A Tale From Thanlwin, story by Hein Min Htun at Spillwords.com
Stefano Alemani

A Tale From Thanlwin

A Tale from Thanlwin

written by: Hein Min Htun


“Wake up, son. Wake up.”

The sound flew into my faint consciousness, shaking me out of slumber. And then, I was reminded to get up for the event.

With a heavy grunt, I stretched my limbs against the lingering sense of sleepiness and intoxicating sloth that remained pressed on my whole body. With some difficulty, I unfolded my eyes and immediately the LED light of the room entered, piercing my visual lens. Through my hazy vision, I managed to view Mother standing at the bottom of my bed. Judging by the broad patches of Thanakha freshly adorned on her chubby ivory cheeks, I knew Mother was already ready to leave.

“Son, get up. Go take a shower quickly. We’re leaving soon.”

As usual, Mother was in her festive spirit on such a day. She looked prettier than the other days as well. It was the full moon day of Tazaungmone (The eighth month on the Myanmar calendar). Outside, dawn was yet to break. But, our little street hardly looked so dark under the dim-lit lampposts, and some crows were already cheeping about in the murky air. From the window, I spotted a few of my neighbors passing by my home, finely clad and carrying Swan Oak (Earthen offering bowls); the flames of the candles inside swaying as they walked away with cheery gaits.

Then, my routines followed. That day, I put on the bright green T-shirt Mother had bought for me especially for the event. An hour later, my mother and I came out of our little home and we made our way to the colorful crowd on the bank of the river Thanlwin far across the lower main road down our street. Mother said she would bear the trouble of holding Swan Oak which contained different kinds of fruit cut into chewable pieces and a few sweets, with three burning incense sticks and a lit candle dipped into the fruit chunks in the center. We went chattering along the way. Happy prattles with Mother interwoven with smiles and light laughter. Now and then, as the early breeze blew up from the west, the aromatic smell of Mother’s Thanakha would float into my nostrils. Such an enticing odor. Her eyes were an expression of happiness. On such an occasion, Mother was always amused. I loved to see it and I felt my heart pulsating in glee. I was quite young then; sixteen years of age. I said I was young, for I still behaved like a clinging child to my Mother though I had reached a mature age.

In front of Thanlwin market across the motorway, a food-donation site was flooded with loud Dhamha songs sluicing out from huge black sound-box speakers. As we neared it, a babbling crowd loomed up; I discovered that most of them were the people from our neighborhood, all partaking of Ohn-no-khao-swe with delighting relish amid the intermixed clamors of gleeful sounds. Daw Tin Yee, one of the cooks, who took up the duty of preparing the dish for devotees, called out to us from the washing-up corner to join in in her usual, friendly manner. Mother acquiescently shouted that we would come back after our offering activity. (Mother had often said we should eat meals only after prayers.) So first, we headed straight toward the Shin-Ou-Pa-Ghote-Ta shrine housed on the Thanlwin jetty.

We had to shove our way through the indolently moving crowd that had seamlessly crammed the strand road; most were devotees like us, with golden offering bowls in their hands; yet, some of them seemed to be part of that glorious occasion as merely interested observers of those joyous, colorful sights sprawling along the riverside at the earliest start of that Tazaungmone full moon day. After a slight delay that took a few jostles, we came to our holy destination. Inside a gold-glazed, medium shrine all made of wood resided a yellow bronze statue of Shin-Ou-Pa-Ghote-Ta; the Bhante kept his Swan-Oak on his left hand, whilst his head tilted obliquely into the western sky, and his right hand where all the fingers were grouped into a cone shape remained suspended near his mouth as if he was going to put the food into his mouth. Before him, such a lot of offering bowls laden with multi-colored content were laid in rows on a wide, hard-wood table. Candles were burning, and some pungent aroma intermingled with the subtle scent of pink and red roses in porcelain vases was curling up from the gray tips of the incense sticks propped by the holders. Really, everything looked captivating to my eyes. Around us, there were several other devotees standing in silent prayers. Having performed customary worship at the shrine, we walked back to the donation area of our quarter to enjoy the food. It was a fabulous dish and I asked for it twice. As did I, Mother liked it a lot. After we had filled our belly, Mother suggested strolling along the strand road for the pleasure of seeing the day’s amusing sights. Still, the shape of enjoyment hadn’t withered on Mother’s face; I noted it in the ethereal light of the approaching dawn.

