After two days in the ICU, my grandmother died at 4 p.m. at the end of May 2014. She was 82. My grandfather, paralysed for eight years, remained unmoved at her easy death. Seven days later, he was also dead. Three or four sets of neighbours organised a quick funeral. It was impossible for my mother to return for the funeral. I saw her cry for the first and last time on Skype.
My grandmother’s death was not entirely unanticipated. She was weak and often ill during the last seven or eight years. My grandfather, who, according to legend, could walk in the rain without getting wet, sat silent and vacant for the last seven or eight years. It seemed as if my mother readied herself for their deaths by leaving me in charge of all family affairs. Now I am the only one left at home.
“It is in the ceiling above Grandmother’s wardrobe, my child. Take good care of it. Make sure not to let anyone see it,” my mother whispered across Skype after my grandfather’s funeral. We were rarely in touch after that.
On the day that my grandmother died, I saw a flock of nearly a thousand birds flying from the southwest to the northeast at a fast clip. I saw a large flock fly past in a panic from the northeast towards the southwest on the day that my grandfather died.
The granny next door is a retired civil servant who makes merit every morning. She said that the flock of birds was actually a swarm of grasshoppers being pursued by the security forces. A special breaking-news report that evening confirmed her account. Plus, there was a scoop about the connection between the special-forces unit that pursued pigeons in the past and the unit that hunts down grasshoppers today. This lined up with my grandmother’s story that 40 years ago it was a crime for birds to fly. The government allocated tens of billions of baht to track down and catch pigeons.
“If you came across a pigeon without capturing and sending it in, you were guilty of a crime. Anyone who allowed pigeons to build nests was guilty of an even graver crime.” My grandmother’s voice was glum. “But I never caught even one pigeon to send to the authorities.” She told me that, the year I was born, “a grey pigeon flew inside the house. Your grandfather caught it and gave it to your mother to secret away in the safest corner of the house before the patrol unit arrived.”
190,000,000,000 baht. That’s right. 190 billion baht. This is the portion of the state budget allocated to catch grasshoppers. I discovered this online late one night before the sluggish internet signal cut out as it was prone to doing during the past several months.
“Haven’t seen this for a long time. It’s good to see them out, heartwarming. These flying things are a nuisance and create too much chaos. They do not know should from should not.” The granny next door murmured in assent over the fence one afternoon when a Humvee from the local Army Circle raced past.
That evening, her granddaughter darted over and rang my doorbell. She stood holding an unbleached cotton bag containing a sealed manila envelope.
“Aunty, can you hang on to this for me? My granny won’t let me keep it at home.”
“This book? Why not?”
Her granny was not the only one who would not permit such a book to be kept. The university was even stricter. The young woman told me that all professors strictly forbid students to carry this book or read it, whether in the library or the cafeteria or on the quad or under the trees. Some books were banned in university classrooms.
“Last week, my friend borrowed it to read before her next class. When the professor spotted her, he bellowed at her across the classroom. “At this stage of being grown up, you ought to know good from evil. If you still love this country, if you still think you are a Thai, do not commit the extreme act of reading to further show off your stupidity.”
“My friend refused to put the book away. She sat and read. Unfazed. In the end, the professor called security to remove her from the classroom. Before they arrived, my friend walked out of the classroom, clutching the book. She did not come back before the class ended.”
Today, her friend returned the book in a fluster. She should read it without delay and then hide it away. When she got home, she told her granny what happened. But her granny was furious and railed at her as if she had physically attacked someone. Her granny issued an ultimatum: she must get rid of the book. She could burn it or bury it. If not, her granny would call the police herself to deal with both her and the book.
I took the cloth bag. She thanked me over and over again and then left, still rattled.
The late-night breaking news on public television was interrupted by an order of the authorities about the prohibition on possession of banned books. The titles of 101 banned books were announced. I opened the manila envelope in the cloth bag just given to me by the young woman. My face burned but my hands felt icy. My sweat formed rivulets. I possessed the 101st book on the banned list.
