Pira Sudham is probably Thailand's best known Thai writer in the English language. Below are some reviews of his work plus a piece from the author.
The Monsoon People
A great number of the people of Isan, the northeastern region of Thailand, evicted from their properties and those escaping from poverty to improve their lives in Thailand’s large cities and lucrative seaside resorts, become street food sellers, labourers, taxi drivers, workers in factories, slaves in sweatshops, servants and prostitutes. Some luckier ones are boxers or employees in offices or married rich spouses, Thai or foreign. Some try to hide from their new friends and colleagues that they are from despicable Isan, being ashamed of their Lao tongue and ignoble origins. A large number of Isan Lao in exile do not want to return home.
Poverty, drought, debt, land becoming more barren or damaged by saline waste water from open salt mines, rivers becoming highly polluted from toxic waste released from factories, land lost through debt, gambling or forced evictions to make way for the construction of dams or for large-scale eucalyptus plantations to enable investors to develop and expand the pulp and paper industry, disperse more than ten millions of Isaners from their homes and farmlands.
Furthermore a large number of unfortunate children of the destitute are taken by brokers to slave in sweatshops, factories, or in brothels.
To become a writer and a voice of the voiceless, Pira Canning Sudham embarked on a long meandering road. He was in the second year of the Faculty of Arts of Chulalongkorn University when he won a New Zealand government scholarship to study English literature at the University of Auckland, and consequently at Victoria University in Wellington.
“I owe a great deal to New Zealand for giving me a chance to learn from a new school and a new method. It is a sheer contrast to the Thai way, which is mainly reciting and memorizing lessons and texts, a method known as rote learning. In New Zealand I learned how to think, to form and voice opinions, to discuss ideas and to ask questions,” claimed Sudham. “I also learned a process of reasoning, which is not taught to the majority of Thai children from the beginning. I wondered why, as a child and as a student in Thailand, I had to be blindly obedient and absolutely voiceless. Perhaps if I had learned how to think, and think profoundly and critically, I might have had a mind of my own,having my own ideas and views and asking questions. On the other hand, I might have been branded konhuakaeng, meaning ‘hard-headed man’, posing a threat to the authorities and the despots who had an awesome power over the Thai people at the time. Thailand then was like Burma now. But unfortunately,we Thais did not have a most courageous lady to be our fortitude like Burma now has.”
After New Zealand, Pira Canning Sudham read English literature in Australia. At night he wrote his first novel, Monsoon Country, and short stories and poems. From 1975 to 1978 he moved to England, saving himself and the manuscripts from the brutal political changes in Thailand. His first book, Siamese Drama (which has the new title of Tales of Thailand in subsequent editions) did not appear until 1983, followed by People of Esarn in1987, Monsoon Country in 1988 and The Force of Karma in 2002.
In New Zealand, Australia and the U.K., Pira Canning Sudham experienced the Western way of life. “I grew up mentally outside Thailand,” he admitted. “I did not know how to reason or the process of reasoning until I lived with a New Zealand family, observing how the parents logically answered their curious children’s questions. I learned such a process along with the children. I am grateful for not remaining a child in an adult body like many Thai politicians and leaders. However, parts of my mind, during the formative years, had already been crippled by the age-old authoritarian education system that enforces rote learning which brings about mindlessness. I wanted to make up for this by developing my mind.”
In so doing, he stayed as long as possible in England ‘to learn more, hear more,think deeply and finish The Force of Karma.’
After so many years abroad, Sudham could no longer resist the call of his beloved Isan to where he eventually returned to relive his rural Isan life. A team of village carpenters built him a modest wooden house at the edge of Nong Eso Hamlet,on the piece of land on which he was born. It is surrounded by mango trees and banana clumps and bamboo groves left untended after his father dismantled the family’s old house to rebuild it on another plot of land in a nearby village of Baan Nondaeng.
“Grandparents passed on to us tales and folklore as well as stories of their search for an arable area to where they would migrate. Here, lodged deep in my heart, are memories of childhood, of filial ties, piety as well as the age-old suffering and primeval bitterness. I also remember winsome faces of young girls who stayed several years to learn by heart ballads and songs my father, who was a poet in his own right, composed for them so they could become mohlams, Isan folk singers.”
