A Message from Pira Sudham

Pira Sudham can write about the poor farmers of Esarn because that is where he is from and now lives. Below is a statement from Pira written in 2014.

Writing and Surviving in the Kingdom in Conflict

Village Grandmother with Grandchildren

In childhood, the Plain of Napo in various moods, in good or bad years, gained a fast hold on me.

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. Then illness came hand in hand with drought.

My principal duty was the care of our buffaloes. In the morning I took them out to graze in fallow fields, and brought them home in late afternoon.

At the local primary school, the lone teacher became my hero. A wish to become as articulate as he endlessly gnawed at me. The anxiety that my education would end after four years under his tutelage weighed me down.

The teacher anticipated my longing. He talked with my father about my future. As a result, both men saw me off at Muang Railway Station, 60 kilometres from the village.

One could be torn apart by pain of parting and suppressed joy on a journey in search of knowledge. A friend of the teacher met me at Bangkok Hualumpong Terminal and took me to a Buddhist monastery to live as a dekwat, a servant to monks.

The secondary school was in the precinct of the monastery. It seemed that most of my classmates were much more intelligent than I. Some of them laughed at my attempts to speak Thai and at my Lao tongue which is similar to the language of the Lao people.

A few years later, I won a most coveted place in Triam Udom 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, being awarded a scholarship to read English at The University of Auckland, New Zealand.

Flying off in pursuit of knowledge and experiences, I held, deep within me, the memories of life in an Isan village, of the years spent on the plain, toiling on the grudging earth.

While studying English Literature at Victoria University, Wellington, I decided to use the English language to expatiate on life in rural Thailand.

Thai people are far from being avid readers. Most of them do not read. At best they may read newspapers, magazines and cartoon books. Moreover, they may not be interested in rural life.

It is not far wrong to say that most Thais adore high birth and affluence, and shun the poor. For this reason, I have to turn to non-Thai readers for their attention.

The eager student began using a new tool while learning at a new school and under a new teaching method. For the first time in his life, he learned to think critically, to form opinions and express them, to discuss and argue, and say: I think. To him, at the time, to be able to say that was indeed a wonder.

Several books have become my frame of reference. These are Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, James Joyce’s A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and Patrick White’s Voss.

My writing should carry the 20th century literary tradition onto the 21st century. However, some modern readers may consider my prose old-fashioned compared to The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas.

This book was first published in Australia in 2008 and later in the U.K. in 2010. In October 2012, it was offered free of charge to readers of The Daily Telegraph. I filled in the coupon and collected a copy from Waitrose in Hailsham, East Sussex.

The very first paragraph of The Slap smacked of foul air.

Forgive me for quoting it verbatim:

His eyes still shut, a dream dissolving and already impossible to recall, Hector’s hand sluggishly reached across the bed. He let out a victorious fart, burying his face deep into the pillow to escape the clammy methane stink.

In contrast, the foul language in The Slap makes my prose frightfully Victorian.

 

In writing, a big barrier to overcome has been anger and bitterness, derived from injustice, brutality against the poor, the killings of environmentalists, the destruction of the forests and the pollutions of the rivers in Thailand.

However, the Buddhist upbringing reminded me not to write with raw anger and vindictiveness.

Besides, there has already been much hatred in this world. To add more would prove futile to a cause.

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, strictly observing 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 corrupt politicians and against polluters. It is all very well to have grieved over the murders of environmental activists and idealistic schoolteachers and protesting villagers.

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.

In a personal sphere of life, I had to contend with solitary life. On top of that, my parents’ anxiety due to my restlessness and a bachelor lifestyle had to be born with silent endurance. They were anxious that I, their first born, would die without a son and heir to carry on the family name.

 

One may take it as a sacrifice, writing in exile. As for me, having lived under Thailand’s despotic regime, life in a truly democratic country was a boon.

Living a politically suppressed life in Thailand in 1950’s – 1960’s was redolent of living under the junta in Burma now.

Far away from the despots, one breathed easier and the climate was conducive. Along the way one learned more, heard more, and saw more.

Distance helped when reflecting on one’s society. From afar, one was able to look at the kingdom and its people in truer perspective. Far from the despots, it was possible to get rid of the blindfold, the gag and the unthinking nationalism, appreciating a real sense of freedom.

On the other hand, life in exile has exacted much from me. But I shall not count the gains and the losses, pleasures and pains, pluses and minuses derived from the quest for knowledge and experience. One takes the losses and all the pains as the sacrifices. Experience makes one wiser. Pains are part of life in our troubled world.

