Prabda Yoon’s sage passes judgment from a park bench.
I don’t have all that much to be proud of, but one memory that still makes me smile to this day is Ei Ploang calling me a good person.
I used to address him more politely as Khun Ploang; the audacious switch to Ei is only a recent development, and one I never would have had the nerve to make without the express permission of the man himself.
One morning in Lumpini Park, Ei Ploang handed me a scrap of paper. “You can call me ‘Ei’ from now on,” he said, “Here’s a letter of certification.”
I opened the letter:
On the 17th of August 1999, I, Mr. Theppitak Rakakart (nickname Ploang), came, by destiny, to meet a young Thai man by the name of Praj Preungtham, a third-year university student. Mr. Praj and I hit it off from the aforementioned date and have since shared the pleasure of many conversations. Consequently, a close friendship has developed. Nearly a year has now elapsed; our friendship remains firm, and is forecast to flourish further in the future, a welcome surprise. Notwithstanding my seniority in age (a matter of a full five years) I hereby grant Mr. Praj Preungtham official permission to append the crude prefix “Ei” to either my first name or nickname, whenever the use of either such is necessary. I swear not to take offense at his addressing me in such a manner. Furthermore, if Mr. Praj does not consider me a close enough friend for us to be on “ei” terms, I shall terminate the friendship and shall wish upon him a restless death without the possibility of reincarnation. I certify on my honor that the words in this letter reflect my true intentions.
Theppitak Rakakart (Ploang)
Ei Ploang’s squiggly signature appeared under his neatly written name]
Back when Ei Ploang was still Khun Ploang to me, his entire body seemed to radiate an aura. He just had to sit there, and it would appear as if a universe revolved around him. It made you wary of approaching him; for fear a meteorite might strike you down. His eyes appeared to house molten volcanoes, or brewing storms, or whirling tsunamis, or high-voltage electricity exploding in a short circuit, or those damned downpours that dump their loads on you then proceed to dribble for the next couple of hours, or black holes ready to swallow up time, or evil spirits lying in wait for any soul that might wander into their reach.
I had to wait until he closed his eyes before I had the guts to go over and say hello.
“Are you sleeping?” I asked, gingerly lowering myself onto the same bench.
“Just resting my eyes.” Ei Ploang answered promptly and clearly, without bothering to actually open his eyes open and examine his questioner.
In those days I regularly woke up early to go jogging in Lumpini Park. School was out, and as my internship hadn’t started yet, I wanted to find a productive outlet for my nervous energy. Jogging in the park was a popular pastime, and apparently just as beneficial for your physical health as for your mental well-being. So I thought I’d give the trend a try myself and give the sportswear stuffed at the bottom of my wardrobe an airing in the light of day.
The first morning I stepped inside Lumpini Park, it isn’t strictly accurate to say that I went jogging. Let’s just call it a reconnoiter before the actual expedition. When I first arrived, I was stunned by the sheer numbers of the park’s exercising population, which far exceeded my expectation. I strolled around and, when I got tired, stopped to take in the birds and trees, the dogs and cats and ants, the way animal lovers do. Once I’d had my fill of the various flora and fauna, I resumed walking. That morning, I never even broke into a run.
As I became a frequent visitor to the park, my leg muscles started of their own accord to yearn for stimulation. Soon I was one of those runners, floating along to the beat of hundreds or thousands of human hearts, moving in tandem like ants in a colony. But we weren’t worker ants. We didn’t run in single file, intent on the survival of the majority. We didn’t carry food on our backs to distribute later. We ran for personal reasons, some for fitness, some for vanity, some to reduce stress, and some to ease loneliness.
Then we all went our separate ways.
I’d seen Ei Ploang several times before I decided to stick my nose in and strike up a conversation. Ei Ploang never ran; he never even got up to stretch. He just sat there scanning his surroundings with his mysterious eyes, as if looking for someone he knew. As far as I could tell, no such acquaintance ever presented him or herself. Or else, nobody ever dared claim acquaintance with him.
Some days he chose to sit by the pond, staring blankly at the ducks and geese and turtles and fish that surfaced every now and then in search of scraps of food. As far I could tell, none of these ducks, geese, turtles, or fish were his especial acquaintance, either. But Ei Ploang always showed up, as if he was sure that one day he would find what he was searching for.
Ei Ploang was, without doubt, a good-looking guy. His eyes were big and round. His reddish-brown skin was smooth in the morning sun. His dark brown hair was razored short on the sides all the way around, sort of like a crew cut. It was plain to see that he didn’t come to Lumpini Park to exercise. He usually wore a white shirt and khaki trousers. Some days he was even more smartly dressed, even going so far as to wear a tie.
