This piece was written in Tamil by Latha. It was translated into English by Sulosana Karthigasu.
His slender fingers pitter-pattered like a kitten’s feet over my scalp as he massaged my head. Wherever his fingers roamed, they released the heat of the 4 pm sun. The roots of my hair grew damp with the warmth of his fingers coupled with the heat of the day. As he worked a Korean oil of some unpronounceable name into my scalp, he began telling me a story. I had never heard such a story from him before. This was the first time.
It was rather strange how he would appear when I least expected. Today, Ooi arrived just as I was engrossed in watching the black-eyed, beige-coloured spider spin its web on the ceiling overhead.
Though I never thought about him, I did enjoy his visits. The home had many visitors. Some would bring presents. Others would come empty-handed but spend time chatting with the residents. There were also those who busied themselves with various chores – dusting the tables and chairs, changing the bed linen and making the beds, washing the table cloths, or keeping the many documents and files of the home in order. The home had thirty-three beds, thirty-three bedside tables with drawers, several wheelchairs, six large dining tables, forty-eight chairs, cupboards for each resident, and an assortment of furniture, such as sofas and long benches, as well as medicine cabinets in the two large visitor halls. Then there was the kitchen with its own array of utensils and cooking implements. There was also a large store-room, a pantry, a laundry room, a reading room, a gymnasium, and the administrators’ room and office. The prayer room and another activity room were the only two places with little or no furniture. Tireless labour was needed to ensure that all the rooms remained neat and tidy. It was beyond what the twenty-six residents of the home, of which I was one, could do. Hence, there was little opportunity for me to make friends or speak to others. Some probably thought I was deaf or dumb.
But strangely, I never thought of leaving the home for anywhere else, even when I first moved here. I did not remember where I had been staying prior to my arrival. Certainly, there must have be a beginning to my life here. Even then, I could not remember if I ever had an urge or a desire to go back to where I came from.
He had told me his name was Ooi. Maybe this was not even his name. Perhaps it was an abbreviation of his full name.
The spider was concentrating on spinning its web, dragging its fine thread and moving in concentric circles from the centre. Like an Odissi dancer, it created with a single move a variety of patterns as it swiftly did its work. Ooi, too, seemed entrapped in the web. We followed the spider’s every move as it gyrated, round and round, knitting equidistant circles and linking them to the straight lines. When the spider began to work on the eleventh circle, Ooi, who was now directly across from me, came over and helped me up, before guiding me to a wheelchair and wheeling me to the veranda.
As usual, he did not say anything. He had never been one to indulge in customary greetings. I, too, had never bothered with such pleasantries. On some occasions, his visits would be filled with silence. But once he started with the story, everything changed. He seemed almost impatient to continue with the tale and this affected me, too. Or perhaps it was the other way around.
Big pots of plants of various shades of green – from dark green to reddish and light green – lined the five-foot-wide pathway below. The scorching sun shimmered off the leaves.
Parking my wheelchair near a plant with white-streaked lines, Ooi opened his small bag, fished out a large and thin light-blue coat and spread it across my neck and shoulders. Then he lifted the foldable table beside the wheelchair, opened it, and took out some scissors, combs, hair clips, and a mirror, which he arranged on the table.
Gently running his fingers through my hair, he applied oil. As he began to massage my scalp, he asked, “Have you ever had spider fights?” His voice had a soft and feminine cadence and I had always enjoyed its caress. He had used the same tone when he once talked to me about football. There was no mockery or malice in his question. Neither was there any pressure to reply. His questions were like feathers floating in the wind.
As I had never even heard of spider fights, I stayed silent. But he continued, without waiting for my response. “I had many spider fights with true warriors. They were the soldiers of the spider world. I was probably about 14 or 15.”
