A walk in the Merlion City

a writing by Anjani George

Tall concrete sky scrapers so high that they seemed to touch the skies, at least so from the view she had of them as she looked up with shaded eyes. It had been an immensely hectic and tiring day at the hospital. Yet as every day, she made it a point to walk through this street of old Singapore which had once been the hub of the entire city’s economic activity.

All the hustle and bustle had shifted to the posh new phase of the city, where steel framed structures glazed with glass were being constructed overnight! Before her very eyes, in a short span of about 10-15 years everything had changed. The metro, mostly underground, had a mind boggling reach, in and around this little city with majority of the population using public transport instead of private vehicles.

Every cubic feet of excavated material was measured and tagged and stored a little farther away, which was an attraction by itself being stored, reminiscent of sand dunes in the desert, in millions of measures! It had never failed to amaze her at how development of the country was everyone’s responsibility. The material thus stored was then utilized for landfills and other construction activities aimed at turning the city to a tourist hub which it was. They never gave up at creating new attractions always better than the previous ones so that tourists kept coming in year after year not having to repeat destinations.

The latest wonder was the “Gardens by the Bay” a nature park spanning 250 acres of reclaimed land in the Central Region of Singapore, adjacent to the Marina Reservoir,. The park, which is part of the nations plan to transform its “Garden City” to a “City in a Garden” is aimed at raising the quality of life by enhancing the greenery and flora in the city. Major attractions and the three waterfront gardens: Bay South Garden (in Marina South), Bay East Garden (in Marina East), Bay Central Garden, the largest Bay South Garden at 130 acres and other major attractions include its Flower Dome, the largest glass greenhouse in the world, the Cloud Forest and the Light show of the Super grove trees.

Twenty years ago when she began her career here as an x-ray technician, it had been exciting. She had been in the prime of her youth and to live in a foreign country as a young bride was bliss in itself. The very fact that Tamil was also an official language of Singapore along with English, Chinese, Mandarin and Malay won her heart and she felt quite at home in this modern city right from the start. When she, Lakshmi and her Husband Vijay felt nostalgic about food from home all they needed to do was to go to “Little India” where there were so many Indian Restaurants and even a branch of her favourite “Saravana Bhavan” from where she could have as much pongal and vadas as she wanted.

Today twenty years later she was Head of the X-Ray Department at Raffles Hospital in Bugis on Ben Coolen. She happened to meet an Indian family who had come with their daughter, for an x-ray. “I missed a step and twisted my leg, aunty and its hurts”, the child spoke in a soft voice when Lakhsmi asked her what happened.

“Dr. Tan says she needs an x-ray”, the nurse who brought her over told Laksmi.

The X-Ray was her department and she took so many of them every day. It seemed but a stroke of bad luck that a family on holiday should come across, but little instances as this make the trip more memorable when you think of it years later. The x-ray showed a small fracture which Lakshmi took to Dr. Tan. Coming across an Indian Family always raised her spirits as she met with very few, being on duty during weekdays. She winked and smiled at the little girl as she left the hospital on crutches in plaster. Singapore being very disabled friendly, they could as well continue with the rest of their holiday on a wheel chair.

Singapura, the land founded by the Malay Prince Sang Nilaultama who on stepping foot on the land for the first time chanced upon a freaking lion giving the place its name. Singapore, the land of the Merlion , the half fish half lion icon, reminding people of its humble beginnings as a fishing village. The progress of the land in so short a span was unbelievable. The Land of Sentosa Island, Universal Studios, Madame Tussads, Cable Car, Botanical Gardens, Marina Bay Sands, Jurong Bird Park, the Singapore zoo, third best in the world and so many more attractions. The land that saw the beginning of the Vanda Miss Joaquim Orchid founded by Ms. Agnes Joaquim and promoted by the famous horticulturalist Henry Ridley, from whom the idea of a garden city emanated.

Singapore, the land she and Vijay had lived almost all their married life. The land where they had loved wept and struggled. The land where they had brought up their children made their life and lived their dreams. The land that cared for them when things weren’t this easy, that had taught them to stick up for one another, to survive against all odds, to retain their self dignity and individuality without having to depend on anyone. There had been difficult times, very difficult ones.

Vijay was a man of very few words.

“Brevity is the soul of wit and men of few words are the best men”, Shakesphere has said.

