Granite Mortar

Excerpt from the poem I will never write

As a child, I wondered about Atlantis— how entire civilizations
lay still, beneath the deep. I wondered about secrets— what use
do we have of them? That dangerous thing that paws away at the door—
opening it
fissuring it.

I wondered about Mother, the many shades in her demeanour. As a child,
I learned not to underestimate her. She once broke a granite mortar
into two perfect pieces, as easily as the way she slips into her Northern dialect.
Dialects are malleable but language breaks when you bend it. I am still
haunted by the stark disappointment of words,
the shadow of my own idea—
harvest of barren land,
a wilted flower,
dry husk of a friend.

I know now that not every fraction of me, is meant for paper.
I am, after all, more blood than ink,
and more human than writer.

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The Hundred-word Eulogy

To my grandmother, Fatimah

There is a very particular kind of woman revered in society. The ideal woman is laconic, reserved— an enigma. My grandmother was not that woman.

She was vulgar and wholly unconventional. She never had any brakes on, particularly when she talks. No pause in her speech, no matter how brief. She, as I would later learn, never took a single medicine in her life. She had a strong faith in herbal remedies and hand-rolled cigarettes. Even when she was sick, my grandmother would throw herself into her majestic singing.

Her vocals, lacerated—
but never her spirit.

Batu 17

It is in the way she speaks— in a dialect so thick that I have to struggle to understand her. She calls for me— her voice like splinters and shattered glass. I run downstairs— my footsteps, echoing loudly on the old wooden floor boards. I find my grandmother, sitting outside in the blazing sun on an old, rickety plank jetty.

My grandmother lives in a provincial part of town called Batu 17, Guar Chempedak in Yan district, along the northern coast of the Malacca Strait. A small stream runs by the house. Across it is a vast expanse of paddy field, which paints a glistening jewel green against the pale sky, heavy with monsoon clouds. There is a dilapidated building at the top end of the stream, where the neighbourhood kids gather to play football in the cool evenings. This is the place where I’d spend most of my school holidays growing up— part of my parents’ many failed attempts at reconciling their children with their culture of origin.

Tucked under my grandmother’s arm is a small cage. I lean over to get a closer look and scream when I discover a pair of red eyes staring back at me. It is a rat— grey and rotund, with a short, curly tail. My grandmother has spent the whole month of December trying to catch the ever-elusive vermin. She asks me to help tie a rope to the cage. Her worsening hand tremors make tasks related to fine motor skills difficult. I tie the other end of the rope on a rotten wooden post.

She lowers the cage carefully into the water. The rat squeals indignantly and thrashes around in the cage, before suddenly going quiet. My grandmother’s grin reaches from ear to ear. I do not share her enthusiasm, still I obliged her requests. My satisfied grandmother shuffles back to the house, accompanied by her bamboo cane. I leave too, but not without one last look over my shoulder at the still water below.

That night, as I deliver folded laundry to my grandmother’s bedroom, she remarks on the silence, from under her mosquito net. Our usual nights would be punctuated by the scratching sound of rat paws above our heads, as it scurries around on the zinc roof.

Yes it’s quiet, I tell her. Almost too quiet.

Heaven Help A Fool Who Falls In Love

Tonight, I am thinking of Ophelia. I am thinking about how it is more often women who go mad in literature. Take Sylvia Plath as another example. Why is the death of a beautiful woman immediately romantic?

It is almost a month now since I saw KLPAC’s Hamlet and I am still haunted by Hana Nadira’s nuanced portrayal of Ophelia’s descent into madness; her off-key singing and half-waltzing in Elsinore court, clutching onto bare stalks of wilting flowers. The whole auditorium was immersed in her grief. And I was disconcertingly pulled in by the tragic poetry of it all.

Some nights, I am Ophelia, teetering at the brink of my sanity. The damage Hamlet has inflicted cannot be undone. How much more can I take before I, too, am driven mad? Will men then write hymns to lament my waterlogged corpse?

But as always, there is a version of every story that doesn’t get told. A version where she doesn’t die or marry the prince. A version where she goes on an adventure on her own or gets marooned on a desert or simply runs away, to a place, where there are neither happy nor tragic endings.

A place, where she is finally free.