Round the Bend: Pages 111 through 120
ROUND the BEND
Nevil Shute, 1951
```(annotated and with added blue highlights by al-Brunardot)
charter aircraft full of freight parked under a police guard when we got there, delayed until the customs officers resumed work and could clear them. Passenger aircraft were allowed to function normally; it was the freight that they were interested in. The Control officer explained the position to me quite politely; I must park my aircraft under guard alongside the other two. They hoped to make arrangements to clear them all on Monday.
When travelling in the East one has to keep one's temper and take things as they come. I parked the aircraft where they said and locked it up, and rang up the Arabia-Sumatran office in Rangoon, twelve miles away. They said that one of their staff would come straight out to the aerodrome, and asked if we wanted hotel accommodation in Rangoon. I said I'd rather stay out at the aerodrome; I never like sleeping very far from the aircraft in a foreign country.
The representative of the oil company in Rangoon, a Scotsman called Macrae, turned up three-quarters of an hour later in a Chevrolet and found Arjan Singh and me at lunch in the airport restaurant. He was a pleasant young chap. He apologized to us for the delay and promised to report on the demurrage to the Bahrein office, because this affected the charter fee. He said that he had ascertained from the customs that all aircraft would be cleared on Monday morning. In the meantime he would be delighted to show us Rangoon. He quite understood that we preferred to sleep at the aerodrome near the aircraft, but would we dine at his home that night if he sent a car for us? And then tomorrow, Sunday, he would take us to the Shwe Dagon pagoda and show us that.
It really was very good of him. I told him that we had some work to do on the machine that afternoon, but we would be delighted to dine with him that evening. He went away then, and we fetched our small luggage from the aircraft and took it to the aerodrome rest house. Then we refuelled the Carrier and looked for a small oil leak on the starboard engine and put that right. I used the last of the locking wire in the tool kit on that job. While Arjan was polishing the windscreens, putting away the maps, and making all tidy in the cockpit, I strolled over to the hangar that housed the aircraft of the Burmese National Airways
to see if they could let me have a hank of locking wire from their stores.
One of the first men that I saw in the hangar was U Myin, the Burmese boy who had been with Dwight Schafter and Connie at Damrey Phong. He was working on the port engine of a Dove. He recognized me at once, and he was very pleased to see me. He seemed more upstanding and competent to look at than I had remembered him, but he had very little more English at his command than he had had then. He understood technical words, of course, and when he understood I wanted locking wire he left his job and took me up to the office of the chief engineer, Moung Bah Too.
Moung Bah Too was a friendly and smiling young Burmese who spoke perfect English. He listened to what U Myin had to say to him in Burmese, and then said to him in English, "Of course." He turned to me. "I think we have eighteen gauge and twenty-two gauge wire. Eighteen gauge? All right." To U Myin he said, "Go to the storekeeper and ask him for about a pound of eighteen gauge galvanized iron wire, and bring it back here."
The boy went off, and Bah Too offered me a cigarette. "It's really very kind of you," I said. "It's not fair to come in and want supplies like this. I hope that I'll be able to do something for you in the Persian Gulf one day."
He smiled, and we talked about our operations and compared notes for a few minutes. Presently I said, "How's U Myin getting on?"
"Oh, he is very good," his chief said. "A very good engineer. He is reliable; you can trust that work is well done if he says it is all right."
"I'm glad to hear that," I said. "I'd have taken him on myself when Dwight Schafter packed up but for the fact that he couldn't speak much English. At that time I was running the ground engineers myself, so all the people I took on had to know English fairly well."
He nodded. "I think he was very well trained when he was with Schafter," he said. "You have a chief engineer, have you not—a Chinese called Shak Lin?"
"Yes," I said. "He was with Schafter, too. He's not exactly a
Chinese, though. He's a British subject born in Penang, of a Chinese father and a Russian mother. He went to school in England."
"Is that so!" There was keen interest now upon the wide, intelligent brown face before me. "I had often wondered who he was."
"You've heard of him, then?"
"Oh, yes, I have heard of him many times. U Myin talks to me and to the other engineers about him constantly, in the workshop, about his methods of teaching and inspection. In Bangkok, too, they talk of him a great deal, with Siamese Airways. I have two or three engineers from Bangkok working for me now."
I had not thought that Connie would be so well known, yet it was reasonable enough, because he was a man to be remembered and the aviation world was small.
"He is religious, is he not?" There was no mistaking the interest that Moung Bah Too was showing.
