Chasing Tum Teav

Thu 23 December 2010

I've been searching for the story of Tum Teav. Tum Teav ("tum TAY-o") is a traditional story that's part of the national curriculum for seventh graders. I was told every Cambodian knows it, so I should know who they were.

Tum was a promising young novice monk. Teav was a beautiful village girl. They met, fell in love, and planned to be married. Teav's mother had greater ambitions, and secretly betrothed Teav to the governor's son. She tricked Teav into showing up for the wedding ceremony. Tum appealed to the King, who wrote an order that Tum and Teav should be married. Tum tried to stop the wedding, but the governor killed him. Teav killed herself, and the King killed the governor's entire family and enslaved the village for disregarding his orders. Good stuff!

I'm told the moral of the story used to be that it's best to follow your parents' wishes. Now it's a lesson that you should follow your heart.

I wanted more details than my coworker could give me. My questions are akin to him quizzing me on Tom Sawyer - I remember the overall plot, but after (mumble mumble) years I can't explain Aunt Polly's true motivations in taking him in, or appraise the long-term viability his relationship with Becky Thatcher. I started looking for a more detailed summary online.

The Wikipedia summary looks questionable in a couple places. It claims that when Tum returned to the village, he got drunk and planted a big, sloppy kiss on Teav in public. The angry villagers killed him for behaving so shamefully. I am told this isn't how the story goes, and it doesn't sound like what a good storyteller would make his hero do if he wants the audience to feel badly about his death. The Wikipedia article also says Tum put some inappropriate moves on Teav. Would a nice novice monk have done that? Are we talking about flirty banter or serious footsies?

Most of the Google results plagarized the Wikipedia article. Amazon's listing for a scholarly book by George Chigas didn't have a "Look Inside" preview. The Documtation Center of Cambodia's link to the electroncic edition was broken. UPenn's library limits access to their copy to patrons. Finally, I went to the local bookstore and asked if they had an English version, or a very simple children's version. They giggled a lot, but had none. I suppose they don't get many requests. Either you read it in school or you're a foreigner and haven't heard of it.

My last-ditch plan was to submit a request to the Boston Public Library reference desk. As I was documenting all the steps I'd taken, I finally stumbled over another copy of the electronic edition. ( I attribute the discovery to the awesome power of reference librarians. They don't even need to receive the question.)

So now I've got the PDF on my Kindle, queued up for the weekend, and a hankering for the West Side Story soundtrack. If you'd like to join the Tum Teav book club, you can get your own copy here.

For my next trick, I'll manifest an online Cambodian etymological dictionary, in any language or format that I can understand.

Category: Culture

Tags: cambodia /