THE BLOG

A Candid And Unvarnished Look Inside The Enigma That Is Cambodia

07/06/2017 9:16 AM IST | Updated 07/06/2017 9:16 AM IST

Uday Balakrishnan

When the courier delivered a copy of MP Joseph's recently published semi-fictional work My Driver Tulong: And Other Tall Tales from a Post Pol Pot Contemporary Cambodia, I chuckled at the ridiculously wordy title and kept it aside to read it another day. For one thing, having known Joseph as a close friend for decades, I knew he could tell no tall tales, only very true ones.

This book had been long in the making and I assumed, quite wrongly it turned out, that in bits and pieces, I had heard them all. Late last evening I began reading the book and remained bolted to my chair for the next few hours until I had finished it, for it was rivetingly engaging and there was so much in it that I had never heard before from Joseph.

My Driver Tulong is an exceptional read — an unexpectedly profound and somewhat humorous introduction to Cambodia by someone who spent over five years there as the hard-working country head for the International Labour Organisation's programme to eliminate child labour in that country. Joseph's contributions even earned him a high award from the Cambodian government.

My Driver Tulong also provides a terrific insight into the Cambodian character — one of infinite politeness, order, a tremendous greed for money, an almost fetishistic adherence to time and schedules, and a total amnesia of yesterday,

In his book, Joseph, like all others who have experienced it, marvels at Angkor Vat, the massive temple complex that survived the demise of Hinduism in Cambodia and wonders at the logistical challenges that a pre-modern society would have had to overcome to build it.

My Driver Tulong also provides a terrific insight into the Cambodian character — one of infinite politeness, order, a tremendous greed for money, an almost fetishistic adherence to time and schedules, a total amnesia of yesterday, and a remarkable capacity to bear hardship and give nothing away, however innocent or unblemished, of ones' past.

Sometimes serious, often funny, Joseph's book also gives us a good idea of the kind of economic activities that keep today's Cambodia ticking — tourism, garment-manufacturing and workshops. Workshops! Yes indeed, the lets'-save-the-world kind that international aid organisations love to conduct, giving much-needed custom to the many swanky hotels in Cambodia.

By the time Joseph got to Cambodia in 2005, anyone over the age of 40 was suspected of having been a member of the murderous Khmer Rouge. Just because they were alive, they were seen as possibly being complicit in the mass killings.

Before I had started on the book, I had wondered why Joseph had included the grisly dictator Pol Pot's name in the title especially when, by the time he got to Cambodia, Pol Pot had long been dead. At the end of my read, however, I was left in no doubt how necessary it was to do so.

Cambodia continues to live in the shadow of the mass killings that Pol Pot had ordered, and which took over 2 million Cambodian lives between 1975 and 1979 — a full quarter of the country's population then. By the time Joseph got to Cambodia in 2005, anyone over the age of 40 was suspected of having been a member of the murderous Khmer Rouge, the Communist Party that Pol Pot had led. Just because they were alive, they were seen as possibly being complicit in the mass killings, so chillingly recorded in the award-winning movie The Killing Fields.

The Tulong in Joseph's book is modelled on a real-life character who had indeed served as his personal driver with some distinction — doubling up as his factotum and self-appointed protector, overawing parking lot attendants and staring down the police. He typified Cambodians of his inscrutable generation, the always-suspect 40-plus-year-olds who had refined the art of remaining anonymous to a point when they could be "invisible even in photographs."

The Tulong in Joseph's book is modelled on a real-life character who had indeed served as his personal driver with some distinction — doubling up as his factotum and self-appointed protector, overawing parking lot attendants and staring down the police.

Expressionless like Tulong, most Cambodians could keep a give-nothing-away blank face even in the most emotionally charged situations. Joseph brings this out so well in his book and along with that, the air of menacing, unstated aggression that marked (quite unjustly) every Cambodian as a possible killer.

Joseph's Cambodia has a frontier air about it — a nice escape for those wish to stay out of trouble, gun-run or make money, such as the members of the LTTE for instance, or the nurse turned doctor, Ammachi, the heart and soul of the tiny Malayalee community in Phnom Penh. She had grown rich treating the sick with potions derived from something as commonplace as a Saridon.

While Tulong occupies the centrestage in his book, another Cambodian, the do-anything, get-anything for his master, Vanthana, gets space too. His getting Joseph a pair of ridiculously high priced, ghastly looking trainers that he never wore finds special mention.

The small Chinese community, almost an aristocracy in Cambodia, figures in Joseph's book, as does his Khmer teacher — the greedy, uncharacteristically emotional and later, tragically murdered Sim. Joseph's handpicked Oriya cook, Dhamu makes an impressive appearance. Much later, Joseph learns from Tulong that Dhamu had kept a Cambodian mistress and even fathered a child by her before running far, far away.

The book doubles up as a serious indictment of the wasteful and roguish ways of the international, read UN, organisations, with their outrageous allowances and privileges, and the rank nepotism practised within.

Apart from being a terrific introduction to Cambodia and Cambodians, Joseph's book doubles up as a serious indictment of the wasteful and roguish ways of the international, read UN, organisations, with their outrageous allowances and privileges, and the rank nepotism practised within. There is a graphic account of the price the author of My Driver Tulong had to pay in such an organisation for spurning the sexual advances of a female boss, as well as the class system that grades and separates employees in a most discriminatory manner.

My Driver Tulong was released to much acclaim by the noted writer and MP, Sashi Tharoor at a public function in New Delhi a few weeks back. He lavished praise on the book for showing the realities of Cambodia, though he was careful to skirt around its expose of a venal UN system of cosy accommodations and ruthless destruction of anyone who did not play along.

Not often does one see a civil servant — Joseph is a former IAS officer — write with such humour, and unexpected and astonishing candour. That the book is an unmistakably, thinly disguised autobiographical account makes it an even more convincing read.

Hailstorm in Wayanad

More On This Topic