Suwen stirred her paint pots vigorously, mixing colours and feelings, angry that her mother was demanding so much from her and furious that she had not the guts to say, "Get off my back! My life is my own business! You have your own life to lead and I have mine! Why should children be tied forever to the mess their parents made? Is this the only way to be filial?"
But she made no attempt to answer her own questions, choosing instead to concentrate on squeezing a long yellow worm out of the tube of paint, carefully mixing in the blue till she got a dull green. The thought of another confrontation with her mother filled her with loathing. All her life, she had wanted to escape the clutches of the womb. Give back to her mother all the gratitude she wanted and then to have nothing more to do with her.
"So you think you're the only one suffering, ah? The only one in this world with problems?" Her mother had demanded in her most self-righteous Cantonese voice. "What didn't I do for you as a mother? Did you not have enough to wear? Enough to eat? And a good education? And now you want to run off? After all these years! Now you complain. Just when the mansion is sold, ah! You flog a horse when it is dead! But I tell you, ah! He was drunk. He did not know what he was doing! I am not trying to put him above blame, ah. But you think a bit. That was the only time, was it not? After that, nothing! And you went away, and he paid for your education.in England. What more do you want? Did he not treat you like a daughter? You forget so quickly, ah! Before this happened, did he not bring you to the pictures? To the swimming club? And it was I who made him do it. When I married him, I told him about my daughter. And I said to him, you must treat her like your daughter. 1, your mother, thought about you! Did you ever worry about me? Go! Leave me if you have to! With two hands and two feet, do you think I will be helpless? In Cantonese opera, we always say, when one's horse is dead, one can learn to walk! You can go away. I will not blame you! So you don't blame me! Who asked you to leave your bedroom door open? You cannot blame me for that! You can blame me for anything else in your life. But not that! I did tell you, not once, but many times. Right from the time you came to live here. This is a big mansion, I said. Lock your bedroom door at night, I said. you never can tell. And it is not because you are not his flesh and blood. Even in the papers got stories about people like that taximan, mah! And those two girls were his own daughters! Some men are like animals. Always after one thing! And only one thing! A man's heart is sharp as a needle in the ocean; it pricks you when you least expect it. you were already a big girl. you got to protect yourself. Your mother cannot be with you all the time. Now if you had listened to me, nothing like that would have happened. Right or not?"
YES! YES! YES! The whole of Suwen's insides screamed. "Do you think I wanted it to happen? That I left the door open for him? On purpose? You are only saying all these things because I am leaving!"
"I know you are leaving. Now that you have wings and feathers, you are ready to fly off. But I have another daughter! I thank the gods for that! Sulin will be with me. I am not as helpless as you think! But remember, ah! I did not abandon you when you were young and helpless! I returned to the farm to reclaim you. I could easily have left you there to grow up like a pigsty girl! Many girls are abandoned by mothers who don't want them! But ah! I have learnt a bitter lesson today. Never, aiyah, never be so responsible. Your own flesh and blood will not appreciate you. I have been slaving all these years. For what? You tell me! For myself alone? I have lived alone and worked alone. Your own father left me alone! Then he came along and wanted to marry me. He even agreed to take you. What more could I ask for? For once think about me! Your own mother, an opera actress growing old. Who wants to marry an old fah-dan? You think it was easy to find a man to give me a home? A woman with another man's daughter? Who knows my pain? The young only know how to complain and grumble. Do they understand old age? You are not so very young yourself! But that is your problem. Water flows downhill, never up. Gratitude! Ha! I dare not hope for it!"
Her mother's words had poured out with such a rhetorical flourish and vehemence that she had had no means of staving off the onslaught. Proverb after proverb, phrase after phrase from classical Chinese literature and operas hit her like cluster bombs, releasing their sticky webs of guilt upon immediate contact with her flesh. How could she fend off her mother's accusations and explain things to her in Cantonese? Even in English Suwen had great difficulty expressing her feelings in words.
More often than not, she would rather paint. Painting as she was feeling and feeling what she was painting, filling huge abstract spaces with colours. Lifted by an inner music, impelled by a feverish restlessness, her hand had painted light and shadows, lines and shapes, colours and textures, her strokes uneven and unplanned, her agitated spirit yearning for the fluidity of dispossession, rootlessness and loneliness. To be free to seek pure form. Free to paint the canvas she was defining and to suffer the loneliness she was choosing.
To the external world, she was an artist of great potential, but to herself, she was the great void. An amorphous being of inchoate dreams and desires. But in some rare moments of intense lucid creation when she was painting alone, her many dreams and desires had fused like colours shading into one another, mixing and merging, so that for an instance, one whole uncomplicated and integrated individual, the artist, had painted in total control, totally absorbed and complete in her artistic powers. Manipulating the brush as an extension of her hand; her hand as an extension of her will; her will, the expression of her being Suwen. Supreme and solitary she had stood in front of her canvas.
