Sunday, June 25, 2017

Ma Thein Shin - Chapter (1)

(Direct translation of late Naing Win Swe’s novel “Ma Thein Shin Si Pote Pay Bar”.)

Year 1969

It was a foggy winter morning. The big train standing in thick mist seemed to be afraid of leaving the safety of the warm Station. But it had to go. It blew a lot of smoke and reluctantly began the journey. It turned on the front spotlights but the pale beams shorn just a short distance ahead in the fog.

Gradually gaining speed the train appeared to slowly overcome its fears as if its blood were now boiling. Once the dim lights of Taung-dwin-gyi station were well behind it the train squeezed out a long blow of single horn as if it was cheering up itself to travel deep into the foggy darkness ahead.

Immediately the train appeared to think that the sound of its own horn was the cheers from the surrounds and it became excited and now it was madly rushing into total darkness.

I stood in a shadowy corner of a car and I felt like I was just a mechanical part of the train. I just stared mindlessly at the blurred Taung-dwin-gyi Town standing still in darkness.

The lights from the Station seemed to be running away from the train and getting smaller and smaller as they had stayed behind. A flash from one of the town lamp-posts struck the train and then another flash struck and then another flash and then another as the train drove past them. The big town was dead quiet.

Huge mass of the collapsed-Yakhine-Pagoda appeared as a glinting giant shadow in my vision when the train suddenly slowed down to take the long bend after the Town. The pale lights of the kerosene lamps from the village of Tha-phan-kone were now striking the train. But for this vast darkness the small lights were just negligible like fireflys.

These seemingly alternating light and darkness were not just striking only the big train and all the things alive and lifeless on the train including my body. They were onto my heart as well.

The big train couldn’t feel a thing as it was just a piece of machinery. It didn’t know hot and cold or darkness and light. No brain, no life, no feeling, no heart, and no purpose.

Am I now a piece of machinery like the train? I asked myself that same silent question again. My heart is now a mechanical piece without feelings and my brain is now so quiet it doesn’t dare to struggle or even move in darkness.


On this train there were many people who were going to load illegal Hta-nyet (Jaggery or palm-sugar) at the Kyauk-pa-daung Station. Most of these smugglers were so well familiar to me that I couldn’t arrest them at all.

I couldn’t refuse them the rides even though it was my job to prevent them from what they were doing as their living and to arrest them. Quite often I hopelessly searched for the reasons why I couldn’t force myself to arrest them. I knew very well that for letting them on this train I could lose my job and I could even go to jail.

This train was not just merely traveling on its tracks.

In my mind I sometimes felt like this big train was a turbulent river in which the smugglers, their empty baskets, and the cooking-oil, table-salt, onions, dried-tea-leaves, dried-chili, and turmeric-powder etc, all prohibited goods in our stupid Socialist country where every basic commodity is Government-controlled, and the train-conductor, loco-driver, disgusting smells, hunters, preys, students, monks, humans, everything alive or lifeless, were all chaotically floating and drifting in its rushing and aimless current.

And I was also thinking the vast darkness around me was a big deep ocean swallowing me and everything else.

Slowly the pretty sunrays of pre-dawn had come out of the fog covered darkness. Sa-dan-chaung would be soon and there would be Ko Shwe Yout and his three sons waiting for the train. I could even imagine them standing together there in my mind.

The train had quietly stopped at the Sa-dan-chaung Station still in darkness. I jumped down as the train was slowing down to a complete halt. The platform was partly collapsed but I still stood at a place and yelled out, “I’m here, come and buy your ticket, …….., here, ……., here!” I yelled out again and again into the darkness as I had done daily here at this almost-abandoned Station.

The travelers had to rush precariously in the dark along the collapsed-platform towards me in this station-less, stationmaster-less, and conductor-less Station. Some tripped and fell. “Boss, Boss, I have some cargo, Boss,” shouted one traveler coming from a distance.

“Yin Maung, hurry up,” rushed the train Conductor Ko Aung Kyaw who was also waving his battery lamp towards me like a cowboy shinning lights pushing me to rush.

While I was quickly doing the job of selling the tickets for both passengers and their cargo I also kept an eye on Ko Shwe Yout’s group nearby. They didn’t buy tickets from me but still loaded their cargo and after that Ko Shwe Yout sent his three sons into the train while he stood in the shadow at the end of platform and stared at me as if he was waiting for me.

He was barefoot with a torn-sarong wrapped around his thin neck. Without combing and oiling his movie-stars-like long hairs were all over his face in the wind mildly blowing.

