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Writen in Water

Bernie Cooper

It is hard to slot Khunying Chamnongsri Hanchanlash for she revels in being different. And to assign her a specific role would be an injustice to someone with such varied talents. Bernie Cooper, the interviewer, finds himself in deep water as the Khunying leads him away from the constraints of a formulated interview

An interview with writer Chamnongsri Hanchanlash may quickly flower into a conversation. Her answers to the formulated questions open doors to new ideas which are impossible to pass over without comments or questions of your own, and in no time, the interviewer finds him or herself in deep water.

I used the term advisedly, for, as Khunying Chamnongsri remarked, “I’m a water person.” It was not a triumphant declaration of faith or an indication of virtue, but said with a self-deprecating laugh. This preference for avoiding self-assertiveness is characteristic of her work and her personality. It is no doubt, rooted in her childhood as a well-brought up young Thai, and reinforced by her schooldays in a select boarding school in southern England – the pre-Beatles England whose capital city had yet to become known as ‘Swinging’ London.

In her work, she successfully fuses expressions of the water-based civilization of Thailand with the nature poetry of England in a way, which transcends cultural and historical considerations. In his introduction to her first book of verse, On An Empty White Page, author and critic Chetana Nagavajara writes, ‘One can no longer think of East and West, Thai or English. This is just poetry.’

Khunying Chamnongsri introduced the water topic by comparing two recent movies, Titanic, and Nang Nak which commanded even bigger audiences in Thailand than the Oscar winning blockbuster.

“Water was such an important element in the Thai film,” she said. “Thailand was a land of khlongs in those days, and it reminded me of when I was young near our family house in Thonburi where everything was connected by or with water, and I was always conscious of its changing reflections and movements and moods.”

The film analogy illustrates an important Thai/Western cultural divide: In Titanic the water is the sea, a vast and uncontrollable element destroying man’s aspirations. Europe’s coastal-dwellers built dykes and walls to keep it out, in contrast to the Southeast Asian water civilization in which people built houses, which could be quickly dismantled and moved to accommodate the annual floods that were an essential part of life. Water was the element in which they lived; it was respected but not feared.

When she was scarcely three years old, Chamnongsri and her father suffered a grievous loss with the death of her mother. The little girl spent much time on her own, playing beside the khlong and under the trees and observing the minute life around her. These close encounters with nature, both in Thonburi and at her grandmother’s house in Hua Hin, were decisive in her development, and led inevitably to writing, framing them in words which she could communicate to others.

Her first memories of her grandmother’s reading of Thai classical verses and episodes from King Rama I’s version of the Ramayana to her as a young child, even before she started to read herself, must have implanted the sound of rhythmic, dramatic narratives.

Then, when she was twelve, her father decided that she should go to a small private school in England recommended by the Beattie family, his (own) father’s partners in the founding of Loxley, then known as Loxley Rice Co., Ltd. Fritham House was the manor house of a village in the New Forest, whose proprietor was Sir Timothy Eden, elder brother to Sir Anthony, then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. It was an ideal setting for a sensitive young Thai who had a deep appreciation of nature.

"There was so much water there,” said Khunying Chamnongsri. “I used to put on my Wellington boots and go tramping through the marshes and wetlands,” In time, she also fell in love – with the Romantic poets, Byron, Keats and Shelley. No surprise there, perhaps; prolific writers on love and nature, traveling, taking up causes, Byron joining the Greek freedom fighters, Keats and Shelley dying while still in their 20s, their lives as well as their verse compel us to marvel.

What may be more surprising was the young Chamnongsri’s enjoyment of the supreme classic stylists Addison and Steels, who lived a century before the Romantics; but they, too, were rebellious frivolous decoration and moral cynicism of their time, and their influence had its effect on the young writer.

Dedicated craftsmanship allied with a reserved and thoughtful temperament does not make for impressioned outbursts and slogans, and the social concern in Khunying Chamnongsri’s writing could never be expressed in black and white terms or painted in primary colours. But first, she had to deal with her return to Thailand at the age of 18, and work at the Bangkok Post’s evening paper, the Bangkok World, where she was a social columnist and, later, editor of the women’s page.

“It was fun,” she agreed, “but I wasn’t used to writing to deadlines. I still find they’re a pressure on me.” With immaculate timing, the phone rang, and a magazine editor politely reminded Khunying Chamnongsri that her current feature article was a little overdue.

