The lady at the next table raised her voice, breaking the murmur of conversation in her group. “Listen! I must tell you something.”
You’d think she was speaking Hindi, from the speed of her speech, the manner of speaking, her accent, and inflexions — but the words were all English. Anyway, her insistence hushed her three companions, all male.
“I know, like, a lady in our complex. She has a husband, you know, and a child. She was fine, like. Then suddenly she developed aching in her legs and after waiting for a long time she decided to see the docs.”
It was hard to tell her words in the din of the cafe. Also, I was trying to stay focused on Coetzee, who I was reading.
“She was losing control over her legs. After so many days they diagnosed what was wrong. She’d been infected by a dog tick in Cambodia, and … “
“Dog tick?” One of the men interrupted.
“Dog, tick,” she affirmed. “Dog tick. Now the problem was, like, they didn’t know the cure. They’d studied this thing in college, but they didn’t know the treatment. Now both her legs are amputated.”
Her companions fell silent, but I had a question I couldn’t ask: These days, doctors consult with peers across the globe in real time over the Net. Couldn’t they gather the information they needed? And, at any rate, wasn’t it impressive how they traced the cause to a dog tick? In Cambodia?
Breathing deep, I let it pass. And remembered the few weeks I spent in Cambodia, ten years ago.
An essay by Amitav Ghosh took me there: Dancing in Cambodia. It tells the story of the Khmer Rouge, starting the narrative with a Cambodian troupe of dancers who performed in France and won, among thousands of French people, the attention of the great Rodin, who followed them from Paris to Marseilles and painted them. Later, in the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge would decimate art and culture and all intellectual effort in the nation. The essay pushed me to travel to the place forthwith. My primary destination was the school Tuol Sleng from Amitav's story, which is now maintained as a Torture Museum, but I extended the travel to Siem Reap, the Cardamom Mountains, and Sihanoukville.
During the short reign of the Khmer Rouge, some 15,000 young and old prisoners passed through the horrors of Tuol Sleng, en route to certain death.
The school was a few minutes’ walk from my riverside hotel in Phnom Penh, reached through malodorous streets — Rue Pasteur, Sihanouk Boulevard, Monivong Boulevard, Norodom Boulevard — quite like the streets in small-town India. The school was plain — a staid missionary-style school, typical of Asia. In bare classrooms stripped of desks and benches and equipped with cheap metal cots, every conceivable excess man can devise for man was performed. Lesser prisoners built their own tiny mini-cells within the classrooms. It was not difficult to imagine the doings that happened there — here was a place that revealed the cruel face of mankind — a place that could crush the toughest. I went out and sat a half-hour on a bench in the schoolyard and watched sparrows flitting about in the heavy, tainted silence.
I spent the following week in Siem Reap, experiencing a different, older history of Cambodia, spending daytime in wonder among the ruins of the magnificent wats in a setting nestled among grand equatorial trees. Although the jungle that had enveloped this wonder has been cleared, giant trees still gripped large parts of the structures with talon-like roots.
In the evenings the air of Siem Reap town was insufferable, worse even than in Phnom Penh, from bad gasoline sold street-side in bottles and used by all classes of vehicles. I wore an ineffective surgical mask to hold off poisoned air. Toward the end of the week, returning to the hotel after a spicy Indian meal at Kamasutra on Pub Street, unable to breathe once without searing my chest, I cried out loud in anger, again and again.
I cleared my lungs in the Cardamom Mountains in the following week, feasting on pine-scented air in a cottage by a large, tranquil pond. I read Thoreau in the week. The resort where I stayed was almost entirely taken over by a missionary team from the US, their Khmer recruits, and many children. After raining bombs long and hard on these luckless people, these people from faraway nations were engaged in harvesting beautiful Khmer souls. One morning, I shared my table with the lead evangelist. He was young and friendly and very fresh-faced. “Join us for a prayer meeting?” he asked me, and smiled when I said, “Let me try.”
After the mountains I spent lazy hours on the boat in the sun off Sihanoukville, watching raptors swoop right before our vessel and pick off supple fish from the waters. There was peace all round that brought out a sigh now and then, but neither mountain nor water cheered me. It didn’t help that each evening after dinner I had to fend off taxi drivers determined to carry me off to a massage house. “Sexy massage. You want boy or girl?” I’d been four weeks in a land too steeped in tragedy.
On the eve of departure, I stayed in the pompous, and positively un-homey Hotel Cambodiana, for supper and a few hours’ sleep. I couldn’t sleep that much. A text message arrived in the small hours, telling me I had lost my father.
This story should’ve been about another person’s grief. I cannot help but wonder if, for that lady, Cambodia was worth losing two legs for.