Nothing could be truer when it came to Vijay. She fell head over heels for his character, his sternness and the quiet dignity he managed to maintain at all times. He talked less and did more with little care about being misunderstood or discredited.

The only disagreement she had with him was when he was lavish with his hard earned money on matters without taking or even being given the credit for it, especially since they had to slog for 20 years, managing on a pinched and no waste budget, multi tasking between children, work and home. After all it wasn’t very reassuring to watch smart games played to flush all that sweat and blood down the drain. She was prudent enough to remain silent knowing it would be impertinent to interfere in these matters yet, to be frank she felt disgruntled about its unfairness many times.
Along life’s journey she had learnt to be wary of leech like people, who sucked out blood from wherever it was available to quench their thirsts. They got away with sweet talk and charming words but their underlying value always remained the same. Selfishness! There was so much selfishness in the world and so many parasites living off their hosts. She knew the type thoroughly now, clamming their little nuclear families to the safety of a cocoon, and baring their decorated and beautiful fangs to the world picking out on vulnerable victims, to meet their needs, never batting an eyelid, least bothered if its friend or family.. All the while there’s sweet honey dripping from their lips and cunning words that tend to deceive. Yet, when it’s time to act they find some excuse to opt out without being too conspicuous and the innocent seem to keep falling for all the ridiculous syrupy talk.

“Brevity is the soul of wit and men of few words are the best men” – no doubt!

But then a man of few words is likely to be exploited and victimized, being too modest and never being able to vent out his grievances unless he has an advocate to fight the case for him. An advocate can be a friend, a partner, a sister or even a mother, but someone to take sides when all odds go against him and to come to the rescue, wherever the need arose. Lakshmi would have loved to be Vijay’s advocate because he was such a genuine person and it was a shame that in spite of his heart being at the right place his name did get tarnished and his good deeds went unappreciated, but the fact was it bothered him the least.

When a man is strong his woman has nothing to fear and as long as Vijay was happy, it was fine for her. She was a tough nut to crack herself and when things grew harder their bond just got stronger allowing them to come out of everything, sharing burdens and responsibilities and never having to seek for pity or to cry for sympathy. They were times when funds were very scarce but they had learnt to live within whatever resources were available with even the children adjusting to circumstances without any complaints.
For after all life is an adventure. A huge adventure which gets exciting only when it stops being monotonous, where emotions clash and priorities has to be determined. There always is a twist at the end of everything or rather a turn of events and for every valley there is a hill. Unless you experience a down, the up process will never be as exciting. Besides being in the valley, one can enjoy its greenery and beauty all the while looking forward to climb the hill with a belief that the view would be better at the top.

So she just cut the link at some point that seemed to be an unnecessary source of worry and decided to take life as it came. It did come with a big bang!! Life was a celebration to be filled up with new and exciting things, is what this little city had taught her. The walk down the old Singapore Road was a daily affair after office which reminded her that the old always gives way to the new, whatever be the odds that need to be met. Success is for one who tries and happiness is for one who strives for it.

Joining her on this down town memory walk was Iverem, one of Lakshmi’s very few friends in Singapore. Iverem was from Nigeria and had been working in Singapore for the past 25 years in the same hospital Bugis as a Nurse. Iverem belonged to the Tiv tribe in Benue State Nigeria and had a tragic past to her account. She had done her schooling at the Government College Makurdi and then BSc Nursing at the School of Nursing and Midwifery in the same State.

As a student at the Govt School Makurdi, she had been taught by many foreign teachers including the British to which her fairly sound knowledge of the English Language could be attributed to. With her classmates she remembered clearing bushes with cutlasses at the houses of these foreign teachers they normally called as “Oyinbos”. She loved the feel of the soil and there was no better pass time than tilling the soil for longs beds of groundnut plants, plantains, cassavas and even bottle gourd and bitter gourd plants. The Indian teachers seemed to love farming and she was grateful for the extra Kobos she could make during school days, which was spent for a treat of Bazookka bubble gums or crunchy biscuits sold by Abebi in her little wayside shop.
This gave a break from “garri” and boiled yam they normally were served in the school mess.

