You Don’t Just Tell Someone to Chill 

Coming off a fulfilling summer, I would say that life is looking up right now. Like most people, I am chill as they come when things go my way. A house over my head, friends that care, a school to attend. I count my blessings like a Shepard his sheep. I don’t sweat the small stuff when the horizon is flat. I live my life with optimism and I want the same for the people around me.

For many of us who live our lives like that it’s especially easy to want our friends to be happy. And when I mean happy, I mean always happy. We want for our friends to be well, and we equate wellness with happiness and will do anything to see them that way. Whenever our friends tell us about their problems we tell them to chill, saying this word with the finesse of a firefighter dousing flames.

And the logic seems to work out. Things happen in our lives, many of them bad. We try our best to change things but sometimes are not able to. And you know what they say; that the only thing you can control is your mind so if you tell your mind to chill then everything will be fine; you won’t be sad and when you’re not sad then you’re well.

I have come to the conclusion, however, that wanting your friends to be chill is selfish. Sure, being chill is nice and all. It is a state of being that we silently strive for in our everyday lives and go through extensive pains and spend exorbitant amounts of money to uphold. 

But very much like having supper or owning a hamster; there is a right time and place for chillness. Chillness is when you just finished two hours of research and are looking at traffic pass by above an overhead bridge on the way home. Chillness is listening to Bach alone when all your friends cannot get over One Direction. Chillness is for when you are ready for it, for when your mind needs to rest and the intensity of your soul needs to subside. 

Chillness is not about suddenly stemming the flow of tears just because your friend accuses you for having no chill. Chillness is not downing can after can of beer to get over that ex and laughing too hard with your friends, banging the table too loudly. Chillness is not about getting over something you are not yet ready to get over. Being chill is not the remedy for sadness. Going through sadness is. 

I often see sadness as a tunnel through a towering mountain. It offers a way across challenges, but a dark and lonely one as such. There is no chill in this tunnel. Often it is just you, alone, walking forward in the dark, desperately feeling for any semblance of yourself, any guidance that the jagged walls can bring. You really want to get out but alas sadness offers no shortcuts. The only way out of sadness is through it, where you will face yourself and make sense of how and why you feel this way. It is suffocating, terrible and some of us never quite make it out of that tunnel. Ultimately, it is a journey of constant self-acknowledgment. 

For anyone who is not in this tunnel of sadness with you, it is too easy to say “just chill, it’s going to be ok.” However, there is real danger in telling someone to chill. It makes them hyper-aware of their heightened emotional state, and worst of all, makes them feel other-ed because of it. They start thinking of why it is them that have been singled out to be the un-chill ones in a world that seems so abundantly chill.

We treat emotion like it is something that can be tempered with and controlled when that is hardly the case. It’s almost as absurd as telling a stab victim not to feel pain or a mourner not to cry at a funeral. Just because you can be chill, doesn’t mean that others should be chill or should even try to be. Chillness was never a given, but a privilege.

So next time you notice a friend trudging through their own tunnels of sadness I challenge you to gear up and go into that tunnel with them. Hold their hand, stay up with them till 3 am, bring them to a quiet spot where the lights are dim and the air is cool and listen to them, sit there quietly but always, always be there.

You don’t just tell someone to chill, but rather try to understand why they are not. Because chillness can only be experienced and not commanded. Because ultimately to listen carefully, not just with your ears but your presence is what it actually means to care.

Because that is what your friend really ever needed.

 

The Nuts Continued Cracking

“I liked his smile. Whatever you felt sorry about faded away when you were with him.”

It was my mother, talking about her father-in-law. My grandfather.

Through the whole time the nuts were being popped into mouths. Packet drinks and water distributed, plastic straws poked into flimsy aluminium openings.

Our shirts were as plain as a blank page. What was there left to tell the world?

My grandmother played mahjong with a few close relatives. She looked at her tile and chucked it away with disgust. She took a new tile the next round, feeling it with her thumb. She chucked it away with disgust as well.

She was not the first to learn of his death.

“Eat some ngor hiang, we ordered specially from that stall in Serangoon.”

I liked his smile.

“Yes, Ah Yi. I tried already.”

“Offer your friends.” She pushed a plate of savoury rolls to my chest.

“They’re not here today.”

“Ok, fine. If you’re hungry please eat.”

Whatever you felt sorry about faded away when you were with him. Was this true?

Just yesterday, Grandmother found out about Ah Gong’s death as she was ladling soup at her stall at a school canteen.

“Don’t worry,” was her first response. “We finish selling all the fishball soup, then we go see him.”

What was there left to tell the world? He was already gone when the news reached her. Discharged from hospital, everyone thought he would at least persevere for the next few months. When all is said and done, the doctors in white coats can only give percentages. Death doesn’t need an excuse.

And so they sold the soup, her hawker assistant and her. She ladled carefully, served the soup with heart. It was her job. She was going to finish for the afternoon. Death was making its rounds, winding in and out of dark, spindly spaces, some lonely, many filled with immense outpourings of love and comfort. But one thing was for sure, death left her stall untouched that afternoon. Food was being served continuously, customers satisfied.

The nuts continued cracking. Popped into mouths.

“What are you working as?” Spoke a distant relative. I didn’t even know his name.

“I’m looking towards journalism.”

He smiled at me, a smile that reeked of the days to come. “Good luck. I hope you don’t drop out. I heard it’s tough.”

“I’ll be ok. I always find a way. I’m hopelessly lazy, but I find a way.”

“There’s only one way to find out is there?”

Funny that we talk about these things at a funeral, I thought.

But of course, funerals are the perfect time for this kind of talk.

My mother looked at my grandmother’s tiles and complimented them. She was on a way to a winning combination, a high scoring one too.

The fluorescent lights buzzed above.

My mother huddled alongside me. She looked on at grandma, as did I.

“That’s Ah Gong and Ah Ma. They weren’t the most agreeable couple. 51 years of marriage and they stuck together through it all.”

She smiled. I reached out to hold her hand.

“They were used to long silences, days at a time, living their lives, not exchanging a word.”

She squeezed my hand.

“But I’m afraid that this time, the silence will be too much.”

She looked on at the casket on our left. A moth flew past my line of vision, landing on the edge of the overhanging fluorescent lamp.

I observed the moth. The brown of its back was elegant and obviously furry, like little feathers. It hung on the edge, then inched closer, closer to the light. It was almost there.

“Ah boy, come here,” yelled my grandmother. Mother pushed me forward by placing her palm on the small of my back. I walked forth.

The fluorescent lights buzzed with maddening urgency.

“Which tile should I throw? I don’t want you to think, just pick.” I looked at the options: There was the north tile, and the three-bamboo tile, both being fresh on the board. This deep into the game, it was risky to discard either.

I paused to think. There was an increasing buzz from above. I placed my hand on her shoulder. It was frail, the bones almost hollow. She might have been meant for flight.

Eventually she discarded the three-bamboo tile. Nobody declared a win, and the game continued.

“You slow lah boy. Your grandfather sure scold me for thinking so long,” she chuckled. I let go of her shoulder.

Yesterday when Grandma finally saw his body her legs gave way. All of us had to hold her up. Time itself seemed to stand still. 51 years summarised in a moment of grief. Who would have expected anything less? Mother was right. The silence, when cast all at once, might just have been too great.

The peanuts were de-shelled, popped into mouths. “Who wants ngor hiang?” announced my aunt for the fourth time.

The moth crawled closer to the light.

The distant relative stepped up and piled some of the ngor hiang onto his plate. He doused them with copious amounts of sweet sauce, thoroughly lathering the rolls.

I stepped forward and took two rolls onto a plate, offering one to grandma. The distant relative was chomping luxuriantly, unapologetically, swallowing in quick succession, one roll followed by the next.
Grandma initially refused, but her trembling hand did eventually pick up a roll as the tiles were being shuffled.

She placed the ngor hiang in her mouth, absentmindedly, taking tentative chews. I watched her closely. The way she ate it gave the impression of tremendous strength, reluctance yet perseverance all at once. Where does one find such strength? Does time make one strong or does it just turn you numb?

There was a buzz from above, the wild crackling of sorts. I was the only one who noticed it.