Stretching their limbs, both spiders incline their faces with slight arrogance, slowly to the right, then to the left. They splay their legs and dig in firmly as though readying themselves for a Kathakali dance, the same lengthy legs that made their rivals quake with fear. Widening their eyes and staring straight ahead, they flex their limbs, like well-honed wrestlers. In a split second, they pounce, tearing into each other. Gathering strength, they keep up their attacks. Just as abruptly, they disengage and back up a few paces, catching their breath. In a few seconds, they come at each other again, making contact every now and then. Manoeuvre, pounce, attack, recharge, and attack again. The rhythm continues without losing a beat, like a well-choreographed dance. After exactly two minutes and thirty-five seconds, one withdraws. Defeated. First, it moves backwards. The other advances threateningly. But the loser turns away, clearly indicating its desire not to continue, then quickly scampers out of the competition ground. The victor thinks of pursuing, lifting several of its limbs in readiness. It pauses for a few seconds, squinting its eyes, as if in deep thought. Then carefully lifting its legs, one after the other, it struts triumphantly. Then it moves towards the corner of the ring, where it slumps, exhausted.
Jen quickly nudges Tiger into the matchbox before closing it.
But my Joker can’t lose… neither can I…
The massage ended. He would continue the story on his next visit. Sometimes, he would tell a complete story in a single visit. Other times, the stories would come in instalments. I used to wonder if the stories were real or figments of his imagination. But once I learned to take his stories at face value, veracity no longer mattered. At the time, I had felt that this particular story would likely have no ending.
He wheeled me to the bathroom, which had a reclining chair with an attached basin for washing hair. Once I settled in, he applied shampoo. As he began to work the shampoo into my hair, I felt the rhythmic dance of spider legs all over my head. The sensation wandered from my head to every part of my body, with the minute precision of the tip of a peacock’s feather. As he rinsed my hair, strand by strand, the coolness of the water enveloped me, refreshing every pore. Towelling my hair dry, he noted drily that it had grown out and I would need a cut. I could feel the water’s dampness in his words.
By the time he brought me back to my bed and prepared to leave, his face had become as expressionless as that of a robot’s. He strode away quickly, holding his small bag in one hand while texting on his phone with the other, as though trying to make up for lost time.
Ooi could be several years older but I felt as if I had become almost his age.
Ooi only sees me when he comes to the home. He does not speak to anyone else. I don’t even know who he is. Neither does anyone here. Why he looks only for me, I have no idea. I cannot even recall his first visit. Sometimes, he would come every few days. Other times, it could be several weeks before I would see him again.
A month later, when Ooi came, I asked him what he had done with Joker, the loser of the fight. Before this, I had never asked him about any of his stories. He often left some stories incomplete. Some had no beginning – he would only narrate the ending. Others would have no beginning or end. I used to leave it to him to decide how he wished to tell them.
Ooi did not continue the story immediately. He began only after he had wheeled me to the veranda, following his usual routine.
I put Joker back in my little red box. You know the old metal Elastoplast boxes that were flat and rectangular? It belonged to my mum. When I found my Joker, I had emptied out all the plasters from the box and took it without her knowledge. I treasured that box. Then I immediately went to find a mate for Joker. I felt humiliated. I had to win again, no matter what. I had to defeat Jen. When you mate a spider that had just lost a fight, it becomes euphoric and gains enormous strength. We all knew this. Jen raised female spiders specifically for this purpose. But Clara and Mei Lee used to pit their female spiders against each other. The fights were never as vicious as those between males. They never fought till their legs became useless. But they were certainly brutal. Sometimes, when they attacked, it felt like they were trying to rip out the hearts of their opponents with their curved talons. Clara’s Rosy fought like this. Clara too…
He was quiet for a few minutes as he focused on massaging the back of my head. I stayed silent, too. Only his fingers continued their dance, wandering all over my head. A few seconds later, they slowed as though exhausted. Only then did he continue.
I was living in Telok Kurau. We shared a large house with eight families near Lorong J, close to Frankel Avenue. If you climbed down the huge drain that ran behind the avenue and walked a bit, you would emerge in a small forest.
That was where we caught our spiders. You had to search the plants, one by one. The spiders make nests out of the leaves and live in them. They build nests by binding two leaves together with vertical strands of their silk, perpendicular to the leaf surface. You can find spiders in pandan leaves too. If we see that one leaf was closed over another, we would know there’s a spider within. You have to peel them open slowly and be ready to catch any escaping spider. It’s very difficult to catch a male spider. But that day, despite searching all over for a long time, I could not find a single female spider. I had walked the entire stretch of the canal. But I did not spot a single female spider.”
Just as I was wondering how one could tell a male spider from a female one, he continued.
