From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odysseyby 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.
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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.
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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.
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