The moth fell from the ceiling and landed softly on the ground, burnt and expired, motionless in its demise.

The nuts continued cracking, popped into mouths.


 

This is a fictional short story, inspired by real life events unrelated to my family. 

 

Oreo

Oreo recently underwent a severe tick infection and  woke up one day as a giant tick.

It all started from a few ticks here and there, peppered across his body. He probably caught it from rolling around in grass patches during the evening walks. We should have been more careful and kept to the pavements. Then from there they overtook, fought their way through antiseptic barriers, prying fingernails and extensive grooming. The ticks won, and infested my house with the efficacy of a virus, the frightening imposition of an unreasonable law. My dog suffered, and so did we.

But one morning, all the ticks were gone, every last one. We made sure to check the entire house after our ordeal was over, and sure enough, every last morsel had mysteriously vanished. Except Oreo stood now, crouched over the kitchen sink, a gigantic tick. He was four feet long and as thick as a puffy boaster before your head sinks in.

No one was about to sink anything into the monstrosity. My parents cordoned off the kitchen area, holding their ground. My father told me to stand back from the door as he regarded the thing with fear. “He may stick its stinger thing through the door and suck your blood dry,” he warned. But he’s our dog! I insisted. No one was listening, much less convinced. My mother quickly dialled pest control.

I walked to the window and observed him. The tick had a brownish back that tapered to black towards his head, a few hairs poking out between his eyes. You didn’t notice these things when seen in miniature form, but this was as good as a microscopic view of the damn pest. It was revolting. The stinger probed out, waving about like a wizard wielding his wand in search for an object to cast a spell on. I looked on in horror infused fascination. I was still convinced it was my dog. It had to be.

“Pest control won’t believe us!” Shouted my mother, phone dangling from trembling hands. We were in a state of positive panic. “Why did you tell them the whole truth?” Blared father. My mother placed the phone on the receiver and took a deep breath. “They can’t catch that thing with a butterfly net.”

And she was right. Perhaps a bear trap would have to do, but to think of the juices that would explode and dirty the entire kitchen if it had to come down to using a bear trap. It needn’t come to that, I decided. I had to do something before my parents resorted to the unthinkable. They hadn’t mentioned killing him, but I was afraid the current sentiment would lead to that inevitable conclusion.

I opened the door. My mother ran forward but father held her back. A parent shouldn’t have to watch their kid die, but I was confident they wouldn’t have anything to worry about. I stepped in and closed the door behind me. The kitchen lights were turned off and my eyes adjusted to the darkness. It wasn’t so easy to make out his entire form from the brightness outside.

Beady black eyes followed me as I pranced around the perimeter of the kitchen. He stood on the sink. I was not sure at all about anything he would do, but I was confident it would be anything but to hurt me. I took a can of biscuits from the top shelf. His gaze never left me, and a slight pivot could be discerned as his six legs adjusted to balance on the edges of the sink. It became a game of who could read whom first.

I took out a cream cracker from the biscuit tin and presented it to him. His antennae began to move about wildly, then uncontrollably, almost like ruffled leaves in the autumn breeze. But really, it was more like a dog wagging its tail. It was he. “Oreo,” I called out. He looked up at me. I threw the cracker on the floor in front of the sink and he jumped off like a loaded spring and devoured it. My mother let out a scream outside and disappeared from view behind the glass door. My father watched on, pale faced, holding on to the doorknob, about to burst in on the first sign of trouble. I was doing well. I had to do more to prove he was our dog, and not a hungry tick after our blood.

I reached my hand forward, very daringly and with a heart of faith. Nothing was going to happen. I could pet his brown scaly forehead like I always used to. The texture would be different, the being entirely the same. He made soft squeaky sounds, his demented proboscis of certain death waved about manically, attempting to feel at any flesh that came nearby. But he liked me! I was his owner and he my dog. He wouldn’t use his member against me, would he? It was hard to tell but I reached out, one inch preceding the next before I was a subway 6-inch away.

The door burst open and my father charged in with a hammer raised up high, I could glance from the peripheries, something dark and unnecessary being raised in some sort of aggressive stance, a warrior with his mallet. A huge swing came thundering down with the swiftness of finality. Bang. The floor was struck. Oreo clambered over me before I could react, jumping on my chest but never intending to attack me. One of his six legs clinched onto my shoulder and he propelled himself over me, artfully dodging the hammer, scuttling between my father’s legs like a football. My father fell forward in shock, tumbling over me. The door was ajar, and so Oreo did the sensible thing and scuttled out. Mother was laid out on the floor, struck unconscious by the morning’s interesting turn of events. He sniffed her face before deciding that licking her with the proboscis of doom would do no one any favours. He moved on to the front door, and my mother was none the wiser to his advances. I was relieved.

Father got up in an instant and made a run for the animal. He was in full fight. He’s not going to hurt us, I wanted to say. I should have said. It was hard to get through to a man hardened in life, seeing fingernail size ticks in his fifty-odd years then suddenly encountering a larger, much cuter cousin. Did it even occur to him that maybe, just maybe, this creature was just my dog in a ticks form? Of course not, I thought. We live in a world where form is everything. He would as soon believe Hitler to love the Jews.

I followed closely behind, and saw for myself the true horror of Oreo’s newfound abilities. His proboscis punched hole after hole through the wooden front door, tearing the base of it apart before our eyes like a raging elephant impaling his trainer. Splinters flew, along with my satisfied imagination. My father stepped back, and so did I. It was a work of art. Not the door, mind you. Art is the fact that it was the door, and not us, that was going though this severe treatment. Art is the beauty of a situation despite its potential for ugliness.

He punched a hole big enough for himself and felt about the edges with his feelers. He looked back at us one last time, beady black eyes shimmering. So long old friend, I muttered under my breath.

My Dad and I watched as he scuttled out into the streets. Strangely, there were no screams. Not yet.

“Was he wearing a collar?” I asked.

My father did not reply.

A Place Where Lonely People Go

It was 4 in the afternoon and there I was, in a place where lonely people go. There was nothing particularly special about this place, just a nondescript study area with huge fluorescent lamps inspecting the people dispersed in their solitude. Cubicles dividing, yet strangely orderly and united in their division. Tables grey, some white, chairs charcoal black. Huge Mackintosh screens peppered the space, unable to function in any other way than precisely the way it was meant to. I sat there twirling my pen, ensuring the pen looped around my thumb and came to rest at equilibrium. Time after time. The glass walls stared back and challenged me to talk to them.

I ignored the walls. I had a book in my hand, a political theory text with eighty pages unread. This was a place where lonely people go, the perfect place to devour a text, the sandwich for the flustered businessman, food rations for the starving soldier. Dreaded, but necessary. In the small space there was no one, yet everyone. People of the strangest dispositions, origins and resolutions sat well spaced, like a silent fart saturated through a stuffy classroom. There was nothing to look forward to here, but the shiny prospect of a future that we did not yet know existed. It was a frightening place to be, almost a transitory point to somewhere greater, which it turns out, is anywhere but here.

A man and a woman sat opposite me in the study space, at separate cubicles, weaving tarnished versions of what life had to offer. Their eyes nailed to their work, before the blue glow of Facebook reflected brightly in the man’s glasses. Suppressed laughter, the sound of procrastination ensued. The woman looked over in irritation. Her eyes spoke “fuck you.” I watched as they scribbled, typed, scribbled typed. A white man was falling asleep, drool quickly forming. He sucked the drool like a plumber removing silt from the bottom of a clogged sink. Is this a place where dreams come to die?

It certainly was. A girl stood up to my right. I call her that because a girlish quality could be observed in her gait, a springy one as such, jaunty and excited for the future that didn’t yet exist. She walked past me with an empty water bottle, the emptiness allowing light to pass through unobstructed, undistorted. In the emptiness held the vast reserves of truth and honesty. The emptiness, it seemed, was all our lives are doomed to tend towards. She walked out, presumably to refill her bottle. The door closed with a light thud, the loudest sound I would hear for the next three minutes.

“I want to get out of here,” I whispered. I glanced around, making sure no one had heard me, making sure no one would label me as a lunatic about to set the world on fire. “I want to get out of here!” I whispered again.

