Thursday, 8 February 2007

There Go the Mango Trees!

It’s what I’ve been dreading for ages. As I sit upstairs at my desk, I hear the dreadful moan of the chain saw and go outside onto the verandah and look down over our vegetable plot to the end of our land. Yes, they’re cutting down the mango trees.

It was over a year ago that a wizened little old man came and started cutting down the two great towers of bamboo that stand just outside our far boundary which nicely screened us from the next farm house. I went down to talk to him as he toiled away and he told me that next in line for the chop was the three big mango trees next to the bamboo. “They’re too old and they’re going to die anyway,” he said.

I asked him what he was going to plant in their place. “Mango trees,” he told me.

Appalled, I mentioned this awful prospect to Cat but she didn’t seem unduly bothered.

“It’ll spoil all the greenery we see from the house and open up the mess of the house beyond,” I complained. “Couldn’t we offer him something to leave them standing?”

Cat was appalled at my suggestion. “Cannot,” she said. “Graeng jai! Must think of him… let him do what he wants. Anyway, this old man very rich… not need your money… have seven cows!”

“But he’s as old as the hills and I could save him the sweat of doing all that work and save the bamboos too,” I pleaded without any success. But I’m only a farang, an interloper in a Surin village whose small affairs will flow whichever way without any stirring from me.

Then to my relief he didn’t cut down the mangoes and perhaps because the price of sugar is buoyant with the new market in ethanol fuels, he planted sugar cane instead. Now almost a year later this has been harvested and the land is bare. Although you can get a further crop from canes that have been cut, it looks as if they’re clearing the land for something else, perhaps returning to the original plan for more mangoes.

Now, today I stood on my upstairs verandah as the first mango tree screamed in pain and plunged to the earth with a mighty crash. Kicking up a cloud of dust, its earthy smells wafted back to where I was watching from the house. I then continued writing at my laptop as they cut at the second tree until I knew its time had come and watched it too plunging earthwards, kicking a big hole in the greensward that surrounded our land. Though it now gives us a glimpse of the rice fields beyond, I’m glad that for some reason they have so far spared the third mango tree the same awful fate.

Looking down at our terrace and at the dry, grassy slope beyond, there’s the usual party in full swing consisting as always of mothers and babies, assisted by sundry old grannies. The house is never empty and we’re never alone. Everyone seems to have a baby, though there are few fathers around as they’ve either fled the scene or are away working in Bangkok. It’s mainly women and children and old men round here, and they’re pretty poor, though there are some compensations. With time and good company never in short supply, parties like this one are among them.

Sitting on the mat on the grass are Cat’s Mama, a sweet and gentle woman who has heroically raised seven children, together with Cat and a couple of girlfriends and an old soul of eighty one who seems to be the centre of attention. She can hardly walk but as she is one of the elders, Cat sent for her and had her wheeled round on our rot ken or push cart. She sits thoughtfully pounding betel leaves and lime in a tiny pestle before wrapping a slice of betel nut and placing it in her cheek. This ritual is unvarying and essential and clearly a great comfort to the older folk of my vintage. Cat tells me she was a teacher and that she came to the area with her husband when there were tigers and elephants at large to clear the forest for rice fields. The sheer scale of the work and of ploughing and growing rice without mechanical assistance leaves me breathless with admiration.

The old couple survive with great dignity but life has had its setbacks. They had five daughters and though all married only one of the husbands is still alive. The four have since died of diabetes, liver failure and unnecessary accidents. The sole surviving son-in-law is a likeable rogue who funds his lifestyle by selling off his wife’s rice land to pay the installments on his pickup. The old man wept when he told Cat how once he was rich but that now the family had almost nothing left with their rice land, the source of life and survival, all but gone.

This couple were two of the first people I met when first Cat brought me to the village to meet her family, me a strange and greying suitor for this energetic and captivating young woman.
She and I had transgressed by being together without formal sanction so now was the time for the elders to review our relationship, to predict our future and perhaps to bless our union.

Cat didn’t tell me what exactly was going to happen that night but made sure I was around when the four elders came and sat in a huddle on the floor at the back of the family house by the light of a naked light bulb. By the time I was called in to sit with them, there were some bits of dead chicken scattered around and they were all talking animatedly. One of them was the ancient teacher, now one of my favourite people, together with her bright eyed pixie of a husband. One by one they inspected the gizzard of the chicken and finally delivered their verdicts. There was much talk and waiing and tying of string on wrists, while I was left mystified as they hobbled away, not understanding a word of what had been said. My Thai was progressing quite well but it availed me nothing as they were speaking a babel of Lao and Suay.

“They say we okay,” said Cat, encouragingly. “Can stay together. Maybe later you go back to your own country but no problem, you and me, at least if I don’t talk too much.” I later got the picture that Cat had a reputation in the village. Her family called her ‘Pok-Pok’ and at school she was called Gas, for exactly the same reason. Four years later she and I are still together and the truth is that I still love her for talking too much. And as I stand on the upstairs verandah looking at the little party playing out on the mats below me, yes I can certainly hear that Cat is contributing well to the conversation. But then so she should be. She now has the best house in the whole village and is a notable personality much to be reckoned with.

It’s strange though that nobody seems the slightest bit bothered about the sad loss of the mango trees. Perhaps they’ll yield some good charcoal and a bit of extra land for cultivation. They look at me as I complain at this unecological vandalism, eyeing me and thinking, “What’s the farang making all the fuss about this time?”

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