Cure Us of Prayers
by Lee Wei Fen
Lord of the twelve right hands
why are we your mirror men
with the two left hands
capable only of casting
find us the face
we lost early
– From A. K. Ramanujan’s Prayers to Lord Murugan
I am searching for the temple down the road. I need to go back. It’s been there for a long time, as long as I can remember. But what I do remember isn’t specific enough. I remember buses that had been re-routed to make way for the firewalking festival, whose Tamil name I always confused — Thimeedi or Thaipusam? One or the other. Or both. I remember the Indians being spiked with the favour of their gods. I feel like I must know more about it, since I live just behind, but I scratch my memories and these are all the impressions I find crusted under my fingernails. I don’t remember how to go back.
I stepped into the temple once, as a young boy, for a school project that asked for the names of the dancing Sivas. Siva Nataraja is the only one I remember now, mostly because I’ve heard it pronounced on TV. It’s the god with matted hair, dancing within angry flames in a rapturous bliss. That day was hot, simmering, and I was feeling what my Flora would probably have described as ‘unpleasantly sticky’, when an old man with a foxtail of hair interrupted. He told me he could see protective and destructive fire in me. What did that mean? He told me Lord Murugan was looking for me, and that I needed to make myself found with an unfolded mind. He told me he would purify me of all my ills. He was wearing a white cloth tied into a folded drape, and I stared at its gold borders as he pronounced my future entanglements. I ran away. There was dust on my feet and the marble under it was cool in the heat. I got caned that evening, after reporting my afternoon’s activities, because my parents were strictly Pentecostal and very orthodox and no-nonsense about me being exposed to what they considered idols. Flora would have disapproved as well, but for different reasons.
So I am searching for this temple down the road, the one that houses the eight Siva Nataraja statues and Murugan’s spear. Because three bad things happened in the last week, and if you are even the slightest bit superstitious you might try to fix it, just like me. First: a posse of brown-spotted moths flew across this neighbourhood, fanning out the sunlight momentarily. They were so large and so loud that all the neighbours bore witness, and worst of all, these moths all landed on my bedroom window. Dark, spotty, like a prism of sadness with many faces. Something like that happens and you’re bound to wonder, why? And why me? To make matters worse, the day after brought more bad news: a speeding Toyota Vios mounted the kerb by the bus stop downstairs, ploughing into a few women. I was standing right there, just at the edge. I remember, one of them was that hawker aunty who sold $1.50 ayam goreng along Killiney; but now she was just broken bones and flapping skin; and tomorrow the papers would report her as fifty-six, a fatality. The bus had just careened out of control on its way to town, and its looming form never left my mind.
And then my wife got bitten by a cat and her leg began to swell. The third, and I decided, final thing. Perhaps it sounds random but I think it really began right there.
The stray cat that bit my wife lived downstairs, and was fed by the one of the last remaining dhobis in town. The dhobis traditionally washed dirty laundry, but Uncle Nathan now washed only cars. This cat slept on his belly every night, and never once bit anyone — at least as far as we knew. But the uncle, who was considered by some of the estate committee members as an eyesore in our gleaming lobby, had disappeared off on one of his long trips. Abandoning his odd (and frankly insalubrious) jobs that most of us would rather not know about, he left behind his plastic Bata sandals under that forlorn red plastic stool. And an angry, lonely, hungry cat, whose bite now radiated like fanned whiskers on my wife’s ankle. Flora and I watched it grow unhappily.
The neighbours recommended religious recourse after they had seen the moths. Best to pray, they muttered; find out what is wrong before things get worse. I agreed secretly, of course, but I casually dismissed them, as they were also retirees with too much free time. When I bumped into the neighbour that used to work as a court translator, he told me that moths are a sign of decay as we waited for the lift to arrive. I stared at him and told him I would see him at the next estate committee meeting. But it wasn’t all these signs, it was instead Flora’s obstinacy that drove me to the temples.
I woke up one early morning to find her out on the balcony. The cat bite had been swelling for a week without respite, and she was sitting with her leg propped up, trying to paint that big bungalow nestled in grass opposite the apartment that we had inherited from my parents.
“Actually who owns this bungalow ah?” she asked absentmindedly, dabbing the colours.
I watched her stroke her other leg, almost habitually now. “Don’t know. Some towkay, I heard. Not sure. Heard he owns the other properties around too,” I said.
“The gardens and the mansion? Wah. How come we never asked, never found out?” she said, more a question directed inwards.
