'The Sky is Blue' is a short story I wrote last year for The Sun's 'Malaysia & Me' Merdeka essay-writing competition in July. It won one of seven consolation prize; Ai Wei and Pik Tze also won consolation prizes.
The author and his mother (Photo: Ai Wei)
With Ai Wei and Pik Tze (Photo: Mum)
It was Tim who brought the competition to my attention, although at that time I didn't have anything to write about. But then, some things happened in July for which I felt the only way to adequately deal with, was through the writing of a story.
The story's metaphors and devices were inspired by the week I spent in June, volunteering for SEATRU at Chagar Hutang, Redang. The subject matter, on the other hand, encompasses themes as diverse as motherhood, growing up, coming to terms with expectations and, perhaps by a slightly longer shot, deciding for whom you will actually live out your life.
Tee Ming found it a lot more disjointed than 'Evanescent Shadows', and I suppose it's true. I wrote it in the span of two days (having collected ideas for a slightly longer time than that), and there wasn't any time for revision or external proofreading. Still, it pretty much captures a lot of the intense thoughts and feelings I was dealing with at the time, and I am as proud of it as anything I have ever written.
* * *
Turtle crawling back to sea at dawn, last day at SEATRU
The Sky is Blue
She had crawled through a desert of sand, descending a hill’s worth of beach to where the sea called out to her, with only the reflection of the moon on the surface of the waters to guide the way. Too blind to see, too deaf to hear: all she knew was that she had to swim, swim for dear life, swim for all her barely-there limbs could carry her. One minute surrounded by brothers and sisters whom she knew were there, though she could neither hear nor see them clearly; the next, alone against the deep dark abyss.
Between the hither and the further shore lay the ocean—the greatest continent—for that which we call land is but the visible mass of peaks of an underwater world without borders.
* * *
Death almost always heralds an acceleration in one’s growing up, a painful coming-of-age for children and teenagers—those to whom death is otherwise most remote. I am neither a child nor a teenager, but when news of my mother’s death in a car accident reached me a few days ago, it felt just like the slap in your face that tells you to stop dreaming and start getting ready for school. And school was where we stood at attention early in the morning, barely awake, mumbling the Negaraku as it solemnly marked the beginning of the day.
I grew up listening to two theories about that line in the national anthem—“tanah tumpah darahku”. One claimed that it meant ‘native land’, and the other, the ‘land for which we sacrifice our lives’. My mother always thought differently; “Land where my blood is being spilled lah! Vomit blood only, looking after you, your sister and your brother!” And so the tale would be accompanied by the crack of whatever kitchen apparatus there was—spatula, ladle, rolling pin—on flesh, for we did not have canes at home.
All our scars are stories, and while none of those disciplinary beatings left any long-term marks, the ‘scars’ that haunted me for the longest time, and I think will continue to, now that I can never fully resolve them—the dead don’t talk to you—are the instructions we followed without ever questioning.
Like when Mother said my sister, once she had a boyfriend, was no longer to see her male friends on a one-on-one basis, because it “wasn’t nice”. And I could never figure out what this “not nice” was all about. Little did I know then that that maternal edict was not exclusive to older siblings, and when the time came I too found myself face to face with that most indisputable of parental pronouncements. Those two words were a multi-purpose command by which the parent surreptitiously implied that the child had somehow transgressed some unspoken social or familial norm—had somehow committed an indecency—though this was never followed by any sort of justification or reasoning. It was a weapon of limitless impunity, ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice, or even on a whim. Long before I’d ever heard of the Malaysian acronym, “ISA”, I knew it by a different name: the Ibubapa Security Act.
So many years later, when I look back, I wonder if our country’s sometime draconian stances have their root in our paternalistic culture. If grandparents and parents believe they have the right of influence upon the generations to come, is it then so strange to see the same habits in some of our ‘grandfather’ leaders? The great Asian Throne Dream—and Malaysia is no exception—seems to be the wielding of power until the day you die. And then what?
