The Man in the Blue Checked Loungyi
by Keyan Bowes
U Maung Tin is waiting for me.
Waking in my room at the old Strand Hotel, I view the ragged cotton rug and bare light-bulb with pleasure. Burma again! Fabled land. My father spent his childhood here and fled to India with his parents as a war refugee when Rangoon was bombed in World War II. It has been left to me to return 35 years later to the land of my father’s stories, the land of the Rangoon River, the elegant Strand, the marvelous golden pagoda.
I wash up in the bathroom down the hall, quickly tie on my sari, and hurry down the once-grand staircase. U Maung Tin has agreed – reluctantly – to take me to see the Shwe Dagon Pagoda at dawn.
The old gentleman is dressed in what I have come to recognize as formal wear – a white shirt and a short jacket with a dark green checked loungyi, the wrap that serves instead of trousers. He stands under a street lamp by his 1940s Austin, with his nephew who is his chauffeur.
U Maung Tin is more than a colleague. Though he’s my father’s age or more, he’s been my friend and guide to this strange and wonderful city. I note with concern that he looks even more frail than he did two years ago. He has whitish cataract rings round his irises.
“Indira,” he says.
He’s still inexplicably reluctant. If I call it off even now, he’ll be relieved. I wonder why, but I am determined not to notice. “How are you, U Maung Tin?” I ask instead. “Did you bring photographs of your grandson? How are things in Burma these days?”
We drive down beautiful roads, typical British-tropical-colonial, deeply shadowed by huge old trees on each side. The street lamps are dim, comforting by contrast to the sodium vapor lamps becoming ubiquitous in Hong Kong and even New Delhi. It feels like stepping twenty or thirty years back in time.
By the time we reach the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, dawn is breaking. The nephew stays to watch the car, while we go up in the elevator, installed incongruously on one side of the hill in a concrete pylon. U Maung Tin steps out with a determined air. I can’t read his face; his expressions are foreign to me, and he’s older by too many years.
On the pagoda platform, the temple bells that edge the hundreds of shrines chime gently in the breeze, reminiscent of Kipling’s verse. Over years or centuries, the whole platform has been paved, apparently at random, with marble or stone or glazed ceramic tile.
A sturdy man dressed in a dark blue checked loungyi walks up to us as we arrive, and looks as though he is about to speak. U Maung Tin pointedly ignores him and turns instead to me. I expect him to say something in explanation, but he doesn’t. “This is the best time to visit,” he says instead.
U Maung Tin, after a long time! Maybe this time I will have an opportunity to speak to him. Maung Tin, stop, I want to say. But he ignores me. There’s a woman with him, a foreigner in a saree, an Indian. Maybe she can influence him?
We walk round the pagoda. A lace of bamboo scaffolding covers the immense rounded dome rising above us. Workers are renewing its coating of gold leaf. I can barely discern the umbrella high on top that forms its jewel-studded finial.
“It’s so peaceful,” I remark as we walk to the North Gate and look down on the wooded countryside. “If you visited Thailand, you would see the contrast…”
“The government would not give me a passport,” he replies, “even if the Journal were to pay my expenses.” He is an occasional correspondent for several foreign newsmagazines, including my own. “They do not trust journalists,” he adds.
“How did you come to be one, then?” I ask. It seems a risky profession here.
“Ah, it was years ago, Indira. Actually I trained as a scientist. Not many positions were available and I lost the one I wanted. I joined a newspaper instead. But then this government came, they took over the newspapers and we had no independence.” The two English-language newspapers in Rangoon publish identical government news releases in different sequences. “So I report for foreign papers.”
I sense there’s something more to the story, but he stops there. We continue to walk clockwise around the dome. It feels proper to go by the right, the Hindu pradakshina, the correct way.
Gazing at the quiet eyes of the Buddha images in the myriad shrines, it seems that the veneration of millions of worshippers has imbued them with a special sanctity. Some images are hundreds of years old, some quite new. The past treads lightly here into the present. We buy squares of gold leaf and apply them to a convenient statue as an act of grace. Though neither Buddhist nor religious, I find I can comprehend a calm and thoughtful God.