“Don’t know. Not kaypoh enough I guess.” We sat in silence for a while as her leg throbbed, distractingly — I thought I saw it swell visibly, I now swear I did discern it, though at that moment I thought I was just imagining things.
“How’s your leg? Do you want ice?” I asked, as an afterthought. We had always been practical like that; she didn’t mind.
She put the paintbrush down in an old jam-jar full of murky water, stretched out, and massaged her leg. It looked painful. After a moment, she finally said “It feels like balloons, you know?”
“I don’t know. What do you mean?”
“Like air growing fat. Like… skin stretching thin. Like fat and thin pushing against each other.” She had always been so careful with her words, once an English schoolteacher and proud of her Hemmingwayesque diction. Now, she just grabbed whatever came to mind. I was worried. It was better before, when she spoke choppily, sparsely. Like a man, you could say. I was always the flouncier one.
I sighed. “What fat and thin? Does it hurt?” I asked. It was always difficult to tell, with her, how much of her pain was psychosomatic, a mind dream. I couldn’t know, and I wouldn’t have understood.
“It’s not pain. Just like getting big from being pregnant, but faster, you know?” she replied. She resumed painting as the clouds shifted behind the bungalow.
“I think you better go to the doctor. What pregnant? Don’t talk nonsense. It doesn’t sound natural,” I said, beginning to feel panic curl its tendrils around my voice. I felt smothered with an irresistible urge to talk to someone in control. Flora used to be that someone, but she had been refusing to see the doctor for a while now, and I couldn’t figure out why. It wasn’t just the cat bite. Perhaps fear had just moved into her, multiplying more mad goblins than I could ever see, encumbered with a lot less bravery than I would have given her credit for. A mind I loved that was now browning at the edges, and I didn’t know how to undo it all. Helpless, the old man with the white dhoti walked into my mind, followed by a host of nameless gods and goddesses I desperately wanted to converse with and question now.
But who were they?
“Sayang. Why don’t I go to the temple to pray for you?” I asked tentatively, wondering if she’d still be in a mood; she was erratic these days. I had found her painting bulletin pins one evening, her hair still unwashed.
A heavy silence descended.
“Pray?” She said, her paintbrush paused in mid-motion.
“Yah. I know you might not want, but that’s why I thought to ask first…” I said, words trailing off. The tendrils were definitely tightening, and my vocal cords had split into some ends of fear.
“You know what I think about that.” She said, measuredly. The paintbrush flickered, and a drop fell.
I sighed. I knew, and should have known better. Flora was an atheist; she had worn that badge proudly for most of her life, denounced all manner of religious authority, and embraced the dust she said she would return to for nothing more. She was almost a nihilist by most standards. In comparison, I had always floundered. I certainly didn’t mind praying to something for a carpark lot, also didn’t mind wishing on a tree — I wasn’t like her, and I also didn’t need to reconcile those short comforts with the larger arc of reality. For years we did not need to speak about religion, but I knew there was something more in me that yearned to sit on cold marble floors, to gaze at deities, to commune with a presence. Maybe it was an unspoken curse from that old man, or maybe, a blessing, a helping hand. Maybe just a superstition. Who would know?
For years my wife had been my companion, my best friend, my lover, my guide. Her conviction about the true reality of things had stamped down my stray thoughts. Now, as she weakened, I felt untamed anxiety curling into a little ball, rolling through my gut, picking up more urges I couldn’t yet define. It would soon have its own gravity. For without children, with our careers now behind, and with nothing but old age and silent company, I needed to talk to someone who didn’t have her judgment. It needed to be some higher order I had never acknowledged since we got married, because I felt spiritually dry. That phrase alone instantaneously conjured up Flora’s wry laughter, even if only in my head.
I’d talk, I decided. Flora wouldn’t have a say in it. But talk to whom, talk to whom? I got the map of our neighbourhood, took down the koala bear I-heart-Australia magnet that pinned it to the fridge, and decided to take stock of all the gods that live in the neighbourhood. That was when I realised I couldn’t even begin knowing their names. So I started with their homes. The Chinese, presumably Buddhist, temple on one side of the road, uphill from the young people out on weekend nights. The Indian Hindu one on the south side of the other road — once home to the moneylenders and abode of Murugan. A Catholic church a few buildings down, with the feng shui ball rotating on water outside and an LED-lit ‘Jesus Christ’ superstar statue in a striking gesture of benevolence. A synagogue up the hill, which no one seemed to know anything about: I once bumped into an ex-discipline master there on my way home. I must have been a rather old boy then. When he saw me, he reached out and touched his kippah, almost reflexively. I mapped all these out, and they formed a square with bent edges. My house sat squarely between those lines.
