Whatever happened to the gold-legged frog?

19 April 2010

The short story is the genre at which Thai authors excel. One of the most famous is "The Gold-Legged Frog" by Khamsing Srinawk. It was written over a generation ago but is still well remembered. The story was translated into English soon after it was written and is still in print. It has found its way into several collections of the world's best short stories. There are even simplified versions available for school teaching. The story has clearly won such acceptance because it is beautifully crafted, but also because it says something which is universal, which crosses boundaries.

The story starts with Nak sitting beside a dusty road, leaning on a tree, suffering the intense heat of the afternoon sun, and thinking back over the events of the day. Early in the morning he went out in the fields with two of his five children to catch frogs to eat. He heard the drum announcing a village meeting, but decided it was more important to get a few more frogs. His younger son chased after one that jumped into a deep buffalo's hoofprint. When the boy tried to pick up the frog, he was bitten by a snake. By the time Nak carried him back to the village, the boy was very sick and the local healers clearly had little idea what to do with him.

A neighbour told Nak that he had to go to town because the government was giving a special grant of Bt200 to poor families with five or more children. Nak didn't want to go because of worry about his son. But the village head intervened, telling Nak that he'd be jailed if he didn't go.

The key scene takes place when Nak arrives at the district office. The officials treat Nak like dirt. They make him wait. "Idiot, don't you have eyes to see people are working. Get out and wait outside." They insult him. One asks why he has so many children. Nak replies that he's too poor to buy a blanket so he and his wife have to keep each other warm. It's not clear whether Nak is a bit simple, or whether he is sending the bureaucrats up. The officials make him wait until the afternoon for no reason other than a show of power, and perhaps a forlorn hope that Nak will give them a kickback. Finally they give him the money. Although it's only Bt200, it's more money than Nak has ever had in his life. He sets off home in the searing heat, and we arrive back at the story's starting point with Nak sitting under a tree thinking over the events of the day. "All you do is suffer if you're born a rice farmer and a subject. You're poor and helpless, your mouth gets stained from eating roots when the rice has run out, you're at the end of your tether and you turn to the authorities only to be put down."

The ending is then cruelly abrupt. He arrives back at the village and meets the neighbour who had urged him to go to town. His son has died. The neighbour observes that it was lucky that Nak had gone to town today because tomorrow would have been too late. It's not clear whether that means that the grant would no longer be on offer, or Nak no longer qualifies because he now doesn't have the requisite five children.

A melodrama in four pages. The story is rightly acclaimed for the brilliant depiction of the interlacing of poverty and power. The petty officials are fat, indulgent, and cruel. Nak is baffled, defeated, submissive. When the story appeared around forty years ago, it was celebrated for laying bare the reality of rural Thailand. Reading it again now conveys a very different message. How much has changed.

Of course, the afternoon sun is still blazing hot, snakes are still dangerous, some villagers are still as crushed as Nak, and petty officials everywhere exploit their authority. But Nak today does not have five kids. Families of that size are now rare. He has a secondary education, a pick-up truck, and a healthy scepticism about officialdom. If he needs help, he can talk to the elected representative on local boards who asked him for their vote. The officials in the district office have been trained in service delivery, and been given performance targets. The village has a clinic, and Nak can take his sick son to the district hospital under the universal health scheme. Most of all, Nak's utter subservience, which is the key theme of the story, has disappeared.

But many people seem to think that Thai farmers are still like Nak. They cling to this image. They imagine that the peasants are still poor, uneducated, and crushed. A couple of years ago, Chang Noi heard a prominent politician describing Thaksin's supporters as "the great unwashed." This wasn't a private comment but a statement at a public gathering. He is now a leading minister in the current government. He undoubtedly hopes that a lot of "the great unwashed" will vote him and his colleagues back to power. Indeed, he has predicted that they will. He seems to think he is still in the world of Nak's deputy district officer, who can issue insults at will because his power is secure.

As the redshirt protest has consolidated, these old attitudes have bubbled back to the surface. The peasants are uneducated, stupid, deluded, bought, barbaric, savage. Of course, these attitudes are really a defence mechanism.

The real message of the mass politics of recent years is that people are more aware of their own interests as a result of better education, wider access to media, more income and assets, and growing levels of political organisation. But that thought is too difficult and too world-shattering to absorb. Better to find a deep buffalo's hoofprint and hide.