"Yes," I said. "He's very religious."
"Tell me, what religion does he teach? Is he a Buddhist, do you know?"
It was the same question that I had asked myself several times before. "I don't know what he is," I said. "I don't think he's a Buddhist because he talks about God. You don't do that, do you?" He shook his head. "He's certainly not a Moslem, although he talks a lot about God to the Moslems in the hangar at Bahrein. I shouldn't say he's much of a Christian. I'm afraid I can't tell you what he is."
"I have heard it said," Bah Too observed, "that he has the power to make men of any religion bring that religion to their daily work upon the aircraft, and the results are very good."
"I think that's fair enough," I said slowly. "I should think that's the best definition that you'd get of what he does."
"It is very, very interesting," he said earnestly. "I am not religious myself. When U Myin and two other men came one day to this office and asked if they might set up that Buddha that you see in the hangar"—I had not noticed it—"I did not know what to say. In England, in the de Havilland Technical School where I served for five years, you do not put a Cross up in the hangar,
and I run this hangar in the way that I was taught." My heart warmed to this little brown man, whose problems had been so very similar to my own. He laughed. "I did not know what to do," he said. "In the end I told them that they might put it up, but no time was to be spent in prayer in working hours."
It might have been myself, telling somebody about my own difficulties in Bahrein. "What have the results been like?" I asked. "Does it help the work?"
"It is very good," he said seriously. "It is a very good thing. They pray before and after each shift, for five minutes or less than that. They say a few verses from the Payeht-gyee, our litany of praise, and then they say a prayer that Shak Lin taught U Myin in Damrey Phong about the aircraft, that Right Thinking is indicated in Right Work, and Right Work in Right Thinking,
because both are one. By his teaching, Right Meditation which leads.to Nirvana, is only attained by the exercise of Right Work. No man cumbered with error in the Work can reach the state of Right Meditation, which is the approach to what you would call Heaven. I do not know if you are used to these ideas, but I can tell you this. Since U Myin introduced them to my hangar, the standard of maintenance of the aircraft has improved enormously."
I nodded. "I've had the same experience," I said. "I'm a Christian myself, of course, but most of the ground staff at Bahrein are Moslems. Shak Lin teaches them the same sort of thing in my hangar, but conforming to the Moslem code, so it's all a bit different. But as regards the results, I must say they're very good indeed. My people have got more responsible since he took over the hangar than ever they were under me."
He nodded. "It is the same here. I think this new teaching is a very good thing." He smiled. "The only complaint I have is that it is spreading. Most of our engineers now join in the prayers before the Buddha in the hangar. The transport drivers have been coming along, too. That is all right for our own transport drivers, but lately all sorts of other people have been coming to the hangar to pray with the engineers—transport drivers from the other companies, and from the petrol companies, and even taxi drivers—they have been coming in. I cannot have all these people
coming into the hangar. I do not quite know what to do about it.
"I had to put a rope up," I said. I told him what had been going on in Bahrein and we compared notes for a few minutes. Then U Myin came back with the locking wire. His chief took it and gave it to me, and I asked how much I should pay for it, and he smiled and said that he was glad to be able to help. I thanked him. During this U Myin was standing by the door although Bah Too had indicated that he could go, but now he said laboriously.
"Mr. Cutter, he stay two, three days?"
"Till Monday, anyway," I said. "I can't get customs clearance until then, because of this strike."
He said, "English pongyi . . ." but then his English broke down, and he turned to Bah Too, and began speaking in Burmese. His chief listened to him, nodding now and then, occasionally putting in a question. Presently he turned to me.
"He says that one of our monks living just outside Rangoon is an Englishman," he told me. "He is a very holy man. He has been a Buddhist monk, a pongyi we call them, for over thirty years. He is a very old man now, and he will not live for very much longer. His name is U Set Tahn. He has heard about Shak Lin. This boy wants to take you to see this monk, in order that you may tell him more about Shak Lin. Would you like to do that?"
"I don't mind a bit," I said. "I've got nothing much to do tomorrow, so far as I know."
U Myin understood English much better than he could speak it, because I saw his face light up when I said that, and I wondered what I was letting myself in for. Bah Too said, "It would probably be a great kindness if you can spare the time."
I got out a pencil and an old envelope and wrote the name down on the back of it, with Bah Too's help, U Set Tahn. "That is a Burmese name, of course," he said. "It means, Mr. Rainbow." He spoke to the boy, but neither of them knew what the old man's English name had been.