All is for writing a few books in English.

I did not learn English until the age of 15. To master the language, it was a Herculean task. In this regard, I looked up to Joseph Conrad, a fellow foreigner, for inspiration.

But, when it comes to putting pen to paper, it is George Orwell’s golden rule that reminds me.

Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to see in print. Never use a long word where a short one will do. If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out. Never use the passive where you can use the active. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of everyday English equivalent.

It also took many years to gain familiarity with the lexicons and idiosyncrasies of the English upper classes as well as those of the lower orders.

In Shadowed Country, the characters range from the aristocrats to Cockney criminals, from old Etonians to hooligans. One should not rely solely on the editor to improve one’s writing.

In this regard, years spent in New Zealand, Australia and in the U.K. help when it comes to refining the works in order to attain some degree of artistic value. On the other hand, writing under a despotic regime in the kingdom, one has to be extremely prudent since the despots had already done away with many Thai writers.

Jit Pumisak was killed in an Isan village not far from mine. Khumsing Sinok had to flee to Sweden.

In order to survive as a writer with social responsibility, one must be stealthy as well as cunning. During those dangerous years, I had to scheme a stratagem in order to survive.

As for being stealthy, it would be unwise to expatiate on that.

However, it could be said that later editions of Monsoon Country contained more nuances and messages than earlier editions. Then I added new passages here and there to the following editions, hoping that those who read the earlier editions of my books on behalf of powerful men might not bother to read subsequent editions.

On the other hand, there are those who either underestimate or ignore my works. Due to these people, my books and I survive.

But then I had to yield to an urge, making Prem Surin, a protagonist in The Force of Karma, say to Charles Tregonning: “I’ve put my life on the line.”

The prizewinning poet published The Monsoon People following his graduation from Oxford.

 

It was amusing to read in The Daily Telegraph on Wednesday, January 2, 2013 that taxpayers in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland had been helping to fund millions of pounds worth of grants to Welsh authors whose books often sell ‘a handful of copies’. The report went on to reveal that in the past five years the Welsh Books Council and Literature Wales received more than 42 million pounds from the Welsh Assembly and Arts Council Wales, which received their funding from Westminister. Welsh authors could apply for grants of up to 10,000 pounds to write books, and keep the money even if their works were not published.

Isan, my home county, is like Wales, being more impoverished than other regions of Thailand, but there is no such luck when it comes to literary grants. There has never been a literary grant. On the contrary, one must tread so very carefully here, scribbling away in secret.

It should not be beyond one’s understanding as to why a certain authority has taken some measures to prevent the populace from becoming thinking individuals. And it is not far wrong to say that critical thinking is a radical scarcity in this country.

 

Of course there are foes as well as friends.

Unlike the meek shepherd David, who had only one foe to defeat, I have not only Goliath but also a horde of his ilk to fight.

One of them has recently taken over Asia Books, Thailand’s largest chain of bookshops. This giant of diversified businesses also produces beer bottles, facial and toilet tissues. One of my stories, The Professional Killer, and a novel, The Force of Karma, portray the harm to the environment the open salt mines (industrial salt for glass and beer bottle manufacturing), eucalyptus plantations and the pulp/paper mills have been causing.

As a result, my books have been taken off the shelves.

I did not expect the wrath to come from a commercial enterprise, for all the while I have been keeping an eye on higher power.

It is a wonder why a consumer goods manufacturer should want to be in book retailing. It would be flattery to say that the company had to gain control of ailing Asia Books just to take my books off the shelves! Could it be greed? Could it be big fish eat small fish? The bigger fish in this case is a shark of a brewer. It has taken over the beer bottle producing company that acquired Asia Books. I remember the old Asia Books, a family-owned bookshop on Sukhumvit Road. Greed seemed to have a hand in its fast expansion. It seemed the said bookshop had to be in every tall building and shopping centre so as to prevent other booksellers to open a shop there. Consequently the over-extended, trouble-plagued Asia Books had to change hands several times.

Now I have electronic book publishing and Kinokuniya Bookstores, which has recently entered the book retailing business in Thailand, to thank.

 

Mine was a reckless and deprived childhood, prone to disease, injustice, superstition and brute force. But it would not be fair to blame my parents for the pain, deprivation and abuse.

How could they protect their children when they themselves were subject to gross injustice at the whim of powerful tyrants and arrogant merchants who took advantage of them, swindled them and, at the same time, treated them as if they were absolutely stupid.

