Sterile

Somewhere in between graduating from university and today, I lost my voice. My writing voice, that is. 

The ironic thing is that I’ve been working as a writer, which meant that my writing became something functional. A piece of writing had to provide information, had to be part of a story, had to sell something. 

“Art has no function. It is not necessary,” said Gertrude Stein. 

By making my writing functional, it had stopped becoming art. The joy of art is in the work, not its result. And somehow, along the way, I lost sight of that. 

I lost the sense of play and exploration that comes with putting words and punctuation together in odd and exciting ways. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to write stories just because.

As my voice grew smaller, so did my Self. 

And I became accustomed to sterility in my surroundings. To the point of invalidating my own emotions. 

“You are not supposed to feel this much,” I tell myself. 

“Okay, you’ve felt sad, angry, overjoyed about this for long enough. Get on with life.”

I was trying to be stoic, but perhaps I’ve misunderstood what being stoic means. It’s not about denying emotions or suppressing them. 

Emotions are meant to be felt, to whatever extent they present themselves. 

It’s what you do with them that counts.  

Melancholy

The melancholy began to set in sometime in December. It’s always hard to pinpoint exactly when. As I counted down to the new year, it counted down with me.

It followed me into January and here it is with me now. Pressing down on my chest at night, crawling down the skin of my arms, working its way into my head.

I call it melancholy but that’s an understatement. It’s a voice in my head that tells me, “You’re not good enough.”

It says, “You’re a waste of space. You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re such a burden.”

It says, “Just give up on life already.”

This January was one of the lowest lows I’ve experienced in years. I couldn’t even muster up the energy to contemplate death. “I would like to sleep forever,” I said to a colleague one night.

On the outside of my head, I have been showing up, somewhat. At work, in messages, via email. My physical self walks out into the world and smiles. But on the inside, I am absent. 

My body has learned to operate without my consent.

After all, it’s been years since the melancholy first started. And although it tells me I shouldn’t want to live anymore, I’m not ready to give up on life. 

Is this enough?

“I’m from Klang. Of course I have gangster friends,” I say. And even though my head keeps repeating ‘don’t say it, don’t say it’, I blurt it out. “My best friend died while I was in college.”

“Oh,” she says. She shifts and curls up closer to me. “How old was he?”

“18,” I say, waiting for her to ask what happened.

“What happened?” she says, looking into my eyes now. I run my fingers up and down her naked back.

How do I tell her this story? There are days when she thinks I don’t notice but she gives me this look and I know she doesn’t understand what I have said. How could she? With her fair skin and her ‘oh, I like Indian food. We had a maid who cooked for us’.

Like the other day when I got a press invitation to a movie, on Deepavali!

We would like to extend this invitation to the editorial team to join us for a night out at the movies on 22 October 2014 (Deepavali Day) at GSC One Utama.

“I don’t understand,” she’d said. “It’s not compulsory. You don’t have to go if you don’t want to.”

“Yes, but it’s Deepavali. And it’s a public holiday. So insensitive!”

“So? You can reject it right?”

“That’s not the point. Imagine if they had sent a non-halal buffet invite to the entire editorial team. Or if they organized something like that during raya.”

“Okayyyy… would it have been better if they had just sent the invite to the non-Indian people?”

“No, that’s still ignorant. That’s why la, my friend says that Chinese people cannot see things from other people’s point of view.”

She’d given me this look and a smile and I’d thought, “This is why my mother wants me to date an Indian girl.”

She nudges me with her hips and I am back in the present. “So… what happened?”

“We were on the road, you know, just in the car. I was driving because my friend was slightly tipsy. Another friend was sleeping at the back.

“It was public holiday time. Should have known la… There was a roadblock and as usual, we got stopped.

“Then they want to check our car la,” I say.

“Oh my goodness. I’ve never been stopped before. One time a policeman shouted at me through the window. I took down his ID number and complained about him,” she says.

I roll my eyes. “Ya, you can do that. Chinese ma.”

“Please la,” she says, laughs. “Then what?”

“Don’t know why my friend go and show his anger. So they took him away. The other friend and I went home. Next day his mom called, said he didn’t come home.

“Then they got a call from police station. They said he died of alcohol overdose or something. But then his body had too much of bruises. After that my other friend joined a gang. Got protection, he said.”

She doesn’t say anything. When I finally look at her again, I can see that she’s troubled. “I don’t understand,” she says. “How could you let something like that happen? How could you let them get away with that?”

“That’s the problem, babe. We don’t let it happen. It just does. There’s nothing we can do.”

She lifts herself up and leans back into the pillows. “No way,” she says. “I’m sure that there was something you could have done.”

Her eyebrows are bunched together in a frown and I can see the gears in her head turning, probably thinking about that ‘I am the master of my fate’ poem she spouted at me the other day when I complained about how unfair things were sometimes.

Before she can say anything else, I do the only thing that’s still keeping us together. I pull her close and kiss her. “Don’t worry about it, babe,” I say, moving my body over hers.

She doesn’t understand so many things, but her body understands mine. “Maybe this is enough,” I think. “Maybe…”

END


About this piece:

I wrote this in 2014 as part of an assignment for UnRepresented KL. We were meant to write something inspired by a documentary about race-related police brutality.

At the time, the ending of the story felt contrived; one of the characters did something that felt “out of character”. I moved on and wrote other things.

Lately though, I’ve been thinking about the issue of race (especially in Malaysia) and remembered this story. I’ve edited the ending but hopefully, preserved the theme.