Pavle Radonic ~ Prayer, Rage, Meditation

1.

One hun­dred and ten meters to the top of Mount Faber on old, cracked steps fringed with cool aro­mat­ic green­ery that hint­ed at the for­mer jun­gle. Long-tailed squir­rels mis­tak­en for rats in the first glimpses; mynahs the only vis­i­ble bird-life and the sign-post­ed mon­keys still in their tree-tops pos­si­bly that hour of the morn­ing.

At the pin­na­cle the cable-car to Sentosa was $26 with­out the var­i­ous add-ons. The Reflections con­dos had appeared trun­cat­ed on the climb.

Ah yes, the local­ly famous Taiwanese heiress or rich wid­ow who had bought not a half dozen apart­ments, but in fact an entire tow­er, the guide Gabriel remind­ed. Love at first sight for the Empress, and easy to under­stand with such glint­ing ser­pen­tines over­look­ing a beach; Liebeskind in all the mag­a­zines fresh from his Holocaust tri­umph in Berlin. How could she resist? Potted plants and drapes would screen the Jurong Island petro­chem­i­cal eye-sore.

Beyond across the water and haze the low wood­ed cor­ner of Sumatra marked the hori­zon, its prox­im­i­ty a sur­prise.

An hour on anoth­er rise; a less­er hillock. Despite accom­plished bahasa, the guide Gabriel did not know the term. Being not every-day usage any longer, it was under­stand­able.

Bukit Chandu. Mount Chandu. What was chan­du now?

Telling the tale to come over lunch the fol­low­ing day, Michael Tong from Klang, the for­mer Port Swettenham, pro­vid­ed an unlike­ly trans­la­tion.

—Couldn’t be Mike. Hardly like­ly. What?

Google con­firmed. Former spelling chan­du; new can­du (Hindi).

Opium. Mount Opium. The British here had escaped the expense of impor­ta­tion for the small, local mar­ket.

How about that then?! Cheap and easy means to man­age coolie labor under a hot sun.

The dens here had only been closed down in the mid-‘60s. Not entire­ly for­got­ten in Singapore; not with­out trace. (Rather than open a can of worms, the suc­ces­sors to the British had retained the old street names and local­i­ties in Singapura. Hence Petain, Clemenceau &etc. Add now Opium Hill. Alternate his­to­ry has the father of the nation, Sir Stam Raffles, hon­or­ing the local Sultan with a good­ly pipe that doubt­less smoothed nego­ti­a­tions.)

There was a lit­tle muse­um atop Bukit Chandu that com­mem­o­rat­ed the Malay Regiment’s resis­tance to the Japanese inva­sion. Within the focus on the Malays seemed less than evi­dent; per­haps the screens that were only briefly sur­veyed pro­vid­ed fuller par­tic­u­lars. A short pass through the rooms was suf­fi­cient for addi­tion­al tid­bits on the Fall of Singapore—the mas­sacre at the Alexandra Hospital; the bluff of the Japanese General when his forces were not in fact so sub­stan­tial; the British General wear­ing there­after the moniker “Rabbit.”

As usu­al, some minor, faint and inad­e­quate impres­sions of war deliv­ered in these cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions. Pity the poor school­child­ren.

The chief event of the day’s explo­ration took place under the por­ti­co leav­ing the Museum on Bukit Chandu.

In town for the Air Show, a num­ber of Indonesian Army brass had come to pay their respects. Officers in impres­sive pressed uni­forms, gold braid, high peaked caps, togeth­er with a good num­ber of suits from the embassy it looked like.

A gath­er­ing of two dozen pressed close in a cir­cle before the entrance. On the far side media cam­eras were trained on the inner group, where a clean-shaved young man in the cen­ter stood with clip-board. At first the board had not been vis­i­ble through the throng and it appeared the man was recit­ing entire­ly from mem­o­ry.

Among the group he was per­haps the youngest, in his ear­ly-thir­ties.

Most of the men held up their arms, hands open and palms show­ing. The man offi­ci­at­ing kept his head bent at more of an angle than any of the oth­ers.