A foodie right from her school days, Iverem was an avid food blogger too with a considerable fan following. Her Nigerian combo dishes like deep fried yam with tomato chilly gravy made in palm oil, pepper soup made of goat meat cutlets or chunks, foo foo or pounded yam with egusi soup and suya, a juicy mouth watering spicy meat skewer had literally put Nigerian food on the gourmet map. These food items she considered as comfort food, reminded her of her large family back at home with whom she had totally lost contact. It reminded her of friends from the neighborhood and siblings, who would flock out in the hot burning African sun to climb cashew and mango trees for their juicy fruits.

It reminded her of the men in the village munching on kola nuts barring their stained teeth while discussing on the many issues of the village and the women relaxing in the courtyard, plaiting each other’s springy hair to intricately woven design dressed in colourful wrappers and some in head bands too, chatting and laughing after having served the family a meal and the smaller children singing “tinnini tananna bikko bikko……” in chorus.

Once on a night journey back home to her village from the city, she was raped by a bunch of drunken hooligans. She remembered nothing about them, not even their faces. There were reeking from alcohol which they seemed to have consumed and all she could remember of that dreadful night was the excruciating pain and the shame. The night mare continued to haunt her for years and years after she bore her daughter Veronica, a result of that fatal night. She was too ashamed to report the matter home and managed to keep the dreadful secret hidden until her ninth month of pregnancy when no amount of wrappings could camouflage the swell in her belly. Hell broke loose when the secret finally leaked out. She was whipped and slapped and tortured by all without the tiniest ounce of pity, for her family found her story too difficult to believe after all these months.
The result was she was thrown out of her home and would have killed herself if not found by the gentle Ms. Bridgette, a kindly missionary teacher who lived in the nearby convent. Veronica was born in the convent and looked after by the other kind hearted nuns in the convent who allowed Iverem to complete her training as a nurse. She wondered what would have been her plight if she had not been found by Ms. Bridgette. Even today Iverem managed to send a considerable amount of money to the same Convent in Nigeria so that the timely help she had received could be passed on to another. It was her way of showing gratitude.

Veronica had grown into a beautiful girl presently doing her graduation in Civil Engineering at the National University in Singapore. She was smart, intelligent and at the same time an affectionate daughter. But today there was something worrying Iverem, which she wanted to share with Lakshmi. As the two walked Iverem said
“Veronica’s mentor at college, Sir. Abel seems to be after her Lakshmi”, she said worriedly.

Lakshmi looked up at her.

“What makes you think so? He must be about 35 years older than her. It’s just a teacher- student relationship I’m sure”, Lakshmi said.

“No, he’s after her all the time. I know she calls him so often but how can I ask her? How on earth could he? He’s so much older than my baby and she’s just a kid. After what happened to me, I’m going paranoid”

“I told him I want to meet him today and have asked him to come to “Dragon” wayside restaurant at the other side of Rocher Metro Station. Can you also come with me Lakshmi? I may need help in talking that bastard out of this. To imagine that I mistook him for a gentleman. He even took us out one day for dinner to the Ethiopian Restaurant near Little India for a meal of injera and doro wat telling us how much he missed his home. I don’t know what to do Lakshmi and I’m so worried.”
Lakshmi wondered if she should actually be a part of this meeting but finally decided to go with Iverem to give her support.

The “Dragon” wayside restaurant was just one of the hundreds of street food outlets that served cheap, safe, fresh and tasty food to people. Generally all restaurants whether on the streets or in closed restaurants and five star hotels in Singapore maintained the same good quality of food for which rules were stringent and there were intermediate checks by Departments. Seafood was a favourite among the locals with most of the food being cooked with fish oil. Chilly crab, the national food of Singapore while the sting ray sambol was another favourite.. Lakshmi ordered for some chicken rice, the closest to the “biriyani” they had back in India while Iverem ordered for a bowl of Laksa. Having skipped lunch, they hungrily dug into their meals and by the time they had done Sir Abel was there.

Sir Abel, as he was known in the University was a very dignified looking man. He had curly hair just as all Ethiopians had but it was cropped very short making him look all the more handsome. Standing tall at 6ft 1 inch, he seemed to tower over the women both of whom were small statured. Small as she was Iverem was bold enough to confront him over the Veronica issue. By the time she had poured out her heart she was trembling more from rage than fear.

