Tuesday, March 20, 2018

On ‘Middle’ and ‘Way’ in Majjhimā Paṭipadā, the Buddha’s path

This post, where I am counting on the blog's schedule facility, has been published at the precise moment of the spring equinox — the midpoint in duration between night and day. It’s a moment of equipoise and fine balance, as marvellously captured by the NOAA environmental satellite image above.

A fitting occasion then to reflect on an experience of perfect balance expressed by the Buddha Gotama [recorded in Pali]:

Dve’me, bhikkhave, antā pabbajitena na sevitabbā. Katame dve? Yo c’āyaṃ kāmesu kāmasukhallikānuyogo hīno gammo pothujjaniko anariyo anatthasaṃhito, yo c’āyaṃ attakilamathānuyogo dukkho anariyo anatthasaṃhito.

Ete te, bhikkhave, ubho ante anupagamma majjhimā paṭipadā tathāgatena abhisambuddhā cakkhukaraṇī ñāṇakaraṇī upasamāya abhiññāya sambodhāya nibbānāya saṃvattati

These two extremes, bhikkhus, should not be adopted by one who has gone forth from the home life. Which two? On the one hand, the devotion to sensual indulgence, which is inferior, the cause of erecting houses, full of defilements, unable to be rid of them, and of no benefit; and on the other hand the devotion to self-mortification, which brings suffering, unable to be rid of defilements, also of no benefit.

The practice that does not go to either of these two extremes, bhikkhus, is the Middle Way awoken to by the Tathāgata through his great insight. It produces vision, knowledge, and leads to appeasement, to superknowledge, to awakening, to Nibbāna.

This is is a quote from the famous Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta, SN 56.11, ‘Setting in motion the Wheel of Dhamma’, for which numerous translations are available, e.g. from Ñanamoli Thera. (The Tathāgata is how the Buddha referred to himself.)

So what did the Buddha mean by ‘Middle’ and ‘Way’? The Buddha proceeds to state the following:

katamā ca sā, bhikkhave, majjhimā paṭipadā tathāgatena abhisambuddhā cakkhukaraṇī ñāṇakaraṇī upasamāya abhiññāya sambodhāya nibbānāya saṃvattati? ayameva ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo, seyyathidaṃ — sammādiṭṭhi sammāsaṅkappo sammāvācā sammākammanto sammāājīvo sammāvāyāmo sammāsati sammāsamādhi. ayaṃ kho sā, bhikkhave, majjhimā paṭipadā tathāgatena abhisambuddhā cakkhukaraṇī ñāṇakaraṇī upasamāya abhiññāya sambodhāya nibbānāya saṃvattati.

And what, monks, is the Middle Way, awoken to by the Tathāgata? It is the Eightfold Noble Path that is to say, right view, right intention; right speech, right action, right livelihood; right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. That is the middle way discovered by a Perfect One, which gives vision, which gives knowledge, and which leads to peace, to direct acquaintance, to discovery, to nibbana.

So the Buddha informs us that a necessary aspect of the Middle Way is the avoidance of the extremes of sensual indulgence and austerity, but it's not way itself; that way is precisely the Eightfold Noble Path.

But what is the ‘middle’ in all this, especially in the mode of practice? A couple of points are worth noting about the context. First, the Buddha was speaking to advanced practitioners, so he only taught in brief; some aspects are taken as read. Also many of the Pali terms we have to consider have multiple senses, including majjhimā. If we consult one of the standard references, the Pali Text Society dictionary (see e.g. the DSAL Pali dictionary entry online), one of the meanings is ‘waist’, denoting a natural anatomical position by which to make reference to the centre of the physical body, though the actual centre varies depending on factors such as body shape.

Exploring along the Centre

It was along these lines that the Middle Way was entered upon and explored in depth by the late Chao Khun Phramongkolthepmuni (Sodh Candasaro), the one who re-discovered this practice, popularly known as Dhammakaya Meditation. This great Abbot of Wat Paknam realized that the mind has an exact centre of gravity at which everything comes into balance and from that naturally arises a direction of travel along a path that is successively at the centre of the centre. In this way the centre acts as an anchor and natural axis, around and along which to follow and develop the Eightfold Noble Path at increasingly advanced levels. It's an axis for all the core teachings, especially the Satipatṭhāna Sutta (Four Foundations of Mindfulness). The path naturally resolves what might otherwise appear paradoxes such as kāye kāyānupassī, which means 'contemplating body in body' — for all the teachings have the right focus.

As the Satipatṭhāna Sutta indicates, the Path itself is long, but proceeding along the Middle Way is the way to keep steering in the right direction. It’s a bit like driving from one end of the country to the other — we can take any road, but the side roads require extra effort and energy as there are more obstacles, navigation and delays; if one doesn’t know the way can easily get lost, and generally it will take much longer. It’s much more efficient to take the motorway.

In focus

The path of practice requires looking closely at things and making them clear, but especially bringing the right things into view. At each step the path continues along the Middle Way, but the practice becomes steadily more refined

We may use here the analogy of a microscope with a number of lenses. We start by bringing an object under the microscope, which we wish to examine, under the least powerful lens. As we zoom in, we use a new higher quality lens with an increased level of magnification for which we need to make finer adjustments to keep the object in view. If we keep the object at the very centre of our view it will remain in view under our lens, but if we start to deviate, then it can quickly disappear. In any case, our focus needs to be sharper and more precise to observe the object clearly at that magnification. The direction of travel comes from successively zooming in and seeing with increasing clarity and insight — a motion for which we may use the Pali term opanayiko (leading onwards or inwards).

These aspects to Middle Way meditation are nicely described in a guided session by Venerable Burin (please excuse YouTube's still image, which is not-so-well focused!):

Saturday, February 10, 2018

A Review of Four Reigns (Part Seven): Conclusion

Welcome to the final instalment of a series of posts in which I am reviewing Four Reigns, a translation of Si Phaendin, a Thai classic of historical fiction by M.R. Kukrit Pramoj. Congratulations if you've managed to read through the other posts! Here I will offer some reflections on the work as a whole set within the context of its original publication and how it might be received today. The analysis is based on the publication by Silkworm Books.

Cultural Transmission

In his preface, M.R. Kukrit relates how, when he was preparing the series of columns for Siam Rath, the story arose out of a natural urge to “set down in writing the modes of mores of a disappearing age”. It came naturally, he says, without pre-meditation, with characters gradually emerging as the plot seemed to develop. And that is how the narrative felt to me — there’s a pleasant rambling flow, consistent with a series of regular newspapers columns tumbling off the top of his head, resulting in a wonderful story.

However, also naturally, the work reflects the deeply held views of the author. This is historical fiction, not merely a story, and marshals a considerable amount of factual details. History, despite its emphasis on objectivity, requires interpretation and this is subjective, not neutral, with intentions dependent upon one’s background, views, personality and so on. As such, beyond the intricate descriptions, Four Reigns comes over as gently didactic, with implicit guidance on how to behave as a model citizen centred on the main character, Phloi. The author deploys clever use of language and imagery; humour is used to cultivate reverence for royalty, even to elevate it beyond mortal grasp: any commoner who would rashly compare themselves with them is destined to have “lice on their heads”.

Yet the appreciation is not uniform; it’s not an unqualified paean. After Phloi gets married and lives outside the Inner Court, the author lets slip that her life in the palace was restrictive:

“For she had felt lost on countless occasions ... like a released cage bird who does not know what to do with its newfound freedom. She had longed for some boundaries, some restrictions, ...”

Nowadays the ability to make choices is generally regarded as fundamental to the rights of the individual, though for the spiritual life there’s a different view: monastics voluntarily commit themselves to numerous rules of training that largely remove such freedom of choice. In this way, the training and lifestyle in the Inner Court has a sense of a spiritual discipline, though without the material austerity.

There are also variations between the monarchs, as seen principally through Phloi’s eyes, through vague allusions to the need for modernisation or puzzlement as to particular royal interests. But a constant is Nai Luang (an affectionate reference to the monarch) as the blessed glue holding together Muang Thai (in this context there’s no mention of “Phrathet Thai”, the political term used for the nation as declared after the country had become a constitutional monarchy.)

As the narrative unfolds the characters are generally well developed. Naturally the spotlight is mainly on Phloi, the central figure throughout, whose qualities are summed up by her son, Ot: “honesty, loyalty, fair-mindedness, compassion towards our fellow beings, all this and more.” However, whilst Phloi is admirable as a paragon of virtue, it is Ot I find the most intriguing: gentle in his manners, he appears as the most benign and easily contented — very low maintenance! He has the least status of all of Phloi’s children, but as far as the narrative is concerned, he has an important role in defining Phloi from the close mother-favourite son relationship. He thus acts as a lens or filter, whilst also having complimentary characteristics; Phloi and Ot affirm each other and hence support each other in promulgating certain values to the reader. His views are more serious than those of Choi, Phloi’s very close lifelong friend and hearty antidote to modernity, and in respect of the overall message they are more significant.

Ot himself is sagacious and resourceful; immediately after his father’s death he is the one who gains authority and able to direct affairs. His savoir-faire reminds me of the Admirable Crichton, a butler taking command of a household he serves when they are stranded on an island. At the same time he can be incorrigible in his humorous digs, sometimes unable to hold back from witty and very astute observations. Just taking his conversation on its own merits, without the commentary, I’d find his remarks cutting, tending towards the sardonic, but the text generally relates that it’s all harmless. One wonders: is that the author speaking? Similarly, Ot smiles a lot, but they’re not all the same smiles, a few are “odd” — there are many kinds of smile in ‘the land of smiles’! Similarly, when I ask myself with whom would the author most identify, I notice that the closest by year of birth is Ot, who displays the keen art of observation, just like the author. (It might be fun to have a readers’ poll!)

