(Reprinted from Bengal Lights, 2017)
We are in the dining-bar area of the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It is a large verandah overlooking the Tonle Sap, flowing to join the Mekong a short distance away. A liquid summery light splashing on all things with abandon, sparkling the waters on which two country boats ride and gleaming the glassware at the bar.
It is around 9:00am, past the regular breakfast hour and the place is deserted except for the grizzled Frenchman in the corner deep into his Le Monde
. Skin tanned to sienna, faded khakis and don’t-***ing-ask-me-how-long-I-have-been-here-scowl signals Old Asia Hand. Or maybe Old Indochine Hand, as the case may be. I am post-Raj-post-colonial, and large bits of this Francophone-ex-French-colony setting are coded in ways I can’t decipher.
Across the table she checks her iPhone while I scan the pages of The Phnom Penh Post
. The waitress, her hair lustrous in the light, brings our breakfast. Toast and scrambled eggs, heaps of them, with sides of veggie. Old Hand of course has gone native—a huge bowl of what looks like beef noodle soup and side of greens that he is cleaning up efficiently.
“Guess what’s topping the Khmer charts right now?” I say.
“Tov Yuk Baday Barang and Luy Luy Luy.
“The first means ‘Marry a Frenchman’, and the second is ‘Money Money Money.’”
“Hah! Seems like they know what they want.”
“Yes. Love and loot, makes the world go round.”
I can’t imagine a Brit knowing the lingo and rapping with the hired help in Dhaka in this manner. With the Brits it is, as ever, foggy weather
Old Hand finishes before us. He settles his bill, launching into a rapid back-and-forth with the waitress in Khmer with bits of French in it. At one point he says something that makes her giggle, and the bartender smiles and shakes his head. The scene pings me somewhere. French colonial rule had been as rabidly merciless as all the others and yet the Frenchies in their old colonies seem at ease with their former subjects in a way vastly different than the Brits and us. I can’t imagine a Brit knowing the lingo and rapping with the hired help in Dhaka in this manner. With the Brits it is, as ever, foggy weather.
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Yesterday, tired from walking around the city, we had flopped onto the outdoor chairs of a little roadside café, and the French owner, large and friendly, brought us the iced coffee. A pretty Cambodian woman came out from inside the café and poked a forefinger into his bulging midriff while rattling off a volley of French. He had untied the red-and-white-striped apron from his waist and handed it to her. She had put it on, looping the strings multiple times around herself before skipping back inside. With a theatrical Gallic shrug, he had explained, “My wife, she likes that one,” meaning the apron. I had seen that it was a game between them—a game not even remotely possible in our part of the world. It was a fundamental difference of style. With the Brits it was, as ever, heavy water.
Old Hand stands up, waves at the bartender and scoots out in a hurry. Breakfast over, we too sidle on to the heavy, old armchairs along one side. From the third storey, the Cambodians are invisible. The boats float serenely but there is no sign of life aboard. On the opposite bank of the river are under-construction high-rises, with roads looping through low-roofed houses and hoardings, but no sign of any movement. Old colonial buildings straggle down the street by the side of the FCC, their green wooden window shutters opening on dark rooms as blank as the boats. I can’t get over how quiet it is. Our room, in muted blue-grey colours with black ceiling fans above a large stone Buddha head on the side table, radiates quiet. From its small verandah early one morning I watch saffron-robed monks with begging bowls being reverently given food from the restaurants below.
The entire population of Cambodia is 14.5 million. Dhaka, absurdly, alone matches that. I can’t quite get over that either.
Cambodia goes back to my childhood. When I was a boy my father thought that the best way to accelerate my learning English would be for me to read aloud from Time
magazine while he corrected mispronunciations and explained words and phrases I didn’t understand. We began one Karachi winter. I sat by the window in a stream of warm sunlight while he shaved with the bathroom door, and an ear, open. After that, month after month, like termites boring through wood, as he grabbed a hasty meal, or put on his suit and laced his shoes or lay in bed smoking, we plowed our way through the weekly news. It was the 1960s, and the Vietnam War led the headlines. I became familiar with its large cast of characters, from Defense Secretary McNamara to General Giap (which I learned early to correctly pronounce as ‘Zhop’). And Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia. My father had an odd assortment of heroes—Nasser, Soekarno, ‘Uncle’ Ho, Nikita Khrushchev (for banging his shoe on the table at the UN), the Baath Party generally, and yes, Prince Sihanouk. If I read something about any of them, at the first mention of those names he would go “Ah!” and say the name out aloud, as in “Ah, Nasser!” But for Sihanouk, and I never did figure out why, he reserved a special, more drawn-out “Aaaah!”, along with a flicker of a smile.
