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Vestiges of the Socialist Time

A #VQRTrueStory Essay

PUBLISHED: December 21, 2015


Photos by Julia CookeThere was no road along the river in Mawlamyine until around 2010. The promenade did not exist. Before the Burmese Way to Socialism and the nationalization of all major industries in 1963, factories lined the waterfront: the big mill, a rice mill, and locally owned smaller mills. At the big mill, owned by an Indian man named Rookmanund, two trained elephants worked from seven until four, dragging two-ton logs from the river up to the mill. The workday ended with a toot of a horn, as if from a train. The two elephants, accustomed to the sound, would stop lugging and stand still. So would some of the workers, leaving their tools scattered across the dirt, beams mid-slice, which earned them the nickname “Rookmanund elephants.” They went home to rest in the afternoon, in humidity that settled like a blanket around your shoulders if it didn’t rain. Children would visit the elephants, touch them, giggle at them, and if a child were lucky—if she was related to the oosi (the handler) or an expat mill employee’s child—she would get to ride one. When Rookmanund and the other foreigners left Burma and the teak mills languished, the elephants, as domesticated as they were, had no purpose. The “socialist time,” as it is called in retrospect, wore on, and so many people were hungry; the oosi sent the elephants into the wild to fend for themselves. But they’d lived so long in captivity that they couldn’t—they starved and died. It’s said that elephant bones still litter the jungle around Mawlamyine, mossy hunks that rise ghost-like out of the fluorescent green jungles. 



The man asked if I wanted to see the mill owner’s mansion. I followed him up the stairs and along the long, lanai-like porch. He headed toward a door, opened it, flicked on the fluorescent tubes. “I came inside once, when the owner himself was living here. Inside it was all white: white rugs, white cushions for sitting on, white roll pillows—you know, to put under your knees while you sleep. And all that dirt outside. Only the painted ceilings were colorful. The cabinets were all teak, of course. Teak from the mills. With all that white, I don’t know how they ate. Just rice and milk! I was born here, across the street. Still live there. Rookmanund and his family left around 1963—when everyone left, in the socialist time. Then the big teak mill closed, and then all the teak mills closed, even the small ones. I don’t know if Myanmar has teak anymore. Maybe the teak is all gone. Now this house is a guesthouse. Here’s one room: See the ceilings? This room costs $40 a night. Three beds, you see?”



I went to Mawlamyine to look for a grave. A foreigner, the father of a woman I was profiling, had died in 1981, and she said that he had been buried in the town that he loved, though he had left it two decades earlier. At the Anglican church, I met a man who introduced himself as the pontifex, wearing a longyi, the woven cloth sarong worn by most Myanmar men, and a Hawaiian shirt. He showed me the headstones in the churchyard: a half-dozen hunks of stone, diagonal in the riotous jungle foliage. Only one was legible: ELIZABETH GROFT, 1875. “When did he die?” the pontifex asked me, and I told him. He shook his head. “Impossible. He could not have been buried here—1981 was the socialist time, and he was a foreigner, so he could not be here, even if he was Anglican and he had lived here before. Also, all of the remains were moved about twenty years ago. Their eternal souls rest eighty kilometers away.” He took me inside the church, a mossy, red-brick nave with flying buttresses and half-ruptured jalousie blinds. He gestured toward the eaves, where patches of whitish residue clung like sweat stains to the columns, just above head-height. “The Japanese stored salt here during the war,” he told me. He continued walking toward the back of the church, and in there, stacked up against the walls, were inch-thick blocks of stone, each about a foot square. On the slabs were skulls crossed with bones and barely legible names. Any dates I could see predated 1981 by many decades. Most of the headstones were broken and the fragments stood like toy soldiers along the sides of the hallway. The bones were elsewhere, but the names remained. I never found the grave I sought; the man was most likely buried in Hawaii. 

This essay is part of our #VQRTrueStory project, a social-media experiment in nonfiction that delivers stories across platforms. Each week, a contributor takes over our Instagram feed, @vqreview, to post original dispatches that tell the stories behind the pictures. The dispatches are then published on our website, and two are selected for inclusion in each issue of the magazine. You can visit the #VQRTrueStory archive to read all the contributions so far. And be sure to follow @vqreview to keep up with the project as it unfolds.


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