I fixed up to meet U Myin at the office of the airline in Rangoon at three o'clock on the following afternoon and they gave me
the address, in Montgomery Street, near the Sulei Pagoda Road.
I drove into Rangoon that evening dressed in a clean suit of whites to dine with the Macraes, with Arjan Singh with me in a neat grey suit and a red and gold embroidered turban, looking like a robber baron in full dress. They had an English couple to meet us, and we had a very Surbiton sort of a dinner party; but for Arjan and the two boys who served us we might have been thousands of miles away from the East. They were very kind and hospitable people, keeping up the English way of life meticulously, far from home. I asked them. if they knew this English pongyi, U Set Tahn. Macrae had vaguely heard at some time that there was such a person, but it was news to the rest of the party that any Englishman in Rangoon was living as a Buddhist monk, and there was a marked indication that he was letting down the side by doing so. I didn't pursue the subject, beyond saying that I had promised to go and visit him the next afternoon. Nobody offered to come with me.
Arjan Singh had made a date for Sunday with a countryman of his own, a Sikh pilot of Indian National Airways that he had met during the war in the Royal Indian Air Force. I drove into Rangoon on Sunday morning, a long, interesting drive past lakes bordered by flame trees, very beautiful. The Macraes took me round the Shwe Dagon pagoda in our stockinged feet, and I marvelled. Then we went back to their house and changed our socks and had a drink, and went down to the Strand Hotel for them to have lunch with me. Then they left me, very kindly putting their car and driver at my disposal for the afternoon, and I went out to meet U Myin.
I picked him up at the airline office, and we drove out together northwards from Rangoon. He knew where the old man lived, and gave the'driver the instructions in Burmese. We went out about six or seven miles, past the lakes, and came to a country district where the good class suburban bungalows standing in their gardens were merging into farmland and the palm thatch houses on posts of the poorer Burmese peasants. Here we drove down a side road and stopped the car and got out. A little-used footpath led through the scrub up on to a small hill with a few palms
rising above the lower trees on top. "This way to ashram," U Myin said. "English pongyi live here."
He led the way, and I followed him up the path past a farm house; in this place that was wholly in the East I was queerly reminded of Cornwall, for there little farms lie close beneath small hills in just the same way. We went up the hill between the bushes and came to a small palm thatch house on top, shaded by the palm trees, all rather tumbledown and decaying. We stood by this and called up to it, because like all these houses it stood on posts and the floor was five or six feet from the ground, reached by a rough ladder. A very old man came to the door and looked down on us.
His head and face were shaven clean, and he wore only the coarse yellow robe of a monk. He listened to U Myin for a minute and then said, "Good afternoon. It is very kind of you to come to visit me. Will you come up?"
We climbed up into the house. It had an inner and an outer room, all very poor. In the inner room there was a bed with a mosquito net, in the outer room a broken deck chair, a wooden stool, a table with a few tattered books upon it, and little else. The old man made me take the deck chair and he sat upon the stool; U Myin squatted on the floor beside us.
I knew enough about the East, of course, not to approach the subject of my visit directly. I had all afternoon and evening to spare, and it was for him to raise the subject of Shak Lin when he wanted to. I said that I was passing through Rangoon and had heard that he was living there, and had come to visit him to see if there was anything that I could do for him, or bring to him from other countries. I explained that my aircraft were likely to be passing through Rangoon fairly frequently.
He was a pleasant and a matter of fact old man, whose manner contrasted oddly with his way of life. He told me that he had few needs, but under a little pressure he confessed that he wanted one thing, a British Admiralty Nautical Almanac. Astrology enters largely into Buddhist religious life, and he was hampered in his studies of the World to Come by the fact that his Nautical Almanac was out of date and he could not forecast the positions of the stars and planets upon any given day. I promised to get him
that, and we talked of unimportant things for over an hour before he raised the subject of Shak Lin.
The old man had been a Colonel Maurice Spencer in the Royal Army Service Corps in the First World War, and had come to India after that for the prosaic job of organizing a service of lorries in Bengal. Within two years he had become a Buddhist and had achieved a small circle of Indian Buddhist friends in Calcutta, where he must have been a great grief to the English official and *business community. Presently his friends told him that they were going out as monks to walk through Bengal villages for a month, and they proposed that as some leave was due to him he should put on the red robe, red for Buddhist priests in India, and get a begging bowl, and come with them. It had been as simple as that.
