Apsara

Apsara

The boats were lined up and Chanthavy was ready with hers. She stood at the gate where the tuk- tuk drivers brought in the tourists. Her number slip tucked into her loose pajamas. Umbrella in hand she waited in the scorching sun. 

Tourists arrived in Kampong Phluk only after 3 pm, after a good lunch at Siem Reap first. The only eatery at Kampong Phluk was there mainly for the novelty. Foreigners loved to see the unique menu with crocodile, python and other such exotic meats. They were even taken around to the back of the floating restaurant for a look see at the creatures which were to be served later, should madam or sir fancy a bite of something rare and unusual. Thankfully for the creatures, madams and sirs took one look and let them off the hook.

Kampong Phluk was one of the lesser-known floating villages in Cambodia’s largest freshwater lake, the Tonle Sap. A very unique river by the same name fed this lake and connected it to the mighty Mekong. Those who both lived and made a living off the lake were very proud of the fact the river that fed Tonle Sap was no ordinary river; it was the only river in the whole wide world that flowed both ways! They, like the river, moved in any direction that survival asked of them.

Chanthavy had been born in Kampong Phluk, and in all of her 17 years, she had been to Siem Reap quite a few times. That is, every time, some tourist needed an escort for the evening after the sunset boat ride was done. 

She remembered the very first time that she was taken to Siem Reap for one of those apsara dances, dinner included. The buffet was lukewarm, but the apsaras on stage mesmerized her. Their movements were so fluid that she found herself moving slowly in her seat, trying to shadow their moves. She was aware of a hand slowly creeping under her skirt and moving up. 

She knew what that was. She had heard her mother wake up screaming every night. But a creeping hand was a mere nothing compared to what her mother had survived. Besides she instinctively knew she would go home with a purse full of dollars which they desperately needed. So, she just continued to smile like the apsaras and moved her hands to the music. She was 14 years old then. 

Chanthavy, was woken from her reverie as she saw a tuk-tuk driver ushering in a young ginger-haired man. She gave him the once over and took a step ahead. 

“Boat ride? Sunset see? “

The young man smiled and said, “Yes! And Yes!” 

Chanthavy slowly pulled out the ticket from her pyjamas making sure the young man got a glimpse of her shapely waist. 

“Come, come, I take you. Good boat!” She said, waving the ticket in front of his nose playfully.

The young man’s expression changed but only for a fraction of a second before he recovered and smiled, shook his head in affirmation and moved forward to fall in stride with her.

“I, Chanthavy. Name meaning beautiful moon! You?”

“I’m John. I’m sure you’ve come across many with the same name, right?

“John, Dick and Harry” laughed Chanthavy

“No no… that’s Tom…, well never mind!”

She started up her boat with a huge roar.

“Whoa, is that a tractor engine?”

“Yes, all boats have this engine. Very good engine, it can take you far!”

She manoeuvred her boat expertly in the narrow space between the other anchored boats and soon they were out into the open lake. John opened his huge bag and took out a professional camera. He looked around at the rows of houses on stilts and the people carrying on their daily chores as though they did not see the lapping waters of the deep lake just below them. He even espied some of the richer-looking houses with boats that had cages mounted on them and held livestock like pigs, ducks and chickens! 

Chanthavy laughed. “When chicken and pig make poo poo, fish get lunch!”

John let out a soft chuckle, but a thought crossed his mind “Where does the human poo poo, go?”

He thought it better to not convert that thought to a real question, this soon. It could be a sensitive matter for his boatwoman.

They passed an oddball old woman, who was rowing around in a small boat full of buckets.

“Who’s that?” asked John, as he focused his camera on her to capture a shot.

“Oh, she mad nut!” replied Chanthavy. 

“She go looking for water even when water all around!”

That made John look at the waters below. It was pretty muddy and the stagnant areas looked downright dirty. The old nut probably was looking for clean water to drink he thought.

