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.

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Everywhere

Dear you,

Tonight I will write the most genuine lines.

Like most people from small towns, I have always kept to myself— content with my quiet, unassuming life. You must imagine to what degree I must have been unsettled then to overcome my reservedness and that too with you, a person who I consider to be simultaneously intimidating and infinitely fascinating.

One thing I know for sure: it is pointless to hope that I will be able to forge the words to faultlessly describe how I feel for you. Doing so would only be an effort in futility. There are a thousand words and each one is inadequate. All I can say is that it had everything to do with the conversations that had unfolded between us.

I have, since our last meeting, often pondered over the magic of real human conversation. In our society’s growing inability for nuance, to make the acquaintance of your soul— and all of its subtleties— was a welcome change. You were spontaneously eloquent and your words, immediately of deep relevance. I would love for nothing more than to pry open your mind— pick it apart and map it to my satisfaction.

I only hope that the content of our exchanges were worth discussing for you, regardless of how you feel about me. I am an inadequate speaker, you see. I am not physically attractive, either— at least not by conventional standards. Writing to you, in all my besotted earnestness, is wherefore the only strategy left to have any probable success in seeking your favour.

It is worth noting that my feelings for you are of a different order entirely. It is not physical, although I must admit; there was a particular gesture— you looking back at me, your head tilted ever so slightly, and the lights hit you just so— that finally did me over. I cannot explain it, but know that you give me such joy. Time and distance, thus far, have only served to intensify my wonder for you.

I invoke the kind of love, which will illuminate every fibre in my being. A kind of love, unmarred by the trivial concern of its final outcome. And for this, I will eagerly anticipate your reply. I require nothing more than your sincere opinion of me. I understand that you may instead see my plea as more pest than praise, therefore I will harbour no resentment if you were to end this correspondence by means of silence and shall persist in being,

Yours sincerely.

Reconciliation

Across a corner table in the cafe, he sat, one leg over the other. His right hand quickly dipped into his jacket pocket. He handed her a tiny box, wrapped in gold paper. “A start,” he began to say, “for all the birthdays I’ve missed.” A slow smile spread across his face. His features were familiar to hers. They were the same ones staring back at her in her bathroom mirror every morning. The same scraggly, mousy brown hair. The same eyes— wide-set and intense. The same pursed lips and grin.

“Open it.”

A decade of lost time stands in between father and daughter— its presence, jarring and unaddressed. They tiptoed around each other’s feelings. Both waiting for the other to make the first move. She hoped for an apology, while he seeks trust. As if a man— stubborn and prone to drifting off— would find the words to express them. As if she— a fortress of harboured emotion and resentment— would suddenly learn to speak freely.

A meeting, doomed from the start.

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.

Things We Don’t Talk About

When you were younger, we’d dress you up as a boy— in bowl cuts and hand-me-down racetrack pyjamas. The first time we crossed the sea, you cried inconsolably the whole trip here. The passengers in economy didn’t take to a wailing toddler too kindly. I wondered if maybe you could sense that I was afraid too.

When we arrived at the small, dingy hotel room we would call home for the next six months, with nothing but the clothes on our back and a rice cooker, you cried for the country we abandoned. Look, under the dressing table. That’s a bat cave. And over there, see this closet. It’s a castle, and you’re the queen. Come to the window with me. See that, the beach is your entire playground. Look at all that space.

The first time we took you to the beach, you got sand in your eyes. Your first instinct was to reach for my hands. When you stood proudly on the sofa cushions you stacked in the living room, and lost your balance. When we took out your training wheels and the split second before you feel like falling. The day we first taught you how to swim. Now all I do is wonder when my hands stopped being your anchor.

Is it the day you were crying in the shower and I slammed the door? Or is it the moment I reached for the car keys when I should’ve stayed? Don’t you know I visit the headstones of conversations we didn’t have and run my fingers over the inscription? Here lie the words left unsaid.

