carrying heart- and moon-shaped leaflets attached to short bamboo handles. Tickled by the comedy sketches that night, they waved their fans, each bearing the name and photo of a recently departed. The air was thick with the posthumous chuckles of the deceased.
The race to stake out a premium spot in front of our home had replaced the neighborhood tramps’ usual nightly amusement, an aggressive game of hide-and-seek that spoiled many a delicate patch of dancing ladies and caused much consternation among the horticulturists on the street. So it must have irked them to find themselves suddenly barred from the regular entertainment they had come to expect. Deprived of the window views, they now had no other choice but to crowd around the front gate to catch a glimpse of the tiny screen. They exacted their revenge on the defenseless pile of footwear belonging to those who had been admitted inside—the increased traffic had become too much for our shoe shelf to handle, so some visitors were obliged to leave their footwear outside. Soon after we shut the blinds, guests began to complain that their slipper and sandals were missing.
The cheroot merchant came up with an idea. Why not invite some of the little rascals to come in? He had been observing them. Truth be told, there were several that seemed susceptible to reason and discipline. What if we gave them proper seating, perhaps even a Samosa or two, to see if they could be reformed? Then, when they saw that good behavior was rewarded, the rest might fall in line. The plan was brilliant and simple. There was just one problem: we wouldn’t be able to find a place for everyone. This, the cheroot merchant pointed out, wouldn’t be an issue. The understanding that any of them might be invited inside ought to do the trick. We wouldn’t necessarily have to seat them all; we just had to make an example of one or two. If needed, we could use a rotation system to select who got in and who stayed out. We decided to try his proposal. Since most of the urchins were about my age, it fell to me to make the first selection.
The crowd outside was thicker than usual, because Cartoon Carnival was the main attraction. I pointed at the noodle seller’s son and the snack-shop owner’s son. Our doughty housemaid went outside to fetch them, fighting her way through a thick jungle of sweaty, deadlocked limbs. The two boys appeared to be half in shock, half in disbelief. Looking around, they timidly stepped onto the cool cement floor that had been, up to that point, off-limits. They glanced at their comrades outside apologetically. The others met them with cold, hard stares. “Traitors, sellouts,” they seemed to say. The two boys reluctantly turned their backs on them. I consoled them with cream soda and Samosas. Their friends outside roared with laughter when Elmer Fudd’s shotgun misfired and blew up in his face, again when Tom and Jerry chased each other around the house and knocked down the vases, and again when Tweety tricked Sylvester into thinking a piece of dynamite was a telephone receiver. The noodle seller’s son and the snack-shop owner’s son watched the same hilarious sequences without uttering a sound. The next day, they rejoined the crowd outside and refused to return to the living room.
It was time to take a more drastic measure. In a confidential war council around the kitchen table, the household committee, along with some honorary members (the mechanic, the cheroot merchant, the chess champion, and several others who had acquired voting rights), unanimously decided to shut the teak panels flanking the collapsible gate. My late grandfather seemed to have installed these solid wooden pieces more for show than for practical purposes; Rangoon had never been harassed by marauders and plunderers (excepting the government troops). The creaking noises that the rustic hinges made were so unnerving that we had not wanted to stir these ancient bulwarks unless we had just cause.
The following Saturday, there was a double feature, two Bollywood musicals presented back-to-back. Our eager volunteers were about to force the panels shut when I caught a glimpse of a red sari outside. It was the temple keeper’s wife, squatting behind the crowd, munching on areca nuts. She had the advantage of height, so she had a good view of the screen even from the bottom of the doorsteps.
Her eyes were fixed on the gyrating dancers.
“Stop,” I shouted.
“What’s the matter?” the stunned elders demanded.
I directed their eyes to the temple keeper’s wife. They became very uneasy. As a general rule, none of the television owners liked to see grown-ups squatting outside their homes. It just didn’t look right. Shutting out the neighborhood tramps was different. They were troublesome, quarrelsome, and insubordinate, thus deserving of the treatment they received. The temple keeper and his wife belonged to the lowest threshold of society. In Buddhist Burma, the heartland of charity, nobody wanted to risk being perceived as lacking compassion for the less fortunate. She must be brought in before we shut the gate.
“Go ask her to come inside,” somebody said.
Our stalwart housemaid was once again summoned to thetask. She practically dragged the poor Indian woman along, like an unwilling schoolgirl being led to the principal’s office. The temple keeper’s wife looked back in dismay as the heavy panels swung shut behind her. The protesting voices outside rose to a climax. The angry pounding continued for some time, but the barricades held. I learned that night that teak was hailed as “the king of timber” for a reason.
