In his maiden book, ‘My Driver Tulong and Other Tall Tales from a Post Pol Pot Contemporary Cambodia’, author M P Joseph, a former UN and Indian Civil Servant, from Kerala, the coastal state in the south-western corner of India, encapsulates his adventurous years when his professional life took him to the land of Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
In his first fictionalized travelogue, Joseph very humorously recalls his years in Phnom Penh where he worked as a senior officer of the UN, to serve Cambodia.
The book depicts his encounter with various people he comes across in Cambodia, those who left a lasting impression on him, especially his driver, Tulong, who serves as an anchor to the book’s plot. At first, the author expresses his dismay when his boss says he’s being transferred to Cambodia and he asks, “Where on Earth is Cambodia?” fearing it as the “Heart of Darkness”.
But upon his arrival to the city, he’s surprised by the charming city of Phnom Penh, swaying him with the post-war-torn now a modern city, with neat and tidy gardens, tree-lined boulevards and sparse traffic. There’s a serene placidity about Cambodia, bustling with a distinctly French flavour, aspiring an American dream, that amazes readers who are not aware of the culture of Cambodia.
The book very cleverly acquaints the reader of the ancient history of the land, as each chapter progresses. The book outlines the era of a revolution that erupted in Cambodia, following the Khmer Rouge, which still haunts the citizen. But despite it all, there’s something very enduring about the land and its people.
The book progresses very organically, as the author describes his first encounter with a ‘slender, five feet man, probably a victim or a perpetrator in the Khmer rouge’ his driver Tulong.
As the story progresses, we see his Cambodian driver eventually takes upon the role of a self-appointed protector, guide, confidante and eventually a friend.
What is unique about reading this book is that in every chapter, the author introduces people that he encounters throughout his Cambodian life, and each has a distinct, a humorous – at times tragic – story of their own, which almost immediately draws him to them.
The author beautifully relates the Cambodian lifestyle to his Kerala decent drawing acute similarities between the two Asian cultures, in terms of hierarchy, ambition, prejudices, and of course the food!
In the book, the author inscribes his indelible memories through the tales of Cambodia, paying his due respect to Cambodia that it deserves.
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This book review has also been published in British Herald