Small Wonders

Ramadan 2013, Singapore

by Pavle Radonic

A handshake to write home about. A meeting of the ages. Such a shake you have not seen in the cinema, unless mimicked in the silent flicks just as it was disappearing out on the streets. It took place in a back corner beside the cash register of the eatery. Out front scores of people were spread over the tables and hundreds passing along the aisle. For the breaking of fast in the early evening families enjoy the public space down at the eastern end of Geylang, particularly on weekends, often three and sometimes more generations strong. A communal carnival with a script hundreds of years old, little formal structure and a great deal of vivid colour and the purest of theatre. 

         In the half hour before sun-set it is impossible to get a table at either Mr. T. T. or Labu Labi. Last year’s Ramadan was the same. In the couple of hours run-up to dusk the aisles are thronged with families purchasing takeaways. One has to wonder whether through that last of the waiting-out the people are furtively feeding on the sights and thick aromas of the camp kitchens one after another along the footpaths. The communal feasting with their co-religionists naturally bolsters strength and endurance. A fascination to behold, as the hajj would be was it possible to inveigle oneself.

         Labu Labi is almost strictly Malay. Through the rest of the year Mr. Teh Tarik attracted a wider cross-section, though it is also largely Malay. Last night it was only at the former’s tables that there was a vacancy. Over the course of the year Labu Labi has been patronised numerous times and passing there are always found numerous friends. Labu Labi translates roughly as something like Yum, Yum, Delicious (labu is gourd in Malay). In the illuminated signboard above the entry-way, beneath the counter where the two women were brought together last night, a sketch of a fat-faced cook bringing forefinger and thumb to the corner of his mouth illustrates the matter. Such a figure once stood at the stove in the back of small restaurants the world over where customers would greet each other in the old fashioned way of these two women at the counter.

         The younger woman has worked at Labu Labi around six months. Last night there seemed no doubt she had to be either the manager’s wife or sister. It was the latter that was the better bet. There was perhaps seven or eight years between the pair; the same slightness, the same sharp features and light colouration, almost southern European in aspect. It turned out not to be. She was from Sumatra and he Sabah on Borneo; no familial connection of any kind. From the airport at Padang on Sumatra the woman had a nine hour bus-ride to the kampung; five hours by taxi. In a straight line on a freeway she would have got to Aceh in half the time. Divorced, the woman had a young teenage daughter with her here in Singapore. Without make-up or adornment, the other guess had been a quiet and shy spinster like Serangoon Yati: dutiful, devoted, content. 

         Beside the cash register she met the older woman, an Auntie-type in her late sixties who had come up. The Sumatran did not wear a scarf. For all her devoutness, her ceaseless reading of the Qu’ran, Serangoon Yati did not wear a scarf either. She had not been ready, she explained. Like Serangoon Yati, this woman too lacked nothing in uprightness. The blouse and flower-print skirt just above her ankles was another echo still. The older woman was bundled up in the traditional garb. A food order had been made or was being settled. There was no sense of any particular matter between the two women, no kind of special and unexpected meeting of kith or kin.

         The counter beside the cash register was scaled to these medium-sized Malay people. On either side the two women faced each other. Leaning close they were comfortably within reach. The younger had the elder’s hand and forearm closely clasped. The left arm reached above the older woman’s wrist and held firmly; the other hand enfolded the old woman’s and everything out of proportion there because of the relative slightness of the former. 

         Such a shy, quiet type the Labu Labi waitress seemed, one would have expected her only to receive a speech such as the one she was here making for the older woman on the other side of the counter. As she spoke she raised their arms in high, deliberate pumps. Once, twice, three times. Possibly a fourth time the arms rose and fell onto the counter. The younger woman knew precisely what she wanted to say to the esteemed older woman. This clearly came in rhythm with her hand action. As she pumped she delivered phrases in careful segments.

         — This I want to tell you, my dear good Auntie, you who I have always esteemed…. Three or four clearly defined elements like strophes in a measured lyric received by the older woman, who seemed rather unprepared for the honour.

         The look of the younger was direct and warm; the recipient a little blank more than anything, a trifle overwhelmed. The young woman had spoken well; one could not have guessed she had it in her. 

         A half hour after the greeting at the counter one of the old men who had been seated in company at one of the tables unexpectedly rose and started clearing dishes and glasses roundabout. A venerable old man wearing a white hajj cap. Rembrandt had painted suchlike scholars disputing bible passages in dimly lit Dutch interiors. The likeness here was very close; a beautiful old man. One of the ladies of the community who always dressed herself in a striking gypsy style had sat opposite the man with one or two others. The look of affection she held made one conclude the man had to be either her father, or grandfather. Nearly an hour they sat in the same way, the scholar slumped a little in his chair.

          A remarkable scene to the side of all the movement and noise on the footpath. The makeshift kitchens along the aisle were giving off a great deal of added heat; more than one group had moved from the outer tables when an inner became available. Beside Labu Labi the Chinese convert who sold CD’s and traditional Malay attire in his small booth was adding musical accompaniment, at their best heady rhythms perfectly in keeping. The food at the stalls was cheap, if unhealthy. All the movement along the path and at the tables followed a measured rhythm just like the handshake and the accompanying words that had been offered with it. Greetings were being made on all sides, the formal bows and hands brought to the lips and forehead by the younger; woman greeting woman and man man. In the midst of it all the bright-eyed children quiet and patient among the elders, receiving the light of their future days in small, rich measures. In her chair the gypsy woman in all her layers sat directly opposite with unwavering eyes fixed on the old Rembrandt, tilting back her head a little. This kept on for long minutes without any kind of word exchanged between them, the old man indeed seemingly completely oblivious. Adoration of this sort one might see in a grandmother for her grandchild. Still the woman looked on. Often on the street she displayed a tight, troubled countenance.

          After the clearing the old man began sweeping underfoot. A narrow fine beard he worn on his chin. Thin, he was light on his feet and exceedingly nimble for a man of his age. It was not possible he would have been any part short of eighty. More than a single pair of eyes had in fact been trained upon his person. All lightly borne in the way the elderly sometimes indulgently allow their circle. Like a bird the man’s look flitted briefly here and there. Later the Sabah manager explained that the old man had no family and did little chores for him for food and drink.

         It is partly the weather that enables this kind of community in Singapore. In the northern hemisphere a fire-side leaves less opportunity. Back in the day, one suspects Lent could never have offered anything similar. There were two special men sitting at the tables of Labu Labi last night, one younger and the other not so. Another was a loner who had experienced some kind of hardship that had left the man stranded. The kind of warm regard given to all three is not a particular feature of Ramadan. In all the days previous in the quarter the same has been witnessed on numerous occasions.

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