Her infinite variety ...

Her Infinite Variety is a short story written by Khin Myo Chit won in the 'Horizon' magazine short story competition in 1970. It was first published in book 'Colorful Burma - A Collection of Stories and Sketches' in 1978.
               The narrator of the story; my grandmother who describes her experience when her visit on holiday at the town meeting with an old man, U Sein Khine, a solo performer of marionettes. Their conversation drew the readers to the end with the sad love story told by this old man, U Sein Khine. Did this marionette doll on his shoulder, the figure of a female dancer which was the likeness of the woman he loved mean everything to this man, U Sein Khine? More than the live woman who loved him? It was the point most important in the story that always remembered not only a small town girl but also the reader.

(from Junior Win's blogspot, granddaughter of Khin Myo Chit)

"Now the daily ritual of an escape from heat," I muttered to myself, as I dragged my feet towards the bamboo dais under the huge tamarind tree, only twenty yards away. Carrying a roll of mat under one arm and books in the other, I moved lethargically: the reluctance of the darn books to stay in the crook of my arm did not improve my temper.
            At long last the palm leaf mat was unrolled on the bamboo dais. A young boy came out of the house with a tray and I breathed a prayer for my considerate host; nothing like hot green tea on such a blazing day as this. Iced drinks only made me feel worse.
              I poured tea into the glazed earthen cup and gulped it down. Then I lay on my stomach and leafed through one of the books. My skin cooled while beads of perspiration drank in the soft breeze blowing from the river.
              I rested my chin on the book, the right thickness for the purpose -- nothing like the Complete Works of Shakespeare. I dropped my eyelids feeling the caress of the breeze against my cheeks. I did not know how long I lay like that. Suddenly I was jerked into consciousness by the sound of brass cymbals and castanets -- chwin--chwin--chuck--chwin--chwin--chuck, beating time to a rich mellow voices singing what is called Myainghta, a song sung by the male dancer in a duet dance.
              Through the sylvan glades,
               Where fall the crystal waters
               From many a high crag,
               Where hang the flowers
               Jewel-like in medley hues,
               Let us go forth ....
               As I listened, I forgot the blazing heat and I felt myself transported to the sylvan glades and literally carried away as the song came to a close with a powerful crescendo...
              Tired, my dear,
              Don't you worry,
              This goodman of yours
              Will carry you
              All the way....
              I sat up and looked. There he was, the old man I had seen in the marketplace. He was carrying the same marionette doll, the figure of a female dancer on his shoulder. I wondered how much he made this morning giving a solo performance. I knew his name, U Sein Khine, for I heard people calling him. He seemed to be friendly with everyone at the market.
              "Uncle U Sein Khine," I called, "why don't you come and sit here a while and have a cup of green tea." He came and sat on the bamboo dais and I poured him a cup. "You're new here -- haven't seen you before," he said. I told him that I was there on holiday staying with cousins.
               "So you're from the big city. Feeling bored? No, don't deny it. None of your polite city bla bla. It is hot, dusty and there's nothing much to see here, and you don't care much for things like marionette shows. Of course not."
                I told him that I was a small town girl myself, even though I had to stay in the city to earn my living, and that I liked marionette shows. "My grandfather used to take me when I was small. I still remembered the dance of the animals at the beginning of the show -- tigers, elephants, horses and monkeys."
                U Sein Khine hung the marionette on the tree branch and asked, "Do you remember the dance of the belu (ogre) and the zawgyi (demigod)?"
                "Of course I do. I was trilled by the zawgyi resplendent in flaming red dress, jumping and flying. And the belu, dark green with fin-like crests on its head, shoulders and elbows fascinated me, and the music, the nhe ominously howling to the boom of the big drum beating. It gives me the creeps."
                 "You know the belu is half animal, half god. He is cruel, ruthless; he is also agile, strong and powerful. He is handsome, attractive, graceful like a panther on the prowl. You see all these beauties in the dance of the belu. He is meant to excite awe and admiration.
                  I said thoughtfully, more to myself:"My grandfather used to sit up the whole night at marionette shows. I wonder how he could do it. He wasn't too young when I knew him."
                  "Of course, you young people of today do not realize what marionette shows meant to the people of those days. Tell me, what was it, do you think, that made your grandfather sit up the whole night watching the antics of the marionettes? What magic, what art?" He took a long white cheroot from his bag and lighted it. He took a few puffs and looked at the marionette hanging from the tree branch.
                  "Now, look at the minthami(prima donna). Perhaps she looks like a wooden puppet to you, dressed in rags and beads. I made her myself with guava wood. Feel her skin, see how smooth and soft. I polished her again and again for many days. You know how?" I shook my head.
                  "You know the seeds of tamarind fruits, hard black seeds. I rubbed the seed on the smooth stone slab pouring drops of water as I did until I got a thick paste. I smeared the marionette with it and let her dry in the sun. This I did again and again for many days."
                   "You'd have to be very patient," I commented.
                    The old man did not reply. He took the marionette from the tree branch and propped her against my books. He gazed at her for quite a long time, while I looked at him more closely.
                    He must be nearly 70, I thought. He wore a pasoe-shay, a long piece of nether garment like the men of my grandfather's days. It was hard-woven cotton, chunky and knotted. His long-sleeved jacket was the same material. His long hair, through streaked with gray, was still thick and it was done into a knot. This I could see, for he had taken off the old battered towel which served as a sort of turban. There was a certain dignity in his face though it was furrowed with lines. His bushy eyebrows, black piercing eyes and broad forehead with clearcut hair lines somehow lent a regal look in spite of his shabby clothes.
                     Lost in thought, he gazed at the marionette and I tactfully stayed silent. He then took her on his knee tenderly as he might a child and undid her hair. I almost gasped. It was real hair, black and glossy. I found my voice and said: "It's real hair!"

