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the path of the tiger SILA K0MCHAI


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the path of the tiger TRANSLATED FROM THE THAI BY MARCEL BARANG AND PHONGDEIT JIANGPHATTANA‐KIT

© THAI MODERN CLASSICS Internet edition 2008 | All rights reserved Original Thai edition, Thang Suea, 1989

SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


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preface When I finished writing this book, I felt relieved. On the one hand, it seemed that my thoughts were no longer tied down; on the other, some problems in my life began to recede, even though they were not necessarily solved. Maybe this is because these days, when I start writing, I feel the need to talk to others about some topics I have investigated on my own, to determine whether my analyses are correct. A dear friend of mine, a professional writer whose talent is widely recognised, once suggested that, given our age and experience, we should set ourselves the lofty aim of addressing the world. For such an insignificant person as myself, to do so would be highly conceited indeed, yet I have genuine respect both for my friend and for his suggestion, and I wish that someone will act on it. The problems I mentioned above are of a personal nature and common to all ordinary people – being greedy and selfish, refusing to acknowledge one’s own mistakes and blaming them on others instead, shirking responsibilities, complaining about trifles, refusing to face the truth and shying away from confrontation. Another important factor that inspired me to write this book is that I spent several years of my life trekking from the South to the Northeast and then to the North, wading through countless jungles, mountains and waterways, THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


4 and this is still vivid in my mind. Today, time and a technology-oriented urban society are increasingly compelling me to let go of these memories. The ‘love’ the wild jungle inspired in me is fast receding. The fear that, before long, all this would disappear from my memory has prompted me to put pen to paper. As I have said, this is only a story I would like to discuss with others. Some may disagree, both about the thoughts expressed and about the way they are expressed. This is their right, which I must accept and respect in every way. In friendship, SILA KOMCHAI Sai Mai, April 1989

To Too and Jaem, my life companions

1. towards the jungle curtain SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


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1. towards the jungle curtain The torrential rain which had been pouring before daybreak as if the heavens were leaking had abated and then stopped, but the dawn sky was still overcast. Raindrops clung to the branches of the Siamese sindora tree and tapped on the leaves of the papaya trees by the brook. Branches and twigs stirred in the universal silence as if the tension from above wasn’t over yet. The young man sitting with his legs stretched across the threshold of the bamboo hut leaned out to look beyond the eaves at the sky above the brook. He carefully wiped the butt of his muzzle-loading rifle with a loincloth. A touch of unease briefly blurred the hope in his eyes. All the things he needed were laid out around him. The rifle was already loaded with saltpetre and pellets, so he prepared himself to go out. He took the horn of saltpetre, the tin box containing pellets and buckshot, and the dry bamboo-fibre tow, and put them one at a time in his haversack as if he were inspecting and counting them. ‘It’s going to rain again… Hurry back home before you catch cold,’ the young woman who was cooking on the veranda shouted out at him. She got up and came to him, put some rice tightly wrapped in banana leaf in his haversack and craned her neck to look through the doorframe at the little boy and girl who slept huddled under a tired blanket spread out sideways in a corner of the room. THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


6 ‘It’s so cold with all this rain! You sure the caps didn’t get wet?’ the young woman asked, stroking her arms and looking at the gun. This made him hesitate. He lifted the zinc breech to examine the trigger, and after a while flipped it shut and placed the gun down flat on the floor. He took the tin box out of the haversack and inspected the caps. The flakes of red paper were streaked with rows of black blobs the size of match heads. He put them out to dry by the fire, just to make sure. ‘Take good care of the kids, with all this rain…’ His voice was deep and soft. He adjusted his haversack and grabbed his rifle, ready to start on his journey. ‘If I’m late tonight, wait for…’ He checked himself in time. Hunters have long held that they must always be ready and on the alert but should never anticipate – it brings bad luck. The sky strained to bear its burden of pregnant clouds, which drifted along and clung to the mountain peaks. It was odd. When you were in the middle of a cloud, you couldn’t see its shape; it was like moving through fog without seeing it. He was now climbing but was only conscious of the immediate slope, which was densely covered with a variety of bamboo groves. A little later, he came to a wide plain carpeted with all sorts of tall tropical trees tied up in a tangle of vines and creepers. Although he was not a professional hunter – he had fled from the village in order to avoid confrontation with SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


7 certain people over certain events – his life deep in the mountains for the better part of a year spent foraging for food had forced him to quickly learn how to make the best of the jungle. At the beginning of the rainy season, wild olives turned a ripe yellow and, on nights of heavy rain, they fell and scattered about on the ground, releasing a sweet, heady fragrance which enticed the barking deer and made their mouths water. They took great pains parting the thin pulp from the acid, astringent peel. Once they had swallowed, the saliva in their bulging jowls was exquisitely sweet. On those mornings, the ravenous deer would come out and lurk around the olives, and you had to find a tree to stalk them from for a fair shot. He was now making his way through spongy, slimy soil. The cracking leaves of the dry season had gathered on the ground and were rotting, releasing musty scents on their way back to compost and plain earth. Hunters preferred the rainy season. When they crept closer to their prey, they did not have to be as cautious as during the dry months. Then, they had to hold their breath and try to avoid the merest crack of dry leaf or snap of twig underfoot that would alert the animal. The air was torrid and the constant breeze carried the faintest smell, even the whiff of a wild rose. During the monsoon season, ripe fruit, bamboo shoots and young grass lured the animals to venture out of their prowling grounds. Ferment smells, light scents and the sustained babble of a brook covered THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


8 up the approach of the hunter until he saw his target clearly and could pull the trigger certain that he would not miss. On the flat ridge, he slowed down, cautious of where he put his feet, his eyes constantly on the lookout, sweeping left and then right to widen his field of vision. He was wary of the slightest shudder of leaves. If a hunter’s weapon is essential, so are a sharp sight and an ear sensitive to the merest noise. As he trod past a bush full of wet leaves, he pushed aside a tangle of creepers and triggered a downpour of droplets from on high. His clothes were drenched. He was taking care that his weapon wouldn’t get wet and jam. With his left hand, he kept the muzzle pointed to the ground, and his right hand was wrapped around the breech, which protected the trigger and the caps. A barking deer has the colour of a russet cow in the middle of a field, the size of an average Thai dog, the legs and snout of a deer, but horns only two to three inches long. Its meat is as good as that of a fully grown calf – better even, come to think of it, given the difficulty in coming by it. And it fills your stomach meal after meal, he thought with longing. ‘Oh, no! What a fool!’ he groaned, confused and incensed at himself. Some hunter! He had come out meaning to shoot a deer, but had mindlessly loaded his rifle with pellets instead of buckshot. SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


9 It looked as though the jungle had begun to change again and was breathing. In the dry season, the leaves turned every nuance of vivid yellow and red, and the ground was strewn with ochre-coloured ones. Some trees lost all their foliage and bared all their branches and twigs, only to sprout pale-green buds, as if they had discarded old clothes to put on a new garb. From the outside and at a distance, the nature of the change was difficult to assess; trekking through the jungle brought only perplexity. The flat expanse of the ridge, once bare, was now covered with ferns and wild grass which had crept down in a wide crescent. It had been raining on the track, and the leaves and plant growth had almost completely erased it. The ferns, which disappeared during the dry season, proliferated as their newly sprouted fronds drank the dew above the ground. The familiar jungle had changed more than he could recall. From the walking time and thanks to some tall trees he remembered, he reckoned he would soon reach the mountain pass. The wide flat stretch of the ridge gradually narrowed into a clearly defined crest. Right there stood a huge Indian rubber tree, whose trunk would have taken three or four men to girdle, next to a dead Siamese sindora tree, which leaned to the left and projected into the sky its black and rotten branches. On both sides of the crest, tiny rivulets burrowed down the slopes and turned into deep ravines further down. When he reached the spot where he had figured he would find his bearings, he saw THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


10 that some branches of the sindora tree had fallen and lay over a tangle of crushed undergrowth. He chose a stub of rubber-tree roots to sit on and rest awhile. He leaned his gun against the trunk, pulled out his cloth belt and wiped the sweat off his face and arms. He got out his tobacco pouch, an old bag of saline solution, and took a pinch of tobacco and a piece of dry banana leaf from it to roll himself a cigarette. ‘Luck, that’s what I need,’ he mumbled to himself. He slowly exhaled the smoke through his nostrils and gazed at the blanket of mist that smothered the trees in the distance. He had shot only one barking deer in his life. Highland cultivation of rice, corn, eggplant, gourds, cucumbers and chillies left him little leisure, except to hunt for birds, rats and squirrels and to fish in the brook by the hut. ‘The poor creature must have been blind,’ his wife had said in jest as they helped each other cut up the barking deer. ‘No way. Ex-pert-ise!’ he had protested solemnly. ‘You bet.’ His wife had looked at him teasingly. Her white, smooth cheeks shone and sweat glistened through the roots of her hair. She squatted on the floor, her sarong taught on her haunches. She held the knife firmly and sliced the meat in rhythmic strokes that made her full bosom shake. ‘Well, if it weren’t for my expertise, how did you get a chance to hug and lull these two?’ SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


11 ‘Silly man!’ Her cheeks had taken on the colour of ripe euphorbia. He stubbed out his cigarette and threw it away. Smiling to himself, thinking of his two children, his own flesh and blood and fount of hope. Their innocent vitality led him to hug and play with them time and again, and he enjoyed himself so much he forgot his own worries, woes and weariness. They were growing up, and had been eating rice with vegetables for days, like cows or buffalo. Be patient, little ones, just wait for dad. A mysterious power swelled in his chest, prompting him to get up and grab his rifle. He climbed down a small water gully to his left leading to a tiny brook trapped in a ravine, broke through a thick grove with sharp thorns and leaves as large as palms and fought his way out to climb a hillock on the other side. The jungle was dark and gloomy as at dusk, and the weather alarmingly cold. The wild olive tree was ahead. He chose a thick bamboo grove to hide in. There was no wind. He had a clear view of the trunk of the olive tree and the ground around it. He could see nothing out of the ordinary, no sudden movement. To wait patiently is the duty of the hunter, who controls the situation. Preparation gave him superiority in terms of weaponry and location. He had to quell all tension and let his heart brim with hope and energy as he waited for the prey to move into the line of fire. THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


12 He had no idea how much time went by. Kept changing his position, standing up and stretching, then crouching and looking around. His knee joints ached, spasms shook his thighs and pins and needles crept up to his calves. The drizzling rain hissed on the leaves overhead. He gazed up and became furious at the empty ground in front of him. His patience at an end, he made up his mind, took a few hasty steps to the base of the olive tree and looked around but damn it! even old traces of the deer were not to be found. ‘You sucker! Tough luck,’ he growled at himself. A web of small raindrops clung to his arms. Tiny gnats bit into his scalp under his damp hair, making him feel damn itchy. Their bite was toxic and some spots on his face would later turn into sores. This made him all the more upset. Today he should have stayed at home and cut down some bamboo stems and cleaved them into strips to plait baskets. Why did he have to trek the jungle, getting drenched for nearly half a day only to return empty-handed? But then, he had the excuse hunters everywhere console themselves with: the animal he was after wasn’t tied to a tree… As he was shilly-shallying, wondering what to do next, a squirrel called out from the bamboo grove in front of him. He was on to it in a jiffy. The smallish grey animal was racing up and down the stems, out of fright or sheer exultation he couldn’t tell, its low-pitched calls resounding in the silence. He placed the barrel against the tree and held it there with his left hand so that it SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


13 wouldn’t sway, opened the zinc bridge to expose the trigger and firmed up the butt against his shoulder. His left knee pressed against the tree to prevent his body from swerving as he stood on his taut right leg. The rifle’s sights were merely a circular piece of iron stuck above the muzzle. It wasn’t that easy to pull the trigger with the right index and hit the target. You had to wait for the prey to calm down and stay still. He was lucky that he had loaded his rifle with pellets. Pellets are suitable for small targets, as they disperse over a wide area, whereas buckshot can tear off more than half of the body of a small animal. Even a little meat and some bones was better than nothing. Their fishy smell and sweet taste when boiled into a broth with some gourd would make it easy for the kids to gorge themselves on rice until their bellies bulged. The squirrel had calmed down and clung to a bamboo stem, flicking its head hither and thither. He aimed the barrel at the bushy-tailed target. He had it well in his rifle’s sights, but as he held his breath and began to pull the trigger, the cooing of an imperial pigeon resounded from the valley to his right and blew his concentration. His rifle was still aimed at the target, but the expression in his eyes had changed. Squirrels are full of bones, and to make them palatable, you have to chop and pound them into tiny pieces. An imperial pigeon is almost as big as a fully grown chicken. Its breast is a big chunk of white meat and its taste far superior to that of a squirrel. THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


14 Stir-fried with liberal doses of salt and chilli and served with steaming hot rice… Or should he take care of this one first? The shot would wake up the whole jungle and send all of the animals scurrying. ‘Lucky you,’ he mumbled, with a nod to the squirrel. He lowered the barrel and moved away from the tree in a crouch. He carefully put his feet down sideways, the outer part of his soles supporting his body weight, and stealthily progressed towards the cooing. There seemed to be more than one bird. After listening carefully, he could tell there must be two of them. He thought loosely of the parable of ‘killing two birds with one stone’, and hoped they’d be wooing and cooing next to each other in loving oblivion. The pellets would scatter in a wide circle of thrusting steel and swiftly fell the birds. One would be fried with chillies, the other chopped into spicy minced meat. His eyes widened and his heart swelled in his chest. Right there stood a banyan tree whose thick bushy leaves and dangling vines were a curtain for the rifle barrel and roving eyes of a hunter. He reached the shield of a cycas palm tree. The dark-brown birds hid somewhere in a dim recess. He inspected the branches and twigs one by one as if he were counting the leaves. How could they possibly have escaped? Suddenly, there was a fleeting motion and he was instantly aware of it. He strained his eyes to try and distinguish the birds from their hiding shadow, then SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


