The war that had been raging outside
the City grew closer and sometimes they could hear the sound of
gunfire and explosions. One of the immediate results was that more
and more refugees crowded into the City and shanty towns of thatch
and plastic and cardboard grew up along the swamps and the river
From time to time - usually when some
important visitor from overseas was coming, or an international
meeting was due to take place - the police arrived in force and tore
down the huts and herded the refugees away in trucks, On these
occasions the beggars and garbage boys kept out of sight, but one
day the boy unexpectedly found himself in the middle of a violent
Confronting the armed police and
pelting them with stones stood a crowd of desperate people the
police were trying to evict from their shacks.
The boy was astonished to see his
friend, the foreign lady, in their midst. She took him aside. She
was very angry. It’s disgraceful - all these people’s homes are
being torn down to make way for a floating Casino - where the rich
can gamble their money.”
Near them stood a man wearing what
had once been a smart suit. Ho looks like one gambler who lost,”
said his foreign friend. The man overheard and shook his head.
“Did you lose your job?” asked the
The man nodded, “I was a bank manager
but I lost faith in money.” The banker peered at the boy. “Do you
know what a bank is?”
“It’s where rich people put their
“Exactly I And all day long like a
river money flows in and money flows out. Figures, lists, graphs,
float like weeds in this river of money. Only you have to believe in
“So long as you believe in the
system you swim, but the moment you stop believing you sink.”
“And you didn’t believe in it?”
“Of course I did at first. Why, as a
young man in the bank I was all bright-eyed and eager and raring to
go. But when you handle thousands and thousands of Dollars and
Francs and Ringits and Pounds and Marks and Lire and Baht and Pesos
and ... Why, money starts to lose its appeal. It stops meaning
“After all it wasn’t my money and I
never took it out of the bank. I began to question the whole value
and notion of money. All these deposits people spend their whole
lives saving and will never spend when they’re dead. I began to tell
customers that what they should be investing in was the next life.
Gilt-edged securities of the soul, not the Government Treasury.”
Securities of the soul
He made a wry grin. “Of course they
thought I was just crazy, but my boss knew I was dangerous. You see,
the Capitalist system only works, only keeps roaring ahead as long
as everyone believes in it. The system relies on confidence and
conviction. Once this gets punctured - why, the whole caboodle can
“Capitalism is only a bright shining
bubble - pop it and it bursts into nothing. International financiers
juggle currencies like baubles for profit when these same currencies
are the bedrock of a nation and assure the livelihood of millions of
people. The whole system is founded on the rotten idea that greed
and gain are good. The only capital that counts is what you store in
your heart not in the bank.”
“What will you do now?”
What is wrath?
“I am waiting for the revolution to
come,” he said placidly. “They tell me these rebels don’t believe in
money either. They say they’re going to do away with it altogether
and put everyone back to planting rice, It sure makes sense to me.”
The foreigner who had been arguing
with the police came back bloodied and bruised with her blouse torn.
“They have no respect for human rights,” she complained bitterly.
“No respect at all.”
“What are human rights?’ asked the
boy, but the foreign lady was too busy handing out money and
medicine to the distraught people whose huts had been burned or town
down to reply.
Later she took the boy aside. “Every
human being has rights,” she told him,’ - the right to some sort of
house, however simple; the right to get water, to work, to live
without harassment - it’s not asking much, is it? And it’s the
responsibility of a government to help the people to obtain their
rights. They should be protecting these people.”
“The government is just the big
boss,” said the boy. “Why should it listen to anyone?”
“A government is meant to be there to
serve the needs of the people - not just to get rich themselves. You
want something here - then you buy the politician. Somebody wants to
bring a casino here - even though gambling is officially ‘illegal.’
It means nothing that people live here. Or even pay annual taxes for
their shanty huts - these are bulldozed away like dirt. And, if they
object, or don’t go or protest… “ she slid a finger under her
Lucky for some
Then she shrugged. “But they say I’m
just an interfering foreigner. They say these people are used to
this system, and wouldn’t understand democracy. And you know what
democracy means here - vote buying.”
“What is a vote?” enquired the boy.
“A vote is your choice. In democracy every adult, rich or poor, has
a choice. But some are scared to use it, others don’t care and some
sell their choice to people who want to be chosen to govern and who
buy as many votes as they can.”
“So the wealthy ones get chosen?” The
woman nodded. “They have to get their money back so they do all
sorts of corrupt things. Businessmen have to pay them to get
contracts; so does anyone else who wants their help.
