Friday, November 13, 2009

Chapter 7 Lotus

After the audience was over Petch beckoned to a young women crouching at the rear of the hall to follow us, and led me to what was to be my room at a corner of the house.

“You will need someone to help you survive in this household,” he said. “I’m lending this slave woman to you.”

The young woman, with almond-shaped eyes and thick black lashes, her nose rather small and sharp, and her hair worn short in the Siamese style, was dressed in a sarong, her upper torso covered by a diaphanous piece of cloth. This was the typical dress of the common people, the profession of tailoring apparently unknown in this country. Her breasts protruded from under the flimsy scarf, though she appeared totally unconscious of her own nudity.

“I don’t need a slave,” I said, the idea of slavery being repugnant to a New Englander, though I was aware that Europeans in Madras, indeed throughout the Indies, took native women as concubines.

“Call her slave, servant, concubine,” he said, “whatever makes you comfortable. The fact is, you will need a woman. My father brought her back, as a child, from Cambodia when he was on a military campaign there many years ago. Her name is Lotus.”

My lust for this woman was so keen that it quite surprised me; and I have often wondered if that punishing lust like a fire within the body, that craven need to touch the skin, was not simply the result of the heightened circumstances of the fire itself. Would I have been so ravished had I seen Lotus across the dining room, or turned and noted her standing behind me on a street corner? I answer myself, as I invariably do, with the knowledge that it would not have mattered in what place or what date I first saw the woman—my reaction would have been just as swift and as terrifying.

“I’m not ungrateful,” I said, “but I would feel uncomfortable having this woman here all the time.”

“She won’t be in your way,” Petch said, seeing my hesitation. “She’ll wait quietly until you call her. If you refuse her, she’ll lose face. Look at it this way; she can entertain you with song and music, and teach you our customs and language.” He smirked, knowing my desire to learn Siamese.

“Europeans are so reticent,” he said, departing to leave me alone with Lotus.

I wasn’t worried that she would be in the way so much as that she would be a temptation. In Madras, after my breakup with Mary, I had gone on a drinking binge in the taverns frequented by the Company clerks and had, on several occasions, almost succumbed to the blandishments of the women of the night, called bibis. My fellow clerks had claimed that you would learn the native language quicker if you kept a woman of that country, euphemistically called language bibis.

I glanced at the dark-eyed, lute-shaped girl kneeling upon her haunches, frisky as a colt no doubt, and it would be nice to have her help me out of my boots, so in the end I let her wait outside my room, though I did my best to ignore her, but, being alone in an unfamiliar house, I came to depend on her for all my material wants. Eventually she did teach me some Siamese, an essential skill in a country where none know or have need of any language but their own.

I was curious to see the great city of Ayutthaya and asked Lotus to take me to the markets and temples. The city was spacious, judging by the circuit of its walls, but only about a sixth of that area was inhabited. The rivers and canals were like natural sewers, keeping the city clean and pleasant. The air was so sweet it seemed to have been perfumed, as indeed it was, by the flowers and trees that grew in profusion; you could smell the river, the people, and the mud, and every kind of tropical exhalation once your nose had become attuned to them. And everywhere were the women, brown, beautiful, and barely covered.

The paddy fields and pastures pleased my eye. I squelched through streets thick with black, stinking mud because of the continual rain and flooding, and past low, thatched buildings of bamboo or wattle, mean compared to those along the waterways. I watched dexterous blacksmiths and goldsmiths, whose rhythmic hammering echoed in my ears, from whom I bought a love gold necklace and ring. I studied how the exquisite lacquerware was made, though I recognized the human cost, for the artisans worked with noxious substances which fumed into the brains, making them break out in blotches and biles.

The money changers, surprisingly, were mainly women and sat in markets and on street corners behind piles of leaden money called cash, which is a name that is generally given to small money in all the Indies. They were as crafty as the most cunning stockjobber in London, and were not the only women involved in commerce. Many European merchants had Siamese or Mon wives, whom they prized for their business acumen as well as their other skills, and in whose hands they happily left their businesses.

I peeked into the dark interiors of ancient pagodas spiced with the fumes of incense and the scent of holy water, with offerings of rice and betel leaves piled high in the shadows. I watched people jostling to have their fortunes told by the priests, who were supposed to abstain from women and alcohol. I asked Lotus about her beliefs; she was very traditional, superstitious, and forever talking about karma and her next rebirth.

The Siamese are good-natured in general and kind enough to strangers. They were also handsome—straight and well-shaped—although, whatever their class or sex, their teeth were black, the result of assiduous dyeing in adolescence with the juice of a herb, and considered white teeth to be disgusting.

I asked Lotus to take me outside the city walls, where I stopped to admire the strong great city, squatting upon an island like an elephant on its haunches, round which flowed a river twice the size of the Thames. Ships from every nation in the Indies, from China and Japan, from France, England, Holland, lined the wharfs, while numerous country boats and barges, some rowed by a score of men, plied to and fro.

Outside the city walls were the camps, or townships, inhabited by the different nationalities who had settled in Ayuttaya, bringing with them their different religions, food and drinks, spices, sights, sounds and smells wafting in the air. There is a large number of Chinamen, including some of the wealthiest merchants, and who are most of the mechanics and laborers. Then there are the Muslims of different races, including Malays, Arabs, Persians, and Indians, under the general appellation of Moors, all engaged in trade and fishing. The Portuguese supply a large number of petty officials and smaller merchants, the French a handful of missionaries, and small but respectable Dutch and English communities, engaged in trade, either for their East India companies or as private merchants. It was a never ending surprise to me that people of so many different languages, religions, and customs were able to live in perfect harmony and peace one with another.

For the most part they live in wooden houses standing on piles over the water, keeping their cattle and pigs on dry land. The streets, stretching out of sight, are alleys of clear running water. Under the great green trees and in the little houses lived the people.

Beyond these camps of the several nationalities are the wide rice fields where the Siamese live as fishermen and farmers, and also formed the main body of officials and talapoins. The horizon is tall trees, above which are visible the sparkling towers and pyramids of the pagodas. It was altogether a charming, peaceful picture to behold.

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