15 raised the barrel high up and placed it in the fork of a palm. Just right! But what the h— It was as if the Lord of the Jungle was playing tricks on him, for now came a high-pitched pek-pek call which echoed throughout the valley. The call of a barking deer! He stopped to listen and knew roughly that it came from the high ridge in front of him. He smiled brightly. Delight prompted him to stride in the direction of the trunk of a banyan tree, the path which offered the best cover. Excitement made his heart pound and his chest expand. Joy made his blood course and his ears burn. He now had to choose: climb up to find the deer or entice it into the path of his rifle. In a frantic flapping of wings, the imperial pigeons fled in fright. He had completely forgotten about them: they did not have even half as much meat as a single leg of a barking deer. Finally, he chose the trunk of the banyan tree as his place to wait. The pek-pek call meant that it was a female. A male’s bark is more raucous, something like poak-poak. He plucked a young leaf and put it under his tongue. With the tightly pressed thumb and index of each hand he stretched the corners of his mouth and blew through the leaf, producing a piercing peep-peep sound which was a convincing imitation of a fawn’s call. A mother deer might think her fawn had got lost, and generosity, the common bond of all species, might also prompt a virgin female deer to come out. Experienced THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


16 hunters, especially the Hmong, often use this method, and it often works. Nothing can fool the heart to death more effectively than the lure of caring love – a beautiful feeling universally acknowledged, a chain wrought over time with myriad ties of gentle warmth. In moments such as these, alarm, suspicion, even the survival instinct are forsaken. It seems cruel to use such a method, but what kind of hunter is it who will not use tricks and stratagems to lure the prey into a snare of death and instead will take time to ponder ‘Thou shalt not kill’ before trying his hand? The faint sound of leaves being rent and munched and of wet twigs snapping on the ground came from way up there, gradually moving down and growing louder. He smiled widely and had to prevent himself from laughing out loud – it was so unexpectedly easy. He grabbed his rifle, carefully searched for a clear line of fire and aimed at the approaching noise. Small bushes shook here and there in a row. He cocked the trigger, which clicked into place, and waited. When the russet colour came into view, he blocked his rifle against his shoulder and held the barrel firmly. He closed his left eye tightly, and with the right still saw the breast of the animal above the rifle’s sights. The deer was as big as a fat Thai dog. He wondered whether the small pellets would be powerful enough to down the owner of such delicious meat. In his excitement, he had made a blunder, failing to notice one of his feet SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


17 rested on a rotten branch, and in the very second he began to worry, the branch broke. The deer swung its head up in fright. This was his last chance. His right index promptly pulled the trigger. The gunshot ripped the silence and reverberated endlessly throughout the jungle in humming echoes that swirled around among the trees like rolling waves. A curtain of blue-grey smoke spread and blurred his vision. In the diffuse light, he saw the barking deer totter and collapse, only to leap up and dart for dear life back to the ridge. He jumped out of his hiding place and ran as fast as he could after it, lest it should move out of sight. Heavy rains pummelling the mountain slope had made the earth soft and loose, and he slipped and lost his footing and tumbled time and again. When he finally reached the top of the ridge, he realized that his rifle was unloaded and no more harmful than a stick. Signs of the deer’s injury were plain to see: the ferns it had trampled were crushed at ground level, and the slanted clumps of grass showed the way it had taken… Well, let’s see how good you are! He carefully loaded his rifle with saltpetre, taking his time, then selected buckshot. This time, he wasn’t going to miss.

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2. in high spirits ‘Where could it possibly escape to?’ he said and smirked. His eyes followed the track of bent clumps of grass and splotches of blood on the wet blades. He stood panting, tired, his face flushed with elation. Given that he was now an owner intent on taking hold of his property after investing so much effort in the chase, he couldn’t allow anything to deflect him from his aim but had to go straight for what he was hankering for and then hold on to it. In this situation, his peerless superiority gave him the upper hand. The animal was injured, fleeing mindlessly, and furthermore it had no claws. The agility bestowed on it by nature to ensure its survival was now impaired, and the signs of its flight from death were in evidence all over the crushed leaves. There was no time to stop and assess everything in sight. He left behind the concentration, memory and ever-watchful eyes of the jungle trekker as he hastily strode along the trail. From the ridge, he went down to a small water trough and skirted it upstream until he reached a mass of huge trees. The slanted wild grass still showed the path of flight. He held his rifle tightly and thought of juicy, tender meat and the smiles on his children’s ruddy cheeks as he cut across the flat, airy ridge. The sky above was wide but the ground was smothered with dwarfish SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


19 bushes of smelly composite plants. His eyes searched for the trail hid amid the bushes. He drew his pocketknife out of its sheath and began to cut his way through. It looked like the injured animal was now smart enough to slow down his progress. ‘There should be a place where it collapsed and stayed to rest awhile.’ He began to get annoyed at the thick wild bushes, which extended downward with no end in sight. ‘Or maybe it wasn’t wounded critically?’ He’d hate to find himself in a position of inferiority which would leave him totally hopeless. Gathering his strength, he went about thrashing wildly at the composite bushes. The fresh trail of bloodstains which were stuck to their leaves encouraged him to move ahead tirelessly. When he had extricated himself from the maze of composites, he walked across a grove of wild banana trees and then skirted a teeny gurgling brook which disappeared into a jumble of pinnate palm trees and ferns. The damp earth was covered with curly-tipped polypody and thickfronded fern. The trail was still clear and cut right across the bushes of yet another ridge. The certainty of possession and the way to secure it were his final goals, which washed away his weariness like rain sweeps away topsoil. Although his breathing was laboured and his throat gave out raspy grunts, his two legs still strode ahead firmly. How much time had gone by, how many brooks, how many ridges, he didn’t give it a thought. THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


20 The high ridge he now scaled bore a thick jumble of trees. Round fruits plated with sharp, thick spikes lay about on the ground over a wide area. The green leaves, twigs and branches of each tree stretched out and intertwined in a tight cluster which looked almost like a roof. Even the rays of the sun couldn’t seep through and reach down to fondle the ground, which grew only tiny grass and a few creepers. Vines as big as his arms clasped and coiled round the trunks, whose spotted bark had streaks of green moss. Climbers thrust up as high as they could. He was panting heavily and his whole body was trembling. His eyes and rifle were searching for the trail, which had begun to fade. He felt suddenly dejected, but when he looked up, the russet-coloured creature was leaning against a tree in front of him at some distance. It too was panting out of exhaustion, its flanks heaving furiously, its ribs well outlined. The trigger was cocked with a click. Survival instinct made the animal swirl around. His hands were trembling and the barrel shook as he raised it to aim. A mere glimpse at him and the deer darted out at full speed. The failure made him fume as he carefully released the pressure on the trigger and went staggering after his prey. ‘You bitch!’ he growled, jaws clenched. Injured animals usually choose to escape by cutting across a ridge and romping down some ravine instead of stampeding along the crest. Pursuit demands much energy from the hunter, who may end up with disjointed SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


21 knees. Clambering down the squishy, slippery slope made him lose his footing and stumble, and he had to grab at tree trunks and branches to recover his balance. His legs wobbled and pain tore at his ankles. He awkwardly tried to prevent the muzzle of his rifle from getting stuck in the ground but it wasn’t long before the barrel was clogged with mud. The slippery slope led to a large stream whose turbid water rumbled forth and crashed against rocks and pebbles on both banks, with beds of gravel and stone stretched out in a wide crescent. The trail was definitely lost. The weight of an animal of that size isn’t enough to leave marks or imprints, except in the dry season, when a prey coming out of the water onto the scorched rocks would leave behind telltale drops. But in times of downpour or drizzle like now, everything is wet and there are no such clues. He stared wild-eyed like a lunatic, took a few steps, bent down and searched hither and thither as though sniffing the ground, dashed into the water and waded across to the other bank, where he rushed madly about for a long while, before crossing over again empty-handed. He let himself slump to the ground and stretched out his legs, exhausted, then looked up resentfully at the drizzling rain. ‘You asshole!’ he cursed himself at the top of his voice, completely drowning the rumble of the stream. The mountain jungle answered back ‘asshole’, ‘asshole’ in gradually fading whispers. ‘Get lost!’ he shouted again. To be insulted back was THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


22 unbearable. He tucked his head between his knees and pressed both of his arms tightly against the back of his skull. His total stillness, which made him akin to the rocks nearby, was shattered when the rain suddenly poured down in a thick curtain. Raindrops slapped against his nape with a sting. Herds of low, black clouds rolled in fast and thick, almost scraping the treetops on the ridge. Shivering, he stood up and looked for some kind of cover. At the very least, his rifle shouldn’t get soaked. One bank was carved off a steep cliff, with a boulder overhanging the stream and a cavity deep enough to take shelter in. The rain was thrashing down furiously, adding its din to the roar of the current against the rocks. Treetops, branches and leaves swayed and shivered in the blurry curtain of rain. Tiny grooves formed down the ridge as water washed off topsoil, rotten leaves and rubbish in thick, turbid flows that crashed into the rocky stream and turned it the colour of mud, as if discarding shattered hopes. How long was it since he had left home? The thought came to him for the first time. How weird! His stomach hadn’t complained for food. By now, it must be noon or well past noon, judging by the aches in his legs and cramps in his calves due to the trekking. He couldn’t tell anything from the sky, which was dark and mean like a mantle of gloom. The cold made his arms shiver and his teeth chatter uncontrollably. The rain pummelled down with no end in sight. He took a pinch of tobacco from his SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


23 pouch and rolled himself a cigarette, then stood against the rocky cliff, arms folded across his chest, watching the stream swell up alarmingly fast. He slowly exhaled coils of smoke which melted in the air. ‘And where am I anyway?’ he mumbled to himself. His eyes swept in all directions in search of some familiar landmark, but nothing triggered his memory. He tried to figure out where he was, frowning in concentration until his eyebrows touched, but to no avail. There was nothing that could tell him which direction was which, and he began to feel anxious. ‘Come off it: no real hunter is scared of getting lost in the jungle,’ he said with a forced smile to quell the unusual feeling growing within him. Finding his way back wouldn’t be easy. The rain didn’t look like letting up, time was creeping by ever so slowly, his body had lost much of its energy, and the path he had cut wasn’t exactly a public thoroughfare. He’d have to look for a way back. Whether he’d be able to return home before nightfall became a matter of real worry. As he stood there waiting, there was nothing better for him to do than to feed his stomach in order to recover some strength, so he took out the packet of rice and began to eat. ‘What a lousy day this is!’ he thought ruefully. Anger constricted his throat and he found it difficult to swallow his rice. His wife would make a fuss of welcoming him back and he’d have to put on a brave face to hide his disappointment in order to make her happy, and his peeved THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


24 kids would have to keep surviving on tasteless gourd broth for a while longer. To hell if the sky didn’t play tricks on him! As he was about to shoot the squirrel, the imperial pigeon had offered itself instead, only to have the barking deer make a pathetic fool out of him, and he had wasted all this time like a cretin cutting across the jungle and taking cover from the rain. It looked as though the wind was rising. He could see the treetops swaying and bending over. Rain clouds were being swiftly swept out of the gloomy sky. Before long, the rain began to relent. The water in the rocky stream kept rising and overflowing in a thunderous uproar which resounded throughout the jungle. He came out of his shelter and looked for the place he wanted to reach and then down. It wouldn’t be easy. The thrashing rain had completely erased the trail he had made as he had slipped and tumbled. No matter what, he had to find his way back up to the ridge that he remembered was crowded with huge trees and had round, spiky fruits strewn all over the ground; from there he could work his way back. The slope he was climbing made him wonder. The ridge looked incredibly steep: he doubted he had clambered down this way. Or was it that hopelessness made him see everything out of utter exhaustion? The mysterious power that had made him stride about in earnest was now well and truly gone, as was his sense of ownership, and the strong SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


25 expectation he had been unable to control had given way in his heart to overwhelming sorrow. ‘I shouldn’t have to put up with this kind of life. I should’ve been a teacher, but you poor bastard you…’ he mumbled to himself, disheartened. The forest looked totally unfamiliar. It was raining heavily again. The clumps of grass were trampled and he could no longer see the trail of the fleeing deer or his own in hot pursuit. The rains turned the jungle the same dark green in a wild smothering of plants which made old landmarks disappear almost without trace. ‘There must be a way, there must be.’ He stuck out his tongue to lick his dry lips and let his eyes wander about idly as he tried to rekindle his memory. He could only recall that he had crossed the ridge down to a brook, up another steep slope and then down through the ravine to the stream. At times, he had fought his way through thick growth, but he had no idea where he was then. He had been so concerned with catching his prey, so taken up with his own elation that he had forgotten to spot landmarks whenever he had gone up or down or changed his course. ‘Take it easy, calm down,’ he tried to tell himself as he slowly climbed along the ridge. The jungle was still dark and dense. Dewdrops on branches and leaves kept falling on his head and shoulders, annoying him. There was one spot he had to find, though, where he had used his knife to cut his way through bushes of composites. No matter how much rain had poured out of the sky THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


26 since then, the slashes of his blade wouldn’t have disappeared. He decided to go down the mountain slope to his left and fight his way through a maze of tall wild grass flattened by the rain. Then he came to a wide expanse of thick clusters of bamboo and wandered among them for a very long time but still couldn’t find a way out. Was he walking around in circles? A pang of fear sent tremors through his mind. He drew his knife and made notches on bamboo stems as he started in a new direction. This time, he chose to go down the slope. A long while later, he came out of the bamboo clumps onto a stretch of pinnate palm trees and feathery ferns. He had a vague recollection of seeing something like this before. His brain was so tense he couldn’t think straight anymore. Again, he wandered this way and that for a long while, his usual quick temper building up in his chest. He was about to open his mouth to let off some steam when he noticed a small stream cascading by in front of him. The tension in his eyes subsided. He went straight to the brook, scooped up some water to drink and wash the film of sweat off his face and neck, then decided to scale the high ridge ahead. Travelling back in a state of hopelessness, with a mind burdened with fright, made distances appear to stretch endlessly. So much time wasted, so much energy dissipated, and not a trace of the target he had set out to hunt. Anxiety weighed down his feet and made each step a drag. SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


