“There will remain only so many of us as rest in the shadow of a banyan tree…”
“You are about to read an extraordinary story” the blurb exalts.
Usually if this were the first thing I hear about a book, I would dismiss it – extraordinary? We’ll see about that!
But the setting intrigued, especially since I’ve been on a Southeast Asia reading track for a while now.
So I waded in, cautious. However, I soon fell in the story of seven-year-old Raami and her family. For it is some story. From the first chapters of their privileged royal lives, looked after by servants, feasting on everyday banquets of food in their mansion.
“Before us was an array of food – lotus seed porridge sweetened with palm sugar, sticky rice with roasted sesame and shredded coconut, beef noodle soup topped with coriander leaves and anise stars, mushroom omelets, and slices of baguette – a dish to suit everyone’s morning taste. At the center of the table sat a silver platter of mangoes and papayas, which Old Boy had picked from the trees behind our house, and rambutans and mangosteens, which Om Bao had brought from her early morning trip to the market. Breakfast was always an extravagant affair when Grandmother Queen decided to join us. She was a high princess, as everyone constantly reminded me so that I would remember how to behave around my own grandmother.”
To the sudden forced removal from their homes, not just the royals but every one in Phnom Phenh. The Organisation (the Khmer Rouge) telling them it will just be a few days, that the Americans will bomb the city.
“The streets were packed. People, cars, trucks, motorcycles, mopeds, bicycles, cycles, oxcarts, pushcarts, wheelbarrows, and things that didn’t – shouldn’t belong on the streets of a city: ducks, chickens, pigs, bulls, cows, mats, and mattresses. I couldn’t have imagined a water buffalo caked with mud, or an elephant carrying the mahout and his family. But there they were, part of the throngs that pushed and pulsated in every direction.”
Then in the outskirts, the countryside, they learn that this is to be their new home. Food is to be rationed, everyone including children like Raami are put to work. Intellectuals like Raimi’s father are called up and taken away, never to be seen again.
The horrors just keep coming.
And yet you cannot stop reading.
Perhaps you too are hoping for that rainbow in the sky for Raami. For her to be a child again, happy and innocent and free.
The saddest part of all is that while this story is fiction, it was based on the author Vaddey Ratner’s own past.
I have to admit that sometimes it felt a bit uncomfortable reading a young child’s thoughts, which seemed far more mature than her few years, as she tries to convey her father’s emotions and thoughts:
“I realized with a start how the sparseness of one existence mirrored another, how an old man’s poverty gave a glimpse of the hardship he must have endured when he was ably, must have suffered his whole life, and that small, forgotten patch of ground, with its dilapidated hut and drenched belongings, held in its reflection the deprivation of Papa’s childhood friend. “
The story and the tone does get better as we move along, and she seems more like a child when in the countryside, when with her mother and younger sister are ‘fostered’ out to a farmer and his wife. But things just get worse, and the tone changes again:
“I became deaf. I became mute. I thought only of the work in front of me. Standing in the paddy, I planted the rice shoots. When eating, I could only think of eating. In sleep, I thought of nothing else. Hunger made my body frail. Many times I was punished for being too lazy. Without rice, I lived on leaves and small animals found in the mud. The tiniest I would swallow at once. Sometimes I would be punished, though I could never know when. It was futile to worry, to think of tomorrow. The life I’d once known was gone, and with it, the people. There was nothing to say, no one left for me to speak of, so I chose not to speak.
Still, I saw. Still, I heard. In silence, I understood, and I remembered.”
A beautiful, painful book.