an excerpt from the novel
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...The arching cement trestle overhead mercifully blocks the sun but it also locks in the fumes rising from the road, abetted by walled-in shopping malls that dominate three of the four corners of the intersection. Rush hour pandemonium manifests itself in measured movement below. Beleaguered by heat and fumes, foot traffic threads along narrow, stall-clogged sidewalks, while auto traffic is now bumper-to-bumper at the crossroads. Across the road his eye detects a commotion, a different kind of motion—one that has nothing to do with shopping, waiting for a bus or catching a train. A gaggle of undetermined origin mills about listlessly on the opposite corner, occupying the only open swath of space around, a dusty weed-covered lot. No doubt this was the “mob” his student was talking about.
There is indeed something vaguely mob-like about this ragtag collection of human beings, acting like they own the road when everyone knows they don't. As their numbers grow, swelled by in part by curious onlookers and the general rush hour motion, vehicular traffic heaves and shudders to a halt. Keyed up motorists honk away, whether as a show of solidarity, or just to get things moving, John cannot be sure, but the noise is tiresome either way. Flummoxed motorists make futile attempts to shift lanes, even reverse course, but with people pouring in from all directions, traffic is gummed up and going nowhere fast.
A phalanx of khaki-clad police slowly waddles onto the scene, watching with quiet scorn as the bandana-clad protesters hoist banners into the air. The uniformed men with bulging bellies do not take any action other than to assume strategic positions on the perimeter, all the while exuding an air of intimidating indifference. Undeterred demonstrators find their way across and around the police line to reach the confines of the contested plot, and already the number of new arrivals is enough to cause the swell to bunch up and back up into the street. The crowd thickens, laying claim to a large swath of oil-stained blacktop, while idling motors rumble in place.
Protesters squeeze past stalled cars where they can, taking it upon themselves to direct and redirect traffic. It is impossible to discern from a distance what the protest was about, but surely the location was part of it. According to the newspaper, rival developers had been vying to take control of the strategic corner for over a year now, while NGOs were calling for a moratorium on commercial development for the sake of the environment.
With traffic at a key crossroads put on hold, the stakes were high. Would the crowd yield to traffic, or the traffic to the crowd? What about the police?
John is sufficiently captivated by the drama unfolding below to put off going home. The urgent undulations of bare armed men and bare legged women catch his eye. The sight of lithe bodies darting this way and that, threading their way through moving automotive traffic is a mesmerizing spectacle; an audacious game of chicken.
The amplified thump and static of a microphone being tested turns focus to the interior of the lot where a makeshift stage is being bedecked with banners. A sputtering, smoking generator powers the speakers and stage equipment. Strident voices take turns greeting the crowd at the microphone and rattling off impromptu public announcements.
The rattle of a drum and reverberating twang of an electric guitar echo above the protest ground as a band of longhair musicians take to the stage, checking equipment and tuning up. John had trouble understanding the rants coming from the stage, and might not agree with them even if he did, but music was something else. It bypassed the brain and went straight to the heart, the kind of universal language that could hold together a diverse crowd. The partisan politics of the protest were not for him or his kind, but he was drawn by the band playing on the stage and the colorful, carnival-like atmosphere of the human tableau.
John’s got more than half a mind to hurry down the steps, dart across the street and join the fray, mainly to get closer to the music, but also bolstered by the notion that Joy would disapprove. Joy wasn’t just from a conservative Thai family, she was a gentle enforcer of the conservative status quo.
Even though their on-again, off-again romance ended more or less around the time she married, they were still in touch—after all it was her posh connections at the university that landed him his job--and she would surely admonish him if she could see him now, on the verge of plunging into street politics. Her people wouldn’t like it one bit, either and while in theory it didn’t do to worry too much about what her people thought, for some reason it still mattered to him what she thought, even after all they had been through, especially because of all they had been through. Worrying too much about what others thought was precisely what doomed their steamy courtship.
Just the thought of it makes him doubly anxious to join in, not so much to show he cares as to show he doesn’t care.
Why should he care about Joy thinks anymore? Wasn’t it about time he liberated himself from her and her high-society expectations?
The dreamy social butterfly known as Khun Ying Sirilak—Joy to her friends--never tired of telling him the do’s and don’ts of appropriate behavior, Thai-style. As far as she was concerned, farang like him--never mind that he had been a high school exchange student at her school, was now a teacher of English at a good university and spoke a smattering of Thai—were, well, farang.
He was a guest, a visitor and it was incumbent on him to act like one.
Once a tourist always a tourist? Once an exchange student always an exchange student, was that what it was? John stares vacantly at the human motion far afield, thoughts vacillating. He’s drawn to the pluck and defiance of rebels, but not their manners nor their manner of receiving him. He’s neither tourist nor exchange student but his behavior needs to be in keeping with his status an English teacher at an upstanding university.
No sooner does the beat of the drum, the bounce of the bass and the twang of the lead guitar launch into a rhythmic rock ballad than his feet are in motion. Demonstration here I come! His pulse quickens as he hurriedly works his way down a congested staircase to street level where he lets himself get caught-up in a slow-motion stampede.