27 Amid the thick, wild growth on the ridge, he hesitated, in search of the trail again. How screwed up can you be! He hadn’t taken any notice of large trees, logs or any other landmarks of the jungle. He looked up at the sky, which was still overcast. There was nothing to reckon on, nothing that could help him find his bearings. He was an insignificant speck of a man in the vast embrace of the jungle. The deathly silence and dreary atmosphere made his hair stand on end and forced him to amble to and fro until he decided to go back down the steep slope to the stream. After a long while, he found himself amid bamboo groves and walked through them for some time until he noticed a freshly cut notch on a stem. His knees gave in and he let himself down and sat on the ground. ‘Am I really lost?’ he moaned hoarsely. His whole body and clothes were drenched in a mixture of rain and sweat. He remembered some advice he had come by on previous jungle treks: if you get lost, stop walking or you might get further astray or just go round in circles, wasting precious time and energy; take a rest and think calmly to find a solution – there is always a way out. Actually, this part of the jungle wasn’t really very far from fields and plantations and quite a few people came out to till their land. He should be able to meet someone or at the very least find traces of a human presence, such as an old campfire, signs of cooking or some temporary shelter. Everyone knows that, on nights of heavy rain, THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


28 the animals come out roaming about for food, and that’s the right time for hunting them. If the worst comes to the worst, there are plenty of mushrooms popping up all around bamboo groves, and so many bamboo shoots sprouting off the ground that you can’t collect them all. ‘There must be someone.’ Hope lit up his eyes. Those who earn their living from highland farming and jungle hunting have weather-beaten skins, grow hands and feet as calloused as bear’s paws, and are more afraid of hunger pangs than of rainstorms or jungle ghosts. With such an opportunity for game hunting, who among them would confine themselves between the thatched walls of their huts for fear of catching cold? There must be someone who could help him. But how should he go about starting to search for people? Old fires, rough shelters, he hadn’t found any on his way, not even some rotting poles of former huts. Or could it be that the area was too deep inside the jungle for anyone to settle down in? Surely not. These days, almost every nook and cranny of the jungle was being trespassed, and there wasn’t a secret left anywhere. Then he thought of something, raised his rifle, aimed at the sky and pulled the trigger. The explosion ricocheted throughout the mountain in ever weakening echoes that drifted far away. He hoped it would reach someone’s ears. He followed this up with a yell so loud and shrill that his eardrums throbbed and his throat hurt. SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


29 “Yoo-hoo! Yoo-hoo! Yoo-hoo!” As he was reloading his rifle, an answer echoed back – an eerily sluggish ululation jarring to the ear like the howling of a wolf in the dead of night.

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3. a rude awakening True, he was no professional hunter, but he was behaving as a complete moron scared of losing his way in the jungle. The fear he felt was unwarranted. It wasn’t as if he had never got lost in the jungle before. He worried too much about the impending darkness. Hadn’t he ever stayed overnight deep in the jungle? It was simple enough: find a flat area, cut down two small trees with forked trunks, turn them into poles and stick them into the ground some four yards apart. Cut and trim a bamboo stem and place it as a beam between the two forks. For rafters, use straight pieces of wood with one end on the ground, the other fastened to the beam; cover them with overlapping banana leaves and you have a roof. There is usually plenty of tall, thin, thorn-less bamboo stems around to make a platform on which to lie down. A slapdash shelter like this would protect you well enough from dew or rain. Gather some dry hardwood and bamboo twigs to build a fire so as to keep away the cold, mosquitoes and gnats as well as animals with fangs or tusks. There was nothing to be so worked up about, really. If only he had some uncooked rice, he’d cut down a thorn-less, hollow bamboo stem less than a year old – of the kind that still had crispy sheaths around its top joints – and use it instead of a pot to boil water and SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


31 parboil the rice. Then he’d cut a two-node section off another stalk, carve out the inner fibre of the top joint to make a hollow container and fill about one third of it with water; plait bamboo strips into a tiny grid and insert it about half way up; pour the already parboiled rice on top of the grid, and place the makeshift container so that the fire burnt its lower section and boiled the water inside. After some time, the smell of steaming rice and burning wood would make your mouth water. Indeed, it wasn’t necessary to rely on a rice pot at all. Now, however, he had no rice, either cooked or uncooked, but why worry about going without it for a meal or two: the sweet, crisp cores of some palm trees or reed sprouts cooked beneath fragrant embers would be enough to stay his hunger. He compressed saltpetre into the muzzle, added a single lead buckshot and some dry tow, which he pounded again to make sure it was tightly packed. Felt better as he inserted a cap into the slit on one side of the trigger, then slowly pulled the cock down until it rested on the cap and flipped the zinc breech shut to prevent the load from getting damp. ‘You can sleep anywhere when it gets dark, you know,’ he told himself to firm up his mind. He held the rifle in the hook of his right arm and pressed it tightly against his chest as he started to walk. It was drizzling lightly again but the rain no longer seemed to scare him. His eyes were roving about, figuring out the way ahead. ‘Come on, give us all you’ve got,’ he mumbled defiTHE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


32 antly as he gazed up. Deep down, he felt that if he had to spend the night in the jungle and the rain kept pouring, by morning the sky should be clear enough for him to spot the sun, and then he could head south and it wouldn’t be long before he came to some field or plantation. Tiny black gnats, which usually plague the eyes of animals, were now buzzing round his head and often threw themselves at his eyelids. Annoyed, he tried to whisk them away repeatedly but the stubborn creatures wouldn’t leave him alone, so in the end he let them enjoy themselves and keep him company. Their buzz brought some solace to his solitary soul. Rotten leaves had piled thickly in deep, damp, musty troughs, whose sandy soil was so soft and spongy it sank when he stepped on it. Various kinds of ferns spread wildly above the ground. Their fronds, long and sharp as knife blades, were festooned with small leaves of the brightest green. Bunches of polypodies, vines and creepers intertwined in messy tangles below a smattering of tall trees with large, palm-like leaves. He suddenly noticed small brown creatures slightly bigger than matches, which stretched their boneless bodies and projected their heads towards whatever came near. They could find their way unerringly even though they had no eyes, as if they had supernatural vision focused on their prey. Their dark brown bodies were soft and springy and had lots of pale-yellow stripes running from end to end. SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


33 Their craving for blood made them quiver and crawl towards their target from all directions. ‘Oh, shit! I’ve strayed into a leech area,’ he shouted as he rolled his trousers up to his knees. He took a pinch of his sticky, pungent tobacco, spit on it and rubbed it until dark juice came out, then stalked hastily away from the damn place. Some of the creatures had glued their sucking heads into his calves, which he rubbed with tobacco juice to get them drunk; they curled up and dropped off. The way they crawled and stuck their suckers up by the hundreds was revolting. If he ignored them and let them cling and draw his blood out, they’d suck until they ballooned and became so weak they had to let go. They left behind a substance that made the spot haemorrhage and to stop the bleeding wasn’t easy. ‘A good thing these aren’t green leeches!’ he mumbled to himself. ‘Them mothers would crawl up to my head and ears.’ Green leeches love to creep as high as they can and before you are aware of anything, they have slipped under your eyelids or glued themselves to your gums. Some people who witnessed such viciousness said the victim wouldn’t feel a thing until he smiled and they could see the creepy green slug sticking out above his teeth. More often, they crawl their way up your trouser legs and bite your private parts, suck your blood on the sly until they are bloated and leave the wound bleeding THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


34 nonstop. You are soaked in blood from the crotch down and look like you are menstruating. It’s weird how these bloodsuckers go on living without any inkling of how long it will be until they can gorge themselves again. Amazingly, they disappear during the dry season, when huge forest fires spread in raging floods of flames that scorch everything in their path and leave the earth thoroughly charred. How do these leeches manage to hide themselves so well that they proliferate again come the next rains? Unable to stand the loathing that made his flesh creep, he hurried up the hill again. As he was battling his way through arches of rattan, he could hear a flock of birds squawking in alarm nearby. He gently shifted his rifle in his hand. His fighting spirit had returned. He hadn’t quite broken through the rattan when the birds took off in fright. He looked up at the treetops and saw brown-and-black birds with starkly white crests and throats flying across the sky and out of sight. ‘Hey, these are laughing thrushes… Maybe there’s someone up there,’ he said and hurried on, his eyes still roving. “Yoo-hoo!” he yelled to signal his presence. If there were other people around, they would wait and wouldn’t mistake his crashing course through the bushes for the approach of a wild boar. Laughing thrushes of all types sound the alarm to warn other animals that something unusual is happening SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


35 somewhere in the vast expanse of the jungle, like sentries on lookout. Some Hmong refugees who had once come by his place on their way north to the watershed that marks the border had told him a funny tale about laughing thrushes. Once upon a time, the Yangtze and Mekong rivers were husband and wife, and both of them had to travel to the sea to find a magic pearl to be presented to the God of the Mountains. The Yangtze was a male, so he could travel fast, but as his path went through a maze of mountains, he left first after agreeing to meet the Mekong at a certain place. When he reached that place, however, he had forgotten about the meeting and just sped on his way. The Mekong river came later but couldn’t find him at the agreed meet. The only creature she could see was a white-crested thrush perched on a branch, so she quizzed it and learned that indeed the Yang-tze had come by but hadn’t stopped. She asked how long ago this was, and the bird replied with a straight beak, “Just think: my crest was pitch black then but now, as you can see, it’s turned all white.” Upon hearing this, the Mekong felt deeply slighted, so she turned round and flowed straight south instead, and this is why the two rivers have been ignoring each other ever since… Those damn birds may well be fooling him as they had the Mekong. The narrow ridge wore a layer of low, thick shrubs of flax stitched with reams of creepers. For all his careful watch, he could see no sign of any living thing. THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


36 His eyes slowed their search. The atmosphere was depressed, the air nippy, and it was so quiet he could hear his own breathing. He felt rejected, and he broke away down the left slope. A large log had fallen at the bottom. Time had peeled its bark off and turned its wood a deep black. As he was climbing over it, he noticed a series of white scratches on the wood. The scratches, so deep the wood had splintered, could only have been made by tremendously powerful and very sharp claws. He bent down to look at the slivers scattered on the ground and saw footprints on the soft soil. There were plenty of them about, each with four heavy imprints set in a circle the size of a small soup bowl. The animal must be as big as a calf. ‘A tiger!’ His voice was hoarse and as weak as a whisper. He hastily retreated to the shrubs of flax and stood thigh-deep in them, holding his rifle at the ready. The marks were so recent the raindrops had yet to dampen the wood inside them. Perhaps his shout had made the tiger flee in panic or else alerted it to his presence and it had gone into hiding to get ready to pounce on him and shred him to pieces as it had the wood. He turned pale and then purplish. Beads of perspiration sprouted all over his forehead. His lips shivered uncontrollably. His heart was beating so wildly it seemed to be about to leap out of his chest. He had the spooky feeling SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


37 a pair of eyes were watching him, and his own eyes bulged and goggled frantically about. He backtracked quickly to the middle of the hillock, then turned round and darted out for dear life, running, leaping, swerving to avoid the trees. From the hilltop, he rushed down a ravine and then clambered up a ridge again. Abject fear had swiftly overtaken him and there was no room for anything else in his mind right now. He panted heavily but the rasp of his lungs was drowned out by the pounding of his heart. In the middle of yet another ridge, he forced himself to move more slowly, grappling to control his panic. He had drawn out all of his energy in one desperate flight for survival. His knee joints, his whole legs, were stiff as logs. He was gasping for air, his lungs heaving in spasms, his ribs a tight cage. He used his hands to lean on a large Indian rubber tree then let himself collapse to the ground. He had rolled up his trousers above his knees and both of his exposed shins were covered with scratches and long gashes inflicted by thorns, and blood was oozing from most of them. His breathing gradually eased and he stood up again, his bulging eyes still looking left and right. He pressed himself against the tree trunk as if to melt into it. He had only seen footprints, yet danger could be lurking anywhere. Everything was still. He soon felt his body was getting so big that the trunk, which three persons would have been hard put to begird, was no longer large enough to protect him. THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


38 He had no idea when it had stopped drizzling. He felt terribly cold, as if he was running a fever. Dull pain shot through his legs from his shins, his knee joints hardly bent and he had to drag his feet every step of the way. Going for broke this time had ripped his body and clothes to tatters and left him with the mere dregs of life. Oh no, it couldn’t be! In the narrow water trough further down, he found more footprints. Was he being hunted or was he just walking into them? No time to examine how old the footprints were and whether they pointed up or down. He just turned round as if his brain had switched to automatic, and broke into a limping lope, dragging his pathetic legs across the ridge to the wide depression on the other side, to get as far away as he could from these terrible signs of danger. His teeth were clenched to breaking point, his saliva had long dried and his throat was parched. He kept moving until he came to a steep ravine and let himself tumble down to the small brook below, hectically scooped up water in his hands and drank so greedily it splashed all over his face and into his nose. On the other side of the brook were more tiger footprints… I’ll be damned! Was it actually blocking his ways of escape? What kind of unearthly creature was it that could outguess his every move? Or had his sins from some former life caught up with him? His brain was so confused it couldn’t hold on to anything. Fear overcame SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


