Collections are on in many places in Bangkok for those afflicted by the floods presently ravaging Thailand. It makes you think of how Indian rivers have strong temperaments of their own and toss frailhuman lives about. I think instinctively of a powerful 'river story' for the ages, Tagore's novel 'Nauka Dubi' (The Wreck), though I haven't seen the film yet. To this favourite, I'd like to add a Thai classic from 1954 that I discovered two years ago and have shared with a few friends in India as "a real piece of Thailand".
It begins with how "A passenger boat from Ban Phaen to Bangkok, packedwith people, pressed on through the current amidst the rising clamour of rain and storm…" The boat capsizes and the bodies of drowned passengers are washed up on the banks next morning: a bandit, a monk, a soldier, a CSW, an actor, a writer, a doctor: eleven life stories in all.
This wonderful book, written in a direct yet sensitive voice, is called 'Loi Chiwit' or 'Many Lives' (spot the Sanskrit in 'chiwit/jeevit'?). Its author is Kukrit Pramoj (1911-1995), born in Thailand and educated at Queen's College, Oxford. He was a politician, a former prime minister, an elder statesman, intellectual, journalist and classical dancer. He wrote more than 20 books, including the fascinating historical novel, 'Four Reigns' ('Si Phaendin'). 'Loi Chiwit' was translated into English in 1995 by Meredith Borthwick, an Australian Asian Studies scholar who grew up in Thailand. She passed away herself that July and the author passed away three months after. 'Loi Chiwit' makes you think of 'The Bridge of San Luis Rey', the novel by American writer Thornton Wilder, published in 1927, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928. Wilder tells a tale of five people who die together when an old Inca-built rope bridge in Peru suddenly collapses. A Franciscan friar who sees it happen wonders about God's plan for each person and collects the life stories of the accident victims.
This resonance is probably incidental and the Thai stories have a vividness, cultural depth and poignancy that make 'Loi Chiwit' truly a modern masterpiece of world literature. The people in it linger in the Indian heart and mind long after the last page is turned. I keep going back to this book for it gives me a rare, moving insight into Asian lives. I think you'd like it, too.
Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture