When I think of you in quiet moments, there’s an image of you I return to, on that train journey in ’88, coming to our aid. It’s not a memory, I can say this with certainty. This image of you is one that I’ve furnished over time, made and remade through family conversations, through knowing you, through the words you spoke and those unspoken. The story is yours, but in lending language to it, the story is also mine.
It’s half-past eight. You look up at the clock in the foyer of Sitkwin Station. The rhythmic chugging of the train grows louder in the distance, but not loud enough yet to signal its arrival. There is enough time, and you decide to buy a snack for the journey. Outside the station platform, there’s a cluster of food stalls. Saik-ka drivers lounge on their rickshaws, a plume of cigarette smoke hanging in the air. You hurry past them, holding your breath. You had always hated the smell.
At the stalls, the clatter of pots is audible as bowls of steaming mohinga are served to hungry customers. The stall matrons ramble though the litany of orders without pausing for breath, as if the words are a part of their lungs.
The peppery fish broth is enticing, but you hurry to an adjacent stall that sells sticky rice. You ask for one, think better of it, and ask for two. Your mind turns to me. This is a treat for my homecoming.
The price is more than you expected but, with your mind on the coming train, you waste no time haggling with the shopkeeper. Hurrying back to the station, the rising cost of everything casts a shadow on your thoughts. Things are more expensive with each passing year. It’s becoming difficult to manage on a teacher’s salary, but you swat this thought off for another day.
The train pulls into the station with a whine and hiss of the breaks. Only a handful of passengers spill out. Sitkwin is not really a destination.
The stench of sour sweat is pervasive inside the carriage, mixed with a cocktail of dirt, oily curries in htamin kyaing containers, and the fleshy odour of bodies pressed together. There’s a seat next to an old woman and you gratefully settle in. I can see you sink into yourself, to leave as little exposed to the world. It’s a way of folding within, retreating to the nucleus and leaving the body to absorb whatever comes. I’ve done this too.
The woman next to you has her head halfway out the window, arguing with the platform vendors. They swarm outside, taking advantage of the brief intermission to sell food from baskets perched on their heads.
Slowly, the train pulls away from the crumbling brickwork. You’re relieved to be on your way, filled with the anxiety of imminent reunion. You haven’t seen me since the first few months of my birth. There’s a warmth in you that assumes the particular fabric of a grandmother’s warmth. You picture me unwrapping your gift, peeling away the layers of banana leaf to uncover the glutinous rice and shards of fresh coconut, oblivious to the larger gift that you are offering. The certainty of a home away from a city unhinged.
Sitkwin has already disappeared behind you.
Moe Moe. The Karen name for ‘mother’. It’s what my mother called you and, mimicking her, what I learned to call you. It’s more than a title, or a casual form of address. It’s a primal utterance, a way of establishing what you are to us each time we call your name. The repetition in the two words as though one isn’t enough. Moe Moe, mother, matriarch.
The sway of the train lulls you into somnolence. Someone taps your elbow. It’s the old aunty next to you. She holds out a plastic wrapping, with a handful of quail eggs inside.
“Sar ba,” she insists. Her hair is pulled back into a tight bun, the strands of silver sleek with oil on her scalp. You accept the offering, taking a solitary egg. The folds on the woman’s face deepens with pleasure.
“Where are you headed, tha-mee?” She cracks an egg for herself, scrapes the shells, and flicks them out of the window.
“To Yangon, a-daw.”
“Bohda paya yeh! Why are you going to Yangon at this time? Have you not heard? Those poor students. I hear some have died in the protests. Alala! Such times we live in!”
“It’s why I’m going. My daughter and grandson are there.”
“Poor children. May Bohda paya save us all. And the government’s useless! The only thing they’re good for … ”
She unleashes a stream of grievances, from the ever-rising cost of oil and rice to the way the government seemed to have its grubby little eyes everywhere. “I can’t even go to the outhouse to shit in peace without worrying where they are!”