Bolstered by the irresistible idea that Joy would not approve, he overrules his own better judgement. Ideally, he would consult with Sombat first, better yet they would attend the rally together; when venturing into the unknown it was comforting to be with a trusted friend who had your back. But Sombat was out of town which left John with no controlling authority to consult other than his own conscience. In search of something elemental, illicit and raw, John joins in. Pushed forward against his will by the wall of bodies behind him, he momentarily panics. He’s no longer an autonomous individual but part of a heaving, pulsating thing. It’s too late to retreat, but equally impossible to hold his ground, his moves are cued by others. He settles into an erratic lockstep with a gaggle of strangers, and he soon finds himself thrust into the middle of the street facing down an angry wall of stalled vehicles.
A rogue truck, insensitive to the sight of hundreds of bodies in its path, comes careening down the road, spewing a trail of black diesel exhaust in its wake. John is among the clutch of petrified people who watch the oncoming truck with horror and disbelief, until it is brought to a halt by the suicidal refusal to budge on frontline protesters. Brakes screech to a halt and collision is narrowly avoided. A spontaneous cheer goes up, and for a mad, fleeting adrenaline-driven moment John cheers, too, shedding fear in concert with the others. Traffic piles up behind stalled traffic; no one’s going anywhere fast anymore. The mood is at once defiant and euphoric and John finds himself caught up with the zeal of the marchers, the contagion of the crowd
The downtown crossing was now pacified, staked out and occupied, all the usual traffic backing away or brought to a rumbling halt. But what about the police? Back home in LA, John had an instinctive dislike for police and he worked on the assumption that the feeling was mutual. But he was in a foreign country now. What if he got singled out, roughed up or arrested? Joy was always reminding him he was an “honored” guest and maybe Joy had a point. He wasn’t just another person, he was a person accorded certain privileges. Because he stuck out like a sore thumb, his every little action and reaction was magnified and on public display. He might be braving the same hot sun and inhaling the same exhaust-laden tropical air as the Thai crowd, but it didn’t make him one of them. He was not one of them, but he was in their midst and among them, so tightly hemmed in it would have been hard to depart had he wanted to. Surrounded and enveloped by the surging mass with no easy exit in sight, John ceded his will to the others.
What choice did he have, really? Without as much as willfully lifting a foot, John found himself being inched forward by the joint will of the crowd as it pressed closer and closer to the police cordon. Buffeted by warm bodies, half-hidden under a hodgepodge of hand-painted posters and placards, he was taken by surprise when the crowd lolling around him suddenly exploded without warning, charging the police line. When his section of the crowd came face to face with the men in khaki, John expected, in the very least, for clubs to start swinging and guns to be drawn, but mercifully nothing happened. After a moment’s impasse and some polite pleading on the part of the crowd facilitators, the police stepped aside, avoiding conflict.
The one member of the protesting crowd with a foreign face did not go unnoticed, and John heard a variation of the usual “farang this” and “farang that” being muttered as he passed the police, but he didn’t want to ruin the inherent victory of the moment by dwelling on possible insults. He let it go, not wanting to bring any more attention to himself than necessary. One security officer glared at him with unblinking malevolence, like a lizard in a suspended state of energy-saving repose, but he did nothing to stop him.
The cops looked none too happy, but they had adopted a passive, if not entirely neutral stance. Gauze facemasks dangled below their chins as they puffed away on cigarettes, faces locked in a poker-faced expression of restrained contempt.
The rock band was playing full bore now. In contrast to the tension on the perimeter, where the ranks of protesters were thin and contested, the atmosphere in the middle of the demonstration where the perception of safety in numbers prevailed, things were relaxed, if not outright festive. Keen to get away from the cops, John burrows deeper into the heart of the protest grounds, aiming to reach the stage. As he gets closer to the core of the protest, he edges his way past motley groups of protesters, male and female, young and not-so-young, seated in affinity groups, clustered into various contingents.
Already there were food vendors setting up pushcart stalls, while protesters made themselves comfortable sitting on the dusty ground, gathered in affinity groups identified by banners and posters, bringing a sense of decorum and order to what at first glance was anarchic and unruly.
Students dressed as students usually dressed were few and far between, but there were people from all walks of life: blue collar and white collar, fashion of the mall and fashion of the street. There was too much to take in all at once so after scanning this way and that, John ended up focusing on an eye-catching contingent of barelegged, scantily clad women of unknown provenance.
What was going on here? The section closest to the stage was simply packed with pooh-ying. What was with all the taut skirts, cut-off shorts and leg on display? Deeming it a sociological phenomenon worthy of more in-depth investigation, John moved closer. There was an earthy, sensuousness to what he was seeing. The threadbare outfits and unadorned faces came across like a pointed rejection of the fashion-driven ethos of the shopping malls that surrounded them.
The band played on, with periodic interruptions for announcements. The crowd was spirited but respectful and attentive to the speakers who spoke from the stage. Seasoned activists, some bearded, some getting on in years, seemed to have been dispersed amidst the inflow of onlookers and supporters, doing their best to keep things under control.
