Wednesday, June 28, 2006


The mirror shimmers purple
And I gaze at myself
There he is lying stretched
across the ceiling.

It's so nice to hang out
We drink vodka
because lemon is tart
and I take in his gun metal eyes
his skin like industrial plastic.

Wonder why love is a fleeting moment
That intense almost
but not quite

I cannot hold on
and there is no tomorrow.

I have a tiny sliver
I make do with this tiny sliver
I comprehend me in this tiny sliver
and then I move on.

Ashes fall from his body
We are done.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

With All Thy Faults

Sammy was nestled between two men – George Grenier and Law Joo Ghin – on the floor of the cell. This way, he got some sleep, while they fended off the rats. The rats in this dank basement were particularly bold. They fought you for your food and gnawed on your fingers or toes when you drifted off to sleep. Sammy knew it was just a matter of time before they would start on him. He shivered and forced his eyes shut.

His family were arrested on October 15, 1943, five days after the Double 10th Massacre in Singapore. Some Allied guerrillas had managed to penetrate the Japanese net of security and attach limpet mines on the ships in the Singapore Harbour. The Japanese went crazy for a while, arresting people on the slightest suspicion of complicity.

For unscrupulous Malayans, it was a time to settle old scores and gain brownie points. Nicol de Fonseka, a particularly noxious brand of collaborator, who prostituted his beautiful wife to the Japanese officers, informed the Kempeitai, that the Gunaratnes must have had something to do with Double 10. After all, their two eldest sons, Richard and John were in the Royal Airforce, fighting for the British.

James Gunaratne was a Sinhalese immigrant who had worked his way up from a prison guard at Pudu jail, to become one of the most prosperous businessmen in the country. By the time Dickie was born in 1930, his father lived in a huge mansion on Golf View Road with more than two acres of garden and some 15 servants. Theirs was also the first residence in Kuala Lumpur (other than the Governor General’s) to have flushing toilets. In Ceylon, he had been a poor boy of the dhoby caste, swimming to the British men-of-war, with newspapers on his head, to support his mother and sisters. His meteoric rise and subsequent importance were looked on askance by some members of the local Sinhalese community.

The day before the arrest, Sammy and his four remaining brothers – David, Eldred, Henry and Bob – had been playing a particularly raucous game of Monopoly. The room reverberated with screams of “go to jail” whenever anyone landed on that square. Later, the Japanese would want to know who had tipped off the family about the intended arrest.

They were awakened at 3.30am by a loud thudding on their backdoor. Someone was trying to axe it down. James, who thought it must be robbers, pushed 18-year-old David out of the upstairs window, telling him to slide down the drainpipe and run to the Japanese police for help. They were startled by a sharp voice that barked: “If you make one more move, I will shoot you.” David hastily scrambled inside and the whole family went downstairs.

“Open in the name of the Japanese Imperial Army,” the same voice shouted. It was Colonel Koda of the Kempeitai,. James, on hearing this, released the bolts and his son Eldred, who had a room above the garage, was pushed in first with his hands tied behind his back. Eldred was the wild child of the family and his mother, Martha, immediately leapt to the conclusion that he had managed to get himself into another mess.

“What have you done now, Eldred?” she exclaimed.

“Nothing, Mother. I was sleeping and they came in and tied me up,” he answered aggrieved.

The family were pushed into the front room and Henry, who was a year younger than 13-year old Sammy, opened a window. “Look Mom, there’s Jupiter,” he said, pointing out at the night sky.

“Why don’t you cooperate?” Colonel Koda shouted. He was referring to the fact that James who had organised the reinstatement of the power and water supply as well as the collection of sewage in Kuala Lumpur after the Japanese invasion, had retired after a month, leaving it to others to run the town.

“I am a sick man, sir, and cannot work anymore,” James answered.

“Pack some clothes. You are going to be away for a while,” Colonel Koda ordered. “Not more than three days.”

They were herded into a lorry and driven to the Pudu jail. When they got there, they saw that some 159 others, many of them, friends of the Gunaratnes, had been arrested. Many were soon released, including the two youngest Gunaratne boys, Henry and Bob. Martha and her three remaining sons were sent to the Kempeitai headquarters on High Street for interrogation. James escaped due to ill-health. He would not have survived a Kempeitai “interrogation”.

They were placed in separate cells, all of which were infested with rats and lice, at the basement of this building and each one was hauled up in turn for questioning. Sammy, being the youngest, was not tortured as brutally as his mother or elder brothers. They simply strung him upside down and beat him with a rubber hose demanding to know if his family were British spies. He was aware, even when they beat him, that they were not using their full force, meaning to frighten rather than hurt.

The fare was meagre, even by prison standards – some rice, rotten saltfish and a few strands of wilted spinach. The starving prisoners hated their fat Hainanese cook who fed them scraps and stole their food. Great was their merriment when the Kempeitai disovered he was selling the prisoners’ rice on the black market and pulled out his toenails with a pair of pliers.

Sammy was only at the Kempeitai headquarters for two weeks and every day, while he was there, he would see his mother being led out in the morning and limping back to her cell late at night. The Kempeitai reserved their cruellest torture for her. She was beaten until she passed out after they would apply cigarettes to her body to see if she was faking it.

David was soundly thrashed and the lice in his cell infested the wounds on his back so that he was in perpetual agony. Even when he was transferred back to the Pudu jail about two months later, he had to sleep on his stomach. Sixteen-year-old Eldred was not beaten as badly as David but he never got over the experience. Soon after the war, he quit school and took off for America, becoming the family’s ne’er-do-well.