Once my job had been done the Conductor blew his whistle aloud like a drill-sergeant and waved the green-light-lamp at the loco-driver. Only when the train started moving I climbed into a passenger car. Behind me Ko Shwe Yout also jumped into the car to catch up with me.


We stood together at the doorway. As the train was slowly accelerating he placed into my hand all the crumpled one-kyat notes and a few coins from his tight grip. Either because of the cold or the fear of me his hands were shaking visibly.

“All together 8 of us, Boss.”
“The whole group?”
“Ko Phoe Kyaw stays at home. His wife just died.”

Before putting the money into my trousers’ pocket I tried to look at his face in the dark. His money was mere 13 or 14 kyats. If they had to buy the tickets for all of them and their illegal cargo all the way to Kyaun-pa-daung they wouldn’t make any profit out of their illegal Hta-nyets. Out of their meager profit they also had to pay me the train clerk, the conductor, and the railway-police. Then I remembered his wife was not well too.

“Is your wife okay?” I asked him.
“Same same, Boss.”
“Didn’t you take her to a doctor?”
“What is that Er?”
“We don’t have money to go see a doctor at town. The village doctor also runs out of medicine.”
“The village nurse?”
“Nope, a horse-cart driver, very dependable and don’t ask much money. Cheaper than doctors.”

I stayed silent as my mind wandered about Ko Shwe Yout. He was a decent man taking care of his over a dozen kids as his wife had been sick in bed most of the time, struggling with three under-aged sons in his smuggling business, and earning money for me the train clerk, the conductor, and the railway police.

“We should be okay,” said him after losing himself quietly in some deep thoughts.

I put half of the money into my pocket and returned the rest to him for his wife’s medication. At first he refused to take the money back. I also knew that he was fearful of me not taking all I was given and later giving him a trouble. But I even felt so tired of telling him again and again to take the money back.

Finally when he reached out for the money I noticed his hands were shaking. Without seeing it I knew his eyes were full of tears then.

“Other men in your position won’t be satisfied with whatever much we’re paying. For some girls and young women they have to pay not just money but their body too. Look at that young Mya Khin. Not even 13 yet and now she has a baby belly,” I could hear them in my mind what he was silently saying from his mind even though he didn’t let a word out of his mouth.

“Okay, you guys just take care in doing whatever you’re doing!” I had to warn him though.
“Don’t worry Boss. We wouldn’t hurt you. They will never catch our Hta-nyets,”
“I don’t worry about you all. I know you guys will never give me trouble. But if the police catch your stuff I’ll also be responsible for them, okay.”
“Yes we know.”
“I could lose my job. I could go to jail.”

Burmese Hta-nyet (Jaggery).
I couldn’t hear his reply very well as the train was getting noisier as it was now going faster. But I knew no one would catch his Hta-nyets on this train. I didn’t know his secrets at first. Only later I discovered that out of only two regular trains shuttling between Taung-dwin-gyi and Kyauk-pa-daung one train had a hole in the ceiling of one of the toilets and Ko Shwe Yout and his sons had their goods always hidden inside the ceiling through that hole.

But my mind was quite heavy with a thought now that I had on my train more than 20 smugglers travelling without tickets for them and their cargo. Pin-chaung’s Aung Naing Myint, Thar-mhyar’s Ko Than, Myo-thit’s Ko Than, and Kyaunk-pa-daung’s Soe Myint, so many of them on the train. Whoever caught anyone of them I wouldn’t be able to deny my responsibility as my duty basically was to catch them.

I was the Train-Clerk and my duties on this whole train were checking the tickets, inspecting the cargo, and arresting the smugglers. But I was also the very one earning good money from all the smugglers and ticketless-riders by taking bribe money from them and closing my eyes on their supposedly illegal activities.

I looked down at the double-ended Red/Blue pencil in my hand and realized that I was like a small king with all the arresting powers on this slow train. I was also thinking I should be happy and satisfied with myself for having this all-powerful position.

But at the same time I was thinking the whole thing was wrong, for the whole world around me seemed to be disorderly chaotic and brutally unjust after I had been witnessing the utter sufferings of the poor and the destitute from this driest and harshest part of drought-ravaged middle Burma. 

