In December 1932, I sat for the High School Final Examination which also served as selection examination for entrance into the University of Rangoon. I passed with a couple of distinctions which I knew was a disappointing result for Father, though he did not say so. Some years later two of my younger sisters were to pass, with the maximum five or six distinctions each. My excessive playfulness in school, combined with a life-long superficial quality of work led to the poor result and I could only make a pledge to myself that I would do better at the University. The main thing was that I could now leave the convent walls and enter University life in full.
The obliteration of the walls made an end to the long, long silences during eating, dressing, walking, bathing and tidying; an end to the bed-bug catching and the cane lashings with plain cane or knotted cane; an end to the constant dread that a younger sister might get punished for bed-wetting; an end to the feeling of being a second-class inmate; and end to accusations of disobedience, deceit and ill-intended mischief. No wonder children then would sometimes sing the jingle:
No more English, no more French,
No more standing on the bench.
If the master interferes,
Pull his hair and box his ears.
The University of Rangoon had started going up ever since the University Amendment Act had been passed in 1924, following the successful first stand of the Nationalist movement in the University boycott of 1920. 450 acres in Kokine beside the waters of the Inya Lake had been ear-marked for the rise of what certainly seemed a model campus for Asia. The Arts and Sciences teaching blocks, the large dormitories called after ancient capitals of Burma, the staff houses with gardens and sometimes a tennis court, the playing-fields, students' union building, library, gymnasium, post office, bookshop, sanatorium, the impressive Buddhist congregation Dhammayone, and even a servants' village, made up this lovely campus for us. Though fine grass, sacred to the great universities of England, could not be grown nor tended in such an extensive estate, giant trees like the Tetrameles nudiflora, Polyalthia longiflora and Delonix regia stood up here and there above grassy stretches., the undulations and slopes of which combined with the shores of the lakes to present a most inviting prospect to youth.
Perhaps, what made the shining feature of this campus to all who knew it at the time was that, here alone in the capital city, was a Burmese population in bright and beautiful evidence. The other peoples who passed high school went in greater numbers to seek quick employment in the commercial companies, in services such as police, customs, railways, nursing etc. So that it was indeed Burmese of both sexes who predominated the university scene. No nondescript population, they were young, they held themselves as fortunate beings privileged enough to attend the Tekatho, the Taxila of modern times, they were conscious of the growing pride in being the indigenous inhabitants, a consciousness just beginning to burgeon now with the first successes of nationalist efforts. They took seriously the attendance of this Tekatho, in company of the opposite sex. They came from all parts of Burma to lodge in halls named after such historic capitals as Ava, Sagaing, Pagan, Tagaung and Pinya and to be instructed by highly learned staff both from home and abroad, and they showed their sense of this privilege by dressing up to the part. A few male students might follow the international style of trousers, shirt and neck tie, but the real attraction lay with the young men who wore silk longyi in pastel colours with collarless shirt and light-weight Burmese jacket of formal wear. Without strictly laid down rules of inter-sex behaviour, they had their traditions of decorum somewhat similar to that of Jane Austen's England, and of Buddhist deference; both, however, being structured with the stout Burmese tradition of female power in money, property and participation. The girls wore a never-ending change of bright-flowered longyis, unfailingly plain white muslin jackets, starched and ironed to stiff transparency, through which they showed the tucked, shaped, laced and elaborately decorated bodices which held bosoms securely covered but strongly enough outlined for admiration.
And how was I in this bright scene?.
A few girls who had been brought up to play games as vigorously as I, had been allowed by easy-going parents to enter University with their hair just tied or plaited. My parents, however, were old-fashioned. They made me spend the six months' interval between school and university in practising the dressing of my hair into the formal and traditional sadone. This was shaped like a hollow cylinder right on top of the head like a slender top hat, combed smooth but with a fluffy side-tress fixed to dance coquettishly to announce that I was unmarried. I rather liked the effect of this style an my face, and so got up the dexterity not only for daily morning hairdressing, but to make the sadone last day-long, without going askew from my energetic movements.
I had got a room in Inya Hall which faced the Lake. The rooms were single and adequately furnished. They had wood parquet floors and for a small tip the sweeper woman of the Hall would put a high polish on to your floor and furniture. Though I guessed that now my parents were no longer as well-off as before, my results would most probably entitle me to a bursary though not to a full scholarship, and meanwhile, my Uncle San Lin stood ready, to start his family duty of helping Father in his turn by making up whatever would be needed to cover the modest hostel fees, tuition and spending . Money I might need. He had already bought me a bed-side rug, and this made me feel it was really a new life I could plunge into.
For was I not going to plunge into this wonderful new life with all the excess of energy seen in my stars since birth? Alas, there came a most unexpected deferment of all pleasure.
Soon after term began, a notice went up. It stated that a few selected students should take the two-year Intermediate course in one year. Despite the lack of more distinctions in my High School results, my name was in the list. When I read the notice I gave not a shout of joy but a groan of dismay. Of course I must take advantage of the short-cut and a year's saving in time and cost of education the chance allowed. But there was a snag and I give a detailed explanation to show both the low place the Burmese language held in the scheme of education then, as well as the haphazard conditions which prevailed in an administration devoted to order. Students educated as I had been, using English as medium of instruction, were classified as following the 'European Code' in distinction from the 'Anglo-Vernacular' or 'Vernacular'. In the last of which no English at all was taught. The European Code's syllabus prescribed the standard of its High School Burmese at approximately the Middle School level of the A-V Code, whose English was approximately levelled at the corresponding Middle School stage of the European Code's English.
