[Photo by Zafar Anjum]
Carly’s Song by Enigma
Ah Gong talked about this amazing dry garden he visited once. He called it “the place where all of the beauties of Buddhist precepts come together and concentrate”. Some Zen priests in the fourteenth century designed the first temple gardens. The dry rocks were sometimes stand-alone features or grouped together, alluding to some Buddhist imagery. Something remote about how the world was but illusory, and everything could be distilled into a single breath or a child pointing at the moon.
Ah Gong didn’t think of himself as a Buddhist. He said this once and quite poignantly – that one could appreciate religious imagery and iconography from a purely aesthetic point of view, devoid of its religious symbolism and underpinnings. Even when those very underpinnings were there from the onset, part and parcel of the works’ construction. Ah Gong has studied a bit of Judaism, Islam, Taoism, and explored the plethora of Christian denominations. At this old age, he says he’s simply more at peace having explored all of them, sat with their distinct tenets, and journeyed with them throughout his life. Ah Gong expressed such humility when he said that – more as a confession than declaration – as if all his reading hadn’t made him none the wiser about the largeness of life.
Jeremiah has put on “Carly’s Song” by Enigma. There’s that distant wail at the beginning. Ah Gong said Nina sounded like that in his dream.
“The temple garden is more complex than the stone or sand garden,” Ah Gong said. “They aren’t entirely dry. You can find yourself walking into a pond, and meeting it at its edge, usually a very clean line between stone and water.” Sometimes, you’ll wander into a spring, its sounds breaking the silence in the air. It’s a tranquil sound, that of only water. No birds chirping since the nearest tree might be on a hill, and even then, might be on its own like a lone reed on the horizon.
I like the dry garden, which Ah Gong said was suitable for temples with limited access to water. You might see moss or shrubs or a pine tree but in these gardens, there was no water. Groups of rocks were only suggestions to a larger landscape – they signified waterfalls. And sand raked into whorls and circles suggested waves and current. Ah Gong saw a group of tourists play with a rake, their shoes ruining the neat lines woven into the lake of sand. What was a sculpture – a balance between symmetry and asymmetry – quickly muddied into clumps of sand mixed in with dirt and wetness.
The monk standing beside Ah Gong however didn’t seem to mind. The monk pointed to the messed up sand, and said it looked like the ocean when a gust of wind had bitten into it. Unlike a Western metaphor or allegory, there was no irony in his statement, no bitter sarcasm that commented on the destruction of nature’s sanctity, the soiling of the beauty of the garden. The monk was merely making a statement about the reality of things. Things as they were, as he saw them, and there wasn’t more or less to that statement.
“That’s the kind of clarity I used to have at nineteen,” Ah Gong said. “I was good at reading myself. This kind of clarity comes and goes as you move along in life. I regained it some time in my mid-thirties, and again after my sixtieth birthday. But this illness is making it difficult to hold onto such clarity of mind. To sustain it, and make sure it stays the same like a pond of still water.”
The Malay Garden
Our Malay neighbors brought over some goreng pisang. They were freshly fried, and we had them with Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream. We only had strawberry shortcake ice-cream in the freezer section. But we made do although the ice-cream overwhelmed the taste of the goreng pisang. Ah Gong said he liked how familiar the Malay Garden was. He said he wanted to return to it. Jeremiah read this as nostalgia, and Micah read it as a lamentation on how there’s so little of rural Singapore left to enjoy.
We’ve made several trips to Gardens by the Bay. Sometimes, Jeremiah comes along. Once, Ma and Auntie accompanied us. It’s become a kind of pilgrimage. It’s really sort of special. At the Gardens, Ah Gong said the Malay Garden was just like his kampong. The Malay families were totally self-sufficient. They grew their own ginger, mangoes, starfruit, plantains, lemon grass – had they more land, they would have grown rice. They even had three coconut palms at the edge of the forest. They carved their names as markings into the bark. Every week, they’d pull out their mats and lay them in front of their homes. They’d sell desserts there, which usually sold out by evening. Their recipes were special, Ah Gong said. They made their tapioca cake with gula melaka, added grated coconut on top for crunch. Overripe plantains were perfect for banana bread. These too were sweeter, with a nice pinch of salt. The women were wonderfully liberal with the nuts. When a loaf of banana bread was sliced up, you’d look forward to seeing whether you ended up with walnuts, almonds, cashews or pistachios in your slice.
We had dinner at Marina Bay Sands. A middle-aged woman was giving her husband an earful. He was wearing a batik shirt to their date. He liked it because it was worn in and the cotton had become soft through repeated washings. That’s what he said, but she wouldn’t have any of it. She was decked out in Escada for a movie. She grabbed his car keys from his waist pouch, and demanded they go home so he could change into something new.
Ah Gong has decided to go with an array of bonsai for the garden. You’d think Singaporeans would love bonsai for its smallness – the economy of space – but it’s not as popular as one would like to think. “It takes too much care,” Ah Gong said. “There are expectations associated with bonsai. That it’s the artisan’s hand that produces a good tree. That the tree has as much control over how it’s perceived as the person caring for it. Not everyone likes to have such little control over how things turn out.”
Bonsai translates as “plant in a tray”. The beauty of it lies in its mimicry of larger natural vistas. It’s to foothills what a dollhouse is to a cottage neighborhood. There are so many considerations when choosing a plant for yourself. “Balance is important,” Ah Gong said. “It’s reflected in the structure of the tree. The trunk is like a centerpiece on a dining table. You don’t want a consistent width right through. Something thick at the base that narrows as the top creates good sinew. The silhouette depends on how the branches arch, how they wrap around the tree like a wide hat. They should seem to form sheets of cloud, as if they’re softly enveloping the trunk.”
Even the way the roots are crucial to the overall look of the tree. Exposed roots are ideal. They provide the tree an old wisdom, a weighted effect that’s grounding. Ah Gong’s favorite is a kind of anchored weight at the heart of the ceramic tray, and a sort of dissipation through the root spread, the tapering body, the thinning branches, the small leaves. “It’s like an aura that starts from the centre, and diffuses at its ends. That image is arresting. That image is eternal and beautiful. You want to capture it in a frame that grows in and out of itself.”
Helming Squircle Line Press as its founding editor, Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé is the author of I Didn’t Know Mani Was A Conceptualist, forthcoming in 2013. He has edited more than ten books and co-produced three audio books, several pro bono for non-profit organizations. He is the recipient of the PEN American Center Shorts Prize, Swale Life Poetry Prize, Cyclamens & Swords Poetry Prize, Stepping Stones Nigeria Poetry Prize, and Little Red Tree International Poetry Prize. An interdisciplinary artist, Desmond also works in clay, his ceramic works housed in museums in India, the Netherlands, the UK, and the US.