Some would say the Gunaratnes got off easily. Although cruelly beaten, they did not have their fingernails pulled out and their hands dipped in saltwater. They did not have their stomachs pumped with water, after which a Japanese officer would stand on it to expel the water forcibly. And they were not subjected to electric shocks. The Kempeitai were extremely sadistic and, if physical pain did not do the trick, they never scrupled about resorting to emotional violence.

In a particularly telling incident in Ipoh, one Sergeant Ekio Yoshimura, tied a seven-year-old girl from a tree and started to lower her into a fire while her mother, who had been tied nearby, watched. These tortures were mostly reserved for the Chinese dissidents.

This is because the Communists, who lived in the hills and provided the greatest resistance to the Japanese, were mostly Chinese. Later, these same freedom fighters would terrorise the newly liberated Malayans, themselves, leading to 12 years of what became known as “The Emergency”. A particularly ruthless Indian Communist leader, Perumal, cut open his mother’s belly in front of his followers, to demonstrate what he was capable of when it came to turncoats.

By December, all the Gunaratnes were back in Pudu jail. Although it seemed like a company house in comparison to the basement cells, conditions were still deplorable. Prisoners were starving and there were 16 deaths a month, on average. The bodies would be stacked up in fours in a box and taken by handcart to be deposited at the nearest cemetery. The rest of the prisoners knew that the Japanese were still debating on whether or not to hang them. That month, 72 people were hanged in Pudu for suspected involvement in the Double 10th Massacre.

Some 16 months later, on the morning of March 11, 1945, the prisoners were summoned to line up outside the prison - a ragged, diseased, emaciated lot. They wondered if they were finally going to be executed.

“On the occasion of the birthday of his imperial majesty, Tenno-Heika,(they bowed) it is the pleasure of the Japanese Imperial government to release you from prison (they bowed again). But we have to warn you that, if you make a false step, you will be back here. You are not allowed to stir from your homes between six at night and six in the morning.”

These words were spoken by the officer in charge and translated by a Japanese civilian with a marked American accent. Two months later, the family watched in glee as the Allied forces bombed the Japanese.

After the country had been liberated in mid-August, 1945, Mrs Gunaratne gave an interview to the Ceylon Times, describing her ordeal in jail. This was the first time the rest of her family heard about what she had endured as she had remained silent about it before.

Her favourite son Richard was dead. His plane had gone down in France where he had been bombing German tankers. Her husband had lost all his money. She would limp for the rest of her life. Nothing would ever be the same again for her family. But this is how she chose to sum up the experience:

“England, with all thy faults, I love thee still.”

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Once were warriors

David B. stands over me sternly: "I don't want to feel like I'm in the toilet with you Jennifer."

I cower obligingly. But I have decided to chronicle my madness. How do I do that without being personal? He likes Anne Sexton, so maybe. But I'm not her. I just have these feelings, this madness, which I can feel taking over again.

Sort of like someone just stripped off a skin and everything hurts. Again. I long for the escape of red wine. But this is Malaysia. And the wine is overpriced or awful. And if I opened a bottle, it couldn't rest on my desk while I went through it. No, the moment I opened it I would have to finish it. Or watch it turn sour. Like my stomach.

And then there is the churning. I feel my body curl up, foetal. And I throw a blanket over myself and tell the world, stay out, at least for today, I need to disappear.

But there is that gentle tug. Wake up, Jennifer, wake up. You cannot escape. Not this time. You are here. Plant your feet. Home.

Home? I choke indignantly. This is supposed to be home?

I lost the key, now they're all strangers, I tell the voice. And I strain to listen, to catch the tones. Male? Female? Kind? Austere? Who is it talking to me through these folds?

It sounds like, it sounds like, but it can't be. Not...

"Stop it Jennifer, get a grip. I told you, I don't want to feel like I'm in the toilet with you." David again, interrupting.

Shut the fuck up! I rant. You can bloody leave if you don't want to be here. You're no longer my tutor. You can't tell me what to do. Disappear!

He does.

And there are birds. With strident voices. A tormented cacophony. Phony. Yes.

Once there was sweetness. Once, we were warriors.

Once were warriors...

Somewhere in the night

It is weird and wonderful. Your brown eyes are now blue. I comment on it tell me with a laugh that it's a factor of ageing. We look at each other and even though we knew it would be awkward after six years, there is a single startled moment. We cover it with words. Yong sits in the middle silent. He knows.

The tankachis have ended their cold war. Alleluia!

But have they?

And we trade memories because there is nothing current we will meet on. No point of commonality. Whatever happened to so and so?

Did you know his daughter died in a car accident? He's a broken man.

Yes, he would be.

Did you know Mals told me once that someone saw suicide in her hands?


Yes, strange. And then she died the way she did.

Once so much to each other. Now polite strangers. Strained smiles. Pretending, just pretending. I loved you once. And then, we shattered. You stepped over the broken glass to better things.

And I chose my own way. Not your way, but I didn't have your priorities. Be true to yourself, I whispered. Don't be fake, don't be phony, you're better than this.

But was I?

Everything I have, I destroy. I build it up painstakingly and then I cast it from me. I don't seem to have the talent for continuity. Forever frightens me.

And now at three in the morning the pain hits and I am bent over double, choking. I can't believe these feelings, this intensity.

Love is strange.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Sexual Harrassment and the implications thereof

So I am called into Strang's office because a charge has been made, or rather, my name has been brought up in a charge of sexual harrassment. As the harrassee not the harrasser. (I thought I should clarify that).

