I do not know if other villages have this tradition; but in Kon Zaung, (Slanted Hill) a village in central Myanmar, they used to have this charming custom: when a boy is about to enter the monastery as a novice, another family in the village would take over part of the rituals. That is, they will bear the expense of dressing up the boy in borrowed finery so that he could be shown off with due pomp and ceremony, something his parents may not have the means to provide, or else not have the expertise as it also entails putting make-u to make him as beautiful as a prince.
The novices in their finery would be paraded allover the village before making their way to the monastery, and people would line the streets to look and comment: now which novice looks his best? Who has the best clothes, the most costly jewels? Finally, the all-important question, who had dressed him up? The people would informally vote on the Best Dressed Novice of the year and come next noviciation time, the parents of aspiring novices would go to that person to ask for help, even those who could afford to do it on their own. Now THAT was prestige for the make-over artists according to this custom of thirty years ago.
2. My mother Daw rhein had made quite a name for herself in dressing novices. Well, not
only she, but her sister Ma Chit Than and Younger Aunt Kyi who all lived in the same
compound. Aunt Kyi was the make-up artist. She would have on hand packets of powdered foundation especially ordered from Mandalay. And Mother, who hardly ever cared about her own looks, would be so happy she could not eat, if she were requested to dress a novice. Come noviciation time, their talk would be all about the dressing up.
"Ma Kyi, do you think you should sun the make-up powders? They smell sort of mouldy."
"Now don't you worry, Ma Thein, no need to dry it, I have to mix it with water after all. Now just you be sure about borrowing enough jewellery...there's not much time left."
"You're right...I wonder if we're too late?"
And all THAT was before anyone even came to ask their help.
Sometimes they would accept without seeing the boy, for the parents might drop in during an evening stroll and tell her something like this:
"Ma Thein, help us ...please. ..we just managed to scrape up enough cash for his robes and other necessities. Please do something to at least make him presentable."
At this Mother would be itching to accept; Aunt Chit Than would begin to smile and Younger Aunt Kyi would be longing to unpack her powders.
But Mother would demure.
"Now then, don't think too much of us...have you seen anyone we've done? We're not that good, you know,"
"Come now, Ma Thein, at that event for Ko Kyin Sein's sons, you did
Ma Pe's boy from the West Quarter, didn't you? Why, he looked like a porcelain doll, so pretty,and the numberofgold chains around his neck! So many of them, just about broke his neck, didn't they? Well, then?"
Mother would beam with pride. Young Aunt Chit Tha's eyes would shine and Younger Aunt Kyi would immediately begin to open the lacquer box containing her powders and start showing them off.
"Look, this is Hla Lay Sein brand; this is Kha Taw Hmee; this is Thin Kyu Kyu, this is Pa Pa Waddi.I don't use cheap stuff, you know, I have to send to Mandalay for these,"
And she would offer a pinch of the stuff for the guests to smell,
Before the parents have reached the end of the lane, an excited conference would begin... about which colour costume to choose, whose horse to borrow, for the prince would need to be paraded on a horse, no less. There would be talk about who had the safest horse, which young man was most reliable to look after their 'prince', and what about gold?
The necklaces and bangles must be borrowed and must be careful about not
losing any of it. .And the make:. up? Oh, what about the costume.,. a Pe's son had been dressed
in deep yellow, that colour goes so well with gold necklaces. And the socks must be yellow, of course. Get them from town if necessary...
The discussions went on daily, before they had even set eyes on the boy.
"The most important thing is gold. ...we've got to borrow the stuff before someone gets their hands on it. Shall we go looking tomorrow?
"I'm thinking, I'm thinking. This month alone we did three boys so I'm getting embarrassed going to the same people all the time."
"Well, what can we do? You'll have to persuade them, you know you can. We've never lost anything, have we?"
"Of course not, but this is gold, you know, not stones."
"Everybody does it, I mean borrow, don't they?"
"Looking for gold" is literally what it was: Mother usually handled that duty.
All through the past year they collected gossip about who wore what jewellery at which ceremony, and who made how big a chain at the goldsmith, and when. So she knew exactly which houses to head for once she was out on that errand. The more gold she could provide, the more prestige on the novice's family, and
She would make the rounds, getting a necklace here, another there, some bangles from yet another
house. She needed at least ten chains for each novice. And even though she was not well off, people trusted her and she usually got enough.
3. This noviciation was a group endeavour, one of the grandest ever held. Three novices from each of the ten quarters of the village meant thirty novices in all.
And from our own quarter they were requested to do one novice, son of Ko Ba Than and Ma Ohn Yin. Ko Ba Than sold water he carried in a cart. They came around with their son in tow.
Please help us, Elder Sister, on our own we can't afford to novitiate him, but we can now because it's a group effort. But they wont provide for the show; please dress him for us." "Of course, you're from my own quarter, we must help. We might even get a necklace with gems."
Mother had notice the wife of the new Township Engineer wearing one.
"Now where's this son of yours?"
"This one, here, his name is Nga Soe" the parents pushed him forward.
Mother's face fell first. Younger Aunt Kyi thought maybe her powders were not enough. Young Aunt Chit Than definitely looked upset. The boy might be a boy, but he was a large, stout boy, almost full grown. A bit walled-eyed into the bargain, dark as sin, and worse, he had thick pouting lips. And a face pitted with small pox scars.
The conference that evening was not joyful.
"Would red lipstick make his lips stick out more?"
"How could I ever cover all the scars?"
"And his eyes..."
"I'd need pounds of make-up to fill in his deep scars, and camouflage his complexion!"
"I wish he were small and slender..."
There was no help for it; they had accepted the responsibility. Mother even went to the new engineer's wife, someone she has not met yet, to borrow the gem necklace. That lady had heard about mother's honesty, and lent her necklace willingly.
On the day of the ceremony, mother and her team were well armed: they had the gem necklace, nine gold chains, five pairs of bangles, five thousand jasmine flowers strung into garlands AND the make-up powder dissolved into a thick, thick paste.
They worked all morning and half the afternoon. Nga Soe had no lunch. Neither did his dressers. Make-up artist Younger Aunt Kyi was sweating profusely as she could not quite cover the scars. She went through a whole box of matches, trying to draw the eyebrows with the burnt ends.
They loaded on the gold chains, the bangles, and the gem necklace. After so many previous victories mother's team looked about to cry when the parade started for in spite of the glitter and gold, the boy looked undistinguished... very undistinguished.
Maybe Mother lost heart then and there. I remember it was the last time she dressed a novice.
4. Now both Younger Aunt Kyi and Young Aunt have passed away. Mother now over seventy has been living here in Yangon for twenty years. Sometimes she would talk about old times.
"Its not really Nga Soe's fault and its not because of him that I stopped dressing novices," she said when I once mentioned the last time she dressed up a boy. "I just got tired of the trouble..."
"Poor Nga Soe! But you know, one can't polish a stone to turn it to a gem... I should have known a stone is just that, only a stone, and not a gem."
That phrase kept coming back to me: "I should have known a stone is just a stone and not a gem." .
(The above short story was translated by MTG)
Ne Win Myint is considered one of the best writers and journalists of Myanmar. He has written numerous short
stories, articles and has published twenty books, including ten
volumes of collected short stories. He won the National Literary Award of 1992 for his short story collection titled 'Twelve Strings
of Witchery. "
A number of his short stories have been translated into English, Japanese and Indian. He lives in Mandalay.