U Sein Khine combed the marionette's hair with a tiny tortoise shell comb and tied it into knot so that the fringe hung gracefully on one side of her shoulder.
                     "Of course her hair's real. I should know; because it's my own hair. My hair used to be black and glossy in my younger days."
                      "Then you have had this marionette for many years?"
                       "Now, young lady, will you do me a favor by not calling my minthami 'this marionette.' She is every inch a minthami. I fashioned her with my own hands and gave her my own hair. She has my heart too."
                       He looked quite livid and I almost feared he must be crazy. As if he sensed my thoughts, he smiled and said:
                       "Don't be afraid. I'm not mad or anything of that sort. You see, I love her, for she is the likeness of the woman I once loved."
                       I was instantly alive. Now, for a good story -- a story of the bygone days when marionette troupes travelled in big barges along the river. They were artistes who brought entertainment, fun and magic wherever they stopped.
                      "I was just about fifteen when I got into the marionette troupe. I was the oldest in a family of six children. I had to help my family by selling tamarind leaves. I went down to the riverbank every morning and climbed the trees to collect leaves. One day I was up in the tree singing my lungs out. I just let myself go when I sang and I was so lost in the thrill of my own performance that I did not hear someone yelling at me from underneath. Only when I came to the triumphant close of my song did I hear someone calling: "Hey you, are you deaf? Don't you hear me calling? Come down at once."
                     "I was scared, for I thought it was the headman of our village. Only the day before, I had stealthily plucked some guavas from his trees. I stayed silent for a while and looked down at the ground. it was not the headman. it was someone I had never seen before. There was a big barge moored to the bank and I figured he must be one of the men from there. But why should he be calling me? 'Come down, young man, don't be afraid. I like your singing,' he called again. It was indeed news to me that anyone should like my singing. My stepmother always scolded me for waking the children from their nap and frightening the backyard fowls. 'Come down, I'm not going to eat you. I only want to hear you sing,' he called again.
                     "So I cam down. Then sitting right under the tree on the gnarled roots that lay like coils of a huge serpent, I any to him."
                      That was how young Sein Khine got into the marionette troupe. The stranger who called him down from the tree was the leader of the troupe. He was the owner of the barge and props.
                      He was also an accomplished artist. He trained the members of his troupe. He himself took charge of the minthami: the leading singer, mimer and manipulator of marionettes. He wanted to train youngsters for the show. "My father, with too many mouths to feed, was glad to have me apprenticed to the marionette master," U Sein Khine said.
                     He paused to light his cheroot again and smoked for a while. I pushed the plate of jaggery sweets to him and told him to help himself. He took a small chunk and chewed it, chasing it down with a cup of green tea.
                     As he went on with the story of his life in a marionette troupe, I began to understand the magic that held audience spellbound the whole night.
                     "There was no scenery on the marionette stage, only a white screen this high. You could see us standing behind the screen and manipulating strings. Nothing to persuade you that the marionettes were anything other than what they really were. Still they became real men and women acting in real life dramas. You know why? Because each marionette was possessed by the spirit of its manipulator. Take, for instance, my minthami..."
                     The marionette troupe travelled and gave performances for three quarters of the year and "rested" during the monsoon months. All the artistes went home to their respective families. Young Sein Khine did not go home, for the maestro wanted him to make the most of his time in order to learn his art. And it was only during the "resting periods" that the maestro had time to coach him in singing and manipulating marionette strings. He was expected to know everything about the marionette art which includes setting put the stage and knowing the basic principles of orchestra music. It was during his stay at the maestro's place that he met Mai Dwe, the maestro's youngest daughter, a maiden of thirteen.
                     "She was wearing her hair style sayit-waing. You would not know what it is for one does not see such hairstyles these days."
                     I laughed. "I do know so well, for I myself wore the same style when I was small. I still remember the ordeal of waiting for the circular patch to grow. I felt stupid and ugly with my head shaved except for the circular patch on the crown. I felt like a beauty queen the day my hair was long enough to be done into a knot with a circular fringe of hair around."
                    "So you're not as ignorant as most of the bright young things in the city. Well, coming back to Mai Dwe, she played with me the first time I went home with the maestro. But the next time I was there, oh, she was wearing her hair sa-dauk style..you know that too, I suppose. The fringe was allowed to grow long and the two tresses were curled round the ears to frame the face--the mark of a grown-up young lady. Well, I didn't mind her wearing her hair that way, it was very becoming. But what perturbed me was that she would have absolutely nothing to do with me. She didn't speak to me; nor did she come and play with the marionettes. She didn't even look at me. She looked away when I tried do catch her eye. I was quite indignant with her."
                    It was in his hours of loneliness and resentment against the rude behavior of Mai Dwe that he carved the marionette figure, a faithful likeness of the disdainful maid that he had learned to love. He stuck his own tresses of hair on the marionette styled in a sa-dauk. He polished and painted the eyes and lips and he was happy with the results.
                    Young Sein Khine was given a small hut, hidden on the spacious grounds of the maestro's residence.
                    "I had the place to myself, so no one knew what I was doing. I went into the maestro's house to take my meals and receive instructions but most of the day I was in my hut, learning songs or practicing on the marionette strings. One day I dozed off while learning a song. As in a dream I heard someone come in and suddenly a muffled cry drifted into my ears: "You ... you you're wicked ... how could you do this...' I jerked up to a sitting posture and rubbed my eyes. There she was, Mai Dwe, weeping with her face hidden in the crook of her arm.
                   "I did not know what she meant until I looked where she was pointing. There, the marionette was hanging on the wall, stark naked. Hastily I threw a cloth over the figure and with a supreme effort I suppressed the waves of laughter rising within me. I said: 'Mai Dwe, don't cry. I mean to make it a present for you. Only I don't have any clothes to dress her up. And as for the er..er..you know...we marionetteers must make figures life-like...complete...er...with everything. That's the tradition, the custom. If you don't believe me, have a peek at your father's marionettes.' At this she picked up a stick of wood and threw it at me; and if I had not jumped I might have got a broken skull. 'You...you wicked...wicked...' Even as she shouted, she was giggling in spite of herself. The next moment we were laughing together, and in love."

