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Khunying Chamnongsri Hanchanlash

By Nilibol Phanichkarn

Life is a formidable force. Like a relentless river cutting deep into mountains to form breathtaking gorges, life’s experiences leave eternal imprints on our hearts and minds. In a heart–to–heart with Thailand Tatler, Khunying Chamnongsri Hanchanlash, one of Thailand’s prominent authors, talks about the fundamental forces of life and the experiences which have enriched her literary work.


For Khunying Chamnongsri, better known in literary circles as Chamnongsri Rutnin, the overwhelming success of Thailand’s latest best seller, Duj Nava Klang Mahasamut (Like A Boat in Mid-Ocean), a riveting biography of the Wanglee family, takes her to new heights. This cultivates increasing popularity for the inspirational works in her name, be it On A White Empty Page, her first collection of poems and tales in English which is now being reprinted. The Wind Crab, a children’s story in English and Thai as well as other works in Thai. But like the plays and stories told by Khunying Chamnongsri, life has not been all a bed of roses for her.

Khunying Chamnongsri was born to an established banking family, the Lamsams,

a well-respected and influential dynasty that has made its mark in Thai history. Yet somehow, “happiness” was elusive. For a child under three years old, life dealt a cruel blow with the death of her mother, barely leaving her a chance to know of motherly love and warmth of the forge a bond with the one who gave her life.

Khunying Chamnongsri (or “Sri” as she calls herself) remembers a childhood characterized by a sense of “aloneness”. Solitude became a constant companion to the dreamy child. In nature and books, she found fascinating worlds waiting to be explored. “There was no TV back then. I used to wonder what having a mother was like. Being a very bad student made matters worse. It contributed to a feeling of isolation.”

She continues, “Our house was on the middle of an orchard in Thonburi, with lots of trees and water. I loved to read under pomelo trees and watch big red ants frantically scurrying along the branches. And there were those translucent little ‘needle’ fish, pla kem, always skimming the surface of the klong…” Circumstances sharpened her senses. Sri developed a keen eye for details, taking meticulous note of everything around her.

This extraordinary power of observation makes her work really come alive. Khunying Chamnongsri wrote: “The Wind Crab grew out of my childhood memories of Hua Hin. I was a lonely child by nature, and that was probably why I had time to see things in minute details – the waves, the sky, the sand, and all the living and non-living things. I remember solitary afternoon watching changing light and colours – the changes were fascinatingly continuous in everything, especially the sea.”

Fate wasted no time in teaching the little girl about the inescapable truth that nothing in life is permanent. “All the time, you could see lots of little deaths: of ants, dogs, fish, trees.” This awareness of impermanence, the transient nature of life and the inevitability of change became an important influence in Sri’s thinking.

At the age of 12, Sri went to England. Of her father’s decision to send her overseas, she explains, “Perhaps he wasn’t quite sure what to do with us girls growing up without a mother. He wanted the best for us. “ At school in romantic New Forest in southern England, she started to write. English became her emotional language while Thai was the intellectual one. “Now it’s become more balanced.” Sri is at ease thinking and writing in both languages but rarely translates her own work from one to the other though she is also recognized for her translations of Thai literature into English.

Back from England at 18, she did a brief stint at Loxley Co, Ltd before joining the English language morning paper, the Bangkok World, as reporter/columnist, and was soon promoted to editor of the women’s and social page. There she remained until her marriage at 22 to ophthalmologist, Uthai Rutnin, who later became ophthalmologist to His Majesty the King. She helped him found the famous Rutnin Eye Hospital on Soi Asoke. For more than a decade, raising four children and hospital commitments kept her from writing.

Khunying Chamnongsri has gained widespread recognition for a wide range of literary output, yet she does not consider herself a poet or a professional writer. Her explanation for this bizarre notion:

“I don’t write regularly, I rarely choose the forms or the subjects or the language. You can say they choose me and that’s why my work comes out as plays, stories, poetry, articles, and now, pseudo-biographies. Unable to write at will or at long stretches. I need to take little breaks to do some cooking or gardening or whatever. In short, I don’t feel professional.”