You glance around, embarrassed. Lesser mortals would save these grumblings for behind closed doors.
Those poor students. The woman’s words hover in the gloom of the carriage. At first, there had been a trickle of news in Sitkwin, brought back by colleagues returning from the capital. Talk of protests at Yangon University and long-held resentments against a government whose shadow was thick and widely cast. There was chatter among your own students at the school. You’d seen their eyes alight with united purpose; there was talk of supporting their fellows in Yangon and staging their own local rallies.
At first, you paid scant attention to the rumours. It’s not that you were disinterested in politics. But there was little time to ruminate on the injustices of the government when you had classes to teach, meals to cook for the family, washing to supervise. A woman can never be idle, you once told me. Men might be idle, but women must always be practical. How would anything ever get done if it was left to men?
But what was dismissed as passing unrest became something more, so that the plight of a few students rippled into a common language of doctors, teachers, housewives, monks. With increasing trepidation, you listened to the radio bulletins, the official words chiselled into a tool of violence, promising to answer the people’s utterance with the alliteration of gunfire.
This was the moment you decided to come to Yangon to spirit us away.
De-mo-cra-cy. Four syllables that became the soundtrack of those months in ’88. In their protests, the students used the English term. There isn’t an equivalent word in Burmese. It’s as if the idea didn’t yet have a meaning in Burma, as if the vocabulary hadn’t had a chance to take hold in the country’s language.
For those students, the word, its unrestrained utterance in the face of brutality, was the closest approximation to the reality. It had no qualifications, no ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, no exceptions to the rule, just a recognition of what was humanly theirs. De-mo-cra-cy, doh ayay.
In July 1988, after months of pro-democracy demonstrations, General Ne Win resigned as Burma’s leader. In his resignation speech, he issued a statement to the country, one that you would hear on a radio bulletin all the way in Sitkwin: “When the army shoots, it has no tradition of shooting into the air. It shoots straight to kill.”
In August, a few weeks after this train journey, the army shot straight.
De-mo-cra-cy. The word that became a death knell for those students.
The train slows to a halt. Outside the window, the familiar sight of Kyimyindaing Station looms, its crimson bricks and cream arches stark in the grey afternoon.
The station is heavy with the humidity of July, its dampness lending a fetid odour to everything. Under one of the arches, you walk past a girl and a child lying on a rice sack as a makeshift bed. Their bodies are mounds of brown flesh, turning inward. Their own private cocoon. You see my mother’s face in the young girl as her arms cushion the child’s head from the stone floor.
Outside, a price is negotiated with a saik-ka driver for the thirty-minute trip to San Chaung. He is reluctant to make the lengthy trip at first, but agrees after you add a few extra kyat to the fare. He looks young enough to be one of your students, eyes mocking while a cigarette hangs from his mouth.
The saik-ka groans as it pulls out of the side street. The boy works hard, standing up and leaning his stick-like frame onto the pedals. He is in his element, swerving the vehicle with practised ease and shouting obscenities at pedestrians.
Just as he turns onto a quieter stretch, he calls out: “A-daw, we might run into some trouble on the way. I’m going to take you through the side streets. It’s safer that way.”
“Trouble?” You’re not certain what you would find in Yangon but, so far, there has been no sign of the demonstrations.
“Oh, just those crazy students making noise, yelling out what they want. A waste of time if you ask me.”
His cynical tone is surprising for one so young. “Don’t you think what they’re doing is a good thing? Our country needs to speak out and make noises from time to time, you know. Otherwise, the government stays fat and lazy while everyone else starves.”
“They can yell out all they want, but they’ll only get a bullet to the head for their trouble. The police play dirty. They’re looking for blood. Have you heard about what happened to those students at Inya Lake?”
There’s no response to this. After all, you’ve come to Yangon to take us away from the very things this boy is talking about. “Shouldn’t you be in school rather than wandering the streets?”
The boy expels a plume of cigarette smoke into the air. “What good is school during this time? It won’t put rice on the table for my mother. We can’t even afford it now. You’re lucky if you can get a cup of rice water a day.”
