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Pattaya Daily News

19 May 2007 :: 15:05:22 pm 21264

A Novice

Monsoonal rains chilled the morning. My mother rubbed my bare chest and arms with a steamy cloth which she had soaked in hot water. "Be obedient and subservient," she said to me. "Be good and your good deeds will protect you." All the while tears welled up inside me, but I , forced myself not to weep. A ten-year old boy should not cry at the time of parting. I was to go away from home, to be taken by a monk to a city temple.
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The monk, a native of our district, resided in a Buddhist temple in Bangkok. While visiting our village, he looked for a boy to become his looksith, an acolyte to serve him and take care of his abode.

To give a child up for adoption or to a stranger for money or to those who would buy a child for slavery or prostitution was a common practice among the poor in our area. But to offer one’s son to a monk was merit making, a pious deed that would bring good fortune to parents, if not in this life, at least in the next. So being rubbed clean with a warm cloth and told to be good, I was fit to be taken by the monk. Then mother gave me a new pair of shorts and a shirt to replace the old ones I had worn for months. She mumbled something about the certainty of being bogged down by a peasant life in our village. She said that should I stay, I would become just another brute, but to go away, to find water from the next well, so to speak, I might be fortunate enough to forge a better life. Having said so, she wept, asking me to follow her as she was leaving our hut for the village temple.

How many times had I taken our water buffaloes out to the fields to graze. How many times had I slid down the banks of the stream to bathe and to swim, not knowing that one day I would be taken away to a far off place.

This is the boy,” said my father after my mother had prostrated herself to show respect to the monk.

Without looking at me, the monk accepted the offering and continued to talk to several laymen who gathered there. My parents said nothing more. Being among other people, in front of some venerable monks who were taking their breakfast, my parents minimized their presence, as they crouched on the wooden floor of the temple, making themselves as small and unassertive as possible. A moment later, they prostrated themselves, begging leave from the monk. Without a word of goodbye to me, they left. I shivered. How far away the rice fields and the herd of water buffaloes were then. Yet everyone at the temple seemed concerned with his own duties, attending to the monks. None would be a witness to my final hour of existence among them. None mourned my departure. I could see myself at the edge of a misty swamp, poised to start a journey.

When the monk was ready to return to his city temple, he made a sign with his fingers for me to follow. Outside the temple gate, a woman waited. A few moments ago, she was my mother. At such a parting, she seemed distant and strange. The woman tugged at my shirtsleeve. So together we squatted on the ground. That stranger of a woman scooped a handful of soil, mumbling words of blessing: “May Mother Earth protect the one who is given as a to- ken to serve the holy.”

The handful of earth fell on my head as words of blessing were being blown about by a gust of whirlwind. At that moment I wished I could drop dead, then and there, and remain in the village, a soul without a body, so no one could take me away. Hold fast now, I thought to myself and directed that thought to Mother Earth: I never want to leave you, so protect me always for the sake of innocence.

The whirlwind carried my plea off with leaves and fragments of memories. Innocence. Childhood. Poverty. Simple joy. Life in a village. The man who was a few minutes ago my father was nowhere in sight.

The old run-down bus that carried me off droned and slowly negotiated pot holes and loose stones in the muddy track, while I tried desperately to hold on to images of home, the native songs and the poetry of placid rice fields in all moods and seasons, feeling the immense loss I was experiencing.

I had no idea how far the village could be from the capital, but I longed for a divine power which could save me from having to stay too long in the maze of the city. I longed for the unexpected, which might come by way of a stranger who would say: “I will take you out of here. I will take you back to where you belong and give you back to the rice 20 fields and make the old man and the old woman who have become strangers to you your parents once more.”

In vain. I hoped in vain. For now one became merely a body, a nameless being, walking day in and day out along the same streets, and yet everyone seemed a stranger. Thousands of people went by and yet hardly anyone reached out to meet and speak to one another. Trucks, cars, buses, tuk tuks and motorcycles belched out fumes and noise. Life in the polluted streets of Bangkok.

