Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Politician by Khamsing Srinawk

My friend and I were walking around the backpacker's ghetto of Khao San in Bangkok about two weeks ago. The area is great for vegan fare and also a real hotspot if you ever want to come to an exotic country to buy stupid souvenoirs from Thais and or get your hair braided. The area is a dump, however it does offer a few used bookstores. Sadly books out here are expensive, and even more disappointing is the lack of translated Thai literature, if only Thailand had been colonized.

While I was there I picked up a collection of stories by Srinawk. The collection of stories is largely set in rural Thailand, which while making up the majority of the landscape of the nation does not usually factor into the spectacular image of the tourist haven. When people think of Thailand they think of Bangkok and beaches.

Set in the countryside the stories grapple with issues of modernity, gender, and the ever intruding presence of foreigners.

My friend and I sat down on a bench nearby the backpacker's ghetto. She laid down while I sat up reading the book aloud. Nearby boats shuttled down the Chao Phraya river and the yellow shirts headquarter, with its netted garb, churned out ideas to invoke the masses. The introductory story, over twenty years old still has resonance and impact. Not only does it speak of the ambiguous relationship of Thai citizens to their representatives, and the emptiness of democracy but also of the timeless quality of those relationships.

Thailand is gearing up for another election. The prime minister is calling for elections in the fall. It is worried that the red shirts party Peua Thai will oust the current administration. When the nation's television satellite was disrupted for a few hours, everyone throughout the nation assumed that a coup d'etat was in process...

Whatever happens in Thailand in the next few decades, years, months, we can safely assume that politics will always be the same shameful repetition that it always is.

The Politician

by Khamsin Srinawk

The shadows of the soaring pines falling across the rough road had shrunk in size to a couple of yards. The market-place was quiet as usual at this time of the day. Once in a while a bicycle passed. Under the overhanging roofs thickly coated with dust a few groups of country folk were walking. Now and again shouts emerged from the cafe on the corner but the passers-by paid no attention since everyone knew that of all those who might be tipsy any time any season, who else would it be but Kerhn or, as he was known around town, Professor Kehrn, and his three or four hangers-on. To tell the truth, they weren't a bad bunch. If rowdy, it was usually when each had drunk enough to be stewed, and Kerhn, the leader, wasn't a debauched outsider. On the contrary, he had risen to be abbot of the local temple. He had reached the second of the three levels of Dharma studies, his religious duties were well performed and he was respected by the faithful. Had he remained in orders, it is not impossible he would have risen to be chief monk of the district. But alas, nothing is permanent. The belief of the devout, especially devout women, in the Sacred Teaching often becomes in time belief in a particular monk. When that happens, if the religiously inclined woman doesn't become a nun, the monk finds some reason to put aside the yellow robe. Abbot Kerhn was no exception. Among the devout women who enjoyed going to the temple, but not to listen to preaching, was a widow named Wan Im. Before long, as everyone expected, the abbot left monastery and robe and moved into Wan Im's house where it was understood that they lived together as husband and wife. They lived quietly for some years but then, though her heart was unwilling, disease took Wan Im away. Grief converted the former prelate. The chagrin, instead of dissipating in heavy drink as he had hoped, swelled. Several times people saw him weep aloud in the middle of the market-place.

His wife's financial status having been assured from lending out money since she was young, Kerhn had enough for food and liquor for a long time to come. Later, when Kwahn and Koi, disciples from the days when he was a monk, joined him, the ex-abbot became chief of the band the townsfolk characterized as 'long-time mokns, big time louts.'

'Professor, you've no idea just what a mess the country is in. Pibun and Pao have flown off to goodness knows where,' he said as he pulled up a stool to the table. The three turned to him attentively.

'It's a big mess all right,' Koi mumbled drunkenly. 'Maybe this is what the bigmouths were blowing about at election time. What did they say, Professor?' he said, poking his face at Kerhn. '”Cracy, cracy something”.'

'Democracy, nut! Not “cracy”,' Kerhn said severely, They call it a “democratic coup d'etat” see. You have to have a lot of coups d'etat. Otherwise it isn't democracy.' He continued showing off his knowledge. 'You're stupid. If you don't know, keep quiet. I know because at the last election the district officer and provincial governor came to me on bended knees begging me to be a chief canvasser for their boss.'

'Eh, true!' Kwahn put in. 'The Professor and I really gave it to them. No one had the nerve to speak. Now there's going to be another election of people's representatives, isn't there?' he added gleefully.

