It is late in the afternoon. The pavilion is now packed with people. There are about a hundred of them in total. They are talking to one another in a very casual way. A man appears on the front stage wearing a white t-shirt. His eyes show the skepticism of a man in his fifties. But his long black hair still speaks of a youthful spirit. He wraps himself in clothes that might have been described by some as rags. Although he has all the access to modern technology – the internet, cell phones, Skype – he still wears his old mechanical watch: a Rolex Submariner. Gane has his own way of doing things. No one knows his complete background or history. It still rests in the shadow of mystery. But at present, he has been working as an organizer of the Community Organization Development Institute (CODI). Today he will be leading the discussion on what constitutes a “city.”
Starting out with a single word CITY on the white board,
There is a bit of silence as if the question is being absorbed and processed by a huge collective brain that requires some initial momentum to get going. It is a rather hot day and chilled beers are yet to be provided by Virat and the old boys.
A fat lady stands up and says COMMUNITY. So Gane writes it down on the board. While he is finishing up the word, another lady says PUBLIC PARKS. At the same instant, an old man proudly declared: SLUMS.
Gane is now busy trying to write down all the keywords on the white board. He turns back to catch a breath but is bombarded with more words:
HOUSES – FACTORIES
The collective brain is now up and running; there is no stopping now. He quickly writes them all down with fine block lettering; draws illustrative pictures next to them. He does them so quickly that one wonders if he was indeed an architect – according to some legend - in his prior life.
“You have forgotten one thing,” says an old lady as she struggles to stand up. “PAWNSHOPS ….my dear; a very important part of our lives here”!
The old lady slowly lowers herself down as she repositioned the unruly plastic chair with her trembling hands. Gane faithfully writes down her suggestion on the white board.
“What else folks? What about LIVING THINGS?” Gane hints.
ANIMALS shouted one man. SLAUGHTERHOUSE interjects another as if one must find ways to utilize anything that lives.
So in the category of “living things”, we are starting to see words:
ANIMALS – CHILDREN
The brainstorming continues until the entire white board is filled with both physical and social description of the city. All this is done is a matter of minutes.
Gane does not say much; he seems to operate like a machine that is being dictated by the crowd; he simply let the flow of discussion says whatever it needs to say. There seems to be an air of spontaneity in the discussion – like a school of fish that moves, turns, disperses, and regroups without any apparent leader. Biologists still find it fascinating that a school of fish or a flock of birds could move and act as if they are of one entity; as if they are controlled by a collective brain. But whenever they look closely, there is no such thing. Such fascination could also be found here at the forum where one could sense the power and spontaneity of the discussion.
The discussion continues about what aspect of the city that they would like to see some improvement. Since there are people in the forum who came from other parts of the country, they start to ask each other to highlight what is unique about their provinces.
A young man stands up and says “In Samut Songkram, we have biogas. It’s a good way to deal with the garbage issues; it could generate electricity for the community.”
“In the Eastern provinces,” says a woman “we have a saving group that offers child care service for the community; we even have our own private vans service to pick up the kids….this is especially good for our community members who do not have regular day jobs; they could use our collective saving pool to do important social services.”
“That’s seditious!” says a young man in a serious mocking tone “You’ve created a parallel government - a shadow government.”
“In our province (Western), we have a consumer co-op” says a man with a large pair of horn-rimmed-glasses. “We pool together our money to buy rice in large bulks; this way the price is much lower. And we have a stronger bargaining power.”
“We practice sustainable agriculture in our central province. We use organic fertilizer so that we could minimize the cost of purchasing chemical fertilizers. Chemical fertilizer is getting more and more expensive as oil price rises” says a lean middle-aged woman.
Gane – like a good Freudian psychologist - writes down every bit and pieces of information on the white board while his patients lie comfortably on the couch (plastic chairs). When he has finished with all the writings, it’s time for a break. Traditional Thai ice tea is being served on the courtesy of Virat and the old boys. So everyone gets to chill down a little bit – even without the chilled beers.
During the break, people start talking among themselves; they share gossips about who got married, who is in debt, how to pay off the police, how to set up a plumbing line, how to do roof framing etc. It is actually a whole new forum in its entirety. It is also well to say that this informal forum is even more alive and vulgar than its formal counterpart; its noise could now be heard far into remote parts of the town. The evening has approaches. Some people bring out musical instruments and start playing Mo Lum; some could be seen dancing. This informal discussion – “the break” - is actually planned all along by Gane; he has a fine touch as an organizer. He could make people feel that everything just happened on their own; that they themselves are the organizers.
A van arrived sporting a big Che Guevara image on its side door. “A movie star” – says the driver; tapping the image twice in affirmation. I manage to hold my laughter as the large tattooed driver opens the door and proudly describes how he had acquired his new “pop icon” bumper sticker.
“What movies did he star in,” I ask cautiously.
“Oh….he’s like James Bond, you know. I don’t remember what movies exactly….,” says the driver.
Gane gets into the van; they all drove away; disappeared through the exit door of dusk. Nobody knows where they went. Gane – the agitator – has done his job. Like all good leaders, he must leave quickly before being spotted as such.
The informal forum continues through the night along with the sounds of laughers, music, gossips, arguments, foul languages, dance steps, and lovers’ talk.