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.
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 tail, 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. . . .