Lap Lae – Kaeng Khoi – Uthis Haemamool

20/08/2012 § Leave a comment

My name is Kaeng Khoi; my surname, Wongjoojuea. Before, my name wasn’t Kaeng Khoi; my name was Lap Lae. I only changed my name from Lap Lae to Kaeng Khoi two years ago. I am well aware that to start like this is puzzling and creates confusion about my identity. Besides, both names are words very few parents would be unconventional enough to give their children or grandchildren. As we know, they are names of districts more so than names of persons, but then all names have an origin. Therefore please give me time to explain about such an unusual name to bestow on a child, and why my father was adamant he had to call his progeny with names both dignified and full of hope he was proud of, paying no attention to the mockery of relatives and people around him.

Father told me of various events in the past after he had determined I was old enough to learn about what happened in his life and able to remember those events as lessons to guide me in the conduct of mine. It began one evening when I was nine years old and he was getting on for forty-four. He sat in the middle of the house platform after the three of us – father, mother and child – had had dinner and he was on his sixth glass of pretty stiff Hong Thong, the brandy he set out to drink every evening after Mother set before us the tray of food she had prepared. That evening Father kept staring at me all the time. I was aware that his eyes, unyielding and angry-looking as was his normal expression, were all over me, and I felt ill at ease. I was racking my brains trying to remember if I had done anything that day that would earn me yet another beating. When I looked up and glanced at him, I could feel his eyes looking at me in a probing way or trying to figure out something about me. After that, he raised his glass to his lips, drank up and then held out the empty glass to me.
“Top it up, son.”

I haven’t told you yet, have I, that I have a brother who is four years older than I am. His name is Kaeng Khoi. I know that mentioning my brother at this point will add to the puzzlement and confusion, but please allow me time to explain things a little. I believe the muddle will soon be sorted out and in the end the confusion will clear. So allow me to mention my big brother now merely to let you know that he sat by my side, quiet and obedient, but he was someone else altogether when he was outdoors. I’ll tell you about that another time. For now, let us go back to when Father held out his empty glass and told me to refill it. I went to the fridge to get ice cubes, carefully poured alcohol in the glass I topped up with soda water, used a chopstick to mix spirits and soda, stirring until foam rose to the brim of the glass, and then I held the drink out to Father. During the whole process my brother had advised me on how to go about what, as he later told me when the two of us were in bed, was a ritual Father relied on to convey some meaning to us. He said that when he was my age, he had also been asked to refill the glass for the first time.

Father raised the drink I had mixed and took a sip. “Needs work.” After that, he drank it up. This time he held out the glass, with only ice cubes left in it, to my brother, who mixed the drink expertly while giving me high signs with his eyes. Father tasted the drink my brother had mixed. “That’s more like it.” He put the glass down beside him, shot a glance at Mother as if she was in the way and said, “You go and wash the dishes, now.” And then Mother did as she was told diligently without uttering a word. I felt strangely gratified every time Father ordered Mother around. I lowered my head and slipped a smile at my brother. We giggled while Mother picked up the food tray and went out of our field of vision to the kitchen at the back of the house.
“Come closer. There’s something I want to tell you.”
First off, Father complimented the two of us for having behaved very well the whole week and now we had polished off the rice on our plates.
“Do you remember what I said about eating food?” he prodded.
“Eat lots of rice and easy on the side dishes,” I answered. He smiled and nodded happily.

When Father was in his teens, not only was he tall and lean, he was also muscular and swarthy, with wavy black hair sleek with coconut oil and a fine straight moustache, attributes that made a young man much sought after in those days. He further claimed that he was blessed with a good sense of hearing, of which he was proud, as during part of his youth this special asset had enabled him to feed his family, which comprised his mother and siblings, six lives altogether counting himself.

His mother, Grandma Joo, and his father, Grandpa Juea, were Chinese immigrants who had crossed the seas with nothing but a mat and a pillow each, fleeing the mainland which at the time was being invaded by Japan during the Second World War, and reached Thailand in 1941. But then right at the end of that year, Japanese soldiers, hard on their heels, launched their battleships to assault Thailand’s southern shores. Caught short, Grandpa and Grandma headed north and started a new life by staying with a kind-hearted man who tended a coconut plantation in Lap Lae, a town in Uttaradit province. Both Grandpa and Grandma felt very much indebted to him and would later tell all their children to respect Uncle Mart, who was no different from their real uncles. The main thing was that, although he didn’t own the plantation, Uncle Mart was generous enough to invite Grandpa and Grandma to build a hut at the far end of the plantation, without fear if the plantation owner found out of finding himself without a roof over his head. He pointed at a dark spot at the bottom of the plantation, where piles of leaves and palm ribs gave off vapours and a strong smell of dampness, and in that far-off spot Grandpa and Grandma built their own small dwelling, where Grandma was to live on for another thirty years.