Mai Dwe agreed to supply beads and sequins and pieces of silk and satin from her wardrobe so that the marionette should be properly dressed. That was how they came to love each other.
                   "We had to keep our love a secret. She was too young. I had no means of my own as yet, being only an apprentice. When it was time for our troupe to start on our travels, Mai Dwe told me to keep the marionette--her other self, as she called it--to keep me company. I kept the marionette in my box and no one knew I had her.
                   "One night we came to a town where we were to give a performance. I was left to watch the barge. Unable to sleep, I took her out and set on the prow and manipulated the strings to do the ritual dance performed at the opening of the show. I was so engrossed that I did not hear the maestro come up the barge and watch me. Only when I brought her down on her knees to close the dance did I see him."
                   Young Sein Khine was disturbed. He wanted to run away. He thought he had revealed his love for Mai Dwe. It was as if he had been caught with the girl herself: He could hardly believe his ears when the maestro said:"Never thought you'd become so good. From now on, you take charge of the ritual dance."
                   That was the beginning. One night the maestro had a cold and he was asked to take the role of Ma Padar, a rich man's daughter who falls in love with one of her father's slaves. He had learned his part--all the songs, recitation, and lines--and he asked the maestro's permission to use his own marionette.
                   "The audience gasped when they saw the figure of Ma Padar, not the mature woman they ware won't to to see, but a teenager with a sa-dauk! I put my whole hear into the role--the role of a wayward girl infatuated with someone whose status would not allow her to declare her love, nor he, his."
                    In the curse of his tory, U Sein Khine sang and recited bits from the play. The song expressed the uninhibited love of a child-woman impetuously thumping her feet this moment, bold and brazen the next, only to give way to tears of frustration. Then she rises again in the full fury of a woman scorned. He interpreted the varying moods and carried the audience with his sheer bravura vocalism.
                  "From that time on I was gradually allowed to take most of the maestro's roles. I learned the arts of a marionette prima donna--and wooing a reluctant swain is one of them--like in the role Ma Padar."
                  U Sein Khine went on expounding the arts of a prima donna, illustrating his points with quotations from plays. In playing the different roles, he recreated the infinite variety of his beloved Mai Dwe--her moods and tantrums, her loving tenderness, her child-like adoration.
                 "When I played the role of a girl longing for her lover, I played the role as I imagined Mai Dwe to be doing in my absence--talking to the paddy bird, for instance, and imploring it to fly to me with her message of love and longing. Even my fellow troupers were charmed by my marionette's naiveté and moved to tears by her anguish that seemed to be too cruelly heavy for her young heart.
                 "The roles I like best were those of the Four Virtuous One--Keinnayi, Madhi, Thambula, Amayar--you know them, of course.
                 I nodded. I knew them eel, for their stories were among the first I had heard on my grandfather's knee. They represent the ideal figures of womanhood: Amayar, a faithful wife who scorned the advances of a king; Madhi, who braved the perils of exile with her lord; Thambula who shared the fate of an outcast with her leper husband.
                 "I particularly loved playing the role of Keinnayi whose husband lay on the ground in the throes of death, pierced by the arrow of the villainous king, who then thrust his unwelcome attentions on her. I played the varying moods, from deep grief for her husband, whom she thought dead, to the fury and shame of a noble woman wooed by her husband's murderer."
                 While U Sein Khine talked as usual with quotations from songs, his hands automatically manipulated a string or two of the marionette sitting on his lap. I could hear her lash her tongue against the lascivious king. Then, from being a saucy little shrew, she rose to the dignity of a noble wife, loving and faithful till death, invoking the powers above to come to her aid. Such was the power of U Sein Khine's performance that I was thoroughly convinced that the powers above, whoever or whatever they be, would surely come to her aid.

