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Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Best Of Times, The Worst Of Times.

Every day I walk past where a leather-faced, one-legged woman sits on the footpath. I think of her as old, but she might be my age or she might even be my mother's age. Her skin is so dark. There are several men in pink/orange vests hanging around nearby, drivers for the motor-cycle taxi "stand" under the steps to the elevated crossway. They hog the shade and chat. She sits on a piece of cloth, next to a phone-booth, in the sun. (I count nine public phone booths in this section of footpath.) Her good leg is tucked underneath and her plastic prosthesis is extended into the path to draw attention, but to not block anyone, well not much. She holds her mug out in the stumps of leprosied fingers. Sometimes I drop some coins, 10 or 15Bht, or maybe a 20Bht note into the cup. No-one else does this that I have seen, not even the Buddhist Thais. I am her target demographic.

I take the SkyTrain down to Asok, change to the MTR underground and head to Silom for a day at Chula Hospital. Soldiers in camouflage uniforms, hard black hats with tight chin-straps, large guns, shiny boots and gaiters. There are security gates, metal detectors. One soldier waves me away from the glass-enclosed entrance foyer. All the doors are blocked, save one in the basement of the car-park. He indicates for me to go around. I say no: I must wait for someone here, but he insists. I too insist though I don't have a gun to support my argument. There are some chairs near a drinks machine and some soldiers are taking a rest. I indicate that I will join them, wait here. I take a copy of the IHT out of my Samsonite satchel in order to finish the Sudoku puzzle I had started at the breakfast buffet in The Landmark. The resting soldiers smile and nod hello. One moves over a seat to give me room, moves his AK-47, so polite. The soldier who had tried to get me to go to the other door waves to say it's OK, he smiles. The Royal Niece is upstairs having her goitre removed.

I come back via Siam Station in the early evening, change trains around 6 o'clock. Music plays over a public speaker and thousands of commuters stop, everyone a statue. It seems weird to me, this frozen state, this nationalism.

At the very top of the stairs that I take down from the Nana station is a Sootra juice and herb drinks stall with a display of brightly colored plastic bottles of juices in crushed ice, and more in a refrigerator behind the server. I indicate a bottle of the chilled passion-fruit and beetroot juice, for 20Bht. The server is on her mobile phone, talking. She is only watching me out of the corner of her eye while she places a bottle in a plastic bag and takes the 20Bht note I offer.

At the bottom of the steps another beggar, a much younger woman, is seated. She holds a cup towards me in wai-ing hands and pleads with big eyes. She has a comatose infant draped across her lap. I walk past her, glowering, whatever change I have loose (maybe 20Bht) is still in my pocket. Within a second I feel guilty for my disgust and a second after that, I don't. I was unjustly accusing her with my glare and no doubt it made her feel bad, or maybe not. I know that while it is not her fault that she is so desperately poor that she has been given this drugged child to hold in order to grab at my sympathies and that post-colonial (not that Thailand was ever colonized) guilt, and that neither she nor the child will never see again any of the money that is placed in her cup.

As I slide past the motorcycle-taxi drivers, I hear a cackling laugh up ahead. The drivers are sauntering, hovering from foot to foot, joking with someone. It seems weird too, like there was stand-up routine and I couldn't understand the patter. The cackle is coming from the one-legged beggar, still in her place by the phone-booth. She spoons some curry out of a plastic bag into her toothless mouth, grins gleefully back at her friends, the laughing drivers.

We are all in this together, we all have a role to play, we are all doing our jobs in the Dickensian City of Angels.

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Two years ago in Rangoon, I met a toothpick-thin, boisterous young Burmese man called Somerset. He had conferred this nickname on himself at age sixteen, after renting a collection of stories by W. Somerset Maugham from one of the bookstalls on Pansodan Road. By memorizing sentences from the collection, Somerset taught himself a somewhat formal and archaic English. Then he moved on to Charles Dickens. His identification with the works of these long-dead British writers was total. “All of those characters are me,” Somerset explained. “Neither a British nor American young man living in the twenty-first century can understand a Dickens as well as I can. I am living in a Dickens atmosphere. Our country is at least one or two centuries behind the Western world. My neighborhood—bleak, poor, with small domestic industries, children playing on the street, the parents are fighting with each other, some are with great debt, everyone is dirty. That is Dickens. In that Dickens atmosphere I grew up. I am more equipped to understand Dickens than modern novels. I don’t know what is air conditioning, what is subway, what is fingerprint exam.” Dickens In Lagos - Lapham's Quarterly
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E@L

3 comments:

Tim Footman said...

Thailand was never colonised, so it colonised itself.

expat@large said...

Indeed. And it is still trying to kick itself out, so it can be independent from itself.

scott said...

Phil I need to get up for my 'gasp' first visit to BKK sometime soon. Yes it seems unlikely that a man such as myself has not yet seen that town but it is true.

I will email you for a set up your always helpful cheat notes before I go. Maybe try for a catch up if the timing works.

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