Author: M P Joseph
"My Driver Tulong and other Tall Tales" | Throwing light on the nowhere land
The book’s narrative reveals Cambodian people’s resilience to negotiate challenges,
To understand first-time author MP Joseph’s novel ‘My Driver Tulong and other Tall Tales’, it’s important to know why the narrative is set in Cambodia and why the author is there on a UN mission as part of the poverty alleviation programme.
Cambodia has faced a torrid time ever since it freed itself from the apron strings of France in 1953 after remaining its protectorate for nearly 90 years. But freedom from the colonial regime did not bring either stability or prosperity to the Indo-China nation. It remained entangled in bloody internal strife for decades together needing UN interventions. The worst was the rule by the Khmer Rouge, which was the name given to the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. It was formed in 1968 as an offshoot of the Vietnam People’s Army from North Vietnam, and allied with North Vietnam, the Viet Cong, and the Pathet Lao during the Vietnam War against the anti-Communist forces from 1968 to 1975.
The Khmer Rouge emerged victorious in the Cambodian Civil War, overthrew the military dictatorship of the Khmer Republic and installed their own government – Democratic Kampuchea in 1975, led by Pol Pot, NuonChea, IengSary, Son Sen, and KhieuSamphan. This was followed by the Cambodian genocide from 1975 until 1979, when the Khmer Rouge was finally removed from power by Vietnam in the Cambodian–Vietnamese War. The military power of the Khmer Rouge organisation was however not broken, and a long era of guerrilla warfare involving large areas of the countryside began. Many different military factions were involved in the guerrilla war era and it ended around 1994. The Khmer Rouge is remembered especially for orchestrating the Cambodian genocide, which resulted from the enforcement of its social engineering policies. Its attempts at agricultural reform led to widespread famine, while its insistence on absolute self-sufficiency, even in the supply of medicine, led to the death of thousands from treatable diseases such as malaria. Arbitrary executions and torture carried out by its cadres against perceived subversive elements, or during purges of its own ranks between 1975 and 1979, are considered to have constituted genocide.
The governments-in-exile (including the Khmer Rouge) held onto Cambodia’s UN seat (with considerable international support) until 1993, when the monarchy was restored and the country underwent a name change to the Kingdom of Cambodia. A year later, thousands of Khmer Rouge guerrillas surrendered themselves in a government amnesty. In 1996, a new political party, the Democratic National Union Movement, was formed by IengSary, who was granted amnesty for his role as the deputy leader of the Khmer Rouge.The organization (Khmer Rouge) was largely dissolved by the mid-1990s, and finally surrendered completely in 1999. In 2014, two Khmer Rouge leaders, NuonChea and KheiuSamphan, were jailed for life by a UN-backed court, which found them guilty of crimes against humanity and responsible for the deaths of up to two million Cambodians (Khmer), nearly a quarter of the country’s then population, during the “Killing Fields” era between 1975–1979.
Joseph’s book is based in a post Pol Pot Cambodia. On his arrival in Cambodia, MP Joseph, a banker turned IPS turned UN delegate,was briefed to think about locals as an alien entity. However, it did not take him long to get drawn by their innocence, ancient anchorage and a sense of Indianness. What impressed him most, as the book’s narrative reveals, is people’s resilience to negotiate challenges thrown up by the transit from being part of a colony to a Communist system to a liberal, open market regime.
The biggest challenge for any author penning his thoughts around travel memoirs about a place much heard about but not read is to create an authentic first time narrative. This probably would be the first modern text which attempts to create the literary bridge between the two countries. He has also tried to extricate the image of Cambodia from gloomy outlines through a description of the beauty of the countryside in its utter rawness. Though the book may not pass scrutiny of hard nose critics as a great piece of literature, it’s certainly an enterprise into hand-on knowledge dissemination.