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Su Lin

There she was again. Sitting by herself, two days in a row, on the bench by the lily pond with the purple lilies dancing in the sun. I looked, wanting to approach but I was hesitant. I was afraid she wouldn’t recognize me. How could she? There was no trace of the scrawny boy she knew, in the large and balding man that I was now. I had to come to the park every day to walk off the extra thirty pounds that I carried on me. The doctor had ordered it.

But I knew her instantly. The minute I saw her about two weeks ago, I knew it was her. After all these years I had no doubt. How could I forget? We grew up together. We were neighbors for most of our early lives. In fact in some ways, her family, and she in particular, gave mine its identity for all the years that we lived in that village. My family was known as the “Indian family” next to Su Lin’s house. We were a few Indian families scattered all over the village. It was just after the war. Lives, livelihoods and homes had been lost among many other things. We had been pretty wealthy before the war. My father had owned a grocery store, the only grocery store on a plantation. We sold everything that the Indian plantation workers needed and so we had a flourishing business. Then the war came, and out store was razed to the ground during one of the air raids and we managed to scramble to safety just in time. Of course this meant that we had to start from scratch. Thankfully my father’s despondence didn’t affect his drive. We regained everything that we had lost, two fold in the years after war.

When I first met Su Lin, she was about four years old, a little thing with a runny nose. She was standing, arms akimbo, outside her house when we arrived in a little van with the few belongings that we had managed to salvage from our home. I was probably about 6 at that time and so I immediately noticed a potential playmate. But I quickly dismissed her because she was a girl. She wouldn’t be interested in the same games. We didn’t smile at each other. Even then she had eyes that could look right through you. She was a shy, serious type of a girl who observed a lot and said very little and smiled even less. My parents were too distraught to notice much at that time. The sight of what was to be our home for the next ten years proved to be too emotionally draining for my mother especially, and so she burst into tears while my father looked on helplessly and looked like he was on the verge of tears himself. My sisters and I watched them uncomfortably. I felt guilty. I knew it was a sad time for my parents but I felt none of the unhappiness.

I was excited about the new place. I could see a river a few feet from our home and I wondered if it had fish. I noticed a few other boys about my age and wondered if they would let me join in their games. My sisters, who were about eight and ten at that time, waited for my mother to tell them what to do but she was not in a fit state. So they just stood, watching and waiting. By the time my family settled in that day, it was nightfall and there was no time to buy any groceries for our dinner. This was how my mother became acquainted with Su Lin’s mother. Su Lin’s mother who was known for her generous nature in the village, sent us some rice and a few vegetables through Su Lin who just handed us the groceries without a word. At that time I thought she was rather strange. 

My mother and Su Lin’s mother became friends, good friends. But they never knew each other’s name. My mother was always “the Indian boy’s mother” and Su Lin’s mother was “the little Chinese girl’s mother.” Somehow names didn’t seem to mean much in their friendship. They chatted in the only language that they knew in common, “Bazaar Malay”. My mother didn’t work outside the home. She was too busy minding the three of us and keeping house for my father who had started a small business again. She rarely went out. Her world revolved around our family, the five of us. She saw the world through us, especially my father. His word was the only word that mattered to her and to my sisters. As a boy, I was treasured and valued as the only son. So I had some privileges that my sisters did not have and did not ask for because they accepted their place. I had more freedom and I got away with many things. I would learn later that I too had boundaries that I could not cross.

Su Lin’s mother unlike mine worked at various jobs outside the home because she had to. Su Lin’s father had died when she had been about two. He had caught a strange fever and had never recovered. Su Lin had a brother at that time, an older fellow, about twelve. He was too much of a handful for Su Lin’s mother because he kept getting into fights with the other children in the neighborhood. Almost every day Su Lin’s mother could be heard lamenting the trouble that he brought home. A couple of years later, this young man would disappear because he would get drawn to activities that eventually got him killed.

