The Island of Death Behind


Short Fiction By Sunita Thind

 

Singapore seemed electrified, fizzled, the wailing brightness, smacking itself against the screens of cars. It was a grotesque tragedy not being allowed to live in this micro paradise permanently; there was no pious sun this radiant in the UK. I shovelled delicate angel noodles into my mouth between slurps and chewing pak choi. I saved the tofu and fish balls for last; they were my favourite delicacy. The chilli was emblazoned on my tongue, like an ulcer of melancholy. These Eastern dishes filled the germinating silences, pollinating the atmosphere with many talking points, welding familial mouths with spectacular flavours and tropical conversations.

It felt like there were shards in my eyes, jet lag did that to me. It felt as if there were small sections of mirror in my orbital bone. Like mirrors in my eyeballs, the gemstones of the soul, reflecting back the blood of the spirit. Bolting on a futuristic transport system towards Sri Sentosa, the air conditioning was glacial in the immaculate monorail cabins. Outside the sun coloured vault above scalded the populace below with shimmering shudders. Everywhere were rippling wet foreheads, domes of moisture and fluid dripping sticky down torsos, inside shirts and soiled petticoats. Moving almost vibrating towards street food stalls, traditional market places and barbequed buildings, these industrious ants were scalded in the feverish heat.

Singapore had been my second home for a long time; my mother had cousins here. Being from a Punjabi Sikh background, I saw Singapore like an Eastern Pandora’s box that I would open throughout my childhood and life. It was an oasis away from the bleak and featureless Isle of ‘Queen Lizzie’ and the cultural constraints of familial life as a young South Asian woman. I adored riding the air-conditioned and immaculate monorail, smelling the exotic diets of the cultural hot pot of people wafting through the carriages. There were solid jade blockades of greenery and phosphorescent, vertigo-inducing buildings rising towards the heavens. Everywhere seemed to sizzle and boil, this kind of shimmery and frustrated heat made you exhausted. There was a stampede of too sultry days and a lurid light in the coming afternoons. I noted the green trees where everything fizzled. The climate’s apparent problem was its glimmering heat, its intoxicating gleam, shedding filaments of lustrous sweat from various bodily orifices. Highly-salaried businessmen in their ostentatious suits forever chain smoking as if their mouths were micro-volcanos only occasionally stopping to spit out mosquitoes caught in sticky mouths.

My mother’s family had emigrated to Singapore from Malaysia some decades ago and owned a string of compact sugar cube like flats. This was a cosmopolitan city, a cultural hot pot of many different races. In Singapore’s China’s Town I found a secluded spot to peruse the shops and restaurants, cooing at the jewel tones and imperial and Oriental architecture. Wedging myself in an intimate restaurant, I watched the supremely flammable dishes being brought out to slobbering customers on steaming platters. I ordered gallons of oolong and jasmine tea, and just people watched. It was my most adored teahouse, I was on good terms with the owner. There I would order dim sum, dumplings with sauces of varying colours, bite size wontons that were crêpey and translucent creams, noodle rolls and egg tarts for dessert. Sometimes I would consume all the delicacies and other times I would nimble on them. Dishes of roasted stingray, Laksa one my absolute favourites, fish balls, chilli and hard-boiled eggs and to finish off Pandan cake constructed from fluffy, green sponge cake from the juice of the tropical plant pandanus amaryllifous.

Now, I people watched in the mid-afternoon. The sweltering and half-baked people were as glossy as a photo or they seemed youthful with glittering, curious eyes. They had an old innocence or a young innocence, it did not matter about the age. So many colours: honey melon yellow, razor blade silver, garnet brightness, vulva pink just vivid.

 

Proceeding towards Sentosa Island, I had a sinister storm lurching in my stomach. In the violence of the present with its ultraviolet liveliness I recalled the white morning as a titillating teenager. The sun had spawned its rays into the sky and they bounced off ruinous buildings with opulent histories. I had worn a dress that was a shade of blood burgundy, with amazing black crystal encrusted ankle boots that showcased my elongated limbs that people said seemed to go on forever. I was not accustomed to the sparkling humidity. You could see the sunburnt injuries of the sun inflicted on my mother’s face.

The heat smacked you in the eyes, liquefying your innards, brain and all. Frying your genitals. I also had consumed seafood that day, in Singapore at a food stall; it was cheap there. It was fried some sort of stingray washed down with sugar cane water, then some star fruit with drizzled honey and an Asian Beer. I remembered the juicy slice of orange dawn that had met me at the end of the evening.

