Walking on Fire

M Ravi is a name both loved and hated in Singapore. A lawyer who has been involved in some of the most high profile constitutional challenges, he has argued against the mandatory death penalty, and argued for the right to free assembly and free speech, and equal rights for the LGBT community. His memoir of his growing-up years, published in 2013, was greeted with much excitement, and described as “inspiring.” His publisher Ethos Books puts it this way:

Taking up human rights causes in the Lion City is often perceived by the authorities as an act of disloyalty, and those labelled as disloyal can see their own rights and liberties impinged upon. What are the springs of this commitment and the moral strength that have allowed Ravi to continue on this sometimes perilous path?

To answer this, Ravi takes us back to his roots in one of Singapore’s few multi-racial villages, or kampongs. The lessons he learnt there – about family, cooperation with others and compassion – have infused much of his life and guided him on his path towards the pursuit of justice.

The memoir is indeed infused with cooperation and compassion, but also a certain derring-do, as the following extract clearly illustrates. Kampong Boy was shortlisted for the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize in the non-fiction category.

 

from Kampong Boy
by M Ravi

 

The fire-walking ceremony is a ritual that Hindus undertake to show their reverence to the goddess Draupadi. The rite is one of the high points and pretty much the culmination of a longer Hindu festival which reprises key events from the great Hindu epic poem, The Mahabaratha. In Singapore, it is held once a year at the Sri Mariamman Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in the island republic.

As I said, I first performed this ritual when I was just starting secondary school. Actually, according to the rules and regulations of the ceremony, I was ineligible to participate as I was too young. Back then, the rule was that fire-walkers had to be at least 16 or 18 years old, I forget which now. But that didn’t make any difference: I was still three to five years under the required age.

Because I had no thought of participating that year, I didn’t make the preparations for the ceremony. For one thing, I was then a meat-eater and kept on eating meat almost up until the day of the fire-walk. According to the rules, you’re supposed to abjure from meat for two months prior to doing the walk.

On the eve of the event, crowds gather in the temple and on the road that runs in front of Sri Mariamman. I joined in, of course, as I had for a number of years — as an observer. But while I was in the temple, seeing all the rites connected to the upcoming event, I suddenly became overwhelmed with excitement. I incautiously decided that I would participate, even if I was officially too young to do so.

Those who perform the fire walk are required to have a ticket which they purchase for the privilege of performing the walk. I asked an 18-year- old guy, a friend of a friend, if he would buy a ticket for me. He agreed, and I slipped him the required fee, ten Singapore dollars — not a negligible amount for me in those days. I went home that evening with the ticket hidden.

Although friends and families of the fire-walkers often turn out at the event to give encouragement to the bold walkers, that was not true in my case. Nobody knew that I was now ticketed to participate — certainly no members of my family knew about it.

On that day almost 30 years ago, around 5,000 men had turned up to undergo the ritual. And there was the large crowd assembled to watch the ceremony. Every year, anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 spectators attend, though the actual number of people watching fluctuates, as people come and go during the hours-long course of the ceremony.

I knew that two of the people in the crowd that day were going to be my mother and my youngest sister, Sheela. But they had no idea that one of the walkers that day would be me. I knew they would be shocked when they saw me approach the fire pit. I didn’t feel good about shocking them, but neither did I want to miss this chance to participate in one of the most exciting rituals one can experience in Singapore.

Early on the morning of the fire-walk, I arrived in my yellow shorts at the Sri Srinivasa Perumal temple in Little India with the other devotees. From there we all walked, unshod, the five-kilometre trek to the Sri Mariamman temple.

At Sri Mariamman, I entered through the side door where all those who had registered and bought tickets were ushered into the temple and then given some final instructions about how one should comport oneself during the ceremony. I handed over my participant’s ticket and slipped into the crowd of walkers. With a multitude of 5,000 jostling for space to get in and fall into position, nobody seemed to notice that I was a few years south of the required age.

My heart was all a-flutter as I realised that I would soon be doing what had thrilled me as an observer for a number of years. My excitement was only fanned by the atmosphere in the temple. Not only were there thousands of observers, both in the galleries above and on ground level, but music, incense and near hypnotic incantations of various prayers filled the air. The temple priests moved about getting all the participants hyped. More, the heat from the controlled fire in the fire pit at times became so intense that attendants had to go around throwing water on the temple walls to cool them off. All of this, of course, created a heady atmosphere that was almost intoxicating for a young fellow undertaking the walk for the first time.