I remember that day he was killed, clearly. I was about eight or nine. It was about two years after we had arrived in that village. It was a Saturday and my sisters and I were home. My mother was cooking in the kitchen and my father had gone to his shop in the little town which was a short bicycle ride away from home. My sisters and I saw a black van draw up to Su Lin’s home next door.  We were curious and so ran out of the house and stood by the fence that separated our homes. Two or three men wearing white stepped out of the van along with some policemen. They opened the back of the van and pulled out a stretcher which had what looked like a covered body on it. We couldn’t quite see because of the white covers. The men carried the stretcher into the house and the policemen followed. And, within a few minutes, we heard a woman wail. We knew it was Su Lin’s mother and we guessed what had happened. My mother came rushing out and shooed us back into the house. 

We were not allowed to go anywhere near Su Lin’s home for the next few days, until the body was taken away. My parents felt that since Su Lin’s brother’s death had been untimely, he would have had many unfulfilled desires which would make us vulnerable to his spirit. Besides my parents felt that since he had been an angry young man while he lived, his spirit would be really angry now since he had died too early. My sisters were shaken and were careful to stay away. I was fearful but I was also a little curious. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the spirit that could have been hovering around Su Lin’s house. Of course Su Lin and her mother didn’t hear about this at that time but some years later I would tell Su Lin. She didn’t seem to care because she didn’t have many memories of her brother. I am not sure how her mother felt after Su Lin’s brother death because while he lived there wasn’t a day when she wouldn’t tell my mother how fed-up she was with him and the trouble that he brought home.

I remember the day Su Lin and I became good friends. It was actually pretty soon after we moved into the village. It was when some of the other boys in the village felt that I could not join in their games because I was new and because my skin color was really dark. I was jolted by this revelation because no one had ever told me that I was too dark to join in a game. On the plantation where I had been born and where I had spent my early years, there had been many kids like me. Some had had complexions even darker. My parents felt that I was the best looking child in my family. My mother would beam with pride when uncles and aunts would visit and tell them how precious I was. So when the kids in the village pushed me away and made fun of my skin color, my initial confusion turned to anger and then sadness and humiliation. Much to my horror I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing down my sweaty face and this only made the other kids laugh. I brushed my hand across my face and ran home. Su Lin as always had stood arms akimbo watching with her piercing black eyes. She rarely joined in any of the games because her mother forbade her to venture outside the home. She sometimes played with my sisters who were much older but got along fine with her. Su Lin had a maturity that many of us lacked at that age. 

Su Lin watched me rushing home. Just as I was running towards the door of our home, I saw Su Lin pick up a rock and fling it at the boys who were still pointing and laughing. And the next thing I knew was that she was picking up as many rocks as she could and flinging them at the boys with all the might that her little body could muster. The boys were shocked and so was I. Luckily for Su Lin, her mother came home before the boys could react.  She saw Su Lin flinging the rocks and she assumed that the boys had been bullying her. She charged at them like an angry mother hen and they scattered not daring to look back. Su Lin’s mother was known in the village both for her generosity and her temper. The boys didn’t dare come back to get Su Lin. They were too afraid of her mother. 

It was the most incredible scene for me. I couldn’t help laughing when I saw the boys running helter-skelter in all directions to escape the older woman’s wrath.  But on that day, I felt a new found respect for the little Chinese girl whom I had initially dismissed as a not so interesting playmate. I discovered that while she was quiet and shy, she was smarter than most kids her age. She was also very independent. She was far more independent than all three of us, me and my two sisters.  I think this had everything to do with her mother leaving Su Lin alone all day to fend for herself while she worked at her various jobs as cleaner, laundry woman or “washer woman” as they were called those days, and cook in someone’s home. Su Lin took care of herself, ate the food that her mother would leave for her in the kitchen and went to school all by herself. I could never imagine how she did it. My sisters helped my mother in the kitchen but she never left them alone even for a minute. I had to walk with them to their girls’ school and then walk to my school every day. After school, I walked to their school and then we would all walk home together. I was duty bound to do this. My parents reminded me every day that I was responsible for the well-being of the womenfolk at home in the absence of my father.  

