The Man To Reckon With
NAROGRIT crumpled his empty cigarette packet and pushed it through a gap in the wooden boards to join the other litter under his house. There was a commotion as the ducks, mistaking it for rice or a morsel of chicken gristle, flapped forward to investigate. He stood and stretched, his shirt straining open over his stomach, then walked over to a small mirror on the wall to pat his greased black hair into place.
His wife glanced up from where she was sitting with her grandson and stopped pushing balls of sticky rice into his mouth for a moment. She wondered why he was preening himself. A woman? She would find out soon enough.
Satisfied with his appearance, Narogrit strode over to the assortment of open red clay jars and dipped a battered aluminium bowl into one. Ignoring the mosquito larvae that whirled madly near the surface, he drank, spat, drank again and dropped the bowl back into the jar. Then, calling his dogs and slipping on his shoes, he set off to walk through the village.
Next door to his house was his brother-in-law’s shop - cavernous and dark, motorcycle parked in rear, television positioned near entrance. It was the only house in Nungeetai made of concrete. Narogrit was proud to live beside such a house - and such a man. He was rich and powerful - a good man to have as a relative. You needed such men behind you when you were puyaiban. They helped you keep people in line.
It was harvest time and, at that hour of the afternoon, most people were out working in the paddy fields. Even those with only a few hectares were out cutting rice on their neighbours’ land. Only the very old, the very young and the shopkeepers were at home. Narogrit’s dogs bounded on ahead, slipping easily through the makeshift fences that some families had erected around their yards; sniffing, squatting, cocking their legs, cavorting with the other dogs and foraging for titbits in the litter under the houses.
Old men and women bared their betel-stained teeth in smiles, joined their hands and bowed their heads in greeting as he passed. He nodded regally in reply, straightened his back a little and walked on with his head held high. Yes. Power, respect, status. They were what a good puyaiban needed. They were vital if the villagers were to obey you.
Santi was sitting comfortably in the shade at the front of his shop - the other shop in the village - reading a book when the puyaiban reached him. A tiny, lively-looking man in a neat green shirt - he put down his book as the puyaiban approached and rose to his feet to greet him and offer a seat. But Narogrit ignored the invitation. He acknowledged Santi with a curt nod and walked on.
Didn’t that man ever stop reading? Narogrit wondered angrily. He was far too clever; crafty, always meddling and causing trouble. And since he had been elected as Narogrit’s assistant things had been even worse. If he could simply ignore him it wouldn’t be so bad. But Narogrit couldn’t read or write, so he had no option but to depend on Santi to deal with his official paperwork. That was the trouble when the wrong people got elected, thought Narogrit resentfully: you lost control of things.
Santi settled back in his chair again, watching the puyaiban and his retinue of dogs, disappear behind a thicket of banana trees. He sighed. He was tired of arguing, of fighting against Narogrit. It didn’t do any good: Narogrit just had too many relatives, who had received too many favours for too many years. And it had been going on for so long that the other villagers of Nungeetai simply couldn’t imagine that it could ever change. It had all become so normal that even when they had a chance to vote him out at the last election, they didn’t take it.
Now if I were puyaiban, Santi mused. I wouldn’t waste my time raising money to rebuild the temple. No: I’d get a proper road built, so we could get our rice and cassava and sisal to market - even in the rainy season. And I could have deliveries at the store all the year round. And people could get to hospital quickly if they fell sick ...
A bright-eyed four year-old girl with a coin folded tight in her fist ran up and tugged him to his feet, asking for sweets. And Santi reminded himself again why he would never be puyaiban: he simply refused to spend all that money on a party to make sure the villagers voted for him. No, he needed that money to pay for his children’s education.
But a road, yes, a road. What a difference that would make to Nungeetai. And he stared dreamily down the sandy, leaf-littered track.
Narogrit heard the motorbike long before he saw it: a stuttering, piercing, protesting whine as the machine was forced forward over troughs and craters in the hot sand.
When he recognised the rider, Narogrit raised his hand and waited as the bike skidded to a noisy, dusty halt beside him. A small group of children - thin-limbed, barefoot - appeared as if from nowhere and, giggling and squirming, tried to push each other towards the bike. Narogrit turned and glared at them and they subsided into an awed silence.
‘Welcome,’ he greeted the visitor, who struggled to remove his crash helmet. It was bright blue - a perfect match for the gleaming paint on the new motorbike. ‘Let us go to my house.’ The newcomer dismounted, brushed the dust from his trousers, and, handing his helmet to Narogrit, began to push his bike towards the centre of the village.
His anger forgotten, Narogrit walked proudly beside his official visitor. This was what being a puyaiban was all about: he was an interpreter, an ambassador, between the government and the villagers.
Back at his house he took his wife aside and told her to kill a chicken and to fetch his nephew to get the generator going. He had an important visitor, he informed her, and he would be staying to supper.