For Sri, each poem she pens is a little journey from the first line to the last line – a journey of discovery. “You start out writing without the consciousness that it is poetry. You suddenly feel a line, you write it down, other lines follow. But they aren’t just words – but thoughts, feelings, texture and the rhythm of things lead you on and on to the final line which usually surprises you and you say to yourself: I never knew that this was inside me."

“Poetry is a journey inward. You discover things on every little journey … I get to know myself in ways I never thought I would.” Sri pauses. “And in getting to know oneself, one somehow gets the feel of other people too. People – each of us – in the depths beyond action, stripped of sophistication, we’re not so very different.”

Her work The Raindrop and the Lotus Leaf was originally written in English and later translated into Thai by Tepsiri Sooksopa and set to Western orchestral music by composer Dnu Huntrakul. It was performed by a 16-piece chamber orchestra to full-house audiences. It is still available in cassette form. Though many were enchanted by its beauty and ‘sensuousness’. Khunying Chamnongsri points out that the work is based on the Buddhist concept of transience. With hindsight, she came to realize how intensely she had become aware of the impermanence of all things and this was even before her ventures into Buddhist meditation.

Like many others. Khunying Chamnongsri used to regard Buddhism as a religion inseparably linked to rites, beliefs and superstitions and was an outspoken skeptic. At the age of 36, her 60-year-old mother-in-law ignited her curiosity about Buddhist teachings. She became intrigued and embarked upon a study of Buddhism albeit somewhat intellectually – an experience she likened to “studying the theory without spending time in the lab." What you know is what you hear or think you understand. There is no direct awareness. Driven by curiosity, she spent three days in a meditation retreat but, with young children, she passed by the chance of further “lab” experiences.

Finally, she went for the 'real thing'. During a period of unhappiness, she spent three full months in meditation retreat at the remote Suan Mok Forest Monastery at a time when the famous philosopher monk. Buddhadassa was still alive and teaching. She went in search of an answer. Why was it that in spite of the wealth, health, recognition, relatives and friends, intelligence and endless opportunities for enjoyment, she was not able to conquer the unhappiness and the endless cycle of thoughts that caused it. More than 15 years had passed since her first true encounter with Buddhism – she once again resorted to intense soul-searching (which she calls “introspective exploration”.) Traveling, entertainment, friendship, rationalization could only camouflage or at best alleviate unhappiness but not uproot or transcend it.

At Suan Mok, surrounded by nature, she came to realize that as human beings we’re all part of nature – “no more, no less significant than the plant and animal lives around you. Once your breath stops, you become a past, a memory. You’re not all that indispensable so why the fuss?

As your self-importance diminishes so do your unhappiness and fears. This brings you to the understanding of unhappiness and its cause within yourself. And once you understand unhappiness, you understand happiness, too.”

She came to accept that life is impermanent. “It is transient in a way that each moment comes and goes without returning so you better make each one as bright and sparkling as possible.”

Khunying Chamnongsri also made another astonishing discovery. “When you cut yourself almost completely from people for a length of time, you feel a tremendous urge to communicate. You suddenly realize that communication is a need.” She could not resist the urge to write down her thoughts and observations. Then as her mind became still, the urge faded. The writing, however, became a book of reflective poetry in Thai: Fon Tok Yung Tong Fah Rong Yung Tueng (Touched by Rain, Reached By Thunder).

At Suan Mok, the seeds for Orange Eight Legs were also planted. One day she found a tiny little spider. “It was orange. So orange…and bright like the sun shining through the winter mist. It had little black legs like threads, almost invisible. You had to get up very close. And the webs so thin and very intricate – it caught the sunlight and shone like diamond threads. You could pass by without seeing it at all.” Years later, the captivating little spider became the hero of her new children’s story in Thai and English. Orange Eight Legs, which is being illustrated in silk ikat by textile artist Samut Koomsuwan and soon to be on sale.