Strang: "Um Jenny, take a seat"

Me (wide-eyed with wonder): What is it Strang?

Strang: Your name has been brought up in something and I want you to tell me...were you sexually harrassed by Prometheus? Is that why you stopped talking to him?

(Prometheus, a senior reporter, is now facing sexual harrassment charges from one of the young newly married female reporters. He was once a friend. We fell out, but it had nothing to do with sex)

Me (choking): What a dumb question! Of course not! He never did. In fact, I remember there was once when I was totally drunk and he totally could have and instead, he took me to this abandoned park and forced me to walk up and down till I got sober enough for him to send me home. I remember him threatening to kiss me on the lips (giggle) if I didn't keep my head up. I can tell you, drunk as I was, my head snapped up straight. He told me later he didn't know whether to be glad or slightly offended. So, no.

Strang (with a sigh): Yes, I thought not. You know how to take care of yourself, don't you?

Flashback: A few months before he got married, Strang, tall, good-looking and an all-round buaya (Malay for crocodile and it means predatory Romeo) starting hitting on a few girls in the office. He used to stare at us in turn from his computer, casually stroll up and run his hands down our backs while purportedly reading our stories over our shoulders. I took care not to react, show any awareness of what he was doing and then I chopped off all my hair, thus rendering me unattractive (impossible to believe, I know, but true). Problem solved.

Strang: In fact, if one of our youngsters like Sam wanted to go out with you, I'd tell them to think twice. Say they couldn't handle you.

Me (rolling my eyes): Yeah, thanks a lot. (Am not too offended because am not remotely interested in Sam or any of the guys in my office. The girls are babes and the men are just, well, like nothing on earth. Makes it easier to avoid occupational hazard of inter-office romances)

I bring this up because of present situation. Is it possible to be sexually harrassed when you are aware of what is happening and don't want to play ball? Shouldn't there be some measure of consent before it goes any further?

In other news...oh nothing...

Monday, June 19, 2006

What Happened After

An exchange of SMS-es and the consequences thereof:

Him: Hope you've recovered from your first visit to ... :-D If you ever feel the urge for a juicy chat we could arrange a more conducive venue, free of possessive spouses.

Hmmm. Sounds fishy. Frankly I don't like the signifier "juicy". How do I reply this?

A day and a half later...

Me: Careful. Groupies are not fair game.

Him: Our chat was interrupted by a jealous wife. The next day I was attacked by a jealous feline. Now a suspicious mind misreads my friendly signal! Many pardons, ho hum...with chips on the side.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear... did I "misread a friendly signal"? Was I being overly presumptuous? Time for damage control...

Me: Priceless. Sorry. Came out of said chat with lacerations. Still unnerved.

Him: A's (his wife) defence system may be primitive but it works. So much shit springs from fear. I noticed your distress and my offer of a bonus tea'n'talk session was made in good faith with no creepy agenda.

Why don't I believe him? Maybe cos his reputation precedes...but then, I never like going by reputation...I mean if people judged me based on my reputation I'd have few if any, let's practice what we preach, eh?

Me: Forgive my presumption then. Are you coming to KL?

Cos I sure as hell am not going to drive halfway across the world again to be attacked!

Him: Will be doing city run during the week, don't know when. What's your schedule and whereabouts do you live? Anyway, no expiry dates on this!

Sigh. What does this sound like to you?

Me: So far only Tuesday is booked.

Him: Busy woman :-D Will SMS when possible window opens, and leave the logistics to serendipity (my old pal) x

Me: OK. Cool.

So there you have it folks, live bits from my so-called life.

I'll keep you updated (especially if it turns unprintable because I need to explore my exhibitionistic tendencies and pander to your voyeuristic ones)

Saturday, June 17, 2006

You Make Me Feel Like Dancing

So the guy tells me I have attractive syntax and interesting eyebrows. A novel approach...and I laugh, amused. I am there to interview him for a coffee table book and he is charming.

His wife, however, is less than amused at my presence. She throws a tantrum when I arrive, deciding that I am a threat (what with my interesting eyebrows and all) flounces into the house (we are sitting on the veranda overlooking the beautiful mountains outside) and turns on the TV. Loud. Strains of Bollywood drown out all attempts at conversation. So there I am, with my notebook out, straining to hear his interesting answers to my questions about his family and living situation.

The guy is an august member of the Malaysian artistic community. Quite brilliant. He has opted to marry a simple Orang Asli (aboriginal) girl but sometimes there are problems. Like now, when she decides to be insecure.

Their little 10-year old son, on the other hand, naked, quaint and birdlike, takes a shine to me and indicates (he does not talk yet, nobody knows why) that he wants me to spoon his rice out for him. I fumble clumsily, trying to get the mixture into his tiny mouth and most of the rice ends up on his lap or the floor. His father sighs and suggests that I hold the bowl under his mouth to catch what falls out. Brilliant idea. Why didn't I think of that?

Maybe because I am there to interview the Dad rather than feed the son or deal with the wife's tantrums. She, sweet thing that she is, perches herself on the sofa, where she can keep an eye on me. Her face goes through a series of revolutions indicating pain, disgust, jealousy, anger and she turns up the volume.


Finally, the artist asks if I want to go by the river to continue this conversation. He has asked his wife to turn down the tv and she responds by screaming imprecations in some other language (she does not speak English and that was certainly not Malay).

"This is counter-survival! If she feels threatened by you shouldn't she make herself even more charming? Doesn't she realise that if I really wanted to carry on with you, I wouldn't have invited you to come down here, in front of her. That I could just meet you in KL some place? The woman can't reason things out!"