Still, no one turned. I smiled to myself. The woman to the top left of my field of vision reached over and scratched her bum. Two men walked in and scoured the space for seats. They came together, but little did they know that this togetherness was an illusion that the cubicles would help them come to terms with.

The Bombay Bicycle Club faded into the soundtrack in my head. “Leaving Blues” danced on the peripheries of my mind. In a space so tainted with loneliness it was only natural that it did. “You’re leaving” somebody whispered, but it was nobody. Sadness truly seeps in when nobody whispers something that would be sad if somebody whispered it anyway. Meanwhile my book would not read itself with the same intensity that my life resisted living. I focused, stone hard vision piercing through a book that seemed to be made entirely of diamond. My highlighter hovered above fresh pages, a laser primed to be shot but a mechanic unsure of how lasers should be shot.

The two men finally found their seats, separated into two different cubicles, softly acknowledging their loneliness. Loneliness was theirs, but they were never lonely, it seemed. Both took out their phones, both felt like they had a life outside here they could very well be at. I shot my glance back to my book. The door clicked open.

The girl was back. The woman scratched her butt again. The white man woke up and grunted. A few people turned their heads. My highlighter fell out of my hand, precisely when the girl brushed past me, it was out of my control. My vision blurred, she stepped on the highlighter. The girl fell forward, let go of her bottle. I regarded the scene with the helplessness of a bystander. The bottle flew in the air, even the white man looked up from his reverie.

It fell onto the table, released its tremulous load and soaked my book in the promises of yesterday, my highlighter crushed beyond repair, my resolutions finding a hole and quickly jumping into it without coercion.

“I’m sorry,” she would later say.

“Don’t be,” I would tell her

“Why?” She was curious.

Because this is a place where lonely people go, I thought.

 

 

Cover Photo Credits

The Hardest Thing to Give is Yourself

I had a good first week of University after the long awaited recess week. Now that that’s over, here we are again, in the depths of week 8, where assignments have been pouring in like sweets into a halloween basket. Stress is what I need at this point, to really function at a 100% and force myself to do some useful work. Other than that all has been good. Sometimes it’s better if life is boring.

I was at a gathering for my school newsletter on Friday. We were just lounging around, having some drinks and snacks and talking about random things regarding ourselves, when the topic of relationships came up. It all started when one of the sophomores leaped into the room wearing a t-shirt with a pie chart labelled “things I look for in my lover” or something along those lines. It was colourful and had silly expectations like “will watch my favourite movies with me” and other trivial comforts. We took this as a prompt, and went around asking each other what we each desired from our hypothetical significant others. A lot of matters concerning love for the outdoors, compassion, admirability, insane intelligence and “good taste” came up. Basically, we listed the attributes that 99% of us covet but 99% of us fall short of possessing. Ideals can be a bitch.

The sophomore with the t-shirt (that particular t-shirt, to be clear), the one who started the entire conversation then came up with her own rendition of her ideal significant other. “I just feel like…a lot of people out there have so much talent, and they invest so much in themselves to become the perfect person, so much so that they don’t have a piece of themselves to give anyone. You know what I mean?”

I knew what she meant. I guess what she said really hit the spot because for many years now I’ve been feeling like this is what has become of me. I’ve become hyper obsessed with being a good version of myself. I wouldn’t go as far as to say the best version of myself but a lot of what I’ve been doing has been very focused on me. It’s very easy to defend this way of life. As a young person finding himself it’s incredibly easy to feel lonely in a world so deceptively interconnected. The more you seem to be comfortable with being on your own, the more you seem to have it together. Taking long walks by myself, finding time to sit down and write, sit down and read, lie down and listen to music, jog around campus, sit down and write again; almost everything I’ve done that has made me feel incredible, I’ve done on my own. And I’ve never really questioned why this was the case. If you’re feeling good, you’re not supposed to question it, you’re just supposed to feel good. It’s just so hard to admit to yourself that maybe, just maybe, you might need something more, someone more in your life.

Otherwise, to know if you’re really shut off from letting anyone in is a tall order; the whole notion of emotional aloofness can be made up by being more open to possibilities, giving yourself chances. But of course, I know to be careful, there is a fine line between openness and sheer desperation. And then who’s to say that someone who is closed off to possibilities will always be that way? Perhaps they just haven’t found someone that they have been truly interested in or who they feel is finally “worth it”. Maybe a lot of us don’t allow our hearts to bleed unless it’s for an extremely important occasion. Maybe extremely important occasions only come by once in a long while. It’s all so cringe worthy, but like it or not a lot of us do think that way. We wait tirelessly for the right moment to the point where we question whether the right moment even noticed us whilst we were standing so still, camouflaged amongst the leaves.

So I’ve been thinking lately, heading into 2016: what do I really want for myself? Do I want to always be this way, or do I want to take some chances? I might have reflected upon this before and I feel like this is a recurring desire in my life; one that prods at me and continues to challenge me like a teacher seeing his student get complacent. What should I do from here? I really have no idea.

The hardest thing to give someone is yourself, but hey, it may very well be the best gift.

The Arts Student’s CNY Cheat Sheet

A relative walks up. You hand him two imperfect oranges. He is an uncle, twice removed. You and him will shake hands. He will hand you a red packet, and you will say thank you as you hesitate between nodding and bowing, and end up doing a little of both.

And then he will ask: “what are you studying now?”

You can predict the entire conversation before it happens. Your cousins are all around, varying slightly in age but all on the same path towards adulthood. You almost forget the answer.

“I’m studying the arts.” You blurt out. Brace yourself.

“Oh,” he begins. “So…what do you want to do in the future?” Bingo.

“I may want to be a teacher. Maybe a journalist? See how it goes lor.” You don’t even know what you’re saying at this point. Your uncertainty is exposed.

“So basically, you don’t really know what you want to do yet.” He is almost barking now, like a detection dog sniffing a drug-trafficker’s ass.

Your eyes shift. Your cousin at the next table is in law school, her brother beside her from business. They are speaking comfortably to an aunt, about their plans for the future, telling her how the stocks are volatile, how an internship at a law firm went stupendously well. How they have a good shot of earning big bucks in the future. The aunt wears a smile that resembles the infinity pool on top of Marina Bay Sands. Prosperity, good fortune and wealth. Everything that embodies Chinese New Year resonates in the flow of the conversation.

But back at your conversation, the water is still. You don’t know what you want to do, but your uncle expects you to. He doesn’t actually care if you succeed or fail, he just expects you to have a plan for the future to facilitate the continuation of the small talk. But there is no plan. He holds the oranges behind his back, adjusts his collar to deal with the heat. “At least you enjoy what you do,” he adds. Wait, what did he mean by at least?

By now you realize you need to say something, but how does one even begin? Alright, let’s give this a shot.

You start by telling him that you accepted an education in the arts based on your interests. Perhaps you were fascinated by certain historical facts, philosophical viewpoints, and geographical occurrences. You loved a nice novel, appreciated the art house films all your friends hated and didn’t mind observing human behaviour for hours at a time. These were things that you wanted to explore and wanted to do, even if it was only the tiniest of inclinations. You chose this path, not because you had nowhere else to go or that it was a safety net. This is a path you actively want to pursue.

Something about the arts had you gravitating towards it, but why was that so? You learned about the exploits of Alexander the Great and wrote a 3000-word paper on cognitive biases. You studied different modules unrelated to your major, wrote countless papers and swore that you were not writing another paragraph again after submitting your final essays. Through that you found out exactly why you took up arts in the first place. It was a humbling journey about what it means to be human. Alexander the Great conquered empires but was defeated by a fever. You now know that our minds are consistently biased no matter how we choose to tweak our rationality. You learned, after all, what it meant to be an emotional being and that it was ok for you to feel vulnerable and small once in a while.

Best of all, the arts taught you to imagine, to think further than what you saw and trust in how you felt. You pined over the deaths of your favourite characters in your literature texts, wrote about a walk down Orchard Road for your creative writing module. You discovered so much about the world without actually seeing as much; surprised yourself by feeling so richly in a city so dull.

