By Songwut Jullanan
“I am a ghost created by time that haunts people who live in the old world and adhere to the old beliefs. There’s nothing that can console you, nor able to stop time that will continue to create more of these ghosts. Your effort to destroy us in front of these elites tonight is futile.”
Those were the words Sai Seema said to Than Chao Khun in Seni Saowapong’s acclaimed novel Pheesart (translated as Ghost), published in 1957.
The novel’s main narrative is of the star-crossed lovers, Sai and Ratchanee, which progresses along with depicting the social changes and the generation gap.
Sai grew up in a remote farming village where the concept of private property did not exist. But he’s able to apply himself and gained a university degree. From the peasantry, he became a respected lawyer in Bangkok. He falls in love with Ratchanee.
Than Chao Khun is the novel’s antagonist, he’s an aristocrat who staunchly believes in traditions and social hierarchy. He is Ratchanee’s father.
Underlining the love story is the social conflicts between the nobility and the people of the new generation who want to become “civil servants” rather than “government employees.” The elite also sees the growing middle-class as a threat to the upper-class and the lower-class’s long-standing binarism.
The new generation characters in the novel believe in democracy and equality. In contrast, the aristocratic figures adhere to the values of the old society. The juxtaposition between these two sets of beliefs makes the theme of generation conflict more engaging than the love story.
For Than Chao Khun, Sai is a ghost that he doesn’t want to see, a ghost that makes him “unable to sleep,” a ghost he wants to destroy. From the first day of their meeting, Than Chao Khun would insult Sai at every turn. In the final scene, Sai reacts against the insults with this quote:
“I am a ghost created by time that haunts people who live in the old world and adhere to the old beliefs.”
His words demonstrate his frustration at the feudalistic mindset, which dominated the country during the novel’s time. (Arguably, the mindset still dominates Thai society today.)
Sai’s “ghost” refers to the new generation’s ideology that destabilizes the traditional belief, which upholds the Thai social hierarchy.
“We have been a democratic society for 20 years already, but some thoughts are outdated. The old beliefs still remain.”
It has been over 60 years since the publication of Pheesart. Today, the new generation challenges the old world’s belief. The student-led protests demand the officials to stop harassing the people, calling them to be “civil servants” rather than “government employees.”
High school students call for a reform of the education system and demand their freedom for individual and political expression. Different groups of people demand democracy and stand up for their rights and equality. They have become the ghosts that haunt the old world and the old belief system.
In the novel, when Nikom, a young district chief, tells the townspeople who come to the provincial administration to sit on the chair instead of on the floor, another official remarks that such treatment will make the people “uncontrollable” and that there’s no need to talk about “rights.”
Meanwhile, Than Chao Khun’s words are the same as those words of many traditionalists today:
“They said that people nowadays have the right to do anything. They do not respect customs and traditions. Regardless of the background, anyone can thrive these days. I think this belief only makes human regress.”
However, as Sai explains in the novel, the attempt to destroy these ghosts will come to naught, because the ghosts are no one in particular. It is the new belief system. The people in power may eradicate the ghosts for now, but time will continue to create more of these ghosts, anyway.
“There’s nothing that can console you, nor able to stop time that will continue to create more of these ghosts.”