Khet Mar

 

The short story Night Flow was published in Perfect magazine in 2008 in Burma and some of the sections were censored. Written during the notorious Saffron Revolution of 2007 in which many of the author's friends and students participated, Khet Mar was adamant about publishing this story in Burma and hoped her readers would discover and engage with the metaphors she created.  She explains, “We, the Burmese people including myself are like "Night Flow” - the surface of us seems supple and calm, but underneath that surface runs restless water struggling to find its freedom.” Warscapes has published an uncensored version of the story below. The previously cut paragraphs have been highlighted in bold.


Translated from the Burmese by Aung Aung Taik

Illustration by Than Htay Maung I sat on the bank of the slow-swirling river, shoulders hunched, fists and teeth clenched against the bone-chilling night breeze. The stone bench I was sitting on was cold as a block of ice or so I thought. The cold breeze that came across the river touched my bare neck giving me goose bumps. 

A river is always bigger than a creek or stream, I was taught. The Iowa River reminds me of Maletto, the stream that flows behind the long-legged house where I lived until my teens. My village is called Maletto too. Maletto’s water was not clear but muddied by the rainy season but it was almost clear in the summer. On both the banks, the unending patchwork of rice-paddy, sunflowers, chillies and peanuts abound.  My village friends who couldn’t afford school tended these fields all year round. But my sister and I were lucky because our mother was a teacher at the village school. During the summer holidays, we joined my friends in picking chillies.  The sun baked our supple bodies, and the hot chillies our tender hands.  When we had filled a sack, we were paid a small basketful of chillies in return. We could take our share to use or sell it at the market nearby, or we could also sell it back to the owner.  Most of us kept what we needed and sold the rest back to the farmer.  

At noon, we stopped for lunch. Rice, fish paste, vegetables and meagre portions of fish caught from the Maletto creek were brought out by our group of friends, some in aluminium containers but mostly wrapped in inn leaves, the traditional wrapping. We sat under the shade of a huge tree, sharing our food, laughing and teasing each other.  It was the most fulfilling time of the day. After lunch we returned to the fields without clearing the soiled inn leaves. 

In 2001, after being gone for five years, I revisited my village on stilts. Now people used plastic bags instead of leaves. The hot air blew the bags over the fields where we had once laughed together. 

“Why?” I asked my friend Ma Khin Maw.  

She gave me the strangest look. “Where else would we throw them?”

I stared back.  She was the crazy one with her nonchalant acceptance that plastic could replace the leaves.

The people of my village are just as apathetic about the mangrove that grows along Maletto’s swamps.  The villagers themselves chopped down the mangrove to make charcoal that lined up the pockets of businessmen.  Now, its marine life is slowly disappearing and the villagers are being deprived of eating fish and shrimp as a staple they used to enjoy. Mangrove swamps also act as barricades for the villages against storms or tsunami that come in from the Indian Ocean. 

Don’t my people realise what they’re doing? 

Working for a handful of rice in order to survive becomes an isolated act in the darkness.

   

The day after I arrived at Iowa University, there was a field trip with other invitees of the International Writing Program to the Red Bird Farm. Yes!  I was walking on American soil, in the American wilds.  I was in the fields of Maletto without plastic bags.

As we walked, a fellow writer in front of me threw an empty plastic water bottle into the thick grass.  

Seconds later: “Who threw this?”

“I am sorry,” was the honourable admission.

“Please don’t do this.” The dark-haired young woman with a nose-ring said sternly. She looked young enough to be in her late teens.  She picked up the bottle as if she were lifting an ugly thing from a bed of exotic flowers. 

   *         *         *

As teenagers, whenever we had free time, my friends and I fished in the Maletto creek. I used a light pole but they would go right in, searching for fish with their hands and feet, snatching them on contact. They could name them without even looking at them.  They would yell, “It’s a catfish!” or, “A ngazinyaing,” and they were usually right. I had no such skill. They would throw a mud-coated fish to me on the bank and I would put it in the bamboo basket. My grandmother scolded me for aiding in the taking of life, something we Buddhists were not supposed to do. But picking up the fish was so exciting, I paid her no heed.

I imagined the thrill of grabbing those fish in the water, as the others did. Then it happened that May Tin Aye threw a ngazinyaing, a dwarf catfish, and its dorsal fin caught my big toe. The toe swelled up.  The pain and extreme heat made me cry the whole night. 

My grandmother crushed some medicinal herbs to fight the poison.

“This is retribution, you know. You have pain in your little toe; think of the fish suffering in the basket.”

Still crying from pain and the scolding, I did as she said.  But since I was not a fish, I could not fathom the suffering of fish. I thought instead of how the fish that my friends had caught would be sold and turned into money.  The cash would buy rice and with the hollow-stemmed vegetables that grew abundantly in their backyards, they would make a meal to support their lives. I confess my lack of feeling for fish.  I was sad and angry that my friends couldn’t even afford to eat what they caught. Many of my friends are still in this kind of a sad situation.  And many others whom I don’t know as well. 

