Rhyme And Reason - ALiterarySeries

Little India Dreaming

To begin. Wade into the river of dark migrant bodies at nightfall. Ride on the perfume trails of jasmine and sandalwood, on the kemenyen incense flourished in the five-foot way, through which veils you have a fleeting glimpse of Grandmother trailing a smoking brazier through the rooms, expelling stubborn spirits troubling the household peace. Begin the slow chant of street-names: Mayo, Perak, Weld, memory's evening raga tuning up, the voice recalling, warming the absent air, the melismatic gliding up and down the streets, itinerant scale that keeps no time, stays in no place, the voice of the one who stayed and the voice of the one who left uniting in the recitation of names, notes strung together like these marigold blooms and jasmine buds threaded into bright garlands at the flower stalls on Buffalo Road, where your father was born, you remember him saying. Sometimes he comes back on a whiff, a note of the coconut hair oil, and he is holding your hand and walking you with his slightly impaired gait, as if his right leg were shackled to worry, regret, pain, past the Masjid Gafour, where the faithful perform ablutions to the imam's call climbing into the evening sky, and somehow you lose him, his coarse tobaccoey fingers in the flood of glistening dark skin. You are crying and then his hands find you and lift you up and you are being carried, riding your father across Perak Street, fording the main thoroughfare to Buffalo, then to Race Course Road, where he sits you down on the grass and you watch the simultaneous football games on Farrer Park. He buys a leaf-bowl of rojak from a street stall and you are both eating off it with toothpicks. You half-pray Make time stop, make Father stay. You feel like asking where he goes when he disappears for months, years, but you don't. You know that will make him go away, like the raga after it is finished, and you can't keep the voice, the melody, the presence, the spirit of the song. You cross Serangoon Road to Campbell Lane and the raga is finding its groove now, writing the way, and you walk past the provisions shops, the cadences of spices drumming, urging the voice on, the medley infusing the night air, saccharine Lata Mangeshkar love songs kissing the soulful sitar strains of Ravi Shankar and the plaintive plucks of Ali Akbar Khan's sarod, Zakir Hussein's earthy tabla marking, making time, and your legs are now tuned, listening to the song of the street. This is what you dream of in the wide empty spaces of the migrant's no-man's land, under the distant, antipodean skies over Berowra you hear this in your sleep, and you dream-walk back into the thick of it, as now past the pavement fortune-teller with his frayed parrot and pack of cards, onto Dunlop Street and the corner coffee-shop where the old-timers still sit and wait over coffee and smoke, past the mama stall and its sweets, lurid weeklies and condom packs, past the betel-man rolling his little leaf-wraps of oblivion, smiling as though he knows why you are back, past the barbershop on Dickson rolling out Bollywood strains, not before you pause and inhale the scent of hair lotion, see your body read in the double rows of mirrors, your face multiplied, split between lives and places. The face of the boy who thrilled and tingled to the barber's caressing snips, the young man who wanted to walk away from everything, the man who had walked away, the middle-aged returnee who has walked back, and behind them the dead father. The tabla takes over the space the singing has cleared, quickening memory's passage, the blank, missing years, and you peer into Woodlands Madras, and see your old friends over thalis plotting routes of escape, finger-scooping dhal-drenched rice from banana leaf-plates. All gone now. Diaspora. Dispersed. Disappeared. Why have you come back? Once you've left, there is no coming back, no place to come back to. Why come back? Back home, home, om, om. The fiddle takes it up, the question turning into a mantra on the mournful strings, and you are passing Clive, Cuff, past Indian-tenanted shop-houses with defunct Chinese signs, then to Baboo Street, where Grandmother took you along the street stalls to her ancient friend who ran a liquor store with swing doors on the corner of Hindoo and Serangoon, where your father drank himself out of job and life over and over. Then you turn into Desker, as the voice of the raga rises to touch the hem of the divine, the dim red light bulbs of the back-doors, the painted faces and tired bodies, and you remember coming with your men in the platoon, entering the shadowy room, the woman, beautiful still, sad-eyed, and the men swapping stories later. Where is she, where are the jolly men, one a veritable Zorba? Where are they now? Where are you? Now the instruments return to hold the voice up, as it finds a way to end, and you cross to Mustafa, which you knew as President Shopping Centre, where your mother brought you shopping for clothes, when she appeared. You remember the trishaw ride with her back to the room she rented on Race Course Road, wondering where she went to work at night, leaving you and your sister quietly as she slipped out into the street. Across the road is the open space, a parched bare field, where now the workers mill in squads. It was the year you RODed, the Hotel New World collapse, and now that empty memorial space reminds you of something unfinished, incomplete, a gaping hole, absence in your heart and the heart of the country. Of what you cannot tell. Like the heart of the raga, emptiness, fullness, nothingness. Ebb and flow. You begin the walk back, loop to where you started, the raga ranging back to its first notes, your feet trusting the language, the song of the remembering streets, the uneven chords of the five-footway, at home as if they have never left, as if the question they tap out is answered by the firm tanpura response of the ground, the silence at the raga's end looking back to the long way it has travelled, the echoes trailing into the distance to where the words have gone.


BOEY KIM CHENG

Born in 1965, he emigrated to Australia in 1997. He taught creative writing at the University of Newcastle in Australia for 13 years before joining Nanyang Technological University this year. He has published five collections of poetry and a travel memoir.

THREE NOTABLE WORKS


Clear Brightness (Epigram, Puncher & Wattmann 2012)

A collection of poems exploring themes of migration, memory and place.


Between Stations (Giramondo, 2009)

A book of personal essays tracking the author's route to a migrant life in Australia.


After The Fire (Firstfruits 2006)

A collection of poems reviewing the poet's relationship with his father and country.


•Links: http://www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/ site/poet/item/23512/15/Kim-Cheng-Boey

http://www.cerisepress.com/01/03/a-sense-of- questing-kim-cheng- boey-on-poetry/view-all


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•The poem in the Rhyme And Reason series is brought to you in partnership with the National Arts Council.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 21, 2016, with the headline 'Little India Dreaming'. Print Edition | Subscribe