Gurt put the glass down, brought his stool closer to the table and shook his head two or three times. 'Election for sure. I heard the bunch up at the provincial office spreading it around that it was time to get some service points again by going out and having the people knuckle to.'

The wind puffed a cloud of red dust from the road into the shophouse. Falling pine needles pattered on to the tin roof.

'I have an idea,' Koi spoke up again. 'If they need representatives, why don't you run, Professor?'

'Ha! You've got something there,' Gurt backed him up.

Koi, gathering enthusiasm, half stood up from his stool and continued in a loud voice. 'Because... um... because the Professor is a great man. He has money and no children to worry him. Wealth is corrupting, so why hang on to it? That's dead right, isn't it Kwahn?'

The person questioned assented with a slow nod of his head.

'Easy dammit. You're looking for trouble.' Kerhn turned to him annoyed.

'They say these representatives are really big. Bigger than village heads; bigger than county chiefs, bigger than district officers, bigger than provincial governors, and what really matters, bigger than the police. Now that's it. You can do anything. Booze, beat up anyone, kick the Chinese in the pants. Who could stop you? You could get even with that bloody Police Sergeat Haut. Just yesterday we laced into each other at the poker game at the chief's house behind the police station.'

Kerhn listened intently to Kwahn rave. He chuckled, wagging his head like a tall bell tower swaying in the first storms of the rainy season. He muttered, 'This here Kwahn doesn't know what he's talking about. I used to be a chief canvasser for the provincial governor. Now I know that anyone who gets to be a representative has to be an important person. Really knowledgeable about money matters.' He paused for a second to reach for his glass of whisky, then took a gulp. 'Even as we are, people say we're bad. You know, if it wasn't because I have some money and did some bullying to help the big guys at the last election, by now the police would have done me in.' He fixed his eyes on Kwahn. 'I can't even be a decent person myself, how could I represent anybody else?'

'That's not right, Professor. I think to be a representative nowadays you've got to be a hooligan, shout a lot, and put people off by cursing their families right back to their great grandfathers. You the bunch running for office last time: no better than us ruffians, shouting around, swearing in the middle of the street. Even if we are a little wild, there are only a few of us. That last crowd of representatives brought in a pack of robbers, hundreds of them. That's why I think the Professor is great for being a representative.'

'It's not easy. I used to be a canvasser. I know.'

'That's it. That's just it! You can be a vote-getter for others. What makes you think you can't be a vote-getter for yourself? Give it a try, Professor, give it a try.' He patted Kerhn on the back. 'If anything goes very wrong, we'll punch them up. So what? Our fists are pretty well known around here.'

'But... ,' the voice of the Professor softened. 'But what will I say to them? I hear those people hungry for office blabbering, lying, boasting of a million and one things. People like me, even if I am a drunk … I was a monk, I studied, if you want me to lie and crow … well, it sticks in my throat.'

Kwahn called for some more whisky. The whooshing of the wind across the tin roof blotted out the whistling of the pines. Whisky gurgled faintly into the glasses. At almost the same moment, each of the four reached for his and drank. Their expressions and eyes were thoughful.

'Golly,' Kwahn groaned softly. 'Professor, you're making too much of this. How hard can it be? I could be elected if I had the money. You lambaste them. You can point your finger in their faces and give them hell.'

'If things go wrong, we'll smash them into the ground,' Koi interjected. 'We're local people. The folks around know what we can do. The odds are with us. Put up a fight. Look Professor, the more they say these representatives are bigger than the police, the more it's worth a go. How many times has Sergeant Huat pushed us around? Maybe it's our turn now.'

Outside the shop, the sun was dazzling. The grey gravel covering the road reflected the light like the scales of those plaster serpents decorating temple steps. Bicycles were passing by. Kerhn stared down the road that thrust straight into the dense forest. The surrounding mountains were faintly visible in the flames of sunshine. His head nodded drunkenly again as a dark green bicycle steadily approached.

'Eh, if it isn't Sergeant Haut.' Kerhn popped to his feet. 'Hey Sarg, I'm a representative. What do you think of that!'

Bicycle brakes screeched.

'Drunk again. Go home. Making a commotion, disturbing the people. I'll haul you off to the police station in a minute.'

Crestfallen, Kerhn dropped back on his bench staring after the grey shirt until it disappeared around a corner at the end of the market-place.

'That's the ticket, Professor,' a voice piped up. 'This isn't the first time Sergeant Haut's bit the dust.'

'In fact we take turns. Sometimes him, sometimes me,' Kerhn mused faintly.

