The night of the falling stars – Manop Tanomsee
17/06/2011 § 1 Comment
‘Hey, you! This is a man’s house, not a urinal!’
‘Oh!’ The man, who wore a white shirt and dangling necktie, stepped back in haste. ‘I’m sorry. I thought it was a rubbish dump.’
The younger man, who had long hair and a long, scraggy beard, poked his head out and shrugged.
‘Never mind. You aren’t the first.’ Having said so, he made as if to withdraw back inside. The man was zipping up his pants as he called out: ‘Hey, wait!’ He adjusted the round bottle he held under his armpit.
‘What do you want?’
The man wearing a shirt went and squatted in front of the man with the long hair, suffusing him with the boozy smell of ripe sapodilla.
‘I’d like to talk to you.’
‘That’s weird! Nobody never wants to talk to me.’
‘And I’d like to come inside as well.’
‘That’s even more weird. People only come here to piss; no one’s ever wanted to come inside.’
‘May I come in?’
The owner of the house pulled his head back inside. The guest opened the rumpled plastic sheet and crawled in.
‘This is a pretty comfy place you’ve got here.’
‘If I can fin some cardboard and some planks, I’d like to extend the floor a little so I can lie down and look at the stars.’
‘The stars? Er, right, I had forgotten there were such things in the world. Believe it or not, I haven’t looked at the stars in twenty years.’
The man with the long hair looked up at the roof and with the tip of his index finger enlarged the gap between two old pieces of cardboard.
‘Look for yourself. Tonight, there aren’t many, because it’s the rainy season.’
The guest moved closer to the gap and, through it, looked at the sky.
‘I had also forgotten there was a sky,’ he mused. ‘Wow, the stars are really beautiful. Oh, look! Did you see that falling star?’
‘I see them all the time because this gap is right above my head at night,’ the young man said matter-of-factly.
‘That’s right. These days, there are lots of things around us we just don’t notice anymore.’
‘What’s this?’ said the young man, pointing at the bottle before him.
‘What?’ asked the man with the necktie, turning away from his contemplation of the sky and looking down. ‘Oh, that… Well, Chivas, of course.’
‘All right, Shiva to you.’
‘But what is it?’
‘It’s liquor. Imported liquor, too, and so expensive you wouldn’t believe it. I’ve drunk half of it already. Would you like some?’
The young man didn’t answer. He grabbed the bottle of Shiva, prized it open, lifted it up to his mouth and took a gulp.
‘Oh, wow!’ he exclaimed. His coarse, weather-beaten hand, nails black with grime, went up to wipe his lips. ‘Can I have some more?’
‘Why not. You can have the whole bottle.’
The young man was nonplussed.
‘Sure. Take it.’
The young man put the bottle back on the floor.
‘Why won’t you take it?’ the owner of the liquor asked.
‘What do you want me to do?’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘I don’t take things for free. If you give it to me, then I must do something for you in return.’
‘Ah! Ah! Ah! What nonsense! You must be out of your mind.’
‘Not at all. They call me the crackpot.’
‘Well, it’s the same thing, really. These days, nobody thinks that way, you know. What people do is try to figure out how to get things from others without having to invest in, or work for them, and the more they get the happier they are.’
‘I don’t understand. In the morning, I’m hungry, so I go to the market and help vendors unload their trucks and they give me some money to buy myself something to eat.’
‘All right, then. I’m giving you this bottle as payment for the time you’ll spend talking with me.’
The young man smiled and his eyes shone. He lifted the bottle to his mouth and took a swig.
‘This Shiva of yours is so smooth!’
‘Haven’t you ever tasted foreign liquor before?’
‘Never. Them trishaw drivers, sometimes they let me have some of their bootleg, but it don’t taste as good as this Shiva.’
‘Actually, I think you’re rather nice, you know.’
‘What d’you mean, ‘nice’?’
‘Er, never mind. Tell me this: do you still feel angry that I peed over your house?’
‘Angry? No. I just pretended it was raining. I don’t know what being angry means.’
‘How right you are. If only we could avoid getting angry, our lives would be so much better. It might even bring us the greatest happiness in the world.’
