This Time, Dhaka

The Turtle Shrine Near Chittagong
Naomi Shihab Nye

Humps of shell emerge from dark water.
Believers toss hunks of bread,
hoping the fat reptilian heads
will loom forth from the murk
and eat. Meaning: you have been
heard.

I stood, breathing the stench of mud
and rotten dough, and could not feel
encouraged. Climbed the pilgrim hill
where prayers in tissue radiant tubes
were looped to a tree. Caught in
their light, a hope washed over me
small as the hope of stumbling feet
but did not hold long enough
to get me down.

Rickshaws crowded the field,
announced by tiny bells.
The friend beside me, whose bread
floated and bobbed,
grew grim. They’re full, I told him.
But they always eat mine.

That night I told the man I love most
he came from hell. It was also
his birthday. We gulped lobster
over a white tablecloth in a country
where waves erase whole villages, annually,
and don’t even make our front page.
Waiters forded the lulling currents
of heat. Later, my mosquito net
had holes.

All night, I was pitching something,
crumbs or crusts, into that bottomless pool
where the spaces between our worlds take root.
He would forgive me tomorrow.
But I wanted a mouth to rise up
from the dark, a hand,
any declarable body part, to swallow
or say, This is water, that is land.

-

It is my second time in Dhaka. There is respite in its chaos and the individuals in whom I have found a home.

I bump into an extroverted friend in my country’s airport who is scheduled to be on the same flight. He is midway through an ambitious photography project spanning three countries. He needs someone to talk to, and calls me over. He shows me his diary, filled with messy scribbles and film photographs stuck on its pages. He tells me about how he has fallen in love with a young girl from a village.

At the Dhaka airport, he asks if I will be okay, and bids me goodbye. He disappears, as he does, into the crowd. I recognize a petite figure wrapped in a yellow salwar kameez and scarf, standing outside the airport gates, looking through its glass doors. It is my friend’s mother, who I call Khala, who has come to pick me up. She waves. I am thankful.

This time, conversation flows. Most mornings are spent at the table, talking over tea. Sometimes I practise my halting Bengali. When the doorbell rings, Khala rushes to put on her hijab before answering the door. On my last day, while we eat breakfast together, I ask her what the hijab means. She tells me, in reply, about the security problems the nikab is causing.

This time, her husband, my Khalu, talks to me. He tells me plainly about his aches and pains, and how he is waiting to die.

There is spontaneity in this dust-filled city. I attend my first Bollywood concert in a posh hotel, only to find myself in the middle of a mini riot. The organizers have oversold tickets; upper class ladies in lavish saris show up without an allocated seat. Everybody starts yelling; in the dark, the crowd pushes and shoves. Manicured nails break barricades. My toes are squashed numerous times. One lady manages to get up on stage and refuses to leave. It all ends well; the concert eventually starts, and the singer does not fail to deliver. As I have said before, people fight here, and then they move on.

It’s a ceremonious twist and turn of events, and I am pulled along by its tide. I am reminded of the wife of a famous Bengali painter, who woke up one morning to tell her husband that she had seen someone else in a dream, and needed a divorce. Love is a choice, and I’ve picked my suitcase and my planes.

On a rickshaw ride back to onesh number road, a friend tells me about his fear of flight. Half my life is airborne, and I wonder if he is sharing his fears because I am ruminating, in that moment, about my own.

There is an alienation that is permitted here. In a church on a Friday morning at New Eskaton Road, my mind drifts in and out of a sermon. I recognize a grand total of two people, and I feel at home in its unfamiliarity. A song about trust in God floats its way into my mind and makes an imprint, and I hum it the rest of the day.

Twelve days pass, and I am on a plane back to my country of origin. I am starving; budget airlines and their inconvenient flight times make for bad hunger pangs. Mosquitos ravage my feet miles above the ground. I am uninterested in returning to stuckness; my notebooks are filled with plans navigating coming months and various countries. I almost cry at the uncertainty but stop myself in time.

The day after I arrive, my family and I make our way to the crematorium. I go home smelling of ash.

On Doggedness

When I was eight years old, I received a B grade on my report card, and promptly burst into tears. It wasn’t because of any parental pressure, but because everyone around me had an A or an A*, and my eight year old self had come to the conclusion that I was standing out for all the wrong reasons. I knew the grade wasn’t good enough, and it was not acceptable. My mother says the episode was enough to convince her that I already had the makings of either a perfectionistic streak or fragile self-esteem, and my parents lay off on expectations for most, if not all, of my academic life.

I’ve now gone through 16 years of formal education and was recently unleashed to the world, which has taught me that I tither along the edge of both perfectionism and insecurity, and that I am exceptionally bad at dealing with failure. This weakness was manifested at a job I had last year, where the belief that everyone around me knew more and knew better allowed me to stop fighting for what I thought was right, or calling out the gaps in the company’s flawed system, or from putting my foot down and walking away. It was a rigid way of thinking – you made a commitment, so persevere until the end – that had me give my life away voluntarily. My failure wasn’t in the completion of a sprint, but in understanding the race that I ultimately wanted to run for myself. It’s the same myopia that had me seeking out a formula for success, until I realized that the fail-proof secret just didn’t exist.

