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A carnival too good to last

No trip to Bangkok can be complete without a visit to Patpong, a centre of Bangkok?s sex-commerce, even if you are in Thailand to report on a coup d?etat, writes Aditya Sinha.

india Updated: Sep 30, 2006 00:40 IST
Aditya Sinha | urban gypsy
Aditya Sinha | urban gypsy

Coup d’états happen in African republics, undertaken by a Manuel Noriega type, his tasselled scabbard trailing behind, not in Bangkok, more prosperous-looking than any of our metropolises. Yet it had happened in the Thai capital, on a Tuesday night, complete with the obligatory late-night tanks and patriotic music on TV.

Come to think of it, it was also a Tuesday night in October 1999, when General Pervez Musharraf’s tanks took over Islamabad as he ousted Nawaz Sharif. Like his Thai counterpart Thaksin Shinawatra, Nawaz was also the first prime minister from his nation’s new entrepreneurial class, though he was by no means New Economy. Like Thaksin, Nawaz was seen by his urban citizenry as venal and corrupt. Pakistan’s coup was also set to patriotic music. You would think there was a handbook for military takeovers.

Bangkok last week was like Karachi in October 1999. Relieved citizens celebrated, but not in the throngs-of-Eastern-Europeans-tearing-down-the-Iron-curtain sort of way. In Bangkok, families gathered in their Sunday best at the Royal Plaza, where four M41/A tanks stood, bought their children ice cream, and posed with the soldiers. In Karachi, they had all headed for an evening at Clifton Beach, packing in the fried seafood and taking in the Arabian Sea breeze.

And though Karachi’s thinkers justified the coup by citing the “incompatibility of Islam with democracy”, the honeymoon ended within months. So it is just a matter of time till the picnic in Bangkok ends.

The guru-shishya latté

Hidden amid gleaming office buildings, towering hotels and sprawling shopping malls is Chulalongkorn University. Though lacking the bloody face-offs students of Thammasat University had with the military in the 1990s, it is still a hotbed of dissent and analysis. Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a brilliant political scientist with insights into the royal Palace, prefers we sit on a pair of mosaic benches outside his building, rather than in his office. “This is sensitive,” he says. “I don’t want to get thrown into jail when there is no Constitution.”

Thitinan shows mild surprise that an Indian newspaper has taken interest in the Thai coup. Though HT had sent a reporter to Phuket after the 2004 tsunami, this is the first time in his memory that the Indian media is here to cover internal political developments. “Well, India is emerging,” he notes, suddenly it sinks in: the plan to produce a world-class newspaper.

The next day, his colleague Dr Panitan Wattanayagorn, a specialist in military affairs who counts ex-students among the coup-makers, takes me down to the trendy café in the political science building. While we order our lattés, students pass by with joined palms, half-bowing in greeting. It is impressive and humbling.

So I naturally tell him about the recent incident in Ujjain, where a professor suffered a fatal heart attack after being jostled by student leaders. He is shocked and I am ashamed. Thailand is obviously been more outward looking and integrated with the world economy than India. Yet it has not lost its cultural moorings. So no matter how much of a hurry we might be in to catch up with the world, we will have no excuse.

Pole dance in Patpong

No trip to Bangkok can be complete without a visit to Patpong, a centre of Bangkok’s sex-commerce, even if you are in Thailand to report on a coup d’état. But how do you combine the two? Do you interview the man-ladies on whether it is business as usual?

The truth is, your correspondent does not have the nerve for such cutting-edge journalism. A beer inside a bar where scantily clad Thai girls pole-dance is enough excitement. The most adventurous I have been was two years ago: I sketched girls while they writhed, and was rewarded with a lot of attention. But frankly, I like Patpong more for a particular stall carrying the best pirated indie-rock music.

Fate would not let me escape the man-ladies, however. A few hours before I returned to India, I went shoe shopping for the various Imelda Marcoses in my life back in New Delhi, in the same mall where a couple of days earlier, there had been a student protest against the military takeover, and close to the upmarket mall where, over the summer, shoppers jeered Thaksin’s wife Pojaman.

I was in a shop crowded with young Thai women trying on footwear, and the sales-girls, dressed uniformly in yellow-and-white striped T-shirts and low-cut jeans, looked bored. I spotted a pair of sandals for my younger daughter, and asked one for help. She could not speak English, but the others jabbered in Thai and suddenly a tall sales-girl came to my rescue.

“What are you looking for?” she asked in a voice so husky that I quickly looked up and saw a face that though cleanly shaved, still betrayed hints of stubble. His/her hair was long and bleached, and I had to restrain my eyes from travelling down to, uh, check if he really was a she.

If I had thought one could run into such a person only in Patpong, I was wrong. I observed, as s/he ran her hairy knuckles through her, well, mane. What was my daughter’s foot size, s/he asked, and I said, “a bit longer than my palm”. S/he grasped my wrist for a better look, and I immediately wrested it out. She paused, gave me a searching look, and shrugged. I didn’t get much more help, though I got the sandals.

First Published: Sep 30, 2006 00:40 IST