39 him so thoroughly it seemed to be about to pour out of his mouth, nose, ears and even hair, and fear was ordering him to get the hell back up! He struggled painfully up the high, steep bank back to the flat expanse, where he finally sat down, banging his back against the trunk of a large tree, and he stayed there, legs stretched out, arms limp by his sides as if his bones had melted. The rifle on his lap seemed to have lost all power to harm, as if he himself was about to give in to his fate. The sky was rapidly growing dark. How odd! The insects of the night were not unfurling their wings to lull the jungle to sleep. What a depressing, gloomy day it had been! Darkness devoured the jungle and it was soon pitch black. It was now beyond doubt that he had to stay overnight in the jungle. His idea of building a shelter, a platform and a fire had completely gone out of his mind. Time passed and everything fell silent as it did every night. His body began to recover. After a period of rest and of deep breathing to relax his lungs, he felt his strength coming back. His legs were no longer as numb, a spark of hope had returned to his eyes, and he was holding his rifle firmly, ready to shoot at any time. He mustn’t die in a place like this, alone in the middle of the deep, desolate, scary jungle. Who would witness his death? Besides, his wife and children were still waiting for him. His children‌ It was as if his loving care for them was just the lure that may yet fool his heart to death. If he had THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


40 stepped out of his home, it was because of his two kids, for no better reason than they were his own flesh and blood and he had to take care of them – and of his wife as well, who had once been a stranger to him, living in another village. They had become lovers and he had to take responsibility for the ties that ensued and bear all consequences. It was indeed because of his wife that he had had to leave his own village. She lived in a village some six miles away from his own. He had met her at a merit- making ceremony and had fallen in love with her. He had arranged to meet her through young guys he knew in her village and finally had married her. One day, a buffalo in his village disappeared and his friends in her village were arrested and the buffalo was recovered. He was taken for interrogation because of his friendship with the young men. Even though there was no evidence against him, quite a few of the villagers were convinced he had been involved in the theft and would have nothing to do with him any longer. The village headman blacklisted him as a hoodlum, although he had never harmed anyone. He had once been ordained over Lent, was neither rude nor rough and knew right from wrong, even though he wasn’t particularly religious. There was only his curt, harsh way of talking and his reputation for being a smart ass that the villagers could hold against him, which they did, and it got to the point where he could no longer stand the distrust of the people around him. SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


41 ‘Whoaah!’ A mighty roar pierced the silence. It was at once exultant, dominating and oppressive. Its sheer volume startled the jungle into subservience and its reverberation ended brusquely, like a proclamation of superiority, absolute power and almightiness, forcing every creature to grovel on the ground. He had no idea where the roar came from, how far or near it was, yet it seemed to be coming from all directions at once. He had the distinct impression it was so close that his ear-drums throbbed, as if someone was breathing warm air down the nape of his neck. His heart probably missed a few beats. Terror propelled him to the nearest, cubit-thick tree and, slinging his rifle over his back, he scrambled up all the way to the very top. Gasping, he sat astride the tallest fork and hid in the cover of darkness. He began to breathe deeply to recover his senses. He had been hounded and didn’t even have some ground to set his foot on. Down there, it looked like death had swallowed everything. The only safe place for him was these forked branches that thrust up into emptiness. He had been hounded once before, but it wasn’t by a tiger. Many years ago, his father had had a protracted dispute over the ownership of a swamp in the middle of a rice field which demarcated his land and that of his wealthy landlord. His father had warmly welcomed the students who had come to explain that a law setting new THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


42 rates for land rental had been passed; he had provided them with shelter and with all kinds of titbits on local lore. He also had openly supported the farm leader in his district. Not long after the massacre of students in the capital, his father had been arrested and jailed for almost a year on a charge of social unrest. A couple of years after his return home, his father had fallen sick and died. He was a teacher trainee then but his father’s death had forced him to leave the classroom. His mother had accepted some money from the landlord in exchange for dropping her claim to the swamp. As for him, he had started growing red onions as an extra job during the dry season. They required a lot of water and this had led him to trespass on the swamp again, but he was driven out. ‘This time, someone must die,’ he proclaimed hoarsely when he saw that the onion stalks, deprived of water, had withered and died. The next day, the grim faces of the subdistrict chief and some policemen had showed up at his house. ‘That’s going too far, young man. Everyone here lives in peace,’ the subdistrict chief said harshly, a hard glint in his eyes. ‘Overbearing hoodlums like you should stay away from my area; we can do without the likes of you.’ A man like him had never bowed to anyone. Deep in his heart, he was seething with wounded pride and resentment. Those people had conspired to drive him away and throw him out. It was because of them that he had had to SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


43 leave home and land. And now, he had nothing, not even some ground to stand on! Somebody would have to pay for this. From his high station, he looked up as if to call the sky to witness. It was completely dark up there, and the jungle was silent and forlorn and indifferent to whatever was going on.

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44

4. the bitter past As hard as he tried to swallow, the solid lump in his throat wouldn’t go away. His breathing almost stopped. His heart felt as heavy as if it was being crushed under a slab of stone. Pain and fear made him shake so violently that he was almost unable to control himself. He let out a sharp groan of pain which sounded like the call of some wild animal. In the darkness, he tried to open his eyes wide and stare into the distance. Instead, a picture formed in his mind, that of a skinny little boy whose mud-encrusted skin was covered with white rashes. He fully intended to quit after seven years of schooling to help his parents plough and till the land. It was great fun out there in the flooded paddy fields during the rainy season. Water overflowed from the irrigation dikes, bringing with it fish, crabs, shrimp and snails, and he couldn’t resist laying small bamboo traps to catch them. Rain or shine, he enjoyed himself tremendously. At ploughing time, he would bob along the furrows dug by the plough and evened by the harrow, stepping and then stooping to snare fish in his bamboo eel pot or grab crabs with his bare hands, and he and his friends would engage in mud-slinging contests. When the fresh smell of young rice pervaded the fields, the harvest spread far and wide row after row, and as the sunlight began to pale, the SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


45 flutes serenaded the dale and the boy’s heart would swell and drift into a gentle dream. His father, a middle-aged, hardy farmer, was consumed by the bright fires of long-term ambition for his son, and it was that very fire that had charred the boy’s gentle dream: he was sent for further studies to the district school, where he did well. His future need not be mired in mud. The sky above was as black as a fully drawn curtain. He shut his eyes tightly and shook his head to chase away the scenes of yesteryear. But his stubborn mind refused to acknowledge the truth of his current predicament. Next came the picture of a boy wearing shoes for the first time as he hobbled into town. They pinched and chafed, forming painful blisters on his heels and little toes. The people who saw him couldn’t refrain from smiling, amused less by his awkward gait than by the mismatched brown shoes and white socks his father had bought him. The courses he was taking, new friends, outlandish modes of expression, widening knowledge and the highly respected and much feared officialdom nurtured a new kind of dream in a boy whose voice had begun to break as he grew into his teens. This time, it was a dream most fair and far-reaching. The paddy field is the place for those whose dreams become constricted and are finally confined to a few THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


46 matters pertaining to their hand-to-mouth existence, like his old friends, who thought only of crops, water, rain, buffalo, temple fairs and the girls they’d marry. His days at the teacher training college had been so idyllic… The thought had surfaced before he could suppress it. He felt a shrill pain as if a sharp needle had pierced through his innermost feelings, and his eyes welled with tears. ‘You bloody fool, you should have been a teacher,’ he quivered. One thing he remembered that had deeply impressed him was the music lessons. The teacher had explained that each and every song is composed of eight notes all pitched at equal intervals and two notes pitched at only half an interval, forming what is called a scale. Human imagination stretches far and wide and so deep, too: choose and rearrange these eight notes, give them quick or slow, wild or mellow tempos according to your mood and feelings, and you have a song. Each song is like a woven cloth; the horizontal threads are its melody; the vertical ones, its harmonic chords. The patterns on a piece of cloth are the same as the musical motives imagined by the composer, who adds variations at will. The music lessons prompted him to pluck the strings of a roommate’s old guitar. Even now, he could still remember the position of the fingers for C, F, G, D minor and A minor. ‘Why do I have to spend the night in a tree?’ he mumSILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


47 bled resentfully. ‘What sort of sins did I ever commit to deserve such a fate?’ The drawing course had introduced him to the deep secrets of lines, colours and composition and to various creative approaches found by man’s boundless imagination. Many books had helped him shed his peasant boy’s hide almost entirely. Whenever he returned to the fields, he watched the sideways swoops of the birds as they flapped their wings in flight. Their freedom made him vicariously happy, he studied the pretty colours of their feathers and no longer entertained the idea of shooting them with a sling as when he was a child. He saw the festoons of green moss clinging to the rocks in the brook and found them as beautiful as an abstract painting. ‘Good things never last.’ His clenched teeth squeezed his indignant voice shut. The jungle was dark and still. Night had just begun, yet there was no sound, no movement that would have distracted him from his fear and pain. He was left alone, scolding and moaning at his fate, perched on a treetop and surrounded by all kinds of danger down below. What a rotten and unfair life! His father, a farmer… The fires of ambition had died out with his life. Death had taken him away, then extended its wing and taken the son out of the classroom at a time when he had gone through less than a year of higher vocational training. His mother, an old woman THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


48 who suffered from ailments brought about by a lifetime of hard labour, wanted him near her, to keep her company, provide for her and protect her. The day his dream vanished, he didn’t feel nearly as sorry as he now did. His young man’s pride and sense of responsibility made him return home with an impassive face which hid his feelings well. His life was changing, but it was merely to return to where he had come from – the paddy fields. When he grappled with reality and realized it wasn’t going to be an easy ride, he was besieged by doubts and worries for quite a long time. His long absence had made him lose touch. The sunlight outside wasn’t the same as when he waded merrily along the furrows as a child; it was now fierce and baked and burned his skin. The hands that held the plough were too frail to stand its shocks and chafing and developed nasty blotches full of a clear, warm fluid. When the blisters broke, it hurt so much he wanted to groan. It took time before his hands grew the calluses of a genuine plough handler. At night, his veins, joints and muscles ached as if they were about to burst. He would lie down out of weariness. As he began to doze off, his constant worries made him feel like an embattled ship overturned by the waves and about to go under. His veins would twitch, startling him awake, and he would moan softly. ‘Come on, you bastard,’ he rasped, his eyes sparkling in the dark. ‘Come on!’ SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


49 He had come back to learn the way of life of the farmers, which required him to perform many menial tasks he wasn’t really familiar with. Sure, he had seen these chores done before, but to be able to do them himself, he had to have a detailed knowledge of the procedures involved. His father’s fighting spirit coursed through his veins, prompting him to struggle doggedly and proudly. His hands turned rugged, his skin weather-beaten, his face tense and sullen. His feet were clogged with mud, his teeth stained by the tobacco he smoke. Musty smells, sweaty grime, mud and slush: that was his lot. And he always spoke his mind. He became aware of these changes the day when, looking at some birds flying about in the fields, he caught himself wondering about how much meat they had, what they’d taste like and whether they’d fill his belly. And also the night he went to catch green-bellied frogs in the brook: green moss covered the damn stones and as he failed to step squarely on one, he slipped and fell headlong. As luck had it, he had forgotten about it, but right now, it made him sad and sorry. ‘I wonder all the same just how bad this is going to get.’ In the tight fit of the fork up the tree, he slowly stressed his words of defiance as if in a delirium. The smothering silence went on numbly in total darkness.

THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


50

5. a night of struggle The night wore on, embracing everything tightly in its pitch-black wings. Its grandness cancelled out the whole world, compelling jungle, mountains and rivers to remain still and silent in its wake. Cruelty was a shadow hidden in the fathomless depths of darkness. ‘There should be at least one star,’ he mumbled as his eyes searched the void above. He thought of the gnats that had buzzed around his head and thrown themselves at his eyes. Despondency overwhelmed him as he felt trapped in tight circles of danger… Its claws and sparkling, green-streaked golden eyes subjugated its prey as it hid and waited, craving for blood… To be driven to isolation had always been his fate. The breath of death was all around him. Drowsy and exhausted as he was, he might fall from his treetop if he sank into sleep in the middle of the night. He untied his loin cloth, wrapped one end of it round the trunk and tied the knot again, fastening himself securely to the tree, then shifted his bottom to make sure the branch could carry his weight, and let his legs dangle. From somewhere down below came thumping sounds as if something heavy was thrashing the ground with a steady beat. He had heard it said a tiger will whip the ground with its tail as it stalks its prey to warn it not to even think of fleeing, since nothing ever escapes its vigil, SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


51 and to let it know the best thing it can do is to stay in its dark corner and wait for its turn. This made him furious. ‘You fucker!’ he bawled out. ‘If you are so cocksure, come out and show yourself, damn it!’ He unslung his rifle from his back, grasped it firmly and swung the muzzle back and forth in the dark. ‘See… I’m up here. Come get me, and I’ll shoot you down like a dog!’ The echo of his shouts gradually died down and everything fell silent again. A sob constricted his throat. His pent-up anger was so great his whole body shook. That blasted beast was taking advantage of him by hiding in the dark, looking for ways to make him squirm, watching and waiting for the kill. It was evil, because it used both signs and sounds to build up a ghastly atmosphere and terrorize him until his heart would burst. ‘You are threatening me, I’ll threaten you too and we’ll see,’ he raved, panting hysterically. When he was a child, he had heard the story – whether it was true or just a tall tale he couldn’t remember – of a trekker armed only with a bush knife who had come nose to snout with a tiger in the thick of the jungle and had driven it away with a simple stick. As the story had it, the swoosh of a young, pliant bamboo switch lashing in the air had countered the growl of the tiger and had the animal whimpering before it turned tail in a panic. Would he have the guts to do the same? The night was dragging on. The air above got colder and he was chilled to the bone. His body, sticky with sweat, THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


52 shook and shivered. Sitting on the branch had numbed his buttocks and he changed his posture uneasily. Pangs of hunger wracked his stomach in searing cramps that came and went and made his guts gurgle and groan. How long would he be stuck up here? The treetop meant safety and he could depend on it for as long as he needed to stay away from the dangers that lurked down there, but all that erupted and ran wild inside him didn’t seem to have any place to hide. His eyes kept probing the darkness as if he was looking for something that would take his thoughts off his countless worries, but all he could see was the shroud of gloom. He closed his eyes and snuggled up even closer to the trunk. He hoped his weariness would make him lapse into slumber, ridding him of all those rambling thoughts, so that his mind and body could find some rest, or at least he could dream, now that he was cut off from everything, even the ground, and his life hung on this tree fork, fate unknown. He’d even welcome nightmares, as they couldn’t be worse than the present reality. There was nothing to comfort him at all. He was too highly strung to be subdued and they burst and scattered like showers of sparks that flashed and fizzled out, revealing the one thing deeply etched in his life – bad luck. ‘Are you going to take all I have?’ he moaned. ‘I can’t live at home; I can’t work in the paddy field…’ His voice was hoarse and broken with hopelessness. ‘So, what else do you want? My life? Come… Come and get it, you bastard!’ SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


