BLACK PARABAIK

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“I dream. Sometimes I think that’s the only right thing to do.”
― Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart

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I haven’t posted for a while due to family commitments but here is a long piece inspired by the ancient Parabaiks of Myanmar, some of which can be viewed at the British Library.

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In the Padauk Tree

When my Win-Leipya returns I will climb to the top of Doi Suthep and thank the spirits of the forests, the trees and the waterfalls, the valleys and the mountains for they are the ones who give me hope and whisper to me on the wind to not give up.

I am sitting in the garden hidden in the branches of the old Padauk tree where fireflies are gathering in the dusk. At the palace I am employed as a Mor Samunphrai treating people with my knowledge of herbs but by night under the light of the stars I now take out my charcoaled Sa paper to record my private life, the sharp point of my stylus removing the charcoal to reveal my story on the moon coloured background.

The bull frogs are making such a noise that I wonder how the rest of the palace can sleep through it. By my side sits Zaw Gyi, his red hat and white stick painted silver by the night light. I run my hand over the joins in his wooden legs where Ah-Pwa carefully applied the sticky resin to hold the broken pieces together.

My hand is trembling as I form the first marks, trying out the strokes I have seen the palace Parabaik artists make. Slowly, carefully I etch the outline of a temple. And then my first words:

June in Chiangmai is filled with rain-trees. The riverfront is lined with them, their pink blossom forming tiny migrating islands on the surface of the water. The nights are filled with monsoon lightning. Bright green frogs come out of hiding onto once dusty lanes and begin their mating call. Hairy red rambutans hang from branches. Durians ripen. Nazuri monkeys with their pink faces gather in temple courtyards, eye up the discarded watermelons. Then they stroll along walls to Banyan trees and swing to the ground, scattering stray cats as they do so.

It is reassuring to see the words I have written, to read them back, to know that even if they take away everything else they can not rob me of this. It is comforting to see the shapes of the letters, one after the other and to feel a new world taking form. I know that without a place to put my words and make my story my Win-Leipya will not return. I am writing this so that my Win-Leipya will come home. Only yesterday I went to see Mor Kwan who confirmed what I already knew, that my Win-Leipya had fled the night of the attack and that to call her back I would first need to find my voice and my courage.

I feel a sense of exhilaration that I haven’t felt for a very long time. I think of the day we entered Chiangmai for the first time. The new city. We are fortunate, grandmother, mother and myself for we are still together. We all travelled together, Khin, Yaminn, Thi -oo, Mi, Ah-Pwa and myself. When we arrived in this city it was the end of the hot season and we knew no one. But Ah-Pwa could make Kalagas and Mi was a talented cook. As for me I had been known throughout Pegu as the Queen of Herbs and had been employed at Kawthazadi palace and so for that reason the palace took us in and so began our court life.

I had fallen in love with this city at the same time as I had fallen in love with the art of Parabaik. I was a keen observer and everyday watched the way the court painters created tiny worlds on Sa paper, sanchi by sanchi. By watching hour by hour from when the first pink of dawn edged over the mountain to when the sun burned in amber flames I learnt the art. The court artists job was to record palace life and they received their instructions from Min-Ya, the chief painter who had witnessed the burning of Pegu and was King Baningnaung’s right hand man. But the more I watched, the more I felt the absence of my Win-Leipya until it became clear to me what I had to do. It was a dangerous task for who was I to record my private thoughts. Parabaiks were reserved for the life of Kings and Queens. I was not of noble birth and I was of Mon origin. And of course I was not a man.

So tonight under cover of darkness, I sit in this secret spot in the far corner of the palace garden, far away from seeing eyes and I write my secret thoughts, my secret life, the true story of what happened that night of Thingyan Eve. I have told no one of what I am doing. Not my mother nor my grandmother. For they would worry for me, warning me of what I would face if I was caught. Tonight before I take my place on the rush sleeping mat between mother and grandmother I will hide my Parabaik in a secret place. No one will know where it is hidden. And no one will find out.

Somewhere in the distance I hear the call of a Zee Kwet. It takes me back to Pegu when I used to lie in bed in the hot season next to the open window with the mosquito net moving gently in the breeze and listen to her call. It always made me feel less alone if I had wakened in the middle of the night or couldn’t sleep for the heat as I never wanted to disturb mother or grandmother.

And then my mind travels to the night of Thingyan when the world I had known changed forever.

Glossary

Win-Leipya – butterfly soul of the Mon people

Padauk- national tree of Myanmar

Mor Samunphrai – herbalist

Zaw-Gyi – the alchemist (marionette)

Ah-Pwa- grandmother (myanmar)

Mor Kwan – soul doctor

Parabaik- manuscript used in ancient Myanmar

Mi – Mother ( Mon language)

Kalagas- embroidered tapestries of Myananmar

Zee Kwet- owl

Thingyan- Burmese New Year

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