Not only was this low standard prevalent, but Burmese was called the 'second language' of the European code, and so French could be studied in its place. I know one Burmese woman who studied French and never even learnt her Burmese letters. At University level, both English and Burmese would be the same for all in theory. The lag behind in English would not matter so much, as the standard of erudition in it was far below the standard set by Burmese Professors for Burmese erudition. The problem was not so large a one In application, as might be thought, for Indian, Chinese, Sino-Burmese, Indo-Burmese, Eurasians and anyone with infusion of foreign blood was allowed to take lower Burmese at the University. The same let-out was given to purely indigenous minorities as the Shans, Chins, Karens, Kachins, etc. My family belonged to the Mon minority. but Mons, among all indigenous peoples were the first to give literacy to Burma so no such let-out was sought by them. Still, one was not illiterate, and so it should be no problem to catch up in one's own language study. However, there was also the examination system which made my dilemma almost a lone one. The Intermediate was a two-year pre-degree course. You took the examination for entrance into the degree course only at the end of two years, not a year at a time. If three books were prescribed for the 'Junior Inter', three for the 'Senior Inter', you were examined in six books at the Senior Inter examination and not just three. The books were not prescribed as a series in step by step progress. Each had its entity and required time for its serious study. Time was the important factor, and of it I had half of what everyone else had. Let me explain this with an analogy from the study of English literature. Suppose an English child learned Shakespeare from a reading of Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare. and was then faced with the Variorum Edition of Hamlet, where a ten-inch long page of notes followed the two lines of text. The child will not be able to read the Variorum Edition straight through as he does the Lamb. He will need time to ponder over meanings of text and to study explanations offered as to more depth of such meanings. My six Burmese books, including epistles from past centuries, religious suttas, and a horror of a long history of Burma in the style of Burmese state-chronicle writing. Chronicle writing, whose facts also needed memorising -- all these books would have to have religious allusion and Pali root-words explained before one appreciated the shining nugget of admonition or instruction. Where could I begin? Our two Burmese lecturers were of the old school, scholarly men who declaimed the profundities of the text at break-neck speed in eloquence which ranged the empyrean, way up above me. Yet I must tackle the two-year course alone if only to make up to Father for the disappointing High School results. I went to my cousin U Lu Pe Win, a senior Staff in the Pali department. He was not pessimistic at all. He told one of his star pupils in the Pali Honours course, Ma Ohn, to take me in hand. Thereafter, every weekend, as early in the morning as I dared, I went to her room. She let me in, bolted the door firmly, then took out the exercises she had prepared with my cousin. She was a good Buddhist and did this just because her Asariya, her revered Teacher, had asked her to do so. What a gift of her time was given me in the explanations, corrections, spelling tests and interpretation of Pali words. I owed her so much that I can only be thankful that I have kept up relations with her through all the decades and still find myself turning to her for help. I decided to forget all the swimming, games, cinema trips, shopping trips and eating at the snack bars strewn throughout the campus. I cut all the classes I dared in other subjects just to work on the exercises set me by Ma Ohn.
I told myself that after this one year of swotting I was going to go crazy with enjoying myself. The degree course was normally two years, but for a very select few, amounting to a handful only an additional year was given to study for an honours degree in a subject for which strict vetting was done after the intermediate examination. Thereafter you sat for your examination in your chosen subject only at the end of the third year.. I would have no more study except for my chosen subject which I would of course do with enjoyment. What a prospect I promised myself indeed.
At the end of the hard working year of self-denial I passed the Intermediate examination even if a few grace-marks had to be given me by a moderating board. I was declared fit for admission to Honours classes in Economics or in English. I chose the latter.
It was 1934, a. momentous year for the University, as in that year Aung San who was to charge Burmese nationalism with dynamic force, decided to make the University his platform for entering the national scene.
Looking back, it seems as if his youthful intensity ushered in a revolutionary time. Young men like him, though they denounced British imperialism, took ideas from intellectual England.. They read books from the Burmese equivalent of Britain's Left Book Club, and to them the words of the English poet were not at all hackneyed as they quoted:
"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very heaven."
Recently, one of my domestics crept up at night and said that a child from the family of Shan-Chinese refugees who had found shelter in our compound after fleeing from Communist areas in the north, was crying as no one could tell her the answer to her homework. Her teacher had asked "How is General Aung San related to Burma?" I pondered awhile to make a brief enough sentence that would include all. The teacher had used the word 'taw', which means related, by blood, marriage or other ties. told the maid to say 'Bogyoke Aung San is the Father of the Sovereign Republic of the Union of Burma.'
Perhaps it is only a young-hearted nation of Orientals like the Burmese who persist in investing with a father-figure's attributes a young man who was dead by the age of thirty two. Yes, he was nineteen when he entered the political area and had been assassinated by the time he was thirty-two. In between those short years he had led his country right out of the mighty British Empire, thus beginning the dissolution of it in various ways; he had revived the martial tradition of the Burmese race, in contrast to the British denial of training to them while giving it to the upland minorities; and he had begun, though he could not. live to see, the fusion of these many-peopled areas of Burma into one Union. This astonishing performance needs some pondering for an explanation of how it became possible. In his autobiography, ex-Group Captain of Britain's RAF, Peter Townsend, seeks to explain some extraordinary incidents of his life by his theory of Time and Chance. He chanced to be at certain places at certain times, and this was why he was caught up in such unexpected episodes as his life showed. Many have used this Time and Chance theory to explain Aung San's achievement. He entered the arena at the right moment, events of world history created his chances, and he was there at the correct time for reaping the results of such events. This is true enough, but there must be more. There was the total commitment and the refusal to accept the view that all avenues of action were blocked. What others considered unwise or impossible to attempt, he would do, and to do it, he would use any methods to hand. His commitment to this must have begun early.
