I’m a genuinely congenial fellow usually. I don’t generally allow myself to whip anyone with a flyswatter on more than two occasions a week (although I admit I did whip one particular lady seventeen times in a one week, as she was irritating me with her determination to be seen by normal people). So you would imagine my surprise when this young gentleman named Ankit snapped at me at a bus stop near the patch of mud where I had planned to bury my late rabbit, Rocky.
Hello. My name is Shailesh Kunder. I live in a small town in Uttar Pradesh named Saharanpur. My life has been very uneventful, I am sixty now, with not many stories to tell my grandchildren. But whatever I tell them is completely true, and I tell them with all my energy. I do have one story though which I cannot tell my grandchildren. This is that story.
Two women, in salwar kameez, sit glistening under a white incandescent, hazy light. A pool of light in calm blue water next to them is disturbed only by the shrieking laughter of the two small girls in cute green and brown striped swimsuits.
The two girls, in green and brown striped swimsuits, swim excitedly under the white incandescent, hazy light, lit also from below by those eerie pools of light that make pools surreal at night. Their shrieking laughs are complemented perfectly by the soft ripples in the water that a young lady in a black bikini is making on the other end of the pool.
The young woman, in a black bikini, swims calmly alone on the surface of the water, free in every move she makes with her muscles. The water doesn’t stop her: instead, it makes way for her, enjoying the soft waves she makes as she paddles across it, length after length. Her soft motion would be meditative but for the rude slaps on the squash ball being made by the sweaty man in red shorts and orange vest in the squash court.
The sweaty man, in shorts and a vest, is lunging fiercely at the squash ball, his body tense but loose from exhaustion. The room’s light is unflattering; every bead of sweat dripping off his forehead is obvious against the crude white backdrop of the walls that surround him.
He stops. He comes out. He calls loudly across the pool to the other side to the two women in salwar kameez. He asks them to pack up. They oblige, without response. The young woman is still wading through the pool, unnerved by the shouting man, but not done yet.
The two women shout loudly at the two little girls making merry in the water. The two girls laugh and continue, until one of the women issues a threat. They come out, still giggling, dripping.
The young woman finishes a length, looks around and sees no one around. She stands at the edge of the pool and looks around. She looks up at the upper floor where I stand. Our eyes meet for a few seconds. She quickly gets out of the pool, wraps a towel around herself, and leaves from the walkway furthest from where I stood watching.
There is silence, as the white incandescent lights begin to make their presence felt. The pools of light have disappeared with the ripples: they are just bulbs under the water. Nothing moves for several long moments.
With nothing to distract me, I suddenly have to pee. I go back in.
I think I want to write a story. A story of a beautiful girl who would walk through meadows on cool breezy summer afternoons with her cane hat and springy dress, the dress has flowers on it – lilies, white and pink and orange. It is frock actually. She’s holding a basket in her right hand; it is slung over her arm, hanging by the elbow actually. She’s picking flowers, slowly, gently, as if she weren’t actually killing them off, but simply caressing them, convincing them to come into her hand as if it were the start of a new life. The flowers are looking more alive once they’ve been picked somehow. The basket has only the brightest of the lot. The lifeless ones have been left behind, the girl knows exactly what she wants. These flowers will go to her bouquet that she is making for her grandmother. She is ill, her grandmother, and ill like never before. She had had coughs and colds and things like that before, but somehow last night was different. Her parents had seemed scared last night; the grandmother seemed paler than usual. So she decided the only way to make her grandmother feel better was to make her look at something far livelier and cheery than the worried, anxious faces of her parents. It would not do. So she had decided to get out of her little countryside home and walk barefoot to the other side of town, where flower fields blossomed for miles around…
She had never thought about who owned these tulips; funny thought, now that she thought about it. It never seemed relevant. She always just came here, and picked the tulips to her heart’s content. She never bothered to wonder if it was wrong, what she was doing. Which is why she felt strange today. She has never really had this feeling of guilt before. Maybe I’ve grown up, she thinks, and smiles. She picks the flowers gently, lovingly as ever, much more lovingly than the owner of these tulips had ever watered them. But she has this nagging sense of guilt in her mind, lurking now, behind those happy thoughts of the beautiful, cheery bouquet she was about to make for her grandma. She decides she cares less about the owner, and more about her grandmother, so she starts to walk across the field and back to the main path, trudging carefully on the muddy field… She sees many flowers on the way that might be nice for the bouquet, but something in her heart tells her she may have run out of time… Then there was the encouragement in her mother’s eyes when she had told her of the bouquet plan. “Go, my dear, what a wonderful idea!” mother had said. And when she had left the house, her mother had not even bothered to check whether or not she was wearing any slippers… That was new. Even for her mother, that was new.
