Lungs

Sally Somasundram was finally dying.

Too many moons, too diligent a sun.

The world had jumped, flopped, landed on its stomach, risen bruised and later, it boasted a new set of topnotch lungs, made of tin but never mind, the bigshots said, at least respiration had been restored. Daily, as she salivates because her mouth won’t close, her child’s child, gloomy, sulky, is pushed out of the house to descend into the Pudu Menagerie, the KL corner of the global lung to, as her poor daughter repeats before dusk, ‘swish around. Play. Notice the way leaves curl. In my day, well, in my day.’

I am to blame, I am to blame for robbing you of your language and it is time for me to rest.

Last week, after it had been made clear by an infantile doctor that Sally had two months left to live, they moved in. Marion and her brood of one. The husband, obviously sharp-brained, invented prolonged work emergencies that necessitated solitary peace of mind and exclusive rights to minding his own home. Each night, he appears on her bedroom wall. ‘You OK there, Mum?’ he asks, smiling. After minutes, her daughter switches off the teleport. Sometimes Sally thinks of the old days when faraway people were dreamed about until a computer was turned on, a smartphone unlocked, and words manifested from the mouths of static photographs or neat little video screens popped up and a simple conversation could be had with one’s beloved. But today, ah, what year was it? Her memory is evaporating. She likes thinking of vapour. Her whole life, she’d never thought of vapour. ‘It’s 2063, Ma, remember?’ No, she does not remember.

But today, everybody is everywhere. Everything is everywhere.

A few days ago, her grandchild, Rajasingam, already 15 years old, brought the old KL twin towers into the house. He pressed a button on his finger and, just like that, they began their live ascent to a peak that promised dizzying views of the Pudu Menagerie, greeting other passengers along the way.

‘Are they real, Raja Kutty? These people who nod and smile? How come I am sitting in my bed with these bloody bedsores and I don’t feel like I’m rising but still I’m in the tower and even though I know the real walls around me are the same walls your poor wildboar of a grandfather touched when he was still around, the walls I see around me are not those. It’s as if… it’s as if my bedroom has disappeared.’ Sally coughed. She was irked, depressed on an impulse that materialised when she touched her rippled flesh and wondered what the other tower-riders saw. For she was in a sarung. And her hair had not been brushed since the night before.

‘Oh GAWD GRAMMA, they’re real but not real. This place is here but not here.’ Rajasingam sighed.

He had sighed.

But Sally persisted. ‘What does that mean, Raja Kutty?’

He sighed again. ‘It’s called CHIP PROJECTION. The people you see were CREATED by the people behind them. Since you’re that worried, I might as well tell you that you’re a five foot four 30 year old lady of Chinese descent. You have long black hair and cheek dimples. You’re wearing pink lipstick and a deep purple tutu. There, you can relax now.’

Sally and her grandson spent the afternoon people-watching on the skybridge and when she asked him for a clear view of the Pudu Menagerie, he clicked a button and they witnessed lunching monkeys, napping pythons, grumbling magpies and, saddest of all, most profound for Sally, house lizards humping. ‘Turn this off now,’ she said, tearing, thinking about her infected lungs and her approaching death. Rajasingam, frightened, clicked his finger-button off and left the room.


 
The next day she asked him if he could take her to a coffee-shop. ‘KL still has those old-old coffee places, ah? Where they serve tar in teacups? Been bedridden for so long, how to go out?’

‘Tar in teacups? I don’t know what you’re talking about, GRAMMA. But there might be a programme for that. If it’s a regular coffee house you wanna go to then I can arrange that for you. KL has plenty of those. But if it’s something ANCIENT, like from 2019, then I’ll have to go looking.’ He flipped through a box of glittering discs and shook his head. ‘Nope, nope. But gimme a minute. I’ll see if I can get one from my computer.’ He dashed out. Watching him run, Sally lost her breath. Good respiration is a boon. Ludicrously, she thought of praying for the luxury of decent inhalation, exhalation, to feel the joy she’d failed to experience. She didn’t know God, had no visual, no words to think of that would erect him. Sometime in the 1990s, for four straight Saturdays in a month, as a joke, she’d broken coconuts at the Kalamandapam temple with her mother.

Fire, camphor, husks, crowshit, oil, betelnut tongues of mad gods, blue babies dying at the feet of moustachioed warriors.

That might as well have been the whole Divine Deal.

But the temple was no more. It didn’t matter. Her grandson could probably press a button on his finger and resurrect it.

‘Found a few. Kim Huat, Ah Lek, Good Morning Sunshine. Take your pick.’ He’d come back suppressing a grin so as to not betray his feelings.

‘Aiyah, never mind which one lah. Not as if we’re really going to drink–‘

‘GRAMMA,’ he whined, ‘you really know nothing. Here’ –he fitted a small black button on the tip of her finger- ‘when I start the coffee-shop up, press it and drink whatever you like.’

Drink?’

‘Will you just be patient and see what I mean-

‘Alright, Raja Kutty, alright.’

They entered Good Morning Sunshine. She swore she could smell pork simmering in water, maybe cha-siew soaking in soya sauce, pickled chilli, the wicked nuttiness of brewing coffee, faint whiffs of grease on plastic plates, burnt garlic.

‘You smell that? You smell that?’ she shrieked.

Rajasingam looked at her as though she’d released a clandestine fart. ‘Yes, Gramma,’ he whispered, embarrassed, ‘it’s part of the programme. Press your button and, uh, do try to calm down.’

She did as she was told and a waiter asked for her order. Black coffee, extra sugar.