The first of her two plays. When Dusk Ends, won the John A. Eakin literary prize in 1981, but Sri refuses to see herself as a playwright. “I know nothing about stagecraft. The subject came as a dialogue and I simply set it down as if I am seeing it on stage. It’s better for reading than for performing, I think.”

Her second play, Kaewta’s Horization, deals with a mother-daughter relationship during the mentally-retarded daughter's sexual awakening. “I put myself into the characters and suddenly discover that I can be all of them. There is no complete villain and no complete hero. Just like in Greek mythology, the Gods have weaknesses, greed and cruelty … but we tend to overlook these (negative traits in ourselves).”

There is hardly a dull moment in Khunying Chamnongsri’s life. She is constantly on the move. In business, she is chairperson of the Rutnin Eye Hospital and of L.Wave Company Ltd. a video production house that produces video presentations and programmes for public television and is run by her daughter, Varadda Lee-arporn.

With a flair for adventure, three years ago, in her roles as chairman. Khunying Chamnongsri accepted the task of writing a script for a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) promotional video on the Tumen River Economic Development Area (TREDA). The zone extends across territory under the jurisdictions of Russia, China and North Korea. The focus of the video presentation being on the North Korean part of the Free Economic Zone, she had to fly to Beijing then onto Pyongyang where she boarded a train and traveled for another 23 hours northwards to the twin ports of Rajin-Songbong where the borders of the three countries converge at Tumen River estuary.

“We didn’t get off the train at all until we reached Rajin-Songbong. The same on the way back. We spent three nights conducting our survey there. It’s beautiful virgin area, utterly unspoiled forest lakes and ocean. It was so exciting – I suspect I know what Columbus must have felt! We had to work with North Korean officials and the representative of the United Nations Tumen River Basin Commission in Beijing.” The video was made in six languages and shown the UNDP to investors all over the world. "These days you can get Rajin-Songbong a car over the Chinese border – a much easy journey.” says Khunying

And when it comes to family, she is a supportive mother and sets aside time to be with her four children and three grandchildren. Her recent marriage to business executive and international development specialist, Dr.Jingjai Hanchanlash, with whom she shares many common interests, has helped her to develop new dimensions in her work in social development.

In spite of business, social and family commitments and the many demands on her time, she remains inextricably involved in the social development projects she personally champions. A genuine desire to help adolescent girls from impoverished rural families fuels her commitment to ensure a future for these children. She has devoted her efforts to the prevention of child prostitution and drug abuse through the establishment of the Harbour House Foundation, a shelter for northern adolescent girls at risk of being drawn into child prostitution and the drug trade. She also plays an active part as an advisor to the Foundation for Children (FFC) Publishing House.

It was through Tepsiri Sooksopa, a children’s story writer and illustrator, that she initially became involved in the Foundation for Children Publishing House. As advisor, Khunying Chamnongsri suggested the use of the diaries which the foundation publishes annually and distributes to rural areas around the country as a vehicle through which underprivileged children in rural communities would have an opportunity to see the works of art by Thailand’s top artists. This would be through illustrations of children’s stories. The publishers initially doubted that this could be.

Khunying Chamnongsri, unable to resist the challenge went ahead. She approached the first of these famous Thai artists, Thaiwijit Puangkasemsomboon, to discuss the possibility of illustrating one of her stories. The outcome was a beautifully illustrated book: The Wind Crab. Today it is available in English, Thai and Japanese. Artists such as Paretas Hutangkura were soon illustrating Children Foundation yearly diaries featuring tales by various writers including Khunying Chamnongsri’s The Sunray and the Gray Stone in 1977 with vivid illustrations by Niti Wattaya.

