three pairs of lovers with space

TWO TOO SHORT MONTHS IN RANGOON, 1949

 

The following story was recounted by English journalist Michael Davidson in Some Boys (1969), his memoir of his Greek love affairs. He had already briefly mentioned Maung Té-hung, his Burmese love, twice in his earlier autobiography, The World, the Flesh and Myself (1962), and, though they add little, these passages are given afterwards for the sake of completeness.

Davidson arrived in Rangoon in April 1949, aged fifty-two, being sent there to cover the Karen war against the government of newly-independent Burma, and stayed about two months.[1]

 

Some Boys

The text is taken from pp. 61-75 of the unexpurgated American edition (New York, 1971), which in this instance is the same as in the British edition.

RANGOON

EACH TIME I come upon a stretch of shining water, and boys bathing in it, and the colour of their flesh glowing and paling and gilding under the play of the sun, I see too, as if behind a cloud that always in my mind hangs sombrely in the sky, the memory of another picture: the same sunlight plays, no less lightly and brightly, no less warmly, upon a small naked, dangling body being carried up into the town from the Rangoon waterfront—legs hanging limp down a man's chest, ebony round head bobbing behind the man's back, and the tiny tender buttocks arched over his shoulder; while a straggle of silent boys follow, silent with awe or fear or the need to gape, some of them naked and still dripping from the river.

                                          Rangoon waterfront

Where hundreds of boys bathe and dozens of them can hardly swim, the thing to marvel at is the small number who even get into difficulties and have to be fished out by their friends; one may also marvel at the number of people who, the newspapers report, get drowned at those well-regulated bathing resorts and pools where the public is protected by lifeguards, danger flags, safety zones, and printed notices telling the customers what they mustn't do. But such comparisons aren't much comfort when one's among a mob of solemn-eyed Burmese boys, behind a heart-breaking small dangling corpse. . . .

All my life I've needed the propinquity of water; as a dog needs the nearness of open land I like to live on the water's edge, and to hear the waves; or on small islands, so as to be closely surrounded by the sea; if I've had to live inland, away from a shore, I've always felt uneasy and bereft, unless at least a lake or an adequate river were within handy reach. And all my life, given sunshine and warmth, I've been happiest when bathing and basking for the sake, partly, of the sensuous luxuries of sun and water, and partly—who would want to deny it?—for the sake of those sexual appurtenances of bathing which, to him who is susceptible to them, are the chief of its charms: the delicious emotions which youthful and artless nudity inevitably give one—the blissful pleasure of contemplating naked boys.

And so, when I came to Rangoon, I made for the waterfront those sandy-brown quays, sparkling like gold dust, above the smoky port where the big ships lay, against which were jammed a kaleidoscopic huddle of small river and coastal craft that had brought a mixed bag of cargoes from all round the seaboard of the Bay of Bengal—birds' nests from the Siamese coast for Chinese soup, printed cottons from Calcutta, tin, perhaps, from Penang, modish shoes from Hong Kong or Singapore.

On the day I met Maung Tay Ba the burning blue of the sky seemed filtered by a thin haze, as if a lightly smoked film had been laid over it; a halo of dark vapour hung over the docks down-river where the steamers lay: among them a couple of ships of the British India line, with their sheer black hulls and black funnels—so familiar (and even familial) to generations of "Anglo-Indians"—soldiers, civil servants, teaplanters—journeying outward-bound to some station in India or going "home" for a few months' leave.

A string of native vessels lay moored alongside small sailing sampans and a variety of craft converted from sail to power—and abreast of them a second line of boats lay, and beyond that a third: so that the boys could jump from deck to deck and dive into the brown stream of the Rangoon River from the bulwarks of the outermost craft. There were dozens of the boys—there seemed hundreds: darting and dancing and diving, laughing and shouting, dripping and glistening in the glassy light: they came and went, crossed and mingled and recrossed, golden and gleaming, light-limbed and bright-eyed, in a constant kind of choreographic scramble: lords, each one of them at that moment, of the world in the gorgeous freedom of their nudity.