Well, naturally. She isn't sophisticated enough to figure out the mind games that women play when they feel their relationships are under threat. Most women, conceal their rage, under a smooth smile, a charming manner. You only get the fact that they are furious by one or two remarks, tossed off in a casual manner, barbed and vicious. But her very unsophistication, I suspect, is part of her attraction. What you see is what you get.

But we soon see that the river is out of the question as skies are as stormy as said wife, so we repair to the bamboo palace (a bungalow constructed of bamboo) at the back, with his little son. There, I ask him everything I want to (including how he deals with this sort of thing) and he answers willingly enough.

Constructing joy out of simplicity. All his life, he has lived in his head. All his girlfriends have been intellectuals. None of those relationships ever worked out. So who's to say what is ideal and what isn't? With these two (his wife and son), he can only deal with them emotionally. No pretensions, no intellectualising, no capacity for reasoning.

I know I couldn't live this way. As it is, I feel seriously uncomfortable and although the interview is going well and he is interesting and articulate, I feel the waves of anger emanating from the house in front.

His wife comes to the back and screams that he has a phone call. He replies that it is raining and he will call back later. She storms in, and proceeds to wreck the joint. Literally. Screaming with the impotent rage of a child, she attacks him, scratching and biting, throws things about, pulls the bamboo mat out from under me and throws herself into his lap and insists on being held as she bursts into stormy tears.

Her little son, who has fallen asleep curled up next to me, has awakened and is watching his mother's spectacular manifestations wide-eyed. I am wondering what to do. I feel physically threatened and not a little disgusted. Of course, I come from another more counterfeit world, and we don't show our feelings like this.

But what is happening is interesting, in a way. I mean, she is doing what I have, I think, on many occassions wanted to do. Being restrained by culture, I take refuge in biting words. But I would have liked to throw things about and tell whichever boyfriend I was with - say you love me, say I am the only one, show her that you only want me.

Show her!

She is dressed only in sarong pulled over her chest and it slips down in her struggles, exposing her attractive, still child-like body. I look away, of course. Other people's nudity always tends to embarrass me more than it does them.

Finally, she is in his lap, crying noisily, while he soothes her. Paralysed all this while, I think it is time to leave. I smile uncertainly, look at my watch, exclaim at the time and tell him I should be going.

He looks disappointed. But come on. I can't possibly expect to stay after this, can you? He says, don't leave yet, at least stay for a cup of tea. I sigh. I don't want to sweep out of here in high dudgeon. I am exhausted from driving for two hours along unknown roads to find this place, and even more so, at being subjected to this emotional outburst. I was not prepared for it, and don't deal very well with confrontation. (Typical Malaysian - I go out of my way to avoid them)

But I feel bad about leaving abruptly. We repair to the house again and he puts on the kettle. His wife, calmer now, follows. She even smiles a little (the first time she has smiled since I got here). She leans over to kiss him and he looks at me with a wry smile: "She is now trying to show me that I am lucky to be married to her."

Then he turns to her: "Didn't you promise to behave yourself when I said I have a friend coming?" He sighs and shakes his head. "Donnolar. Sometimes ah...anyway, you should be flattered. I've never seen her this bad before. She obviously perceives a threat...there must be some connection between us that she's picked up on that I was not aware of. She's really very sensitive."

I finish the tea, give him a hug, and leave.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

At night, alone, I marry my bed

I would have a glass of Cabernet Merlot (Cape Mentelle for preference) and a volume of Anne Sexton. Soft music would weep through the speakers. Marianne Faithful. Era. Enigma. Steam rising in a shadowy bathroom. Warm water soothes tired limbs, a weary heart. I close a fist over the shards of shattered glass and feel a thrill, a shock of pain. Blood flows lazily into the bath. I take one and run it casually across my wrist. You have to do it vertically so you nick more veins. Those thick blue snakes rising under transparent skin. The incisions do not have to be deep. After all, death is an art and I do not want to shuffle off this mortal coil clumsy and graceless, the way I shuffled onto it.

A sip of wine, and I would pick up my Sexton. She would tell me that death is an old belonging. That's nice. I would like to belong somewhere. Finally. Here, in the august company of the people who fell off the edge of the world, having no place else to go, I belong.

But surely you know that everyone has a death,
his own death,
waiting for him.
So I will go now,
without old age or disease.

Sexton understood. She saw that it was not a matter for trumpets or tinsel. But rather, a sadness, a knowing, a sense of resignation. One is tired. One wants to choose one's own end. There is neither fear nor apprehension. Apprehension signals doubt and doubt leads to last-minute goodbyes that cause eleventh hour interventions.

I said goodbye a long time ago. You just weren't listening.

Waiting to Die is almost a meditative musing of someone who sees her suicide as an inevitability. She understands the arguments...but you see, they make no sense. Not anymore.

Even then I have nothing against life
I know well the grass blades you mention
the furniture under the sun.

She calls it, the death we both said we outgrew in Sylvia's Death. It was secretly obvious to both that despite the lip service they paid to normality or their laughter about suicide attempts, it lay at the bottom of their bellies with the inevitability of a sleepy drummer.

and I see now we store him up
year after year
old suicides.

It grows in our blood. We fight it because the world tells us we have to. Then truth overwhelms and we surrender. We lie down to be covered in shells and bones and silence.

I look out with scorching eyes to see you living - it's not real, you see? I am not real. I became a ghost because you looked and saw I was not there.

As for me, I am a watercolour.
I wash off.

