A nine-year old girl in pyjamas squatted by the bare concrete wall at the back of her family’s home in a back alley soi of Bangkok. By her splayed feet were a large granite mortar and pestle, and in one hand a green, unripe peeled papaya. The taut drum of the fruit seemed to big for her small, child’s hand and she kept jiggling it to keep it balanced. In her other hand she held an aluminium fork. She started scraping the firm watery flesh of the green papaya with the tines of the fork, creating a furrow of lines, like a ploughed field. When she had scraped the entire surface of the papaya, she took a took and knife and gently sliced off the scraped bits, letting the shredded papaya fall into her mortar and pestle. In this way, she shredded the whole papaya and when she was done, turned her face upwards, mopped the sweat from her brow with a sleeve, a pile of green papaya tails collected at her feet, glistening with their own juice, like ribbons of pale, green jade. 

‘Bo’, a woman’s voice called from inside the house. ‘Is the papaya ready? Your papa and brother coming home soon.’ A hefty woman padded to the back door of the house and peered round. She had huge round arms, a chubby face that made her look younger than she was and a generously spread out body that spoke of several children born and raised. Her medium length hair she wore folded into a loose top knot, stray strands escaping and hanging like weeping willows down her sad, smiling face. Over her voluminous body she draped a simple house dress and wore a gaggle of too-yellow gold bangles on one arm. 

‘Yes ma,’ replied the young girl. She stood up and locked both arms around the mortar, preparing to lift it up and carry it into the kitchen. As she strained to lift the heavy mortar, her thin frame pressed against her flimsy cotton pyjamas. Hips, knees and shoulder blades jutted out; she was shedding her baby fat and had not yet filled out with womanhood. She half dragged the papaya-filled mortar into the kitchen and set it down with a heavy thump. Wiping her hands down her front, she stepped back from the mortar and settled herself down on a red, fraying plastic stool against the porous concrete wall. 

Mama took over the papaya. Arranging her thick, round frame over the mortar, she squatted and picked up the pestle. Around her was an array of condiments and spices—fish sauce, ground peanuts, sugar, chopped bird chillis, cherry tomatoes, long beans broken into small fingers—in little saucers and bowls. Like an artist mixing his palatte, Mama emptied each of the ingredients into the mortar, one by one, pounding each one with a rocking, to and fro movement so that colours and flavours exploded into the papaya. Bo watched her mother with utmost fascination. It was one her favourite sights to behold, and it brought her immense comfort. The small, crimson cherry tomatoes pop open under the weight of Mama’s pestle; the long bean pods spilt, exposing tender innocent beans inside; the chopped bird chillis flatten out, exuding their stinging acid juice; the fish sauce and sugar melt into a salty-sweet syrup and the ground peanuts fall on top of the salad like powdered sugar dusted on a cake—came together in a visual feast for Bo. In her later years, long after she had left Thailand, married Rick the policeman, moved to Georgia and become a policeman’s wife, had two American children who say ‘I sure do like this’ and ‘this sucks’; long after she stopped being Bo and became Beatrice because everyone in her town thought Bo was an hillbilly name; long after she spoke English more frequently than she spoke Thai; long after her mother died, she remembered the papaya salad they used to make at home in their bare concrete house in a back alley soi in Bangkok.

For now though, Bo had no illusions of marriage or children in her head. To welcome her father and brother home from their morning out driving tuk tuks, and to play basket ball that afternoon. When she heard footsteps at the front door, she leapt up from her plastic stool and ran to greet her father and brother. ‘Papa, papa’, Bo cried, ‘what you bring for me today?’ She flung open the front door wide with exuberance. But she saw only her teenage brother standing there. ‘Ake?’, she asked, ‘Where papa? Why you come alone?’ Ake shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, his long, lopsided fringe falling over one eye. He was trembling. ‘Where mama?’, said Ake in a low voice, ‘Call mama. Something happen to papa.’

‘What happen? Is papa ok?,’ asked Bo, now beginning to feel disconcerted. ‘Why papa not with you?’ ‘Call mama’, said Ake again, in a louder voice than the first time. ‘Is papa hurt? Papa ok?’, cried Bo, becoming frantic. ‘CALL MAMA!’, shouted Ake, ‘I SAID CALL MAMA!’ Ake’s yell carried to the back of the house where their mother was, and at the sound of his voice, his mother came running. ‘Ake?’, she called, ‘What’s the matter? Why you shout like that?’

