Wednesday, 27 August 2008 22:01
Slum-dwellers on New Ratchadapisek Road are convinced that the true cause of a devastating slum fire was the nasty treatment given the pregnant female of a winged species known for bringing good fortune, and who's to say they're wrong, writes FATHER JOE MAIER

A single, rather large, brown-furred, black-winged fruit bat came swooping, screeching out of the sunset sky like it was making a bombing run over the Pai Singto slum on New Ratchadapisek Road. No one had ever seen anything like it.

The slum kindergarten children had seen bats before. They had been watching a group for over two weeks, ever since they migrated to eat the sweet blossoms of the thorn tree (ton ngiew). Frightened at first, now the children were fascinated. The Pai Singto school teacher, a wise woman, decided to make "the bats" a school project. Soon the children took to the bats as their friends, their pets, and could even identify a few of them and gave them names!

The kindertgarten at Pai Singto kindergarten is our smallest. Eighteen children with full attendance. Roughly the same number as the bats. The shack kindergarten is tucked in the far end of the slum, just past the end of the cement walls, open to the sidewalk. The children thus passed the thorn tree each day on their way to and from school.

This slum is one of those long ribbon type slums you see all over Bangkok, extreme poverty providing sad contrast to the rest of the neighbourhood. With the huge Convention Centre and the Stock Exchange of Thailand across the street, and a multi-storey office complex just down the street, perhaps nowhere else in the city is there greater disparity. The people are poor, most selling fruit daily from push carts and sidewalk noodle shops.

Slums are fragile and Pai Singto is more fragile than most, just 13 metres wide and over 400 metres long, its 125 scrap wood, metal-roofed shacks hidden by three-metre-high concrete walls on each side. So when the sunset fire began, soon after the male bat swept past, it was like an inferno in a wind tunnel, and in a flash 54 homes were gone. The fire stopped a few metres before our shack kindergarten facing the sidewalk, just beyond the walls.

Most slum fires are caused by negligence, and this one was, as well, but grannys told the children a bit of the "lore of old", that the fire was because of what happened to the bats. In their yearly migration, the bats came to dine on the sweet flowers of the two big thorn trees near the wall, then hung from the trees as bats do, resting up before feasting again. For two weeks they had eaten peacefully. People who know of such things say these bats only come to serene places and bring good fortune - when they are treated properly. By now, as a class project, each of the school children had all drawn pictures of their favourite bat, tree and flowers.

That was before Mr Sanop, a nasty old piece of work who lived in the slum, began taking potshots at the bats with a slingshot. Three kindergarten children saw him and told their grannys, but grannys and five-year-olds simply do not have the "fire power" to combat a nasty.
The thorn trees are so called for the hundreds of needle-sharp bumps that grow around the trunk. Some people call it the "hell tree", because if you're a certain kind of sinner, guilty of sexual crimes, you must spend long years climbing up and down the tree, as your flesh is torn to pieces. And if you were especially hurtful, crows come and peck at your exposed bottom for added insult. Someone wistfully asked, "Does this particular punishment also include those who hurt bats?"

But it's also considered a tree that brings good fortune. An older slum lady appointed herself as the tree's keeper and protector. For a small fee, she allowed folks to come and scrape the tree with a dull knife, making a paste of flour and water to bring out any lottery numbers that might be inscribed by nature - or the spirits - on the smooth green trunk between the bumps.

Mr Sanop wasn't much of a marksman, even when sober, but after a while he hit one of the bats, a female. Broke her wing. She hung on for almost two days, with the broken wing moving limply in the breeze. He tried to find someone to wager how long it would take the bat to fall. Finally, the animal weakened and dropped onto the corrugated tin roof of the shack below. The man who lived there retrieved the bat and stuck it in an old cardboard box. By this time, the children knew and wanted to feed sweet blossoms to the wounded bat, but he cursed them.

Then someone said, "Hey, you can eat bat! Cook it up like field rat or cobra. It's good for you. Makes you strong. Cook it up, spicy, wash it down with whisky."

The sidewalk noodle shop by the gate leading into the slum was a favourite for the area's tuk-tuk drivers, and when one of them heard about the bat, he agreed that he'd kill and skin it. The children in school next door overheard the whiskey talk and were horrified. They told their teacher, but she was too frightened to say anything. They killed the bat about noon. Cooked it up about three.

Now here is where the story mixes fact and myth. Different eye-witnesses say that when they gutted the bat, they found it was a pregnant female. Other eye-witnesses say the bat was not pregnant. And you know, of course, that bats do nurse their young. But at least, the nasties had the decency not to let the children watch. Or maybe they were ashamed.