As favored as I was as a male child, this was one area in which my parents never compromised. I could never say that I was too tired or lazy to walk my two sisters home or anywhere else. “To keep the family name safe,” was my father’s constant reminder. But otherwise, as a boy I was privileged. Later when I was older, I could go out at any time of the day by myself. My sisters never went anywhere without a chaperone. While they were expected to be in the kitchen with my mother to help her and learn how to cook, I was never allowed anywhere near the kitchen. I didn’t have to do much at home. I just had to go to school and when I came home, I could play or do anything that I pleased. Everything was brought to me either by my mother or my sisters. If I wanted something to eat, I just had to ask and my mother would make it and bring it for me. My sisters never asked so I am not sure if my mother would have done the same for them. I learned that Su Lin never asked her mother for anything either. But her mother gave her everything she had. Su Lin once told me that her mother only cooked what Su Lin liked. I thought it was odd because in my home my mother only cooked what my father and I liked. I decided that it was probably because Su Lin was an only child after her brother died.

After that day when Su Lin flung rocks at the village boys, she and I became friends, in a way. We talked across the fence when either one was outside our home. Before that day when she had flung the rocks at the boys, we didn’t really talk. She was a girl and she was my sisters’ friend, so I had nothing much to say to her except play an occasional game with her, and that always included my sisters. I was pleasantly surprised to know that she was easy to talk to, enjoyed a good laugh and enjoyed reading. I lent her my Rainbow comics which my father bought for me. We talked a lot about books. The years went by and our odd friendship stayed. We continued to talk across the fence. My sisters would marry early. They were taken to India and married there to husbands that my parents found for them. I was about sixteen and Su Lin was about fourteen. This was when I gradually realized that I was changing. I was looking at Su Lin differently. I was beginning to be aware of her in a different way. All those years when I had talked to her across the fence, she was just our “neighbor girl” with whom I liked to talk. We would quarrel sometimes but we would talk again after a few days of silence. But all of a sudden I became aware of her shiny black hair and her slim figure and her small breasts that pressed against her shirt. And if I didn’t talk to her even for a single day, I missed her. I was confused and a little embarrassed. I handled it in the only way I knew. I tried to avoid her.

I would pretend to not see her when she stood outside her home feeding the chickens and ducks that her mother raised or if she was standing by the fence with a book that she thought I might like. What I did not realize immediately was that my parents had also noticed that we talked a lot across the fence, too much in their eyes, enough to make watchful eyes notice and idle minds wonder. My mother would say that it didn’t look good for me to be standing outside the home, talking to the Chinese girl next door anymore. “She is a grown girl now and you are grown up too. People will talk.” I didn’t understand why people talking was so important but I did not argue as I was confused enough about what I felt. Don’t get me wrong, my mother actually liked Su Lin and was full of praise for her as a smart and capable young woman. She would always hold up Su Lin as an example for my sisters and how she managed the house when her mother was not around. “Look at the two of you. Can’t do any housework properly. Look at the “neighbor girl”. She is so smart and so capable. You need to learn from her.” But she didn’t like me, her son, saying anything good about Su Lin. She would either change the subject or tell me that I shouldn’t talk to Su Lin anymore as “people will talk”.  

By this time, my father’s grocery store was flourishing and he expected me to go there after school to help him and learn the business. It was later that I realized that in addition to learning the business, my parents wanted to reduce the time that I was home. I would see Su Lin every now and then, on my way in and out of my home. She was pretty much an introvert and she didn’t make a great attempt to speak with me. But I could tell that she was puzzled by my behavior. One time she said, “You never seem to be home anymore.” I merely nodded and said, “Helping father in the shop.” I did not look at her when I said this and so I did not see her expression. I think she got the message because she didn’t stand by the fence after that and she ignored me when she was outside, feeding the ducks and chickens. Our friendship seemed to have waned but I was aware of her all the time. I don’t know what she thought. I never asked her.

