Selvasekar. Bala read his name printed in bold black letters on the card he handed over. Above that name, was a photograph of him wearing a blazer and a toothy grin on a face that looked darker against the card’s white background. A few shiny skyscrapers peeked from behind his back to make his profession apparent.
Bala did not get why Selvasekar felt compelled to give him his card when he already had his mobile number. He slid the card in his wallet, making a mental note to throw it away later. He always wanted his wallet to feel light.
“Do you want a drink?” he asked Selvasekar courteously.
“I’ll have a kopi O.”
The two of them were at the food court near Bala’s house. It was raining heavily outside. Selvasekar sat at an empty table and gawked at the food stalls.
Bala walked towards the drinks stall. Before he could say a word, the uncle at the stall bawled, “Hello brother! One teh O limau panas?” He knew his drink of choice by heart but Bala hardly knew his name. The uncle muttered to himself as he tapped the order into the billing machine.
“Wah! Rain very heavy ah?” he asked looking up and noticing the wet patches on Bala’s shirt.
Bala nodded, “Also one kopi O uncle.”
“Your friend ah?” The uncle pointed his wrinkled finger at Selvasekar. Bala smiled and shook his head.
“Five persons right?” asked Selvasekar sipping his kopi O. Bala noticed that as he bent down to sip the cup, his shirt’s fabric tugged at the buttons so hard that they might pop out any moment. It made him look like a puffy poori with uneven bulges.
“Yeah, we’re five of us. Looking for a three bedroom house.”
“Are all of you Tamils?”
Bala did not understand the intent of this question. He could not give an immediate answer and gave it some thought. After counting in his mind, he shook his head. “No. One of them is Telugu. Another is from Kerala. But all of us can speak Tamil.”
“Which area are you looking at?”
“Anywhere down the green or purple MRT line. But, not too far away from the city.”
“Alright, don’t worry thambi. The market is currently down. I’ll find you a good house with low rent.”
“We thought of looking on our own. But, it’s such a headache.”
“That’s why we’re here! How many more days of lease do you have for your current house?”
“Six months actually. We’re vacating before it ends.”
“Why? What happened?”
“Problems with the landlord.”
Bala nodded. He felt something bite his right elbow and it stopped once he scratched it.
“Some Srinivasans are like that, you know. You must have heard of the curry incident?”
Bala could not comprehend. “Srinivasan?”
Selvasekar grinned. “That’s the code word we use to refer to them in our group. They won’t know we’re talking about them if we call them Srinivasan, you see.”
“Oh! You mean Chinese?” Bala picked out the calamansi fruit floating in his tea. He did not like Selvasekar.
“Thambi, are you a PR?”
“Yeah, I got it last year. All my friends are PR too.”
“Not bad. It’s quite difficult to get PR these days thambi.”
“All of us studied at NUS. Maybe that’s the reason.”
“Let me give you advice. Marry a local girl. Buy a house. Join a community club and do some work that catches your MP’s attention. Then you can easily become a citizen.”
“Have you become a Singaporean?”
“Yes!” The entire front row of his teeth was visible below his thick black moustache.
“Anyway, let me know once you find a house. It’s better if we have viewings after 7 pm. Weekends anytime can. Give me a call.”
As soon as Selvasekar nodded, his mobile phone began to ring. Bala gave him the customary handshake and left.
“See you uncle!” he waved at the drinks stall uncle, who waved back with a cigarette in his mouth.
These days Bala hated returning to his house. One of his friends lay on the sofa. The television was playing at a low volume. He went into his room and shut the door. The marble floor felt cold as he lay down.
Every time Bala lay down on the cold floor he felt he should have continued his studies at NUS. He did not have to worry about accommodation as long as he was studying. There were hostels. He had to do some extra-curricular activities to earn a spot. That was it. But, once he graduated and landed a job, finding a house was a nagging headache. The house had to be at a convenient location that was near the offices of all the five of them. The rent had to be within their budget of three thousand dollars per month. There had to be some Indian food stall nearby. The landlord had to be flexible to permit their parents to stay whenever they came to visit. Even if they shortlisted a house that satisfied these criteria, they would often find disclaimers in advertisements that said, “Ladies only” or “Families only.”
