What cambodia wants to hide
Apr 18 2017
As someone who lived in Phnom Penh for eight years, Joseph grew to love Cambodia. Underlying the continuous retrospection and amusement, however, was the macabre, the still life, which always appeared to him in terms of a history of suppressions. For sociologists the suppressions are always important and the opacity of the present can only be understood in terms of what it is that people want to hide. What is amazing and quirky is that the individuals he describes are essentially his office administrator, his cooks, his teacher of Khmer grammar, and the restaurateur who is a colourful refugee and of course his driver, Tulong. Joseph provides us with his recollections, rather like a dictaphone would do, with alarming nuances, of how their spoken interactions with him tell us about how pidgin develops mutually. This tacit exchange establishes equality, a subconscious inflexion of French, with consonants and end syllables, creates a new form of discourse between him and these star persona in the world of the underlings, who have innate power over those in authority. As Joseph describes it, “The French who had colonised Cambodia and most of Indo-China for about 100 years had taught them to drop that last consonant while pronouncing any word in the Latin script”There is nothing subaltern about their discourse, each one uses language to both confound and explain, and in the confusion that results between Joseph and his aides, the release of new meanings, new emotions make us laugh, surprising us by the tactile quality of these interventions.
Time is the other trope Joseph uses to enhance our understanding of pidgin use in Cambodia, where telegraphic speech, aphorisms and lightening strikes of decimated sentences compresses past and present for the user. The office administrator, who gets to hold a position in Joseph’s fund delivering office, the tensions that unfold between them, the mutual bullying that goes on between boss and employee is an excellent understanding of bureaucracy, where the pristine ledger and clock time give way to shared food as a combustible space of mutual aggrandisement. The administrator knows that he can control information, but Joseph or his alter ego, is no stranger to bullying and manipulating. His serene understanding that power corrupts totally is the subtext of this elegant book. He domesticates the hand holding and bribing and opportunities to be venal that the bureaucrat in multinational ventures is used to, but cannot reveal.
Joseph describes for us how charities and international conferences work. As a diatribe on how money is spent in aid organisations, and how power and influence are wielded, where money is released to help the poor but is actually an excuse to jet set and eat fine food, and meet interesting politicians and intellectuals, Joseph is completely effervescent. He takes a ringside view on how lampooning in social science, like the pamphlet and the novel must have methodological resonance.
We have to take this book seriously, particularly the section where he describes the experience of the children who are recovering from the violence they have seen, or have personally committed against family members, neighbours and friends, during the Khmer Rouge period. The pathos of their bewilderment, the numbed terror of all they have known is brought out by Joseph in striking prose.
During this time, Joseph discovers that the Cambodians have the same names for the calendar months like the Malayalees in Kerala have. This is such a fortuitous discovery, that he spends most of his time with all his language teachers, providing them an etymology for words in Khmer that are similar to Malayalam and to Sanskrit.
Most of his previous teachers hastily departed, since his excitement at discovering these similarities was so huge, he would reverse roles, brow beating the Cambodians to accept that Khmer words were indeed Indian in origin and accordingly, be pronounced correctly. With Sim, the young University student studying law and part time teacher to foreigners in Cambodia he learned to concentrate and began to learn, but alas, she gets killed by robbers on her way home one night. We learn from his insouciant prose how boundary making (or dissolving) between the French, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai and Indians continually happens in Indo China. Food and Language are the motifs that he best works with, but also cars, as Roland Barthes would recommend.
( The writer is professor of Sociology, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)