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Choosing

July 21, 2024

Blog, Poetry

Ode to Earrings

July 14, 2024

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“I And This Mystery, Here We Stand”

July 4, 2024

Short Stories

“No Human Heart Is Made For Crowds”  

June 25, 2024

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Birthing Poetry

Shivani on

Introduction to my poetry collection, Being Born Book details: My first tongue is poetry. Long before the writing of stories, my initiation into the creative cosmos of writing happened…

Blog

Choosing

By accident, I stumbled upon a YouTube video. Well, I doubt many things are accidental on the interweb these days. A single click—yes, by accident—can determine the future of your mind. One kitty video is all it takes to flood your inner reality with fur and feline tendencies, and suddenly, you’re a virtual cat person. Now that I am about to name the video recommended by YouTube, I’m feeling suitably vulnerable, like my insides are coming out. We live in an age of exposure, and I’m a big girl, so I’ll survive. It’s not that terrible, really. After 30, as the comedienne Ali Wong says, your mental consumption hovers alarmingly in the self-help region. By that point—and I can confirm this although 30 has long left me—enough of life has seeped through your pores to plant a suspicion inside your head: maybe this thing I’ve been doing again and again, and again, is not bringing me the thing I thought it would bring me. Basically, I’m not happy and how can I please get some of that happiness rumoured to exist because I don’t think I can subscribe to nihilist notions of being in the world. Just give me some mediocre happiness. Eating popcorn in a dark, freezing cinema with two cozy sweaters and a giant cup of Coke. Ordinary. Very ordinary. I can hear the chattering of your mind: why is she delaying the great reveal? The deferral is nothing mysterious or profound. Just a bit of good old-fashioned procrastination which I believe is a sign of self-sabotage but I’m not here to psychoanalyse myself for public ingestion. I’m just here to disclose that one day, not long ago, YouTube recommended a video named “Choosing Peace”, and I chose it, the video and potentially also, peace. I think it was the simplicity of the title that arrested me and flung me into one of the most straightforward discourses on human happiness I’d heard in a while and because of its apparent easiness, I found it dizzyingly complicated. What was the essential kernel of this philosophy, you ask? Choose peace. When the Uncle in front of you is driving at 10 kilometres per hour, choose peace. When the punk behind is tailgating you (the punk turns out to be a middle-aged man in a chequered shirt with neatly combed hair and he looks like Mr. Lopez the nice neighbour who used to give you Ais Krim Malaysia and Hudson wild cherry sweets as a child), choose peace. In fact, superimposing the image of Mr. Lopez onto the tailgating punk is probably an effective strategy in choosing peace over deliberately slowing down your car to increase the punk’s blood pressure, and by extension, your own. When your mother informs you that your hair is indeed resembling barbed wire now that you have changed shampoos, choose peace. Then, when she returns to you 2 hours later to tell you that your eyes have become the colour of the paya bakau behind the house and that it’s most likely because you have an undiagnosed disease, choose peace. How? You could consider her words to be mere sounds, much like bird tweets are little noises in your ears. So, mother’s words are little noises too. If that doesn’t work, maybe excuse yourself from the premises and get yourself an Ais Krim Malaysia (though I haven’t seen these in ages; there must be an updated version somewhere in the country or else just get a Top Ten or Split). When a woman spits in your face, for reasons unknown to you, choose peace. It’s said that Gandhi blessed his assassin at the scene of his death. I would love to choose peace every time mainly because I have this vision of myself floating over fields with a foolish, electrified smile on my face: not just happy, but deeply okay. I’d wave my profound okayness across highways, stinky alleyways, and in the faces of the disgruntled until they too get infected with this overpowering okayness. The problem is I tend to forget to choose peace. And then, when I remember, I choose peace and I find myself filling up with the residue of hot emotions from having chosen peace. You know the type of emotion I’m referring to…those delicious spikes of anger, sadness, maybe even grief. And then, the peace turns into the type of peace that appears on the faces of murderers as they’re recounting the details of their acts. The good news is I don’t feel too hopeless about this. My main discovery— and hence this bold act of narcissism in writing a whole blogpost on inner turmoil—is that most of the time, several steps separate the primary irritation from that point of choosing peace. There are those one-off moments when choosing peace happens and takes effect instantly (as does levitation). But, the rest of the time, there are pathways, oftentimes convoluted and subject to acute experimentation, that form adventures towards that peace. My biggest discovery though is that the instant version isn’t the only way choice is made. A choice is a choice. An equally potent choice transpires when it’s about getting onto that pathway in the first place, even if it takes you through rocky terrain with high, breath-depriving altitudes. 20 minutes or 20 years later, there might be a descent from Everest levels to Fraser’s Hill levels (please excuse my simplistic thinking). For me, the importance in seeing the dimensions, contours and shape of this geography of conflict and peace lies in the arrival of peace without the suppression of real, pulsating emotion. No peace is possible with the denial of what’s in the way of that peace. So, yes, I choose peace and what is possible in the moment of choosing it depends on the heat, flavour and density of the soup of my psyche and hopefully, it’s not too thick to make me forget that choice is possible, that peace is a decision. To end, the picture I’m attaching to this piece is of me in Rishikesh, India, when the environment itself gave me the natural intelligence to choose peace quite easily, and to remain there. I just need to keep remembering to stay put.                      
Shivani on
Blog, Poetry

Ode to Earrings

I’m obsessed with odes. Odes celebrate, elevate, magnify. They treat their subjects as though they are the only things that exist. They insist on focused attention.  I like them so much I use odes to introduce poetry to young poets. Why? It’s quite simple, really. Odes open up fresh fields of looking: Neruda wrote odes to tomatoes, onions, socks. He took the most ordinary daily items and shone vivid lights on them, turning them around with such intensity that the onion becomes a saviour on the table of the poor, the tuna fish a simultaneous king of the ocean and solitary man of war. I love the metaphorical turns an ode can take: a coffee flask, for example, reveals the beauty and function of the object as well as the desire for security (from an actual ode I wrote to my green coffee flask). And this ode to earrings I’m sharing comes out of the journey my interest in earrings takes: it goes, inevitably, to regions of impermanence and love.   Do you have a favourite ode or a subject for an ode you’d think would be illuminating?       I began to hang youon days delicatewith spiderwebs,loose threads,things on their wayout.For hope,I took rosebud hoops,unicorn studs,pink ladybugs as bigas earplugs,long sprays of starsand made somethingof my ears,of the womaninside the mirror.We could be happylike this.With awe, almost a seafloordangling offan ear-cliff.You and I,self and self,returningto the good things in lifelike having beautycrystaliseda star land on your bodyand find comfort there.One earring at a timeto rememberdestinies lie inwhat we hearand maybeearrings we shelterare remindersof the light we bear,even if it isthe size of an ear drum.Sometimesthe littlest objects like atoms, like minerals  are what repeat for usthe wisdom of this world:the delicate heartbreakof things on their way outlike the whisperof your mother’s voicein the middle of the nightwhen nothing makes sense.
Shivani on
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“I And This Mystery, Here We Stand”

It would happen on nights gloomier and quieter than usual. Tucked in bed, my mother beside me, squirming in the unique way children do when they get metaphysical: what are we doing here? How did the planet get born? Where were you before you were born? Children are the original Zen masters, philosophers who are wise because they provide more questions than pronouncements. In the Katha Upanishad, it is the boy Nachiketa who recognises his father’s dishonesty in donating spoiled goods during a ritual for the gods, and cleverly asks, “I too am yours. To which god will you offer me?” When Nachiketa is sent to Yama, the God of Death, he is given three boons. For his first two boons, Nachiketa chooses reconciliation with his father and lessons on how to conduct fire rituals. His third request, which Yama tries to persuade him against, is for self-knowledge. It is too subtle, too dangerous a subject if handled irresponsibly, Yama laments, but Nachiketa insists he wants to know who he is and where he comes from. He had the three noble qualities of children: purity, persistence, curiosity. Yama relents and the Upanishad reveals the terrain of self-knowledge. My early youth was peppered with metaphysical episodes, as it is, I’d like to believe, for most people, recognised or not. On these storm-threatened nights, when my mother’s mind was freer than on other nights, I would latch onto it as though my body still depended on hers, and ask: “What if we were never born? What if nothing existed?” She mainly listened, knowing better than to answer. In any case, the questions were for myself. I wanted to feel the special dizzying feeling that appeared when the final question ended. My mind spun in dark whorls and reached a primal pinprick point which I assumed was the origin of life, and when even that disappeared, what was left had to be The End, even though it didn’t occur to me to ask how come The End could be perceived. But my larger-than-life questions never required an answer. Children are the inventors of rhetoric, secretly knowing the high demands they place on the confused adults around them. (Why is red, red and not blue?)   The rhetoric of childhood not only made its way unharmed into adulthood, it grew arms, legs, a rotund belly, became a factory of unanswerable questions, and turned me into a difficult person, tortured, freakish. Haunted. I lived mostly in a state of puzzlement, slapped in the face by the mystery that I agreed to be baffled by more than I would enter it. There’s such a thing as too much rhetoric, even a flair for it that can turn ugly, as things tend to when a talent is over-milked. But a person gets used to a way of life. Littering the pathway with questions, for example, as a means to live life. Or maybe it’s a strategy to make a claim on life by keeping a question-filled distance.  What if we were never born? What if there’s no point to living?   Who are we? These were the kinds of questions I swam through. The more I asked, the wider the waters grew. The shore was somewhere else altogether, and somehow, the shore didn’t seem important or real. One questioned to keep questioning so that landing was never necessary.   And then, ironically, as childhood became teenagehood and young adulthood, the questions turned insular, directed straight at the navel: Why is my life so dark? Are all people’s days mournful and melancholic? When will this shit show end? How the questions regressed from mature philosophy to emotional immaturity as I grew older is fodder for more questions, and it wasn’t until much later that I understood how my constant questioning was not only reflective of being lost, but also of resigning to a fate of immobility. I could ask and ask, and remain asking, and persist in an enigma of questions, with no end, no light at the end of a dark, foggy tunnel.  But it wasn’t fun or useful—mystery too needs boundaries to remain delicious. It was the pandemic that showed me the extent to which questions flavoured my worldview, and just how useful it was now becoming. I felt like a professional who’d been training for this moment her whole life, which in a way, I was. Musing alone is never as impactful as when the whole world is doing it. Collective self-reflection upped the game, at least for me and for the people I’ve talked to, read about. I didn’t mind that more questions appeared in my tunnel, because the questions had returned to the gravity and seriousness of childhood, and the self-absorption miraculously diminished. The thing that had made me feel ridiculous—questions are good, questions are brilliant, but at what point do questions get converted into real life?—brought me revelatory experiences instead, and affirmed the importance of wise neurosis. The cooped up spaces we lived in for over a year turned many people into children and philosophers. Suddenly, we had to ask big questions. How have we got here? Where are we going? What does it mean to live well? What are we supposed to do during a pandemic? What is the relationship between humans and other species?  Because, now, death was just a sneeze away, and the roads and offices were eerily empty, and we had to sit back in our IKEA armchairs, amazed that life could change in a 21st century-technologically vibrant heartbeat. Will I live through this? How many of the people I love will die during this? How will this end? Will it, or will we go first? The questions, always urgent, turn so urgent that they effect movement and outcome. The questions are stirrers of stagnancy, the alarm clock for entering a new day.       The pandemic is the new reason people give for revelations, frustrations, life-altering tragedies or joys.  It was during the pandemic that I …. ‘started my catering business…never cooked in my life.’ ‘wrote a prize-winning novel. Had been meaning to write it for decades.’ ‘left my husband. Didn’t know we had nothing in common until then.’ ‘realised the brevity of life. I lost both parents to the cursed virus.’  But why not? The pandemic threw us all into an enforced cell of pondering, and spat us out enriched or depleted. Do or die. Turn your life around, or else… Pandemics are extreme things. They don’t perform in halves, or in apologetic sums. The 1918 influenza pandemic took out up to 100,000 million. The Bubonic plague made its appearance in the 6th century and returned with stubborn insistence in the middle ages and in 1855, killing 25,000,000- 50, 000, 000 in total. Before smallpox was exterminated, it seethed and raged for 3000 years. ‘Pandemic’ comes from the Greek words ‘pan’ which means all, and ‘demos’, people. Pandemic is all people. It’s democratic, unprejudiced, globally frightening and in its jolts, it unites. Suddenly, lives must change. Suddenly, lives must end or begin.  Suddenly, doors are bolted, the perimeters of days narrowed by 80, 90 percent, and the faces of loved ones far too familiar. What do you do when life becomes tiny, when there is literally little room to roam? Where else to go but down the rabbit hole, but it may not be magic that’s encountered. Just muck and spooky shadows we’ve avoided for centuries.      In a panel with Sara King, Daniel Siegal and Gabor Mate on “Building Intergenerational Trauma  Sensitivity and Awareness”—an online series on trauma I attended several years ago—Angel Acosta reminds: “Covid is the memo from Mother Earth, how fragile and interdependent we are…it’s a gut check and an ego check.” It’s a view point that has been repeated by environmentalists, thinkers, theorists who have called and are calling for a gigantic gut-check, and a revolutionary reassessment of our priorities as a species. But, this isn’t new. Environmentalists have been saying this for decades. James Lovelock wrote about his hypothesis of Gaia—“ a physiological system …[that] appears to have the unconscious goal of regulating the climate and chemistry at a comfortable state for life”—in the 1960s, and cautioned that our meddling with the biosphere’s innate intelligence is deeply problematic.     Digging into early environmentalist writing is always a shock to me. Wendell Berry, Rachel Carson, Thomas Berry were already saying this then? (Another question) And other questions I’m happy to admit sound naive swirled around in my frightened head especially when the spread of Covid-19 intensified: “There were many more pandemics before this one?” “How in the world could something as gruesome as this happen now, in the 21st century?” Then scrambling to acclimatise to this narrative of the not-new, and admitting that the pandemic we’ve found ourselves in isn’t a sudden blight inflicted on us by an unfeeling god. Pandemics have been around for thousands of years even though it may have felt like a novel curse for many of us who hadn’t experienced the impact of the SARs outbreak in 1990. Viruses like coronavirus emerge first in animals and then transfer onto humans at higher frequencies when there is more contact between wildlife and people, and when this contact isn’t adequately managed. In 2007, thirteen years before Covid-19 hit, Cheng et. al warned: “Coronaviruses are well known to undergo genetic recombination, which may lead to new genotypes and outbreaks. The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb. The possibility of the re-emergence of SARS and other novel viruses from animals or laboratories and therefore the need for preparedness should not be ignored” ()       None of this is new, not truly new, not exactly novel, and we clearly aren’t good at hearing warnings. Perhaps it is magical thinking that makes it so: “it’ll work out, of course it will, we are the chosen species”, “how can it not be okay? We’ve always come out okay, and no big disasters have struck.” Psychologists have found that human beings are hardwired to undervalue the severity and possibility of disasters which makes it easy for biologist Edward O. Wilson to ask, “Is humanity suicidal?” He asks the question in the context of the extinction of species caused by human effort that in turn leads to the destruction of human beings for the simple reason that every species has a place on the planet, a function to fulfil, and disturbance—especially amplified disturbance—of ecosystems impacts not merely the dwindling or killed off species, but all species. More significant and heartbreaking is the presence of the past in this journey of erasure. This planet has been cooking for billions of years, and we have evolved out of the dance of the biosphere—the 20 kilometre sliver of earth where life exists—so we aren’t abrupt additions to a pre-existing context. Countless species, earth and life processes have gone before us to amalgamate, die, rise, rot, and we are merely a percentage of the stupendous hardworking theatre of life. “Humanity did not soft-land into the teeming biosphere like an alien from another planet, “writes Edward O. Wilson, “We arose from other organisms already here, whose great diversity, conducting experiment upon experiment in the production of new life forms, eventually hit upon the human species.” (Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight For Life) Our species itself is birthed out of the earth and the self-regulating, life-loving life-system that is patient, smart, persistent and, evidently, full of faith.  Environmentalists and scientists caution that it has taken the planet a long, long time to make its creatures and spaces, to birth its props and products that, frankly speaking, are nothing short of magical. Rachel Carson, in her nervous, outraged scolding of how we commit biocide in an age where chemicals are free-flowing and pervasive, reflects on the deep time of geology: “It took hundreds of millions of years to produce the life that now inhabits the earth—aeons of time, in which that developing and evolving and demystifying life reached a state of adjustment to its surroundings…time was the essential ingredient. Now, in the modern world, there is no time. The speed with which new hazards are created reflects the impetuous and heedless pace of man, rather than the deliberate pace of nature.” (Silent Spring) This is time we can’t conceive with our minds, it’s closer to the region of the infinite, something we don’t do well with because we prefer nights, days and a mundane calendar we can use a Sharpie to make marks on for commemorations as significant as the next shoe-shop excursion. That we have been born out of the crust of countless natural experiments, and that something was toiling to get to this species with an intellect, are moments made for rigorous questioning. What in the world? How exactly have we come to be? What makes this type of unrelenting work possible? Are we more like children of the planet than its keepers? If we are the children of mud and rock, then aren’t we meant to get to know it, revere it, understand it, pay homage to our lineage?  But I wonder how many questions we’re asking, if we roll around in bed at all for a few more moments before we take our phones off airplane mode and bombard ourselves with messages, platitudes, puppy pictures. It takes five or six seconds to ask the question, and an infinity for the ground of those questions to born: isn’t that what the earth has spent her billion-year labour on? The creation of a species that’s able to contemplate and self-reflect? The time it takes to ask the question is nothing, but the fact that the question can be asked is where the dignity and girth of time really begs to be looked at.     Let’s spend some time on time, and its close cousin, infinity, which is endless time (or space, or both), or at least what appears to be infinity. When John McPhee coined the term ‘deep time’ in 1981, he paired it with what couldn’t be grasped by the human mind: “Numbers do not seem to work well with regard to deep time. Any number above a couple of thousand years—fifty thousand, fifty million—will with nearly equal effect awe the imagination.” (Basin and Range) Deep time has the flavor of infinity, that depthless, boundless quality that either makes us uncomfortable or wonderstruck. Technically, deep time is duration and duration automatically means shelf-life. For example, it takes the earth a period of time—an unimaginable amount of time—to produce oil. It will astound you. It only takes a dash of visualization and a moment’s pause to get to a point of astonishment. Oil is made of the remains of phytoplankton that are secreted in depths devoid of oxygen. The remains have to be squeezed and condensed by rocks, and then moved into a spongy layer that resists escape via dense rock. The sources of the oil need to heat up between 100 and 135 degree Celsius not for the few minutes it takes to heat fat up in a frying pan, not even for the few hours it may take to cook a goose, but a length of time that once again brings the human mind into an abyss, the same abyss my mind would twirl into as a child when I asked origin questions like, “what if we were never born?” Millions of years, it takes. Millions of years for phytoplankton corpses to get lodged into the perfect resting places, for their organic innards to migrate to holey layers that are adequately trapped by impenetrable rock so that they can be boiled for millions of years at the ideal temperature. Then let us consider how long it takes for oil to be drilled out of its ancient womb—a  few days if it’s an onshore well and a whopping few months if it’s offshore—and the numbers are clear. Durations like days and months we understand. Those we know. It takes me five days to write one chapter, three months to complete a teaching semester, half a minute to eat a seri muka kuih (I must think about my digestion). But when the numbers grow big and stretch into unfathomable zeroes, I come into direct contact with the limitations of my mind. It simply cannot reach that expanse of time. It’s religious time, the time of mythology, geology, biology— Brahma slept for four thousand years; it takes a long time for the rise and fall of a species before its place is filled with another; a mountain is formed after years and years and years…      But it isn’t only heaven and earth that are gifted with numerical genius. In our consumption of oil, for example, we reach those boundless mental areas.   35,442,913,090 barrels of oil are consumed globally each year, and it is estimated that there are only 47 years of oil reserves left. 47 years we can picture because it is within the boundaries of a lifetime, but the other number leads us to a monstrous immensity that although may seem infinite, isn’t really. Just because the human mind finds it difficult to convert zeroes into experiential objects doesn’t mean they aren’t countable nouns. Yes, 47 years is a finite number, and the millions of years it took to make the oil contained in that 47 year period may masqarade as infinity—time without borders—but that façade falls apart when we ask: where are we going to find millions of years? For even a million years begins and ends sometime. And we take it lightly, as though a million were a minute. We need that kind of proliferation and abundance of time on our back, holding up earth, soil and species, as our guide to put us in our place. To just think in terms of flourishing zeroes, edging towards a semblance of infinity (but not quite), is a requirement for successful living, and for rewriting our collective pattern of egocentricity. Deep time shows us our place, tells us that life has persisted without our meddling, and that it is a long, loving process of life generating life, and it goes on without us. That is, humans don’t make life. That is, the earth itself is alive and hard at work. Doesn’t it make more sense, considering the planet has been churning out life for 3.7 billion years and early humans only emerged 2.4 million years ago (a mere 300,000 years ago if we consider our current anatomy), for us to gasp more? To think of all the time and all the space and all we have absolutely no idea about—90% of species on this planet haven’t even been discovered—and ask: “What can we learn? Who are we in all of this?” “I and this mystery, here we stand,” writes Walt Whitman. This mystery, I think, is the key to our survival. Step out of it, and the world, as we see and experience it, falls into grey shadows. 
Shivani on
Short Stories

“No Human Heart Is Made For Crowds”  