He grew up in Central Burma where the dry air hangs with intimations of all Burma's past history, pp and down his area. Besides filling a youthful imagination with the sense of history, the areas offered a first-hand knowledge of what British development of Burma meant in its most glaring form. Nowhere else in the country was there the juxtaposition of British commercial wealth and the lot of the Burmese workers. The oil company personnel lived very well then, on the principal that oilfield stations were hardship stations, and staff posted to them deserved better than normal housing, and provision of facilities not available locally. I have seen such stations and felt their arid life, but to me the aridity appeared to be that of at intellectual desert and a cultural vacuum. I have mentioned earlier my impression that British government officials had a somewhat sentimental feeling that life in the districts should conform to the plain living with which they associated it. Not so the commercial British. The Burmah Oil Company provided comfortable and well-furnished staff houses with modern bathrooms, carpets, padded furniture, goad curtains and adequate table appointments. In the dry climate of central Burma, some such houses might even have a small swimming pool of their own. The houses on their respective hillocks were connected by well-maintained paved roads, and the entire area was a model of community development with its hospital facilities, club and stores. Naturally the workers' conditions side by side with such a development would bring home sharply the difference in living conditions between British management and Burmese labour. A young man with dreams of getting his countrymen free from such an economic and political inferiority as he saw in this proximity to his home will be expected to have his determination reinforced to succeed in his task at all costs.
Aung San arrived in College in 1932 and two years later his actions showed a sense of urgency which hindsight feels tempted to ascribe to his premonition that he had not much time.
The elder nationalists had been busy with some success but their inch-by-inch gains such as the system of dyarchy, franchise terms and separation from India did not suit Aung San's need for a rush tempo. Such constitutional gains were not yet his concern. He began instead by working to gain control of the Students' Union and having got that platform, he set out to test his strength, and the following he would get if he led a movement of sheer rebelliousness against authority when it swooped down in what he considered unfair action. The issue he chose was therefore not the vital point. He became Editor of the Union Magazine, there was a scurrilous article in it about the Burmese bursar known to be a protégé of the English Principal. Aung San as Editor was called to reveal the identity of the writers and he felt it within his rights to refuse to do so and the Principal, Mr. Sloss, an authoritarian figure, expelled him as he, Aung San, had expected him to do. He thereupon called out a strike which succeeded so clearly as to establish his ability to command a strong following. In this act of rebelliousness, I now ask myself: Why did I who had been so rebellious during the convent years completely let pass by me this call to rebellion? Because, first of all, looking from a self-eye view, which was the only viewpoint I used in those days, in contrast to the convent I saw nothing in the University to rebel against, and much to revel in. Besides this, all during the year when I had kept my nose to the grindstone of my double quota of prescribed Burmese texts, I had found out for myself the most wonderful discovery of my life hitherto. It was such a discovery that lit up my whole prospect and carried me far beyond the proper bounds of exhilaration which came in a natural degree with release from convent restrictions. That was, that after all the growing childhood years when family, elders, school teachers and schoolmates had combined to convince me of my sad lack of beauty, I found on arrival at the University, that beauty did not matter at all in attracting members of the opposite sex. Men did not seem to choose favourites according to looks. I could have all the friends I wanted, from among the best- looking males too, merely by being myself, frankly enjoying such company as I did, ready to participate and talk to them without self-consciousness. If they enjoyed your company, circumstances would be contrived for further meetings and you could sense that admiration had crept in. Meetings did have to be contrived. The usual thing was for a boy and girl to talk softly in between going to classes, in a spot well-seen from every side. It was a chat in just audible tones lasting - fifteen minutes, or longer if both decided to cut the next class. Anything more private than this had to be even more contrived, like a visit of about five or six together to a matinee cinema show. It will be hard for young people here today, or for most people from the west, to imagine how sweet were the ways of love in our non-permissive Burmese society.
We had to observe such decorum, we had to be so silent concerning inmost feeling that we had to rely on looks to convey our feelings, we had to read signs in every movement of the person in whom our whole interest was for the time invested. But how sweet indeed were the rewards. To turn suddenly and see that he had been gazing without special reason at one's face for some time. Obviously the step had been taken from admiration to desire. From this point, specially infatuated couples would go to great lengths to sneak entirely private meetings away from home or hostel and they might then know some of the physical side of love. My upbringing, the culture in which I live, and my age, will not allow me to write of the physical side of love at that or any other time of my life. But I must dwell on my incursions into the sentimental and romantic aspects of loves. Embarrassing and unnecessary this might seem to some, but my dalliance must in conscience be noted in connection with the charge of inconstancy in youth. This dalliance taking up whatever remained of my thoughts from immersion in study and social rounds, wove the cocoon of self-interests tighter round me and explains why I was so insulated against the momentous nationalist events that brewed almost under my nose.
Still, if only one had gone and listened to Aung San talk at the Students Union, there would have been the spark of communication such as came in later years when. I heard his torrent of Burmese which swept me off my feet. But the Students' Union did not interest us much except for its excellent snack shop. Proceedings at the time were in English, so unless one was bent on a mission like Aung San was, or was caught there perforce, the proceedings appeared halting and not inspiring enough. My only participation in the Union was anything but nationalist. The committee which ran the Union before the year of Aung San's secretaryship arranged a debate in English, and having been asked to speak by the members of the committee, I dutifully complied. My friend and I spoke for the independent stand women should take regarding work and a career. Knowing no better, we modelled our points on talks from the West, where women did not enjoy nearly as much of financial or social status or career rights as Burmese women did. The competing college brought along their staff to support them from the floor. At the time I had not yet heard so much of my friend Ma Than E about whom you will remember much from my first chapter. You won't be surprised to find her here the chief scene-stealer, as always. She had returned recently from training in England and was talked about for her daring and socially free ways, not giving a damn for decorum but going where and as she liked.
