HIDDEN FROM prying eyes behind tall trees and bushes in the heart of busy Siam Square, Sra Pathum Palace, the former residence of Queen Savang Vadhana, the Queen Grandmother and Her Royal Highness Princess Srinagarindra, the Princess Mother, is now home to Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. Curious Skytrain passengers always try to catch a glimpse of the royal palace as the train passes while pedestrians smile at the big sign on the palace gate saying “Please slow down to 20 km per hour and beware of the royal pet dogs”.
The recent children’s book “Yoo Wang Sra Pathum” (“Living at Sra Pathum Palace”) by well-known writer and translator Sumalee Bumroongsook, who gave local readers four of the books in the Harry Potter series in Thai, takes young readers right through the palace gates.
“This book was conceived when Nanmee Books asked me to write some children’s books to commemorate Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn’s fifth cycle anniversary two years ago. At that time I was translating “Siamese Tears” by Claire Keefe-Fox and I couldn’t think what to write about,” says Sumalee.
“I spent six months thinking about the book and I remembered that a few years ago, I was fortunate enough to see the Princess at the palace. She told me about one of her cats, Bai Tong, who disappeared for a while and the Princess later found out that the cat had gone to Chitralada Palace. I thought it was a perfect story for the book.
“I decided that a cat should tell the story but I didn’t want Bai Tong to be the narrator because I don’t know her very well. So I made up a fictitious cat to tell the story. That cat has no name and just calls himself “Phom”. Later Nat Maa Ja, the illustrator, decided to called him “Phom Eng”. All the other cats and animals in the book are real though.
“This imaginary cat is not the Princess’ pet, he just sneaks in the palace and lives there so he is arrogant enough to give his book the title ‘Yoo Wang Sra Pathum’. My sister told me that it was too presumptuous to name the book that but after I explained my reasoning, she agreed to send this name in. Luckily it hasn’t caused any problems so far.
“A lot of people tell stories about the Princess’ contribution to Thais like building schools and libraries and promoting healthcare and education for children and mothers but not many people talk about her kindness towards animals. My friends who are close to the Princess – Ajarn Suparat Lertpanichkul, Ajarn Prapod Assavavirulhakarn, the former dean of the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University and my sister Sukunya – all told me stories about the animals at Wang Sra Pathum so I could write about them. I did a lot of research too. I discovered that some veterinarians had written about her activities with animals in the newspapers so I was able to get a lot of information from those sources too.”
Sukunya, the coordinator for the book project, helped Sumalee |by cross-checking the facts and working with illustrator Nathawee “Nat Maa Ja” Limpanilchart of Facebook.com/MaaJa.
“I trust my sister. She has a good sense of art so I happily left her to work with Khun Nat on the illustrations. I wrote the story in London, where I live with my family, then I emailed the story to my sister who then forwarded it to Ajarn Suparat and Ajarn Prapod to cross check the facts and information. I used two books written by Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn as my key references: ‘Sat Lieng Nai Wang Sra Pathum’ (‘Pets in Sra Pathum Palace’) and ‘Nai Rom Ngao Wang Sra Pathum’ (‘The Shelter of Sra Pathum Palace’),” Sumalee tells The Nation.
Sukunya adds, “There was one mistake in the earlier editions of this book though. It was the name of the snake and I am responsible for that. Ajarn Prapod told me it was a ngoo khiew hang mai or green pit viper but my fear of snakes is so great, I got the name wrong. In the earlier editions, it is a ngoo hang krading or rattlesnake. It was only after the book had been published that I learned there are no rattlesnakes in Thailand. Ajarn Suparat even asked the Princess what species of snake had been found in the palace and the Princess confirmed it was a green pit viper. The good news is the illustration and also the text in the fourth edition were corrected. For those who bought the earlier edition, please forgive me and kindly replace the rattlesnake with green pit viper,” she says with a gentle smile.
“The Princess is so kind to all animals. When the snake was found, she told them to catch it and release it in Khao Yai National Park. I’m so terrified of snakes I would tell my husband, ‘if you see a snake, kill it’,” Sumalee laughs.
Nat Maa Ja says she enjoyed illustrating the book and read the text of this book so many times, she knew it by heart. Like Sumalee, she used the Princess’ books as her key references.
“This job made me realise that drawing cats requires a lot of patience as each feline has his or her unique markings. Khun Bai Tong, for example, was quite hard to draw. The markings are very complicated and when you have to draw the cat with the background of a place like Sra Pathum Palace and Chitralada Palace, it’s really tough.
“I was nervous when I first drew pictures of all these cats. When I draw dogs for my own fanpage, I make them mischievous and that’s okay. But these cats are the Princess’ pets so I was reluctant to make them too naughty. The cats in the early drafts were much too polite. People in the team then told me that I could add more humour to my drawings,” Nat says with a smile.
Sumalee adds: “We have learned a lot more about the Princess and her kindness towards animals. I am so impressed with her school for buffaloes, Kasorn Kasiwit. I think that it’s high time we had a school for buffaloes. We need to conserve knowledge of how to use the buffaloes in the rice fields because if the buffaloes are not useful anymore, they will disappear. Buffaloes should have jobs to do or else they will suffer the same fate as elephants. The elephants have been out of work since we shut down the forests. Years ago, you would see elephants come to the cities to beg.
“This book doesn’t teach children but tells them about the Princess’ kindness. I think the Princess also loved it since she posted a photo of the book and teased us about our ‘best-seller’,” Sukunya says.
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Published : December 12, 2016
By : Chusri Ngamprasert THE NATION