The Jar That Somsak Bought
KRITSANA put the last little dish of relish on the dented enamel tray and placed it ceremoniously in the centre of the low bamboo table. Then, crouching over a smoke-blackened basket that steamed over a cauldron of water, she lifted the lid and divided dollops of hot sticky rice between four smaller baskets, After she had arranged these around the tray, she walked over to Visuth and tried to attract his attention.
It wasn’t easy. He had come back from Khon Kaen with the latest supplies of building materials and was directing operations. Legs apart, bare feet planted firmly in the mud, he was gesturing emphatically with his spade and shouting instructions to his team. His back, gleaming with sweat, was bared to the morning sun and a cerise and green checked scarf was tied loosely around his head in an untidy turban.
The team - a group of five younger men, similarly turbaned in multicoloured scarves, but sweating rather more profusely than their foreman - tripped over one another as they all tried to perform their various tasks in the small space in the corner of Kritsana’s yard. Two were digging a neat square hole - and, in the process, creating a not-so-neat mountain of mud and rubble. How, Kritsana wondered with a little sigh of resignation, watching the mountain grow and its edges begin to encroach on her vegetable garden, how had such a mountain ever fitted into the hole in the first place?
Another two men were mixing cement, their bodies grey from the dust that billowed up as they emptied sacks and slopped water. The final member of the team was busy creating a second mountain beside the first, transferring - by the barrow-load - a heap of stones dumped by a truck outside her gate the previous evening.
Kritsana waited patiently for a while, then wandered over to the fence where a group of small children squatted in the mud watching the entertainment. ‘They are digging my latrine,’ she explained proudly. ‘They say it will be finished by sunset.’ The children stared at the men, their eyes widening with amazement and disbelief. Looking at the chaos in her orderly yard, Kritsana had to share their cynicism. It looked as though it would take weeks to transform the various untidy mounds of material into anything even remotely resembling a latrine.
The team was back at work and Kritsana was washing their plates when Somsak, the village treasurer, arrived. The commotion could be heard as far away as the co-operative store and he had decided to check on their progress. She tipped soapy water from one plate onto another and swirled it around with her hand before rinsing it off with clean water. Then, wiping her hands on her pasin, she stood upright and watched Somsak’s angular body pick its way towards her over ruts gouged into the mud by the stone-laden barrow. ‘Ah, good morning, Somsak. Have you come to help them dig?’
Somsak tapped the ledger book under his arm. ‘I’m a man of numbers,’ he said, with a twinkle. ‘I believe people should stick to what they are good at. Now, perhaps if I were better at digging I would be able to afford a new latrine too.’ Kritsana laughed and offered him a seat unrolling a colour-woven plastic mat over the table for him to sit on. She knew that wasn’t the real reason he couldn’t afford a latrine. Last year’s cassava glut was the real reason.
For once, Somsak’s calculations had been wrong. He had turned almost two-thirds of his land over to cassava, only to find that others all over the country had made exactly the same calculations and the market was flooded with cassava. A lot of people had lost money that year. On balance Kritsana w~s glad her family had decided to stay with rice: you could not sell it for much, but it was less risky than cash crops like sugar, cassava and corn and at least you could eat it.
Somsak nodded towards the frenzied activity in the corner, ‘I see Visuth appears to have discovered a talent for leadership,’ he commented wryly. And Kritsana laughed again, remembering how strenuously Visuth had opposed the latrine fund when the puyaiban first suggested it. Now here he was, more committed than anyone else in Gudpiakorn - hiring trucks, ordering cement, and planning to descend, with his team of volunteers, onto another twelve households by the end of the month.
Visuth heard them laughing and turned to raise his hand in greeting, watching Somsak take a pair of heavy black-rimmed spectacles from his breast pocket and open the ledger on the table beside him. The spectacles only had one arm and he balanced them on his nose with difficulty,
tilting his head slightly to stop them slipping off, while he entered the details of Kritsana’s loan from the sanitation fund at the bottom of the page.
Pen in hand, spectacles askew, bent low over columns of names and numbers, Somsak was a familiar sight: in the co-operative shop at the end of the week, checking on the takings; squinting at the bottles of pills in the drug co-operative cabinet to make sure the amounts tallied with the record book. He was one of the poorest men in the village, but people trusted him more than anyone
Visuth had learnt to trust him too He used to think that anyone with a head for figures would automatically use that skill to steal money from the village funds. But he had got to know Somsak better. Since the villagers had put Visuth in charge of overseeing the construction of the drug co-operative building and, now, of the latrine digging, he had completely revised his opinion of him. In fact, since Visuth had been working so hard for the village, he had revised his opinion about quite a lot of things.
He turned back to the job in hand, lifting his spade and noting with satisfaction the speed at which the younger men were working. He was enjoying himself. It was hard work but he felt a real sense of achievement each time they finished a latrine and he saw the smooth grey slab of concrete drying in the sun with its neat pair of raised ceramic footsteps in the centre. Soon, over half of the households in the village would have one and they would be bound to win the competition.
The sun had dropped low in the sky and a little breeze whispered in the spiky fronds of the coconut palms, leavening the oppressive heat of the evening. The whole village seemed tobe on the move: women with buckets of green leaves suspended from poles on their shoulders; young girls pushing their younger brothers and sisters home in big wooden barrows; boys riding buffalo down to the lake to drink.
Peeboon waited his turn behind the other boys and then submerged his canister in the deeper, clearer water at the end of the jetty. Further along the bank, a herd of buffalo were plunging into the shallows, churning up the red mud, dipping their noses to drink, snorting their enjoyment. And swallows dived and skimmed, beaks agape, through the clouds of mosquitos that made tiny ripples as they dropped down to lay their eggs on the surface. Peeboon felt the familiar prickling itch as they began to bite his bare legs.