Suddenly, where I sat on a quayside bollard, I found myself looking into two of the blackest eyes I'd ever seen, and a gay little grinning yellow face—it was more a smile than a grin—which had popped up at my feet, with cascading wet hair like spouts of black water, from between the quay and the wooden planks of a barge. He climbed up ashore, still grinning, stood for a moment lemon-coloured in the sunlight, quite naked, shook the wet off with a flutter of his arms like a bird in a bath, and took a running header over the bows of the barge. I had time to have engraved on my mind the image of a featherweight boy's body, yet compact and proportioned like the scale-model of a mature man.

It wouldn't be true to say that I thought no more about him—I thought a great deal about him, as one does about anything one's seen that's seemed startlingly out of the ordinary, anything of unusual beauty or unusually arousing. But I didn't expect to see him again, among the seething and dazzlingly chromatic myriads that thronged the Rangoon streets. I thought of the sweet nature that was plainly visible behind the impishness of the grin; of the firm, flawless, moulded texture of that yellow flesh. I thought of the surprising maturity of the figure, and yet the absolute boyishness of it; and of the shining black pools of those eyes, in whose lucent deepness seemed to lie waiting such funds of young emotion—of affection, perhaps, of fiery desire or ambition, of loneliness or need. And I thought of that body: of the sexual ripeness that it touchingly displayed. And, as I walked back to the Strand Hotel through the heat and the spicy air, my imagination played with the absurd notion of having that yellow-tinted youth as a companion during the month or so I was going to stay in Burma—did any of those old kings in classical Mandalay possess an attendant half so delightful? Absurd, of course, the notion was; and when, in the hotel room, commodiously neuter like any hotel room, I settled down to do some work, I put it right out of my mind and tucked the boy's image away somewhere out of thought.

                          The Strand Hotel in 1931

And almost at once, when I next turned out of the hotel door, I met him again. I don't know if he had come there on purpose, guessing that the Englishman he had seen on the quayside (who was bound to be rich) would be staying at the Strand Hotel. Probably yes: yet I didn't find him obviously stationed outside the hotel entrance; he was a little way along the river embankment—and how could he know I wouldn't be walking in the opposite direction? And if he had stationed himself there on purpose—well, why not? On what moral grounds, for God's sake, could the most virtuous prissy prig reprove him? "They hang around, these native boys, just to see what they can get—and one wouldn't like to think what they're willing to do!" That's the kind of remark the English visitors used to make when they had colonies to visit. Well, why shouldn't they hang around to see what they can get? Isn't that what most people are doing anyway most of their lives? To see what they can get sexual, or financial, or snob-social—one of the three.

He was sitting on his heels by the pavement edge, with his sarong tucked up from behind between his hams and his calves and in front pulled down over his knees; he was doodling in the dust with a piece of stick. He wore nothing except the sarong: bare-footed and bare-bodied down to the waist: his tiny nipples were like pepper-corns poised on the golden pallor of his breast. When he saw me he gave the same smiling grin as before: a smile of sharing, as if there were something we both understood—it was a smile of recognition, containing neither surprise nor expectancy: his look expected nothing. Then he turned his head down again to the road, and went on drawing in the dust.

"D'you want a cigarette?" I asked, holding out a packet almost against his nose, so that he should be in no doubt, supposing he knew no English, what I was up to. He helped himself, delicately, at once; with the same frank smile—it seemed to say that though he wasn't asking for a cigarette, it was understood between us that one was his if he wanted it.

"You got light?" he said. His voice was a low-pitched contralto, dulcet as a dove's.

And then—after, I suppose, some exchange of proposal and consent that I can't now recall—he was walking along beside me, his bare leather-coloured feet moving silently and insensibly, like a dog's pads: his toes were stubby with broad squat nails, and the skin of his feet, browned by lifelong bareness, was rough and crumbled like a tortoise's hide. He walked lightly, and yet with a springing athlete's stride, with none of that adolescent giving at the knees and with his square young shoulders held back; he walked with the air of a patrician—I felt at first that to turn and look at his face would be an impertinence, like staring.

