Ordinary (arə)

An occasional series that reflects on everyday images. Part of the word ‘ordinary’ comes from arə, a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “to fit together.”

I think of the sea whenever I see tarpaulin. It is everywhere on boats, covering nets and styrofoam boxes of newly-caught fish. It is the first line of defence against the eroding truth of sea-spray. Somehow, this two-tone blue, maybe a proxy for the shades of an ocean, predominates the production of tarpaulin, or tarp, as we fondly call it, this fore-shortening a kind of affection, as if it could shelter us a little more.

Glimpsed out of its element in an office, it feels reduced somehow. Granted, it still protects a squad of false ceiling boards while the air-conditioning gets replaced, but it telegraphs an awkward smile, grateful for a shard of sunlight yet not quite close enough to taste the sea with its rough and tumble truth, its absence of politics.

I do not know why the bus stop was not dismantled.

It is a relic, a throwback to when SBS (our old, nationalised bus company) buses were also painted orange and white. These bus stops have largely been phased out, replaced by impersonal, functional structures that leave no impression, other than to offer their convenience in plexiglass and steel.

And yet, this one remains, walled in behind the hoardings of some undescribed new housing project. It is lifted at a rakish angle by a mound of earth, glaring at a row of condominium blocks that stake their claim as the city’s truer skyline.

This shelter is one where no bus will go, except the ones that run on alternate roads, a different world where the passengers look nothing like us and where the seats are all occupied in another spectrum.

Maybe this sighting of the bus stop is a tear in the flimsy in-between, where dereliction here is a bustle over there. Who knows how long it will be here, in this country where the past is often an impediment for progress, until it is commemorated with a slab of concrete and a suitable epitaph for a walking trail.

Arms at leisure, arms in motion, arms with purpose, arms reaching into a small opening. Arms fishing, fishing, wishing. 

The light sea green wall recalls fragments of seaweed parting before the prow of a speedboat dancing on the waves, unbroken, the town council slathering two coats every few years. The colour changes each time, but the politics remain the same. 

The double-swung arms of the man like he is about to leap forward, past the frame of his retirement, into the ether of an unnamed composition. 

And the cat is oblivious, or rather, we are oblivious to its musings; how it soaks up the serenades of passers-by, how slumber is a sideline for its true self. 

At Pantai Kampung Bahasa Kapor in Port Dickson, the tide pulls its blanket from eroded stone and mangrove roots, marshalled by an invisible moon in all its fullness. Just beyond swimming distance are two platforms for tankers to dock and receive gallons of refined oil. They mark the sea and the beach as pedestrians in their great game of fossil fuel dominance. They also wreck every single photo of the landscape. No amount of artistically framed trees in the foreground can overcome these utilitarian jetties of consumption. 

My friends, who have been living for years in the town under the constant whine of an oil refinery, pillow rocks under the exposed roots of mangrove trees. They hope that roots will grow over and gird the rocks in the absence of sand, hoping they will not fall over in a gale. Maybe they will form a vanguard, rejuvenating this corner of the beach, allowing it to speak again. 

These small acts of care are reminders of the beach as a place where we give and receive, the vastness of sand and the stateless body of water lapping up inside us. 

The body of a child is the representation of resistance. Pliable, indifferent to the norms of what is up or down, soft or loud. Standing up, running around, lying down, the child is a loaf of bread that will not cease its chatter, its uninhibited expression. 

The mother, on the right of the frame, is made complicit in her relationship to the child by the angle of her unrelenting gaze and the slump of her shoulders. The latter is a universal gesture that holds equal measures of resignation and reprisal. Perhaps the latter has proven ineffectual. Perhaps the child understands that obstinance is only another word for performance. 

Years later, this will be another story, enlarged through the focal length of memory, made bombastic and expansive. The child delivered a monologue on the floor. The child was given bread because customers were hesitant to enter. The mall security was called. 

Today, it is a scene, one that reminds us of all the floors we did not dare to lie on when we were young, of all the rules that remained unbroken.

It is not the devices that are for sale, but their holders. It is not the pens and assessment books or the chicken rice stall that have sold out and shut, but the larger containers that hold them. No object is truly independent. 

A tablet is intrinsically far more valuable than its spring loaded holder, and yet, here, it is nothing more than a prop, a mundane example of utility. But look closer. Not everything is tainted by the faceless pedigree of capitalism. The sign is handmade, seeks no audience or grammar, and is eminently cute in how it differentiates between the fates of the two establishments in question. Closure does not mean something is gone. It could be relocated. But in this case, ‘no more’ has a ring of finality about it. 

Of course, mobile devices are also cameras, their invisible eye importuning passersby, a possible record of presence. And what is it exactly, about surveillance, that disturbs us so? Perhaps the idea of being seen without permission, of constituting the surface of the body for server rooms, mapped and marketed and yet as anonymous as the black screens that keep their secrets.