A fire fails to destroy community's spirit

Klong Toey slum residents rally round to help a woman left homeless and without clothes — and even the spirits approve

It was early morning, still dark, and "old granny", as the neighbours nicknamed her to distinguish her from a younger granny also living alone in the next-door shack, was saying her morning prayers by candlelight.

The electric had gone out two days earlier because she didn't have "the tin" to pay the bill. Nothing new, this had happened before, but this time she fell asleep, knocked over the candle and, wham bam, within minutes 15 houses were on fire in Klong Toey. The first thing to blow was a cooking gas canister, which shot like a rocket as the gas escaped. That's what burned granny so quickly and badly and charred her house to ashes. All that remained were some rusted pieces of tin roofing twisted by the heat.

Her niece -- well, almost a niece but actually her younger sister's second husband's second wife's oldest daughter -- was just coming home. Walking into the slum, the Chinese Benevolent Society emergency van raced by her with sirens blazing to rush badly burned granny to the hospital.

She had suffered something like 60% burns on her hands and arms while trying to protect herself from the flames. As they carefully stretchered her into the van, she was conscious and kept moaning "Where is my niece? Where is she? I'm thirsty".

"Almost niece" had spent a difficult night with difficult customers. Coming home to our Klong Toey slum, she saw the police, the fire trucks, black smoke rising in the sky. Her taxi couldn't come the last 100 metres because of the fire trucks and a police barricade. So she kicked off her good-looking night-time shoes and walked in. She sat down at a mom-and-pop store owned by one of granny's cronies, just metres away from the ashes of her charred shack.

The fire just missed the store, so it was open for business. The storekeep granny didn't say anything but just dusted the ashes off a chair and served "almost niece" up the usual double shot of "local" to say goodbye to a difficult personal night. With a raw egg mixed in a cup of coffee, plus a bowl of rice gruel that the local Muslim ladies' group had cooked up for the fire victims, at least she had something to eat.

But now she realised she had no home and granny was in hospital, not expected to survive. She stubbed out her cigarette and walked barefoot the 10 metres to the nearby shrine in the big tree. She lit a joss stick and touched reverently one of the sacred classical dance dresses hanging there, left by pious folk seeking spiritual favours. Some of the tree's top branches had withered as the flames shot high from the cooking gas canister.

"Almost niece" was 41 years old, missing one front tooth, her shack burned. Granny was her only relative, at least that she knew about. Now, she had no place to stay, with her clothes ruined in the fire.

She took a stick and unhooked one of the classical dresses. When she hesitated, the storekeep granny and her husband came and whispered: "No, not that one. Do take the prettiest one. The spirits will agree."

So she did, with the neighbours applauding gently. And she began to cry. Here she was, grown up but still a little abandoned slum orphan girl all over again -- all alone. She asked the storekeep granny if she could sleep there for a while. The granny and her husband said: "You can stay with us as long as you want. Forever if you wish. Yes, you might have to help us sell sweets sometimes, but only that."

And the storekeep granny held her and hugged her and let her cry and cry like she had not cried for years. And everyone said they would help rebuild her shack so that when granny got out of hospital, she would have a place to stay.

And she kicked off her pretty shoes again, sat on the mattress and began to cry and cry and cry. Couldn't stop. It had been years since her last tears. She had promised herself she was strong. But now, storekeep granny held her, hugged her. She didn't even tell her she smelled of cigarette smoke and a beer or two. She laid her down and combed her hair with her hand. After getting some rice gruel, she whispered: "It will be all right. I'll take care of you, my lost night-time daughter. This can be your new home."

And when she woke up a couple of hours later, there were some clothes for her, given by the ladies of the community. Some were fire victims who managed to salvage some of their clothes from the flames. Not fancy clothes but Klong Toey clothes -- good enough for the day. When she saw the clothing, she knew she was home. She was safe.

And the ladies had spoken to Sin Sae, the fortune teller, and the abbot at the temple. Both nodded their heads, saying it would be OK if the ladies took another dress donated to the spirits to give to "almost niece" in her time of trouble.

The girls from her workplace had heard about the fire and came to liven the place up a bit. A couple began to get a bit raunchy. They had a party to cheer up the fire victims. With lots of happy noise and music, it went on until the early morning. Great stuff.

Poor as they are, some of the fire victims' kids have mobile phones and took selfies of their own personal bravery and heroism to show everyone at school.

When "almost niece" learned that 15 schoolkids lost their school clothes, she and her friends gave all her night's earnings to buy uniforms. The kids returned proudly to school the next morning, new uniforms and selfies in hand, to tell huge tales to all their classmates about how brave they were in fighting the fire. A couple of the boys even boasted of bandages on their arms and legs.

When some children complained that they now had only one uniform and had to wash it after school every evening, "almost niece" gently scolded them: "I remember as a little girl, when I didn't have any money for school uniforms and didn't have a mum, my auntie worked and worked so that I could go to school and washed my uniform each night. My one uniform. So don't you complain."

It's been a month now since the fire, and life goes on. Old granny is recovering in the hospital. Her hospital bills are paid by government welfare. This part of the slum is an ageing community, with not many young men around, plus half of the burnt-out houses were ramshackle because the aunties and grannies looking after "grandchildren" abandoned by relatives had little money for house repairs and upkeep.

Now, however, these relatives have come home to rebuild the shacks they grew up in. "Almost niece" still stops each morning at the store for a double shot and a coffee with raw egg. She is waiting to welcome granny home from hospital. n


Father Joe Maier is the director and co-founder of the Human Development Foundation in Klong Toey, Bangkok. For more information, call 02-671-5313 or visit www.mercycentre.org.

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