He focused on the houses through his camera and took multiple shots as he moved around the boat precariously.

Chanthavy, looked on, intrigued. She steered ahead but stole glances behind to size him up. He seemed neither rich nor poor! Neither a true white man nor a true Asian one. The hair colour could be due to the stuff that city folk used. She liked the idea of changing hair colour like they changed clothes, but everything costs money, and she probably wouldn’t be able to afford it.

“This is fascinating! I wonder if Water World was inspired by this village!”

“What?” Chanthavy’s train of thought was disturbed.

“The movie, haven’t you seen it? Kevin Costner…”

“No. I don’t get much time.” 

“Is it funny movie?” she asked after a pause

“Not really.”

“Then I don’t like. I like only funny movies.”

“Hmm. Do you know the people who stay in these houses?” asked John, changing the subject.

“Yes, almost.”

That reply left John a little puzzled.

“Do you mean you know almost all of them, or don’t know them enough?”

“Too big sentence, John. Make short.”

“Okay, I guess I’ll leave it at that.”

The boat chugged along and John carried on about his job, but he was itching to start a conversation that would fetch him some of the answers that he had travelled this far to get.

“You see this camera, Chattymanty?”

“Chan- tha –vee, Chanthavy.”

“You do have a beautiful name, and I don’t want to corrupt it with my horrid pronunciation. So, I’ll just call you Chanty. Is that okay?”

“I like.”

“So Chanty, tell me something about this place”

“Oh, Kampong Phluk very old village. Different because of how we managing life.” 

 “Do you have schools here?” Asked John

“Yes, I go till year 5, then I have to help my mteay!”

“Mom?”

“Yes. So, I know little English only.”

“That’s okay, I can understand what you’re saying pretty perfectly.”

Human communication doesn’t really require all that many words, does it? He pondered quietly for a while with his camera in his hand. He saw Chanthavy giving him a quizzical look.

May I take a picture of you, Chanty?

Oh yes,yes, please!

And that face broke into a smile. She wasn’t attractive in a conventional way, but when she smiled, a thousand flashbulbs seemed to light up. It was a kind of a smile that held you so captive that you’d forget to smile back.

John collected himself and framed his subject with the bow of her boat. Looking confident and fully in control of where she was going.

“Show” requested Chanthavy

John showed her the preview, and was rewarded with another flash of a smile.

“Is it okay?” asked John.

“You famous photographer?” 

“Not famous, no. Not yet, at least. And I’m a photojournalist.”

Chanthavy looked puzzled.

“Well, like journalists tell stories about what’s happening around them with words, I do that with my photographs” 

“Oh! And you American?”

“I’m part American and part Cambodian.” He said almost inaudibly.

“You Cambodian? Oooo You don’t know to speak Khmer?” Chanthavy had heard him and her interest was piqued further.

“No, I was born in America. My mother is American. I don’t know why, but my father always spoke to me in English. So… I never learned Khmer.”

“You interesting man, John.”

John smiled absentmindedly while continuing to take pictures of the surroundings: the houses, the people, the animals in the cages, and Chanthavy.

They were nearing the floating restaurant. Chanthavy turned around to ask John if he cared for a bite or beverage. 

“We stop for snack?”

“Well, I could do with a Coke. And there’s plenty of time left for the sunset.”

Chanthavy manoeuvred the boat under the stairs of the restaurant on stilts, and they both got on.

While they waited for his coke and her tea, John decided to broach the topic and start asking the questions he had actually come here to ask.

“So, Chanty. What was Kampong Phluk like during the reign of the Khmer Rouge?”

They were at the hanging wooden balcony of the restaurant that looked out into the vast expanse of the Tonle Sap Lake. 

Chanthavy heaved a deep sigh. Like someone had tried to budge the huge boulder that she had placed over stuff she had buried long ago.

“See there?” Chanthavy pointed to somewhere far away in the distance.