In my dreams, I light my demons on fire and watch them glow. My jaw finally breaks. My tongue untwists to say something lovelier than the past decade, and your hands intertwine quietly into mine— a catalyst for a warmer beginning.

For Ezra

Sometimes I wish we lived before colour was invented so I could always see you like this— black and white and beautiful. Everyone is looking at you, and you wish they wouldn’t and I don’t blame them— I can’t stop looking at you either.

You are always performing, even offstage. Your years of ruthless dance training have rendered your limbs permanently eloquent. To slouch is to commit an unforgivable act. Even on hot, lazy, shirtless afternoons, your posture looks staged. Every gesture perfectly synchronized. Every smile, soft and conscious. You always look slightly embarrassed; there is a constant tinge of rose pink in your cheeks. I bury my head in your chest and your fingers are enmeshed in my unrelenting curls. And this is how we would end up every night— a set of interlocked limbs of russet brown and ivory.

I have always assumed you didn’t mind being different, at least not in the way it would bother anyone else. Whenever the boys in the neighbourhood would call you names, you merely laughed. You never gave me any reason to worry, so I never did. Until one day, I woke up to find you coiled tightly against me. The first thing I saw was the blue stain over your neck. Then, the dried blood on your knees. Your voice, still soft and steady and mine, brittle and quavering. That morning, I wondered about all the things we choose not to reveal about ourselves.

Sometimes I wish we lived before gender roles were invented so I could always see you like this— masculine and feminine and beautiful. Everyone is looking at you, and you wish they wouldn’t. When they see you, you are a broken rhyme, an abstract concept. Your presence is a question mark they do not know the answer to. You are a body to be outlined and a gender to be assigned. And god I like you. I like the way you dress— sometimes extravagant, other times toned-down. I like you in your outrageous leopard fur coat and little black dress. I like you in your white scoop neck t-shirt, with your exposed clavicle. I like you naked— your tapered waist and the gentle arch of your spine. Everyone is looking at you, and you find it amusing. I don’t blame them— I can’t stop looking at you either.

Oblivion

She woke up kissing an airbag; her life knocked out of her lungs. The serenity of the night is shattered by the cacophony of car horns, shrill whistles, sirens atop ambulances, pleading porters and taxi drivers. There was chaos. Everything was new and apocalyptic. But above the staccato of traffic noise, beyond the pitch-black street, her silhouette dreams came alive.

Dreams have a tendency of doing that. They always begin at the end of something.

A tiny figure materialized in the distance— her 15-year-old son in his study. Sometimes, she would catch him holding a book to his nose, and inhale the vanilla scented pages. He is a lexical creature, who breathes words. Often, he would hold a book to his ear, imagining the author narrating the story to him. Like a shell, bearing every spellbound secret of the sea.

That night, her young boy called her into his study. He read to her, as he often did. That night it was a Balti poet, Bowa Johar. No human, nor any living thing, survives long under the eternal sky. The most beautiful women, the most learned men, even Mohammad, who heard Allah’s own voice, all did wither and die. The sky outlives everything. Even suffering, he read. The words hung in the abyss between them, like the scent of dead cigarettes.

The room shrunk, engulfed by a feeble twilight. The scenery panned to the night they went stargazing— accompanied by a medley of soft smiles, warm blankets, and the fragrance of summer grass. In the dark pools of her son’s eyes, she could see a reflection of space, dotted by a constellation of stars.

She followed her son’s distant gaze. As infinity unfolded beyond them, the void between mother and son retreated. He began to hum a lullaby. The words are yearning to release themselves— just at the tip of her tongue.

She woke up into a nightmare. Chips of rain started to fall. The rain made the men look like ghosts— not humans, but shapes, moving beneath dark clouds. Whatever remained of the once white sedan was burned to a black crisp. Her lungs were choked with cinders. The smell, above everything else, is what haunted her the most. You can’t quite shake off the unmistakable scent of human flesh, burning. It haunted her briefly, before she descended into oblivion once more.