Of his father, the author reflected: “If he had been born in the U.K., he might have become one of the cherished British poets. Even in the quagmire of a forlorn Isan village he managed to pull himself out of illiteracy when there was no school in his young days. He told me that, at the age of 15, while ploughing a paddy-field, he saw several boys his age walk towards the Buddhist monastery. Shouting a question as to where they were heading, he learned that they were going to attend a class at the sala. There, the abbot would teach them to read and write. So the eager plough boy ran after them. But when the old peasant found out that his son had deserted the paddy-field with the plough still tied to the buffalo, he went after the deserter, beat him and took him back to toil on the land.
“Not until Father became a monk at the age of 22, did he have the chance to learn to read and write from the old abbot. When he disrobed after the customary three months, he began writing ballads for folk singers. In later years he became a schoolteacher, setting up a primary school to teach the young while continuing to compose ballads and coach young men and women to be professional folk singers. He had been a prolific poet as well as a sage and a champion of the downtrodden, helping the poor in trouble and in litigation,fighting against injustice and venality. It was amazing that he managed to live through dangerous times to the ripe old age of 94 though he had almost died from being poisoned while ten dedicated Isan schoolteachers had been murdered by hired gunmen.
“Father gave me a gift of poetry and an impetus to write and the stamina to fight on in his place. If there is any regret, it is a sense of loss that my mother, who passed away at the age of 83, remained illiterate all her days, that she could not read my letters and that I had not received any from her.
“I thought that I could strive for some happiness in reliving a bucolic life in rural Isan in order to pick up where Father had left off. One learns in time to compromise past experiences of decency, fair play and freedom with scarcity,injustice, graft and the fear for one’s life. Yet the irony is that all the bitterness and anger and sorrow suffered in childhood are being experienced allover again. For now the lords and masters and the tycoons and their international networks have vastly increased. They are far more rapacious and powerful than before. They have gained monopolies, concessions, public lands and forest reserves, plundering the country, destroying the forests by logging and then claiming the land for private commercial purposes and making the soil, canals and rivers saline and polluted with chemical waste and effluent released from factories. Some of them should be held responsible for using cancer-causing dyestuff and harmful antibiotics banned in Europe in poultry and aquatic farming.Alas, they enjoy impunity and become year by year greater and greedier, more diversified with global collaborating networks and high power.
“I observe how the subjugated rural dwellers, kept in ignorance and subservience, become easy victims to the awesome tycoons and venal men in high offices,” said Sudham. “They do not seem to care that by destroying for short-term gain they do much harm to the land and its indigenous people for centuries to come.”
D. A. Housman, East Sussex, U.K.
The Kingdom in Conflict
Pira Canning Sudham’s literary works, People of Esarn, Tales of Thailand, Monsoon Country and its sequel The Force of Karma are quintessentially about Thailand in conflict.&
He speaks on behalf of the impoverished people of Isan, Thailand’s most economically and politically disadvantaged regions. He claimed: “Life in Isan is subject partly to the mercy of nature – drought, floods, diseases and scarcity– and partly to the price suppression of agricultural produce and wages. To escape these predicaments millions of our able men and women venture to seek opportunities abroad. Those who cannot afford to pay in advance the abominably high fees to employment agencies to work overseas have to be satisfied with jobs in Thailand’s factories and sweatshops or being drivers of trucks, taxis or fume-belching three-wheelers that choke the streets of Bangkok. Tens of thousands of Isaners in exile eke out their living, selling food on footpaths or work as servants in homes of the well-to-do or in restaurants, bars, nightclubs and brothels. With endurance, the majority of the Isan people tend to accept fate as something they cannot alter. Such acceptance stems from a belief in palangkam,the force of karma – our deeds done in past lives. Thus in this life we reap the results or retribution of what we previously committed.
“One appreciates good heartedness and silent endurance and deplores the submissiveness and illiteracy of the majority of Isaners as opposed to the selfishness,cruelty and arrogance of unscrupulous shopkeepers, ruthless middlemen and harsh employers.
“What I saw and experienced in childhood immensely influenced me. As a result,I tend to sympathize with the poor, the powerless, the suppressed and the much-maligned,whose lives are under the no-win situation. Fortunately there are many lucky ones who, by hook or by crook or sheer luck are rescued by foreigners from the seething morass, from the soul-destroying bars, nightclubs and brothels. Those saviours may be farang admirers, some of whom have elevated the rescued to be their wives or husbands as the case may be or as friends or partners. In some cases, the rescuers take them out and away from Thailand to live in Europe or Australia or in the U.S.A.
“Those farang rescuers pose as a contrast to those who exploit and suppress the poor, the ignorant and the powerless, keeping them voiceless and subservient and in dire needs or, in some cases, in sweatshop and in brothels --a proven method to ensure great authority over the abundant work force and the easy-to-govern populace.”
