A Wave of Nostalgia for my Yangon University Days

Dr. Saw Mra Aung

Thiri Hostel, which is quite famous among the young students.
Thiri Hostel, which is quite famous among the young students.


I turned right into Dagon Road from the short tarred-path skirting round the Taungoo Hall. All of a sudden, at a two-fold romantic call of a cuckoo, I looked up at the huge Gangaw trees growing at the cross-roads to in vain find the invisible bird. At the same time, I threw a look at the Dagon Hostel where I had spent my eight-year university life as a geology student. Lo! It was now changed into a female- hostel fenced with iron-bars. No more play-grounds in front of the hostel where we spent half of the day playing football, volley-ball and takraw with friends on holidays. Instead, tall grass was growing wild. No sign of hostel-students was to be seen at the door into the ground floor of the hostel where there used to be a small stall which sold out odds and ends like cigarettes, betel-quids, candies, etc, buzzing with some students from sun-rise to sun-set. The Gangaw trees in front of the hostel grew higher and the Seinpan trees bending over the balcony did not change tangibly. But both species of the trees were in full bloom. Brown, withered leaves were whirling down, riding on the occasional hot eddies.
In fact, the Dagon and the Shwebo Hostels had been the male-hostels of the Judson College by the name of the Wellington Hall and the North Hall before it was combined with Yangon College to form Yangon University in 1920. Those two hostels were renamed “Dagon” and “Shwebo” Hostels during the post-war Period. I looked nostalgically at the Dagon Hostel which had served male students dutifully for nearly 100 years and, where I enjoyed the juice of the university life merrily and care-freely with my friends in the prime of youthfulness. I , at the  instant, wondered  why it was changed into a female-hostel during the Union Government, although such a male hostel could by no means  fit female students well  and the two paths on the west and east of the hostel blocked to form the fence of it caused hindrance to the students who were to walk from the southern part of the campus to the northern one. I suddenly felt a pang of loneliness and yearning for my old friends with whom I stayed together at the Dagon Hostel more than two and a half decades ago.
My mind flashed back to the days when I was a fresher at the Dagon Hostel which provided accommodation only to geology students. On 1st December 1984, I was assigned at room. No. 68 on the first floor. As l was a first year student, I had to share the room with Zaw Htwe Myint from Kinhmaw Village in Thandwe. Ko Tha Tun Aung, who came with me from Sittway, had to share room No. 72 with Kyaw Soe Moe from Manaung.  Room No. 70 between the two rooms was taken by Maung Maung Zaw and Nyan Moe. The former, who later became my best friend during my university student life, hailed from Tharbaung near Pathein and the latter from Pyay.  Other friends such as Ko Win Maung from Mudon, Swe Min Naing from Bago, Than Zin Win from Wakhema, Hla Moe from Pathein, Ko Aung  Myint from  Hinthada, etc were assigned at the rooms in the back-row of the first floor where first year students were exclusively accommodated then.
We all were then aged 16 years. In the beginning, we felt alien, observing one another with furtive eyes. Within a few days, by the nature of the young, intimacy developed swiftly among us and became fast friends. I remembered a ridiculous incident which occurred on the day we first visited U Chit’s tea-shop. It was then situated in a grove of trees at the corner of Dagon Road and Pyi Road. When we got to it, I found a few tables in the one-storeyed brick building and many under the trees outside were already taken by students dressed gaudily. I, as rustic, felt formidable by their glitz, gloss and celebrities and the big name of the tea-shop. So when the tea ordered reached, I drank it at a gulp and rose to feet to leave, my friends, in a mocking tone, banned me to  not to do so. And they explained to me that I should sip tea, gawking at the beautiful girls sitting at the near-by tables because we were now university students and therefore, licensed to woo girls. From then onwards, we were obessed with visiting the tea-shop whenever we were free.In those days, some puns related to tea were came into vogue in the university campus such wdkifuD (Taingki) for a large cup of tea, cspfaumif; (Chitkaung) for coffee with bitter taste due to the effect of too much coffee powder, ausmufyef;awmif; (Kyaukpadaung) for excessively sweet tea, etc.

The Dalbergia Kurzii tree, an important symbol of the University of Yangon.
The Dalbergia Kurzii tree, an important symbol of the University of Yangon.