The news that Mr. Kerhn Kianrak, more commonly known as Professor Kerhn, would run for election as a people's representative spread quickly from the end of the market at the beginning of the road right up to the provincial administration building. Government officials split their sides with laughter but the common folk knew only that a candidate had to be obliging and generous and good at passing out whisky, cigarettes and even money, and had to like loud talk about things no one knew anything about, and well … Professor Kerhn seemed fully qualified.

On the day fixed for the nomination of candidates, Kerhn filed his papers, accompanied by Kwahn, Koi and Gurt. No difficulties were encountered. Kerhn paid the deposit of 3,000 baht and handed in a number of photographs taken when he had just left the monastery. From that day on, the little market-place of this frontier province perked up. Cars of various shapes and sizes managed to make their way to the province and helter-skeltered from one corner of the town to the other. For this election, there were almost ten candidates including former government officials, lawyers, titled bigwigs anad grad city folks, most of them from the capital and neighboring provinces. Only Kerhn was a native of the province.

Reputations for handing out money, whisky, tobacco and food established by the last crop of candidates and the lack of farming to be done because it was the dry season brough a heavy stream of people down from the distant hills. The numbers grew with the approach of election day. Night after night the candidates showed their movies, some nights only one show taking place, but on others as many as three stands would compete with one another. Candidates proclaimed their virture as though they were supermen. The crowds milled around noisily from group to group watching to see if anything was being given away and if disappointed would move on to a another circle. It seemed even more festive than the annual fair. Kerhn and his cronies floated drunkenly with the rest of the crowd. He didn't have a chance to make speeches and if he did, wouldn't have known what to say. Thee most he could manage was to make disturbances as things went along. But even that didn't go over so well because the people, still hoping the candidates would hand out money and fearing Kerhn would jeopardize the opportunity, became menacing. One night, two groups of candidates set up their platforms, projectors and screens in different corners of the field. Each of the office-seekers boasted of his boldness, ability, honors, infinite qualifications. Some boasted of having built roads, wells, monasteries and even lavatories. One volunteered to construct houses, plant gardens, build schools and hospitals. The people looked on with interest. Kerhn invited four or five buddies to start shouting from nearby.

'NO GOOD! SHUT UP! NONSENSE! NO...' Before the word was out of him, Kerhn realized he was flat on his back from the force of somebody's fist to which was added a growl, 'We're all waiting for money so what the hell are you shouting for?'

Kerhn, his mouth and ears swollen, an eye closed, staggered towards home with his friends, dejected. 'It looks bad,' he muttered to his cronies while swaying down the road. That night all except Kerhn slept in a stupor. The force of the blow earlier that evening forced his mind to search for a way to get the better of them. He rubbed his mouth and groaned softly, but before dropping off to sleep, smiled.

At dawn, Kerhn, still groggy, got up and staggering a few steps forward stumbled over Kwahn, kicking him lightly in the middle of the back.

'Kwahn, get up, get up Kwahn.'

Kwahn turned over and bracing himself with both hands against the floor reached a sitting position but then fell over again. On the third try he stayed up and squinted about. 'You sure are skinny, Professor,' he mumbled while fishing about for a water bowl. 'Must be from too much drink and not enough sleep.'

'None of your flattery. Nothing physical is permanent.'

Kwahn pulled Koi up from his sleep. The cloudless morning was chilly, the mist tumbling with the pale sunshine. Kerhn looked at his two followers, his eyes showing fatigue.

'Koi, Kwahn,' he started slowly, 'I have found the way to do the loud mouths in. I know that most of the crowd have come because they think money is going to be handed out.' He stroked the still swollen parts of his face. 'So if you go around the market-place and tell everyone that if they want to get money, come to my house. Tell them I'll take them to get the money myself.'

As soon as his henchmen were out of the house, Kerhn went back to sleep. Later in the day he awoke, delighted to find the house was filled with noise and people. He tiptoed over to a crack in the wall to peep out at them: a real crowd, even more than he expected. His face dirty, his clothes wrinkled from sleeping, he stepped outside. Kwahn and Koi led the people with two loud hurrahs. The people echoed them with a roar. Kerhn yelled at the top of his voice, 'All right, all right, my brethren.' Interest focused. 'Now, there are a number of good people with money. They come here wanting to be our representatives...' A brief pause to gather breath. 'They all say they're going to build roads, dig canals, build us schools. Things like that they can do.' Brief pause. 'But compare those things to money, which do we want?' Fan an instant the question hung in the air.