After these many months some of the word­ing was famil­iar.

Bowed like that it appeared the man at the cen­tre might have been clos­ing his eyes at points. In a num­ber of pas­sages in the lat­ter part, when there were some ris­es and lilts in the rhythm, the chap did indeed close his lids and kept closed for stretch­es.

There was no turn­ing of pages; no par­tic­u­lar music was sus­tained in the vers­es; rhyme or meter not appar­ent.

Certainly the visu­als were pow­er­ful. The wood­en priest­ly ser­mons and prayers heard the last half-cen­tu­ry and more could not com­pare to this young man’s con­cen­tra­tion and focus.

Ten min­utes the prayer last­ed; pos­si­bly a short sec­ond part was added at the end. For the dura­tion none of the eyes of the con­gre­ga­tion fell on the man offi­ci­at­ing.

There was some clench­ing and tight­en­ing that knot­ted the leader’s brows, with­out any marked strain. Hope and accep­tance had been kept at a lev­el here.

A well-prac­ticed actor deliv­er­ing lines rarely achieved a com­pa­ra­ble vis­age.

Quietly the words welled from the cen­ter of the gath­er­ing enough to include the cir­cle and not much fur­ther. A lit­tle font; a moun­tain spring was sug­gest­ed. The strength of the flow in that sub­dued reg­is­ter was the most remark­able part.

The chap car­ried the day with­out any appar­ent effort, by the pow­er of his sim­ple faith, the awe and earnest of his beseech­ing.

2.

Little news thus far a week after the killing at Telok Kurau. The wake had been a pro­ces­sion and one half. A friend in the next street had sent pic­tures of the flo­ral trib­ute on the pave­ment out­side the house. Rich bou­quets stand­ing in glossy paper-cov­ered stands a meter high, with rib­bons and cards. (At the open­ing of a new store here, hair­dress­er, food or cloth­ing, sim­i­lar fan­fare from well-wish­ers was com­mon­ly found sur­round­ing entrances.)

What was more too, at the din­ner table a cou­ple of nights ago anoth­er report of bus­es fer­ry­ing peo­ple over to the house to offer con­do­lences. Charters it seemed.

A great stir; ter­ri­ble shock under­stand­ably.

The three sto­ry house in a sought-after neigh­bor­hood had been pic­tured in the news­pa­per on the fol­low­ing morn­ing, woman shown super­vis­ing what looked like anoth­er maid hos­ing down the paving behind the gates. (The raw­ness of media cov­er­age here was often eye-pop­ping. A week ago fol­low­ing the behead­ing of the Canadian by the Abu Sayyaf group a medico was pic­tured alight­ing from a van with a shaped red and white plas­tic bag in hand.)

Reports in the news­pa­per of a string of suc­cess­ful engi­neer­ing out­lets run by the hus­band of the victim—three in the ini­tial men­tion and sub­se­quent sug­ges­tions had five.

Serious mid­dle-class. The pic­tures of the house and tall fence had con­veyed as much.

At its pass­ing good always got a fair acknowl­edge­ment and mon­ey piles even bet­ter of course.
Late mid­dle-age vic­tim cut a hand­some fig­ure of that type. One com­mon­ly saw neigh­bor­ing PM Najib’s wife in col­or­ful dress­es with a satin sheen of the same kind—classic trop­i­cal fin­ery for a par­tic­u­lar gen­er­a­tion and caste.

The killer was the twen­ty-four year old domes­tic helper hail­ing from Lampung, Sumatra.

Such events were not unknown in Singapore. Lesser recent cas­es of ruc­tions involv­ing maids includ­ed an instance where urine had been added to Madam’s tea and CCTV show­ing the slap­ping of an elder or child.

Not all unhap­py domes­tic arrange­ments and exploita­tion; only the worst trou­bles made it into the papers of course. (Last night for the iftar break­ing of fast meal three Indo lass­es sat on after their food well beyond eight o’clock wise-crack­ing and lark­ing. There was no “cur­few” of any kind apply­ing to them; one of the girls sur­pris­ing with her English.)