And from that imagination, you learned to create. You drew the historical narratives of civilisations long gone, filling in the cracks between excavated relics, piecing together incomplete stories. You wriggled your way through an argument to make your own stand. You interviewed the elderly, construction workers, professors, students and hawker stall owners. It started out as a school project but halfway you realised you were creating a conversation that would otherwise never have happened. You wrote these transcripts at two in the morning, and felt like you were talking to these people for the second time. That didn’t bother you in the least.

The ability to create will get you far. You will chart your own path. You know that money is essential for basic survival but have the courage to assert that your happiness will not be dependent on it. You will do much more than that. In the future you will open a bookstore, write plays, get published, act, dance. Sing. You will give a lecture on post-colonial art forms and your future students will be mesmerised by your words, your readers will love your articles and firms will value your unadulterated creativity.

Being in an arts course is nothing to be ashamed about, after all. You hope that your relatives will understand this by the end of the conversation; that you made a choice to do something you wanted, and that they will have no right to impose their preconceived notions and dictate what you should want from your life. Don’t be shy to share your dreams. At least you enjoy what you do? No. Enjoying what you do is the one thing you should fight for in this life. Start believing that, then perhaps they can begin to understand why you chose to pursue the arts.

Yes, this is what you will say.

Think of the Love that was Found

Think of the love that was found, and how many people wander about their entire lives, never quite finding such love, never fully delving in such throes of passion. Think about how the entire year had gone by and this love only grew. Think about that for a while.

Be happy for this, not scared. You’re about to embark on deeper commitments that of which will test your discipline and daily mettle. How much do you really want this? Ask yourself this question everyday; when classes end, before you sleep, before you embark on yet another chapter. Keep asking yourself: what is it you’re writing for, and maybe the answer will creep up on you when you least expect it.

Think about love that was lost, love put on hold, passions that had no follow up. Think about how action need not equate to intention, that acts of love need not equate to love itself, that love may just be much more than what you do, but sometimes manifests in the things you don’t. Don’t think of failure as the affirmation that love is beyond you. Think of failure as love that overflowed and underwhelmed all at once, that gave evidence of feelings, albeit stuck in the wrong places, like fine wine downed by an alcoholic or fluffy tiramisu put into jars (I hate cakes in general).

Think about those who want to love but are unable to. You know how that feels, so feel that again, and in feeling the emptiness, learn to appreciate all that is whole in your life. You know you haven’t been doing that lately so learn to. Maybe just this once, before you forget.

Think again of the love that was found. From the quiet nights after 2 am to the surge of passion on the bus ride from Toa Payoh to Clementi. Know that this desire will follow you. It will leave its scent on the nape of your collar, the stench of its intimate parts deep within the roots of your hair. You will get lost in a metaphor and play with the similes. You will find out new things everyday, search deeper, feel more and explore what it is that makes you love. This is the closest you’ll come to being yourself, and the funny thing is you don’t even believe this as you type.

But one day you will believe. I believe that one day you will believe. It’s a convoluted faith, but since when was anything convoluted necessarily something to abhor? You love the convolutions, the pain, the dilemmas and the misery. You want nothing but to dive headlong into trouble. But when you come up for air, I want you to remember that you are a lucky man, lucky to have found what you love. A lucky man indeed, even though that doesn’t sound convincing to you just yet.

I Wrote a Post About NS, and This is What Happened

One year ago today, the most peculiar thing happened.

I was on the brink of leaving my service in the army, when I published this post on the 5 things I’ve learnt from my national service.

It garnered some attention, and I have to say that it was a positive post on the most part. Hell, it was fun to write, and I felt that whilst writing it that perhaps not all was lost during those two years. I may have learnt a thing or two (5 was just an arbitrary number).

That was when things started to go wrong. I had a Whatsapp message from my superior, telling me that the post was getting unwanted attention and that I had to take it down. His line of argument was that some sensitive information about the training procedures and that some of the behaviour the men displayed in my post could not be revealed. All this happened within a day of the post being cast on the web, and the entire process was quick. I was ushered back to camp with frightening haste and I remembered feeling like it was all a mistake. What could my post do to the strong fabric of the armed forces, and what could this all mean to the future of this little space that I had carved out for myself?

On the way back to camp, I knew of two things. First was that my intention was never to reveal any secrets or to tarnish the name of the army. Remember that this was a positive post about what I’d learnt and it was a more or less enriching, coming-of-age sort of outline I wanted to carve. And I felt like I did it pretty succinctly too, one lesson leading up to the next, where a flow was well thought out from start to finish. Of course, that kind of subtlety fell short of any actual appreciation by this higher authority. Secondly, I found myself feeling unhappy that I had to remove the post. It was a post that was truthful. It held the actual contents of what we did, the things we went through and the pain that ensued. It was this pain, in its most raw form, that ultimately helped us grow stronger, closer and more cognisant of who we were as individuals and within a group. It was an accurate portrayal of what had happened, yet I started to realise that just because something was true doesn’t mean the world had to know about it. Or should I correct myself; it doesn’t mean the world should know about it. There’s a difference between the two, and the latter certainly implies more serious consequences.

I suddenly had a list of people to talk to. The entire power structure of the camp, from my batch mates to the camp commander, seemed to know of my post. One of my superiors showed me his Whatsapp chat with screenshots of my post passed around on the regulars group chat. If I hadn’t appreciated the power of words before that, I certainly appreciated it there and then. Words were powerful, and when used wrongly or concisely (and in this case, both) can make men with lofty ranks and well-ironed uniforms shudder. Words have the ability to disassemble, reassemble and make what was once known feel inconsequential or thrust them under different filters of light. It reveals and conceals, fights and defends. Such is the power of words.

I’m not saying all this out of thin air, though it may seem that way. From what the superiors told me about that post, I was convinced time and again on two conflicting trains of thought. First was that my post was pretty awesome for having caused all this mayhem within a well organised system, and second that my post was the silliest thing I could have published due to the unnecessary chaos that ensued. Here’s what I mean.

From a very practical perspective, I should never have posted that post. I should never even have made any changes. I should have taken that post down. It was silly. I was silly. My post did nothing to change the system. It was but water under the bridge once I had it removed, with many levels of the age old hierarchy breathing a mighty sigh of relief. They told me of the logic simply. There were state secrets in the posts, descriptions of army trainings, overseas training locations and silly one liners about how the way of life was within the unit. Secondly they took issue with a particular incident of troop misbehaviour that I described at length. I felt that this particular incident was important, but they maintained that it would erode the unit’s reputation. The thing is, everyone within every unit knows that every unit probably has its own form of misdemeanour and sloppiness observed amongst the troops. I mean, come on. When you enlist 25,000 young men a year against their will, you can bet that a good portion of them will break some of the rules. Everyone knows these things, but for the life of them this had to be an unspoken truth. No one was actually going to write a well-organised, sufficiently thought out post that people would take seriously. Until I tried to, and found out why these things are only mentioned in passing on anonymous NS confessions pages.

Which is precisely why I felt that I should have posted that post. I regret taking that post down for those few days, but it’s easy to say such things when you look back. I had to talk to so many superiors that day and one thing was clear: the position they held over what should have been done was still in contention. One of them asked if I had taken the post down and when I told him “Yes sir, I have.” he looked at me incredulously and said “Boy, you shouldn’t have. I see nothing wrong with your post.” On the other hand, the camp commander spoke firmly to me, telling me things involving state security and reputation. I nodded along. He spoke in very fluent English with a deep voice, and I respected his authority. My point here is that there must have been some sort of active discourse amongst the guys up there over this. There must have been those that felt that there was nothing wrong with it, but ultimately someone in the force had to put their foot down and say “no, remove that” and it just so happens that the guy with the higher rank gets the most say. I intended for none of this, but all the better that it happened.

But other than some in-camp discussions and frantic attempts to snuff out my post, I felt that the main thing that was compromised that day was the truth. My point of contention was whether the facade the formation tried to keep up was more important than the truth. The answer still lies in a grey area for me. It really led me to question whether certain things could ever be known to the world, and whether what we saw on the media was only there after layer upon layer of heavy filtering and proofreading. I’m not saying that these practices are bad, I’m just wondering whether there’s ever a way to distinguish between gross misrepresentation and a “constructed truth”. I should have been more rigorous that day. I should have edited the post and saw it for the sensitivities it neglected and the inconvenient truths it espoused. In many ways I regret not doing so. But when I wrote the post that day I did not aim to have any filters. Whatever came out was the truth. I set out not to cause a uproar amongst the superiors, not to garner popularity, not to manoeuvre my way around what could or couldn’t be written. I set out to write a good post. That was all I wanted and I felt that telling the story as it was, to tell the truth, was the best way to achieve that. Too bad it doesn’t always turn out the way you want it to.