The details of gossip (chat about relationships) are extensive and could be shorter, but that’s authentic and it’s done in a light and airy way. M.R. Kukrit’s delightful sense of humour prevents gloomy passages from being sustained: even when encounters are cold and malicious, he adds a little comment such as “Thus ended the dialogue — if that was the right term for such a lopsided exchange.” It’s a measured response, I think, to the immense upheaval, seeking to prompt reflection on noble traditions that are eroding or have been lost and to appreciate how they have contributed to a more harmonious society.

Modern literary criticism would subject the author’s intentions to closer scrutiny; is it a mere coincidence that the son who is most like his father is On, a royalist, whilst the argumentative one, An, is the one who pushes through with the modernisation programme? It’s also noticeable that in relation to political dispositions, the characters portrayed in particularly glowing terms are the most loyal to the royal traditions; they are calm, wise and benevolent, whereas some of the most radical proponents of change are shown as rather hot-headed. Was this really the case? Well, Ot’s slightly frightening description of the countenance of radical French intellectuals, are strikingly vivid; we know the author could draw on many contemporary accounts, though, of course, this depended on who were the informants!

Some might wonder about those who have no royal connections — how did they fare? Was the absolute monarchy at their expense? The descriptions include various fads that were sparked by the monarch, such as King Chulalongkorn’s comment on the patina of a particular ivory box; then the fashion was for ivory boxes as collector’s items and this being interwoven with poetry. A commonly accepted historical viewpoint considers that the monarchy was a huge drain on financial resources, leaving many in poverty, made stark in the 1920s and 1930s. Yet, this was nothing new. In the 17th Century Simon de la Loubère, special envoy of King Louis XIV, concluded that the locals, though having few possessions, appeared to generally exhibit a greater sense of well-being than those in the West.

Poverty did affect some of Phloi’s relatives who lost their wealth; the author narrates how this affected her half-sister:

Khun Choie talked of being poor as something ordinary, as nothing shameful or repellant. Certainly nothing terrible like, say, an incurable disease. She talked with characteristic frankness and naturalness ... Khun Choei resented nothing.

Whether rich or poor, it’s still the same family and Phloi’s faith was affirmed.

The descriptions of the landscape and natural environment are, I expect, spot on; some passages contain descriptions similar to those I’ve heard relating to my Thai relatives, especially when they first moved to Thonburi. In the narrative, we read that to get to Choi’s family home required walking down a lane then along planks to cross mud. Similarly, when the family first moved to a plot off the Taksin Road, they had to pull up their trousers and sarongs and walk around the edge of fields to reach it.

The accounts of education also tally with what I’ve heard: the wealthy have traditionally sought to have their children educated at a missionary school. My mother related that when she was a child it was generally considered that Christian missionary schools provided the best education, especially in English language, but they were expensive, so although her parents wanted to send her to one, they couldn’t afford it. At the same time the fear about conversion “to the farang church” was and is strong — for Thailand is predominantly Buddhist and most want to keep it that way.


And what of the patriarchy? It’s obviously there and is often picked up in more recent reviews, but I shall say only a few words as I feel I’m not best qualified to comment.

Ahead of Phloi’s wedding, her royal sponsor, Sadet, advises:

“Your husband’s happiness, your children’s happiness, the good name of the family — all this should come before your personal comfort.”

However, the author is aware of changing attitudes, even in his day, as he conveys Phloi’s views shortly after getting married to Prem:

Phloi ... came to be aware of the way she felt about him. She would not call it love; it struck her as not being at all similar to that love which she had once experienced. I feel myself as belonging to him. This is something absolute and unarguable. I belong to him completely and absolutely. I take him as my owner, as centre and mainstay of my life, forever, unless and until he himself should wish to cease being so. Some women may prefer to stay free of such a tie, but Phloi happened to be that feminine type who finds assurance in it, and happiness in that assurance.

Phloi’s role is well-defined and intentionally so as one who derives happiness from service to others. And as one seeking always to give more than receive, Phloi’s status actually rises in tandem with that of Prem, her husband, until she becomes a Khunying (“Lady”), though she remains the same person and carries out her life as usual. At the same time, whilst Phloi’s responsibilities are confined to the family, the narrative makes clear that in general this doesn’t preclude the highest responsibilities from women. There are extended passages describing Queen Saowabha acting as Somdet Regent, whilst her husband, King Chulalongkorn is in Europe.

My mother came to the West in the ‘60s when the rights of individuals were being asserted more strongly. She herself had a fiercely independent nature (reflected in a large, varied and entertaining group of friends), rather different in character from Phloi. Yet, when interviewed for a local paper in 1981 she retained views distinctly rooted in Thai tradition:

“... Buddha taught us to do things in moderation, and there is a strong accent put on family life — I feel it is important for me to do what is best for my family, whether it be cooking, cleaning or whatever. All the time I have to think of others and try to get rid of any selfishness. “
(Thursday’s Lotus: The Life and Work of Fuengsin Trafford, p. 164).

Whatever one’s views, the narrative describes how Phloi’s attitudes fostered mutual respect, as her husband, Prem, remarked:

“You owe me nothing. It’s the other way round. You could have found a husband a thousand times better than this one. If there should be any debt at all, then it is I who owe it. I’ll make it up to you, Mae Phloi. I’ll try in every way to make myself worthy to you.”

He remains ever faithful and attentive to her needs, particularly in difficult times, as in Phloi’s final life-threatening pregnancy. In a recent academic paper presented by Kanchana Witchayapakorn and Todsapon Suranakkharin at Naresuan University, ‘Dignity in Humility: The Representation of Central Female Characters in Thai Literary Works’, the authors emphasize Phloi’s character in fulfilling a role of complementarity and argue that she is extolling a cultural feminist perspective that is both dignified and vital in giving strength to the family and society as a whole.

Translation or Adaptation?

The text of Four Reigns is coherent, generally polished and even eloquent. It readily stands alone; although aware of Si Phaendin, I didn’t feel the need to consult the original. In the English version, M.R. Kukrit still paints vivid pictures of the outside world through the domestic situation with a flowing narrative and a great sense of timing, rather like a stage play. The translation particularly succeeds in conveying this flow, allowing passages to convincingly convey the tone even if the English is not perfect, for example: “the two men, their voices heavy and low, their faces clouded with anxiety and hurt and shame.” I understand that the name of the translator, ‘Tulachandra’, is actually a composite for a husband and wife team, Tulaya and Chaemchand Bunnag, with the latter being the primary translator. Chaemchand Bunnag was a professional translator of English literary works into Thai and the quality shows: her handling of idioms and turns of phrase is impressive, making the text sound convincing. And I’m sure that belonging to the extensive Bunnag family is also helpful in knowing the author's intentions.

However, I was curious about the original Thai and chanced across the text of Si Phaen Din online, though I’m not sure about the copyright. Then I came across ‘Analysis of the Thai-English translation [of] ‘Four Reigns’ by Abhiradee Rungsirichairat, M.A. thesis, Thammasat University, 2005. This scholarly work reveals that the translation is indeed very liberal, reordering sentences, paraphrasing, omitting details and even one or two characters; the thesis also claims that Four Reigns contains many mistakes, yet even so it still conveys the essence.

To investigate briefly, I looked at the Thai source from which the above quote about Phloi’s sense of belonging to Prem (p.199) was derived, which happens to be just beyond the selection used in Rungsirichairat's analysis. The corresponding Thai is as follows:

ความรู้สึกอย่างหนึ่ง ที่ไม่เคยมี ก็เกิดขึ้นมาในใจ พลอยไม่ยอมรับว่าความรู้สึกนั้นเป็นความรัก เพราะไม่เหมือนกับ ความรักที่เคยมีมาครั้งหนึ่ง ในกาลก่อน แต่ความรู้สึกที่เกิดใหม่นั้น เป็นของแน่นอนไม่มีวันเปลี่ยนแปลง หรือหวั่นไหวไปได้คือ รู้สึกว่าคุณเปรมนั้นเป็น เจ้าของๆตน เป็นหลักที่ตนจะต้องยึดมั่นไว่ในชีวิตนี้ ไม่มีวันที่จะผละออกได้ นอกจากคุณเปรมจะไม่ต้องการตนอีกต่อไป คนเราที่เกิดมาทุกคนย่อมมีจิตใจแตกต่างกัน มีใจที่รักความอิสระ โดยไม่มีข้อผูกพันกับใครบ้าง หรือมิฉะนั้นก็มีใจที่ ต้องการจะอยู่กับคนอื่น หรือเป็นของคนอื่น จะอยู่ด้วยตนเองแต่เพียงคนเดียวนั้นไม่ได้ พลอยเป็นผู้หญิงทั้งกายและใจโดย สมบูรณ์จึงมีใจอย่างประเภทหลัง เมื่อรู้สึกว่าตนมีเจ้าของก็เกิดความมั่นใจ และได้รับความสุขจากความมั่นใจนั้น ความรู้สึกว่าตนเป็นของคุณเปรม นั้นผิดกับความรู้สึกที่พลอยเคยมีต่อแม่หรือเสด็จ เพราะความใกล้ชิดสนิทสนมต่อคน ต่างเพศถึงเพียงนี้ พลอยมิได้เคยมีมาแต่ก่อน

Here is my attempt at a literal translation (with the help of Thai2English and Longdo):

She had a feeling in her heart like she never had before. Phloi did not accept that this feeling was love because it wasn’t the same as the love she had [felt] once before. But this new feeling, she was sure, was of belonging; it could not be changed and was unshakeable. She felt that Khun Prem was in that respect her owner. He was the guiding principle to whom she must hold fast in this life. There was to be no day when she would flee apart from the day when Khun Prem would no longer need her anymore. Since birth our minds naturally all bud [and flower] differently: there’s the mind that loves independence by not having any commitment with someone; or else there’s the mind that must live with or belong to someone else — they cannot live only with that one person. Phloi was a complete woman in body and mind. Consequently, her mind was of the following type: when she felt herself to have an owner then confidence arose and she obtained happiness from that confidence. Those feelings about her belonging to Khun Prem were unlike the feelings which Phloi had towards her mother or Sadet, for Phloi had not come to as intimate closeness as this towards someone of the opposite sex before.