Other people heard the motorbike too. Anand, for example, one of the poorest people in the village. He was working in the fields and was glad of an excuse to straighten his back and flex his aching arms. He stood upright slowly, however; with care: having eaten nothing since breakfast, he knew that a quick movement would make him dizzy and faint. He gazed across the fields and spotted the flash of chrome and blue in a cloud of dust on the distant track that led to the village.
He wondered what was happening. Perhaps the puyaiban would call a meeting and tell them. And then again, perhaps he wouldn’t. Anand wiped the sweat from his forehead with the corner of his checked cotton scarf, retied it around his head, and bent again to his work. He. never seemed to know what was happening.
Narogrit’s generator roared into life. Immediately the house was illuminated by the unnatural bluish light of three small fluorescent light tubes in the eaves. And, just as quickly, three halos of moths, beetles and flying ants appeared and began to batter themselves against the lights. Narogrit leaned back, relieved, and turned his attention back to his guest.
‘You’re in luck, my friend,’ said the officer. ‘The Governor has decided to extend electricity cables to go in all the villages in this area. Your village happens to be nearest to the main road so yours will be the first to receive the cables.’
From a distance Santi could only guess at what the two men were talking about. He looked across at the puyaiban’s house and saw them through the balcony rails, floodlit in the fluorescent light, like silent actors on a stage. He watched as Narogrit’s wife appeared from the wings and knelt to deposit a big round enamel tray, laden with small dishes, on the floor between them. She rose, returned with two circular baskets of sticky rice, then retired again out of the light.
He turned away, back to the television screen that sent flickering shadows over the uneven rows of staring faces gathered at the front of his shop. The government people thought that their village had ‘no potential’ for development. But they were wrong. They had simply looked for it in the wrong place: in the puyatiban’s house. The villagers had proved they could organise themselves less than a year ago - when they decided to raise money from the fish in the lake. It had been a good idea; everyone had been involved. But, as usual, the puyaiban had ruined it in the end and people had lost heart.
Seated cross-legged on the floor of his house, Anand reached hungrily into the basket of rice, rolled a small handful of sticky grains into a tight ball with his fingers, then leaned forward to dip it into the bowl of chilli and fish sauce. In the orange glow of an oil-lamp’s small, smoky flame, eight other hands reached into two more baskets. There was a concentrated silence as they ate, quickly at first, to take the most urgent edge off their hunger. It had been a long day. It was good to have fish for the sauce again, thought Anand, dipping another ball of rice into the bowl.
For a while they had had to do without. The puyaiban had decided that villagers should pay for any fish they caught in the lake, whether it was for their own consumption or for sale. The money raised in this way would go to the temple fund. After some hesitation, the villagers had agreed to the idea and a rota of guards was set up to mount a round-the-clock watch on the lake.
At first it had worked. And, though it meant that poorer families like Anand’s had to manage without their fish sauce, they couldn’t complain as long as the money was going towards a good cause.
But one night Santi had surprised one of the guards stealing fish from the lake and reported him to the puyaiban. Everyone waited to see what action he would take. They should have known better. Nothing happened at all: the man was the puyaiban’s nephew. Santi was furious and for a while it looked like he was going to organise a formal complaint to the Governor. But there was no point, really. The most the Governor would do would be to authorise another election. And then the puyaiban would simply be re-elected, just as he had been seven years ago.
Anand had voted for Narogrit then. Almost everyone had. Narogrit held the biggest party; he had experience; his relatives would all vote for him anyway: there didn’t seem much point voting for anyone else. They just hoped he had learnt his lesson after the last time he was reported to the Governor.
He gazed across to the floodlit tableau at the puyaiban’s house and wondered what they were eating. Chicken perhaps, and bamboo pickle, with noodles and lemon-grass soup: not just rice and fish sauce, that was certain. And what were they discussing?
He turned away. Whatever it was, it would be unlikely to affect him. When there were health communicators to be selected and sent for training, or craftsmen, or farmers’ leaders, it was always the puyaiban’s relatives who went. And when there were seeds to be given out, and fertilizer, or packets of supplementary food, they seemed to get them too - even though they could all afford to buy their own seed and food. Last time the agriculture workers came, all Anand had been left was a packet of cucumber seeds. You couldn’t feed a family of nine on cucumbers.
The next evening, as the sun began to sink low and red in the sky, people gathered in a noisy crowd around the meeting house. Narogrit stood on the platform and looked down at them, his shadow stretching long and grotesque over their upturned faces. He raised his hand for silence.
‘You all know how tirelessly I have been working for the village, asking for improvements. Well, finally my work has borne fruit. In six months the electricity cable will come to the village. Those of you who wish to be connected to it should give your names to Santi, who will also inform you of the cost.’
The crowd erupted into excited chatter and a few people applauded. Narogrit smiled and bowed his head slightly, acknowledging their approbation.