When Ei Ploang opened his eyes, I was confronted with a pair of huge pupils staring at my face. They remained fixed on it for several seconds, to the point that I was afraid I would fall into their twin black holes and be devoured.
“Oh, it’s you. You come jogging here every day.”
“You’ve seen me?” I asked, even though I knew the answer.
“I’ve noticed you myself. You often sit here, but you never go for a run.”
“That’s because I don’t come here to run.” When he finished his sentence, his gaze shifted to a new target. Mine followed his out of curiosity.
His new mark was a chubby woman jouncing along the path. A little girl with braids was trailing close behind her.
“See that auntie? If you look with your bare eyes, just a passing glance, she’d appear to be a good-hearted lady—fond of her niece, makes an effort to get up early so the two of them can spend some time together, instilling healthy habits, etc.”
Ei Ploang turned his face toward the sky as if to rest his eyes before he continued talking.
“But in fact, you’d be quite mistaken. She’s a mean one, all right. I feel bad for the kid, having to hang around someone so temperamental this early in the morning.”
“Do you know them?”
Ei Ploang shook his head and stared into my eyes once more.
“You’re a good person. I knew it from the first day I saw you. A little too lazy. A little too inclined to follow trends. You tend to do things halfway, you’re not as focused as you should be. But, overall, a pretty decent guy.”
I remained speechless for a long moment. Not because I was touched by his praise, but simply because I was mystified.
“Look at that middle-aged man.”
I snapped myself out of it and, following Ei Ploang’s cue, turned to look at the bald man running by. His face suggested one content with the quality of air in the park.
Ei Ploang was tight-lipped, so I tried to guess his mind.
“He looks happy, but he’s actually mean like that lady we just saw.” This was half statement, half question.
Ei Ploang cracked a smile, the corners of his mouth twitching up.
“It’s not always so tricky. Good can show itself in the face, too. You can still find it sometimes. That man’s as nice as his face would lead you to believe. He’s a lovely guy. Likes to help others. Loves peace.”
“You come here every morning expressly for this? To see who’s good and who’s bad?”
“It’s a convenient place for it; all I have to do is sit here, and all kinds of people pass by for me to look at. I don’t have to waste my energy traipsing around the streets.”
“Some days I don’t see you looking at anyone.”
“Hey, good and evil aren’t only present in humans. Sometimes I practice looking at other things. The difference is, the quantities of good and evil are never equal in humans, while other things have more of a balance. Good and evil don’t mean that much when they’re in balance. You don’t really need to look.”
Ei Ploang nudged a pebble with the toe of his shoe, and it rolled forward two or three times. “That pebble has good and evil, too. But it’s meaningless to speak of a pebble being either good or evil, because its good and evil are so perfectly balanced as to be inconsequential. It’s doing a fine job of functioning as a pebble. If you kick it, it rolls over. But if I kicked you, you wouldn’t just roll over.”
That morning, Ei Ploang’s special ability didn’t elicit much admiration from me. Instead, I thought what a weird guy he was; he must have some deep psychological issues. Wanting to sneak away from the bench, I pretended that I had to continue running. Ei Ploang responded with a smile and a nod. Before I was too far off, he tossed out a casual remark. “Don’t fear the good in yourself.”
I may have thought he was mad, but his ideas stuck in my head for the whole rest of the day. When I got home, I stood in front of the mirror and stared at myself for almost half an hour, to the point that I lost track of who was doing the staring. In the end, I thought it more likely that my reflection was looking at me.
Come to think of it, it’s laughable that I gave Ei Ploang any credence. In this day and age, we’re developed enough to understand that being a good or bad person doesn’t have meaning anymore. Even if you’re the most heinous person in history, there’ll be others who are cut from the same heinous cloth, allies who’ll go along with your beliefs and actions. In the eyes of people of the same ilk, good can still appear within evil. What’s the point of getting hung up about having to cede the moral high ground when there’s plenty of people to pal around with down below? Let those on the high ground gasp in the thin air. Let them get struck by lightning. What’s so great about that? Being close to the ground is so much safer.
Evil is usually accompanied by ingenuity and resourcefulness in saving yourself, a talent for constantly getting out of scrapes and for pulling the wool over people’s eyes. A bad person can make himself appear good, but a good person will never truly understand evil. Everybody knows that human society can’t maintain its structures on good alone. It’s plain to see that evil is the key component in governing the world. If everyone were good, there would be no politicians, and if this world were free of politicians, human society would lack organization, regulation, and ammunition, all crucial weapons for wiping out a mess in order to start over, for example, by pushing a button to erase all the previous wrongs and start wrongdoing all over again. Evil is the mother of opportunity. Good would never be that creative. Evil is art and entertainment; good is bland and boring.
