Jungle Flame

The Right Answer

Translated by: 
San Lin Tun

Translated anonymously from Mon to Burmese; and from Burmese to English by San Lin Tun


No one knows what to call the flowers. There seems to be no word for them in Mon. Small leaves, perennial green and tough, fearing neither rain nor sun, the red clusters bloom like little fists. Every house in town grows them, trimmed nice and pretty. At my aunt and uncle’s house they run along the border with their neighbour’s property, so striking that passers-by often ask, ‘What’s that flower?’

And what do they say? ‘No idea. It’s a hedge-flower.’

Ninety-nine out of a hundred people would answer the same. A hedge-flower! Of course, everybody knows the Burmese name – a century hence, people will still call it ponneyeik. Or in English, wild geranium or even jungle flame. But if you told them the real name, the Mon name, they wouldn’t have a clue what you were talking about. Just another word from our language that has disappeared. And the sad thing is, people don’t even know it’s been forgotten. It reminds me of what my aunt used to say when I was little: ‘Don’t knot your longyi too high or your bottom will show’. Embarrassing if it does, but even more shameful if you didn’t know it could. Such is the way of the world.


It was New Year’s Eve, 1995. The flowers in front of the sermon hall were in full bloom: here a single flower, there a bunch, braving the summer heat to creep around the building, though they’d been pruned back numerous times.

The monastery compound was crowded. An unusual number of venerable abbots and monks milled about, people filling the rest house and crouching beneath the large acacia trees in the courtyard. Literature and Culture Committee members, the Mon Dhamma group, aldermen and townsfolk and everyone from the outlying villages had put aside their fears and come. Visibly excited, they knew it was a special day and whispered to their friends, ‘What a turnout!’

Mi Shin Thant, headmistress of Than Phyu Zayat Town No. 1 Basic Education High School had been personally invited. Even she, a veteran of many public gatherings and talks, felt a chill run down her spine. But unlike the others, it wasn’t due to excitement. The large crowd, the unusual number of monks, it all unsettled her.

She’d grown up in the age of fear. She remembered when a neighbour, a kind man, had harvested that quarter’s rice crop. It wasn’t much, barely enough to feed his family. Yet he failed to give his quota to the local authorities, so they came and took what rice they could find in his barn. A rubber tapper, living at the far end of her village, was also arrested for not presenting his due to the township officer. Someone’s father went to the rice mill in Than Phyu Zayat, saying he’d return with sticky rice sweets and bananas for the village, but was abducted along with his oxcart. They never did find out if he was dead or alive. Not that it mattered – either way, he’d end up in the same place. If he were dead, he’d be buried in a hole for the rest of his days; if alive, he’d sleep in one the rest of his nights.


Hidden Words, Hidden Worlds is published by the British Council (2017).

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