Soon after this though, my family moved away from that village. My father had bought a house, a very large house in the Serangoon Gardens area. We had become wealthy and the new house was a reflection of our wealth. On our last day in the village, my mother said goodbye to our immediate neighbors with whom she had become quite friendly. One of them was Su Lin’s mother. Su Lin and her mother were not badly off themselves now. Su Lin’s mother had started a small business selling the chickens and ducks, and eggs. She no longer worked outside the home. I could see their prosperity in the fresh paint of their house and the nicer clothes that Su Lin wore. My mother and Su Lin’s mother were still very good friends, always talking away in bazaar Malay when they met. They too only talked across the fence. Neither one had ever entered the other’s home. It had never come up and there was never any need. They were content to talk with each other with the fence between them. Sometimes my mother would pass some curry that she had cooked and sometimes Su Lin’s mother would pass some eggs. When we moved away, I asked my mother one day if she missed her friend, Su Lin’s mother. Her response was simple. “She was a nice lady. Very brave and very capable. Managing everything by herself without a husband.” She never spoke about Su Lin’s mother again.

I thought of Su Lin for a few years after we moved away. But my life became busy. I finished school and I wanted to go on to the university. But my father wanted me to mind the store. I insisted that I wanted to study and so he sent me to India to do a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce. He felt it would be useful for the business. I wanted to study Science but I don’t think he ever heard me. He also thought it was a good idea for me to study in India because he could find a good wife for me while I studied and he did. She was a long distant relative of his from his village. It all worked out well, in his eyes. I never got to see my wife before the wedding day. No one asked me if I liked the girl. I learned then that my freedom as a male child and as a son, had boundaries, clear boundaries. I didn’t think about Su Lin, or any other girl after that. As a matter of fact, I didn’t think about my interest in Science after that. I married Kamala and had children with her, four children. I minded the store so well that it grew into a supermarket. The supermarket gave me the money to buy several houses around where I lived and where my wife came from in India. I was obviously no longer the thin, dark boy speaking to Su Lin across the fence. I was now a large, balding, dark man. My prosperity and my wealth showed in the house in which I lived, in the cars that I drove and in the jewelry that my wife and daughters wore. I had no complaints about my life. It was a good life.

My wife had turned out to be a good woman even though I had not spoken a single word to her before we married. She was a happy and kind woman who adored me like a god. My children were wonderful too. They were smart and brave, much like what my mother admired in Su Lin. They did well in school and my sons became engineers and my two daughters became doctors.  I didn’t have anything to do with what they studied. I just paid for their education. But I was happy about their interest in Science. They were all in their late twenties and none of them were married, much to my mother’s dismay.  My father had passed on a few years after my marriage to Kamala. He died in the shop one day, just as he was sitting at his desk looking at his accounts for the day. He died while doing what he loved most, looking at how much money he had made. By that time, I was settled in my life as a husband, a father and as owner of a business, and my sisters were very well settled as wives and mothers. So I think he died happy with his accomplishments leaving his wife, my mother, safe with me, doing what she loved, helping my wife, keep house, and traveling every now and then to India to visit my sisters. I was happy that I was fulfilling my duty and making good on the promises that I had made as a young scrawny boy to my parents.

The memory of my life in the village had faded and with it my memory of Su Lin, until my wife and I decided to move out of our sprawling bungalow and into a condominium. My wife felt that the house was too big for her now that our children had moved on with their lives. We looked high and low for the perfect apartment and finally found one which made us happy. It made me in particular very happy because the apartment was within a complex that stood where the village had once stood. I didn’t plan it that way. It just turned out that way. But I was thrilled to return to the village. For some crazy reason, memories of Su Lin came rushing back and I actually thought I would see her again. I knew this was ridiculous. Why would she be still there after so many years, even after the village had ceased to exist and its place stood a swanky complex of condominiums? It was just a hope, as insane as it was.

Nothing about the area was the same. My wife could not believe that the main thoroughfare where traffic now whizzed through at all hours of the day, was once a dirt road on which my father would ride his bicycle with me sitting on the bar in front as a scrawny six year old. The rows of coconut trees that once gently swayed in the afternoon breeze were nowhere in sight.  The village that I had once called home had vanished completely like a dream. The only remnant of that dream was the river that had flowed lazily through the village then and that still flowed through park now, lazily, completely oblivious to the changes around it. It was like the river could care less about what had replaced the village. The land around it was now a beautiful park, just outside the complex in which I lived. And this was where I saw Su Lin again, after fifty years. Or, at least I thought she was Su Lin. I could not say if I was dreaming or if it was my imagination. She was sitting on one of the benches just as she was now. It was the face. There was something about it that triggered the memory. But I didn’t approach her. I was afraid that I had a made a mistake. I was afraid that she wouldn’t recognize me. I suppose I was afraid of rejection and embarrassment. I walked passed her without stopping. But when I went home, for the first time in my marriage, I had a secret about which my wife had no clue. I didn’t tell her and I didn’t want to. 