I decided to make a few jabs before I showed Flora my map — B1, 49, A2, 51. Pin-holes marking god spots.
“Look,” I said. “I am going to pray, whether you like it or not.”
She hovered over the map. Her shadow fell like a new gradient and sunlight brightened her white hair, and I thought about how my map was perfect except it didn’t record people like us, and people like us were everywhere.
“You left out a few temples,” she said instead. I was surprised that she knew, cared, bothered voicing it out.
“Where got?” I said, chastised, for I knew she was right. The smell of the Mopiko she had rubbed on the bite pricked the air around us, lingering uncomfortably with the pinch of acrylic from her paint.
“One on Mohammad Sultan, one on River Valley. I think there might be one more on Tank Road right?” she said absentmindedly. I watched her fill in the whites of a gate. She was careful not to cross the edges, almost childlike in her cautiousness.
I racked my memory, tracing a jogging route from decades before. “No, that’s the Teochew building. But yah, okay.”
I marked out two new spots on the map with a painted pin. Prick. Prick.
“It’s not going to work, you know,” she said finally. I knew she had been timing it.
I nodded. “Doesn’t matter. At least try,” was my response. She took that. “Now help me change please, I need to take a shower.”
She hobbled to the bedroom, and I helped her get out of her printed housedress. Her 62-year-old body, marked with folds, was naked and in front of me again. It no longer inspired lust, merely contemplation of what she might similarly see of me. Elastic skin belonged to the young; we who are creased with sleep and life can only watch and count new lines each time, making it easier to outline the past and harder to tell the future.
She spoke in the quiet of our room, where the sprinkling of sparrow-chirping outside had always been brightest. “I just feel funny about this. All this talking to ‘God’, offering some flowers to some being. You might as well buy for me,” she said. At least there was still humour, despite everything. She paused. I thought about all the times we’d scoffed superstition together, that shimmering mirage that promised the world too much and gave too little. Now I found myself older and slighter and sadder and confused and her not, even if I was the only one left standing strong. I felt her eyes follow me out of the room. I clutched the map: that at least was real, an easy instruction to follow.
And that was how I found myself wandering along the edges of the square I pricked out, surrounded by traffic, outside religious institutions waiting for miracles, waiting for gods and goddesses to introduce themselves, looking for an explosion, seeking a miraculous sign. I couldn’t really bear to bring myself through any of those doors, and by the time I could, I found the temples all closed for lunch, or noon, or siesta. Or maybe I imagined it, and they were just permanently shut. They were forbidding now.
I thought about my old man in the white dhoti. I thought of his hair-tail and his cotton drape, and how he had promised me fire and a cleansing of ills. I wanted to see him. Even if long dead, he would live on in the many like him. But which temple was this, really? I knew there was one down the road but I could not see it, and the one I could see with a large gopuram was shut. Had it moved? Do temples move? I was at a loss. This was not something I had to contend with regularly.
Unable to think clearly in the heat, I walked into the oldest English bar in Singapore, right next to the shut temple. For years I had looked at the moss green sign in curiosity but had never entered. Two middle-aged men immediately accosted me, and I was painfully aware that one immediately addressed me as ‘Uncle’.
A beer later, I thought that a bar was as good as any a starting point to find out about Hindu temples. At least it was open.
“How long have you all been coming here for?” I ventured.
“Too long, no need to count,” was the cheerful reply from the one in the t-shirt that read CHICAGO.
“Do you know anything about the Indian temple down the road? It used to look very different right?” I said too quickly, hoping to mask the oddity of my question.
Raymond, the guy with the glasses, chortled. “That temple! Always there what. Why?” he replied.
“Yah, always there. Since we started coming here it was already there. Quite long already. Why, you want to go or what?” CHICAGO had his eyes glued to the soccer match playing on bar TV.
“Just curious. I heard Murugan is very powerful. Can cure people and all that,” I mumbled.
My reply was met with raucous laughter and a few rounds of cursing. “Fuck! Uncle! Like that also you believe? Forget ‘God’, you have Johnny Walker here! This street is truly blessed!” CHICAGO said, more loudly than I expected. He spluttered with laughter. “Eh sorry ah, I hope you don’t mind. No offence, no offence. Raymond and I are traders lah,” he said, half in apology and half in explanation.
