The 13-Carat Diamond – Intermediate Story
It was during the dark days of World War Two when Burma was under Japanese rule. We had been married only two years and we were beginning to settle down. Ko Latt had a nice job, but the war put a stop to our dreams of a bright and happy future. We found ourselves without a home, without jobs, in fact without anything except a young child who was full of energy and always hungry. We were lost in the great uncertainty of the time.
During the war, many people who had never been in business before opened roadside stalls and began to sell things. They seemed to do well. Some kind friends tried to help us by giving us goods to sell. It seemed like easy money, because they said that we did not have to pay for the goods until after we sold them. But look what happened. A customer would stop to see what we had to sell. She would make a face as if nothing on our stall was worth having, even if we gave it away for nothing. Then she would ask, “How much are you asking for this soap?”
“Five cakes for one kyat.”
“What a price! Let’s see, how about giving me six for one kyat, ten pyas?”
It made my head swim. I tried to work out if the offer was a good or bad one but couldn’t. My face turned red. “Yes,” I finally said after a few moments. If I sold at a loss, I couldn’t help it. Even then my troubles were not over. The customer went on, trying to get them for an even lower price.
“What about five for eighty pyas?”
“Yes, yes, take them, take as many as you like!” and I added a few strong words under my breath.
Our time in business seemed to be made up of many similar scenes. I am too embarrassed to go into details. It is enough to say that we had all sorts of problems. When I wasn’t looking, people took goods without paying. The day’s figures would not add up right. Only our son enjoyed the fun. He took the pieces of cloth used for packing, wrapped himself up in them, and danced around happily. Although our lives were not easy, we had to laugh at him.
It is easy enough for people who are rich to sing of being poor, love in a hut, and so on. We who have gone through it have no such false ideas. Not having enough money to live on, to say the least, is very uncomfortable.
After a while we managed to get employment in one of the government offices. By that time American air-raids had begun and we had to move from one house to another, losing some of our few belongings every time. At last we settled down in a small hut just outside the city. It was in terrible condition, but close to our office building. I could work and still watch over our son at home. When the sirens sounded that an air-raid was coming, I would hurry home and take him to a safe shelter.
Even though the air-raids continued, we were happier because we were no longer unemployed. We had been lucky enough to get good jobs working for the government. However, our joint salaries were only just enough to pay for daily necessities. It was difficult to believe that we had to live on the edge of hunger. Could such things really happen in Burma, which was such a rich country?
We had rice, but no cooking oil because it was a product from northern Burma. It became so hard to get that we had to cook with animal fat. How I hated the way it floated on my soups! I went through stages of helpless anger, trying to fight against it, and feeling sorry for myself. But at last I had to accept that this was how we had to live. I tried to come up with ways of cooking with different kinds of leaves and Indian spices. Ko Latt was a great help. He knew that I was doing my best. When we sat down at the table, he would look at the food and say how good it smelled. He always had something nice to say about my cooking. This made me feel better and I went on cooking delicious meals. As for clothes, I had to make bed sheets, table cloths, and even curtains into something to wear.
The war went on and on and things went from bad to worse. Japanese paper money flew like dead leaves, but it did not fly our way. Yet the people around us were making a lot of money. The shop keepers and brokers – those who did nothing but buy and sell things for other people – had lots of it, and were spending like mad.
One day I ran into a woman who had once been my servant. She was sitting at a little stall and looked like she was doing very well, much fatter and darker than when I had known her before. She did not see me at first as she was busy with her customers. When she recognized me, she could hardly hide her surprise at how poor I looked. I felt very embarrassed and said something about dried fish which I had not been planning to buy. Too late I realized that I could not afford it. My face turned red as I looked in my purse for the money. The woman asked me where we had been all the time, and how was our little son. Before I knew what was happening she had made me a present of a package of dried fish. I was too embarrassed to say anything. I just handed it back to her, but she laughed and pushed it into my basket. I cried enough tears on the way home for those dried fish to swim in.
That night it rained heavily, but we were glad because it meant that we did not have to worry about air-raids. Although our roof had holes in it, we managed to find a dry corner for the child. He slept through it all, with tin cans all around into which I collected the water that fell through the roof. I lighted our lamp and Ko Latt lit up a cigarette. As he smoked, he opened an old book of funny stories and began to read them to me. But I hardly heard. I was feeling too sorry for myself about what had happened at the market. I listened silently, without comment or laughing. Ko Latt read on, but must have sensed what was going on in my mind.
As he shut the book, I spoke out, “Why doesn’t it ever come our way? I mean the Japanese money. This morning I saw our old servant woman. She’s making lots of money. She’s now fat and covered with jewels. You would hardly know her.”
Ko Latt looked at me through his reading glasses, one side of which was cracked. “I know how you feel, dear,” he said. “But remember that the war can’t go on forever. We have to do without many things, but we still have each other and we have our wonderful son.”