(Translator's notes: On 6 January 1966 General Ne Win's  Revolutionary Socialist Government  stupidly prohibited the civilian populace from transporting, storing, distributing, and trading of 460 basic commodities including the staples such as rice, peanut-oil, and salt . The horrifying result was the 1967 Chinese Race Riots where hundreds and hundreds of local Chinese in Rangoon were slaughtered by the Burmese mob as people in urban centers starved and took it out on the relatively-wealthier Chinese. Hta-nyet was one of those restricted commodities and a large-scale smuggling trade of Hta-nyet had developed overnight in middle Burma where most of it is produced.)    


The dawn was getting brighter. But the darkness and the light were still mingling. Droplets of dawn-mist could still be seen in the soft light when the train pulled into the village of Myo-lu-lin. When the train stopped all things alive and lifeless there were still blurry between the darkness and the light.

Still drunk from last night binge the Station-Clerk Thein Lwin Gyi was stumbling towards his makeshift station. The Burma Railway uniform on him was dirty. There was a large crowd milling in front of his rickety station-hut waiting to buy train-tickets.

Just beyond the station the pale clouds of morning mist still shrouded the tall palm trees, big Banyan trees, rickety shops of the village bazaar, and the Myo-lu-lin village itself.

I used to stand at the doorway of a passenger car and always look at the U Kaung Zone’s shop-hut by the station whenever the train approached Myo-lu-lin. I was so used to seeing Nyo Nyo sitting on a small stool at the shop under the huge Banyan tree.  

As the train came in she always looked up at the train to see me. Once she saw me she would immediately stood up and rushed to her baskets of perishable-groceries placed by the rail tracks and started loading them onto the train.

Not too long after I first met her, seeing her sitting at U Kaung Zone’s shop in the early-morning mist became a permanent fixture in my mind. It was since I started working on this Taungdwingyee-Kyaukpadaung line. Back then she was just a child with her big hairs all tied together at the top of her head like any other pre-teen country girl.

As soon as the train had stopped she would rush straight to the train from where she was. Hairs on her head flying. Around her slender neck was a torn-sarong also fluttering in the air and her red-stone earrings were almost on her cheeks. And her flushed cheeks were reddish-pink and lovingly puffy.


She was a village-girl from the Pa-dee-kone Village about a mile north of Myo-lu-lin. Back then I didn’t know initially that she was selling vegetables at the Nat-mauk Bazaar every week to take care of her blind father and her seriously-ill mother and also to send her younger brother to a school.

The meager profit of 3-4 kyats she made from the Nat-mauk weekly bazaar was just simply not enough to buy a train ticket for her and her baskets load of vegetables.

I still remember the very first time I met her.

It was my first few days on this line and I was checking tickets on the slow-moving train. The early morning was filled with mist. And she was standing near the toilet at one end of the car and looking up with her big wide eyes at me asking her to produce the ticket.

She didn’t look at my ticket-asking hand at all. She just kept on looking up at my face and fluttering her long curly eyelashes. And her perfectly round face was getting paler and paler. She seemed she was going to cry fearing of me.

Only a few minutes later she put her shaking hand into the inside pocket of her bodice. When the hand came back out there was not a ticket in her hand but a single one-kyat note. By then the train was crossing the very long Pa-lin-chaung Rail-Bridge.

“You do not have a ticket?” I raised my voice and that scared her.
“Always riding without ticket?”
“Then I have to arrest you!”
“Nyo Nyo, ……., Nyo Nyo will go buy a ticket at Myo-thit. When Ko Soe Myint Gyi was on this train, Nyo Nyo could go to Tha-mhyar Bazaar for 50 Pyas,” pleaded her in shaken voice and as I told her to put the money back she got more scared and tears came out of her eyes.
“When we get to Myo-thit you follow me and buy the ticket,” said I and she left there nodding her head.

Poor girl didn’t know that I would be taking her into the station to charge her for riding the train without a ticket. She still kept on staring at me with her big wide eyes while I was walking along the isle and checking the tickets. When the train stopped at Myo-thit Station she followed me with that one-kyat note still in her hand.

“Nyo Nyo won’t get a ticket. Take this money, please?”
“Buy a ticket at least once, okay!”

She followed me as I walked up to the Station-master’s desk. I sort of nudged her to the desk and placed her into the Station-master’s hands as a ticketless-passenger. The station-porters also brought down her baskets from the train.

She started crying as she quietly answered the station-master asking her name and address and parents’ name to charge her. She didn’t say a word to me though as I left the station-office after that.

She just sat down on the bench outside the office and, I knew, stared at my back with her big wide eyes as I got back on the slowly moving train as if I didn’t really care her plight.