Somsak put aside his personal accounts book and stood to help his son tip the water canisters into the red clay water jar at the corner of the house. That jar had been a big mistake, he thought - as he had thought every day since it had been delivered. Five hundred baht it had cost: why, you could get one this size in the market for three hundred. He had assumed the jar would be at least twice as big when he had agreed to buy it.
He would have been better off getting one of the cement tanks. That was what most of the other villagers had. They were more expensive, but they held enough rainwater for a whole year. In another part of the country the clay jar, though overpriced, would at least have been serviceable. But here in the North-east it did not rain regularly enough to keep the jar full, and he was always having to send Peeboon to collect water from the lake. It didn t taste as good as rainwater, and it was often murky after a storm. He shrugged. Never mind. His family had been drinking lake water for years. Another few years wouldn’t do any harm.
Peeboon lifted the last canister from the barrow and handed it to his father - then doubled over as a sudden griping pain twisted his insides into a knot. Somsak looked with concern at his son’s pale, contorted face and raised an enquiring eyebrow. Without a word Peeboon turned and rushed out of the yard towards a little copse of mulberry trees. So Peeboon had it too, thought Somsak. That meant three out of his four children running off into the bush every few minutes. Poor little things. He felt ashamed to see them rushing off like that, so publicly. He sat down with his calculations and did his sums over again. No. No matter how many times had added up the figures. the answer was always the same. He would not be out of debt until the harvest in four months’ time. And even then there would be nothing left over for building a latrine. With a little twinge of shame he remembered he hadn’t even paid back the money for the water jar yet. How was he going to manage through the coming year?
He closed the book on its depressing predictions and opened another, more cheerful, volume. It was the book containing the accounts of the new sanitation fund, Now there was a healthy set of figures. Fifteen people had borrowed from it so far; two had paid back the money already; and the rest, he knew, would have no trouble paying back after the harvest: they were all families with sizeable tracts of good, fertile land. In fact, Somsak reflected, most of them did not really need to borrow from the fund in the first place.
He remembered now that that had been one of the reasons there had been so little interest in the fund when the health worker had first suggested it two years ago. And, were it not for the best village competition, Somsak thought the fund would still not have got off the ground. It was obvious really: those who could afford latrines could buy them anyway, with or without the help of the sanitation fund. And those, like himself, that couldn’t afford to buy them in the first place, couldn’t afford to pay back what they borrowed from the fund either.
It had been the same with the cement water tanks: anyone who could afford to pay back what they had borrowed after the harvest could afford to buy a cement tank outright. And those who didn’t harvest enough to sell, and who had to work for wages the rest of the year to make ends meet, preferred the cement tank scheme. The workers came round once a month to collect payment for the tanks in installments: so they could pay off their debt gradually, month by month, as they earned. In a sense Somsak preferred this scheme too: it meant a lot less work for him. There was no committee to worry about, no shares, no accounts. People just signed up - then paid up.
Somsak looked resentfully at his little clay water jar, brimming now with greenish water.
A meeting had been called - the second in eight days. Tired, smiling, sun-browned faces loomed out of the darkness, their dark eyes and white teeth flashing in the light from the lamp that hung from the eaves of the meeting house.
The puyaiban stood up to speak and the hubbub of chatter and laughter subsided. The competition was only a month away now, he reminded them (though no-one
needed reminding). He had called this meeting to see whether there was anything else they could achieve before judgement day. ‘You all know that the main reason we failed to win last year was because our sanitation fund was not working and because we had so few latrines. This year we have both an active fund and fifteen new latrines. I think we should all thank the monk for allowing us to use the temple money to boost the fund enough for us to build so many latrines so quickly.’
There was a murmur of agreement and the monk - heavy-jowled, benign and lumbering, like a saffron-robed buffalo - smiled and nodded his acknowledgement.
Somsak raised his hand then and the puyaiban stood aside to let him speak. Taking off his one-sided spectacles and twirling them, Somsak stepped forward into the lamplight. ‘I think we should thank Visuth too,’ he said. ‘I know he did not like the idea of using the temple money for latrines at first, but once he had agreed to help, I think he has worked harder than anyone in the village to make sure they got dug in time.’ There was a spattering of applause and Visuth was glad he was not sitting near the light - he did not want anyone to see his blush of pleasure.
The puyaiban rose again. ‘Perhaps, Somsak, you can remain standing and report on the accounts of all our village funds. We should make sure there are no longstanding debts on our books when the judges come round.’
This was the moment Somsak had been dreading. There was only one long-standing debt and he did not need to look at the books to know whose it was. That jar, he thought to himself again resentfully. I should never have agreed to buy it.
‘All the funds are fully paid up,’ he said. Then paused. ‘Except one,’ he added, and paused again. ‘The water tank and jar fund has one outstanding debt of five hundred bob t.’ He paused again, cleared his throat and looked uncomfortably at his feet. A number of whispered conversations started up in the crowd as the meaning of what he was saying began to sink in.
But, before Somsak could finish, Visuth raised his hand and stepped into the lamplight. ‘As I understand it,’ he began. ‘A revolving fund is supposed to revolve. The person who borrows from it pays back the money when it is needed for someone else. But no-one else has asked the fund for a clay water jar - so the money need not be paid back yet.’
Somsak’s downcast face broadened into a smile. ‘Visuth is right,’ he said. ‘Now, if anyone wants to borrow five hundred baht to buy an undersized, overpriced clay water jar, please contact me immediately.’