Saturday September 29, 2012
A poignant memory of Myanmar
By Alexandra Wong
Our columnist has had her heartstrings tugged in many countries, the latest being Myanmar, where one particular afternoon etches a poignant memory.
Wait! I’m scared!” I say, prompting Zaw Zaw to respond with a smile.
“Don’t worry. It’s just my mamma.”
I swallow, torn by conflicting thoughts. In my first visit to Myanmar, I had become good friends with our guide Zaw Zaw. We bonded over our mutual passion for photography. On impulse, I had asked if I could see how the locals lived.
And now here we are here at the bottom of the flat he shares with his sister and mother, and somehow I am seized by shyness. It’s one thing to wander into the grounds of the temples and the streets, but quite another to waltz into somebody’s home.
What will his mother think of her son bringing a stranger into her home?
Reluctantly, I follow behind as he bounds up the two short flights that lead to an open wooden door. I stand frozen, momentarily stunned. Facing the doorway is the most beautiful oil painting I have ever seen, of an apsara (supernatural female figures in Hindu and Buddhist myths). A gift from a satisfied customer? I wonder briefly.
Zaw Zaw calls me to come in.
Heart beating like thunder, I raise one foot over the elevated doorway and step in.
Seated on a faded leather sofa against the wall, his mother looks even more beautiful than the photo he had shown me. Her eyes are clear and wide like her son’s, and her skin is fair. While his face is angular and narrow, her cheeks are soft. I notice at once that she is sitting unnaturally straight.
Zaw Zaw had told me about how her spinal cord was damaged a while back, and how a bad fall earlier this year had made it worse. “Welcome,” she says haltingly. I pass her the bag I had brought for her.
“My mamma can speak a little English,” Zaw Zaw volunteers.
Smiling shyly, I try not to appear overly nosy as I drink in their humble home. It measures probably no more than 1.8m across with a balcony at both ends, and yet a pride of place shines through, accentuated by little treasures. Above her head are shelves filled with the lacquerware that Bagan is famous for. On the table next to the sofa is a table stacked with books. That must be Zaw Zaw’s, I note instinctively.
I notice more paintings around us, all of them featuring the Buddha. Zaw Zaw bids me to follow him to the back of the house. To my amazement, I see an aquarium. “Fish?” I ask dumbly.
He grins widely. “Yes, I love fish! One of my little luxuries,” he adds wryly.
After admiring them for a while, I make my way back to the living room. On the short walk back, my eyes notice the presence of two bare wooden boards.
“This is where I sleep,” he answers my unspoken question. As he passes the desk of books, he says with a broad smile, “These are my most precious possession.”
Seated down across from his mother, I make small talk. “Where did you get these paintings?” I ask brightly.
“My mamma paints them.”
“She paints them?” I stare at the beautiful paintings anew.
“Yes. It helps her to forget her pain,” he says softly, glancing at his mother.
“Please tell her they are beautiful,” I say awkwardly, before darting mischievous eyes at Zaw Zaw, “I know now where her son gets his artistic eye from.”
She laughs appreciatively when he translates for her. They exchange some more words. At her prompting, Zaw Zaw takes something out of a desk. I look at the X-ray of what appears to be a thighbone, with a steel implant and screws within, and then at the beautiful, clear-eyed woman whose serenity and graceful poise belie the great artist within.
I don’t know what to say other than, “Oh.”
“My mama loves the bag you gave her,” Zaw Zaw says, changing the topic, much to my relief.
They talk some more, and he hands me something he pulled out of a drawer: a fist-sized stone, embellished with a slice of raw jade.
“I can’t take this!”
“No, no, please take it. It’s been with us for years. My mamma wants you to have it.”
A storm of emotions are roiling inside me, as the impact of her actions mix with snatches of memories. I remember two tourists arguing over how much to tip Zaw Zaw, and one of them saying, “No need to give so much lah. We are already being very generous to give this amount. It is probably more than what he earns in a month.”
Knowing that refusing would only hurt their feelings, I thank them for the gift. Those tourists could probably learn a thing or two about generosity today.
“Maybe you can get someone to make a pendant,” he suggests helpfully. “Do you know anybody here? My mamma wants to pass you her painting.”
I’m about to ask if they want me to find a seller, and thank God I never get to say that because their intention is completely different.
“She wants to give you one of her paintings but not now because it is not finished,” he says with an apologetic look. “She is a bit slow now because sometimes she has pain. So if you have a friend here who can bring it back home...”
As he looks away to exchange more words with his mother, I am secretly grateful for the reprieve as it buys me some time to collect my emotions.
Then Zaw Zaw says it’s time to go. “Come again,” his mamma says in English. “Next time you stay here.”
Her smiling eyes shine with sincerity.
An impulse strikes me. I know by now that Myanmar people are not into public displays of affection. Dare I? I decide to take the risk. “Can I give your mum a hug?”
“Sure. Do whatever you like.”
I lean forward and wrap her shoulders with my arms, mindful that within this beautiful, strong woman lies a bundle of fragile bones. At that moment, it becomes crystal clear why she is the centre of Zaw Zaw’s world.
On the way out of his house, I keep quiet, pretending to be watching out for potholes on the ground.
“In a short time, I give you high impact, no?” Zaw Zaw pipes up.
I glance at him, startled. So this is why he could capture such good photographs with a basic point-and-shoot camera – his sharp observation skills. Surely, he would go very far if circumstances were different.
“You’re exactly like your mother,” I say lightly. “And I’m not just talking about your artistic talent.”
He just smiles back.
In the two visits that Alexandra Wong (bunnysprints.com) made to Myanmar, she consistently met people whose instinct for giving came naturally from their heart and who placed others’ needs above their own.