Another sip of Cape Mentelle, the blood of grapes flowing down my throat as my wrist empties into the bath... my life into forgiving water.

They are eating each other
They are overfed.
At night alone I marry my bed.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Aloneness cool postmodern denial can displace the sense of being engaged in something real. (Kim Mahood, Dancing the Country)

Sometimes she hears footsteps on the stairs and goes out to see who it is. No one. Just her imagination. Or this old house creaking again. Shrinking in winter, expanding in summer, tearing out of its paint and plaster so Vincent has to fix it up once every six months. Being a landlord is no joke, I can tell you.

The voices at night are the hardest. Do they come from outside her window? Across the street? She stares out desperately, trying to make out the shadows under the lamp post.

Living alone has done so much for her. She is free. No hassle of another body in her living space. And yet... it would be OK if the phantoms had not moved in and decided to take abode. She hears them listening to her breathe. She catches them whisking by in the periphery. They are gone by the time she turns her head.

Aloneness has a peculiar music to it. It is like a night of sighs, a body just about to orgasm, but not quite getting there. It leaves her with a sense of magic, a sense of possibility wrapped up in her limbs. Her languorous limbs. Sometimes she wishes she could find a lover for a night. Not a one-night-stand. Nothing so sordid.

Instead, a mysterious stranger on the Champs Elysee who asks her out for coffee and takes her to St Germain du Pres to that special cafe of Sartre and de Beauvoir. There he will tell her stories about his life as a plastic surgeon and how he fell in love with an opera singer he met in Geneva who unbuttoned her blouse to reveal a deformed breast. He will tell her about losing his virginity to an older woman who came up to him and his beautiful blonde twin brother and said: "You are pretty, I like you both. I will take one of you on holiday. Decide between yourselves." They toss a coin and he wins. Three days of waiting for her to come to him, wondering...and she snaps at him: "Taking your time is all very well, but this is ridiculous. How long do you expect me to wait for you?" Trembling, he makes his way into her adjoining bedroom and they...

Heady with the stories and wine, they kiss. And for that brief moment, she wants him. But he vanishes. Another phantom in this old house.

A vague longing. A hazy memory. A body about to orgasm but not quite getting there.

Aloneness, they say, has a peculiar music to it.

But you have to give up your desperation for something real to hear it.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

My Life Is Now Perfect

"My life is a mess," I wailed at Jeanette, my calm, zen-like friend who usually hears me out when I'm on a rant.

"Yes?" she raised one eyebrow in that inimitable way. (believe me, I've tried to imitate and I can't)

"Yes, everything is all over the place. My finances are so screwed, I don't bloody even know where my tax file is, my documents, my certs are as scattered as the spawn of Satan and I don't even know where the Golden Key cert is which probably means I will have to write to Australia to get another one and just take a look at my desk!"

Jeanette did and allowed herself the slightest of ladylike shudders.

"Well?" I looked at her inquiringly. We all need someone to sort out our lives for us. In that way, we never ever have to take responsibility. Jeanette was that for me.

"Well?" she answered.

"Aren't you gonna tell me what to do?"

"What do you think I am, dial-a-solution?"

OK, so this was not going to be as easy as I thought. I poured out some more Wolfblass. Cabernet Sauvignon. I don't usually like Cab Sav but the Wolfblass version is pretty damn good. Also I couldn't find the Cab Merlot. One of the trials of not being in Australia with a handy bottle shop around the corner stocking my favourite wines for a fraction of the price.

We both sipped meditatively.

"You need to file," Jeanette said, finally after like a hundred seconds of silence.


"Are you a fucking parrot or something? Stop repeating what I say."

"Oh file. Right." I nodded.


"Yes. What you need, what would really sort out your life, is a filing cabinet!" Jeanette made the pronouncement with the air of a magician pulling furniture out of a stocking and my mouth fell open.

A filing cabinet. How abso-fucking-lutely brilliant! Why hadn't I thought of that? It would solve everything! Everything! Then I could file away all the untidy bits of my life and everything would be neat. Or else, at least neatly filed away to be taken out and wept over at appropriate times.

The thing is, where does a private citizen without an office, go about looking for a filing cabinet? I looked at the furniture shops near my house. They didn't stock it but if I wanted to order, they could have it for me in a month for about a hundred thousand dollars. Or some such ridiculous sum. My little sister, Julie, whom I tortured daily with repetitions of "I need a filing cabinet!" found a brochure for them at an office supplies place in Brickfields, for about half the price, and when we went there all enthusiastic, the bloody place was closed. Public holiday!

We came home disappointed to find a cousin who knew where to find this, that and the other in this haphazard place we call home.

"Hey Thomas, do you know where to get second hand office furniture?" By this time I had decided that second hand was good enough. It just had to file my stuff. It didn't have to look pretty.

"Yes, row of shophouses in Taman Tun. Opposite the IBM building."

Julie and I took off on a quest for the needful the next day. What can I say? The secondhand furniture dealers were CLOSED. It was a Sunday, but still! It seemed that the universe was conspiring to keep my filing cabinet from me.

So, it was a Wednesday and I was feeling pretty damn low. Here I was, with my life still unsorted. An SMS from a Mary, saying she was taking off for the wide open spaces the day after (actually she was baliking kampung or going home to Sungei Petani to sort out her taxes there) and whether I would be free for a cuppa.

