Tilling the Rice Fields, Tilting At Windmills

by Kenneth Champeon, May 4, 2005 | Destinations: Thailand / Bangkok

Review of Minfong Ho's Rice Without Rain, Times Books International, 2000.

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"Reformers," wrote Thoreau in Walden, "are the greatest bores of all." In Thoreau's time, "bore" was a devastating insult, almost without equal now. Why single out reformers? Isn't reform the basis of progress, and progress our new God? Thoreau might have replied that improving one's bank balance is less desirable than improving one's mind; and that reformers set out to perfect others, without first asking how to perfect themselves. "Men-harriers," Thoreau called them, unkindly.

A case study in the vanity of reform is Minfong Ho's little, little-known, but marvelous novel, Rice Without Rain, recounting the 1973-1976 revolution in Thailand. In 1973, student demonstrators succeeded in driving Thailand's military dictatorship out of the country. In 1976, the military struck back, massacring hundreds of students. Many survivors fled to the jungle to join the Communists, recently victorious throughout Indochina. But many of these became disillusioned with Communist dogma. The movement sputtered, died. The revolution had been a Pyrrhic victory at best, insane suicide at worst.

Minfong begins her story in a village near Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. A drought has stricken the land. The villagers, who rely on their rice fields for sustenance, are low on food. One child even starves to death. Worse, the villagers must hand over a whopping two-thirds of their crop to Dusit, their landlord. One day, students from Bangkok's Thammasat University arrive in the village. They seek knowledge of village life. They also seek change. The villagers are wary. You're not - Communists, are you? No, say the students slyly, not Communists. We just believe in democratic government, land reform, rent restructuring, a public health system. You will also soon find out that we have photos of Marx, Lenin, and Mao hanging in our apartments back in Bangkok. But Communists -- God forbid.

The author brilliantly contrasts the skills and knowledge of the two groups. The villagers despise the students for not knowing how to harvest rice or prepare fish. The students despise the villagers for not knowing how to use antibiotics or understand optics. Nevertheless, the students slowly gain the trust of most of the villagers. Ned, the student leader, manages to persuade Inthorn, the village headman, to pay Dusit only one-third of the rice rent. Dusit is not pleased, and he has Inthorn thrown into jail for a manufactured crime. Inthorn's daughter Jinda hopes that Ned can somehow get her father released. She also hopes that Ned will reciprocate her love.

The scene moves to Bangkok, where Thammasat students are gearing up for a big rally. The threat of awesome retribution by the government looms, but the students persevere. Ned is part of the rally; so too, at his suggestion, is real-live proletarian Jinda. But things get ugly fast. Jinda is called a "commie bitch!" Rocks, bombs are thrown. The students panic, run. As Jinda flees, she sees a dismembered student hung, a woman stabbed through the chest, a body floating in the river.

Minfong's account is wonderfully balanced. On the one hand, the villagers are clearly oppressed. On the other, they live in peace until the students arrive. The students want a better life for the villagers, but they see the villagers as the proverbial eggs needed to make the proverbial omelet. The students need the villagers to show that injustices exist, but the villagers resent being made into political tools. And the students have their own internal divisions, e.g. over whether violence or nonviolence is more effective.

Minfong also resists the temptation to praise urban over rural life, or vice versa. After living in Jinda's village, some students long for what Thoreau called the "genuine meanness" of spare living. But they are spoiled city kids and shall ever be thus. When Jinda travels to Bangkok, she is overwhelmed by the wealth of its richest quarters, but also by the wretchedness of its poorest. Many of the poor, she notes, used to be farmers like her.

There was (perhaps still is) a rather scatterbrained professor of political science at the University of Chicago, who would half-seriously proclaim this thesis: people might change their words or their deeds, but they do not change their minds. He believed that if only we would accept this sclerosis, a lot of hot air and trouble could be saved. His theory is memorable not because it seems so ridiculous, but because it is so true.

It explains why, for example, Communism in practice has been such a disaster. Revolutionaries like the Thammasat students cannot accept the grim realities of village life and the dogmatism of the villagers. The villagers cannot accept that their lives could be better. Thus "reeducation," that chilling euphemism of Communist ideology, does not involve education so much as coercion and torture. Minds are not so much changed as destroyed. And when even reeducation fails, murder or deportation "succeed." A change in the collective mind is brought about by exterminating or silencing the minds that won't change.

Thus, Rice Without Rain concludes with Jinda back in her village, Ned in jungle exile. At their final meeting, they agree that they are too different to come together. Ned still wants victory; Jinda just wants babies. Ned, previously a defender of nonviolent revolution, has now decided violence to be necessary - but this may be just tough talk from nice Ned. Still, the novel ends happily. Rain comes at last to the parched fields.

Without offering answers, this deceptively simple novel raises a welter of questions. Which is worse? The tyranny of Nature or the tyranny of man? One man or a majority? Inequality or violence? The list could go on. Speaking on behalf of the Indians under British rule, G. K. Chesterton answered thus:

"Had we our own institutions, there would have been dynastic wars, but I prefer dying in battle to dying in hospital. There would have been despotism, but I prefer one king whom I hardly even see to a hundred kings regulating my diet and my children. There would have been pestilence, but I would sooner die of the plague than live like a dead man, in constant fear of the plague.... Life is very short; a man must live somewhere and die somewhere; the amount of bodily comfort a peasant gets under your way of living is not so much more than mine. If you do not like our way of living, we never asked you to do so. Go, and leave us with it."

As the rain falls, Jinda reaches a similar conclusion. "All," she thinks, "is as it should be."

- The End -

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