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 one turn them into art?

There was a driving force, fueling me. The creative act too was therapeutic to some degree. At 3 a.m., I was at my desk, scribbling away.

 

I emulate Prem Surin, who vows in Monsoon Country to remain unwedded so that my flesh and blood would not have to go through the mind-maiming method of teaching in state school.

Along the way love and friendship saw me through hard times.

There were several homosexuals with whom I came into contact. Most of them had already found boyfriends. Being single, I caused jealousy when one of them fancied me. Some of the jealous boyfriends could be exceedingly nasty. I had to run away. Once, both partners were after me. I could cope with one, not two, and had to run a mile ahead of them.

I intensely disliked scenes. It was not a pretty sight when a bitter, bitchy queen had tantrums.

Sometimes I escaped unscathed; sometimes badly mauled.

There were some heterosexual couples whose friendship and hospitality kept me going a long way. But there was a pitfall in that kind of involvement too.

Some of the wives, who minded very much my association with their husbands, attempted to keep me at an arm’s length. Some wives applied feline or canine tactics to prevent intimacy.

Seeing such signs, I kept the appropriate distance, circling at the fringe of their marriages, appreciating every friendly gesture they made towards me.

 

There were few regrets.

Along the road to London, the wreckage of relationships scattered here and there.

I had to reach England at any cost and stay there long enough to grow mentally, developing my mind, gaining knowledge of the English language while gathering the grist to the mill.

You see, Prem Surin, the man from Monsoon Country, left the kingdom for the U.K. ahead of me. I had to follow him and closely observe his activities and his new friends in new locations in order to lend verisimilitude to the narrative.

To move on, the shackles and tethers must be cut. Perhaps it wounded me more than it hurt those left behind.

Being alone now is a retribution for having forsaken those people. Now dogs and cats keep me company. Visitors are rare. The telephone seldom rings. My e-mail address attracts mostly junk mail.

Perhaps you have also had e-mail claiming that you had won millions in a lottery of one sort or another, or from some Nigerians who need your assistance to transfer funds in and out of bank accounts. There was an e-mail from ‘bill gates’ saying my Hotmail address was awarded 10 million dollars. There were messages from experts, assuring me that they could elongate, thicken and harden a certain vital organ.

 

Once in a while I drove 600 kilometres to Pattaya. It was amusing to observe the likes of Salee, Nipa, Horst, Niels, Eric, Nicolai, Rosano, Tom, Dick and Harry participating in the rite of living their active lives.

There I was, standing in a queue behind a European at Boots cashier counter at Garden Plaza in South Pattaya. He was paying for six packs of condoms. At VIP Bar in Pattaya Klang, a young chap sitting next to me boasted that he could do it four times a night.

“Can you really?” I asked.

“I bloody well can,” said he.

 

Though one has been lonely most of one’s life, there are times when loneliness hits hard. Against such attack, writing is a shield.

True, it is good for one’s ego to be recognized in the literary world. For me, fame and riches are by-products of my effort to be an able wordsmith. My life would be very poor if it was not for attempting to be above ignorance, mindlessness and commonplace thoughts. It would be a mere existence if there was no writing.

To attain writing skill, one must tirelessly keep on writing. To understand human nature or psyche, one might have to venture into many realms of feelings, into highways and byways of human confluence and conflicts.

All efforts and sacrifices would have gone to waste, if I could not lend verisimilitude to a prostitute’s story or a tale of a guttersnipe, surviving in Bangkok or to a confession of a transvestite.

 

It’s true. 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.

Now, buffaloes have become rare.

Childhood memories of roaming the plains with the herds have been denied to thousands of boys and girls. These Isan youngsters may not have to toil along side their parents in boggy rice fields in the monsoon season like I used to do. They also know that they would soon leave for Bangkok or lucrative seaside resorts to find jobs and new friends.

 

There was no regret in making a final departure from Europe for home. If I were still leading a European life, it would not be possible to witness the changes, the long marches of suffering farmers, 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. It would just be news in the newspapers or from television.

One should not put one’s head in the sand, so to speak, or turn a blind eye and a deaf ear, or write shallow romance. Why contribute to the myriad of books on the morbid observation of Thailand’s low life?

One should be a seeing eye and write in such a way that the works are read and accepted by thinking individuals, passing on truthful messages so that they are acceptable even to lying and venal men.