Sir Abel seemed puzzled. His brows furrowed as he cocked his head to the right side so that he could hear what she was talking, being stone deaf in the left ear.. “Damn it”, he had forgotten his hearing device, which usually happened only when he was a little nervous. At the University, he was known for his passion for teaching and research and a stalwart in the field of Civil Engineering. He had authored several books and was guide to many doctorate students, of which Veronica was one. Actually she being a dedicated and good learner astonishingly hard working, was one of his favourite students too.

“My dearest one”, he said in his deep throated voice as he clasped Iverem’s hands in his. “I am a partially deaf man who was foolish enough not to take my hearing device for so important a meeting”, he said as he spoke to Iverem, seemingly not aware of Lakshmi standing close by. “I do not know if I have heard you right but I understand there is some misunderstanding. Please let me explain. Sit down my dear”.

“Please take your seat Lakshmi Madam”, he spoke so politely that his reassuring voice had already helped Iverem to compose herself as Lakshmi took a seat on the opposite side of the table. “I was born into a very poor family in Ethiopia and my childhood was literally a struggle or rather a fight for survival. My father was a drunkard, who never went for any work all his life, snatched from my mother the money she made and beat her up if she resisted any of his overtures. I often went to sleep hungry but my mother always managed to keep me safe from his drunkard rage. I still remember clearly that one day when he just kept on beating my mother. It seemed as if he would never stop. So much that unable to bear it any longer I rushed out of the room, my mother hid me and tried to resist. What happened next I do not remember? In his fit of anger he took the first thing that came in hand, which happened to be a hammer and struck me on the left side. I remember a silence as my left ear began to bleed profusely and after which I fainted.”

“When I woke I was at the out-house of the Malayalee family my mother worked for. I lost hearing in my left ear but to this day I have never regretted the incident since it gave my mother the courage to finally leave that wretched man for good and strengthened her to walk out of our house that very night. The family was a kind hearted one, who let us live in their outhouse and sent me to school. I was a bright student and with my pathetic background it wasn’t difficult to get a scholarship for my academic pursuits. I’ve struggled hard, stayed hungry for days but I was able to give my mother a comfortable life towards the end of her days for which I am thankful to God.”

“I’ve never thought about marriage or finding a partner for myself. My mother’s experience was so harrowing that I have always associated marriages with unhappiness and for me it always was related to brutality. My work in the University has always been my passion and it has kept me buy all these years. But when I met you Iverem, it was like everything changed. Veronica is like my daughter and she has told me about you. I find in you qualities of strength and boldness and I admire the wonderful way in which you have brought up your daughter. So much that I wanted to be a part of your life too, if you will permit”.

Both women were speechless but their reactions absolutely contradictory! While Lakshmi was amused Iverem was shocked beyond words. It had never occurred to her even in her remotest thoughts to get married. She picked up her hand bag lying on the table and walked away without uttering a word. Random thoughts invaded her head and her heart confusing her altogether.

Part of her was pleased with the sudden attention. It sort of flattered her, boosted her ego and made her feel attractive and happy, while part of her was overpowered with fear and angst all over again. As she walked in the tiny drizzle, she could feel a cool breeze blowing against her face.

Lakshmi hemmed and hawed for the next fifteen minutes trying to save the dignified professor from the embarrassment she saw writ all over his face. She kept blabbering about what all she knew not and finally managed to give the gentleman a hand shake and say goodbye promising to let him know of Iverem’s decision by the end of the week at least. The two met at the end of the street upto where they usually walked every evening. Lakshmi knew it wasn’t the right time to talk to Iverem but deep in her heart she was happy for her dear friend. Happy not because it wasn’t that one couldn’t be content in life without getting married. She was happy at the realization that life always gave new chances to everyone without any partiality.

So the two women parted ways that evening.

Lakshmi, back to her home now an “empty nest”, since both children had joined university. However, she wasn’t actually as depressed as she had expected to be. She and Vijay had started off as a couple and now they were back to the same. When you have done the best you can for the children then it’s most sensible to cut the strings and let them fly as high as they can while moving on relaxed and content, thankful for the “together” time life has again gifted you with.

Iverem to her home where Veronica would be preparing for her end of semester tests coming up the next week. Tonight Iverem wasn’t working on her blog, she needed some time to think and to work out things. After all it actually felt good to have something to plan for to look forward to in the future.

One more day in the city of the Merlion was over. The city lights shone as bright as ever and among them were the lights from homes of Lakshmi and Iverem, two friends who had made Singapore their home.

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