Malikka told me when she was wiping oil off my back that I was talking about the human heart in my sleep. They assigned me to be her burden after they put me to sleep for 4.5 days. The maid? The family maid, sure. Why, Dr? Why not? She was the only one who showed up at the hospital. Papa and Amma were still in Calcutta, deep in the world of God’s psychic. And when they came back, they wanted to save their good energy. “Your Appa and Amma say it’s a pollution to mix the good energy with a mental asylum,” Malikka said in her roughest Tamil, to make me understand, you understand? My brothers—may their souls get exactly what they deserve—used to say I wasn’t supposed to have been born a Tamil female with skin like burnt flesh. I should have been produced as a vellakaran, white as a blood-drained face.  I spoke about the mountains of the human heart, Malikka said. I travelled there. Apparently. Who knew I could be such a preacher? A homegrown saint.  Some hearts are heavier than others. Some are skinny, some are fatty, just like people. At the end of the day, we’re all responsible for the shape, size, condition of our own hearts. Take charge. When you don’t, your heart is up for auction. For other people’s molars. Don’t blame them if you don’t know how to weigh your own heart.  I’m a lyrical waxer.I should post on the media for society more.I should reveal myself.Flash the whole universe inside me and explain: I am not a killer. I am a devotee of the human heart.Malikka is gone. Her performance of care no longer needed. I’m out of the public, inside the private now, and let’s face it, it’s not as if she gave birth to me. We all need someone to pretend our life matters to them. Let them go when their job is done.The front door is making a noise. Creak. Thump. Footsteps. Thick guttural voices.I was never really that interested in Malikka’s heart. It smelt too much of jackfruit and desperation.   “Gayathri!”It’s like the first time I’m hearing it. My name. Like my parents naming me as I’m shooting out of Amma’s body. Gayathri, Gayathri, they must have expected so much from me, from themselves. In the end, they had to accept their mistake through the confirmations of a dark psychic in Calcutta. This child couldn’t give them what they wanted.“Gaya! You’re in there?” Stamping of feet on these old 1980s floorboards.Everyone knows why my brothers have come back. Brothers. It sounds good. Brothers. Hope is part of redemption, is it? Isn’t it? I’m almost sure that’s what it says in all the scriptures.One brother walks in. The other follows.“Gaya,” the first one says, “your madness—Hearts babble, don’t they? Like a river gurgling before the sun comes up, it’s a bit cold like waterfall water, and there’s hope. Murmuring heart is a thing, isn’t it?What could hearts be murmuring about? All the prizes they were promised?  Redemption is God’s best joke.“And when you are finally able to accept that you don’t exist alone in this world and that this is a social existence, you might be happier and free.”Nothing is ever free but the human heart. If you want it, if you want it. Now the grand question is if the heart can actually survive in society if it is free.But no, brothers, no human heart is made for crowds and I, I am serving humanity.   “You’re spinning out of control, Gayathri. Locking yourself in Appa and Amma’s house without food, water, not answering their calls…8 days…the island is watching you.”  My brothers look like they’ve come fresh from a video game. Their hands are blinking, their hair is flashing. Ping, ping. Buzz, buzz. Where their hearts once were are holes the shape of empty, outer space.I’m returning humanity to safety. My brothers know this well. They knew it so well they now live as holograms. Or spirits.“We gave you everything, Gaya, the whole family fed you, clothed you. We even educated you. And what did you do? You rampaged. You rampage. You gave your life away to—The door slams open. It’s a nurse, and the police. Two beautiful policemen in my room. I must have died to be this blessed.Everybody walks through my brothers.The human heart is not a social animal and I’m serving humanity.“Miss Gayathri,” one policeman says, “we’re here not to harm you, okay? Understand?”  “Take my hand,” the nice nurse says. He has soft, shiny eyes like lovely lychees. I like him. Instantly.I glare and glare at him.“We’ve come to help,” he tells me quietly. In the centre of the lychees is a point of pain so precise I can taste it in on my tongue, on the sides of my cheeks. No guilt, no jackfruit. This is pure, unadulterated melancholy. It tastes of fermentation.“It’s okay,” he says, “take my hand. I’ve brought something to take away the pain.”It’s like he’s seeing into his own soul when he’s with me.“Gaya,” my brothers say, “Do the right thing.”Finally, my brothers are on my side. That’s what transformation into holograms will do, I suppose.Eat, eat, Malikka always told me as a child, your Amma wants you to eat. It doesn’t matter if the policemen are watching. The whole island knows what I do for a living. They know my nourishment. My greed for iron, for the failings and injuries of the human heart pulsating inside my mouth.Come close. And the lovely lychee-eyed nurse comes close. He knows my history. He’s not scared. He wants me to be myself. He’s begging me to choose him.  “It’s okay, Miss Gaya,” the nurse whispers, “I’m going to take the pain away.”All good deeds need to be repaid.My hunger lifts. My scalpel is two inches away from my hand, resting peacefully beneath my pillow.Gorgeous nurse, you beautiful lucky bastard.My tongue salivates so badly I can build a river. The flavour of fermentation, the taste of this lovely man’s heart, fills me, fills me.I grab the scalpel. I look into his slimy watery eyes. My hand is firm, full of grace and power. The point of pain in the centre of the lychees melts and melts into the river inside my mouth. I search his eyes again. He is changing. He’s giving me something else. The pain is so faint now I can’t smell anything, not even a little puff of rot.What am I looking at?Do the right thing, Gaya.The eyes are transforming into dark discs. They’re filled with light.I grip the scalpel. The policemen are not even looking at me, they’re turning the pages of notebooks.Do the right thing, Gaya.For the first time in my existence, my brothers feel like my brothers, like what family should be.The nurse glimpses my beloved scalpel. “Take my hand,” he tells me.Tears are making my eyes too warm for my liking. The nurse touches my hand. He’s taking it into his. He’s not waiting for me to stab him. He wants me close. He doesn’t mind dying.What am I looking at?His eyes are not eyes. They’re spinning balls of dark light. I feel like that time I was seven and I ate a yam ice cream cone on Amma’s lap. “Everything is going to be okay,” the spinning balls of dark light tell me. The scalpel feels good in my hand.I am in love with the dark light, with the scalpel, with the dark light of the scalpel. Doing the right thing, brothers, comes from the point where contradictions meet.  Redemption is a broken dream and all we can do is do the best we can the only way we know how and pray, pray for the best movements of our bodies in five, six, seven, eight blows.But the nurse’s hand—or light—is too quick. Sometimes, we have to fight to win the battle of the heart.
Shivani on
Poetry

Post-Op: Dear Kali

Recuperation has opened me to a world of care, of the slowing down of time, of discerning what success and healing actually mean. I’ve not been able to do too much during this period but writing, as always, has saved me, kept me company, helped give meaning and order to my recent experiences.   I’ve been getting more comfortable in the shaky, messy vulnerability of being human. As always, when this recognition is real and magnified, I turn towards the goddess Kali. “Dear Kali” came out of this communion with her. Thank you to everyone for your warmth and kind wishes. The healing is taking place, slowly, surely.     “Dear Kali” When fire roams like children forgottenby hands that made them,when from the heart’spoisoned romanceall black thingsfight for space,screams blast the oceaninside Shiva’s throat,You comedancing in the mania,melding heat to cold,fire to water.Love is rage,a raga.My collapse your stage,dancing lady, stotram lady,gorgeous mother,roaring in the void of nightpoison is swallowedby the grace of throats.No shame in screaming,you scream, no shamein pain, no shamein being childrenin being the childof the hands that made me,from the blue throatof your husband,your love births babies,tears, funereal wailsof the livingand their forgivenness.Your childin fury, in tremblinguselessness,lost, secure, alive,I am,  I am.
Shivani on
Blog, Poetry

I Eat Fears

Once when I was 10, I had a few luxurious hours alone at home. It was bright daylight. The height of afternoon, I think. There was no identifiable danger lurking in the corners of the house, or the street, which is probably why my parents could be so radical. I don’t think I planned anything special for my solitary hours, although I am very sure I was celebrating in my own inner way (the introvert’s way) about my brief escapade into the freedom of adults (I miss the simplicity—and security—of believing that adults had absolute freedom). What that celebration looked like, I have forgotten, but what I’m left with is a sensation. Funny, isn’t it, how we often expect memories to appear as pictures or stories, and when they present themselves as sensations, we might not even register them as memories but as constellations of emotion. Retrieving the memory of being free at home comes first with childlike elation, and second—well, that’s the locus of this post.Despite the shockingly bright afternoon and the inability of things and people to hide in dark corners or shadows, I locked myself in my parents’ bedroom. I think I wanted the excitement of being in a dangerous situation—home alone, anything could happen. Things lurk. Things leap. The universe, including my parents’ bedroom, is savage, menacing. What could creep into the warmth of our home, the sun outside shining like a benevolent god? But danger is everywhere. It was a belief I inherited, now in retrospect I can see, and believed in so much that it materialised a ghost I had to battle with on my first afternoon alone at home.What were the chances?Incredibly high if you’re hosting the belief that the universe is a battlefield.While lounging in comfort on my parents’ bed, I saw a ghost. It was white. As expected. And it flitted in the tiny slot between the locked bedroom door and the wall above. This ghost blew and danced and blew until it frightened me into a state in which I knew the end had come, and the only way out was to revert back to the world of adults and be rescued. Shaking, I picked up the telephone (this was the early 90s and we had one of those unashamedly orange Telekom phones), called my neighbour Auntie Asha, whose maternal buttery voice I always found soothing, and told her I was being pursued by a ghost. It was too frightening to be in this room by myself. What do I do? What do I do? The distress in my voice was enough to mobilise Auntie Asha from her home and two doors down to ours.She stood by the gate—I couldn’t let her in because I was inside and she was outside and we hadn’t yet entered the age of automatic gates.“Don’t worry, just open the bedroom door. You’ll see it’s nothing,” she coaxed from her spot outside the fence.A lot of time passed. That much I remember. I also remember that in the passing of that time, Auntie Asha had to use her energy to repeat her assurances: nothing was going to happen if I opened the bedroom door.I also remember the sensation of fear spinning inside my body coupled with a contradictory paralysis. No, it wasn’t possible for me to get up and open the door. The ghost would get me.At last, Auntie Asha’s patience won. Her confidence, her calm, her care—these things won.I opened the bedroom room. The ghost metamorphosised into a flimsy near-translucent tissue paper. Did I laugh? Maybe. Again, I remember the sensation more than the image of this memory. I began to deflate, relax. I thanked Auntie Asha. She was thrilled for me. I feel shame swirl in my stomach but now, thirty years later, it’s just a bite. I know it was much more than a bite for my ten year old self.That episode stays with me and plays in my internal cinema from time to time when I need to understand fear’s region and customs. How fear jives. How it’s bedmates with that gorgeous entity, the imagination.Decades have passed. I still sometimes freely give my imagination away to create national anthems in fear’s territory, but I’ve also learned to use my imagination to make things like poems. A few months ago, I dropped fear into my imagination instead of dropping my imagination into fear. The inspiration to drop fear inside the vortex of the imagination came from Kali, the Hindu goddess of time, among other things, and the eating of demons. She wears a garland of heads she’s chopped off. She has the right kind of rage. The right amount. She’s fierce. She’s wild. And she eats the things that scare us. I stepped into her fire. I discovered a poem.I like the fact that whenever fear rises in me and my imagination starts expanding, I can now go back to that same imaginative space and retrieve this poem. Suddenly, I feel as powerful as her. And if I forget the poem, I merely look down at my upper right arm, where I have her face and stance tattooed on my skin, a perpetual poem.  “I Eat Fears” I eat fears likeI eat glass sweets,turn them aroundin my mouth, runmy tongue over them,licked and piercedin a snap.I eat fears likeI eat custard apples,suck, spit, inhale,squeezed againstmy dark handsmassaged wetfor the festival of stars.Your fears I eat,one by one, juicesspilling over my lips,bring them on a tray,arrange your fears if you like,garnished with memories, past notions and motions—I do not care, but bring them,in cocktail glasses,in a fistful of confetti,in bowls made of sand,what do I care how they come,in what receptacleyou choose to present yourwhirls and swirls?On quiet midnight walkspeople ask me:how do you eat fears?I don’t need to tell thembecause this ismy utterance for you alone:I’ve seen somethingas clear and as gorgeousas a seabird stoppingto watch itselfon the sea’s surface,that fear is loveon a different route home.So when I sayI eat fearsI’m only sayingit’s my gesture of lovefor the love glidinginside your chestlike so many nightbirdsdancing their way homedazzled by  starlight. 
Shivani on
Blog, Short Stories

“Two Shades Darker” — A Short Story

“Two Shades Darker” I crawl out of the jungle two shades darker. How does anyone get a tan in the dense pubic regions of the tropics? Nobody asks that question when I emerge. Why would they? Nobody here knows me. Nobody here has a Before & After shot of me. But I think about it and think about it. And I think about it as my feet touch their way back into civilisation, as they call it, after 42 days. The question is a mantra. My mantra. The question is my mantra and it takes me out of the intestines of the jungle, into the open loving arms of strangers, my cheerleaders, the only people on the planet rooting for me. My people. How does anyone get a tan in the dense pubic regions of the tropics?   I step into the disgusting mouths of photographers. No flash photography. True Crime episodes on YouTube had those pale skeletal family members gawking like airplane pets at the bright lights of journalists’ cameras, the sides of the documenters’ mouths wet with saliva. No family members here today. Just me. No Papa, no Amma, no Anehs. Technically not a victim. I’m alive. Damn the gods. I made it. “Is this how people who are back from the dead look? Like their mother made them thosai for breakfast?” “Doraisamy’s youngest daughter, ah?” “Choo, choo choo. Wasn’t she the bright one? All As for SPM. That one?” “Those are the ones who go crazy in the end lah. See how she’s looking at us. What to do. Mad people. Must pity them. No way out so they must do a Tamil movie inside the jungle, fake their murder and then come out looking like a rat that’s been forced to live underneath the kitchen sink of a middle class Indian family.” “Ha! Ha! Ha!” It’s good to have an audience, I mean, the people in your life who are genuinely interested in how your life reveals itself to itself. What a blessing it is to be surrounded by strangers who love you, who want the best for you, who dream about you at night because that’s how much you matter to them, their subconscious is bursting with images of you. A few phones start bouncing around in the air inside clenched fists. The photo shoot has started. Without flashes. It’s the 21st century. Most of the photographers aren’t my supporters. I think they’re from the press. How big my life has become. How unmanageable. “Miss Gayathri! Do you know your parents are on a plane to Calcutta to see a psychic to get information about you?” It’s the 21st century. Everyone has information. Ten, twelve, fifteen people have been standing out in the rain and scorching sun, battling the weather, for what? For me. For the freakshow. I don’t really give a shit. Not now. Papa and Amma are in Calcutta, corroborating my strangeness with a stranger. Their stranger is telling them to accept my death, my ghost has spoken to him and said that I have never been grateful for life, for anything. I have uselessness in my bones.   My brothers, both of them (how lucky!), have already told the whole island about the circus, my life. I could be the girl with two heads or the bearded woman. Whichever. I honestly don’t care. I  fasted in the jungle for 42 days, longer than Christ in the desert. What have they done? “We thought you were murdered, Miss Gayathri. That’s what the news people said. So many memes about you going around online also.” Three, ten, thirteen more clicks on phones. I was murdered, you fools. I may have wanted to slash the veins of the man who followed me out of Market Square, sorry, I may have slashed the neck of the man who followed me out of Market Square but that doesn’t mean I didn’t get killed also. “Thank God you’re alive!” “Even the bad people of this world have to be saved.” “The big brother himself said. She does everything only for herself. Going around the world in 84 days all by herself, painting murals on the beach walls at night, stealing food from restaurant rubbish bins and giving them to cats and alcoholics. How to call herself a woman?” “Even people who live inside the circus should live.” People take murder too literally these days. 21st century information age crap. Idiots have lost their imagination. Stuffing their heads full of facts invented inside the heads of people like my brothers. Facts, facts, facts. The world is full of facts anointed by cyber gods. Everybody knows everything.     One day, when I was young I told my middle brother that my life was to find out the bigness of the sky and how I could live as big as that. He laughed, and laughed, and laughed. Told Amma I was a dreamer living in outer space. That she has to be careful with me. They all have to be careful with me because who knows what I will do next. Every next became their nightmare, the moments in my life a collection of bad vibes, bad mistakes. “Police coming! Police coming!” “Of course lah. They have to take her to the station.” One hand gripping my wrist, the way my eldest brother does it. In fact, it could almost be him. Except the officer looking from the light in his eyes into mine is a sweaty, handsome silver fox Malay man, a thick gorgeous black-and-white moustache hiding his upper lip. “I’m Inspector Jamal, Miss Gayathri. We have some questions for you. You’ll be safe in the station.” No response needed. No questions asked. Safety will be mine at the station. The hunky Inspector squeezes my hand as though he’s asking me for marriage—yes, I have the absolute right to take this as a compliment, as a fucking compliment—and off we go into the bright blue police lights, past my cheerleaders and enemies. I suppose this is my new life. “You should know this,” foxy Jamal says as he sits me down on the non-leather seats of their Proton Bezza (how to do police chases in a joke of a car?) His sidekick, another cutie but of the 90s boyband kind, stares at me from the rearview mirror. My forehead is smeared in mud, there’s blood on my eyelids and oil on my cheeks. That stuff doesn’t affect natural beauty. I still have my fans. “Your parents, Miss Gayathri,” Inspector Jamal whispers. He has dark glowing eyes and a dimple hidden behind stubble, “have confirmed your mental state. They gave us a statement before their trip to India. We cannot interfere with matters of faith.” I can see him dwelling on the point of faith inside his mind. It’s an indulgence. But this is a man of steel. He knows self-control. He comes out of it easily. “They’ve signed off the papers to put you in Meranti Hospital. Before you protest, this is actually going to help your defence. Later, you know?” If I married this man, I could probably make him happy. Make him idli and sambar every other day, convert to Islam, wear a tudung, pay obeisance to his feet each morning, to his fertility stick each night. How joyful we would be. It could work. It could actually work. “Inspector, I came out of the jungle two shades darker.” The 90s boyband cutie looks up at me from the driver’s seat. Is he winking? I don’t blame him if he is. “You should also know this,” the darling Inspector says, quieter this time; it could be his bedroom voice. We’ll soon find out. “Your parents deposited stacks of notes. Letters also. Full of your designs. For getting rid of your brothers. They’re very specific. It’s gone into the evidence bag.” That’s the simplest thing in the world, the easiest trap they fell into. They won’t find bodies, I want to tell my Inspector, but it’s too nice just looking into his eyes and melting. Is this why they put sexy investigators on cases? So we’ll be too mesmerised to speak? “Inspector,” I say anyway because all my strength brings me here. Am I crazy to feel love pouring out of his soul through his dark glowing eyes? “Miss Gayathri.” He puts on his formal police voice. My heart shatters just a little bit. I wait for him to continue but it looks like he’s waiting for me. “Tell me everything,” I offer, my voice raspy and rough, the way I think he may like it. Boyband cutie stares at me, his eyes not on the road, but even cuties like him want to live dangerously. That’s probably why he finds me fascinating. “Who did you meet in the jungle?” my Inspector asks. I think he’s pleading. Would it work if I told him I met every single person in existence in the jungle? Would my foxy almost-husband understand this? Or is it too soon to reveal this type of stuff? When I don’t answer, his hot breath reaches my cheeks, probably his invitation for us to connect again. I should touch his fingers. Would he like that? “We began the search for you because you were reported missing by your mother and she thought you had been kidnapped, killed. She said you left the house at midnight and she found a note that said you were going to meet a man who was going to save your life. When you didn’t return home ten days later, she came to the police station.” My Inspector glances at me. Is that shyness on his face? Oh my sweet Inspector! How many days did you have to wait before she came back to you to confirm that I wasn’t the victim but the problem? The danger. The four-eyed daughter. The ten-armed woman with blades and murder in her soul, vying for the dissolution of her brothers because she was born—born—as her very own brothers would say, without the capacity to be mentally and psychologically normal. “When the bodies— “It’s okay, Inspector.” Another sharp glare from the 90s boyband Corporal. “If you find the bodies of my brothers, I will grow wings and ascend into the sky. Eh no lah, I’ll become the bloody sky. Good luck and I hope you do find them because, frankly, frankly, frankly, I want to transform into the sky.” Is it so bad that the Inspector could love me inside this police car, so impossible? Miracles are omnipresent. I turned two shades darker in the dense pubic regions of the jungle. I can be loved here. I touch his fingers, not in a creepy way. He doesn’t pull away. “I want to tell you something about myself, Inspector.” The car comes to a stop at the traffic lights. This gives the young Corporal a chance to gape at me again. Poor boy. No self-control. “I am so much more than a human being. What you people think of as murder, I think is conversion. I killed so many people in that jungle, Inspector. I killed all the selves I ever created to force a life to happen. I squeezed the life out of my shadow and I became clean. Don’t get scared, my darling, when I step out of this car, you’ll see how nothing black follows me around. I don’t have a shadow. I don’t exist like you people do. So my— “So your brothers,” he says, not releasing my fingers, “where will we find them?” I shift my hips closer to his. I know now he loves me. I can feel his warmth fill my body. He wants me. “Inside my soul, Inspector. I eat shadows, I eat bad things. That’s my sacrifice, how deep my love is. You won’t find any bodies. The real death is the death of shadows. Do you not see? Can you not see?” Finally I have a deeper level of his attention. He turns towards me. “I have returned from the dense pubic regions of the jungle two shades darker. I have eaten all I have to eat. Not food, Inspector. I ate nothing for 42 days but I ate nervousness, I ate hatred, I ate rage, and I ate all the people I ever tried to make happy because every cell in my body went against every cell in their body and I thought my cells were the mistake God made but you know what I found in the tiny black corners of the jungle? For every dark prison I put myself in, I could find the sky again if I ate the walls, ate the grills, ate the metal doors because guess what? I have very strong teeth full of calcium. When you release me, Inspector, I can get to the sky, I can become the sky at last.” My darling Inspector lets go of my hand. “After we take your statement at the station, we’ll take you for a psych evaluation at Meranti Hospital.” I take his hand back into mine. I soften my eyes the way I’ve learned to do in moments when the sun isn’t shining bright enough. “For love, Inspector. Remember the love in your heart and do what’s right for me, for you, for us. Don’t abandon the love that’s spinning around in this police car like so many meteorite showers. See how many lights are going off inside this bleak Bezza. How lucky we are to have found love in a matter of minutes. Love, don’t you know, is a circus? If only my brothers had realised that. For love, Inspector, let me find the sky again. For love.” The 90s boyband Corporal flashes his dewy eyes at me, a perfect tear the shape of a tiny pear falling gracefully across his cheek.         
Shivani on
Blog

