Friday, October 24, 2008

ARRIVING by K.S Maniam

When Krishnan left the coffeeshop, where he had been drinking Chinese tea with his friends, he was unsteady on his feet. The Familiar building he walked past came tilting at him. A crow, scavenging at a pile of garbage, squawked and flew to shelter in a nearby rain tree.
He didn’t mean that, he told himself. We’ve known each other for too long. Pendatang! Only politicians campaigning for votes used that word. Not always. Some minister had gone up to the platform to discourage its use. These people are not pendatangs. Their great grandfathers were pendatangs. Some of their grandfathers were pendatangs. Their fathers were not pendatangs. They’re not pendatangs. The minister had spoken angrily, heatedly. Krishnan remembered. Newspapers hardly used the word after that. Or only in special cases. Krishnan remembered that.
As he neared his house, he hesitated. He looked at the corner terrace house he had bought thirty years ago, drawing out his meager savings for its down payment. You’ll become bankruptlah, his friends had told him. Twenty thousand dollars! Lot of money, man! But he had managed. The house stood as he had bought it; no extensions or renovations jutted out and distorted the kitchen or the porch.
He pushed open the outer gate-always unlocked-and went up the short, cemented driveway. His wife appeared at the grille-doors and let him into the house. (She had insisted that the iron grilles be fitted saying, ‘I’m the one who’s always at home!’)
“Something the matter?” she said.
“No,” he said, lying down on the sofa.
“Sure? Any palpitations?” she asked.
She had picked up the word ‘palpitations’ from a pamphlet on stress and heart diseases, hearing that men in their forties onwards had to be careful.
“Any pain?”
“Maybe,” he said. “ I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Who’s going to talk? We’ve to do something,” she said.
“Not that kind of pain,” he said.
His wife let him be. The occasions he withdrew into himself, to be alone, were rare and he always came out of these spells refreshed and cheerful. And he always ate with renewed appetite. But not that evening. He still lay, not stirring, on the sofa at dinner time.
“The food’s ready,” his wife said.
“I’m not hungry,” he said.
“Too much Chinese tea?”
“I just don’t feel like eating,” he said, surprised by this anger at his wife.
“Something’s really wrong,” she said, sitting down in an armchair, watching him.
He turned his head-something he had never done-away from his wife, towards the clutch of darkness in the corner. Mat’s face crowded in on him, large cynical, angry. What had he said to make him so furious? He wondered.
“If you get hungry, the food’s on the table,” his wife said and went to fold and put away the day’s laundry.
Krishnan hardly heard her. Had they been talking about imports and exports? Computer technology? The breaking up of the East European bloc? He couldn’t decide. He only remembered Mat’s many faces: Mat puffing up his cheeks, Mat’s blinking and yawning, Mat pursing his lips in indignation. Then the shattering accusation: ‘You pendatang!’ And mat had walked away.
What did it mean, pendatang? Arrivals? Illegals?
Pendatang. He had heard the word used on the Vietnamese people coming to the east coast of the country by the boatloads. Soon they became the boat-people. The courage of these people had astonished Krishnan. He thought of the long cramped, hazardous voyage. He read in the newspapers of their being attacked by pirates; the young women raped and the men flung overboard to drawn and the flesh on their bodies sucked away by horny fish lips. They belonged nowhere; their feet could never touch firm land. He was horrified at the defacing done to a people by violence and ideology. In his dreams he was haunted by a face floating in the sea, ravaged beyond recognition by the greed for power and possessions.
Pendatang. He had seen these other people, the Indonesians, at constructions sties. Building the Tudor-Spanish-Moorish houses in the suburbs. They themselves camped in makeshift shacks and bathed in the open, at the common tap. The women’s sarongs, knotted at their breasts, clung to their bodies like dried, brown blood. The children skins were covered with the soil their parents had dug up to lay the foundations for the houses. In the evenings, having nowhere to go, they sat under dim bulbs, and quarrelled. Men fought over women, over the soft touch of love on the labour-caloused flesh. Or something had gone wrong in the conversation of the ringgit into rupiah and the relatives back home forced to starve?
Krishnan stiffened against the sudden, engulfing darkness that threatened to blank out everything he had known about himself. He was the vagrant blotted-out face bobbing to the hidden currents in the sea of dissolution. He clutched at memory, clawed at familiarity. But he only floated, set adrift by this new uncertainty, towards an unfamiliar landfall.
“The ship stank of human dung,’ his father’s words come to him, ‘and we, the human cattle, floated above that odour, towards our new land.”