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It wasn’t long before, as far as English was concerned, I left my peers behind eating dust. Reading aloud also brought a rushed fluency to my English speech and at school Mrs D’Costa, who taught us English and wore skirts above the knee, noticed it, calling on me frequently to read aloud passages from Great Expectations. Still later, I outpaced my father, least as far as American newspeak went, and began flying solo, tracking the war on my own, with Cambodia in the mix, through the years of Nixon’s bombing, the Khmer Rouge and their victory in 1975, and the prince as he slipped in and out of exile, his Parisian scarves giving way to the black-and-white chequered Khmer kerchief around his throat. Then came Pol Pot and his ghastly crew, and the liberation of the masses became the slaughter of the masses, and in no time at all an entire generation of educated Cambodians had been all but wiped out.
Out of the blue she had popped the question, “I am going to Cambodia. You want to come along?”
I had stared at her in momentary disbelief, then recovered, “You kidding? Is the pope a Catholic? Yeah.”
“Ha ha… you have to try the Beerlao.”
“Beer made in Laos, duh ... let me see if we can stay at the FCC.”
“And what is that?”
“The Foreign Correspondents Club. It’s the coolest place to stay in Phnom Penh. They have a great bar in the dining area, and another on the rooftop.”
“You know,” I say a few days later, “Cambodia made me learn English faster.”
But as soon as the words are out, I think, no way Jose she’s gonna care. Young and American, to her the Vietnam war was no doubt Dad’s War, that historical muck-up in a poor Asian country, with its depressed veterans camped out in front of the black memorial wall in Washington, D.C. And yesteryear’s Saigon, teeming with GIs, had shape-shifted to a Ho Chi Minh city teeming with sputtering Hondas.
“Nah, nothing. I wanted to say something about Sihanouk but forget what now.”
“The old king?” Sihanouk had abdicated the throne in 2004 and, in ill health, had retired to Beijing.
“His son is the king now.”
“Siha … Sihamoni, right?”
“Yeah. But he is never there. He stays in Paris, into his ballet and dance thing.”
The FCC is on Sisowath Quay, a winding road that is primo expat zone lined with outdoor cafes and bars. We head out for our first lunch, and it is heaven to be able to simply walk about in a city. Tuk tuk drivers buzz around tourists pressing their extravagant claims, and the wait-staff posted like smiling sentries outside the restaurants invite passers-by to patronise their establishments. We sit on wicker sofas in a tiny courtyard and drink Beerlao. Around us assorted groups of whites eat and drink and chatter and have fun. Cambodia is a two-currency economy and I am informed the preferred one in Phnom Penh is the gringo dollar, the greenback.
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“So what should I go for?” I ask, looking at the menu.
“Oh, fish amuk.”
“Right. Let us run amuk.”
So fish amuk it is, a sort of a Cambodian fish bhorta brought to the table as a round cake wrapped in banana leaves that reminds me of a village wedding in Bangladesh. With sticky rice, but not as sticky as the Japanese variety. A slow delicious dissolving in the mouth. Two couples near us speak in Chinese. Over the days I see more of them, in a visible sign of what The Economist
calls the growing power of the redback, the yuan, but prudently they pay in dollars. As we eat, a beggar woman approaches us, her clothes in tatters, with a child clutching her leg. Waiflike, she utters not a word and, after being handed some money, trails away like a wraith. Something about her face – the arrangement of forehead and eyes, the shape of her lips – looks eternally familiar but I can’t place it.
But, later, among a crowd on the FCC’s rooftop bar whose jollity is powered by Burma sour rums, it comes to me.
“That’s it!” I exclaim.
It is night. The opposite bank of the river is shrouded in a light fog, dark and inscrutable. Is it really gone, that rough beast that slouched here once, or is it squatting somewhere in that dark readying itself for a second merry-go-round?
“That beggar woman at lunch?”
“Didn’t she look like a female Buddha?”
“Hmmm… Come to think of it, if he was a woman that’s what the face could look like.”
“Also if he went on a diet.”
At times, other beggars drift close to us. Skeletal, spectral and silent, imploring with outstretched hands, shrinking away at even the slightest reproving look. I can’t tell whether this is because they are broken beyond repair, or because, unlike Dhaka, they are not part of an organised racket, or because they are forbidden as bad for business in the expat zone. But if they can’t beg here, I think, where the money is, then where the **** else can they?
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Days we walk around under a hot midday sun, taking in the tourist sights. The Palace complex with its murals and the Silver Pagoda and an absent king. Run-down colonial French villas set on wide boulevards, but in that small town still powerful symbols of the old days. The National Museum, where a huge Vishnu head takes my breath away—the face is stylised Angkor Wat Khmer but the expression is perfect, Vishnu dreaming the universe into being. The Central Market is a stupendous circular Art Deco building, cacophonous with a thousand bright things on sale. But it is the back alleys that I enjoy the most, where the prices for a cup of green tea and grilled fish are seriously less than on Sisowath Quay, and crimson-cheeked, no-nonsense mama-sans rule the outdoor kitchen bazaars, wo-manning the butcher stalls with sides of pork and beef hanging from hooks. Roadside garages with old motorbikes and few tools and tinny songs from radios: Is one of them Tov Yuk Baday Barang? It’s a drag not knowing Khmer!
