The Tiger is looking at me. Green eyes (his) straight into green eyes (mine). Though at that moment I couldn’t care less about similarities. The Tiger looks big. Okay, it is a baby tiger, but a three-months old baby tiger is almost as big as a three-year old boy. Me. And right there and then, I have to walk past him. Less than a yard away. No choice. I have to pass by him that close, with his eyes straight into mine.
We lived in Cambodia at the time. Phnomh-Penh. We’d left the brown people of Pakistan who’d taught me how to walk and speak Urdu, for a place where no-one spoke Urdu. Only Khmer or Mandarin/Cantonese and some French. Store Urdu away for future occasions.
“We”, included my parents, my older brother, then ten, my little sister, barely six months and yours truly, about three years old. My very first recollections are from Cambodia. A few “snapshots” are still in my mind’s eye: the garden at dusk. The Tiger! Thi-Ba and Thi-Toy the maids cum Nannies.
When my mother hired a new maid, she would ask her her name, to which the new hiree always answered: “Just call me Thi-Ba, or Thi-Toy.” And she left it at that. It was only many years later when I commented that with a Vietnamese friend that he laughed and said: “Haha! It means First daughter and Second daughter. It is an old custom, people who enter the household never tell their own, personal name and they become part of the family: first or second daughter, third daughter if need be, and so on.” I’m not sure of the spelling but I like the concept of “entering” the family.
The year was 1956. My father was an Air France man. After eight years in Pakistan, he’d been “outsourced” to the Cambodian government to start the newly formed Cambodian airline: Royal Air Cambodge. As the general manager of the new airline, he reported almost directly to Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the new head of state. Cambodia had been a French protectorate since 1863. Though nominally autonomous since 1946, the country only became fully independent in 1953-54, roughly at the same time the French Army was defeated at Dien-Bien-Phu by Ho-Chi-Minh and Giap’s Viet-Minh and Viet-Nam was separated into South and North, a prelude to the forthcoming Viet-Nam war.
In 1956, the first Indochina war was over. For a brief time there was peace over the peninsula. Cambodia was moving forward in a newfound freedom. The heir of a long dynasty, Samdech (Prince) Norodom Sihanouk’s (full name: Preah Bat Samdech Preah Norodom Sihanouk Varman) plans to develop the country included a national airline. He struck a deal with Air France, well implanted in Indochina since before WWII, and Aigle Azur, a private airline which then transported anything in the region from military personnel, weapons, ammo to tractors and rice. Sihanouk was only 34, my father 38. I understand they got along well.
Right to left: my father, ever so elegant with a bowtie and “Samdech” Norodom Sihanouk in a dark suit at the airfield. Some kind of inauguration. I’ve always wondered how they managed the suits and ties in the Cambodian heat and humidity. A sarong is sooo much more practical.
The Phnomh Penh airport, 1956. Scan from an 8mm movie.
Right to left again: my father, and Sihanouk smiling. Though I’m not totally sure, the gentleman to the far left may have been Sam Sary, a prominent Cambodian politician, who later had a “fall out” with Sihanouk and mysteriously disappeared in 1962.
Left to right: One of Royal Air Cambodge’s first pilots, former Air France, probably former WWII French Free Forces fighter pilot, most were. Roland Manteau (I think) writing something on the pilot’s shoulder, and my father.
“What about the tiger?” Easy, easy, I’ll come to that. The Royal Air Cambodge fleet then comprised three planes, sold or leased by Air France. DC-3’s or DC-4’s:
Those were fabulous airplanes. 30-40 passengers max. Could land in a “mouchoir”, a handkerchief (at a time every gentleman always had a clean handkerchief in his breast pocket). My first flights were in those. Three to four days flight from Indochina to Paris, with stop-overs in Calcutta, Karachi, Teheran (caviar almost for free), Damascus or Beyrouth, Rome…
The company logo was an Apsara, a royal semi-divine dancer:
The Apsaras are female spirits of clouds and waters, in Hinduism and Buddhism, featured frequently on the bas-reliefs of Angkor. A fitting symbol for Royal Air Cambodge. I understand there are 44 types of Apsaras. ‘Don’t know which one the airline logo was. They are still very present even in to-day’s Cambodia, in the traditional dances:
Source: Cambodiasnapshots. Sheer beauty. Note the hands and feet. The sarongs. The headdress. There’s an elephant in the background painting hanging on the wall.