My thoughts returned to my toe and, strangely, the heat and pain had died away. My foot was cooler again. I felt better.

 

One night on the bank of the Iowa River, the tip of my toe felt this same soothing, comforting sensation.  By the light from the lamppost about twenty feet away, I looked down to see a rabbit examining my foot with its nose.  Dark grey with quick eyes and ears up, the rabbit looked back at me. How tame it was. I sat without moving. But my toe was no kind of food, so he hopped into the misty grasses nearby. That very evening I had seen fur-tailed squirrels running and playing along the bank, and ducks on the river. Some fought for food; some for love, and some were just playing.  Was this really America where I found myself? It felt like the jungle grove where I cut taryor branches to prepare local shampoo for my grandmother. 

But I am in America, actual America, and so I recomposed my thoughts.

Around midnight, I connected with my friend in Burma through Google Talk.

“How is Iowa”?

“Very pleasant! Plenty of ducks in the river … also squirrels … and rabbits, too”

“Really!  It would be so nice if it was like that in Burma.”

I imagined he envied the peaceful scene, but I wasn’t quite sure. 

“Why, may I ask?”

“Well, you can cook and eat them. Rabbit is very delicious, and duck so tasty.”

There was nothing I could say.  But I wondered, what happened to those noted Burmese traits of kindness and blamelessness? Had they been vanquished?

On the other hand, I reasoned, if they had enough to eat, he wouldn’t have such awful designs on my gentle scene. I giggled at his comment … and I wanted to cry.

I don’t know why I want to cry so much in Iowa.   

      *         *        *

Last night I cried. That was the night of September 26th.

Earlier I’d had two glasses of white wine at a gathering. The wine warmed me to the sudden change of weather. As sun melts ice, the wine melted my sadness into tears. That night was good to hold many warm hands —hands from Argentina … the Czech Republic … Russia … Malta … Montenegro … Malaysia … Hong Kong… Oh, those loving hands of the world.  Their warmth and kindness went straight inside me. They understood. They could feel what I felt. It was palpable.

This love is also like a gift to my Burmese people.  I will take that gift back with me to Burma.

 

Those warm hands grasp the story of my Burmese friend Kaythi, now living in Oslo. She heard I was here in Iowa so she called me. She was granted political asylum in Norway. She doesn’t know when she will step on our own soil again.  Perhaps one day, when Burma attains democracy.  She told me about her life in Oslo, starting with the severe cold and her struggle to survive and stay happy. 

 

“I was at a small party,” she told me, “like a family gathering, it was pleasant. The kids were playing freely on the lawn. The elders drank wine and talked. I was thinking that life is worth living after all and suddenly, I thought of Burma, my family and friends.  And here I was sipping wine and feeling joyful.  My mother has become a seller in the market.  My friend is hiding to avoid being arrested, and left her little daughter behind. The child cried all the time for her mother’s milk.  The mother’s breasts ached because her daughter wasn’t there to suckle. She doesn’t know where she will sleep from one night to the next. And the rest of my friends, my comrades in Burma, are either imprisoned or at the interrogation centres. I could hardly bear it.”

Kaythi sobbed. Her sobs were like electricity, cutting through the heavens to reach me. After hearing from Kaythi I was tormented.  I had no one close to share my sorrow.  I could picture the tears on Kaythi’s thick lashes.  I started to cry.

“My dear friend, what happened?” asked a friend from Montenegro.

“She needs to cry,” said a Russian friend.

“We’re with you. Okay?” another told me. 

Oh! How good to have a family. Then the thought of my family and my friends in Burma struck my heart. The rush of loneliness overwhelmed the comfort I had just received.  And yet all of us, from all over the world, are one family now. Destiny brought us here. Soon we will return to our homes.  And I am very fortunate to have these friends who will gather my tears and the tears of Burma with their warm hands. 

 

I never cry in Burma.  I don’t know why I lack the strength to cry.  Sometimes, lying next to my little boy, I feel like it.  Instead, I weep gently, so as not to wake him. Though I would like to shoot my splintered thoughts across the galaxy, I lie still on my bamboo mat, inhaling my sighs.  

In Iowa, I cry to my heart's content. I sob and wipe away tears, over and over, until my tear ducts are dry.  I run myself into the ground with crying.  Exhausted and knocked out, I fall asleep peacefully like my little son. 

Around dawn, I woke up after a good sleep.  My spirits were up and I decided to write. In a flash, I saw an old woman wearing dark clothes. She sat comfortably with one knee up, at the end of my bed, her eyes fixed on me. A young woman stood in front of the window in a red dress — perhaps still a teenager.  She leaned on the windowsill and smiled at me.  

“Who are these people?” I asked myself. I rose swiftly and switched on the table lamp next to my bed. Through the curtain-less window, yellow light from the lampposts outside comes into my room. 

“Well, the old one in black is not the black refrigerator opposite my bed. Certainly not …  so who are they?” I wondered. 