This made me feel bad about my weakness. “I’m sorry that I can’t take things as bravely as you do.” I said. “It just makes me feel so sad that we have to live like this when other people are rolling in money. Look at those brokers. Most of them can’t even write their own names. They don’t have to use their own money, either. A broker just goes around asking people if they want anything that might be hard to get because of the war. Then, if the broker gets it for them, he gets a share.” Some people make piles of money that way. And the ones who make it know that the Japanese money will not be worth anything at the end of the war. So they are buying gold and diamonds at any price.”
“What has that got to do with us?” he said. “We have no diamonds or gold to sell.”
Sometimes Ko Latt is a bigger fool than I. I explained to him patiently. “If we can find someone who wants to sell gold or diamonds, and another person who wants to buy, we might get a share of the sale. It could be five or six times our joint salaries. We could get a large tin of good cooking oil with the money.”
“Oh, for a taste of real cooking oil!” said Ko Latt. “I’m so sick of the smell of pig fat. But where can we find someone who wants to buy diamonds and another who wants to sell?”
I was glad that he finally understood, and smiled. “Leave that to me,” I said.
I shall always remember the look in his eyes as he said, “I know I can always depend on you.”
So it began. I discussed the matter with my office mates, who were as hard up as we were. Ko Ba Than, who worked at the next desk, encouraged me. “Don’t lose heart. You have only one child and I have three. My family couldn’t possibly live on my pay. It’s my wife who does it. You know her. She hasn’t had a college education like you. She just writes enough to sign her name, but she’s amazing. The other day a neighbor of ours, a woman who sells fish, wanted to buy a pair of diamond bracelets. She told my wife she would give up to one hundred thousand for them. My wife found someone who wanted to sell two bracelets and agreed to pay ninety thousand for them. She took them to the fish seller who gave her the hundred thousand.”
“So your wife made ten thousand out of it!” I cried. Ko Ba Than smiled. “More than that! She also got 25 percent from the seller. Just a day’s work. Child’s play.” I’m no good at figures. 10,000 + 25/100 X 100,000… I struggled and gave it up. If I was to do this kind of business, I must have pencil and paper.
Ko Ba Than continued, “You can do this sort of thing, too. If my wife can do it, why can’t you? You are much cleverer. With a mind like yours, there is nothing you cannot do.”
This made me feel good. Ko Ba Than was a wise man, a fine judge of people. Next day I called on his wife. She was a simple little woman. I liked her very much, partly because she gave me a feeling of importance. She seemed to be very glad that I, who was better educated than she was, should take an interest in such ordinary matters. She gave me all the information. “It is very easy, much easier than working in an office. Many people have asked me to get things for them. One wants a 13-carat diamond. He will pay a hundred thousand per carat to the seller, and 25 percent to any broker. If you can get the seller to agree on less, you can keep the difference.”
I couldn’t believe it. Even without any extra money from the seller, my payment as broker would come to 25/100 X 100,000 X 13!!! Ba Than’s wife acted as if this was nothing special. She was used to this kind of thing. “Just try to find someone with a 13-carat diamond. If you do, please contact Mr Ebrahim.”
That night I discussed the matter with Ko Latt and we were full of hope. We decided that the first thing we should do was go to Thingangyun to see a lady who deals in jewelry.
There was no bus service and Thingangyun was five or six miles away. But this did not matter, for we owned a bicycle… if you could call it that. The tires had been worn through so we had had to put pieces of thick rubber round the wheels. These were called “solid tires,” good in their own way. There was no need to put air in them, no need to stop to fix holes, and they would last a long time. But they also stretched now and then so that we had to cut them shorter and tie the ends with a piece of wire. This was easy for someone who was good with their hands like Ko Latt. He can fix anything with some simple tools and strong language. I play an insignificant role when he is doing this, standing by with the first-aid supplies and at the same time learning some useful new words.
On Sunday morning we got up early and began our journey. I sat on the seat above the back wheel with my son on my knee. Ko Latt rode along on the rough road with a song on his lips. I sang along and the child was highly excited by it all. It was a nice ride.
Fortunately, the lady – let’s call her “Auntie” – was at home. We explained what we were looking for, promising her a share of any money we made if she could find us the diamond. Auntie seemed to be interested at once. She could certainly get it, she said, and told us to come again the next Sunday. She gave us a long talk about how to get rich quickly. She made sure we understood her points by waving her big hands and shaking her head a great deal. Her gold bracelets jingled and her diamond earrings sparkled. I watched her in wonder, although the child was bored to tears. Ko Latt had to take him outside and try to interest him in the Japanese soldiers marching past.
When the business was over, we hurried home. It was an unusually fine day, a good day for bombers. We were only a few blocks from home when the air-raid siren sounded. Ko Latt stopped suddenly and the three of us jumped into a hole by the side of the road. Luckily, we were not hurt. My son, used to this kind of thing, did not even cry. We soon saw that it was only a single plane finding the way for others that would come later. We had time to get into the shelter before the bombers that followed.