Perhaps one day my works would gather enough force to challenge the idea that venality is a norm, to foster conscience in the heart of younger generations so that they may 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, most people believe that venality is wicked, a rot, not a way of life. The wrongdoers, when caught and proven guilty, should be punished, not passing a bill to exonerate them.

 

In living amongst the poor people in Isan, it is giving rather than taking. Why pursue happiness in a country, where raising a hand to ask a question, can get one hurt or killed?

Dogs and cats and a large brood of chickens regulate my life here. They adhere to their feeding times, putting pressure on me when I am late.

At eight in the morning, the dogs have chicken livers and gizzards. Cooked and diced. The cats have deboned and shredded steamed sea fish called pla tu mixed with cooked rice. The chickens go for uncooked rice and bits of vegetables.

Their dinner time is 6 p.m. The dogs have diced pig’s offal. The cats have the same meal as their breakfast. The chickens are content with what they can find in the gardens during the day.

Meat and vegetables are available at the village market not far from here. The feeding takes about two hours, counting from cooking, chopping, dicing, shredding and mixing. The cats eat inside and the dogs outside. Each has its own bowl. They observe table manner rather well. No growling. No snarling. No fighting.

At night the chickens take to the trees in both front and back gardens. Only mother hens with their chicks, too young to clamber up the vines and creepers, remain squatting on the ground. There, tiny chicks go to sleep under their mothers’ protective wings.

It is fascinating to watch the mother hens caring for and protecting their young. Once, a hen died from snake bite, protecting her chicks. She died, crouching there with the chicks under her wings.

It is a drama when a chicken is killed by a speeding motorcycle, or a dog is run over by a car. The cat population fluctuates. Once in a while some unwanted kittens could be heard meowing in the front garden, having been left there in the hope that this softie would take them in.

This is not an animal farm. It is more or less a sanctuary for the animals and for me.

At first, some chickens escaped from a nearby free-range poultry farm and took refuge in my jungle-like gardens. There are squirrels here too. At night, owls hoot away in tall trees. Some trees here are ancient, holding down by creepers and vines.

Over the years, the brood has increased to 34-35, not counting the chicks. There have been spells of chicken flu, and many chickens died. Otherwise, there might be over 100 members of the family by now. No, I have not killed any. Once in a while I may pinch a few eggs. Some poachers come silently like thieves in the night. When the chickens squawk in protest, then I know that they are at it.

In the morning, having fed the animals, it’s time to resume the scribbling.

Sitting at the desk for two-three hours is enough for one session.

Then, it is gardening time to prevent nature from taking over, hacking and raking. Afterwards, the gardener changes into a road sweeper to get rid of plastic bags and containers and rubbish littering the street in front of the property.

We may need to borrow Mr. Lee Kwan Yu from Singapore to dictate to our litterbugs that they must not litter the roads and public places. His benevolent dictatorship, which worked well for the Singaporeans, should benefit the kingdom.

While he is at it, we might as well ask him to help clean the House as well as curbing corruption. I am sure he would be delighted in taking on this Herculean labour.

My one cooked meal a day is after 1 p.m.

My favourite dish is Egg Verdi. Stir-fried eggs with chopped coriander, dill, spring onion, kale, garlic and a few dashes of nampla – anchovy sauce, served on rice or noodles or spaghetti. Some of these vegetables are seasonal. One can do without dill when it is not available; but the more leafy vegetables the better.

Apart from doing my own shopping, I also make curry paste from lemon grass, garlic, shallots, galingale roots, aromatic lime leaves and chillies. With such paste, Egg Verdi can be turned into spicy green scrambled eggs by adding a spoonful of krueng gaeng, the curry paste

Yes, I concoct all my meals and clean up afterwards. Pui, 65-year old widow, helps with housekeeping and the laundry. She also feeds my animals in my absence.

In the afternoon, it is Florence Nightingale’s duty, when there are sick people to visit, comforting them with words and paracetamol.

After 4 p.m. I go to TESCO Express to buy milk and some foodstuff to feed abandoned children. Some of them are infants; some are learning to walk. They have been left behind by divorced parents before going their separate ways. Some of the absent parents don’t send enough money to those who look after their young. Some send neither words nor baht.

The latest casualty happened not long ago. A grandmother carrying an infant in her arms, with a toddler tagging along, turned up here, asking for some money to buy milk.

TESCO Express stocks plenty of milk. If you go there after 4 p.m., there might be double yellow stickers which offer 50 per cent discount. By the way, the first discount starts at midday. After 7 p.m. the third stickers appear on unsold double-stickered foodstuff, representing 75 per cent discount.

