CHASTITY IN THE RAIN
By Andrew Biggs
My friend Book staged a big event in Chiang Mai last week.
It was a Buddhist seminar. A total of nine well-known monks were scheduled to appear in an all-day sermon-fest. They would each take the stage and sermonize, in an entertaining manner, for about 50 minutes each. A couple of thousand people were expected to attend the event, held at a big shopping center there.
Book is one of Thailand’s most experienced event organizers. She is a human dynamo. Plus she had done this kind of event at least a dozen times before in various places around the country. So when it came to the Chiang Mai event, the pre-planning went like clockwork. She and her team flew up the day before to set everything up.
When they woke up Sunday morning, the unthinkable happened.
It started to rain.
“This was an hour before the event was about to begin,” she told me while we waited to record our radio show. We have done a nightly radio show together for the past seven years. It goes to air 7.30 pm on FM97, but we record five in a row once a week. Today was recording day.
“Oh my god, that’s terrible!” I said.
“I know. I just looked up at the sky, and saw the rain coming down, and I thought: This couldn’t have come at a worse time. But I knew immediately what I had to do. I rushed out to find some lemongrass and a virgin.”
Yes, dear reader, my reaction was the same as yours.
What did she just say? I could have sworn she said she rushed out to find some lemongrass and a virgin. But no, surely that couldn’t be what she said.
It’s like mis-hearing song lyrics. For three decades I thought that in Night Fever, the song from Saturday Night Fever by the Bee Gees, they sang: “Oh you’re so meagre, and the feeling is right!” Being one of my favorite songs of the disco era, I was prone to belting out those lyrics whenever the song was played, even in public places.
Then one terrible day I searched for the lyrics and in fact, the brothers Gibb are singing, in trademark falsetto: “You reach out for me, yeah, and the feeling is right!”
It was a blow to the psyche, for a couple of reasons, the first being how stupid I was not to have known that before. The second being this: “You reach out for me,” is well, a little underwhelming when it comes to lyric writing. “Oh you’re so meagre” sounds so much more avant-garde — though why I would be searching for avant-gardism in a disco song is beyond me. And third: Why didn’t I once, in those 30 years, stop to say to myself: “You’re so meagre” makes absolutely no sense whatsoever in the context of a disco song.
So when Book told me she rushed out to find “some lemongrass and a virgin,” I immediately figured I’d misheard the lyric.
Turns out I hadn’t.
“Do you know about this?” she asked. Clearly my face betrayed my bewilderment. “Lemongrass. That we use in >>tom yam<< and other dishes?”
“Of course I know lemongrass. It’s the other ingredient I worry about.”
This conversation was in Thai. Book had used the word >>sao prommajaree<< which is a polite way of saying “virgin”. And then she realized I still had no idea what she was talking about.
“You don’t know about this Thai custom?”
“I know lemongrass and I know virgins, but I have no idea how it relates to an impending downpour.”
“We have a belief that to ward off rain, you have to find a virgin and have her stick lemongrass in the ground. In that way, the rain will stop.”
There was a time, early in my stay in the Land of Smiles, when that kind of information would have knocked me to the ground. Not anymore. Over in the West we throw salt over our left shoulder for good luck. We cringe if somebody opens an umbrella indoors. We dare not walk under a ladder. What’s the big deal about a virgin shoving a wad of lemongrass into some topsoil to ward off a thunderstorm?
Though I did have questions.
“I don’t mean to be disrespectful to your customs, but – how do you tactfully locate a virgin when you need one in a hurry?”
“That’s no problem for my company,” said Book, who runs her own event organizing company. “One of my staff is a virgin. Just the one. Her name is Gift and so when the skies started to open up, we knew who we had to turn to.”
“But – isn’t that a little disrespectful to Gift? Does she want the whole world to know she is a virgin?”
“Oh yes! You don’t understand – she volunteered! When the rain came she knew what she had to do and she was very happy to do it.”
“But … how can you be sure she’s a virgin? Lots of girls say they are when they aren’t really. Does she need to be tested?”
“Gift’s a virgin. She’s told us on many occasions. Besides, we’ve used her before with impending rain.” For a moment I had a mental image of Gift’s unique job description at the event organizing company.
“And so she put the lemongrass into the ground?”
Book nodded. “The truth is, Thai custom says you have to stick the lemongrass into the ground before it starts to rain. In that way, it will ward off the storm clouds. Last week it had already begun to shower, but we figured it didn’t hurt to try. Do you understand now?”
Of course I do. I understand. But I still had one final question. It was a difficult one to ask, but I had to ask it.
I’ve known Book for 15 years. I’ve watched her as she has moved up in her career as a journalist, public speaker, TV news anchor and event organizer. She has won two national awards for TV news, including the prestigious Mekhala Award. She has a Master’s Degree in mass media. In addition she is a mother to three beautiful young children. I’m very proud of all these achievements.
She is intelligent, outspoken, modern-thinking and innovative. How is it, then, that she can willingly perform this ancient task?
“Well it’s like this,” she said. “There I was, an hour out of starting a huge event. When you are faced with adversity such as rain, you do everything … everything … to try to prevent a disaster. Haven’t you ever been in such a situation? Of course I did other things, like ensure everything was covered and there were plastic coverings for umbrellas. But what did I have to lose? I had lemongrass and a virgin on hand. Why not perform the custom? You know, in an emergency, you do every little thing to prevent a disaster. Wouldn’t you have done it?”
Now there’s a great question. Wouldn’t I have done the same thing? I’m not sure if, at my school, the components required for this traditional Thai custom would be as readily on hand as they are at Book’s event organizer company, but the answer is – yes, I probably would have.
Far be it from me to scorn an ancient belief. And I love the way such ancient customs blend seamlessly into modern Thai life, such as with Book, rushing around madly barking orders down her mobile phone, while facilitating an ancient ritual that required lemongrass and a virgin.
And you know the best thing about this story? Half an hour after Gift bent down to shove her lemongrass into the ground … the rain stopped.