As we ambled through, vaguely I perceived, in the soft rays of the early light, a few fishing paddles churning out on the river. The tiny, flickering candle lights appearing in the boats explained that the boatmen were already taking the offering bowls to the mouth of the sea, as to flow them one after one into the vast waterway. The real shrine of Shin-Ou-Pa-Gote-Ta is believed to exist somewhere in the middle of the ocean. And the fruit bowls offered to him were expected to reach his dwelling eventually across the driving tide. Whether or not they can really make their way to him, the deed has no proof of loss; it is, in fact, a form of merit itself in that the fruit tends to end up as the food of the small aquatic life on the way. Then, I shifted my view to a pack of jolly strollers on the tile-paved riverside walk. The girls who seemed to be of my age were daintily dressed in prim middle-sleeved local outfits and refined longyis embroidered with cotton tapestries. My curious eyes hardly overlooked groups of senior fellows in casual exotic clothes; their sneakers thudding against the surface of the sidewalk as they sauntered past, muttering prattles to their peers. At some point, my classmates yelled my name. Some of them asked me to join them. I looked up at my Mother whose facial expression was giving me her consent. Anyway, I declined, for I had a doubt that Mother would enjoy the experience without me. As for me, I need not have my buddies’ company to make the most of that day. I can find the reason for fulfillment with Mother alone. If it is with Mother, anything is complete and perfect.

On our farther walk, a draught of traditional music wafted from somewhere ahead; it was provoking dancing music combined with the sounds of Pat-mha (leather drums), Lin-Gwin (cymbal), Maung (gongs), and Hnae (oboe). Without a doubt, I knew there had to be a troupe of amateur dancers entertaining the people under a plastic-textured canopy by the sidewalk. I wasn’t wrong in my speculation. As we neared the tireless female dancers attired like courtiers, I was overcome by an internal urge to join them (I have a natural bent for traditional dance).

“Son, let us watch the dance for a while,” offered Mother, who intuitively understood that I had hidden my desire for it.

So we stood near the Mandat for a few minutes, enjoying it with many other onlookers around. Next, we moved to a food-serving stall, as I had developed an appetite after a long time of walking and standing; it was in front of the house of a famous businessman in our town. Eaters of varied ages had thronged the place. Also, there were a lot of impatient people longing for their turn to arrive near the occupied tables. Mother and I had to wait for quite some time before we could grab our seats. When a server landed bowls of food before us, we knew it was vermicelli soup with vegetables and chicken; it is my cup of tea. So Mother, who said she was already full, only sat beside me, cooling down the simmering soup with her warm breath. After that, we proceeded with our tour again. The golden flush of dawn had been smeared all over the overarching canvas. The surface of Thanlwin had become clearer; its tremulous terrain was observed in the tender amber light. Still, the strand road was swollen with strollers and strident motorcycles and cars, as earlier. With leisurely paces, we walked and walked through a spectacle of joys, until we came across another food-serving area in Panbaedan quarter. Mother asked a woman who was leaving it what was the food being served there. ‘Chicken porridge’, she replied amiably. Thereupon, Mother’s eyes ran down to me, shedding a meaningful smile. Every year when the festival came, I would manage to eat the porridge of the Panbaedan quarter abounding with chicken without fail no matter how much food I ate earlier had taken up my belly.

“Here, serve this table quickly. Add a lot of chicken for this little boy,” bellowed the chief food-serving woman who hardly failed to recognize me.

She then came up to our table and sat beside Mother telling her the whole hectic process they, the food makers, had gone through, while I was sipping the porridge with furtive relish. When I had finished, she asked me to replenish my bowl in a tempting tone of voice reinforced by the welcoming expression of her face. So, I was obliged to take one more bowl; but, I myself had a thirst for more of it.

