Love in Singapore
By Nidhi Arora
Veerpal was thinking what to make for lunch when the doorbell rang. She worked as a helper to Maya Aunty, who was herself an agent for domestic workers. At the door was a new girl who had just arrived from the airport, with a handbag and a single suitcase in tow. She was in her early twenties, like Veerpal. She looked exhausted from the overnight journey. Veerpal let her in and walked her to her own room, which they would share for the next few days.
They crossed a large living room which displayed an aquarium, a grand piano and statues of Buddha in all shapes and sizes. The walls were lined with pictures of Aunty’s children and grandchildren. Through the kitchen and service area they reached the maid’s quarter, a small room with one window, with a bathroom next to it. In the room was a single bed that was Veerpal’s. Next to it was a rolled-up mattress, which served as a temporary bed for transiting girls. Veerpal told her to shower and come to the kitchen when she was ready.
It was the first time the girl had set foot outside India, and her tired face betrayed the anxiety of not knowing what this foreign land held in store for her. Veerpal still remembered that feeling of anticipation and excitement when she had herself arrived in Singapore, eight years ago, to work as a domestic helper. She was sixteen then, although her passport said eighteen. Her work had taken her from cleaning toilets to being a companion to a wheel-chair bound ailing grandmother, to finally working in her own agent’s house.
Maya Aunty was from India too, but had taken Singaporean citizenship many years ago. Her high cheekbones and large eyes underscored by thick kajal were reminders of the beauty she had been in her youth. By her own account, she was once a theatre actress. She walked slowly with a perpetual melancholic look on her face, as if still stuck inside a role. This look served her well in her current occupation too. She nodded knowingly as clients poured their domestic woes to her and closed her eyes in assurance when they asked her to give them a good helper.
Within a few days of working with Aunty, Veerpal realized that there was constant flow of helpers in her house, either on their way to their employers, or on their way out. Although her initial brief was to manage the house, after a few months Aunty asked her to help train the new ones with the basics of cooking and cleaning. Over the next five years, Aunty gave her a free reign to manage this brood. The more experienced ones were told to make themselves useful around the house, while Veerpal became Aunty’s personal assistant.
The new girls always came with the wrong kind of clothes. This one was no different. In about half an hour, she made her way to the kitchen tentatively, carrying a large plastic bag. She wore a full sleeved top made of velvet that was too warm for Singapore’s heat, over a pair of new, cheap jeans. Her forehead had already broken into beads of perspiration. Veerpal eyed her from top to bottom.
“New, isn’t it?” she asked, feeling the fabric of the new girl’s shirt with the back of her fingers.
“Yes didi,” she said, addressing her as elder sister.
“Have you brought any lighter clothes? T-shirts, pyjamas?”
“Yes, one t-shirt and pyjama.”
“Anyway, we will soon get to see everything you brought.”
The girl looked at her quizzically.
“The things Aunty asked for are here,” she said, placing the bag on the kitchen slab. From it she took out another plastic bag with two kilograms of paneer, fresh cottage cheese, a box of sweets made from buffalo’s milk and three large bunches of mustard leaves, loosely wrapped in the local newspaper.
“Leave it here. She will see them herself and then take you for your security check,” she said, half teasing and half preparing the new girl.
“Security check? Meaning?”
“Don’t worry, she won’t take anything. She just likes to see. Anyone who steps into this house has to go through this security check,” she giggled.
As if on cue, Aunty came in to the kitchen. Like an old labrador, she sniffed at each item slowly, checking for freshness and motioned to Veerpal to put them away in the fridge.
“Now show me what else you have brought,” she said, leading the new girl back to Veerpal’s room. Not knowing what else to do, the girl followed her. She looked back at Veerpal for help. Veerpal signalled with her hands to go ahead and she would join them shortly.
In the room, Aunty lowered herself on the bed with some effort and asked the girl to open her suitcase. The girl obeyed and stared, vexed, as Aunty roamed a heavily jewelled hand over her things. She opened a plastic box that contained imitation jewellery.
“Too heavy,” she said holding a dangler earring to her earlobe. She still had a thick Punjabi accent and pronounced it like savvy.
“I had danglers exactly like the ones Anarkali wore. I used to be actress, you know?” she said.