In time the strata of ranks and duties became the rules of conduct for my life in the temple. I learned to cope with the confinement of a narrow cell with a mat to sleep on. Life in the temple went on as it had gone on for centuries. There was a sense of duty, the bond of having been given as a token to a monk by one’s parents who aimed to gain merit from such a deed. Tea was to be made, the temple ground to be swept, the monks’ living quarters to be kept tidy, begging bowls and dishes to be washed and dried. And every morning, I carried a bucket and food containers, going out for alms with the monks.

I became aware of how susceptible one could be to any sign of friendliness and affection in others. When a foreign tourist who visited the temple smiled at me and took my photograph, the whole world seemed to smile with joy. What would a tourist do with a photograph of a temple boy standing in front of a golden pagoda? Could that blue-eyed, fair-haired farang be an unexpected stranger who might say: I’ll take you out of here”? There were about thirty temple boys serving the monks and most of them, like me, were from the country. Yet I was afraid to ask them about their villages for fear of being told that some of them came from districts near my own, that they would learn in time that I was a ‘give-away’. I was afraid also of homesickness, which might be more than I could bear if some began to talk of their parents and childhood, or when boys from Esarn talked to me in our Lao language.

In time I knew that the temple was not only a sacred habitat for monks, but also a temporary sanctuary for poverty-stricken peasants and wanderers, escaping from hunger and drought. Taking refuge under the roof of the temple, they went out to beg during the day and came back to sleep at night, curling up on the bare earth like stray dogs. When there was enough food, I gave some to them, then sat quietly among them to listen to their dialect. Still I did not dare ask them of their villages and their plight, for fear of being told that they too had to give their children to others before setting out on the road of the homeless victims of poverty.

After several years had gone by, I could then tell the extent of their suffering by the number of peasants escaping from drought. When there were only a few wanderers sleeping among the stray dogs within the walls of the temple, the monsoon was bountiful that year and the year before. Between ten and twenty beggars meant that drought hit at random in scattered villages. And when the temple was full of them, then I knew that the famine was devastating. Perhaps, one day, the man and the woman who gave me to the monk might turn up among the hungry vagabonds, fleeing from their homes. Would they remember me and take me back with them when the next monsoon season was plentiful?

I wanted so desperately to find out where our village was on a map which I discovered one day on the monk’s bookshelf. The vast plain of Esarn on this map did not bear any village names that resem- bled my own. Perhaps it was such a tiny village that it did not deserve to be included. Yet I could not bring myself to ask the monk. It was tempting to escape, to make my way back to my birthplace, if I could. But how?

Years later, I did ask some beggars from Esarn whether they had heard of my village. None seemed to know of it. And I attempted to cultivate one old man who said he came from Surin, calculating that he might take me away with him, and eventually back to his home in a good year. From Surin, I would have a better chance to look for my village. After I gained his confidence and asked whether I could go everywhere with him and accompany him to Surin, he shook his shaggy grey head: “Don’t come with me, child. I wander only to wait to die, looking for a place to die. I won’t go back to Surin. I have nothing left there now.”

One summer when there were quite a lot of vagabonds and beggars taking refuge in the temple, a thought occurred to me that my parents might migrate to the city if drought hit hard in our area. So I began my search for them, going from one temple to another, from one street to another. In vain, for all I saw were hundreds of haggard beggars and homeless peasants, all strangers to me, with a simlar tale of woe which one could read on their faces.

Eventually the monk whom I had served decided to give up monk hood for marriage. Before he went into the world, he forced me to become ordained as a novice. He shaved my head and gave me a set of saffron robes and a copper-begging bowl. “When you reach the age of twenty-one, you will become a monk. You should go to a Buddhist college to move up in rank. You should learn to cultivate followers, a group of influential laymen,” he said by way of a parting gift of advice.

Perhaps that was how he himself got on in the world of monks and found himself a wealthy wife who endowed him with a comfortable modern house in a suburb of Bangkok. I visited him and his wife at their home one day, not so much to see how my former Honourable Brother, the monk, came up in the world or how the well-to-do couple lived, but to find out from how to reach my home village.

I sat calmly on the floor amid the riches of his living room, refusing the comfort of his sofa. On the floor, I unfolded a map acquired from a petrol station near the temple and he made a cross mark on this map to show the location of my birthplace. He told me where to take a bus in the city and where to change on the route for a local bus, where to wait for the village mini-bus which would take me home eventually.