Sudham also declares that he wants to find a niche in literature for the impoverished people of Isan so that they would not live voicelessly and defenselessly and then die in vain.
In fulfilling this commitment, the author remains honest about the positive and negative aspects of Isan life. Even as he celebrates the religious rituals and life-cycles which imbue Thai rural living with coherence and calmness, the writer exposes various forms of corruption, the lure of the cities, the shame many displaced Isaners feel about their ignoble birth and the Lao language. He pertains to the ambiguities of change and the revolutionary dream, which lingers after the October 1973, October 1976 and May1992 massacres of pro-democracy protesters in the streets of Bangkok.
While Pira Canning Sudham can confidently appeal to the natural and religious symbolism, which is still an integral aspect of rural life, he depicts his people with the objective detachment of a social realist. He also draws on the wealth of autobiographical material, particularly in creating characters and narrators who are positioned within a process of transition.
There is a village boy who, because his parents offer him to a Buddhist monk in one of Bangkok’s numerous monasteries, bravely makes efforts to improve his station in life. He attends classes at the temple school, wins a scholarship to study in England and eventually renounces the surface pleasures of European culture to return home and attempt a difficult reintegration. Back in Isan, he belongs uneasily, yet dedicates himself to helping his people. Oddly, this Thai writer who has, in his life as in his masterpiece, Monsoon Country, returned to his village called Napo, writes literary works in English.
Pira Canning Sudham’s writing is imbued with symbols of Isan. This region confines its people within its own ambivalence. Isan is a place of happy,innocent children, but also of petty, brutal officials and local chowporor godfathers. It is a place of patience, but also passivity, of people attuned to the cycles of nature, but also resigned to be neither happy nor unhappy.This ambivalence prevents Sudham’s Esarn from becoming a sentimental or conservative symbol. In fact the narrative positioning quite often ensures that this Esarn is not seen as a simple home but as a place of change in which characters and narrators are trying to fashion some wisdom from their balance of grief and gain.
Any chance that Pira Canning Sudham’s Esarn might function as a nostalgic symbol is swiftly dispelled by stories that expose the sinister side,which includes child trade and slavery in Bangkok’s numerous brothels and sweatshops.In Two Boys of Soka, a story in Tales of Thailand, Dan, a six-year old boy, attempting to interpret and appease the land’s thirst for sacrifice, accidentally kills himself, hoping thereby to summon rain and so prevent his friend, Kum, from being sold into child prostitution. Even as he brings about his death, Dan discovered that the land is merciless and loses his innocent worldview.
There seemed to be so much of the cynicism in life, the universal suffering,sorrow, cruelty, the primeval bitterness and the futility of all things.
Dan dies without receiving any sign that his sacrifice has been redemptive. There is, in fact, a prevailing sense that his sacrifice has more to do with blind necessity than with freedom, emerging from the helplessness and ignorance,which give characteristics to the Isan experience.
A great deal of narrative sympathy is devoted to the figures of the ageing parents whose children have disappeared into cities. One example of this is Enduring Esarn Life. Not only are the farmer and his wife left with the work, but also with the feeling that their wisdom is dying with them. Observing how religious and social customs are deteriorating, even in rural Thailand, the wife recalls how the traditions of land and religion once supported her life.
Our lives then seemed to have a kind of code that bound us together and we could goby what our parents and grandparents handed down to us.
Even so, her life is made coherent as much by resignation as by ritual. She invokes the buffaloes to symbolize her acceptance of necessity and accepts that she is ‘neither happy nor unhappy’. Her husband invests the land with peace,which he also discovers in Buddhism. Yet, for all its resignation, this narrative is also a separated one – the wife and the farmer confide to the reader what they do not communicate to each other; how much each wants the return of their children. This narrative structure reveals the loneliness and helplessness hidden by the polite face, which they show during most of their narration.
Sudham’s work is sensitive to the ambiguity of its polite-faced narratives,knowing that there is a pragmatic version of innocence, which cultivates the appearance of calm, even ignorance, as a way of avoiding harsher realities. In From Esarn to Germany, a bar-girl, who married a farangcustomer and moved to Hamburg, tries to convince herself that she is content,that she is no longer treated with contempt. On the contrary she has a chance to elevate above the state of being sub-human and, more pragmatically, she realizes that a future in Germany could not be worse than her previous life.Gradually, she reveals how she was taken from her village and forced into prostitution and how she resents the complacency and corruption which allowed this to happen.