The man with the long, scraggy beard wasn’t paying attention; he was lifting the bottle and taking yet another swig.
‘Go easy, young man,’ the guest said, patting the bearded fellow on his dirty shoulder, ‘or else you’ll get drunk and won’t be able to do your job to the full value of that bottle.’
The owner of the house, looking scared, hastily put the bottle down.
‘You seem to like reading newspapers,’ the man with the necktie remarked as he looked around.
‘No. I use them for the walls and I also look at the pictures. I can’t read and anyway, I don’t see why I should read them.’
‘Yes indeed. I’m sure I’d be much better off if I couldn’t read. Do you know how much time I have to waste reading every day? Nearly four hours for five business dailies in Thai, and another two in English. I read them from start to finish, including the ads, and I don’t even know why I have to be so thorough. You’ve no idea how unhappy I feel when I’ve gone through the lot of them. My head feels heavy and all I can think of is what to do to beat my competitors.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Of course you don’t, because your world in here is so different from that of the tall buildings outside. These days, we have no time to think, except about how to make a profit.’
‘You don’t understand that word either, do you?’
The young man with the long beard shook his head.
‘Suppose I pee into this bottle of Shiva and claim that whoever drinks the liquor in this bottle will be able to fly and people believe me and keep queuing up to buy it at whatever extravagantly high price I set. Well, the money I make selling the piss in this bottle is what we call ‘profit’, and the higher the price I sell it for, the more profit I make.’
The man with the beard made as if he was going to vomit.
‘So that’s your piss in this bottle!’
‘Of course not!’ The man in the white shirt laughed. ‘It’s just an example to give you an idea of what’s going on in the outside world. There’s no justice as you understand it.’
‘All right, I’m convinced you’re really stupid. But then again, sometimes I tell myself if I were stupid too, I’d be a lot happier than I am now.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘I bet you don’t. There’s no way you could understand. As you just told me, when you’re hungry, you go to the market and help carry baskets of vegetables and earn yourself some money to buy food with.’
‘Sometimes they don’t give me money, they give me food instead.’
‘One way or the other, that’s what we call ‘justice’. But what the likes of me are doing these days isn’t like what you’re used to. What they do is make you unload their baskets and then drive away without giving you money or food because they consider what they’re not giving you as their profit.’
‘Can I have some more Shiva? I can’t make head or tail of what you’re saying.’
‘Sure, it’s yours already. Don’t you remember? It’s what I’m paying you with for talking with me.’
The young man smiled gleefully, raised the bottle of foreign liquor to his mouth and took a swig. He wiped off his wet moustache with his dirt-incrusted index finger.
‘My world isn’t the same as yours. Yours is totally honest, mine is full of lies.’
‘Lies? I don’t tell lies because I don’t talk with nobody. Actually, it’s the others that don’t talk to me.’
The man with the necktie laughed.
‘But you know what? Every day I have to say hundreds of lies. I lie to my friends, I lie to my business partners, I lie to my subordinates, I lie to my children, I lie to my wife. I lie so much I don’t feel guilty about it anymore, and what’s worse, I even order other people to do the lying for me. I suppose you never watch TV?’
‘I do. I watch it at a shop by the roadside where they’ve several screens playing at the same time. I watch until they kick me out because they want to close. It’s fun watching TV. I enjoy it so much. I’d like to have one here.’
‘Well, that’s where I order them to tell lies for me. I don’t know if you understand what I’m saying. The advertisements are all lies, you know.’
The young man shook his head. ‘I didn’t know that.’
‘Of course you didn’t. Millions of other people don’t either, because I ask them to lie as smoothly as they can. If people were aware of the lies, how could I sell my products?’
‘Your piss, you mean?’
‘Forget that, it was only a supposition. What I mean is things such as utensils, foodstuffs and whatever else I can come up with. I get these products to be advertised with big words claiming they are the best this and the most that – whatever it takes to make people buy them in large quantities so that I can have a lot of profit.’
‘This profit must be so damn smart: you keep talking about it.’
‘Right. It’s the smartest thing in the world. And you know what? These days, every time we breathe in and out we turn a profit.’
‘I don’t understand. You mean we can take it in through our noses?’
