Prasan's Awkward Assignment
THE three men walked quickly around Nungeetai in the late morning sunlight. It was hot and dry; air shimmering, dust rising in little clouds around their feet. They were very uncomfortable. perspiration staining the backs of their freshly-laundered shirts, trousers sticking to the fronts of their thighs, feet sweltering wetly inside their shiny lace-up shoes.
Prasan, the youngest of the three, cursed the minibus under his breath. If it hadn’t overheated they would have finished their tour of the village before the sun got unbearable. Now his superiors from the area health office were overheated too. Quickening his pace to catch up with the older men and mopping the sweat from his forehead with a white handkerchief, Prasan prayed the heat wouldn’t spoil his chances.
He was training to become a health officer and was doing his stint of fieldwork. The two older men had come to check on his progress. It had been tough going, thought Prasan. The puyaiban had told him how unco-operative the villagers of Nungeetai were and he had been right. He had had to use all his skills of charm and persuasion to get them to do things. The fences, for example: he had a real job getting them built. And even when he actually stood over the villagers while they worked, the results were these rickety constructions - barely more than a few posts in the ground.
It was just as difficult with the latrines. He had got the puyaiban to call a meeting so he could explain the workings of a sanitation revolving fund. A committee had been nominated and one of the young men sent for training as village craftsman. But no-one had come forward to ask for a latrine. Yet latrines were one of the things that the area health people set most store by. So eventually he had to go from house to house himself, trying to persuade people to part with their money.
He led his two superiors into a deserted yard and, shooing a flock of chicks off it, pointed proudly to the new concrete slab with its white ceramic footprints winking in the sun. ‘Eighteen more households have latrines now,’ he told them. ‘I am expecting people to build walls around them as soon as they sell their cassava after harvest.
Prasan tried to lead them past Mali’s yard, but the area officers had spotted the new aluminium rainwater gutters glinting in the sunlight and had already opened the gate.
Mali was there, relaxing up on his shady balcony, cracking groundnuts and dropping shells to the earth below. He was one of the richest men in the village, with a big. airy house built of the finest dark teak and over thirty hectares of rice, cassava and sugar cane. His yard, on the edge of the village, was surrounded by banana trees, whose big flat. lush-looking leaves were a welcome contrast to the dusty red ground.
On the other side of his yard, opposite the house, another - even bigger - house was beginning to rise from the earth on thick wooden stilts. Yes. Mali was rich all right, thought Prasan. But he was stubborn, too. Prasan’s best efforts at persuasion had not managed to convince him to install a latrine.
Mali spat delicately and precisely through a crack in the floorboards, popped a nut into his mouth and clambered down the steps to greet them. So, it was that pushy young student come to lecture him about latrines again, he thought to himself. But who had he brought with him?
‘I see you are admiring my gutters,’ he said aloud, as his wife appeared from nowhere and began silently to dust off the table under the house and offered them water from a glass jug. ‘Clear, cool rainwater.’ announced Mali, gesturing at the jug. ‘Straight from the sky, through the gutters and into my water jars. ‘And did the village craftsman make the jar for you?’ asked one of the area officers politely. ‘No.’ Prasan interjected nervously before Mali could reply. ‘The craftsman was only selected recently. And he has been concentrating on building latrines. There are no government tanks or water jars in the village yet.’
Mali’s eldest son - on his way home for lunch - passed the three neatly-dressed but perspiring officers on the path and found his father at the gate staring after them. ‘What did they want?’ he asked.
Over lunch they discussed the visit. The two strangers were area health officers, Mali told him. They had come to see what progress the student had made in helping Nungeetai become what they called a ‘model village’. Apparently model villages had special fences round each yard, ditches on either side of their roads, signs beside every gateway saying who lived there, a drug co-operative, water jars and latrines. ‘They were very insistent about the latrines,’ said Mali. ‘They said that installing a latrine can prevent all kinds of disease.