What’s it worth?
“Where I come from everyone has the
right to an education, free access to hospitals, money if they can’t
find work, and the right to a pension when they are old. But I
daren’t tell people that here.”
“Nobody would believe you if you
did.” The woman laughed “The funny thing is over there everyone
takes it for granted. They complain far more there than they do
here. Over there they think they are badly off if they can’t afford
a new car.” Once again she and the boy shared a laugh together and
felt the better for it.
The question of human rights seemed
to be about to answer itself when the boy passed a deserted-looking
building with a peeling board outside announcing ‘Office for
Protection of Human Rights.’
Is this for me?
There was certainly plenty of waste
paper and crumpled leaflets in the bins, but no one to question what
it all meant.
Finally he saw a man emerge and asked
“Don’t worry yourself,” he assured
the boy. “It’s got nothing to do with you.” The City was full of
similar buildings with similar foreign-sounding names.
Red Cross, World Vision, Save the
Children, War on Want. There were usually large white jeeps in the
courtyards and security guards to ‘shoo’ anyone away. Sometimes he
saw the jeeps with their bright emblems and flags roaring along the
streets but nobody seemed to know where they where going. When the
boy asked he always got the same answer:
Saving the world?
“They have nothing to do with us.”
Often in the early evening the boy
came across the foreign lady - only now she was back on her bicycle.
“I really do NEED it!” she cried breathlessly. The front basket was
filled with packets of steaming rice and hard boiled eggs and
bananas, which she was handing out to homeless people or hungry
“Phew!” she said, mopping her brow.
“Sometimes I think if the bicycle was edible they’d eat that too”
She always carried a big first aid tin which seemed to contain a
little of everything: headache pills, cures for diarrhoea, creams to
heal rashes, tablets to stop fever and toothaches, even fillings for
cavities. “I’m a ‘band-aid’ girl,” she told the boy. “A lady bush
doctor: Bible, band-aids and bicycle.”
“What’s a bible?” asked the boy.
Between the lines?
The lady smiled. “It’s a book that
helps me on my journey. Lots of good things in it,” she added a bit
mysteriously. “Can you read?” she asked the boy.
“Just a bit. The big letters,” the
“Then at least you can’t read between
the lines,” laughed the lady.
This puzzled the boy and when he next
got hold of newspaper he tried hard peering between the lines of
print but gained nothing except an eye-ache.
If street people got sick they just
lay there till they got better. There were old women who knew about
healing. They didn’t use the tablets or lotions of the foreigners,
they believed in thrashing with a branch. Across the chest - if you
had a cough. The thrashing brought the blood to the surface and
helped the circulation; or there were hot suction cups applied to
the skin to draw out the pain. Only the rich people went to doctors.
“And they usually choose an old one,” someone explained. “The older
ones have already learned by their mistakes on earlier victims.”
patients letters for shops that sold medicine, but ordinary people
didn’t trust the pills and potions, as they doubted what was in
them. Often - so it was rumoured - they were nothing more than flour
Sometimes in the evening the people
of the street were entertained by actors who set up a stage and
dressed in fancy costumes, danced and sang and told stories. Always
they were dressed up in costumes no one wore any more and the
stories were of olden times - of heroes and villains and tragic
There were other theatres for rich
people - but these were out of sight and you had to pay to go in.
One day the boy, who was collecting
bottles outside the stage door, met one of the players. Unlike the
friendly street actors this one seemed rather stuck up. He was
practising his lines.
“Each week,” he explained loftily, “I
have to learn my pan for the next week’s play.” “Don’t you ever get
muddled up?” asked the boy.
“Of course not,” snapped the actor.
“After all I’m a professional. It’s my job to pretend to be someone
I’m not.” The boy looked confused. “Why?”
“A play,” explained the actor, “is a
copy of life, but all condensed into a couple of hours - dramas,
murders, love. Art copies life,” he pronounced with authority.
Art copies life?
“Why do you need to copy life?” asked
the boy. “I should have thought you’d want to escape from it.”
“Of course it does that too,” agreed
the actor. “In the theatre are the actors and the audience. The
actors enable the audience to identify and explore their emotions.
Oh, how they laugh or cry at our performances! A well-acted play
brings out their finest feelings. They can get back into their lives
like new people.”
The boy was puzzled. But does it help
them for long? Most of the people I seem to see coming out of
theatres are the same people who went in.”
