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The Charlatan's Son

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THE CHARLATAN’S SON

By Andrew Biggs

Once upon a time there was a little boy who lived in the eastern province of Chantaburi.

His nickname was Plabu, or “Goby Fish” in English, and at the age of five years 8 months he approached his father.

“Father, I am going to die in 15 days,” he announced. “Please buy a tape recorder. I have some things to tell you.”

The year was 1974. All sorts of terrible things were going on in the world; Richard Nixon resigned, inflation was spiraling out of control, and Kung Fu Fighting was number one.

Goby Fish’s father was an impoverished farmer; he didn’t have the money to buy a tape recorder, nor did he believe his son was going to die.

Nevertheless over the next few days, little Goby Fish announced all sorts of predictions.

“In 2001 a plane will crash into a building,” he said between spoonfuls of sticky rice and mackerel one night. “In 2004 a tsunami will devastate Thailand. In 2009 the world will be hit by a spate of earthquakes.”

Father nodded with that blank I–have-four-years’-formal-education face one sees at upcountry markets and motorcycle taxi ranks. But Goby Fish wasn’t finished.

“At 10 pm on New Year’s Eve 2012 a massive earthquake will send Bangkok into the sea, and the big dam in Tak province will burst, obliterating Central Thailand. Oh, and in 2014 there will be a nuclear world war, too.”

“Is that all?” his father asked, taking another swig of local rice whisky and scratching at his sarong.

“No,” said Goby Fish. “After I die I want you to plant 200 Bodhi trees on a patch of land near our house and wait for me to return in my next life, in which I will spread the word of Buddhism with miracles.”

“Pass the fish sauce,” replied his Dad. “This mackerel is tasteless.”

Father and son went to bed and life returned to normal.

For fifteen days, anyway.

You see, little Goby Fish did die just as he predicted, and didn’t that put the fear of god into his father. He scrambled to write down as many as Goby Fish’s predictions as he could remember.

Then he went out and planted 200 Bodhi trees on his plot of land in Chantaburi.

We now jump 27 years into the future, and two planes slam into the World Trade Center in New York. Goby Fish’s father watches from Chantaburi but doesn’t think to tell anybody about his son’s prediction.

In 2004, a terrible tsunami slams into south-east Asia. Two out of two ain’t bad, Goby Fish … but still dad keeps his mouth shut.

In 2009 earthquakes rock the world. Dad remains mum.

We now jump to October, 2011. The world has changed since Goby Fish departed. There is the internet. And Youtube. And … oh my goodness, there’s Goby Fish’s father on it!

It was in that month an hour-long video of Goby Fish’s father appeared on Youtube with a portrait of the all-knowing Goby Fish hanging behind him.

(Perhaps it was a good thing he expired at such an age. The poor child was a little unattractive, one who could only be loved by his father. In this age of “face is everything” we don’t want a rural village populated by offspring of Goby Fish running about. What would the tourists think?)

The video went viral in this country, with nearly a million hits. On a global scale Goby Fish’s father was as popular as a new Lady Gaga video. Not bad for a video of unparalled tedium as this 73-year-old drones on about the predictions of his son all those years ago.

We westerners can laugh at this, but not too loudly.

Remember 89-year-old Harold Camping? Harold was the American preacher who told us the Lord had informed him the world would end on May 21, 2011.

(What is it with God? Why does he relate such important messages to such lunatics? Couldn’t he pick someone a little more sage to pass on such news – Paulo Coelho, perhaps, or if God does possess a sense of humor, Christopher Hitchens before his demise?)

This announcement led to a large number of people selling their homes, packing their bags and going to the top of a hill to await the end.

Well Harold was wrong. A week after, he announced he’d done his math incorrectly (See, God?!) and in fact the world was going to end on October 21. Still there were people who believed him.

Goby Fish’s father’s got a lot of believers, too. His video was red hot about 15 days before New Year. What timing. This little kid predicted 9/11 … and the tsunami … and the earthquakes … and there we were about to celebrate the New Year into 2012!

The Thai media, especially around Tak, went ballistic.

Tourists in their thousands cancelled planned New Year holidays to Tak. Locals living around the dam left their homes. The Governor of Tak, fuming at the dead kid’s words, moved the province’s official celebrations to the dam to prove its stability. Lots of Tak officials phoned in sick.

We now cross to Hua Hin, where at 10 pm New Year’s Eve I was enjoying a delicious seafood dinner on the beach with good friends.

I looked at my watch and smiled to myself, thinking of all those people between Tak and Bangkok who owed me money, or who had stood me up, or who had said terrible things about me … thinking how they’d all now be screaming for their lives like those hapless passengers in the ballroom of The Poseidon Adventure.

“That’ll teach them,” I thought to myself, as delicious pu pong garee slid down my throat.

Alas … little Goby Fish, despite his amazing track record, blew it.

Ten pm passed with little fanfare. Midnight was a different story, as I watched a display of fireworks up and down the Hua Hin and Cha-am beaches, feeling warm and fuzzy and sending out peace and goodwill to everybody, even those who were in debt to me, had stood me up, or called me nasty names.

Except for Goby Fish’s father, of course.

Last Monday the Tak local government filed a criminal suit against him. He now has a warrant out for his arrest for misleading the public and disseminating false information. The Tak administration claims the province lost 400 million Baht in income derived from tourists over the New Year period.

The father of this facially-challenged Nostradamus is unrepentant.

In the media on Wednesday he reminded us all that: “Who said it was last Saturday night? Thailand has lots of New Years – the Chinese New Year, the Indian New Year, Songkran … or maybe my son meant the New Year celebrations at the end of this year.”

Oh man, enough already! So we leave Goby Fish’s father, sticking to his guns, being led away by local police to face the music in Tak.

Don’t fret. This impoverished farmer has enough money to bail himself out. Because look!

As the camera pans out to end our little story, we see the orchard of 200 Bodhi trees, and ... and all those people! Look at the hundreds and hundreds of locals flocking to the shrine of Goby Fish, desperate to donate money, desperate to buy saplings from the Bodhi trees in order to gain merit, desperate to believe.

Goby Fish’s father is fine. We’re not, but he’s fine.

/Andrew



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