‘How can it prevent disease?’ asked his son sceptically. His father explained that it was very complicated and he couldn’t remember exactly, but it was something about rain washing shit from the bush into the lake where it got into the fish. When people ate the fish it made them ill. The way to stop getting ill, was to stop going to the bush. It seemed to make sense when the health officer explained it,
he said. He was considering having one built as soon as the work on the new house was finished. ‘I’d like that,’ said his wife quietly. ‘I’m tired of washing in the open. I’d like a proper bathroom to wash in, like people on television have.’
Their son was still not convinced and the mention of television made him even less enthusiastic. ‘If it’s shit being washed into the lake that causes disease, then it can only be prevented by the whole village getting latrines,’ he pointed out. ‘I think we’d be much better off spending the money on a television.’
The puyaiban stepped out of the latrine, letting the corrugated iron door clang shut behind him. He blinked, his eyes readjusting to the sunlight, and saw the three health officers slipping off their shoes and beginning to ascend to the shade of his brother’s house. Wiping his hands quickly on the back of his trousers, he hurried up the steps after them, anxious to be introduced to the important guests.
Everything was ready: soup steamed in bowls and rice in baskets; there was grilled fish from the lake, mounds of fresh salad leaves, little bowls of chilli sauce. Iced bottles of Coca-Cola were opened and waiting. Prasan greeted him with a smile and, with a little bow, turned to his two superiors. ‘May I introduce Narogrit the puyaiban, his brother and also his nephew who is the village craftsman - he went for training three months ago and helped build most of the latrines you have seen. He is also one of the village health communicators.
The wooden axle of the well squeaked as the iron handle - worn smooth and silver by countless hands - was slowly turned. A flock of ducklings waddled in the little patch of marshy ground. And there always seemed to be a queue, thought Jitema, parking her barrow of plastic canisters behind a group of young girls with poles and pails, and going to squat in the shade of a huge gnarled acacia tree.
Jitema reached into the breast pocket of the man’s shirt she wore, loose and long over her pasin, and extracted the letter for the thirtieth time. The folds in the paper were brown with dirt and the ink was smudged from sweat seeping through from her body But that didn’t matter. She knew the words by heart, It was from her daughter, Amora. It said she was coming home in four months time - and that she was bringing two thousand ba/it with her. ‘I want to give it to you as a gift,’ said the letter. ‘Something to repay you for all you have given me.’
Perhaps it was going to be a good year after all, thought Jitema, staring over the lake to the papaya tree that stood like a lone sentinel marking the beginning of her land. The rice had grown well and her sons calculated they would even be able to sell some this year. And their experiment with a few hectares of sugar cane looked like it would pay off too. And now Amora - beautiful, hard-working, soft-
spoken Amora - was coming home again.
Jitema hated the thought of Amora living on a building site in Bangkok. Having done it herself when she was younger, she knew the dangers well: falling rocks and girders, rusty nails, dust and fumes by day; pickpockets, rapists, policemen by night. How glad she would be to have Amora safe under her roof again. And perhaps - if the sugar cane sold for a good price - it would not be necessary for her to go back to Bangkok next year.
She folded the letter again and went to take her place at the well, positioning the canisters, one by one, under the bucket, then hoisting them back on the barrow. Then, back tensed, knees braced, shoulder muscles bulging, she lifted the arms of the barrow and began to trundle it back down the track. The strain made her head throb and she knew her legs would be trembling by the time she had pushed it home. She cursed her age and failing strength. Then thought of Amora’s two thousand ba/it. If she bought a big cement water tank she would not have to push this barrow full of water home ever again.
There was no grand reception luncheon prepared for Jitema when she visited the house that belonged to the puyaiban’s brother. The yard was deserted except for his wife bent over a steaming black cauldron in which saffron-yellow silkworm cases bobbed merrily. ‘Welcome, Jitema,’ said the other woman. ‘Would you like to taste some worms?’ Taking the proffered dish of worms, forced from their silken sleeping bags by the boiling water, Jitema satin the shade and bit into one of the plump, succulent bodies. ‘I have come to ask your son to make a water tank for me.’ she said. ‘The student told me he had been taught the skill when he went for training as village craftsman.’