I had finished my little prepared talk and was tidying my papers when I heard roars of applause. The shouts and clapping were of quite a different order. I looked up startled and saw that a beautiful woman from the staff of the TTC had risen. She had a silk shawl wrapped round her. Her lovely face with wide cheek bones, its perfect nose, and a generous mouth, was framed in a hair-style neat and smooth. The TTC stand was for women to remain dependent, shy and modest as the violet. She plugged this line hard, as she switched those sloe eyes from side to side at the cheering male students. When she ended with the summing up that women should not be 'heady like wine' (as she was well reputed to be), but clinging like a vine her voice caressed like a clinging vine as with the shawl wrapping her body, she clearly brought the house down. We won the debate on points, but there was no doubt as to which had been the star attraction of the evening. As I prepared to leave the hall, this beautiful woman came and touched my arm. She said, "My dear, you speak very good English. I hope I wasn't too much of a distraction. But I had to back up the side, and a scatter brain like mine could think of only that act. You had finished your talk anyway, and it was a fine one." She went off as quickly as she had spoken.
Well, far from hearing Aung San speak at the Union where in 1934, he had become General Secretary, we did not give ourselves a chance to hear him speak at all. A great game among the butterflies of the time like me was to give warning that 'Aung San! Aung San! Aung San's coming!' and then make a mad dash to get out of the way. We made a show of feeling frightened that he would vent his anger against our frivolity, for by now his image was established. He belonged to the Thakins, a group of young nationalists who dressed to show national protest. Their formal lightweight jackets were of homespun cotton, their longyis of hand-loom cotton, not silk, their slippers were wooden clogs with stout leather thongs unlike the velvet straps of the usual male slippers. Though this male Thakin dress was a direct contrast to the normal silken longyi outfit of the male students, the news went around that Aung San also condemned the frivolity of the women students who bought longyis by the score from stocks imported by the Indian capitalists, In this I was guiltier than the average female. Not only was I making up for having come too late to a dressy Burmese scene, not only did my uncle San Lin ignore my bursary and give a full allowance, leaving a lot for snacks, clothes and cinema shows, but my 'partner' or best friend of whom we all had one, led me to go in for excessive silk-piece shopping. Girls always went everywhere in pairs, never alone. It was proof that you could not be going to a purely private, and therefore a possibly sexual encounter if a companion were with you. My special partner was Shin Min Thu, from a Moulmein convent. Her name was an exceedingly high style echo of courts centuries old, and in naming her in English for her convent,. her father chose the equally impossible Honoria. No wonder we called her Honny. Honny was fair-complexioned, petite and weak. She had a weak heart. But she was game. Oh, how game she was. She breathlessly kept up with my fast strides along miles of corridors, and she went along with me to tennis and basketball where she sat at the side-lines till I should finish, and we could walk back together. She laughed at my antics and never seemed to grudge me my energy. I can only hope that the pace she kept alongside me did not contribute to her early death in her fifties.
Honny's parents were dead. Her elder brother lived with her and two unmarried elder sisters in a beautiful wooden house near their printing press in Moulmein. The sisters ran a shop of fine Burmese fabrics in their front room where the floors and few pieces of furniture were kept highly polished and dustless. The two elder sisters enjoyed normal health and always concerned themselves with Honny's well-being. They dressed alike every day when she was home, each in turn choosing the longyi design for the day. When Honny and I shopped, therefore, for longyi pieces at the wealth of Indian textile houses she would let me choose the one we would buy, then quietly add to my order for two pieces, her order for two more for her sisters who awaited her return each vacation to see what new designs they would wear. We had a good friendship and Honny sometimes surprised me by her firm opinions in uncertain situations. Some of our colleagues formed an association like many associations of ethnic, religious, district of origin or field of study, all of which made for increased social life and meetings. Now, my friends formed what they called the 'Can-Bro', with girl students educated at convents and boys from the corresponding 'Brothers' schools', It was not a seemly thing to do from a nationalist view, but Honny to my surprise, told me quite feelingly that company is always welcome, and if one has become a 'half-frog half-fish', what other compensation is there in the situation except to know that there are enough half-frogs half-fish to form a good crowd?
One feature of my half-frog half-fish breeding was that I was continually condemned as hoydenish in my behaviour. One day, a close friend from childhood years, said a boy she knew was laid up in the sanatorium and she wanted my company to visit him there. I went along, we stood politely exchanging perfunctory remarks on his health and terminated the visit in less than half an hour, Next day my cousin the handsome Ko Kyi Maung Win called at my Hall to my surprise. He scolded me for having gone on that visit to the sick. I was taken aback and said so. I described the very proper distance we had kept from the sick-beds. He said "That's not the point. The point is, don't you know what he is being treated far?" I didn't and said so. My cousin came closer and said as if in fullest explanation, "He has VD." I kept quiet, knowing better than to say I thought the nature of the disease had nothing to do with the propriety or impropriety of my visit.
Another time my elder cousin who had supplied Ma Ohn as my teacher called me and asked if I could not drop basketball. He pointed out that tennis was something I could now play unlike at school which had not had full facilities. So why did I have to play basketball as well, when tennis could be played in a longyi whereas I had to get back into a skirt to run and push about in basket-ball. Even my Uncle San Lin proved surprisingly strict. He watched :my behaviour from afar and reported it to Father. I was surprised one day to hear from Father who by now belonged to another world as it seemed, that perhaps my enthusiasm for the University Football Team should not carry me away in wild shouts and standing cheers at the public stadium.