Parting the Curtains

I take a one minute break from writing essays that have been tearing my heart open. Just one minute, I say to myself again, not long after I had taken one more minute, and before that another minute. Essays of trauma around race, colonisation, addiction: every morning, at the writing desk, my past gets purged. It is usually a horrendous two to three hours of offloading gunk and finding seeds of renewal in the muck. It tires me, refreshes me, places me in a daily growing paradox of being. I take lots of breaks from writing while writing. It’s impossible not to stare at the pictures of Hanuman resting against a shelf, of Kali hanging on the wall in front of me, not to dwell with my pre-breakfast mug of warm water, not to close my eyes for two-three minutes to drop into some trivial memory that suddenly seems far more intriguing than asking questions about my grandmother’s moroseness (misandry? Suppressed rage? The grief of disempowerment?) These days, my mornings are hot and roiling before the day even properly begins with its breakfasts and good mornings and emails and Instagram posts and lesson planning for the new semester. My heart is in inquiry mode, and it’s shambolic as hell.    This morning, I am not more irked than other mornings. And as I stare at the pictures of Hanuman, then Kali, Kali, then Hanuman, I feel it is time to move on to another of my favourite escapist activities: parting the curtains. I know that behind my extra thick gingham curtains is a full morning with sunlight, flying birds, voyaging snails, sprinting squirrels, cars and motorcycles going to and fro to the shops or just for rides, but in my room, at my writing desk, with the curtains closed, it could very well be midnight. It astounds me each time I part the curtains that there is a world in light and movement outside. Somehow, in the cocoon of table, good supportive chair, gingham curtains, pictures of my chosen gods, 4 year old trusted computer, mug of slightly-above tepid water, I am sufficiently protected from data outside of this space purposefully fashioned for deep interior diving. Not that I believe protection is needed—there is nothing that has thus far threatened my sanity, security, stability, when the parting of the curtains happens on those far too frequent one-two-three minute breaks. Oh, perhaps titillating things, yes, like the tribe of eighty to a hundred monkeys (many more, my father claims) that often pass, boisterously, defiantly, at around eight in the morning, screeching, hissing, making their presence known even with my curtains closed. Sometimes, when I part the curtains, I spot a bright blue kingfisher, with mahogany-brown fur on its sides, perching proud on a telegraph wire, beak long and sturdy. A couple of times, I look outside just to get struck by the always morphing, evocatively lit sky. I keep the curtains closed because, for these particular essays on trauma and the healing of it, I write best in the deepest state of interiority, without too much exciting sensory input dancing around my inner perception and inviting it to forget the pain of disconnection, displacement. I am able to keep the curtains partially open or fully open when I am writing a piece like this one, for example, which almost always depends on the flitting of my perception from thing to thing; somehow, the inspiration comes both from my memories, feelings, ideas and the burr of the helicopter that has bizarrely landed not far from where I sit (I do not know why it’s here, nor what special official function it’s serving, only that it’s polluting the morning with sounds), the pigeon that’s slowly and daily  building its nest by my neighbour’s air-conditioning vent, the odd bark of the palm tree opposite my writing desk that has shot up well beyond the leaves and branches and looks like a spear reaching up to the heavens. All of this rich, arbitrary material fuels the writing of pieces that will only truly sparkle with so many glorious, in-the-now details, as though it’s streaming live. Parted curtains are compulsory. But, when I am plumbing psychical depths to discover the root of separation between self and world, between self and self, between self and culture, the glimmering landscape outside and the voices of people and canaries and the neighbour’s grumpy orange cat are distractions rather than gems of inspiration. At least for me. I don’t know how other writers may feel about needing an external crutch to keep the words flowing, the thoughts and feelings buzzing if the subject being excavated and explored is trauma, trauma, which etymologically, means wound and which experts such as Gabor Mate and Peter Levine have also identified as profound disconnection. For me, reconnecting while writing takes place deep, deep inside, in interior spaces that have housed banished pieces of myself and that have been cold and unlit for a long, long time. As I write, these spaces and pieces get soaked in light and in the heat of understanding. The more I move inside, the more I touch regions that have felt spectral, now slowly re-birthed again and given a form to live on the planet.    Well, well, the route to wellness isn’t systematic, linear, capable of being theorised into tenets, as I’m discovering. Writing is kickass. Writing has power. Writing is capable of kissing wounds and making them all better. But—the curtains part, and outside a big fat incandescent pigeon is cooing. I suddenly remember that for ten years between my early-20s and early-30s, I also preferred dark womb-like spaces and curtains firmly shut, veiled from others, the outside world, hiding myself out of shame, unhealed trauma; that as I drank my nights away, I could not bear to really look at the physical world around me, and it was much more soothing to dwell in a world I kept constructing in my mind; that as I drank the whatever-number glass of wine, still capable of bringing guilt to the surface of inebriation, I could not face what lay beyond the parted curtains: I lived deeply so deeply inside a shell of protection from what my nervous system, in tatters from years of isolation and disconnection, was simply not ready to process. Isn’t this a different womb altogether? I ask myself now. The womb of hiding, and the womb of healing—aren’t they different? The womb of healing looks very similar to the womb of hiding but they’re made of different stuff. There are parallels, though, like for example, how in both, balms appear in the form of kindly eyes, a warm hand reaching out to keep your hand company, the permission to sigh, to sob, the embrace of a friend, the purr of a cat on your belly. Writing is a funny business. Memory is also a funny business. As I’m writing this piece, curtains parted, a pair of lovebirds on the branch of a palm tree outside my window for company, pre-ten am sunlight streaming into my study, I am taken to another episode of me sitting at my writing desk, trying to bring forth more submerged pieces from the past: Only a few weeks ago, in the sizzling thick of writing an essay on the wound of unworthiness passed down through generations—specifically female generations—down my family line, the pungency of self-negation soaring through my veins, spawning spontaneous tears that come not to concretise fate but to melt the denial of self-denial, I parted the curtains for relief. Even as I felt decades of grief evaporate into the air after I’d written lines that seemed to have been singed onto the page, and parts of my body had soothed back into a free state, I needed to see what else there was. Exactly. Here was a clue to some glorious epiphany: what else was there? The problem with pain is that it can lead a person down very narrow alleys, forgetting the broad sweeps of air around those alleys, forgetting also where those alleys lead and where the exit must eventually be taken. I parted the curtains, and saw a young boy in our garden. Faded frayed sports cap on his bent head, equally discoloured red T-shirt tucked into stonewashed blue jeans, he is sweeping leaves in the garden. My mother dashes into the garden, from around the corner by the wet kitchen opposite my room. She says something kind to the boy, gives him instructions on what to do next in the garden, offers him snacks. I cannot see much of the boy’s response. His head is still hung, his voice is too soft. He is not alone. I hear the sound of the grass-cutting machine wielded by an adult. I don’t know anything about the boy or about the adult he is with, still beyond my eye range. All I know is that I am filled with feelings I do not have names for. If pushed, I could say they belonged to the regions of curiosity and despair. Later, my mother tells me that the boy had come with his father. They are Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. Father and son move from house to house, cutting grass, shaping gardens, pruning leaves and weeds. The income is fair. It allows at least for the boy, eleven or twelve, to attend a boarding school in Kuala Lumpur. When he’s home in Port. Dickson for the holidays, he helps his father in gardens. Hisham, my mother announces, that’s his father’s name. The boy’s name, she doesn’t know. They’ve been in Malaysia for two years. How they got here, what boat, what condition, what panic, what they were leaving behind, what they found when they got here, who helped them, how they felt, how they continue to feel, none of this she knows. She’s a pragmatic reporter for now. So much of what is happening in silences, in glances, in gestures, in the movements of hands and heads, is unknown, a colossal dark space, it seems to me, bursting with so much that hasn’t been birthed.  I too can get the facts about the Rohingya community in Malaysia, that there are around 154,860 refugees from Myanmar, out of which 102, 960 are Rohingyas (unhcr.org). Christine H. Kim writes in her article, “Challenges to the Rohingya Population in Malaysia”, “On April 16 2020, the Malaysian Navy intercepted and pushed back two refugee boats of about 200 passengers in Langkawi. In the same month, Malaysia formed the National Task Force (NTF) to better combat the influx of foreigners. Since May, the NTF has denied entry to 22 boats and implemented at least four immigration clampdowns, resulting in the arrest of 2,000 people, including 98 children.” The facts and figures are important. We need them. We need to know them so that work can be done. They simultaneously mean very little when it comes to telling me what I really wanted to know about the boy as he swept leaves outside my window. What happened to you, truly? Out of what eyes are you taking in what you see? It only hits me now, through that memory, how pregnant those moments were, of parting the curtains, of watching the boy, of the sudden unknown feelings I began to feel; how as I was battling and purging dark traumas from my own communal and cultural history, Hisham and his son were just outside in the garden, bearing burdens and images and stories from moments in time still pulsating with strife and heartbreak. Not the past yet. Their escape from genocide in their homeland a fresh reality, a wound still forming, that painful severance from ancestral land which I had been processing as a third generation migrant, hot and new for them, the first generation, and also entirely different and unknown to me. They had come as refugees. We had not. I close the curtains and return to my essay.   I cannot remember what kinds of words emerged after that. I can’t imagine they were all that different from what I had been writing before I parted the curtains. None of these ideas, feelings and realisations were conscious at that time. All I know now is that the parting of the curtains did something, and continues to do something while I write, even if I have to do most of my trauma-essay writing in a dark comforting womb, without too much sensory input from elsewhere.  Even as I gestate, and get nourished by silence, simplicity, in a container that promotes self-understanding, I am only just preparing for what is to come. Because, you see, I have to state the obvious: wombs are temporary homes. They’re not meant to host forever. They are only designed for a portion of growth. The rest of the rough-and-tumble happens outside. Without the womb, there’d be no world, but the world is not housed in the womb. Parting the curtains has something to do with dancing. More than that, I do not know. Or maybe I do. I keep feeling the sensations of a dance inside of me. Yes, perhaps that’s it. There’s a dance within, and without. Dancing with dualities. Dancing between dualities like a pro. Trotting, no, swirling  between self and others, closing and opening, self and world, dancing, waltzing between zones, and finding a place to land. But—it slowly occurs to me—dancing is still only one portion of growth, different from hanging out in a womb, and different also from finding continuity, and community, in the human plight. Recognising and being with interior spaces is indispensible—there isn’t enough of this in an age of social media addiction—and meeting our own silence as well as psychological noise means inhabiting our raw inner power. But then, our interior spaces have to eventually meet other interior spaces (which I suppose happens most fluidly once we’ve learned how to dance). Then our suffering has to find a place to land in the suffering of others. Then the world behind the curtain and the world outside of parted curtains have to merge, melt, and be seen as a glimmering, complex web, hardly separate.  Then, I may begin to see the invisible strings that connect me to the young boy in the garden, and find the space were we truly meet, in spite of everything that makes us distinct. And the opening and parting of curtains would no longer be the subject of an essay I’m writing.   
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Encountering Peacocks

Once in a while, I like to post a poem, newly written, still carrying the frenzied fragrance of that first act of creating something seemingly out of nothing. Although it’s never quite nothing. More accurately, making a poem only requires an encounter: between the poet and whatever moment, object, person, experience arrests her like an eye suddenly pierced by the vision of rainbow lights in the night sky—yes, I was one of those who saw, from my balcony in Selangor, the dance of lights in the clouds some nights ago. Aurora borealis or not, the sight was a phenomenon fit for a poem. I didn’t write it, though. The poem for this post was written from another meeting, with a bird, more specifically a peacock who crossed paths with me at the KL Bird Park. Its hesitance to touch my space was matched by its interest to observe me from a distance. And me it. The first word that appeared in my mind when I was enjoying its presence was “coexistence.” Later, when I was writing the poem, I realised that coexistence was not simply physical but also mental, temporal, emotional (the peacock was so much more than something to “see”). The peacock in KL brought back the peacock I encountered in Tiruvanamalai at the sage, Ramana Maharishi’s ashram, nearly ten years ago, as well as the peacocks I met in stories, particularly mythological stories from India. The peacocks coexisted across my temporal-mental landscape (so much anthropomorphism, I apologise) just as I was coexisting in some form with the peacock in front of my physical eyes. On yet another level—a metalevel—I was at the bird park with my new husband with whom coexisting functions, at least for me, in a consistently revelatory mode: each day is a discovery in how to be in relation with another human being, in and through love, inclusive of bumps and surprises. It hit me fast, easily. Coexisting is the fact, the inevitability and also the challenge of living in this world. Being in coexistence: how to live it? By living it. Easier said than done but it has to be said. And done. Then it struck me again, just as fast, easily. In responding to my environment and creating something out of my encounter with it, I was coexisting. Writing a poem is an act of coexisting. You’re carving encounters with words, even if it is an encounter between sections of your own psyche. “What’s your poem about?” my husband asked as we sauntered through the park. “Coexistence,” I replied without thinking. Later, I’d add, “I want to run workshops where people can feel their own power of using words to name all the ways coexistence happens naturally in their lives.” Which is what I’ll be doing over the next few months, with the support of my co-existence partner (I’m allowed the luxury of corniness as a newlywed). In down-to-earth terms, these are writing workshops; on a more elevated level, they’re time shared as we explore what it means to coexist through words. If you want to know more about these workshops, I’ll be happy to talk about them with you. For now, here’s what I made with words in my experience of coexisting with the peacock. Just click on the link to read the poem.        “Peacock”I don’t see your pregnant blue,the glitter on your necknatural metaphors for gems, joy,the hundred mythologicalfeathers my childhood producedin print suddenly alive.Waterfall water cloaksmy ears, reminds mewe have bodies,still I don’t seeyour dewy Indian miracleor maybe I am seeing Ramana’sbird, years ago, flashingitself on ashram groundsbefore my escapade intoa cave where a personbecame a god.                          It could be that.How else would your coloursnot destroy me into giggles,into the awakeness of children?Your beak kisses the tipof water, dirt is nothing to you.I watch you in a different sense;knowing you are hereis enough to confirmI am here.We inhabit airWe share a lifeforever, humbly,in these five minutes. Every lesson for this world is here, lingering in the climate around your hairdo.
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Poetry on the Move

“Two days later, I reached Medellin” was the most repeated sentence in my narrative of how I’d travelled two whole days to the other side of the world for poetry. Eventually, I grew bored of it, but it was a story that dripped with romance, determination, triumph. Jetlagged, sleep-deprived, on the move for 48 hours, I made it: hard to resist such narrative highs. There were also Odyssean references, not particularly favoured by me (too self-involved, no?), but used by others once I began to throw around the word ‘epic’ to describe the journey that brought me to what many people call the poetry capital of the world. But why not? Beyond hyperbole and effect, this was a big trip in many ways. It was my first time going the literal distance for my art and it was the first time the World Poetry Movement, born on 7th July 2011 in Medellin, would be having its Congress for which I represented Malaysia. My vision of days pregnant with poetry and conversations were not simply fulfilled—they were converted into reality and then magnified. I’d had glimpses into how poetry proliferates in crowds at Medellin—I’d watched videos from previous years—and a few poet friends who’d attended the festival had promised me fun and magic. They were right, of course. But the immediacy of living it is something that unsurprisingly bypasses language and makes its way into a mythical soup of sounds, feelings that blare out of nowhere and shocks of inspiration: 60 ish poets from all over the world gathered for three weeks in one collective space—divided between Medellin, Colombia and Caracas, Venezuela—promised intensity, growth, music, insight, an education. For those three weeks, life returned to the womb of poetry. It was warm. It was benevolent. It gave, housed, and gave some more as wombs do. The unfolding began with the Medellin International Poetry Festival, in its 33rd year, and so already seasoned in welcoming and honoring poets and their poetry and ended with the Venezuela International Poetry Festival in Caracas. The opening ceremony at the Teatro Carlos Vieco in Medellin on 8th July was essentially a poetry rock concert. Hundreds of people—families, lovers, friends—cheered for poetry. Several dogs attended. They barked and howled at the end of poems. Like this, the days progressed. Readings were held at an assortment of venues including libraries, public squares, towns outside Medellin, theatres, parks, sometimes to large crowds, at other times in smaller, more intimate contexts, but always in the glow of poetry’s power. People come out for these events to actually listen and absorb the poetry. A poetry event is open to all and ‘all’ is not a nicety used for the sake of sounding inclusive. The potential of ‘all’ is tapped. I’d always loved the idea of the democratic nature of poetry that Walt Whitman wrote about but I’d never truly experienced it until I witnessed it in South America, both in Colombia and in Venezuela and I could happily confirm that poetry is democratic, and has the capacity to hold multitudes. The essay I wrote for the Medellin festival, before I’d fully sensed poetry’s vastness in action, was actually called “A Poetry of Multitudes”. In it, I wrote:  “The poetry of today is especially tasked to hold multitudes—to push the limits of the imagination and to carve a comfortable space for pluralities to coexist, even when they are paradoxical, especially when they are paradoxical because we must finally leave the land of binaries, which is the land of separation, and enter the land of the mingled. This, then, is the new pedagogy for life, where poetry dwells not simply on the page but in life itself, in the air we breathe that has always and will always be shared, where separation is mere myth, and the truth of this lives in our words and in the flesh.” Ironically or prophetically, the multitudinous quality of poetry was the very thing I felt, tangibly, as though it were a thing I could touch and taste. When I arrived in Medellin, the festival transportation team picked me up from the airport and when we were exiting the car park, they told the ticketing officer I was a Malaysian poet who was here for the festival after which he promptly recited a poem he’d memorized. I found poetry in the most unexpected spaces. During the festival, many of us experienced the love and attraction people from the audience had for our words: there were hugs, magnetic hand-holding, glowing eyes and plenty of giving thanks. There was range, there was depth and there were multitudes—of people, of responses, of the dimensions of poetry’s power and its infinite, nurturing womb. What makes it so in this part of the world? This was my question, of course. There were several rationalizations, based on conversations with local poets and the people who worked for the festival. The spirit and education of poetry had been inculcated in the culture for decades, even centuries. There’s a long line and history of poetry in the region. But my favourite was a response picked up by another poet who had the same curiosity as I had: poetry is hope. A history of poetry coexists with a history of violence and civil war, and the much needed reconciliation with the past; the promoting of a rejuvenated future happens through the portal of poetry.       Then I remembered the precise thing poetry did to me as a teenager. When I was 16 and undergoing what I didn’t know then was depression, poetry brought light back into my life and showed me how to feel the pulse of the world again. Later—much later—I would recognize this as the work of love itself. Love can take the broken, the half-formed and pierce it with life, which is precisely how poetry moves, which is the nature of its life-force. Without hesitation, then, I accepted the role as national coordinator of the World Poetry Movement in January 2023. Apart from teaching, sharing and talking about poetry, I think I’d always had an impulse to serve poetry, to do something for it, to love it back, and say thank you. Systematising that impulse through an organization dedicated to poetry appealed. A lot.  Essentially, the World Poetry Movement is an organization dedicated to encourage the use of poetry as a vital form of human expression, and as a tool for transformation, socially, culturally. It’s a force of poetry, you could say.  When 37 International Poetry Festival directors across four continents got together in Medellin in 2011 as part of the 21st Medellin International Poetry Festival, they formed the World Poetry Movement with the intention of bringing poetry more consciously and with more impact to countries, regions and to the globe at large. Poets from around the world come together to exchange ideas and action plans on how poetry can be better integrated into the fabric of our lives, no matter where we are, who we are. To concretise this, the first World Poetry Movement Congress was held within the timeframes of the Medellin and Venezuela poetry festivals—13th and 14th July in Medellin and 18th and 19th July in Caracas—and over these four intense, thought-provoking days, poets from all over the world, with our cultural and linguistic specificities, diversities and nuances, discussed ways to move forward with the movement’s intention to bolster human expression and communication and aid social and cultural transformation through poetry. The key in these dialogues, at least from my perspective, is to ensure the words aren’t empty, especially when they sound important. That’s the speciality of politicians. As poets, we’re naturally sensitive to the ways language becomes drained of meaning and so the emphasis during and after these talks is to assess how these visions are going to be translated into actions. Many discussions were had—we talked a lot, I won’t pretend we didn’t (it was Babelian at times), and we reached a point in the Congress at Caracas when we approved the six pillars in our strategic plan: poetic actions, pedagogical projects, publishing projects, organizational and management processes, communication, and the defense of human rights and all forms of life. I won’t explicate each pillar now, but in essence, the action lines are meant to open up pathways to amplify poetry’s power in facilitating meaningful expression, social justice, humanitarian and ecological restitution, the promotion of culturally and ethnically diverse poetic voices, and the respect for human rights. Post-Congress, we’re working in different groups, according to the pillars, and organizing events and actions based on our specific themes. The point now is to take the talks from mental ideation into the realm of physical reality, and the work beginning to take shape.     As part of the pedagogical team, which is tasked to bring poetry into educational spaces and to the public sphere on a global level, I’m looking forward to acting on our plans, some of which entail gathering youth from various parts of the world and engaging them in sharing poetry and exchanging ideas, cultural perspectives and so on. Virtual poetry workshops are also, of course, in the mix. What’s invigorating is the global aspect of these ventures: imagine the comingling of intercontinental poetic traditions and perceptions; I felt the magnitude of this type of coming-together during my trip. The effects are expansive, potentially explosive.             In the meantime, in Malaysia itself, the inclusive, spacious spirit of the movement is working its way into several activities.  We’ve begun a translation project where poems from different languages in the country are being translated into English. The literary divisions in Malaysia have remained stuck in linguistic compartments for far too long. Poems from across cultures, languages and backgrounds need to be aired in the open, and all types of voices given the chance to holler and be heard. The loving, democratic essence of poetry needs to be felt as an actual, living thing. We’ve started to share these voices on our social media pages, Instagram (@wpm_malaysia) and Facebook (World Poetry Movement Malaysia). Some of the translations from the project will be presented at the Georgetown Literary Festival this year. WPM Malaysia has a session at the festival where we’ll introduce our projects and also talk about the writing and translating of poetry. If there’s one thing that struck me during my recent travels, it’s how powerful and important it is to immerse poetry in public spaces—I’ve stopped believing the myth that people aren’t interested in poetry, or that it’s an elite space for people schooled in verse. Poetry’s roots are oral and populist and going back to it is both crucial and revitalizing. So: poetry in parks, in cafes, malls (of course lah), and free poetry writing jam sessions in public locations. At the end of this year, Malaysia is hosting a global virtual poetry reading where poets from twenty countries will be sharing poems from their respective poetic traditions. Next year, we have plans for organising a small physical festival with an emphasis on providing a poetic platform for diverse and marginalized voices. During one of my poetry writing classes last year, I asked my students what poetry meant to them. One student replied: “Poetry is movement.” For whatever reason, his answer didn’t resonate with me and I wondered why he’d said it (we didn’t have much time for elaborations; it was more of a ‘rapid round’ exercise). Later, he told me he’d got that sentence from the preface of my poetry collection. I laughed. He laughed. We moved on. When I got home, I grabbed a copy of my book and read the words: “And, ultimately, this birthing orientation is one that brings me back to what poetry is for me, and has always been: a movement, an ongoing translation of awe into words, and of bringing life to things that have been maimed, killed, stashed away, banished, misunderstood, unseen, or seen with old, stale eyes.”  I am not sure why the idea of poetry as movement baffled me when my student had said it—maybe it was the fact that it sounded like an abstraction that just hung in the air—but when I revisited the preface and reflected on the mobilising quality and effect of poetry, I remembered everything I’d felt and meant when I wrote those words. Poetry takes you places and changes you, whether literally as in my South American trip, or metaphorically where a poem can cause an inner revolution, whatever the size. The point is that poetry is a dynamic force. In one of my recent conversations with a Venezuelan poet, we spoke of ‘mobile poetry’, which is the poetry that comes out of physical roaming. As the poet wanders, inner and outer objects constellate into poetic universes. That’s one very overt form of poetry as movement and I like the fact his poetry comes out of that purity and loyalty. But there is also the way poetry moves you, takes you forwards and backwards, and projects far ahead of your own limitations: perhaps this is why someone in Colombia said poetry is important because it is hope itself, and hope we know is a thing with feathers. Essentially, my flight to the other side of the world and my return with a renewed realisation that poetry is democratic, that it is movement, that it is the stuff of love, was the very movement needed to fuel the work that will be done through the poetry movement (I really could not help it! The pun was just there), as well as the concrete forms that will materialise from the womb of poetry, the womb that, since I’ve known it, has never stopped giving and therefore keeps me alert to the ways in which I can serve it and give thanks.
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Review of Being Born: A Poetry Collection

Reviewed by Yee Heng Yeh In this collection of 64 poems, ShivaniSivagurunathan turns a keen eye upon the natural world. Well—not just the natural world, though it is the main subject of most poems, and is featured at least in brief flashes in others. But the weave of assorted imageries across the six sections refuses any tidy demarcation between what is natural and what is human, seeming to question this definition itself—what do we mean when we say “the natural world”? Is there anything that can be “beyond” nature? If nature, as Google tells me, is defined as “the phenomena of the physical world collectively”, the poems’ consideration of the physicality of every thing, human or not, reveals that nothing is not physical—breath, memory, connection, grief: all are bound, all are earthly. In the ode-like poems, too, there is a sense of devotion, attention as a form of prayer, to small creatures and smaller details—which, we discover, are not so small after all. They contain in themselves the enormity of abstractions, such as history, such as evolution. A python “unpacks it stomach / full of dark air and dreams”, a “syndicate” of grasshoppers are “professorial” and “antediluvian”, ladybugs “know the science of draining”, cats and hedgehogs complete the night. The density of language and observations in these lines requires close, careful reading—if this collection is a jungle, you wouldn’t get as much out of it by hacking your way brusquely through the thicket as you might by picking your way unobtrusively through the undergrowth, finding your footing in the mud, turning over each leaf, alert and curious. I admit in some poems I got a little lost myself; in repeat readings, I sometimes find my way to some sort of clearing, where an understanding flashes in the sun; other times, I am still stumbling onward in the dim light filtered through the canopy. In the latter, I may wish for a little signpost here and there, maybe in this stanza, or the next… but perhaps this is the point: that some discoveries can only be made when you’ve been lost a few times, circling the same area constantly, before you realise, Ah, so that’s it! With the metaphor of the jungle I don’t wish to convey a sense of impenetrability—the poems are frequently lifted with a wry, playful tone, or carried forward by the incantatory rhythm of repetition. Most of all, the language is startling, brimming with crisp images and well-turned phrases. This tides me over even in pieces that I find ambiguous in meaning or context. Some of my favourite lines include: “the slug opens itself / like a painting’s avenue” “a whole life / in the blink of a grasshopper” “a tissue-paper world emerges / as a country for ants” Incredible stuff. Or how about in what is probably my favourite poem in the collection, “Sai”, which reads almost like a fable: “you have / joined your ash, / the cleanest sum of things”. Reading that, you just can’t help but be persuaded by the thought that ash really, truly, is the cleanest sum of things. Or in the wistful “Life After Rain”, which perfectly captures the feeling that “something crucial happened / while we sheltered and dream”. Or (circling back to the inherent physicality of existence, particularly our own) the simple shattering truth in “Being Myself”: “I take biology for granted”. As we all often do. Here I will stop quoting more lines, hard as that may be, so that the poems can speak for themselves in their entirety, but permit me this last one: in the final poem, the persona prays/sings/urges/commands, “May you vanish from you”. I find that, reading my way through these poems and encountering new worlds within worlds, I did vanish from myself—at least for a little while. 
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Photo by Leonardo Rossatti
Novel Excerpts

Excerpt from “What Has Happened to Harry Pillai?”

