The rusty tram clanged through the dusky heart
Of the town steadying itself for
Another night of swift forgetfulness.
It had transported me out of the bamboo groves
And the endless cabbage farms –
The slumber of green nothingness –
And deposited me in the midst of
The rickshaw rebels tipped their straw hats
And nodded half shadows at me – while
Children I would never have raced against time
With colourful kites of innocence on their backs.
The vapours of the coolies’ dinner
Tickled my desire – but Aunty Ling was waiting
With the curling iron and the hairdryer:
Wondrous inventions that would give me back
My femininity on this night of nights.
Aunty Ling’s chatter and the vendors’ calls
Merged into an ageless incantation,
And my vision and consciousness drooped.
I opened my eyes again to see a new
Presence – me but not quite, the Other
That hid from daylight.
The rouge on my cheeks gave me
The blood of life: renewal in the hue of
I was ready for the Swallow across.
Aunty Ling accompanied me there herself.
(‘Trust no-one,’ words trailing from her wartime experience.)
The crowd outside Odeon was restless,
Oblivious to small women like us.
We crossed the street, arm in arm,
Under the neon-lit gaze of the spirits.
Once inside the belly of the Swallow,
We made for the darkened first floor,
The long, musty corridor leading to the heart,
Where I had a room of my own.
Aunty Ling gone, the room conversed with me
Through the remnants of opiate ecstasy
From the nights before.
He came in a rickshaw phantom sudden.
Then he was at the door, blue eyes deep ocean.
Then he was in the room with me,
Tattooed arms around my waist.
No speech necessary except –
He chose to sing in my ear:
‘I’ll close my eyes and
See you with my heart.’
I said: ‘If I close my eyes now,
I’ll see you everywhere – at the port of Nagasaki,
Of Hong Kong, of Singapore, and of Malacca –
Everywhere but here.
If I close my eyes, you will no longer be real.’
He pinched my nose and smiled
(Everlasting imprint of here and now).
‘Soon I will return to the sea,
But for now these moments are still yours and mine.
Once at the misty peak of Inasayama
(There was precious little left below),
I learnt the ultimate truth of reality:
That though Time will not remain still,
There is permanence in all times elapsed.
The many nights we have seen through together,
Within these silent four walls of witness,
Will be preserved whole in eternity –
Even if the world may turn colder
Or crueller – and
Mankind should become more heartless
Than they have been.
These sweet hours on Chulia
(Do you hear echoes of Old India?)
Will outlast the street vendors,
The trolleycar riders and the pawnbrokers,
The gold merchants and the ironmongers,
The imperialists and their haughty ways.
When the waves come and claim back the Isle,
You and I will still be here,
Locked in unchanging embrace,
In this old motel of tropical dreams.’
2.4.16 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
*Lyrics taken from ‘I’ll Close My Eyes’ (1957) by Dinah Washington. Songwriters: Billy Reid and Buddy Kaye