Even allowing for mistakes in my translation, which are quite likely, it's evident that there’s a significant amount of paraphrasing as "happiness in that assurance", with the imagery of the bud and the several clauses omitted. Whilst this may help to maintain the flow of the text, I wonder whether this was in part done to be more palatable to a Western audience. In any case, some of the nuance has definitely been lost, similar to the way a high resolution image is stored with some compression — generally it looks fine, but on closer inspection some of the details cannot be discerned.

As regards issues raised in the thesis about meaning, I think a few of these are invalid as they are actually addressed in the text. For example, in the Silkworm Books publication the issue about lice is indeed brought up twice — i.e., there is first the story, as already alluded to above, “and commoners who tried to imitate them were only inviting the lice of ill luck upon their heads...”, and then Phloi seeks an explanation about the story: “Phloi did not laugh because her mind was on something else. She wanted to question father on those lice of ill luck ...” (p.28 [of the thesis]) Further, some of the use of English language is unnecessarily questioned, such as the idiom, “Are you well?” (p.44), which is perfectly natural. But this is quibbling for the research usefully illustrates how a body of work can be deemed an overall success whilst deviating significantly from a literal translation. At the same time, it should also prompt further close scrutiny of key passages in Four Reigns by reference to the original.

I’d also add that Rungsirichairat appears to have used a different printing or edition as I can find the quotes, but generally the page numbers referenced are higher than in my copy. (Actually, the copy that arrived on my doorstep had some defects. The printing process seems to have had a few hiccoughs as there are 5 or 6 leaves either missing or incorrect duplicates and throughout the text there are many soft hyphens that have not been removed, as though the original print run was for a different page setup and then someone forgot to clear them before sending to the printers a second time.)

There are just a few other minor issues that I noticed. For example, Ot address his mother as "my darling”, a term of endearment that I find odd — I’d expect it to be used for couples, between husband and wife, or possibly between a mother and her child, not by a son speaking to his mother, but it might be a term that is used in rarefied circles and/or was in vogue at the time. There are also a few spelling and typographic mistakes, such as “Bali" instead of ‘Pali’ and “Brama chaloka” instead of “Brahma ca loka”, but the explanation is helpful in this latter case. Also, whilst the spellings are in British English, some of the idioms appear to be North American, such as, “I’ll write him”.

Taken as a whole, there is evidently scope for other translations and one was already being prepared by Marcel Barang, but apparently his proposal was rejected and so we have to wait a long time, it seems, for the copyright to expire before any other version is permitted (see footnote below). But I think people can change their minds when given a fresh perspective.


This is a literary classic that I really enjoyed. It has explained quite a lot about attitudes prevailing among my Thai relatives, especially of the older generation. It's also valuable as a historical and educational resource: nowadays references can be easily checked with enhanced appreciation through various multimedia archive material available even in English.

M.R. Kukrit’s treatment of Phloi’s character is very sympathetic; as it emerges in her private reflections and interactions with a broad range of people, it is very fine; she is beautiful inwardly and outwardly, drawing the deepest of respect from all family members. The characters around her further enrich these qualities, especially Ot’s wisdom. Altogether this goes beyond any particular theme and is perhaps the main reason why the book is easy to read. It also contributes to the continued reverence with which the novel is held. Seeing the world today, we may reflect that Phloi’s qualities, rooted in metta (loving kindness) and karuna (compassion) are much needed to promote reconciliation and harmony.


For other translations, copyright needs to be observed for both the original newspaper articles and the book, Copyright Act B.E. 2537 (1994), superseded Copyright Act B.E. 2521 (1978)
 , which in turn replaced the The Act for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, B.E. 2474 (1931)
, as reported in a useful presentation; the general 
principle is explained (at USLegal, the first site I consulted via a Google search).

Thursday, February 08, 2018

A Review of Four Reigns (Part Six): Religion

Having worked through the text one reign at a time, I'd like to consider a few particular aspects for the text as a whole. Hence in the sixth of a series of posts reviewing Four Reigns, a translation of Si Phaendin, a Thai classic of historical fiction by M.R. Kukrit Pramoj, I shall consider the treatment of religion.

Traditionally, Thailand’s identity has been established on three pillars: nation, religion and king (and when Thailand became a constitutional monarchy, ‘constitution’ was inserted as a fourth element). Nationhood and kingship are described overtly, but what about religion? The official and generally accepted religion of Thailand has for many centuries been Buddhism, but running alongside have been other ancient religious traditions imported from Asia and the Middle East. In royal circles official ceremonies are strongly influenced by Indian culture and especially Brahmanism, which tended to become prevalent in formal administrative functions more than a thousand years ago. The language in use was Sanskrit, which explains why many Thai Buddhist terms have come to use the Sanskrit version and not the Pali, which is a written form approximating to the vernacular of the Magadha region.

Accordingly, the ritual observances that are described in detail tend to be Brahminical — the top-knot cutting ceremony, oath of allegiance, coronation and so on. Further, in the family context, there are some Chinese rituals as evidenced in connection with Prem’s Chinese ancestry. (For a fuller list of rituals from Brahmanism see Krit Witthawassamranku’s paper). So there are only occasional references to Buddhist acts of devotion, such as flowers for the Buddha image.

This also partly explains why the temples (wats) are not mentioned so much, but probably this would largely be taken for granted since there are tens of thousands of wats and hundreds of thousands of monks — they are ever present in daily life. Yet there are some direct references and suggestions as to the respect shown to the Triple Gem (Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha). For example, early on, within the Grand Palace, Sadet joins another princess for an afternoon of offerings to monks chanting in the Throne Hall; and on their way by boat to Bang Pa-In, we see monks on canoes, accepting food at piers and landings. The Sangha features at most ceremonies concerning major transitions in life (and death); at her marriage ceremony, Phloi is listening very intently to monks chanting Mangala Sutta, Ratana Sutta and Bojjhanga Paritta [7 factors of Enlightenment recited as a protection] and implicitly understands at least some (“though not all”) of the meaning. In brief nods to the monastic life, Phloi expresses the common wish to see her son, Od, in robes before getting married, which eventually comes true when he requests ordination.

In fact there are Buddhist concepts woven into the narrative; returning from Bang Pa-In, we read Phloi “contemplating … the inescapable facts of getting born, falling ill, growing old and dying.” and she then strives to cultivate awareness of these facts. Impermanence (Pali: anicca), is a recurring theme, helping to articulate the reality of change — in these pages it drastically affects people, possessions, health and home. However, the starkness of the underlying Dhamma is softened by the the author’s imaginative prose, which depicts the characters lingering on past memories, painting evocative scenes in a kind of dreamy sepia effect. Furthermore, some of the language also draws on Buddhist analogies, as when Khun Un, Phloi’s eldest half-sister, refers to Prem as “a bo tree spreading happiness over her head”. (The Buddha was Enlightened at the foot of a bo tree.) If it were a theatre production, because of Buddhism’s universality I can imagine the entire cast joining in a chorus, no matter what their character.

And as the disconcerting reality of change bites deeper, some of the religious beliefs emerge more strongly and the value of the monastic life and involvement of the Sangha seems to emerge closer to hand: we see Phloi praying fervently for the release of a son, Choi spending time repairing monk's robes, monks choosing names for babies or young children, and the belief in good deeds (as urged by Phloi to An). The importance of puñña (merit) is made clear when Choei, reflecting on increased poverty during war, asks: “What will happen to them if they become too poor to do merit-making?” to which Phloi responds, “But that’s unthinkable ... merit-making is our way of life”. There’s also Phloi’s urgent questioning of the law of Karma following the passing of Ot, the observance of Vesak (the day in which the Buddha was born, became Enlightened and entered final nirvana) together with more superstitious beliefs, including the possession of amulets (Phoem frequented many wats).

There’s no explicit reference to the Five Precepts per se, but Phloi’s character evidently values them: for example, whilst the consumption of alcohol appears to be common in aristocratic circles, she quietly disapproves of Pherm taking to whisky and other farang drinks on the pretext of ‘social drink’ — “to Phloi, liquor still meant liquor”, and she’s hurt by his periods of excess, particularly smoking, drinking and gambling, which render him insensitive to what she’s saying. In fact, her behaviour is closely aligned to teachings of the Sigalovada Sutta, in which the Buddha gives guidance on cultivating wholesome relationships as a lay person, on the importance of associating with the wise and so on.

What is absent, though, is meditation practice among the lay; the perceived incompatibility is alluded to when Choei remarks that she feels drawn to renounce the world and take up meditation practice if she did not have family commitments. In the first half of the 20th century it was left to monastics to practice meditation whilst lay people mainly concentrated on doing good deeds, cultivating merit; this was the case in my mother’s family until my mother made the breakthrough in her teens and then some of her siblings, nephews and nieces followed her example (as described in her biography).

There is also a fair sprinkling of astrological and superstitious beliefs; Halley’s comet, sighted towards the end of the rainy season in 1910, is taken as a bad omen and inevitably connected to King Chulalongkorn’s passing that year (even after King Edward VII passes away in England). There’s a charming and magnanimous Thai slant: Muang England has many colonies, so it seemed fitting that an international ‘sign’ be viewed from all its colonies to indicate that its ruler was going to heaven! Also there’s the use of a heavily accented blind Chinese fortune-teller to predict the future of the children. It turns out he is accurate. This practice has long been common among Thais — my mother certainly had consulted them occasionally (or perhaps they approached her). There’s also the belief that an unexpected action brings unexpected consequences — as with Ot getting a job bringing rain during winter — and the need to take care with one’s intentions, i.e. be careful what you wish for, advice that Ot disregards as he prays that he will die before his mother and it turns out that way.