As we went along—vaguely along the river "strand," as that thoroughfare was called, for I had not thought of where to go or what to do—I tried, gently, to ask him questions about himself. I knew no Burmese, and he, I found, had scarcely any English; yet as one always can, all the world over, when concord is mutually felt, we got most of each other's meaning. And now, since three-quarters of our language was lip-language, and eye-language, and the eloquence of mouth and head and hands, I had to look at him—at the sweet and artless candour of that smile, and the confidence that I thought I could discern beneath the sparkling black surface of the eyes; and at the full scarlet luxury of his lips. His face was pleasantly oval; his small nose the impeccable shape that's the privilege of most Burmese: his real distinction lay not in his features but in the expression of them—their dancing mobility like light on water, and the human warmth of his smile and eyes. His age, I guessed, could be anything from twelve to fifteen—his emotional desires, probably, no more complicated than a child's.

He wasn't, as I'd first thought, a waif: he had a home somewhere among the teeming tenements of Rangoon, and he had a mother with some younger children; she kept the family going by doing laundry for some British firm's employees. There wasn't a father: he'd disappeared, it seemed, some time during the social and political turmoils between the end of the war against the Japanese and the revolution against the British.

He told me his name was Maung Tay Ba, and that's what I henceforward called him; for I never mastered Burmese nicknames or diminutives, and never discovered what he was called at home or by his friends. Maung is a common honorific—something in the way of the Burmese "mister"; and is more general, I think, than U or Thakin—this last is perhaps a monkish term. So Maung Tay Ba he remained for me: a bit of a mouthful when murmured as the hub of encircling endearments.

His sarong—which in Burma is called a loonghi, the g hard as in "ghee"—was very clean and almost diaphanous as if his mother washed it very often; its thin cotton was printed in a tartan-like crisscross of green and pale yellow—tints of a lemon-tree's foliage for the embellishment of his own lemon-skin. But it was threadbare and frayed, and he was growing out of it—its hem was well above his ankles.

"What would you like me to buy you?" I asked, or rather mimed: I couldn't think of any other conversational opening.

"Shirt," he answered, "English shirt." He gave me again that frank, understanding smile that seemed to confer a perfect equality of partnership in the notion of this shirt: I would buy it, he would wear it—it would be our shirt. At the same time he illustrated the shirt with his hands over his shoulders and breast, and down his loins—it was plainly to be the style of shirt then still prevailing with a tai1, which I supposed would hang outside his loonghi in the way of the Indian mode.

"Isn't there anything else?" I went on. "A new sarong—a new loonghi? And some sandals? Wouldn't your feet be happier in sandals?" I made him understand by seizing a fold of his garment, and pointing to my own sandals and to his feet.

He understood. His enchanting mouth curved into a shy, deprecating pout of imprimatur—as much as to say, Well, if you want to, it's up to you—I'm not asking for it.

I gave him some money and told him to bring what he bought to my room at the Strand Hotel. "I only hope they let you up," I added; but I didn't think he understood: his smile as he moved away seemed to fill all his face and eyes. Then he walked swiftly away, with the quick springing steps of a runner.

*              *             *

At the hotel I told the "desk" that a messenger-boy would be bringing some parcels: would they send him up at once? In those days, although Burma was already an independent and sovereign State, a white man at a hotel like the Strand was still the symbol of the "Raj"—of, that is, the most influential and profitable sort of visitor; yet this wasn't the chief reason for the permissive attitudes of such places: in the Far East generally, and in the countries of South-East Asia especially, there never was, and let's hope there never will be, either the dirty-mindedness or the puritanism of the "progressive" West. If a half-naked adolescent of the lowest class went up to a visitor's room, the hotel staff didn't think about it or anything of it; their minds didn't start working along prying and prurient ways; or if some sexual whisper did enter into their meditation, they'd dismiss is as being no business of theirs.

So when Maung Tay Ba did present himself to the hall porter he was immediately given directions about finding my number, and sent straight up. With pleasure and timidity mingling in his smile, he displayed his purchases over the bed, and held out a fistful of coins: he must have bought the things in the cheapest bazaar he could find—I'd expected a third of the small change he brought. But he wouldn't put on any of his new things; he said he was dirty, first he must wash. Then he walked quickly over to the shower which, with the w.c., occupied a tiled alcove in a corner of the room, and pushed aside the splash curtain. "Good," he said, laughing with approval, "English bath very good. Me bath?" Without waiting for a Yes or No, he loosened the tucked-in fold that held his loonghi round his waist, dropped it to the floor, and stepped out of it as bare as an Asian Eros.