Yes; dear Father was in a sadly different world, having retired now. Early on, he had bought out the two other heirs to Grandfather's Thaton mansion and now owned it together with my elder aunt who had continued to live there. Father's choice of Thaton as his retirement place was, in fact, the ideal choice for a Burmese pensioner, as it contained scenic countryside, cheap food suppliers, numerous pagodas and monasteries, and the proximity of a big; town in Moulmein. In addition Father had his rubber estates and his house. However, it was with some fears that I went home for my first vacation after his retirement. I feared a sad change, with just my parents, aunt, and a servant or two rattling around in that big mansion; no more kitchen brimful with domestics; and Father with no trappings of office. I was agreeably surprised when Mother who met me did not hire a pony cart such as we had always ridden in Thaton, but went instead to a blue 'tourer' car in which a pleasant young chauffeur waited. Mother explained that car and chauffeur were necessities as Father visited the rubber plantations far oftener than our aunt had been able to do. When we got home, however, I felt sad to watch Mother bending, over her bunch of keys to get the front-door open. When a house is full of people, someone is always near enough to the door to be at hand for arrivals, but when a large house contains only two or three people one has to lock up in case the home-stayer wishes to relax out of earshot. I had half-imagined that Mother would have made some sort of sitting room in Grandfather's Buddhist design for living, but no, she left the main room as its old self, kept free for assemblies with the Sangha. Now that I am older and wiser I think she did right in leaving it its beauty of round teak pillars rising to the high ceiling, and the shine of the foot-wide floor-boards uncluttered by chairs and small tables. On the front verandah, stepping down from this were a few arm-chairs and two deck-chairs for Father and Mother to rest in side by side. On the mornings that Father did not drive out to his rubber estates, he put on a topi and walked around the town, often finishing up at a monastery where he might sit and chat awhile with the monks, or visit other pensioners. I found him thin and a bit quiet. A disease caught long before, and thought to be cured, was troubling him without our knowing it. Mother told me years later that she did not know that some diseases needed additional courses of injections as follow-up treatments. Still, when my sisters also came home on holiday, Father organised picnics at the rubber estate bungalow as well as at Zingyaik where waterfalls and boulders make such a dream setting for children at play. I was therefore not deeply worried about his health but decided that I really must do superbly in university examinations from now on, ignoring romance or politics, to raise his spirits.
I remember Thaton was full of picnic spots, but I remember it also for being the starting point for our great friendship with one English family. This friendship which is still lively till now, dates from those colonial days. The Deputy Commissioner there, Mr. F.S.V. Donnison, was fairly young, and so was his wife Ruth. She somehow learned of Mother's presence in Thaton, and invited her over to tea. After getting to know her, she asked if Mother, being older, more experienced and truly bi-lingual, would please act as President of the Maternity and Infant Welfare work in Thaton.
"You can have me as a secretary so that I can do the running round for you."
Mother was quite taken aback, her upbringing as a junior official's wife making such a suggestion preposterous.
"No, no, you are the D.C.'s wife. The D.C.'s wife must lead and I will help you whenever you need."
They chatted easily together, Mother ever ready to tell Ruth about Burmese food and fruit preserving, and Ruth urging her to bring the children to choose books suitable for holiday reading of which she had many. When we went there for that purpose, we sometimes saw the host, tall, good- looking, smiling gently, and keeping in the background, for Mother would have drawn back into her shell if he had come more forward. The measure of what she felt for him was revealed to me nearly forty years later, when she told me, "Later, when he became Financial Commissioner, (that is very high, you know), I was walking Into the,Secretariat in Rangoon one day to get my rubber quota. I felt sad because I hated to go there and with your Papa ill and all. When I was half-way from the gate to the building, Mr. Donnison, drove in, in his car. Oh my, he stopped the car, and he leaned out and said, 'Isn't it Mrs. Chit Khaing? What are you doing here?' He even offered to take me to the quotas office but of course I did not accept that. But it made me feel so much better to think he knew me and wanted to help me.”
When I returned to college soon after the beginning of the academic year 1936, I received a letter which influenced my erratic searchings for romance for years to come. The letter bore an overseas stamp and had been mailed from a ship en route to England, and it was from a friend I knew well. He was extraordinarily old-fashioned and punctilious, even for Burmese society, for it was not till page six of the closely- written letter that recognised it was a declaration of love and a proposal of marriage. Even then, the writer was able to propose only by quoting an Old English verse called Alvsoun's Song, substituting my name at the very last word for Alysoun. 0h I was excited, my first proposal at the age of twenty after only three years in college. Why from a ship? Because he had won entry into the top Civil Service which was so highly classed that it was called 'heaven-born.' He had waited till he left for the two years' training he would get at Oxford. Now I hugged the letter to my heart. What girl would not be swept away by the thought of having had, without knowing, for a whole year, someone looking on never giving a hint, but all the time admiring and desiring one. Now safely far out at sea, and sure of the best prospects In life, he felt confident enough to speak out. But despite such punctiliousness I knew with a sinking heart, it would never do. I did not even spend time wondering more about its possibility. He was a Roman Catholic and of mixed European and Burmese blood. His sister had been my close friend in school, and though she had gone on to nursing instead of coming to college, we still maintained our friendship. This, and his having met my uncle who spoke English freely, made him hope that my family was broad-minded enough not to mind our differences of race and religion. But they would most certainly mind and even without asking them I minded for their feelings. I just folded away the letter sadly. Everyone will agree that fruit put out of your reach offers delights to the imagination, real and fancied.
To show the desirability of such 'heaven-born' service officers as marriage prospects at the time, I mention a visit to a cousin. During our visit, she was sewing silk pillow-cases for the trousseau of a girl engaged to someone of that service. My cousin, said to us,
"So you see, if you behave well, if you are known to be modest and virtuous, and best of all, if you are lucky enough to have parents able to provide a house and car for you as her parents are doing, then you get such a husband."