Overall, the influence of Buddhism is subtle and not much made explicit with respect to its role in society; references to the functions of Sangha members are made almost in passing. This is because to the Thai people it was an ever-present reality, as natural as one’s skin. It’s the occasional reference to other non-Buddhist religious practices that appear more obviously because they would have been less common, even strange. However, there is certainly a Buddhist ethos permeating Phloi’s outlook and behaviour — in body, speech and mind. She carries an air of serenity and displays a great deal the qualities of universal love expressed in the Brahmaviharas (the divine abidings or sublime states).

One final remark concerning the author’s own background. M.R. Kukrit belongs to the very influential House of Bunnag, who trace their ancestry through the centuries to Iranian traders and merchants, who were Shia Muslim. A notable figure among them was Sheikh Ahmad Qomi, who arrived in Siam around 1600 and settled there until his passing. They became very successful, winning the confidence of the kings of that period until they assumed high office, in particular responsible for foreign affairs (except for dealings with the Chinese). They even had mosques built in the grounds of the royal palace (at that time in Ayutthaya), but later generations converted to Buddhism.

Still further comment to follow in the final post...

A Review of Four Reigns (Part Five): Rama VIII

In the fifth of a series of posts reviewing Four Reigns, a translation of Si Phaendin, a Thai classic of historical fiction by M.R. Kukrit Pramoj, we come to the last of the four reigns: King Ananda Mahidol (1935-1946). As previously, I’m especially interest in how the author portrays historical developments, particularly the impact of changes in society on people’s behaviour; he has a gift of conveying changes at large in the local context of a family household, albeit an aristocratic one.

Thai postage stamp (2 Satangs) issued during the reign of King Ananda Mahidol, from the collection of Paul Trafford

Ananda Mahidol becomes king of Thailand at the tender age of 10, too young to properly assert authority, which meant power rested more firmly with the nascent constitutional government. In contrast with the king’s youth, as the story enters the second half of the 1930s, Phloi, the main character, is really showing her age as she dwells on the fact that she is khon si paendin (a person of four reigns), reminiscing on the early years of her life.

Modern Manners and Mores

There’s a pause in the coverage of serious historical developments as household chats are resumed and some further diversion as Praphai, Phloi's daughter, becomes quite a “gallivanting” socialite, enjoying many new freedoms that privileged youngsters have. This modish behaviour is exemplified by the introduction of the new ‘party’ (pronounced “pat-ee”) trend and its farang-style dancing. This activity is initially concealed from Phloi by several of her children, until she is obliged to host one for her daughter, with the enthusiastic participation of the household. It’s a welcome light-hearted interlude, with detailed descriptions that could easily be set to stage or a lavish film production. (And this is the kind of lifestyle that seemed to have appealed to my mother some 15 odd years later: having experienced a strict childhood with tight control on her movements, when she arrived at university she exercised her new-found freedom to socialise across departments and universities!).

Phloi’s obvious reservations at such ‘progress’ and then her mollification are again nicely described as she is able to indulge further in nostalgia with one of the guests, Than Chai Noi, whose mother was a contemporary of hers in the Upper Palace. Given all that had been going on, it’s no wonder they quickly got on very well and the author reminds us once again of the refined behaviour exhibited by those suitably trained in the Grand Palace. Indeed this impeccably-mannered gentleman represents the royal ideal and the extended passages make clear he is liked by all. Phloi’s hopes are raised that her daughter might seek to wed this gentleman, so altogether the reader is meant to sympathise with him.

The narrative sets up a dramatic contrast with a rival, Khun Sewi, a colleague of An. He’s almost the opposite in character, being materialistic and opportunistic, steadily becoming a source of further worry and division in the family. And unbelievably — we are meant to feel — it is this older man who finds his way into Praphai’s heart. To engender a sense of revulsion we’re informed that Ot, who is usually so calm and accommodating, can’t bear the sight of him, proceeding to share with his mother fierce criticism of Khun Sewi's less than honourable character. Ot even becomes furious on hearing the news of the engagement, asserting that Khun Sewi is only interested in money. And just in case the reader would like to give him the benefit of the doubt, Ot’s suspicions are later borne out when Khun Sewi starts to exercise undue interest in running the affairs of the estate using Praphai as proxy, who herself eventually confesses that he is obsessed about it.

As ever the bitterness and unsavouriness is washed down with a sweetener: Ot provides the humour as he becomes ‘man about town’ to chaperone his sister away from Khun Sewi’s attentions. However, we start to see a little more of the less amiable side of Ot and as it seems so out of character, it makes Khun Sewi's behaviour appear even more questionable. And what does Khun Sewi stand for? These and related views emerge in the following pages and the signal to the reader is clear: beware! Khun Sewi symbolises the kind of ‘progressive’ state that tramples on intangible qualities of dignity and respect; it’s obvious where the reader’s sympathies are meant to lie. It’s almost creating a kind of pantomime where you can imagine the cheers for Than Chai and the boos and hisses for Khun Sewi (and by implication the whole ‘democracy’ project is subject to deep scepticism.)

With the air being rather cloudy, even the normally decorous Phloi in a careless moment uses Chek, the not-so-complimentary slang for Chinese (cf Kaerk for Indians). She realises the below par nature as soon as she has said it. However, despite her strenuous efforts to dissuade her daughter, Praphai accepts Khun Sewi’s offer of marriage. Whilst the outcome is surprising, the dynamics generally ring true, though I was surprised that Praphai was able to make the decision about where to go and stay and that the assumption was that it would be with her husband — although my mother moved away from home to settle in the UK, her case was an exception as all three sisters who got married stayed at the family compound and had houses built on the land there; I think that’s far more common. In fact a few years later her mother (it is strongly suspected) made an attempt via a cousin on a UK business trip to persuade my parents to settle in Thailand.

What is incontestable is the importance of family background — it’s more important than in the West. And, at least, we see Khun Sewi obliging his fiancée in every way ahead of the matrimony. Phrapai organises everything with remarkable efficiency for what becomes a society wedding with “grand personages of the new regime”, as Choi puts it, followed by some mild condescension from the royalist seniors about their manners. Some customs are done the farang way much to the bemusement of the elders, yet despite their reservations, the celebrations in the garden are described in glowing terms, and they are able to have a chuckle about it all. It seems as though such cultural innovations, though puzzling and sometimes breaking with some customs, are not really the issue, and this fits the picture of Thais being adaptable. However, the question arises as to how far one takes this (and more generally who is steering such change). There are further cultural shifts after the wedding: Praphai has no engagement with the kitchen and she and her husband practice birth control, which are genuine disappointments for Phloi.

Tangential to this is promising news from On: political prisoners like him are likely to be moved for rehabilitation and a “re-training programme” followed by release. It’s greeted with tears of joy by Phloi, though there might be an eerily familiar ring about such ‘re-education'. In the event, he gets relocated to an island in the South owing to the Songsuradet rebellion (I think that’s what’s alluded to), when Luang Phibulsonggram ruthlessly consolidated his power. Further, the return of Nai Luang from Switzerland provides another opportunity to see the world in a more positive light (or rose-tinted spectacles) with clouds bringing shade to the well-wishers. However, these seem increasingly to be exceptions as Phloi finds living even more a struggle and experiences a deep sense of loneliness.

The narrative proceeds relentlessly like this, heaping uncomfortable disruption on Phloi’s world, so that for the remainder of the book one senses there’s going to be more trouble, not a happy resolution; it feels to me like going off the edge of a cliff in slow motion. The tone is partly calibrated by Ot, who appears bothered and listless until, viewed as a worthless layabout by Khun Sewi, he is roused to find his first job, in the Ministry of Public Information. The author takes the opportunity for further parody: initially there’s nothing to do, at which his uncle, Phoem, jests that many have risen to great heights on a daily routine of tea and reading newspapers. Then he becomes interested in how the whole Civil Service operates and immersed in his work, but it only lasts a few months as he can’t bring himself to adopt fawning and cliquish behaviour, so he resigns. As though wanting to have nothing to do with this setup, he subsequently finds a job down South, where he can help his brother, On.

International relations

The advent of the Second World War provides another window on Thais and international relations; An’s incorrect predictions (German victory, short war and limited impact on Thailand) are way off the mark; there’s disinterest in developments in Europe, but as the issue emerges of reclaiming border territories seceded to the French, then Thailand gets drawn in. The narrative paints a bleak picture with gathering clouds, conveying the sense of foreboding and helplessness.

The dialogues in the family allows expression of a range of views, with interesting insights into how various nations are perceived. Phoem’s general state of uncertainty sets the tone for a rollercoaster of fortunes. One of the most important goals running through the efforts of Muang Thai is the striving to retain independence through neutrality — kwam pben klang, which literally means ‘being in the centre’ (a fitting instruction for meditation practice!) In a complex situation that was rapidly evolving, the government had to look simultaneously East and West. Even well-connected families would receive only partial reports, as with the news of the Japanese negotiating the restoration of some provinces from French control.

Accordingly the narrative shares only snippets so the reader is left with a blurry background. So when the Japanese initially invade Thailand, there is confusion and it seems like the country is caught unawares; it rapidly capitulates and enters into an agreement that allows the Japanese occupation. The drama is heightened with the opener, “And on the night it happened.”, accompanied by the kinds of memories that are never to be erased (Where were you on that fateful day? What were you doing?) Khun Sewi is the only one who speaks at all positively about this development, making the point that resistance could be very costly to life. But this observation, which seems realistic given the evident military superiority that the Japanese held over the Thais, doesn’t move anyone.

Confusion reigns and perceptions vacillate. We read how Phloi picks up on the atmosphere in the nation at large, depicted as one of gloom and despondency: “the whole country (with Khun Sewi as the exception) had seemed to her to be in deep mourning”. Yet within a few sentences that sense has disappeared and the Japanese have quickly become accepted as a new presence in society (Thais are adept at just carrying on with their day to day business). But it was only Khun Sewi who originally welcomed the Japanese as partners and he is pointedly reported as profiting, so despite the Maha Mit (Great Friend) credentials, other warning remarks in the narrative serve to increase the troubling suspense.

