by Bobbie Bergesen
Once again the author brings her perspective to bear as a Foreign Service spouse, recounting this time her “break-in” experiences at her and her husband’s first post—Rangoon.
For other of Ms. Bergesen’s illuminating commentaries on official life abroad, click here. —Ed.
It wasn’t strange that I felt no premonition that hot afternoon when I opened the door of our room at the Strand Hotel in Rangoon to a soft but authoritative knock. In 1952, everything in the Far East was new to me. Newlyweds, my husband Alf and I had just arrived in Burma, our first diplomatic post, and were housed at the Strand Hotel—the capital’s best—before moving into a bungalow in the American Embassy compound on Inya Lake. The residences had no whole-house air conditioning, washing machines or vacuum cleaners, and the icebox was kerosene fueled (the “bearer” trimmed the wick every day). Even though Alf was a junior officer, like other Embassy officials, we expected to employ a domestic staff of two or three, headed by a bearer, the local term for butler, to keep the house going and assist with necessary entertaining. At the Strand, I kept busy interviewing potential bearers. It was the day after several disillusioning talks with potential candidates that Barnar turned up.
I had called, “Come in,” but another knock came, and impatiently, I opened the door to a slim, dignified, barefoot Indian of medium height who asked if he might apply for the job of bearer. He had a fine-drawn, dark, sensitive face, deeply lined, with a trim dark gray mustache. In fact, he impressed me as a slightly built version of a famous older British heartthrob, Ronald Colman, star of the classic movie,”Lost Horizon.”
Much impressed by his correct manner, I interviewed him at some length, read his uniformly excellent letters of reference, and told him I would let him know soon. I was sure he would become our bearer: his impeccably accented “Yes, Madam,” his respectful bearing, and the high quality of his “chits” of recommendation made it certain. Because he was the one I wanted, I cleverly tried not to show too much interest and said only that I would let him know my decision through his son, who, he said with quiet pride, was a clerk in a downtown bank.
Moving into our Embassy-assigned house was delayed, but when the date was finally firm, I started off to tell the bank clerk that we would hire his father, Barnar, beginning July first. On my way to the bank a few stifling blocks from the hotel, I thought of Barnar’s pleasure at the good news, and pictured him running our domestic staff smoothly.
The bank was cool and airy, and I soon found the son. But when I told him my news, he looked at me in dismay and said that just the day before, Barnar had gone to work as a table waiter in the Strand dining room. Appalled to hear this, having convinced myself that he was patiently waiting for me, I rushed back to the Strand. Yes, they had recently taken on one A. Barnar. Did I wish to speak to him? In a few minutes, Barnar walked nervously out of the dining room. Already, he was dressed in the white drill uniform of the Strand staff with its wide, billiard-green belt, and looked out of my reach and lost to our prospective household.
During my subsequent talk with the hotel manager, Barnar stared at the floor and, when asked his preference, replied deferentially that it was up to his present employer. In the end, the manager said he could go, and I was surprised and delighted that he accepted my offer of a somewhat lower salary. With a first twinge of misgiving, I realized that should he ever leave our employ, the Strand would probably not hire him again.
The day we moved into our house, Barnar worked like a coolie. He and I scrubbed and unpacked without a break, neither of us stopping for lunch or a cooling drink. During the next few weeks, he evolved into the perfect “gentleman’s gentleman.” Instinctively, he anticipated our wants; at parties, friends commented on his excellent appearance and superb service. His manner changed subtly according to our moods: he would be properly formal and grave, or smilingly urge a frequent guest to “take another piece of chicken, Sah!” The ideal Eastern servant of legend, he was smooth, quiet, and incredibly thoughtful of our wants. He ran our small staff ran with a minimum of “flaps,” and the way he ministered to our comfort and pleasure was a marvel.
