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Big notes and small coins

21 March 2011

By Atta Kyaw

Translated into English by Ma Thanegi

1.

It was not that I wanted to eat well, for I could afford it on my own; it was not that I was even hungry.

However, the hour was well past lunchtime. They knew that since that morning I had eaten nothing, for I had been driving them around since eight and by now it was nearly one in the afternoon.

They told me to drive to Ruby, a downtown Chinese restaurant. As they climbed down from my taxi, there was no invitation to join them1. It was assumed that as they had hired me my duty was to sit in my car and wait. As I said, I was not hungry but I thought I must eat something as it way past the time I should. I went into the restaurant and sat by myself at another table. They did not see me at first busy as they were opening soda bottles, or dropping ice cubes into their glasses…

As a waiter handed me a menu one of them saw me and our eyes locked.

“Oh, it’s you…why don’t you come join us?”

I knew he was asking only because he felt he had to and my reply sprang out of my mouth:

“It doesn’t matter, if you meant it you’d have asked me earlier.”

His face turned dark and he looked away. I felt a flash of satisfaction.

 

2.

Their house in Golden Valley2 was under construction and they have hired me by the hour to go around on their errands. Now, after asking me to take the mason back to his house to fetch something they had stayed behind at the construction site.

The mason’s house was in the poorer fringe of the satellite town of South Okkalapa and to reach his house I had to manoeuvre through narrow back lanes and bad roads. His house was a small bamboo hut roofed with thatch.

“Please, come inside while you wait and have some green tea,” the mason invited me in.

“It’s alright, just take your time with what you have to do. No hurry,” I replied, feeling ah nar dei3, and I waited in my car.

He went into his hut and came out in a minute with a cup of green tea and a piece of palm sugar on a small saucer. I felt very ah nar dei that he had gone to the trouble of bringing it out himself.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, why did you bother…”

“That’s alright.”

So I followed him back to the house and sat down, sipping his tea.

How warm was the green tea in the earthenware cup, and how sweet was the palm sugar on that enamelled saucer, its paint chipped in places.

1.

You could say we were friends, we have known each other for a long time. I knew his wife and with him, I was on very friendly terms.

Once he was swamped with errands and his driver was sick. He did not know how to drive so he asked my help, to take him around in his car. The whole day and evening we were busy with his errands and when I finally drove him home, it was well past midnight. That was the problem, where was I to sleep? At that hour, there were no more buses or taxis and he said he could not give me his car to drive home. I would not want to take it either, it was a responsibility I did not want but he lived in the suburbs and I downtown. How was I to get back?

“Why don’t you just sleep here,” he said. So the decision was made and so I walked into the house with him. He yawned widely and went into the bedroom; there was no sign of the wife, she was probably asleep already.

There were only two bedrooms in his house: one where he and his wife slept, another one for his toddler son and the nanny.

He has gone into his bedroom, saying I should sleep here, but where? On the sofa in his front room with roaring mosquitoes, on the floor, or curled up like a dog by the door? He had said nothing else to me.

I waited to see if he would come out with a blanket or mosquito net but saw the light in the bedroom go out.

Phew.

 

2.

I decided I would sleep in his car with the windows closed, which should give some protection against the bugs. At first I was comfortable enough but soon the hot weather and airlessness was making me sweat. Finally unable to bear the heat I opened the window a bit and just after I felt cool enough in came troops of mosquitoes. I was soon twitching and turning to slap at mosquitoes and scratching myself.

“Here, lad, use this…at least it should keep some bugs away.” It was the night watchmen who was dozing in the garage, handing me a ragged cotton blanket.

“It’s alright, uncle, I can manage.” I did not want to take away his blanket.

“Nonsense, you won’t get a wink, there are so many mosquitoes.”

“But what about you?”

“I can sit inside my mosquito net, I have one,” he said.

Still feeling ah nar dei I took his worn blanket.

How comfortable it was, that ragged piece of cotton.

1.

His shop selling black-market goods was close to the taxi stand where I park my car. We were also black market taxis, that is, private cars without a taxi license running a car hire service under police radar. Actually, I did not like him much, for he had that arrogant look on his face as if he were feeding all other people out of his own pockets, so I always kept my distance.

But once I had to buy a tin of black shoe polish from his store, to keep my tyres looking shining black and new. One needs to keep one’s car looking good so that customers would prefer it to others. He asked kyat 15 and I tried to bargain but he said 15 was the last price, so I bought it reluctantly as I really needed it but knowing I was paying too much.

The next day he walked over to my car.

“Can I borrow your shoe polish? I need to use a little of it,” he asked. At the time I was busy with a fare who bargaining my price down so I just handed over the tin to him without a word.

I did not get it back for three days. When I asked it back, feeling somewhat ah nar dei to be rude, he gave it back saying he forgot. He did not say thank you and even looked annoyed that I should ask for my own property.

When I opened the tin, I saw it was almost empty.

2.

I was waiting by my taxi hoping for a fare when a beggar who was not too right in his head came up to me.

“Spare me some coins, I want a cheroot,” he asked.

When I dug into my pocket I found a quarter and dropped it on his opened palm. He salaamed at me, and also clasped his two hands in homage.

In a while, he was back with two cheap cheroots, sold at two for a quarter. One was clenched between his teeth, one he handed to me.

“It’s alright, you keep it to smoke later,” I told him.

“Doesn’t matter, I don’t need it now… take it, here..” he thrust the cheroot at me and ambled away.

I felt bored so I lit up and puffed on the cheroot.

How sweet was the smoke, better than a Marlboro.

________________________________________

[1] It is customary for clients when hiring a car for the day or for long trips to invite the driver to eat with them in the same way that snacks and soft drinks are also shared.

[2] Exclusive and wealthy residential area of Yangon

[3] The Myanmar social custom of feeling bad to be a bother or be rude to someone else

Author’s Note

This story was first published in Burmese language in the Rangoon Arts & Science University Annual Magazine 1977-78.  I was only 20 then and it was my third printed material and the second short story of my life.  It had been sleeping among my files for many years until I published a compilation of my short stories in June 2004.

I have known Ma Thanegi, painter, writer and translator, since 1988, and since 1992, soon after she was released from Insein gaol under the then amnesty, we have become very close as if we were a big sister and a kid brother.  Probably because of her loving kindness towards me, she chose this short story to translate into English among all those great short story writers like Theikpan Maung Wa, Journal Kyaw Ma Ma Lay, Khin Hnin Yu, Htin Lin, Khin Swe Oo, Aung Thinn, Moe Moe (Inya), Pe Myint, Nyi Pu Lay, Ma Sandar, Nu Nu Yi (Inn Wa), Ju, Khin Khin Htoo, Nay Win Myint and Thu Maung.   I still feel that I am no match for them.  Nevertheless Ma Thanegi published “25 Myanmar Short Stories,” in October 2009. (She edited out the last two parts of my story, probably because the issues were out of date and/or she did not like it.)

This is the second material of mine that has ever been translated into English–the first one was on my article on the cyclone Nargis, the tranalation of which did not make me feel comfortable.  I’m publishing it on my blog as one of my friends on Facebook, who happens to be a non-Burmese speaker, wants to know what kind of writer I am.  I hope this one, though it was written some 34 years ago, may still reflect some parts of me.

For non-English readers, the original Burmese version of this story will be coming up on this blog in a few days’ time, I assure you.

With my very best regards

 ATK

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