Mystifying in a kind of awkward and sorrowful nostalgia, the mottled memories trickled into the tributaries of my amygdala and hippocampus. How to decipher the jewelled hotness of the magnesium white sands of Sentosa Island’s Siloso Beach, where I had fried my body for so many summers to a chocolate hue? The cyan water seemed to be carbonated and the fizzy waves would slush along the beach leaving in its wake seaweed and occasional dead jelly fish and shells. It was a long, sheltered beach. When I was eight and we would have any celebrations on the island, I would be dressed in a short Chinese silk jacket and white pleated skirt. We would eat food and set off firecrackers and get ang pow, money in red envelopes from our Punjabi and Chinese relatives; interracial marriages in South Indian culture were not as uncommon as some may think.

Sentosa meant ‘peace and tranquillity’ in Malay, originating from the Sanskrit term meaning ‘contentment’. I didn’t know it back then, but the island’s disturbing past belied the calm of its name. When it was a British Military base once and a Japanese Prison of war camp it used to be referred to as ‘Pulau Belakang Mati’, which in Malay means ‘Island of Death Behind’. Maybe there were lots of hungry ghosts who were once prisoners of war driven by such impassioned emotions ambling and dawdling along the beach. I felt this shrill chill, as I sensed their animalistic and ancestral eyes boring into me with a kind of deviant glistening shine. In their sad damnation they were not venerated any more by their relatives. Land had been reclaimed from the sea and seventy percent of the island was covered by rainforest with monitor lizards, screeching monkeys, rainbow bright parrots and vanity driven peacocks.

The island’s crystal bright musical fountains cavorted around with watery glee and were a prized attraction. The prismatic attraction seemed to publish the sky with delight and abstract shapes of wondrous luminosity.

When visiting, my cousins and I had stayed out until the oily darkness of the night would gag a golden and weary sun smudged by an upset lipstick sunset. We would let our honey coloured toes subside into the crumbling sands and try to catch lava orange crabs in cheap, neon bright plastic buckets to release. Sometimes my uncle would spike and fry them on a small beach fire to have as a snack. It was a macabre sight to see my uncle consume lobster and wonton soup. He would select a ruby bright lobster from the fish tank of the food stall near the beach for his meal. I remember wanting to emancipate this crustacean victim as the white meat of his shell body was sucked out with such human delight. Even to the end this aquatic beast had a primal liveliness I will never forget

Protruding from an impressive platform was the monolithic white stone Merlion, this cultural edifice, a mythical creature with a lion’s head and a fish’s body, it embodied Singapore. Singapore’s original name was ‘Singapura’ meaning lion city.

 

‘Gon Xi Fa Choi’ a sharp scream that had reached a high octave. It was Chinese New Year and I was back in Singapore’s infamous China Town. A swirl of amethyst and kaleidoscope bronze fizzled between fireworks. Oriental faces scrutinised the illuminating and dangling lanterns, they seemed to be multi-coloured, crepe paper and crinkling. The sky seemed a glossy blue.

I wore a cheongsam (Chinese silk dress) of shimmering turquoise, it almost had a metallic haze around it. It was embossed with sewn golden floral detail and the odd red fire dragon. The silk sheen seemed appropriate in the Chinese tearoom that had bamboo green matting and Oriental silk screen paintings. Porcelain Chinese deities adorned various shelves behind where we were. The tearoom also doubled up as a restaurant for a New Year’s feast. I adored all the trinkets, a new dimension of pepper red and pomegranate diffused into the room. My cousin, Jaswinder, had obsidian hair, night-coloured hair, he was chomping on a juicy candy-floss pink prawn in the late evening. The crowds outside were rowdy and my aunty put a protective arm around me. We feasted on coconut rice with soy sauce, fermented tofu and stir-fried greens with chilli chicken and thick stick noodles.

After our feast we promenaded into the night, the skyscrapers, broad-leaved parasol trees, colonial spires, Buddhist and Oriental gardens and architecture personified the exoticism of this urban jungle. The Singaporean night was a glittering oddity to me. The moon was frosted. I felt more at home here and in Malaysia where my much of my extended family had resided than in the bleakness of England. The streets were studded with Buddhist temples and trinket shops. The Eastern dimensions of the strewn Buddhist temples I liked to languish in, a psychotic break of glitter.

Was I a cultural leech in this micro ethnically diverse cosmos? I adored one specific Buddhist temple, the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple on 178 Waterloo Street. It was built in 1884 and was dedicated to Kwan Im (Guanyin), the goddess of mercy. It was a refuge for the sick and destitute during the Japanese occupation. I would go there to meditate quietly among the holy shimmer and the flurry of people. I would pray for sick relatives but now I prayed for myself. I had a metastatic body; ovarian cancer was devouring my fertile innards. I kneeled on the prayer carpet in front of the Buddha, a lapsed Sikh girl, melancholic hazel eyes and toffee skin. I didn’t want any tumours to be wrapped around my remaining ovary and commandeering my body. I prayed to Guanyin for compassion, this Bodhisattva. The temple was bustling with luckless devotees.