“There is Mekong River. My mteay had tried to escape away from there. But she get caught and forced to go to countryside, work in the rice fields. All home here burned down. All people march to work in field or die.”

John’s own gut was tightening like a noose around his core, bracing his being for a story he was here to hear.

“Mteay used to get nightmares for many years.” Chanthavy broke the momentary silence that had descended on them.

“I understand. Let’s talk about something else. Tell me about you.”

“Me?” Laughed Chanthavy. “I simple girl, but I have dream of becoming apsara. Apsara dancer.”

“They are beautiful, aren’t they? And they dance like they are gliding. I saw them in Siem Reap.”

“Me too.” said Chanthavy with a deadpan expression.

“Do you learn dancing then?” 

“I teach myself. You want to see?”

And before John could answer, Chanthavy started showing him the hand motions. 

“You’re very graceful, Chanty!”

“I work hard, but I not sure I ever become the apsara dancer.”

John tried to come up with something reassuring and convincing to say to her, but she put his troubles at ease with what she said next.

“Mteay had nightmares, but she still survive. I have dream, so I will survive.”

“You are very brave Chanty. I am not, and perhaps my father was not either …” his voice trailed off. He paused as if reconsidering what he had just said.

“Or maybe it was just the opposite. Maybe, he was far braver than any of us.”

“What you mean?”

“My father was a photographer. He was sent to China by the Khmer Rouge for training in photography.”

“Your father was part of Angkar?” Chanthavy was shocked by this revelation.

“You looking for something else John… not Kampong Phluk sunset.” Chanthavy’s stare was icy.

***

John recollected how he had learned the basics of his trade, photography, from his father. But he had never seen his father take a single photograph himself. All the guidance came in the form of verbal tips whenever john played with their old camera in front of him. As for John, it seemed to come naturally to him. John felt complete only when he had his camera and was off on his own capturing images or stories that would stay with the beholder for a long, long time.

His father had never hidden the fact that he was from Cambodia, but had never mentioned being a part of the Angkar. It was only when John was around 16 that he learned the real reason why his father made regular visits to a psychiatrist’s clinic. He wanted to forget the horror he had seen and been a part of from 1975 to 1979.

On some drunken days he had heard his father chant “ To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss.”, tears rolling down his cheeks. The chanting would get faster and louder along with his sobs till he just collapsed and fell on the ground beating his fists on the floor like a mad man. It took the combined strength of his mother and himself to calm him down.

It was mother, who had finally eased John into his father’s past, sparing the grisly details. How his father had escaped the killing fields in the nick of time in 1979 just when the Vietnamese Forces overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime. For John’s mother, it was a miracle that father had actually escaped and managed to come to America to carve out a completely new identity: that of Bob, a cab driver. His real name was Borang Meng, and his identity was that of a photographer for the Angkar or the Khmer Rouge Organization. 

John had then pored through books and papers and Googled to gather as much information as he could, because he somehow could not rest till he had pieced together the monsters that tormented his father. Father had to be around 25 years of age when he escaped. That was more than a fourth of a full well-lived life. He wanted to piece together those parts of his father’s life when he was at the prime of his youth and should have been in love, should have found his passion and vocation, and been of service to his country and society. The part of his father’s life that he should have been able to look back on fondly. That began his single-minded search for missing pieces of the story of Borang Meng.

A few articles from the New York Times published between April and June of 1979 had given him clues and names of villages that could perhaps be the trail that would lead to closure for both John and his father. This trail began backwards from Phnom Penh tracking back to one of the interrogation centers, perhaps the most dreaded one of them all, the S-21 or Tuol Sleng. From there he would be heading to the floating villages one by one, because it was in one of those villages that Borang Meng’s ordeal had begun.

***

A smiling woman in a bright sampot, brought them their order and left quietly sensing the tension that seemed to hang heavy between her customers.

John handed Chanthavy her cup of tea.

