Beyond Borders

helping-hand

With moist and dismayed eyes, a foreign worker, in clothes mildly smeared with grease and paint, stood first in the queue, pusillanimously lost in thought. He looked like a Bangladeshi, Anu thought.

Just behind the Bangladeshi, a middle aged rotund Chinese man was leaning on the side rails with two large red plastic shopping bags placed near his feet. Oblivious to the surrounding, he was busy over the phone, thanking and laughing courteously, “Hái méiyǒu, xièxiè.”

Crawling on one of the bags was a large fly that caught the keen attention of ten years old Kani. He couldn’t take his eyes off.

The moment Anu saw her son’s eyes sparkling brighter, she knew the reason. As always she was fascinated by his interest displayed even before he had turned one. From as early as seven months old he used to look for ants and insects in the corners of the marble floor and follow them crawling on four. And flying insects thrilled him all the more. Long before he pronounced the word, “Amma,” to call her, he had learnt to say in Tamil ‘Poochchi’ (insect), which made history, becoming the first word he learnt to speak.

Eager to continue where they had left their conversation just before leaving home, Anu asked her husband, “And what did that pinoy colleague of yours exactly say to anger you that much? You didn’t tell me the details.”

Excited, wide eyed Somu said, “He had the cheek to say right on my face that without them our country will cease to function. Can you believe, Anu?”

Although the haze due to the conflagration in the Sumatran forests, seemed to have reduced to healthy levels, in about six or seven out of the ten faces that belonged to the migrants, there were several with N9 masks.

“Without the Filipinos?”

“Foreign workers in general, I suppose. I just couldn’t stand his temerity, you know. I was intensely searing inside.” She just nodded looking at his face.

His chubby face was becoming more and more rounded with the receding hairline, she thought. The black curls highlighted his already fair complexion.

As if muttering to herself Anu said, “Humans seem to push the days of the week just for the weekend, to actually live.” The queues were long.

The air at the bus interchange was filled with an erratic mixture of children shrieking, loud laughter of young people in groups, buses manoeuvring and halting, bus doors opening and closing.

Mandarin, Tamil, Malay, Tagalog, Hokkien and Bangla heard here and there were though certainly not mellifluous, but an intriguing babel. The aroma of the satay from the nearby hawker wafted along with the breeze.

The breeze bore the message of the approaching showers. The heavily gathering clouds not just dimmed the sunlight but had suddenly increased the humidity.

Being one of the first few in the line for the route number 960, getting seats of their choice was too difficult.

The Bangladeshi worker had gone straight all the way to the back and took the left window seat of the long row of last seats.

Kani slowly walked ahead keeping his sight on the fly.

“He went on saying things like they are a cheerful and contended bunch even with lower wages.”

“Lower?” Anu asked.

“Ya lah. Somewhat lower than us locals.”

“True,” she agreed.

The stout Chinese man placed the bags purposely on the adjacent seat so that the foreign workers boarding behind wouldn’t occupy it.

Watching the fly, Kani stood there blocking the way for the other passengers. Spontaneously pulling him along, “Only a common house fly, just a little bigger,” Somu hushed. They moved to the rear. Kani’s focus remained on the fly.

As the bus exited at the woodlands interchange, Somu continued, “You know, I couldn’t help telling him, why you don’t go back since you are paid low here. But left the place abruptly without saying more when he went on to say I must learn to be happy.”

“You?”

“Obviously, he meant us Singaporeans,” Somu said lowering his voice.

Near the exit, seated at the centre of the bus the three domestic workers dressed in their week end best, dolled up in all accessories, started watching videos happily, ready to thoroughly enjoy their off day. One of them answered a call, “One ang paraan, sanay maging late,” assuring their punctuality to the friends on the other side.

Seated right behind his parents, next to the Bangladeshi worker, Kani kept getting up restlessly from his seat to take a look at the fly.

When a zaftig middle aged Malay woman boarded at the Marsiling station, one of the foreign worker seated behind the driver spontaneously got up to give her the seat. The lady hesitated for a second and was about to lumber to the rear when the other guy at the window seat followed suit. Happily, she sat on the aisle seat and started looking out the window.

Looking around within the bus, Anu said, “Its fine. Not like you had feared. I can even see a few empty seats.”

“You don’t know darling. This bus really gets crowded on Sundays. We could have gone shopping next week after our car is back from servicing,” he sulked.

“Oh come on, Somu. Look at him! He seems to be enjoying the ride.”

“If not for the parking woes in Little India area, I wouldn’t choose to travel in this bus, especially during the week end,” he said for the third time.

When the fly flew to the rear, it landed on the tab the domestic worker was holding. She jumped and shooed it off with a giggle. Her two friends joined in the amusement.

Kani got excited and shrieked, “Pa, look he is flying this way!” Suddenly feeling shy for having expressed loudly, sat on his seat quietly observing.

The insect had comfortably settled on the glass window near the exit. Once in while glancing at the fly, Kani sat calmly. He shared his discovery, “Musca domestica,” tugging at his mother’s shoulder. He pointed to the fly when Anu, from the front seat, turned to smile at him.

After the first few stops, at the Kranji station, foreign workers were boarding in bunches.

Somu gave her a, “I told you,” kind of a look.

“Kani needs to see some real world at least once in a while,” Anu smiled gathering the locks of hair and tugging them behind her ears with her right hand.