“We are sibeh hopeless. Only worship money, and women. Work hard, drink hard, fuck hard, finish!” Raymond interjected. “No offense ah, Uncle.” He seemed to sober up. Then, at CHICAGO, “Eh, don’t bloody insult people’s religion okay, this country is multi-racial multi-religious okay,” he counselled. The latter just shrugged and said, “Cheers!”, lifting his cup.
“Eh, forget the temple lah. I heard it keeps moving, from Dhoby Ghaut to dunno where. But you know what, fuck, I remember the swimming pool, River Valley — that was really something — that was where I learned how to swim,” said CHICAGO. Swimming pool? At this point I could only think about various forms of holy water and how to get my hands on them.
“Me also,” Raymond jerked his acknowledgement back in the form of a beer slog.
“My god! Do you remember the piece of shit that used to float there?” cackled CHICAGO. They both turned to look at me.
“I think so, it must have been dirty” was the only answer I could muster.
“Shit, fuck! It was so fucking dirty. There was that piece of shit!” CHICAGO was on a roll.
“Hey man, do you remember the aquarium?” Raymond prompted. They seemed to think I should buy into nostalgia, not spirituality.
“What aquarium?” I asked distractedly. Why was the temple closed? Was I failing in my mission already? Maybe it was better to just sit back with a drink after all. These guys were abrasive but well-intentioned.
“What year were you born in?” Raymond replied.
I decided they were so drunk I could pretend to be anyone and they would believe me.
“1988,” I said.
“Dude, fuck it man, that’s young!” CHICAGO looked amazed. I marvelled at how drunk one could be at 1 p.m. “You wouldn’t know the aquarium — the Van Kleef aquarium. Man, everyone knows it!” CHICAGO bellowed.
I felt my old man hairs quiver. Of course I knew it. I had just not thought of it. Why were these men talking to me like this? Was my skin growing elastic? Could I be twenty-five?
“I’ve heard of it,” I mumbled.
“Like shit you have. You’re too young, okay? It was so cool man, if you want to see Singaporeans having a good time, that was it… No air conditioning, a lot of beers. Fish, all those fish, what the fuck! Fuck the temple man, let’s go to the aquarium!” Raymond poured himself another glass of whiskey. They soon excused themselves for a smoke, their voices fading slightly as the door swung shut. I felt mildly invisible and forgotten. Old, again.
I took stock of what I knew. So I lived in a square surrounded by traffic and gods. With an oceanarium and a swimming pool from the past. Good reminders, because I had forgotten. But then they were no more. I could barely keep up with all the changes, and all I had wanted was to find out about this temple, shut at noon. Every day or just today? Everything began to wobble. And to hell with it all, I might be twenty-five.
I paid up for my drink at the counter. “Take care. Go slow. Maybe the temple will be open tomorrow,” said the bartender.
“Okay, boy. Thanks,” was all the gruff I could muster. I could feel the alcohol in my system. I’d grown unused to it.
I stepped out and the sun was iron-hot on my back.
I decided then that the adventure was over. I could end it here; I could stop the story from growing stranger. I could sober up and go home, grow up, old. I could wait one more day to speak to the gods, after I looked up their address to find out where they’d moved to.
I walked fifty steps in the direction of home. I kept looking out for the temple, its unmistakable gopuram, but now it seemed like it had disappeared. I thought I was on the right road, directly opposite Fort Canning. But maybe I was wrong, maybe the Fort was bigger and had more sides, maybe the temple was on another. The beer was interfering with my already muddled mind. I remembered that I had once, perhaps mistakenly, decided to go for a yoga class. It wasn’t at all in fashion back then, but there was a place just down the other road where classes were held in an old black-and-white colonial- era bungalow on Oxley Road. Strange place to hold a class, with all the yoga and meditation books on every shelf. New Age for that age, twenty years ago. Everyone was young there. When the instructor asked if anyone had injuries to declare, I raised my hand and said it was my first time. A lady piped up and said it was hers too. She had an electric pink stripe running down her pants. I tried to exchange a sympathetic glance, but she was looking at her toes. Later I would find out her name was Flora, and even later I would bring her to my parents’ house, where she sat with me in the balcony, chatting all night across from the big bungalow.
