Here is the beginning of Chapter 1 of Lap Lae – Kaeng Khoi by Uthis Haemamool [pictured here, courtesy of the Bangkok Post Online], winner of this year’s SEA Write Award, although the novel starts with a Foreword that is very much part of the story. This translation is unedited and may need some finetuning.
My name is Kaeng Khoi, my surname, Wongjoojuea. Before, Kaeng Khoi wasn’t my name; my name was Lap Lae. I only changed my name from Lap Lae to Kaeng Khoi two years ago. I am well aware that to start like this is puzzling and creates confusion about my identity. Besides, both names are words very few parents would be unconventional enough to give their children or grandchildren. As we know, they are more names of districts than personal names, but then all names have an origin. Therefore please give me time to explain about a name so weird to bestow, as my father was adamant he must call his children with names both dignified and full of hope which he could be proud of without paying attention to the mockeries of the people around him and other relatives.
Father told me of various times and different occasions, after he had concluded I was old enough to learn about what happened in his life and would be able to remember it as so many lessons to guide me in the conduct of mine. It began one evening when I was nine years old and he, at the time, was going on forty-four. He sat in the middle of the house platform after the three of us – father, mother and child – had had dinner and he was on his sixth glass of pretty stiff Hong Thong, the brandy he set out to drink every evening after the food that Mother had prepared was set by her on a tray before us. That evening Father kept staring at me all the time. I was aware that his eyes, unyielding and angry-looking as was his normal expression, were all over me, and it made me ill-at-ease. I was racking my brains trying to remember if I had done anything that day that would earn me yet another beating. When I looked up and glanced at him, I could feel his eyes looking at me in a probing way or trying to figure out something about me. After that, he raised his glass to his lips, drank up and then held out the empty glass to me.
“Get me a refill, son.”
I haven’t told you yet, have I, that I have a brother who is four years older than I am. His name is Kaeng Khoi. I know that mentioning my brother at this point is adding to the puzzlement and confusion, but please allow me time to explain things a little. I believe the muddle will soon be sorted out and in the end the confusion will clear up. So allow me to mention my big brother now merely to let you know that he sat by my side, quiet and obedient, but he was someone else altogether when he was outdoors. I’ll tell you about that on another occasion. For the moment, let us go back to when Father held out his empty glass and told me to refill it. I went to the fridge to get ice cubes, carefully poured alcohol in the glass I topped with soda water, used a chopstick to mix spirit and soda, stirring until foam rose to the brim of the glass and then I held the drink out to him. During the whole process my brother had advised me on how to go about what he later told me when the two of us were in bed was a ritual Father relied upon to convey some meaning to us. He said that when he was my age, he had been asked to refill the glass for the first time as well.
Father raised the drink I had mixed and took a sip. “Needs work.” After that, he drank it up. This time he held out the glass, with only ice cubes left in it, to my brother, who mixed the drink expertly while giving me high signs with his eyes. Father tasted the drink my brother had mixed. “That’s more like it.” He put the glass down beside him, shot a glance at Mother as if she was in the way and said, “You go and wash the dishes, now.” And then Mother did as she was told diligently without uttering a word. I felt strangely gratified every time Father ordered Mother around. I lowered my head and slipped a smile at my brother. We giggled while Mother took the food tray and went out of our field of vision to the kitchen at the back of the house.
“Come closer. There’s something I want to tell you.”
Read the rest of the chapter in the Outlook section of the Bangkok Post on 7 September.