Pira Canning Sudham has not produced any literary works in Thai. Writing in English, he aims not only to give the English reader insights into Thai life, but also to give significance to the lives of the poor in rural Thailand so that ‘they do not come into this world to merely exist, suffer and die in vain’.
Dr Noel Rowe, Department of English, The University of Sydney, Australia.
Tales from Thailand
There are abundant promotional materials to entice overseas visitors to Bangkok, Chiangmai, Pattaya, Samui and Puket. We have also been exposed to scandalous features on sex-tourism, drug trafficking, child trade, slavery and prostitution. But we hear very little about the parched plains of Isan, about the plight of the Isan people, who speak Lao rather than Thai.
Pira Canning Sudham has become the international voice of these forgotten people largely due to his literary works, People of Esarn, Tales of Thailand, Monsoon Country and its sequel, The Force of Karma. In Isan, the questions of grinding poverty, destruction of ecology, greed and venality are inextricably linked. Pira Canning Sudham has written one story called A Killer for Hire in which he narrates how a professional gunman is hired to murder a schoolteacher who is idealistic and courageous enough to try to protect a dwindling forest reserve, teaching the village children that they are entitled to a better deal. In another story, A Confession of a Lady-boy, he exposes the selling of children into prostitution, a sordid reality that require an artistic skill to make the tale palatable.
As Pira Canning Sudham shows, education for literacy and democracy is the key to overcoming this vile exploitation. But there is of course education and education. If education consists of nothing more than rote learning, which reinforces mindlessness, unthinking nationalism, subservience and absolute obedience to the authorities and the police force, it is worse than useless. But educators who encourage the children to question the authorities on various social issues including corruption and the selling of the young into prostitution and slavery in Bangkok’s brothels and factories are likely to be seen as a threat. Due to such threats, ten Isan schoolteachers have been murdered by hired assassins.
As researchers, we humanists are morally useless if we focus only on the linguistics and the aesthetics of minority languages and traditional minority cultures. The larger issues are the politics of education, of literacy for the neglected and impoverished people as well as human rights.
It is clear that there are inextricable links between literacy, education, democracy and human right. This could not be clearer than the case of the silent Isaners. It is in this context that the author would like to take readers on a journey to the hinterland of Thailand.
“I look at my life in this way,” says Pira Canning Sudham. “If I had not left my village at all, I would have become just another peasant, with a horde of children, going through the vicious circle of rural life in an Isan village. If ignorance is blissful, I could have been a happier person. Like most villagers, I would believe that going through years of drought, scarcity and disease without medical treatment, without any relief is my destiny, my fate or karma for what I committed in my previous life. So in this life, I am to suffer or to be rewarded for the deeds done. The acceptance of one’s fate helps make suffering in this life tolerable. It was in England from 1975 onward when I began leading a life of a writer that I had to look deep into my heart and soul for a cure, a way to mend my maimed mind. It became obvious to me then that during the formative years I was gagged, blindfolded and suppressed, like the present-day Burmese, by the despotic regimes under which I lived for over 15 years, from 1958 when military rule under Field Marshal Sarit Dhanarat took off. Worse still, it was rote learning and an authoritarian teaching that became a mind-maiming apparatus. I was taught and trained to become utterly obedient, subservient, unthinking, fearing the authorities.
“James Joyce says in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that when a child is born in Catholic Ireland, nets are flung to catch his soul. In my society, it is not the nets but the instrument to nip the mind in the bud or to stunt it at any rate so that one grows up physically while one’s mind remains undeveloped. How could a man, whose mind did not develop, creates literary works worth the cost of the papers on which they were printed? This question haunted me every time I pick up a pen. Fortunately the learning years in New Zealand, Australia and in England re-educated me, giving me a newly formed mind as well as a new pair of eyes. I cherished this phase of my life so much that I made Prem Surin, the protagonist of Monsoon Country, go through in lurid detail what I underwent in these democratic countries so as to collate the mental reformation and the process of overcoming a crippled mind.
“Now living among the people of Isan on the land on which I was born in my home village, I cannot avoid seeing daily the silent sufferers. You may say that they don’t know any better! On the whole most Isaners are inept to complain or to voice their grievances. It is their karma, remember? For centuries, they have been voiceless. Only when they are pushed to the extreme, suffering beyond endurance, do they enter the capital to look for help from the authorities. Fortunately their wistful gatherings in Bangkok are so far peaceful. Each time they return to their villages with some promises from the government that their troubles would be looked into. But, alas, the promises turn out to be empty, and ironically those governments do not last long either. The suffering poor from rural areas have to return to Bangkok again and again. Now their plea for help in front of the Government House has become an all-year-round event under the name of the Plea from the Assembly of the Poor.