So she ignores these other nice flowers, and walks briskly back to her home. She feels this urge to walk faster, ever-faster, yet, she needs to have the bouquet ready by the time she gets back home too! So she makes the flowers sit in the right positions in her nice little basket, and walks faster and faster. Grandmother! She’d love these flowers, she thinks. She makes nice little patterns with the orange tulips, and with the pink ones, and with the white ones she makes a lovely border for the whole arrangement. It looks quite pleasant, she thinks. Grandmother would love it, she thinks to herself, and allows herself a small smile.
If there wasn’t her grandmother around, who’d she make bouquets for? She thinks. For the grocer, perhaps. He’s a nice enough fellow. But making them for grandma has its own charm, its own happiness. So she feels happy, and starts to skip back home. She is much faster now, and she rushes past the trees and the ducks in lake and over the little bridge over the stream that fills the lake, and into the town’s main street… She struts past the grocer, who waves at her as she passes by, she smiles at him, but feels sorry she hasn’t made anything for the dear grocer today… Next time I will, she promises herself. She is almost home now, and she checks her bouquet again: the flowers are all messed up now! She shouldn’t have skipped about, she made the arrangement go awry! She reaches the home, but stands on the steps a few minutes and sets the bouquet again… When it looks just nice, she enters the house and sees her parents sitting with their silly grim faces in the courtyard. She just shrugs her shoulders and walks past them with the sole intention of showing her grandmother these wonderful fresh faces. It’ll make her day, she’s sure of it.
She opens the door, and there she is the wrinkled kindly woman in her typical sky-blue sweater, cosy inside her patchwork quilt, quietly knitting away.
“Look what I brought for you, grandma!”
It was a weird day, you know? One of those weird days that make you wonder, like what the fuck dude. I mean, you can sometimes have a day when you just stare into oblivion and shake your head condescendingly at nothingness; I had one of those days. It is strange too that it started with the prospect of utter, insufferable, inescapable embarrassment.
We went looking for a lecture right, about a play, and we thought look, we don’t need to have actually read the play to enjoy a discussion about it, right? So we went anyway. This ‘lecture’ turned out to be a session with exactly five people, including the two of us. And the author. The organizer asks us a very pertinent leading question: “Thanks for joining us. Why don’t you begin by telling us how you felt about Ellen as a character in the sense of her femininity and placement in the overall gender-context of Singapore?”
Ya. That question. I can swear to you I wouldn’t have said any more or any less than I did even if I had read the play.
But it turned out alright. When the organizers got over the initial shock that we had no idea what the play was about, they recovered and the session ended up quite enjoyable. We left the place feeling very excited and energized: there’s something about stupidity making it big in life that is very arousing. So we were, aroused!
“The thing about these plays, you know, Shiv,” she said, starting a conversation right in middle as was customary,” is not so much the context, but the fact that such plays can be written in such a conservative society still.”
“I know right? And I thought the moment you said ‘gay’ in a theatre in this country the PAP would –“
“Oooh look! A marriage!”
So we KIV-ed PAP’s policies and went and peeped into someone else’s marriage for a while. It was at the Armenian street church.
She looked at me curiously all of a sudden. I saw her staring at me, and I pushed my eyebrows up. She still didn’t say anything. And then, after five seconds of awkwardness, she says, ”tell me, why the hell is there an Armenian street in Singapore?”
I had no idea I said. I told her all I knew was that Little India existed, and I only went there because of – actually come to think of, I didn’t go there. She was amused. We said hi to a bridesmaid and told her it was nice to see her again, and she smiled and said of course! And you have grown up so much!
We held our laughter until we reached outside the church, which is when we basically burst out laughing and almost crashed into a couple passing by. Not that they needed much crashing into, they were pretty jammed up together already. How do you even walk like that?
Anyway, so we were laughing like crazy, and suddenly Charlotte decides to mention Soo.
“I always used to think exchange students are bad, you know, but Soo isn’t like that, she is actually my soul-mate, you know, I feel like, um, like we really connect, you know, there is something quite strange about it.”
I was amused, because you know let’s face the facts: they’re both straight, single (ah, I’ll come back to this is in moment) women, Charlotte is Dutch and Soo, wait for it – is – wait a bit more – Korean. When I had first seen them together, I was amazed simply by the fact that they could understand each other. But, they had a connection she said.