You can tell if it’s male or female when you lift the top leaf to look into the spider’s nest, just by looking at the colour of the spider’s face. If there are white stripes between the eyes, it’s male. If there are no stripes, it’s definitely a female. A male spider is bigger and slimmer. A female spider is smaller with a more rounded body.
I couldn’t find even a single female spider even after searching for several hours. I was exhausted. It was then I decided…
There was silence again for a few seconds. The massage also stopped. I remained quiet as I had nothing to say. I could not see his expression as he was standing behind me. But I knew from the stillness of his fingers that his mind had wandered somewhere far away. After a few minutes, he seemed to collect himself and suddenly asked: “Have you ever stolen anything”?
“Why would I steal?” I retorted.
Without answering my question, he picked up where he left off.
Jen kept several female spiders. But I did not want to ask him for one. Even the thought of asking Clara for one made me nervous. I lost my nerve and turned back after approaching her house.
As Ooi continued talking, I saw the images of my teenaged years slowly dissolve. The walls, the roof, the ceiling fan, the shadows trapped in the fan’s gyrations. Leaving the shadows behind, I had begun searching for spiders in the bushes. With the help of Ooi’s Joker, I had begun to learn how to have a spider fight.
Ooi’s stories always led me to different places. This story about spider fights had brought me to a different age. He might have just wanted to tell me a story but it had already started me on the long journey of my teenage years.
This time, Ooi was back within a week. He said he would cut my hair today. This meant that he would have more time to tell me the story. As soon as the usual massage session at the veranda ended, he wet my hair and prepared to cut it, right there. He took some time to patiently measure the length to decide how to trim and shape it. As I guessed, Ooi’s story stretched.
Jen lived in our house. His father’s pay was very low. My mother had rented out the house, actually just a room in the house, to his family for twenty dollars a month. He would do his homework in the living room. After we finished dinner, he would sit at the large dining table there to study. I would sometimes study there, too, together with the other children who lived there.
Their homes, or rather, their rooms, did not have lights that were bright. A few would have sub-divided their rooms to make a small kitchen area. A bedroom would be partitioned off with wooden planks. Others would do their cooking in the kitchen at the back of our large house. But he alone would sit at the table, studying throughout the night.
There were eight rooms in our house. As we owned the place, we had two large rooms, a separate kitchen, and a living room. This was the widest hall in the house and had four lights. My mother would leave all four lights on when we were studying so it would be very bright. By 10 pm, all of us would have gone to bed. But not Jen. He would continue studying till my mother turned off all the lights.
That day, I sat directly across from him. I had rehearsed several times what I needed to do.
Along with his books, he would always bring along his three matchboxes and the Elastoplast red box where he kept Tiger. Now and then, he would open the boxes to look inside. My three matchboxes were also on the table. One was empty. I could still remember clearly. I was holding my history book. As I flipped its pages, I kept an eye on his matchboxes. Every time he opened his matchboxes to a look, I made a mental note which type of spider was inside. He kept the box with the female spider to his left.
One by one, the others left the table. I bided my time. When the hands of the clock in the hall showed 10.30 pm, I used my right hand to position my empty matchbox across from the matchbox to his left. Mother would be turning off the lights any moment.
I never knew I could move so quickly. The minute the lights went out, I moved the empty box nearer him and swapped it with his. Then, I quickly gathered my books and my other matchboxes and hurried off to my room.
I was trembling when I reached my bed. I was gripped with fear. What if he found out what I did? I did not know what I would do. Mother, who had brought me my bedtime drink of Milo, thought I was having a fever and felt my forehead.
After drinking the Milo, I took out the matchbox hidden beneath my books and looked inside. It was a female spider! Hiding the matchbox between some books on the shelf, I went to bed. But I did not sleep a wink throughout the night.
Like me, Jen was also a student at Telok Kurau School. It was located just after the sugar cane plantation that was behind Lorong H. I had a bicycle. I spotted him as I left school. Telling him to meet me later in the field with his Tiger, I pedalled away without waiting for his response.
