‘Unless’ is so commonplace for the simple reason that it features in so many of life’s defining rules, at least it does out here in the countryside.
I should explain. This week we’re staying in the jungle farm of Mrs Pobaan’s mother, deep in the south of Thailand. Such is the agrarian vibe hereabouts that I would have included ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’ or even ‘ribbit, ribbit’ among the most commonly-heard expressions if I hadn’t already decided to restrict my observations to human language—specifically the uses of ‘unless’, as previously stated.
Back home in Pattaya the word is common too. For example, in Funtown the law states that you’re not allowed to smoke in bars unless you really want to. In some places they helpfully provide ashtrays in acknowledgment of this little wrinkle in the regulations. That’s the sort of use I’m talking about. Got it? OK, here’s another one: dancing girls in Pattaya go-go bars are forbidden to strip off unless that’s what they’re there for.
Or it’s quite hot.
Or they left their undies at home.
And so on.
On the journey down via Thailand’s mighty but increasingly congested motorways I am reminded that the rule of the road in this nation is ‘drive on the left unless it’s more convenient to nip down on the right’. In the same area, the wearing of a crash helmet is mandatory for motor-cyclists unless they haven’t got one, or unless they’re using it to carry the shopping in, or unless they’ve just had their hair done.
Down here in what’s left of Asia’s ancient hardwood jungle, conservation is naturally a big issue. The law is designed to protect the environment; it is clear and vigorously upheld by an army of forest rangers. Paraphrased by the local residents it states: ‘don’t cut down the trees unless you want to use the land for something else, unless you need the wood for your cooking fire or unless the rangers aren’t around.’
Finally, one of the five sacred Buddhist precepts that people here hold so dear is ‘don’t kill animals unless you want to eat them or (and this is the context in which the word first crops up in our present conversation) don’t kill animals unless they annoy you a bit.’
Annoy you a bit?
Yes, and here ‘a bit’ is defined as ‘anything more than a teeny amount’. The critter in question is a giant tokay gecko (Gekko gecko) and its particularly irritating habit is to make a call which is very loud and sounds a bit like the electronic ‘uh-oh’ noise they used to use on the TV game show Family Fortunes when some hapless contestant failed to guess something like the flavour of potato crisp mentioned by 100 randomly-selected members of the public after the very obvious cheese-and-onion and salt-and-vinegar.
‘Uh-oh’ goes the buzzer when the contestant says ‘fruitcake’—thus failing to get ready-salted—and slaps his forehead in frustration. ‘Uh-oh’ goes the giant gecko and prompts a fusillade of death threats from Mrs Pobaan’s family.
‘But you’re Buddhists. You’re not allowed to kill animals,’ I helpfully remind my hosts from the comfort of my atheism-which-handily-forbids-nothing. I’m sounding a bit smug and worry that perhaps I shouldn’t be so quick to tell the faithful what they ought or ought not to be doing as defined by their own doctrine.
‘But it keeps us awake at night,’ they plead. ‘Besides, its droppings drop on to our clothes.’
‘So what Buddha meant to say was that you mustn’t kill animals unless they go ‘uh-oh’ or drop droppings?’
‘Well, basically, yes.’
It’s easy to be censorious if you have no religion. I regularly observe Christians not loving each other and revel in my own freedom—granted by my lack of religiosity—to love as few people as I choose. Likewise, I notice Muslims drinking beer and Jews failing to resist a bacon sandwich and continue to enjoy these two magnificent human inventions with impunity. Importantly, I can do all of these things without feeling guilt, but I draw the line at murdering a giant gecko just because it goes ‘uh-oh’ or gets caught short over my neatly folded day-wear.
Life is a mass of rules. They present a convenient way of achieving happy existence within a healthy community and in a stable environment. They save thinking and argument. Yet here the approach to legal and social regulations is to think of ways of getting around them. They’re useful, certainly, for others to follow, but for you yourself they present an inconvenient set of hurdles which simply stop you doing things. What do you do with hurdles? You jump over them or, if the umpire isn’t looking, run around them.
So it is with rules, laws and precepts. To show willing, you comply with them occasionally, or even frequently--unless they threaten your ability to do whatever it is you want to do, in which case you ignore them. Thus life becomes a matter of circumvention and justification: you do what you have to do. If that includes killing a giant gecko to get an undisturbed night, don’t think twice, it’s alright.
Unless, of course, you can’t find the gecko to kill it because it’s hiding somewhere up in the roof rafters. A brief gecko search is mounted but proves fruitless and the thing escapes. I’m too tired after the long drive to notice whether it goes ‘uh-oh’ during the night or not, but in the morning I am careful to shake my clothes.