The triplet sisters are famous on Coal Island and yet, most people can count the number of times they have seen the sisters with their own eyes. There is island-talk, obviously. About their snobbery, their possibly-most-definitely disabilities, their witchery, their suffering, their strange abnormal lives of domestic incarceration. For thirty years, the Pillai sisters have lived in the cosy clutches of their formidable father, a man the island knows as a mysterious shadow rather than as a full person, who keeps himself and every element associated with it—his house, his wife, his daughters, and the things they have collected and built as one unit of life—out of reach. A half-real man. Harry Pillai holds the world of the island at bay with his dark unseen fingers. “No.” He will not permit the island to see him or his daughters, to know them in any way that could bring the family out of the mists of speculation, worry and doubt. Are they real? Mere suggestions of people? To some extent, Harry Pillai’s daughters hear the questions and the tireless ponderings, in the way people who are talked about hear utterances from spaces they have never visited. The discussions about their lives takes place always in their personal vicinities, and they walk about as people who have been invaded by public opinion, sometimes with faces hardened by exaggerated defensiveness, sometimes with stagnant looks of defeat. Once a week, two of the Pillai daughters are permitted to leave the house and walk to the market to buy vegetables, fish and mutton, but no attempts are made to ask them questions—the girls are too deep in the world of their father’s making for ordinary people to access with commonplace greetings like “Hello” and “Are you in trouble?” Only the market sellers speak to them “How many kilograms?” “Thank you” and “That’s five ringgit.”  When, much to Harry Pillai’s disgust, his daughters arrived at schooling age, he softened his hold for a brief year and indulged himself in the possibility that the school’s promises of education were believable and that it would be an institution of benefit to his daughters at least in their mathematical skills and in their knowledge that they were, indeed, superior to the rest of the corrupt social world. The triplets, then seven years of age, created a group out of their own company and, for the last few months of their odd sojourn in the public world, they welcomed a fourth member who was not devastated when the girls were pulled out of school before the new schooling year could begin. “Enough is enough,” Harry told himself since he had long ago decided that his wife was too stupid to have proper conversations with. Staring at his old medical books, not missing the esteemed job he’d been asked to leave, not regretting the fact that he didn’t earn a living according to his magnificent talents after the dumb world rejected them, he said to himself, boldly, for he knew he had raised his daughters well enough not to judge him, “I’ve been liberal and kind, and now enough is enough. No one can say I didn’t try to put the girls in the so-called proper world. I’m only proven right, once again. The fools are trying to get the girls to memorise moral values?Memorise moral values? What shit. I won’t have my precious blood distorted by the evil outside. I, of all people, know what brainwashing can do.” Harry would never tell anyone, not even his daughters, about the insidiousness of what Harry would brand as his father’s brainwashing, a brainwashing that filled Harry with a hatred so immense that he knew it could only be transformed through prayer. “Please don’t let,” Harry had prayed as a boy of twelve, “any person to take over what Lord my God has given me. The man who calls himself my father beats me with puttu and parappu pots and tells me I can’t do anything, I’ll never do anything? Henry Pillai is a failure, this is what he says, Henry is a failure. Lord my God, that man is worse than the shit that comes out of Lakshmi the cow.” But Harry’s hatred could not contend with his mother’s hatred of her husband which eventually turned into something so large and poisonous that it found its way onto her husband’s dinner plate one evening. The day before the incident, Harry’s mother, disillusioned with the rest of her ten children (branded the village criminals by her neighbours), had chosen to enlighten the only son she could stand. “Henry Pillai,” she said, fanning herself with the tail of her sari as she sat with her twelve-year old son on the steps of their tiny wooden shack in Urumpurai, Jaffna, “listen to me, Henry Pillai. Your brothers and sisters are rotten like your father so you are my only hope. Your father won’t stop drinking and he won’t stop beating us. What does he do and tell you every day?” Harry replied, “He bangs my head against the parappu pot and tells me the devil has cursed me, Ma. Then he says I cannot do anything because I will always fail. That he will kill me if I don’t go out and bring him money.” “You see, son? He will get us soon. You haven’t seen how his beating is getting harder? Any time now, Henry, your father is going to kill us.” She shook her head and glared at the muddy slime on the ground. “Tomorrow,” she whispered, “go to Muthu Mama’s house and collect a small bottle from him. Don’t ask any questions. Do as I’m telling you, understand? That bottle is going to make us free. You want that, son?” Harry didn’t nod but he knew he had no choice. When the time came, it did not surprise him to find himself obeying his mother’s instructions to mix the contents of the bottle with his father’s evening curry, and later, when his father returned from his nightly drinks with the village ruffian, Mad Anil, he again was not surprised to find himself surreptitiously standing by the entrance of the kitchen with his mother, studying every movement of his father as he ate his last meal. When his father’s life was over before the end of the meal, his mother clapped her hands and exclaimed, “Congratulations, son. We have done it. We are free now.” But the freedom his mother promised turned into a more frightening trap than when his father was alive for now, Harry lived in fear of his mother’s desires and intentions. Would she take a trip to Muthu Mama’s house if she discovered something in Harry she didn’t like? When she shouted at him for not grinding the spices the way she wanted them, would she squeeze his arms until they bled? In her days of freedom after her husband’s death, she had grown strong and bold, and Harry was the primary testing ground for her newfound power. She never beat him with pots the way his father had, but she did other things: pinching, scalding, biting. She didn’t tell him he was a failure but she repeated, when he didn’t bring home the correct chicken or the plumpest pumpkin, or when she just found him unsatisfactory for an assortment of reasons, “Your father may be dead, but his stupidity can never die because it continues living in his children”, “You’re not far away from your father, actually. He also was dirty. Look how filthy your nails are. Dirty body means dirty mind”, “Sending you to the English school, and still you talk in such a stupid way? But who can blame you? Look who your father was.” Each insult she threw at her son’s face created fresh realizations for Harry which he played with in secret, in the privacy of his own head: women cannot be given too much power because they don’t know what to do with it; women cannot be given too much power because they will make life worse when they touch even a bit of power; families must be guarded by their own members and cared for; when I create my own family, I will do everything I can to show them that home is the safest place. For three years, Harry lived in fear of his mother, and of the possibility that he too would be poisoned one fine day, but at last, when his own mother decided that she was too poor to keep all of her children, the youngest of them, including Harry who was the youngest, were sent off to live with wealthier relatives in other parts of Jaffna. As if he’d not had enough of women whose power was overblown by absent or useless men, the relative who took him in, a spineless uncle who suitably looked like a worm, came packaged with a tyrannical wife. The woman was predictably fat and used slurs similar to Harry’s mother, as though the two had exchanged notes. “Dumb-dumb boy”, the fat Mrs. Mahendran called him until the day they had had enough of him and sent him away on a wobbly plane to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where another pair of relatives—a rich second cousin of Harry’s mother, and his loud-mouthed wife—carried on the tradition of meek husband and overbearing wife but at least, Harry would say to himself later in life as he reflected on his circumstances, “At least the last pair of imbeciles was able to educate the peasant out of my system. At least I could study English like an Englishman, and at least the imbeciles could send me to India so I could come back with the title of ‘Doctor.’”
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Capturing Homes

My first and so far only visit to Sri Lanka was in late 2009. Just a few months before, in May, the civil war that had been going on since 1983 ended.  What compelled me to visit was much more complex than the soothing affirmations from family members that danger had truly lifted, that travelling from Colombo to Jaffna would be simple enough, and there’d be plenty of uninterrupted time to spend in my ancestral villages. Truthfully, I wasn’t scared anyway. Truthfully, I didn’t know that not being scared was a sign of inhabiting a 21st century Malaysian body: war was something that happened in an amorphous and abstract “history”. Whatever impressions, ideas and images I had about wars grew out of textbooks and films and stories narrated by others. War had an unreality about it. I had been desensitised, spoilt to an extent by the pampering of a first and second generation Sri Lankan Tamil-Malaysian family desperate to carve safe never-shall-the-boat-be-rocked space in a land we, particularly my grandparents, had to memorise as home, a new home.  A place to make a life in, precious stuff to be held on to, taken care of: study, make big things of yourself, grow your name and your family’s name, live prosperously. Invisibility a looming threat, education and career-building were in-the-blood tools that also voyaged on those late 19th and early 20th century steamers from ports in Jaffna and India to Penang. The migration of the Ceylon Tamils arose because the colonial government in Malaya needed administrators, a thoroughly colonial affair. Tamil men, educated in missionary schools in Ceylon, could fill that colonial hunger. An English education was a solid ticket up the social and economic ladder for men like my grandfathers (one became a malarial inspector, the other a manager on a rubber estate). “Protestant missionaries offered education,” writes Kristina Hodelin-ter Wal, “including English classes, which led to a desire among the Tamils to attend missionary schools. English language acquisition and higher education opened doors to government employment in the civil service leading the group to eventually migrate to British Malaya as civil servants of the British colonizer.” The stock one size fits all colonial strategy that pervaded geographically distant colonies in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, was simple and cunning: gauge the social structures of the natives, locate the weak spots, the gaping apertures desperately in need of attention and care and fill them with aggressive imperial agendas. Targeting outcastes and colonising their minds through religion and education is one approach; the other equally potent tactic is to convert dwellers near the tip of the social pyramid. In Ceylon, the Brahmins were the highest caste but they could not be shaken: it would take something else altogether, most likely supernatural, to convince the gatekeepers of an ancient spiritual lineage and tradition that giving up their fertile history would be worth their existence. Next on the hierarchy were the Vellalars who were ready. Social mobility? Financial comfort? Working closely with the British? Social status? These matched up to their collective wishlist. The Vellalars attended the missionary schools, secured good civil service jobs, and left Ceylon to work as part of the colonial government.             It’s a source of pride in the Malaysian Ceylonese community—this manner of migration. I remember the narrative of how and why the first generation left Ceylon, our particular peculiar story of origination, being told casually and officially over uncountable occasions while I was a child. We came, educated. As childhood morphed into adulthood, the tale made grooves in my bones.  The glory and glitter of our core disporic story has covered over things we prefer not to see.  What was inevitably sacrificed and erased, for example, what got lost, what had to be hidden away so that we could survive in the torrent of other voices, other lives in the dazzling demographic of the multicultural Malaysian container; other ethnicities in larger numbers, with more influence, more impact—the struggle to stay afloat is practical and real. These we don’t talk about in (stereo)typical Asian fashion.  I’m talking here about grief, about the pain of keeping things bottled up, about the stunning longings that do not get aired. Even so—I glimpsed these, intuited them in my grandmother, Achi, up until I was fourteen years old when she passed away. Achi watched the daily 5pm Tamil news just to catch stories of Sri Lanka. Sometimes she spoke of the home she left, more by way of suggestion, nuance, stories from her days as a child. The rest of the time we focused on pressing things in the present like the status of the mangoes in the garden. As far as I can remember, the elsewhere she spoke of—her home, Jaffna, which she would call by its Tamil name, Yalpanam—felt like a place that had nothing to do with me, a place of mystery safely tucked away in the realm of narrative.       Jaffna was a word, a myth, a big baffling piece in my quest for personal and collective understanding. When Achi spoke about it and when older family members spoke about it, I sensed a throbbing globe of what could not be said, what could not be openly and boldly felt: the rawness of dislocation; the pain of leaving the land where generations of ancestors had lived and worked and loved; the continuous toil of self-definition as a minority group in a country filled with pluralities. Bit by bit, all the ineffable things that Achi could not utter directly to me but which were transmitted anyway—and which I would later recognise as inheritances already blended into my body—all of these had collected within and formed a rich mulch that would take me years to sift through, and that would find some shape in my novel Yalpanam. Yalpanam was a haunting, a complex memory, an inheritance, a piece in my construction of home.           When I finally visited the place that lived inches behind Achi’s cataract eyes, I insisted: no photographs. It was the only time I didn’t take a single photograph while travelling somewhere. The impulse was irrational, accurate. Jaffna, Yalpanam, the place Achi came from, where my ancestors before her had lived and died, was a place I wanted to memorise, in the way Achi had memorised it, and memorialised it in the few stories she told. I felt that if I took photos, and too many of them, I would forget the smell in the air, how sharply cool the well water felt when I dipped my hand in it. I felt that memorizing the place would land me in the place where Achi lived—somewhere in memory, somewhere in an imagined realm of home. Until today, my strongest travel memories come from that visit to Sri Lanka. I remember the ancestral villages I visited sensuously, through feelings, sensations, shifts in my spirit. I felt inhabited, the images captured by my body, in my body. Achi was alive in the wind and in an imagined space she made a map of when I was little.   The next time I visit, I will most likely take photographs. I love photographs—they arrest in ways different than I have just described, which is perhaps why my most prized purchase from that trip was a picture book titled “19th Century Photographs of Ceylon: Images of Ceylon”. The photograph accompanying this piece is from that book. It’s called, simply, “Tamil Family”. There are many more old photographs in this book that I spend time looking at, imagining the lives, places and spaces clicked into a moment that hold the wonder of people like me who know that the past is an open opulently  populated field. There are multiple homes for people in diaspora—home is a complex lived reality. Claiming myself to be Malaysian includes Yalpanam. Malaysia, you see, by virtue of having a Sri Lankan Tamil community, carries Yalpanam within it, even if it is a small fragment, a piece nevertheless that belongs in the collective puzzle.   A big part of ‘homing’ especially in the diasporic consciousness has to do with being and living several dimensions at once, often paradoxical and seemingly impracticable. Mourning an impossible return, as the scholar Vijay Mishra puts it, is one example. Another I would suggest is remembering places you yourself have not experienced but that feel just as real, just as homely as if they were yours—and in a deeper, less obvious and more compounded way, they are. Home becomes a verb.  —————————————————————————————————————— Reference: Hodelin-ter Wal, Kristina. ” ‘The Worldly Advantage It Gives…’ Missionary Education, Migration and Intergenerational Mobility in the Long Nineteenth Century, Ceylon and Malaya 1816-1819″. Journal of Interdisciplinary Economics. 31 (1) 5-23, 2019.          
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Blog

In the Mornings, We Dream

Early mornings are friendly. At least that’s been my experience. Out of all segments of time in a day, early mornings are the most open, most encouraging, the most attuned to my needs, even as they feel like an ambiguous portion of time, a privacy before the literal dawning of a new day.   ‘Even in Marakesh,’ Robert Bly writes in his poem “Morning in Marakesh”, ‘we still have to decide What morning is. During the night people We hadn’t even met whispered in our ears Thoughts that would have changed our lives, Might have, if we had heard them earlier. So the dreamer never gives up.’  I’m sitting in the silvery grey of post-dawn twilight in my parents’ house, listening to the groans and cymbals of the kitchen orchestra—I exaggerate of course, but at this time of morning, when the mynahs are sending out their first tweets, before most of the virtual tweets are even formed, all sounds are introduced as if for the first time, brand new in the world, extra sharp, super defined, and suddenly exotic. The clashing of plates and cups once the sun is fully out would be just that: clashing. But in these secret pockets of time, in the magic between dawn and slightly after dawn, the mundane is converted into its highest potential, its most polished, luminous form. My mother’s plate-arranging is a sacred orchestra, okay perhaps a quintet; the drizzle gently splashing on the rooftop is a popup waterfall. We’re in mythical time, time that creates and keeps creating, hectic with creative energy. It’s possible to see stars in a cup of coffee. And to feel the pulse of the next creation about to be born. For me, it’s poems or stories. For you, well, what could it be?   In the mornings—let me be specific: I’m talking about that time of day before the day has become a day, before everyone starts scrolling for news and praise and gossip and motivational quotes—the air is thinly edged with a chilliness not commonly known on the Malaysian climate palette and in this mild shudder-inducing coolness, there’s still so much leftover time to finish dreams that couldn’t be completed in sleep. “I love the silent hour of night,” Anne Brontë writes, “for blissful dreams may then arise, revealing to my charmed sight what may not bless my waking eyes.” I’d take this further and add that what blesses my dream-sight spills into my waking-sight, and that dreams are not always blissful.       No, these are not necessarily big grand dreams of success and wonderment; not necessarily sweet airy otherworldly dreams. The word ‘dream’ is related to the proto-Germanic ‘draugmas’ which means “deception, illusion, phantasm.” (etymonline.com) ‘Dream’ often gets imbued with mumbo jumbo associations, maybe because the Old English meaning for dream also carries “joy, mirth, noisy merriment”, and when you place “illusion” with “merriment” you’re dangerously close to woo-woo visions. Ah, that’s it—visions. Dreams are visions had while sleeping. And visions, as you know, can be of anything. So, I mean any kind of dream at all (including ethereal, esoteric ones). They can be nasty, cold sweat-giving dreams. Last night, for example, I dreamt I was in a classroom, announcing with what looked like impressive confidence, my teaching philosophy that was going to erupt my students’ boredom in a heartbeat. My dream-students weren’t impressed. One of them made a list of reasons why this would not be possible, and gave compelling proof for his theory. I woke up feeling the dream hadn’t quite ended, that something in it was begging to be finished in the physical world. So, I continued to dream, with eyes open, which is much easier in the early mornings. I dreamt again about the possibility of these fears dissolving, and what this would look like in physical, waking life. I envisioned images of myself, drained of all that withers me from the inside out. So many tiers of dreaming, I thought, so many subsets. The dreams of the night are the passionate cousins, the wild relatives of the dreams we have during the day.   Just before bed I had listened to Dharma teacher Tara Brach’s talk on working with beliefs that shrink us, that steal joy and basic peace of mind. The talk ended with a practice for inquiring into them. “What would you be if you didn’t believe this belief?” she asked in her forgiving voice.  A realisation shot through my body just as I was feeling the first callings of sleep. What freedom, I thought, I felt. What space. In the early morning, the secrets of the night are still fresh. You’re given clues, inspiration, nudges this way or that, like all good friends do.  During the night, we are whispered to, as Robert Bly tells us, and we continue to hear these whispers. The dreamer, it is true, never gives up. Read “Morning in Marakesh” here:
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Novel Excerpts

Novel Excerpts from Yalpanam published in “Singapore Unbound”

