“Indiaaaa,” he says, dragging out the ends like a veteran ring announcer.
“You come from the birthplace of Buddha?” he asks.
This is the first time I’ve been pegged as something other than a dancing spice jar wrapped in nine yards of sari.
The Burmese monk looks at me admiringly, “How lucky you must be to come from the Land of the Buddha!”
I wish I knew.
I clearly remember my eighth grade history lesson on Buddhism. The chapter had a pencil sketch of a young Buddha under a peepal tree, an arc of implied enlightenment sprouting from behind his head. Since history class was a post-lunch dread fest and my teacher had the verbal intonations of a dead guy’s heart monitor, I doodled. Akbar got sideburns and Lord Curzon was rendered a very un-British goatee. I sketched a thin, tapering Ghengis Khan-like mustache over Buddha’s delicate features.
“Just for one mark questions” my teacher said. “No essays from here.”
Joy. I drew a giant X over a dozen pages describing Buddhist history in India. A giant X over a sizable part of Indian history. That was our last lesson on Buddha – He didn’t come up as often as Gandhi or the British Raj.There was the yearly school holiday though, Mahavir Jayanthi (Buddha’s birthday). It was a holiday I welcomed, but its significance hardly mattered.
Earlier, on a car ride to Bagan, my tour guide left me feeling inept.
“Have you read the Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh?” he quizzed. “He’s Indian also, like you.”
I told him that I hadn’t read the book.
“It’s a good book,” he insisted. “A story about India and Burma. About your country and mine.”
“No. Haven’t read it” I said.
“Really? They don’t teach it in your school?” he asked.
I nodded again. There were a lot of things I didn’t learn in school.
On my very first day in Myanmar, under the echoing dome of the second largest bell in the world, a couple of tourists asked me for a favor. The girls approached me, with wide smiles and compact cameras twisted around their wrists. I offered to take a picture of them.They insisted we take a picture together.
“Say Namaste,” they nudged. “Do like Indian,”
They pressed their hands together, urging me to do the same.
“Namaste!” we all repeated in chorus, as our picture was snapped.