From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey

From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey

by Pascal Khoo Thwe


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In 1988, Dr. John Casey, a professor visiting Burma, meets a waiter in Mandalay with a passion for the works of James Joyce, and the encounter changes both their lives. Pascal, a member of the Kayan Padaung tribe, was the first member of his community to study English at a university. Within months of his meeting with Dr. Casey, Pascal's world lay in ruins. Burma's military dictatorship forces him to sacrifice his studies, and the regime's brutal armed forces murder his lover. Fleeing to the jungle, he becomes a guerrilla fighter in the life-or-death struggle against the government. In desperation, he writes a letter to the Englishman he met in Mandalay. Miraculously reaching its destination, the letter leads to Pascal's rescue and his enrollment in Cambridge University, where he is the first Burmese tribesman ever to attend. From the Land of Green Ghosts unforgettably evokes the realities of life in modern-day Burma and one man's long journey to freedom despite almost unimaginable odds.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060505226
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 11/05/2002
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.05(d)

About the Author

Pascal Khoo Thwe was born in 1967 in a remote part of Burma's Shan States. In 1989 he left for England and studied English at Cambridge University. He now lives in London. This is his first book.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Goddess of Creation

'Beautiful goddess of creation, help me find the source of spring.'
My Grandmother's mantra before starting her stories

Genesis According to my Grandmothers

'My ancestors told me it was after the beginning,' said my grandmother, Mu Tha, adjusting her head on the log she was using as a pillow. Her brass neck-rings gleamed in the candlelight. The rings were fourteen inches high and rose to her head as though they were supporting a pagoda stupa. Hanging from her ears and neck were several silver chains holding coins and charms. The holes in her earlobes were big enough to put a bottle cork in. We sat at her feet massaging her legs and shoulders as we listened to the story.

'The male and female winds were blowing through space, but the female wind was pregnant and could not keep up with the male. The male wind circled her until she gave birth to a golden egg, from which emerged the goddess of creation with her children. Sitting on the empty shell of the egg, the goddess watched the faraway stars coming into existence. They appeared in the deep blue-black sky like tiny but brilliantly luminous red, white and yellow flowers, their petals falling to the ground in a gale, filling the firmament.

'The goddess ordered the clouds to produce another world. They formed a sphere which turned into the earth. She created a monkey and ordered it down to the earth to test whether it was solid. The creature descended to earth but was too cowardly to tread on it. Returning to the goddess he lied, and said that he had tested the earth and that it was firm enough for her children to live on. Shecursed him and decreed that monkeys would never sleep on the ground -- and to this day they never do.

'The goddess then created a warbler, and gave it the same orders. The warbler descended and hopped on every quarter of the earth to test its strength. It returned to the goddess and reported that the surface was indeed strong enough to support her children. The warbler was rewarded with a six-month sojourn in heaven every year. That is why we see warblers only six months in each year.

'After many years living on lower earth, human beings became discontented. They wanted to enter middle earth. A huge boulder which they could neither move nor destroy separated middle from lower earth. The goddess piled charcoals that burned with a heavenly intensity around the boulder, causing it to disintegrate. Horses and elephants came to help men clear away the resulting debris, and as they laboured in their task, they broke their horns. The elephants transferred their broken horns to each side of their mouths, creating tusks. The horses grafted theirs onto a tree, where they became mangoes. So the horses lost their horns for ever.

'So human beings and animals got to middle earth together and in amity. But the humans, overcome with hubris, began to forget the language of the animals who had been their helpers and killed them for food. The humans then forgot even their own common language, so they split into disparate peoples and were scattered throughout the world.

'That is how human beings lost paradise and were condemned to be wanderers over the face of the earth.'

All the time she was speaking, Grandma chewed betel nuts, and at every opportune pause in the story she spat out an old nut and began chewing a new one. Our grandmothers, Mu Wye, Mu Kya, Mu Tha and Mu Shant, were oracles and educators of our family in the traditions and way of life of the tribe. (We thought of them all as 'grandmothers' according to our traditions. Mu Wye was the wife of my paternal grandfather, La Pen, head of the tribe -- or of our clan, which was the largest of the Padaung clans. Mu Kya was married to 'grandpa' Nauk, La Pen's brother; Mu Tha was Mu Wye's sister; and Mu Shant was Mu Wye's cousin. They all had the status of grandmothers.) To us children they were by far the most powerful goddesses of the clan. Even their husbands consented to their absolute rule in domestic affairs. Mu Kya and Mu Tha had worn the neck-rings most of their lives, but gave them up in old age. They looked to us like mythical creatures, half-human and half-bird -- and yet it never occurred to us that the Padaung were different from other people. That we were descended from a 'zawgyi' - a male creature, half human and half angel -- and a beautiful female dragon did not seem odd, merely a source of pride. Our supernatural origins were also revealed in the klong, or 'drums of desire' (which we also called 'frog-drums') that were beaten on solemn and auspicious occasions. These had been bequeathed to the tribe by a supernatural being, called 'Big Ball' from his most obvious feature. He was a mischievous creature who delighted in destroying our trees. One of our farmers captured him by seizing him by the testicle with a pair of bamboo tongs. He obtained his release by promising to leave our trees alone in future, and endowing the Padaung and our cousin tribes with the drums of desire. These became the most precious of all our possessions.

Nor did it seem strange that the myths of creation our grandmothers taught us hardly coincided with the doctrines of the other institution that governed our lives -- the Catholic Church. For we were indeed Catholics. Italian missionary priests had given us an alphabet only in the twentieth century, and our spiritual and secular education was in their hands. Perhaps Grandma Mu Tha's story of the creation had elements of Noah and the Tower of Babel -- but we never bothered ourselves to wonder whether our ancient traditions of the Padaung and the teachings of the Church exactly matched.

