I came to Wajuppa Tossa’s translation of Phadaeng Nang Ai via Bryan Thao Worra’s Demonstra (discussed here, more info here–and it’s even discounted right now, and $7 is a steal!), where it’s mentioned in passing (in an appendix, I think).
What got me curious about it (after I looked it up) was the impression I got that it’s basically an epic about a love triangle involving humans and nagas. Not that Worra’s book was my introduction to nagas, of course. AD&D, Indian movies, and travel in Southeast Asia had previously exposed me to various versions of nagas, from these:
… to this film that the inimitable Ritu Chaudhry showed me during my visit to India (which seems like ages ago, because it was…):
(I’d swear she actually turns into a giant snake at some point in the film, I think, but I can’t find that on Youtube.)
… to temple ornaments like this one, sighted during my visit to Laos in 2008–at least, I think it’s a naga:
However, if you’ve traveled in Laos, or anywhere else in contact with the Mekong River, you’ll probably have seen a lot more nagas that look like this creature, with some odd number of heads (often seven):
Well, depending on where we’re talking about, they’re seen as nature spirits, capricious creatures not to be messed with, vicious forces of national defense (as in Myanmar), or as devoted (if sometimes flawed) Buddhist practitioners. (For example, Worra’s appendix lists a number of nagas listening to Buddha’s sermons and so on.)
If you’re thinking that there’s no way a love triangle involving two humans and one of these creatures could happen, you probably don’t know a crucial detail: nagas are shapeshifters that can assume a variety of forms, including the human one. (Also, I seem to recall that that the multiple heads are supposed to be symbolic, but don’t quote me on that.)
Now, why a naga would want to assume human form is beyond me, mind you. I mean, would you assume iguana or gecko form, if you could? I’m not sure I would. Well, maybe gecko, occasionally; gecko feet are amazing. But I would not be up for lounging around as an iguana occasionally. If I were a naga, I’m not sure I’d want to take the form of a hairless monkey, either…Except, I suppose, that hairless monkeys are relatively interesting, what with their having developed rudimentary technology and language and culture. Maybe nagas just found humans interesting?
But, well, anyway, Phadaeng Nang Ai isn’t really about a love triangle involving a naga. It involves a love triangle, or some sort of multifaceted love polygon (or, perhaps it’s a love tesseract or something? karma, dharma, and reincarnation sort of complexify things), but that’s not what the narrative is really about. Still, it’s worth adjusting your expectations and checking out a copy, if you can find one. (Maybe at the library? I don’t know whether I’ll be rereading my copy, to be honest, except for the stuff about Thai-Isaan verse, which is bizarre and fascinating, and which I’ll discuss a little below. If you do want to buy it, though, astonishingly, Barnes & Noble seems to have new copies of the hardback available; I got mine off Abebooks.)
What was I saying? Ah, yes: it’s not really about the conflict over love, not fundamentally anyway…