Even if the ads did not have such disclaimers, when he called up and asked, “I saw your ad. Is the house available?” instead of receiving a reply he would be asked, “What’s your name?”
As soon as he said his name was Bala, the reply would be, “Sorry! That house taken already.” Why did he hear ‘taken already’ after saying his name? Bala could think of a reason, but he convinced himself it cannot be that.
They had already shifted a house. The very first house they moved into gave them problems. “The landlord is Indian. So no worries!” their agent had reassured them. But, he forgot to mention that the landlord was a whiner too. “I should never have rented my house to bachelors!” He recited this every month when he visited the house, lapped up the rent and left. The landlord of their second house was Chinese. He lived in Australia with his family. Bala had never seen his face. All their communications were through email or the agent, and the rent was transferred online. It was a huge relief. But, when one of the friends took out an old bed from the storeroom, bed bugs emerged from it and spread throughout the house. They were forced to shift immediately. That is why he had to meet Selvasekar.
His back began to itch, and so he slid his hand into his shirt and scratched his back. Pressing down his index finger on his skin, he felt something small get crushed that made his fingertip wet. He pulled his hand out of his shirt. There was a familiar dot of blood on his finger. He wiped it with his thumb. The smell of iron reached his nostrils. Initially, the bugs bit him only during the night. But, for the past few days, they bit him during daytime too. He rolled up and examined the floor carefully, watching out for minute movements.
He spotted something move near the chair. He crawled quickly towards it. Something small and round was crawling on the floor. On closer inspection, its body looked like two conjoined circles, a smaller one for its head and a larger one for its body. Usually, it was black or dark brown in colour. But, this one was red, and Bala knew why. For a few moments, he stared at it in amazement. It bore his blood within its body and was crawling somewhere. Where did it come from? Where was it headed? His index finger moved towards it.
As he was about to crush it, the crawling bed bug reminded him of his childhood. That was how he walked to school carrying his school bag. He was reminded of the first time he saw an NUS advertisement in school. There was a photograph in a brochure that was spread out on his teacher’s desk. Students belonging to different races and nationalities sat in a circle on a lush green lawn, laughing and discussing something among themselves without a worry in the world. That photograph made him want to come to Singapore. But, he did not know where that particular lawn was located and made a mental note to find it some day. He visualized himself as a bed bug crawling on the image of the green lawn in the brochure. He felt pity for the bug that had climbed onto the chair’s leg. He folded his index finger.
“Yeah tell me,” Bala tapped his EZ-link card after boarding the double-decker bus and climbed to the top level, with his mobile phone stuck to his ear.
“Selvasekar called me up. He said there’s a house at Outram Park. I’m on the way to view it.”
Once he reached the top floor, he held on to the handrails as his eyes surveyed the seats. They were neatly arranged in two rows with an aisle in between. A few people sat here and there like separate islands, one person in each seat. He walked down the aisle towards an empty seat at the back. An old man eyed him with a dissatisfied expression on his face.
“What’s the email about?” He sat down in the empty seat, placing his shoulder bag beside him. A Filipino woman, who sat some seats in front, was shouting at someone on the phone. Bala could not hear his friend’s voice. He shut one of his ears with a finger. As soon as he heard what his friend said, a tightly bound ball of anger uncoiled inside him.
“You should tell him that the bed bugs came out of the bed in the storeroom. How can they blame us for it?”
“Alright. What do they want?”
“1000 dollars?! That old sofa isn’t worth even 100 dollars! They’re talking as if we damaged their house.”
“We ought to have a serious conversation with them. We’re not at fault. They must return our deposit in full.”
“Once I’m back tonight, we’ll draft an email together.”
As he cut the call, he could feel anger shoot up to his temples. The Filipino woman did not seem like she would stop shouting anytime soon. He shut the hole above his head that spat out cold air. He looked out through the window. The bus was passing by a petrol station. A huge air-filled toy stood at its entrance, looking like a man wearing a cap with a smile on the face. Air was constantly blown into it, and one of its arms kept waving, welcoming people to enter the petrol station. Bala thought, “What would they do if they invite people in and run out of petrol?”