Now Ake spoke about what had happened. ‘Papa’s tuk tuk got accident. Truck hit him’, Ake said rapidly. ‘Truck going very fast, no see papa.’ A net of silence fell over Ake, Bo and mama, as each contemplated the truth behind what Ake had just said. Mama’s limbs grew weak and she held on to the door frame to steady herself. Bo could hear a ringing in her ears, and the rumble of the traffic on the main road increased to a roar. She clutched her mother’s dress, and burst out uncontrollably, ‘Where papa? I want papa! Where papa?’

Wordlessly, Ake turned around and walked away from the house, down the narrow soi, towards the main road. Mama and Bo followed, tripping over themselves in their nervousness. Bo heart pounded in her fragile rib cage, and her feet felt wobbly and heavy at the same time. Neighbours came out of their houses to stare, and each was asking the other if they knew what was wrong. As the main road came into view, mama broke out into a run. She rounded the corner of the house that stood at the junction of their soi and the main road, and Bo lost sight of her. Suddenly Bo heard an earth shattering scream that would rip her safe, childhood world apart forever. It sounded like nothing Bo had ever heard before, and it took her a second to realise the scream actually came from her mother. Half running, half walking, Bo turned the corner and what she saw was so terrible she caved over and landed on her hands and knees. 

In the middle of the street was a huge truck loaded with boxes of food. It was sprawled at an angle, with the driver’s compartment bent awkwardly away from the back compartment, like a broken neck. Some boxes had fallen off the back and were scattered haphazardly on the street, split open, revealing packets of dried vegetables, crisps and candy. The shining, garishly bright foil and plastic food wrappers reflected the glare of the midday sun, and lying on the ground they looked like Christmas ornaments fallen from a tree. A few metres away from the truck sat papa’s tuk tuk. Unlike the truck, which sustained barely a scratch, the small, skeletal tuk tuk was a mangled mess of steel and rubber. The truck had hit the tuk tuk sideways, toppling it over, but not before crushing it first. The railings along the side of the tuk tuk that received the impact were bent in half; the roof had caved in, the wheels had buckled and the driver’s area was flattened, with only one handle of motor bike unscathed, sticking out like oar of a row boat. All over the twisted metal Bo saw something red and sticky. Only after blinking several times did she realise it was blood.

Then she saw her papa. Next to the pile of metal that had once earned her family their living lay his broken body. Lifeless and crushed, he simply lay flat on the ground. Still as stone. His mouth was open, and his lips rounded as if he was about to say something. His eyes were half shut, his arms turned upwards, palms to the sky. A sparrow flew down from the sky, landed beside him, pecked at the hem of his trousers and with a wiggle of its head, flew off again. There was a lot of blood on one side of the body, and upon closer inspection Bo saw that a metal railing had pierced the abdomen of her father and was probably the direct cause of his death. She felt nauseous. 

Mama’s wailing broke the silence of Bo’s shock. Mama was almost hysterical now, pounding the ground with her fist, shaking her head madly and yelling at the sky. She was babbling incoherently and breathing in deep, frantic, punctuated breaths. The neighbours were now gathered by the side of the street; some were turning their faces away in shock and horror while others stared intently, unable to focus on anything else. A couple of older women ran to mama’s side and tried to calm her down, holding her hands, rubbing her neck and mopping her brow. Someone was directing traffic. Passers by in cars, on motorcycles or on foot went past with wide open eyes, pointing and exclaiming loudly. Many shook their heads in sadness. 

A screeching wail broke through the commotion. Racing through the traffic came an ambulance; sirens blaring. Cars and motorcycles pressed themselves against the side of the road, spilling on to the pavement, and even pedestrians found themselves intuitively stepping to one side even though it was not their path the ambulance was in. As the ambulance approached the accident, it slowed down and stopped very close to where papa was lying. Two paramedics flew out of the back compartment of the ambulance with a stretcher. They lifted papa gently onto the stretcher and carefully slid him into the back of the ambulance. That they were so gentle with papa’s body surprised Bo; she thought that a corpse would be handled roughly and was touched by the respect the paramedics showed for her father’s body. It never occurred to her that he might be still alive.