The girl nodded slowly, accepting this fact. Veerpal walked in with a pile of laundry and settled on the floor near the door and motioned for the girl to sit as well. She had heard this story many times. Each time, Aunty told it a little bit differently and each time, Veerpal listened to it enraptured, like a child listening to a fairy tale. She would listen to it while her hands folded clothes. The girl sat next to her and instinctively reached out for some of the clothes to fold.
“You have seen the movie Mughal-e-azam, haven’t you?” Aunty asked the girl.
She looked blankly at Aunty and then at Veerpal.
“Oh, I am sure you have, it was on TV all the time,” Veerpal said. When the girl showed no sign of recognizing, she added, “The one with that song, ‘pyaar kiya to darna kya’, remember?”
“Oh, ya, I have seen it in bits and pieces,” she said, eager to get on.
“Bits and pieces? You young girls are unbelievable. It was super-duper hit. The intense romance between a prince and a dancer in his court, people could not get enough of it. But the real story was between Emperor Akbar, the king, and the girl. He refuses to let his son marry a lowly courtesan. When neither the son nor the girl obeys his command, he imprisons the courtesan. In the last scene, he buries her alive by erecting a wall around her.”
She picked a blue colored long shirt from the suit case. To the girl’s horror, she proceeded to put it on, over the clothes she was wearing and studied herself in the small mirror in the room.
“I used to act in dramas in Delhi. Mamaji, my mother’s brother, was a partner in a small production house and he took me to one of the auditions. Without telling my parents,” she said with girlish joy.
“The director took one look at me and gave me Anarkali’s role. We did so many shows of that play. In the last scene, when Anarkali is entombed behind the wall, the audience were always in tears. Some shows, we ended with that, and for some shows, the narrator came in and concluded the play with the rumor that Emperor Akbar was not as cruel as he would have people believe and that he had a secret tunnel dug behind the wall which allowed Anarkali a safe passage to Lahore, where she spent the rest of her life. According to Mamaji, the audience preferred the version where she dies.”
She fingered through the other clothes in the suitcase.
“People are so naïve. They think love is bigger than life.”
“What happened then? Did you continue acting?” the girl asked.
“I told Mamaji to make a sequel of Anarkali’s life in Lahore. But then my father found about the plays and banned me from further acting. He said Delhi was no place for a decent woman to perform in public. He convinced me to marry Mamaji’s friend’s son who worked for a drama company in Singapore and move here with him. I took him on his word.”
She placed the earrings back in the plastic box.
“My father had not lied. The cousin did work for a drama company. He drove their van.”
Veerpal stopped folding. The next part was the saddest and she was sure it was the reason behind Aunty’s odd habit of going through her girls’ luggage.
“For our wedding, Mamaji gave me gold earrings, danglers like the ones Anarkali wore in court. He got them made on order. They were my most precious belonging and I had packed them in my purse. But when I got here, the box was empty. I checked my purse, my suitcase, even my husband’s things, over and over again. For days. But nothing. I never spoke to my father again.”
Her audience of two waited for her to go on, but Aunty took off the blue shirt and got up from the bed.
“Then what happened?” the girl asked.
“Some other time. Veerpal will explain the house work to you,” Aunty said.
She walked out of the room humming the song in a low, sinister pitch.
‘What is the point of fearing, now that one has loved.’
The next day was a Sunday, Veerpal’s day off. Whenever there were girls in the house, she took them to the gurudwara on Silat road. Her work clothes in the house were always a loose t-shirt over pyjamas and hair tied in a bun. But Sundays were different. That particular day, she wore a lime green salwar-kameez, a long fitting shirt that accentuated her svelte waist, on top of loose trousers with gathers at the ankles, like harem pants. The transparent dupatta, an accessory that was ostensibly meant to cover a woman’s fragile modesty, draped her bosom gently, suggesting more than covering. She had shampooed her long hair and now left it loose, letting it gently bounce over her hips. The new girl wore a loose t-shirt and jeans and followed Veerpal like a child on her first day of school. They stood in line at the bus stop for a few minutes and boarded bus number one hundred twenty when it arrived.
“The first thing you need to get is this,” Veerpal told the girl, as she flashed her EZ Link card at the payment terminal inside the bus and paid for her companion’s ticket in coins. She collected the paper ticket and they moved to the centre of the bus.