‘Of course not, stupid. It’s just a figure of speech. Are you still willing to listen?’
The man with the beard nodded. ‘Yes. I don’t get all you say but it’s fun. You’re good at telling tales.’
‘This is no tale. What I’m telling you is true, a hundred-percent true. Profit is very strong, so strong it can dominate the hearts and minds of all the people in the world…’ He interrupted himself briefly. ‘…except you, that is. It can put everybody under its power.’
‘It must have lots of guns, then, or perhaps a magic sword.’
‘Not at all. Its weapons aren’t swords or guns as you understand them, but mere pieces of paper, just like the ones you use to make your walls.’
‘Huh?’ The house owner’s eyes opened wide. ‘Then, I’ve got this profit of yours in here as well!’
‘How come? You just said profit is like paper. Oh, you’re confusing me.’
‘The payer I’m talking about is money. Everybody wants money. Money can make you do anything, even the most evil things. You know, money makes some people commit murder, kill animals, hack down forests or even destroy entire mountains just like that. As for me, it makes me tell lies; it makes me bullshit people so that I get money from them.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Don’t worry. Even if you don’t understand, I’ll keep on talking, because I’ve been meaning to talk like this for a long time. Do you realize how hurt I feel every time I think about what I am actually doing? I feel less and less of a human being every day. I think of nothing else but profit. The bigger my profit, the richer I am. My children have told me they want to go on a trip to Europe this summer. My wife says she’ll never ask for anything else in life if only she had a billion baht deposited in her bank account.’
‘A billion baht? Isn’t that a lot of money? I can’t think that big. I’d be very happy just to have a ten-baht note from time to time. I’d hold it in my arms until I fell asleep.’
‘There you are. These days, I haven’t the slightest idea any more whether all the money I have has got any value or meaning at all. We may grow to be filthy rich, but if we are no longer human, then what’s the point of it all?’
‘You keep talking about things I don’t quite understand. May I take another sip?’
‘You don’t have to ask, I’ve told you over and over it’s yours. Just don’t get drunk too fast, because if you do, I won’t have a friend to chat with any more.’
‘Friend? You think I’m your friend?’
‘Yes. You know, I haven’t got any friends left in my life now – friends who are ready to understand me, and who are sincere and honest. In my circle, friends only lie to one another, always looking for one another’s weak point to take advantage of it. My friends tie me up with words and contracts, and they won’t have any mercy for me. If I falter or fall, they’ll kill me, as soon as I’m no longer secure with my silver and gold.’
‘But I’ve never had friends, not even one. I don’t know if I could kill you like those friends of yours.’
‘I’m certain you’d never do that.’
‘No, I think I’m not hard-hearted enough. During the Chinese New Year, I was hired to cut the throats of the chickens, but I just couldn’t do it. I felt they didn’t want to die anymore than I did.’
‘Right. Nobody wants to die, and nobody wants to be bullied, but all of my friends are just waiting for the opportunity to cut one another’s throats.’
‘When I was a boy, my schoolmates were always bullying me. They’d wait and punch me every day after school. They hurt me a lot. They cut my lips and gave me black eyes. So, I decided to fight back, and after that they never bullied me no more.’
The man with the necktie laughed.
‘My friends have other ways of bullying me. They bully me through business tricks and by cheating me off my share of the profit. Oh sure, we keep smiling at one another, but deep in our hearts we’re always on the lookout for the opportunity to snatch one another’s profit away. I known I’ll never win my friends’ hearts.’
The man with the beard raised the bottle to his mouth and drank up the last drops. His voice began to slur and stammer: ‘You must b-be very r-rich.’
‘I own a very large department store, a soft-drink business, a paper manufacture and two illegal lumber operations on the side.’
‘So you’re a t-tycoon?’
‘That’s right. But you know, the life of a tycoon isn’t a happy one. I’ve got twelve cars – one for each day of the week, plus two for my wife and one for each of my children. My house is so large you feel like an ant when you walk in, and it has nearly two hectares of land to go with it. But you know something? It can’t compare to even half of your home, because it has no love, no warmth. It’s full of stress, rules, and endless longing for even more.’
‘I don’t believe you. I think you’re afraid I’ll turn into a tycoon and become your rival, right?’