“I fear that one day, after so many failures to obtain effective assistance from the authorities, they might not walk into Bangkok empty handed. Then what shall we do? For now we pin our hope on the fact that the suffering mass in rural Thailand would soon be tired of their rallies for help in Bangkok year after year. These desperate people should succumb to the notion that nothing could be done to alleviate their plights. They should adhere firmly to their beliefs in karma, the inevitable retribution, so that they accept their lot in life and continue to suffer silently in their rural communities. The people in power may consider themselves blessed that the gathering of the suffering underclass at their doors are orderly and non-violent as opposed to those taking places in some other countries. Indeed we are fortunate when it has proven time and again that rote learning and authoritarian education system, that is mind maiming, work effectively on the cowered populace.
“Though I do not stand idly by while the desperate poor plead for help in Bangkok, the voice of my guardian angel comes to my ears: “Don’t lead them. Let them wake up and emerge due to their absolute desperation. Your role is a keen observer. Then write about them as you see them.” I heed the voice not only because of the belief in the guardian angel, but it is also a case of staying alive, at least to finish The Force of Karma. I keep in mind that more than 100 teachers, the champions of the poor, labour leaders, conservationists and environmental activists have been brutally ‘liquidated’.
As a responsible writer, I am much concerned not only with urgent social issues but also with the plights of those who have been greatly affected by the Moonmouth Dam in Ubol. It is difficult to blot out images of supplicating old women and vulnerable men and a pregnant woman being clobbered like animals by armed men so that the relocation of the villagers, who were in the way of the construction, could be made. Now the World Bank-sponsored Moonmouth Dam has become a flop, a colossal mistake since it could not generate sufficient electricity as purported at the expense of human sufferings and ecological disaster while World Bank continues to rake in astronomical returns from the loan. From such a disastrous development project, I too have made a return, definitely not in financial sense, but in a story entitled An Old Man and a Boy.
“Similarly the gunman for hire in A Killer for Hire does not stray far from the fact that a group of villagers walked peacefully to Wapipratume District Office in Mahasarakam Province to air their grievances. Their rice fields and river made salty by brackish water from large-scale open salt mines owned by powerful politicians and influential investors. When their farmland became salty, they could not grow rice, and in Siawyai River, fish died. Many farmers had to sell their once arable fields at very low price and move away to find new land elsewhere. In front of the Wapipratume District Office, the suffering farmers were battered and arrested and thrown in jail. Yes, for their sake, I protested against such injustice in my own way.
“The majority of the poor people of Isan remain meek, silent and subservient. Due to the acceptance of their fate, they tend to avoid making outcries or demand. We know this. Employers know this only too well. Thus it gives unscrupulous agricultural produce buyers, the middlemen, sweatshop slave drivers and ruthless factory owners an advantage over the penurious and the powerless. For this, Thailand’s Board of Investment can boast that the country is one of Asia’s cheapest production overheads with lenient environmental measures to boot in order to attract investment from abroad.
“Taking it upon myself to speak out on behalf of the battered and swindled people, choices of tones and styles of writing are amply arrayed for me. In my books, the current social conditions, the norms, the attitudes and the base on which the hierarchy rested are described along with social ills, venality and injustice. By describing them in vivid detail, I hope to bring to mind what should be corrected or changed for the better. When I wrote: There are too many thieves in high places, shamelessly making use of their positions and power, without conscience but with great capacity for avarice. These highly avaricious men and women aim at accumulating wealth as quickly as possible for themselves and for their families, without caring for the good of the nation I hope that at least such broad home truth would make some readers think. When I talk of the lack of conscience, I aim to make them ask themselves whether it is justifiable to say that conscience is what most Thais don’t have. Without conscience, one can bribe or take bribes, can be corruptible do wrongful deeds, without a sense of guilt. The corrupt may still claim that they have not done wrong. Then again it is up to me to make my writings acceptable even to lying and highly corrupt men. If not acceptable, then it would defeat the purpose. It cannot bring about change. It cannot change the way they conduct their lives; it cannot bring about certain degree of probity or ethic in their daily life. In that case I would fail as the champion of the downtrodden, the cheated, and the silent people.