The novel centers on one hundred and eighty-five year old recluse, Pushpanayagi, who is on the brink of a transformation, and finds herself traveling back in time to 19th century and 1940s Malaya where she visits people from her past, including a British lepidopterist, Charles Tanner, his wife, Mary, and their servant Abu. Running parallel to her adventures in the past is the present timeline where we meet her neighbor, 18-year-old Maxim Cheah, who has run away from home and subsequently moved into Yalpanam—the old lady’s home—and the vegetable seller, Hadi, who visits Yalpanam from time to time. The excerpt below features Pushpanayagi’s encounters with Charles and Mary Tanner in the 19th century, and Maxim and Hadi’s burgeoning friendship in Yalpanam during Pushpanayagi’s jaunt back in time. * ‘The Monarch chrysalis hangs down, you see, Deborah. The swallowtails attach sideways.’ Charles points at rows of little cocoons behind a glass cage on the floor. He leans forward, lowers his spectacles and inspects the pupa more thoroughly. Some cocoons dangle from the horizontal branches of a potted plant that sits like a miniature jungle in the middle of the cage. Others stick to twigs, leaves, vertical branches. He clenches his lower back and rises, grunting. ‘I dare say, my dear, I am far too young to be feeling far too old.’ He straightens his back, pushes his chest out, forces his shoulders back. ‘Stiff as a pole, my mother used to say. One must have one’s back as stiff as a pole. Good posture is a reflection of good character. Wouldn’t you say, Deborah?’ He struts towards a large teak table in the centre of the room. Leafy plants cover the length of the table. He removes a stained handkerchief from his pocket and gathers with it little brown droppings scattered on the table’s surface. He twists the tips of the handkerchief, makes a small bundle of his collection. Pushpanayagi eyes the potted plants lining the wall by the windows. There, the caterpillars are fat; they wriggle on leaves and shed bile-coloured liquid droppings. ‘My little worms will soon be migrating to those plants by the window.’ He flashes a paternal smile at the bundle. ‘They really are clever little creatures. They know precisely when it’s time for them to hide in their cocoons to gestate for the final production.’ He chuckles to himself. ‘My sweet little caterpillars. Look how much they eat. Hearty appetites! Look how fast they grow.’ Abruptly, his thin lips tighten and almost disappear into his mouth. He lowers the hand holding the bundle of droppings and adjusts his thick black-rimmed spectacles with the other. ‘And I’ll tell you one other very important detail, Deborah,’ he says, suddenly serious, ‘they take every care in the world to live for a mere few weeks. Except the Painted Lady of course. Oh, She! She is the Queen itself. Why would she be called anything other than Vanessa Cardui? Elegant, august creature. No, she must live for twelve whole months to state her superiority. There is no other way for her.’ His attention is diverted to a wall where a black green-spotted butterfly perches close to the ceiling. It flaps its wings and tucks them back in. ‘Oh, Nymphalidae of Papilionoidea! How you live in exquisite ancestry. Your bloodline is strong and pure. If they could contemplate their condition, they would be filled with pride. Don’t you think, Deborah?’ Pushpa nods enthusiastically. ‘Yes, yes, Charles. There are clearly butterflies that are better made than other butterflies. And— ‘And the better butterflies should be treated accordingly.’ He laughs joyously, the way people are when agreed with. ‘You do listen to me pontificate and ruminate and gush about these winged creatures! I dare say, Deborah, only other lepidopterists listen with charmed ears the way you do.’  ‘My dear Charles.’ She stands still, hands folded at her back and looks around the room as though also searching for newly emerged butterflies. ‘I understand the importance of the work you and all these men are doing on the island. My eyes are always watching.’ ‘I do wish Abu felt the way you feel about my work. My deepest desire is that today, that poor foolish man will return with the correct eggs. Abu really does behave like a buffoon sometimes. I suppose I have to expect this sort of thing from a boy raised in an illiterate village. But, really, Deborah…’ He rips off his spectacles and presses them against his chest. ‘Is it so hard to follow simple instructions? Perhaps he doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation. How would he know just how important my discovery is going to be in the world of lepidopterists? A pure red butterfly, Deborah! The world has never seen it. I shall name it the Red Tanner. One has to keep the family name going.’ A shrill muffled scream enters the room. Charles swings his spectacles back over his eyes and hurries to the wastepaper basket in a discreet corner of the room. He empties the bundles and gazes into the bin as though he is not regarding the bin at all but contemplating an object in his head. Another scream, softer, turns into a barely audible sob. Pushpanayagi’s eyes dart from the caterpillars to Charles and back again. ‘My dear Charles. You need not trouble yourself about Mary.’ Her voice, soft, shaky, even nervous, is enough to call his attention. He turns around, cheeks strangely bloated as though several tongues are pushing against the walls of his mouth. The blues of his eyes are firm, cold behind the thick lenses of his spectacles, watery glints flashing through the blue. ‘Oh, I am always assured when you are around, Deborah.’ ‘Oh, I know. We both understand— ‘We most definitely do, despite— ‘The nonsense the island is saying— ‘Oh, they know nothing, my dear, absolutely nothing— ‘It’s easy for people to spread lies about things— ‘They know nothing about. But we are wise— ‘Very wise. In this situation, we have no choice— ‘But to be wise. It’s impossible to explain to people that Mary is only— ‘Listen to me, Charles. Mary is like a child, if you don’t mind me saying— ‘Why would I mind when even you can see that the spirits have left her?’ ‘It’s true, Charles. She is like a princess who cannot see the palace she is in.’ ‘What more could I want in this situation? You and Abu are doing a fine job— ‘Only one thing, Charles. Abu, he has got it in his head that somehow…’ ‘Mary is simply, what’s the word you used the other day, Deborah?’ ‘Oh, Mary is a passionate— ‘That’s the one. Passionate. Mary is a passionate woman who requires the company of herself and the creatures of her inventions— ‘Her imagination is big enough so she’ll never be lonely. What women like her…what people like her need is to be left alone. The best thing, Charles, is to not— ‘Encourage her. Yes, Deborah, I have been listening to your wisdom— ‘I have been going upstairs with Abu, and checking on her so you really need not trouble yourself.’   ‘That’s a mark of your generosity of spirit,’ he says, his words clipped, his voice flat. He glances over at the glass cage, his face immediately softening. ‘Enough of that for now. Come, look at these beauties. The precision and order in the world of Lepidoptera have the capacity to break one’s heart when one takes the time to ruminate over the matter.’ Pushpanayagi walks towards the glass cage and kneels before it. ‘The cocoons look like the candlenuts people in the village used to use in Ceylon.’ She taps on the glass with a finger. ‘We…they put it in big pots of watery curry. That one pot could feed the whole village.’ Charles folds his arms over his chest and beams at her as though he has heard something spellbinding. ‘Surely you were the aristocrat of your village.’ She beams back. ‘Close enough,’ she giggles, tapping the top of the cage. The chrysalises hang static from branches and twigs. ‘Maybe you also are like these cocoons. When you first came to see me, you were so frightened.’ ‘Those were terrible days.’ He closes his eyes and sighs. When he opens them again, the blues of his eyes are soft, dark. ‘What luck Mary had. And, indeed, me too.’ She turns towards him and watches him carefully as though checking for signs of change. He stares at the ceiling, hands in the pockets of his beige trousers, his eyes blank, lost in the image of the ceiling. He looks as though he’s sunk deep into a thought and the thought has birthed other thoughts, a whole generation. Someone knocks lightly on the door, then knocks again, louder. ‘Come in,’ Pushpanayagi says. Abu stumbles in holding a glass jar, his face shimmering with sweat. Bits of grass and weeds stick to his dark brown arms. A leaf the shape of a miniature boat sits on his head, close to the forehead, on the verge of falling. He shifts his head and the little leaf-boat floats downwards. ‘Tuan, so much I collect already.’ He points the jar in Charles’s direction. Tiny terracotta-coloured eggs coat parts of the jar’s interior. Charles rushes forward, takes the jar, removes his spectacles and squints. ‘I suppose so. I suppose so,’ he murmurs. He holds the jar so close his eyes begin to cross. ‘Good, good,’ Charles says, ‘now you can prepare Mem’s lunch. I’ve a lot of examining to do this afternoon.’ When Abu catches Pushpanayagi’s eye, he glowers, raises his eyebrows, and flashes a look at Charles. Pushpanayagi shakes her head, puts her palm out as if to say, ‘wait’, and, promptly, Abu clenches his fingers into fists. ‘Well, what are you waiting for, my man? The fowl isn’t going to roast itself,’ Charles says to the jar of eggs. ‘Yes, Tuan.’ Abu turns around, ambles towards the entrance and lingers by the door. ‘Whisky, Tuan?’ Charles looks up from the jar. He smiles and says, ‘your timing is always perfect, my man. The day has been far too long.’ * Maxim squeezed through a gap in the wire fence close to the well and pushed out onto the grassy stretch opposite the mouth of the jungle. She stepped into a slushy pool of something. Mud, could even have been shit. She rubbed a foot against the grass, got some of the slime off, not nearly enough. What the heck. She squatted, stretched the sarong out over her knees, made a cosy tent of it. The cloth was too soft, scoured to death over so many years it was almost transparent. Ooot. Ooot. Heee. Heee. A bird in the jungle called and called, its poor lungs.  Perhaps it was a nice sound, maybe even beautiful. Sing again, sing, sing. But the bird was quiet. Sulking in a tree probably. Glum and morose. Pull face for what? Who going see you?Why must Auntie go into those epic sleeps? At least when she was awake, the ball of silence would come. Every time Auntie slept, stuff burst through Maxim’s head like a frenzied volcano…but thank the vegetables, there was the weeding and the cobwebs to dust off from the ceiling and there was the tray to prepare in case Auntie woke up. Then there was The Practice, talking to Tomatoes and Company. Are you ready to go down to the market? Did you enjoy last night’s rain, Cucumber? How does the soil feel today, Cabbage? And when Hadi came, mucked about the house and stayed till dark, the crashing waves inside her head went down, cool and mute. Auntie said thoughts are nothing, as empty as air. Empty like time. Just ignore them. But sometimes they swirled like one of those twister tornados and who could ignore that? She broke the squat and sat on the grass. She couldn’t ask him for more. But if she just had two more T-shirts, another pair of shorts, a pack of panties, she’d be fine. A bit of money to get some of the meals. Already, he’d bought cutlery, crockery, detergents, dinners. The dinners were cheap, from his favourite ‘mamak’ stall, but still. Ever since he realised she wasn’t leaving Yalpanam, he always came with a packet of something. After Day Ten, she stopped counting. Time didn’t seem to matter anymore. But he kept count. Yesterday was Day Twenty, today, Day Twenty-One. We don’t take charity from people, Daddy used to say when Auntie Bonnie wanted to buy a blow-up garden pool for the family or when one of his sub-contractors dropped a shiny TV at the front gate. Self-sufficiency is the root of success. The moment you start depending on others, you’re finished. He’d never told her directly, but it was as if he meant for her to eavesdrop on his conversations with his workers, her mother, various assistants over the years. And the charger. The stupid charger. Why had she asked Hadi for it? Obviously his phone didn’t use the same charger as hers. His was cheap, the kind Bangladeshi and Indonesian workers used. Made In China. Mother had bought hers, made sure it had all the latest functions. Of course Hadi had to get the charger specially ordered. And now she couldn’t even use the daft thing. Only later she’d realised it. When people went missing, they checked for pings. And if the Police didn’t, Mother would be sniffing on her own tracking device. Maybe, after three weeks, they would have stopped trying to find out the location of her phone but it was too risky. She picked at the grass, plucked a nice long stalk and stroked her chin with it. She peered into the blackish green jungle. So thickly foliaged, crammed with all kinds of creatures, crawling things. Daddy talked about leeches once. How when he was younger, he hiked through a jungle and his legs were covered in blood and leeches. That was before politics absorbed him, way before his business made him big. A silver light flashed through the dark green leafage and disappeared. It was too faint. Could have been anything. Maybe even her eyes. It had to be her eyes. Lately, she’d been seeing things, stuff moving in her side-vision. Shadows, bits of light. The light flickered again. Or maybe it was something Auntie P was creating, somehow, as she slept. The few times she woke up, the old lady looked like she’d been passing time with a ghost. But she never said which ghost or where they’d been meeting. She just looked wonderingly at the walls and smiled mysteriously as she ate and often, she ended her meals with four, five sequential burps and, ‘You’re a good girl. Thank you, child.’ That was enough. She let the old lady rest again. It didn’t seem decent to probe about the letters in the Box of Things or about the locked room on the top floor. And Hadi apparently didn’t know much at all about the house or about Auntie’s past. Five years he’d been coming, and nothing. Didn’t even know there wasn’t detergent in the house. But he was too good, too nice so far. Visiting every day, bringing things, soaps, face creams, a tiny broken radio, including his big mouth. He always seemed a few words short of what he really wanted to say. On the brink, the edge of the cliff. Down below, words, stories, gossip, swimming in a pool of swampy gook. She didn’t want the gook, didn’t want his mouth, his knowledge. Something lived underneath his surface, very close to it, a force maybe, yes, a force with spumes that made her feel she was doing the wrong thing. She leaned back and pressed her palms on the muddy ground. Something somersaulted in her belly, and stopped, and the old ball of silence slowly grew around her. The ball warmed her, as though she was soaking in a bath of treacle. It embraced her—Auntie must have woken up. ‘There you are. Looking for you everywhere.’ Wet rubber slippers squeaked against crunching soil. It seemed like only hours ago when he said he’d be back tomorrow. ‘Doing what here, Max?’ ‘Simply lah. Wanted to see what’s out here.’ She turned around. He stood behind the fence, still in Yalpanam’s compound. ‘Come back in,’ he said. She didn’t feel like moving. The ball of silence hugged her, tighter, warmer. ‘I have something for you,’ he said. She looked at his hands but they were empty. ‘Not dinner?’ He pointed at the house. ‘Dinner I left inside. This one,’ he said and took a phone out of his pocket, ‘I have an extra one. Since you’re not using the charger, better you use this. Got data already.’ She stared at the phone, her heart pounding frantically. ‘But I cannot take that from you.’ He pushed his hand through the fence. The phone glared back at her. ‘I’m not using it. At least you can use it to play when you’re bored.’ Somehow, she felt that he was lying, that he’d bought the phone. If he’d had it all this while, why did he wait three weeks to give it to her? Her throat tightened. A cold tingle spread up her neck, her cheeks and paused at her eyes. Tears fell. They fell so quickly she had no way of stopping them or wiping them off before he could see. ‘Come.’ He gestured for her to take the phone. Very slowly, she touched it but he nodded and she took the phone. ‘Good,’ he said. He kept his hand through the fence as though waiting for her to take it. ‘Are you coming back?’ he said. Her voice had gone into the black space within. She nodded. ‘Take my hand. I’ll pull you up. If you’re hungry, I bought roti canai.’ She grabbed his hand. In one swift motion, he pulled her up. She squeezed through the hole in the fence and went with him back into Yalpanam’s compound. Pushpanayagi hesitates at the bottom of the spiral staircase, one foot on the first step, watching Abu trudging his way up, his back hunched. The crockery on the tray in his hands clatters. He pauses, grips the railing, attempts to stop the rattling by trying to remain still but the cup and the saucer and the spoons tremble and he turns his head, beckons her. The light from the oil lamp in her hand is bright enough to illuminate his pained face. He pleads with his eyes. Come, come, they say, come quick. She follows the curves of the steps, spiralling, swirling, twirling, whirling upwards. A meek voice from above calls out, ‘Abu, sweet Abu?’ The tray in Abu’s hands quivers so violently that he has to place it down on a step. He raises his arms and folds them against the back of his head as if to quell the tremor. Pushpanayagi taps him on the back and he picks up the tray and together they tread lightly up the staircase. ‘Charlie, my love, have you come?’ The voice almost chirpy, like a bird about to burst into song. Abu nudges the half-open door with his foot. ‘Sorry, Mem. Sorry.’ He walks quickly to the four-poster bed and sets the tray on the table beside it. He slaps the edges of the mattress as if to dust it. Mary raises a blanket over her chest. She tugs at it, pulls it close to her body. Locks of golden curls fall over her shoulders. She sits up, brings her knees close to her chest and tightens her grasp of the blanket. At the foot of her bed, balls of crumpled paper lie strewn. ‘I’m ever so pleased to see you,’ she says. Her voice quavers, soft, polite. Abu relights a candle fixed in a tall, finely embossed candlestick. The candle flame strong enough, he tips another candle over the flame, lighting it also. Pushpanayagi steps away from the door, one foot in to the room. ‘Pushpa, my love, is that you?’ Mary dips her head, attempting to catch a glimpse of Pushpanayagi’s face.  Pushpanayagi abruptly raises the lamp to her face, bares her teeth in a grin, and just as abruptly lowers the lamp.  A dusky shadow falls over Mary’s face. She gasps for air, clasps her neck. Abu extends a teacup over the bed, but as the gasping quickens, he hurriedly places the teacup back on the tray and fumbles in his shirt pocket. Mary turns to face the heavy dun-coloured curtains covering the windows. ‘All day yesterday, when nobody came, she spoke to me.’ She caresses her throat as if coaxing the words to the surface. Her eyes linger on the curtains that resemble swarthy ominous cloaks, then, with a slight shake of her head, she looks up at the stained glass window above the curtained windows. The Virgin Mary’s face, cast in the shadows of the night, still bears the daytime gaze of sorrow. ‘Pushpa,’ Mary whispers. She fidgets with the blanket, snivels as she gazes at the stained glass window like a person bereft of hope. One fast tear falls down her cheek, a second one follows. She reaches for a handkerchief lying squashed beside her on the bed.  ‘Our Lady of Sorrows listened to me all day.’ She dabs her nose with the handkerchief and wipes her eyes in deft, gentle strokes. ‘When Abu only deposited the trays and both times said he was in a terrible hurry, I knew it was going to be one of those days. Abu, you mustn’t think I am chiding you. Only, I get so frightfully lonely and frightened up here. The mouse…’ She squeezes her eyes shut and shakes her head like a child rejecting instruction. ‘The mouse,’ she sobs, ‘even the mouse has died and left me. He used to poke his sweet little twitching nose through the sheets and even permitted me to touch his darling head with a finger. What happened to him? I sense you want to ask, Pushpa, but you are far too dignified and respectful to do such a vulgar thing. But I will tell you. In the end, we are all compelled to confess, aren’t we?’  She half-heartedly flings the handkerchief beside her, makes the sign of the cross and looks at Pushpanayagi. ‘Bless me Sister for I have sinned. It has been one quarter of an hour since my last confession. Yesterday, I committed a grave sin. In the morning, I heard the sad sound of crunching gravel. At first I thought it was Charlie going out, leaving me once again. Then I realised. Those were no ordinary horses. The Four Horseman had come. I could smell it, Sister, my holy Sister. The pungent force of death. The dawning of the Apocalypse. I screamed and screamed but no one came.’  ‘Not true, Mem,’ Abu says, ‘I come five time yesterday. All time Mem ring bell, Abu is coming.’ Silence ripples through the room. Mary hugs her knees and rocks herself back and forth. ‘And so,’ she says, ‘I knew the Devil had cursed us all. That we had faltered when we dirtied this land with blood that was not ours to spill. We denied God’s grace when we murdered the elves and angels of the jungles. The Lord has abandoned our mission. The Lord has abandoned us!’ She pulls the blanket over her head. Abu leaps to her side, perches on the edge of the bed and gently removes the blanket from Mary’s head. ‘Mem is ok. Drink tea, Mem.’ ‘Oh, dear Abu!’ Pushpanayagi puts the lamp on the floor, and heads for the tray of tea things. Abu watches her encouragingly, but she does not look at him, only forward, at the glinting floral teacup, at the little copper spoon, at the ball of opium the size of goat droppings. She spoons the pill into the teacup, stirs as soundlessly as she is able to, and holds the cup over the bed. ‘Drink this, Mary.’   Mary, eyes fixed on the Virgin’s face, absentmindedly picks up the handkerchief beside her on the bed, daintily dabs her nose with it and as though she has seen or heard something inaccessible to the other two in the room, she stops sobbing and starts to laugh. A noiseless laugh, accompanied by heaving shoulders, strains her face until the strain reaches an imperceptible limit and the laughter becomes a shriek and the shriek gradually dies into a knowing smile. ‘And so,’ she says, ‘to appease my Lord, I spoke to the Mother of His Son. Thus it was. Therefore, thereafter, it was so. And the Lord said it was so. I stabbed the mouse with my penknife and tossed him out the window. Then I wrote letters to Charlie.’ She points a shivering finger at the balls of paper at the foot of the bed. ‘Our Lady said to me, Blessed Child, if your husband is a true husband, he will not follow the Devil’s plan. He will not murder butterflies so that they may be pressed into books, their ghosts trapped in the astral sphere with no salvation for their souls. He denies life. Most Blessed Child, if your husband is a true husband, he most certainly will not tear you away from your three daughters, their sweet young souls alone and frightened in England. If your husband is a true husband, he will at least…’ She pauses and clutches at the neckline of her nightgown, her eyes glinting with tears. ‘He will at least sit by your side and soothe you. And so it was. Therefore, thereafter. The Lord hath spoken through the mother of his son. When Charlie is asleep, one aims well with the penknife. It is the heart one must target after all is said and done. The heart is the seat of this life and the one after.’ Abu nods at Pushpa and swiftly, she makes her way around the bed and hands over the cup. ‘Mem, you stop now. Drink tea.’ But Mary’s attention is fixed on the sorrowful, compassionate face of the Virgin. She whispers, ‘Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you as yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; that I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me.’ Pushpa glares at the soft golden curls, at the sky blue eyes glittering with tears, at the small, perfectly aquiline, perfectly pink nose and, as though she cannot stand any longer to look at Mary’s trembling, sniffling, whimpering form, blurts out, ‘Stop feeling sorry for yourself, Mary, and drink the tea!’ But Mary, momentarily deaf or unaffected by outbursts as spiced with emotion as hers, blinks at the face of kindness on the window, at the face that knows exactly what is in her heart, and averts her gaze only when Abu tugs at the sheets, his habit of gaining her attention which she has early on learned to respond to. Regaining her composure, Pushpanayagi says, ‘It’s best you drink the tea and rest, Mary. You shouldn’t be talking too much.’ Abu taps on the mattress, another method he has invented to communicate with Mary, and slowly, she lowers her eyes; her mouth relaxes, and her breathing resumes its natural rhythm. She smiles, nods at the cup, and whispers to Abu, ‘Yes, I think I shall have tea now, and then I shall sleep. I am ever so tired. Have you been this tired, Abu?’ He takes the cup from Pushpanayagi and holds it to Mary’s lips. ‘Mem, I know this kind of tire. Tire like never sleep for many, many year.’ ‘Yes, yes,’ Mary murmurs sleepily, ‘it does feel like that. It feels like my eyes have been open for centuries.’ ‘Like that, Mem.’ He lifts the cup to her lips and she drinks thirstily. ‘It’s the fatigue,’ she says, delicately licking tea off her lower lip, ‘of coming this far and realising that something has been missing all this time, taken from you without your knowledge. Something that feels so far, far away and yet, without it, life is so devastatingly empty. What is one to do?’ Published with permission from Penguin Random House SEA. Shivani Sivagurunathan teaches creative writing at the University of Nottingham Malaysia. Her first book, Wildlife on Coal Island, was published by UPM Press in 2011 and republished by HarperCollins India in 2012. Her short stories and poems have been published in numerous international journals including Cha: An Asian Literary Magazine, Agenda, Construction Literary Magazine, and many others. Her first novel Yalpanam is due for publication in 2021.
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World

— for Akka Home is its own geography. Where we stood as children of stilted iguanas, Condenses in a thought, It returns to us on days aged by flagging mint, That fresh existence buried under charred rocks, Sometimes a fly might carry out memories Of its smell and how our legs skipped past comical toads, Resting kingfishers, pond fish that sucked upon moss, When as those new beings, We could tell the age of the sun, We could see through distant sea waves And crack our knuckles against favourable puns Because we knew our creatures by heart, And everything close, our organs grew plants And fruits became of them, we ate our livers, More would grow, Like lizards and their tails, ever-renewed, Until then, on one midnight plate, The moon dropped and wounded herself Upon all our greenery and it was time, you said, To dig for the world and fix the eye of the iguana upon it. This piece was featured on glass-poetry.com
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Coral

Crackling pink, a sea bird’smorning eye plunders deepdown the water cage andfinds coral beds firingpolyps to contact the sun. Vision of a wound, fromacreage of stolen incidents,an eye borne of the rocks,musters the creature tornand parading betweentwo worlds,extension of beastand the soft touch. The glands of the globedeliver a sound like abreath, a marine mantrasoftly going northfrom a base of genic heads,a family huddled in butgenerous, giving anthemsmade from a lung-dwelling,unlike the scratchings of speech. The morning eye turns dusk,and gathers the polyps,slowly, it sets aim towardsthe disk, hoping that the firepromotes nothing but a potof prayer where ashes willfind their utterance.
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Novel Excerpts