Japan as a nation gets some rough treatment, but is it reasonable? At the time the story was originally being serialised in Siam Rath, it was only about 8 years after the end of hostilities, so the memory of the occupation was still fresh. It might have been a sensitive matter to discuss relations with Japan, not least because of the chagrin felt from Thailand being so easily occupied. There are also the author’s own political ties from that period. It’s probably little coincidence that when Thailand declared war on the Allies, M.R. Seni Pramoj, M.R. Kukrit’s elder brother and the Thai ambassador to Washington, refused to deliver it. Then in the immediate aftermath of the war it was rehabilitated with the help of Allies, through the Seri Thai (Free Thai) resistance movement that M.R. Seni had founded. Furthermore, whilst Si Paendin was being written, Thailand was led by the authoritarian Field Marshall Plaek Phibunsongkhram, who had during the war formed the alliance with Japan.

Thais seem to view the Japanese as a nation in a mixture of admiration, awe and trepidation. This goes back a long way because of trade links: for example, in the 17th century, there were close ties between the rulers of Muang Thai and Japan, with Samurai warriors sometimes helping the Thai king.

One of the motivations given by historians as to the political agitation that led to the 1932 revolution was the perceived need to emulate the Japanese development, particularly their industrialisation, which was very rapid. But on a more visceral level, some of the antipathy may have to do with a substantial proportion of Thais having Chinese ancestry and Sino-Japanese relations had been strained for decades. Fast forward a couple of decades to the early ‘70s and there’s still wariness; on returning to Wong Wien Yai after 8 years in the UK, she records with a note of dismay in her diary: “There are Japanese billboards everywhere!” Yet, for the next two decades Thailand continued to woo Japanese businesses, so that in the ‘80s they were building golf courses and ambitious young Thai execs were practising their golf swing.

Returning to the narrative, we see An’s previous optimism about international affairs evaporate and then the penny drops about Khun Sewi; suddenly we see An despise the man he previously trusted, much to Phloi’s disappointment as she continues to strive for family harmony. The Western allies response is in the form of a major bombing campaign targeting Bangkok, where the Japanese have set up bases and supply lines. Government efforts at international alignment are manifest in cultural changes, wathanatham, as prescribed by Phibunsonggram’s government. Cosmetic elements in terms of fashion are ridiculed: the mode of dress, including shoes and hats, using cutlery for meals, the banning of the consumption of betel nuts, etc.

Occasions of light relief aside, the general situation provides little gladness; Phloi and her family have to suffer yet more disappointment and loss, particularly the death of Ot to malaria. There’s also severe flooding, which Thais generally responded to in a positive way, at least that’s how it appears in a film archive, which shows the Thais taking it gamely in their stride (or, rather, their oars) with opportunities for leisure, exploring the city by rowing boat; and it shows the government continuing to operate as we see the arrival of several ministers, I assume — were they the ones responsible for the national campaign for kuaitieo (rice noodles)?! But, as the narrative notes, it had a serious impact on poorer growers. It’s as though Muang Thai will never recover after the entry into war.

Another short interlude sees An behaving like the prodigal son when he confesses deeply held regrets to Phloi regarding his involvement in bringing about the new form of government. Ot arrives soon after and is the same, but more grown up; for a brief period there is harmony — Phoem and Ot resume their banter by pondering the new-fangled language being promoted nationwide. But the peace is shattered by a series of air raids; as they progress, the atmosphere becomes increasingly frightened until a daylight raid sees all of Phloi’s family takes refuge in a bunker just before the main house is destroyed. Phloi is left feeling desolate, yet this quirk of fate means she returns to live in Khlong Bang Luang, her ancestral home. Many families in Bangkok have stories from the war: my grandparents' home in Wong Wien Yai on the Thonburi side escaped attack, but my Aunt, Umpai, was wounded by shrapnel as she cross the Memorial Bridge one day and the friend she was with lost her life. My mother also remembered the bombs dropping.


The closing chapters continue the rollercoaster of events and emotions. The reality of war grows with its “increasing difficulties and privations”, then a change of government [1944 with Khuang Aphaiwong as Prime Minister] restores some of the old Thai traditions. There is some rare good news: all political prisoners are released and On looks set to returns home at last only to be delayed because Ot’s health becomes critical. The reality of impermanence is never far away; one night, in a poignant scene, Ot suddenly appears to his mother in a vision, looking well, just a few days before On returns to bring news of his brother’s passing, but she already knew.

One ancient word that we don’t see, at least not in the translation, is dukkha, a Pali word meaning unsatisfactoriness or suffering. On relates about his dukkha as a prisoner, but just at the point where the narrative could lose hope, he brings great cheer to his mother by announcing his intention to ordain as a monk and a simple ordination takes place, bringing the family together in happier moments, with shared respect for the significance of the occasion. The narrative presents a nice summary of the process.

The ordination over Phloi’s health fades and the narrative signals that it won’t be long now: she shows little concern as to whether or not medicine will work. The end of the war doesn’t really help as it just means Japanese soldiers being replaced by farangs. However, she does respond very positively to news of the planned return of the king from Switzerland and manages to join the throng paying respects, keeping her in good spirits for months… until the great tragedy: the shooting of the king, which is too much for Phloi and she passes away the afternoon of the same day. Thus a calamitous ending for such a virtuous human being, a dramatic device that seems to protest that a very heavy price has been paid for all the so-called progress and development.

So ends the book, but not my review - some further analysis to follow, starting with religion ...

Monday, February 05, 2018

In Memoriam: Jane Browne

Jane Browne, a long-time supporter of Buddhism, passed away on Sunday 5 February 2017 at the age of 92. On the occasion of the anniversary I offer this little memorial.

Jane Browne offering dana (meal) to Luang Ta Maha Boowa, Wat Pah Baan Taad, Thailand, 1972
Jane Browne offering dana (almsfood) to Luang Ta Maha Boowa,
Wat Pah Baan Taad, Thailand, 1972

Jane’s contribution to the development of Buddhism in Britain spanned about 65 years — as I recall, she once told me that she had first started subscribing to The Middle Way, the journal of the Buddhist Society in London, in 1952. She was exceedingly kind and generous in her contributions, with a practical outlook and a discerning eye, though she could also be sharply critical if something wasn’t right. She was a little self-conscious about her relative lack of formal education, but I expect that as far as members of the Sangha were concerned this was considered a positive attribute for she really knew what was needed to support monastic organisations rather than overly theorising.

It seems that Jane knew early on the fundamental importance of establishing a suitable Buddhist community and was ready to support especially the embryonic developments of Sangha in the West. Hence she became involved with the English Sangha Trust and I imagine she would have participated in gatherings at the Hampstead Buddhist Vihara as well as the Buddhist Society in Eccleston Square.

She became a most loyal disciple and supporter of the Thai Forest Tradition, receiving teachings especially from Luang Ta Maha Boowa, at Wat Pah Baan Taad in Udon province, Northeast Thailand (ไทย | English). In the mid ‘60s she took with her Freda Wint to spend a rains retreat there and they continued to follow this famous teacher for many years. Jane also assisted and practiced under some Western disciples of Luang Ta, notably Ven. Ajahn Paññāvaddho, who for many years was the most senior English bhikkhu according to the number of rains retreats observed. Jane worked tirelessly to support him and other Sangha members to help spread Buddhist practice to Westerners.

It was in this capacity that (as far as I can determine) she co-founded the Hampshire Buddhist Society in 1966 following an initial talk at Southampton University. Regular meetings were subsequently hosted in a converted well house in the grounds of her home in Winchester, a fitting metaphor for the well-spring of Dhamma practice! And it was at the university gathering where Jane first met my mother, the late Fuengsin Trafford. They hit it off immediately, becoming lifelong friends. Fuengsin was very impressed by Jane’s dedication and commitment, but most of all because it seemed like she had absorbed teachings with a clear understanding. So she joined the Society.

A characteristic of these early meetings was the ecumenical nature — there was input from Theravada, Zen and Tibetan traditions, with active help across the traditions. Jane hosted some of the first Western bhikkhus (she once showed me a photo of Sangharakshita in traditional robes meditating in the garden!). But it was the Thai Forest Tradition that Jane was devoted to and she proceeded to work with Fuengsin to disseminate Ven. Ajahn Paññāvaddho’s desanas (sermons). Then, at the passing of Luang Sarayutpitag, Fuengsin’s father, Jane was invited to contribute to his cremation volume and accordingly she wrote about the Society’s first meeting. In that volume Fuengsin herself wrote in glowing terms about the Society, remarking how the shrine was laid out just as it would be in Thailand (a spiritual home from home!). Later, in 1972, after my family had moved to Kent, my mother accompanied Jane on a visit to Wat Pah Baan Taad to pay respects to Luang Ta (which is when the above photo was taken).

I first met Jane in the late ‘60s, but I can’t remember it because I was a baby! She very kindly allowed my mother to visit her and her husband, Ian Browne, at their home in Winchester. After they moved to Cornwall in the early ‘70s, the Brownes very kindly invited us to spend summer holidays at Resugga, their farmhouse in St. Erme, near Truro. Over the years many Buddhist practitioners — ordained and lay — stayed there, in one of the annexes; and the shrine had moved from a well-house to a converted barn. Sometimes Freda would be there and no doubt the three ladies would have had much discuss about Buddhist matters.

Jane supported all the main forest monasteries, as far as I know, particularly Cittaviveka (Chithurst), and Amaravati, and just kept going, even returning to visit Wat Pah Baan Taad in 2010 less than a year before Luang Ta passed away. Afterwards she continued her support for propagation in the West: she was often ferrying items, such as piles of Buddhist books, latterly with the aid of the Internet. More recent examples were Uncommon Wisdom and Mae Chee Gaew, publications from the Forest Dhamma monastery, for which she had travelled in her mid ‘80s all the way to Virginia to assist Tan Ajahn Dick Silaratano, the Abbot in setting it up. Jane was truly a trusted Dhamma support and distribution channel.