Two weeks after their dwelling at the back of the plantation had taken shape as a small shed, Uncle Mart told Grandpa Juea that the plantation owner had his house in Phichai. He owned many plots of land which were mostly langsat orchards and coconut plantations, and he drove his Datsun pickup van to the plantation once a month to look at his fruit and give instructions to the workers, which meant that he was to show up next week. An increasingly restless Uncle Mart coughed drily as he told Grandpa he’d take him to Phichai to introduce him to the plantation owner; that would be better than skulking around. Maybe the owner could do with another worker.

There was a glimmer of hope amid all the anxiety. One evening Grandpa and Uncle Mart came back from Phichai with smiles on their faces and bottles of hard liquor stuck in their armpits. Grandpa told Grandma that the plantation owner was another kind-hearted man, and in the following years, when children were born one after the other until there were five of them over ten years, Grandma told the children that besides Uncle Mart there was also the owner of the plantation they must respect and prostrate themselves to for being such a noble person to their parents the like of whom in this world was not to be found. Grandpa’s work was to supervise the cargo of the six-wheeler transporting the plantation produce to the factory in the main provincial town. When Grandpa had told Grandma the good news, he took a bottle of liquor under his arm and skirting ditches walked over to Uncle Mart’s hut.

Grandpa was a strong and sturdy man and this had the plantation owner pick him out to go and work in the factory in Phichai and in other plantations where hard labour was needed. It was only on Sundays that Grandma would see Grandpa turn up at the coconut plantation, but feelings of loneliness and emptiness didn’t assail her too strongly because she and Uncle Mart and his wife were always visiting one another. Grandma built the small hut with her own hands, finishing what had been left undone when Grandpa went to work in town, with Uncle Mart and his wife coming to give her a hand on some days. And on some days Grandma went to help Uncle Mart’s wife husk coconuts piled up like hillocks to await the six-wheeler that would convey them to the factory. And when one Sunday Grandpa came back with a wad of money he gave to Grandma to buy rice to fill the pot with, the next morning Grandpa, Grandma, Uncle Mart and his wife got on that same six-wheeler to travel to town through chilly fog and soft sunshine, with Grandma, Uncle Mart and his wife taking the ride to reach a marketplace only four kilometres away. When they had bought rice and other necessities, the three of them went back on foot to the plantation.

Grandpa and Grandma’s lives went on like this until the first rains came and tested the hut with wind gusts and hailstorms. The sturdiness of the hut was confirmed as only a few drops of water leaked in and slanting rain only reached a few places inside. Grandma, who by now had built a new life in this northern coconut plantation for nearly a full year after asking for asylum as a drifting stranger, had during all those months volunteered to help with the work in the plantation to the point of becoming one of the workers whose income derived from husking coconuts. She worked with as much strength as a delicate woman could muster while bearing an ever-growing belly, and the time for giving birth to her first boy was getting near – and that first boy, whom she would name Pee Mai (New Year), was Father, who was born in December with the help of an improvised midwife, Uncle Mart’s wife.

Grandma said that Father was strong and in good health and easy to bring up, like her other four children – three daughters and the last one a boy. All of the children after they had been weaned, Grandma said, she had fed with rice gruel and salted fish only. Their dessert was boiled rice water mixed with granulated sugar and she served their food in coconut shells polished to a high gloss and devoid of shards. Not long after she gave birth to Father she perched him astride her hip to go to work husking coconuts in front of Uncle Mart’s hut. Father grew up with the sound of machetes cutting into coconut husks and cracking them open with twists of the wrist. Amid the sounds of daily activity were also the thuds of old coconuts falling off their stems and rolling along the ground covered with dry palm ribs that cracked and squelched until they finally fell into some ditch with a resounding plop. That sound of falling coconuts later became a breath of life when Father was seven years old and ran behind Uncle Mart to retrieve coconuts, whose thuds showed the way through the dim overgrown vastness of the plantation. In later years, Father was the one to go out and get the coconuts instead of Uncle Mart, who had begun to grow poorly and suffered from a chronic dry cough so that he couldn’t do any hard work, had to lie on a mat in his hut sipping hot water from a thermos flask and could only split kindling and cook food.

Father began to remember his life and that of his family as of the first time he ran out to pick up a coconut. As for bringing up the four siblings, who were brought into the world every other year like clockwork, it was a mystery how such a slight woman managed to handle those lives. It was like a treasure chest placed on a votive shelf which he could only honour and worship, knowing nothing if Grandma wasn’t the one to tell him, and Grandma was the kind of woman who didn’t like to speak much, so that Father only knew that he was the eldest son who helped his mother with his first sister until she was able to totter about and after that took care of the next sister until she too could totter and so on it went.