He had come back from that walk, settled up his Western affairs, and had put on the Buddhist robe again for good. He had walked on foot across India and down into Ceylon, eating only what the pious put into his bowl as he walked through the village, silent, every morning. I asked what happened if they didn't put anything in, and he said that that had never happened. There was always more than he could eat. Each day he would walk on to the next village and sit talking with the elders under the village tree, giving what advice to them in local problems that he could, helping spiritually where he was able. One by one they would slip away to bed till he was left alone beneath the tree in the night; he was too holy a man to share their houses. When all were gone, he said, he would hunt about for somewhere to sleep himself. If there was a temple he would wrap his robe around him, and curl up and go to sleep in a corner of that, but you had to be careful of the snakes, which sought the warmth of a body on the cold stone floor. If there was no temple, he would go out into the country and find a haystack, or else go to sleep in the lee of a hedge. He had never come to any harm in many years of this life, though he had had fever often enough. He had walked across India and down into Ceylon, and all over Ceylon, and back up India and into Burma, in the course of ten or twelve years. He had come to rest there on the outskirts of Rangoon and had found this place, where the people had built the ashram, or small monastery, for him. When it needed repair or rebuilding,
the villagers would make a day of it in a gang, and rebuild it for him. He had three or four small boys that he called his disciples; they came to him each morning and together they all walked out through the district for an hour or so with begging bowls held before them, eyes cast down, never looking to the left or the right, never speaking. The people brought out food and filled their bowls. They would return and eat, and for the rest of the day he would instruct the boys in reading and writing the Buddhist scriptures in the Pali script. At evening the boys went back to their homes.
I asked if he had ever been back to England, and he said, once, in 1936, but he found the world set upon the wrong course and was glad to return to his quiet ashram on the outskirts of Rangoon. I asked him what he wore in England, and he said, "Well, that's a damn fool question. Do you think I walk down Piccadilly looking like this?" One could ask him anything.
A monk, he told me in explanation of his poverty, may possess only a few articles—the robe, the bowl, the drinking cup, the spectacles if he needs them, the sunshade, the needle, the fan with which he shields his eyes from the sight of women. As he was a friendly and a candid old man I asked about his mosquito net and his deck chair, to which he replied that they were weaknesses of the flesh that he could not do without, which meant that he was not a very good man. There seemed to be no answer to that one.
Presently, as we sat talking easily about these things, he turned the conversation to Shak Lin. "U Myin has told me that you have a man working for you, a remarkable man," he said.
"He told me that you wanted to know about him," I replied. "He's my chief engineer. His name is Shak Lin."
"And is he remarkable?"
I hesitated. "Probably not, to you.
He nodded and sat in thought for a minute, stooping to scratch a brown and rather dirty leg with a lean, skinny hand. His legs and feet were covered in old scars. "I had heard of that," he
said. "U Myin has given me some information, but several people have been talking to me about him."
"Indeed they have. He made a great impression on the monks in Bangkok. An Arab merchant from Aden came here to Rangoon a month or two ago and told one of my religious friends about the teaching that was going on in Bahrein. A Parsee from Karachi told us the same story. And then came U Myin who had actually been taught by this man, and who was teaching others at the airport out at Mingladon, as one of his disciples. And now you come, who know more than anyone, perhaps."
"Well," I said. "What can I tell you, Father? I'm not a very religious man myself, but I'll tell you anything I can."
He said, "Do you know where he was born?"
It was a question that I was not prepared for. "No, I don't," I said. "I think it was in Penang, but I can't say for certain. His father was Chinese and a British subject, I think. Shak Lin himself is certainly British. His mother was a Russian."
He looked up quickly. "A Russian? From what part of Russia?"
A vague memory of the idle chatter of boys in Cobham's air circus stirred my mind. "I seem to remember that she came from Irkutsk."
He got up from the stool and went to the table with the books on it. He had a tattered school atlas there, a little cheap thing such as children use in a council school. He stood there fingering it with fingers that trembled a little, a bowed old man with bare legs and feet, in this coarse, blanket-like yellow robe thrown over one shoulder, leaving the other skinny shoulder bare. He stood staring at the map of Asia for a time, and then closed the book and put it down.
He came back to me, and sat down on the stool again. "Do you know the date of his birth, and the hour?" he asked.
I shook my head. "I'm afraid not, Father. I don't even know how old he is. I've always supposed he was about the same age as myself. I think he is, within a year or so."
"How old are you?" he asked.
"So you were born in the year 1915?"