U Maung Tin stops and indicates a particular shrine. “There is a superstition that you come to this place if you want a wish to come true very badly.”
I nod. “Yes, we have superstitions like that in India, too.”
“But actually, I believe it.”
I’m surprised. I had thought U Maung Tin to be the typical old-school rational gentleman. I quickly assent, wanting to encourage him.
“It happened to me. Once I was in prison and my wife came here for a year, and I was released.”
“Oh, for the Freedom Movement?” We ex-colonials know about that. A spell in prison during the struggle for independence from the British is something my parents’ generation wears proudly, a badge of honor.
“No, it was nothing to do with the Independence Struggle. I was arrested for murder.”
“Murder?” Then I realize, with a little shiver, that the Struggle did have its violent moments. Of course there were false arrests. “How terrible! A gentleman like you, charged with murder?”
“Actually, I did it.”
I try to look understanding instead of shocked.
“He was a local bully. He insulted my wife publicly in the market. I couldn’t stand that. It was a matter of my honor. I would have looked like a coward. The Court accepted that and they let me go in twelve months. But it ruined my career. I had an offer from the National Institute of Science, but by the time I was released, the position was filled.”
We continue walking. “He ruined my career,” he said again. We pass the man in the blue loungyi who again seems to want to speak, and U Maung Tin nods toward him. “That man.”
Startled, I try not to look too obviously. “So he survived?”
“No, he didn’t. Something pulled him from the past, I think you would call it a time-warp.”
I try not to sound skeptical as I ask, “But how would that happen?”
U Maung Tin shrugs. “His wife was devoted to him even though he was a scoundrel. She came here every day for five years, and then he appeared. He is usually here at dawn and sometimes at dusk. Maybe if I still was doing science I would find out about time-warps, but now I just avoid him.”
U Maung Tin, listen, I want to say as I follow them around the great dome. The foreign woman is nothing to him, just a colleague, a casual friend. So Maung Tin, I speak to you directly if you will stop to listen. Maybe we should have ignored the quarrels of our women. But when my wife came crying because your wife called her a cheat, I was furious. I stepped out of my shop-stall to confront her.
He glances at the man before quickly turning to me again. “Today since you wanted to see the Pagoda at the best time, I came anyway.” Now I understand his reluctance. It’s a great favor, and I’m touched; I’ve never known if he values my friendship as much as I do his. But I say nothing, nod my thanks. We look up at the great golden dome shining above us. In this timeless setting, I am willing to believe U Maung Tin’s tale.
“Does his wife come here?” I ask out of curiosity.
“No, she died some years ago.”
U Maung Tin, the fault was not on one side only. Perhaps I should not have grabbed your wife or called her a whore in the marketplace, perhaps I should not have shouted loudly so the crowd gathered around her. But she should not have called my wife a cheat. She should have known whose wife she insulted. I was not afraid of you, a skinny young man half my age. The knife you snatched up in your rage was skinny too. Anyway, I never thought you would kill me.
The sun is getting oppressively hot, and the nephew will be getting impatient. We start down by the great Southern Gate of the Pagoda, taking the long staircase that meanders down the hillside, pausing at the wonderful little stalls selling figurines, wood carvings, tapestries embroidered with sequins, lacquer-ware, puppets, and golden paper owls for good fortune.
In the car, U Maung Tin relaxes visibly and takes out photographs of his grandson to show me. As we pull away, I look back. The lonely time-ghost in the blue checked loungyi is standing at the foot of the stairs. He gestures and mouths some words we cannot hear. Then he turns and starts climbing wearily upward to the Southern Gate.
U Maung Tin, stop, stop! My wife is dead. Your wife is dead. Our quarrel is over. There is no one here for me. You are the only person I recognize any more. Only you are left to pray at the shrine. U Maung Tin, before you die, you must murder me again.More stories like this by topic: Authors of color, Burma, Characters of color, Desi authors, Indian authors, Women authors