Novel Excerpt from Yalpanam

The gibbons in the jungle awakened. The one-eyed dog beneath the jacaranda tree opened its eye and peered at dew-kissed swifts flying low. By the well behind the house, the frogs awakened and the sole toad lifted its heavy eyelids, their tongues darting for insects slowly emerging in the rose pink morning, the sun a new sun. A baked disc, fresh arrival, still kind to naked eyes, indiscriminate Mother of the earth: blackbirds sang loudly, mad about the new glittering rays streaming onto grass, pebbles, flowers, water, worms, the old lady’s finger perched on the veranda railing, blindly pointing in the direction of the cabbages. Her eyes—did they register the morning morphing from pink to orange? She gazed, far out in the distance, past the land opposite her house, perhaps at the clear wide sky, perhaps at the sepulchral bushes surrounding the land. Once before, years and years ago, she stood in the very same spot on the veranda and gazed out into the garden, her hands dripping not with water from gardening but with juice from a coconut she’d drunk straight from the un-husked shell after which, delighted, refreshed, she proclaimed to the magpies that had come to steal the little butterfly-collecting tools left out on a table, ‘How good is life! How good is life!’ It would be unfair to dismiss this declaration as a feverish exaggeration brought on by the coconut juice consumed with gusto on a dazzling silvery morning. There were, indeed, very good things happening in and around the house, and certainly, in the lives of those who lived in it. The old woman—then, not yet astonishingly old, but not entirely young either, a mature middle-age—had new guests in her home, guests who soon turned into comfortable residents who embarked on an unlikely life with her. Unlikely because colonial society on the island was not privy to what it considered to be bizarre assemblies or camaraderie of any kind, be it servant-master intimacy, Malay-Chinese riverside banter while poaching fish, or mongrel families that sometimes formed, quite spontaneously, across the island, all defying classification. Ironically, the head guest Pushpanayagi invited into her home had a passion that matched and sometimes even surpassed the colonial love of order. He was a butterfly man, a lepidopterist with a sharp blue eye for minutiae, and he spent most of his spare time catching butterflies, breeding them in a room in the house, studying them under large imported-from-England magnifying glasses, giving his beloved winged creatures long, elaborate Latin names, dipping them in formaldehyde and pressing them neatly between sheets of rice paper. The day over, he would materialise from his butterfly room, accomplished, in the highest of spirits, ready for the feast his servant-cook, Abu, had laid out on the long mahogany table in the dining area beside the front hall. And Pushpanayagi, already a lady of inheritance and therefore of leisure, would sit across from her guest at the dinner table, and delicately cut her food with a fork and knife while glancing at her guest from time to time, asking him agreeable questions about butterflies and about the plantation he managed. The guest’s wife, by this point a self-professed invalid, too ‘unimaginably melancholic’ to eat, would be upstairs in her room, counting jasmine petals from a bunch the servant-cook brought her once every two days, out of, as he told Pushpanayagi, ‘something burn in my heart.’ Perhaps those who had been allowed to visit the wife (there were none) would have concluded: this is not a good life and it certainly does not warrant gulping down fresh coconut water and exclaiming to a deaf world that life is good. But those phantom onlookers would have been people attracted to veneers, to swift, easy conclusions. Mary Tanner, transported by her desperate husband to the house of the mystical Sybil (as Pushpanayagi was called in those days), was, in the minds of Charles Tanner and Sybil herself, lucky. It had happened like this: failing to find a cure for Mary’s mysterious ailment, Charles, in an uncharacteristic fit of something, sought the help of the woman who had inherited his second cousin’s house, not for that reason, but for the glaring fact that people, colonials and natives both, talked about her supernatural connection to the land, of her past as the Mystic under the Banyan Tree, of her ability to commune with devils and unseen entities that swarmed the island and stealthily entered homes and possessed the living. For, he one day concluded, Mary, cherub-faced, merry cherry-eater and meadow-skipper in England, transformed backwards, from butterfly to caterpillar, not immediately upon stepping foot on the island, but gradually, over three or four years, so that, he further concluded, he had no other choice but to believe his cook-servant, Abu, when he whispered to his master, ‘Is Syaitan, Tuan. Mem got Devil inside.’ At least, house-owner and head guest agreed the few times they broached the subject at dinner, at least, upstairs, she was safe from spirits. Sorrow, they said, was a normal human feeling. It had nothing to do with devils. And so it went on, these peaceful dinners, and this unlikely co-existence colonial society believed was ‘incredible’, ‘remarkably strange’, ‘improper—Husband, Wife, Servant, and…?’ Even then, Pushpanayagi, whether consciously or not, defied the kind of categorisation favoured by her head guest. Interestingly, he did not seem to mind—in fact, he enjoyed the murkiness about her which he decided was the mark of all good mystics. The plump, audacious Blavatsky was awakening something in the English world with her occult ideas and esoteric eyes. Mediums, ladies with swirling eyes, were channelling spirits and souls, piquing the interest of men and women of genius, poets, artists, intellectuals, not ordinary folk, not the mediocre, but those with vision. Darwin (Charles Tanner was secretly flattered that he shared the great scientist’s name) had burst biblical bubbles, and those new rock-men, studying the earth, silts and sedimentations, boldly revealed that the Earth was not six-thousand years old, as the Bible said, but older, much older. There was Charles Tanner, in the midst of this dichotomy between hard facts and spiritual unravelling, between a new physicality—a new earth was, after all, being discovered—and a new ethereality, a man proud of the Victorian age that, luckily for him, was still alive and flourishing, a man of Empire, a man of science, make no mistake, but subject nevertheless to rupturing notions of reality, thousands of miles away from his original centre of gravity, on an island not generally known by ordinary British men and women. Life was good! An Indian Blavatsky (in his head alone; no one else made the connection) by his side, articles on tropical butterfly and moth life in Entomology Journals, Charles Tanner saw himself as a New Man, modern, very much in the eye of the zeitgeist storm. And the Blavatsky of his making (the names Blavatsky and Sybil were soon dropped by Charles and replaced with the more modest ‘Deborah’), ignorant of her Russian precedent, assumed her role as she had assumed her previous role as Banyan Woman: charmingly, and without question. She gave counsel with silence and eye-gazing, successful techniques for Charles who was less interested in being helped than in believing he had, after fifteen years on the island, adapted to its eccentricities. Thus, it proceeded, until the end, Charles’s bones given to the land he could not, for whatever reason, bring himself to leave. Stirring, yes, some of those bones behind the house are his, stirring without the old woman’s knowledge. But—those are ancient stories, too ancient some may say, for a rich tangerine morning when every creature that should have awakened, had awakened, and the air smelled of fresh, new life. The old woman, finished with her gazing, turned around and coughing between sighs, moseyed back into the house, yearning for sleep, too tired, unlike the rest of the awakened world, to remain with eyes open. – The jungle is cool, dark, noisy with insects hiding in leaves and branches, inside cracks in the soil from which plants sprout, tall, short, wide, decaying, ferns, spikes, thorns, spores, vines, twisting, erect, curling, so close they kiss, so close the taller plants provide shelter for the shorter ones. ‘Tuan.’ ‘Sssshhhh!’ Abu lowers the rifle in his hands, shakes his head at the dimly lit lamp at his feet and taps the armrest of the chair. Pushpanayagi watches him from the corner of her eye, then turns towards him and lifts her eyebrows. He shakes his head again, rolls his eyes, and points at Charles in the chair. ‘Tuan’. Charles jerks back and sighs. ‘What the devil do you want?’ Abu rushes forward, parks himself by the edge of the chair. He hugs the rifle to his chest. ‘Tiger not come, Tuan. Now much dark, Tuan. Mem need for food.’ Charles glares at the rifle in Abu’s arms. His gaze slowly travels up to his servant’s neck, chin, nose, finally the eyes. ‘We’re doing this for her, can’t you see?’ He rests his own rifle on the armrests of his chair; it lies over his lap like a bar keeping him in his seat. ‘Kitty is perfectly capable of babysitting for one measly evening. I would think so! For God’s sakes, man, we’re saving the bloody island!’ Abu hangs his head and steps back. ‘Yes, Tuan.’ Charles lifts the rifle and points ahead. ‘When the beast comes, we simply aim and shoot. Now please be quiet. To conquer the beast, one has to trick the beast. It mustn’t know we’re here.’ Pushpanayagi tiptoes to the chair next to Charles and sits down. It squeaks. She clenches its armrests and whispers, ‘Sorry, sorry.’ ‘Not to worry, Deborah. Somehow I don’t think the tiger would mind you. In fact…if you could do whatever it was you did when that blasted baboon stole mangoes from the tree, that would be splendid.’ He lowers the rifle. ‘What did you do, exactly?’ Pushpa flips her single plait over her shoulders and looks to the ground. The earth is damp, littered with leaves and pebbles, twigs, a few crawling insects. She breathes in deeply. The air is stagnant, filled with the smells of soil and wet bark; woody, a little blood-like. ‘I told it to go. That’s all.’ ‘Just like that. Well, do ask the tiger to come. We can’t have it killing all our women. What a beast! To know exactly what it wants. Quite a will.’ He raises the rifle and aims at the darkness. ‘You don’t have to kill, Charles. If it’s eating people, it’s already old— ‘Nonsense! What sort of a human being allows a beast to take what isn’t its right to take? And with no fight? Never will I live such a life! It is the life of a worm.’ Abu taps the armrest of Charles’s chair. ‘Tuan, Tuan,’ he whispers, ‘tiger come.’ Abu directs their gaze with his rifle. A slow squelching of leaves blends in with the insects’ song. Down below, the frayed tip of a tail flashes behind a Meranti tree and disappears. Charles angles his rifle at the space between the Meranti tree and a slender palm. The animal darts out from behind the tree. Charles fires his weapon. He reloads and fires again. The tiger staggers drunkenly and drops to the ground. He reloads and fires, again, and again, five, six, seven, eight shots. He charges up from his seat and bolts down the slope towards the beast. Abu trails close behind, rifle tightly clutched in one hand, lamp in the other. Pushpanayagi watches them, hand over mouth, and scrambles after them.  Charles looms over the dead animal, Pushpanayagi inching closer. A single long fang peeks out of the animal’s slightly parted mouth, its eyes frozen in death. Blood blooms from a wound on its chest. Charles reloads the rifle, aims at the tiger’s neck and shoots. The shot echoes thunderously through the jungle. He reloads again, points the weapon at the animal’s stomach, and fires again. Abu chucks his rifle on the ground and creeps in the direction of the tiger. Charles lifts the rifle high and in one quick sweep, swings the weapon down and thrusts it into the tiger’s chest. He pierces the animal’s flesh with the stock of the rifle, pounds and hammers and pulps the beast over and over and over again.  ‘Stop, Tuan! Stop! Tiger die already.’ Charles stabs the tiger’s head, stabs it so hard its skull cracks. He releases the rifle and falls to his knees. Abu scurries forward. ‘Tuan. Tuan. What happen, Tuan?’ Charles buries his face in his palms. Clumps of flesh litter the ground. Streaks of muscle and tissue lie between and over bones. Only the paws and the tail remain whole. Pushpanayagi turns away from the carcass, from Charles and Abu. She covers her mouth with her hands and begins to convulse. She leans against the closest tree, vomits, and massages her belly, and vomits again. The insects stop singing. A grave quiet fills the jungle. Charles rises, his face catatonic, frozen like the eyes of the tiger he has just killed. ‘Well, I…’he mutters. He glances at Abu, then at Pushpanayagi. A look of horror falls over his face. It slowly turns into a vacant glare, then the hollowness departs and gradually, something soft infuses his eyes, cheeks, lips. Pushpanayagi recognises the softness. She has seen it many times on many faces, and on her own, when in rare moments, she looks into a mirror and sees the fear bubble beneath a sheen of shame.
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Poems in Magazines

Beetles

Let us lag behind the stolen beetles,captives of the sun, garrulous greendots, half complete in the bushbut luminous, spendthrift lightvulnerable to the night antsand our spent crawlthat stirs what is spewed from will,caustic soda,balls of interest, lit likethe beetles in my palms. They start to stingwhen your voice endson the skin of fruitat the temples of this bush. We sit to contemplatethe hour, creatures of frostand light, iron insects re-enteringbodies, and then our anatomy, redrawn. This piece was featured on anderbo.com
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Short Stories in Magazines

The Bat Whisperer

I own the best stocked supermarket on Coal Island. It belonged to my father who handed it down to me when he died. He was an angry man because he had no sons and was stuck with a single daughter. But, in his own way, I think he loved me. He used to scold my mother often. “Ramona, you good for nothing woman! Only a woman like you can’t bear boys!” he’d say and she’d stay silent while looking at her toes. No wonder she died years before he did. Who wants to be reminded that they’re worthless by their own husband? It was my mother who inspired me to remain a spinster. What if I had inherited her cold womb? Boys never liked me, anyway. They used to sing, “Fatty, Fatty, Fatihah, looking for food, pig smells good.” At the age of ten I weighed fifty kilograms. Now, I’m sixty years old and touching ninety. My fat keeps me warm and calm. What I look like doesn’t matter anymore since I’m a supermarket matriarch and am entering old age. Not once have I regretted taking on the shop. It’s the most revealing place on the island. A large woman with soft, moist, safe eyes behind a supermarket counter is the best target for sad, lonely or guilty people out to buy a tin of tuna and a bottle of Coke. At times, from my corner in the shop, I can detect those who have come in for practical purposes and those who place a packet of Maggi Mee on the counter and want to tell me about how they had poisoned the neighbour’s cat or fought with their husband. I just have to say, “How are you?” and they begin. I listen but give no advice. I don’t want that kind of responsibility. But somehow, that’s enough for them. My presence is all they need. I learnt my lesson when Roseleana Khamis came in one day, supposedly for a box of Fab washing powder. After paying, she lingered by the counter for a while before saying, “Fatihah, I don’t know what to do, lah. I can’t stand working at the Club anymore. The people there…Ya Allah! I think I should leave. What you think?” I had heard many things about the Coal Island Club and I pitied her so I said, “Then leave, lah. Nobody stopping you what.” She quit her job and I hear the family can’t even afford to pay the electricity bill because she decided to go back to school. They live by candlelight. If I had said, “Keep the job. Think of your family,” at least little Rahman wouldn’t be wearing pyjamas to social functions. But it’s not always easy to say nothing. It really depends on what story’s being told. For instance, when Mrs. Teng comes in I know that what she has to say is not about her and so it’s fine for me to comment. She only talks about others and I’m not sure whether she speaks the truth. I will admit, though, that she’s a talented gossip and I’m always a bit excited when she drops by. Sometimes, of course, what she says can be upsetting but even more than that is how she does it. When she told me about Chan Hui Yong’s bastard pregnancy with a dirty smile on her face, I wondered how someone could be so happy about a lovely girl’s bad luck. But Mrs. Teng has been a source of some of the most intriguing pieces of news. Not long ago she claimed that Tan Pong Pong had announced three remarkable things. Firstly, that he was gay. Secondly, that he was Hindu. Thirdly, that he was a bat whisperer. “A what?” I asked Mrs. Teng who was laughing like a tickled child. “This man,” she said, “always so weird. That one we know. But who knew how weird, lah, Fatihah? You know, he’s been sitting in that temple for months with poor old Devaki Menon. People were saying they were making love in front of the gods. I think so he got fed up. Then he told Meenachi Muthu he liked men and was a Hindu so she should stop telling lies about him and Devaki Menon and stop asking him why he was going to the temple. Then suddenly he said that if anyone got bat problem to call him. He said that he found a way to talk to bats so if people got a bat in their roof or whatever, he can go ask them to leave. This kind of talent people call whispering. My daughter said, like the movie ‘The Horse Whisperer.'” At first I thought, people will do anything for a few extra ringgit. But Mrs. Teng said that Pong Pong wasn’t asking for money in return for his work. I found myself wishing for bats inside my roof. The shop was quiet for a few days. Only one or two minor incidents happened like Vani Muthu referring to Mrs. Mano as a bitch but refusing to say why and Pak Cik Khamis slipping a tin of corn into a torn plastic bag. When the tin fell out, I pretended not to notice but unfortunately, just at that moment, Mrs. Teng walked in and reported Pak Cik Khamis to me. I simply said, “I told Pak Cik to take it, lah.” I still felt guilty for his daughter’s return to school at the age of forty. Mrs. Teng had not much more news to broadcast or any updates on the bat whisperer. Whenever the island has no gossip to offer, you have to be careful if you happen to see Mrs. Teng. The woman has a way of asking questions to get the answers she needs so that her gossip tank will be refilled. In the days before the bat whisperer was heard of again, she came into my shop every morning. She would smile sweetly, scan the row of biscuits and chocolates, glide her hand across the wrappers, pick up a packet as though she really needed more Julie’s Sandwich Cream Wafers and stand in front of my counter, still smiling, waiting to spill her curiosity all over me. “So Fatihah,” she said recently, “not bored, ah? Everyday also sit here and wait for customers. You should get a hobby. Collect stamps or something, lah. Actually, if you get a pet is better. Now I think of it ah, you also alone at home. Wah, how you do it?” I had never doubted that living and working alone was my fate. I didn’t want a pet cat to change that. Besides, I had seen how lonely people became so attached to their kept animals that they would slowly forget to love human beings. “No lah, Mrs. Teng,” I replied, “I’m quite happy where I am. But thanks for asking.” The smile grew an inch shorter. “I see,” she quickly said. “How come you never marry, ah?” It didn’t take much for Mrs. Teng to rip the layers of social politeness that we take pains to maintain. For her, they were just pieces of unimportant decoration. I knew the game she was playing and so I answered, carefully, “I never wanted to get married. That’s three ringgit and twenty cents for the cream wafers.” By that point, the smile had vanished altogether and she handed the money over with a cold hand. I thought I wouldn’t see her until another round of Coal Island headlines needed to be told but she came back the next morning with the usual smile on her face and the same fingering of the biscuit and chocolate section. “Eh, Fatihah,” she said as she handed me a packet of Kandos chocolate for kids, “you’re one sneaky woman! You never tell me you had a boyfriend long time ago! Ya, I bumped into Mrs. Kumaran. She about your age what. Said she remember the time when you were hopping and skipping with one young Malay man. What happen to him, ah?” So, I thought, she went digging. I hoped that Pong Pong would fly in, flap his wings and say that he had turned into a bat. I was in no mood to start talking about my youth and even if I was, Mrs. Teng was not the person I wanted to say anything to. “Oh, that was my cousin,” I said and made an excuse to visit the storeroom. There was no need to lie, of course. I had been in love once. His name was Faiz and he broke off our engagement before leaving the island and jumping off the Penang Bridge. But that was forty-two years ago and it belonged to a different life. I had no pain left for an early heartbreak and a lover’s suicide. Still, I did not want to discuss my spinsterhood with a woman who absorbed sensation even when she was asleep. Thankfully, the first case of bats inside a roof arrived the next day. Mrs. Kumaran claimed that she had been awoken by screeches and loud scratching noises as if somebody was making a drawing with their fingernails on her ceiling. Pong Pong was immediately notified. A few people gathered at Mrs. Kumaran’s house that afternoon, including myself because I couldn’t bear the thought of not seeing the only known instance of human-animal communication on the island. The bat whisperer entered the premises dressed in a black cape and Japanese slippers. People started laughing, saying, “Looks like we got our own Batman on Coal Island.” But Pong Pong was serious. He didn’t smile or greet anybody and looked at the ceiling as though he could see what was going on inside it. Then he brought out a fluorescent orange whistle (I think he got it from the Beach Shop) and blew it. Phreeeeet. He lifted his arms like a hawk about to catch a rat and brought them down again. Phreeeeet. He chanted, “Olaoh. Olaoh. Olaoh.” Phreeeeet. He closed his eyes and when he opened them he said, “They say they no want leave. They like it here. They have house and they feel warm.” Mrs. Kumaran jumped off her seat. “Listen to me,” she shouted, ‘you tell them that the house is mine! My husband didn’t build it for bloody bats! Ask them to go to someone else’s roof to feel warm and cosy! Cuddle up and shit and mate and do whatever it is they do inside another roof!” The bat whisperer nodded. “OK, Mrs. Kumaran,” he said, “I go tell them.” Phreeeeet. Olaoh. Olaoh. Olaoh. Phreeeeet. He closed and opened his eyes. “They ask if you got recommend another place. They no want make mistake again like last time,” he said. The house went silent. People wondered if Mrs. Kumaran would be heartless enough to move a family of bats into someone’s home. She looked around the room and smiled. “Well,” she said calmly, “I’m happy that they’re willing to compromise. I think I know just the place they’ll like. Tell them they’ll have a nice five star hotel.” She paused and we waited. “OK, Mrs. Kumaran,” said the bat whisperer, “they ready.” She called Pong Pong to her and revealed the new location in a whisper that none of us could hear. Phreeeeet. Olaoh. Olaoh. Olaoh. Phreeeeet. “They say,” Pong Pong announced, “they go look see tonight.” We demanded to know which house had been selected for the bats but both Mrs. Kumaran and the bat whisperer refused to tell us. We would have to find out ourselves. I returned to the shop, amazed that Pong Pong could talk to bats and I wanted to know whether he could communicate with other animals too but before I could conduct my research, Mrs. Teng came in, puffing on her asthma pump. “What miracle, hah, Fatihah? You think so Pong Pong lying or he for real?” she said, wheezing and coughing in between her words.”Looks real to me,” I said. “The way he chanted and all that. We’ll see, lah. If Pong Pong is called to a house tonight then we know.” Bats have lived on the island probably since it was created. They flap about at twilight, often flying as low as swallows, and hang from trees but sometimes they choose to live in houses. In the past, there had been a couple of cases of bats inside roofs and the pest control people were called. The bats were killed and it wasn’t pleasant to have their spirits haunting homes. At least now we had a person who could talk to them and deal with the situation kindly. “So, Fatihah,” Mrs. Teng continued, “to change the subject. You really know how to hide thing, ah. Hai. Hai. Hai. Why want to keep secret like this, lah? That boy wasn’t your cousin, isn’t it? Before everybody came to Mrs. Kumaran’s house, I went early to see her. She say he was engaged to you. Then he break your heart and go kill himself. Wah! Fatihah, so sorry all this had to happen. You still think about it?” I couldn’t believe she had not let my life go. The phone rang at that moment and even though it was just the bread delivery man arranging for an earlier time to bring his load in the next day, I kept him on the line for a full twenty minutes, going through with him the quantity and type of every bread and bun that I stocked in my shop. Mrs. Teng lost her patience and attention, especially when she spotted Pong Pong outside fluttering his cape with his hands, like a bat in flight. She ran after him. I admired her energy and dedication in making sure that the island’s stories were never neglected and, most of all, that they were kept alive through spreading. I didn’t have much to hide. She did already know about my only relationship with a boy who, when we were together, said he liked my fat. It took me years to accept that Faiz had decided to stop living and I was touched that the final lines of his suicide note read: “Fatihah, I’m sorry we never got to have a family. I’m doing this not because I want to make you unhappy but because I know I never can.” It’s morbid, I know, but I was glad to be remembered during his last moments on earth. After my broken engagement and Faiz’s suicide, life became quiet. I worked for Abah in the shop. Ibu passed away a few years later and I was sad for a year but I was getting good at recovering what was habitual and carried on, with Abah, in making the shop the best on the island. Slowly, without my realization, the days became years and I was a petless, spouseless middle-aged woman who was skilled at business and lived above her shop where she went only to sleep. I remember thinking, on a rare day when I dreamed about the past and tried to glue it to the present, that I probably had the quietest life anybody could have. Nothing ever happened to me. The chaos was in the shop, in the conversations and confessions of other people. I was proud that I had no conflicts. The morning after the bat whispering, a small crowd arrived at Mrs. Kumaran’s house. I locked up the shop and joined them. I wanted to know if the bats had moved and if there was going to be a fight. I imagined the new bat host saying to Mrs. Kumaran, “You sick bitch! How dare you?” The bats, it turned out, had left but no one was accusing Mrs. Kumaran. “Eh, eh,” people said, “then where they go? Must ask Pong Pong.” The bat whisperer was summoned. He came with a cryptic face and only said, “Bat give me message they going where they is needed.” No one was satisfied with his answer and we demanded an exact location. He said he didn’t know. The crowd dispersed unhappily but a new respect had formed for Pong Pong. “So he really got special gift,” people said, “even though he gay.” For days no one knew where the bats had gone. Soon, everyone started talking about other things such as Mrs. Mano’s latest vision in which the Virgin Mary had appeared to tell her about the Our Lady cake which, if baked with a pure heart, could cure all illnesses. My shop swarmed with people who came in to buy flour, eggs, butter, milk, cinnamon, raisins and chickpeas. “Chickpeas?” I asked. “Ya,” replied one customer, “that one is the secret ingredient. This cake going to go cure cancer.” I let them believe what they wanted to. After all, I was taking in quite a bit of money and people needed faith. While the island was busy making their godly goodies, I heard it. It was a dull, quiet scratching noise coming from the roof. I went upstairs and listened. So, the bats had chosen me. It’s hard for me to identify the feeling I had when I realized that living above me, like little hovering guardians, was a group of winged animals that were breathing at the same time that I was when I was asleep. The years I had spent disbelieving in pets suddenly became void. There was life in my home even when I wasn’t there. I didn’t tell anyone that the bats had moved into my roof. If they knew, Pong Pong would be called and I wouldn’t have them anymore. For the first time, in twenty years, I sat on my bed, not to sleep, but to exist in my apartment. I looked up to the ceiling and said softly, “Welcome. You know, you’re the only ones I’ve allowed in here. I think we can be friends. Finally, something new has come.” They scratched the roof in reply. I started closing the shop early to sit upstairs and talk to them. I wanted to tell them everything but I realized that I had very few tales. So I repeated the early stories of when Faiz and I were together, how he broke my heart and killed himself. But after a while, even the bats were getting bored of my voice. They stopped scratching the roof and I feared that I was losing them. When they became completely silent, I panicked. Then something clear came into my head. I said to myself, “You gone mad or what? You think the bats care? How did you end up being alone and talking to bats about nothing? You call this a life?” Pong Pong came the next day and my roof returned to being empty. Mrs. Teng was the first one to ask me. “Oh, Fatihah,” she said, “hiding again, ah? How come you never tell us about it?” “Because,” I replied, “there’s nothing to tell.” For once, she was silent. This piece was featured in “Cha: An Asian Literary Journal”, click here.
Shivani on
Poems in Magazines

Bees

Bees froth above the surface,their ancient porridge in-made, asign they are to crack out ofstripes, pearl shut-ins, the mono-diurnal churn and flit. Two bees, or are there ten?You count, re-name,every kiss is a doubt of bees,rabid roadside dogs they are,angular in the sunlight frommy womb,phosphorous, decent lightfor their curdle, albumen,epileptical knowledge- when doceilings drip confessional bees,perhaps dying, perhaps soldiers? These days. To look up is toponder the spectrum ofbloat and ash, swoop andsoar, lumps of their zeal,and forever now, we shan’treturn home where themetal kettle waitsto mimic a typhoon, the standfan the kettle’s accomplice,no more while above usbirth licks the encasement of insects. All long night they threaten tostop. We slip into touch, betweenthe imperfect harmonies scatteredin our air,we meet them, the bearersof voyaging milk, piqued. This piece was featured in “Cha: An Asian Literary Journal”, click here.
Shivani on
Short Stories in Magazines

