Jasmine tears

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on March 11, 2016

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Bins returns from his morning walk, to find me in tears. “La, la, la,” he says, which in a French accent sounds like sparkling sympathy with a twist of lime. “I warned you about that book! Me? I cannot face it,” he says, growing moist at the very thought. “Cambodia. The revolution. A little girl ...” He tugs at the ends of his scraggly grey moustache. In The Shadow of The Banyan, by Vaddey Ratner begins in the 1970s, at the moment when the Khmer Rouge take power. “It grabbed me right from the first paragraph,” I say. “It’s very well written.” That sounds so lame. There are hundreds of “very well written” books these days, many of them personal narratives, most of them searingly honest and eloquent. But this one, written from the perspective of a seven-year-old princess tossed onto a blood tide of brutality, is in a class all its own.

“I don’t want to know!” says Bins, covering his ears. Of course I won’t give him the option. Books like this absolutely refuse to remain coiled up quietly in memory. They scream to be shared. “The author tells us that she wrote it as a novel because she understood the need to shape a coherent story out of the shards of her childhood.” Her father really was a prince of the Cambodian royal line. She tells us in the Afterword that years after the events she describes in the book, when she visits the land of her birth, she loses her voice while reciting her own full title in the presence of the reigning monarch. During the revolution, names like hers were a death sentence.

“There is no trace of self-pity,” I say. “We see the child in her serene and beautiful ancestral home. Then with shocking abruptness she is cast out of it.” It’s like watching live footage on a news channel, but from the vantage point of a child, who cannot understand why she sees what she sees. Someone for whom the drama unfolds directly from the mythic realm, with herself riding the back of a terrifying dragon. Demons tormenting her. Angels protecting her.

Bins is interested in the references to the myths. “They have different names there, no?” Yes. For instance, ‘tevoda’ instead of what we in India might call an ‘apsara’ and ‘yiak’ perhaps similar to ‘yaksha’. I am reminded so strongly of my own childhood in Thailand, when for three years we were surrounded by the familiar-unfamiliar interpretation of the Ramayana. In this book, amidst all the horror there is also great beauty. The velvet-green paddy fields. The scent of coconut-based desserts. The jasmine garlands. The exquisite silks. The rich natural abundance of the countryside. The dainty-waisted mother. The heroic poet-prince father.

The quiver-ful of stories, poetry and words that sustain the little girl who will survive to be evacuated to the West, are her weapons against the chaos around her. Bins sighs. “They are very powerful,” he says, “these weapons. Her arrows have reached my heart, just from holding the book.” And her tears are in my eyes even as I write this.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

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Next episode: Muddled memory

Published on March 11, 2016

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