Before I joined him beneath the shower, I stood back and watched him: the lemon-gold convolutions of his flexuous body, the pearly runnels of shower-water, cloudy with soap, spilling down his skin like rain on lemon-peel. I thought I'd never seen such a perfectly constructed model of a grown man: shoulders squared for his height as a mature athlete's; the neatly ribbed torso converging like the sides of a wedge to waist and hips as fine as a bush-buck's. The chest was wide and full and yet still a boy's; his frame had none of the gangling puniness of an adolescent's but all its lightness and grace. I couldn't remember ever seeing before a body that seemed so purely beautiful: he was like Michelangelo's David in miniature. Later, I was often to see him in that figure's loose and casual stance of absolute physical assurance. When he had dried he walked over to the bed and lay down, as if this were a matter of course.

"Now we do playing?" he asked, with that same candid smile. "You like, please?"

His erotic expectations were humble, I found—nothing beyond his small, boyish experience. He enjoyed the warmth and softness and affection of hugging—especially, I think, the affection; but kissing he refused, turning away his face with a little shy laugh; and all he wanted after that was a quick and high-spirited masturbation, as if it were something of a joke or a game—content at first to do it himself, but interested and apparently pleased when I did it for him. And that was the totality of sex for him—it was what one might call small-boys'-sex; and he shrank from any sign of a move to go beyond it. And I, of course, was perfectly happy to leave it at that: whatever pleased him was good enough for me—he was such a delightful and decorative companion: to look at him alone was a joy that didn't seem to dwindle and the beaming honesty of his smile was like a pick-me-up. But it was the plea in his eyes and smile that made him so precious: a plea for affection, for fondness—a plea that within a day had become the thing it pled for: affection itself. In the gaiety and compassion and truth of his expression I could soon read that combination of tenderness and liking and trust that means absolute friendship. That's what I quickly discovered: what he wanted, needed, wasn't the kind of capricious, exacting, love which is sexual passion but the calm, gentle, trustworthy love that's affection; and this to me was far more important—and I had that gentle boyish friendship with me day and night, like a full wallet in my pocket, for all the weeks that I was in Burma. Sex there was, of course: a playful, charming, childish sex—a suffix or accessory, what condiments are in cooking, to the staunchness of our affection. He gave me everything he had: love, devotion, service, all his time and energy—and he was ready, too, to give me any sort of sexual entertainment, even the sorts he shrank from, had I asked for it, which I didn't. And I? What did I give him? I tried to lavish on him all the love and care that a friend, and a mother and father too, could be capable of, and for those few and short weeks we were happy, both of us. But trustworthy? Staunch? How could I pretend that my love was trustworthy when I had to leave him? Where in hell was its staunchness? And, may I be forgiven—but who can forgive the brutal perversities of this world?—I had to leave him. . . .

*              *             *

                                   The Pegu Club, Rangoon

At first he slept at home—"home": the tiny hovel he shared with a horde of younger children and his overworked mother—too harassed to find time for affection or even interest. Punctually he took back to her the "wages" I gave him; he was naïvely proud of giving his family more than he'd ever brought them before. With the equivalent of about three dollars he bought an old bicycle—before getting on to it he bunched his loonghi up through his crutch like a baby's nappy. When I moved from the hotel to the Pegu Club and had an outside room with its own front door in the compound behind, I madly took a chance and brought him to stay there. It was a stuffy British club whose members were government officials, bank managers, oil company executives, and the like—the most inappropriate audience one could think of in front of which to pop a small Burmese boy into one's bed. But the gamble came off: the club "boys," the servants, who knew Maung Tay Ba was my "bearer," took no notice of his being in and out of my room night as well as day; while the staid members, if they knew of his existence at all, showed no sign of curiosity. So he slept with me on what was little roomier than a camp-bed; lying sleeping against the white sheet his lemon-gold body was like the brass figure of a buddha—a buddha taking time off from meditation.