He tried hard to recall his father’s memories of his voyage out to Malaysia but his mind was chocked with some strange obstruction. Krishnan lay in that region between water and land trying to pull away from the matted, dark intrusion, but his determination seemed to fail. Yes, it has been his determination that had kept him innocent of his father’s experiences. He had decided, when he became aware of his budding consciousness, not to be influenced by other people’s memories and nostalgia. He clawed at familiarity. But he only floated, set adrift by this new uncertainty, towards an unfamiliar landfall.
His wife shook him by the shoulder, startling away the thin, forming line of submerged recollections.
“ At least come to bed,” she said and stood, waiting.
He followed her to their bedroom and changed into a sarong and t-shirt, his arm flailing as if against some wave of the unknown, and lay down beside her. In the dark he saw her shoulder rise and fall like the faint outline of a land he had never known. His son and daughter — expecting her first child — were out there, absorbed by the land rocking on its own, unfathomable centre.
He struggled against the dark waters of uncertainty for a long time. Many times he was sucked into a fathomless fear but, finally, he rose to the surface, strengthened. He lay watching the rest of the night crumble away into a new torment.
The morning, when he sat near the door with his cup of tea, did not come up at him with its dew-and-soil soaked grass, did not come with its soft and unimposing light. Instead he caught a whiff of rotten sewage being carried down the monsoon drain from across the road. The light falling across the doorway ran points of harshness into his awakened flesh.
Pendatang. One who arrives. One who goes through different experience o reach the most enlightening knowledge, he thought. How like my father’s thinking! How foolishly I thought I didn’t come from his loins!
In the evening he bathed, the water slapping against a new grittiness on his skin, and put on the pants he had worn to work. He felt he was getting into anther struggle, different from the one Mat and he had gone through with Mr.Cuthbert, their British boss, before independence.
As he passed, on his way to the coffeshop, the houses he had accepted as solid and unshakeable for more than thirty years, he thought he detected cracks here and there. No, they were not just splits in the concrete work. They were more than that: the Chinese sundry shop at the corner seemed to wobble on its isolation. He had heard a lot about that shop when he came to live in the neighborhood. But, at that time they had only been stories for him. A string of words from different mouths, adding colour to the place. Now these stories became sinister episodes in a life that had remained inaccessible.
They smacked of the agony of a private history: they all spoke of the attempt of a man to shape himself after his own dreams. Ah Ho, he no good, they had said. Running away, hiding from things he done before. Now thinking he only shopkeeper. But he bring the money from bad deeds he done before. Now dress simple, looking like he never cut people up or kill them maybe. Didn’t run far. Can’t hide from past too long. These things catch up, you know. On day a gang come, beat him up, smash up his shop. But the man still stubborn. Next day he pretend nothing happen. Built up his shop again. Another time the gang come again. Do bad things to his daughter. Still the man pretend nothing happen. If me, my spirit will rise. Will smash up the faces of those thugs!
But when Krishnan passed the old man, Ah Ho, standing behind the counter, the old man smiled at him as if life had been, so far, an untroubled one.
The street beyond Ah Ho’s shop curved into a beckoning distance as each shop thrust its own past at Krishnan. Getting to the coffeshop was like traveling against a slope. Each patch of the road intruded upon him, wanting to be known.
At last he sighted, in the interior of the coffeshop, the people he had no difficulty in remembering. They were connected, web-like, to a round marble that reflected the turning fan and the still glaze of the tea pot. Even as he approached them, he saw their hands weave into hair-thin fragility their solidarity.
“ Here at last!” Wong said.
“ What happened to you, man?” Teng said. “ Not yet retired from your wife?”
Their laughter brightened the table like the shine of unreal gold.
“ You can’t retire from anything,” Krishnan said.
“Wah, how the man change!” Teng said.
Wong, the more serious among them, looked at Krishnan as if seeing him for the first time.
“ All words. Nothing comes from that,” he said.
“ Only when you’re innocent,” Krishnan said. “ To be innocent is to be stupid.”
“ You’ve known Mat Long for a long time,” Wong said. “ You should know better.”
“ I don’t know anything.” Krishnan said, “ But it isn’t too late.”
“ Not late!” Teng said. “ Look who’s talking! We’re all late. One foot already in grave.”
“ We must go in peace, man,” Francis Lim, a Christian but who had not abandoned his Chinese habits, said.
“ As if we were never awake,” Krishnan said, almost to himself. “ But where’s he?”
“ He come once or twice,” Wong said “ Maybe won’t come again.”
“ Something there deep inside..” Krishnan said.
“ Nothing deep there, man,” Francis Lim said. “Just jetsam, flotsam words.”