You realise you’ve underestimated him.
“What about you? You must not be from around here.”
“I’m not. I’m taking my daughter and grandson away from Yangon. It’s not safe for them.”
He turns in his seat to glance at you. “Is anyone safe from this government? They can’t control the streets. It’s a matter of time before they send in the army. I’m surprised they’ve waited this long. This city’s going to crack soon, I can see it.”
He laughs, eyes dancing above the hollows of his cheekbones, and cycles on without saying another word.
The saik-ka pulls into a strip of cramped residences in San Chaung. Despite the boy’s warnings, you’re relieved not to have run into any trouble along the way. But there’s friction in the air, in the hurried way people on the streets walk as night approaches, eager to get home. Red posters adorn the district, their white stars and golden peacocks replicated along shopfronts, fences, and houses. A residue of the city’s discontent.
At your request, the boy eases the vehicle to a stop in front of a compound of wooden houses, hidden from the lane behind a thatched bamboo fence. You hand him the wrinkled notes, which he tucks away into the folds of his longyi. There’s a pause, laden with an impulse to say something to this boy posing as a man before his time, some shred of reassurance. Finding none, you take out a bundle of sticky rice from your bag and hand this to him. He stares at it, his face slackening to a look of surprise. Seeing his reluctance, you press the parcel into his palms. “Take this.”
He grins, still with that flicker of irony, and stows it aside on the passenger seat. With a wave of the hand, he’s off, his oversized t-shirt billowing as he turns the corner and disappears from view.
The evening air is weary with the exertions of another day. With quickening steps, you enter the compound, anxious now that we are within reach. The smoky aroma of boiled rice and fried fish floats from nearby houses, the scraping of pots ringing above the quiet quarter. Turning to the small house on the far right, the quiet one, you call out. “Tha-mee, it’s Moe Moe.”
A face appears in the doorway, thinner than you remember, her figure diminished in the gaping darkness of the door frame. My mother.
“Moe Moe? Is that you? What are you doing here?” Her eyes are wide with bewilderment. “Has something happened?”
In the hurry to leave, you hadn’t sent word forward. You pull her in, the bones of her shoulders digging into your arms. But the girl shakes you off. “What’s wrong? Is everything alright back home?”
“Everything is fine with us, tha-mee. I just thought … we heard news about things happening in Yangon, the police beatings. I was worried about you so I caught the first train out this morning. Where is thar-lay?”
She nods, barely registering. “Don’t think I’m not happy to see you. It’s just, with all that’s going on, you gave me a shock. Come in. You’ve been on the road all day!” She leads you inside. The room is a sleeping quarter, dining area, and sitting space all crammed into one. The orange orb of a candle keeps at bay the dark around you.
Your eyes seek me out in the dimness and rest on a figure crouched near the light, pushing toy cars around, absorbed in a silent campaign. “Thar-lay, come to Moe Moe,” you call out, arms open. Moe Moe. But I don’t know the meaning of the word yet, so I put the cars down and, staring warily at you, bury myself in my mother’s lap.
My mother is full of chatter as she sets out a pair of teacups, eager for news of Sitkwin and her siblings. She pours the steaming liquid, the air swelling with the peaty smell of camellia leaves. “When I heard you at the door, I thought you were Maung Maung getting home from work. He’s later than usual today.”
There’s a trace of concern in her voice, but her eyes are jewel-bright in the dimness, the same stubborn determination you remember from her childhood. She talks as if she hasn’t talked for days. You listen, while taking out the steel htamin kyaing: the containers of rice, dried fish, and fried eggs that you had prepared for supper. The two of you slide back into the role of mother and daughter, as if continuing a conversation, the meal and chatter stitching together the last time you saw her to this one.
“We don’t get out much except to pick up groceries.” Her words are muffled by a mouthful of rice. “It’s not safe at this time. You hear stories.”