That marked the birth of Father’s good sense of hearing he had told us about. When he had to start work in the plantation aged seven or eight, for all the time spent living and working on a coconut plantation in his early years neither he nor his siblings had ever tasted any sweets made out of any part of a coconut. Grandma was strict about this, concerned as she was about their debt to the plantation owner’s kindness. She forbade her children to ever steal coconuts to eat, but that strict interdiction lost its potency out of necessity when Father was eleven and fate compelled him to take responsibilities beyond his age, because Grandpa left his family never to return as he was unable to withstand internal injuries while being taken to the district health station.

Father spoke about Grandpa with a mood that swung between admiration of his manliness and despondency at his desertion of Grandma and the children through his crude behaviour, which he wasn’t sure which image of Grandpa to select to make me fully understand. But finally he chose to recount Grandpa’s exploits with respect and understanding, even though his voice had an undertone of distress. Father said that Grandpa was a tough, unyielding man, and besides had a character that differed from the other Chinese refugees. How he had taken Grandma out of mainland China was still as much a mystery as his lack of roots, of ancestry. It was something he had never cared to respect and worship. Since he had set foot in Lap Lae district, he had done his best to blend in with the way of life of the locals. He spoke Thai quickly with the idiom of his fellow workers, who were either Northerners or North-easterners. He liked to pay his respects to revered old monks in various temples at the invitation of his friends. In those days he was much taken with talismans, especially metal amulets said to melt at candle temperature. He spent his time after work visiting places that were reputedly sacred and had amulets for “rent” and worship. The story was that the day he died, that very evening he had withdrawn his pay (and divided it: one part in his left trouser pocket to give to Grandma to purchase what was needed in the house; another part in his right trouser pocket to buy hot tofu water to give to the children; and a third in the pocket of his short-sleeved shirt to purchase fermented liquor) and had gone to celebrate on hard liquor with his fellow workers in Uttaradit, and when the liquor hit the spot he strained his ears to listen to the people in the market, especially the locals, to see if anyone was saying anything disparaging against people of Chinese extraction like him, and it so happened that not long before that day he had asked an elder monk to draw a yantra on his back. His friends at the party tested the protection it conferred and said that Grandpa had a really thick hide when they helped one another slash his back with knives and swords. They struck and struck yet couldn’t get through and were astounded when his back bore no trace of any cut. Therefore, given that he had a supernatural asset, his hearing could reach much farther than before. He strode up to a group of toughies of the never-say-die variety who sat drinking fermented liquor in the same shop and then toppled their table, sending glasses and bottles crashing, whereupon he was beaten up with fists and feet and left sprawled out flat and died of internal haemorrhage moments later.

Father smiled when he reached this point, and went on to say that from then on Grandma had raised her children and was head of the family in earnest, with him working to help raise his siblings as well. The contentment of old veered towards uncertainty. Grandma still worried that the mainstay of the family being gone this would have an adverse effect on the decisions of the plantation owner, but the latter didn’t say anything about evicting a family whose main half was now missing and was thus only half-useful to him. Grandma and Father went on working in the plantation even though they earned barely enough to buy rice to fill the pot. Father said that after Grandpa died, many a dinner was just rice gruel with much water simmered until the grains of rice broke and turned the consistency of thin soup. As for the accompanying dish, it was pebbles the size of little fingers dipped into cups of fish sauce. You took a mouthful of rice then with chopsticks picked up a pebble to suck on the fish sauce and then put the pebble back into the cup.

And then one day finally Father was willing to let Grandma punish him for being an ungrateful thief. After dithering and turning things over in his mind all night long, one morning when he heard a loud thud in the stillness of the plantation, he ran out barefoot and came back with a coconut, prepared breakfast as he did every dawn and then scraped coconut meat into the rice he had just cooked, and this was the special meal he took great pride in with which he would feed his four siblings until they were fully grown, through the expedient of petty larceny which, from that day on, by venturing out at the break of day, increased deception, in order to prevent Uncle Mart and his wife from getting wise to the fact that his family was robbing the plantation in order to eat.

One day Father found a delicacy for his little siblings, a source of happiness and smiling faces after not having eaten dessert of boiled rice water mixed with sugar for a long time. What he found was a round, fist-sized heart inside one of the coconuts he was handling. It tasted blandly sweet and had a doubtful texture when you bit it because its meat was full of air bubbles – an adventure in taste that was thrilling and quaint and worth the search that soon had his four siblings addicted to coconut hearts.