A little distance from the petrol station was the Ganesh temple. He pressed the bell and got up. The sound of the bell was hardly audible over the shouts of the Filipino woman. The bus suddenly gave a jolt and made him lose his balance momentarily. He grabbed the handrail. His shoulder bag brushed against the old man who sat nearby. Bala failed to take notice of him. The old man looked at the retreating form of Bala with the same dissatisfied expression on his face.
Bala hurriedly entered the train just as the doors were about to close. The time was 7 pm. The exhaustion from work hung heavily on his eyelids. He put on his earphones and filled his ears with music. The house at Outram Park did not work out. The landlord was unwilling to negotiate on the rent. Selvasekar had arranged for another house viewing today at Little India. Although his moustache intimidated Bala, he liked the pace at which he found houses for viewing.
The lunch conversation among Bala’s colleagues that day had been about houses. One of them spoke of shifting to a low-rent house in Sengkang, being pleased to contact the landlord directly and thereby bypassing the agent commission. The usual questions followed.
“How much is the rent?”
“How long does it take you to reach your office from there?”
“Is it a condo or an HDB?”
Bala felt exhausted. He could not understand why these questions cropped up again and again whenever he met anyone for the first time in Singapore. “Where do you stay? How much is the rent there?”
He looked up from his phone. The electronic alphabets on the train’s black rectangular screen announced that the next station was Chinatown. He heard a commotion as a song came to an end in his ears. A middle-aged man standing to his left was shouting angrily. He was so thin that a gush of wind could have brushed him aside. He wore a checkered shirt, had long-term smoking stains on his teeth and was moving his hands frantically, shouting. Bala paused the next song that began to play.
The man was shouting at a construction worker who sat in a reserved seat. The construction worker looked like he was a Bangladeshi. A plastic Mustafa carry bag containing a few items dangled from his hands. He wore a faded green shirt and jeans that looked like it had been washed and worn several times. He rested his head on the glass panel beside the reserved seat, and his eyes were closed.
A person sitting beside him poked him gently with a finger. Once he was awake, the worker noticed this man squawking in English and Mandarin. From the gestures, he understood the gist and sprang up. There was no elderly person around to take up the reserved seat. Yet, the thin man continued his rant.
He would stay quiet for a while. Then, he would continue scolding the worker. Occasionally, people who stood some distance away, turned around to see what the commotion was all about. But, the people beside the thin man were silent and simply turned their faces the other way. Some of them took a couple of steps away from him and continued staring at their phones.
The construction worker was sweating. He stood behind Bala as if he was hiding. Bala still had earphones plugged into his ears. But he heard what the thin man said, as he began to talk in English now. “You cannot follow the rules? Don’t you know that seat is for the elderly? You got no eyes or what? This one of your houses is it so you can sit anywhere? If you cannot follow the rules, then go back to your country! What are you staring at? Want to beat me? Come hit me! I make a video of you and upload on the internet. Wait!”
He pulled out his mobile phone from his pocket. The worker hid behind Bala’s back. Bala stared at the thin man. Somehow he felt the man was shouting not at the worker but at him. He gripped tighter the pivoted grab handle dangling from the handrail.
“Do you know what happens if this goes on Facebook? You wait, and you see. This will come in the news tomorrow!” The thin man held the mobile phone in front of him as he said these words.
The train arrived at Dhoby Ghaut station. Once the doors opened, the thin man became silent. Among the people who boarded the train was a young Chinese girl, who sat down in the empty reserved seat. The thin man remained silent.
Bala alighted at Dhoby Ghaut. The grab handle, he had been holding wobbled for a while, even after the train doors slid shut.
After several days, Bala’s room was empty, except for a blue wheeled luggage that stood in the middle. Bala was surprised that all of his belongings fit neatly into it. He vividly remembered what his friend’s father had remarked at the Chennai airport when they were heading to Singapore for the first time.
“Look at Bala. He only has one piece of luggage for all his belongings. Learn from him!” he had scolded his son. Perhaps it was that remark which ensured Bala never accumulated enough stuff that outgrew this single piece of luggage. He shut his room windows with pride. It was raining outside. Bala was doubtful if the truck would arrive on time to shift to their new house.