I had met the figure of this old woman once before — at a meditation centre in Pathein.  For the breathing exercise, there are two methods — sitting down or walking to and fro.  I favoured the latter for which there is a pathway you can follow.  One day as I was walking the path, meditating, I saw an old woman adorned in dark brown robe which we called the Yogi-colored robe, leaning against a pole.  Not with my eyes; I saw her in my mind … in a kind of trance. I concentrated on every step: lifting my foot, moving forward and stepping down. Lift… move…and step...

Slowly, I approached her. Less than an arm’s length away, she touched my shoulder with her hand. I looked up. It wasn’t a woman but a skeleton that had touched me. I reasoned hard…My mind was making me see things. I pulled myself together and concentrated on my breathing.

Breathe in …breathe out.

Breathe in … breathe out.

 

I told my friend from Europe about the encounter with the two women at dawn.

“Were your eyes closed or opened when you saw them?” 

“I don’t remember.”

“Well! It was a dream.”

Instantly, I recalled what a woman who had told me fifteen years earlier — someone who had helped me in my life. “My sister, you are being taken care of by women from the unseen place.  You will meet them often, either in your dreams or your thoughts.” 

“Yes.’ I told her, “I see these women in my dreams quite often, including my grandmother. They seem to be always watching me. Why is that?” 

“Perhaps they want to protect you.  Or they want something from you.”

“Yes,” I whispered back.

It seems most likely that they want to protect me for consequences of my misdeeds.  I don’t think they want anything from me.  I recite holy verses every night to express my wish that others may benefit equally from my prayer. I have only this deed to offer. It is good that these women are protecting me.  But there are also many men who have helped me.  I must be a fortunate person.  

And yet I know that there are people watching me who do not watch me out of love. 

 *        *        *

Like magic, with an enchantment of color, Iowa’s early autumn gives way to winter. It’s not easy for this Burmese girl who came from 104 degree farenheits to live in 40 degree farenheit.  My hands and feet chill readily in my room.  Looking out at the sunlight, I love seeing the bright rays which I used to loathe in sizzling Burma.  Sun eases the cold but the breeze is chilling. 

From my window, I watch the Iowa, the river I have come to love.  It has become my companion. 

I recalled the warm words of poet Ra Hee Duk, my friend from South Korea.

“You must really be in love with the river, Khet,” she said.

“Yes, I am.”

She went on, “The flowing water at night is fascinating.  The surface is supple and calm.  But underneath that surface runs restless water struggling to find its freedom.  Only those who love and observe the river can perceive this phenomenon.”  She said it with a smile as yellow light from the lampposts embraced the sliding night waters. I see her face and her words ring on in my thoughts. 

When I had my fill of the river, I returned to my room.

Here I read, write, think of my two sons, watch TV, listen to news; my mind wanders, I sigh, I cry, I talk Google-talk. 

At bedtime, I snuggle under my thick blanket. I begin to hear voices and see images, the voices and images of despair across our world. Who is causing all these? Are ‘they’ causing these miseries, or are we letting them happen?  Dream and reality have become one.  In our world things happen when you don’t want them to, and things don’t happen when you want them to. But a promise of love slaps the demons from my mind.

I lie still beneath the heavy blanket. But my sadness and the anxieties are alert and kicking. I have become the night flow of the river beneath the surface, engaged in a skirmish with the current.  I pray that those voices and images of distress may drift away on the tranquil surface.  

And I pray. I pray for their peace and mine. May all living things be at peace?

 

Khet Mar is a Burmese journalist, novelist, short story writer, poet and essayist who has actively written about the truth lives of ordinary people and the current situation in Burma. Trained as a chemist, Khet Mar embarked on a writing career and published the novel “Wild Snowy Night”, three collections of short stories and a volume of essays. Her works have translated into Japanese, Spanish and English, broadcast and made into a short film in Japan. In 2007 she participated in the prestigious International Writing Program at University of Iowa. In addition to her writing, Khet Mar is a community developer and environmental activist. She is one of the founders of the Zagawa Environment Network, which brings together writers and journalists focusing on environmental issues in the region. She was also a volunteer teacher for a school aimed to help young children living with HIV/AIDS and worked as an organizer for other Monastic Orphanage Education Schools in Rangoon, Burma.  In 2009 she was a featured writer at the PEN Word Voices Festival, and is currently writer-in-residence at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, which provides sanctuary to writers exiled under threat of severe persecution in their native countries. In April 2011, Khet Mar participated in Writers in Motion, which is sponsored through grant funds provided by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the US Department of State. She is currently working as a staff writer at the Sampsonia Way online sponsored by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh. 

"Night Flow" illustration by Than Htay Maung 

Than Htay Maung was born in 1958 in Pathien, Burma. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife Khet Mar, City of Asylum/Pittsburgh's writer-in-residence. His installation work, created out of found materials, is politically charged commentary on news and its veracity and dissemination to the public. Whether making an installation about satellite news distribution in Burma or sending SOS bottles filled with commentary down the Irrawaddy River, Than Htay Maung’s work always asks the viewer to question what he or she believes to be the truth. He has previously exhibited in a Gestures exhibition at the Mattress Factory and in New York.

 
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