Su Lin or at least the woman whom I thought was Su Lin had looked very fit. She was swarthy and well-toned. She sat on the bench with her eyes closed, like she was meditating. Perhaps it was the way she was holding herself that made me think it was Su Lin. I wondered if she came to the park every day. I was thirty pounds too heavy. I was embarrassed about approaching her. What would she think of me? But I had to find out if it was her for sure. I came back the next day and the next day. I didn’t see her. Perhaps she didn’t even live in the area, Perhaps she just came to the park once in a while. Perhaps she wasn’t even Su Lin. But I went for my walk every single day. I was determined now. I had to meet her and I had to walk up to her and ask her if she was Su Lin. It was becoming a preoccupation, an obsession.  A whole month went and there was no sign of her. What was funny was that my quest to meet Su Lin was proving to be positive for me. I was shedding the weight. I had lost five pounds in one month. My wife who didn’t know about my fixation was full of praise for me. I myself hadn’t noticed that I had dropped the weight. I was too intent on meeting Su Lin or the woman who I thought was Su Lin. I walked every day. Every day, I went around the park once. There would be no sign of her. I would go around the park again. There would still be no sign of her and then I would go again. By this time, I would be pouring with sweat.

Two months went and ten pounds dropped off of me but there was still no sign of her. I was beginning to see the futility of my exercise. I was imagining things. Just because the park stood where the village had once stood, and just because I had never really forgotten Su Lin, I imagined that the woman I had seen was Su Lin. I was being ridiculous. It was probably not her at all. The hope began to fade but the weight continued to drop. I was relieved and yet disappointed. I was relieved that I had come to terms with not seeing Su Lin but I was disappointed. Well, at least I was looking slimmer and fitter and closer to the boy she had once known. I walked on. My weight loss was inspiring. Five months passed since I had seen the person whom I imagined was Su Lin. I had lost quite a few pounds. If I ran into Su Lin now, I wouldn’t feel so diffident. I was a lot slimmer now. But I had decided that it was all my imagination. The woman I had seen wasn’t Su Lin and I didn’t think I was ever going to meet her again. I tried to push it all out of my mind. I walked more furiously. The exercise helped me focus somewhat but I still walked past the lily pond every day. I felt I had to since it was a longer route. It was a good reason.

It was one of those middle of the week mornings when the park was quiet. I like mornings like these and I like sitting by the lily pond which was now completely filled with purple lilies. There were some white ones here and there. I would sit there after my walk just taking in the calm of the day. I would usually have the daily newspapers with me and I would read it here. It was just a nice way to get ready for the day. I had seen the woman whom I had thought was Su Lin, exactly here. I felt a sense of peace and calm. I leaned back against the back of the seat and closed my eyes. I heard someone sitting down on the far end of the seat. I opened my eyes and sat up, making ready to get up and walk back home. I stood up without looking at who had sat down, when I heard pleasant voice ask, “Is that you Selva?” I turned to look in the direction of the voice and there she was again, the woman whom I thought was Su Lin. She was smiling. But she was Su Lin. I didn’t have to guess. She knew me.

We had much to talk about, our homes, our spouses, our children and our lives. Su Lin and her mother had lived in the village until it had been replaced with the new complex of condominiums. Her mother had been so averse to leaving the area that they had bought an apartment right there so that she wouldn’t have to move somewhere else. She had passed on some years after that leaving the place to Su Lin and her family. Su Lin had studied Science. She was a doctor with a thriving practice. Her husband was in business, “like you,” she laughed. We talked all morning. By the time I got home that day, my wife was frantic with worry. I told her about Su Lin. On that day, I was happy to share my memories about my old friend with my wife. Su Lin was no longer a secret that I wanted to keep since I now saw her as a graying woman with whom I, a balding man, shared a vanished dream of a sweet childhood. 

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