I hugged my secret close to my heart, for without my parents being either able or eager to give a dowry for me, and without my wearing an air of modesty or cultivated virtuousness, I had received my twelve page proposal from a very good-looking 'heaven-horn'. I kept the proposal a secret in case Father and Mother would hear some wrong news about it and sadden them. But at that time, the gods were filling cup after cup for me. That first proposal was followed by friendship in which people could see all the advantages of my first proposal and wherein I myself could see every attractive quality in the person, but not as a proposal for marriage for I was not yet mature emotionally. The way it came about is still fresh in my mind.
I had a sparring friend among my class-mates who was always looking for chances to put me into a spot, though we were supposed to be good friends. One day he saw an advertisement for a face-cream which began with the striking statement that to those of us who are beautiful by nature no aids are necessary, but to those of us less endowed, there was a face-cream. Just fill in the form below and order the cream and one's appearance would be made. He found the shyest among: their group of Honours students, said to be brilliant, and undoubtedly good-natured and good-looking. I don't know what inducement made this young man agree to fill in the form with my name and address and send the whole page of advertisement to me. When I got it I was indignant, and went around boldly asking class-mates to identify the handwriting, I tracked down the writer and sending a note to him by name asked him to meet me without fall at a certain corridor. There I told him what I thought of such a rude,, silly and cruel joke and asked him how it would feel to have been told all your life about your lack of beauty, to start forgetting about it at last, and now to be reminded again, so unnecessarily.
The dear young man had never met a girl, I was full of anger and sense of outrage. This worked on him better than any sweet words, and very soon I got an invitation to go to a cinema show with two or three other friends and him as the host. I went along, and a friendship began which should have made me or any parents happy. But after my sheltered childhood and my seclusion in the convent, I just could not feel ready to consider developing any friendship into intentions towards marriage nor to feel I had seen enough of the world after only a few years on a University campus. What about seeing the original country-side of that picture I had looked at for years as I chewed my silent meals in the convent? For that matter, what about Mongolia, and the Bosphorus, and all the lands I dreamed of in all the years of living in imagination. I knew what marriage would be like as far as the social setting was concerned. I had so loved It as our parents provided for us. Mother had set me an example which I did not follow. She had a moral purpose in life, to raise a family with a good man in the same dull routine of small towns which gave children and marriage maximum security. I was not prepared to immerse myself in such a life as she had done --- at least not yet. Perhaps I lacked moral purpose altogether? There was also the thought of the forbidden fruit I had put away. I did not long to taste to see which apple was sweetest, but having denied myself- something so irrevocably and decidedly made me unwilling to make any other irrevocable decision as yet. My new friend, after graduation, like all bright young men, would sit for the Civil Service examinations and would probably be selected into the 'heaven-born.' In fact, this did come to pass, but even this did not change my wayward course in search of what I knew not.
One thing only was sure. I had begun working seriously with the idea that this time I would get a brilliant degree. Especially was my resolve strengthened when one day Mother came to see me together with my Uncle San Lin, especially to tell me that Father needed sustained treatment possible only in Rangoon and for this she must rent a bungalow close to where the English physician lived and would prefer us children to wait to see Father only much later as the doctor said he was undergoing a nervous breakdown due to the inroads of disease. I turned away with tears in my eyes, thankful only for Mother having her brother-in-law who of course would do his utmost to stand by and help in every way.
My studies in Honours English had begun. By that year, 1936, I had finished with all subsidiary subjects and read only English language and literature. The three years of classes without an examination in sight for all that time, with only a long essay perhaps once a term, bad been bliss for me. Now it was to be my last of the three years and in a bit of a panic I decided to read without a stop till midnight each night and wake up to start again at six the next morning. This was the happy activity which filled my general feeling of a vacuum at not knowing where I was drifting emotionally and about Father's breakdown. They were happy hours when I hunted around in the library and happiest when I spotted a book which had escaped the hunting of my sparring partner who went around to remove books, not to read but to get them out of my reach. To show this was not really bad will towards me, he told me about it with a lot of glee.
Our studies then were directed by a good British staff. In later life I have been told of the eminence of Professor D.G.E. Hall in the world of historians, Dudley Stamp in the world of geographers, Gordon Luce in the world of scholarship generally, and I had my own clear perception of the quality of my English professor, F.W..V. Rhodes who was like no other. He was a New Zealander who had been a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford and suffered from severe bouts of epilepsy. He was a bachelor, and having a need to be constantly attended by someone if he should suffer from. a fit, he chose a few congenial students to spend holidays with him summering in the hill-stations during vacation. In term-time, though he shared a house with another unmarried Englishman, he would invite such students to take the regular walk along the lake shores with him. An admiration for Swift and a conversational style of sarcasm against the Establishment made him appear a cynical mysongynist, which he was not. In later years we became good friends, but I spent earlier years under a cloud of his dislike for me, due to a cruel trick played by one of the male students in whose regard I must have stuck out like a sore thumb. My spirit of over-exuberance during these years led to many such reactions. This was the joke played on me.
I would be late and rush into the class at the last moment, quite breathless and in need of time to find the place in the text which the lecturer had reached. It was the custom for male students to pass up notes requesting girls up front to ask for meanings of words they did not understand, it seemed natural, for no one really enjoyed framing a question in English unless they spoke the language fluently. One day, at the Professor's class, no sooner had I at down than such a note was passed Up. The contents were in Burmese, with just the English words needing clarification written in English. I was requested to ask for the meaning of the words 'fistula' and 'codpiece'.
If I had glanced at the text I would have suspected a joke, but I did not take time. Straight away I asked “Please Sir, what is a codpiece?” Perhaps today the question sounds ordinary, but my Professor turned a violent red.
