By O Thiam Chin
It was a week after my gong-gong's sea burial, that my mother prepared the steamed garoupa for family dinner.
'You know, you could be eating gong-gong now,' my mother said, looking at us with a bemused expression, munching on a mouthful of rice.
My brother and I swapped quick, what-the-hell glances at each other, then at our mother, not knowing how to continue the light dinner-conversation. We held out our half-eaten bowl of rice, with shredded pieces of fish-meat laden on it, and stared at it with undisguised puzzlement.
We only knew the bare outline of what transpired after our gong-gong's – my mother's father's – death. He had died from diabetes, eventually, but the first thing that went was his spirit, followed by the collapse of his body. He had to remove two of his blackened toes a month before his death, but by then, it didn't matter to him, he was already far gone. His face registered nothing, not an ounce of pain or sorrow. That was when our grief first began.
Because of the date of his death – How inauspicious! How it clashed! – and maybe, I'm guessing, because of his sickness, he was not allowed to be buried, under six feet of soil. He was too fiery, his personality, too stubborn, his character, according to the almanac and his surviving siblings – my gong-gong was the oldest of ten, third to pass on - the earth would reject his uncooperative spirit; he might even turn restless, and this might not spell well for his descendents, the whole lot of us.
So it was decided, he was to be given the sea burial. My uncles chose the Changi jetty as the place to release the ashes. They let him go on a school day when my brother and I were not around. They didn't want the children to witness this. But in my mind, I could imagine gong-gong's ashes, making a translucent wing of shadow in the sea-breeze, like a stirred-up mist of dust, some landing on the flickering waves, other blown and lifted above it, resisting the draw of the water grave till it finally had to give up.
'Who knows, maybe they caught this fish near Changi…' she said, suspending the air with her words. Our disbelief grew out of bounds, our minds racing to assemble the words, to transform them into facts, into a believable story. Our grandfather inside the ten-inch garoupa, like Jonah in the belly of the huge fish.
'Ma…' we said in unison.
'Eat eat eat, don't worry. You won't die.' Then out of the blue, she let out a full-hearted laugh, and because we knew it was not out of indecency that she told us this, but out of love, we laughed along too, picking up the slivers of fish-meat, and eating it tenderly, savouring the taste, tasting the ashes of my gong-gong. We ate the garoupa to the bones, not forgetting for once that life always goes on, fierily, stubbornly, even beyond death.QLRS Vol. 8 No. 3 Jul 2009