30 July 2012
Fiction: The story of a ‘natural’ death in the generals’ Burma.
The phone call was frantic and not clear. It sounded as if the cell phone’s batteries were failing. My friend’s voice quavered. He sounded as if he was going to cry.
“Bring all the guys and your mother,” he said. “Come quickly.”
I could not get anything out of him except where he was. He needed help getting to the hospital.
It was 2 am. It was raining.
My mother, who was in her sixties, was not amused to be woken in the early hours.
“What’s it now?” she asked. “I wish you’d find other friends to hang out with than these, these –” She let the sentence hang, and gave me a look to match her tone.
“– than these power-holders.” I finished the sentence in my head.
“Isn’t it enough that you young men go over there?” my mother demanded. “Why do you have to cart along an old woman like me?”
“He specifically asked for you,” I replied, pulling on my Hawaiian shirt with yellow hibiscus blossoms on it, while she waddled into the bathroom to brush her teeth. I could hear her passing wind and complaining in there.
When she came out, she stepped into a new longyi and asked again, “Why don’t you find something overseas and leave like everyone else? I can look after myself. Even the men in the merchant marine send money home. So can you.”
“But mother –” I said, and forgot to finish my sentence.
I opened the bolts to the garage door on the inside. She got into the car and we drove out. The night durwan was awake, and he ran to open the garden gate. I dialed on my cell phone to get my friends to meet me there, at Toe and Seinn’s house.
Toe Winn Latt was General Bright Sun’s son-in-law. Seinn, Toe’s wife, was the General’s favorite daughter. She had a degree in geology from Shanghai Normal University, and I guess that helped her with her job in the export sector and at the annual government gem emporium. The General liked gemologists and gems.
Being Bright Sun’s favorite daughter, she had always had her grades raised throughout her time in school. My mother had taught English in university and she always said Seinn’s English was not that good, but she didn’t know it herself. When Seinn failed her entrance exams to medical school in the UK, my mother was co-opted into starting English language ‘clinics’ in Rangoon to correct the pronunciation of the new, younger English teachers who had grown up under Bright Sun’s regime and did not have the clipped English tones of my mother and her friends, who had grown up in Rangoon in the fifties when it was still under the democratic government of prime minister U Nu (‘Mr Tender’).
In school, we called Toe Winn Latt ‘Bread Loaf’ because his head was shaped like a loaf of bread. He was good-natured but not too bright. The math teacher Miss Hallegwa, whom we called ‘the second last Jew in Burma’, (her sister was the last, and both were spinsters) used to hit Bread Loaf on the side of his head with the blackboard duster and say, “I hope you won’t take up a profession requiring any math.”
Bread Loaf wanted to be a musician, or an airplane pilot, or an architect. “My goodness!” Miss Hallegwa said, “What shall we do with you? If you become an architect, get someone else to do your engineering calculations. I’ll have to think twice before I take a plane that you pilot.”
We didn’t think Toe Winn Latt would get anywhere, but thought he would remain at the back of the class forever and ever. He was always a head or two taller than the rest of us. Toe Winn Latt was big, even though ‘Latt’ meant ‘medium’. We treated him like an overgrown child. He had to stay behind to repeat several class years while his classmates were promoted or double-promoted through school, so that by the time I was in the same class with him, in the eighth standard, he had already reached puberty and was interested in girls. The rest of us were still short, had no pubic hair, and still had high voices, or voices that cracked mid-sentence. The teachers didn’t want us to hang out at the back of the class with him too much. He told us dirty jokes, which we didn’t quite get.
For a long time, I didn’t catch up in height with Toe, and would jump to pat his head saying, “Hey, Bread Loaf!” I could not imagine any girl ever liking Bread Loaf, he was so oafish.
Then we got to college, and girls like Seinn, whose parents had sent them to convents instead of co-ed schools, were suddenly in class with us too.
Seinn was very conscious of the fact that she was General Bright Sun’s daughter. Not just that, but his Favorite Daughter. Everyone knew that. Everyone knew of the General’s combined family, as we would call it today – his children from his first marriage, his second wife and her children from her first marriage, and the four children from the second marriage. “My four and your four and our four,” as the General put it. Seinn was the eldest of ‘our four’, and so the first legitimate child in that household of twelve children. Everyone in Rangoon knew that.
I never really liked Seinn. She was cute enough, but for a Burmese woman she was big, like her mother Katy. The bigness had less to do with her bones – which would have been bearable – than with an over-abundance of flesh, which tended to quiver in an unseemly manner. Nevertheless, I was to find that Seinn was strong, and also cruel, just like her father and, maybe, like her mother too.
When we pulled up at the Ady Road house by Inya Lake, the rain had stopped. Rajiv, the Indian cook, scuttled towards us and walked to the sentry box with us, so my mother and I would be let in quicker. Rajiv’s dark face looked like it was dusted with ashes.
“He’s lying on the grass under their balcony,” he whispered. “Please be quiet. Go taik taik. I hope he hasn’t broken anything.”
“Did he pass out? Is he conscious?” my mother asked anxiously.
In spite of her weight and her short legs, my mother ran ahead of me and knelt down quickly on the wet grass near Toe Winn Latt’s head. She had always been very fond of Bread Loaf. “He’s an innocent,” she used to say. “He doesn’t know or understand anything. Married into the wrong family.”
Toe Winn Latt was lying lengthwise on the slope. Someone, I supposed it was Rajiv, had put a gold-coloured cushion under his head. The cushion was too puffy. Toe’s head was propped up at an odd angle. His silver-coloured cell phone was near his right hand. His face was white, and turned towards us. His eyes were open. The grass was spiky Japanese grass that grew in small tufts or hummocks. It was imported from Japan. Aunty Katy had had it put in by the Ministry of Agriculture.
