Singapore At Home

The thought of home is imbued with bliss and pain, comfort and guilt. In all its manifestations— whether it makes us or breaks us—home nurtures a tender, heartbreaking beauty. A lived space, it shapes our life experience. But more importantly, the people we share our home with transform the meaning we seek in a place that is hopefully our refuge. 

No one can claim the name of Pedro
nobody is Rosa or Maria
all of us are dust or sand
all of us are rain under rain.
They have spoken to me of Venezuelas
of Chiles and Paraguays
I know only the skin of the earth
and I know it has no name

PABLO NERUDA

I call him Dumri. I tie one end of my worn out gamchha to the iron fence of the Gas Office by the footpath and the other end to a municipality dustbin hook to make a swing cot. I place him there. Dumri loves to be pushed in the swing. He bursts into laughter. The passengers of double-decker buses stuck in the traffic give us a curious look. I feel amused. It makes me feel like a queen. I leave him on the makeshift swing to pick up a cigarette butt left by someone on the footpath for one last puff or to halt a hasty passerby for a dime or two. Dumri turns his head to follow every move of mine. He is still a few months short of becoming one, yet he seems to understand everything. Such a smarty-pant!

Chennai, July 2020

Our eyes met. His shifted away. I forced him to look at me, and my persistence won. He did. They were blank. No answer to the dreaded question: am I about to depart? 

I smiled. He didn’t. It aggravated me. 

I looked around the place. The corridors were crowded with young doctors and nurses out of medical school, risking their lives to save us. Two young nurses were competing for my husband’s attention. I couldn’t help feeling jealous. I wanted to scream at the nurses: I’m not gone as yet. Leave my husband alone. 

The final act of Rajkumar’s life opened to neither cheers nor applause. 

He looked down at the gentle, placid Rapti flowing fifty feet below. It should have been a raging torrent at this time of year, but the river had no sense of occasion. He held the bridge’s railing tight with his left hand, the other inspecting the iron weight tied to his ankle. 

He had no choice. All his life, Rajkumar had only wanted to be a jadugar. Unfortunately, he was a very bad one. He could never distract an audience, so his illusions never worked. Tea sets shattered when he pulled tablecloths from under them. His white pigeons defecated liberally into his turban. The rabbits bit him. Card decks flew out of his hand, prrrrrrr-uh! and scattered on the stage. 

I am waiting for my father. I glance at the clock. It is not yet time, and he never delays, but I am impatient. As I fidget with my things, I suddenly feel a chill enveloping me. Shivering involuntarily, I glance up sharply.  The study door is swinging on its hinges. Sure enough, Dad is ready.

“I’m sorry,” he says with an apologetic smile. “Is it very cold?”

I smile back. I am so glad to see him, I cannot complain. “No matter, Daddy,” I say as I cross over to shut the door still gently creaking in the wind from the open window beyond. 

I come back and look at him. He is wearing a faded shirt, and he looks frail and old, but his face shines. Is he in perfect health, or is he so glad to be with me?

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We play often in public, my husband and I, as we walk through shopping malls, in private as we stroll through empty garden parks, or stand by the sea at the beach or at the harbor’s front. I play and joke and tease him with my words. I like to remind him of past events, either a mistake or a funny joke, and make him take responsibility for his foolishness. One of our most repetitive banters is about Alexa, the Amazon machine that enables you to control many connected devices, such as bedroom lights and stereo music. When he mentions Alexa to my friends, or his, I would dramatize a head-shaking-sigh and say, “So jealous. His mistress. Even in our bedroom he calls for her.”

One day when we were alone on a walk, I said, “Don’t talk about her, Alexa. Makes me jealous.” His reply, which came quite spontaneously was, “If tech is your enemy, then food is mine.” I did not have a response. I was caught with my hand in my panties and, once again, had been painfully and loudly reminded of the fact that I played and joked and teased him with my words because I did not know how to do so with my body.

“Is this how you want it?” Sameera says. The pain is clear in her eyes,  words and  face. 

“If he refuses, maybe Baba will listen…,” Ayla words fall crippled and deformed from her lips. The lounge falls silent.   

It is hard to remember this lounge being this silent. I remember so many green and red blobs of mint-chutney and ketchup had dripped on this coffee table, and we used to wipe them away with our fingers quickly before Sameera came back from the kitchen with the next batch of hot pakoras. But there are no pakoras cooking today, no blobs of chutney either. No laughter or requests for one more cup of chai. Only solid, paralyzing silence. 

The tall handsome man got down from the Jaguar convertible. His sunburnt face and bleached blond hair was as sleek and shining as the surface of the car he was driving. He bent his head to open the door on the passenger side of his car. His companion, a tall brunette with a mass of curly black hair, did not appear to think that a figure-hugging Dior dress teamed with blood-red stilettos was an incongruous selection of attire for the Australian outback.

The Jaguar, a flashy yellow, infused some color into the bleak vistas of land, which stretched to the horizon in all directions. Andrea, who had been busy feeding the horses, wiped her dirty hands on her jeans, smoothed her hair and started to contemplate how to get inside the farm without being seen.

I find myself awakened by a sudden jerk and the ratchet of a handbrake. I look around the dark to find my colleagues sound asleep, still, snuggled up in their leather seats serving as make-shift beds. From my periphery, I sense Lakmal’s silhouette navigating his way towards me, past the heaps of camera bags dumped along the narrow aisle, the nimbleness of his feet matching his dexterity on the wheel. Both of us gesture for a smoke. He grins – milky teeth illuminating in the darkness like saltwater pearls. 

Image Source: Unsplash

Delonix Regia or the royal Poinciana or what we popularly call the krishnachura is perhaps the only tropical tree that bears flowers and gives shade.” Parasuram looked around with an air of pride. The boys appeared bored. Only Sreeja pretended to be interested. She was the lone girl from her class who had travelled this far on a day-long educational excursion. “A tree lives for an average of five to ten years,” continued Parasuram unperturbed, “But this one has been here for over seventeen!” Parasuram was no student of botany. He taught Bengali in a renowned city college and had brought his students to see his native village, its hundred year old Shiva temple and the ruins of an adjoining haveli that belonged to an indigo planter. Sreeja had a crush on Parasuram and his thick hair and moustache.