There was an empty seat after the exit. A tall and slender looking Chinese woman who had boarded looked around, waved her hand with a pointed finger, “Go and sit there lah.” The foreign worker who looked like a Tamil guy, got up like an obedient student and moved to the back. With a serious expression, “Thank you,” she said curtly.

“What do you mean Anu? Don’t tell me that only crowded bus rides are real life,” Somu chided with a laugh.

“Not exactly, but in a way yes,” Anu beamed.

Many were startled when the Malay woman, in her attempt to alight at the Bukit Panjang CC advanced to the rear saying, “Cannot tahaan this anymore. Why are these people so smelly?” Right after getting off the bus, she threw an acrimonious expression at the bus from where she stood.

“Ma, why is that old aunty rankling for no apparent reason?”

“Hush, are you bored? Want my mobile?”

“No,” he said and went back to watch the big fly.

As the bus entered the BKE, most of them were getting busy texting. Most of them had dozed off in their seats. The bus suddenly quietened.

The two tall housing board block of flats followed by a few private condominiums beyond the greens, on the right disappeared within minutes.

The long terrain ride with the lush natural habitat on either sides of the expressway, as always brought a serene feeling within, Anu delved.

“Oh my God! I took the wrong set of shopping bags! I never bought these live crab,” the Chinese man suddenly jolted. He held the tied bag with a large creepy crab within.

He stood up to go near the driver. “You have to get off at the Tanglin CC and cross the road via the overhead bridge and board a bus back to Bukit Panjang,” as he said calmly, the driver smartly kept his eyes on the road.

Kani was eager have a look at the crab from near but Somu said, “No need to go all the way there. We are speeding in the expressway Kani. It’s enough to look from here. I thought you were scared of crabs,” he chuckled.

“Of course, I wouldn’t dare touch it. Just want a closer look,” he said but sat back in his seat.

The Bangladeshi worker was sincerely trying hard to look away from the young Anglo Chinese couple in secret and mild canoodle at the right end of the long back seat. He had been talking seriously to someone for more than ten minutes. Sensing the network was bound to go erratic in the PIE, he winded up his conversation smartly, “Jaani. Achchaa, thaarpor kotha bolbo, han?”

The road widening works near the exit to Eng Neo Avenue and Adams Road suddenly reminded of the city life.

“You look ravishing in this sari,” Somu whispered in her ear.

“And you say that the umpteenth time, Somu. I still can’t forget the day you stood at the shop dead against me choosing this,” Reminiscing, they both laughed to look behind at Kani.

Very much familiar with the expressway, traffic, the downtown line works along the Bukit Timah road, Kani was observing all that he could, mostly within the bus as if he might never get another chance to travel by bus.

Once at Whitley Road, louring, the urban face of the city showed. “Comes under the sub order Cyclorrhapha,” Kani bent down to whisper into Somu’s ears. The father forced a smile and looked at the fly.

Grumblingly, the Chinese man with the shopping bags alighted.

With not many passengers boarding or alighting, the bus streamlined in the Bukit Timah Road.

When the bus reached Little India, most of the commuters alighted. “Bus rides are damn interesting Pa,” Kani mused as he got down.

Not losing sight of the Bangladeshi worker who had also alighted, Kani told his parents to wait for a few minutes. When Anu pulled him, he said, “Ma, please wait just for a few minutes.”

“Can I have a few dollars, pa?” he said hurriedly keeping an eye on the foreign worker.

Taking out his wallet from his pant pocket, Somu asked impatiently, “But what do you need money so urgently for?” Kani pulled out a ten dollar note.

He pointed to the Bangladeshi standing with a lost expression on his face. “He needs to top up his ez link, Pa. I heard him cry over the phone. He is totally broke and in a dire state, Ma.”

“Don’t tell me you can understand their language.”

“Oh, I’d say I have been gleaning their language over the year,” he said. Always observing, he would smile and wave at the Bangladeshi workers who cleaned the chute and the common areas. But Anu never expected him to have picked up their language.

Kani swiftly went near the foreign worker and asked, “Where do you want to go?”

“Paya Lebar,” said the foreign worker, looking at Kani a little hesitantly.

With all kindness, Kani said softly and slowly, “You take the train to Bugis and from there you board the green line towards Pasir Ris, you understand?” The Bangladeshi just nodded shyly.

Gently, Kani thrust the ten dollar note into his hand and hopped back to join his parents. As if trying to prevent them from looking at that guy, he pulled each by his hands.

Curiously, He turned to look and was titillated to see the housefly riding on the tattered back pack of the Bangladeshi.

“Eureka! Single pair of wings! Comes under the higher classification of Diptera,” he squealed.


Jayanthi Sankar has been creatively active for the past twenty one years in short stories, novels, translation, transcreations and essays. Having written primarily in Tamil, she has authored more than 28 books, she has started writing more in English in the recent years. Several of her books have been awarded by renowned organisations. Her short story ‘Read Singapore’, published in the quarterly magazine Ceriph – ISSUE TWO – 2010, has been included in the anthology ‘The Epigram Books Collection of Best New Singaporean Short Stories: Volume One’. The same short story has been translated into Russian anthology: To Go to S’pore, contemporary writing from Singapore, edited by Kirill Cherbitski. Her short story collections have been short listed thrice for Singapore Literature Prize. After ‘Loss and Laws’, ‘Horizon afar’ is the second collection of her Tamil short stories into English. The collection her English stories are expected to be published as collection next year. Born and brought up in India, she lives in Singapore since 1990. You can reach her at her website.