Photograph

by Agnes Chew

His eyes glistened like submerged whirlpools.

            I swallowed another mouthful of rice and oil. Scanning my surroundings, I wondered how I could politely make my exit. Fidgeting, I made a lacklustre attempt to make room for the invisible tension that had grown too large for the space we were in. On the wooden table at which we sat, there lay bowls of unidentifiable dishes. Several faded photographs had come to join us, arriving as newly invited dinner guests.

I did not expect to walk into the lion’s den of emotional surfeit when I first acceded to the man’s insistent offer to dinner. “My treat,” he had said, inviting me in with far too much enthusiasm. “Come in, come in,” And so I did, still basking in the exhilaration from the day’s activities, saturated with the sights, sounds and smells of Inle Lake.

Earlier, I had parted ways with my local guide Zaw by the riverbank after profuse thanks for a beautiful day. I had been strolling along the bustling street recounting my favourite moments of the day, when I noticed the man from whom I purchased my tours two days ago standing in his little shop-house across the street. It would be a nice gesture to stop by for a few moments to give him positive feedback for the tours he ran. Or so I thought.

“And this is my mother…” he started again, breaking the silence. He had been showing me old photographs of his family, carefully extracted from the depths of his single chest of drawers. In static images captured during customary family holidays whose annual recurrence was too often presumed and unquestioned, his countenance took on a lightness that seemed to exist in a different realm, a different time. He had worn a head of dark, full hair then, with a handsome smile and twinkling eyes. In them, I saw a young man who had once been happy, who had believed his life to be replete, whose future had once promised a happy life with his wife, daughter and newborn son.

“But she is not here anymore.” he continued. “My wife and children are not here anymore, too. They have gone. All gone.” I fell silent, unable to offer words of sufficient consolation. The man was a portrait of an emerging storm at sea. “In June 2012, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. Stomach cancer, you know? The doctor at the hospital said she had to go for an operation. That was her best chance to survive. I wanted her to live. She could not die, you know? There was a 50% chance of success. The operation, it was expensive. I used up all my money for it. I did not want her to die. My mother could not die. One month later, she went for the operation.”

Nausea churned uneasily in my stomach. I did not want to hear the rest of his story. It were as though not hearing the words fall from his lips could somehow invalidate the truth that had already seated itself in the room like an elephant I could only navigate around. My eyes wandered everywhere. The trembling photo in his hands. The angry scar stretched across his leg. His plate of untouched rice. Anywhere and anything, but his eyes.

“She died.”

Two words. Two monosyllabic words. Two monosyllabic words with the intensity to sear through vacuous souls.

“I fell into depression after that. I was never a drinker, but I started drinking. Every night, I drank so much that my friends had to carry me home. Soon, I had less and less friends. Now, I only have one. I did not have money to drink but I continued to drink anyway. My wife and children cried every night. They begged me to stop. I did not listen to them. I did not work. My mother had died – I could not go on.”

His words were laced with guilt and regret. In his intermittent bouts of release, I came to learn that it had been six months since his wife and children left him and about a year since the last photograph was taken. One year; that was all it took to completely transform the state, appearance and circumstance of a man. He traced the familiar outline of his wife’s smiling face, immortalised in a moment he could no longer return to. A strange sorrow seeped into my core, intermingling with the effervescence that had earlier taken captive of my being.

 “I want to get her back. I want my wife and children back in my life. That is why I am working again, selling tours, trying to make every kyat I can, saving up, so that one day I will have enough to buy a ticket to Yangon and to find my way to them. I do not know if she will accept me right away, but I will wait, for as long as it takes, until she agrees to come home with me. So, I must earn a lot of money now, as I do not know how long I have to wait when I get there or how much I will need.”

I thought about the way I had haggled with him over the cost of the tours just the other day, trying to get the better end of the bargain. I had tried to convince him to lower his price, given that I was going to purchase two tours from him. Eventually, he agreed, much to my delight. I remembered leaving his shop-house that afternoon feeling gleeful about the thousands of kyat I managed to save. The thousands of kyat that I would otherwise have spent on a mindless coffee back home. The same thousands of kyat that could have shortened the weeks before his arrival in Yangon to search for his family.

Suddenly, I did not want the kyat anymore. I wanted to give it all to him. I wanted to empty my purse of my remaining kyat and proclaim them his. I wanted to take him with me on my flight to Yangon the next morning, to look for his wife and children together. There are so many wants in our lives that would never find fulfilment.

The sound of raised voices rang out. I looked up to see Zaw by the entrance in a heated argument with my host, who seemed to have momentarily forgotten about my presence. The man appeared to be in a trance, vacillating between calmness and agitation. Suddenly, Zaw shouted. His single line suspended all arguments between them. The man, trying to recompose himself from the unexpected retaliation, helped himself back onto the wooden stool. In the next few moments, Zaw became transparent.

“As you can see, this is my apprentice, Zaw.”

“Ah, yes! He has been a wonderful guide, and I really enjoyed my time on Inle Lake. Thank you so much for everything.”

“The only reason he can speak English as well as he does now is because of me. But he forgets all of this. He wants to go home now and not stay here with me. He does not understand what being an apprentice means. He just wants to do what he wants. He does not want to stay here, even though I have a bed for him to sleep in, and more English to teach him. I can help him succeed, you know? But this, he does not want! Then go. Go! Do not come back. I do not need you.”

In that in-between moment where decisions that could henceforth change the course of one’s life are made, I learned the true value of loyalty as well as the fragile nature of human beings and our interdependent relationships.

Sitting in a street-side café for a proper dinner later that evening, I wondered if the man’s wife and children were still in Yangon as he believed, and as I hoped.

Then, I realised I did not even know his name.

 

Photograph

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