Nevertheless, what happened that day didn’t discourage me from writing. In fact, I wrote a lot more after that, thinking my way around each post and finding new life from the words that sprung from the keyboard. One of my superiors encouraged me to revisit the post, edit it and put it up again. And that was just what I did. Having so many mixed reviews and conflicting pieces of advice was what made me feel like the entire post was worth it. From people telling me to take it down immediately to those who told me they saw nothing wrong with the post, I felt like my writing achieved a plurality of ambiguous sentiments, from the outright slammers to those that encouraged. It provoked discussion. It made people scratch their heads. Most importantly, it gave people a faint notion of the inconveniences, the triumphs and the pain that came with serving the nation.

It attacked, defended, and united. That’s what every good piece of writing should aim to achieve.

 

The Repairman’s Son

There was once a small village on the edge of a small island. The inhabitants of this little village were a joyous bunch; never bickering, never resentful, and in all respects, always harmonious. The village chief tended over the major decisions concerning the village: agriculture, housing and community were his three major concerns. Along with his motley crew of village elders, he ruled over this tiny village with unerring authority.

The villagers lived happily. In the day, the men would work the fields or fish in the calm ocean while the women tended to housework and childrearing. The children would chase after anything they could, the chickens, pigs, each other. They imagined fierce scenes of epic battles and ran about with imaginary swords and shields, reciting the favourite battle cries their fathers had taught them. Once a week on Wednesday, the entire village would congregate in front of the chief’s hut in the evening, where a large bonfire would be created and the villagers would engage in song and dance. The drummers beat the drums with zest. Dirt would be kicked up as drinks were passed around, but this didn’t perturb the villagers in the least; they loved the routine, and lived to get lost in the unrelenting rhythm and exhausting footwork of their traditional dance.

The Chief would sit on the verandah of his hut, and look at the silhouette of his people as the fire flickered to the rhythm of the drums. He was proud of the harmony they had achieved; for he knew that not all the villages on the island enjoyed similar peace.

Perhaps the only thing he held dearer than his own village was his precious daughter. She was the only semblance of family he knew, for his wife died while giving birth to her. The entire village went into mourning on that misty morning seventeen years ago, as the chief held his fragile newborn in his hands and wept uncontrollably over the body of his dead wife.

After all the time had past, the fragile newborn grew up to be a beautiful young woman. She began to have a reputation among the boys in the village. Unable to escape the heat of adolescence, it was not a question of whether they’d fall for her, but when they’d fall for her and to what extent would they profess their love. The chief was fully aware of such advances, and warned her daughter to keep to herself and choose her acquaintances wisely. She slowly discovered the power of her beauty as more boys came to her doorstep, and regarded herself too precious for a mere commoner to pursue. She shut herself up in her room and immersed in her favourite hobby of painting and drawing, only leaving her private space when she absolutely needed to.

One day, the chief found out over breakfast that there was a gaping hole on his roof where sunlight leaked in and illuminated the living area. It added an uncomfortable glare to the everyday. Worst, if it were to rain (which it did on a daily basis) there would be a severe leakage which would flood the hut. He immediately called for one of his trusted villagers to fix the hole in the roof, an old repairman who had decades of experience with such matters.

“Sorry, but tell the chief that I am sick today,” the repairman told the messenger. “My son, on the other hand, is very experienced at such matters as well. I have taught him the technicalities of repair work since he was a boy. Bring him instead, and he will render your roof good as new.”

And so the messenger brought the repairman’s son back to the Chief’s hut, and with a bamboo ladder, he immediately set about his work.

The boy was eighteen years old, and had a strong build and was tall enough that he only needed to ascend to the second rung of the ladder. He reached up with hammer and nail, with a few panels of wood at his disposal. He set about fixing the roof, one tedious nail at a time.

The Chief’s daughter could not concentrate on her painting. There was a soft hammering sound coming from outside her room, and she found that it drove her mad with its consistency and subtle aggression. She tried to continue with her work at first, but her patience soon ran thin. She walked out her room to discover the source of the sound.

It was hard to say who noticed whom first, but when the boy saw her, he almost fell off the ladder. He held on to the ceiling with upturned palms to maintain his balance. He had seen her from afar on rare occasions, but this close proximity was something entirely new to him. She was truly a beauty, and he had not prepared himself for such a sight. Her hair caught some of the light leaking from the ceiling, refracting it into brilliant shades of black and brown. She had oval shaped eyes that tilted downwards, that gave her eyes the tinge of undecipherable sadness. He turned his head casually and nodded at her, not giving away the true state of how he felt.

She walked up to him, and asked him, “I’m trying to do my artwork inside, is there any way you can reduce the volume in which you go about your work? It is highly distracting and prevents me from creating good art.”

Not knowing what to say, he simply replied, “but mam, this is the nature of repair work. There is no shortcut to it, the loud noise of the hammer to the nail fastens the nail firmly into place. Without the noise, the nail cannot go in, and your roof will not be restored. Water and sunlight will continue leaking in.”

For a moment after, boy and girl looked at each other, a moment that hung in time like white linen on a clothesline. “Fine,” she retorted, “you’d better make a good job out of this, alright? I don’t want to be distracted for nothing.”

He remained silent as she trudged back to her room. Strangely, he noticed that she did not close the door behind her this time. From where he stood, he could see her sitting behind her desk, busily applying brilliant brushstrokes to the vacant sheet of paper on her desk. He did not know why she left the door open despite the noise, but knew for sure that he had to come back again to see her.

Clumsily, he shuffled his ladder a few steps to the right. Making sure that no one was looking, he used the back of his hammer and removed three nails from another part of the ceiling. Keeping these nails in his pocket, he dismounted the ladder, and called for the messenger. In all accounts, the roof had been repaired. The messenger handed him some cash from the Chief and the boy shuffled back to his father. The work was done — or so they thought.

Of course, it wasn’t long before the boy was called back again. Another part of the chief’s roof was (unsurprisingly) left with a gaping hole. He walked up to the hut with a bounce in his step, and went about fixing the ceiling with unrivalled passion.

“Why are you here again?” Asked the Chief’s daughter, “weren’t you here just a few days ago?” She had stepped out of her room again, much to the boy’s delight.

“The roof needs fixing, there’s no two ways about it. I have to be here if not sunlight and water will leak through the roof,” he replied in an almost mechanical fashion.

“That’s what you said the last time,” she pouted.

“Well, there’s nothing more I can say, is there?” He added, “My role is simple, I climb up this bamboo ladder and I fix your roof. You go into your room and continue with your paintings. As long as the roof fails you, I’ll be here and as long as you have ideas in your head, you’ll continue painting. There’s really no two ways about it, is there?”

“I guess not. Anyway, don’t rush this time, alright? And be careful. You need to make sure the roof doesn’t fail my father again.” She walked back, and like the last time, left the door open as she sat at her desk to continue her work. She might have even looked up at him once or twice, though he was sure he was imagining things. It was an unusual habit of hers that kept him in complete askance.

After the repair work was done, he shuffled over to another part of the ceiling and removed three more nails from the woodwork. He needed to find out more about her.

She walked up to him again on his third visit.

“How do you stand this?” She asked.

“Stand what?”

She sighed. “How do you stand fixing this roof all the time? How come you never once complain about it being too tiring, or find it a poor use of your time?”

He thought this over for a while. “I’ve never thought of this as a waste of time. It’s just my role. It’s my role to stand on this flimsy bamboo ladder and fix your roof. I think we’ve established that before.”

“But don’t you get tired of it?”

“Nope. I don’t think so. My father has taught me this skill since young and I’ve learnt to love this job. It’s hard to explain to you. Your entire life has been devoted to something entirely different. How would you ever know where I’m coming from? All I can say is, the only thing you have to be concerned about is your own happiness. You can only be in a position to make others happy if you are happy with yourself. That’s what I tell myself before every job.”