'We want money, we want money, money, money moneeee,' the cry resounded from rank to rank filling the crowd.

'Good, excellent. We've got to go and get the money from them. They can build streets and roads. They need money to do it. They must have money. Where are they, where are they?' he asked provocatively.

'At the hotel, they're at the hotel, the lot of them,' returned the shouts from the crowd.

'All right, let's go!' Kerhn jumped from the porch, but fell over on his face from exhaustion of the previous night's adventures, arms and legs askew in a billow of dust and drawing a good laugh from the mob. He got up quickly, brushed the dust off and strode resolutely in front. A thousand people stretched in a long turbulent procession behind him heading for the small hotel, the only one in town.

Seeing a herd of people approaching, the group at the hotel with the politicians' instinct scurried to dress themselves as befits their dignity. Some quickly pinning on their medals and decorations, in full dress, throats twitching, gave orders to their people to connect the loudspeakers. 'Hey, hurry up, looks like they're really coming this way. See what I mean. The stupidity of the people really pays: it's like a pot of gold.' Some jumped for their beds and began practising gestures for their speeches.

Villagers, who hadn't an idea of what was going on, carried and dragged their kids along into the crowd. The whole body of astonished government officials dropped their work ot look on from the sides. The candidates formed a line in front of the hotel. Kerhn walked straight to them.

'We want to come to an agreement with you honourable representatives,' he began.

'With great pleasure,' the oldest one replied bowing until his body looked like an old shrimp at the end of the rainy season. 'If there is anything at all we can do for you, we will represent you to the best of our ability.' A broad smile pushed out his ruddy jowls as he led the whole group in a bow.

'What have you got to give us?'

'Whatever is the desire of the people of our province, whatever will serve the welfare of the people of our province, that will I do for my fellows until my last breath,' replied a young one at the end of the row winding up with a little bow which brought the others down in little bows.

Without hesitation, Kerhn yelled at his loudest, 'MONEEE, WE WANT MONEY!'

The crowd took up Kerhn's cry.

'Money, we've come for money!' The words reverberated over and over again. 'Money, money.'

The candidates fidgeted. Drops of sweat broke out. Some tried to state their policies and aims. Some began to praise their own past activities and offered plans for the future. But the increasing demands for money prevented them all from finishing. The old noble who had dragged his shrivelled body up from the capital fainted to the delighted cheers of the crowd. Those who tried to speak crumpled their notes in fustration.

The cries grew deafening as Kerhn firmly made his way to the microphone and gestured to the mass.

'All you faithful believers, you've seen for yourselves they're a lot of wind. They'll do everything for us, but how can they do anything when all we do is ask for money and they don't have any to give us? When that's the way it is, how can we believe them? How can we elect them?' His voice was emphatic.

'These fellows who are running for office come from different ranks and classes. That one over there is a knight.' He pointed his finger. 'The next one over there is a sir. And the one next to him is a lawyer. The old one there who almost died a minute ago is a noble. That one there who's hung a lot of magic charms on his chest is a general. All you faithful, decide for yourselves who you are going to elect. Now I used to be a canva... er, that is, I used to go to Bangkok. Now I'll tell you something. A lot of you probably don't know what a knight, a sir and so forth are. Well, I'll tell you. A knight looks after horses and also sometimes feeds and waters chickens, ducks and elephants. They do it at night. I know because I've been to Bangkok. A sir we ought to speak to as 'Sire', and we know that sires are kept for our mares that don't have any foals yet. As for this noble, I have my doubts about him. What kind of noble doesn't wear his proper robes? Maybe he's an ignoble noble.' He stopped to swallow his saliva.

'That one over there who loves those toys is a general. Take a look. Pinning a row of seashells on his chest. Those people are childish. They like toys just like our children. The one who's sneaking away, he's a lawyer, someone who likes trouble where he finds it. No money to give him and you land in jail.'

The crowd listened in astonished silence. Kerhn was still for an instant and then continued.

'Dear friends, the others have done a lot of talking. Today, listen to me. I'm a candidate too. Who was it a little while ago who said he really knows us, really knows our poverty and troubles? Ask him. Brethren ask him. Does he know how many acres we have? Does he know what we eat with our rice in the morning? Believe me, he doesn't know. Empty talk. Now take me. I'll do anything you want. Kick a dog, bash somebody's head in. Anyone you don't like, tell me. Er... uh.' As his eyes lit on Sergeant Huat standing at the side, his voice tempered. 'What I just said … in fact I never did anything like that. I'll end here. Amen. May you have long life, good looks and health, and may the Triple Gems help me become a people's representative.'