The temple was an example of ancient Chinese courtyard architecture. Its rainbow bright craftsmanship, emerald light and melancholic tinkle brought me peace, away from my mental and emotional mutilation. In the prayer hall kowtowing to the Goddess of Mercy, yellowed swastikas adorned the roof, the ridges embellished with calligraphy and decorations signifying good omens which I could suckle up like sacred godly breast milk. The aroma of incense stagnated outside the temple in an urn, the incense sticks would stain the temple ceilings with soot just like those cancerous cells were tattooed on my body. My fertility was dying like the scented smoke of the incense sticks.

 

The glazed beams of bronze flourished strobe lights seem to electrocute the air at my cousin’s Punjabi wedding, which was during the Chinese New Year’s celebration. She was marrying a Caucasian man, much like I had in the UK. Weddings were generally the reason we came so often to Malaysia and Singapore. Guests of caramel, macchiato, chocolate and coffee tones multiplied in the luxurious banqueting sweet. Everyone was pollinated in sequins, crystals and diamanté, jewelled saris, parrot coloured salwar kameez, rhinestone sherwani, festive turbans and Indian gold and Anarkali jewellery and industrial quantities of cosmetics plastered on sweaty faces including my own. My false lashes were half off my clown painted visage and the I had sweated off my gold eye glitter.

 

Indian Wedding Party

This plethora of swollen jewels tattooed to her skin.

In the peculiar procession of arresting silks.

Sari-emblazoned and oozing gold jewellery swelling caramel bodies.

Sweating like drenched fish in this bedazzled, break dancing Bhangra festival.

Dola is drumming with its gunpowder beats.

This flashy fish scale wives, gyrating, thrusting with sparkle pop dexterity.

This rainbow screeching and streaking.

The luminous-lashed, jewel-spun bride

This tripped oriental delirium.

Caked in cosmetic artistry.

Quaking elders shrivelled with their husband and turbans and head scarfs.

Hideous coughs of glitter.

Flame curling curries, thigh deep infuriating sabji’s and crackling poppadoms

Chomping at the bit for methi .

Oily orange ‘Jalebi’ dribbling.

Dazzled in a crown of flowers are the unwed sisters.

Revelling in heavy handed flashes of Nikon.

Lakes immolating gemstones.

Sodden in crazed tears of loss grappling at her father’s shoulder.

Eyeballs like pickling onions.

Levitating on gold thread.

To foster the bonds of matrimony.

Clogging her dainty mouth with eggless wedding cake.

Enticing hands drew her in, frail, glittered bridal body into

a boa constrictor crush of affection

Plying her, feeding her.

A reservoir of bronze bodies, feasting, swivelling, and frolicking in Hindu melodies.

The altitude of the Far East, this juxtaposition with her bleached bridegroom.

Salivating Auntie-Ji’s cooing over cobalt blue eyes, oozing over his creamy agelessness.

And how his genes will prettify the Asian gene pool.

His luminous beauty against this dusky daughter.

Out of her doll shell this bride panting into her new Western reality.

Imperial white and Sanskrit dark.

Chewing on her twinkling chuni now caught on her scintillating nose ring.

 

I presented this poem as a present in golden calligraphy on an ornate card to my Singaporean cousin Yasmin as wedding gift. I was weighed down as a metastatic maiden, thieved of an ovary in a regal gold and hot pink crystal studded lengha. I was embezzled in the acidic furore of the bittersweet experience of this matrimonial celebration coupled with my own uncertain health concerns and now deadened invincibility.

Before my airport departure I sponged up the sedated nostalgia. The droopy-eyed Western tourists were bedazzled by the strobe lights and the sun. The pale figurines were lobster burnt and almost scorched to the skin, suspiciously navigating the ethnic and cultural borders, the ambiguous customs.

I grabbed a delicious plate of fish curry and a plate of dosa and noted the high sari count in the area known as Little India. The aroma of greasy parathas and sweet cardamom tea wafted up the vibrant street to my nostrils, giving me a tropical sense of déjà vu.

 


I have had poems published in The Curlew, Eye Flash Poetry Journal, Indigo Dreams Publishing Magazine-Sarasvati, Pulsar Poetry Ezine, Picaroon Poetry, The Blue Nib and High Window Press. I do feel that my poetry is experimental, especially from a cultural point of view. Sunita has always been passionate about her writing and now has the time to concentrate on it fully. She has dabbled in many things including being a model primary and secondary school teacher and trained as a make up artist.