Thursday, 16 May 2013

Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

Some years ago when I was travelling in Malaysia, I spent a few days in a small city named Malacca. Although the country is predominantly Muslim, it caters to all faiths and this city in particular was known for its diversity. This is exemplified no more than in Harmony Street (also known as Temple Street or Jalan Tokong, to give it its official name), which contains places of worship for Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, all in close proximity. (Christians need not feel left out, as they too are amply catered for elsewhere in the city, which in its colourful history regularly passed between British, Dutch and Portuguese rule.) The street was also the setting for one of my strangest experiences in Asia.

I was on a walk with Katie (my bride to be for those who have not been following the blog) when we saw a Buddhist monk walking towards us. I knew that he was a Buddhist Monk, because he was exactly how I had always pictured one to look. His face was round and kindly, with a shaven head and he wore simple robes (more closely hued to yellow than orange) and sandal-less bare feet. I was quite excited, to say the least.

As he came nearer and we made eye contact, I felt that I should make some kind of gesture to acknowledge his status, so I respectfully bowed my head to him. The monk returned the gesture, but did not carry on walking. He carried with him a small cloth satchel, which was slung over his left shoulder. From the satchel, he removed a sheet of paper, which he then handed to me.

The paper bore an official looking seal and explained that the bearer of the message spoke no English. It then went on to explain that in order for the local monastery to be maintained it relied upon donations from the public. The monk urged me to keep reading, but it was clear that he was merely seeking a donation, which I was happy to give. I reached into my money belt and removed a ten ringit note. Petty change by western standards, but here it could pay for several meals.

The monk raised his palms in refusal of my offer and instead invited both Katie and I to hold out our hands to receive something ourselves. Eager to gain spiritual favour, we happily obliged. A small golden token embossed with a motto in Chinese script was placed onto each of our palms. The monk closed our hands around this gift and again invited us to make a donation. Unfortunately, aside from the ten ringits all I had was denominations of one hundred. That was a full days spending money for each of us and not something we could really afford to give away. (well, we could have, but how many people give the equivalent of £20 to charity collector they pass on the street). I once more offered him the ten ringits.

In response the monk then removed a small leather bound pocket book from his satchel. Opening it to the first page, he invited me to take a look inside. The page was divided into two columns. Along the left side were a series of western names. Along the corresponding side were numbers ranging from 150 to 300. At first I thought that he wanted me to sign along with my donation, but he drew particular emphasis to the numbers. At this point it became clear that he was requesting a fixed donation of at least one hundred and fifty ringit.

I tried to explain that we could not give so much, but he could have what small change we had. The monk did not seem to understand and continued to point at the numbers. When I was not forthcoming with the cash, he then pointed to the tokens in our hands and then back to the numbers in the book. He was trying to say that we had to pay for the tokens. Unable to meet the price, I attempted to hand the small gold leaf back.

‘Here, I do not want it,' I told him.  'No tokens, but we will give you ten ringit.’

As I said this, I handed the token and the money to the monk, but he refused them both. Every attempt that we made to return the tokens was rejected and the monk now had his hands folded in prayer and began smiling serenely as if beckoning us to do the right thing. This went on for some time and in the end I had to tell Katie to just place her token on the floor and walk away. I did the same. The ten ringits had at this point returned to my money belt. The monk began to follow us, before finally giving up the chase when we crossed the road. I felt ashamed somehow, but then, I had not actually done anything wrong. I actually wanted to give him some money, just not as much as he was looking for.

This was the first time I had ever known a charity collector to turn down a donation because it was not enough. Surely the whole point of giving money is that every little bit helps? In this case - apparently not. It was not an experience that I wished to repeat. In future the merest hint of an orange robe would send me running for cover with my hand firmly on my wallet. Looking back, the irony is that it was effectively a reverse mugging. Instead of forcefully taking money from me, he effectively insisted (strongly, but not quite forcefully) that I keep my ten ringits for myself!

So is there a lesson to be learned from all of this? if anything, it is that sometimes you cannot give something away and it is with this in mind that I will now turn my attention back to my writing. I have learned a lot from other authors since I self published and one recurrent theme is that as well as the risk of over charging and pricing oneself out of the market, it is also possible that undercharging can also scare potential readers away. Although it sounds ridiculous, a book priced at 99c may not sell, but the same book priced at $2.99 could. In fact, a recent analysis of self published book sales on Smashwords has shown that $3.99 seems to be a favoured price point and books at this price sell considerably more than $2.99 and even 99c! (click here to see the original article) So perhaps we writers need not feel downhearted when our sales fall. Maybe a price rise will draw readers back in, because just like the monk in Malacca, some people are willing to look a gift horse in the mouth.

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  1. Seems like a good yet very 'unmonkly' tactic to guilt trip his prey into giving more money - it is probably worth his while turning down your donation - if it works a few times he's doing well.

  2. David I understand Completly The fears you faced, I have lived over twenty years in Thailand, I have seen Ghosts with my own Eyes, Strange Objects in the Sky. 9 monks at my wedding,if you give 1 tenth of what you had in your Wallet or trousers Purse what ever 1 tenth you will receive back 10 fold he would Pray Chant hours on his return to the Abbot at his WAT (church) with all the donations before money is distributed to Poor or needed items.
    Good Luck as I live on 57 uk pounds a week Pension I write for the love and memories Tips from You and Grace are wonderful Thanks

    1. I am glad that you liked the post. I think that "for the love and memories" are two very good reasons to write. Had I not written about the story with the monk, in time I would lose the memory, which makes the act of writing a way of creating a tangible link to the past.