After the feeding is over, the slave is too exhausted to write. A glass of chilled Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon would do nicely. But a bottle of wine at TESCO is over 500 baht. For that amount of money, several discarded children can be fed for many days.

One should not swig wine here while many mouths in this village do not have enough to eat.

To while away an evening, recollection of the sojourns in various countries usually fill the waking hours. At one time, the jargon ‘world-weary’ sounded tenuous. Not now.

 

Perhaps I have been a terrible man, a bastard or a heartless person to those who were disappointed, offended or hurt. A good-hearted fool would put me in the camp of Kumjai Chaiwankul in Monsoon Country. A blithering idiot who gladly suffers fools, bullies, cheats, swindlers and suppressors of paddy price should be nearer to the mark.

The thought of going back to beg for forgiveness or to make up to the forsaken ones often occurs. But then some of them may have died or moved on far beyond reach or become so bitter that it would be risky to go near them.

It is fortunate that I survive this long. Wounds have turned into scars. My parents have passed away. As for me, it would be a blessing to die of old age at home where I was born.

Here, I live quietly, going with the flow of village life. There’s no rent to pay. No rush. No fret. No fuss. No bus or train or aeroplane to catch. I may cling to a buoy to avoid going down in a whirlpool of pity and sorrow. On the other hand there is a sense of being safe, existing among one’s own people, on one’s home ground. But then it might be a false sense of security. Recently one of Goliath’s counterparts has sent a professional translator to get hold of my books.

I was in the front garden when he arrived. His business card revealed that he came from the provincial town of Burirum.

Thanks to the English language. It may take a few weeks for the translator to get through 750 pages of Shadowed Country.

At this point, my life merged with Prem Surin’s.

Anticipating that Death could come at any moment, he valued each day of staying alive on Isan soil. Lines from one of Emily Bronte’s poems recurred in his mind.

 

No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere…

 

But he delved deeper into silence, and avoided making statements of any kind to anyone while moving gently and carefully wherever he trod.

 

As for me, I am compelled to break my silence since Mr. J. Head reported Thailand’s political turmoil for BBC World Service as if he had been got at by Mr. Big T.

On the conflicts and tensions, my observation is as follows:

Turbulence started at the beginning of 2014.

People in their thousands were out in the streets of Bangkok, protesting against the Shinawatra administration. The bill to exonerate the former Prime Minister T. Shinawatra, who has been found guilty of corruption, prompted the protest.

In the countryside suffering rice farmers, who had not been paid for their rice under the so-called Rice Pledging Scheme, were on the march, blocking the highways. Hundreds of them entered the capital, launching a protest of their own.

Corruption reared its ugly head higher than before. Consequently the blatant nepotism cost Prime Minister Y. Shinawatra her job. The case in point was the removal of the Chief of National Security Council Thawil Pliensri on 30th September 2011 to install one of Y. Shinawatra’s relatives.

In May 2014, the judges of the constitutional court anonymously found Y. Shinawatra guilty of abusing the power. She had to resign along with six ministers.

Violence was on the increase. Many protesters were killed. The clashes between the protesters and the army of T & Y Shinawatra’s supporters, the red shirts, were imminent.

On 20th May, the military imposed martial law to prevent further bloodshed. However, the red shirts were prepared to fight on for the Shinawatras. When the arbitration failed, the coup d’etat was proclaimed on 22nd May.

The nation fell under the curfew.

The junta formed a new government with General Prayuth Chan-ocha as Prime Minister.

The purge of Y. Shinawatra’s relatives and collaborators from key posts was swift and bloodless. Those in exile tried to set up a government in exile.

If protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban’s ultimate aim was to have intervention from the military, he succeeded. Whether the junta could drive the red shirts into the woodwork and flush down the Shinawatras time will tell.

The fact that the Shinawatra clique pressed for general election seemed a boon to pro-democracy Thais. After all, in the past, hundreds of those, who fought for democracy, have died in the massacres.

T & Y Shinawatra’s political party was confident that it would be landslide victory in every election. This confidence derived from having greatly expanded its power base in the countryside through various means including the one million baht per one village scheme.

Masses of poor and gullible country folk were their grateful voters.

Furthermore it managed to gain cooperation from various local authorities, particularly in the north and the northeast.

Should the party be taken to the constitutional court, it may be found guilty of abusing true democracy.

When could the Shinawatras claw back to power?

It has been said that T. Shinawatra had a trump card in his pocket, which is very deep indeed.