Sat in the window seat
Half awake to the world
Pen tapping on stapled sheets
JJ Grey and Mofro’s yearning refrains taking over my consciousness
Thoughts take a backseat
Drift in and out arbitrarily
Like the fast-moving landscape
Funny how life comes to a standstill on a fast train.


Instagram is essentially escapist. You crop out the ugly, messy bits you don’t like, frame the picture so the scenery looks more idyllic than it really is. Then you add a rose-tinted glaze over it. You put it up to freeze it in time, and superimpose maudlin memories on it so that when you look back in two weeks (two weeks are a sufficient time for nostalgia now) you have the luxury of longing for a beautiful past (that was never really there).

If only there was a way to capture the minutiae of everyday life, highs and lows all in, that doesn’t require you to be Franzen or Woolf.

What gives a city its magic?

“The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.” said E.B. White in Here is New York.

I have not been to New York, but I understand that, because I have felt the soul of Kuala Lumpur. I cannot quite describe it, but it is there in the many details of ordinary life. In the brutal thunderstorms that engulf the entire city into a mass of grey. In the anger emanating from the mad blasting of the car horns. The far-off revving of heedless speeding cars slicing through the silent whirring of the bedroom fan. The exasperating, unexpected jolt as you drive over a pothole. The smell of curry mixed with damp from the drains drifting past as the mamak waiters whisk metal trays from one table to another.

Yes, KL is alive. Broken in some parts, shuffling along with a slight limp perhaps, but fully, passionately alive.

But Frankfurt? What of it? In my (mere) four months here, the biggest impression Frankfurt has made on me is that it is like an organisation – a managed office that is there for people to live in, work in, function in, but abandon with glad detachment at the end of the day because their hearts, the freest of their impulses, are likely spent elsewhere. People say Frankfurt is soulless. Apparently when Germans tell other Germans they are moving to Frankfurt, the response is “But why?”.

But there is the peace. Many people work but don’t live here. Housing less than 800,000 residents, Frankfurt provides a kind of non-intrusiveness that allows one to be alone with their thoughts. Solitude is there for the taking on the banks of the Main or the Nidda, where there is an ever-present supply of clean and empty benches, or in one of the available window seats on the S-Bahn. Some early evenings on weekdays, it is possible to stroll through the wood and stream and fields 5 minutes from my flat and see nobody but two tiny men doing a spot of fishing far, far away.

There is the mystery. The skyline is a hazy glass and concrete cluster of nondescript facades and pointy things – a sight that one looks out for when driving into the city or observes the city from a hike in the Taunus mountains. One imagines that such a stoic front must conceal little secret threads that bind the busy pedestrians to one another, or splay outwards to distant spaces and histories that we don’t know of as people come and go, as they often do here and have been since the days Gutenberg got his paper from Italy at Frankfurt’s trade fairs so he could print Martin Luther’s bible.

Submerged in the crowd of sightseeing and shopping average Joes milling about the Zeil on a Saturday afternoon, there is a kind of gladness that one is here, unheeded and unknown, invisible to everyone but yourself. And then in the desolation that comes on Sundays or weekday nights, when the only people who roam the area are the homeless and lonely tourists, one entertains the possibility that there are poignant stories to tell. Maybe not any great number compared to those compressed in the sprawling homes of KL and skyscrapers of New York, but there nevertheless.

I learned a new word the other day: “quotidian”. Virginia Woolf cared very much about the quotidian details of the life of women. In To the Lighthouse it is Mrs.Ramsay’s rush of thoughts, unfiltered and disorganised as she put socks on her son’s feet, that we are privy to. In Jacob’s Room we travel through the details of his room at the end – the arrangement of his shoes, for instance. Michael Cunningham writes that she conveyed “The quotidian pleasure of simply being present in the world on an ordinary Tuesday in June. That’s one of the reasons we who love her, love her as ardently as we do.”

Today Nigel showed me a photo of a piece of artwork hanging on the wall of a pub/gallery in Bangkok. It is black-and-white drawing of a seated woman – perfectly-coiffed hair, painted face, perfectly-shaped eyebrows. Her hands are laid, almost clutching, on her pregnant belly. Her face is large, and disproportionately so. Sprouting from the top of her head is a row of trees. Her wide eyes are looking into the distance, vulnerable, glazed over a little, and streaming with tears. Scrawled wildly at random in the blank space surrounding her figure are her thoughts – “I am tired and want to rest. Oh! My baby. Oh! My son. Oh! My daughter.”

How do we understand this drawing? Do we place her in wider context of any particular community? Is she a feminist symbol? A woman, carrying the weight of the world in her tummy and on her head, trapped into her assigned role, and in despair despite her apparent comfortable wealth? Or do we wonder – who is this woman? What is she thinking? Why is she dressed in such a proper outfit? Is she from another time, where what was casual wear is costume to us today? What time is it? Why did she put on her makeup – is she on the verge of doing something important? Going for a party she doesn’t want to attend? Suicide?