Yay! I would not be alone with my Promethean struggle. So we had rose tea at this place, (she didn't think it was rose tea and asked our waitress to show her the tea bags) and some sandwiches and pie a la mode and were good to go. Then I asked, rather diffidently (as Mary is a busy woman with a hectic social schedule) whether she would be free to follow me to Taman Tun, to trawl the secondhand furniture shops there. She was. Yippee! We were off.

I didnt' realise before that Taman Tun was an impossible place to park. After circling the parking lot a few times, negotiating tiny spaces (everyone was doubled parked everywhere) I finally parked illegally. I mean, I needed to get there and it would only be for a short time and ...OK whatever. We jumped out of the car and ran to our first furniture shop.

Old stuff was laid out in the most unattractive way possible ("We're not fancy, but we're cheap!) and we made our way into the shop and looked round. Nobody to tell us where the filing cabinets were. Finally we noticed some guy hovering outside and Mary gave him her million dollar smile. "Could you help us?"

Mr Congeniality made his way into the shop and regarded us with sullen suspicion. It was pretty obvious that this would not be a big sale and he would not be wasting any good cheer on us.

"Filing cabinet?"

He was a man of few words. He led us to the cabinets and pointed. All were of the four-drawer variety. Too tall. I wanted a three-drawer model. I shook my head. He shrugged. Told me how much these cost. (Not that much cheaper than getting one new from the office supplies) I told him this and he seemed uninterested.

We left the shop, somewhat dissatisfied. Is this how the second hand junk dealers behaved? The second shop along the row, though, we struck gold. The guy gave us this wide, wide smile, showed us what we wanted, quoted a pretty good price and said he would have it delivered for free.

"Hold on a minute, OK. We're pretty sure we like yours, but let's just see what's available along the rest of here."

"Sure," he put away the bill he was just about to open.

We strolled rather half-heartedly to the rest of the shops. One of them had a grotty Christmas tree (white with a fine coating of grime) which he was trying to palm off for RM250.

Mary: "If cleaned up, it would look pretty damn good."

Me: "It looks so grimy. Maybe they should clean it up before trying to sell it. I mean Christmas in June, all very charming and all that, but yuck at the tree."

The guy trying to sell us the tree: "Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the waaaaay..."

Never a dull moment.

So I hurried back to nice shop with nice guy, ordered my filing cabinet and it arrived yesterday. I regarded it with pride and a sense of achievement. Then, I made my way out to go buy a bottle of wine and box of chocolates. My cousin Eve and I were taking our friend Addy out for her birthday and I had no time to sort my stuff out.

Who cared? My filing cabinet would still be waiting for me when I got home. Everything would be taken care of.

My life is now perfect.

Friday, June 09, 2006

I don't know what to say lar!

Our motorcyclists don't care whether they live or die. They weave in and out of traffic with not a thought to life and limb and if you don't spot them and make adjustments accordingly, they die. I don't care about that. Most motorcyclists killed on our roads, ask for it. I would just prefer it be some monstrous truck that does it, not me. I don't want to be traumatised for the rest of my life having wiped out one of those bloody buggers!

I have humanitarian friends from abroad who cannot understand my feral attitude towards these pests, feeling that I'm a tad, well, harsh. Then they spend one heart-in-their-mouth day on our roads and swiftly change their minds.

Radio announcer: "A motorcyclist was killed yesterday in an accident on the LDP..."

Ex-humanitarian friend: "Probably asked for it..."

Yesterday, while negotiating the bloody maze that is SS2, this motorcyclist in front of me, casuallly took off his helmet, rubbed his head, put it back on, with like, a finger on the bike to steer. In mid-journey. My friend and I glanced at each other and shook our heads. Even after half an hour of having them swing wildly into my path and being on the wrong side of the road as I tried to turn (ignoring my indicator because Malaysians don't bother with such stupid niceties as signalling) this still took the cake. TAKING OFF HIS BLOODY HELMET IN MID-RIDE!

I mean to say, what?

Look I have no objections to suicide. Leave a note if you decide to, because I find these interesting and collect them. Just don't do it on the road. You may take others who were not planning on going anytime soon with you. And more importantly, you may dent my car.

I just don't know what to say lar!

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Forgetting is a matter of survival

To Charles, regardless...

Forgetting is a matter of pills,
haze, work, traffic jams,
credit card bills,
life going nowhere.

Forgetting is a matter of opiates,
Wine, whisky, angeldust,
Anonymous lovers aplenty,
life going nowhere.

Forgetting is a matter of books,
Wurtzel, Beck, maybe Shakespeare,
no, not Shakespeare,
life going nowhere.

Forgetting is a matter of
teh tarek at midnight with friends,
talking about work, dreams, love...
no, not love,
life going nowhere.

I will forget,
But I wont.
I wont.

I thought I stumbled on my shadow, but it was just the ceiling fan

How does one create in this place of dust and death? Where creativity itself is artificial, the neon light, rather than the glowing rapture of the oil lamp?

I push through the the cholestrol-infested streets on my nightly sojourn. My mind, a plastic bag, floating through endless corridors.

The anxiety forces itself on my chest. A place, a name, an idea, a certainty, a lack of... no more please, I can't breathe. It's difficult to look with cool eyes on the shattered horizon, the blare of the luxury cars, gleaming, arrogant, self satisfied.

To be drunk is to be innocent of all this artifice. To be honest, or at least more honest than this. To make pleasure and give it. No more repeating lines in my head to rehearse a thought, so it may be well-crafted and extruded faux extemporaneously.


Slowly this air, this skin, does not seem strange anymore.

I run to forget. I gaze out to take in the big picture, all those faces merely trees in the forest. I see neither the forest nor the trees.