Listening to them, Krishnan felt he was cut adrift again and was floating away to those grasping lips that would tear him to shreds.
He sat there, not listening waiting, recollecting. He had once seen Wong strike, with lightning fury, at the waiter who had not com with his pot of tea on time. Wong had lashed out with an energy that though lying hidden beneath the surface came exploding through with instinct-charged aggression. His hand went for the bread knife with practiced sureness. The proprietor had stepped in, pacified him by reviling the worker and led Wong, who still trembled with the uncompleted assault, back to the table.
Beneath Francis Lim’s Christian sense of charity, Krishnan remembered seeing a violent self-possessiveness. They had been talking about the individual rights of the citizens in the country.
“ What individual rights?” he had almost thundered. “ You take what you can and don’t let go. Those are the only rights you have.”
“ Chop-chop,” Teng had said. “ You fist, you knife, you gun. That give you what you want.You stand up somebody kick you down some more.”
And he laughed, saying, “ You know who that somebody.” He was looking at Mat. But they had all laughed, including Mat, as if they all accepted the deceptions they practiced on each other.
“ This not like you, man,” Teng now said. “Think. Think. What for think?”
Krishnan came out of his musings; he stared, disoriented, at Teng. The man’s humour-jowled face was also laced with a trace of viciousness. His jokes seemed to bite, cling and make vulnerable Krishnan’s distress. Their rugged edges sawed and dismembered the fragile reassurances he floated upon.
“ For you, all right,” Krishnan said, “No need to think. I have to. Didn’t think all my life.”
But no one said anything. They sat drinking their Chinese tea and ruminating on the fading evening light that made the table and chairs, shadows, and the men, ghosts.
The treacherous gloom of the dying day was thick with the betrayal of his friends. He staggered through the labyrinthian deceit, his earlier determination deserting as some fickle frailty. He saw no struggle ahead of him, only surrender. But the thought came to him, in the light of his new knowledge, that he had always been turning away from circumstances and people, to give in to himself. How right Mat was! He thought. He always coming into himself. Yes, he was a pendatang!
His wife received him again, her face reflecting the bitter staring on his own: they had lived close together without really knowing what went on inside each other. She glowed when he glowed; he was pleased when she was pleased. Had anything happened behind that glow and that pleasure?
He hugged this doubt to himself throughout the simple meal she had prepared and throughout the night as he lay beside the unquestioning heave of known and unknown flesh. He sweated and strange sounds caught in his throat as he waited for the man of the night before to reach out him.
Instead somebody else come. At first Krishnan could not recognize him. The flesh was so young, firm and unlined; the face was so rounded, placid and untouched. Could he have come from all that confidence? He wondered. Then he stilled his mind and watched as this young man move, worked, talked and fell into the snares of friendship.
There he was moving with Mat. They are in the office and Mat was just come out from Mr. Cuthbert’s office, after a dressing down. There is an expression on Mat’s face Krishnan does not understand.
“Upstart! Mat says. “ Who does he think he is? Coming here to teach me. To teach me!”
Krisnan is reminded of a freshwater fish taken out and put into a bucket of sea water. The scaly thing bucks and rebuffs, striking out, indignantly, at some substance in the water that threatens it with domination. Mat’s face is all bathed in a fine sweat of rejection. Then it changes, breaks out into playfulness.
“ A time will come,” Mat says. “Let’s go eat!”
The stairs leading into the sunshine and to the food stalls is covered with their daily stepping out. The ascent on their return – energy restored – is caked with relief and camaraderie. But Krishnan sees a shadow following them, in and out of the building, and sinking out of sight when they are at their desk, working.
As he watches, the shadow goes underground: it divides and submerged itself in Mat and in himself. Whenever they talked about Mr. Cuthbert, Krishnan can feel it straining against the tide of words. He watches Mat, he watches himself: the faces are flashed by a common sympathy, by a common fear. Now the door to Mr. Cuthbert’s room does not remain shut on some impenetrable world of authority. It swings outwards, beckoning, and draws Mat and Krishnan past it fearsome threshold.
Getting accustomed to its darkness, they see that there is no furniture in the room. The walls are maps; the floor is time moving without pause. When they try to steady themselves their bodies shiver. Mat and Krishnan look at each other, their skins sweating fear. Only their minds are alive, preparing to ward off the shadows detaching themselves from the maps from the time-floor.