Now it was her turn to think his words over. “How did you know that I wasn’t happy?”

Huh? Did I ever mention that?” He was taken aback.

“You know it,” she said as a matter of fact. “You just do. You know that this routine I manage; staying in the house, immersing myself in what I want people to believe is art…you know that this, too, gets tiring.”

“I honestly didn’t think of it that way,” he replied. It was true. He didn’t.

“That’s funny,” she retorted, “I thought you knew all along that I wasn’t truly happy here.”  

The next time he visited, the chief became suspicious. He spoke directly to the boy. “If the roof spoils again, I want your father to come. I don’t know what you’ve been doing, but the roof is breaking as we speak. I don’t need small patchworks anymore if that’s the case. I need your father’s experience to fix this problem once and for all.”

The fact that he may never have the chance to see the Chief’s daughter again saddened him, and his repair work was sloppier this time. The hammer frequently slipped off the nail head and he had trouble aligning the path of each nail.

The job took much longer this time. Though the door was open, she didn’t leave her room the entire time, and his occasional glances at her direction did nothing to stir her steady countenance. She continued looking down at her desk, applying generous brushstrokes to her work.

She did leave her room eventually.

“Leave the ladder there,” she motioned to him just before he left. “I’ll stow it away for you. You’ve done a great job, now go home and rest.” And with that, any hope of removing more nails were dashed. Not that it would have made a difference. His father was coming down the next time. He stepped down the creaky ladder, and left promptly, wordlessly, leaving not a trace of himself behind.

Two remarkable things happened over the next few days. Firstly, the old repairman got the news that a large section of the roof over the Chief’s hut had collapsed. This was startling news to his son, for he did not remember tampering with such large sections of the ceiling, and that he remembered the general structure of the ceiling to be more than able to hold its own weight. He didn’t wonder any further, though, when his father asked him to follow along for the repair work.

This was followed almost immediately by devastating news. There had been border clashes between theirs and a neighbouring state over an elevated plateau on the southern ridges. There was no initial use for the plateau, but precious minerals had been found by wandering villagers from the neighbouring state. Initially, there were friendly talks to share the haul, but before anything was resolved, a foreign soldier patrolling the area shot a local villager to death as he was illegally sifting through the land. Large questions about the other states’ agenda was soon raised, and tensions increased. All this led to one outcome: the state was recruiting young men to buff up on its defences. Trucks rolled into the village square and men in military uniform stepped up to the chief’s hut to deliver the bad news.

“What will happen to them? Will they return back safely?” He asked, head to the ground in genuine shock.

“There is no saying if they will. The tensions are at a boiling point now with the other state. They are recruiting from the villages as well, and we have no choice but to follow suit. These are orders from the city, and you know how it goes. No one can argue with the guys in the city.”

“But who will catch the fish, who will plow the land, and who will raise the livestock after all these men are gone? We’ve had generations of peace and you’re just going to take it all away in a matter of days?” The Chief was at a loss by now.

“There is nothing we can do about this. Just make sure that every able bodied male between the ages of eighteen and forty will be ready to leave when we come back next week. There is nothing more we have for you.”

The men left as quickly as they came.

Having just turned eighteen a few months ago, the repairman’s son wasn’t spared from this cruel turn of events.

“Don’t you want to rest today, son?” Asked the repairman. “Tough days lie ahead.”

“It’s ok, I’ll help you out this time.”

The repairman looked at his son, a close look of introspective scrutiny. It was amazing how much he had grown, his arms well-defined and scruffy hair spilling down his forehead. He suddenly felt a pang of guilt. He should have noticed his son more when he still had the time. He should have stopped by his room to ask him how it was at the village classrooms or in the sweltering fields.

“Follow me, son. Let’s make a good job out of this.”

He soon discovered that she wasn’t at home. Her door was left open but there was no trace of her the whole time. He held on to the hope that she would appear, tapping his ankle from behind and asking him about his day. She didn’t. He merely stood there as his father directed him to hammer the nails into the appropriate spots. Even the chief was there, but he could not ask him anything to do with his daughter. It would be too suspicious.

Nail after nail was painstakingly hammered into the wooden frame, and with every strike, the feeling of numb despondency grew within his chest. It caused his stomach to clench up, and before long he felt weak in the knees. He felt a pang of guilt all at once, for wasn’t his father looking up at him as well? Was his presence not more than a girl that he had only talked to a few times? He forced the thought of her out of his mind, his efforts condensing into a wane smile that barely stirred his cheekbones.

There would be one last ceremony before the departure of the men. On the warm Wednesday night before the trucks came to take them away, the entire village gathered in front of the chief’s hut for a farewell ceremony of sorts. The drums were beating, and the men drank excessively, wanting to drown any worries they had as they held their loved ones close to them. The repairman’s son, however, sat alone. His friends tried to get him to dance around the fire but he had no such desire to. There were questions that were left unresolved, and he did not want to forget these questions. His father would glance over at him occasionally, but after a few drinks he no longer had the energy to worry about his son. There was too much sadness within his heart to acknowledge that his only son was going to enlist.

The repairman’s son felt a tap on his shoulder. It was one of the chief’s servants. The servant handed him a folded up note, and immediately scurried off into the crowd. Holding the thin, yellowing paper on his fingertips, he opened it to reveal the contents:

Meet at the back door of my house, now.

When the repairman turned back to look at his son, there was a vacant seat where he used to be. He looked into the dancing crowd and smiled, downing the contents of his cup.

She was waiting for him at the back door. She wore a light blue dress that appeared illuminated in the dense moonlight, yet it was everything else about her that made his heart skip a quick beat. He walked up to her silently, and was standing beside her in the space of a few steps. He knew not what to say.

“Let’s take a walk,” she suggested, breaking the silence.

And so they walked quietly under the gaze of the moon, out onto the open road then into the stirring paddy fields. The crops brushed against the both their sides as they manoeuvred through the narrow path. There was the constant buzz of crickets in the air, and clingy moisture stuck to their skin. Deeper in they walked.

“How have the last few days been?” He ventured. The silence was becoming unbearable.

“I should be asking you that,” she started. “But yes, the last few days haven’t been very good. I’ve been worried.”

“Worried? What do you have to worry about?”

“It’s not about what I’m worried about, it’s a matter of who I’m worried about.”

It took him awhile to understand the meaning of her words, but his chain of thought was unspooled when she suddenly stopped walking when they reached a small clearing. He halted as well, and they now stood beside each other.

She looked at him in earnest. “Take care of yourself out there.”

“Thank you.” He could barely contain himself, but just managed to.

She continued, “I should thank you. Thank you for being someone I could talk to. People like you are hard to come by, and I never thought I could talk to anyone like this. My father has devoted his entire life warning me against ever sharing my life with anyone.”

“Aren’t you sick of that?”

“I never thought of it as something to dread. But…” She paused for a while. “But when I talked to you it made me realize just how lonely I was. It’s strange isn’t it? Talking to someone made me feel lonely.”

Not knowing whether she was complimenting him or not, he chose to remain silent. He did not want this to end. If only he could dissolve into the moonlight and just observe this moment from a distance for all eternity.

“The moment my mom died giving birth to me, I’ve felt like it was my fate to feel this lonely. My dad could never fully compensate for her absence, yet tried so hard. Being protective of me was all he knew, and I just took part in his designs without knowing how much hurt it had caused me.”

“Well, in that sense your father cared a whole lot for you,” he ventured, “It may have had the wrong outcomes, but you know for sure that someone cared. My father was always too busy running around the village all day that I grew up not talking much to him. He was there, but never present. Does that make sense? I had to make my way around the world by myself, without him asking too much of me.”

“Which one of us do you think is better off?” She asked. “I’ve got a sense that we’ve both been pretty messed up by our upbringing.”

“I wouldn’t like to think that. I’m sure my father had his reasons for being away so much. Making money through sheer labour is hard work. I’ve begun to discover that the day I started fixing the roof of your house.”

She smiled sheepishly to the ground. “Perhaps our shortcomings cannot be fully attributed to the side-effects of our upbringings.”