I run away from my body but it keeps finding me.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Daughter (Molly Auntie, the Sequel)

The sequel to this:

The thing is, I love my mother. I really do. I know you're not supposed to when she has been nightmarish and controlling but I can't help it. I guess no one ever can. As Meg Ryan said in a movie, even people who hate their mothers, love them.

I call her every week and speak for an hour, at least. I use a phone card, you know the ones you can get cheap? You pay $10 and get to talk for three hours. I'm not kidding! Lately, she asked me not to waste my money talking so long on the phone. I think our conversations cut into her day. She's very busy, my mother. She may be what is euphemistically known as a "homemaker" but she is always buzzing about on different committees and stuff. Directing, organising...yeah, that part didn't transmit. I'm scatty. All over the place. God only knows how I managed to get through med school.

I never wanted to be a doctor. Not me. From the time I was young all I wanted to do was read. And write. I loved poetry, stories, the taste of words on my tongue, the rhythms, the cadences. But I don't suppose I would have been good enough. It's a hobby, not a way to earn a living. Only, I don't have hobbies anymore.

Why I became a doctor? Mom. But it's not what you think.

I was looking for something in her closet one day and came across her folder of certificates. She was really smart, you know, top of her class, always. Also good at games - netball captain, hockey captain, school captain. Head prefect. When I got to school, my teachers, all her old friends looked to see if I was like her. A chip of the old block. But no. Hardly even a chip. I was this mousy little thing, hiding in a corner, face buried in a book. I didn't even look like her. So they were nice to me, but otherwise...

Anyway, as I said, I was going through her folder and then I found it. Her acceptance letter to do medicine in the University of Malaya. I mean, that was HUGE. Simply awesome. Do you know how difficult it is to get into the medical faculty there? I wondered why she didn't follow through but then I realised, her father, my grandfather, would have never gone for it. I mean, he was very fond of her, proud of her, and all that, but he would never have paid to get a daughter educated. Sons went to university. Daughters got married. And that's just the way things were.

Yet, Mom adored him and wouldn't dream of blaming him for anything. If I said anything that sounded even vaguely critical, she bit my head off. So I stopped referring to him. I didn't like him much anyway. So strict and disapproving, he thought me and Chacko (my brother, you know) were spoilt. Spoilt? Us? You should have met our other cousins. They got away with a lot more than we ever did. We couldn't you see, we had Mom. She had this sixth sense and we couldn't hide anything from her. Not anything.

I remember when I was in Standard One and I poured my rose-flavoured milk down the drain because it tasted so awful. When she came to pick me up, she asked me, of course, if I had finished my milk. I lied and said I had and she turned, looked at me with those gimlet eyes and calmly told me she knew I had poured it down the drain. My mouth fell open. You couldn't hide anything from this woman!

So anyway, I wanted to ask her about the letter, but I needed to approach in a roundabout way so she wouldn't suspect I had gone through her private papers. So I asked her if she had had any secret ambitions when she was young and she looked at me strangely. Then she said, softly, in a voice quite unlike herself, yes, I wanted to be a doctor. She looked so sad that it went straight to my heart. And that was when I decided, yes, I would do it for her. I would become a doctor. So you see, it wasn't that she pressured me into this. I chose it on my own.

I think she was happy when I graduated. Proud of me. If only for an instant. It was tough, I can tell you. I hated all the dissection we had to do, on live animals sometimes. Once I cut into a live frog, saw its beating heart pumping away. Everytime I picked it up with the forceps, the supposedly chloroformed creature swallowed and pulled its heart away. It died of course. I cried for days. But I stuck it out. For her. I love her, you see. And I always wanted to be good enough.

Why I live here? I had to get away from home or Mom would have swallowed me whole. I do love her and I understand how much she sacrificed for me and Chacko, but because she was so much, I was nothing. She was the elemental female, the fury of a tropical storm, while I was, no am, weak, soft-centre, pliable. Easy to manipulate. Very easy to control. All my lovers caught on real fast and learned to manipulate me in a couple of months. It would be Mom all over again, and I wouldn't be able to breathe. Once the asthma attacks began, I would know. Time for goodbyes.

No, she never found out about any of them. She wouldn't have been happy if she had. None of them would have been quite acceptable. Not really. And while I don't agree with arranged marriages, I would rather remain single than fall out with my family, you know what I mean? You don't? Oh well. Hard to explain.

Would she like you? Maybe. But if she thought you had any other ideas, that would swiftly change to hate. She didn't pick you. So there must be something wrong with you. I was smart enough to graduate med school but not smart enough to pick a partner. So I stay single, at least, I don't get married. It's easier that way.

Lonely? Well, work takes up most of my time. And when I get home I pop something into the microwave and watch TV. Get out DVDs from Blockbuster. Weekends, I go shopping. Get all the chores out of the way. Sometimes I catch a play or a movie. Yeah, mostly alone. But that's OK. Some of us are born to be loners.

You think that's strange? Why? I don't fit in with crowds. Never have. People don't like me. They think I'm strange. And trying to fit in, I talk too much. I babble. Yeah, like I'm doing now. I tell you, when I get home, I'm gonna think, shit, why did I say all that? And I'm probably gonna spend the next week feeling horrible about it.

Kidding! Well, no, not really. Why do I do it anyway? Can't help it. It's like this fatal kink, I need to tell people why. I'm the way I am. Nobody cares. Not really. I'm sorry, I shouldn't be boring you with this. It's just, we got to talking about my mother, and sometimes, like now, I miss her and feel like talking about her. I wish...oh never mind.

