The People We Meet: Neela
December 27, 2016
This is the story of a woman who touched my heart.
Meet Neela, whose name literally means “Blue” in my mother tongue, Tamil. Before I get back to why I know the meaning of her name, Neela is a humble woman.
Before I get back to why I know the meaning of her name, Neela is a humble woman on her early fifties, who sells eatables at the historic Mon bridge at the less known Sangkla Buri province on the far west of Thailand, just across the border of Myanmar.
She starts her day as early as 5.30 in the morning, when tourists gather on the bridge to witness the sunrise across the misty bridge over the Khao Laem reservoir, an artificial lake formed by the dam Vajiralongkorn over the river Khwae Noi. She stays on the bridge until 10 on busy days (usually weekends) and around 9 on weekdays. She then walks back home, where she prepares her raw materials needed for preparing her snacks for the evening crowd, which lasts from 4 to 8pm.
There is something special about the dish she sells – it’s neither Thai nor from Myanmar and it’s easy for anyone else to overlook but an Indian. She sells “Samosa” and “Vada”, which have India written all over them.
Having been out of town for almost two months, I wanted to refresh my taste buds and was a happy customer. She even sells a spicy curry along with it, the first bite I took me all the way back to Tamil Nadu, a southern state in India. The mix of spice was so unique to south India that I instantly knew she ought to be one hailing from South.
I hesitantly asked whether she was “Tamil”, and all teary eyed, exclaimed “yes!”. Never did I imagine that I would speak my mother tongue in a less known village in Thailand. It followed an hour-long conversation in our language, she shared her family history, likes and dislikes. She gave birth to twelve(!), of which six survived owing to poor health care. Her great grandfather, named Palani, moved to Burma and married a Burmese girl owing to which he was denied any rights back home and he chose to make a living in Burma.
Later, she moved to Thailand to fight poverty as a single mother of six. She made use of her unique cuisine skill from her culture and has been selling vada and samosa for fifteen years on the same bridge. She added that she and her daughter are the only two Tamil families in the village and her biggest regret in life is to have not been able to see her motherland.
She also said that her grandchildren (who were running around selling souvenirs) have less opportunity to learn their mother tongue and she tries her best to pass on the tradition and language. That explains why she was overwhelmed to see someone from back home.
She offered more to eat at the end of the conversation and when I intended to pay, she said to consider me her mom, which I couldn’t refuse. She invited me for dinner and said I am free to stay as long as I want at her place when I’m in Sangkla Buri. I don’t remember the last time, someone I met an hour ago, said that to me.
Having faced so much poverty, adversities of losing half of your children to disease, the regret of not being able to go back to homeland and yet how she manages to be so generous and humble is beyond me, not all heroes wear a cape.