In those days, the road traffic was light. Within ten minutes I was at home. Gulping down my lunch, I went to the doorway, looking out for Jen. The minute I spotted him, I rushed to my room, retrieved the stolen matchbox and looked inside. The female spider was moving around busily. I drew out the matchbox till three quarters of the box was exposed. I squeezed the spider’s stomach gently to immobilise it. It may have screamed but it didn’t bother me. I took my Joker and slid him gently into the open matchbox. For a few seconds Joker remained motionless. Then it approached her, its whole body quivering, its arms close together, very different from its fighting stance. Then, in a single pounce, it embraced the female and was on top of her.
I watched them for a while. A strange excitement gripped me. I started perspiring. I tried to calm down, telling myself that what I felt was just fear of my theft being discovered. When Joker seemed ready, I gently picked him up and returned him to his red box.
Jen came out of his room when I left mine. Without looking at him, I told him to meet me in the field and quickly walked off.
The others came with Jen as well, which made me happy. I asked if we could begin. Nodding, he withdrew the red box from the pocket of his trousers. His red box was larger than mine. We sat down on the ground in a circle. By chance, Jen and I were sitting directly across from each other. He took out Tiger from the red box and placed it on top. I took out Joker and positioned him on top of the red box as well. The two spiders perched on opposite ends. Looking as if he was high on drugs, Joker strutted forwards. Jen immediately nudged Tiger, who was in a corner, towards the centre.
Oh, what a fight! None of us had ever seen such a battle before. Clara was also standing there with her friends. Those who lived in our house, the street kids, and many others had gathered to watch the match. No one moved. They stood, crowded together, completely awestruck. Two, three, four, five minutes…the clock ticked on. My Joker and Jen’s Tiger kept up their attacks, again and again, neither giving in, even an inch. Suddenly, in the seventh round, Joker went for Tiger’s legs viciously. They wrestled like savages, as all the children cheered.
Frightened, Jen immediately intervened, quickly separating the two spiders.
The crowd of onlookers grew furious at the abrupt end. Their anger exploded into curses and abusive words. Incensed, Clara scolded Jen. I felt overjoyed. But as I looked at her, someone snatched the boxes with the spiders from my hands. Before I could understand what was happening…
When Ooi removed his fingers from my hair and stopped his story, my conversation with Clara ceased. I felt slightly annoyed. I had begun to enjoy my conversation with Clara immensely. I must have shaken my head without realising it. Ooi touched my shoulder gently.
Indicating that he was about to cut my hair, he spread some newspapers beneath my chair and sprayed some water on my hair. Running a comb through the wet locks, he picked up his scissors and began snipping away.
Ooi did not say anything more about Clara. Instead, he described how he crushed the heads of the insects that he caught as food for his spiders and how he caught bed bugs. His scissors accidentally nicked my neck. I had caught a yellow butterfly that had flown out from the light green plant and it lay dead, squashed between my fingers. Just as I recognised that my journey’s course had shifted, Ooi picked up his box and walked away. He did not say that we would meet again.
Latha is the author of the Tamil poetry collections Theeveli (Firespace, 2003) and Paampuk Kaattil Oru Thaazhai (A Screwpin in Snakeforest, 2004). Her short-story collection Nan kolai Seyium penkkal (Women I Murder, 2007) won the biennial Singapore Literature Prize in 2008. Her poems and short stories have been published in the multilingual anthology Words, Home and Nation (The Centre for the Arts, National University of Singapore, 1995), Rhythms, A Singaporean Millennial Anthology of Poetry (National Arts Council, 2000), Fifty on 50 and Tumasik (National Arts Council, 2009), and various Tamil literary journals in India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and France. Her work has been translated into English, French, and German. Her bilingual poems Still Human were featured in the MRT: Poems on the Move series on the MRT trains, and “Karanguni” was displayed in the MOVING WORDS 2011, which showcased Singaporean literature on the MRT network. She is currently the Sunday editor of Tamil Murasu, Singapore’s Tamil daily newspaper.
Sulosana Karthigasu is an established translator of English and Tamil writings and poems, an occasional contributor of travel pieces to the local media. Her translations of some of Singapore’s leading Tamil writers’ works have been published in Singa; Anthology of Asean Literature; The Goddess in the Living Room; Union: 15 Years of Drunken Boat; 50 Years of Writing from Singapore; and Words without Borders (September 2016 edition). She has also contributed poems and short stories to local and foreign non-profit magazines. She is currently working as a Senior Consultant and holds a Masters of Arts in Communication Management from the University of South Australia.