“The theatre is not supposed to be a
religion,” said the actor huffily. “It’s only an illusion after all.
A bit of a trick.”
Coming or going?
“But if it’s supposed to copy life
then life must be an illusion too!” protested the boy.
The actor snorted indignantly. ‘1
haven’t the time to bandy words with garbage boys!” he declared. “I
have to learn my lines. Next week I have a very important part. I am
a lawyer - I have to impress everyone with my cunning.” He glared at
the boy with lowered eyelids.
When he went to the river the boy met
a man carrying a large folding easel and a box of paints, blank
canvasses, tubes, rags and bottles. He seemed on the point of
dropping things and as the boy’s sack was still half empty he helped
the painter with his load.
Stealing the light
“What are you doing?” he asked as the
painter set up his easel on the riverbank and squirted paints onto
his palette. “Are you copying life like the actor?”
“No,” smiled the painter. “I am a
thief.” He winked at the boy.
“A thief?” repeated the boy,
startled and backing away.
laughed. “I steal light! Now, look over there.’ He guided the boy’s
hand and pointed to where the late afternoon sunlight was glowing
from beneath the lowering clouds. The glow spread to the golden
roofs of the royal pagoda. The painter sighed. “That is what I want
to capture, to put down the light.’ He shook his head.
A word of God
His silver hair and grey moustache
all glowed in the reflected light but the canvas remained blank.
“Aren’t you going to paint anything?”
the boy suggested after a while.
The old painter spread wide his arms.
“Sometimes I am just so amazed at the beauty of light,” he said, “I
just want to share its mystery. Light,’ he said majestically, “is a
gift of God, a word of God. A whole language like silence.”
“Like the sky,” said the boy thinking
of the Swan.
“And the light shines in the darkness
and the darkness doesn’t understand,” added the painter softly.
“What is that?” asked the boy.
“It comes from an old book - written
a long time ago,” said the painter, “but the line I like best is:
‘God is Light. In Him is no darkness at all.’
God is light
“Light doesn’t just come from the
sun,” he told the boy, “Light shines from the love of God.” He
pinched together his fingers as if to trap a glimmer. “And a little
of that light glows in each one of us. If we let it.”
“You are not a painter. You are a
priest,” said the boy.
“No,” said the painter with a laugh.
“I am a thief of light, but not a very successful one.”
The full moon towards the end of the
year marked the festival of ‘candle floats.’ The day of the festival
was busy with preparations, and towards evening everyone carried
their floats to the river bank. The breeze died with the sunset. The
air stilled, and as the fuN moon rose above the darkening river the
candle-lit floats were set gently on the water’s edge and drifted
slowly out into the stream.
Pray for peace
The boy met his friend, the elderly
monk, who was gazing placidly at the scene. “Why?” asked the boy.
“Why?” replied the monk. ‘When you peer into a candle flame don’t
you wish or dream?” The boy nodded. “Everyone is aware of their own
frailties,” remarked the monk, watching the river now invaded by
thousands of flickering candles. “We get comfort from these gestures
we make together, sharing our hopes and fears.” “But if the candles
go out?” asked the boy, anxiously following his own float, “doe’s
that mean our dreams will die too?” The monk smiled. “The sun goes
out, but tomorrow still comes.” “Then what should I pray for?” asked
the boy, thinking only of the Black Swan and the Garden. “Pray for
peace,” the monk suggested.
Shortly after the festival of
candles, the annual kite flying began. This wasn’t just for children
- everyone joined in. Most people made their own kites. Sidewalks
and table-tops were strewn with coloured paper, glue, sticks and
string. Street vendors did a brisk trade. The poorer children cut
out plastic bags or newspapers. Day by day the afternoon sky filled
with kites of every shape and size. Looking like birds and bats,
dragons and owls, they swooped and darted, soared and plunged, to
the accompaniment of shrieks and laughter and howls of glee.
Judging by the cluster of kites
rising above the pagodas, even the young monks joined in the sport.
The old monk shaded his eyes to watch. “Are these like our dreams,
too?” the boy asked him, thinking of the floating candles. “Perhaps
they are,” nodded the monk, “but I think it’s rather as if our
spirits were soaring with them.” He smiled. “Look around - do you
see any glum faces?”
As the boy craned his head back to
scan the sky his delight was tempered only by a wistful longing to
be up there too, flying high through the bright, thin air.