The girl marvelled at the generous air-conditioning and the complete absence of litter or foul smell in public transport. Where the girls came from, everyone had to fend for themselves and elbow their way ahead by hook or by crook. Trust based systems like waiting for one’s turn in the queue and paying for a ticket without the bus conductor breathing down one’s neck, were to her not just inconceivable, but a criminal waste of opportunity. Veerpal understood this too well. She had gone through similar feelings of awe when she first came here. Although now the clean and smooth ways of Singapore were a casual part of her life, the new girls were constant reminders of the chaos she had left behind.
“What if someone does not flash their card?” she asked Veerpal.
“Don’t try any of that here, understand? Just do as you are told, and you will be fine.”
The girl stared at the clean roads outside and the well-dressed people inside. She could not tell the fashionably dressed Filipina workers from the residents, even after Veerpal pointed them to her.
“Earlier, only they worked here. Then Indonesians came. Now there are us people and Nepalis, who say they are from Darjeeling and somehow manage to get Indian passports.”
They soon reached their destination, an unassuming, dome topped building glowing in its pristine white color. The gurudwara was more than just a place of worship for Sikhs. Like all gurudwaras, this too had a community kitchen and hosted free meals called langars. Patrons were welcome to repay with food, or help with the cooking or cleaning or nothing at all. But it was more than just a place for free food too. Especially on Sundays, the off day for most migrant workers. Men and women flocked here in their best attire, to catch up with old friends and make new ones. Some came to banter and lighten their day, some came to share their hardships and some came looking for lasting love that would give wing to their dreams.
“I will introduce you to some girls. You can spend the day with them. I am going out. I will come back around six, and take you back home.”
“Where will you go?” the girl asked, slightly alarmed at the prospect of being left on her own.
Veerpal merely said, “I am going shopping with some friends.”
Breakfast at the langar was a south-east Asian medley of naan, potato curry, bee hoon noodles, biscuits and thick milk tea on tap. Veerpal introduced the girl to a group of Punjabi girls and left them to catch up. Herself, she picked up a plate, filled it with food and walked over to a table where a group of men sat. On seeing her, one of them got up and pulled an empty chair next to him. She greeted all of them and took her seat. The man’s name was Tej. He was a construction worker. They had been introduced by the husband of Veerpal’s friend and had been seeing each other for over six months. After finishing their breakfast, they walked out.
As soon as they were out of the gurudwara, they linked their arms together. He was nearly six feet tall, a good one and a half feet above Veerpal. He lowered his shoulder and tilted his neck as they walked, to be closer to her face. They took a bus to Geylang. At a fifteen-minute walk from the bus stop, at Lorong 20, was a hotel that they frequented almost every Sunday. Like the other hotels in the vicinity, it charged by the hour but was the only one that had free Wi-Fi. The rooms were only slightly bigger than the bed and smelt of stale cigarette smoke, but they were clean. The receptionist was Tej’s friend and could almost always get them a room, even on busy Sundays.
They checked in and made most of the two hours that they had paid for. As they lay on the bed, Tej filled her in about his friend who had recently converted his Work Permit to an S Pass.
“Our boss helped him with the paper work. Now he works as a technician in the same office. Gets around two thousand four hundred per month.”
“Why don’t you try as well? How long will you drive lorries? You even have a diploma.” Veerpal said.
“I spoke to him already. He said he will help, but he will give me the new loan only after I clear the current one.”
“The new loan will be around five thousand. This one still has four thousand something remaining.”
Veerpal considered her own salary of five hundred a month. Even if she gave away all of it, it would take eight months.
As if he read her mind, Tej continued, “I am keeping some money aside every month. I think in about two years, I can.”
“How about you take one hundred from me, every month,” she offered. “It will be faster.”
He squeezed her hand in gratitude. “How can I touch your money? Keep it safely. Boss said he gets S passes for girls also. Some of them are working in restaurants.”
“But that needs a diploma, and I only have a metric certificate.” Veerpal came from a large family of four brothers and two sisters. A high school education was more than her parents had been able to afford and more than anyone had considered necessary for a girl.
“Don’t worry about diploma. I have an uncle who works in the University in Jallandhar. He knows people in the admin office and can arrange it. But you do need to pass plus two exams.”
“I could get the plus two books here and study in my free time.”
“Or you could do it at my parents’ house after we get married.”