At that time, the Vesali Hall was not yet in existence. There was a vast stretch of land between the Ramanya Hall and the Taungoo Hall. There was a row of make-shift stalls roofed with thatch and corrugated zinc sheets and with the walls made of wooden planks and bamboo-mattings,in the northern part of that patch of land adjacent to Dagon Road. Different kinds of snacks and foods were available there. At night, U Chit’s tea-shop and these stalls were the meeting places of the hostel students,where they ruminated about what they had experienced during the day time and the tryst of adult students who attended the worker college which opened at the Ramanya Hall in the evening.
The Taungoo Hall and the Ramanya Hall were built only after the Second World War. I have heard from the elders that the place where these halls were had been the foot-ball field of the Judson College during the Pre-war Period, that there stood a large Thingan tree in isolation at the centre of the field, which was said to be haunted at night and that, therefore, no one without companions dare not pass by it even at twilight. When it came to our days, the Taungoo Hall housed the Department of English and the Department of Myanmar-sar. There stood tall, big perennial trees in the wide patch of land between the Taungoo Hall and the Mandalay Hall, which housed the Department of Geology. When we resumed our class after the 88 Unrest, all the food stalls, tea-shops, etc including U Chit’s tea-shop were moved to that patch of land.
During our first and second years, we had to attend the RC 2 (Hlaing Campus). So we had to take decrepit, old buses crammed with passengers grinding their way along Pyi road for three bus-stops. The Department of Geology was then located in the southern-most part of the Hlaing Campus. It comprised two one-storeyed brick-buildings, one for lectures and the other for the practical works. Our Head of Department was Saya U Kyaw Htin, who had a small figure with brown complexion. So vociferous and cussed as he was, he loved us so much that he protected us from the attacks of the students from other majors. Whenever we picked up  fights or quarrels with the students from other majors, he, standing at the vanguard of his student-group, used to launch verbal attacks against them with his sleeves curled up to his elbows and his index-finger pointing out to them. So he was held dear to every geology student. As 90 per cent of the geology students were boys, we all were held together in the brotherhood-bond. So if a geology student started a fight with a student from another major, we all without any prompting laid a siege on that student and were ready to fight him back, without asking the reason. So we were treated in fear as well as contempted by the students from other majors. We were thorns in their side.  The then principal of the RC 2 was U Kaung Nyunt, who was promoted to that post from the head of the Department of Chemistry. So we thought that he would have a bias for chemistry students. One day, we had a fight with some students from Chemistry students. The case was resolved peacefully. But we were not satisfied with U Kaung Nyunt. So, one of us, to vent his anger and dissatisfaction, wrote the name of U Kaung Nyunt in English on the wall of a boys’ toilet. Out of the three words in his name, although U and Nyunt were spelt in English alphabets, a figure of cow was drawn for the word
“Kaung,” which is its English pronunciation . Although the inquiry was staged, the actual doer could not be identified. In fact, Sayagyi U Kaung Nyunt was a fair-minded and good-tempered person. Due to his diligence and honesty in his work, he was subsequently promoted to Rector of Dagon University and then a member of the Civil Service Selection and Training Board. As he did not want to affect the wild happiness of the youths, he turned a deaf ear to the insult to him. But as we did not know it, we were happy, thinking that we could take revenge upon him.
Another ridiculous event happened during my early university days thus: As I was born and brought up in Rakhine, I had never been to Yangon until I came to Yangon University. Only Rakhine dialect was then used in Rakhine, especially in the northern part of Rakhine State. Use of the Myanmar language was a taboo at my house, for my father was an orthodox Rakhine who was afraid of the extinction of Rakhine dialect. We on our part also never exerted any effort to speak in Myanmar. So the Myanmar language was quite alienated from me. Therefore, I found myself too hard to speak in Myanmar a few days when I had arrived in Yangon. What was worse, when I tried to speak the Myanmar language in the Rakhine accent, no one, except Rakhine students, could understand me. As I majored in Geology, I had a practical class once a week. At the end of the practical class, I had to do a viva voce. One day, at the end of the first practical class, a beautiful young demonstrator on duty asked me some questions about physical properties of rock specimens I had studies during the practical class. I knew the answers to all her questions but she did not make the head or tail of what I answered. To her wit’s end, she asked me to write down the answer on paper. All my answers were to her liking. From that day onwards, I was branded as “Rakhine Lay” meaning “ Rakhine lad”.I felt that I became the butt of everyone‘s ridicule and was shy of that brand. But when the practical tests were conducted and marks scored were announced, my name was included in the short list of the most outshining students. Thus, the my brand “Rakhine lay” bore a positive sense among the students and I was acknowledged as a clever student in our major. Thenceforth, I prided myself on being a Rakhine.
When I came to the Dagon Hostel as a first year student, the warden was a lecturer from the Department of Geology named U Myitta (“ U Metta” in Pali meaning “ Mr. Loving- Kindness”). As he was reticent and kind-hearted, his name fitted him to a T. He was never heard to ill-treat his students. He treated us as his own sons. He never prescribed do’s and don’ts for us. So although we as hostel students in the beginning suffered from home-sickness, we were acclimatized to the hostel life and felt at home very soon. Breakfast was served from 7 am to 9 am and dinner from 4 pm to 6 pm. As we all were only in our teens, we had a good appetite for any curry served. But on the morning of every Saturday, we were served with chick-pea curry. Then fried water-cress, fried rosella, fried chicken-eggs, etc sold by some lowly-paid kitchen-staff at the door into the dining hall and fried chilli and roasted chicken brought from home came to our rescue. Some well-to-do students got up late that morning and had their breakfast at the canteen. There were some mango trees growing on the left side of the kitchen-building. They were laden with fruit all the year round. On the days when I was broke and deprived of the preserved curries sent by home and when the curries I disliked were served, I brought down mangoes from those trees with a length of bamboo and had them for breakfast and dinner. Sometimes, we took some meal in our plain-tea cup without the kitchen-staff’s knowledge so that we could have it with the preserved curries sent by our home when we were hungry at night. Sometimes, we secretly plucked fruit from the papaya trees growing near our water–tanks, kept them away in a safe place and ate them when they were ripe. Though the warden knew it, he turned a blind eye to our mischievous deeds. A special dinner was served at the end of every month. At the special dinner, a roasted chicken was equally divided among four students. We used to return from the class to the hostel earlier that day to enjoy the special dinner to our heart’s content. We had to pay 120 kyats as monthly hostel-fee for our accommodation and messing. But, at the end of each semester, we were refunded tins of condensed milk, sugar, pieces of soak, etc.

(To be continued)

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