Why should I care if I’m going to heaven or hell? Both places are founded upon beliefs that are fading over time. Evil teaches people to stop being hung up on superstitions. It teaches us to learn to live life fully here on this earth. Even if you’re condemned to boil in hell’s cauldron or drag your naked body up the adulterers’ thorny tree, you’d be sharing in those activities with your fellow sinners. It’s no different from going to camp. Everyone would rather meet the Guardian of Hell than God, because the Guardian of Hell is humanity’s true teacher, covertly indoctrinating us from the cradle. He stands close by us when we want, when we hurt, when we ache, when we love, when we lust, when we hate, when we obsess, when we’re hungry, when we’re greedy, when we’re angry, when we’re vengeful.
God only watches from afar. He never lends a helping hand.
So why did Ei Ploang’s words strike such a chord with me?
Why should I be proud of being a good person in his eyes?
I’ve been searching for the answer ever since.
Maybe good has a charm that evil doesn’t.
Because good isn’t something that I’m acquainted with.
After that, whenever I saw Ei Ploang sitting there judging people with his bare eyes, I couldn’t stop myself. I had to sit down and scan people along with him, and eventually I started going to Lumpini Park in my normal street clothes, expressly to sit and look at people with him. I’d completely forgotten about jogging.
Ei Ploang never taught me how to judge people, and I never pressed him to.
Once other business entered into my life, I didn’t go and sit with him as regularly as before. I went only on some Saturdays or Sundays when I had the time.
It was on one such Saturday morning that Ei Ploang gave me the slip of paper permitting me to call him “Ei.” I’d deliberately got up early that day, to go to Lumpini Park and see him. I’d never made plans to meet up with him anywhere else or at any other time. I didn’t even have his phone number, this friend of mine. He wasn’t a part of my everyday life. One reason for this was that I feared his judging those close to me. I didn’t want to hear that my mother was evil, my father was bad, or my friend was a low-down good-for-nothing. Even if I had decided for myself that everybody in my circle was a good person, I had to admit that I didn’t have Ei Ploang’s unique gift. He might know better and see more deeply. So, naturally, I was worried.
But Ei Ploang himself never asked about my life outside of the park. He said hi when he saw me. He said bye when I left. That was it.
Ei Ploang never got up from the bench before I did. He never took leave of me first. I’ve never once seen him set foot beyond the bounds of Lumpini Park. Perhaps he lives right in there. I’ve never asked him about his home. Each morning, we were hard-pressed as it was to keep up with the stream of people jogging or walking by. There wasn’t much time left to quiz each other on personal matters.
Even though Ei Ploang gave me permission to call him “Ei,” I didn’t have many occasions to exercise my special right. When we were face to face, there was no need for me to call him by name. When I was with other people, I rarely brought him up, because no one else knew him. Everyone I mentioned him to all thought he was my imaginary friend. No one paid much attention to his name. When I told people at home that I was off to Lumpini Park to see Ei Ploang, they just responded with an ah-ha or an okay, or they’d ask me pick up some food at the park. Nobody bothered to find out who Ei Ploang was.
After I’d finished reading Ei Ploang’s permission slip, right down to his signature, I sat down to study people with him as usual. He pointed out this one and that one for me to look at, in the usual way he had. Good here, evil there, all mingled together.
There were, of course, more bad people than good. In a group of a hundred, Ei Ploang saw fewer than twenty good ones.
“Hey, how the hell do you know I’m a good guy?” I finally asked him the question I’d been putting off for ages, afraid that he wouldn’t answer. I purposely added “the hell” as a nod to his new “Ei” status.
Ei Ploang didn’t smile as I’d expected he would. Nor did he turn to look at me, either.
“I thought you’d have asked a long time ago,” he said softly.
“I didn’t have the goddamned courage before. I was afraid you wouldn’t tell me.” I intentionally threw in the “goddamned” to match the “Ei” and the “hell” I’d just used.
Ei Ploang let out a huge sigh. Huh.
“Should I tell him?” Ei Ploang asked himself out loud.
I watched joggers and walkers of all ages pass in front of us, from our left and from our right, heading in opposite directions. In just a few seconds, there were more than I could count on two hands.
“You don’t have to tell me,” I said to Ei Ploang, without turning to look at him.
I put his permission slip into my shirt pocket.
Behind the piece of paper was the fabric of my shirt. Behind the fibers of the cloth was skin. Underneath the skin was a web of interconnected vessels. Within those little vessels was the liquid being pumped to sustain the body.
It’s only a hunch that these are manifestations of being.
My eyes couldn’t see to that level of detail.
I turned to look at my friend.
Ei Ploang was resting his eyes.
© Prabda Yoon. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 Mui Poopoksakul. All rights reserved.