“Chanty, I don’t know the horrors that your mother endured… had to go through, but the whole world is aware of the hell that this country had turned into. As for me, my flight landed in Phnom Penh.. and I began the search for my father’s history in Tuol Sleng.” He was about to continue but saw Chanthavy stiffen and then slowly turn her face to look him directly in the eyes.

“Your father photographer in Tuol Sleng?”

“I’m not sure, Chanty. I’m not sure of anything! Maybe he was a photographer there, maybe a prisoner, or maybe both. I am here to find out. That’s the reason I travelled all the way from The States to Cambodia.”

“But why you come to Kampong Phluk?”

“Because what I found in Tuol Sleng led me here”

Chanthavy looked at him with an expression that could be described as a mix of disbelief and pity.

She knew she had to give him time to be able to spit out that which was choking him.

I found my father’s photograph in the archives of Tuol Sleng with a note that suggested he had a wife here in Cambodia.

“Very few people survive Tuol Sleng. Your father lucky! You lucky!” She said as she reached out to pat his hand and comfort him.

“What your father name?”

“Borang Meng” 

This time, Chanthavy looked visibly shaken. “Borang Meng!”

John was taken by surprise at her reaction. 

“John, I know where I take you tomorrow. But you stay with us tonight.”

“What do you mean?” asked John

“Remember old nut lady… with buckets?”

“Yes” said John, his expectations growing.

“I think she know about one Borang Meng. But she not allow anyone in house after evening.”

“I don’t want to trouble you, Chanty. I’ll stay tonight in Siem Reap and come back tomorrow morning.”

“I think you like to meet my mteay. She is nice.. little bit nutcase, but nice”

The sun had begun setting and they both sat there just looking at the ball of fire slowly drown into the shimmering gold stretches of water, the ends of which they could not see.

On the way back to Chanthavy’s little home on stilts, neither of them spoke. John had decided he would compensate Chanthavy for her troubles, he was sure they needed the money. Or maybe he could help in some way to achieve her dream.

“Mteay, we have guest!” yelled Chanthavy as she entered her dark and dingy home with John following gingerly.

John heard someone mutter something in Khmer, and Chanthavy laughed as she switched on the single light bulb in their home.

As the light flooded the room, John took stock of the place where he would be staying that night. It had mats on the floor and a little metal table which served as the kitchen. On one of the mats, sat Chantavy’s mteay, her knees pulled up to her chest. The face looked haunted by monsters which perhaps only she knew. Her hair was wiry and escaped in unruly tufts from the plaits that hung on both sides of her face. Those were the only two things that looked symmetrical in that woman. She had just one eye, one of her legs looked much thinner than the other and the old nightgown that she was wearing hung lopsidedly from her hanger-thin shoulders. When she looked at John, she smiled.

Chanthavy had started up the stove on the metal table and declared to John that they would be having boiled potatoes and rice. Then she turned to her mteay and said something in rapid-fire Khmer  as a response to which mteay gestured to John to come and sit next to her.

John removed his bag from his shoulders and went and sat next to her. She peered at him with her only eye and with a bony hand lovingly patted his hair into place.

Chanthavy revealed that mteay had a baby boy much before she was born.

“What happened to him? Asked John.

“I was born after mteay returned to Kampong Phluk. Brother was little baby when mteay was captured and taken to the rice fields.” Chanthavy paused to stir the rice pot just before she strained the starch out.

“What happened to him?” John persisted.

“Angkar did not believe in family life. They want only loyalty to Angkar. They smash baby brother on tree before mteay’s eyes, and drag her to work.”

John shuddered. He had seen enough evidence of the massacre that had gone on in Tuol Sleng, the school turned prison that was now the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide. He had seen the hollow looks of the people in the photographs, some looked as though they knew what would happen to them there, others looked the most frightened that they’d ever been in their lives. 

Then, he had come across the photograph of a young man, who looked familiar but not like his father at all. It was hard to believe that the name against that photograph read Borang Meng.

