Lines from a SHINING LAND - Excerpts (5)

1953 - Anna Allott

My darling Tony,

I am here, safe and sound on Burmese soil, dripping with sweat but confident and cheerful about what is to come. By 9 a.m. we had waved goodbye to the Worcestershire - moored out in mid-stream - and come ashore by tender. A colourful crowd of Burmans greeted us - waving black umbrellas over their heads to keep the sun off.

Rangoon University students are on strike - as we drove in, compound and house gates had to be unlocked for us and the whole place seemed very quiet and deserted. The students have struck, it seems, for longer holidays. Inya Hall should hold 100; 350 girls have been crammed into it. Luckily for me, all but a 100 or so have gone home for the next 3 weeks so I have been put into what used to be the assistant warden's rooms. Before, 6 girls slept where I now am. (Birds fly in and out of my room - little Burmese girls clip-clop along the verandas peering in - the heat and lack of sleep last night have made me very sleepy - but I must write this.) When I first saw my room, my heart sank a bit - it was so bare - but a miracle has been wrought.

They are all terribly concerned that I shan't be able to eat the hostel food. After some of the poisonously hot curries from the boat I am not scared. If the food gets me down I can go and eat with the British Council pair Mr and Mrs Morgan. But I think if I can stick it, the experience of staying in the hostel with all those young girls will be exciting and very valuable. They do talk Burmese among themselves, I am relieved to hear. They chatter away - I can catch occasional words. So many of them seem to me to be so breathtakingly beautiful, I feel large and awkward and ungraceful. No fan and having to sleep with closed windows may get me down - but it should be getting cooler and although I perspire, the heat doesn't appear to worry me.

All is well - a new big adventure is beginning - all my love - Anna.

1961 - Sue Fenn
Early in 1961 there were anti-American riots all over Burma. One afternoon when Nick was in town - being abused as an American! - I was languishing in bed with flu. I was woken by the roar and chanting of a crowd outside my window, and sent the houseboy Aung Hla to find out what was happening.

He returned, very excited, with the information that the students wanted to set fire to the house. I sent him back to ask why.

"Because you're American."

I sent the luckless lad back to assure them that no Americans live in our house. There was a worrying silence and I feared that it might be discovered that our neighbours were a Ford Foundation zoology teacher and his wife, an expert in the Burmese harp, both distinguished, white-haired and not at all "ugly" Americans. So I was astonished to learn that they had decided to burn down the garage instead! My next message to them said that they were welcome to burn it, it belonged to the University and was empty.

Eventually, with renewed shouting of slogans, the crowd moved away and I sank back gratefully onto my bed. Aung Hla's cool behaviour had probably saved not only our house but probably our neighbours' as well. I sometimes wonder if those hot-heads - some of my own students perhaps - would have ever carried out their threat. I doubt it. But if their aim was to frighten us they certainly succeeded!

1998 - Patricia Herbert

When I lived in Burma, puzzled Burmese friends occasionally asked me why I chose to be there - especially as some of them thought they would prefer life abroad - and tended to assume that I must have had colonial ancestors. I did not know myself why Burma so tugged at my heartstrings and will always be so dear to me, just as it is for many other kala hpyu (white foreigners) whom fate has brought into contact with that distant land and its people. But a very venerable aged Buddhist patriarch, U Wiseitathara, once told me that in the cycle of existence I was a daughter of Burma - words which touched me deeply and make me content to feel that in another life I must have truly belonged there and will one day return.
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