“Probably not,” he replied, and feeling more at ease now, reached out to hold her hand. However, she sensed this motion and quickly hid her hands behind her back.

He looked up at her, mildly hurt.

“Let’s just enjoy this moment with each other.” She sat down in the small clearing, and he did the same.

They sat there in silence for the longest time, both looking up at the source of the moonlight, both secretly hoping for this moment to last longer than it possibly could. The silver orb hung saliently in the sky, a reminder that time will move on through demarcated cycles whether or not one wishes otherwise.

With the waxing and waning of the moon, months passed, followed by years. The repairman’s son went off to defend his state, and found himself posted to the unit for border patrol. It was through sheer luck and instinct that he managed to stay alive. There were instances where he had to fight, others where he had to flee. The border skirmishes were fierce, and there were times where he watched his friends die in front of his eyes.

Worst was the fact that he had blood on his hands. A village boy from the neighbouring state once ran to him with a machete in hand. Barely in his teens, there was a look of bloodlust in his eyes, a look that signaled his intent to hack at any exposed flesh. He had no choice but to fire his rifle, and watched as bone fragments flew out from the boys kneecap in a spray of blood. The boy let out the most primal scream before passing out immediately from the pain. He knew the boy would never be able to walk again, but just left him in the bushes.

The experiences compounded, one more gruesome than the next. It was in his lowest moments that he thought of her, thought of the things she had told him during the last night, but most of all thought of the things she had yet to tell him. These were the things he would long to hear the moment he was back. It was ultimately this blind faith that kept him fighting deep within the jungles.

* * *

Three years passed. Three years of tireless patrolling and numerous near death experiences kept him rooted to the world. His purpose as a soldier, a defender of the land was left branded on his skin, the scar healing over and left deeply imprinted in his mind. He didn’t know just how much he had changed, but knew for sure that he would never be the same again. When he was hungry he longed for food and when thirsty he longed for water. Those weren’t the lowest points. The lowest points were the moments right after he ate or drank, when he was physically satiated but felt so emotionally drained. He missed his father, and cried for his mother. His heart would sink for no particular reason, yet for every possible reason. He missed her, and cried for her. He missed all that there was to miss of a life he feared he would never get back, a life he knew nothing of anymore. It was sheer torture, but no one would ever know of it.

The conflict ended as abruptly as it began. The soldiers returned all their weapons into the back of a huge truck one day, and were told to all board a separate vehicle. Somebody spread the message that they were going home. He chose not to believe anything, but started to accept this fact when the truck drove for hours, past all the border patrols and back into his own state.

The smell of mud filled his lungs, and the sounds of children playing, pigs rolling about and of the occasional crow of a rooster lingered on the peripheries. No matter what life chooses to bring you through, there are a few outstanding subtleties that will always serve as the reminder of a time long past. Your senses pick up on them like an itch of an amputated limb. It was then that he understood the true meaning of nostalgia, and it was then that it finally hit him, that this may just be the end. He closed his eyes and took in the smells and sounds once more, and like many of the men on the truck, began to weep freely. He was home.

Father and son reunited, and both marveled at how the other had changed so much. There was a freshness that was absent in the son, the tendencies one would associate with youth siphoned out by harsh experiences. The father’s head was awash with white hair, and his wrinkles had taken hold of his entire facial form like a slowly tightening handshake. His was a portrait of a man burdened by worries. Father and son talked for what seemed like the first time in their lives. One talked about his trials while the other of his worries. Both spoke of immense regret, and both shed tears about their sleepless nights. Both were irrevocably grateful at seeing the other again, yet immediately apologetic for not realising earlier, just how much they had needed each other. Hardship has its own way of reallocating such sentiments where it is needed the most.

“What about her? Where is she?” The son asked his father.

“Her?” He echoed.

“The chief’s daughter. Where is she? Is she still here?” He was suddenly reminded of their last conversation again. Three years had passed without him meaning for it.

“I think you should go to the chief’s house. You’ll want to hear it from the chief himself,” intoned the father solemnly.

The repairman’s son had no time for false hopes or lingering questions, and so quickly made his way to the chiefs’ hut on that short notice.

From a distance, the house looked the same as he had last recalled, but upon closer inspection, he noticed how poorly maintained it had been. There were cracks on the walls and cobwebs on every imaginable corner where wall met ceiling. The paint on the wooden panels had started to peel off, and the entire prospect of entering such a changed space scared him. The door opened before he had a chance to knock.

It was the village chief.

“Welcome back,” he said weakly. His smile was a wane one. There was a drink in his hand. It was probably alcoholic.

“I came to ask about…” his resolve tapered off like the end of a mixed tape.

“There’s nothing left to fix, if that’s what you’re asking,” said the chief as a matter of fact. “There’s something you’ll need to know, and I think I would be the best one to tell you about it.”

“Where is she?” Came the words. Courageous on the outset, but part of him knew that it was an empty question.

“Come in, and we’ll talk about it.”

Both of them walked into an empty house, dusty with months, or even years of neglect. He pulled a chair to a small, rickety table and placed it opposite the chief. Both men sat down in silence. Sunlight streamed in through a miniscule hole in the roof. Both men tried their best to ignore it.

“Where is she?” He repeated. “I’ve been wanting to know this for three years now. Spare me the rhetoric.”

It was the chief’s turn to speak. “We went through terrible times here. I’ll say that first as the backdrop to the entire story I’m about to tell you. It was terrible. There were frequent raids, and our resources were scarce. There was no longer any trade between states, and so we all had to become self-sufficient. Each villager helped the other out and somehow we made it through together. Troops would sometimes march in and demand for food, and we’d have to give them some of our share every time. We had to. Who knows what they would have done to the women if we hadn’t? Who knows what worst atrocities would have been committed?”

The repairman’s son stayed silent, listening intently.

“And so years passed like that. As you can see from the condition of this house, our efforts were focused more on agriculture and sustenance rather than basic maintenance and housekeeping. That was how bad it was. I kept her in her room the whole time, and made sure she was protected from everything that could have happened. Raids passed, hungry nights, terrified children. We went through all of it; yet the whole time my main concern was her. I believed that by keeping her indoors, that I was keeping her safe.

“A few weeks ago, she escaped. She simply disappeared and for a few days, no one could find her. I immediately set up a search party, but because all the young men were gone it wasn’t a very effective one. We searched the surrounding area of the village, but she was nowhere to be found.

“It was only on the fifth day that we saw her again, but not in the way we expected. She was paraded into the village with a group of soldiers, and in the middle of the crowd I saw her, weeping and in the arms of a man. She looked weak with grief and I immediately ran up to her, only to have five weapons pointed at me with alarming immediacy. It was soon that I learned that the man was not just any man, but the prince of the neighbouring state. I was told how he had found her stumbling through the jungles during his routine survey of the land, how she had walked for four days until she was near the borders.

“I immediately demanded that she be returned to us, but that was when the prince delivered an ultimatum. He gave us two options. We could choose for him to return her. But as soon as they did the soldiers would burn down the entire village and rape the women. His second option was simpler: he wanted her hand in marriage, and needed my blessing for this ritual to be fulfilled.”

The repairman’s son put his face in his hands.

“I know what you’re thinking, that I’m a cowardly man, that I would rather give her up for this idea of peace. But what choice did I have? I loved her too much, and perhaps that was the ultimate price I had to pay. A love so strong should never be allowed to exist.” He took a large sip from his drink. It had a strong stinging scent, and was definitely alcoholic. “I don’t know. I didn’t want it to end that way, but I thought of all the women and children, the old, defenseless men. I couldn’t put them through all that destruction, and I couldn’t weigh up her worth and decide it was more than the well being of the entire village. In my heart I would have just run away with her, but in my mind I knew I owed a life to my people.”

“So you gave him your blessing,” accused the repairman’s son. His fist was clenched so tight the blood drained from it.

“Yes, I did. And there was one last condition the Prince offered to me: that if he could have my daughter, that he would withdraw his troops from our area so that all our men could return home.”

“How could you have just believed him like that?” The repairman’s son was livid by now. “She’s your damn daughter! No father should just give her daughter away on mere promises.”