53 The darkness swallowed his words of defiance; there was no reaction at all. Bright dots shot up in his eyes as he stared around, smirking. He let out a soft, bitter laugh: the hunter was now being hunted. A spray of dewdrops plopped on the leaves and some of them bounced off and fell on his arms, their dampness and cold chilling him to the bone. Motionless, he listened to their patter expectantly. They dripped down from the vast void, struck, and then disappeared, leaving behind dampness and cold. Leaves and blades of grass needed them to sustain their vigour. He had never thought about this before, but he had the feeling the dew came to him as a friend in such a moment of need, like raindrops soaking a dry land back to fertility. Flashes of lightning sent a pulsing glow in distant corners of the sky but there was no follow-up rumble. The rain must have been taken away by the wind after it had blindly done its duty. He sat still and listened to the beat of the dewdrops, his lips quivering as if he were counting them. After a long time, the shattered pieces of his mind reassembled while he concentrated on the surrounding peace and quiet. He was now back to normal. The cold wind and dew enhanced the chill of his skin, pricking him awake and aware of his own existence. Every part of him was present and accounted for and safe up here; only some of his pride was missing. He was a hunter, though a fairly pathetic one, and hunt THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


54 he would. His shelter secured, he had to use his wits to fight. He wasn’t here to await defeat. He had the advantage of a high station, which would give him a clear view of any movement down below as soon as there was light. The tiger had claws and strength, but he had a rifle, which could harm without him having to use much strength or engage in close combat. All he had to do was to wait patiently for the target to move into the line of fire, aim cautiously and pull the trigger. Actually, the tiger may well have been passing by as it went about tracking some prey, as carnivorous animals are wont to do. Once its belly was full, it would go away. This needn’t have anything to do with him. Those signs that looked like a deliberate blockade could have appeared at any time. If he had met them everywhere he went, it was only because he had got lost and taken all kinds of twists and turns in his flight. ‘Whoaah!’ A mighty roar pierced the silence again, broadcasting far and wide its oppressive, brutal, terrifying power. Startled, he threw himself against the tree and his rifle slipped out of his hands. Fortunately, the muzzle got stuck on a branch. He bent over, retrieved the gun and cradled it in his shaking arms. ‘So, it’s really me you want!’ he cried plaintively. ‘You sonofabitch, keep out of my sight or I’ll kill you!’ he screamed at the top of his voice, only to hear the mighty thumps of a tail thrashing the ground. SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


55 The tiger was still prowling around and biding its time. It had found its prey – him. It had started a relentless feud by instilling fear in him with its threatening roar. He was cornered, surrounded, and felt as though he was being watched but couldn’t see his enemy. It was impossible for him to know where the strike would come from and to prepare himself accordingly. This really tortured and infuriated him. ‘I must make it back home tomorrow,’ he thought. If the tiger attacked, he was ready to shoot and fight to the bitter end. This prey wasn’t going to let this predator sink its fangs into him easily. But what if the rifle didn’t work? He had waded through water and rain all day and it was more than likely that the saltpetre and cap had gotten damp. He might be torn to pieces and bleed to death. Or else merely wound the bastard – they say a wounded tiger is the fiercest of them all. Fear returned and stirred his feelings. Or should he wait until hunger forced it to flee while he remained on his treetop, famished but victorious? ‘God of the Mountains, Lord of the Jungle, please help this humble son of man…’ He turned and stared into the darkness while his mouth invoked the protection of the spirits as if he had reached the end of his tether. He tried to think of the incantations to ward off danger that he had learned when he was ordained but couldn’t remember any of them. The verses began something like Namo Phutthaya Mahithang… With the boisterous impertinence THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


56 of youth in those days, he had twisted the Pali words into absurd ditties that sounded funny in Thai, and now he could only remember these. There was also the incantation for sharing merit with all living beings that began with Sappha Satta… Well, he couldn’t finish that either. He had forgotten everything as soon as his hair had begun to grow again after he had disrobed. Too bad! He had done the three-month customary spell as a monk only to get it over with and marry with a clear conscience. ‘I should’ve kept an amulet with me.’ He recalled the days when he wore the saffron robe and heaved a deep sigh. ‘Where have all those people gone?’ he grumbled. ‘They almost killed one another over land claims, and where are they at a time like this?’ He shifted his body to relieve its numbness, slung the rifle over his shoulder, then paused to listen to the quick beat of the tiger’s tail on the ground. At various intervals, he broke into defiant yells which reverberated throughout the jungle. Maybe it was listening and could detect the note of fear at the core of his angry shouts, and so kept lashing its tail to put more pressure on him and make him nervous. Nothing is certain with an animal such as this. They say the tiger is the king of the jungle, cruel, clever and so strong it will drag away the whole body of a young ox to feed on it. More terrifying still: some tigers are possessed; man-eaters transform themselves into beautiful women to lure men to their fangs. SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


57 Through gaps in the upper foliage, he saw that stars had begun to twinkle in the dark. Their scanty light enabled him to see the vastness of the sky and the dim mass of the nearby ridges. Time crawled by ever so slowly and a dull ache pulsed through his back from waist to nape. His eyes were burning and a great weight inside his skull forced him to tense the muscles of his neck. It looked as though his body couldn’t resist much longer and was sinking into numbness, but his nerves tensed up instead and stayed on the alert. Roars and thrashing sounds kept breaking out at intervals, but new thoughts came to him that helped allay his anxiety to some extent. He gazed up silently at the stars, trying to identify their various configurations. Orion, the Dipper or the Pleiades were mere scatterings of radiant light, but men observed them and drew lines between them until they formed distinct patterns. And it was men also who drew pictures which had never been seen before of admirable or horrible shapes, all on the basis of their own musings. Dewdrops sprinkled the leaves in a quick, clear, continuous patter that called for even more, like the words of a story being told. He listened to it quietly. It must be something wonderful‌ Songs he had heard in the past said dewdrops were pure and bright and only the most beautiful women and the purest hearts could compare to them. When their rhythm slowed, it was like THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


58 desertion. Yet it wasnʹt a trick: they went on freely, by themselves… He had recovered his cool. The haphazard drip of dewdrops resounded in the stillness of the night. Where could they possibly gather amid this wilderness? Did it take courage for them to let themselves pour down? He tried to picture in his mind their source, course, even their colour… The wind became so cold that it did away with this line of thought, and his mind shifted to another track closer to reality. They were part of nature and existed in their own world, indifferent to anything else. Whatever interaction took place happened by chance. ‘You stay where you belong and so will I,’ he mumbled as he lifted his right hand to stroke the frozen barrel. ‘You want to threaten me? Go ahead. Roar as loud as you want. After all, you aren’t tearing me to pieces. How stupid of me to be frightened by a few scratches and sounds and make them morbid to scare myself. But you are dumb too. Your repeated roars and tail-lashing are only threats and they give you away.’ Some notions in his mind had to be discarded again. Actually, both parties had an equal chance. Each had its own weak points. The tiger had the advantage of its familiarity with the jungle and superior speed, but he had a weapon and some knowledge of the tiger’s nature. The crucial point was that the tiger only wanted food whereas he was fighting for his survival. SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


59 The tiger was a hunter by nature and had its own rules, just as he had his own ways as a farmer and hunter. Their encounter was unavoidable and he had better accept it. ‘Dawn will break soon,’ he said. ‘Everything will become visible and it won’t be long then.’ His right hand still stroked the barrel. The wind froze his skin, his flesh, even the blood that coursed in his veins, and his shoulders shook. He flattened himself against the tree, whose contact reminded him that he was alone in a vast, empty world, but he no longer felt lonely. He had regained his strength and stamina. ‘One to one.’ His voice was level and firm. ‘If it must end here, so be it.’ The cracking, snapping sounds of rotten branches being trampled came from somewhere and then stopped as the night inched along. Sometimes, life means destruction, he thought. The morning sun dispels the shadows of the night, rain removes topsoil and clumps of grass, scorching winds pluck old, dry leaves, storms break branches and twigs and wild fires scar the jungle. Men and animals come out to hunt. Even his own brain proceeded by elimination, but new thoughts kept pouring in from nowhere. ‘Tiger meat is edible,’ he mumbled. The dew was dripping faster. He propped up his shoulders against the tree and listened quietly, and finally fell asleep on the forked branch shortly before daybreak. THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


60

6. an opening Sunbeams punctured the roof of leaves, twigs and branches in myriad blobs of light which bounced off the main offshoots and the trunk before reaching the ground. He woke up with a start, a searing pain crawling up his spine. His waist and nape stung and his left leg, which was bearing most of his body’s weight, was numb. The wounds on his shins, crusted with dark-red scabs, ached. The first thing he thought about was his rifle. He fumbled for it and as his hand came into contact with the sweaty, frozen barrel, he felt greatly relieved. The treetop he was tightly tied to was part of a tall, tapering tree, whose rough and brittle bark flaked off easily. The tree towered over groves of bamboo, calami and wild euphorbia, but the huge Indian rubber trees scattered around stood even taller. In front of him, the ground sank into a deep ravine thickly coated with foliage. At the bottom, a film of milky fog recoiled from the heat of the sun. The summit of the steep slope right across disappeared into a thin, white haze. ‘Ouch! I must have torn some ligaments in my back,’ he groaned as he painfully changed his position. He pressed his eyes closed, their sockets burning and sore, a dull thud in his head. ‘Looks like I’ve broken some bones.’ His left leg still refused to move. ‘What the hell’s the matter with it?’ He SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


61 untied the loincloth, wriggled and pulled madly and almost fainted before he could get the limp limb to move. ‘Oh my! I’m hurting all over… Lucky enough, though, that I didn’t fall off.’ His face contorted round his contracted mouth. He looked down the trunk of the tree he perched on and felt dizzy. His skin, his flesh, his bones – his whole body was a taut node of pain and he couldn’t distinguish between raw stings, dull aches, strains, sprains, soreness and stiffness. They overlapped as if death had already struck and seized parts of his body. ‘What a strange way to sleep! Never seen anything like it. Just like some frigging monkey.’ His mumbling had bitter laughing undertones. His breathing and blood circulation improved once he forced himself into another sitting position, and everything began to fall into place once again. It was a quiet and peaceful morning, devoid of sound. How odd! Even the little birds which had just come out looking for food wouldn’t call out. The gibbons, which normally woke up just before dawn to shriek boisterously as they swung from branch to branch, were keeping quiet. The Hmong said the gibbons’ task was to stir the jungle awake and make it lively again. They held them to be among the animals that shouldn’t be harmed, so they could get on with their duty. Everything stood still as if under the spell of some mysterious power. Some tale said that when a female gibbon screamed, she THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


62 was calling her mate. He wondered how anxious his wife must be, aware that by now her husband had been in the jungle under the rain for a full day and night. There were dozens of alarming possibilities. At any rate, she’d probably grabbed the children and gone to great lengths to ask their distant neighbours to help find him. If only she knew a tiger had rushed him to the top of a tree, she’d certainly go out of her mind with worry. She loved and took pride in her educated husband, who had known city life and nearly made it as a teacher. Anxiety burnt his chest, though the early-morning air was still freezing. His eyes searched for any movement down below. Everything remained silent and still. Death seemed to be drawing a circle within which all things were compelled to surrender. Maybe the evil beast was milling around or hiding in watch nearby. It was almost incredible that its roar, musty smell, glare and slow, loping gait made it the mightiest animal in the jungle. A mere whiff of it and all other animals turned tail and fled. How many lives had it already shred to pieces and crunched with its fangs? Even its smell and shadow gave it the inherent aura of a killer. ‘Before long, it’s either you or me.’ His eyes kept searching around as he spoke, and his heart pounded. ‘Let fate decide.’ At this time of the morning, monks go out for their daily alms round, he thought loosely. It had been a long time since he had made merit, even by offering food to monks, and he hadn’t ever thought of it either. He stared SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


63 in silence over the motley rows of trees in the distance as though he could see shaven-headed men in bright saffron robes slowly walking by. He gazed in fascination at a colourful expanse of soft sunlight which drew long shadows on the ground. How strange he would think of a monk out of the blue at a time like this, or did it mean a holy man had just passed away? He started in alarm at the drift of his thoughts. He had seen it before: his father, as he breathed his last, had grabbed at the succour of religion. ‘Repeat after me: Sacred Buddha… Sacred Buddha… Say it,’ his mother had whispered, sobbing. Death had crushed his father’s life in its fist. ‘Sacred Buddha.’ Only the lips had twitched. The scene was still vivid in his memory. Fear tied a knot in the pit of his stomach, upsetting him, stinging his heart and then rushing through his veins to his head, hands and feet. ‘Hey, come off it! You are only thinking gloom and doom.’ He closed his eyes tightly and shook his head as if to cast all of these rambling thoughts away. ‘Think of a monk to bring you luck.’ That was it. He had just found the opening, and he gradually took hold of himself. When he had been ordained, he had performed all the duties required of a monk and never infringed the religious rules he had vowed to abide by. Was that enough? Had he obtained enough merit? Oh yes! One day, he had met an old ascetic monk with a starkly white stubble of hair who was meditating under his umbrella in THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