Catching Iguanas

What people didn’t understand about me was that I returned only because I had no choice. They saluted me for coming back to the island, when my thoughts were with my local pub and Gemma and our half-heated flat on Parkview Avenue. It’s been five months since my visa expired. In the first few weeks, I sat in bed, turning the pages of my passport, touching the entry stamps, imagining the smell of icicles and of clothes drying on radiator tops. Slowly Gemma’s hand would enter the picture, a slim white hand adorned with beaded bracelets and sapphire bangles, moving to collect papers or to soak a teabag in a painted mug of boiling water. After the hand came the shoulders, skeletal and freckled, looking as though they would snap if they weren’t touched. Then her whole form would appear in front of me, like a sculpture. The hands, once flitting from papers to mugs to incense burners, stiffened. The eyes, green globes of stone, implied apology. She did not speak. More recently, she has disappeared altogether. Even her photographs no longer bring back her hologram. And she has stopped writing. Over three years ago, Coal Island turned monochrome, every wall and tree, a variation of the colour brown. I moved between one friend, a set of parents and a sister who had just been diagnosed with manic depression and was therefore more important than I was. One evening when we were drinking Jumbo Juice at a mamak stall, I said to my friend Kumar—who was also backhandedly dismissed in his household, in his case, for being a writer—”You ever think it’d be nice to leave this place?” “Leave?” he replied, looking shocked. “Never, man. This island is bursting with stories.” “That’s good for a writer, but what am I to do with stories? Damn it, lah. My life is one of those stories. You know what it’s like to live with a mother who keeps telling her daughter ‘Come on, lah, Mary darling, Mummy’s own special child, just eat one spoonful. Then you can go back to bed. Mummy promise, OK?’ And you know what that’s for? Just to make her eat four spoonfuls of porridge. Then she’ll talk all night. On and on she goes. Suddenly, she’ll stop and my mother cries in the toilet. She thinks I can’t hear her? And my father is patting Mary on the head, saying, ‘It’s OK, molé, just one word. I know you can do it.’ Go on. Take my life and write your story. But I tell you what, there’s no way I’m staying here much longer. And you want to know something else? When I leave, my parents will feel better because then they can really live together, just the three of them.” “So what’s the plan?” “I’ve applied for a scholarship. England, Kumar, England. When I get there, I’m never coming back.” “Take care, Kevin. No one should try to forget that much. You’ll come back for visits.” “No way. Once I’m gone, I’m gone.” It took the family nineteen years to realize that Mary was not just volatile. All the while, Mary’s tantrums were simply Mary’s tantrums. Once, she stared at a garden-plucked leaf for days, saying nothing to us and then announced, “I’m going to become a biologist. It’s the only profession that’s worth anything. That should be the only job in the world. And I’m going to have it.” My father said, “It’s so wonderful to see that you have ambition, molé.” My mother said, “Aiyah, no need to be so…so…extreme, lah. Give it a few years. You might like something else.” “No! Bloody no! Don’t you dare tell me what I will do in the future!” Mary shouted, running upstairs, landing a foot on every stair as though she were pushing a brick into an impossible hole. It was a relief when she began collecting dead grasshoppers in silence. It went on like that—Mary professing an absolute opinion and then reverting to her dimension of wordless thought—until, one day, she found a way to multiply her absolutes and take them in, all at once. “Listen to me!” she said, her voice bleeding with a rusty quality. “You have to see it all! All, OK? The morning glories! The squirrel! The storm! The spirits! God! God! God! He is everywhere! I have found the Lord! The Lord is not in the church. The Lord is here in this petal. Look. Take it.” “That’s nice,” my mother replied, taking the purple petal from Mary and dropping it so that it floated like a temporary cradle before landing on the floor. “Pastor John will be glad to hear you’ve found the Lord but remember, the Lord is in the church, too. Mary, now you must be honest with me. Who is this boy?” “Oh, and the sun talked to me today,” Mary continued as though my mother hadn’t spoken. “It told me that there is only happiness to be found here. Isn’t that wonderful? Just wonderful! And last night the moon said to me, ‘Even in darkness there is light.’ I am so blessed! Isn’t the world just the greatest place in the world?” Then my father said, “Mary, why didn’t you answer your mother’s question? Who is the boy?” His eyes were gaunt and night-like. But Mary went on, “The fresh leaves! The soil! The worms! The nests! Orange clouds! Rain! Pineapple! Cobras! Mudswampsfishaloeverawindandstorms!” For two days, Mary sought the world. She went digging in the garden and collected a colony of earthworms which she left out on the front porch. She took the tudung saji from the kitchen and covered her worms with it—an original worm-tent. Then she plucked morning glories, hibiscuses, frangipanis and anthuriums and scattered them in the worm-tent. She jumbled them up, a distinct chop suey. Soon spiders, praying mantises, grasshoppers and dragonflies featured in the fusion. She didn’t sleep or eat. She sat by the complex tent, refusing our presence. I wanted to peer into that world she had created, but she was its constant guard. All I could see, through the gaps of the tudung saji, were colours. Brash, lonely colours. “You see,” she finally said, “a voice did come to me. It told me that I have been chosen to rule the planet. What to do? I can’t ignore it.” She lifted the tudung saji. Joyous flies had joined her world. “Now, here you see the big mix,” she carried on. “This big mix is a metaphor for the planet. So I was doing all the work, not knowing that I was actually preparing for my vocation. With my new job, I’ll have to have lots of meetings with the public. Daddy, can you arrange this for me?” My parents secretly drove her to Dr. Poh, the only psychiatrist on the island. They took a convoluted route to “Bright Future Clinic” because in a place like Coal Island, knowledge of mental affliction is seen as more damning than, say, adultery or incest. You’d get more sympathy if you had broken a leg than if you were to admit that your life had been spent trying to ward off an unrecognized illness. They brought her home that day, saying nothing. My mother made herself a tumbler of Ovaltine and played with her rosary while she stared at the only papaya tree in the garden. My father, having put Mary to bed with a handful of pills, was in the bathroom for hours. Left alone, I sat in my room with a few tins of beer that I had found in the fridge. Each time I looked into my drink and saw the bubbles lift from the base of my glass to gather and dissolve at the surface, I thought I understood why bubbles did that. A glittering string, not unlike golden thread, brought me closer towards the bubbles, the holy charms of Carlsberg, where, in that unity, I also understood that Mary and her diseased moods would now sit on the roof of this house and call out to us, asking for relief, for an ear, for our bodies to lie prostrate in devotion. Mary’s illness became the third child and although I was the second child, I was promoted to first rank. Up there, you become a Hercules. The giant is fit to leave home whenever he chooses, is capable of exhuming any kind of resource presented to him and can survive with just his shadow for company. Mary would remain tucked in bed with stacks of pills and her parents’ four-dimensional vision that often translated into brutal love. I don’t mean brutal in the conventional sense of the word. Basically, they could not give her up. The rice cooker became a perpetual place for porridge, a calming food for the mind. The papayas on the tree were never given a chance to fall from maturity. “Eat this,” my mother would say, holding a spoonful of mashed papaya near Mary’s mouth, “it will soothe you.” Usually, Mary declined. My father found a new function for his credit card. He fitted a bookshelf in the storeroom and soon, it was filled with books on bipolarity which he repeatedly read and quoted from. Mary’s place was with her blanket and the hovering spoon. I don’t think she was even allowed to pour a glass of water and drink it. Slowly, the glimmering string—the one not unlike golden thread—started playing with my new role as the first child, the giant. It knotted itself around me, garnering a lover’s warmth when I sat in bed with the bubbles that flattened by the hour, flattening as they did so, my supposed bigness. I was one of those rubber dolls at parades, plump and oily during the show, flying and waving up on the float for a day or two, before the demise begins. The contents, made only of air, cheap, accessible air, seeps away too effortlessly for the way it entered in the first place. The bubbles and the glimmering string were inevitable friends whenever the weeping from my parents’ room became too audible for my liking or when Mary talked on a loop. “The radio is a beast,” she once said for two hours. My parents were at the market, buying mood-stabilizing foods. “What radio?” I asked after the first twenty minutes. But I never got to find out which radio she was referring to or why it was a beast. She seemed to be getting worse and I was beginning to detest her, or more specifically, her vague illness. It manifested itself in such diverse ways that I was never able to tell when it was Mary, the Person, talking. My parents returned from the market and placed a sleeping pill in Mary’s water. It was during those quiet moments, when Mary was asleep, that I saw their real faces, marked with lines, even little bubbles, popping up at all corners, anxious to be seen. They often looked beyond me, never directly into my eyes where I wanted them to meet me, because if they had seen what my eyes were made of, they would have discovered only half a son, something no parent wants to encounter. Two years later, Mary was practically bed-bound. They refused to let her exert herself in any way and my mother still fed her porridge in the afternoons and nights, pulped papaya in the evenings. I tried telling them that if they allowed her to do some things for herself, she would feel more alive, more herself. But my mother said, “This kind of thing, ah, Kevin, you better leave to the adults.” And so I did. When I received the letter saying that I had won the scholarship to study History at the University of Manchester, I told my parents that I would be leaving them in a few months. My mother, who was sitting with her rosary in front of the papaya tree, said, “That’s good, boy. You sure you’re ready? Daddy and I will miss you very much.” My father nodded and looked away. “I’m too ready. I can finally go be myself.” “What do you mean, boy?” my father asked, his face still turned away from mine. He removed a handkerchief and dabbed what turned out to be a few straying tears. I had not realized. “Nothing. Just that there comes a time when a boy needs to go see the world.” My father turned to look at me. The tears were gone. “Yes. You’re old enough and you don’t need to spend your whole life with parents who have no choice but to give you…we…I…really…very…” “We can all be freer now. Just a bit.” Nobody replied. I left three months later and arrived in Manchester on a sunless morning, underdressed. The streets were wet and the sky seemed to have a grand stock of water for the next hundred days. I spent my first ten pounds on an extravagant taxi ride from the airport to my flat. The buses were for people who hadn’t struggled to get there. The taxi driver said to me, “Where ya from, mate? Someplace in Asia I reckon. But I can’t quite put my finger on it.” He was white-haired, unshaven and had a complex map of wrinkles on his face. He made me feel as though when he looked at me he could tell exactly what I was running away from and would use that knowledge to amuse himself when he was waiting for customers. “Coal Island, I mean, Malaysia.” “Malaysia! Gorgeous place, gorgeous place. That’s next to Vietnam, isn’t it?” “No, sir. It’s above Singapore.” “Oh yeah, I must have been thinking of some other place. Thailand, it was, yeah, I was thinking about Thailand. Still, I bet it’s gorgeous out there. What you doing here, mate? Come to soak up our sun? Heh. Heh.” “No, sir. I’ve come to study.” “Well, good luck to ya. And try not to get too depressed. Manchester has that habit, you know?” “No, sir, I won’t.” The flat was small, cold and overcrowded. There were two bedrooms and three of us, which meant that I had to sleep on the futon in the front room where people passed when they needed to use the toilet. My flatmates were English boys who ate out of tins and imagined that we had a special fairy-lady who would one day come to clean the place. “Don’t worry, Kev,” Jon told me when I asked if we should prepare a cleaning rota. “A lady’s gonna come sort us out with this shit. You’ll see.” She never did come. Jon and David were English Literature students at the university, but I rarely saw them leaving for class or talking about work and so I concluded that they were either idiots or geniuses. Whatever the reality, they made no effort to explain themselves and I spent less time at home, not really wanting to communicate with them or to witness the rapid build-up of their filth around me. To sleep at night and to forget about the sweat-tipped socks, the half-full pizza boxes, the scattered tins of baked beans, the randomly strewn boxer shorts, I sat in a pub down the road and drank four pints of Stella Artois which always prepared me for my dreams on the futon. Waking up was a different matter. Sobriety jerked me out of bed and I brushed my teeth twice, ignoring the temptation to touch the opened box of Rice Krispies in the kitchen which, if in Malaysia, would have already housed a cockroach or two and a lizard. Breakfast was consumed at my department cafeteria. I ate fried bread, bacon butties, chip butties, crisp sandwiches, anything that would suck the acidity out of my stomach. At university, I walked on the stony pavements with a rucksack on my back, filled with clothes, a few books, packed sandwiches from the cafeteria, my passport and my toothbrush. I didn’t trust that I would automatically return to the flat every night, even though I had nowhere else to go. I did try to make friends with my course-mates but our conversations were limited. One of the first people I talked to was a boy named Jim who came from the south of England. “Hello,” I said, “I’m Kevin from Malaysia.” “Kevin? That’s not a very Asian name, is it?” “It can be. We have Jims there, too.” “You don’t say,” he replied and returned to his book. I didn’t understand the abruptness of their sentences, or the way they called me mate when they had no plans of inviting me out for a pint. And apparently there was something in the way I spoke that made them feel too close to what they really weren’t close to. Once I nearly made a friend. Greg, a course-mate, said to me while we were waiting for Professor McAdams to arrive, “You’re pretty quiet at tutorials. Do you have a problem understanding?” I didn’t think my presence had been analyzed at all. Somebody had taken the time to watch me and conclude something. “Oh, no. I can understand things. I’m just not comfortable talking when I don’t know much.” “That’s not the point though. Everybody’s got to have an opinion, mate.” “What if you don’t?” “Then something’s wrong.” “Wow. I didn’t know that.” “Yeah. Listen, mate, a bunch of us are…” His eyes shifted to a group of boys and girls who were standing by the water cooler, arguing, it seemed, about Hitler. He watched them for a while and then said, “If Germany had won, how would that have impacted Asia?” I thought about it. I didn’t know much about the Second World War. I tried to think of a deceptively informed answer but I couldn’t. “Right then, mate,” Greg continued.”That’s OK.” “What were the bunch of you going to do?” “Oh, it’s nothing. Really, mate, no worries.” “You can come to my flat if you like. I’ll cook.” “Seriously, mate, no worries.” Greg joined the water cooler group and, after that, we communicated through smiles. I started reading up on European history and recreated various battles in my head, imagining that I was Nero or Henry VIII or Napoleon. The more I read, the more I remembered the giant I had been. Every day I would buy a different chocolate bar and write home about it. “Dear Mummy and Daddy,” I wrote in one e-mail. “It’s a shame that you don’t have Aero chocolate in Malaysia. They put bubbles in it. Blimey. One of the benefits I suppose of living in England.” When I discovered Bounty, I wrote, “Dear Mummy and Daddy, Here’s an irony for you. We grow the coconuts but the English have perfected the best coconut chocolate in the world. Wish you could try Bounty. Truly wicked.” I wanted them to know that I was here, surviving, thriving, involved in every domestic speck of existence in a land of castles, swords, efficient trains and good chocolate. Despite that, I knew that to really flourish, I would have to at least attend a party, tell a successful joke, go to the shops with someone, even—if I could flourish that much—wake up next to a white body. But Jon and David, the only real English people who spoke to me (if only to find out whether the milk had gone sour or if I had a spare razor), were too self-contained to welcome me into their world of processed food and exhibitionist masturbation. Besides, we had known each other for almost a year and to throw my friendliness at them after so long would be like producing a delayed reaction to a piece of tragic news. I had lost my chance at university as well. I was the shy Asian boy who was able to impersonate rulers of the past in a creepy way, and I could not undo that impression. The local pub I frequented, The Horse and the Kettle, was often empty and even when there were people, they were men over the age of sixty. I ran out of chocolate bars to test and I moved on to Cornish pasties. But this strategy of thriving or flourishing or whatever it was that I was hoping to achieve through my supermarket experiments was depressing me. Then I gave up the tasting sessions and Gemma walked into The Horse and Kettle on a late Thursday night. She was small for an Englishwoman. She had the build of a Chinese girl, but she was pure white, like a jasmine flower or fresh milk (not the powdered kind). Her eyes were hard green but they produced a soft effect, making them out to be something like floor pillows. She sat next to me at the bar and ordered a glass of red wine, all the while, I imagined, aware of my presence. I could see her fingers tapping on the counter top and at the base of her glass while her eyes pretended to stay focused on the beer taps in front of her. But she was watching me with eyeballs that could sink to the lowest region of the eye and spy from there. I remember saying before I could stop myself, “Good evening, Madam. It’s a pleasant night.” The tapping stopped. Without looking at me, she replied to the soiled pub air, “Is it?” She twisted a few tendrils of her ginger hair and drank her half-full glass of wine in one apparent gulp. “Another?” I asked. “Sure, why not? I did come here to get plastered, after all.” When the next glass arrived, she finished it within a few minutes and I felt compelled to buy her another and another until her lips became blackened with the red of the wine and her mouth gave off an odour of rancid fruit. “What’s…who’re you?” she demanded while she rested her head on my shoulder. “Kevin. Madam, do you live close by?” “Some…where. Over there, you know. Close? I dunno. I’m Gemma. Maybe. I’ll be OK.” I took her back to my flat and put her to bed on the futon. I slept on the floor dressed in four jumpers, long johns and two pairs of trousers, but I still shivered and so I decided to stay up. I sat in the dark, thinking about Gemma, the only woman to have felt the rough fabric of my futon and who breathed like a child who’d had a long day of play. She was older—I guessed maybe fifteen years?—but she was more beautiful than any girl my age I’d known and not known. I was still thinking about her when she woke up and asked me if we had slept together. “Of course not, Madam.” “Oh, would you please stop with the Madam? I know Asians are into the whole respect thing but, frankly, it makes me feel old.” “Alright, Gemma. What would you like for breakfast? We have baked beans and tea. Out of bread, I’m afraid.” “Boys. They just can’t bear to live decently, can they? How about I take you out for breakfast as a thank you for not letting me sleep on a park bench like a regular tramp? And get me a glass of water, will you? My head’s killing me.” Gemma and I ended up spending the entire day together at the cafe, talking. “So, Malaysia, huh?” she said, her floor pillow eyes fixed on the sky. I couldn’t see what was so grabbing there. It wasn’t blue. It had no clouds. She must have been associating it with something else, something finer, more delicious. “Yes. Have you ever been?” “No. But someday…I have this vision of me with a backpack, trailing the hot streets of Thailand, Malaysia, India, buying sweets at stalls, drinking tea with men and women who don’t understand what I’m saying, but that would be the least of their concerns, you know?” “You can do that in Malaysia, on Coal Island. I’ll show you.” Her thighs were pink and shiny. She could endure the cold even when they were that bare. I let my hands fall on them, taking in her warmth. “Really? You would? You’re such a sweet boy.” “Of course I would. I can take you to the night markets and the villages and you can drink all the tea you like. We have pulled tea. They stretch out the tea. Up and down it goes.” “How marvellous. You’re really very handsome, you know. Like a Hindu god.” ‘I’m half Chinese.” ‘Even better.” When the cafe closed, we returned to the Horse and Kettle and drank as we had done the night before, but Gemma insisted on going home despite her condition. “What if you pass out?” I said, stroking her arm. She squeezed my upper thigh and then, in a dash, landed her hand on my crotch. “Well, my love, I simply can’t afford to faint along the way. My husband will be wondering what’s happened to me.” I couldn’t imagine Gemma being married to anybody. If she had to be someone’s wife, she’d be mine. Perhaps they were on their way to an amicable divorce. “You weren’t home last night. He didn’t call or care. Why’d he bother tonight?” “Oh, John’ll care, of course he will. Last night he was in Paris for a conference. Tonight he’s expecting me by his side.” “But…you mean, you’re happy with this man?” “He’s my childhood sweetheart, so yes. Been together twenty-five years.” “So you do this often then? Flirt with other men and then return to dependable John?” “Never done it in my life. Feeling the guilt now of course. I’m not sure what this is but my poor John. He’d…he’d…oh, I don’t know what he’d do if he knew what I was doing. But I dunno, there’s something about you. It’s like we’ve been together in a past life. I could’ve been Asian.” “You liked kissing me?” “Yes. Now I must go. I really must.” “Can we meet again? Please, Gemma. You’re my…I’ve never felt like this, like a man…who’s…who’s looked at by a woman.” “Oh, dear god. I don’t know what I’m doing. John’ll…John’ll…I don’t know what John’ll…I want to. I do, I do want to see you again.” “Then meet me here tomorrow night.” Her face looked like a flower that moves rapidly through the stages of transition from a mere bud to a fully realized thing of its own. I knew she wasn’t lying and yet the situation was impossible. “Yes. OK. But why don’t we just meet at your place? I’ll bring the wine.” After that, whenever John was out of the house, Gemma came to the flat. Usually, we sat on my futon and talked. She was a housewife who loved baking bread but hated other domestic activities. John didn’t mind. He laughed off her homemaking inadequacies and even when they found out that she had a hostile womb, he explained that it wasn’t her womb that he had married. Every time she mentioned him, I felt something cold and sharp spin around in my body, but there was nothing I could do to stop her from admiring her own husband. When she wasn’t talking about John, she mentioned her various ambitions: to travel and eat breads from around the world, to live in a warm climate, to write her own cookbook, to be free. It’s strange how I only discovered who John was two months into our affair. She talked about him at great length, but I never asked her any questions about him until one day I said, “So what is it that John does? You know, for a living.” “Oh, he’s a professor in History at Manchester Uni.” It was my fault, I suppose. We could have found out sooner if I hadn’t banned the subject of my studies from our conversations. “Please tell me it’s not John McAdams.” “That’s the one.” He was the gentlest, cleverest man I had ever met. In fact, his were the only classes I loyally attended and he had been the one to assert that I had the intelligence to write a concise History of the World. I wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but I accepted the compliment and went away delighted. “So poor John is your professor,” Gemma said, “and here I am playing nookie with one of his boys. How awful. But I can’t help it. I love you, Kevin. And I love John.” “You know you can’t have both. This whole thing isn’t healthy.” “Of course I know that. Look, now it’s become worse…worse than when I was just keeping a secret from John. It’s a larger secret. An infinite secret.” “And what now?” “I’m going home and running myself a bath. That’s where I do all my thinking.” I let her go, feeling desperate, contained, stunned. I wanted to write to my parents to tell them that my life had become a life. Instead I wrote to Kumar. Hey Kumar, You’re not going to believe this. I don’t know how it happened. The whole thing is crazy but…here it is: I’m involved with a married woman! I met her at my local pub and she’s twenty years my senior. She’s gorgeous. Pale skin, green eyes, red hair. Damn exotic. Now, you’ll never guess who her husband is. Wait for it…my history professor! This all seems like it belongs to a movie or a novel but believe it or not, it’s my life. What should I do? After two days, Kumar’s e-mail arrived: Kevin, I know you’re excited about this soap opera but we’re talking about actual lives here. Don’t do it. You’re ruining more than you think. But one week later Gemma announced that she was divorcing John. “We’ll get a place together,” she said. “I’ve some money and…if things get bad I can always go on the dole and get housing benefit. This is a new life for me, for us, two people from different countries, two different age groups, two different…different everything. This could be good, Kev. I just have a hunch about it. East and West. Me and You. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” We moved into a one-bedroom flat and when Professor McAdams found out who his wife had left him for, he stopped speaking to me. Surprisingly, my grades remained the same. Life with Gemma was a life I had never lived before. The flat became a place for everything that the outside world was too weak to give. There were the occasional weeping sessions for John and I pretended that those sobs and sniffles didn’t exist because every time they emerged, I became nothing at all. But, on the whole, we were happy. In my final year at uni, I said to Gemma, “Not long left till my visa expires. How’s this going to work?””You’ll get a job.” “And if I don’t?” “I don’t know then.” “Marry me.” “I can’t. I’m still legally married to John.” “Why is that taking so long?” “These things take time.” “When it goes through, will you marry me?” “Oh, please don’t make this hard. I don’t think it’s advisable to jump from one marriage to the next.” “You’re still in love with him, aren’t you?” “I’ll always love him. Twenty-five years. It’s not easy to just drop everything and move on. I didn’t leave him because I stopped loving him. I left because I fell in love with someone else.” “What am I to you?” “You’re my lover.” “Then marry me.” “It’s not that simple.” “It can be. Please, Gemma. What if I can’t stay? I’ll be in Malaysia and you’ll be here. How can I be your life if I’m miles away?” “I’m too old for you.” “You’ve never been too old for me. Why start now?” “Reality’s reality. John’s mature and secure, I mean, financially. Look at us. We’re struggling.” “But that’s love.” “I had love with John too and we didn’t suffer.” “Then go back to him. Why do you have to waste our lives if you’re planning to be stuck on him until you die?” “You need to grow up. When you’ve spent twenty-five years with someone, then you’ll know.” “I plan to do that with you.” “But I’ve already done that. Can’t you see? I’ve already experienced what you’re waiting to experience. Maybe this won’t work.” “But I love you.” “And I love you. You were born too late, my love. It’s sad. It’ll always be sad.” “What are you saying?” “I’ve been thinking. John says he forgives me and things are so uncertain with you and me. You might not even be in this country for much longer and I need a life, a real one, Kev Kevs. We’ve been good together but…” “I get it. You’re going back to your husband. You’re leaving me. You don’t care. You don’t give a damn what happens to me. I could rot on Coal Island for all you care.” “It sounds like a lovely place. Why do you hate it so much?” “People pretend to care and families are corrupt there. I’ll go back to parents who can only think about their mad daughter. They’ve rarely mentioned her in the three years I’ve been here and I’ve never asked. I can only imagine. She’s gone madder. The last thing my parents said about her was that she’s been wanting to murder the iguanas in the drain. How can I go back to that? Tell me.” “Maybe she has good reason to murder iguanas. Has anybody ever asked her why? Anyway, you’ll start your own life apart from your family. You’re a big boy now. You’ll find a girl your own age and get married like John and I did.” “Please, Gemma.” “Kev Kevs, don’t make this hard. I’ve made up my mind. I’m going back to my husband.” When I returned to Malaysia months later, my parents seemed grateful to have me back, but I was not able to feign interest in them or in my sister. I didn’t feel ready for a job. I didn’t think working with a maimed heart would get me very far. So I stayed in my room and dreamt about England while the monochrome wheel began turning again and the glimmering string reappeared. One day when my parents were out visiting a relative I went to see Mary. My task was to feed her lunch and then tuck her in but she was talking. Mary’s talking was not simple talking. It was talking upon talking. “One iguana. Two iguanas. Sitting in the drain. Causing me this pain. Kevin, please get them, please, please, please. One iguana. Two iguanas. Sitting in the drain. Causing me this pain.” “What have the iguanas ever done to you?” I thought about what Gemma had said. Maybe all someone needed to do was to ask her why. “They eat our shit in the drain. I don’t like that they know what I taste like. They lick our shit and they eat our shit and they shit our shit. And I don’t like that they know what I taste like.” “That’s true, I suppose. But what are you going to do about it?” “Listen here. They are dirty. They have no respect. Our shit is not meant to be their food. We have to catch them.” Her voice had turned hard. Suddenly, she looked fierce, secure, determined through understanding. “I can’t just catch them. I don’t know how.” “Iguanas can be fast when they sense danger so you must look innocent. Take a rope, make it into a lasso and throw it over them when they cannot see you.” She had thought the whole thing out. She said she had been planning it for the last year. I could not, even if I tried to, see her madness. What I saw was a girl who was upset that a part of her was exposed to underground creatures. It was as if she believed that her soul lingered in her shit and because the iguanas were eating her shit, they were also getting at her soul. All she wanted to do was to recover herself. “You have to do it, Kevin, for both of us.” “Why both of us?” “We need to be ourselves again.” That afternoon I performed my sister’s instructions. She even followed me to the garden, something my parents never allowed her to do, and we waited for the iguanas together. We sat for hours while the reptiles loitered invisibly beneath us. “Why aren’t you happy?” she asked. “I hate this place. I hate Coal Island. I want to be back in Manchester.” “What are you running away from?” I was surprised at her question. “The island, lah…and all of its…stuff.” “What’s so great about Manchester?” “I was free and I had a person who actually saw me like she saw me and liked what she saw.” “I like what I see when I look at you.” We heard the movements of the iguanas. They were rising. “What do you see?” “A boy who can’t see himself. A perfectly formed stem that cannot take the wind and so must be protected.” “How can you see like that?” “They think I don’t know. It’s not madness. I’m just a little bit…touched, that’s all. Sometimes I can see inside everything.” The iguanas were making their way to the centre of the drain, a few inches away from where we sat. “Slowly now,” she whispered, “take the lasso and gently throw it over. You take the left one. I’ll take the right.” The creatures didn’t put up a fight. We tightened the lassos and tied the iguanas to the porch pillar. “What do you want to do with them?” I asked. “Sell them to Mummy’s side of the family. The Chinese will eat anything,” she said. I laughed. “Better still. We cook a curry out of them, send it to Daddy’s side of the family and tell them it’s chicken. The Indians are too stupid to know.” She laughed. We decided to release them back into the drain so that we could sit in the garden with our lassos the next day and repeat the catch. It would be our new game, as though we were children again. This piece was featured in “Cha: An Asian Literary Journal”, click here.
Shivani on
Poems in Magazines