But the new taste of life-giving rice mixed with coconut meat was bitterness of sorts for Grandma. She never tasted any of the food Father prepared but stuck to rice gruel and sucked pebbles in fish sauce (both she and the children ate good food only on those days when she had finished her work and the six-wheeler came to take the coconuts to the factory and she was able to borrow money from the plantation owner). Grandma always kept her word. When she had forbidden something, going back on her word was unthinkable. But letting her children eat the same food that she forced herself to eat every day would be unforgivable, so she found herself faced with an impossible choice between keeping her word and her children’s welfare. Often she would take it out on Father by punishing him. One day when she could no longer stand the constant pilfering of what belonged to her benefactor, she grabbed Father’s arm together with the evidence, a coconut, and dragged him to Uncle Mart’s hut to report her son’s shameful behaviour, while using her rough hand to slap Father on his short legs until his calves turned a harsh red. She slapped him until her hands shook and hurt to punish and shame him in front of Uncle Mart, who at the time had been in the kitchen at the back of the hut when he heard a commotion and shouts, especially his wife’s, who was just back with pails of water to refill the jar, as she tried to make Grandma stop and called for him to come out and put an end to the matter. Peace thus returned with Uncle Mart’s wife taking Grandma back to her hut to calm her down and having a long natter there while Father was being comforted by Uncle Mart, who boosted his morale by saying that what he had done was for the best. He disappeared inside his hut and came back with a slice of pumpkin in a small dish he held out to Father. When Father had eaten, Uncle Mart sliced the rest of the pumpkin, set it in a big dish and walked ahead of Father to Grandma’s hut.

From then on every evening Father went and helped Uncle Mart make the food, and took back to his hut a big dish full of sundry curries and coconut-cream-flavoured sweets. This was the only way Grandma would accept to eat coconuts from the plantation which had provided her with a safe haven for many years.

Uncle Mart, whom Father’s family was much indebted to, passed away peacefully one evening during the cold season just as Father was turning into a young man of twenty-four. At dawn that day Father was woken up by a salvo of thuds from coconuts which had decided to fall like a shower of hail. Grandma, whom Uncle Mart’s wife had asked to help her look after him since the night before, walked back from Uncle Mart’s hut looking drawn. She was dead silent all of that morning, set out the work in the house and the plantation for Father to do, and after changing clothes went back to Uncle Mart’s hut once again.

She went to the temple to help with the funeral three days in a row and in late afternoon of the third day came back to take Father and his siblings along to attend the cremation of Uncle Mart, and then on the next day she received some of Uncle Mart’s ashes and put them in a small piece of white cloth for her children to prostrate themselves to and recall to mind the goodness of Uncle Mart.

With Uncle Mart gone, his wife and Grandma looked after the plantation in his stead until Uncle Mart’s wife fell ill. Even though she didn’t have any children to look after her, Father’s sisters were like close relatives as they made sure she took her drugs and gave her water until she too passed away. So the coconut plantation had suffered two losses, but later this gave steady work to Father’s family, and all his siblings grew up and helped one another assiduously – significant labour which led the plantation owner to realise that this substitute workforce was more useful and productive than it used to be.

One day the plantation owner driving his Datsun pickup van appeared at the plantation and called out for Father. He sized up Father’s build for a while and looked at the four siblings and then walked over to Grandma, who was busy husking coconuts by the hut. He announced that he’d like to take Father and his oldest sister to go and work in the factory in town. As for the other three children they’d stay and work in the plantation for the time being. Grandma showed reluctance because she didn’t want to part from her children, but in that narrow span of life a spark of hope flashed as the word “school” came out of the mouth of the plantation owner. This was a wonderful offer and Grandma agreed without hesitation when the plantation owner said that he would have the three young ones attend school in the neighbourhood in exchange for work in the plantation when they came back from school in the afternoon and on the condition that the two eldest children go to work in town with him. Grandma was aware that those words were like orders, that when the plantation owner showed his intention there was no gainsaying or negotiating with a benefactor anyway, and the favour of giving her children the opportunity to be educated was something too big to ever be entirely repaid. Grandma gratefully prepared a bag of clothes each for Father and his oldest sister with an eagerness which later Father would sum up as fear that the plantation owner would change his mind.

The plantation owner gave Grandma a certain amount of money for expenses and, with the small steps of two children, a boy and a girl, moving slowly away from the hut at the bottom of the plantation, Grandma’s two little darlings cleared a way to the future for the younger siblings that were staying behind. The eldest son named Pee Mai (New Year) and the oldest daughter named Aruno-thai (Dawn) thus before the last day of the year gradually disappeared in the dim and winding paths of the coconut groves in the twilight.

Chapter 1 of Lap Lae – Kaeng Khoi, Amarin Printing, Bangkok, 2009.

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