In Germany: Memories of a Nation, there is a chapter that talks about the millions of women – the Trümmerfrauen – who set about rebuilding a largely destroyed Germany after WW2. There is an accompanying photo of 8 young women surrounded by rubble. Each face is suspended in a half smile, absorbed in various states of conversation, looking like a scene in just another day at the office. No one can say what they were talking about. Personal stories slipping between the cracks of time. All one can do, reading this one book, is to stare into the frozen faces of these women and wonder – what did they talk about, what did they do everyday, when and how long do they take to style their hair amidst all that is happening around them?

There is a nightmare I had when I was about seven or eight years old that I still remember very well. I was in an indoor morning market. The market was about to close, and there was a general bustle of things being packed up. I was trying to find my way out – running from stall to stall, looking for an exit. Strangely enough, there was not a single soul in the market, but the lights were going off one by one…and I could hear my mother outside, calling my name the way she usually did. I glimpsed her, in fact, standing by a bicycle in a red tank top, awash in blinding yellow sun. Yet I couldn’t follow the image, or the voice, I kept zigzagging from one stall to another, imprisoned in an eternal loop of searching.

Nowadays I’ve come to see the dream as a symbol of my fear of being constrained. By and from what, it’s hard to say. As Adele said –  I just knew I wanted to get out. At every major phase or commitment in life – school, university, a new city, projects, relationships – despite the countless hours of joy or fulfilment, it’s always come to a point where I feel a noose tightening and I think: God, I need to get out. In school I was desperate to leave the country. When I was finally in the UK, an ideal I’d been nurturing for years, I felt on many occasions tired and trapped. It was as if I wasn’t or life wasn’t enough, as if this trajectory was somehow a misfit, like a shoe of the wrong size.  Returning to Malaysia for work, I tried steeling myself to the idea of settling down, but before I knew it, I itched to abandon ship again. And voila – here I am now, faffing about in Frankfurt.

It is very unreasonable of me. I have had the most privileged life – free, albeit with some  effort or obstacles to overcome (nothing very major in the larger scheme of the world, I assure you), to pursue most of my important choices. Here I sit in a cosy basement flat I’ve  made pretty, that I’ve come to fondly call my little cave (think the Little Mermaid). It’s only 5 minutes from a picturesque stream that winds through farmland and woods and looks gorgeous in the sunset. So wonderfully tranquil, just the kind of peace and quiet that I’ve been looking to escape to from the asphyxiating crowds and chaos of KL. It’s too early still, but I imagine at some point I would start feeling walled in by the quiet…

So there I go. Running from one door to another, hoping, with each one I open, that I will find what I seek, while not knowing really what I seek. One can only surmise that I am merely running away from myself. All this melodrama is to say – im probably imprisoned by my mind, my constant coveting, more than anything else.

Laura Brown from The Hours is appealing and repulsive to me in equal measure. I relate to her – I am all too familiar with the conflicting sense of acute failure that comes from, metaphorically speaking, baking a slightly imperfect cake to please a family I didn’t want in a life I didn’t choose. And so I’m slightly jealous that she upped and ran and found what she sought – ‘chose life’, as she called it. Yet she repels me so much because I fear becoming like her. Wanting to escape like that is ultimately selfish – it is to absolve yourself from responsibility to the people closest to you.





I still remember how I first got into Joan Osborne’s What if God was One of Us. It played during Bruce Almighty, which I was watching on DVD with my family sometime when I was in my early teens, and I was enraptured. I remember being very struck by the idea that God could be sitting on the bus…just a normal person…probably on some mundane, insignificant errand…an invisible dot in the heaving sea of life like the rest of us.

Michael Cunningham said that “It seems that for some of us, reading a particular book at a particular time is an essential life experience… as the more traditional novel-inspiring experiences – like first love, the loss of a parent, a failed marriage, etc.” I know I am one of those people, except that I have a really bad memory – in other words, stringently selective. It’s rare that I remember, but when I do, it usually means it truly did mean something special to me, that it had left an imprint on me somewhere, no matter how small. With Narnia, I remember the imagery I drew from the books and built in my head so well, even if I don’t remember too much of the plot nowadays, because I am inherently escapist. I remember that better than so many other parts of my childhood that should have been more important.

Which is why I’m glad this Joan Osborne moment is still so clear to me. I am often assailed by doubt in the authenticity my character – my personality, my likes and dislikes and inclinations…I often suspect that I intentionally chose to be interested in things because I was trying to fashion myself into something I admire. Woolf is existentialist and feminist and abstract, disordered in plot, often amorphous in morality – the antithesis to my background and education. Fernando Pessoa pits inner selves with diametrically opposed views on religion against one another, which is very contrary to the generally traditional or devout Buddhist, Christian and Muslim communities I have known both as a child and adult. So maybe my subconscious thought it’d be fun to wave a flag about and proudly proclaim that I am impervious to nurture that I do not agree with now, as an adult.

At least I now know that some part of me is naturally, genuinely drawn to these subjects, and I’m not a total phoney.






Minute after minute, and no stillness in between.

October 2016
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