They got really into the drinking around four. An hour after that, the large male bat arrived, making three oblong flights over the slum, from one end to the other and back again, screeching loudly. The fire started about six, as the sun went down.It began at one end of the slum next to a furniture factory, where Grandpa Boonmee had built a small fire to boil some water. Once he had the kindling aflame he wandered away for just a moment to buy a 10-baht shot of chieng chun whisky, the local favourite of folks that age.

Mr Boonme is 86 years old and has been a bag man/rag man for much of his life, salvaging scrap metal and plastic and paper in his cart from the neighbourhoods nearby. His day's collection - the plastic bags he'd washed in a canal, the paper he'd dried in the sun - caught fire. His lean-to home was next to the furniture factory and by the time he returned after drinking his whisky, both structures were aflame. He helped us build our kindergarten 21 years ago.

The fire started away from where the thorn tree stood and the bat was killed and eaten. The wind changed and swept back as the fire burned house by house.

The fire engines came, but before you can use the water hoses, you have to shut off the main electrical grid for the area. You can't douse live electric wires. The 220 voltage runs right up the stream of water and can electrocute the fireman. So by the time the Metropolitan Electricity Authority gets the word to cut the power, it's usually far too late.

Besides, if you don't put out a slum fire in the first few minutes, the fire goes out of control, as gas cylinders used for cooking explode and spin like pinwheels, or rockets, torching the flimsy wooden homes as if someone had taken a flamethrower to them. Poisonous snakes and rats and other creepy crawlies that live under the houses tried to escape along with the residents who were carrying whatever they grabbed.

Watching the fire, one of our third-year kindergarten boys went berserk. Screaming, running back into the flames to tell the fire not to hurt his granny's house. It wasn't his fault. His granny couldn't hold him. He wiggled loose and a slum girl, just getting on a motorcycle with her pimp to go to work, rushed over and grabbed him, and together they cried and cried like the world had come to an end. And that day, that minute, for that six-year-old and the bargirl.... it had.

One after another in rapid succession, the houses were destroyed, falling in on themselves, until the flames reached the house where the bat eater lived. His was the last to go. Then the fire stopped. The children all agreed that the flight path of the bat was almost exactly the path of the fire. The grannys said that the screeching was the male bat searching for his mate. Chewing betel nut, they solemnly pronounced to everyone who would listen: "The fire knew. The bat told the fire where to burn!" The slum dwellers said the bats had not cursed them, but that they, the people, had brought the curse of the fire upon themselves.
Petitioning the spirits

A few days after the smoke and reek of fire was gone, a handful of the older, more pious residents gathered in front of the thorn tree, which somehow the blaze had missed. They believed they had to make atonement to the guardian spirits of the place and to the bats and to the tree, lest something worse befall them. The children attended also. They had drawn new pictures of the bats.

In Thai, it's called the khor kama lar tode ceremony. This is done traditionally with nine joss sticks, the head of a pig, and an opened bottle of 28 degree whisky, or even the stronger 40 degree, with a bit poured into a glass. One by one, the men and women prayed, "I am from this Pai Singto slum and here to ask pardon for what has happened."

Two days after the ceremony was completed, the other bats returned to the thorn tree and resumed eating the remaining sweet flowers. And then they migrated on.

Today, almost two months later, the houses are being rebuilt. Grandpa Boonmee, at the strong suggestion of police, has moved in with his daughter so as not to be left alone to boil water on his own. Mr Sanop, the man with the slingshot, still lives in the slum but is an outcast. The guy in the shack where the bat fell is shunned by the community. The tuk-tuk driver doesn't come to eat noodles at the sidewalk shop any more. The man who ate the bat - who says he might eat bat again, "depending on how hungry I am" - was put to work rebuilding the burned homes. The whisky group still drink of a late afternoon, but even the shadow of a bat flying over them drives them to the thorn tree to light a joss stick.

The community in addition to their own ceremonies, asked the monks to bless their new houses, to petition the guardian angels, the spirits of the place, not to be angry, so that the future of the slum will be safe. Most of the community attended the chanting of the holy sutras.

The parents asked if I would re-bless our small kindergarten. They asked me also if Catholics have a special blessing for bats. So I looked in the old Latin Rituale. There is a blessing for school buildings, but for bats... we have is a blessing for flying creatures, large and small. I thought that would be sufficient.

A few of the children now have convinced their parents to buy them Bat Man costumes and wear them to school and they hope the bats will return next year. Also, the braver ones wear their bat costumes in front of Mr Sanop's shack.... and taunt him... then run away in glee.

All this was told to us by Uncle Mawn, a respectable man who is 60 years old and Mrs Jam-be, who have lived in the Pai Singto slum for years and years.

Was there a connection between the killing of the female bat and the fire? You decide. I'm just re-telling the story.