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December 15, 2011

The wellspring

In the midst of the rising waters of the Bangkok floods, Prabha Chandran discovers hope in a bowl of daal makhni and an elegant lady’s life story

I’m in the middle of a disaster that has been spreading like a slow tsunami for two months. One-third of Thailand is now a monsoonal lake, displacing two million people, killing hundreds and turning farms and factories into swampland. Almost two per cent of the country’s GDP has been washed away along with world heritage treasures from the 14th century capital of Ayutthaya. Some 15 minutes by car from my house, the main expressway now serves boats instead of cars. My neighbourhood is a war zone where five-feet-tall sandbag bunkers mask the facades of shops, homes and businesses. “The water is coming today or tomorrow ka,” says the agitated maid. One can almost wear the tension in this city like a heavy, moist cloak.

Half my office colleagues have been evacuated from their flooded homes, while the office itself is under 80 cms of water – for the second week. Four crocodiles and numerous snakes now rule the university campus which houses our offices and we’ve spotted awe inspiring dog-sized reptilian lizards crawl out of the sewers on two occasions. Bangkok’s underground sewage and canal system has become a primordial zoo with the escape of reptiles from export farms nearby and life above ground is achingly surreal. At last count, bureaucrats-turned-crocodile hunters from the ministry of fisheries had caught 19 crocs. Many flood victims have been bitten but they still spend their days sitting on their doorsteps, submerged up to their chins in rancid flood waters. They’ve put their lives on hold and are simply waiting – for food, for essential supplies, for the day to end, for the water to seep away through the sturdy seven-kilometre-long sandbag wall that keeps their community submerged so that the central district stays dry. It’s an urban nightmare and yet….

And yet, Thai families came out in strength to celebrate the festival of Loy Krathong some days ago, fervently floating little rafts of perfumed flowers and candles in the waters that now bathe the Buddhas in neighbourhood temples. They were honouring the water spirits as they do every year, without irony but with greater entreaty. Women smile, children play, one can see the human spirit renewing itself so one can luxuriate in the beauty of an orchid even as the garden disappears…. It’s that ingrained hope, no optimism, that is the very stuff of survival – it’s kept us going against unbelievable odds for millennia, it’s the wellspring of our psyche.

In a world where everything seems to be in crisis – economic meltdown, climate and natural disasters, bloody revolutions – where Occupy Wall Street has become a global chant against the impoverishment of capitalism, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the centre cannot hold. Are we headed into the worst festive season in recent memory?

It was in this sombre mood that I set out to find an Indian restaurant recommended by friends in central Bangkok. There are several rituals that I have perfected over the years to revive my sagging spirits: one is exercise – and I’ve enjoyed enough endorphin highs to recommend this; the other is the satiation of a bellyful of good desi khanna. “There’s something so honest about yellow daal,” my Norwegian spouse says and I smile…we’ve come a long way from “What’s that yellow porridge?” I’m convinced there’s a phytochemical tranquilliser in daal that will one day be marketed for its restorative power. So we’re turning up our spirits with the best daal makhni that Bangkok has to offer.

“This is a special night for us,” says the elegant Punjabi lady who introduces herself as the restaurant proprietor, explaining the floral arrangements as a determined tribute to Diwali despite the floods. We end up chatting through dinner, it’s one of those encounters were you click on hello and by the time you say goodbye you know each other’s personal histories – and then some. Anita’s story makes the floods seem almost trivial.

Born into a wealthy Indian family in a neighbouring country, she witnessed the slaughter of her parents during bloody ethnic riots as a young child. “I saw my father being shot and then my mother and then it was me….” she says pointing to her abdomen. She carries the scars now and they are a vivid reminder of the day she became an orphan. Her grandfather, one of the richest men in the city, turned her over to a convent and she was raised by nuns who taught her not just the three Rs but how to cook, sew and clean during the long school vacations when no one came to take her home. School over, she was brought to Bangkok where she was peremptorily married off to a man with very little means and a modest education. It was then that she decided to open a restaurant, a concept her husband didn’t even fully understand. But he was a good man and soon they had a daughter they doted on.

They began to flourish slowly…when life dealt its cruellest blow. Their young daughter developed an incurable condition and after years of treatment, she passed away. Her husband was inconsolable. Numb with grief, they blamed each other. “The pain,” she says, “was so intense, you had to blame someone.” Unable to work, their restaurant ground to a halt.

It was in the midst of that despair, through much soul searching, that she found herself again. She rediscovered that wellspring of hope and belief that had buoyed her through the dark days of childhood. “I said to the universe, do whatever you want, hit me with whatever you can but I won’t give up. I say to myself, ‘Okay this has happened, but I have to carry on.’” Beloved of her staff, who rallied around her with their own savings, she reopened the restaurant. Today, it is patronised by the Who’s Who of the Indian community of which there is a large cohort in Bangkok. She is a wealthy woman now, her charity boat event on the Bangkok river is a fixture in the city’s social calendar and she’s on the A-list in her adopted city.

What an incredible, inspiring story! We finish dinner and leave the restaurant buoyant with daal makhni, the strength of Anita’s personality and the certainty that no matter what the floods bring in the days ahead, we will be allright. It was the American poet and believer E. E. Cummings who summed it up best for me: ‘Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.’ This festive season, let’s agree to abide with that spirit.

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