| August 3, 2011 | Comments (0)

It was in Bangkok  in the 1970s that I  begin my withdrawal from the world, when I first displayed  those unmistakable signs that I was destined to become a hermit.  To be sure, the devolution to a state of recluse that describes me today, forty years later, took decades to play out. In the midst of a social whirl that was alternately diplomatic and decadent, I myself  was unaware of what was happening then. It is only in retrospect that my behavior  seems queer; secluded and solitary. And it was all because of a house.

For most of my five years in Thailand I lived in a dwelling on the banks of the Chao Phraya River that can only be described as refined and slutty. Let me begin with its graceful qualities. Built around the beginning of the 20th century, I would say, Baan Ban Tomsin – that was the name of the property, “House Beside Quiet Waters” – was an amalgam of styles that almost defies description. Southern plantation manor house comes to mind as does palace of a minor Javanese Sultan. Throw in a  bit of  rundown Carribean flophouse and the description is still not complete, but it is as near as I can come to painting a picture of this bewitching, odd  structure.

Porches and verandahs must have accounted for more than half  the floor space. The ceilings were fourteen feet high, embossed with slow-moving teakwood ceiling fans. Teakwood was everywhere. The floors were teak, the exposed beams were teak;  in fact, the whole house was built of teak,  the rich, deep color of this precious wood lending the place a stately,  somewhat funereal air. Built for the tropics with a gentle breeze coming in off the river less than a stone’s throw away, it was a cool place to be even in the midst of the scorching hot mango season that lasted from March to May, a time when it felt like a posse of giant dragons were breathing fire on your neck.

Baan Ban Thomsin was  so dysfunctional that a normal person would have refused to live there. With  no hot water heater, any warmed liquid needed to be boiled in a kettle on the small two-burner stove in the kitchen. Once I had house guests from the United States. The husband was game to go native as I did every morning, splash-bathing in my Thai sarong from a huge dragon jar of cool water in the back garden under shady mango trees, but his wife needed a hot bath. It must have taken most of the morning with servants running from the kitchen to the bathroom upstairs with pitchers and kettles of hot water, to fill the claw-footed bathtub I had never, ever used, except once  for a delicious little tryst and no water was involved for that activity.

And then there was the electric system which hardly existed. The power level was so low that only three or four small lights, at most, could be turned on at one time. Out of necessity, kerosene lamps and candles were used to augment illumination in the evenings on the vast back verdandah where I entertained and took my meals. Out of this quiet chaos and lack of modernity, a strange, charming calm would settle in of a tropical evening, the blue haze of scented citronella candle smoke casting a dreamlike spell over us as we sipped gin and tonics or my preferred drink at the time, cheap Mekong whiskey laced with splashes of soda water. 

Last but not least were the floods. My house was elevated so water from high tides and monsoon squalls never entered the interior, but for a good third of the year the yard and gardens were underwater and walking to the street was always done barefoot or with flip-flop sandals and pant legs rolled up. It was indeed a strange sight – me, dressed in  rather formal  office attire, a suit with white shirt and necktie, carrying a briefcase, splashing through the garden shoeless, then balancing precariously on a single plank as I made my way to the street.

But I was very happy living in Baan Ban Tomsin. It was there that I discovered the sweet bliss of simply doing nothing. I found myself spending hours sitting alone in my living room or on the secluded verandah, caressed by gentle eddies of air coming from  overhead fans and the river breeze, listening to sounds from the Chao Phraya River only steps away. I loved the babble of river life, the steady hum of  fat teak rice barges  making their way up-country and back to the city on provisioning trips, their Noah’s ark silhouettes cutting little wavelets in the rich muddy, pungent, hyacinth-choked water. It was also nice to sit in the riverside tea shop in front of my house  and watch these  behemoth barges up close, each one its own village with children and dogs running about under flapping laundry lines, screened by a  curtain of  smoke rising from charcoal cooking fires. The barges even had their own gardens, huge dragon jars bursting with bright sprigs of bougainvillea, jasmine shrubs and little rows of chili peppers in  pots, ready for plucking.