In time, he told me a little of his past: that he traveled with a former “master” to England, where he learned that one servant “did all the work, Madam”; that he once worked at Government House in Rangoon, and that a cousin was now head butler for the president of the Union of Burma. His wife became our “wash-nanny” laundress, and our house ran so smoothly that I became convinced that Fate had sent him to take care of us and we of him. I sympathized with his wife’s indispositions, gave him aspirins for his colds, and loaned him money because one of his grandchildren was gravely ill. “That baby will die, Madam,” he often said, shaking his head mournfully.
Some time later, after carefully locking up my silver flatware in a big teak almirah, I gave Barnar the keys and went off with Alf on a week’s vacation to Bangkok. On our return, Barnar, his wife, our Indian cook, and the Burmese sweeper met us at the front steps, full of smiles. Dewy gardenias were in my favorite vases, the house smelled clean and well-kept, and all the silver, polished and shiny, was back in place. Barnar was so nice to have around the house, so caring and efficient that we quickly raised his pay before he asked.
At breakfast one morning during the rainy monsoon season in mid-August, I remarked to Barnar that his latest bad cold seemed to be hanging on. Around noon, I found money missing from a shoulder bag in my bedroom closet. The realization that someone in the house must have taken it hit me in the pit of my stomach. With a sick feeling, I quietly told Barnar that a very serious thing had happened. I was telling him because he was the head of the staff and I wanted him to inform the others. They were all to understand that we were not accusing any of them, but that a great deal of money had disappeared and if it were not back in three days, Master and I would have to take serious measures.
Barnar’s dark face, already gray from his cold, turned grayer as he listened. Sorrowfully, he said that he knew nothing about the matter, but would tell the rest of the staff.
As the dull, rainy morning became an equally gloomy afternoon, I realized that Barnar had disappeared. Unexpectedly, our hardworking sweeper, a youth who spoke no English, served my lunch, and the cook said that Barnar had gone out—where, he did not know. After dinner, I again asked the cook about Barnar. Standing at the pantry door, with much arm-waving and a torrent of broken English, he told me that after I broke the news of the theft, Barnar ran into the kitchen, shouting that he had not taken the money; that for the first time in eighteen years, he was accused of stealing. Finally, still in his white uniform, he rushed out into the flooding rains.
Shaky and unnerved, I went to bed early. Although I tried to read and then to sleep, I kept picturing Barnar floating in the lake, his upturned brown face shining wet with rain, or perhaps Iying in a ditch in the first high fever of pneumonia. Late that afternoon, his wife Mary came to see me, dressed in a bright pink cotton sari, the jewel in the side of her nose glittering. When I spoke, she stared at me with large brown eyes, as though trying to read my lips. That day, while she watched me, her unconscious habit of slowly widening and contracting her eyes until the chocolate-brown lids hooded the whites frightened me. Superstitiously, I felt she was some kind of a witch, even though I knew she and Barnar went to a Catholic church every Sunday morning.
Nervous, unsure how to begin, she stood a full minute in the room, her hands plucking uncertainly at her sari, before she blurted out, “I need money for the Church, Madam!” At once, I felt both angry and hurt, and told her that I had no money to give her; it had been stolen. She too said that she did not know where Barnar was.
The next morning, the cook told me Barnar was back in his own bed in the quarters, with a high fever. He had returned around midnight, having spent hours moaning and crying with two friends not far up the street.
For two days, Barnar was sick. At last he appeared in a pitiable condition, shaky, overwrought, and a sickly elephant-gray color. Alf and I stood him on the living room rug and launched into a heartfelt tongue-lashing. We had been shocked at his behavior: we had not accused him of stealing but had told him the facts in order to enlist his help; he had known before he ran away that we expected guests that night for dinner; in short, we were deeply disappointed in him on all counts and felt our trust in him had been misplaced.
When asked why he had run away, he only sobbed out that his “mind had hurt” him, his mind had “gone bad.” He did not try to refute anything we said but stood with his head turned down and to the side, and gave an occasional sobbing sniff. Even in my hot anger and bewilderment, I was struck with the fact that he had forearmed himself with a dark blue plaid handkerchief, which he kept pulling out of a back pocket to wipe his eyes and nose. I had never seen him carry one before, and it showed some familiarity with the process of being brought on the carpet, I thought; but perhaps he realized he might not be able to control his emotions if the interview proved stormy.
