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A twice-born tale in lacquer

india Updated: Jun 13, 2009 00:56 IST
Renuka Narayanan
Renuka Narayanan
Hindustan Times
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Last year, when Richard Blurton of the British Museum identified a 19th century black-and-gold Burmese lacquer bowl for me as ‘Shwe-zawa’ work, he did more for me than name a fragment of family debris that had survived three generations.

He also brought to mind old ‘Rangoon’ stories that my granny told me long ago when I was little and she, alive. I found them again quite recently, told in better detail on a small, sweet website and retell one here to pass on the teaching story that sailed across the Bay of Bengal from Yangon to Chennai, came up north to Delhi with me and goes out to HT readers now — so many births!

Back in the late 13th century, not far from Moulmein, there was a village of about 400 houses called Chaungyo. Nga Nyo and Ba Saing were two likely lads in it, aged about 20, who earned their living by going around villages selling betel leaves. Coming back one evening from the rounds, Ba Saing borrowed a small measure of rice from Nga Nyo to cook his dinner. After dinner, while the two friends walked home chatting happily in the moonlit night, Ba Saing was bitten by a cobra and died instantly.

Probably because he hung onto the thought of the loan of rice at the time of his death, he was born as a rooster in Nga Nyo’s house. Nga Nyo trained it to become a fighting cock and entered it in competitions.

Nga Nyo’s rooster won thrice but lost its fourth fight to an older, stronger opponent. Disappointed, he angrily dashed the rooster to death. He threw it down near the water-pot where his cow came and touched it with her lip in sympathy.

The rooster was reborn as the cow’s calf. When it was full-grown, it was bought for four kyats by Nga Nyo’s friends for a feast that he was to join. While they were butchering it, a clerk and his wife happened to pass by. The clerk’s wife lamented the calf’s fate.

Soon afterwards, a son was born to the clerk’s wife. The child remained mute until he was seven when one day his father begged him, “Son, do say something! Today is payday. I’ll bring back some nice clothes for you.” Keeping his promise, the father came back in the evening with some nice clothes for his son and begged him again to speak. The boy then said, “Nga Nyo’s measure of rice.”

The father said, “Son, just talk to us. Not only a measure, but a whole bag of rice will be paid back!” Thereupon the boy said, “If so, put the bag of rice on the cart. Let’s go settle my debt.”

Off they went and eventually they came to Chaungyo village where the son said, “This is it,” and kept directing his father through the village lanes until they came to Nga Nyo’s house. Upon enquiring whether it was indeed U Nyo’s house, U Nyo himself came out.

As he approached the cart, the child hailed him, “Hey, Nga Nyo, remember me?” The elderly man was offended at being so familiarly addressed by a mere child, but the clerk explained the strange circumstances.

The boy told Nga Nyo the entire tale from the night of the snakebite to the present, hearing which Nga Nyo wept, repenting the ill-treatment he had meted out to his former friend.

The moral of such stories is that unless we root out attachment, repeated rebirths in new existences are unavoidable.

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