Then there were the tiny boats that  transported people back and forth across the river, defying the on-coming  rice barges, river taxis and gigantic floating palaces loaded  with blaring bands and hundreds of  tourists on sunset dinner  excursions. How these miniscule mosquito boats survived the onslaught of traffic was something I could never figure out. I knew one of the boat pilots, a tiny, withered crone of a woman;  her crow-like caw of a  voice would pierce the night air as she shouted out for passengers, crying, “Kam fak!”  ( crossing over !). Once I rode with her in her little craft which seemed no bigger than a walnut shell, bobbing and lurching in the wake of larger vessels that nearly side-swiped us. Would I ride with her again today ? Never !

The house was slutty through no fault of its own. Just like certain human beings, it was, by nature, inviting and voluptuous , possessing that “Come on up and see me sometime” aura that seemed to encourage all that was improper and decadent  in anyone who entered its  squeaky, dilapidated  screen doors. And ofcourse, its owner, my louche landlady, was never far away, peering out from the attic window in her roost across the fence, in a house so near collapse that each morning I expected to see  its timbers – and the landlady – floating in the jetsam of the river.

Lady Deva – she was a titled Thai “Khunying”, a noblewoman – had arrived in Thailand under interesting circumstances. Imported from China in the 1920s, along with her sister, as teenaged courtesans to serve the pleasures of wealthy  businessmen and the  Thai nobility, she soon gained fame in certain circles for her matchless ivory complexion and bewitching ways, her ability to play the lute while cracking open watermelon seeds with her teeth which she would pass,  mouth to mouth, to her clients. Soon she rose in society,  marrying a lord who was rumored to be the paramour of the  Thai monarch of the time, King Vajirawut, Rama VI. Later a high society murder occurred sometime in the 1930s and Lady Deva was charged with the crime. Ofcourse she emerged scot-free after a trial that titillated the Thai capital. Leona Helmsley was not the first person to notice that rich people don’t pay taxes !

As time passed, I found myself growing less sociable. To be sure, I hosted people at Baan Ban Tomsin; once I had a sparkling lunch party and invited 30 people from my office, also extending an invitation to Lady Deva who even in her eighties still possessed the peerless skin that had catapulted her from teen trollope to her grand ladyship. There were linen table cloths and napkins, three crystal wine glasses for each place setting and a bevy of handsome waiters sporting black vests and bow ties. I think we had Baked Alaska for dessert. So decadent and excessively luxurious, so over the top !

But my heart was not in these splashy events; I no longer felt  involved in anything I did that  included other people. I always found myself there, but not there, somehow a fly on the wall looking down on it all, removed from my body and surroundings, as it were, particpating but only going through the motions. My hermit life had begun.

I left Bangkok and Baan Ban Tomsin in 1978, moving first to Burma, then to other exotic places. But somehow I never left the place. Last year, 32 years after we parted ways, I returned to my old house. Taking the public river taxi up to the Theves boat dock, I was stunned by how nothing had changed in more than three decades. Bangkok had developed out of  all recognition into a high-rise megapolis, but my old Theves neightborhood, the flower market, the Buddhist temples, the Chinese  merchants sitting on their  plump bags of rice, nothing had changed one whit.

When I reached Baan Ban Tomsin’s gate, the sight before me took my breath away. My old palace was truly on the verge of collapse.  Refrigerators and file cabinets, all matter of detritus and dregs, were stacked onto a front porch that had once received elegant Thai ladies  swathed in shimmering silk ensembles. It was as though a band of rednecks from “God’s Little Acre” or “The Grapes of Wrath” had descended on my palace, camping out on my verdandah, trashing the place with a vengeance.

I don’t know how long I stood transfixed staring at my old palace. Suddenly I felt the nip of a snarling dog, snapping at my pants leg.  Then, just as I was aboui to be torn to bloody shreds, I was rescued by a crumpled-looking figure who advanced haltingly up the driveway in a wheelchair, waving a cane. As he called off his mastiff and drew closer to me,  I recognized Khun Piak, my landlady’s son, now a very old man himself. He and I been friends back in our salad days. We had done outrageous things together, raised a bit of hell. He spoke in a barely audible murmur, whispering that  he had had a stroke.  As he was croaking to me, I caught our reflection in the mirror of a motorcycle parked near the gate of Baan Ban Tomsin. In it I saw two old men and what had once been a house. Both the house and the old men had seen better times. Nothing remains the same, does it?

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