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Mama-sans selling meat[/caption]
Like Bangladesh, Cambodia is rice-and-fish country. Ordinary Cambodians eat not with chopsticks but with their hands, like us. One noontime, we go down an alley of vegetable carts that abruptly cul-de-sacs to a fish market, a tarpaulin-roofed stretch with men in bright t-shirts. In the fretwork of light formed by the sag and give of the roof, fish scales wink in the slip-slimy-slippery aisles formed by rows of very large bowls containing live fish, darker-skinned and seemingly more sinuous than ours in Bangladesh. Slish-slosh-slish. Other fish, silvery and large-eyed, lie in heaps on ice. On the far side along one aisle, a rutted path conspicuously dry, stand stacks of dried fish, shutki
, pyramided like the rice in the wholesale markets of Dhaka. A boy grins at me as I place some in my palm for a closer look. Outside, we sit on a bench by a vendor working a sizzling cart to eat grilled squid dipped in a fiery tamarind-flavored sauce. Two-fer-three-dollars. Looking up from my tin plate, sweat beaded above my upper lip, I glimpse in the nooks and gaps between shops and shacks the red-and-white slate roofs of pagodas and temples.
Like Bangladesh, Cambodia is rice-and-fish country. Ordinary Cambodians eat not with chopsticks but with their hands, like us
And since Cambodia is also playing frantic catch-up with other hip tourist destinations, there are tourist-trap boutique shops too. Inside a chic one on Street 240 equipped with silkily-gliding sales staff, I pick up a half-coconut-shell posing as a soap dish. The price tag is an eye-watering $40. Staggered by the scale of the rip-off – Luy Luy Luy
– I step outside while she finishes her browsing. Across the street, a gold lion blazes away on another boutique-store sign. Out of nowhere, like lightning in a bright blue sky, a surge of memory flashes me back to a Karachi winter day as I sit by a sunlit window while my father explains that "Norodom Sihanouk" is derived from Sanskrit. "Nor" meaning "Male"; "Odom" from "Uttam" meaning "Supreme"; "Siha" from "Singha", which is "Lion", and "Hanouk" from "Hanu", or "Jaws".
Was that it, I wonder now. Was that why he would go “Aaaah” on hearing the name?
Supreme Male with Lion Jaws!
Could be! Who wouldn’t fall for the siren song of that name, back in those days of late decolonisation?
Genocide inevitably catches up with me on another rooftop night as I lean on the balustrade, as below, in the deepening dusk, Cambodian families stroll in the fresh air by the riverside. We get acquainted with an Indian couple who have been here for a long time. He heads an NGO working in the countryside. It was in 1993, he tells me, that things started to get normal, but, he adds, shaking his head, that normality is a mask, and beneath the surface calm the people remain deeply traumatised. I think of the wall over the bar in the dining area. Back in the day there were bullet holes in it that were later patched up to its present calm surface. We, he says, meaning our generation, his and mine, hear the horror stories of our own Partition but really have no clue as to what it was like, but now I feel like I know them all too well!
We get on the subject of the international war crimes tribunal in Cambodia attempting to bring surviving Khmer Rouge regime members to the dock.
“Yes,” I tell him, “I’ve read about it in the paper.” That morning I had pondered the photo of Kaing Guek Eav, better known as “Duch”. A mathematics teacher who had been chief of the S-21 security centre (now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum), where he oversaw the torture and execution of more than 15,000 people. The first Khmer Rouge official to be found guilty of crimes against humanity, Duch was appealing his conviction.
A pause, after which I say, “We also have one in Bangladesh.”
“Yes, I know.”
“A national one, not international.”
“Well, that composition is a huge problem. The international and the national judges on the tribunal are not seeing eye to eye.”
We talk of the rigours of legally establishing guilt long after the events, about the difficulties of identifying the “most guilty”. Especially if the regime in power subtly blocks the processes, aware that investigations into a twisted past could turn up dirt in unexpected places. “Right,” he says. “Hun Sen, the prime minister, is ex-Khmer Rouge, and a lot of people believe he is in no way enthusiastic about something that may shine a light on his regime.”
At which his wife gives him a warning look, and we continue in more oblique ways till the party winds down.
The next day she asks me, “Do you want to go to the genocide museum?”
I feel squeamish, queasy even, about it. I don’t know why exactly, but it may be because it feels like horror voyeurism, going around with other tourists, many of them white backpackers, gawping at the killing rooms.
Slung well back into the broad-beamed armchair, I thirst for a Bloody Mary. I look at the clock. It’s after 12:00. On the Tonle Sap a rare barge is winning, but barely, the upstream battle. You go, girl! I cheer silently as I haul myself up and head for The Bar with no bullet holes no more, aiming for the bartendar, his hair lustrous in the light.
A couple of days later, we are out of there. As the plane banks over Shahjalal airport I see brick kilns below, spewing black smoke from narrow chimneys. Already I miss the superfresh air of Phnom Penh …
Postscript: Norodom Sihanouk died a year later, in 2012.
Khademul Islam is editor, Bengal Lights.