Catching and arresting the ticketless passengers was not a big deal for me as it was my daily job. But that day she didn’t get to the weekly Nat-mauk Bazaar and thus she lost money as she had to throw away all her perished vegetables.

And I didn’t know that there was an invisible link formed between us that day. Those links were born from our hearts unknowingly. Why were they formed and what were the reasons, etc, were impossible to be figured out by the brains of us mere mortals. It just happened, I guessed.

I thought of her crying quietly with tears coming down her cheeks. In my mind I could still see her little round face, big wide eyes, her long curly eyelashes, and her big hairs as if I had been well familiar with her for a long time. I even felt sorry for her to wear that old and crumpled cloths.

Next seven days I had looked for her whenever the train pulled into Myo-lu-lin but I couldn’t find her again.

Sometimes I remembered the face of my kid sister who died very young and I imagined that her face probably could be same as Nyo Nyo’s if she was still alive now.

Then one morning out of the blue I saw her sitting nicely on a short stool by a table at U Kaung Zone’s shop.

That day she had already placed her baskets near the tracks. As soon as the train had stopped she quickly stood up and run like a happy child towards my car. I also jumped down even before the train had stopped. In the pale misty morning we ended up standing facing each other.

Hello, Ticket-inspector, today, today, will you arrest me again?” she asked me anxiously.
If you don’t buy ticket I’ll arrest you again,” I smiled at her and laughingly teased her.
“Then, Nyo Nyo is not taking this train.”
“Oh, then how are you gonna get there?”
“Nyo Nyo can walk.”
“How about your baskets?”
“Can I put them in the train? Once at Myo-thit Ticket-inspector can leave them there.”

I pretended to be angry and showed her my fist as if I was gonna really hit her.

“So you have no ticket. Okay, okay, rush the baskets up the train. And you can come along too. I ain’t a porter. How could I unload your goods? I will never arrest you again, okay. If other men catch you just don’t say that you pay me for your free ride.”
“Really?” she asked me as she was totally surprised.

She then took out 5 or 6 of ten Pyas coins and tried to give them to me. I jut struck her forehead softly. She then rushed her baskets onto the train and climbed up herself. I had to follow her from behind too.

Once the train was leaving we stood together side by side at the doorway. She was naturally shy as the young girl right at puberty and her flushed cheeks were showing it. I was originally thinking of teasing her by frightening her. But I couldn’t do it to her and ended up asking her about her family and income from selling vegetables at the markets.

She then pointed me to her little village. Not that far from the rail line the village was totally cloaked by green groves of Tamarind and Tamar trees. She said her house was just a small hut as her family was very poor.

“Ticket-inspector, visit our village. Don’t visit our house though. I am so ashamed of it,” Said her while pointing out with her little finger at the village.

Once I knew that she was looking after her parents and a kid brother I felt both sorrow and respect for her. While I was looking at her she re-wrapped the little shawl around her small frame as if she was cold and that made me feel pity for her.

“I’ll never arrest you again. I’m serious, okay, I mean it.”

She just stared at me again as if she still didn’t believe me.

“Is your name Nyo Nyo? I’ll also tell other clerks Htun Myint and Maung Shwe. Listen, you’re my sister from now on. They’ll believe me. You and me are quiet look alike. Every body will think we are brother and sister. If they ask for the ticket just tell them you are Ko Yin Maung’s sister. They won’t arrest you, okay.

Just one thing I have to warn you! Those men have bad names. And they think any woman is theirs. Even for your age they think you are a ripe woman. Don’t be shy, I’m really warning you. Just don’t get too close to them. You shouldn’t even be too close to me once you get older becoming a young woman, okay,” I was serious but she was just shy and her cheeks were totally flushed by then.

Train had arrived at Myo-thit and she bye-bye me as she was bringing her baskets down.

“I have to tell this to mother. Mother will be really happy.”

I just affectionately touched her head as I was coming down from the train. I then walked up to the Guard Car. And she was gone carrying her vegetables laden baskets to the market.


(Prominent Burmese writer and poet Naing Win Swe (1940-1995) was killed in a jungle on Thai Border in 1995 by Burmese Army after he took to the jungle in the aftermath of failed 8-8-88 Uprising.

The legend is that, as he lay dead on the battleground his comrades picked wild flowers and covered his body with the flowers before they retreated as they didn’t have enough time to bury him.

This fictionalized semi-autobiographical novel vividly depicts the utter sufferings of a society under the brutal Socialist System as both the rulers and the ruled become the hapless victims of that evil Satanist ideology called Socialism where State Controls virtually everything and People Starve.)