“Why do I write the way I do? I was raised in poverty, suffering hunger, pain and abuse, with a fair share of happiness as well as sorrow. As a poor boy from Isan, I was much despised and ill treated in Bangkok. In time I learned that a lot of Isaners receive similar treatment in Thailand’s large cities because many of us are illiterate, needy and ready to accept hard labour at minimal wages, without complaint, just like buffaloes. These experiences caused much pain in me. I wince when I think of them.
“When I write, there is a sense of relief. In living in Isan, I draw my strength from the sights and sounds of the vast majority of the victims and from bearing witness to the brutality and bullying such as forced relocation of villagers who were in the way of dam construction and eucalyptus plantation. The list should also include deforestation, illegal logging, the pollution of the air and rivers as well price suppression of agricultural produce.
“In living in Napo, my home village, I have managed to achieve a balance between living a life of a writer and an ordinary village life. Frugality keeps me humble while old age puts me on a respectable level that village elders enjoy.
Being looked up to as a wise old man who has lived abroad suits me perfectly. But sadness, happiness and anger experienced in childhood have never left me. Embedded deeply within me, they have become an impetus as well as a source of energy. The irony is that my childhood sentiments are being experienced all over again.
For now the lords and masters have vastly increased in number and proportion. They are far more gigantic, powerful and avaricious than those portrayed in Monsoon Country i.e. venal bureaucrats, arrogant and unethical traders and shopkeepers who swindled illiterate peasants, ruthless usurers and gangs of gamblers who induced village folk to gamble away their money and their lands. These are pale and diminutive compared to the new generation, some of whom have become exceedingly rich through bribery, acquiring monopolies and public land and forest reserves. It seems that they bent on plundering the country, destroying the forests and then claiming the so-called ‘degraded forests’ to plant the harmful eucalyptus trees or turning them into land development projects and golf courses.
“Against such Goliath, arming oneself with a sling or a knife or a gun is definitely not my way for I hope very much that the pen is still more powerful than any weapons available for use today.”
David M. Allen, Queensland, Australia
A Fretful Writer
In childhood, the paddy-fields in various moods, in all seasons, in good and bad years, had already taken fast hold on me. Having toiled in the paddies and took care of the family’s buffaloes for years, I had become part of the land and part of village life.
In summer the searing sun turned mushy marshes into dry land. The earth cracked. Trillions of fissures vented the spirit of the place. Food became scarce. Yet the vast plain seemed to be imbued with poetry and subtle beauty.
As a student at a local primary school, I wanted to be able to read and write, to be articulate like my role model and hero, the lone schoolteacher. This longing endlessly gnawed at me, making me anxious that my education would end after having passed the examinations set for the final year at the school.
The teacher seemed to have anticipated my longing. At the end of the final academic year, he talked with my father about my future. As a result, both men saw me off at Muang Pol Railway Station, some 40 miles from the village.
I was 14, experiencing the pain of parting and the suppressed joy of a departure in search of knowledge. A friend of the teacher met me at Bangkok’s Hualumpong Terminal, took me to a Buddhist monastery to live as a dekwat, a servant to monks.
The secondary school was situated in the precinct of the monastery. It seemed that most of my classmates were far more advanced than I. Some of them laughed at my halting attempts to speak Thai and at my Lao tongue when I had to resort to it to communicate.
A few years later, I won a most coveted place in Triam Udom High School. After two years there I entered the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University, the oldest university in Thailand. Then a big break came my way, having been awarded a scholarship to study at University of Auckland, New Zealand.
Flying off in pursuit of knowledge and experiences, I held fast deep within me memories of life in an Isan village, of the years spent on the plain, roaming the land with a herd of buffaloes, and images of my people who were dear to me.
At this phase in life, I made up my mind to use the English language to create works that might immortalize lives of some people of Isan.
Thai people are far from being avid readers. Most of them do not have a reading habit. At best they may read newspapers, magazines and books of cartoons. Moreover, they may not want to know about the country folk, the boors, the poor and the downtrodden. It is not far wrong to say that most Thais adore high birth and life lived in affluence, and shun those living at the lowest rung of the hierarchy. For this reason I have to turn to non-Thai readers for their attention.
The apprenticeship started with using a new tool while learning at a new school that employed a different teaching method. No more rote learning and authoritarian teaching. No more examination papers that required one to recall from memories undigested texts from textbooks and lessons noted down in one’s notebooks.
For the first time in my life, I learned to think critically, to form opinions and express them, to discuss and argue. For the first time in my life I dared to say: I think or In my opinion. To me, at the time, to be able to say that was indeed a wonder.