Before going to bed, I carried the aluminium ladder from behind the house upstairs to my grandparents’ bedroom. The room remained unchanged. The access panel in the ceiling above the wardrobe came out easily. Had my mother not whispered its location on Skype that day, I would not have realised it existed.
I climbed up the aluminium ladder and put the cloth bag on top of my grandmother’s wardrobe. The 2×4 ceiling panel budged with only a slight push. I opened it wide enough to look inside.
The flashlight on my phone illuminated more than 10 pigeons perched on the roof beams. They did not startle in fright, but I still felt guilty for disturbing them. On the left, there was a package wrapped in faded black cloth and tied with red plastic twine. Inside, there were three layers of plastic bags. I put the fabric bundle on top of the wardrobe and placed the cloth bag in its spot instead.
It’s 2am and I have not budged from my grandmother’s reading table. The aluminium ladder remains where I left it. The books in the cloth bundle led me to fly into tales never appearing in the news – tales that my grandmother and I were addicted to as a daily routine of morning, evening and bedtime reading.
These days, to possess books is a crime and to read books is a severe crime. I am well aware of the crime I am committing by reading No 18 on the list of books banned in 1976. I still have another 10 or so books banned in those days to read. The order just announced at 10pm added the titles of another six or seven books from 40 years ago. Never mind. I will read them all.
The afternoon weather was pleasant. I sat in the roadside sala for passing travellers. Suddenly, 10 GMC trucks filled with soldiers raced by on the curvy road cut out of the jungle. They flew past as if fleeing an attack. The soldiers screamed and screamed, their faces drained of colour. The thunder of the trucks reverberated and the dust thrown up hung in the air. Shadows obscured the southwestern sky. A dark curtain swiftly enveloped the sky and a giant bird swooped down. His wings spanned two metres and his sharp yellow beak was curved. The bird perched in the middle of the road as if to wait for the right moment to signal the mass of one million birds waiting, wings spread, in the sky. He waited for the instant he could extend his wings and soar above to lead the flock towards the northeast, the same direction in which the military convoy sped a moment ago. Before the sky opened, before there was time for the bird to fly out of sight, the noise of military trucks tearing down the road heralded the return of the original convoy from the direction in which they had just gone. The soldiers appeared even more alarmed. Some fired their guns in confusion and without direction. Instead of a flock of birds, a line of tractors and pick-ups with men and women with pha khao ma wrapped around their heads picked up the rear of the convoy. Faces filled with fury, they clutched sickles, slingshots, large knives and hoes and spades. They sped past in pursuit of the military trucks fleeing southwest, fleeing away from death. The granny, who stood at the side of the road and watched the series of events from beginning to end, told me to go back inside. “It is not safe here.”
The ringing of the doorbell pulled me out of the sleep into which I had collapsed into at the table. It was the retired civil servant granny. She asked, “I saw the light on all night. Were you unable to sleep or did you forget to turn off the lights?” Before I could respond, she changed the topic. Her granddaughter did not know right from wrong. She asked about our conversation the night before. All I could do was dodge her questions. It was nothing. We talked about missing my grandparents. I did not tell her about the book her granddaughter gave me. Such a day will never come.
Since then, the retired civil servant granny would sneak around to look through the fence at my house two or three times a day. She tried to draw me into conversation every time I went into the front yard. But I gave her few chances. I was happy reading the books my mother had saved for nearly 40 years. I lost track of time as I read and tried to figure out how these old books were dangerous to humankind.
Some of the books led me, leaping, into a world of serious and rigorous knowledge, thought, theory and criticism. The literary books led me, wading, into an imagined world that the law of this country prevents from becoming real. If what such books contained was fiction, they were fictions that blazed a trail to the truths covered up here. Sometimes I read with such hunger that I did not want to move, not even for a second.
One afternoon, the doorbell dragged me away from reading. This time it was the two policemen who regularly patrol the area. “A neighbour called to ask us to check on this house. They worried something might be wrong because you have not been seen outside for many days.” “I am fine. Thank you.” This was the last time I saw the smile and strange flicker in the eyes of the retired civil servant granny. She was the one who called the police.