“Yes, that’s why we never talk on phone, because if I cannot see her, I cannot feel her emotions you know? And I don’t understand anything she is saying then… So we always text each other instead.”
“Ah I see,” I said sceptically,” you understand the texts totally?”
“Ah, well, if by ‘totally’ you mean – “
So we walked into pepper lunch and ordered ourselves some, well, pepper lunch where she explained to me how she could eat salmon and still be a staunch, proselytizing vegetarian.
“Well, it is not so much about being a vegetarian I think. It is now, forever, the idea of being vegetarian that is important.”
I could buy that. But still, you can’t be eating salmon, surely?
“No but you see, in vegetarianism, there is not much room for flexibility and experimentation. I often find that vegetarianism, veganism and other such weird-isms are slightly stagnant in their ideologies.”
How do you mean, I asked, really quite interested.
She takes a bite of salmon, and after a chewing at leisure staring at me, she finally gulped and broke the silence:
“Ah nothing. I’m just a lousy vegetarian. I got bored of the friggin’ leaves all the time, so I caved in.”
YA. This is barely three weeks after she posted a “Why Vegetarianism will save the world” video on facebook wall. ON MY FACEBOOK WALL, I mean how rude.
“Plus,” she added after another bite of salmon – I think it was the head this time – “fish is stupid, so fish isn’t really non-vegetarian.”
Next stop was an ATM, after which we were supposed to head back to NUS to sit and mug, but as you know, life was good, we were high, so we spotted the esplanade from a distance and she says to me –
“You know, “ – and mind you, we’re both staring intently at the esplanade while she says this – “you know, Shiv, I’ve recently realized that at night, I really really study awesome. Sometimes I wonder why I even bothering studying during the day time.”
She turns, looks at me, I feel it, and we start walking towards esplanade.
“There is this amazing connection you know? Sometimes I just don’t say anything, and Soo knows what I am talking about!”
“Yeah, I’m actually concerned about when you do end up saying something.”
“No, just listen, sometimes you know she walks up to me from a distance, and from her walking style I can tell what her first words are going to be!”
Yes, I know some of you idiotic types would be thinking, you know what Shiv, this is what friendship is really about, it’s what that hard fabric of camaraderie is really made of. Nothing rips it apart, it’s impossible, it’s because your existence and your friend’s existence are interwoven so impeccably, it really is one single fabric.
No, none of that bull crap. It was because Soo only said one of two things whenever she met Charlotte. First – “How are you” followed by “kh kh kh kh “. The ‘kh’ sequence is exactly what it is written like. The ‘kh’ sound, four times, usually with a hand over the mouth to symbolize the very little known Giggle.
Second – well, it was the same thing in reverse order. So first the “kh” sequence, and then the how-are-you. I actually deduced a simple algorithm to figure out which order comes out when. Soo trips a lot, she stumbles over stuff a lot, you know, the fidgety-fumble-y kind. Basically, if the last step before she begins to talk is a stumble, she leads with the “kh kh kh kh”. Otherwise, it’s a how are you first, and she adds the kh kh kh kh just to cover up for those other times she kept falling over things.
During all this rumination of strange Soo-specific sounds, Charlotte and I enter the Esplanade.
“But really, Shiv, Soo is amazing, sometimes I want to marry her, but I think, unfortunately, you know, neither of us is gay.”
I roll my eyes and think, well, not think so much as start imagining, but that’s not the point of this story. As soon as Soo is making the first move in my head, Mitwa, that rave song from KANK starts to play in the Esplanade main foyer, and I am naturally attracted to the music and I see this guy with his Raghu-Dixit style goatee and guitar standing there and singing; it was wonderful. I actually forgot for a moment that I was with anyone; I forgot for a moment indeed that I was me. There is something about hearing music in Hindi live that is magical. I began telling Charlotte what the lyrics meant, but it wasn’t working too well, and she started defending herself again –
“But I can also feel what this song is about! I am not so impulsive and reckless you know!”
I wasn’t even accusing her of anything, like, seriously, I had digested her story of kissing a guy on her first night knowing the guy pretty well by my standards. But she kept defending the whole idea of spontaneity you know? And my little mind that always plans and puts things into the future – pleasure, pain, success, happiness, kissing, sex, marriage, old age, death: all later, at the correct time – was unable to grasp how this moment of utter madness had come to pass between Charlotte and this random guy. How could they have kissed when they first saw each others’ lips for the first time like four hours ago?
