Words by: Rohini Kapur
Thiri Swe San was ecstatic this morning. After three years of tracking her savings in a tattered notebook, she had finally crossed the magic number. After having tea with Amay, she had counted the pink, red and green notes again and put them all back in an old tin box, which she placed in a locked chest in the corner of her shared room. She now had enough money to get her and her family out of their miserable existence.
Now as Thiri walked past Daw Thitsar’s mohinga stall, Ko Thu’s general store and a group of betel-chewing sidecar drivers, she saw that her brother Kyaw Win had already begun to set up their vegetable stall, unpacking crates and piling up tomatoes, cabbage, french beans and green chillies on low tables.
A girl who called herself “Julia” was a regular customer at Thiri’s and also worked at the computer institute. A fortnight ago she had informed Thiri that the next batch of the complete beginners’ computer course would begin on the first of next month, which was just two days away. As the early shoppers arrived, Thiri decided she would walk down to the computer institute near the market next morning to pay and register for the course.
Monday onward she would also need to switch shifts with Su Myint while she attended computer class in the mornings. Their brother would continue working in the early mornings and late nights. And Amay would stay home, like she had since their father had died five years ago. A series of mysterious illnesses had left her weak. Her body ached almost all the time, despite the painkillers she popped several times a day.
Three women in their twenties with shiny hair and red lipstick passed by. Dressed in flattering beige blouses and maroon longyis, their lunch baskets swayed in their hands as they rushed to catch their bus to work, and their faces glowed with confidence. Just a few months now, Thiri thought as she arranged lettuce, brinjals and cauliflowers. Soon, very soon, I will have a job in an office. Like them.
Thiri’s favourite foreign customer, a blonde woman from America stopped by.
“Theeree, I need french beans, carrots and bell peppers please,” she said.
Thiri handed her a plastic basket and Kyaw pulled up a wooden crate to unpack carrots. Thiri selected a few and handed them to the woman.
“Fresh. Very fresh. Came today morning.”
The woman put a few in her basket. Thiri weighed the vegetables, then calculated the total.
“One thousand one hundred kyats,” she said, as she placed the vegetables in the lady’s shopping bag. Then she added a fresh cucumber.
“Present for you,” she told the woman.
“Thank you, Theeree!” The woman flashed a smile.
Ever since she’d finished her English course seven years ago, Thiri practised speaking English with her foreign customers. She had picked up phrases like “You look lovely” and “Very fresh” and “How’s it going?”.
Now she told the woman, “I will learn computers. Soon.”
“Wow, that’s wonderful! You’re a smart girl, Theeree.”
Thiri blushed as she handed the change.
After the morning rush, the afternoon lull began. Thiri sat on a stool near her stall, having khowsuey with fish. If all went as planned, Thiri would soon be having lunch in an office, chatting with colleagues. The computer certificate would help her get a job and she would work in an air conditioned office with sleek computers lined up on long tables. Whichever job she got, she would give it her best. She remembered an interview she had read in a local newspaper three years ago.
The interview was with a 23-year-old woman, about Thiri’s age at the time. The woman’s parents worked as domestic help for foreigners in Yangon. She now worked in an international trading company in Myanmar, but travelled to Bangkok and Singapore. She wore expensive clothes and shoes. And she looked beautiful in the grainy photo. Radiant. In response to the question on how other young women could land similar jobs, she said it was crucial to speak English and to have computer skills. She had learnt English from her parents’ employers and computers from friends. Thiri already spoke English, but at that time she had had never seen a computer. She knew she could learn. And once she had both these skills, nothing could stop her. Thiri saved the article in a faded green plastic folder at home with her English course certificates and school reports. She re-read it every few weeks when everyone else was asleep.
As the sunlight dimmed, the market became crowded again. Su Myint arrived and the sisters were busy with customers when Kyaw appeared, out of breath.
“Amay,” he said, panting. “She’s very sick.”
Thiri’s heart skipped a beat. “Stay here,” she told Su, and ran back to the house with Kyaw, past the meat stall, around the betel seller’s corner, up the narrow flight of stairs. Thiri hoped Kyaw was mistaken, but Amay had collapsed on the floor, clutching the right side of her stomach.
“Kyaw, run down and try to find two sidecars. We’ll go to the clinic,” Thiri said.
It was appendicitis, the doctor declared. He directed them to a hospital. The doctor at the hospital explained that Amay would have to stay there tonight and he had to operate on her early next morning, or her life would be at risk. The rest of his words were a blur.
Thiri suddenly felt lightheaded. Kyaw led her to a wooden bench in the hospital corridor, then went to the counter to get more information. The doctor’s words slowly came into focus. Amay needed to be put on medication immediately. After the surgery, Amay would need to be in hospital for a few days. Operation. Hospital bed. Medicines. Check-ups. Fees.
Kyaw came back and said, “Thiri.” She looked up. “Money.”
They needed to pay a deposit before the operation next morning.
“Thiri, what do we do?” Kyaw asked.
“I’ll think of something,” she said.
Kyaw sighed. “I have 40,000 kyat,” he said. Then he offered to stay in the hospital that night.
Thiri headed home and sat down to think. She needed to organise money for Amay’s surgery by next morning. The family had recently spent the entire household fund to fix their leaking roof during the monsoon. From the stall’s income, the siblings drew a weekly allowance for personal expenses. Thiri phoned Su. She had less than 60,000 kyat.
As she hung up, Thiri silently cursed Kyaw’s beer-and-gaming behaviour and Su’s clothes and makeup obsession. The two siblings’ contribution would barely cover the medicines.
That left Thiri’s own savings. No, that money was for her and her family, a promise of a better future. Thiri then thought of Amay. She must have stashed money somewhere in the house. She checked Amay’s purse and rummaged through her mother’s drawers. She only found a few thousand- and hundred-kyat notes. Amay had almost no jewellery left either, just the tiny gold ring and earrings she wore, gifted by their grandmother.
It was already past nine in the evening. Thiri felt sick now, so plonked down on the floor, and her eye fell on the battered wooden chest in the corner which contained old longyis, her green folder, and her tin box. She turned her face away. No. She could not touch that. That box held the key to a new life.
Thiri felt a nasty headache coming on. She was tired. Tired of the constant struggle. Tired of the daily battles she fought against fate.
When Su Myint came home, Thiri’s headache had worsened and she lay silent on her thin mattress on the floor, her face turned toward the peeling wall.
Thiri wasn’t able to sleep that night, her mind seeking ways to get money for Amay’s surgery. Maybe the neighbours would help, Thiri thought. But who could she turn to on such short notice and for so much money? Myat Aye had an eight-year-old daughter with a weak heart, and Ko Ko Thu had a cancer-stricken mother. What about U Min Min? He would lend her money with interest like he did to other people every day. Yes, not a bad idea. But then she remembered Daw Li Li eating just one meal every two days to pay off her debt. She had died suddenly, and there wasn’t enough money in her house for her cremation.
Thiri shuddered and turned over to her left. She could see Su a few feet away, the moonlight washing her face a dull white. Su deserved a better life. So did Kyaw. They all did. But they needed their mother too.
The sky lightened. Birds chirped. Street dogs growled. Car engines started.
There was only one solution. And it was lying in an old tin box in a small chest.
Her new life would have to wait.