Mention in the present case was made of a house­hold rule for the Lampung girl at Telok Kurau: sin­gle phone call month­ly back home had been man­dat­ed. (Regulation of use of the phone in domes­tic ser­vice was a com­mon prob­lem.)

Ma’am was knifed in the bath­room and then Sir injured when he came to inves­ti­gate. Following a tus­sle the girl dragged out-doors where pass­ing for­eign work­ers helped dis­arm.
Possibly the girl will hang even­tu­al­ly. In Saudi Arabia a domes­tic helper was cur­rent­ly fac­ing exe­cu­tion.

This morn­ing Rina told an inter­est­ing, par­al­lel and some­what amus­ing sto­ry prompt­ed by the present case.

Five or six years ago there had been a sim­i­lar inci­dent where a young eigh­teen or nine­teen year old kam­pung girl killed her Madam some­where out near Rina in up-scale Bukit Timah. Another girl in the neigh­bor­hood had known the per­pe­tra­tor.

Killed. Done.

In her usu­al man­ner Rina pro­ceed­ed with what she knew and no adorn­ment.

What to do now? was the ques­tion The next step.

Taxi was called in this instance. Called by the girl.

Oya. OK. Not out­side expec­ta­tions.

—She call taxi. You know why? Rina teased briefly. (Perhaps she had only paused briefly. Rina was a bet­ter sto­ry-teller than she knew.)

Well, a get­away of course. Stuff the bag of bones into a suit­case and get the inno­cent cab­bie help lug. Would not be the first time. Wrapped in tow­els and blan­kets, short ride in the boot of the car no-one the wis­er. Even had the cab­bie copped a whiff the girl might have man­aged that with aplomb. (For all the lack of school­ing and sophis­ti­ca­tion, one would under-esti­mate these kam­pung lass­es at one’s per­il.) Cabbie served the best blow job of all time. Dynamite. Sent the man off prop­er­ly. Poor duf­fer in up to his eye­balls helps weigh down the suit­case with rub­ble from a near­by build­ing site where they get by an old pal at Security and Heave-ho! into the deep murky waters off the coast with a favor­able tide. Or the lass was sim­ply going to high­tail, catch a fer­ry to her home­land. (An Indo com­pa­tri­ot of Rina’s again.) Hide out in her aun­t’s kam­pung in Kalimantan where the tigers still roamed, nev­er­more to be found.

There were numer­ous per­mu­ta­tions, too many to men­tion. Rina could only be offered a sam­ple.

Seems the Ma’am might not have been of the best kind there in Bukit T. either. That was the word lat­er. Some of the daugh­ters of coolies here in fact deserved a prop­er spank­ing, if not worse.

Rina’s hand had made the chat­ter­ing jaws.

Wild young girl eigh­teen or nine­teen lis­ten­ing to that day in/out. Boiling point reached even­tu­al­ly.

Patiently Rina wait­ed for the guess. No need hur­ry.

In all of Rina’s sto­ries she always had the upper hand, as she sub­tly always had in love-mak­ing too. Light, deft, sub­tle mas­tery.

Well then, the Cabbie rolls up for his fare. But he wasn’t going any­where.

This girl had just killed her Ma’am: what she need­ed now was to be tak­en to the PO-lice sta­tion.

That was sup­posed to be how it goes, she knows. (Not one to try any avoid­ance her­self this gal. Face the music.) But how was she sup­posed to find them here in this maze of tow­er­ing build­ings?

Ahmm. Well then. What about the man just please call them instead? Madam was upstairs, he could go take a look for him­self.

You assume some goo­gly-eye from the Cabbie prompt­ing the invi­ta­tion.

(Somehow the details had fil­tered down to Rina and the oth­er girls in the neigh­bor­hood.)

—Nooo, saith he. Man would be stay­ing right there where he was.

Girl had not been in the employ long, just like the Telok Kurau.

Lashing out at the carp­ing Witch was one thing, but the offi­cial fol­low-up now. How?

Rina did­n’t know whether she hung.

3.

