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

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