 He had met two of the survivors who were alive only because they kept themselves useful to the chief comrade. He wondered what his father had done to prove himself useful. Was his father the one who had taken all those pictures? Was he the first one that the prisoners saw once their blindfold was removed? Was he the one that they asked their terrified questions of “What have I done? Why am I here?” How had he answered them? Surely both he and the new prisoners could hear the screams coming from the cells around.

 His knees had felt like they could no longer hold the burden of his weight, and then came the next shock. The guide, one of the survivors of the genocide, read out the note next to the photograph. It implied that Gorang Meng had a wife and sister. Wife dead, sister transferred to another interrogation center. The guide also explained what that meant. ‘Transferred’ was simply a euphemism for being sent to the killing fields where prisoners were hoarded into pits, their heads smashed with the butt of a gun or a shovel because the Angkar believed that they needed to save bullets for the real war. Once the prisoners fell, they were buried … no one cared if they had actually died before that. 

He was brought back to the present when he felt mteay’s hands cupping his face as though she could gauge what he was feeling and wanted to comfort him.

He looked at Chanthavy, she stood at her makeshift kitchen smiling sadly at the two of them.

“Chanty, what do the lines ‘To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss’, mean?”

“The Angkar start using old name of our country- Kampuchia and tell people that the year is ‘year zero’. From year zero, everyone work to build a perfect country-  full of simple farmers only. No religion, no education, no personal wealth. They want everyone to be farmer and to grow food for Angkar soldiers. Anyone who refuse or do wrong, the Angkar kill by saying those lines. If citizen not work in farm, they useless to Angkar and Kampuchea.” John let Chanthavy’s words sink in. What kind of a revolution was that? Who was to blame?

Chanthavy served dinner and then got ready for bed.  John was given the best mat in the house to sleep on. But sleep eluded him.  He got out into the small balcony and stared into the darkness listening to the lapping of the waters below. He wondered what mystery would be revealed with the rising sun when they went to meet the mad-nut lady with the buckets.

***

Her house was even dingier than Chanthavy’s and when they arrived, she spat at them in anger. It was only when Chanthavy said something to her in Khmer that she froze and focused on John’s face.  She studied the two of them for a while and then beckoned them to climb up the bamboo stairs to her hut.

“Let me thank you from the bottom of my heart for seeing me,” said John

“She not understand English, John. I speak to her.”

Chanthavy carried on her monologue for what seemed like an eternity to John, but when she was done the mad-nut-bucket-lady seemed almost on the verge of tears.  She got up and went behind to some old cloth bundles that were stacked in the corner. She opened one and started rummaging to finally find an old photograph. She waddled over to John and Chanthavy with that and handed it to John.

She then began her monologue in Khmer to Chanthavy and gestured for her to translate, but Chanthavy continued to look at that photograph for so long that John had to almost snatch it from her hands.

He froze when he saw it.  His worst fears came true. In that photograph, stood a smiling young man with his arms around a woman. The man was his father.  

The lady kept poking her finger into the picture as if she was stabbing his father.. and she kept repeating “Borang Meng! Borang Meng!”

“Who’s the woman?” John asked Chanthavy

“She is Borang’s girlfriend and this lady’s sister.”

The documents in the prison had their facts mixed up or the translator did, but that did not make it easier for John to face the woman in front.

“I had to tell her Borang Meng, your father.”

“My father is Bob” john whispered to himself.

The old lady was looking intently at John as if her brain was making a thousand deductions with what her eyes were feeding her. She finally sighed, and turned to Chanthavy and said something in a soft voice.

Chanthavy turned to John “ She ask me to tell you that she forgive Borang Meng. Her heart not angry, not bitter anymore. She know that when knife is poking man’s Adam’s apple, he not dare to say no. She know that, but it take time to forget…forgive. She see your face, you come to find something… she give you forgiveness.”

