Phrai and Tim: the Abnormal Encounter

ไพร่/phrai [“pariah”, or “commoner”]

ไพร/phrai [“forest”]

Today I’m reading a short story by Phad Phasikorn, called “This is for ‘Dearest Kitty’”. It is from the short story collection called The Tones of Time (2004). It is narrated by a man named Tim who meets a girl named Phrai. They meet as they are “wandering” near a beach and talk on a variety of subjects related to the intersection between society and the text, two spheres where both characters remain external. Somehow, years later, Tim has forgotten Phrai. This changes when Tim, the narrator, finds a book that has fallen on the floor, setting in motion a recollection that skirts the surface of political allegory.

Short summary:
In the present, the narrator (Tim) encounters a stack of books that have scattered along the floor of his workspace. Among them, The Diary of Anne Frank, which he had read back in 1995, leads him to into a memory of the time, when Tim met a young “tomboy” named Phrai. Tim hasn’t seen, heard from, or made an attempt to contact her since. Tim matches the text with the memory since a 20-baht note, once given to him by Phrai, is folded within its pages. As in Prabda Yoon’s short story “Probabilities”, or the beginning of Parithad Hootangkul’s novel Daughter of an Ascetic, a “found text” leads the narrator into a reflection on the past. In a flashback between a southern Thai coastal resort (Hua Hin or Cha-am) where Phrai and Tim meet, and the Southern Bus terminal in Bangkok where they depart, past and present converge coincidentally as a means of transgressing other ordered categories of time, space, and identity. The story doesn’t narrate any sort of character development, or of their respective pasts, but instead the simple moments of their encounter, their coincidental meeting, and their discussion of two texts, The Diary of Anne Frank and The Book of Questions, which lead their conversation into musings on God, Van Gogh, and a moment of “being-in-common” where the world of categories and identity have somehow temporarily disintegrated. Their dialogue is facilitated by a yearning for companionship, on one hand, and a strange tendency they both hold in common: both are abnormally prone to seeing outside themselves through a split identity figured by left and right sides of the body that must engage the foreground by returning to it from left and right angles in order to achieve a homeostasis between two sides of the body, and of body and mind (not sure yet how to describe this). In any case, they are both “abnormal”, drifters, connected by their common inability to control any connection between past and present (it is like an involuntary rhythm between two sides of the body and the categorical partitions which split the mind). As I’m reading the text I’m seeing the story as the allegorical dilemma of contemporary Thai politics.

After a number of pages in reflection on those conversations, Tim arrives back in the present, on the final page of The Diary of Anne Frank and finds, beneath the lines “Anne’s Diary Ends Here”, a phone number inscribed by Phrai alongside the words “June 95: where are the heck are we?” The sentence reminds Tim that they were lost, and that her inscription on the text was a means of connecting the passing of time in their relationship to the passing of time required in reading a text. Over the years, he had never read the conclusion of Anne Frank’s diary, a simple event that would’ve led him to Phrai’s phone number and, perhaps, a different future—the expansion of dialogue. This is to say, perhaps, all routes of the text had not been pursued. In conclusion, Tim returns to the past: “In the moment before my rationality (สัมปชัญญะ) evaporated into that night, I felt as though Phrai slept with her neck propped up watching me, her breath softly rhythmic as it reached the side of my ear, as if fearful that I would run off. (63)”

Maybe the story is about neglect, and about the visibility of the “forest” [phrai] that is all too commonly forgotten. Maybe it is about those who must exist “outside themselves” in order to engage in any sort of dialogue. Or, maybe the story is about the fundamental texts which set the terms for any discussion of weighty political issues. Certainly, the story carries several thematics relevant to the current discourse of “Phrai” [with an extra tone marker].

Or, maybe the story is about urban alienation. In my opinion, loneliness and alienation in Bangkok leads to new forms of solidarity. It is unsurprising that Phad’s story places what could be read as the unification of Phrai and Tim outside of Bangkok and in a southern coastal town, an ‘in-between’ space where forms of solidarity operate in a spontaneous laboratory of human flows. Tim has likely forgotten Phrai (until the narrative time of the story) because he has returned to Bangkok. They parted ways at the Southern Bus Terminal which means they have returned to the city. The surprise for the resent protests has been the large contingents of middle class urban residents that have joined them. The urban economy of consumption thrives on individuality, whereby branding forms new collectivities based on purchasing patterns. At Siam Square and Rajprasong, the new heart of a de-politicized infrastructure of alienated individuals, red shirts with inscriptions reading “phrai” show their opposition to loneliness by shutting it down, reappropriating space for political purposes, and joining hands. It is this sense that the title of this short story collection, The Tones of Time, carry a strange irony in the present. By adding one tone marker ( ่ ), over the word “forest”, you get “commoner”.

Jean Bauddrillard. 1981. For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. St. Louis, Mo: Telos Press.

ผาด พาสิกรณ์ (๒๕๔๗ิ) ‘ฝากไว้ที่ Dearest Kitty’ในเล่มร่วมเรื่องสั้น สำเนียงของเวลา (The Tones of Time) กรุงเทพฯ: สำนักพิมพ์ คเณศบุรี จำกัด 46-63.

6 thoughts on “Phrai and Tim: the Abnormal Encounter

  1. ไพร means forest
    ไพร่ means pariah

    but i really do enjoy your takes on the matter though.

    1. Ohhhh wow, I spoke too soon. Thank’s so much. I read the whole story without accounting for the tone marker. How does that happen? I guess this is the power of the media that overwhelms me, leading me to see something that is not there.

      How would you interpret ทิม though?

  2. points taken. what you said about the power of media is understandable. what amazed me was that your ability to apprehend thai and render “the undertone” so well.

    ทิม is just a simple thai name. i guess it may have derived from ทับทิม – ruby or pomegranate (ผลไม้). i’m not certain. however, it’s just your Tom Dick & Harry for thais so to speak.

    keep it up. you’re doing good.

    1. Thanks a lot for your insight. Each story that I read in Thai language is quite a challenge, so I try to figure out different ways to apply it to contemporary issues–and I am always extremely grateful for any feedback. Thanks again for your comments.

  3. The red-shirt people in that picture are not commoners. They are C O M M U N I S T S!!! and soon they’ll join each other in H E L L!!

    1. You are entitled to your viewpoint. But the point here is to show how words can change. For example, “communist” is a word used to justify the American witch trials of the 1950s, referred to as the “red scare” or the red peril. There has also been a “yellow” scare, but in anycase it is always the government’s use of words to eliminate the foreign threat (which, in fact is not foreign at all but a selective part in the broader “communal arrangement” of the national body). But in anycase, words are performative which means simply saying a word is the same as authorizing an act. So the question is this: When you say “communist”, what act are you authorizing?

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