Aching to get out of the sun and perchance find a place to sit down, preferably with bit of elbow room, John stepped over the low rope blocking entry to the backstage area. No one seemed to notice or care so he continued to probe, gingerly stepping past dull-eyed radicals, grungy peaceniks, vigilante muscle and various hangers-on. Trying to be as inert as possible in an otherwise polarized atmosphere, John happily assumed the role of dumb foreigner. He raised his hand to wai anyone who caught his eye, and even went as far as raising a fist, as if to show solidarity and support of the cause, whatever that cause may be. Reconnoitering stage right, he watched without watching the body play and sensual swaying of a group of women who danced in a tight circle with carefree oblivion, laughing, cackling, tickling and teasing one another as if the rest of the world was not there.
So much leg, so little latitude, such short skirts, so little flirtation. Strange as it might seem, he seems to have stumbled into a delegation of “sex workers.” It’s not that he knew a whore when he saw one; it was the placards the girls waved and held aloft that self-identified them as such.
“Sell my body, not my soul!”
“Prostitution not crime.”
“Respect Sex Worker”
The unlikely intersection of politics and pussy was tantalizing. What was this little shindig, this little sideshow all about anyway?
The opening chords of a classic folk-rock ballad cause John’s ears to perk up. It’s a tune he knows from guitar-crazed housemate Sombat, a tune they’d once argued over a bottle of whisky about. John maintained that it was an old English song about drink, a tune known as John Barleycorn.
Sombat insisted it was a Thai song about a revolutionary called Jit Phumisak, and after a night of raucous argument followed by a brief fact-check on line, it turned out they were both right. A good melody had wavelength enough to encompass and elevate diametrically opposed lyrics
The refrain rising from the series of minor chords is suitably dark and haunting, suitable both to a song about a drunk and an abstemious revolutionary. It’s too sad to be a rousing protest standard, more like the kind of song you play when licking your wounds. it was a straightforward eulogy to a fallen communist fighter, a reminder that rebellion often ended in tragedy.
Feverish from the cumulative exposure to the sun, John zeroes in a shade of a scraggly tree against the back wall. As far as he could see it was the sole tree on the premises, and what’s more, it wasn’t crowded back there. Stunned by the sun, the erratic flux of the crowd and the bombardment of piquant sights, smells and sounds that were alien and familiar in equal measure, he sits in the shade of the tree, leans back against its scraggly trunk and closes his eyes. He recites a popular Buddhist mantra for good measure.
Santi Metta, Santi Metta, Santi Metta
Centering his mind on the Pali words for compassion and peace has a calming effect, and listening to the rise and fall of sounds coming from the crowd, John can almost imagine himself at one with the world around him.
Peace and compassion, peace and compassion…
“Uh, what?” John is startled. The spell of the mantra, so efficacious in isolation, is rudely broken.
“Hey, you!” repeats the gruff voice.
John opens his eyes and looks up.
Standing above him is an older guy with rugged features, wild hair and a wispy beard. He looks like Thailand’s answer to Che Guevara.
“Where you from?”
Somewhat unreasonably, perhaps because he got asked it so often, John recoils from the question. To talk about nationality was to increase the distance and trade in stereotypes. What’s more, the man asking seemed to have an agenda, judging from the stark words on his black T-shirt:
DESTROY AMERICAN IMPERIALISM!
“Where you from?”
“Nowheresville,” John joshed. “Hey, man. Nice shirt!” he adds, cupping his eyes to shield the brightness of the sky behind the man who stood in silhouette behind him. Intimidated but trying desperately to show it, John keeps his tone jokey and evasive. He makes a bid to neutralize the topic by not addressing the topic. Keep calm. Keep cool. In the face of provocation, was it not best to act unprovoked?
“You! Where you from?”
That does it. It’s time to face his interrogator. John straightens out his cap and pulls his shoulder bag tight over his shoulder. He’s taller than the man, but it’s not physical conflict he fears. It’s the foreign treatment.
“You like Thailand?” The man with the anti-American T-shirt is persistent.
“Yes and no,” John answers, keen not to dwell on what sounds like a trick question.
An uneasy stare-down ensues.
“I am Thai,” a head-banded associate of the man in the T-shirt announces with a pre-emptive air.
“So, I gather…”
“Yankee go home…”
“No, as a matter of fact I’m not.” John lies reflexively. By now a small huddle of eavesdroppers have edged in on the conversation.
“You spy?” asks the head-banded man standing to the side. He’s not smiling.
“What the? No, of course not.” John answers. He is indignant but careful not to protest too loudly. “What kind…what kind of question is that?”
“You support people?” An over-eager onlooker addresses John.
“Me? People? Oh, yeah, I like people,” John avers, shifting gears. “Me and the people, always.”
He’s figuring that a laidback, irreverent approach will get the posse off his back and gradually the interrogation softens.
“Many of my friends are people, you see? I support people. People here, people there, people everywhere.”
His attempt to lighten things up with a paean to global brotherhood is followed by a bemused silence. Even as those who gawked and cornered him disperse, new faces press in close to see what there is to see.