From: “Some Poems, Stories & Stuff / Stories I Never Told My Sons"
*Copyright 2004 by Joseph Alwyn Valu. All Rights Reserved.
Published by WorldWar2BurmaDiaries.com
On a cool day in March, a few years ago, I came across a small Indian restaurant on the upper Eastside of New York City – and being tired and in pain after a medical examination of my legs (damaged in an accident at work) by a consultant, I thought it would be nice to rest those weary bones , have some Indian chai and lunch, and be on my way back to work at the bureau. The buffet lunch menu and prices displayed on the window were tempting and attractive, so I entered the restaurant.
Little did I know, then, that I would enter and revisit yesteryear, forty-nine years ago to be exact, and half a world away – a revisit I never dreamed would ever come my way after the tumultuous events of the intervening years. The neatly dressed Indian lady who attended to me very courteously informed me, in perfect English, that the buffet was planned for 12 noon – it was 11:30 – but that she could provide me with Indian tea and pappadums until it was served. That was certainly better than anything the doctor had ordered, so I stayed.
Not expensively appointed but meticulously ordered and clean, the place had a quiet ambiance about it with it’s Indian silk screens adorning one wall, with just a whisper of perfumed spices emanating from the kitchen to keep your juices going. The lady, who was obviously not a waitress, was speaking to a man in his late forties who gave orders to the staff in subdued tones, and was obviously the proprietor. It all came about so quietly. I looked up from a newspaper ad placed under the glass protector on my table to find the gentleman looking quizzically at me. “Are you a doctor? A doctor from India, who visits my restaurant, does research at the medical center near here.” “No, I’m not a doctor but I do research at the Health Department,” I replied courteously, if somewhat distractedly, “ but – is it possible that you also serve Burmese food?” said I excitedly, hoping that I didn’t sound rude by changing the subject so abruptly. “No, we don’t” he answered pleasantly, “That’s an ad from another restaurant of mine, folded over …” “Of course! I should have known …” I replied, clearly disappointed. “Why do you like Burmese food?” “Because I was born in Burma.” “So was my husband …” interjected the lady. “Where?” I asked. “In Maymyo.” he replied. “Maymyo! Oh my gosh… we lived there during the War!” “On what road did you reside?” “Howgone Road.” I said, drawing two parallel lines on a paper napkin, one I marked Mandalay-Lashio and the other Howgone.” “And there was a small brook running between the two?” “Why, of course!” I exclaimed, “How did you know that?”
For the first time in all those years the memory of that brook came back to me, where we kids, friends of mine, Mickey, Loretta, and sometimes the love of my young life, Gladys, would dredge the shallows for mud fish. “I played in that brook too!” he said, obviously reading my thoughts.
“On which side of Howgone Road did you reside on?” was his next question, and something told me he already knew the answer. “Which side?” “As you face in the direction of the railway station…” “Golly, the railway station! H’mm…” How could I have forgtten that railway station and our group of young boys’ fondness to meet at a bombed-out siding with one purpose in mind: unscrew the wheel-like end-piece of grenades exploded by some Allied bombing run, and use them to make sundry railway trains and trucks since there were no toys for us to play with. That one friend had his right arm blown off by an unexploded grenade did not deter us – such was the need for playthings in our circumscribed lives.
And yes, how could I have forgotten that station of all the railway stations in the world: the place I left her and Maymyo, never to see them again. And then it came back in a rush, and as the doors of memory opened I didn’t know what to do, shout or cry. “The station! On the left! On the left!” I almost shouted, clutching his hand in a shake, and probably shaking as well. “Here! I’ll put an X here …” “Of course” he said quietly, “that’s where we also lived.” “In our old house?” “Did it have rounded corners?” he asked, as though needing more confirmation, as his wife looked on transfixed by our discoveries. “Rounded corners? I don’t recall … oh, yes! it had two rounded gables, one on each end: the left one enclosed a spiral staircase … “ “Leading to a covered verandah …” “Which led to the sitting room!” I exclaimed excitedly. We looked momentarily at one another in stunned silence, then “The other gable enclosed my bedroom.” said I. “No kidding, that was the room in which my dear Mother gave birth to me!” I got up laboriously on my crippled legs and we hugged each other as his wife looked on with tears in her eyes. “That was our house too.” He said as an afterthought, as though putting a lien on our common memory.
With boyish wonder we then enumerated the kinds of trees in the garden: I clearly remembered the large tamarind tree he described near the pre-war owner’s servant’s quarters at the rear of the house, he didn’t remember the hibiscus on the front fence, and I seemed to forget the lichee trees in the front.
It transpired that when we moved back to Rangoon at the end of the hostilities in 1948, his family moved into the Twin Gables where he was born two years later. “We used to live in the Zigon area. Do you remember that area?’ “Ah, yes!” said I, thinking unsaid thoughts about the bamboo thatched huts set up there by the Christian Brothers after the War for our first school, with the Reader’s Digest donated by American servicemen as our only reading text books. It was there that many of us, with possibly one exception, myself , had learned the grand structure and immense expression of the English language.
It was there too, in the thoroughly cleansed, refurbished, and triply blessed Church of the Immaculate Conception (recently the “residence” i.e. brothel, for the Japanese Army’s enslaved Korean “comfort women”) that I reached the zenith of my innocent religiosity.
Which tied into, of course, as I continued my reverie, of the time (I smiled, reliving the small pride and butterflies of shyness I experienced then) I used to sing solo as a boy soprano – Gregorian chants and Gounod’s “Ave Maria”, trilling the large cavernous recesses of the towering Gothic cathedral-like church with my clear, tender voice. “Ah, yes, those were the days.” I softly answered my kindred spirit’s questioning eyes, but not sharing with him the dark, unshared, heart-breaking experiences of the tumultuous years which were about to intervene.
MAYMYO STATION photo courtesy Mary McPherson 2011
MAYMYO RAILWAY STATION photo courtesy Mary McPherson
Copyright 2008 by Joseph Alwyn Valu. All Rights Reserved.