As to her own writings, she did have a brief foray into the curious world of higher education, taking a course under the direction of John Peacock, for which she produced a richly informative essay, What is the Goal of Buddhism?. She wasn’t confident that such Dhamma was sufficiently ‘scholarly’ to receive many marks, but my website statistics indicate considerable interest in what she has written.

Furthermore her activities retained considerable breadth. In 2013 she came all the way from Somerset to Oxford to present a Buddhist perspective at an interfaith event on ‘Spirit of the Environment: Living sustainably with faith in our communities’. Jane spent a night at the Brahma Kumaris' Global Retreat Centre, which she found heavenly. A couple of years later she was back in Oxford to attend Freda’s funeral.

Jane suffered from shingles in her latter years, but was still getting out and about with the help of friends, attending important ceremonies such as the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Hampshire Buddhist society in October 2016. Fittingly she passed away during a recitation of the Mangala Sutta, the sutta about life’s blessings — in Jane’s case they were many.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

A Review of Four Reigns (Part Four): Rama VII

In this post, the fourth in a series reviewing Four Reigns a translation of M.R. Kukrit Pramoj's classic work, Si Phaendin, we cover King Prajadhipok (Rama VII), who succeeded King Vajiravudh.

Thai postage stamp (10 Satangs) issued during the reign of King Prajadhipok, from the collection of Paul Trafford

The pace of change continues to quicken and Phloi’s sense of disorientation increases; Prem is affected adversely too, losing much of his vitality, in his case deeply grieving at the loss of King Vajiravudh. His level of devotion is remarkable, but not implausible for the king’s personal attendant, Chao Khun Naratana (Chao Khun Nor), recorded similar grief and led to his lifelong ordination as a monk for the sake of the king (details of his life are scarcely recorded, but accounts of his time as a monkg are remarkable for quality of practice.)

As the world experiences economic depression, the new king seeks to reduce expenditure resulting in further changes to the Palace, particularly the Royal Page Corps, which leads to Prem's resignation and then anxiety and boredom. It might have been too much to bear if it were not for Ot’s return from England, basically the same person, good-humoured, uttering his usual quips. As ever, there's banter to lighten the situation, though for modern readers it sometimes descends into the absurd. Among the proposed solutions to Prem’s listlessness comes a suggestion from Phor Phoem, Phloi's brother, for Prem to acquire young ladies as Mia Noi (minor wives). Phloi is open to raising this possibility as a devoted wife (apparently this was not considered so absurd!), though she won’t go as far as arranging it. Having minor wives has long been a facet of Thai society and was still legal at that time, but, at least to modern sensitivities, it's likely to be regarded as an embarrassment or anathema; now that Thai law stipulates monogamy, following the Buddha's teachings would suggest the wisdom of compliance with one spouse only.

Phloi also has to contend with her thoroughly modern daughter, Praphai, but the most difficult experience of all is the sudden death of Prem due to an accident, perhaps a deliberate device in the plot to indicate that his disquiet could not be resolved by the changes in society following the passing of King Rama VI. It create a vacuum into which is filled the arrival of a new reality, in a single word kanmuang (“politics”) and the remainder of the book is filled with increasing sense of tension. The relative peace and harmony in the household (and by implication the whole country) is seemingly disturbed forever.

Politics and the New Constitution

A sense of being driven on restlessly to a new political reality is manifest especially in An. He is now the focus of attention; the narrative casts only shadows, mentioning his long absences with his companions without making explicit quite what's going on. It is clear, however, that he's an activist for the vision he had caught in Europe, “We’ve got men with little competence but lots of family influence together with old men with obsolete ideas running the country for us.” (p.401). It's somewhat paradoxical then that he becomes estranged with Lucille, his French wife, leading eventually to her permanent return to France. She is a casualty of a situation where the tension builds steadily. It comes to prominence after Prem’s death, as Ot starts to probe An, not as casually as it might sound: “Who are these people who are engineering the changes to come?” (p.412).

The prospect of drastic change gains momentum as Phloi recalls a prophecy about the Chakri dynasty’s power ending after 150 years of the Ratanakosin Era followed by rumours of a coup, with An implicated. It’s enough to spark a rare emotional outburst from Phloi and she interrogates her son to assure herself that he remains loyal to the king.

The narrative depicts a complicated and confused situation with the suggestion of manoeuvring behind the scenes until the eruption, the coup of June 1932, and the arrival of Khana Ratsadon (the People’s Party) demanding a constitution. Characteristically, M.R. Kukrit dissolves some of the seriousness (and credibility?) of the intentions by allowing Phoem to enunciate in heavily accented tones, khon-sati-tu-chan, similarly repeated by Ot, but when the coup actually follows the atmosphere is deadly serious — Phloi is even filled with rage on learning that An is indeed involved. Domestic relations are on a knife edge; the skilful and astute narrative conveys very well these tantalising moments in falterings words and half-finished sentences, accompanied by tacit glances.

When An eventually arrives back home, the narrative gradually unfolds the situation as dramatic theatre, with the home the centre stage. The delicate balance shifts in various dialogues; Choi reports the terror felt in the Inner Court, whilst Ot, as usual, runs rings around An with his repartee. Initially, it’s good-humoured, with An inviting Ot to join him in the new administration, but that doesn’t last long. With An recognised as one of the leaders of change, almost the entire household starts to distance themselves from him, until the arrival of On. Soon An, On, and Ot are all together round the table and there is an explosion that barely escapes fisticuffs ... there descends an eerie silence apart from On’s sobbing, the household’s unity shattered. Again, the author is skilful in his use of dialogue and gestures, it’s as though it was taken directly from a stage play.

Thus the reality of politics and from now on the narrative makes abundantly clear that it’s a hard slog for all concerned. I find particularly instructive Ot’s fresh view of what politics is all about — here in the UK we take a parliamentary democracy for granted along with all the debating in the two Houses.

Addressing his mother, he tries to explain simply as follows:

“Before politics, Phi On was doing his soldiering and Phi An his law, each in his own special field, not interfering with each other’s line of business, not called upon to do so. Enter politics, and they find themselves thrown together, for politics is one huge all-embracing fields; politics widens horizons, pulls down walls and invites everybody in. A solider and a lawyer can meet here to work for the common good of our country — our muang — or to disagree as to what that common good might be and fight to the death for what they think is right. Politics gives everybody the right to differ, the right to his own conviction, be he soldier or lawyer, prince or commoner.

Politics is progress, is civilization, is justice and therefore marvellous, some say; politics is a dirty business, others will tell you. You can put up arguments for or against either side. Politics enobles, politics corrupts. Politics inspires you with high ideals, gives you the freedom and the opportunity to fulfil yourself, to enjoy the satisfaction of being the master of your own destiny rather than having masters to arrange your life for you. Politics also sets brothers against brothers, even sons against fathers. Murders have been committed in its name and in its name great and glorious deeds for mankind have been achieved. Enduring friendships have been forged through politics and through it you can lose all your friends, your money, your liberty, your wife.”

He follows it with an image of a pond filling with fish, many of whom then get caught by fishermen.

Politics duly pervades the conversations. There’s no escape, to the extent that Phloi felt there was “too much freedom for her peace of mind.” M.R. Kukrit applies his own political background to pick out particular terms around which he shares many pointed and canny observations such as patiwat (revolution), indicating the deleterious effects on society; even reporting temple boys rising up against monks who were looking after them. Sanuk (fun) is in short supply.

The royalist Boworadet rebellion follows, but fails, and On ends up in prison. Phoem is also in prison for a short while, in bizarre circumstances. The author comments, though, that most Thais were not personally affected. The narrative continues to convincingly add to the spectrum of emotions with deep pathos as Phloi desperately implores An to do something to help, “like a drowning victim clutching at any twig floating by”. There’s also underlying sinisterness — An seemingly can’t help because he is being watched and he cautions his mother from visiting On in prison. The author captures the drama; there is a sense of performance beyond mere narrative, which I think comes from his background in theatre — all the world’s a stage.

[In 1932 my maternal grandfather was a captain in the army and a couple of years before had received the title of Luang Sarayutpitag (referred to as a lowly rank in Four Reigns!). His regiment was involved in suppressing the Boworadet Rebellion and a year later he obtained a ‘Saving the Constitution’ medal. Perhaps he could have advanced his career in the new constitutional setup, but he chose instead to transfer to the Ministry of the Interior and prison services, eventually becoming a tax inspector! He preferred a quiet and peaceful life.]

The influence of politics weighs heavily on Phloi on her family. The narrative dwells on On’s predicament: he is sentenced to execution, but it’s commuted (and eventually he is released). It’s also an occasion for Phloi to reflect on the realities of life they have thrown up, on the growing divisions within the family and the fickle nature of some friendships. She has to experience some humiliation as she visits On in prison, travelling up the Chao Phraya by boat, and to add to the gloom she observes the diminished status of princely homes, many now pale shadows of their former glory.

King Prajadhipok leaves for Europe, never to return, eventually abdicating in March 1935, as he was unable to come to an agreement with the new government. Ot comments that democracy has lost “one of its staunchest champions”. By consistently making Ot the voice of reason, the author has effectively made a strong statement about the nature of the transition to democracy and it’s not very complimentary!

In fact in his brief abdication statement, the king declared:

I am willing to surrender the powers I formerly exercised to the people as a whole, but I am not willing to turn them over to any individual or any group to use in an autocratic manner without heeding the voice of the people.

A king abdicating was unprecedented, a prelude to yet more high drama in the next reign...

Saturday, February 03, 2018

A Review of Four Reigns (Part Three): Rama VI

This is the third of a series of posts reviewing Four Reigns, a translation of Si Phaendin, a Thai classic of historical fiction by M.R. Kukrit Pramoj. Following on from the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), we come to his successor, King Vajiravudh (Rama VI). I’m including quite a few quotes here, but only including page numbers for the longer ones — perhaps I’ll add others later.