64 the cemetery behind the temple. The old pilgrim had spent many nights in the jungle as he wandered up and down endless hills from some distant town. The villagers had competed to offer him food to make merit and finally had got around to asking him for the winning numbers of the underground lottery. The hermit had remained impassive, pretending not to hear, and instead had dwelled at length on topics everybody was familiar with. He, like the other young monks, was convinced that the old ascetic must be protected by some powerful amulet to dare cut across the jungle and spend months in the wilderness. They had tried to win his confidence and when they had broached the topic, the hermit had said he did indeed have one, but his answer had left them empty-handed. ‘Faith, what else? Faith is my amulet,’ the old monk had said as if in a trance and had gone on expounding matters he couldn’t quite recall or piece together – something about those who pierce their tongues and cheeks with sharp iron rods and walk over burning coals, and then something about those puny Viet who had fought and defeated the much better armed Americans. And then what else? ‘All of them have it,’ the old monk had told them and it seemed he had added that faith was difficult to achieve because you had to strive really hard to make your heart and mind ready for it, or something like that. He had spoken dispassionately and fluently but without shedding any light whatsoever. Then he had gathered his meagre belongings and taken SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


65 his skinny body and slightly hunched back elsewhere, walking at a slow, steady pace and looking straight ahead. It was odd a man of that age, so scrawny and sickly looking, could walk with such aplomb and majesty. ‘If only you’d given me some amulet, old monk, I wouldn’t be sitting shivering up here today.’ They had all seen he didn’t even have a knife with him and yet he dared to go everywhere, whereas he, with his fully loaded rifle, was trapped in a circle of danger and death. The sunlight was getting stronger, forcing him to screw up his smarting, bloodshot eyes, as a dull pain thudded behind his eyes. Lack of sleep made it difficult for him to stand the glare. His body was like a young vegetable shrivelled under the scorching sun. The dark recesses of the jungle were now pools of shadow through which the eye could see. The waves of green became clearly etched once the heat had melted the mist. The huge ridges in the distance were dark blue against the pastel layers of blue and grey of the sky. There still wasn’t any movement down below. Where had the tiger gone? The silence was still overwhelming, still devoid of animal calls, as if to warn that danger was still around. How could it keep hiding so completely quiet as though it didn’t exist? It showed superior self-control, and it was very difficult to interpret. He had no idea where the encounter would take place. The long scabby slashes on his skin were infected and THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


66 red patches had formed around them. He had probably been scratched by the thin offshoots that stuck out in rows at the tip of rattan stems. These thorns, sharp and strong and hook-shaped like the claws of a hawk, had a way of digging into you and if you tried to pull them out, they’d tear your skin like a saw eating into wood. Every single part of his wretched body was sore and stiff and here he was, thinking of confronting a tiger! ‘Whoaah!’ The roar ripped the silence apart, rumbled around and reverberated in the air. It pierced him to the core and made him shudder. It seemed to come from somewhere out of the deep ravine. ‘Sounds like it’s going down to drink,’ he said. ‘So you are starving, hey? Fill your belly with water and hang in there, you sod!’ He scanned the ravine but there was nothing to see except green foliage. The hunger pangs that wracked his stomach for most of the night now brought bouts of giddiness and searing colic. Gases gushed and got stuck at the level of his Adam’s apple, his mouth tasted bitter and his saliva was thick and sticky. ‘How lucky you are to have something to drink!’ His eyes kept roving but, as soon as he remembered that the animal was ravenously hungry, they opened wide and fear flashed in them. They say there are only two instances in which a tiger becomes really fierce: when it is wounded and when it is starving. Normally, it will SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


67 give man a wide berth, except if it has already tasted human flesh or if it is mad with hunger. He heard two or three more roars in quick succession. They seemed to be coming from the other side of the ridge. Maybe it was giving up and leaving? Now was the time. It may not have really left, but it was sufficiently far away for him to slip down the tree and flee in the opposite direction. But since he was already lost, what guarantee did he have he wouldn’t stray further and come across it again? Get your rifle ready, his brain ordered. Faster than he could think, he unslung the rifle from his back, firmed up his sitting position, lifted the breech, cocked the trigger and checked the cap. Dew had dropped heavily throughout the night. Did the drops of water on the barrel make the inside damp? The only way to find out was to prop the butt against his shoulder, hold the barrel up, curl his right leg round the branch, clutch each instep round the wood on both sides, and then pull the trigger. Plak! Oh, shit! The rifle had jammed. His heart stopped as if he was falling out of the fork of the tree. His hands shook, his face turned pale in shock. ‘Which one is damp? The saltpetre or the cap?’ he blurted out. He groped for the cold tin box in his haversack, prized it open, took a cap and stuffed it into the slit by the hammer, aimed high and pulled the trigger again. THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


68 Plak! His rifle was as useful as a piece of wood. Was the problem with the black powder or with the cap? If it was the powder, how would he take it out in such a confined space? When he loaded, he had to stuff the charge with a long rod. But if it was the cap? With shaky hands, he took the red paper and put it to dry in the sun. Should he grab this opportunity to escape and leave the rest to fate? In this second of hesitation, he froze and his head spun in utter helplessness, and the next moment, as his eyes scanned downward, he had a clear view of the beast. ‘A long-striped tiger!’ he whispered in a hoarse, harsh tremor while he kept his eyes on the animal. Its yellow hide was lined from head to tail with brown and black vertical stripes and sported dull-white blotches round its snout, breast and belly, a fitting camouflage to blend with the jungle. The colours on its back glistened under the sun. It put each foot forward in slow motion as it climbed the bank of the brook, solemn and steady, its thighs sturdy and taut, its body slightly trembling as it ambled, its eyes fixed unerringly ahead. It looked confident as if no threat could ever ruffle it, and its bearing was regal. Where did it hide its evil? In its claws? In its strength? In its cruelty? Other animals too had these attributes – bears, leopards, jackals, gaurs, civet cats and others – but none inspired as much terror as a tiger did. All animals large and SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


69 small cleared its path with the utmost respect and didn’t dare disturb it by making the slightest noise as it strode by. He stared at it as it came to a stop less than two yards away from the bottom of the tree on which he perched. It moved its head slowly, looking left then right. Its deliberate, arrogant nonchalance and its very proximity were so shocking that he nearly fainted and fell. Where did the domination it had over his heart originate? Its body wasn’t different from that of a cat. Was it in its aura as the king of the jungle? It moved slowly, didn’t seem to keep an eye out for danger of any kind and wasn’t swayed by its dark surroundings, which could hide anything and should inspire caution. Maybe it had never known oppression of any kind. ‘What does it remind me of?’ he thought. A picture pulsed at the back of his mind but he couldn’t bring it into focus. In any case, his first clear view of the tiger was not generating any heart-stopping panic. He was no longer worried about the tiger’s whereabouts. The eager speculation that had led him to create a horrific atmosphere was now over. The tiger was just the animal that had the greatest power to subjugate its prey and make them cower. ‘A monk!’ The words were hushed and came out despite him. The tiger ambled leisurely in the heat of the sun, heading for the ridge. The light made its coat shine and glow. Strange how he had a feeling of likeness in disparity – how can you compare a fierce animal and a religious man? THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


70 ‘The ascetic monk – that’s what it reminds me of!’ The skinny, sickly-looking old monk had had a strange glow in his eyes. He had walked with self-possession, venturing unarmed into the wild jungle and talking in riddles to the strangers he met on his way. He had never mentioned anything about merit or the next life, but had gone on and on about some nonsense, something like readying one’s mind and achieving wisdom. The neighbours never got their lottery numbers, just as he never got his amulet. ‘Faith,’ he repeated. He hadn’t a clue how this could be an effective protection. That monk was indeed very brave; he had totally disregarded the requests and the mood of the villagers, who had complained that feeding him was a waste of good food, as the sonofabitch wouldn’t even come up with a couple of numbers… The tiger paused and stood midway on the ridge. He couldn’t take his eyes off it. The distance made it look smaller until it really was about the size of a cat. The clear sight of it extended to almost every nook and cranny, as though some rays of the sunlight that shone on its body were being deflected straight to him. His undivided attention was focused on a single, still point. No signs, sounds or external circumstances of any kind could shatter his concentration. The second of utmost terror had passed. Perhaps he had been killed by the pictures he had drawn in his mind last night, only to be revived by the shower of dewdrops and to be SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


71 strengthened now by the real picture forming in his irises. The tiger, whose body had shrunk to the size of a kitten, disappeared over the ridge. He tore off a cap the sun had turned warm, slid it into the trigger hole and sat breathing deeply to recover some strength, before he resolved to climb down to the ground. He was ready for the encounter.

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7. reflections The ground held his weight firmly. It was warmer down here and the warmth gave him confidence. He felt at home again – human beings belong to the ground. He was still in one piece, though exhausted and aching to the point of collapse. His one idea was to reach the torrent down below. Dragging his feet, he left the flat basin and hobbled down the steep bank to a tiny brook. He scooped up water and gulped it greedily to get rid of the dryness in his throat. He washed his face, his bitter, sticky mouth, his neck, arms and legs. Searing pain rose from his wounds and sores and made him groan, but he couldn’t stay away from the coolness that slowly suffused him, restoring vigour and freshness in his filthy, worn-out and weary body. The sky was bright and clear. Directions were easy to figure out. ‘Head south,’ he told himself, though he didn’t know where he was right now and cutting a straight course through the jungle was no easy feat. All kinds of obstacles could alter his progress and get him off course, and if he insisted on making a beeline, he would waste a great deal of time and energy. He craned his neck to have a full view of the vast expanse of sky above the brook, and then started to slowly climb the ridge. Every time he took a step he had SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


73 to tense his muscles, and pain seared from his knee joints. By the time he reached flat ground at the top, he had stumbled many times and his jaws were clenched so hard his teeth nearly shattered. It was lucky he hadn’t had to flee for his life again. He took his bearings, then chose to follow the ridge rather than head due south. His knees wouldn’t take his weight much longer if he insisted on climbing up and down, and the ridge was roughly running south anyway. Under large, tall and shady trees, the bare and flat ground of the ridge offered a pleasant walk. The trees were a mixture of Indian rubber, calami, sindora and other species with serrate, coal-black bark round their trunks. The ridge was high and the bark of the very old trees was covered with spongy green moss that retained water. Sunlight seeped through in long beams that splashed over the pools of musty, rotting leaves on the ground. He looked often at the sun while his mind drifted to his thatched hut. Worry upset him more than fear. By now, his wife must be beside herself with anxiety and running about in a panic, scaring the children. He closed his eyes tightly and shook his head, feeling oddly ashamed. Whenever he felt cornered, he thought of his wife in a negative way. Sure, she loved him and took pride in his almost having made it into the ranks of teaching, but he had fallen in love with her first. He had often travelled the six miles between their respective homes, had befriended her, had THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


74 written to get her to attend this or that festival where they could meet – before they married, life hadn’t been easy. Without her, he wouldn’t have been able to till his land to the extent he had. When he had said he couldn’t stand living in the village any longer, it was his wife who had given him the moral support he needed, and she had been willing to help him clear their own patch in the thick of the jungle. ‘I am sorry,’ he mumbled. When his pace slowed as he was going up a steeper slope, he thought of taking a break to roll himself a cigarette, but his heart was set on reaching home as quickly as possible and combined with his fear, so he kept on plodding. ‘A man chased by a tiger will think all kinds of crazy thoughts,’ he said as if admitting to his guilt, but to his ears the words sounded like an excuse. He cut across low shrubs of Chinese palm trees. Their long, small twigs had sharp thorns thrusting up and their wide leaves were creased like fans the size of toddy palms. The Hmong sewed them together for roofing. They curled up under the sun and flattened again when it rained. Smoked over fire, they would withstand any kind of weather for two or three years. They grew in dense thickets and he had to duck under them and proceed slowly to avoid their thorns. By the time he came to pampas grass and groves of bamboo with long, thick stems, he was so spent he was almost crawling on all fours. This part of the ridge was an endless climb. This got him angry. He had no idea how long he had been putting SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


75 one foot in front of the other. Even though he had remembered the Hmong’s advice on how to trek in the mountain – when going uphill, do like the elephant: slowly set one foot on the ground, shift your weight and go one step at a time; don’t worry about straying; rest often and you won’t feel tired – he was utterly exhausted. He had tried all kinds of gaits, yet he was tired out. The end of the high ridge in front of him pointed due south. Its rounded, airy flanks dropped gradually into what looked like precipitous cliffs, with smaller ridges stretching out on each side like wings. Hunger, which had been smothered by fear and had torn at his chest and made him feel giddy, was revived by anger and it gnashed at his belly, starting a pain which burned as though a fire was raging in his guts. He decided to take the ridge to his right. It seemed to connect with another ridge in the distance which stretched southward. He went on dragging his feet, and kept looking for some edible fruit, but saw none. ‘I should be able to find at least one fig tree; figs are ripe in this season,’ he mumbled and swallowed his sticky saliva. Their gooey juice and sweet pulp would help relieve his hunger. ‘Stop growling so loud, you damn guts! With luck, we’ll find some palm cores before we reach a stream.’ He talked aloud to make himself feel better, and then went on plodding in silence for a while. ‘You know you can’t stop. The tiger… I wonder if it’ll THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


76 come after me. They say a hungry tiger will follow its prey day and night.’ He staggered to a halt. What a thing to say! Fright surfaced instantly. He quickened his pace, stopped speaking and listened to the short gasps of his breathing. The ground ahead was gradually sloping down. The ridge widened into a vast and empty expanse which ran into bamboo clumps. After the rain, sharp bamboo shoots sprouted all over the place. He thought of cutting some of them to boil later, but with so little strength left, he probably wouldn’t be able to cut any away, and actually, if he really wanted bamboo shoots in this season, there was no need for him to go so deep into the wild. However, whenever he saw the plump hoods of some edible mushrooms popping out of rotten bamboo leaves, he couldn’t stop himself from picking them up and storing them in his haversack. To trek through bamboo groves when you don’t know where you are headed is scary. The indistinguishable leaves, maze of stems all around, and sunlight blocked by the thick curtain of overlapping leaves make it easy for you to get lost. He had a strange foreboding when, after locating the sun through the foliage to find the south, he turned in that direction and noticed notches on some stems. His eyes widened as he got closer. His heart was hollering but the sound that came through his lips was hoarse and husky. ‘Oh, shit! I’ve walked all day and haven’t gone anySILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


