part one: letting go
Was Gandhi aware that the currents of micro change he worked for would become macro currents that would reverberate for decades after his death?
A teacher once spoke to me: ‘There’s only one person you can change in this world: yourself.’ So that’s what I did. And although it’s opened me to criticisms of selfishness, I’ve let go of all my grand causes, checked that the world still continued after I stopped trying to prop it up, and then opened my eyes to the demons that stopped me being the person I wanted to be.
During the five years since then, I’ve almost completely stopped following the news, which tells us as it does how panicked we should be about the state of our neighbourhoods, local and global.
When I tell people that, they look at me funny.
part two: beggars
Call me hard-hearted, but the one-armed beggar that drags himself, face-down, around Pratunam, Bangkok, doesn’t really affect me. It’s too staged. The only reason this guy decides to move back and forth over the bridge all day—instead of sitting cross-legged like all the other beggars—is to evoke pity. He wants to emphasise his one-armed-ness. ‘If only I had two arms, dragging myself face-down along the streets would be really easy!’ Fair enough, he has a business to run, and this is what he does to maximise profits. But I don’t like being manipulated.
What has never stopped affecting me, however, is the rubbish people. Now there are two types of rubbish people in Bangkok. First, there are those that ride the great stinking green lorries, stained brown and grey as they spew out thick black exhaust into the grey dawn. I’m not talking about these salaried collectors, who have protective hand gear.
I mean the second type, the ones that sort the bins before those professionals get there. The ones who are so desperately poor that they pick through my garbage, hoping to find something to wear, or to sell to the recycling centres.
I’ve wanted to help these people, who instead of crawling around with a begging bowl are doing something constructive for the city. Many times I’ve wanted to run over to them, weeping, and empty my wallet into their filthy hands. But something about that never quite felt right.
Enter Khun Manakham. When I sat down outside Hua Lamphong train station for part of my four-hour wait for a train to Laos, I saw him bin rummaging. When he didn’t find anything, he sat down opposite me, and rolled a cigarette. Our eyes met, and held each other for longer than the time allotted us by convention. Our smiles met each other too.
For the next five minutes, I wrestled with how I could give him money. With whether I should give him money. But at last, it came: he would be my model, and I would pay him.
The results are technically poor and not even very well composed, and I certainly wasn’t brave enough to start messing around with a new off-camera flash that I’ve bought. But this stands as the first in what I hope becomes a series of portraits of the kind of Thai people you don’t see in Siam Paragon.
(Click to zoom in.)
I gave him a hundred baht, an amount that approaches a day’s wages for a labourer. Or approaching the price of a small beer in Siam Paragon. And his eyes lit-up: ‘I can eat!’