Thai postage stamp (3 Satangs) issued during the reign of King Vajiravudh, from the collection of Paul Trafford

For Phloi, no king after Chulalongkorn (Rama V) could occupy a place in her heart to the same degree. Perhaps this is why 250 pages are devoted to crafting a detailed illumination of palace life under this monarch, whereas life under his successor to the throne, King Rama VI, has about half that, Rama VII has about 70 pages and Rama VIII about 130 pages. However, these reigns actually witness considerably more drama, depicting far-reaching social and cultural changes.

International Awareness

Almost immediately during the new reign there’s the first major upheaval for Phloi as Sadet, her sponsor and guardian at the Inner Court, passes away. As a literary device it signals change in the manner of occupation in the Grand Palace: with the new king choosing not to reside there, many royal residents were moving out of the Inner Court, leaving behind empty spaces to gather dust and allow general decay, a theme reiterated in various places. The author is adept at describing change of mood and tempo; if this were adapted to Western classical music, perhaps it would be played in a minor key.

However, whilst often describing the loss M.R. Kukrit does not dwell very much on why this came about and relates matters quite indirectly, barely offering more than hints. The author point to the reason in a concise but disconnected summary of the situation, voiced through Khun Prem, Phloi’s husband, who speaks in rather dismissive tones in regards to the elder ladies of the Inner Court: 

"Tell Choi not to listen too much to these old women or she’ll get to be like them. They have nothing to do so they tittle-tattle all day long. The Rise and Fall of Royal Favourites — that has always been one of their pet themes. But this reign is not going to have several Queens and hundreds of Chao Choms [consorts]. He’s lived abroad and among farang Royals. It’s going to be just one wife for him.”

I didn’t find any further explanation in the text, but evidently living abroad had persuaded the new king to embrace the institution of marriage according to western norms, thereby largely removing the raison d’être of the Inner Court. It might be surmised that this was a form of rapprochement with the west, an act designed to give the appearance that Thailand was indeed ‘civilised’ and not primitive. There’s no direct comment on how that was regarded, but there’s scepticism about what it meant in practice: a quote from a dedicatory poem by King Rama VI about constancy is juxtaposed in the text with the break-off of his engagement with the lady in question, the fickle nature of the commitment reiterated later with the use of “rise” and “fall”. The author is more forthcoming on growing nationalism, which may well have been similarly motivated in terms of international relations — hence all provinces being “Thai” (and thereby negating, for example, “Lao” in the North).

Sadet’s passing also marked an important transition for Phloi as she takes on the responsibility of an elder. This is stated quite pointedly, probably deliberately by the author: an honourable citizen takes due responsibility of their charges. And in the midst of momentous change and people falling on hard times — “Khun Choei [a half-sister] living in a shophouse” (very normal for Thais, but not the aristocracy!) — she maintains contact with family and close friends, relationships which become even more treasured. The transition into adulthood also allows far greater definition of her character and indeed those around her.

Khun Phrem rises up the ranks rapidly and works in the Palace (at Dusit), promoted to rank of “Phra” and later to ”Phraya”. There’s a different rhythm as he becomes much involved in the new court, with strong farang influences in manner and dress: Phloi reluctantly accedes to long hair, white teeth for that samai mai (“modern”) look. Certain other phrases are adopted to keep moving with the times including sivilai (“civilised living”) and Samakhom (“society”), involving a range of new activities, including khon theatre. The author describes these changes more pointedly than under Rama VI’s predecessor by expressing Phloi’s lack of familiarity, occasional bemusement and even astonishment, yet still she is loyal, trusting in Nai Luang’s wisdom. What with Phoem’s eccentric hobbies (such as potted topiary trees, which apparently some monks are experts in too, she is the main anchor.

In what appears to be a period of material indulgence, there arrives a chauffeur-driven car, which Phloi happily embraces, but in a far more circumspect way that her husband; and she’s not so enamoured by his periods of excess and estrangement as he becomes absorbed by Samakhom. Phrem is particularly absorbed by the Wild Tiger Corps (Thai: กองเสือป่า), which was the personal paramilitary organisation devoted to the King, performing with the Cavalry branch. So it’s in this period that Phloi naturally becomes closer to the children. What’s particularly remarkable about Phloi is her sense of tact. Even when holding strong feelings she avoids potential arguments, she chooses her words and tone of voice carefully. (The Wild Tiger Corps had a junior division, Leuk Seua (“Tiger Cubs”), which is the Thai word for ‘Boy Scouts’; it became a source of amusement for my mother when I happened to name my scout patrol Tigers without realising the connection.)

Farang Influence

It is during this reign that Farangs have a greater presence in person, marked by they appearance at functions and in a professional capacity. The Farang way earns some respect in the delivery of Phloi’s last child, which had developed complications. It was attended to by a Western doctor, who is credited by Phrem and Phloi as saving her life. The Westerners seem to slip into the narrative as though this was an inevitable facet of development, without a clear sense of how and why. This also brings with it a general backdrop of anxiety on the international front, expressed by Phrem: “Our country is developing fast. Those who are not well-educated will soon lag behind.” (p.293).

World War I breaks out, and whilst Thailand is not greatly involved in the conflict, it suffers the economic repercussions. The encounter with the world is, of course, not new, and there has been turbulence before, particularly in the late 17C, during the reign of King Phra Narai the Great, a period that I have found fascinating to explore.

Through a series of chatty letters from Ot, the youngest son, we gain an amusing Thai perspective of life in England — the weather, food, routines and customs — though it’s mainly through the lens of a very privileged life in a boarding school and then Oxbridge. Many of these experiences resonate with those of my mother: Ot’s initial rejection of English food echoes her considerable difficulty she had initially with the ‘international cuisine’ at the hostel of the Institute of Education, her first accommodation in the UK. She found everything, including breakfast, unpalatable without adding generous quantities chilli powder that she carried with her in a tin.

Ot generally fares well in studies (I note with interest that he’s already ahead in maths), but struggles with Latin, not surprising as its grammar is far more sophisticated than Thai! But his temperament enables him to get along generally fine, particularly as he can readily tolerate and appreciate other people and their traditions and share elements of his own culture. This extends to religion: in the prevailing Christian faith, he comes to enjoy hymns, but still retains his devotion to the Buddha, quietly reciting at night a few chants taught by his mother (in hindsight I realise my mother when faced with my being brought up Catholic used the same approach, teaching the recitation of a few words taking refuge in the Triple Gem). Similarly Phloi’s packing of food supplies for shipping reminds me of one particular frequent Thai visitor who would bring a whole suitcase of food every time she came to stay.

Family Cohesion and Political Breezes

A recurrent theme in the narrative is family coherence acting as a buttress in respect to external change. As Phloi’s growing family wanders off, sometimes in directions that veer towards separation, members of her childhood family from Khlong Bahn Luang pop up as a kind of stabilising influence, sometimes unexpectedly: the arrival of Khun Un, her fierce elder half-sister, astonishes everyone when she shows contrition and seeks reconciliation. The author makes clear it’s only possible because of Phloi’s impeccable behaviour.

Phloi struggles with modernity, but M.R. Kukrit illustrates this with characteristic levity, describing in a comical way her confusion at the theatre in which the king himself is acting (before he ascended to the throne, Prince Vajiravudh read literature at Christ Church, Oxford). As ever, she finds the positive, seeing a close resemblance between Nai Luang and the late Queen Mother (who had been Regent whilst King Chulalongkorn had been overseas). On the other hand, a more serious side to modernity drifts over from Europe as Ot becomes concerned about his brother, An, who is“up in the clouds thinking cloudy thoughts” in France. An himself, starts expressing his concern for Thailand as being “backward” and needing to “advance”, and missing the principles of “equality before the law” and other political aspirations. Later on Ot shares some of his own impressions of An’s friends, including a stark description of the Farangs, who have “hollow cheeks, uncombed hair and wild eyes.” Such imagery of revolutionaries is really quite the opposite to Thai sabai sabai.

Khun Prem, who remains in Thailand, is initially impressed by the ideas expressed by An, confident that they have the approval of King Rama V, relating some of the initiatives the king has himself taken, whilst adding a rider:

“He’s introducing new ideas to us, but he also says it will take time, that it has to be done gradually, cautiously, otherwise they will do more harm than good.”

I suspect this is a message the author is keen to communicate, a flag ahead of the following continuation. Phloi evidently can’t make sense of the politics, so limits her perspective to what she observes in behaviour: she struggles with the growing individual freedoms of young men and women — liberties that she finds hard to accept.

There is some comment on the extravagance lifestyles of that period, which historians often pick up on as a precursor to unrest; Prem is seen as embracing the latest trends and fashions at considerable expense, going through phases, one of which involves spending a fortune on collecting walking sticks. M. R. Kukrit, no doubt very aware of this, having already described the king’s interest in broader government inserts quite a lengthy and somewhat defensive passage to make such behaviour sound respectable in the wider scheme of things:

“The gentlemen and ladies of the court set the style in everything… they were admired, and praised and looked up to … but resented, generally speaking, they were not. In those days of peace and plenty, the sense of well-being was pervasive enough to give the whole society a genial atmosphere free from tension and jealousy.” (p.356)

This is echoed through Ot’s comparative reflections, observing that the poor in England suffer much more than the poor in Thailand because of the natural environment. Inequality per se was not a problem. Through Prem, the author goes on to describe the court as very open and accessible because of the king, “the soul of broadmindedness and … of sympathy and generosity.” Phloi even compares his generosity to that of Prince Vessantara in the Jataka tales of the Buddha, a very popular text in Thailand. (Some modern scholars tend to describe this as lavishing on his own followers, but the text suggests a more universal generosity.)

The shifting cultural and political landscape seems largely contained until An’s return, when the first seismic activity is felt by Phloi: without any forewarning, she is introduced to An’s wife, Lucille (a maem, that is a farang wife), the acute awkwardness comically described through the simple act of greeting. It’s a culture clash so marked as to make all the relatives quietly withdraw from the scene, leaving the stunned Phloi having to cope by herself.