77 where.’ Unable to support his weight any longer, his knees gave in and he collapsed. Sprawled on the ground, he stared at the lace of sunlight through the leaves. He lay completely still, except for his chest, which heaved wildly as he gasped for breath. ‘Havenʹt I had enough bad luck?’ he groaned in misery. ‘Or am I doomed to end up torn apart by some wolf in this nowhere place?’ Hopelessness overtook him for a while. He lay breathing hard, feeling trapped in darkness although the sky was bright and clear, his limbs pinioned to the damp, cold ground as if they were as much a part of it as the rotten leaves. He didnʹt know how much time passed. Sadness and despair engulfed him and compelled him to stay still. Shrill chirping on the bamboo branches stirred him awake and his eyes searched the foliage. Little yellow birds were frolicking on the upper fronds, as though delighted with the cloudless sky above. Since morning he had heard nothing but the roars of the tiger. Throughout his retreat from the flat basin, fear, homesickness, weariness and hunger had made his ears hiss. The birds’ shrill, cheerful chirps soothed him and chased his despair away. ‘Head south… Go south…’ He got up, checked the sun and started to move again. This time yesterday, he couldn’t get his bearings because of the rain pouring from the overcast sky, so he THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


78 had made wild guesses and ended up walking around in circles – unlike now. The energy he had wasted made his feet feel so heavy they seemed weighed down with stones. He couldn’t endure his hunger pangs any more, so he decided to stop and build a fire. Took the mushrooms out of his haversack, strung them together on a stick, grilled them, ate them greedily and hurried away. In the dense, dim jungle, everything looked ominous. Tangled vines dangling from big branches swayed under the wind that whooshed up from the mountain pass and their loud, rhythmic creaks set his nerves on edge. Below the vines were bushes of rattan whose stems, as long as arms, reached out and intertwined, with some tall trees with large, palm-like leaves seesawing in the wind, and clusters of cycas trees. Ducking, pushing, he slowly made his way through the rattan and by the time he got through and came to a wide, airy esplanade studded with groves of calami trees, his entire body was soaked in sweat. As he was rushing for cover to the nearest tree, he saw something move on the raised ground in front of him. There was no way to avoid the encounter. They had seen each other. Their eyes met and held. The world had come to an end! Both of them stood stock still, transfixed and mute. Only the leaves moved, swayed by gusts of wind. The tiger! The animal was standing its ground right in front of him. Its green and yellow eyes watched him intently and SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


79 their narrow, reddish-brown pupils did not shift. It stood with legs spread wide on the airy ground, in full view, as still as a carving on a stone slab. Part of him had issued the order, Run for your life! but his legs refused to budge, and the opportunity was gone forever. He stood frozen as if under a spell, his eyes glued to the tiger’s gaze. He pressed his shoulder against the tree and held his rifle at waist level, muzzle pointed dead ahead. The tiger was tall and stout and its yellow fur shone. Large brown and black stripes ran down its flank. Its snout and curled-up whiskers were off-white. The hide of its neck bulged in taught sinews and the chunky muscles on its breast seemed to pack enormous power. ‘Don’t shake. Don’t be scared.’ But the pounding of his heart quickened to bursting point. Beads of sweat formed and began to course down his body. He knew that if he moved at all, the tiger would pounce and tear him to shreds. The merest hint of fear in his eyes could affect their wily status quo. He had learned something from the tiger as he watched it from the treetop: its superior self-control and confidence subdued every creature in sight. To look at it straight in the eyes was the only thing to do. He desperately tried to control his agitation. There was no alternative to this open confrontation. He thought of pulling the trigger, but wasn’t sure whether the thing in his hand was lethal or useless as a stick, and couldn’t afford to guess. Besides, pulling the THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


80 trigger may not be as crucial a matter of life and death as the battle of wills, since will was superior beyond comparison to any kind of weapon. The tiger’s eyes expressed neither fear nor greed nor craving for blood, neither evil nor sympathy. They were truly empty, except perhaps for a hint of perplexity which showed in its fluorescent green irises and was sunken in the stillness of its narrow pupils. ‘Just like the monk!’ He suddenly remembered the skinny old monk. What they had in common was not their gait, confidence or bravery, but their stillness. It was likeness in disparity, like the tips of a bird’s wings, which are equally balanced on opposite sides. What he saw reflected straight at him was a sense of confidence that nothing could shake, and he knew that such a reflection was his only weapon against the tiger. The battle of gazes, stillness, went on for a long time. The tiger had probably never seen human beings nor understood them, but he understood the tiger and he understood himself. During the past couple of days in the jungle, elation, fear, death and spiritual birth had vied with one another in his heart and become as familiar as close friends. His emotional response to his changing situation had fluctuated so often he now found himself almost impassive. What had pushed him into this confrontation was not bravery, but something else he couldn’t quite fathom, something like a series of revelations. It was hope withSILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


81 out hope, and despair balanced with expectation. He had fallen into some weird abyss, an absence of self, and was floating adrift in the void with nothing to hold fast to. At the same time, part of his mind was too exhausted to keep on struggling and wished only for the end. And so his body remained, transfixed, soaked in cold sweat as though it were immersed in a river – a peaceful and mysterious river beyond human reach.

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8. the way back Strong updrafts blew from the mountain pass, bending branches and twigs, and then weakened to a soft, steady breeze which gently rustled the leaves and also cooled his body and his face, ruffled his hair and took away the stickiness and heat. Now, the stillness in the tiger’s eyes was reflected in his own and turned into a weapon he fought back with. It wasn’t merely acknowledged and imitated, but developed into a vision of his own – a free fall and drift into a quaint abyss in which hope held no hope and despair was still pregnant with hope. There was nothing to hang on to and he didn’t want to hang on to anything, as if he were now totally deprived of self. The emptiness in his feelings opened a huge chasm which greedily sucked stillness as trees absorb rainwater, taking it all in, turning it into a gigantic, stiff, strong, unmovable pillar of stone. Because of the absence of self, the fateful outcome wasn’t up to him but up to nature and would come through a predetermined path. He thus held a dignified pose and the motionless test of wills went on without fear. A chain wrought with hundreds of links had come into existence between them. Perhaps it had started as soon as he had seen claw scratches on the log. Since then, he hadn’t stopped pouring out his innermost feelings in a SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


83 tidal wave of words and confused reactions, which the tiger had caught and entirely absorbed. In the present confrontation, these things were being deflected back to him as though they had been sorted out, drifting softly between them as if borne by the gentle wind. Thus, the tiger in front of him was not a fierce animal craving for flesh and blood, but the incarnation of greatness and the originator of his quest for knowledge. If the tiger embodied the whole of life and hope, a simple parallel with each and every part of its body would show the likeness between the two of them. Its various brown and black stripes would represent events in his own life: his family driven out of the swamp; the bullying by the subdistrict chief, who hated him; his father’s death, which had forced him to desert the classroom and leave behind the way of life that was taking shape; the distrust of the villagers, who had refused to befriend him; and his own susceptibility, selfishness, arrogance, and jubilation when he had the upper hand. Its whitish patches were the music he had enjoyed, his dreams, the loving care he lavished on his children, and his ability to see beauty in the freedom of a bird in flight. Its sturdy, mighty chest was like his own attempt at eking out a living in the jungle without fraud or guile. And its paws were like his own finger which pulled the trigger during a hunt. All of this taken together formed the unity of life. However, the colour of its hide, the stripes on its flanks, THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


84 its strength, fangs, claws, everything that appeared in the tiger he saw in front of him did not constitute the tiger itself. The tiger was stillness. His fear, his travels, the swamp, the landlord, the subdistrict chief and all the others – all were the same: stillness ordered them and turned them into mere details. The wind still stroked and cooled his neck and his ears. The greenness of the foliage swayed and pulsed in his irises. His body was at ease, his brain clear, his eyes bright. The final outcome of the confrontation was peace. In his mind, he saw the overall picture clearly and was able to rise above himself onto a higher plane where he understood everything in depth, including hidden meanings. He could watch the flow of his own fate without having to flounder in the current. The destruction that had taken place meant the end of a cycle, the end of painting stripes of colours on the cloth of life, and if growth still happened, it was merely a new start. The tiger still stared at him unflinchingly, he still stared at the tiger and their gazes remained locked. The tiger’s eyes seemed to be growing bigger, allowing for a deeper look into them, while the white, yellow, brown and black around them blurred slightly. The tiger was an animal and so was he. They both had the same survival instinct. Now that his mind was at rest and under control, he could no longer see any evil intent in the glowing eyes. SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


85 Faith… He wasn’t sure whether it protected his life or if he had any in him at all, but his mind was being put through a severe test, receiving, sorting out and fighting back, accepting certain reflections from the tiger and turning them into his own. His status had changed accordingly: his stillness was not different from the tiger’s. As the tiger started to move, the constant exchange and myriad links that had bound them for so long came to a point of extreme tension, which dissolved when the animal turned its back and began to climb the ridge. He stood still against the tree for a long time, dazed by all that had happened. He felt like he was floating in a dream, a dream in which he faced what he had been fleeing away from for so long. No need to worry any longer, no need to be afraid. At this point, there was only one thing left – equanimity. From now on, he could walk confidently. The moment of greatness in his life had come to pass. Boundless delight suffused his feelings and dissipated into the light in splendid sparks. The confrontation seemed to have made him aware of a side of himself he had never known. When he was his old self again, he resumed his walk, feeling deeply relieved. He crossed the narrow mountain pass, climbed the next ridge and headed south. At the foot of a wild euphorbia tree, he found the remains of the barking deer. Only the head and most of one leg were left. Fresh, sticky blood THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


86 was spattered all over the ferns in a wide ring and some of it had dripped into the ground. Shreds of russet-coloured hide had been flung everywhere. Death had come in a tremendously powerful pounce. ‘When a tiger’s full, it quits,’ he mumbled as he turned away from the horrible scene. At the bottom of the ravine to his left, the water of a brook sparkled in the sun. It wound its way through a tortuous cleavage in the range, and its coolness and soft whispers to the rocks were carried up by the wind. The current shuddered forward, and it suddenly dawned on him that brooks flow into torrents and torrents into rivers, and that all he had to do was follow the stream. No need to climb ridges or risk cutting across the jungle again. The clear water would take him down to the valley, to people and to his own hut. He slowly walked down to meet the coolness, feeling carefree and happy. It was as simple as that.

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Postscript [1994] ‘Sila Komchai’ [khoam.chai] is the pen name of Vinai Boonchuay [wi.nai bun.chuay], a self‐made man of letters who has made good in the jungle of life despite heavy odds. In his early forties, he is one of few creditable Thai writers who burned their wings in a fling with history only to turn the dust of their dreams and political failure into literary gold. Consecration came to him in 1993, when his second collection of short stories, Khrorpkhrua Klang Thanon (A traffic‐wise couple∗), was awarded the coveted Southeast Asia Writers (SEA Write) Award∗∗. ∗

A translation of the title story was published in the inaugural issue of Caravan magazine, January 1994, Bangkok. ∗∗ The so‐called SEA Write Award, sponsored by the Oriental hotel in Bangkok, Thai Airways International and a few other business concerns, has been given every year since 1979 to an outstanding literary work from each of the then six now ten countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). For each country, prizes are given on a rotating basis to a novel, a collection of short stories and a book of poems published in the last five years. Thus, a Thai novel is crowned every three years. In Thailand, a seven‐member selection committee assesses the dozens of works submitted and short‐lists four or more of them. Out of this list, a seven‐member jury makes the final choice. Both committee and jury are composed of writers, literary critics and academics. Unlike national prizes, which have little credibility and thus little commercial impact, the SEA Write Award triggers sales in the tens of thousands, which means instant wealth for both the author and the publisher. No doubt because of the high financial stakes, the award has become very controversial in recent years, although much of the objections raised are off the wall, not to say self‐serving.

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88 His brownish skin, thick jet‐black hair and big bones tell of distant Malay roots, and the rapid lilt of his speech is that of a Thai South‐ erner. His hemmed, epicurean mouth and the glint in his circled eyes betray an earthy lust for life. Still on the thin side of stocky, he has kept something of the loping gait of the jungle trekker. At the interview table, he is attentive, friendly and, above all, quiet – though he has all his answers down pat, as an intellectual used to looking at issues in depth and prepared to concede only so much. Indeed, he strikes one as a man of few words. His thrifty, pithy prose reflects him well. He was born in 1952 in a modest family in the southern prov‐ ince of Nakhon Si Thammarat: his father was a rural teacher and community leader (‘an orphan, who has always known his place in the world, is humble and talks little’); his mother (‘a very industrious woman’), who owns a small orchard and made clothes to sell at the market to supplement the family’s income and give all six children an education. He was the second child to be born. His father and mother were away every day, and neighbours took care of this pensive, well‐be‐ haved child, while the younger ones were out and about playing. In various interviews, Winai extols the virtues of his parents and of his happy family life, which, he adds, inspired him to give priority to his own family now – and yet, he has never felt compelled to write about his childhood. His characters have token family backgrounds, and he likes to talk of himself as a loner. His pen name, Sila, which means ‘stone’, has the connotation of steadfast solitude, like a mountain standing tall on its own. SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


89 At fifteen, he moved to Bangkok to attend a temple school. (‘I have always lived in borrowed places; even now, I live at my mother‐in‐law’s.’) He failed the standard entrance examination that gives Thai students access to a university of their choice. After a year of soul‐searching, under his father’s advice he undertook to study law at the open university of Ramkhamhaeng. There, he made friends with literary‐minded students, some of whom later became writers of renown, and by August 1973, he had his first short story published∗. He was also busy producing a student broadsheet, but was better known as the singer in the activist band ‘Komchai’, or Shining Torch. And that’s when politics intruded forcefully into Vinai’s life and the lives of many of his friends. For readers unfamiliar with Thailand, a brief survey of the politic‐ al context is in order at this point. Since the 1932 revolution, which replaced the centuries‐old absolute monarchy with a constitutional one, the country has known very short periods of bumbling democ‐ racy followed by long periods of military dictatorship, sometimes brutal, often paternalistic, always self‐serving. On 14 October 1973, the overthrow of the Thanom‐Praphat regime led to three years of democratic turmoil, which ended in the massacre of peaceful demonstrators at Thammasat University, in the heart of Bangkok, on 6 October 1976. A military‐backed right‐wing civilian regime took over and would have led Thailand to civil war had not a less asinine junta taken over in October 1977. The Thammasat massacre in 1976 prompted thousands of students and intellectuals – the young elite of the country – to flee in anger and fear for their lives into the reluctant arms of the ∗

Korn Ja Sin Saeng Dao (Before starlight is gone) in Siam Rath [sa.yarm.rat]’s weekly magazine.