To be able write for a specific purpose in a given time is a useful talent, but it’s not the poet’s cup of tea. “When I write a line, I never know where it’s going to lead me or what I’m aiming, “It always seems to take me somewhere I want to go, and I often realize afterwards that I didn’t know I’d had that idea in me at all.”

When she was 22, Chamnongsri married Thailand’s leading ophthalmologist Uthai Rutnin, and became an active supporter of his work. Together they founded the Rutnin Eye Hospital now in Soi Asoke, which for decades has served the Royal Family and treated patients referred by Royal charity organisations.

Khunying Chamnongsri’s active social concern has run parallel to her writing career.

“I have always had a tendency to be affected by events I read in the paper, and touched by accounts of abused children and girls forced or tricked into prostitution,”

she said, and in 1994 she founded Harbour House in Chiang Rai. In a remote area near the Golden Triangle, the Foundation is a refuge and a training centre for girls at risk from drug abuse and prostitution.

Patterns of violence and abuse are often interlinked, and more recently, while continuing as chairperson of Harbour House Foundation, Khunying Chamnongsri has extended her attention to the frequently concealed problem of violence in the home. As an adviser to the Criminal Law Institute Foundation, she has developed projects to understanding and rehabilitating offenders as well as the victims of violence.

“Through our Centre to End Domestic Violence Against Women, I’ve had personal knowledge of many domestic abuse cases,” she said. “Most offenders suffered abuse themselves as children, and there is a need for alternative penalties and methods of treatment for them.”

She also supported “Gentlemen’s Hotline” a revolutionary step taken by Hotline Foundation with the idea of setting up a help line for men with violent tendencies and other problems. Beside her own private donation. The Rutnin Gimbel Laser Refractive Surgery Center of which she chairs the board of directors, contributed an initial sum followed by Baht 300 per surgery patient.

“Many people doubted if it would work because men wouldn’t want to discuss personal problems,” said Khunying Chamnongsri. “They said there would probably be a lot of dirty calls, and of course, there are some. But the surprising thing was that when the news about Gentlemen’s Hotline went out, the hotline received an influx of serious calls from men with problems. Hotline Foundation is now compiling a book of selected case histories – completely anonymous, needless to say – so that other men may be encouraged, families may feel more hopeful and the public generally will become more aware of the problem.”

But, says Khunying Chamnongsri, “At my age, I’m happy to have other people do the implementing. There are many people and organisations in the social field more experienced than I am. I see my role as contributing ideas, initiating projects and do what I can to support their activities and initiatives.”

She laughed away protests to her suggestion that age was against her.

“I am happy with both the main plus and the main minus of being my age,” she declared. “The minus is, you’re not here for much longer; the plus is that you’ve been here for so long!”

Easy enough, perhaps, for someone in good shape and who has a young appearance and manner.

“I forget things a lot,” she admits. “But that has pluses, too. It’s the small things I forget, and that leaves my mind clear to receive new things.”

Articulating the thought at once produced a water image.

“When you’re young, it’s like navigating a small boat on a fast, twisting stream. You’re concentrating on what’s in front of you, and you’re so busy steering you don’t have time to see the whole picture. When you’re older, you’re on a placid lake and you can see the shore and the horizon.”

That does not equate to a slow-paced life. Only last year, Khunying Chamnongsri published the book which put her on Thailand’s best-seller list, a chronicle of the Wanglee family, her mother’s forebears who migrated to Thailand from Southern China.

It bears a water title: Boats in Mid-Ocean. It would have to, because this flux of change and continuity which water represents is always present in Khunying Chamnongsri’s life and work. The name of her house in Chiang Mai, Nam Saan, can be rendered into English as, ‘woven in water’, and her three daughters all have names which come from water: Nam-peung, Nam-waan and Nam-oy.

Today, married to the eminent development specialist and businessman, Dr. JingJai Hanchanlash and a grandmother of six, Khunying Chamnongsri still declines to conform to the requirements of age. Her creativity still at its height, she smiles a lot, talks a lot, and listens well, too. Her face is youthful, the features mobile; her movements are quick and decisive. Like the river, she has a long, long way to go before reaching the sea.


From : "Written in Water" , By Bernie Cooper in Face to Face , Expression.

February -March, 2001.

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