"Upon my word," he stammered, "Well, really!" He began moving sideways on his platform from one end to another twice with repetitions of "Well really" Then he closed his files and walked out to a great uproar of male laughter and thumping. Who says the days of youth are care-free and happiest?
It took a long time for him and me to reach an understanding but we ended up as friends.
The idea had been to put me on the spot, and not the Professor. In this, I was merely getting what I myself gave out to others sometimes in my exuberance. Since Convent days I had had a classmate and rival in an almost purely Irish girl called Kathleen Bruen. She always stood ahead of me in class but would sometimes say, "You don't work hard enough and you don't take enough care. If you did, you would beat me."
When I decided to attend the English honours Class I was already sitting in it when she appeared to do likewise. Suddenly, looking at me, she said, "No, we've had enough of each other," and she went off to the Geography Department.
She was a brilliant girl, subject to ups and downs of temperament. I could not resist teasing her when she was high. The geography department was in one year joined by an attractive young bachelor called Slater. One fine morning I found myself crossing the grassy slopes near the lake shores keeping to our left the Geography wing as we walked on. Kathleen and another girl were with me. The drains, built solidly like all on that campus, were quite two feet deep and in this fine weather, quite clean and dry. The morning air must have sent me a bit wild. Noticing that Kathleen was wearing high-heeled pointed shoes which required careful walking, I whispered an idea to the third girl to ,join me in shouting, "Oh Mr. Sla-a-ter" loud, long and yodelling. As soon as we shouted we jumped down into the drain and crouched out of sight. We wore flat Burmese slippers and did this easily. If Slater came to the window he would see Kathleen only as she could not jump into the deep drain with her high-heeled pointed shoes. Raising our heads, we again called out the same yodelling call several times. Poor Kay ranted and fumed, and told us not to be ridiculous. She had to end by removing her shoes and hiding in the drain and this made her all the angrier.
But in return for such cruel jokes that I played, see what could happen to me again.
There is the sweet Burmese custom of handing letters to a girl whom a man falls in love with, so that, 'love letter' is synonymous with giving a declaration of love. One day in the library I was approached by an enigmatic character. He held out a letter and said, "People hand letters to declare love. I want to hand this to you to declare dislike." I took the note without flinching, but my heart was chilled.
Despite such possible encounters in that library I had some of my happiest hours there. To come across a rare comment in literary criticism which accorded with my own opinion, then to go through my texts with a fine comb till I found evidence bearing out the comment, to scribble that passage down and later, on the flat of my back in my hostel room, to learn that, passage by heart. All this happy study was mine, but it had always attracted me anyway. What I strove now to do more to ensure good results for Father was to listen to and try to get deeply interested in the philology lectures. These were given by our Indian lecturer Mr. Gopal Krishna Aiyar. He was called 'Hot Lips Alyar' because of his thick protruding lips which seemed accentuated by his Indian rendition of certain consonants,'Vowel' was pronounced 'Wow-vel', and so on.
Nowadays it is customary to call the education we got then 'slave education', designed to produce not nation-builders but good service-men. The education was not in itself slavish, it was us students, who had been slave-tradition-oriented, attaching prestige and desired office to liberal arts and law subjects, and neglecting to elect science courses. Few had the imagination to do the latter, and I remember the few Eurasian girls who studied biology, always complaining about their Professor Meggit, known as a great faller of students. U Ne Win, President of Burma at the time of writing was among the rare ones who elected to study biology, and if the Eurasian girls could not bear the edge of Meggit's tongue, certainly Ne Win could not. It is not surprising that Ne Win decided to terminate his studies and devote himself to nationalist efforts before he could sit for his degree,
The academic year 1936-37 was to be my final year in college. The very beginning of the calendar-year 1936 was to see the great University Strike in which Aung San made his debut as a political leader of resource and daring, with ability to command enthusiastic following. I have mentioned above that the issue on which he took out the strike was not in itself important compared to other burning issues which the government as well as nationalist leaders who had won elections and office along orthodox lines were trying without success to rectify. However its success in getting examinations postponed was undoubted. It made both the young leaders and the university authorities realise that it could be done again any other time. Moreover, the method chosen for upsetting examinations without violence and big demonstrations but merely by using the Burmese aversion to stepping over a prone male was seen to be a sufficient method of picketing.. Nearly twenty female students, in addition to hundreds of male students joined the strike.
The Principal Mr. Sloss, a huge man with an authoritarian manner, lived next door to our hall. He came over to lead girls who were to take their examinations to the examination block. Honny and I tagged behind to see what would happen. We got to the small back gate leading to the teaching blocks and found three young men lying prone across our path.
"Come, boys, don't be ridiculous. Get up and let these harmless girls go to their exam," One boy said to another in Burmese, "Don't pay any attention to him."
