My Driver Tulong, And Other Tall Tales from a Post Pol Pot Contemporary Cambodia, M.P Joseph, Partridge India 2017www.partridgepublishing.com/india pages 317. Rs 550
This extremely interesting book, full of autoethnographic details, and presenting a fictionalised view of history is worth reading. Social Scientists will find in this book, an unerring eye for detail. It describes the contemporary situation of Cambodians, in the 21st century, who were simultaneously victims and perpetuators of one of the most forceful genocides in history, where the Khmer killed one another. Who can forget the symmetrical way in which skulls were lined up like pineapples would be traditionally, in an aesthetic fashion, by the Khmer Rouge. Angelina Joli and Clive Owens have dramatically shown us the way in which the rural backdrop of Cambodia was rendered violent and murderous in their fictional but terrifyingly authentic portrayal of those gruesome years in “Beyond Borders”, which describes Aid Workers as they move from war torn country to country.
Joseph, however, uses humour to tell the story of the post construction years of rebuilding Cambodia, with the help of United Nations Aid Agencies. As someone who lived in Phnom Penh for eight years, he grew to love Cambodia. Underlying the continuous retrospection and amusement, however, was the macabre, the still life, which always appeared to him in terms of a history of suppressions. For sociologists the suppressions are always important, and the opacity of the present can only be understood in terms of what it is that people want to hide. MP Joseph uses key figures, not in a stereotypical biographical way, but more in terms of the use of the “linguistic shifter” where each person he describes is replayed in relation to the fictitious protagonist. This person shares the same name as the author, and occupies the identical position of authority of dispersing funds for Aid and Development in post Pol Pot Cambodia. What is amazing and quirky is that the individuals he describes are essentially his office administrator, his cooks, his teacher of Khmer grammar, and the restaurateur who is a colourful refugee, and of course his Driver, Tulong. Joseph provides us with his recollections, rather like a Dictaphone would do, with alarming nuances, of how their spoken interactions with him, tell us about how pidgin develops mutually. This tacit exchange establishes equality, a subconscious inflexion of French, with consonants and end syllables, which creates a new form of discourse between him and these star persona in the world of the underlings, who have innate power over those in authority. As Joseph describes it, “The French who had colonised Cambodia and most of Indo-China for about hundred years had taught them to drop that last consonant while pronouncing any word in the Latin script” .(15)There is nothing subaltern about their discourse, each one uses language to both confound and explain, and in the confusion that results between Joseph and his Aides, the release of new meanings, new emotions make us laugh, surprising us by the tactile quality of these interventions.
Yet, this book is written with the idea that information is by itself political, whether we like it or not. The author is fearless and completely in control. He fictionalises the organisation, but not the people, and the way in which they manipulate reality. For Joseph, the true narrative is contextualised in Pierre Bourdieu’s preoccupation with strategies and white lies, where the everydayness of social encounter is placed exactly within the questions of how people negotiate and manipulate and come out completely triumphant because they have made sense of their world, and persuaded the Other. Vectors of meaning, they are encapsulated in their own histories, be it Sri Lankan, Indian, Cambodian. Each persona who informs this complex narrative is tragic and yet caught in a skein of Joseph’s humour, which relieves us of some of the pain of witnessing their terrible circumstances.
Time is the other trope Joseph uses to enhance our understanding of pidgin use in Cambodia, where telegraphic speech, aphorisms and lightening strikes of decimated sentences compresses past and present for the user. Joseph knows full well that in this juxtaposition of a civilizational memory, and the functional use of the present where communication must be immediate, speaker and listener must be able to fully understand one another. As in dialogue, there must be no withholding. The office administrator, who gets to hold a position in Joseph’s fund delivering office, the tensions that unfold between them, the mutual bullying that goes on between boss and employee is an excellent understanding of Bureaucracy, where the pristine ledger and clock time give way to shared food as a combustible space of mutual aggrandisement. The Administrator knows that he can control information, but Joseph or his alter ego, is no stranger to bullying and manipulating. His serene understanding that power corrupts totally is the subtext of this elegant book. He domesticates the hand holding and bribing, and opportunities to be venal that the bureaucrat in multinational ventures is used to, but cannot reveal.
The author’s sense of valour comes from an unselfconscious certitude, which has it’s source in his lineage as a St Thomas Christian from Kerala. He uses his traditionally historical status with regard to aristocracy, closeness to power and material comfort to actually describe for us how Charities and International Conferences work. As a diatribe on how money is spent in Aid Organisations, and how power and influence are wielded, where money is released to help the poor but is actually an excuse to jet set and eat fine food, and meet interesting politicians and intellectuals, Joseph is completely effervescent. He knows no guilt about disclosing the innards of the life of the poor or the rich, he takes a ringside view on how lampooning in social science, like the pamphlet and the novel must have methodological resonance.
We have to take this book seriously, particularly the section where he describes the experience of the children who are recovering from the violence they have seen, or have personally committed against family members, neighbours and friends, during the Khmer Rouge period. The pathos of their bewilderment, the numbed terror of all they have known is brought out by Joseph in striking prose. As an extension of this, he writes about his teacher Sim, a young woman who struggles to get out of poverty by studying Law at the University, and teaching foreigners Khmer language. During this time, Joseph discovers that the Cambodians have the same names for the calendar months like the Malayalees in Kerala have. This is such a fortuitous discovery, that he spends most of his time with all his language teachers, providing them an etymology for words in Khmer that are similar to Malayalam, and to Sanskrit. Most of his previous teachers hastily depart, since his excitement at discovering these similarities was so huge, he would reverse roles and becometeacher, brow beating the Cambodians to accept that Khmer words were indeed Indian in origin and accordingly, should be pronounced correctly. With Sim, he learned to concentrate and to begin to learn, but alas, she gets killed by robbers on her way home one night. The sorrow that permeates this book disturbs. Yet, Joseph’s sense of humour, his ability to laugh at himself, and to make the world appear insouciant and transparent, is the power that he has. How to make the everyday complicated by the detail of description is his greatest skill, and it would be useful for those going to Cambodia for work or pleasure, to understand how boundary making (or dissolving) between the French, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai and Indians continually happens in Indo China. Food and Language are the motifs that he best works with, but also Cars, as Roland Barthes would recommend.