It was last day of my two-week tour of Burma, and the calendar was auspicious. Friday January 13th, 2012. Friday the thirteenth, at the beginning of a leap year! An excellent day to wrap up the business of househunting in Rangoon. That was how I had slugged the page in my notebook listing the homes I had once lived in and was determined to track down. HOUSEHUNTING.
I was born in Burma, but fled the country in 1967, at the age of 20. My father, Ed Law-Yone, publisher and editor of The Nation, Burma’s best known English-language newspaper, was still languishing in political prison when—desperate to escape the crushing police state my country had become—I decided to decamp. Accompanied by my brother Alban, I headed for the Thai border, choosing the “backdoor” route favored by smugglers and insurgents. Long before we reached the border, in the southern port of Moulmein, we were picked up by the secret police, and jailed for two weeks of interrogation.
Eventually, in May 1967, I was granted permission to leave the country—as a stateless person. Since then, I had been back only once: in 2001, after a 33-year prohibition. Some states are particularly pitiless toward their prodigal sons and daughters. The Burmese military regime was one of those states. Or had been.
But now it was the beginning of 2012, the beginning of the Burmese Spring. A new reform-minded president had taken office. Dissidents and exiles of every stripe were being invited back, and I was among those outcasts taking advantage of the amnesty to return home for a brief visit.
First on the list of addresses in my notebook was the Thomas de la Rue Building, a red-brick complex where money had once been minted. My father had rented two floors of this capacious property to house his large brood of six children, countless relatives, and never-ending houseguests.
I couldn’t believe how faithfully I’d preserved in memory this no-nonsense edifice—remarkably kempt after all this time. Surveying the structure with obscure pride, I glanced up at the second floor and clapped my hands in delight. There was the round window, the “porthole” on the fantasy oceanliners I had sailed on as a child!
Other homes were less easy to find, not least because street names had been changed. 57 Lewes Street—our downtown flat where my brother’s friend had almost cracked my grandmother’s skull with his racket, during a game of indoor badminton – was now on Seik Kan Tha Street. 59 Cheape Road, the house with the billiard table where I annoyed my brothers by criticizing from the sidelines their curve-balls, in-offs and follow-throughs, was now on Manawhari Road. Dear old 41 Park Lane, with its unkempt split-level orchard and special enclosure for Muffet, our pet Berkshire pig, was alas no more to be seen.
116 B University Avenue, on the other hand, was still partly visible from the property of a friend across the lake. Neglected, uninhabited, lush with weed, it rebuked me with its decay. That was the house I remembered best; the house where my father was arrested; the house I had tried to flee before being arrested myself; the house I had abandoned when I finally flew the coop in 1967.
There was one other home I had yet to locate, and I had left it till now, the last day of my stay.
No. 14 A, Ady Road (since renamed Mai Kha Road) was where my brother Alban and I had discovered a secret lake, our very own ‘great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River.’ On Ady Road I had learned to roller skate, to wave to General Ne Win without falling on my face as he drove home every afternoon with his motorcade.
On a previous trip to Burma, back in 2001, I had managed to take a picture of no. 14 A. The old wooden gate was fastened with rusty chains and edged with barbed wire. The garden had gone to seed.
That house wasn’t here any longer. 14 A had disappeared completely. The whole street, it seemed, had been reconfigured. Our home might never have existed. I thought about the melancholy reflection of the Israeli writer Aaron Appelfeld on returning as an old man to his “buried homeland” in the Ukraine: “Until recently I had thought that there existed a childhood home far from me and a childhood home within me. Now I know: what there was dwells only within me.”
Ah, well. The homes within had served me well enough in the past. Anyway, as my friend Ariane Hummel, the German poet, so exquisitely put it:
Can be a word
If you understand it.