Countless writers, from Alain de Botton to Debbie Millman to Ira Glass, have talked about the essential quality of doggedness, or grit (or for the Singaporeans, a garang-ness) in a successful life. This applies even, perhaps especially, to unconventional notions of success in the modern world, emerged or emerging. It surfaces in the ability to shut out unhelpful voices, to decide which voices to keep, and to turn momentary failures into permanent propellers for a next stage in life.

It’s been a year of questioning. Since leaving Boston, I’ve been confused about possibly everything I could be confused about. I doubted my faith, my abilities, my direction, my purpose, and even my geographical placement. I don’t think the questioning really stops, but I’m learning to let it shake me less. I’m learning the importance of how to deal with not knowing. And in some cases, to stop thinking and just walk in one direction.

Writer, artist and programmer Jonathan Harris wrote an essay called Navigating Stuckness, in which he divides his (remarkable) life into learning chapters. In one of the concluding paragraphs, he writes:

In the tradeoff between timeliness and timelessness, choose the latter. The zeitgeist rewards timeliness, but your soul rewards timelessness. Work on things that will last.

The spirit of the age has many opinions, all of which should go through a sieve, and only some of which are precious. When I was eight and received a B grade on my report card, my failure wasn’t in my B. It was in thinking that what other people thought was worth a cry. It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now.

A Monumental Shift

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I came home from college one winter break to find out that my father had become a devout Buddhist. For someone who had firmly declared the non-existence of God when I was a teenager, this was a monumental shift in belief. He spends much of his time listening to Buddhist sermons on his computer, or going to the temple.

Since I was young, my family has battled with depression and alcoholism. This is an ongoing story not only about a downward spiral, but also about resilience and change. It is about the aging of my parents, my role as their daughter, and the hope that belief can bring.

I’ve updated the project here: http://psxcharmaine.4ormat.com/notes-on-my-father

 

One Page In A Story

There are many Singapores.

My Singapore started on a quiet road with ixora bushes and a rambutan tree that stretched its way across the neighbour’s fence, and when the season came to pluck its fruit we’d sit beside it, prying open each red, furry cover. Childhood brings with it a set of routines, held under the banner of protection, and mine involved porridge for lunch, Yakult and a packet of salty Wang Wang biscuits for tea (but always before 5pm), and rice for dinner. It involved a basement filled with Barbies and plastic Fisher Price kitchen sets, and I think that it was somewhere in that makeshift wonderland that I started to dream.

At the end of that quiet road was the comfort of my school, and for ten years I’d dress up in its blue and white, braid my hair, and head through its gates. We’d play hopscotch on its concourse tiles every morning before the morning bell would ring, scrambling into our allocated spots among the two thousand girls who would mumble the national anthem. Mumbling turned into silent apathy as we grew older, standing half-asleep while our principal coughed and enunciated with particular crispness the daily devotionals and prayers that had become a routine part of our mornings. My Singapore was filled with this enunciated crispness, an English that was not the Queen’s but certainly considered hers good, an English that I would realise, many years later, lead to bizarre respect in some places and exclusion in others.

That English, I think, was first instilled in me by one Mrs Jega in a two storey terrace house along Vanda Road. She would hold weekly sessions on spelling; I remember once being tested on the word, ‘incinerator’. Why she thought that word relevant to a six year old, I’d never know. I’d spend my afternoons on a host of other after-school enrichment activities that were thought of as ideal and coincidentally bore Caucasian brand names, like Lorna Whiston and Julia Gabriel. Other similar-sounding names soon entered my literary life: Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Francine Pascal, and later, J.K. Rowling and C.S. Lewis. It was only in junior college, when I began to read the collections of Cyril Wong and Alfian Sa’at, that I pondered the missing narratives of my childhood.

However, for the ten years before that I would be quite content with the story of a schooling life protected by the walls of 11 Blackmore Drive. It was a story of happy families and BMWs and holding Jesus to be true. This truth I held deeply, evidenced in my forays into church youth leadership and weekly Bible studies. I was leafing through my old journals recently and found heartfelt proclamations and confessions to a God that was good and kind and sufficient. These were beliefs that were unquestioned, even when I fell into a kind of love that was kept secret from most around me and most of all from myself, one that would follow me to Boston and leave me at odds with myself for years. It is a Singapore that many still struggle to understand, but I think it is getting better. Once a year, it is even celebrated.

Such optimism can only be felt when you’ve had the privilege of distance and perspective, and now that I’m back its changes seem more striking, more frenzied, as if nothing is ever quite fast enough. In the Singapore that I grew up in, however, time seems to grant its inhabitants breathing space. I take a bus route that has remained familiar to me all these years; one that meanders past Upper Bukit Timah and winds onto Sixth Avenue, then slowly makes its way up to Holland Village and the city. It is a quiet world for old friends who meet once a year, maybe two. People seem to leave Singapore a lot, but more often than not they make their way back, while these days others seem to come through. I am here for now, and although I no longer live on that quiet road with ixora bushes and a rambutan tree, my Singapore holds the spaces where I have fought, and felt joy and also numbness. It is just a page, and there are other pages like it, but the ones that are different are the ones that I want to read.