After final admonitions and warnings to the entire staff, we asked Barnar to tell the sweeper that we were very sorry but he must go the next day. An Indian sweeper was installed. Within a few days we were almost back to normal. We worried that firing the sweeper might have done him an injustice, but assured ourselves that if Barnar were the true culprit, we would find it out soon enough. Although I began to keep my money counted and locked, and my jewelry put away, memory of the crisis soon faded under Barnar’s soothing service.The fall wore on and suddenly, it was Christmas. Everyone, Christian and Buddhist alike, enjoyed the holiday. Christmas Day it seemed to me that twenty rupees were gone from my bag, but I could not remember how much or how often we had given tips to various policemen, postmen and carolers who came to the door. Alf dissuaded me from firing Barnar at once. Set a trap, he urged; leave two ten-rupee notes in your purse and see if and when they go. Then you’ll be sure.
Christmas Night, Alf gave me money for shopping. The next day, I drove downtown with a neighbor and not until my first purchase did I realize there was only one rupee and change in my bag. My heart sank like a stone. I remembered that Barnar had acted strangely and moved clumsily on the twenty-third. He had served Christmas dinner very badly. I knew he was worried about Mary, who had been hospitalized for anemia, and who must be incurring medical expenses.
Sadly, I drove home. Barnar met me at the door and as I walked by him into the house, I thought I smelled liquor on him. Quickly, I baited the trap, noted that only Barnar and the sweeper were in the house, and told Barnar I would be out about an hour. When I returned and opened my purse, one of the ten rupee notes was gone
I ate lunch, watching Barnar closely when his back was turned. He was definitely not his usual alert and skillful self. He swayed as he turned the corner into the pantry, and the silver rattled as he cleared plates away. When he swung around with a sweet and childlike smile to point out a new set of demitasse spoons in the silver drawer, “Yes,” I said, “those were a Christmas present.”
By early evening, there was no sign of Barnar. The cook muttered with a sheepish and sidelong glance that Barnar was “sick in his stomach.” Mary appeared in the driveway just before dusk; she walked slowly, supported by her young son, Antony. About eight o’clock, Antony, who had played happily on Christmas Day with the toy car we had given him, ran crying bitterly into the yard, and I was reminded how once before when we were out, our neighbors had heard him wailing loudly. The next day, when we had learned that relatives had brought news of the death of Mar,v’s mother, our friends said, Yes, it could have been the heartbroken and violent grief of a child whose favorite grandmother had just died.
The next morning, Mary came in with a grown daughter I had never seen, who carried a fat baby in a blue sailor suit. Mary said Barnar was very sick with dysentery and had been ill all night. “He bleeding very bad, Madam,” she said, and “Bus so bumpy, Madam.” I said I would drive him to a doctor. Looking dreadfully drawn and gray, Barnar helped his little family into the back seat of our station wagon. As I drove, I asked Mary the way to their doctor, but then decided on impulse to drive them first to a Dr. Patel, recommended by Embassy friends. When I pulled up at his clinic, there was a quick murmur in the back seat. “I want Barnar to see this doctor first,” I said firmly, “and then I will take him to his own doctor.”
None of the family followed me into Patel’s office. When I came out, the three of them straggled up the sidewalk, Barnar standing on the corner with a wary and hunted look. After trying again to get them inside, I went back to the doctor and said, “I brought my bearer to see you because he’s supposed to have bad dysentery. I think he’s been drinking, but he won’t come in; says he’s scared of you.”
“What’s his name?” Patel asked.
“A. Barnar,” I replied.
“Oh, so you’ve got him now,” Patel said. “He was my bearer until last March, but I got rid of him because he’s a chronic alcoholic. He’s an excellent bearer but can’t stay sober for more than a few months. I had him for a year and forgave him three times, but finally had to let him go.”