From the Land of Green Ghosts. Copyright © by Pascal Thwe. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsix
Part 1Idyll of the Tribe
Prologue: Imagined Journeys3
1The Goddess of Creation7
2Grandfather's Domain20
3Learning to Love the General44
4A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Padaung51
5Death of a Footballer65
6Hunters and Hunted76
7The Shaking of the Dead83
8A Spoiled Priest95
9To the Land of Green Ghosts108
Part 2Revolution and Flight
10'Never, Never Argue'117
12Worth Only One Bullet136
13By Courtesy of James Joyce146
14The Whirlwind: Moe's Fate155
16The Reluctant Flight178
17The Great River at Last189
18With the Rebels198
19Guns and Ghosts205
20'Like Alcestis from the Grave'214
21Staying Alive222
22An Impossible Hope231
23Talking to the Enemy236
Part 3Rescue
24Defeat: Escape into Thailand247
25The Rescue256
26Learning Words of Civility268
27Gate of Humility: Cambridge272
28Reunions with Old Ghosts--and a Farewell285
29Gate of Honour: Graduation290

What People are Saying About This

Nien Chang

“A page-turner…deeply moving, beautifully written, and most inspiring. My heart was filled with joy and gratitude.”

Reading Group Guide


"Nearly every night I dream of the Shan State, of Mandalay, of the jungle. The landscapes of my dreams resemble real ones, yet they shift like images on silver screens…"
For Pascal Khoo Thwe, his childhood as part of the Padaung tribe is a time defined by the closeness of family and the rhythms of life in the small village of Phekhon. His grandmothers spin mesmerizing stories about the myths of creation, which blend with the teachings of the Catholic Church. The daily practices of the Padaung -- rice-wine making and drinking, playing football, and tending to crops and animals -- are punctuated by BBC radio broadcasts that tell of the political turmoil rumbling throughout the country.

As a young man, Pascal journeys to Mandalay to study English literature at the University -- where students are forbidden to express their opinions about the texts or they face severe punishment. Outside his village for the first time, Pascal is witness to the harsh reality of how decades of war, foreign occupation, and a totalitarian regime have devastated the country. In Mandalay, where he works as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant, a chance encounter leads to a meeting with Dr. John Casey, a professor at Cambridge University on a tour of Burma. An unlikely connection is forged between the two men, instigated by a shared love of the works of James Joyce.

Forced to abandon his studies when the government orders the closing of the country's universities, Pascal heads home to the sanctuary of Phekhon. But the conflict soon reaches even the most remote parts of Burma, and although he shuns the violence of war Pascal discovers he has agift as an orator and speaks out against the government's atrocities. Soon the Burmese Army is on the hunt for Pascal and other students, and he is forced to leave Phekhon and join the rebel forces. He spends the next several months in the jungle on the Thai-Burmese border, where illness is rampant and attacks by the Burmese Army are frequent.

A second chance encounter occurs when a Western journalist visiting the rebel camp offers to hand-deliver a letter from Pascal to Dr. Casey, and a correspondence develops between the two men. When Dr. Casey arranges to have him smuggled out of Burma, Pascal is consumed by feelings of guilt at abandoning his home, his family, and his comrades. With the hope that he will be able to help his people by revealing their plight to the outside world, he journeys to England. Under the guidance of Dr. Casey, Pascal becomes the first person from the Padaung tribe to attend Cambridge University.

With language that is by turns lyrical and poignant, laced with humor and told with an insight that is well beyond his years, Pascal Khoo Thwe has created in From the Land of Green Ghosts both a mesmerizing autobiography and a powerful tribute to the homeland he left behind.

Questions for Discussion
  1. In the Foreword John Casey writes, "There is a good measure of humor both in his observation of his tribe and its customs and (which is more surprising) even at some of the most dangerous moments in the jungle fighting." Did Pascal's sense of humor surprise you? What do you think was his motivation for writing From the Land of Green Ghosts?

  2. "My grandmother Mu Wye was the first woman who influenced my way of thinking. Her influence was as strong as the teachings of the Church" (pg 58). The women in the Padaung tribe are revered for their storytelling ability. What role does storytelling play in this culture? How would you describe Pascal's relationship with his mother and grandmothers? How about with his father and grandfathers?

  3. Tradition and ritual form a large part of the everyday existence of the Padaung. Of the rituals and traditions the author describes, which did you find the most interesting and why?

  4. Why does Pascal decide not to pursue a life in the seminary? How might his life have been different if he had chosen to stay on this path?

  5. Pascal became friends and then lovers with Moe, a young woman he met while at the university in Mandalay. What is about Moe that attracted Pascal to her? How was he affected by Moe's death?

  6. Twice the Burmese government demonetized the currency. Why did they choose to do this? How did it affect not only the country's economy but also the circumstances of individual people, including Pascal?

  7. While he is in the jungle with the rebel forces, Pascal chose to help others in many different ways -- he shares the money Dr. Casey sent to him, he taught the rebels' children, and he regularly crossed the border into Thailand for medical supplies. What do his actions during this time reveal about his character?

  8. When he leaves Burma to journey to England, Pascal states that he believes there is a "terrible egoism" in his leaving his comrades (pg 235). Do you agree with this statement? Why do you think he ultimately chose to leave?

  9. What scene in the book did you fine the most compelling, and why? How does this scene relate to the overall story?

  10. Why do you think Dr. Casey chose to help Pascal, a stranger to him? How does Pascal's life change once he is England? What adjustments must he make as he enters life at Cambridge?

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