“How much longer for the truck?” he asked his friend. His friend fiddled with his phone and replied, “Fifteen minutes.” Bala looked around the room once to ensure he had not left anything behind. For some reason, his heart felt as empty as the room. There had been several angry email exchanges the past few days — a fiery debate about who was responsible for the bed bugs.
Eventually, they agreed to deduct a certain amount from their initial deposit. Every single part of Bala’s body felt exhausted. What will happen in the new house at Little India that they had signed up for? Would he find peace if he married a local girl and bought a house as Selvasekar suggested? He looked at the skies through the window. It had darkened and looked more like evening rather than afternoon. He felt suffocated.
“I’ll be at the coffee shop downstairs.”
He carefully crossed the wet slippery floor outside the mini-mart downstairs. A lady with earphones plugged into one of her ears was hurriedly pushing some cardboard boxes into the shop to protect them from the rain. An empty cardboard box was completely drenched. Thick sheets of rain were beating down on it ensuring it would never rise up again.
“Hello, brother! Teh O limau..,” uncle said as he began tapping the order on the billing machine. Bala noticed that he held a cigarette in his other hand.
“Uncle, cancel teh O limau.”
“Okay. What you want?”
“One cigarette can?”
The two of them stood at a corner of the food court and lighted their cigarettes. He liked uncle’s style that he had noticed quite often. He would place the cigarette in his mouth while he was in the stall. Then, he would walk to a corner of the food court with both hands in his pockets. Once he reached the corner, only then would he take out his lighter and light the cigarette. That is exactly what he did today.
“Why do you do that?”
“I like the taste of raw cigarette in my mouth,” he said and blew out smoke into the rain. Bala took in a puff and exhaled. He was reminded of his university days when he had last smoked. The smoke he inhaled temporarily filled the void inside him. It latched onto thoughts that could not be expressed in words and brought them tumbling out as he exhaled. The sheets of rain fell with great force and tried to quench this smoke. But, it escaped by making its way through the gaps between the raindrops. Seeing this brought a smile on Bala’s face.
Uncle began to whistle a quaint tune Bala had not heard before. He snapped his fingers with the same rhythm and puffed out smoke. Bala turned around and looked at the food court behind him. Figures hurriedly rushed here and there with the sound of porcelain cutlery rubbing against each other. Mute buildings that stood in front of him with empty corridors. The elderly who sat in wheelchairs and stared blankly at the rain from void decks. Nobody paid any attention to the song uncle was whistling. Bala felt it was a special song that he alone heard. For some unknown reason, the song filled his heart with sorrow. He looked at uncle. His body looked like a crushed, half-smoked cigarette. His hands and face were wrinkled. His colourful hair reminded him of ice kachang, and he smiled once again.
“We’re shifting houses today uncle.”
“Oh… which area?” he asked without turning to look at him.
“Good good. Rent how much ah?” He blew out more smoke as he asked this. Bala felt like he was stung by the lighted end of a cigarette. He did not know what reply he expected. But, he felt he did not get something he wanted. He felt choked by the cigarette smoke. He flung the cigarette into the pool of water puddling at their feet.
He only pronounced the words, “Thanks for the smoke uncle.” He could see the truck arriving at a distance. He pointed at it and gestured that he was leaving. Uncle continued whistling and waved his hand. Bala’s friends had brought all the luggage downstairs. He could see his blue luggage in the distance, and was gently surprised that it appeared quite small.
Bala ran out into the rain. The raindrops transformed into tiny needles and pricked his shoulders and head. He bent his head low and ran towards his luggage. It grew larger as he got closer and closer. Panting for breath, he tugged at its zip and pulled it open. All of his possessions were neatly laid out inside and held in place by two criss-cross belts. He slid his hand in as if looking for something.
The rain grew heavier. Each raindrop transformed into a bed bug when it touched his skin and gnawed at him. He felt his body melt like an empty cardboard box in the rain. He pushed his elbow into the luggage. Then, he placed his left foot inside. He bent down and slid his head in. There was still some space left. He gave a gentle push, folded up his right leg and with his other hand tugged at the lid. He was surprised when it neatly shut close.
The heavy patter of the rain came to an end. The smell of naphthalene balls welcomed him in the darkness inside the luggage. His belongings hugged his squished body and held him tight. He felt warm.