What could be a better way to get to know a country than through its folk-tales and stories? And if you love collecting stories anyway, as Madhu Gurung does, nothing could be more wonderful. Here, Madhu, presently based in Myanmar’s capital, Yangon, talks about the Myanmarese duo of mother and daughter who have enlivened her days by weaving tales even as they help her with her domestic chores. Madhu shares the magic of those story-telling sessions in the following anecdote:
Fatima is 56 years old. Like the rest of her brood I too, lovingly call her Amma or mother. The other is Amma’s 26-year old daughter, Praveena. She is the main storyteller.
Praveena tells stories she has heard and read as a child. She tells them in Hindi. She has acquired a limited vocabulary, having worked in Indian households. Her mother tongue is, of course, rapidfire Burmese.
Amma’s father was a Malay who came from Malaysia and married a pretty dark-eyed, slim Bangladeshi woman called Naseema. Together they had six children.
Today Amma’s father is no more, but her mother, reed thin and stooped at 82, still survives. Amma is her youngest daughter.
She was married when barely 17, to Mohammad Aslam. He worked as a driver with the Australian Embassy but died of kidney failure. Amma was barely 40. To support her family, she began working as a cook. Praveena took to cleaning and looking after the house.
These women are part and parcel of the house, a colonial British bungalow with sloping red tiled roof and wooden park floors. All around there are swaying coconut trees and a profusion of orange
flower bushes that line the garden. There are delightful shrubs in maroon, lime green and red and white.
That isn’t all. Orchids and serpentine vines of the elephant-eared money plant hang in their own fashion from a large shady tree whose name I have yet to decipher.
The wind chimes from Thailand, hanging in the doorway, make their own music whenever the wind blows. I got them while browsing in the local colourful market where women rule the roast.
Markets are the domain of women. In fact, I got the wind chime from a lively-eyed woman who sold it with a smile that crinkled her eyes so much till they disappeared.
The chime displays wheat coloured birds, the sun, moon, the stars and Chinese good luck fishes all baked to perfection. Their music is wonderfully soothing to the ears.
We make a quaint threesome – Amma, Praveena and I. We usually sit on the green mosaic stairs of the verandah. I with my notebook, Amma a rotund figure with a liberal smattering of grey in her hair. She coils it so that it circles her comb in a traditional style.
Praveena is a modern girl. She doesn’t like the sticky coconut oil her mother favours for her hair. Instead, her curly waist-length hair is shampooed and left loose, small tendrils flying in the
wind as her voice, animated by the tale she is recounting, rises and falls.
She stops now and then to struggle for the right word in Hindi to describe something and there’s a staccato burst of Burmese as mother and daughter consult.
Amma looks heavenward for inspiration while I look expectantly from one to the other. And then Amma suddenly comes up with a rush of words which are surprisingly enough, colonial Hindi. Words that I’d thought, were gone for ever, like my childhood and the remnants of the British Raj.