‘So you do have a sense of humour after all? Well, don’t you ever dream about it. Even a dream like this is a nightmare. I don’t feel money has got any meaning in my life any more. I keep asking myself why I’m working like mad to get more – is it just to keep it in the bank or to take care of the future?’ He stopped talking for a while and turned to ask his young friend: ‘Have you ever thought about your future?’
The young man shook his head. ‘My future? Is that important? I live for today. When I’m hungry, I walk over to the market and help them wash dishes, so they give me something to eat. When I want to take a bath, I just walk into the marsh at the back of the market. The water stinks, I know, but less than my body.’
‘Sometimes life isn’t as complicated as we make it,’ the man with the necktie said. ‘Where exactly is true happiness? I have more than a hundred million baht to my name and yet no chance to see a falling star or dream in the moonlight. I have completely forgotten there are still many things in the world that can give us happiness. Instead, I have come to think that only money can provide it. You’re right: sometimes, man is too taken up with himself. We don’t only think of tomorrow but of the day after tomorrow, of next month, of next year, of ten years, a hundred years ahead. We work not only for ourselves but for our children, our grandchildren and all of our descendants. If I didn’t think about the future, I’d be much more happy, wouldn’t I?’
‘I’m not sure.’ The young man was casting a doubtful eye on the necktie.
‘What do you call this thing around your neck?’
‘A necktie. Why? You want it?’
‘No. I’m just wondering why you put it on.’
‘Me too.’ He tugged at it sharply and took it off. ‘It’s not too bad, actually. You should see me in the office: I have to wear a jacket as well. Wherever I go I have to dress like this, even though I’m thoroughly fed up and it bothers me no end. Sometimes, I fell trapped in my own clothes as if I were wearing a straightjacket.’
‘But you can’t dress like me.’
‘I can’t, but I still envy you for being so carefree.’
‘Actually, I’d like to dress like you.’
‘Well, the world is upside down. Yeah, it must have been upside down for quite some time. I remember in the days when I had nothing I used to think just like you. I was pining for a suit and tie and I promised myself one day I’d wear them too, but when I was finally able to, I felt like a prisoner in my own clothes. I’m bored with money, I’m bored with my work, I’m bored with everything I’m doing, because I know this isn’t what real happiness in life is about. But there’s nothing I can do about it. Have you ever seen a man riding a tiger? He can’t get off its back. The moment he steps off, the tiger will be at his throat. It’s the same for me. Even though I’m fully aware this kind of life is totally meaningless, artificial and can’t bring me any happiness, I can’t walk out on it. I must go on with it, telling lies, deceiving and taking advantage of millions of people to keep making even more money. I envy you for being able to live happily in the world you’ve made for yourself. But the world has already changed for me. It’s no longer the world in which we struggle for food, clothes, medicine and accommodation, but an entirely new one in which everyone has to fight with everyone else to make as much money as possible.’
‘Aren’t you sleepy yet?’ the young man asked, and yawned loudly. ‘You can sleep here if you want. I’ll go on listening to you until I pass out.’
‘So you’d like to sleep?’ the man with the shirt asked while raising his wrist to look at his jewel-studded gold watch. ‘Four in the morning already. No wonder you’re sleepy. Well, I’ve had my bottle’s worth. You can go to sleep now. I’m leaving.’
‘No, no, I’m still enjoying myself. You sure you want to leave?’
‘Yes, but I’d like to add something.’
‘The world outside is the world of NICs. Everyone lives, thinks and behaves the NICs way, and I’m one of those soulless NICs beings who are being taught only one thing: to get whatever you can without ever giving a thought to how you get it.’
‘You’re using funny words. I don’t understand.’
The man with the shirt laughed and crawled outside through the plastic sheet opening.
The well-mannered house owner also crawled out to see him off.
‘Can I come and chat with you again?’
‘Sure. But you must bring Shiva with you.’
‘And one more thing.’
‘Don’t piss on my house again.’
They both burst out laughing at the same time before the man wearing the white shirt walked away into the darkness and the man with the shaggy, unkempt beard disappeared back into his rubbish dump of a house.
A falling star suddenly shot across the sky…