And buddhas were one of our pleasures: we loved to climb the long stairs up to the sanctuary of the golden Shwe Dagon pagoda, and idle among the multitude of silent images. I had my work to do, of course; sometimes I had to drive out to the little civil war that was being fought a dozen or so miles up country. But often I could manage a few hours free; and now and then a full day—then we would leave the city and make for that chain of lakes like pools of quicksilver that spread, among golden dunes and jade-and-emerald jungle, just north of Rangoon.

       Schwedagon Pagoda steps ca. 1949

There were at least two staircases leading up to the Shwe Dagon shrines under the immense cupola of pure gold-leaf—perhaps there were four, one at each corner: that would accord with the regal grandeur of the place. At the bottom of the steps a notice announced: "Visitors must remove the footing"—one was required to take one's shoes off. I used to know how many steps there were up—it was a long climb; and all the way up one passed little stalls where things were sold: holy things, offerings, like posies of flowers and incense, touristic objects such as miniature buddhas and the unavoidable ebony elephants. At the top one came to the lofty and spacious loggia which, enclosed by stone balustrades, ran four-sided round the vast base of the golden dome; and formed four wide balconies projecting beneath and around it, from whose tiled pavement arose an ornate flowering—luxuriant yet orderly as an Italian garden, chaste as a Gothic vault—of pagodas in miniature, pinnacles and pyramidal turrets, all sheltering or embracing a sobering and mesmerising company of figures, of various sizes and in manifold postures, of gold or bronze or stone, and each of course representing the Buddha. Everywhere people were sweeping or dusting or cleaning, for it's obviously a blessing and an honour to perform such services for the Teacher; others were praying or sitting in attitudes of meditation, and others still walking about and chatting. Beneath the vast golden canopy I seem to remember an endless succession of chambers like stalls or stables or chancels or chapels: all surrounded by rows of silent, dominating images of the Buddha. Many contained also groups of saffron-clad boy-monks eating from their begging-bowls. I have stood with what reverence I can muster in most kinds of places of worship, in the churches or temples or assemblies of most of the world's rites of religion; but I don't think I've ever known another place where I've experienced such an awareness of peace and gentleness and tranquillity of the spirit, such a feeling of meditative, or prayerful, if you like, power as I experienced among all those glorious musing idols of the golden Shwe Dagon—and I went there many times, and each time experienced the same anodyne sensations. On the way up, Maung Tay Ba would always buy himself a sprig of flowers which he would set up in the appropriate holder before whatever image he selected; and he would kneel down and hold up his hands palm to palm and look up sweetly at the impassive buddha. I don't think Maung Tay Ba was much of a practising buddhist, I'm sure he wasn't much given to devout exercises; but I never expect to see as pretty a praying again as his at the Shwe Dagon.

Maung Tay Ba and Michael Davidson at the Schwedagon Pagoda, 1949

The road to the lakes seemed also the road to the end of the known world. It came to a stop on a wooded, sandy hill—sometimes a car would lose its grip in the sand and its wheels would whir and bore deeper down. Among the trees was a tea-shop and snack-bar; people, mostly Burmese, would come out here on holidays from the city for a picnic or an hour's fresh air. But nobody went further: beyond was wilderness: water, sand, and rank greenery—a tangle of undergrowth and stunted jungle trees rioting over the dunes.

We used to get provisions at the tea-shop: sandwiches, fruit, some cold boiled rice, bottles of lemonade; and hire a boat from the proprietor, a small sampan; and then we'd set off for the day, lazily along the narrow waterways, snaking and meandering between the verdurous dunes, through channels which, like widening rivulets approaching an estuary, gradually opened into the breathless silvery expanse of the lake. We'd row unhurriedly, without much thinking about it, so that we could apply all our faculties to the sheer enjoyment of being where we were, of being naked in the warm shining air (we had taken our clothes off the first moment we could), and of being together. The sampan moved forward in leisurely thrusts, like an elderly breast-stroke-swimmer's; and the creaking of the oars against the tholes seemed like an answer to the waterbirds uttering their lonely cries above us.

"You stay with me?" he would ask—though it seemed more an assertion than a question. "You not leave Burma?" And I would answer, with my heart breaking and my sense of truth rebelling against what I knew to be a lie. "I shall stay—or if I have to go away, I shall come back." This exchange was constantly being repeated on all our excursions, during all our nights, in between all our daily doings, "You stay with me?"—or sometimes, "Me stay with you?" . . . .