One had to discard the Thai way of studies, and started from zero up to the new height of learning at the new school, honing the new tool, the English language, so as to be able to use it in such a way that each work would be a fine art that would last longer than one’s lifetime.
In writing, a big barrier to overcome has been anger and bitterness derived from having experienced, seen or heard of gross injustice, of graft in high places, of brutality against the poor and powerless people, the killings of environmentalists, the destruction of the lands and forests, and the pollutions of the rivers, not only in Isan but in all Thailand. However, the Buddhist upbringing reminded me not to write with raw anger and vindictiveness. Hence, to write in the style of ‘Look Back in Anger’ or ‘Angry Young Men’ would not do. Besides, there has already been so much hatred in this world. To add more to it, would prove futile to a cause since I did not set out to build a monument of hate.
The process of refining anger and bitterness has been tempered by Lord Buddha’s doctrine of dispensing compassion to all beings. At one point in life, I took to the robe. As a Buddhist monk, I strictly observed 227 tenets, aiming to achieve holiness as well as wisdom.
It is all very well to have taken part in the marches against despots and highly corrupt politicians, against polluters of the rivers and the air, against the destruction of the land and forest reserves. It is all very well to grieve over the murders of daring environmentalists and idealistic schoolteachers and battered villagers who were in the way of dam constructions and eucalyptus planting. To touch on the tyranny, brutality, destruction, killings and the unfathomable damage done to the ecology, I follow Lord Buddha’s guideline of the Eight Noble Paths, and, perhaps, that has helped me to survive this long.
On a personal sphere of life, I often count the rosary of my pain caused by loneliness and by coming into contact with the West. I count also the rosary of departures and joy of home-comings and heartache and the parents’ disappointment with my restlessness and a bachelor lifestyle. They were anxious that I, their first born, would die without having a son and heir to carry on the family name.
Two decades passed in several English speaking countries have made me a child of two worlds – the world of a true child of Isan and the world of a Westernized writer.
Why so many years abroad? Well, having lived for almost 20 years of one’s early life under Thailand’s despotic regimes, under martial law, not knowing what freedom was, life in a truly democratic country was a boon. One breathed easier and the climate was conducive to expressing one’s thoughts and to the practice of one’s art. Along the way one learned more, heard more, and saw more. Not having English as the mother tongue, the effort to be in command of the language is an on-going process. One learned all the time while living in the U.K. Most of all, one could write freely, without fear when many Thai writers have already perished.
On the other hand, I used the distance to reflect on Thai society. From afar, I was able to look at Thailand and its people in truer perspective as a native son in exile as well as an insider. Outside the borderline, beyond the grip of the despots, I could get rid of the blindfold and the gag and the unthinking nationalism, appreciating a real sense of freedom.
I had a rather reckless and deprived childhood, prone to disease, scarcity, injustice, superstition and brute force. But I could not blame my parents for all the discomfort, deprivation and abuse. How could they protect their children when they themselves were subject to gross injustice at the whim of those tyrannical and powerful people who subjugated them, taking advantage of them, swindled them and, at the same time, treating them like sub-human beings.
You might agree that childhood memories could not be easily forgotten or obliterated. Then, one of the questions that often came to mind was: How could I turn them into art?
There was a driving force, an impetus, if you like, pushing me to write. The creative act too was therapeutic to some degree. In writing, there was a sense of relief and calm joy.
But, unlike some performing arts which performers act in groups and have company of audiences. A writer writes alone, sometimes at night or early in the morning. His audiences are no where in sight.
Yes, I shall remain unwedded to the end of my days. But, I have had a fair share of love. When in love, I plunged into it. In later years, I resorted to cultivating friendship rather than love. But there is a pitfall in that too.
Most people I befriended were married couples. Some of the wives, who minded very much my close association with their husbands, attempted to keep me at an arm’s length away from their men, thinking perhaps that I was after their husbands. Some wives applied fine feline or canine tactics to ensure that I could not be too close. Once I saw such signs, I kept the distance, circling at the fringe of their marriages, appreciating every bit of friendly gestures they cared to throw my way.
Regrets? Yes, there are some. One of them is when looking back at the years earlier on in my life, I saw wreckage of relationships with several persons I had forsaken so as to be on my way to London. At that time I felt compelled that I must sacrifice all to make it to England and stay there long enough to gather ‘the grist to the mill’.
In moving on, I had to cut off the shackles and tethers. Perhaps it hurt me more than it hurt those whom I left behind.