“I’ve heard things from my students, but it’s hard to know what to believe.” You pick at the food sparingly, shovelling extra strands of fish into my mother’s bowl.
“Maung Maung sees things on his way back from work. There are rallies everywhere. It’s not just the students. The other day, at the markets, I heard gossip that the monks at Sule Pagoda are whispering that the Buddha’s image at the temple has changed. That the faces of the statues no longer smile but grimace in pain, and the gold leaf is shedding from their skin.” Her face is incredulous. “Imagine that. Even the monks are getting vocal. It’s as though a fire’s been lit. Everyone has caught on to the blaze.”
“Maung Maung’s not getting involved in the rallies, is he?” You picture your son-in-law, soft-spoken and unassuming.
“No, but sometimes he has to walk through the districts if the buses don’t run. It’s probably why he’s late.” She stares off, the worry in her voice thickening in the dark. “He knows to avoid any crowds though. Last week, he was walking along Bogyoke Street and had to make a detour when he saw people milling around. And do you know what they were doing? Corpses. Burning a pile of corpses. Just like that, on the road. He said he could smell the charred flesh from blocks away. We had to wash all his clothes that night. I could still smell the smoke on him.”
“Ssshhhh, don’t say these things in front of thar-lay.” You glance at me but I’m back among the cars. Images of weeping Buddhas and charred bodies linger in the room. It starts to rain outside, bringing with it the welcome scent of damp earth. My mother clears away the remains of the supper.
When she reappears from the kitchen with a fresh flask of tea, you get straight to the matter. The instinct that led you to take the morning train now makes you doubly sure that you will not make the return journey without us.
“Tha-mee, I want you to come back with me to Sitkwin. All three of you. It’s why I came, to take us back.”
My mother sips her tea, eyes fixed on the waning candle. When she eventually speaks, the words are swallowed up by the noise of the cascading droplets.
“We can’t. What I mean to say is, I can’t put our burden on you. You have the rest of the family to look after. We’ll be fine here. Really.”
“What burden? Things might be difficult, but there’s always a home for you where we are. And think of thar-lay. Things are too unpredictable now in Yangon. Who knows what the government will do tomorrow? I won’t leave my grandson in a place where people have lost their minds.”
You look at my mother; she is still a girl. Your fingers graze the side of her face. “Come back with me, at least until things settle down. You don’t have to worry about anything. Our rice and oil are well stocked.”
But what you’re really offering is the security of a home, the cushion of a mother’s arm against the stone. What you’re really offering has no qualifications, no ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, no exceptions to the rule.
My mother recognises your offer for what it is. “Well, perhaps we could stay with you until things calm down here. It would be good for thar-lay to see Sitkwin. But I’ll need to talk it over with Maung Maung when he’s back.”
You smile, jubilant. “Don’t take too long talking with that husband of yours. I’m not leaving without my grandson!” Then you remember the gift and forage in your bag, scooping out the package. “Come here, thar-lay. Come see what Moe Moe has for you.”
I don’t know if it’s the sound of your voice or the promise of a gift, but you hold my attention. There’s no protest when you lift me up and sit me on your lap. Your face blooms in response, its grooves and furrows etched by the years of motherhood. As though to be a mother is to have a visible language on your face, lines of articulation written in time.
My fingers are clasped in yours and, together, our hands peel apart the banana leaf. Strand by strand, the layers come undone, unravelling the clump of rice underneath. You break it in two, and the sugar syrup and coconut filling ooze out. You hold a piece to my mouth and, instinctively, I accept the morsel. Your eyes flicker to my mother as if to say, “See? He already knows who I am.”
The night air is sticky sweet as we share the parcel between us. You and my mother keep vigil to the sound of rain, waiting for my father to come home. In the tea-stained semi-darkness, it’s almost possible to imagine that things are right with the world, that the Buddha statues have stopped weeping, their pained expression turning into a serene smile, their shedding skin restored to its golden sheen.
The candlelight wanes, distorting our shapes on the wall, one shadow at a time.