Once out in the wide lagoon we would head for a long low sandbank which we called "our" island and which, from a distance, seemed to brush the surface of the water like a streak of saffron. With a final scurry of the oars we'd run the boat's stem into the sand and jump ashore. . . . He'd run about and dance and leap, turn somersaults and cartwheels, do handsprings and back jumps and every kind of acrobatics that his mind could think of and his limbs prompt him to. . . . And I'd watch him, and ask myself how it could be possible for such loveliness to exist. . . The lemon-gold of his skin seemed almost the same colour as the sand he danced upon; so that the gyrations of his prancing body became like the flicker and sheen of sunlight on an amber floor.

A Rangoon lake with the Schwedagon Pagoda in the background

And rowing back he would say. "You stay with me? You not go?" And as we neared again the narrowing channels and the green-covered dunes, the falling sun reflected from the west would begin to turn the water red.

As my mind had always known it would, though my heart pretended it wouldn't, the cable from London came I was to leave at once for Singapore, and after a short while there, move on. . . . Where could a small Burmese boy be fitted into this programme of duty and the wretched earning of a livelihood?

In those days, so long ago now, a flying-boat which moored in the Rangoon River was the means of getting in and out of Burma by air. One went down some steps from the official buildings on the river bank to a landing stage below, and a small launch took one across to the aircraft. I remember the absurd formality Maung Tay Ba had to submit to before they would allow him to come with me on to the pier: he had to be searched by customs in case he were carrying something illicit to pass to me after I myself had been cleared—him, searched by Customs, with nothing but his cotton-thin sarong and his bare lemon-gold skin.

He stood beside me and sobbed—sobbed like a child that's being taken away from its mother, like a boy being hauled off to some school. "You come back? You not leave me?" he kept asking between his sobs. "You promise?"

"I'll come back," I said. "I promise."

When it was time for me to get into the launch he cried out desperately: "You promise? You promise?" and as the launch was pushed off and turned its nose into midstream I could still hear his call: "You come back? You promise?"

From the porthole window by my seat I watched his lemon-pale breast and shoulders and arms, and the ankle-length brown loonghi below them. Even at that distance I could see how his tiny face was screwed up and his shoulders shaking. The plane scudded off over the water and rose, circling over the landing-stage and that minute figure below. The other passengers were staring at me: it was my turn to be sobbing—tears were running down my face and I was crying out loud, and, absurdly, I couldn't find my handkerchief.

I broke my promise. Once again, as so often in my life, the world I was caught up in was stronger than free will. I never went back.

 

The World, The Flesh and Myself

And I, in 1949, was there [in Burma] as a journalist: a few blissful months in the company of the gentlest of boy 'bearers', Maung Té-hung, who taught me to take flowers and candles to the lovely gods of the Shwé-Dagon, while he daintily performed the prettiest devotions. The memory, inerasable, of that small brown sobbing figure in its chequered lungyi, waving, wavering, meltingly abandoned on the Rangoon River jetty when I left, still brings back my own flooding tears which so astonished my companions in that beastly seaplane.  …

Earlier in this story I've mentioned Maung Té-hung: my small, brown, loving companion for all my Burmese stay. We used to go out to the broad silvered lagoons north of Rangoon; chartering a small sampan, bathing and basking on the long slim banks of sand; we spent long contemplative hours among the gilded Buddhas of the great and wonderful Shwé Dagon pagoda, where the yellow-robed boy monks ate their rice among the golden gods and Maung Té-hung offered flowers to his favourite idol. When I moved into a room at the Pegu Club he came with me; none of the members—English civil servants working for the new State, senior employees of Burmah Oil, a bank manager perhaps—seemed to consider it odd. Thinking now, as I often do, of that enchanting and good boy, I feel a fraud: how could a man as selfish as I, one so generally unworthy, have been granted the sweet devotion that Maung Té-hung so unstintingly gave? …

 

[1] In The World, the Flesh and Myself , Davidson  says he  arrived in Rangoon in April 1949, was with Maung Tay Ba “for a few blissful months”, and, after a stay of unspecified length in Singapore, moved on to Hong Kong “at the beginning of July 1949.” Hence he must have spent about two months with Tay Ba.