I finished reading No 63 on the banned books list before midnight. It was the last one. So I wrapped the books back up in the original cloth, changed out the plastic bags and tied the package up with twine. I climbed up to replace the books in the ceiling and take down the book from the young woman. Before starting it, I wanted to Skype with my mother about the books I had just finished and how things were going. Many days – no, a month – had passed without us speaking.
My mother smiled in greeting. She asked how I had fared during the time we were out of touch. But when I talked about reading, she quickly bent down and scrawled a message on a piece of paper and then held it up: “We cannot talk about this here. If you want to talk about it, we need to switch to a different online chat program.” I nodded and changed the topic to the ceremony to make merit on the 100th day after grandmother’s death. She tensed up when I mentioned the retired civil servant granny and the police. “What time is it in Thailand, my child?” “12:30am” She told me it was time to sleep. “If you have time, don’t forget to download new chat programs. We have many things to discuss.” I knew that my mother wanted to talk about the books I had read.
I don’t know how long I was asleep in an empty field without any people. But I recognised the warm hand I felt on my forehead. She held the book tight in her grasp which the young woman had given me. Before I opened my mouth to ask what it all meant, my grandmother placed her right index finger on my lips and put the book in my left hand. She looked at me as if to indicate that I should follow her lead. My grandmother raised her left hand to her right chest, lifted her right hand to her left chest, and crossed her thumbs. Then, her hands rose and fell like a pigeon slowly taking flight. She soon flew higher and higher. I called out to her at the top of my lungs. But I could not hear my own voice and had not even an ounce of strength to move.
Only now do I realise that I was shot and killed at dawn. The retired civil servant granny and a professor from the university where her granddaughter studied came to my house along with 10 soldiers. They burst into the room where I was waking from the veils of sleep to read the book left in my care. A red laser from a soldier’s gun shone in my eyes. A stern voice told me to close the book and put my hands over my head.
Instead of doing as I was told, I chose to stare through the light. In addition to the numerous soldiers armed to the teeth, the young woman was present. She wore rumpled pajamas, her hands were cuffed and a black bag covered her head. She sobbed and sputtered, over and over, in the darkness, “I am sorry … I regret it. I did not think it would turn out to be this violent. Aunty, I am sorry … I am sorry.”
Between the red light of the laser and the wailing of the female student, I saw my grandmother fly past and nod to me to pick up and read that book. When I opened it, the letters surged off the page as if they were a flock of small white pigeons escaping from their cages. Page by page. Page by page.
Pop! From the line of soldiers? I felt a sharp pain in my stomach. Blood seemed to be flowing out from that point. A grasshopper rushed out from the bullet hole. Soon, a hundred, a thousand grasshoppers flew out of me in succession and formed a jumbled cloud with the letters that escaped from the pages of the book.
Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! One after another. In my last moments of consciousness I may have been unable to distinguish between the pigeon-letters liberated from the book and the grasshoppers that flew out of my body. But the red splatters staining the book were my blood.
News at the top of the hour
“Insurgent Judicially Killed for Reading Banned Books”
This morning, officials carried out the judicial killing of a middle-aged woman. The incident was witnessed by a professor from a well-known university. She told reporters that the insurgent hid the 101st book on the banned book list in her bedroom and attempted to resist the orders of the officials who came to search her house. She defied them by opening the book and aggressively reading it. This is why the officials decided to carry out a judicial killing.
A retired female civil servant who saw the incident said that before the officials carried out the judicial killing, the insurgent opened the book and read out loud without fear of the law. As if reading served as the liberation of all the letters on the pages rather than reading to remember or find useful knowledge. The retired female civil servant further noted that from her observations over the past seven or eight years, the insurgent had exhibited behaviour that is highly suspected of being a danger to security, as she had witnessed the postman delivering foreign-language books that she received through a membership. She kept to herself and read books for many years.
You can follow the news once again here at noon. Amnat Rungruang reporting.
Teerapon Anmai is a lecturer and chair of the Mass Communications Program in the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Ubon Ratchathani University
Translated by Tyrell Haberkorn