Updated: Mar 11
It is with great sadness that we must convey the news that a dear friend and one of the major contributors to SSOA's memoir group, Sao Khemawadee Mangrai - known to all who loved her as 'Biddy' - has died after contracting COVID.
Biddy was a foundation member of our memoir group, a prolific writer and a mainstay of calm and compassion in the face of sometimes harrowing accounts of personal story shared among our writing members.
Aged eighty-four, Biddy was a devout Buddhist and her commitment to her moral values infused her life despite the suffering she encountered under Burma's military regime. After the 1962 military coup, her husband, Hom, was jailed for five years and the family later escaped to Fiji, finally able to rebuild their lives in their new homeland, Australia.
The actions of the current military government in Myanmar had also been of great concern to her.
She leaves a husband, three daughters, and a son and grandchildren - even though she will never leave their loving thoughts.
May I now offer you one of Biddy's own stories of her life which has not previously been published, related in her own distinctive style.
The Golden Umbrella
An ex-colleague once scathingly remarked that I, Biddy, had never forgotten a half day of glorification when I had worn clothes that resembled Burmese royal attire, had been showered with money and jewellery, and had golden umbrellas held above my head while walking in a procession at a novitiation ceremony.
The procession is held when a boy turns ten and his parents prepare him to be a novitiate or a little monk. Little girls such as I are dressed up as princesses and have their ears pierced.
The ceremony usually takes place during the school summer holidays because it is warm or hot, and it also means boys are kept out of trouble during that period since they are confined to a Buddhist monastery and its compounds under the care and guidance of older monks. The boys learn enough to ask for saffron robes about a month or two before the set date. They have their heads shaved and are bathed before being adorned in the saffron attire, which includes a singlet and sarong and a girdle made of twisted cotton string. These girdles are to secure the sarongs in place. Robes are added to keep the boys covered and warm. They are also provided with alms bowls to walk about the village receiving gifts of food. A piece of cloth for distilling water to ensure that they don’t swallow insects or worms is also included in the prerequisites, together with a razor blade for shaving the head, and a needle and thread. These are the only eight items a monk owns.
Monks have early morning breakfast at 5 or 6 am, lunch at about 11 am and nothing to eat until the next morning. They must keep the eight precepts. The boys have to learn to recite prayers. It is a hard life for little boys who are used to running wild and especially for those pampered by parents.
Years after my childhood experience, my ten-year-old son and one of his cousins attended the monastery but his cousin became ill after five days so his mother took him home. When I visited my son left there without his cousin, he cried when he saw me but managed to stay for ten days.
Now I wonder, is it fair to have the boys novitiated? Can they understand what they are doing and why? Is the meritorious deed beneficial for the parents only or for the little boys too? When my son turned twelve, before we left Burma to live in Fiji, he agreed to go into a novice’s life again. This time I believe he understood the whole process and learnt to be a good Buddhist, saying his prayers regularly until this very day.
When my ex-colleague said that I had never forgotten the half a day of glorification, in having a golden umbrella above my head at the novitiation ceremony, the meaning was that I couldn’t forget the life I’d had before the coup d’etat in 1962.
How could I, when my former life might have been likened to a sturdy tree, developing through the nurturing of a seedling, then a sapling, with love and care? The tree was ready to spread its branches and reach upwards towards the sky. It was ready to one day produce fragrant flowers and, later, fruits to feed people, with twittering birds dropping its seeds to the ground to sprout shoots from new roots to begin fresh lives again.
Who wouldn’t have missed a life that was full of hope and ambition? My husband and I had been married for just three years and eight months. We had the hope and promise of years ahead when suddenly that tree of life was struck by lightning. It was lucky not to be killed altogether. Slowly, ever so slowly, tender leaves began to re-appear along the trunk, signalling that it was alive, but barely. Our struggle was significant, though not so significant as to have to beg, borrow or steal.
The Lord Buddha and the guardian angels did not ignore us. Parents, relatives and friends supported us. We didn’t wallow in sorrow. We didn’t crave for what might have been. It was my duty to keep my family intact: to feed them, to clothe them, to give them education, to keep them happy, and to take pride as they grew and learned to fend for themselves. Why should they suffer? They hadn’t asked to be born into this family.
Burmese talk about how they waged war on the British, how they fought for independence, how they dispelled the Japanese, how they subdued the Karen rebels, how they were put down, how they fought against the Shan (my people) and how they pushed back the Chinese Kuomintang troops.
But in 1962, we wives of the detainees had our own war to fight. Did we dare do it? We were so afraid of creating more harm, which would interfere with the release of our husbands from prison, that we didn’t dare utter a word.
Two wives went underground, taking their children with them. One had a heart attack when she fell in her bathroom, leaving eight daughters ranging from ages ten to twenty-four. One had to leave the country, taking her two little girls with her, as their lives were made miserable by the guards placed at her gates. Later, we learnt that her husband, who was my mother’s cousin, was murdered instead of being kept under custody by the military. Another relative, my husband’s aunt-in-law, was ordered to leave Burma within a week.
How were we to survive when our bank accounts were frozen? How could we live when most of us depended on our husbands for sustenance? That was the time when I had to take up the challenge – teaching!
I, who as a child used to cry when I was asked to face the class and read … I, who would cry when asked to give an impromptu talk … I, to whom my father used to say, ‘Louder, Biddy,’ when I spoke softly, and I would repeat after him even more softly, ‘Louder’.
Now I had to face fifty students, then one hundred, and later two hundred students to give a regular lecture at university.
How did I do this? God only knows.
Sao Khemawadee Mangrai
(a personal essay written in 2013)
Copyright Sydney School of Arts & Humanities: text Sao Khemawadee Mangrai; recent photo Chris Waters; cover photo SSOA archive.