Central Annum 5

The schoolmaster was petrified by the importance of the occasion. When the inspector told him to let us see the physical culture class in action, the only thing he could think of getting them to demonstrate for our benefit was breathing exercises. We stood there watching the small chests inflating and deflating hundreds of times, as it seemed, before realising that the schoolmaster intended the repertoire to go no further than this. Finally the inspector, whose eyes were beginning to bulge, could stand it no longer, ‘Surely that’s not all they’ve been taught?’ The schoolmaster explained that he had thought best to perfect one thing at a time and that they had tended to concentrate, until now, on rhythmical breathing. His scared voice could hardly be heard above the busy intake and expulsion of breath. The inspector went over to tell them to stop but although the children showed the whites of their eyes at the approach of the fierce, pale face, they could not be made to understand. ‘Well, for God’s sake get them to do something,’ the inspector said. ‘Don’t have them stand about like this. Get them on the move. They have got legs, haven’t they?’ Prak looked on, wiping the palms of his hands together and leering ferociously at the schoolmaster who, in desperation, managed another order, and the boys formed a line and began to run round in a circle. When asked by the inspector what they called that, the schoolmaster said, correct running. The inspector swore and we walked away, leaving the pupils and future citizens of Cu-Ty to their correct running, which they continued until we were out of sight.
In spite of the informality of Prak’s reception his conduct of the ensuing ceremony was exemplary, and it was an interesting one, preserv¬ing possibly more of its ancient character than any I had previously seen. The Resident was seated before the jars with his right foot placed on the customary copper bracelet, which itself rested on an axe head and contained some cotton and pieces of pork cut from the recently slain pig. A bowl containing the pig’s heart and its four feet was placed on the ground so that the Resident faced it while the sorcerer went through the familiar manipulations with a white cock. Prak’s wealth was, of course, displayed in an impressive battery of gongs, and when these struck up they raised a din which brought the domestic animals scurrying from far and near for their share in the libations. Prak’s alcohol, too, was stronger than I had tasted, the principal jar being hardly weaker than proof whisky. None of the members of the harem appeared, but it was soon evident that they were conducting a ceremony of their own, for a strange sound was heard from the interior apartments. It was a gramophone, playing sambas and rumbas; the favourite, Maria de Bahia, being played some half-dozen times while we were there. The interpreter who had been sitting apart, his face graven with a smile of resolute tolerance, told me that such Latin-American popular recording was the only type of Western music popular with the Mot’s.
The afternoon’s entertainment was concluded when Cu-Ty’s leading elephant hunter gave a demonstration of his skill with the crossbow. Having heard much of Mot’ aptitude with this weapon (for example, they kill even elephants with an enormous bow loaded by two men), I was ready to be shown marvels. With suitable reverence we stood by while the great man was handed his bow, selected from a quiver a two-foot length of untipped bamboo, and slipped it, with professional unconcern, into the notch. One half expected a cruel piece of eccentricity of the William Tell order, which would have to be sternly discountenanced by the Resident, or, failing that, the splitting of a wand at thirty paces after the manner of Sherwood forest. Our marksman, however, requested from Prak, and was granted, permission to aim at a fairly stout sacrificial mast from about half this distance. The bolt was discharged with such terrific force that I did not see it in the air. However, to the great satisfaction of the onlooking villagers, it missed the mast. The second bolt went home and it took two men to pull it out again.
The Resident now asked Prak for information about the road to Stung Treng and Prak told him that there were bandits in and around Bo-Kheo itself, and that shooting had been heard in this village on the previous day. Further conversation followed in private; it probably had to do with the demand for three hundred more men for the plantations. When this subject happened to come up I asked one of the Resident’s staff what would happen to a man who ran away from the plantation and went back to his village. The answer was that the chief, who had received a premium for him, would undoubtedly send him back again. If, on the other hand, the man left his village to avoid labour or military conscrip¬tion, he would be breaking customary law, since it was an offence for a man to leave his village without the chief s sanction. One could imagine the fate of any fugitive who threw himself on Prak’s mercy.
When we left Prak escorted us part of our way in his jeep. With great difficulty he was levered into the seat next to the driver, half-tipsy and humming through his nose, ‘The Lady in Red’. Behind him sat the elephant hunter, having substituted a Sten-gun for his bow. Thus the cortege set out for Pleiku. As we passed the school the pupils were lined up at the roadside waving tricolours and chanting, ‘Bonjour Monsieur, merci Monsieur’, which, as it sounded extremely like something by Ketelby, seems to suggest that this composer’s inspiration was sometimes more truly oriental in feeling than most of us have supposed.

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