Suddenly I remembered the most important point in the story. "What happened to Mai Dwe? Did you marry her?" I asked.
                  "During the following years, I could not go back with the maestro to his village for the 'resting periods.' My father was ill and my half-brothers and sisters, all still very young, needed help; so I had to go home to them. I helped my father with his little plantation--just a patch of land growing beans and corn. Mai Dwe and I hardly met. Only at the beginning of the season did I have any opportunity to go to the maestro's village. But then we are so busy that Mai Dwe and I hardly had time to talk at all. During the hurried meetings, I told her that I would ask her father for her hand after I had enough saved, which would be quite a long time--what with my father ill and my young brothers and sisters needing help. I begged her to be patient and to wait a while. She pouted and thumped her little feet. I tried to soothe her; she was still young: there was time enough for happiness. But she was impatient. What could I do then?"
                 U Sein Khine paused and fingered the beads hanging on the neck of the marionette; he looked into her face as if remembering.
                 "Once, I stole a meeting with her before I left with the troupe. As usual, we argued and she raved at me for not loving her enough. She cried; I know you don't love me. You only love your wretched marionette; so long as you have her, you don't care where I am. You're content to have her with you because you can control her as you wish. You don't want me so long as you have her...she is everything you wish her to be...Amayar, Keinnayi, Madhi...go with your wretched marionette...go...go...go away...out of my sight both of you...So crying she ran away leaving me stunned."
                 U Sein Khine took the jaggery sweets and chewed them. "Jaggery sweets go well with the pungent taste of green tea," I said rather irrelevantly.
                 "Yes, bittersweet, like young love. That season we played the story of Princess Welu-wadi, the wife of the king's younger brother; the king fell in love with her and sent her husband away on a mission in order to take her by force.
                  "The scene where the king forces his attentions on the princess was a favorite with the audience. It was a variation of the role of Keinnayi who, though placed in a similar predicament was saved by divine power. It was uncanny, prophetic, you might say. The same year, Mai Dwe was given in marriage to there brother-in-law, her elder sister's husband, a widower. It was done in order to prevent her sister's children from having to live with an unloving stepmother. I never found out whether Mai Dwe was a willing party or not. I played Welu-wadi with great depth of feeling and people said it was my best role. I never married. It happened decades ago. Now, the troupe has broken up and she is all I have...she helps me earn my meals."
                    "What about Mai Dwe? Did you ever see her again?"
                    "No, I never went back to the village. I heard that she looked after her late sister's children well and added some of her own. She is probably living with lots of children and grandchildren. But I have this Mai Dwe, this prima donna, every young and beautiful."
                    "Whom age cannot wither and whose life is ever changing, her infinite variety," I muttered under my breath.
                     I gave U Sein Khine a ten-kyat note.
                     He put it in his pocket and tilted the chin of the marionette and looked into her eyes and said: "Mai Dwe, I'll buy you new silks and beads. I might be starving, but I'll keep you in style..."
                    He then took the marionette by the strings and flung her over his shoulder and waving his hand to me, he walking down the road singing...
                    Tired, my dear,
                    Don't you worry.
                    This goodman of yours
                    Will carry you
                    All the way...

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