The narrow stretch of sky trapped between buildings on both sides of the soi has a pale wash of early dawn. Air is lighter as the smoke settled down over night. Shadow-less slumbering soi and everything around it are trying to reclaim their shapes in the melting darkness. Light conversation among homebound workers from a shoe factory and a couple of hovering soi dogs, I walk past them. The constant rhythmic sound from the shredding of papaya, the greasy smell of chicken wings from an over-used charcoal grill, the somtam vendor already started her day. The metallic sound from washing utensils and pulling of noodle-carts are the signs of life, people are getting ready for another day's grind.
On my way to the park for my morning work out I see her on the sidewalk of the main road amidst the aroma of steaming soy-milk, and the scent of freshly fried pathong-go. She has a palm-leaf shaped face, thick lips and a smile which reveals all of her front teeth. She does not know how to hide, how to make it more subtle and fashionable. The sharp nose makes the bony face appear smaller for which she looks probably younger than her age. The smile is not attractive in a sensuous way but it draws your attention with its simplicity and an innocence inappropriate for her age. I don’t know much about her personal life but her fair skin indicates her Chinese lineage as this part of the city is full of Chinese immigrants and their descendants. Most days I see her either in a black or white T-shirt with a white scarf fastened around her head. When I go jogging traffic is still light on the main road, the bus stop is almost empty but she is already there to serve fresh soy-milk and pathong-go. Although I see her almost everyday on my way to work out and buy soy-milk on my way back from the park I don’t know her name. I assume it will be one of those long Thai-Chinese names but she will also have a short convenient nickname like Nok, Noi or Ploy. I don’t know why it never occurred to me to ask her name, although my intuition tells me knowing her beyond a food vendor may reveal a commonplace yet intriguing life. Our only communication usually is an exchange of brief flash of smile, and no words are spoken while she scoops ladle full of soy-milk to put in a transparent plastic packet then tie its mouth deftly with a rubber-band and place it inside another non-transparent white plastic packet. And in exchange when I place a ten baht coin on top of the oil stained glass case for keeping pathong-go, she just bows her head and gives me the white plastic packet, and then goes back to her stool and opens the book she was reading from the page marked by her hair clip.
This is what interests me most about her, her insatiable urge for reading. The sound of traffic from the road, clamor of machinery from a nearby factory or buzzing life on the sidewalk from unruly motorbike and passers by, nothing can distract her attention from the book. Once she opens her book the whole world around her drifts into silence. Some days I just watch her from a distance, and I feel as if she is trying to find refuge in a world of fantasy in an effort to escape from her monotonous uninspiring profession. And the only time she lifts her eyes is when the presence of another customer casts a shadow on the page. With a shy, guilty smile she promptly gets up to serve the waiting customer and then goes back to her reading again. Every day I see the repetition of the same scene. Everything else remains same except the book.
Every book she reads has a plastic jacket and is handled with utmost care as if part of her soul is captured in those pages. One day I saw it fall down while getting up from the stool in hurry. She lifted the book, wiped the dust from the cover with her T-shirt and put it back gently on the stool before serving the customer, a strange affection glowed on her face. Does she have kids, or is she part of a family? How far she has studied? What does she want to do with her life? She is known yet so unknown. She appears like a shadow from somewhere of this huge honeycomb like city in the pale darkness of early dawn and disappears some time before midday. I don’t see her when I go out for lunch.
Today as I approached her as usual she gets up from her seat, keeps the book folded on top of the stool and smiles at me. Then she puts soy-milk in a transparent plastic packet, ties it with a rubber band and puts it in another white plastic packet for me to carry. Then smiles again just like everyday but finds that I didn’t keep any ten baht coin on the glass case. She does not ask any question but a question hangs in her smile. As time passes I see restlessness in her face, hurry to go back to her unfinished book. Then I slowly take out the book from a violet plastic packet which I bought yesterday from Kinokuniya, and keep it on top of the glass case. She stands there with a bewildered smile and tiny drops of tear shine at the corner of her eyes. The glossy plastic cover of the book reflects her passion as she reads the title, the original Thai version of “Letters from Thailand” by Botan. I gently touch my heart, a heavy warm feeling wraps this moment in a tiny globe of sweet memory for me to ruminate some day in future.
She keeps the book and with a deep wai says “Khop Khun Khrap”. The aroma of herbs from the steaming soy-milk makes me thirsty as I walk towards my apartment.
Have a chat with her. A Thai who reads for enjoyment? That is something new!