n the county called Surin, there are many little villages; they all have one thing in common – they are poor. Thailand is often known as The Ricebowl of Asia yet the Issaan farmers barely scrape a living from the land. They are exploited from cradle to their funeral pyre.
However much rice they grow, the mill owners pay them a pittance at the factory gate. Chuvit suffered in silence it had always been thus. He had thirty rai of land devoted entirely to Thai Hom Mali known throughout the Western world as Jasmine rice.
For four months of the year during the rainy season, Chuvit worked his field. Bent double, he stooped to plant the seedlings in the mud, submerged beneath thirty centimeters of flooded plain. It was back-breaking work and many of the older generation were permanently stooped, their spines corroded under the thirty-five degree tropical sun and ninety percent humidity. There were occasional fatalities; of the two hundred Thai snake species, sixty of them are venomous. Chuvit's neighbour had died during the long journey from field to hospital. His widow had offered the land to Chuvit for a fraction of its worth at eight thousand baht per rai but there were no takers.
When the rice was ready, he bent over it with a sickle, gathering it into bundles and tying them with straw. He worked fourteen hours a day until it was all cut. He had no help. His wife had died giving birth to his only child, a daughter. She had helped until she was old enough to seek work in Pattaya. He did not ask what work she did but she sent him money each month. This last year he had been able to pay a neighbour to thresh the rice by machine. He had spread the rice out on waterproof blue sheets to dry in the sun by the roadside. The chaff he fed to his buffalo.
It had been a good harvest. At the Royal Ploughing Ceremony in May, the sacred cows, given a choice of seven different meals, had selected maize which foretold abundant rice crops; they had been proved right. With the extra money from his daughter, he had used chemical fertilizer and had averaged five hundred kilograms per rai. He did his sums. Thirty rai would yield him about fifteen thousand kilograms in total. Setting aside enough to subsist on throughout the coming year, even at fourteen baht per kilo, he would have an average 15,000 baht per month for the coming year.
He bagged up his harvest and helped to load it aboard a lorry that came round three times a week to collect rice during the harvest time. The rice mill owner provided this service free of charge. He climbed aboard and sat proudly atop his bags. He waved cheerily to his friends as they were bagging up their rice. Chuvit's heart swelled with pride that he had managed to do so much alone. His mood changed at the gates of the rice mill.
Chavalit, the owner, stood by the entrance. He wore his usual sour expression. Always a black cloud seemed to hover permanently above his head. He scowled at Chuvit atop his lorry. 'Eight baht a kilo,' he growled even before the lorry wheels stopped turning.
'The new Government has promised us a minimum fourteen.'
'Then take your rice to the new Government then, but not on my wagon.' Chavalit turned away brusquely.
'Will you not pay twelve even?' asked Chuvit plaintively.
'Why should I, there is an abundance of rice this year. If you don't take this, others will. Eight baht or I leave your bags on the road for the birds.' He strode away utterly sure of himself.
Later Chuvit did his sums again. Ten thousand a month meant he would not starve but there would be no tractor or even a buffalo. It was unlikely he could afford fertilizer next year so his yield would drop. He was caught in an ever-descending spiral of poverty. He could do only one thing: he got drunk. Sitting alone in the wooden shelter with only his buffalo for company, he drank steadily throughout the afternoon. His senses dulled, his depression lifted. Soon he began to sing. He became aware of a presence beside him, singing along with him: the shadowy form of his long-dead wife. She smiled sadly at him and leaning close to his ear, she whispered six numbers to him, '4, 10, 18, 23, 42, 46.' He recognized them as a combination of his wife's, daughter's and his own birthdays. He knew immediately what he must do.
The lao kao had left him with a headache but a surprisingly clear mind. Early the next morning, he toured the big city until he found the lottery ticket which had been seared across his brain the night before. It came as no surprise to learn that the jackpot prize of seventy-eight million baht was credited to his bank within forty eight hours. He planned the next few days carefully.
The first inkling of the gathering storm was when Chavalit came to unlock the mill gates at the start of a new week. A group of his workers were grouped round a sign hung on a shiny new wagon parked next to his entrance. He ordered them inside and was incensed when no-one moved. He pushed his way roughly through the thirty men who were on his payroll and glared at the sign. It had been professionally done, large and laminated.
WANTED – labourers. Simple duties, unloading and loading rice-bags. Daily wages guaranteed to be 100 baht more than Chavalit pays.
Next to it was an even larger sign: Rice milled 20 baht a kilo guaranteed.
Inside the wagon sat a smiling Chuvit.
'What is all this about? Are you trying to ruin me? How can a poor farmer offer these uneconomical rates? You must be mad.'
Quietly Chuvit addressed the mill owner. 'You tried to ruin me with your uneconomical rates when I was a poor farmer. Now I am a rich business man, I am going to share my riches with my fellow farmers. The bank is paying me 59,850 baht a week in interest.' Here he had to glance at a paper he was holding in his hand. 'That is 8,548 baht every day. I can offer these figures every day for a year and not be any worse off.' He held out his bank book.
Chavalit snatched it with a sinking heart. His eyes blurred and he went weak at the knees. It was clear – he was a ruined man.
'Unlike you I am prepared to be merciful.' Chuvit spoke kindly but forcefully. 'This mill is now worthless. I am prepared to offer you one million baht for it. My lawyer has drawn up the papers and they can be signed this morning.'
'It is worth much more,' the broken man cried.
'As was my rice,' Chuvit continued. 'This price will be reduced by 5,000 baht for every day that I have to hire this wagon and driver and store the rice in a rented warehouse.'
He watched dispassionately as Chavalit's resolve crumbled before him.
Later that evening, he sat alone in his wooden house and stared at the photo of his dead wife hung on the wall and began to make plans. This money was not his alone; he would bring his daughter home from Pattaya. They would have a new house with a television and a refrigerator. He would buy the widow's land for ten thousand baht per rai. His neighbours would benefit too. They had loaned him rice when he was hungry, given him beer when he was sad. A tractor would make all their lives easier. He nodded and stared at his new sign contentedly. It read: Rice Milled Here – 20 baht a kilo.'
For a second he paused. Then, with an even bigger smile on his face, he reached up and changed the sign once more. 'Rice Milled Here – 30 baht a kilo.'
It would be nice if his neighbours' houses were a little bigger too.