I listened and made a mental note of what he said. All the while that little cross he made on the map became a cross in my heart. It indicated that my birthplace was in the heart of Esarn. The village was so small that it did not deserve to have its name on the map. How names of towns and villages on the route which I would pass echoed! Korat. Talard Kae. Ban Kong. Ban Kong was closest to the little cross and I must not forget it.

I did not stay long in his house, for, in my mind, the journey home had already begun. A day later, I bade farewell to the abbot of the temple, and gave up my living quarters. Barefooted, with a composure befitting a young novice, I turned to look at the temple, the pagodas and their spires for the last time. Sorry, I would not climb the ladders of rank in monk hood, nor would I care to cultivate a group of influential followers and rich laymen, for I would rather go back to that unnamed and unmapped village to look for the old man and the old woman to make them my parents once more. I did not want to have a house and a wife in the city, or a car. For without my people and the land, though poor and barren, I would be nothing.

Not far from Korat, the landscape began to look familiar. The plateau of Esarn spread out endlessly, the home of tussocks and gnarled trees. Here armies had traversed and heroic deeds had been committed. In the east, in an ancient hamlet, ten centuries ago, a shrine of stone was built on the banks of a river by the Khmer people. Vanquished by time, the Shrine of Pimai now stands as a monumental ruin.

From Ban Kong, an old local run-down bus took a rough sandy road to the west, and after an hour or so it terminated in a small village. From here a group of children playing by the roadside pointed out the direction to my village, some five kilometres away. I hastened my footsteps, following a track, crossing rice fields and sometimes through the sparse undergrowth. Soon a familiar landscape came into view. The line of tall sugar palms and the canopies of rain trees were unmistakably home.

The exact spot where the old woman, my mother, had dropped a handful of earth on the top of my head, was still there, looking as it was years ago. Here, we said goodbye and there at this very spot I now made avow, sitting down on my heels with one hand touching the earth, to endure hard- ship, poverty and disease and never leave home again.

At home, an old woman was lost in her concentration of mending a shirt, sitting on a little bench under the decrepit house, mumbling to her- self. Standing still, not wishing to disturb her, I could see layers of years on her. Trembling, she looked up and could not recognise me. For a moment she shaded her eyes with the palm of her hand, searching my face. I, too, trembled, speechless. My tonsure and yellow robe made her prostrate herself on the ground by way of reverence to a Buddhist monk. Standing still, towering above the old squatting woman with the composure of a benign monk, I was not sure, even then, that she recognized me. I had to say, “Mother, I’ve come home.”

During my absence, my father had died. Just before his death, he expressed the wish that he must not be cremated or burled until my return. He said that he knew one day I would return. Respecting his wish, they placed him in a coffin to be stored in a dry place in the village temple.

In the presence of the abbot of the temple and my mother, two men opened the lid of the coffin. For a moment, my heart stopped while tears 28 welled up in my eyes, blurring the vision. For a few minutes, I stood solidly still, rooted to the ground, while the sockets, which once were the eyes of my father, stared at me. My heart cried out: Oh, father, old father, can you see me. I’ve come back, but too late!

I kneeled and scooped a handful of bones and dust from the coffin and walked away. On our rice fields in which father and I used to work, ploughing and planting and harvesting rice, I let go my hand and scattered the remains of my father. For the second time, I made a vow to cherish my birthplace, the land of my father and forefathers. No one can take me away ever again.

Then I took off the saffron robe and said to a mental image of the Lord Buddha: “May I retU1″n to the world, and all men regard me as a man.”

In memory of my father, I ploughed the fields during the planting season and reaped the rice in cool December or trekked for miles in search of water in the height of summer. I could endure the circle of a parochial life. If I had not been away at all, I would have been like most young men in the country who yearn to go to cities. Now, being home, after years in Bangkok, my life in the village had become more peaceful. Contentment brought some happiness and lessened the hardship and drudgery. I viewed sadly, however, young men and women as they eagerly waited for our local mini-bus to take them away from the village to the lure of the cities. I hoped some of them would become rich and influential and yet have compassion for the poor and the ignorant they left behind, that some of them would learn the truth of city life. They should be able to get out of the maze, when they want to escape, when their love of the land grows stronger in their heart.

Reporter : PDN staff   Photo : Internet   Category : Stories

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