Now she was right in front of me again; on the path outside the gate to home was Flora, standing by the roadside shrubs, bent over the bougainvillea that were in fuchsia bloom. Her legs looked more swollen than before. She looked as wobbly as I felt.
“Did you finally go see the doctor?” I called out. I knew she would recognise my voice.
“Doctor say take painkiller. I don’t know, I think there may be herbs here I can find,” she replied without turning. Herbs? In the bougainvillea bush? Shit, I had thought I was the one going crazy. She hadn’t been to the doctor’s. She read my accusatory silence and turned around, defeated.
“How, did you see the gods?” she asked. “What did they say?”
I thought about CHICAGO and his buddy and their merrymaking. “Nothing. Didn’t get to see” was my reply. I saw relief in her shoulders — our equally unsuccessful afternoons had permitted a tentative new bond. I walked up to her, her purple shirt, her white-gold hair. I looked at her toes.
“I don’t know where they moved to,” I mumbled.
“Find their address, send a letter,” she said. “If they are real they’ll write you back.” She turned away, and shuffled slowly out of my frame. Snarky, even now.
In the elevator up, the construction sounds of walls being broken in some apartment under renovation floated past us. I remember her staring at the level buttons as I watched her in the mirror, increasingly unknowable. I reached out because I missed her, but only touched her bag. She would know.
When we got home, the sky was overcast and it looked like it was going to rain. She brought the unfinished painting into our room for shelter. We sat on the bed and I wanted to massage her legs, they were turning red — but instead I undressed her and my wrinkles met hers with recognition, and we went to bed folded into each other, my hand on her belly spill. It was soft, still unswollen. Then sleep arrived, in waves of turpentine and acrylic rain.
That day stands out in my memory as the day that medical science failed us. The first day I looked for a temple and found a bar. The day I forgot my age and Flora forgot herself.
Eventually, I quit the estate management committee to look after her. We slept through a lot more rain. I went again to the temple in search for a cure, but it was still closed every afternoon, and when it finally opened, I found Siva in various states of contortion that Flora could never imitate. Godhood and immortality was now beyond her reach, and so I gave up too. I learned how to say the name of the Lord in Tamil, and I chanted it in a bid for good karma. Then I stopped because it wasn’t working; I forgot how to say ‘Thendayuthapani’, and soon the light grew so dim we could not even see the bungalow opposite. She didn’t like me squandering our time together on a futile search for the invisible, so I eventually stopped. We held hands in bed until she grew cold and I just held her feet. They were like balloons. Pregnant. Sometimes I heard cats crying. Sometimes I heard nothing. I thought about that swimming pool in River Valley with a piece of shit floating in it, and about the men going home drunk on nostalgia.
I now wake up alone, sometimes thinking that I am still searching for the address of the temple down the road, where the moneychangers used to roam. Then I remember that was over. Sometimes I worry about the moths returning, bringing a brown sky with them. But what occupies my thoughts most is the migration of gods and men, of new blueprints of this neighbourhood, of quiet deaths and the hammer of construction sites. I barely leave the house now to walk that circuit of unknown deities. My neighbours whisper still, I know, I can hear them through the walls, but they’ve stopped knocking on my door. They don’t know that if I hold up the map to my face, the sunlight still returns through pin-pricks as the pattern of the stars. It is my first time here and there is a first time for everything.
Reprinted with the permission of author and publisher, the short story first appeared in Balik Kampung 2B, edited by Verena Tay, Math Paper Press.
A freelance writer and researcher of South Asian cultures and religions, Lee Wei Fen co-edits Ceriph, a Singaporean literary print journal that promotes emerging writers and artists. Her written work appears in places like Quarterly Literary Review Singapore and Nether Magazine, and anthologies such as Fish Eats Lion (2012). She also co-edited Coast (2011), a mono-titular anthology of poetry and fiction by three generations of writers from Singapore.
About her connection to River Valley, Lee writes, “Home in Singapore is in River Valley, sandwiched between the shops and the clubs. I grew up, and continue to live in an apartment block that is home to many retirees who vote against en-bloc sales at each annual general meeting. I’ve fallen in love on the steps of Winsland House, consumed more Killiney Kopitiam kaya than is healthy or advised, tracked the annual Christmas decorations of the Killiney Post Office and watched it turn into a bar. Here, hotels and shops regularly crumble and are resurrected, and I realised during a night run that the synagogue, church, Hindu temple and two Buddhist temples are the only ones permanently (to date) standing.”