Then, suddenly, their minds cannot repel anything, not the shadows, not the countries that come hurtling at them through time. The fear they have held on to leaves them. The boundaries of their self-centred consciousness, breaks, and releases them into the continuum of a new awareness. And the people come through the centuries, their clothes patchy with history but their faces aglow with abstraction, aglow with enigmatic wholeness. Krishnan and Mat are specks of fascination in the tide of wholeness.
And as specks of unenclosed awareness they flow along the banks of time, recognizing here a primeval adventurer, there and Alexander outdistancing their native lands; there is Buddha in his bubble of meditation and further down the Greek sages wrapped up in their own wisdom. Riding the time cells, they go past the cataclysm of nations at war, cultures in conflict and come to their own histories and see the conquistadors bringing their ships and their ways of living to the country`s shores. There is no stopping time and soon Mr. Cuthbert comes into their vision, puny and defeated, his personal history in tatters but his spirit shining through to the future. Then Mat and Krishnan come face-to-face with the figure of a man, historyless, moving on the current of discovery and when they look behind him there is nothing; when they look where he is looking there is a swirling mist of everything.
Then Krishnan stepped out and awakened into his own consciousness. His fear was gone, banished by a wide, ranging bewilderment. In the dark he sensed the contours of his wife`s body, enclosing emptiness. Their lives and had been a mere accumulation of days, the shell of a house, the husks of practical tasks. He had turned away and reduced to a comfortable dot all that he did not want to understand. That had been his reaction on being summoned to Mr. Cuthbert`s office: to shun that which made one man dominate another and turn inwards into his cocoon of assurances.
‘the loins of my father, the loins of history,’ he thought, wonderingly, as he got up quietly from the bed and went to the living room. He switched on the dim wall light and opening the front door, looked out on the quiet street.
“Pendatang,” he told himself as he observed the shadows of the trees, telephone and electric poles trail off into a deeper, richer blackness. He had the feeling that he was looking at what had happened before and what lay before him without dismay, without fear.
“Pendatang,” he said softly, gratefully. “Pendatang, Pendatang, Pendatang.”
The word went inside him, into something other than self-conciousness. It went beyond the clay-covered skins of the construction workers. It went beyond the pursed indignation of Mat`s lips, the puffed-up smugness of his cheeks. It did not take Krishnan into himself; it took him into the beyond.
Daylight and his wife found Krishnan seated beside the door, gazing soberly on the street that ran past the house.
“You didn`t sleep at all?” his wife asked.
“Sometimes you must be more awake than asleep,” he said, turning to look at her.
The smile that had been absent for a while returned to her lips. She went to the kitchen to make his coffee, wondering if he would have the ravenous appetite that marked his emergence from the occasional and self-imposed isolation.
When she served launch, he ate like someone about to begin endless journey, relishing every morsel and yet not overfilling himself. She thought she saw in his eyes a light that she had not seen before – a light that gathered whatever happened around him to the pinpoint of a large purpose. In the evening she watched him go out to meet his friends and though she barely understood what he had gone through in recent weeks, she could not help noticing a new dignity that carried the figure of her husband over puddle and drain, past hut and bungalow, round the corner to the unfamiliar.
Krishnan walked towards the coffeeshop, the calm unsteadiness inside him absorbing whatever he saw and heard along the way. As he approached the garbage can he saw the crow that had squawked that reached into the one inside him. he thought it looked like a conquistador pecking away the wastes of history, trying to salvage. ‘ As Ah Ho did,’ Krishnan thought as he passed the sundry shop.
When he entered the coffeeshop he saw Wong, Francis Lim and Teng seated at the usual table as if they had not left it since the last time he had been with them. The table still held in its glaze their gesticulating shadows, given, he thought, to surrender.
“ Look who here!” Teng said. “So fresh! So wife service you good, ah?”
“ Your wife given up already?” Krishnan said.
Wong and Francis Lim looked at him, coming up from their self-absorbed stillness.
“You friend hear lah , looking for you,” Teng said.
“That Mat,” Wong said. “Strange man.”
“We should try to understand him,” Krishnan said.
“ You wasted a lifetime doing that,” Francis Lim said. “Maybe I loooked from the wrong side,” Krishnan said.
“You can change your position as many times as you want,” Wong said, “But he won’t.”
“The change will be good for us,” Krishnan said.
Teng laughed and the others sniggered; Krishnan listened to the ripples of scepticism, undiscouraged. He saw before him many evenings, filled with light and filled with shadows. Unchanging, between light and shadow, Mat would say, “Pendatang!” Krishnan would say, “Yes, I’m always arriving, arriving. I’ll never reach. Reaching is dying. Reaching is not arriving. Arriving at what? I don’t know. Only arriving. Never getting there. Arriving.”