It must be retribution that I am alone now, with only dogs and cats for company in my home village in Isan where radio, television and newspapers are denied to me by my own volition. Visitors are rare. Telephone seldom rings. And my e-mail address attracts mostly junk mail. Perhaps you have also had e-mail from a number of people who claimed that you had won millions in lottery of one sort or another as well as those who needed your assistance in transferring funds in and out of certain bank accounts. I have also had a lot of e-mail messages from people who assured me that they could help me elongate, thicken and harden a certain vital organ. They did not know that I have passed far beyond all those needs now.
Once in a while I put my little terrier in the car and drove the 600 kilometres to Pattaya. It was a change to hear English spoken even by foreigners whose mother tongue is not English in a crowded beer bar where I could see the likes of Salee and Nipa and Horst and Niels and Eric and Tom and Dick and Harry actively live and enjoy their life.
It was a diversion from living alone in an Isan village. There I was, standing behind a European at Boots cashier counter at Garden Plaza in South Pattaya. He was paying for six packs of condoms. At VIP Bar, a European sitting next to me boasted that he could do it four or five times a night till his equipment was sore.
“I don’t believe that is possible,” I said.
He opened his zipper and pulled out the equipment for me to see the blisters.
So much for trying to flow with the mainstream of life in the modern-day Sodom and Gomerrah!
Though one has been lonely most of one’s life, there are times when loneliness hits hard, and one is afraid that one might not be able to bear it any longer, going down, like a sinking ship, into a depth of the desperate sea.
In time I have managed to turn loneliness and pain into use.
True, it is good for one’s ego to be recognized in the literary world. For me, fame and riches are by-products of the efforts to express myself in the form of writing. I would consider my life very poor if I had not tried to be above ignorance, mindlessness and commonplace thoughts. I would consider my life a mere existence if I had not been able to choose between a life of a creator and a life which is concerned, to a large extent, with the welfare of the mouth, the stomach and sensual pleasures.
To attain writing skills, one must tirelessly keep on writing. To understand human nature and nuances of involvement, one might have to venture into many realms of feelings, into the highways and byways of involvements. Through these explorations and human confluence and conflicts, one may arrive at some depths of emotions and understanding of the causes and the effects. As you see, I somehow managed to make the narratives on the life of a reformed prostitute, of a lady-boy or of a killer for hire attain certain degrees of verisimilitude. But then you may not agree.
Yes, changes are taking place so fast in Thailand these days. To my mind, the year 1999 marked not only the end of a century but also the end of an era in which the majority of Isan farmers used buffaloes to plough their paddy-fields. Buffaloes have become rare here now. You may say that they are one of the endangered species.
Childhood memories of roaming the plains with the herds have been denied to thousands of boys and girls who do not have buffaloes to take care of. A great number of these Isan youngsters may not have to toil along side their parents in boggy rice fields in monsoon seasons like I used to do. They also know that they would soon leave for Bangkok or for some other Thailand’s large cities or lucrative seaside resorts to find jobs and new friends.
I did not regret leaving Europe for home. If I were still leading a European life, I would not have witnessed the changes, the long marches of suffering peasants, the bashing and battering and clobbering of supplicating peasants, and the murders of thousands of people in the streets of Bangkok in October 1973, October 1976 and May 1992. I would have heard only the echo in the newspapers or from the television broadcast. An echo is not good enough for a writer with social responsibilities and conscience.
All I have to do here is to be alert and prudent though what I see and hear could make me an embittered man. As a writer, I should not put my head in the sand, so to speak, or turn a blind eye and a deaf ear, or write shallow romance or about intercourses with men and women of a certain profession so as to add another lurid observation of Thailand’s low life to the myriad of books on such subject matter.
I should be a seeing eye and write in such a way that the works are read and accepted by thinking individuals, that they give truthful massages in such a way that they could be acceptable even to lying and venal men. Perhaps one day the works would gather enough power to change the attitude that venality is a norm, to foster conscience in the heart of younger generations so that they can conceive what is right and what is wrong.
Of course, there is more or less corruption in every nation. My concern is that in some countries, the majority of the people believe that venality is wrong, a cancerous trauma in society, not a way of life, that the wrong-doers, when caught and proved guilty, can be punished. Bribery, for instance, who do you think pay for it in the end?
Living among the poor people of Isan, I give more than I take, and do not pursue happiness, not in a country, where raising a hand to ask a simple question, can get one hurt or killed.
Pira Canning Sudham, Napo Village, Isan