The situation is challenging enough to endure for days and weeks, provoking sleeplessness and rare argumentative exchanges between Prem and Phloi; they are both evidently extremely uncomfortable and somewhat exasperated by it all to begin with, but whilst Prem loses his temper, Phloi, retains the grace not to. As ever, the author lightens the troubling circumstances by witty narrative and comical timing. It’s also informative, offering a fascinating consideration of attitudes on the mixing of East and West. He delights his mother by saying that he had no trouble socially when he behaved politely according to his upbringing at home. (Being half-Thai, half-Farang myself, my interest is piqued by Ot’s reflection — the perception of the exotic East compared with the reality of mosquitoes and other wildlife and the generally different tastes; mix with care! The phrase Muang Thai is used often in this context, as distinct from the politicised national identity of Phrathet Thai.)

Phloi had to contend with growing changes in the behaviour of youth, much to do with their external appearance, all the while trying to retain a sense of continuity — probably a key message that the author wishes to impart. Seeing that his mother is cautious about the change, An remarks, “There have been a lot of changes since the war, and more changes are in the offing.”

The reign ends unexpectedly with the king suddenly taken ill. His departure leaves an air of uncertainty.

Next: Rama VII

Friday, February 02, 2018

A Review of Four Reigns (Part Two): Rama V

This is the second of a series of posts reviewing Four Reigns, a translation of Si Phaendin, a Thai classic of historical fiction by M.R. Kukrit Pramoj. My first post provided some background (and why I’m particularly interested in this work).

Thai postage stamp (8 Atts) issued during the reign of King Chulalongkorn, from the collection of Paul Trafford

Here I focus on the part of the story that took place during the reign of King Rama V (Chulalongkorn) from the 1880s through to his passing in 1910. I’ll start by listing some of the characters. Fortunately, it’s not a cast of thousands and most characters have more than a few lines to say, so I found it fairly easy to remember who’s who. I’ll include a few names in Thai for those who can read the language; you can’t readily guess the sound because the Romanized phonetics are not actually in accordance with any formal standard and there’s no indication of tones! I’ll also add some page numbers (as found in the Silkworm Books edition). For a non-Thai speaker wishing to read some Thai, particularly social media comments, I recommend thai2english.com over Google as it generally conveys a better sense of the meaning.

The story starts with Phloi (Thai: พลอย), the main character, and her family in Khlong Bang Luang, where she has spent the first years of her childhood. As is typical of a middle- or high- class household, the family is extended and occupies a plot of land with a number of houses, the main one for the most senior members without outlying buildings for other members. Phloi's father is 
Phraya Piphit (Thai: พระยา พิพิธ), a nobleman of senior rank who initially comes over as somewhat remote and constrained by formality as Phloi doesn't live in the main house, whereas Mae Chaem (Thai: แช่ม), Phloi’s mother, is with her constantly and far more approachable. We are also introduced to Phor Phoem (Thai: เพิ่ม), Phloi’s brother and other siblings who share the same father but have a different mother, who left a long time ago. Although the novel barely touches on Phloi’s early life there, it’s fleeting appearance passing somewhat in a blurred vision, the family members continue to feature throughout the narrative.

Entering the Inner Court of the Grand Palace

There’s a natural nostalgia for the earliest experiences in our lives and this is especially so for Phloi with her years in the Grand Palace. Life in the Inner Court is a close-knit community, where Phloi is nourished with loving support. Once the rules are understood, exploring its extensive spaces becomes a wonderful adventure, full of vitality, with interesting places and characters. We witness curious noises, exquisite food, exciting cultural events, technological innovation, and, of course, plenty of sanuk (fun), all described in intimate detail. Some of the ceremonies, such as Loy Krathong, are well-known, but here they are unparalleled in grandeur.

Within the well-established patterns of the palace, under the benevolent custodianship of Sadet, Phloi adopts a strict dress code, wearing different-coloured fabrics (phalai) for each day; she studies and learns various duties and handicrafts as befits her station. She cultivates qualities of virtue; the values of respect and service emerge strongly, with the king, Nai Luang, at the heart. Using Phloi as the eyes onto this world has the effect of making it seem that everything really revolves around Phra Chao Yu Hua (His Majesty), “our Lord of Life”, as though it is his grace that bestows everything that matters. This kind of language, which sounds almost theological, is characteristic of the way the king is viewed as divine. Even his trips abroad and the resulting novelties are framed within a sense of overall continuity, steadily building up a picture of constancy and ‘rightness’. Whether or not intentional, it’s evidently an effective device to inculcate krap (respect and reverence), a practice generally encouraged towards teachers.

But part of M.R. Kukrit’s skill is bringing in levity where tradition and formality might stifle a free-flowing narrative. Accordingly, there to guide and accompany her are the housekeeper, Aunt Sai, and Choi, a girl of her own age, kind-hearted but rumbustious, a natural foil for the more refined nature of Phloi; they get along easily and soon become best friends, forming a lifelong relationship. The sense of humanity is further enriched as the author relates how even to a child it’s not all sweetness and light, as Phloi hears about ambition and rivalry, particularly among minor royals and their entourages.

And Phoi’s world continues to expand with trips to other homes in other parts of the city. These are opportunities for the author to gently extol desirable qualities; Choi’s family is “a house where children found in their parents not only respected elders but loving friends and genial companions, and where servants, treated with sympathetic fairness, had become part of the family.” There are also special occasions outside the palace, especially the idyllic Bang Pa-In (known also as the Summer Palace), which remains to this day a popular visitor attraction. These outings are typically occasions that invite earthy humour and comical scenes, usually tied to food, sometimes accompanied by music, frequently involving a piphat ensemble. This is a tradition that still exists today, see, for example, a performance by an orchestra at the Siam Society (note that it is missing a wind instrument, the pi nai, a kind of oboe — see another ensemble that it includes it). There is also a variant that includes a female singer, of which there’s old archive footage.

A Historical Perspective

Four Reigns is valuable simply as a historical guide, introducing many of the refined modes of behaviour in the palace — in some respects the accounts of the Inner Court are like touring an exhibition of fine art, highbrow and informative. We also learn about literary traditions, such as the phleng yao, a form of ode that was in particular used for some prophecies uttered centuries earlier. Furthermore, it’s all artistically presented in a rich tapestry of imagery — like a leisurely cruise along the Chao Phraya river, the reader should just go with the flow to enjoy the rich experience. This resonates with my mother’s experience: as a child she would accompany her father to visit his boss’s family, spending hours rapt in attention listening to an aristocratic lady, who had been a member of the royal household, as she described the people, their manner of dress, and other cultivated customs and habits. Although the reign of Rama V fills far more pages than any other reign, many of these pages contribute relatively little to the plot. The pace is quite slow, perhaps deliberately so, allowing readers time to linger on details, absorbing scenes of yesteryear.

Phloi experiences her first serious romance with Nuang, Choi’s brother, but it’s not destined to be. Against the ambitions of some royals and aristocrats, M. R. Kukrit often slips in something of a leveller, be it an incident back at the family home, the popular observance of folk beliefs, or even by putting thoughts into Phloi’s head such as the following kind consideration of Nuang and his father, Khun Luang: “it seemed to her that their lack of ambition might well be what had made them so happy, and not only happy in themselves, but able to dispense so much happiness to others.” (p. 116). Nuang subsequently proves weak-willed and ends up obliged to marry a local girl in Nakhon Sawan. It’s at this stage that Phloi’s character grows in the narrative; in her response, she shows extraordinary compassion, “There’s enough suffering in this world and we shouldn’t add to it, Choi.” It moves the angry Choi to krab Phloi.

Gradually we are introduced to the sense of external worlds, with reference to farang (Western/European) cultural influences with the occasional mention of European heads of state; and later, the arrival of European technology and industry together with their strange modes of behaviour and dress. These propel elements of modernisation, generally light at first, for changes during this reign feel more like a subtle inflection rather than being pronounced or having major impact. They include Western medicine, but when such foreign items become scarce, we see the Thais returning to their traditional means — they’re not lost, just waiting to be restored so that once again the local doctor is in demand for administering local medicines; this need for fallback to local practice is a theme that recurs throughout the story.

European input to industrial development included the invention of the bicycle and the supply of trains for the new railways, which started in the 1890s. There are accounts of the king’s travel by train from Hua Lamphong; the subsequent descriptions of the journey show similar responses among passengers to those first passengers in England in early 19C — a mixture of awe and trepidation at the breathtaking speeds! The platforms offered ample occasion for neat rows of military and other officials (and in fact they’re still lining up for vintage steam trains today).

But against this backdrop of industrial progress, there are various echoes of the past, including encounters with ghosts (preta), particularly at Dusit Palace and Vimanmek (‘Abode in the Clouds’), where the king demonstrates his camaraderie by meeting village friends from ‘up country’ in a traditional wooden house, to foster sharing on an equal level. And there are quite a few opportunities to poke fun; farang are not exempted — whether by imitating their swimming style or royals becoming feverish and uttering “disjointed phrases in the farang language”.

The latter part of the reign features Phloi maturing as she gets married to Prem, a royal page who has been patiently courting her for a long time, not put off by her initial lack of interest. It's an arranged marriage, not Phloi's choice, but she consents dutifully and does her best to make the marriage a success.

Her adulthood really seems to begin in earnest as she has her first child and then accelerate at the death of her father and then the king. Phloi joins large crowds paying their last respects in the streets of Ratchadamnoen Avenue, showing a strong connection between the monarchy and members of the public. (My grandparents used to have a house there, but they weren’t rich: my aunts used to study with the aid of street lamps or else by candle light; then with a growing family, shortly after my mother was born, they moved across to the other side of the river to Thonburi, where land was more affordable.)

In the next post, I'll reflect on developments during the reign of King Rama VI.