Marriage came up in conversations occasionally. There were many logistics to consider. Veerpal wanted to take a break from work and spend a few months with her own family before marriage. There was shopping to be done too, her own, as well as things she would take to her in-laws, her new home. Tej’s family lived in a small house. They would need to add a room on the second floor for the new couple. Tej could return to Singapore in a few days and Veerpal could stay back and prepare for exams.
They thought through everything and planned for their marriage in a matter of fact way. But every time the word came from his lips, a warm feeling rose at the back of her throat and spread over her jaws and ears. She had to swallow hard, to keep the joy from spilling out.
“Have you spoken to your parents?” she asked.
“I will. When the right moment comes.”
He did not return the question. He knew that getting consent from Veerpal’s parents was going to be an uphill task. He belonged to a lower caste and the alliance would mean loss of face for her family. She would negotiate the discussion in person, when she went back home.
They showered, dressed and walked out of the hotel, arm in arm. Other couples were hovering near the entrance, waiting their turn for rooms. There was a Filipino girl with a Bangladeshi man. She wore a tight spaghetti top and short denim shorts. Veerpal caught Tej staring at her as they walked past, and he saw that she saw.
“Once we settle down here, you can also wear clothes like that,” he grinned mischievously and bumped her shoulder with his. Veerpal was angry and jealous and scandalized. But this easy admission of guilt disarmed her. In any case, it was not as if the thought of dressing up like that had never crossed her own mind.
In a couple of days, the new girl went to her new employers’ home and business for Veerpal went about as usual. Ladies came to Aunty looking for helpers for their homes. Some wanted a good cook, some a good nanny for their children and some, a robot who would obey their every command without question. Some wanted a plain-looking one and specifically asked for girls with pock marks or a limp.
Veerpal found herself less and less sympathetic to the needs of Aunty’s clients. Her mind was on her own future. She planned to work for a few more years and set aside some money before starting a family. Once she had children, she wanted to shower all her time on them.
One afternoon, a harried client came in, with a new-born on a carrier and an exhausted husband carrying more bags than he could manage. After they left, Veerpal said to Aunty,
“Why do they produce children if they don’t want to look after them?”
“If everyone looked after their own home, there would be no jobs for people like you and me,” Aunty replied.
“Who wants to do such jobs anyway. Running other people’s houses while they have fun outside.”
“This is a new tune you are singing,” Aunty said, looking at her with surprise.
Over the next weeks, Veerpal and Tej discussed their plans in more detail. They often went to the beach, sitting as close to the water as they could without getting soaked. She liked to listen to the roar of the waves and feel the salty moisture on her cheeks. He told her about more cases that his boss had converted to S passes. Egged on by these success stories, they decided it was time to put their plan into action. Veerpal’s two-year contract was expiring in three months, in August. Tej could get two weeks’ leave in December. They would get married in December. He said that his parents had agreed to the marriage and he had already spoken to his uncle about a diploma certificate for Veerpal. After the wedding, he would come back to work and repay his loan. She could take her time to prepare for exams. He had started sending some money home for construction of the new room and other preparations. Sometimes when Veerpal accompanied him to a Western Union branch, she too contributed a hundred dollars or two.
One quiet afternoon, Veerpal broke the news to Aunty that she did not wish to renew her contract further. She told Aunty about Tej.
“Are you pregnant?” was Aunty’s first question.
“No,” said Veerpal. For helpers in Singapore, getting pregnant meant immediate deportation. They had been careful.
“I don’t know how long you have known this guy, or who he is. But I can tell you, this is nonsense. Getting an S pass is not so easy.”
“His boss has already helped some people. He will help us too and loan us the money.”
“You haven’t been giving your money to him, have you?”
Veerpal did not answer. Aunty shook her head.
“Have you met any of the people this boss has so kindly helped?”
“No. But Tej knows them.”
Aunty shook her head. “You are falling for his stories and giving up a good life.”
Veerpal felt a rush of anger at Aunty’s cynicism.
“Just because your people let you down, you think no one can be trusted.”
“It is not about people. People will always let you down. You need to know what you want from life. Not waste your life playing an extra in someone else’s story.”
“You wanted to be an actress. What happened to that?”
“That’s the thing. That’s what no one understood. Except Mamaji. What I wanted was this…this house, this life, this is what I always wanted,” she said, looking around at her.
“You wanted to be an actress,” Veerpal reminded her.
“That is only half of the story. Remember the sequel I wanted them to make?”
