Who Are You?

Entry by: Desmond Kon

4th December 2014
Pantoum of the Bindi and the Redhill Corridor

We lived along a corridor, made a village of it, nineteen storeys in the sky.
Children running into rooms, emerging with an iced barley or bandung.
The Wongs and Chans sharing an apartment, more plywood shacks within.
Nineteen of them, shoulder to shoulder, on the linoleum, dinner on lap.

The children hung jasmine garlands, looped origami notes on door handles.
The Soeurs boiled a big pot of lemongrass soup, left portions in tiffin boxes.
And bowls borrowed from the Chans, disposable forks and chopsticks too.
On payday, they made coconut cakes, and mung bean pudding to share.

The Soeurs hid the Dasguptas in the storeroom, its window boarded up.
You could hear the Dasgupta sewing machine, its whirring bobbin case.
The Dasguptas added cinnamon and nutmeg to the Soeurs’ puddings.
When the grocer brought by bagged almonds, they made badam phirni.

Their sewing machine was an heirloom, a Singer, lasted four generations.
A Bhatnagar woman gave it as a dowry, her servant married off to a coolie.
The badam phirni recipe was passed down too, whole almonds, not blanched.
No green cardamom, three cups of goat’s milk, brown sugar to the taste.

The coolie died on a rubber plantation, the servant barely escaping the pyre.
She kept her son, but left her daughter with the Yuans, who ran a food stall.
Arrived here by boat, found refuge at the mosque, worked as its goatherd.
Her sari always the white muslin for widows, her stone bangles bartered.

The daughter learnt Cantonese, acknowledged her new ancestors by name.
Kept her mother’s bindi in her waistband, a bit of jasmine, for her sutras.
Only white for her wedding cheongsam, red collar of Chikan appliqué.
The Soeurs told the Nguyens their tablecloth was made from its cotton.

The bindi is now glued on the door of the Wongs, for luck the Chans say.
I was orphaned at four, the Wongs told me, and I took a long time to speak.
Only ever ate at the red hem of the tablecloth, thumbing its embroidery.
The Soeurs told me this, as did the Wongs, Chans, Dasguptas and Nguyens.

I was orphaned, they told me, so I could live with them, all five families.
There is rich plot in this, even without the particulars; and poetry even.
I told the Soeurs this, as I did the Wongs, Chans, Dasguptas and Nguyens.
They looked at me and nodded, filling my spoon with lotus root and lentils.

There is history in that, with or without the particulars — always a poem.
The way we only called each other by our last names, I told the Soeurs this.
Eyes downcast, as if in prayer, like the Wongs, Chans, Dasguptas and Nguyens.
That day I started writing in my diary, oval bowl of badam phirni by my side.