‘Oh dear, I am sorry,’ said Mali’s wife, stirring the cauldron. ‘He went off to work in Bangkok only two days ago. You have just missed him. I don’t know when he’ll be back.’
A few minutes later Jitema arrived at the puyaiban’s house. She knew it was pointless to complain about his nephew. But she did want a water tank and she hoped to shame him into helping her get one.
The puyaiban’s yard looked like a building site. That was probably because it was a building site, observed Jitema, taking in the truck parked under the bougainvillea tree, the scattered heaps of cement blocks, the twin hills of grey cement and yellow sand. The nodding magenta bougainvillea flowers were already dulled by a grey film of cement dust and hens cowered nervously under the house, frightened by the unfamiliar activity.
Four men were at work: or rather, two were working - bare-chested, muscles swelling, spades flashing. And the other two - Prasan and the puyaiban - were watching. Under their gaze a hollow circular structure was rising from the foundations. Jitema recognised the shape immediately: a water tank.
She approached them nervously - apart from the monk. these were the two most important men in the village - and they exchanged greetings. ‘This is a good place for your tank,’ said Jitema politely. ‘The shade of the bougainvillea will keep the water cool.’ The puyaiban was pleased by her comment. ‘It will be a very big tank,’ he announced proudly. ‘It will hold enough water to last the whole year.’ ‘And rainwater is much cleaner than water from the lake,’ added the student. ‘If everyone drank only rainwater there would be much less disease in the village.’ (‘And if everyone installed a rainwater tank as well as a latrine,’ he added to himself, ‘I would have no trouble passing my exams and getting a good job.’)
Jitema saw her opportunity. ‘Yes,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘You argue well, Prasan. I have been remembering what you said at the meeting two months ago. Is it true that anyone who wants a rainwater tank can borrow money from the government and pay it back after the harvest?’ The two men exchanged uneasy glances and the student explained that yes, that was more or less true. The government had provided three and a half thousand baht to start a revolving fund to pay for the materials for one clay water jar and one cement water tank to be constructed by the village craftsman. Two people who wanted a tank and a jar could borrow that money and when they paid it back it became available for another two people to borrow for their tank and jar. ‘Eventually the government hopes the whole village will be drinking rainwater,’ he concluded.
‘That sounds like an excellent scheme,’ said Jitema. ‘I would like to borrow some money from this fund. I would like to have a cement water tank.’
‘So then I asked for a water tank too,’ Jitema told her daughter four months later when she arrived home. ‘I thought I could pay back the money when you came back and when we had sold our sugar cane. And I wanted to surprise you with how modern and smart your old mother’s yard had become.’
It was dark and the two women were bending over two clay braziers, their faces blushing in the warm red glow from the coals. 4Jitema was stirring sizzling bits of garlic and chilli in a wide shallow pan. Amora beat a bowl of eggs into a froth. Jitema looked fondly into her daughter’s face - she seemed tired from her journey, but bright-eyed and plump-cheeked as ever.
The student said I would have to wait,’ continued the older woman, adding strips of chicken to her pan. ‘The first tank was going to the puyaiban and I could have mine as soon as he repaid the money to the fund and when the village craftsman came back from Bangkok.’
Amora looked puzzled. ‘But the puyaiban is not a poor man. He does not need to borrow money to buy a water tank,’ she said. ‘Yes,’ said Jitema. ‘I didn’t understand either. But the student told me that he was going to leave the village soon and so it was important to get the scheme started before he went.
‘And how did the puyaiban manage to build his tank if the craftsman was living in Bangkok?’ asked Amora. ‘Well, that’s easier to explain. His son had learnt how to make them when he was working in Khon Kaen,’ said Jitema. ‘But why couldn’t he also make my tank? Why did I have to wait for the craftsman to come back from Bangkok?’
‘Of course.’ said Amora, ‘if you were not getting your tank, the puyaiban would not have to pay the money back so soon...