Day at the Mosque

The mosque at dusk was close to Forster’s,except, we did not have the moon,or the species of feet, soot-slabbed,curled like the dagger behind the glass casethat I alerted you to, but you watched the oriental kettle,knowing it not to pop, it was how wewere reflected on its set curve that made you thinkof Akbar and a dreamt-up prophet,the massacre of frangipanis as we walked the mosque’s outskirts. “Frangi who?” you ask.I tell you it’s the flower of death.The flower that reposeswith words shut into the old. The ornaments came to you the most,every item had its place pleated on yourframe and upon your ribs,the bucket handle, the worded kitablike trimmed grass, prickly soft,like the gown that I will wearupon your affirmation, “yes, the hieroglyphic cameapart in my last thought,I will see you in velvetand your hair will be knottedinto mine”. Yet the vellum goes the great way,across fish ranging the hot soups of thesewaters and the quiet lulls of those nearerto the way my nipple cracks when it facesthe blue of twilight. Who can say that the time is coming, has come, or is here? The call to prayer sits on our tone,we can hear it from our single zones,you are marking your way through the skyline,but you are never closer to the betelnut boxeshidden for child’s play throughout the regionof the mosque that we found one daywhen we tried at being a little like the rest. This piece was featured in “Construction” magazine here.
Shivani on
Short Stories

The Constellation of Buttons

The ants pause on their journey. They see twenty or so lying dead, flattened, disemboweled, juiceless. They have come far from the pink Tin Tower to this oblong bridge that will take them to the Constellation of Buttons, the Holy Grail, rumoured to carry edible jewels packed with the green of old things, even pools of wine lying dormant, as if unaware of their worth. They have come this far and seen one or two of their own dead, scattered here and there, between black blocks and silver snappers, which they had seen eating ants alive. But this—this massacre—they stumbled on with a stiffening of antannae. They circle the scene, sniff at the dead, bend their legs, sprint in a single route, maddened, their bellies fluttering with fluid, their sense of smell picking up only white sulphourous scents, their eyes pried open against their will. They do not wail or breathe out regret. Two or three begin picking up the dead, balancing the cardboard bodies on their backs, beginning again the march towards the monument of their dreams. Inch follows inch, over plastic water tanks, round glass buildings, seas of green and white, orange and golden hoops that they overcome in a thousand inches, a red marble playground that forms their final pit stop before arriving at the place where smell guides them, to where they will meet their end. They know this but, in relief and delirium, with the dead on their backs, they press one foot after another on the ground that changes from wood to velvet to paper. Now they see the dust they had smelled from when they started out at the Tin Tower. This is it. They lay down their dead and enter abysses, holes, caves, purple apertures and speed around button mounds. They feed on sugar and pieces of green grain and there is no need to alert the rest of discoveries. Everything lies sprawled out, exhibited, explicit, and each ant can do it alone. The dead have been left on the flat grey “Warning” plane and for two days the living move from button to button, forgetting to ask why danger has not yet come their way. They even forget to ask why they have been seeing less of each other. Only the toil matters now; the toil of inhaling charmed particles that will keep them going, that will give them the power to revive the dead, to expand their family, to colonize all the water-tanked, tin-towered, golden-hooped spaces in existence. But in a second well into the plumping up of bellies, a long wail is heard. The wail says, “Flattened. The Buttons are moving.” They scuffle, feeling the earthquake shift the black earth. They run from one button to the next, some dying, some escaping into holes only to be crushed by a descending button until finally all is silent again. The ant that had first picked up a dead body at the oblong bridge all that time ago emerges from a button moat. It walks from button to button, finding along its way more bodies to pick up, the burden ascending with every inch it takes. It finds another ant still alive and the two collect the dead and pile them on the “Warning” plane. When they have retrieved them all, they set about transporting the bodies to their next destination. “Where to?” asks the first. “Anywhere but here,” says the second. One hundred inches after leaving the Constellation of Buttons, the second ant sizzles out and says, before dying, “Sulphur.” The first ant carries on moving.
Shivani on
Short Stories

The Code

No one came to eat on Sundays. During the week the world was seated on the plastic chairs and the great pillar fans blew away the flies and the piles of turmeric cabbage and fried fish shortened and eventually vanished by three o’ clock in the afternoon. He’d have taken at least fifty cans of fizzy drinks to tables and juggled straws in his hands while his fingers sweated and the blue Biro in his hands slipped here and there, attempting to take down orders in his special shorthand. The other waiters could never read his codes. It was his language, the midpoint, the connecting dot between himself and men or women who hardly registered his hovering gait by where they had chosen to sit at “Only Friends Cafe”. At night, before bed and after he’d completed his two hours of checking in with the world on the internet, he went through the day’s orders. Tw CC Fv GNMF. Et RC CB. Sv BB +O. Right there, in the abbreviations- not simply acronyms but whole inventions of his mind- was his proof that he had left Burma to investigate where life could take him. It might as well have been a magic carpet ride that moved him down the mass of land called Thailand and Malaysia, stopping at a place he’d thought would only exist in the future, perhaps in 2084: Cyberjaya, the first witness of his cafespeak. He knew there might come a day when the manager decided to close the cafe on Sundays and he thought about what he would do then. He’d not yet worked out a restday routine and he didn’t know if he could. The boys at the cafe- two other Burmese, an Indonesian, a Bangladeshi and three Nepalese- seemed to wait for surprise holidays or nights when the cafe closed early. Maung, who had travelled with him to Malaysia, said, “One of these days, I’ll take you to Kuala Lumpur. You know, you’re the only one who hasn’t been yet”. He wasn’t ready to go there, he wanted to say, but he wasn’t sure if Maung would understand. He’d not even walked around Cyberjaya, ‘The Intelligent City’. He believed it. The rest of the boys could go wandering that grand capital and pick up trinkets and street food, but he’d stay back and categorize his cafespeak, make a dictionary out of it, for waiters in the future to refer to when they were learning how to master their art. He didn’t tell the boys about this. Then, two cooks fell ill after eating their own food and the cafe had to be closed for the day. He panicked. It was a Monday but he thought that this was a practice run for future Sundays. The boys flipped their aprons into the air and changed out of their uniforms. “Eh, eh,” the Nepalese called Kabi said to him, “come, we going to the city!” He nearly agreed to go but he remembered his dictionary and thought, yes, now’s the time, I can get to work after all these nights of dreaming about it on my bed. He could have started it months ago but he’d always been too busy on the internet although he never quite knew what happened when he went online. “I’m going to rest,” he lied, “you go, all of you, go”. He went to his room, above the cafe, and collected his notebook. He couldn’t work there, no, it was too dark and it smelled of onions. He thought he would sit outside the cafe where there were a few chairs and tables. He opened his notebook and thought. Milo, Lime Juice, Two, Five, Eight. He abbreviated those. Excellent. Progress. Extra Sugar. Less Sugar. No Sugar. Those were easy. He wrote them down. Paper Roti. Garlic Naan. Egg on Toast. He was getting very good at this. Mother. Father. Temple. He dropped the pen. He looked at what he had written. No, it wasn’t him. Something had entered the pen. He was writing a dictionary or a handbook for waiters. But the pen continued. Football. Yo-yo. Badminton. Roof. Blanket. Bicycle. He wanted desperately to have a computer button to switch on so that he could see millions of words, none his and he would not have to endure this sudden tragedy. He threw the pen on the floor and stepped on it but the words were flying around his ears. He slapped his face, hoping to kill the words. “Oi,” he heard someone say, “what’s wrong with you? Come here and see this”. The shopkeeper next door, a large, pale Arab man, had left his shop and was pointing at something on the pavement. “What is it, Mr. Nyar?” he said, relieved that the man had approached him. “There”, he replied, still pointing. Two grey cats, similar in size, were leaning against a pillar, one riding the other, both scowling. A crowd had gathered around them, pointing, snickering. For two minutes, the cats manoeuvred around each other, gyrating and behaving unlike the cats he was used to seeing in the cafe, begging for food, pathetic, dependent, large-eyed and soft. He noticed that one of the cats had a scar near its eye, the very same cat that paroled the cafe, begging for food, pathetic, dependent, large-eyed and soft. Now it was taking centre-stage, performing with gusto for all those who had declined it food. It was not night, it was not an alley, nothing, nobody was hiding behind a big rubbish skip. The cat was saying, “This is what I do. You think the begging makes me any less than this?” And it went on pushing and rising until it was satisfied and it walked away with a mew towards the restaurant next to “Only Friends Cafe”. When the crowd dispersed, he ripped out the pages of his notebook on which he had begun his dictionary or handbook for waiters, threw it on the ground and hoped that the manager would close the cafe on Sundays. Then he could really let the pen work.
Shivani on
Poetry

Anatomies

I’m alive to the anatomy of a starfish-weedtilting in the grass:I can’t say exactly how being alive works,how suddenly all of one’s cells collectto find a friend in the anatomies of thingsnever thought about,until five minutes or one ripened in the sunsuggests a gravity southward,light begins to shake out lethargyand instigate the anatomy of a thing,a form packed with waves and lines, bendingas if nothing extraordinary at all is happening,a golden weed, perfectly molded on the landremembering an old dream of the sea,and kindly remembering for us tooour own history of water.
Shivani on
Short Stories

Samy Kandiah

After the sun- just a moment ago ridiculously orange and too titillating for Samy Kandiah who was walking the town twice as he did daily except for weekends- slipped into the Straits of Malacca and lay like a fallen coin at its base (or so he liked to think), came the most confused period of the days and nights. Sunless, he thought, and moonless. Black birds circled the tops of buildings, squawking and shrieking madly, sensing the end of something, a certain unverifiable death that happened every single day between seven twenty-five and seven thirty PM. Crepuscular knowledge was what he had failed to acquire even though he stopped in front of “Ah Lang Hardware Store” to wait and see if once the sun exited and before the moon could start its shift, he’d get accosted by an old melody, coming from the hills or through some cave echo, and its tune would send him to sleep every night, and he’d dream about the truth and nothing else. It was time for that to hit him. But “Ah Lang Hardware Store” brought no such luck. All he was left with when the hand on the clock tower crept towards a quarter to eight was the nervous urgency to get home before the Family sent out its youth to locate him, “just in case,” he could hear his wife shouting above the blender’s rattle, “he’s gone and jumped off a cliff”. His death, usually by his own volition, was anticipated by the Family with the regularity of a norm and sometimes Samy Kandiah felt that the Family would benefit from a sense of accomplishment if he went and jumped off the cliff that was real only in his wife’s sentences (which cliff? The one on the far end of the island? The one I’d have to take a two-hour bus journey to get to? He’d wanted to ask) or hang himself from the mango tree that his daughter-in-law seemed to have a fetish for. Many times she’d predicted his death materializing on the highest branch of the mango tree in the garden of “Shiva’s Abode”. And when she said this he’d be right there in front of her, sometimes even eating a fruit from the tree that would take his life. “If I do kill myself,” he’d once said while the Family froze and widened their eyes, “I’ll do it my own way, you hear? I’ll do it theatrically or make it look like murder and you’ll spend the next twenty years trying to figure it out”. Of course he knew he shouldn’t have said that. Then if he did finally vanish from their lives by some elaborate, gorgeous method, they’d know it was elaborate and gorgeous because he had fashioned it himself. They didn’t have the patience or the skill to wonder how something complex became complex. It was enough for them to know that the complexity was created, that it was not a mysterious occurrence. So now he couldn’t even kill himself. And again, the old melody, the magic, murmuring knowledge at twilight- one in the same or completely different, he didn’t know- did not come. He walked home, fighting off insects, a great group of them, he could sense, dancing above his head, giving him an active halo whose energy he wished could have been donated to his limbs. He exercised Monday to Friday but his joints still creaked and his back, stiff from toil-free years, sometimes made him regret his afternoon armchair-sittings when he was younger and needed a cup of basil tea and a stack of books to assure himself that he was living. It wasn’t pure regret because he would not have become the man that he was and although people kept predicting his suicide- and he occasionally imagined it- he kind of liked his oldness, the fact that he ached in body and heart, and that the Family watched him with glazed eyes. There was no more room in the house for an armchair, just wooden and plastic chairs, many, many of them as though the armchair contained in its grandeur and comfort the ability to translate its qualities into quantities, sacrificing its value for the accommodation of a crowd. He wished he’d only procreated once. But he’d been tricked and excited and too weak to resist the idea of living with his wife, one child between them to offer relief from each other. They had needed seven, apparently. And they still needed three of them- and the three’s mates and offspring- to make life continue as before, when they woke up in the mornings and it was enough not to worry about the beauty of enjoying an idle breakfast because a child was waking up in the next room and it was perfectly normal and true to talk about milk powder brands and the most effective rice cooker. He’d spent years bringing life into life, a profound contribution that made him feel less profound when he thought about it, walking the town of Coal Island seeking his old melody, his twilight knowledge. When he got home he heard pans tumbling, oil popping and his wife ordering her daughters-in-law to dice green chillies with more passion. “You see this,” she said in her upbeat kitchen voice, “anyone will say a child has taken over the knife. Aiyoh, girls! Put your heart into it lah”. He removed his slippers, about to step into the home that he had designed forty years ago when he used to close his eyes before sleep and a pageantry of images spiced his nights, urging his hands in the morning to draw a house fit for a teacher and his wife or, as he often thought, a scholar and his wife. “Ma! How many plates have you put on the table?” his second daughter-in-law shouted. Plates. He wondered if he cared for them, those circular items that had become a fixture in life on which nourishment sat and fingers played, soaking up curry, the gloop of ladies’ fingers. He didn’t really want to see another melamine plate with floral designs. Suddenly he hated plates, hated them with a rough, stormy-sea anger. Why in the world were plates dominating their lives? He wanted to run into the kitchen, take every diseased plate there was and break each one with his foot. Let the blood come. It was time for that to hit him. But he stayed outside, looking at the mango tree, now purely dark and seemingly fruitless, and then he put his slippers back on and walked away from the front porch, off to the garden shed he had built twenty years ago when he had lied to the Family (then only half its current size) about his fascination with periwinkles and dragonfruits. “I’ll grow them,” he said, “somewhere in the corner of this garden but I’ll need a shed to do that. For my tools”. No periwinkles or dragonfruits ever appeared, even faintly, from the soil for they had not had plants to grow out of. The shed stayed, however, and housed his books. His wife never entered it, fearing the proliferation of cobwebs in “such a filthy low-class thing as a shed”. Samy sat on a rattan wicker chair and stared at the light bulb. He could still hear noises from the house. His son Kuhan had returned from work and was interesting the Family with two kilograms of mutton he had received as a present from his boss. Why was mutton such a fascination for them? He wanted to shout back at them. “Eh you,” he fancied himself saying, “the bloody sun at dusk is better, far better than a sickening piece of meat”. He liked mutton, he knew that, but he wouldn’t pray to it or allow it to make him happier than he had been before he had eaten it. Perhaps, he thought with a finality that shocked him, it was time to die. It was not Death, for I stood up,And all the Dead, lie down—It was not Night, for all the BellsPut out their Tongues for Noon. He tried to remember more but he couldn’t. It was only the beginning of the poem. He had the collected works of Emily Dickinson in the shed, on a shelf unknown to him and he could have gone to look for it, but he didn’t want to. He had known the poem by heart before. It would return to him. Did he once try to recite it to his wife? “Do you like poems?” yes, he had asked her that before marriage. She giggled and flipped her hair. She was the only Ceylonese girl he knew who had green eyes. She was also the only Ceylonese girl he knew who didn’t need lipstick to project a red appetising mouth. She didn’t answer him. He should have known then. But it was wrong of him to think like that. In the early years, she had hidden birthday presents under the mattress for him, she’d cried during arguments, hugged him in the nights. Then something happened. No, no. Nothing actually happened. Everything was as it was from the beginning. And yet, it tasted, like them all,The Figures I have seenSet orderly, for Burial,Reminded me, of mine— He should have recited it to her anyway. They would have had clarity then, when he was moustachioed and she had natural curls. Her arms had always been slim, lean, muscular flesh. How lucky he was that she had not grown fat, only thinner. And why did they have to procreate? It didn’t matter that they did, now that he thought of it. When everything that ticked—has stopped—And Space stares all around—Or Grisly frosts—first Autumn morns,Repeal the Beating Ground— The Beating Ground. Emily knew her stuff. Did the ground beat the feet or was the ground beating itself? Itself. It was less important to be beating something else. Nothing major could come out of it. He longed for twilight again. He’d wait in the shed till morning when the other twilight emerged. The pans were still tumbling but the oil had stopped popping. Dinner Is Served. But that was not what Samy wanted. In his thirties, he’d been called Mr. Samy Kennedy. Kennedys were handsome, oratorical, rhetorical…ask not what your country can do for you- ask what you can do for your country. Well, he had taught schoolchildren for thirty years and they had still grown up dumb. One or two had become ministers of parliament. Did they bother to think about Emily alone in her room, thousands of poems beneath her bed? He had told them to imagine her and they had closed their eyes but what did they see? “Ma, more rice here lah!” a son shouted. But most, like Chaos—Stopless—cool—Without a Chance, or Spar—Or even a Report of Land—To justify—Despair. That was how the poem ended. He knew he had left out some verses but he could not remember them. At least he had got the ending right. And now there was no more. Out of Emily’s thousands, this was the one he had chosen for the night. Suddenly the thought of waiting in the shed till dawn bothered him. He wanted to get out, wherever, possibly back to “Ah Lang Hardware Store” but he had never had luck there. He opened the door of the shed and scanned the garden. It was quiet and dark and the Family was eating inside the house. He dashed across to the front gate, let himself out through the small opening and stood in front of the wall for a moment where no one in the house could see him. He leaned his head against the plaque of the house. It was cool on his skin. He touched it and turned around, facing it. “Shiva’s Abode. No. 510”. He knew that number from somewhere else too, back in the day when he had touched something, perhaps a piece of paper. Yes, dung-brown paper smelling of dung. A brand new second-hand copy of “The Collected Works of Emily Dickinson”, stolen from the public library. Now, on this very day, after forty years, only now did he realize that his favourite poem of Emily’s was numbered fifth hundred and tenth in that edition. Did it really take that long to make simple connections? Was there even a meaning in such a link? He started running and he ran till dawn and he heard the Azan and he heard the birds and he saw the royal blue of the sky and he felt a song perch itself on his ear going, “Despair…tra la la…Despair…tra la la” and he collapsed with joy.
Shivani on
Poetry

A Sequence

I. The tumble you were pestered out of me.rose bramble, thorns and pink hornsI had saved from the grotto by the mangrovewhere the intertidal prawnswaited for you,have simplified into a monastery.I was never the prototype, so bareand sick from your popehood,my clumps, still fecund,still fecund in your spittle-wispsthat continue to tempt me.and the trinkets from the cavethat were dipped into dragons and my smokesit on a mantelpiecesomewhere in your insect-infectious homes,while the monastery stands,and the jaggedness of our peace reopens. II. Red star we placed a rivulet on ourselves,a red star and a templatefor gurgling and for fearsthat we will never be complete,even though you were alreadyde-scaling the fish.you left for our river-tank,the thing that fries and pops,as the red star drizzles ointmentsand morphed fireon this stubborn pitch. III. Wildlife You have managed it—the landscape of this time,a wasp in the crown of a canopy,a ladle in the pulp, jungle-juice. At this hour, your eyes, like botfly eggsinvade the chick,who wills itself into shape-shifting,to stroke your will,the very botflythat interrupts the oropendola,my youth. Still, you managed—the symbiosis, the holistic painthat subsists like cysts in a mole,in the jungle’s person,the man of mammals and all,the earth opens,you surface from a skull, a few moths,a stream of toucans. IV. Climate I call when the weather isfirmly chained to your ripened lung,phlegm and love,offshoots of civility,our joint envyof a hurricane over the seas. You begin to dream as the lung unearthstumeric, clove and fenugreek,my ancestral guilts boiled to resonatein the billion more monsoons,maybe a tornado,happening as they do,in mirrors and porcelain and blood. V. Secrets Both concealed,forebreaths careful not to touch,the synthesis. Gloworms, mint and this,deepened love of the understorey,a fort,where woodlice patrolthe elemental streetsto unfasten entangledplants, those deciduous freshlingsyou once proclaimed to bethe be-all and end-all of this. And maybe that moon,private in the fields,will drop to the thistle,where our feet ripped,and mallow grew from the wounds,to work like the woodlice,to study our pores that are filled with silence,one bombed pod at a time,revealing this anatomy.
Shivani on
Poetry

May I always choose you

May I always choose youwhen my old lovers return.May I remember your nectarwhen I cannot taste it.May I grovel but knowthat your hands will come.May I hold your lighteven when I cannot see you.May your soft tune continuewhile I am courting the past.May I enter the abyssscreaming your name.May I remember to forgetmyself when the fire begins.May I fight to know youeven as the gates are closing.May I rage and in that ragefind you.May I drown in fearand in that pool meet you.May we never have to meet again.May you vanish from you.
Shivani on
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