One of the paramedics handed mama a card and said something very quickly. Mama nodded at least three times for every one thing the paramedic said, all the time with a vacant look in her eyes, and Bo doubted if mama had actually heard or understood anything. Then the paramedics jumped back into the ambulance and drove off as suddenly as they came. It turned out that on the card was written the name and address of the hospital papa was being taken to. Mama had been given directions, although as Bo suspected not a word had registered in mama’s head. Luckily, a taxi driver was nearby who knew exactly how to get to the hospital and was willing to drive Bo, her brother and mama there for free. Into the taxi they climbed and off they went. Back in Bo’s house, the mortar full of papaya salad sat wilting on the kitchen floor. Sticky juice had exuded from the pale green papaya strands and formed a pool with the fish sauce, sugar and tomato pulp in which the papaya sat like a tired old lady. Tomatoes split open, bright red, tiny seeds spilling out, clung on to the papaya. A couple of fruit flies buzzed hungrily above the papaya salad. One of them landed, then the other. One took off, and then the other followed.

The next time Bo, her brother and mama saw their papa, he was in a hospital bed hooked up to a life support machine. The doctors told them that papa was still alive, but that his chances for survival were slim. He had lost a lot of blood from the abdominal injury and had sustained massive head injuries. In fact, the only keeping papa alive was the machine. ‘Take your time’, the doctor said, ‘to make your decision. But bear in mind that this machine is expensive to use.’

They sat by papa’s side for three days. During that time, he did not recognise them, did not smile, blink, squeeze their hands or show any indication of life apart from what the machine recorded in a thin jagged line on a screen. That, they were told, represented papa’s vital signs. Bo had trouble relating her father’s life with the graph on the machine; one was human, the other was a chunk of metal like her father’s tuk tuk. After three painful days, they knew that papa was never coming back. He was already gone from them, his spirit already departed. His skin had grown paler and more translucent in those three days, and he had lost a lot of weight. He was so thin that his body barely made an imprint on the mattress and there were times when Bo thought he was floating lightly above the bed, an ethereal being. On day four, the machine was switched off. This was done in the presence of several doctors and nurses, and mama had to sign a lot of papers. When Bo heard the click of the switch, and knew that it was over, she slumped into a chair overwhelmed by how her life had irrevocably changed.

After papa faded away, Bo’s mother lost much of her former self. Previously a lively, vigorous woman, she became thin, wane and joyless, drained by grief. Her days were spent standing at the front gate of their house, listlessly twirling the stray ends of her hair around her fingers and staring sadly into space, as if she was expecting her husband to show up at any moment but knowing deep down in her bones that she never would. Bo’s brother laid around the house not knowing what to do with himself, rudderless without the father who had always set his direction for him. Eventually he got a job, left home and they rarely heard from him. Bo herself struggled on in school—after all she was only nine when her father died—but with a vacant mother and a lost brother, she soon found herself running what little was left of her home. She left school as soon as she could—she was barely twelve—and worked at a stall selling, papaya salad. With the meager income this job gave her, she scraped herself and her mother by. Each day as she mixed the strands of green papaya with pungent fish sauce, sugar sticky from the heat, peppery peanuts and pulpy tomatoes, she smelt her father. 

When Bo turned eighteen she got a job as a waitress in a mid-range hotel and there she met Rick, the American she would marry. They could barely converse at first, but he seemed to be fascinated by her and she surprised herself at how fascinated she as by him. She had heard a lot about farangs and Thai women, not much of it good, yet here she was, a poor Thai woman looking at a farang who might promise her a better life. Bo and Rick saw each other everyday that Rick was in Thailand—which was not long—and wrote to each other weekly after he left. She enrolled in English classes and he even managed to pick up a few words of Thai. After eighteen months of corresponding, Rick invited Bo to join him in America as his wife. She closed her eyes, packed her suitcase and prepared to go. On the day she departed the land of her birth and her father’s death, she left a letter to her brother and ushered her mother to the home of an aunt. She then closed up the house and got in a taxi. As the taxi drove towards the airport, a truck pulled into their lane. It was laden with green papayas. The papayas were in loosely woven wicker baskets, were bulging from every opening in the weave and wobbling precariously at the tops of the basket. Suddenly the truck lurched and slammed its brakes. It seemed to lean forwards, its back wheels looked like they were an inch off the ground and Bo thought it was going to tip. The taxi driver slammed on his brakes too; they came within a hair of the truck’s back bumper. Then, just as suddenly, the truck started off again, took a left turn and was out of their way. As it turned, a couple of papayas bounced off their baskets and onto the road where they rolled around before sliding into the gutter. Bo watched the fruit disappear, and then faced the driver’s windscreen. The road in front of them way clear.

 

Papaya Salad

 

Written on 12 August 2003