Last light as night falls in Rangoon. Shwedagon Pagoda framed against the twilight. It is like watching a great diva knowing in less than a generation she will be reduced to a walk on role. But that is the future. At this moment such a command performance can only leave you in awe. Our world has lost something. And I am witnessing what is front of me and remembering what we’ve left behind with a sense of joy and regret.
From my balcony the Shwedagon Pagoda is on a hill enveloped in a forest of trees. One way to understand a place is to move beyond the iconic view and into the region of folk tales, proverbs, and legends. Buried in these narratives are the treasures that define a people, their morality, ethics, and worldview. As you will have gathered from the news headlines over the past couple of weeks, Burma is a society undergoing important political changes.
The people of Burma are like travelers who have been on a dusty road for a long time and are able to enjoy a simple meal.
There is a Burmese folktale* about a weary traveler who stopped along the road to eat his lunch. The traveler was poor and his meal was a meager helping of rice and vegetables. Nearby a food vendor was selling fried fish and fish cakes. The stall owner watched the traveler eating as she fried fish. The smell of the fish drifting toward the traveler who squatted alone, lost in his own thoughts.
As the traveler finished his meal and was about to depart, the woman from the food stalls shouted at him, stopping him in his tracks: “You owe me a silver quarter for the price of one fried fish.”
“But madam, I did not eat one of your fried fish.”
“You are a cheater,” she replied. “A person who takes without paying for what he takes.”
“But, madam, I’ve taken nothing from you. I have not come within five feet from your stall.”
“Ah, ha. And you’re a liar to boot. I have many witnesses who will testify that they saw you enjoying the smell of my fried fish as you ate your meal. You would not have been able to eat that disgusting mush of rice and vegetable without taking in the sweet aroma of my fish frying. So pay me the silver quarter and don’t make any more trouble for yourself.”
The confrontation soon drew a crowd around the traveler and the fried fish seller. She plays to the crowd who had to agree that indeed the traveler had availed himself of the smell of the fish frying. Even the traveler could not deny he had smelled the fish frying. But he insisted that he had no duty to pay for that privilege.
The matter was taken to a royal judge who heard the evidence. The judge deliberated on the matter in a courthouse nestled under the shade of a coconut tree, chickens pecking for grain along the road. Several minutes passed before he announced to the parties and the crowd who had accompanied them as to his verdict.
The judge found the basic facts weren’t in dispute. The traveler had indeed enhanced the enjoyment of his meal because of the pleasant smell of the fish frying. He had received a benefit. But what was the value of that benefit? The fish seller said the price for a plate of fish was a silver quarter. The judge ordered the parties to leave the courthouse and to walk out into the sun. The traveler was then to hold out a silver quarter and allow the fish vendor to grasp the shadow made by the silver quarter. The judge reasoned if the plate of fish cost one silver quarter, then the exchange value for the smell of the fish was the shadow of one silver quarter.
As the gold rush of investors are jumping headlong into the newly opened Burma, they might be reminded that so far the Burmese, like the traveler, have only had a whiff of the frying fish called freedom and democracy. Whether they will be left only with a scent or will be allowed to enjoy the full plate, remains to be seen. The future will tell whether the price of freedom 60 million travelers’ benefit will be judged to be payable silver or a mere shadow of silver.
*Story adapted from Maung Htin Aung’s Folk Tales of Burma.
Shadow of Freedom is an essay from Fear & Loathing in Bangkok.
* Shadow of Freedom was originally published on 19 January 2012.