We tried to seat the Indian woman in a chair, but she declined. She didn’t speak Burmese very well, but she made that quintessential Indian gesture, rocking her head from side to side with a raised palm. She continued the rocking for some time to convince us that she in fact preferred to remain on the floor, among the children. It was a packed house, so the indoor audience was not happy to have to make room for a newcomer.
Sensing their displeasure, she produced from a hidden pouch in her sari a brown bag filled with broken pieces of Samosas. She surrendered it to someone sitting next to her. These fritter crumbs siphoned out of hot oil might have been considered a delicacy at other times, but they failed to please the disgruntled crowd that night. Her hollow cheeks quivered as she watched the bag being passed around from one hand to the next, refused by everyone. She watched the Indian heartthrob Amitabachan croon, in what appeared to be downtown Bombay dressed up to look like uptown London, but I could tell she wasn’t enjoying it. Her head-rocking was not in sync with the beat of the song. Too polite to make us reopen the gate, she sat and endured three torturous hours in silence. Afterwards, she hurried off into the empty street. She would never return, I thought.
But she did, the next Saturday and every Saturday thereafter. She reclaimed her previous post behind the gate, her veil floating above a sea of tiny heads. This time our housemaid couldn’t convince her to come in, neither by appeal nor by force. We noticed several bags brimming with crumbs circulating among the little barbarians. From the look of it, they were quite happy with the free snacks. The assembly outside took on a festive mood, which even grim speculations about the gate couldn’t spoil. The two wooden planks threatened to come together at any moment like the parts of a guillotine.
“You know her, you better go get her,” my uncle suggested to me.
The street lamp beneath which she sold Samosas was always swarming with crickets and moths. Inevitably, some of the insects, fumigated by the smoke from her frying pan, fell into the hot oil and singed to a crisp. The small ones became virtually indistinguishable from the sesame seeds she sprinkled over every batch of fritters. I was always touched by the way she carefully picked out those dead bugs before she put my Samosas into a cone. Surely she liked me, I thought; I was more than a patron to her. I was wrong. When I reached out to her, she immediately withdrew her bony hands. Then she deftly insulated herself by pulling the dusky sari over her head, effectively preventing me from renewing my invitation. Her hennapainted feet were firmly planted on the ground, as if they had been cemented there. No matter how hard I tried, she wouldn’t budge.
The adults in the household were upset. How could she just squat there in front of someone’s house like that? Why wouldn’t she come in? She should either come in or go away. The cheroot merchant, never one to shrink from extreme measures, proposed that the teak panels be closed regardless. But he couldn’t get the consensus required to proceed. Everyone had sunk his or her teeth into the temple keeper’s wife’s crispy fritters at one time or another. No one wanted to shut her out. An old Burmese proverb declares, rather tersely, that if one has ever received so much as a mouthful from another, one is forever indebted. We had to leave the doors open. When the broadcast began, ushered in by the recognizable xylophone music, a delighted roar went up among the little barbarians, because they realized they weren’t going to be excluded that night.
The cheroot merchant, whose son had recently married an Indian girl, offered an interesting theory. There was this caste system in India, he told us. He couldn’t remember exactly how it worked, but he had learned a bit from his daughter-in-law. Intermarrying between certain castes was forbidden, or discouraged at any rate, to prevent the lower castes from corrupting the supposed purity of the higher castes. Some castes were so lowly it was like having no caste at all. The untouchables, the lowest of all, couldn’t even let their shadows touch another person’s when they passed in the street. He was not a superstitious man, he said, no, not at all, and not even an Indian. He was a devout Buddhist, but he made sure his daughter-in-law belonged to a decent caste all the same. One had to respect these ancient traditions. He suspected the temple keeper’s wife belonged to a lower caste, which was why she was intimidated by the call to sit among us.
The temple keeper’s wife became a permanent fixture outside our home, on the other side of the iron frame. Each movie night, she returned, even if she didn’t find the program interesting. No one could induce her to come in. It became evident that the little barbarians had adopted her as their honorary queen (with an old umbrella for a scepter); their faces lit up like Chinese lanterns whenever she appeared, because her presence guaranteed an unobstructed view of the television. Sometimes we caught her yawning, without a single care for the gunfight or the swashbuckling on-screen, but she held out to the end. The crowd around her swelled or thinned, but she was always there. Even in the heaviest monsoon downpour and the prickliest heat of the dry season, she faithfully perched on our doorsteps, an obstinate raven haunting our conscience.
Kenneth Wong, the author of A Prayer for Burma (Santa
Monica Press, 2003), grew up in Rangoon, Burma, and now lives in
San Francisco. His writings have appeared in San Francisco Chronicle
and elsewhere. (4/2007)