The morning broke. The looks of people near us better stood out against the clear daylight. What had once been the packed strand road had now become short of sights and moving objects. Mother said the time to go to the market had come. So, we trudged homeward, hand-in-hand. I looked across sedate Thanlwin at the misty ranges on Ogre island. The lurid orb was exposing itself steadily from behind the mountain fork. Out on the river, the boats were still plying the water, carrying hosts of offering bowls. Tiny specks of early birds in tandem flight chirped high in the still air over softly flowing Thanlwin. Like me, Mother was eyeing around. Strangely, I noted that the smile still lingered on her face. Didn’t I tell you earlier Mother was ecstatic on that day? As we walked home parallel to the river, I made a wish, staring out at the rising sun. ‘O Shin-Ou-Pa-Gote-Ta, please hear my wish made with my heart. I want Mother to be with me every of this day of my life. I ask for nothing more. I just ask for that’, silently I wished in my mind. At that, I saw the sun toss its golden filaments over the new day as if responding to my wish with the bright colors of hope. I exclaimed, “Look! Mama, just look there.”

“Yauk Kyar (Husband) yay…., Yauk Kyar, we’re coming. Where is that little pig? Sonny….Where are you, dear?”

The sudden outburst of words from my wife shuffling down the corridor pushed me out of my nostalgia of the bygone.

“Yauk Kyar, have you seen Pauk Pauk (Our son’s nickname)?”

“He went back into the room. Maybe he is playing with his phone there.”

The clock shows 3:30 a.m. Again, it is the day of the Tazaungmone festival. I rose before them to get everything ready before we set off. My wife was snoring in bed while I was peeling off the fruits. So, it was only I who prepared a fruit bowl for the offering. Now, dressed in a white long-sleeved suit and a deep-blue cotton longyi, I have been in the reception room, waiting for my wife and my young son on the wooden back chair Mother had ordered for me as a young boy.

“Amay, at last, the day has come. We will celebrate together also this year.”

Mother still looks young as before. I see her beaming at me; that sort of smile I saw on this day many years ago. As usual, I am pleased to see it. Above all, I am happy to see her with me when the festival arrives.

A moment later, they show up; both wrapped in woolen sweaters to protect themselves from the cold of the day. Carrying an offering bowl full of colorful fruits, I come stamping down the stairs followed by my wife and son. Outside, our street is clear and quiet. As we walk down the street, I see now and then, in the vague color of dawn, small flocks of people heading for the same place as us. My little son has positioned himself between his mother and me. Along the way, my wife carries nothing but the hand of my son.

“Hope it won’t be boring this year. This time last year, we had Thandar and Sandar with us. Now, there are only three of us,” grumbles my wife, who has always preferred the company of her friends.

“Not at all, Thiri. There’s still Mother with us.”

“Whaaat?…..What did you say?”

“Yes, Mother is with us on this day.”

“Yauk Kyar, be reasonable. It’s been seven years since Mam Khin May passed away. How can she be with us now? What nonsense are you saying?”

“No, Thiri. Mother is always in my heart. I carry her as we go there.”

At that, my wife’s mocking face instantly settles into an agreeable look of understanding. Sympathy shows itself in her eyes. Quickly, she turns her face away and flings her eyes at the crowd stirring in the murky void in the distance. Maybe she has seen the traces of tears in my eyes, sadness in my look. My little son shows no interest in what I said and doesn’t seem to grasp what I mean. Along the walk, he keeps nagging his mother to buy him toy guns when we reach there; he is more emotionally close to his mother than to me. As mother and son are both engaged in their conversation, I remain musing secretly on the detailed episodes of the beautiful story that has remained etched on my inner wall like a life-long scar I have never wished to heal. At the same time, I feel my eyes stung by the unshed tears. In the air I inhale, I catch the faint scent of Mother’s Thanakha; I hear the echoes of those voices filled with love and bliss. This year again, quenching an aching sensation surging inside me with a hot, heavy sigh, I, with my new family, sidle over to Thanlwin where I could never find Her again among a thousand smiles.

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