“Oh my god!” my mother exclaimed in English. “Are you all right, Toe Gyi?” (Gyi meant ‘big’.)
“Bread Loaf, are you OK?” I echoed.
Thankfully, he wasn’t dead.
“She kicked me off the veranda. We had a fight. She started seeing a German tourist and I told her it has to stop,” he murmured weakly.
“The bitch!” my mother said.
“Shh, mother,” I whispered. Rajiv hovered in the background.
“I’ve called the ambulance.” Rajiv said.
I wondered why the cook was the only one helping Toe Winn Latt. Where were the armed guards and the other staff?
My mother held Toe Winn Latt’s hand. “Don’t worry, Bread Loaf, baby, we’ll get you to the hospital.”
“Military Hospital, Mingaladone,” Rajiv replied.
“Can’t you take me to one with civilian doctors?” Toe asked.
“No, sir. I only have the phone number for Mingaladone.”
I turned to look sharply at Rajiv. Perhaps he had his orders too. On one other occasion, when some soldiers had spilt his six-stack tiffin-carrier of ngapi kyaw and other Burmese delicacies at the airport while the General was about to leave for Lord Mountbatten’s funeral, Rajiv had, just like now, acted way beyond his brief as head cook, swearing and punching at the orderlies, who had taken it all with bowed heads. Perhaps he was aping the manners, or lack thereof, of the General. You live near a fisherman, a Burmese proverb says, you fish; you live near a hunter, you hunt.
My mother tapped my wrist sharply and I looked away.
Toe Winn Latt lay back on his overstuffed brocade cushion, but it slid away and his head fell on the wet grass. My mother was the only one who touched him and tried to get his head back on the cushion.
“Aunty,” he giggled.
Our other friends from the gang at college – we weren’t really a gang, we just went about together – arrived in a jeep just then, and also wanted to ask questions, but Rajiv stopped them, holding up his hand for silence.
Just then a light snapped on in Toe Winn Latt and Seinn’s bedroom on the hill. A beam of yellow light flooded out and we could see Seinn’s big-shouldered silhouette in the rectangle of light.
“Off the record, you understand. Strictly off the record,” she yelled towards us. “If this leaks, I’ll come after you. Dar bei naw!”
Bread Loaf sighed.
“Don’t mess with me. I have a black belt in karate,” Seinn shouted, and slammed the door to the bedroom shut. The rectangle of yellow light disappeared into the black wall surrounding it.
When the ambulance came, siren shrieking, and we were moving Toe Winn Latt onto a stretcher that smelled of urine, someone turned on the light up there again and shot, three times, over our heads into the waters of the lake beyond. We dropped Toe Winn Latt and the stretcher as we dove for cover, and he swore in pain. But my mother stayed standing and looked around. Later, in the ambulance, she said she was not sure who fired those three parting shots. The gunshots had made popping sounds. There were white splashes far away where they hit the water.
At Mingaladone, the doctors found out that Seinn, whose name meant ‘green’ or ‘cold’, had kicked her husband in his only remaining kidney. The kidney failure started right away, and Toe needed dialysis. A few years ago, he had donated his left kidney to his mother. At that time, everyone had said that he was fortunate to be married to Bright Sun’s daughter. The transplant had been done in Singapore. I’m not sure if it was done at state expense, but it must have been. Certainly Bright Sun took care of everything.
It was unfortunate that Seinn was left-handed, and so had kicked Bread Loaf in his right kidney with her stronger, dominant leg. If she had been stronger on her right side, she would have kicked at his left side, where he no longer had a kidney to be damaged.
The only dialysis machine in Burma had been imported for use by Seinn’s mother Katy decades ago, and it was already out of order. No one flew Bread Loaf to Singapore for treatment this time. He died within a week. I am told people do not suffer pain when their kidneys fail and liquids build up in their body.
I don’t believe that.
A Military Intelligence officer, with a squint behind his gold-rimmed glasses, soon came to give my mother and me a warning not to talk about ‘Elder Sister Seinn’s husband’. My friends said the same bespectacled kut pè came to see all of them with the same message. The black belt attack was hushed up, and even Bread Loaf’s family did not dare talk about it. Military Intelligence floated a story that Toe died of natural kidney failure.
Maybe ‘Elder Sister’ Seinn was remorseful, because she invited all of us to a lavish seventh-day feast for Bread Loaf’s soul at the General’s official residence. We didn’t dare decline, and we didn’t know how to hold our faces at that feast and at the funeral.
At the feast, Seinn wore a sexy black lace top and bright red lipstick. She wore a diaphanous black top to the funeral, with a strapless black bodice underneath. At the funeral, they passed out sprigs of rare sweet-peas in light pinks and purples. My mother absentmindedly put her sweet-pea spray in her hair.
“Mother!” I exclaimed. “It’s to throw in the grave.”
The sounds of the first shovelfuls of earth that splattered down onto the coffin were the worst. For some reason the wood of the big, long coffin was painted bright green. It looked very cheap to me.
My mother dropped her wilted spray of light-pink sweet-peas into the grave. It lay like a small question mark on the green wood. Then the next shovelful of earth came down. “Toe Gyi,” she murmured, “I hope you are in a safe place.”
“Shh,” I said, as my mother turned around to see if Seinn was still there. She was just climbing into her black Mercedes.
“Hummph!” my mother commented.
“Shh,” I whispered.
~ Kyi May Kaung is a Washington DC-based writer who holds a doctorate in Political Economy from the University of Pennsylvania. She has published short fiction, and was twice a Pew Finalist in Literature.