Memories of a country in transition

Enya lake in Yangon. All photos: PRATIBHA TULADHAR

Yangon Airport sprawled before us, swallowing two women, B and me. There were only so many flights and only so many passengers, a complete contrast, I thought, to the chaos Tribhuwan International Airport is synonymous to.

We sauntered around, using the airy toilet cubicles at leisurely pace, while B laughed at how I said chutembare, instead of Je zu din ba de, the Burmese term for gratitude.

_ _ _

Myanmar confuses me. Or perhaps it’s Burma.

What is the correct way to speak of your country, I ask. My friend-- of Karen ethnicity-- pauses, looks at nothing in particular for a while and then answers: Burma is what the British called us, then the military junta formalised it as Myanmar when they took over.

Which do you prefer? I ask.

Neither. But given the situation we are in, I’d rather say Burma, he says.

_ _ _

The humidity swallows me. The heat feels different from that of Chiang Mai, from where I have flown in, because it sticks to me.

As Bhauju and I walk along Enya lake, I cannot help notice that the banks are dotted with couples leaning into each other, some kissing. I try to look away, but as we walk around the lake, they are everywhere, sticking together in the sweltering heat.

I would later ask a friend about the ostentatious loves of Yangon and he would tell me they’re all young people from all over the country, who work in the city and live in tight accommodations. Migrants, he would say. Not people from Yangon.

A boat cuts across Enya, creating a silhouette of itself in the shadow beneath it, and for a moment, I feel as though I could fall in love, too.

Let’s sit down? I say. And Bhauju and I have a moment of quiet, even as behind us, the roar of vehicles and the chatter of voices drown out our thoughts. But our quiet doesn’t last us too long.

We greeted by a couple: Namaste!

Bhauju and the couple take off in Nepali.

_ _ _

Evenings are better for walking. I go down Kabar Aye Pagoda Road. The feeling of being in a new city where no one knows you is liberating. I’m almost smiling to myself at the notion of this newfound freedom, when I’m rudely interrupted by a man.

Welcome to Yangon! Nice, big...

He grins and I feel like I’ve instantly been transported from Southeast to South Asia. While I had enjoyed drawing no attention to my body in Chiang Mai, in Yangon I’m confronted by what I had long left behind—eve-teasing.

It strikes me that I’m on the fringes of South Asia. I guess, I feel like I’m back home.

_ _ _

Bhauju lets me borrow a lyongi. Unlike the lungis worn by women in Nepal, this one comes with a zipper that lets me fasten it to my waist, without having to tie it to keep it there. It lets me walk around without having to worry it might slip.

As I flip-flop in the direction of my office, passersby cast casual glances at me, but without genuine interest. I return their gaze, my eyes screening the dark lyongis men wear to compliment their light-coloured shirts. My attention is trapped by the intricate patterns on women’s lyongis, each design speaking of the province and ethnicity of the wearer.

I clutch the centerfold of my lyongi now and then, in an attempt to make sure it doesn’t get tucked between my legs causing me to trip. I marvel at the grace with which men ride past me on their bicycles, dressed exactly as I am.

Next door to the office, a school bus pulls over and children jump out of it and run into the school building. Each one of them wears a green lyongi held at their waist, and a pastel green shirt.

When I step inside the office, the girl who runs office errands and whose name I cannot recall, smiles wider than usual. My colleagues tell me lyongi becomes me.

You could stay here forever. No one would think you’re not one of us, they say.

Until I open my mouth? I ask. They laugh.

_ _ _

The YBS bus— red, green, yellow— drives around the city. When it stops to pick passengers, they step in with their umbrellas and their lunch baskets. When it stops again, they get off. A cash box is set near the door, into which passengers drop coins equivalent to the length of ride they hitch. No one checks if they have paid. No one leaves without paying.

How does this work? I ask Bhauju.

I know, she says. Wouldn’t have worked in Nepal. But people here are religious and they believe in virtue. They pay.

We get off and walk around the city and nostalgia comes at me in waves. I feel like I’m walking some forgotten street in Calcutta. The buildings at the Mahabandoola park near Sule Pagoda bear remnants of the colonial era, a street flanked by a church, a mosque and a pagoda, adjacent to one another.

Jostling against this memory of its colonial past, on the other side of the city is the Myanmar Plaza, where the mall rises along wide, clean streets, a reminder of where the country was headed since it transitioned into quasi-democracy.

We stop at an Indian restaurant at the mall that serves the best Indian food. As we slurp our rasmali, I tell Bhauju: This country confuses me. But I’m starting to think of it as the confluence between south and east Asia. Looks like India, but has a different feel. People look like they could all be from Nepal or from Thailand, but they are not.

Asia is like a great, long river that repeatedly flows into itself, no?

Pratibha Tuladhar


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