‘So, Gramma, these were the type of joints you hung out in, huh?’

‘Yes, yes. But let me ask you, how in the world, how in the world, what exactly did you smell, Raja Kutty?’

He smirked. ‘A whole load of cockroach, cat poop, the utter sin of a floor that’s not been swept in a hundred years.’

‘What?’

‘The button on your finger detects your brain’s associations and it releases chemicals that make you think you’re smelling the thing you’re smelling, hearing the thing you hear. These chemicals are cool. They magnify and multiply. As for what you see, that’s all you. It’s called Pavlov’s Ultra Dog. This method of detection. Yeah, it’s called PAVLOV’S ULTRA DOG. So, uh, we’re in the same place, sort of, but we’ll be seeing, hearing and smelling different things because I’ve got my brain and you’ve got yours.’

Nervous, disgusted, Sally instructed for the programme to be shut down. Her grandson shook his head, muttering, ‘Whatever. WhatEVER.’

‘Before you go, wait first. Tell me. Everybody, they watch these types of programmes, is it? Very popular, ah?’

The head shaking resumed. ‘Yes, Gramma. This is what people do these days. It’s how they enjoy life, yeah? Anyway, you don’t watch. You experience.’

That night, unable to sleep, Sally focused on the darkness in her room as she recalled her multicoloured wedding dais, the concentration on Ashwin’s face while the priest chanted gibberish, the night they cut open her stomach to excavate Marion, the afternoon she found Ashwin hanging from the ceiling fan in the hall, a note tucked inside his pocket: ‘I just realised that I’d lost my life. Along the way, driving to the office every day, coming home, reading the paper, turning the lights off, going to bed, I discovered that this was *not* life. Unfortunately, I don’t know what it is.’ Now, 40 years later, at the age of 82, in response to the note, Sally had no wisdom for her husband. What exactly would she be leaving behind in 60 days or so?

Marion peeked in. ‘All ok, Ma? You need anything?’ Poor Marion. Cooped up growing up. Cooped up in school. Cooped up at the office. Cooped up in the marital home. Why hadn’t Sally simply released her away from a city bent on proliferation, jam-packing its land with building after building, from a country that had eaten its own veins and flesh of green, for mall after mall, office after office, no land, no space, 10 million people in a city, two giant landmarks, an old Twin Towers, a new, even bigger Twin Towers. Nothing more could be had from this material world so her grandson showed her airy spaces in a different reality, or a non-reality, she didn’t know anymore.

Where will she go when her two months are up?

‘I just need to rest, Marion. Leave me in this darkness,’ Sally said.

In the morning she summoned Rajasingam to her bedroom. ‘Show me the city,’ she ordered.

‘Which city?’

‘Eh oh, dungu boy, this city lah.’

‘Er, yes of course I know that. What I mean is, your city or my city?’

‘Yours. And then mine.’

Together they journeyed through streets lined with large potted plants, swarming with pink and yellow, beige, brown and black faces. Sally smelled and heard nothing. KL had turned to glass. There were no stalls, no colossal tattered umbrellas, no monsoon drains, no misplaced detail. Everywhere, there were doubles, reflections on buildings. People sipped drinks through metal straws. They spoke little. They looked ahead.

‘Raja Kutty, what do you see? What do you smell and hear?’

Her grandson looked into her eyes, his own eyes glinting. ‘I smell the fizz of glamour, Gramma. I see the FUTURE.’

‘And when are you going to go out into this future?’

He slapped the back of his hand on his forehead. ‘Get with it, GRAMMA. There isn’t an in or an out anymore. In is out is in is out. You choose what you want.’

Suddenly, Sally didn’t want to see her city. She was afraid of being duped again into smelling and seeing and hearing the things of old as though they were real. This was no way to feel before dying. She sensed the switching off of her body.

‘Your mother is always forcing you to go to the Pudu Menagerie and you complain, complain, complain. What? You don’t like it there? It’s the only place, the only place that has some character in this crazy city–’

‘You don’t know, Gramma. It’s a WEIRD place. Believe me. So unnatural. Really. Slapbam in the middle like that, animals howling, birds shitting, trees that look like only hantus live there, have you seen them? Besides, it’s only one place. At home, I can go to ten places in an hour. I can smell 24 things instead of mainly smelling poop. Look, Gramma. I don’t expect you to understand. I mean, you were born in 1981 for god’s sake.’

Sally coughed and spat out blood. What was God’s sake, really? Would she meet him, her, it and find out soon? Sake?

‘Listen, kutty. I’m feeling weak. I need some rest. But first, but first, can you take me to the Kalamandapam temple?’

Dutifully, he laboured with his box of discs until he found the appropriate one. He inserted it into his machine, changed her finger-buttons and with a quick click, Sally entered the temple.

A priest was ringing a bell. Three women in bright Punjabi suits stood in prayer. The drummer drummed and the flutist blew into his flute. Parrots and canaries, kingfishers and sunbirds began populating the interiors of the temple. They hovered in the air noiselessly. Smoke rose from the burning camphor. Sally’s nose stung. It was probably the pinch of God.

The dead can live again.

Through smokescreens, they can live again.

Beyond that is nothing.

‘That’s enough, Raja Kutty,’ Sally said, ‘I need to take it easy now. My lungs are stuffy.’

The boy turned off the programme.

‘Where are you going now?’ Sally asked, relaxing into her bed.

But her grandson didn’t reply. He arranged his discs carefully in the box and when he was done, he whistled his way out of her bedroom.