The week went by with the usual air-raids and meals without meat. As I went about, numbers kept going round and round in my head as I tried to work out how much money we could make. Even when I shut my eyes, I could see numbers.
We went to see Auntie again the following Sunday. She had found it and was smiling happily. She knew a person who had a 13-carat diamond to sell. She told us to bring Mr Ebrahim the Sunday after that. This was all we wanted that day. I would have liked to have asked Auntie to talk more about how to get rich quickly, but Ko Latt led me firmly away.
We came home full of high spirits. How nice it was to have a job to do on Sundays that would bring us so much money. Each weekend we were nearer to being rich. If everything went well, we could even leave our jobs and spend all our time on big business. We were rudely shaken from these happy dreams by a problem with the bike. The solid tire had come off one of the wheels. Ko Latt got off the bike, and I ran and picked up the poor tire, much hated, yet so useful! I held it in my hands like a snake and cried, “Look, it has stretched! What are we going to do?” Ko Latt examined it, and like an expert announced that it was a hopeless case. We had no tools, not even a knife to shorten it, and did not want to risk our teeth. They must be kept for the days to come when we would no longer be poor. There was no time to waste since bombers might come any minute. We put the child on the bike and pushed it along the road. He at least enjoyed the ride, playing with the tire as if it were a snake.
The broken tire had a bad effect on Ko Latt. The unhappy look on his face remained long after we got home. He said that he had had enough of the whole thing. I tried to make him feel better as best I could. “Next Sunday will be our last day of being poor,” I told him. “We shall do business with Mr Ebrahim and come home with bags full of money. Of course, Ba Than’s wife must get a share. She is the one who told us about the diamond – one of our team. Oh, everyone will have a good life. I know we shall succeed…”
I would have gone on with my talk, shaking my head, waving my hands like Auntie, if Ko Latt had not stopped me. He asked me to get the tools so he could fix the tire. Since no bracelets jingled and no diamond earrings sparkled, my words did not seem to have the same effect as Auntie’s. Once the bicycle was fixed, Ko Latt was his happy self again. We sent word for Mr Ebrahim to meet us the next Sunday.
Mr Ebrahim arrived at the duly appointed time. We were a little surprised that he also came on a bike. Ko Latt told him how we had managed to locate the diamond, and Mr Ebrahim looked pleased. He listened silently, stroking a beard so thick that no one would have known that he had a mouth had not a cigar stuck out of it.
So the two bikes rolled out along the road. When we got to Auntie’s place, she had two young men with her. One was her cousin Sonny, a young man in the early twenties. His long, thickly oiled hair was brushed back from a heavily powdered face. He wore a pink shirt with gold buttons and a cheap looking Burmese skirt, also pink. He sat smoking a Japanese cigarette, talking only a little as if we were not worth the bother. The other man was a Chinese-Burman. He had the look of someone who enjoyed an easy life and spent little time in the sun. His name was Ko Set Khwan. He wore a Hawaiian shirt and long pants. On his nose was a pair of expensive glasses. He looked very rich with his diamond jewelry and a heavy gold watch chain. He was standing beside his bicycle which was properly fitted with real tires. He must be the owner of the diamond.
After the introduction, Mr Ebrahim asked Ko Set Khwan to show him the diamond. But Ko Set Khwan told Ebrahim that first he must know if he were the buyer. I cannot remember the details of Ebrahim’s answer, but it was a very long one. He spoke so well that as I listened I wondered why he was not in government. But Ko Set Khwan showed strength of character. Ebrahim’s fine sounding words were not enough.
Mr Ebrahim’s nice talk gave way to anger and his head moved about so much that his beard rose and fell like a large waterfall on his chest. At last he had to answer. He admitted that he was not the buyer. It was a friend who wanted to buy the diamond. Ko Set Khwan firmly asked to be taken to this friend. At first Mr Ebrahim said that this was not possible, but at last he had to give in.
It was interesting to watch Auntie’s face. She must know how this business worked. As she could not come along, her Cousin Sonny would go with them. It became clear to us that we must also go along with them or we would be left out. We must have made a fine sight as the four bicycles rolled along the road.
We reached a large house and Mr Ebrahim got off his bicycle. We all followed his example. The men all went up, but my son and I stayed downstairs to watch over the bicycles.
A few minutes later they all came down again. They were speaking loudly and wildly among themselves, as if something was wrong. As I looked at Ko Latt, he turned away. Our friends were all talking at the same time, so I could not make out what they said. My heart was heavy, and at first I was too scared to ask what had happened.
As we prepared to get on our bikes, Ko Latt said something about the woman of the house still not being the buyer. She knew someone else who… Our eyes met and saw in each other’s look the long path leading to an empty stomach. Then Ko Latt shrugged his shoulders.
We gave up the chase, and somehow have lived to tell the story. Still, I feel sorry that I never held in my hand a 13-carat diamond.