The chief took a deep breath. “Ah, but you see, aren’t you in front of me now, and are we not having this conversation in the comfort of our village? Even if you managed to survive the next few months or years of fighting, you would have come back to a burned down village, shallow graves and horrible stories. What kind of life would that be? There is a time to let go dear boy, and I urge you to treasure what you have left of your life.”

He looked up at the chief, and then at the ground. His words were firm and undeniable.

“And by the way,” the chief continued, “have you talked to your dad? He has missed you every day since you departed.”

“Yes I have. We haven’t talked as much in our entire lives.”

“That’s great. Then you’d be ready for this. Follow me.”

The chief stood up, and led the repairman’s son to his daughter’s room.

He had never been in the room before, but remembered looking at her from where he stood, looking tenderly at her artwork as she applied measured brushstrokes. It brought back a stab of pain.

“I want you to look into the drawer,” the chief spoke.

He stepped forward and leaned over the table. Hands trembling, he reached for the knob and tugged at it.

What he saw at first confused him. There was a pile of paper, and on top was a painting of a soldier in uniform, sitting comfortably under a huge banyan tree. The soldier held a hammer in one hand and a nail in the other. That was when he understood. Impeccable brushstrokes imprinted the background of a brilliant sunset. There were a few more paintings under that, the next one of two people under the moonlight in a large paddy field. There was a girl in a light blue dress whom he presumed was herself, and a boy sitting beside her, a hammer in one hand and a nail in the other. The moonlight painted their faces, faces of quiet contemplation. Again, he understood. The last three paintings were undoubtedly portraits of him, a boy on a ladder, reaching up to fix the ceiling, standing comfortably on the second rung. From her vantage point this was the exact view of him. His heart elevated and sank all at once, it was a feeling that was impossible to describe.

Sifting through further, he felt something sharp underneath the last painting of himself, and removed the rest of the artwork altogether and put it at one side.

At the bottom of the drawer, he discovered, lay a bed of rusted nails.

Life’s Too Short for the In-Betweens

What defines our worth, and what makes us tick? I’ve been thinking about this for a few weeks now, and I’ve come to the conclusion that to fight for what you love is one of the most complex things to undertake. To try to understand this better, I’ve thought of four testimonies from four imaginary individuals. By and large, these individuals are a combination of the people I’ve talked to or observed, and the stories I’ve weaved are an amalgamation of the stories they hold dear to them. And so like most fictional work, this is a mere reallocation of fact into more digestible chunks. I hope you will find some meaning in them. 

* * *

“This all started the moment I saw this small puppy on the sidewalk. It was about three years ago, and I was walking home from work when I saw her. Her hind legs had no fur on them and there were large abrasions running down the entire length of her tigh. She was gasping for breath and her dark brown fur was moist from the morning dew. Clearly, she had been abandoned either by her owner or her mother. Either way, she would have died from exposure had I not seen her. Carefully, I scooped her up; her small body fit snugly in my cupped palms. She showed no fear at all as I held her, and I figured that at the brink of death, all fear must have been stripped away. Walking into the veterinary centre, I presented the puppy to the counter woman, and she brought the poor thing into the vet’s office immediately. I immediately took the day off work and sat at the waiting area, hoping for a miracle; hoping for anything that would save the poor puppy.

This whole episode was a turning point in my life. In the few months that followed, I quit my office job and opened an animal rescue centre. It sounds really simple when I state it out, but the first few months were hell, and it was really difficult getting any support. Many of the animals that came in were too injured or sick and it broke our hearts to put them down. My family and friends did not support any of it at first, and the whole idea that I was getting my salary based on charity was unthinkable to them. But after all this time, they’re starting to figure out that this is a job that was meant just for me. To save one animal was a triumph in itself, and it brings me a joy that I’m still coming to terms with. Right now, things are stable, and at the entrance of the rescue centre is a small grave for the puppy that started this whole thing. We call her Inuka, and I hope she’s happy where she is, and in the difference she has made.”

* * *

“I like to run. I don’t know how I could have envisioned my life doing any other sport. Back in Primary school I was never the sporty kind. I joined the chess club (not that there is anything wrong with chess, except that I was horrible at it) while all my other friends went on to play soccer, basketball, hockey. I never felt envious per se, but part of me knew that I wanted to do some sort of sport. I was an active kid who just couldn’t find his outlet.

I joined running in secondary one not because it interested me, but because there was nothing else to join. I just figured out that running wasn’t the hardest thing to do. How could I possibly mess up? During the first training I discovered just how bad I was at this “simple sport”. After one warm up jog I already felt faint and my chest hurt. After the whole training session was over, I felt physically depleted, and worst of all, felt a strong sense of self loathing. How did I get myself into such a state? This was a question I asked myself training session after training session.

Time passed, and I watched while groups of students joined and left the CCA, joining other sports like hockey, rugby, soccer. I stayed. I stayed not in spite of the pain, but because of it. The pain and exhaustion bit at me so hard that I had no choice but to bite back harder at it. There was no other way, and such a struggle within my head made me feel like after all this time, I was finally proving something to myself. 9 years have passed, and when people ask me what sport I play, I answer proudly, “I am a runner.””

* * *

“There is no way to describe how happy I feel right now, but I know with all this happiness comes the possibility of tremendous disappointment. It’s as if I’ve got exactly what I wanted when I wasn’t looking for it. I didn’t even have to find it, but somehow this person just appeared in my life. Yes. He just appeared, and the best thing was that he didn’t even try. With everyone before it was as if something was being forced, some game was being played or some objective was being conquered. With him it just feels effortless, it feels…right. Sometimes a glance feels like an hour-long probe into my soul yet with the things he says, we can talk for hours without it even feeling like hours. Time either stands stock still or rushes past when he’s around, and I don’t know if this reality even holds any weight anymore.

He’s leaving for the states tomorrow, and I don’t know how to feel about it. Sadness would be a good option, but I know that’s not what he’d want me to feel, so I have to force myself not to show it. We had one last walk together yesterday, and I asked him if he was willing to try. All he could tell me was that he didn’t want to hold me down. I guess I have made my own plans and he has made his, and there’s nothing we can really do to change that. What I do know is that I am willing to try. Life is too short for the in-betweens, don’t you think? Perhaps this is silly and I may get hurt really, really badly, but this little voice in my head is telling me that this might just be worth it.”

* * *

“For the past few years I have been raised single-handedly by my dad. I wouldn’t say that my childhood was abject misery, but through my formative years I’ve witnessed some things and felt certain emotions that no kid should ever have to go through. All I know is that through all this, I’ve had nothing but respect for him. That, and a love deeper than I’d like to admit. Though he’d never feel this way, I’d like to think that he was my very own superhero through these years. My friends all had other idols and heroes that were physically superior and much easier on the eyes, but as long as my dad could carry my weight I’d always feel that that was enough. More than enough, in fact. And that was our biggest difference: my dad never felt like he was good enough. He always apologised for not being there for me, for falling asleep on the couch before I came back home, for the late shifts that meant he couldn’t see me off to school the next day. I saw him once when I woke up to visit the toilet. He was hunched over the book cabinet at four in the morning, reaching deep in to repair a loose hinge, his legs skinny and back full of sweat. That was when I realised how tough it must have been for him all along, that when grief rendered me insular that I never considered that somebody was up at 4 am trying so hard to fix our lives again. I just want to take this chance to say thank you, Dad. You never gave up on us, so there will never be a reason for me to give up on you. You have been and will always be the greatest superhero in my life.”

* * *

To fight for what you love is a complex thing, but like the examples above show, we owe it to ourselves to give it a shot. A famous author once said that we only get two or three chances of finding true happiness in our lives, and in the light of that we have to grasp at any opportunity we’ve got at finding it. I believe that our passions have a higher function; not just to make us happy, but also to mould who we are as people; to define our very being. We are but the sum of our life choices, and many of these choices are inextricably linked to the things we love and hold dear to us. In that respect, there is no time for any half-assed attempts at what we truly desire and long for. The struggles that are borne out of these passions eventually make for a life worth living, or at least a life you can be happy with. This privilege is not to be trifled with, and I hope the above examples have encapsulated such a sentiment.