Monday, May 28, 2012

Letter from Burma: Flowers in Her Hair - 2

War came to Burma towards the end of 1941. As the Japanese army advanced across Southeast Asia, Rangoon was subjected to frequent air raids in the middle of the night. My mother impressed and annoyed her fellow nurses with her insouciance in the face of danger. She would insist on dressing neatly before going down to the bomb shelter and when friends in a tearing hurry to get to safety scolded her for what they deemed to be mad behavior, she would retort lightly: "If I am going to die, I might as well die looking beautiful."

This was in fact a manifestation of her determination to uphold standards even under the most trying circumstances. Towards the end of her days she often suffered from debilitating bouts of giddiness, but unless she was practically incapacitated, she would get up in the morning, wash and dress, knot her hair neatly and put thanaka paste (our traditional skin beautifier) on her face before taking to her bed for the rest of the day. She wished to meet whatever challenges life might throw at her with courage and dignity.

When the British began their retreat from Rangoon in 1941, patients from the General Hospital were evacuated to Calcutta (Kolkata) by sea. My mother was one of the nurses who volunteered to accompany the evacuees. Most of the medical personnel on the ship were non-Burmese who wished to escape from Burma before the Japanese army arrived. My mother sympathized with their fears and never criticized their decision to live out the war in India, but she herself was determined to share the fate of her country. After a few carefree weeks seeing the sights of Calcutta she took the last boat back to Burma and as all hospitals had closed down, she made her way to Myaungmya. It turned out to be a sad homecoming: her mother had died of pneumonia during her absence.

My mother was not one to wallow in idle grief for long. She was young and resilient, there was a war on, people were suffering and to alleviate suffering was her vocation. There was a desperate need for medical services throughout the country and as soon as the rudiments of wartime administration had been established in the capital, a small group of doctors decided to reopen the Rangoon General Hospital. My mother immediately responded to the call for trained personnel and joined the intrepid band of dedicated healers as the head of the nursing staff.

Among the patients who found their way to the hospital in 1942 was my father, the young commander of the Burma Independence Army that had marched into the country with the Japanese. He was worn out by hardship, malnutrition and malaria. He was also moody, tight jawed, obstinate and unapproachable. The young nurse assigned to him found her patient terrifying and intractable. Obviously, only the chief nurse would be capable of handling such an eminent and difficult man. So my mother took over and my father decided that it should be a takeover of the most complete and permanent kind.

At the time of her marriage, my mother was in her late twenties, poised and confident, blooming with good health and joie de vivre. She was not considered a great beauty but with her perfectly oval face, low, broad brow and large liquid eyes, her innate sense of style and her charm, she was exceptionally attractive. Until she met my father she had been totally absorbed in her work and did not seem to have thought seriously of marriage. Her decision to enter wedlock was not greeted with enthusiasm by the junior nurses. Of course General Aung San was a patriot and a hero and all that, but patriots and heroes did not necessarily make good husbands. What if he should turn out to be a wife beater? "Don't worry," my mother assured her young colleagues, "if he beats me I'll leave him and come back to nursing.

The doctors were not altogether happy about my mother's marriage either. Of course they respected the General and did not doubt that he deserved the best of wives but the prospect of losing the most senior nurse in the hospital was not pleasing. The senior surgeon moaned that he would be losing a most valuable assistant in the theatre and muttered about the difficulties of finding an equally skilled and reliable substitute. Late in the night before my parents' wedding, there was an air raid and an emergency operation had to be performed. My mother, who was still living in the nurses' quarters, got up to assist. At the end of the operation the senior surgeon remarked: "She is a paragon among nurses, getting up in the middle of the night to assist in the theatre on the eve of her wedding." He then sent her off to get some sleep before she faced the first day of her new life.

My parents had been married for less than five years when my father was killed. My mother told me, very simply, that they had been very happy together. Happy they may have been but the times were neither easy nor peaceful. My father was not only the commander of a wartime army; he was also a leader, towards the end the foremost leader, of the movement for independence. His life was one of hardship and danger and my mother shared it all the way to the tragic end. (By Aung San Suu Kyi)