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90 communist guerrillas, who had been painting Thai jungles red since the mid‐1960s. The brotherly embrace never worked. The doctrinal old guard never saw eye to eye with the new recruits, and dis‐ agreement led to paralysis and disenchantment. The Sino‐Vietnam‐ ese feud deprived the Thai guerrillas of most of their logistical network. When the government in Bangkok, to encourage national reconciliation, shrewdly offered the guerrillas a blanket amnesty, the jungle emptied and by 1981‐82, to all practical purposes, the red peril was over. Since then, the political pendulum has swung back and forth towards democratic rule. Despite two failed coup attempts (in 1981 and 1984), one successful one (in February 1991) followed by yet another massacre of civilians, courtesy of the Army (in May 1992), democratic institutions have taken root and freedom is flowering. If the kingdom is not altogether free from military interference, the old cycle has been hopefully reversed, with long periods of democ‐ racy briefly disrupted by military hijacks that backfire. In October 1976, Vinai Boonchuay was among those who took to the hills. As a singer and musician, he was drawn into the agitprop unit, after being given political and military training. He never really had to fight gun in hand, he says – he did so just once, hurt no one, and realized that ‘gunshots in the jungle don’t sound at all like in the movies: they reverberate endlessly’. His was a relatively sheltered, if Spartan, life in mountain sanctuaries, mostly in the Northern province of Nan [narn]. Altogether, he spent five and a half years (longer than most) in the South, Northeast and then North. Years after his return to mainstream society in April 1982, his experience in the jungle provided the background to Thang Suea, SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


91 The path of the tiger, which was published in 1989. True to form, the 1991 Sea Write Award selection committee turned down this work as too short to be a novel∗. By his own admission, returning to Bangkok’s concrete jungle was much tougher than surviving in the wilderness, where the commu‐ nist party took care of all basic needs and even did your thinking for you. He had to make a living, not just for himself but for his wife as well. He had married his sweetheart from the Ramkhamhaeng days, an English teacher named Narreerat (‘Too’), in Laos in 1978. They wed again three months after their exit from the jungle to conform to Thai law ‘and please my wife’s mother’. Ms Narreerat is studying for her masters in English at Chulalongkorn University. They have a daughter, ‘Jaem’, born in 1989. The erstwhile revolutionary started by selling women’s underwear in a Bangkok department store. Several jobs later, he has worked his way up as a journalist to his current position as a senior editor in the Khoo Khaeng group of business magazines, and the dejected loser of the early 1980s is now basking in literary glory. A constant element of Vinai Boonchuay’s literary work is close attention to socio‐political trends. The detention of nearly two thousand Thammasat demonstrators in October 1976 was the ∗

They had played the same trick in 1985 to Nikom Rayawa and his superb Taling Soong Sung Nak, High banks, heavy logs [Penguin Australia, 1991], before they changed their minds and crowned it in 1988. In 1991, the award went to a not much longer work, Mala Kamchand [mar.lar kham.jan]’s Jao Jan Phom Horm (Lady Jane of the fragrant mane), a fascinating literary tour de force combining central and northern Thai dialects and literary traditions which defies translation and would make little sense to the uninitiated.

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92 subject of his powerful if unbalanced Nai Krong Lep (literally, ‘Under the paw’). He took a year to write his first novel while he was living in the jungle, but it was only serialized and published in book form in 1993. Winai was never detained, but he gathered the testimonies of those around him who had been. Nai Krong Lep is a reportage novel as well as a historical document. Its dominant theme is the power of solidarity and its thrust is collec‐ tive, militant and forward‐looking. He wrote it even as solidarity was taking a beating in his daily life: as early as 1978‐79, the guerrilla movement was in growing disarray. Once back in the city, some of his comrades tried to find ide‐ ological explanations for the rapid demise of their well‐meaning dreams and for a while sought new ways to continue the struggle, but even that search soon became irrelevant to the times, as assimilation back into society proved difficult, most activists were too disillusioned to launch into new political adventures, and the few who still cared went on to infuse the nongovernmental organizations while some of them made their careers in main‐ stream politics (there are now three former jungle fighters in the government and a dozen in Parliament). A sobered Vinai turned inward and started looking at personal failings instead: what was it in human nature that led us to fail to make our mark on history? This quest is behind the tale of the hunter lost in the jungle who finds his moral bearings by venturing along the tiger’s path, which is altogether beyond the tracks of militancy. ‘My years in the jungle have taught me to pay more attention to human factors and the truth of uncertainty,’ he explained in August 1993. ‘I’ve learned not to condemn others but to accept their weaknesses, as well as my own, as part of human nature. SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


93 I’ve learned to know what I want and accept my own limitations. I guess it’s part of growing up.’∗ Vinai says it took him four years to feel confident enough to begin thinking about writing a novel. Then, over the course of three more years, several elements came together. ‘First, the people coming out of the jungle were directionless and disillusioned. To find explanations, they looked at the situation around them, but not at themselves: they didn’t ask what respon‐ sibility they had had in what had happened. A further thought was, when we have a problem, we blame it on someone else first, and only then do we look at ourselves. Then, one day, I opened a book by Phra Buddhadasa [phut.tha.thart]∗∗ and one sentence struck me: ‘Thamma khue thammachart’ – religion is nature. Indeed, nature holds and offers everything. We spent five years in the wilderness, amid nature. There wasn’t anything much, yet we could stay there. Finally, I watched a TV programme on the international forest tem‐ ple in Ubon province. It had this shot of monks going out in the early morning to collect their food; the light reflecting on their yellow robes was radiant, and their whole bearing, I thought, wasn’t dif‐ ferent from that of a tiger. Why was that? What’s in a tiger? So it got me thinking, Why not have a tiger as a symbol of certain values? With these various elements in mind, I started to figure a hunter lost in the jungle, blaming others for his failures. I wanted him to search for something. What he had to meet was the tiger; he had to be‐ come the tiger, that is to say to discover stillness. There would be a ∗

‘The path from despair to success’, The Bangkok Post, 19 August 1993 The influential abbot of the Suan Moke forest temple in Southern Thailand, whose whole life was spent preaching a return to the purity of the Buddhist doctrine. He died in 1993 at the age of 87. ∗∗

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94 transfer. He wouldn’t be afraid any more of the terrifying attributes of the tiger.’ The novel took him only three months. Where did this country lad acquire his exceptional command of the language? He has always been a bookworm, he answers, acknow‐ ledging as his main inspiration the works of the Lebanese novelist and poet Khalil Gibran, as translated by Rawee Pha‐wilai, which he discovered at 20. He also mentions the short stories of Lu Xun, and on the Thai side novels by ‘Rong Wongsawan and the short stories of Manas Chanyong. Another noticeable influence is that of ‘Lao Kham‐ horm’, the master craftsman of Thai radical short stories.∗ Since then, he has turned his attention to the hardships and hang‐ ups of the urban middle class, with ‘A traffic‐wise couple’. The path of the tiger is an extremely rich and complex novel. First, it has superb descriptions of the Thai jungle. Fauna, flora and the atmosphere of the mountains are brought to life in lush and vivid strokes. Second, it is an adventure story with a simple plot: a hunter loses his way in the jungle as he pursues a barking deer he has wounded; when he realizes he is being stalked by a tiger, he clambers up a tree and, after a night of terror and self‐pity, finally musters enough courage to confront the king of the jungle. Third, it is an allegory of the times. The young man is the ∗

’Rong [short for Narong] Wongsawan, who is in his sixties, has written more than sixty volumes of chronicles and novels, including Sanim Soi (Thin skins, 1961), a novel about prostitutes. Manas Chanyong [ma.nat.jan.yong] (1907‐1965) wrote hundreds of short stories. ‘Lao Khamhorm’ or Khamsing Srinawk [see.nork] (b1930) is the author of The Politician and other Thai stories, Oxford University Press, 1973.

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95 archetypal Thai leftist militant of the 1970s: self‐righteous to the point of arrogance; honest, responsible and dedicated, yet un‐ happy with the system and quick to claim his legal rights and to blame others, the local authorities as well as those closest to him – his uneducated wife, even his father, whose well‐meaning ambition destroyed his own dream. He is an angry, resentful rebel who perceives himself primarily as a victim. He is in self‐ imposed exile in the jungle, ‘in order to avoid confrontation with certain people over certain events’ – an allusion to the murdering frenzy of right‐wing mobs and goons in the 1970s. On several oc‐ casions in the past, he has shied away from violent confrontation, as leftist demonstrators consistently did until they were forced to take up arms. Once his ordeal is over, he will go back home with nothing to show for his trouble, lucky enough to still be alive and free. In the novel, as in society, the time for divisive political infighting is over. Finally, it is a metaphysical novel in which events build up to a cathartic climax, when the hunter absorbs the attributes of the tiger and thus becomes the tiger and negates its challenge. The confrontation ends in stalemate, with no winner or loser, as man and beast go their separate ways. The main theme is self‐discovery, as the young man faces the challenge of not only a hostile environment but also and above all his inner turmoil. Forced into confrontation with the tiger, he masters his own terror and discovers ‘a side of himself he had never known’. His self‐control leads to peace of mind, and this newly found equanimity allows him to think clearly and discover the way back home. He also realizes that most of his suffering, fears and anxieties are self‐made. THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


96 The hunter returns home empty‐handed but rich in wisdom: he has found his moral bearings, transcended his own shortcomings, seen through his delusions and discovered the paramount impor‐ tance of ‘stillness’. Unlike the old monk who wanders in the wil‐ derness unharmed, he achieves all this without the amulet of ‘faith’, as faith is merely a (religious) means to an end, that of self‐control. While distancing his hero from religious practice, the author holds to a fundamental Buddhist tenet: the need to still all passions to achieve enlightenment. In its intensity and focus, The path of the tiger strongly reminds readers of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Indeed, it could have been entitled ‘The young man and the jungle’. But its moral is altogether different. Hemingway’s novel is about man’s noble, unavoidable yet ultimately absurd mission (the fisher‐ man’s daunting fight with a huge fish which, once caught, turns into a set of bones), whereas the path of the tiger leads to self‐control and equanimity. The short confrontation with the tiger builds the tragic tension. The ending has an ironic twist, when the hunter realizes that the tiger ignored him because it had eaten the barking deer and was full. The tiger has succeeded where he has failed – by securing his next meal, whereas he only managed to wound the deer. Unlike man, who keeps wanting more, the tiger knows when to quit once sated. This ending subtly mocks man’s greed and gratuitous violence, as well as his lingering delusions. Even our hunter’s self‐discovery is based on a misunderstanding: he wasn’t saved by his self‐con‐ trol or at any rate not by self‐control alone, but by the tiger’s postprandial benevolence. Equanimity gives man control over SILA KOMCHAI | THE PATH OF THE TIGER


97 himself, but not necessarily over the outside world, where other factors are at play. I am not sure whether the author, who prefers to reduce every‐ thing to a personal equation, will accept this point. He stresses that it is only when the hunter has achieved stillness in his mind that he thinks of the sure way to get back home. But this is a delusion, because the option of following streams was not viable for the hunter as long as he was being hunted, and it still would not be possible if the tiger were around and hungry. In other words, beyond personal feelings or wisdom, there are outside, objective factors that force us to react, disturb our concentration and compel us to change our plans and our moods; we are not alone in the world, the world is constantly impinging on us. By focusing exclu‐ sively on personal factors, the writer, in this novel, dismisses too easily the social, economic and political conditions that are part and parcel of life.∗ Part of the appeal of this novel is its extremely dense, precise and lyrical style. Vinai Boonchuay writes in such telegraphic Thai, however, that he upsets many readers in the vernacular, who are at once entranced by his coruscating cascades of adjectives and befuddled by the systematic absence of subjects. Unlike Western ∗

In his address at the reception of the SEA Write Award, however, Vinai Boonchuay had this to say: ‘I have often stopped to calmly ponder and search for the meaning of man, to prize the truth of life out of some deep, dark recess. What I found was not what I was looking for. Yet, prophets, sages, thinkers and other seekers of knowledge have long known these things and expounded on them. They were merely confirmed to me after I had probed with my own blood, flesh and painful bitterness, giving up my youth in exchange. Man ceaselessly struggles with himself. Man fights with man time and time again. Man and society interact continuously, in many encounters that turn sour and get worse with every passing day.’

THE PATH OF THE TIGER | SILA KOMCHAI


98 languages, which usually go by the subject‐verb‐complement struc‐ ture, Thai allows the subject to be done away with when it is impli‐ citly understood, but Vinai – blaming his editor‐cum‐publisher… – is pushing this to the extreme and the reader is too often left won‐ dering who is doing what to whom. The English language does not encourage such paucity, and it has been particularly challenging for us to figure out what the heck this miserly magician was referring to and fill in the gaps and gulps of his breathlessly bouncy prose. I dare say that this translation is, of necessity, more legible (if less sonorous and less taut) than the original. MARCEL BARANG

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the path of the tiger | sila komchai