From that day, Kerhn's reputation flourished among the people while the other candidates dodged public meetings to avoid the taunts. Some, losing their nerve, fled back to Bangkok.

Election day came and passed without incident. The official results were announced a little past eight in the evening. Soon after, Sergeant Haut rushed breathlessly up to the duty officer at the police station.

'Now I'm in for it, sir,' the poor policeman gasped. 'Mr. Kerhn, he was drunk and raising a row in the market. I locked him up here since morning and now he's the people's representative. I'm not going to be in this district for long, that's for sure.' His voice was tinged with alarm.

'That's bad. That's really bad. Have you released him yet?' the duty officer asked, lifting his eyes from the daily reports. But Sergeant Haut had already vanished.

The duty officer then walked over and opened the cell door. The three of them were sprawled on the floor sleeping. The stench of vomit mixed with other filth wafted out. Locating Kerhn, the officer reached out to shake him lightly but swiftly withdrew his hand when he found his target covered with vomit. He grumbled to himself and used his foot instead, nudging Kerhn gently.

'Sir, sir, mister, hey Kerhn, Kerhn.'

'Huh,' Kerhn drawled. 'Where am I? Give me some water.' He screwed up his eyes. 'Black as pitch.'

'It's night already. You can leave, sir. Please wake up those two gentleman.'

'Eh, who are you talking to, lieutenant?' Kerhn asked bewildered.

'I'm talking to the honourable representative, sir. Please leave. The election is over now.'

Kerhn took some time to wake up the other two, then all three crawled outside. Each drank a bowl of water offered by the police, walked unsteadily out of the police station and disappeared in the darkness. Kerhn still kept to himself the news heard a moment before from the police. His ears were ringing with the words 'honourable representative' spoken with humility by the authorities who had for so long bullied him. The three bumbled through the blackness in silence and crawled up the stairs to the house. Kwahn and Koi flopped down at once and went back to sleep by the stairs. Kerhn rested, his brain agitated but confused. The drunkenness had vanished. He felt airy, as if disembodied. He began to think of things he had never though of before, of the words 'people's representative'. He though of Gurt's words spoken in the cafe. 'A representative is bigger than the district officer, bigger than the provincial governor.' Apart from that he knew nothing. Was that all? Doubt welled. Surely there was something more because he knew that every people's representative had to go to Bangkok. But they must have more to do than just go to the capital. Kerhn began to reflect on Bangkok and its crazy bigness. Didn't this mean he had to go there to live, separated from his own people in a different kind of life? Now what would that be like? The outlook wasn't bright any more. Kerhn had been to Bangkok once when still a monk. He tried to recall the name of the temple where he had stayed but couldn't. The failure preyed on his mind. Anxiety increased as he recollected a picture of a previous representative cloaked outlandishly in a jacket that looked like a whole blanket, with a silly rag dangling from his neck. He mumbled to himself, 'What a fool. You don't know when you're well off.'

The moon and constellations sank in the sky. 'Whew, this world is sure getting hot for me,' he exclaimed to himself. As he went to get a drink of water, the neighbour's roosters crowed their announcement of dawn. Kerhn was afraid of the daybreak. Bleakness was creeping in with it. The bushes and trees were beginning to have an outline. In that instant he made up his mind. Kwahn and Koi were dead asleep. He disappeared into the house for a second and returned, casting a glance and a sigh at his two disciples. Finally, he tiptoed past them, went out of the house and headed straight for the market-place, nothing in mind like a mechanical doll. At the head of the road at the end of the market area he saw a standing truck and heard three people making a noise, so he drifted over. Two young fellows faced him as if he were some night pilferer but beckoning asked for a hand to push the stalled vehicle. In a few words Kerhn learned that the truck was carrying rice and other goods across the border. He helped at once and in a second the engine fired and the truck disappeared in the direction of the glow on the horizon.

No one saw Mr. Kerhn again. No one in the province knows where he has gone. Those who knew turned out to be the reporters from the Bangkok newspapers. Several of the papers ran the story that a fearless representative of the people had his mouth closed by a dark power and that his body was thrown over a cliff for the vultures to pick at. The news item was accompanied by a photo of vultures under white clouds.

Now the little province is busy again. Every day fancy cars of the big boys from Bangkok investigating this mysterious case arrive and take back to the city a policeman or two. One car just went off this morning carrying away Sergeant Huat mutter, 'Damn, now I've had it.'

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