She offered them a glass of water saying something in Khmer that Chanthavy later translated to: “Before she die, her sister ask for water.. her lips dry like burnt wood, eyes and skin white like ghost. That time, she not have water for sister. She giving water to us now.. with prayer that her sister get water where she is.”

***

When John and Chanthavy were alone in her boat again, John just couldn’t control himself and blurted out

“What did my father do to her sister?”

“Every person in that prison think death better than life, John. Your father do what he can for his girlfriend… he help her die.”

 “How?”

“Old lady tell me, she also in Tuol Sleng with her sister and Borang Meng. Borang was medical student, also know photography. He very useful for Angkar. Old lady stitch black uniform for Angkar members so she useful, but her sister study English and write poetry. She not useful to Angkar at all. They call her CIA agent and torture her every day” Chanthavy slowly narrated what she had heard from the old lady. John waited for what was to follow next with bated breath.

“When they reach Tuol Sleng, Borang and his girlfriend try to jump down from roof to die quick, but they caught. No one die there till guard kill them.” Chanthavy paused again as if looking for courage to say what she was about to.

“Borang start working for Angkar, taking photo of prisoners when they come, he also treat soldiers. But he die every day, when he hear his girlfriend scream from next room. He don’t want her to suffer, so when batch of Angkar soldiers arrive, badly injured from fighting with Vietnamese Forces.. they need blood. Borang tell chief comrade that he transfuse blood and save soldiers. Comrade very pleased, he let Borang bring prisoners for blood. Borang bring his girlfriend.”

John starts connecting the dots to figure out what his father did… he transfused all of his girlfriend’s blood into the soldiers, draining her dry and causing her to die faster and less painfully. John felt numb.

They went back to Chanthavy’s home that day, and John sat next to her mteay, holding his knees with his hands and resting his head between them. He needed time to get over what he had heard.

Mteay stroked his head gently.  

That evening Chanthavy and he sat on the little balcony looking out towards the other huts and their inhabitants going about their chores just like when he had seen them first. He knew that this village had been burned down and it was unlikely that any of these people or their parents had escaped unscathed from those times, yet there they were washing clothes, cooking, ironing, just focusing on today.

He sighed and thought… we forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and betrayals alike, we forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. We have to… that is the only way forward.

Chanthavy seemed to have read his thoughts and said “How we live tomorrow, if we keep remembering monster of yesterday, John? Mteay tell me time either kill you or heal you depending on what you let it do.”

John could not help but agree with the wisdom of those words.

He smiled at her and asked “Will you come with me to Siem Reap tomorrow? I want to give you a gift.”

Really? I like gift. I come with you, John.

The next day, they took a tuk-tuk to Siem Reap market.  John bought her a costume similar to the one that apsara dancers wear. He took her to an expensive parlour where they dressed her and did her hair and makeup beautifully. She glided out of the door looking radiant, flashing her dazzling smile. She felt she was living her dream, albeit make-believe, albeit for a short while only. No one would believe she was not an actual apsara dancer.

They headed to Ta Phrom Temple for the photo shoot that John had planned.

***

John looked out of the window and down at the country he was leaving. He could see the lush green treetops, the perfect little squares and rectangles of paddy, and also the buildings in the cities. 

He remembered fondly just how happy Chanthavy was when he handed her that photograph of hers, dressed up as an apsara, posing gracefully. With hands folded in respect, he had told her “You are an apsara. My apsara, my angel! You helped me find peace.”

She and mteay seemed to have made up their minds to forget the past as had the mad-nut-bucket- lady. 

He did not ask for the name of Borang Meng’s girl friend. He did not want to carry her into his life. Bob would forget sooner or later too, because that’s the way it is.
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2 thoughts on “Apsara

  1. Brilliant work, Manoshi!! Engaging, captivating read…One can make a movie on it!! I could visualise the story as I read eagerly..May have missed the details so will read again.. the description and the message ..Both make it an award winning piece!!

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