Amazed, since I never knew Barnar had worked for the doctor, I went quickly outside to drive the family home, but Barnar had disappeared. Furious, I drove the women to their own doctor near the Grand Pharmacy and then went home where I sat in an armchair facing the front door, pretending to read.About an hour later, the front gate creaked and the family came in slowly, Barnar stoop-shouldered in the rear. Trembling with anger and pity, I threw the screen door open and standing on the doorstep, said, “I’m through with you, Barnar. You are to get out of your quarters in two days. You are not to come in this house any more for any reason and I do not want to see you again.”
They stood in their tracks, staring at me, Barnar quiet and beaten, the baby’s gaze solemn and placid.
“You have stolen my money and drunk my liquor. I can’t trust you and I’m finished with you.” In the next breath, I asked, “Have you any money?”
“Not a single pice,” Barnar replied, with a blank look at his wife. “Do you, Mary?”
“No,” she said.
“Maybe you can sell your new watch, then,” I said, referring to the watch we gave him for Christmas. With that, I shut the door, locked it, and told the wide-eyed cook and sweeper that Barnar was not to come in the house any more. The family must have left that night. We never saw them again. The next afternoon, two horse-drawn carts jingled into our driveway, onto which the rough looking drivers loaded rolls of bedding, pots and pans, and boxes of various sizes from Barnar’s quarters, and then jingled out again.
A week later, I had a long talk with Dr. Patel. He, too, suffered when Barnar disappeared, and even paid to have the lake dragged for his body after he was gone for three days. He spent nights wondering if Barnar were dead or dying. For Mary’s sake, he had forgiven Barnar three times. Each time she cried hopelessly and bemoaned the trouble she brought on herself by marrying him. When he drank, the doctor said, Barnar beat Mary and Antony unmercifully (probably the reason for Antony’s screams in the night). Patel took care of him, gave him aspirin for his hangover “colds,” and cured him of malaria. He finally threw him out when Barnar, drunk, dropped boiling hot gravy on the doctor at dinner one night.
“All the best bearers are drunkards,” an old Burma hand commented blithely at a later cocktail party. But I often pictured Barnar charming another newly-arrived, naive American bride and breaking her heart a few months later. Our next bearer was an elderly, honest, and sober-mannered Burmese, whose only discernible vice was smoking the local cheroots.
In this new century, the tale of our errant bearer Barnar bears more than a whiff of political incorrectness, not to mention possible violations of human rights. Did he get severance pay, for example? I presume so, but can’t remember. Fired for cause, he certainly didn’t get two weeks’ notice. In Rangoon in the 1950’s, whole families of domestic staffers working for foreign diplomats lived in one- or two-room concrete buildings in the back of the diplomat’s compound. They cooked on outside charcoal grills the rations of rice and other foodstuffs their employers gave them as part of their wages, and their medical needs were met after a fashion by their employers. We paid, as I remember, a total of about $35.00 to our little staff of three or four (about the same as we later paid for two domestics in Vienna, Austria, a year and a half later). We could never have run our household without their help. Twenty years later, while posted in Bangladesh, I compared notes with a Scandinavian ambassador who had also lived in Burma in the 1950’s. A whole village of people dependent on him for everything filled his compound in Rangoon to bursting. It was almost like being the mayor of a small town, he said.
Today, the story of Barnar as well as our life in Burma seems long ago and faraway, fixed in time almost like a quaint old snapshot. Few Foreign Service spouses today would likely be as naive in general as I was or as unlikely to spot signs of drunkenness in their domestic staff—should they employ staff at all. In the early nineteen-fifties, lingering remnants of British rule strongly influenced our diplomatic lives in the capital—ladies were required to wear long evening dresses and men black-tie to cocktail parties, for example.
An earlier age, a far-away land, a different world.
The author traveled overseas with her husband for many years, performing the vital role of Foreign Service spouse. She has since retired to Florida, where in her extensive writing, she excells in capturing the mood and “feel” of a post abroad as experienced by diplomat wives.