Then she remembered how the front door had opened with a soft click that fateful day. Years ago. And she had looked up from her painting. Must be the servant, she had thought, for everyone else had gone to the temple.
She froze at the sound of his voice. He had returned. But none of the servants were home. She would have to serve him. No, no, she remembered her panic. She would lock her bedroom door.
"Wen, get me a drink."
He was already standing in the doorway of her room. He came into her room, looking pale and exhausted.
Unbuttoning his shirt, he waved her away. "Go downstairs and get me a drink."
She returned with a glass of cold water and found him lying sprawled on her bed, his eyes closed. "Nah, your drink," she coughed, holding out the glass awkwardly. When he sat up, she saw that his fly was opened. She turned her head away just as he took the glass and grabbed her hand, pulling her down towards him. She kicked and shoved him away. The glass was smashed into smithereens. He grabbed her breasts, squeezing them as he tried to plant his foul kisses on her lips. She scratched his face like a wild cat, and pushed him onto the bed. Then she ran into the bathroom and locked the door, her heart pounding with pain. She had tried to scream but no sound came out of her throat. It had been strangled by fear. He was bestial. A beast! The air was full of his immoral snorts and hisses. She shoved a clenched fist into her mouth and bit hard. She would not cry. She refused to cry. She waited behind the locked door. Only when she heard his car driving off did she come out of the bathroom to sit dazed in front of her canvas, returning like one in a dream to the work at hand. And there she sat as the minutes ticked by, her eyes two dark pools of unfathomable depths, her face blank, unthinking and unreflecting, walled in by a will which refused to sob. She took without seeing the tubes of paint and smeared on the canvas a daub of red, deep carmine red. And a daub of blue. Bright royal blue. Then she flung away her brushes like a prisoner, his shackles, and began to spread the paint furiously with her bare hands. Smearing the canvas to cover up the dark cavernous spaces in her mind, obliterating the hated scene before her again and again as her hands moved from tube to palette, from palette to canvas and back again in furious feverish haste. Stopping the gaping wounds. Covering up the putrefaction. Smearing, spreading and smoothening. Her eyes seeing nothing; her mind thinking nothing.
Nothing. Nothing Nothing.
This is the way of peace.
Shanti. Shanti. Shanti.
Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
The wealth of a nation is in its economy, its people and the arts," the guest-of-honour declared at the opening of the art exhibition.
Over the next few days, members of the public had crowded round her painting to gape and gawk.
"Wah, erotic, man," the less restrained among tne crowd whispered to one another. "Now they don't care one, ah. Anyhow also can paint. Last time where got such paintings?"
And there were the letters to the press. She read each of them with a mix of anguish and amusement:
I am deeply shocked that erotic paintings are allowed to hang in our publicly-funded galleries. We expect public officials in charge of our culture to uphold good taste and decorum. TAX PAYER
Negative and regressive values likely to corrupt the young minds amongst us must be checked. The artist forgets that she is living in an Asian society. She should not adopt Western practices which contradict our Oriental moral concepts. SINGAPOREAN-ASIAN
I plead for tolerance in this matter. Let a hundred flowers bloom. Let there be artistic freedom. What has happened to our Civilized practice of making proper Justification for what we vehemently oppose? Must our society repress everything? TOLERATION
I refer to Toleration's letter. Our beloved Prime Minister has pointed out the dangers of Westernization In Singapore and the pitfalls of being a pseudo-Westerner or geh angmo. A sense of our Chinese Identity and history is of the utmost importance. Our nation is swamped with numerous geh angmos. They dress outrageously and insist on speaking English or Singlish. They do not want to speak Chinese. They cannot even read the Chinese signs in the public places. Some even claim to dream in English! Such people have forgotten their Chinese ancestors and their five-thousand-year-old history and civilization! I hope the authorities will do something and not let these Westernized geh angmos paint dirt and call it art! We have a duty to our young. SON OF CHINA
And with that, the editor of the paper had closed the exchange of letters in the Forum Page. Suwen, who had maintained a stoic silence throughout that painful period, sighed with relief. It was a good thing that she was going away. Her identity as a Singaporean Chinese was being questioned at a time when she herself was uncertain about her own future. It looked as if she would have to start life anew. In her late thirties. Not a bad age really if one thought about it. Neither too young to be naive nor too old to be decrepit. Her reflection in the train window showed a woman with dark intense eyes and straight black hair. An ordinary-looking woman.
The station master gave a sharp blast from his whistle. The train jerked forward and began to slide slowly out of the station. As scenes of bushes and shrubs, cars and buses flashed past her window, Suwen settled into her seat. It was going to be a long journey back to Kuala Jelai.