“Have you ever imagined what kind of life Anarkali lived after she escaped to Lahore? Do you think she passed the remainder of her life living in a little hut on the outskirts of a village, like a carrying wood to the market, hair hanging loose, muttering “O Prince, o Prince” with every miserable breath? No, she was far too beautiful. The script I wanted them to produce was this - once she realized that she and Prince Salim were not to be, she made a life for herself in Lahore. As soon as she set foot in the city, suitors lined up, like bees to a blossom. She scanned them for the man of simple ways, a decent heart and a large house, married him and lived the rest of her days in comfort and luxury. Queen of her little domestic kingdom. Mamaji loved the story, but his partner did not. He said it was better to leave her dead. You see, they didn’t understand Anarkali at all. My father sent me away to save his face. But I worked my out of that hole. Look around you. This is exactly the sequel I had dreamt of.”
“What has any of this got to do with me?”
“Mamaji was the only one who understood. He was opposed to my marriage, but he could not talk my father out of it. The day before we were to leave for Singapore, he visited me. He pressed a little plastic box with gold earrings in my hands and said, “Remember your sequel. Dig your way out.” I did not understand it then. And you will not understand now when I say to you, don’t let yourself walk into a tunnel.”
“Your riddles are beyond me, Aunty. Don’t worry, I will be fine.”
Aunty shook her head silently.
A week prior to Veerpal’s departure, Aunty brought in a girl who had earlier worked for her. She asked Veerpal to hand over her tasks. As Veerpal walked her successor through the daily chores, the cleaning cabinets and the recipes that Aunty liked, she felt a twinge of sadness. As excited as she was to start a new chapter of her life, she was going to miss Aunty. She was a strange old lady with her many stories, but she had been kind. Aunty gave her an extra month’s salary to buy gifts for everyone back home.
Tej came in his lorry to pick her up from Aunty’s house and drop her at the airport. Before parting, Veerpal pressed four hundred dollars into his hands.
“This was left after I bought gifts for everyone.”
“Why are you giving it to me?”
“What will it do here in a bank? Give it to your boss for the loan.”
He accepted it reluctantly.
“Message me as soon as you reach,” he said.
They hugged and she went through immigration.
That was the last she saw of him. When she reached home after a thirteen-hour journey, the first thing she did was send him a message from her youngest brother’s phone. When there was no reply, she thought he was playing it safe, because she had not yet told her family about their relationship. The next day she asked her brother to get her a local number with an internet package. The two days it took for activation passed slowly, in happy anticipation, like a bride-to-be waiting for wedding day. She gave everyone their presents and answered their many questions about life in Singapore. When her messages and calls from her new number went unanswered, she wondered if his phone had been stolen. But the WhatsApp messages were being read and the number was active. Her mother cooked her favorite dishes but her appetite was beginning to wane. She worried that he was unwell. From calling him every day, she started dialling his number every hour. Her father asked what she planned to do next. They had received offers for marriage from two families. All she told him was that she wanted to study for secondary school exams. She called all her friends back in Singapore to ask if they had seen Tej at the gurudwara on Sunday. No one had. She called the friend’s husband who had introduced them, but he did not answer his phone. The silence drove her into a dark hole of disbelief and despair. She became irritable and snapped at anyone who spoke to her. She stopped dressing up and walked around in ill-fitting clothes, her long hair unmade. She stopped sending messages. Every day that went by without news of Tej added a brick in a wall that was rising all around her, sucking out light and air from her life. Nearly a month after her return, she received a message from one of the girls she had trained at Aunty’s house. It was a picture of a couple walking together taken from a distance. The girl said that she had seen someone looking like Tej come out of a hotel at Geylang with a Filipina and clicked a picture. The picture was grainy and out of focus, but Veerpal needed no convincing. The sideways tilt of the shoulder was unmistakable. The picture was the last brick. It turned her world pitch-dark. All night, she lay in a dark room with her sisters sleeping next to her and stared at her phone screen. In the dark, the blurred image shone with blinding luminescence. Sunlight from a Geylang afternoon filled her eyes. She felt the warm breeze on her face. She smelt the strong hotel shampoo on his hair, she heard them talking, planning their future together. She saw them in the hotel bed. The vision singed her eyes. She squeezed her eyes shut and let her dreams ooze away in warm, salty drops of water.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 3 Jul 2017