And then, of course, you trust that you have set, and led, your offspring on the right path such that they will succeed in life, as you have; or else, succeed where you might have failed. To this end my parents sought to ensure I had a good education, and it was for this reason that I was abroad when news of my mother’s death arrived.
I looked out of the airplane window, knowing that the endless oceans would soon give way to a lush rainforests and oil palm plantations—a ‘tropical paradise’, some would say. Not me, anyway. When you spend years studying Biology it becomes clear that forests are not paradise; it’s a wild, cruel jungle out there. And biodiversity—what does greater diversity mean, if not more things out there eating other things? There’s more killing and bloodshed—but we don’t see these things, of course. And we parade this diversity as if it is something to be celebrated.
If I seem morbid it is simply because the sea over which I’m flying reminds me so much of when I was attached to a turtle conservation unit off the coast of Terengganu. We spent practically half a year—the entire nesting season—monitoring nesting mothers, incubating eggs and releasing hatchlings into the ocean. They say turtles return to their natal shores (the very beaches on which they hatched) to lay eggs. Why? No one really knows. Perhaps it is because it is considered safe; if it was safe enough for a clutch of eggs to hatch, and for some of those to mature into fertile parents, then perhaps the place is worth returning to for laying the next generation.
The best—and most haunting—memories were the nights we released hatchlings to the sea, waving them off to a future that was as uncertain as ours. We knew predators, nets and poachers lay waiting in the waters beyond, and yet we thought it worth trying. One hatchling leads, while the others follow into the ocean, into the darkness that awaits, braving the dangers because the stories of the sea tell them their journey need not be in vain. Like scars that promise us we can endure pain and hurt again. And it was painful knowing that so many of those hatchlings would never make it.
This was a country where conservation was incongruent at best, senseless at worst. Turtles were protected on some beaches, but anywhere else anyone could do with them whatever they wished. Turtle eggs were still sold in markets, and although demand seemed to dwindle for a bit, it was still there.
Like the turtles, my parents threw me into the deep end. And when that happens, you learn to swim, and then you swim because you can. And so we didn’t scream our lungs out against injustice, at home or in public. We learnt to swallow it, digest it and spew it out the other end. Life is too short to be angry at others. We stood our own against what we considered an injustice in the way some laws were set, because sometimes you just have to take control. In the airplane the sun sets because you move; you’re not just waiting for the earth to carry you across the International Date Line.
In the late evening, the sky outside is blue. Not the happy pastel blue, but a deep, sad, lifeless blue. Though in so many ways we can lead lives as limitless as the sky, yet we are bruised; we are a pale blue-grey, and we are a blue people. Blue means unity and perpaduan, if you may, but blue is also the colour you look after taking a few punches and blows.
I remember all of those moments like they happened before I boarded this flight. The clouds within seek to overcome us, but I guess if we hang on to the little flickering lights that hold out against the dark, we’ll make it. We’ll land where we began and truly begin to know the place as if for the first time.
It was in the middle of the night when I landed, and nothing but little blinking lights on the runway greeted me upon my return to the land of my birth.
* * *
A crescent moon and a thousand stars stand guard over the quiet sea, as memories of red and white stripes in a deep blue sea percolate through the waters. It was many years ago that the white from the reflected moonlight on the waves were tinged with the red blood of brethren who would never finish the journey they began with such promise. Many years ago that the blue sea faded into black.
Slowly, she swims to shore as an airplane fades into the distance overhead.
There is a commotion as people with flashlights hurriedly, and fumblingly, turn their lights off, and slowly inch their way towards the landed giant reptilian mass.
“Penyu, penyu. Shhh...”
And the night begins. She takes a deep breath of air—air from a shore she had not known since she first knew air. She does not remember how she found her way back, or why here of all places, but this she knows: she is home.
* * *
In memory of the fallen