Burma - Cigars, Religion and Superstition, by Peter Jones (1975)

Like Gerry Catling in an earlier story, I can vouch for the attraction of the Burmese cigar. Although I was no longer a regular smoker, I had tried them once or twice. On my departure from Rangoon after a short posting, I was presented with a carton of 50 cigars by the Airport Manager, a delightful and entertaining person named U Maung Maung.

This I thought was a very generous gesture from somebody who I knew earned a relatively meagre salary, and I must have shown some hesitation in accepting them, because he said: “In Burma these are a poor man’s smoke, and they cost less than a penny each, but I do think you and your friends will enjoy them back in England.” He was so right, they did, enormously, and so did I. Unlike Gerry, I had no problem with British customs on my return. But U Maung Maung’s farewell gesture was typical of the generosity of spirit of these gentle and ill-governed people.

Burma is a mainly Buddhist country and most of the people are deeply religious. However, Buddhism has had to contend with the existence of earlier, more primitive, forms of spirit worship and has been forced by usage to allow the worship of traditional spirits known as ‘Nats’ to exist side by side with its own rituals. Buddhist monks even allow paintings of Nats to appear on their temple walls, and they are an important element in religious life.

I well remember during my brief stay getting to know a very pleasant, American-educated Burmese couple. One day I invited them to the BOAC manager’s house for tea. This sophisticated lady, who was very western in many ways and very well versed in what was happening in the rest of the world, appeared uncharacteristically ill at ease, almost as soon as she entered the house.

After a while she said, “This is going to appear very odd and maybe silly to you, and I do not want to offend you in any way, but I must tell you - I do feel very uncomfortable in this house, and for reasons you cannot possibly know.

Many years ago, there used to be a pond on this site. For all my expensive education overseas, I still cannot help feeling within me that the Nats, the spirits who lived here, are upset and angry that the pond they lived in has been drained and built over. I know it is totally irrational and stupid, but I cannot help it.”

Happily this did not detract from our friendship but I have never forgotten the contrast between my friend’s sophistication and worldliness on the one hand and her adherence to traditional belief on the other.

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