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 she wouldn't miss her walk through this street of old Singapore, the once hub of the city.

All the hustle and bustle had shifted to the posh new phase, where steel framed structures glazed with glass were being constructed overnight! In a short span of about 10-15 years everything had changed. The metro, mostly underground, had a mind boggling reach with majority of the population using public transport.

Every cubic feet of excavated material was measured and tagged and stored a little farther away, later to be utilized for landfills and other construction activities aimed at turning the city to a tourist hub which it was.

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 with other major attractions like the Flower Dome, the largest glass greenhouse, the Cloud Forest and the Super grove trees.

Twenty years ago it had been exciting to begin her career here as an x-ray technician. Living 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 city right from the start.

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.”, the child spoke in a soft voice .

The x-ray showed a small fracture which Lakshmi took to Dr. Tan. She rarely came across Indian families during work. She winked at the little girl as they left the hospital on crutches in plaster, to continue the rest of their holidays on a wheel chair, Singapore being disabled friendly.

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.

Singapore, the land she and Vijay had lived almost all their married life. The land where they had loved, struggled, brought up their children and lived their dreams.

Vijay was a man of very few words but “Brevity is the soul of wit and men of few words are the best men”, Shakesphere said. Nothing could be truer when it came to Vijay, a man of few words.

Sometimes he was lenient with money, flaunting it on relatives back home. When she grumbled he would say “we are lucky not to be on the receiving end for that’s the hardest part”.
So, she was prudent enough to remain silent not wanting to be impertinent by interfering.

Sometimes the unfairness affected her for in spite of being genuine and their hearts in the right place, their sacrifices went unappreciated. But it least bothered Vijay so she ignored it herself and so they cut the link to unnecessary worries, stayed together and took life as it came.

Ordinary folk must take efforts to make their lives adventurous. Emotional clashes and choice of priorities must be seen as opportunities to make life exciting. For every valley there is a hill. Being in the valley, one can enjoy the beauty and look forward to a hilltop with a better view.

The walk down the old Singapore Road was a daily reminder that the old paves way for the new, 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, her best friend. Iverem was from Nigeria, a nurse working for the past 19 years in the same hospital.

She was of the Tiv tribe in Benue State Nigeria with a tragic past. Her schooling and subsequent training in nursing had been from her home state, Makurdi in Benue State, Nigeria.

As a student at the Govt School Makurdi, she had been taught by many foreign teachers, to which her fairly sound knowledge of the English Language could be attributed. She remembered going with friends to clear bushes using cutlasses, the compounds of their teachers known as“Oyinbos” among themselves.

She loved farming and enjoyed tilling long beds of groundnut plants, plantains, cassavas and even bottle gourd and bitter gourd plants. She was grateful for the extra Kobos earned during school days, which was spent for a treat of Bazookka bubble gums or crunchy biscuits sold by Abebi in her little wayside shop within the school compound.

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 now with considerable fan-fare. Her Nigerian 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 she regarded as comfort food, made her nostalgic and yearning for her large family back at home with who now she had no contact. It reminded of the neighbourhood and of her friends, and siblings, flocking out in the hot burning African sun, scrambling up cashew and mango trees for their delicious fruits.

It reminded her of the men in the village munching on kola nuts barring their stained teeth discussing 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, while the smaller children ran around humming “tinnini tananna bikko bikko……” in chorus.

Once on a night journey back home 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 and all she remembered of that dreadful night was the excruciating pain and the shame. The night mare continued to haunt her for 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 tortured without the tiniest ounce of pity, for her family found her story too difficult to believe after all these months.

The result, she was thrown out of her home. On the streets hungry and heavily pregnant, she was saved by the gentle Ms. Bridgette, a kindly missionary teacher at nearby convent. Veronica was born in the convent and taken care by the kind hearted nuns there who allowed Iverem to complete her training as a nurse.

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.

“I know she calls him so often but how can I ask her? He’s so much older than my baby. 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” restaurant on the other side of Rocher Metro Station. Can you also come with me Lakshmi? I may need help in confronting him. To imagine that I mistook him to be 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.
Lakshmi wondered if she should actually be a part of this meeting but finally decided to go along for her friend's sake.

The “Dragon” wayside restaurant was just one of the hundreds of street food outlets that served cheap, safe, fresh and tasty food to people. All eat outs in the city on the streets or restaurants and hotels maintained good quality of food.. Seafood was a favourite among the locals with most of the food being cooked with fish oil. Chilly crab, the national food of Singapore and the sting ray sambol was another favourite.. Lakshmi ordered for some chicken rice, the closest to the “biriyani” 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 cropped very short making him look all the more handsome. Standing tall at 6ft 1 inch, he seemed to tower over both small statured women. By the time Iverem was finished with him, she was trembling more from rage than fear.

Sir Abel seemed puzzled. His brows furrowed as he cocked his head to the right side straining to hear what she said. “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. Being an avid learner, astonishingly hard working, Veronica was one of his favourite students.

“My dear”, 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 his hearing device for so important a meeting”,. I do not know if I have heard you right but there is some misunderstanding. Allow me to explain.”

“Please take your seat also Lakshmi Madam”, he spoke so politely that his reassuring voice had already helped Iverem to compose as Lakshmi also 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 fight for survival. My father never went for work all his life, snatched from my mother the money she made and beat her up if she resisted. I often went to sleep hungry but mama managed to keep me away from him”

“That one day when he just kept on beating mama, It seemed as if he would never stop. I couldn't bear it any longer and rushed out of my room wanting to protect her, forgetting I was only a child. In his fit of anger he took the first thing that came in hand, 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 family mama worked for. I lost hearing in my left ear but to this day I'm not sorry about it since it gave mama the courage and strengthe 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 mama a comfortable life towards the end of her days for which I am thankful to God.”

“I’ve never thought about marriage. My mother’s experience was so harrowing that I have always associated marriages with unhappiness and brutality. My work has been my passion. But when I met you Iverem, it was like everything changed. Veronica is like my daughter and I know about you from her. I admire your strength and boldness and the wonderful way in which you have brought up your daughter. So much that I yearn 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 shell shocked. As she picked her hand bag lying on the table and walked away without a word, random thoughts flooded in her head and heart confusing her altogether.

Part of her was pleased with the sudden attention. But, while one part of her felt flattered, attractive and happy, there was also fear and angst on the other part.

As she walked in the tiny drizzle, there was a cool breeze blowing against her face.

Lakshmi hemmed and hawed for some more time to save the dignified professor from embarrassment and then said good bye with a firm hand shake, promising to let him know of Iverem’s decision in a couple of days.

The two friends met at the end of the street. Lakshmi didn't speak but was happy for her friend, not because one couldn’t be content in life without marriage but because life always gave choices 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. She wasn’t as depressed as she had expected to be. It was nice to be a "twosome" again.

Iverem to her home where Veronica was preparing for her end of semester tests coming up the next week. Tonight, she wasn’t working on her blog, she needed time to work out things and something told her it would be for the better for Sir Abel's gentleness tugged at her heart.

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 from the Commonwealth who had made Singapore their home.

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