“It was so natural, Shiv, it just happened and it felt so nice and cosy.”
Cosy? God save me.
“But you should tell me why Shiv, you must tell me your thought process so that I can know how you think.”
I was about to tell her what I think when Mitwa finished and I couldn’t stand the next singer’s version of Bairi Piya(people really shouldn’t sing that song unless they’re sure they won’t guillotine the damn thing) so we had to start walking again, and even before I was able to blurt out my logical reasoning behind abstinence from all physical contact with anyone remotely female, including those of the magazine and video varieties, another thought raced across my mind:
“But this Derek, he’s Soo’s friend right?”
“Yes. Soo’s best friend.”
“No I am going to tell her tonight when I see her.”
“When is that?”
“Now! Since nothing’s on here, we should go to Commonwealth to her hostel for dinner!”
I forgot briefly about the immediacy of the issue of immediate consent and we talked instead about the fact that Belgian waffles are by far the best in the world.
Commonwealth arrived, and I cleverly quipped: “So now we just wait here until she feels the force draw her here?”
Charlotte looks at me queerly and says,” No, no, now I give her a call”, and waves her white handset at me.
By this time, Charlotte has already told me about this whole guy episode with Derek-the-British-hottie, but I had time in the waffle-conversation to think about it. I decided by this time, that I would give her my Indian 2 cents worth (which is not much, really, especially compared to the Euro) only after the Charlotte-Soo comedy variety show had ended.
So, enter, (fanfare) Soo.
Tatter, trip “Sorry!” trips again, waves, teeters at the edge, then takes her last step completely stably and says “How are you Chaar-law-tay! Kh kh kh kh.” Bingo, I think.
I can’t stop laughing, as you can imagine. These two girls, I have no idea man, I just don’t know how they can have a conversation. I told Charlotte this once and she said she’s amazed too. Only, she wasn’t being funny when she said that.
So I hide behind my Sprite can and bee-hoon plate and Charlotte launches into her story again. Now in between the smirking and grinning, I begin to notice new layers to this narrative. I am completely quiet now, you notice, compared to the whole day when we barely stopped talking for 5 seconds. And Charlotte is adding interesting new angles to the love story.
“I felt so light. It felt like, for those brief moments, not much else existed in the world.”
“It was morning when you kissed, right?”, asked Soo.
“Yes, yes, like 8 am. But it was so quiet, and so serene. I felt like time had stopped and I felt so light. I didn’t have to worry, I didn’t have to feel stressed. We just were, in those moments of truth, we just were. And Soo, the kiss was so natur-“
From here on, yeah, you already know what’s coming, and I tuned out too. Long story short, Soo stated she was “shocked”, and then later changed her statement to “happy for the both of them”. The only advise Soo had for Charlotte –
“You must go home and write about it.” (And so I did, as you can see.)
But then, my own mind was buzzing now. The whole day I had quipped and wise-cracked my ass off in trying to get Charlotte to tell me how she felt about this guy, and I could not get any of those words out of her. Soo, on the other hand, came tripping by, and as soon as she had sat down, Charlotte couldn’t wait to dump it all on her. And in vivid detail: not the boring details like she had told me. This was as it really was. The moments: those splendid few moments that she wouldn’t forget for at least two lifetimes. The nature of the wind at that time of the morning, the way the sun was filtering in, the way her mind felt when he held her hand. The fact that she couldn’t remember how her mind felt when they kissed.
All I had got out of her was ‘cosy’.
And suddenly, from behind the Sprite Mug, I realized I shouldn’t be here.
I picked up my phone, and pretended to read an SMS.
“Oh shit! Someone’s birthday Charlotte, I better leave now!”
“Oh really? But we haven’t talked about your opinion yet!”
“Another time, OK? You guys have fun!”
I got up, collected my things, gave them both a hug, and walked away. There are times in life when you see the truth in front of your face, and you have to be grateful for those moments. They’re few and far between; but when you have that realization, have that uncanny sense of witnessing something wonderful, you need to have courage to not interfere with it. Not to interrupt its beauty with your messy presence. These two ladies are doubly special I think. They have that bond, and they both know it too. I walked silently away, smiling to myself, staring into oblivion and shaking my head condescendingly at the nothingness.
Then I gave my girlfriend a call.
“Hey Maan. No, nothing, just wanted to hear your voice… Your renting emergency how? Hmm…”