But as I approached the fire pit, I became increasingly nervous. There was a Chinese man in front of me. (There is no ethnic or racial restriction on who can dare the fire.) As we drew closer to the pit, I attracted the attention of a Hindu priest overseeing the ceremony. It was not strange that I would draw his attention: not only was I just 13, but I always looked young for my age. That means that I probably looked more like a boy of ten or eleven, rather than a teenager who had just been swept into puberty.

The priest at first looked at me askance, then riveted his gaze on me. A few seconds later, he strode over to me and put out an arm. He wanted to stop me from daring the walk as he was convinced that I was still too young for the ritual. But then luck came my way. (Or perhaps I should say, the goddess smiled on me.) The priest momentarily put down his arm and turned to another official to complain about my being there in the rank of fire-walkers. I used this opportunity to suddenly move ahead at a saunter. By the time the priest had turned back to point out this young boy who had somehow managed to get into the ceremony, I was already at the lip of the fire-pit. A few seconds later, I launched myself over the hot ashes and coals.

But there had been one further hurdle for me as I neared the sizzling coals. My younger sister Sheela had that year found an observer’s post on the ground floor, near all the action, while my mother, as was her usual practice, had ensconced herself amongst neighbours and friends in the upstairs gallery. She and the others had found a spot which offered a good view of the fire pit and those daring it.

As I got close, my sister saw me. After a few moments of spinning disbelief, she accepted that this was really her older brother there, ready to take the walk, even though he was too young to participate.
My sister then did the tactful thing: she turned around, sighted my mother and started screaming hysterically that I was about to go through the ceremony. My mother looked down more closely and saw that it was, indeed, her beloved son right behind the Chinese man and that this son was about to cross the pit. Her heart leapt up into her mouth. But it was too late for me to turn back. For one thing, I could feel the other walkers pushing anxiously right behind me, ready for their turn. A few moments and a few steps later, I felt the intense heat of the coals and ashes as I started across the pit. As I made my way over the short distance, I could see shocked looks on the faces of many of those standing at ground level. They, too, realised that I was actually too young to be doing what I was doing.

Actually, the term “fire-walking” is a bit of a misnomer; almost all those taking part moved at a steady trot across the ashes, hoping to get through the ritual quickly. I was no different.

As I finished with the fire pit, I sloshed into the milk pit that is there to offer the walkers a cooling salve after their short but intense ordeal. Actually, for some physiological anomaly, I felt more heat just after I exited the fire pit than when I was in it.

As I hit the milk pit, a woman dressed in a lovely green sari came over and held my hand — as a generous gesture of spiritual salving, I imagine. I was told to focus on the graven form of the goddess Draupadi, which I did. I then offered the kind lady a bit of the ceremonial ash as a way of thanking her for her warmth and kindness. As far as I know, I never saw that woman again in my life.

At that point, there were people all around chanting “Om sakthi” as another way of offering support and relief. But then I heard one voice that was not offering this hallowed chant. That was my sister’s voice, and she was scolding me for terrifying my mother. I had somehow imagined that I would be seen as something of a hero by Sheela for taking part in the ceremony. But there was none of that, just consternation and condemnation. I bowed my head in remorse.

Meanwhile, I could hear my mother and the other women around her screaming, which made me feel even deeper remorse. That night, I stayed with a friend because I was afraid to go home and face the consequences of my surprise appearance in the fire pit. But when I returned home later that day, I was greeted by my mother, who gave me a big hug. I felt as if the entire ritual had finally been completed. I also promised that I would not participate in the walk the following year. In fact, it was more than 20 years before I would again undergo the challenge of the fire-walking ceremony.

 

End of extract

Reprinted by permissions of the author and publisher, this extract is taken from Kampong Boy by M Ravi (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2013).

 

Kampong Boy

M Ravi was born a few years after Singapore achieved full independence and began its journey of self-discovery. The grandson of immigrants from Tamil Nadu (India), Ravi grew up in the twilight of Singapore’s kampong period, with his early years being spent in a mixed-race kampong. His family then moved to one of the first high-rise HDB sub-cities, where he completed his school years and early adulthood.

After fulfilling his National Service duties, Ravi studied at the National University of Singapore, finishing with an Arts degree. He then studied Law at the University of Cardiff in Wales.

He was admitted to the Singapore Bar in the mid-1990’s and over the last decade has been involved as lead lawyer or supporting voice in some of the Lion City’s highest-profile cases. His work in the field of human rights has made him a recognised and respected figure not only within Singapore, but also internationally.

About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

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