In a brief introduction to this story, Professor Prawase Wasi conveys a poignant message. For him this simple tale about innocent love between the sun’s ray and a grey stone lying on the bank of a muddy klong was of great significance to the children’s foundation. Like the small grey stone that caught the warm ray of the sun and took on her light so the stone glittered in the sun and glowed with warmth, so it is with children who are delinquents, underprivileged and abused. If they are touched by the warm rays of love and compassion and they see some light, no matter where they fall, or no matter how dark a place might be, they will retain this positive emotional experience and could give out warmth and love. Denied of this, they will remain 'a cold grey stone'. As her involvement in the well-being of underprivileged children intensifies, this has given her infinite resolve and strength.

Located 13 Kilometers from the Golden Triangle, the Harbour House Foundation takes on teenagers and sees them through a highly vulnerable transition period just as they complete their compulsory educational curriculum and are at a critical turning point in their lives. At the beginning of their teens, they are not quite grown up and are still lacking maturity to retain a full-time job. The foundation houses feeds and educates them up to Matayom 3. The girls also receive basic vocational training skills such as typing, sewing, cooking, growing vegetables and raising chicken.

“The foundation is always short of funds, it can only take a limited number of girls. In desperation, I’ve personally set up a company, Shelter (or Rom Ruen) Co, Ltd, in which I legally renounced all rights in favour of the foundation.” says Khunying Chamnongsri. “The company has just started and is still losing money. Its business is to organize conference services for international meetings of not more than 100 people. We also produce company calendars, desk diaries and printed wedding souvenirs like little notebooks or address books especially designed to suit the couple. I have also started to design or select various silver items for sale – jewellery boxes, handbags – some of which are now on sale at Chiva-Som Health Resort in Hua Hin. We also take orders for sign cloth bags of any design. You see we also help needy housewives make an extra living by sewing these and the children help with sewing handles or buttons – whatever. Yes, we need business from customers.”

Her thirst for intellectual challenge is awesome. Interested in the fact that many extremely intelligent and highly skilled individuals have made a mess of their lives and have become

non-productive or even destructive, Khunying Chamnongsri is fascinated by the question of emotional intelligence learning. How was it that people became a negative factor to themselves and those around them? This was even more true of the disadvantaged for whom there were fewer alternatives.

“Every single person, disadvantaged and not, is a part of our society. Don’t think ‘them’ or ‘me’. Just by accident of birth, you could be ‘them’ and they could be ‘you’. You can’t say that what they do does not affect you. It does. Your security, your economy. The well-being of the country could be affected by the people you call ‘they’. Actually, there is no ‘they’. Just us. It is our responsibility to keep ‘they’ as ‘us’."

“What is missing when one’s intellectual learning and skills cannot be used properly in life?” Khunying Chamnongsri believes that 'emotional intelligence and coping skills' can be drawn from our own readiness to discover ourselves. She suggests that we can only truly 'know' through actual experience and awareness, not just by intellect or thought.

“Let’s take the simple case of knowing what a pineapple is. Until the moment that a person has actually tasted the fruit, he or she does not actually have a real appreciation for it. Emotional intelligence comes not from intellectual exercise but from actual awareness of the nature of yourself, your emotions and the working of your own thoughts. It also becomes an extension to understanding other people.”

Khunying Chamnongsri works with a number of children on developmental activities she calls Awareness. Perception and Attitude (APA) Training. Some children may be without relatives or parents but even they do not exist on their own. Most maintain a level of interaction with the people around them and one day will become wives, mothers and friends to others. She is, therefore, not simply helping a child but “a child who is a part of the society and as such will influence society to a certain extent.” It is what she calls “helping society through every one of these little girls.”

In the crescendo of fame and recognition, Khunying Chamnongsri remains true to her protégés. The proceeds from the sale of the book, Duj Nava Klang Mahasamut, goes towards securing a brighter future for the young, underprivileged girls.


From: Thailand Tatler ,May 1999

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