Chacko? He's in England. An engineer. Lives there with his girlfriend. No, Mom doesn't know, but he's happy. At least, I think he is. He's nothing like me. Very handsome, confident and he makes friends easily. We were close a long time ago, and then, well, Mom loved him more than me and I couldn't accept it. Still can't. But at least, all the way over here, it's not in front of me. Of course I was jealous, wouldn't you be? I think it really hurt her when he moved to England, but they talk over the phone every week. Yeah, the way we do.

No, don't feel sorry for me. I chose to be here. I chose to be alone. I dunno, everyone is so social these days, it's almost like an obsession, like if you're alone, you're a reject or something. I don't believe that. I hate crowds, anyway. They sap my energy. My idea of hell on earth is a cocktail party, like those we have at the hospital, where you engage in superficial conversation for two or three minutes, before you titter off to talk to someone else. I mean, what's the point? Yeah, the alcohol helps but I don't like drinking too much. The last time I got slightly tipsy I ended up yelling obscenities at a stranger in a pub. That kind of thing can get you killed. Yeah, I know, strange. And I'm usually so low key when sober. Anyway, you see why I have to be careful. I can't be running around telling perfect strangers to get the fuck out of my face, can I?

Dad? Yeah, he's a nice guy. We're very close. I feel sorry for him but I could not stay there and watch her hate him. Yes. Hate. He adores her and if anything were to happen to her, I don't know what he would do. But she rejects all affection. I remember once when I was small, he bought her an expensive emerald necklace for her birthday. Her birthstone, you know. Anyway, she chewed him out for wasting money. No, he didn't yell back. He never yelled back. He gave up trying to win her over a long time ago, but I think he's very sad inside. And I am sad for him. I look like him, see, dark and scrawny, while Chacko looks like Mom. So her rejection of Dad felt like, yeah, it felt like she was doing it to me.

Ugly? Check.
Useless? Check.
Hopeless? Check.

But you know, I never found Dad ugly. I love him madly. We're co-conspirators, the two of us. The outsiders. We don't really count. Yes, I know it's a weird concept, but you can have outsiders in a family. The rejects (there I said it) who don't quite fit in.

She was proud of me when I became a doctor, but that's about it. I tried so hard my whole life but nothing I did was ever good enough. I remember running home to tell her I was the only one in my form to score an A1 in my triple one nine English exam. And this, when I was ill with conjunctivitis and could hardly see the question paper. Everyone in school had made such a fuss of me and I thought maybe, this time, she would be proud of me...but she glanced at the paper, gave me a half smile and said, not bad. Just that. And suddenly, it didn't seem so huge anymore.

So I guess, that's why I live all the way over here, with no family and few friends. Australia is a lovely country. It has a whole different energy to Malaysia. More loving and accepting, I think. But sometimes I miss home. Sure I do. So I go back, at least once a year to remind myself why I cannot live there. If I stayed away too long I know I would be tempted to chuck everything and go back. And that would be disastrous. It would kill me. They don't understand me over there. Come to think of it, they don't understand me over here either. But that's OK. It hurts less when strangers don't understand you. When it's family, it's like fresh knives.

Does my Dad miss me? I guess he does. But the way things are between them, I can't bear to watch. So I ran away from home. Like some silly kid. And I will stay away, until... I don't know until what. The other day, I woke up suddenly in the middle of the night and didn't recognise this 35-year old body. It seemed strange and unfamiliar. What happened to my life? One day I was 19. And suddenly, here I am creaking my way towards senility in this form I no longer recognise. Everything on suspend. Chest tight. Breath held. Waiting. Don't ask me for what.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. All meaningless.

No, I don't need therapy. I know that I seem mixed up, but that's what we all are. Mixed up. Walking wounds. It's just that I acknowledge it while people like you pretend you have it all together.

At the end of the day, we're all desperately alone. All of us. Marriage doesn't guarantee communion. Neither do children. We scream into pillows and hope that the pain will abate so we can drop off into a few minutes of hushed oblivion.

No, I don't long for happiness, anymore. Happiness is a lie. There is only a slow cancelling out, an extinction. I never really lived so I cannot die. I will cease to breathe, and will you even remember today?

Or that I once existed?

What's my name?

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Like Rain On a Rainy Day

I have front row seats to a divorce. I'm witnessing the dissolution of a marriage that never seemed real in the first place. She sends me the emails they exchange, now he is in New Zealand. Guarded at first, then increasingly acrimonious.

I guess divorce can never be civilized. But does it have to be this ugly? Words spoken in the heat of the moment, resisted at first, but which later return to haunt; another piece of shrapnel.

Angry words. Hard words. Bitter words.

Tearing away at the flimsy foundations of their lives together. A marriage in which one or both partners constantly needed to escape. A marriage in which there was physical proximity but little intimacy.

Tension. Always high.

What a life! Shades of the prison-house closing around the growing girl. Marriage prescribed as a necessity, not a choice. Everybody MUST be with somebody - respectably partnered. Only losers live alone. Old maids. Disgrace. Shame on the family.


So, was he cunning, evil, conniving, just along for the free meal ticket?

And was she foolish, extravagant, emotionally needy, domineering, physically repulsive, gluttonous?

Why does she send me these conversations? What point of view could I possibly provide that would change anything?

Tell her she's in the right? Be supportive?

I can't. I'm not sure anymore. This drains me. Stop it! Stop sending me these stupid letters. I will delete them. And then, delete you. You have no right. None.

Burn the letters! Destroy the diaries! Delete the emails!

Leave no trace.