Mr. Sloss continued in the same vein of playing it lightly, that the boys were perhaps playing a joke in such childish behaviour. When he saw that they would not get up no matter how he urged, he appeared a bit confused. He looked this way and that and then his glance came to us and tried to meet our glance. We quickly averted our eyes.. If he were trying to gauge the likelihood of our stepping over a recumbent male the answer was "Never." So he said, "Oh alright, I've never seen such nonsense." And we returned rather flatly to the hall hoping that somehow agreement could be reached on holding exams. It was reached. Exams were postponed while the authorities agreed to appoint a Committee to investigate the conduct of the Bursar about whom the article had been written, The writer, having revealed his identity himself, Aung San was obviously no longer at fault. His right to maintain silence being acknowledged by reinstatement. The article had been more sensational than serious in its charges of immorality on the part of the staff member. 'Hell-Hound at Large' had been its title, and its main accusation was the lack of decorum towards girl students in lecture references and too great a measure of intimacy in inviting the same two girls to his house where he lived with his wife, I had gone home when the University closed temporarily during negotiations. I was staying at the house of Aunty Khin's relatives. The Bursar had been a resident of one of the towns where Father had worked and when he was selected for the top civil service and was sent to England for training, Mother had made him a few Burmese pickles to take along. As a mark of regard for this connection he had now and again invited me to play tennis at his house, I always went along with two other girls with whom I was friendly. They were both attractive and one, Khin Saw Elaing, who had been in the same convent with met was somehow always sought out by men though no prettier than others. We played tennis, chatted and returned to the hall. Now the Bursar's wife turned up at Aunty Khin's to ask my help. She told Mother that some of the charges against her husband included these tennis invitations and she would be grateful if I could go to testify my occasional presence there and the innocence of the gatherings. Mother called me and said that of course I must go along and speak out the truth. But my Uncle San Lin who was there on leave came out and took a say in the matter. "Tell me, " he said to the visitor,"do the strikers mention three names or only two of the girls invited to your husband's tennis parties';"
"My niece was not mentioned?"
He turned to me. "There you are. Keep out of what does not concern you and stay home quietly. Everyone including the strikers, knows that you are a great simpleton. That's why they haven't included your name. Its very decent of them indeed. Otherwise, think of the shame to your family in having your name bandied about in this connection. And by the ways aren't you often invited to tennis along with the same two girls by U C and U Y?" He mentioned two elderly rich men, one of whom knew Father and who I thought invited me for that reason.
"You don't know anything that's going on. Just don't go about so much. Next time people may not be so kind or discerning as these strikers."
With negotiations and investigations successfully concluded, the postponed examinations were held in due course. In March 1937, with things going smoothly, I sat for my own examination. I
did my very best and went home for the holidays. The young English lecturer who was assistant to my Professor Rhodes was a good friend of mine. He lectured to us on Donne and also gave us readings of current writers, Isherwood, Eliot and Auden. He wrote now of results to me:
"You have done excellently all round it seems. You are to be awarded a First Class Honours degree as well as the Gold Medal, and when I say you have done well all round, I mean in every subject. That includes full marks in Philology. Gopal Aiyar wept tears of joy to see that after all the years he has been teaching his loathsome languages, at last comes a student who listened to his maunderings right through from the Aryans to the Anglo-Saxons in the dropping of an h here and the picking up of an e centuries later. I hope you are happy."
Happy? Of course, but Father was not yet himself and I would have to carry all my life my tardiness in vindicating his belief that I should become the first Burmese Professor of English in Burma.
After passing this degree examination I returned briefly to the campus in the academic year of 1937 to appear for the interview calling for candidates to be selected for sending as State Scholars to England. English Language and Literature was not listed among the subjects chosen for study: Though selection would be based on the results achieved in the degree examinations, which for me was of course English, I decided to appear for the interview. I caused a slight confusion in the selection, the details of which I give to mark the political climate that prevailed in the University by mid-1937. The panel of judges told me that places for the chosen subjects of study had all been filled with candidates who had obtained the best degree in the subject concerned. There was one odd subject, however listed as Household and Social Science which would offer a bachelor of science degree of the University of London. The choice was designed to bring back the trained candidate to lecture in the post-graduate Teachers Training College of the University to teach the post-graduate course of B.Ed. I would have found it more attractive if it had been a simple Home Economics course they proposed. Mother had brought me up to respect her house-wifely qualities enough to welcome the chance to fill out my great ignorance of all domestic matters. This contrived Bachelor of Science degree as it appeared to me, did not attract me so much, in its need for studying Physics, Chemistry, Biology etc. and I said so. This was taken as a lack of interest and I left the room. Following me went an Honours graduate in Geography, a girl who was fair-skinned like Levantine English. She expressed great interest in the course and I think there was agreement that as the geography training would be given to my old classmate Kathleen Bruen who had a better geography degree, this Olga George should be awarded the Household and Social Science training. While waiting outside I told myself I had been foolish. Surely I wanted to go abroad to study. Surely I could master any training and pass required examinations while enjoying other aspects of English training which really interested me more. Bold as ever, I asked permission to enter the room again and spoke of my change of mind.
The chairman of the Board said "Well, your degree is so good. Perhaps you should Get a chance of further study if you wish for it,"
He looked around and there were nods. So I On the scholarship, thinking in my heart of hearts that this unorthodox process of selection could hardly have been adopted if I had been not Burmese but Eurasian. The respected nationalist gentlemen who had in the year previous won the long- awaited Separation of Burma from India, who won election rights for Burmese to a Lower and Upper House of Legislature, even if with safeguards of minority and foreign interests, they and the strikers had changed the climate of political feeling in the University of Rangoon to this extent at least, so that I felt discrimination by the academic body, not against me the Burmese candidate but against Olga the fair-skinned girl. She later married the handsome geography lecturer Slater who became Rector of Durham University.
The male students organised a grand dinner to honour the dozen or so State Scholars to be sent abroad. Thirteen young men and Kathleen Bruen and myself were feted. But the song sung by the dancer on stage accented the girls only. "Oh Mi Mi, Oh Kathleen, how admirable, how such for us to be glad about."
We also got a grand send-off at the wharf. One of my sisters started to cry, was followed by the other two, then Cousin Daisy, and then all the University girls joined in the crying. One of the men who was going with me, Ko Tin Thein, went round to each teary girl saying, "Don't be so upset, You know I'm coming back before too long."
Khin Saw Hlaing, who was one of the girls I had accompanied to tennis at the house of the Bursar, stamped her feet and said, "I'm not crying for you, you fool. I'm crying for Mi Mi." My refusal to testify to help her out was no bar to good feelings. There is always goodwill and a spirit of letting bygones be bygones among us Burmese.