“Okay. We’re here for the tiger. The bl…y tiger. What happened?” Getting to that. We lived in a small two-storey house in Phnomh-Penh. A French Doctor lived on the ground floor. The tiger was his. We lived on the first floor. The garden was shared. With the Tiger…
With my little sister. Note the locally-made bamboo park/corral.
My brother Richard, with his last pair of spectacles. He’d already broken two and my mother had threatened him: “This is your last pair of glasses. Break them? I don’t care. I’m not replacing them”. Of course, two days after this picture was taken, Richard took his glasses of. Put them somewhere. Then sat on a chair and heard a loud “crack”. My mother kept her word. My brother never used glasses.
Obviously I don’t “remember” all those details. Those are “recycled” memories. I do remember the garden vividly though. In particular, the late afternoon I split my knee open falling on a discarded tin can in the garden. And I do clearly remember the Doctor neighbour sewing me up (three stitches). I don’t recall much anesthesia being applied. 😦
Before the tin can…
With the cook. A neighbour’s bitch had just had a litter. I was not allowed to keep a puppy, much to my dismay (and to the puppys’ relief). Note the sarong the cook wore and the “Asian squat”. I used to squat like that all the time as a child. Most restful position ever invented by (hu)mankind.
My friend “Petit-Ami”. The neighbours were Cambodian. They had a son roughly my age who came to play almost every day. We never knew his name. My mother called him Little Friend, “Petit-Ami”. He spoke no French, I spoke no Khmer, yet we were the best buddies. No language between us, just play. Food for thought: is language indispensable? Or does it – almost always – lead to misunderstandings?
I’ve always wondered what happened to “Petit-Ami”. The Khmers Rouges took Phnomh Penh in 1975. He would have been around twenty. A bourgeois or a Khmer Rouge? Most likely the former. The Khmers Rouges deported, starved, executed millions of their “elite”, sometimes, wearing glasses was enough to qualify for reeducation camps. An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died at the hands of the Khmers Rouges. I hope “Petit-Ami” managed to survive and is now a happy grandfather with lots of “Petit-Amis” grandchildren running around.
The Tiger? It is a sad story. The Doctor living on the ground floor had adopted this baby tiger. In the hottest hours of the day, after lunch, during siesta time (why did stuff always happen to me at siesta time?), the tiger rested in the shade on a landing in the staircase going up to our apartment. Obviously, I was always very busy playing in the garden, but at times I had to go upstairs. Through the staircase. Where the tiger was. A big, large, (three months) (baby) tiger. But if you are three years old, you don’t know the difference and the baby tiger was as long as I was tall. So I would tiptoe on the first flight to the last stair just below the landing. Where the tiger generally dozed. My heart raced more at each step. Then of course the tiger would wake up, turn his head, and bore his green eyes into mine. Freeze. Is it absolutely indispensable to go upstairs? Yes. Tiger is chained? Yes. But the chain is long. Hmmm. I would then try to blend into the wall opposite the tiger, slowly make my way around the landing and then run upstairs for my life. Felt very brave each time.
A few years later, under other – African – skies, as my mother was showing us the Cambodia 8 mm movies, duly mounted and with sound added, I saw a small part on the baby tiger and I told my mother the story. She looked at me and said with a wry smile: “I’m surprised you remember that poor baby tiger. You were so little. And sorry to hear he scared you so. You should have told me.” (Mothers!)
“Why do you say ‘poor tiger’ ?” I asked.
“Oh, dear, the poor thing couldn’t have done anything to you. He was paralyzed from the hips down. Couldn’t walk, couldn’t jump or eat little boys.”
Text and illustrations © BMO and Equinoxio unless otherwise mentioned.
The tiger sketch is by my father, Cyril.
PS. Obviously I felt a bit foolish. But then isn’t bravery always tinted with a twist of foolishness? The lesson I learned? No matter what or who you are facing, real or imaginary? No fear.
Have a fearless week-end.