Barely per­cep­ti­ble dent­ing in the old moon. After some scruti­ny per­haps it was vis­i­ble down at the bot­tom.

The night before, Tuesday, the orb had been screened behind cloud and haze. Late that evening Beechoo had been met com­ing down from the MRT at Paya Lebar after her med­i­ta­tion class. Bee rarely missed a full moon med­i­ta­tion. Morning class­es were dif­fi­cult for a night-owl; evening a great deal eas­i­er.

The ener­gy obtained from med­i­ta­tion was always stronger on the full moon, accord­ing to Bee.

A month ago her group had gath­ered in a field under a tent in the shape of a pyra­mid, if the sto­ry was prop­er­ly received. Like the moon, though prob­a­bly not to the same degree, pyra­mids too gen­er­at­ed ener­gy. And a crys­tal with­in a pyra­mid gen­er­at­ed more again.

At the med­i­ta­tion cen­ter Bee attends they sell two or three pyra­mids for use at home, priced accord­ing to size. The larg­er the pyra­mid, the greater the ener­gy gen­er­at­ed; those hold­ing a crys­tal inside greater again. Over the last twelve months Beechoo has proven this for her­self many times over.

Bee’s med­i­ta­tion is of the sim­plest form. One mere­ly sits in place, on a cush­ion or mat, cross-legged, hands in lap and eyes closed, attend­ing to one’s breath.

The breath was the key of course. Thoughts—of what­ev­er kind, whether trou­ble­some or entertaining—must be let pass. Simply atten­dance to the breath.

The full hour now Bee can qui­et­ly sit attend­ing. Energy and calm come in, and pos­i­tive joy­ous­ness too. On numer­ous occa­sions Bee has expe­ri­enced all this through her med­i­ta­tion.

Of course it was dif­fi­cult return­ing to the trou­ble of the world. The trou­ble of the world remained, fixed and unchanged. Taking the calm and qui­et of the med­i­ta­tive state into one’s dai­ly life was the chal­lenge.

Ideally one should med­i­tate every day. Like any oth­er dis­ci­pline, this was not easy. For new­com­ers Bee’s school rec­om­mend­ed the forty day cycle. Sticking to the med­i­ta­tion for forty days brought imme­di­ate ben­e­fit even to new­com­ers.

Hopefully one night Bee will show her pyra­mid, the fif­teen or twen­ty dol­lar item with the crys­tal attached.

Tonight, after two days of wan­ing, below the slight­ly dent­ed orb a sin­gle, soli­tary star trailed behind.

Usually stars were com­plete­ly invis­i­ble in Singapore, an unfor­tu­nate lim­i­ta­tion of the tourist poten­tial. What the Straits Times would do on the PR with a star-strewn sky­scape over the icon­ic clus­ter of tow­ers around Marina Bay!

Orchids and oth­er strate­gic plant­i­ngs aside, Singapore was entire­ly bereft of nature. Mynahs and stray cats around the hawk­er cen­ters were about as close as it got. (After annoy­ing the traders and shop­pers in Orchard Road with their squab­bling, the for­mer look like being fed to intro­duced hawks to over­come the prob­lem.)

Here the built envi­ron­ment stood in place of nature—the Durian build­ing, the Lotus Flower, the elon­gat­ed Marina Bay Sands Skypool surf­ing the hazy empyre­an.

Yesternight at dusk the reds, vio­lets and blues in the west vis­i­ble from Mr. Teh Tarik’s tables came as a shock, a reminder of some oth­er place and time. Only adver­tis­ing hoard­ings here car­ried such arrest­ing and dra­mat­ic streaks.

Singapore 2011–2020

~

Pavle Radonic is an Australian author based the last few years in S‑E Asia, where—stranger than fiction—a role as an inter­preter of Islam has slow­ly devel­oped. An Honours grad­u­ate in English from La Trobe University (Melbourne), his work has appeared in a range of lit­er­ary jour­nals and mag­a­zines, Southerly, Wet Ink & ABC RN (Australia) and most recent­ly Big Bridge and Ambit.