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Wonky Syntax

Aneeta Sundararaj

My life changed in unexpected ways when Edwin Somasundram came into it. For him, I produced two of my best literary works: How Are You? and Stuffed in Malaysia. The former was a collection of true accounts of people with all sorts of health issues and the latter was a coffee table book that showcased the nexus between food and our state of mind.

We met one balmy evening after having been introduced by a mutual friend. Since I had nothing to lose, I felt free to criticize Edwin. For one, he didn’t have the book-opening etiquette I expected from someone of his stature. I did not like that he placed my most recent non-fiction work, All Number Nine, on the table and opened it until the spine was crushed. How on earth could I collaborate with such an uncouth man?

When he lifted both ends of the book, snapped them shut and whistled, I decided he was an idiot. An intelligent man, but an idiot, nonetheless. I stood up, reached out, picked up the book and put it into my leather satchel. He stopped whistling.

“Thank you for seeing me,” I said and turned to leave.

“No. No. No,” he cried out. Standing up, he pleaded, “Please don’t go, Ms. Lola. You’re the writer I’ve been looking for.”

I stared at him. “Really?”

“Yes.” Opening his palm and inviting me to sit, he added, “Please, sit down. If I sound flippant, it’s because I’m already familiar with your work.”

He then rattled off some of my best-settling titles like the biography of cardiologist and collection of short stories about a sweet dachshund. Then, he explained that he wanted to model his book on the work of another psychiatrist, Brian Weiss, who’d become a leading expert in regression therapy. Edwin was practically bubbling with delight, removing his glasses and rubbing the rim between his fingers. To my utter surprise, I was charmed, by both the man and his vision for his books.

That’s how it began.

To ensure that we were not distracted, I agreed to meet him at a café, rather than his clinic, once a week. Where he provided the medical jargon, my task was to dumb down the complex theories, conditions and treatments, and then create stories to illustrate everything.

When I was working alone at home, though, I analysed everything connected to him: my sense of yearning, his every word and message to me, and what he wore to our meetings. That’s the sort of blinkered view a woman gets with unrequited love. With each memory, I would turn it over and play games. What if I changed his tailor-made short-sleeved red shirt to a blue, polo neck pullover? Would that make Edwin more common and, therefore, accessible to me? In any event, with each word I wrote for How Are You? it was as if I were paying homage to this vision I had of the man, rather than the reality of who he was.

Was I in love with Edwin, though?

Well, I’ll tell who I was in love with once upon a time. The man was a hotelier named Vikram Singh. The memory of what we had – mostly sadness and longing on my part – haunted me like a bad fairy-tale. In those eight years we were supposedly together, there was always had an excuse for his absence – his ailing mother, financially-ruined brothers and estranged daughter needed him. I wasn’t ever allowed to need him.

Long after we parted, I carried with me the failure of Vikram-Lola as a secret that I’d failed in love; it was my fault that he didn’t want me. In time, though, recalling Vikram-Lola became a practice of transmuting my fear of uncertainty into wisdom and love. Friends I told this to concluded that I’d learnt the art of ‘letting go’. It was apparently in similar vein to the concept of ‘embracing the guru within’ espoused by spiritual masters the world over. I framed it as the time between demise of Vikram-Lola and the possibility of Edwin-Lola; a time I called Guru-Lola. I was convinced beyond reasonable doubt that it (I couldn’t decide if Guru was male of female) took over my creative process. It was able to pluck out words from a space within, long-forgotten by Lola, and take a story on a new adventure altogether. There were times I wept from the stunning beauty of the texts Guru-Lola created.

We worked on How Are You? for six months. After the galley proofs were sent off to the publishers and the printing process began in earnest, we commenced working on Stuffed in Malaysia. Out of the blue, Edwin insisted that I include a poem he’d created in the manuscript. And like everything that happens without warning, it was also the moment when my emotions tipped from admiring Edwin’s innate intelligence into something new and exciting.

“You know how,” he said while crossing his arms, “you open a book and there are all those pages in the front? What are they called?”

Once I explained the details of the frontmatter of a book to him, he showed me the poem he’d written. It was hopeless; the syntax was wonky, the words didn’t rhyme and the cadence remained erratic. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that including it could damage the quality of our work, especially when he acknowledged its failings by singing the lyrics from one of the most famous Bollywood movies of all time: “Meh syair toh nahi.” Roughly, this translated to, “I’m no poet.”

Edwin’s poem was called ‘The Divine’s Embrace’. I guessed that it was his attempt to convey the idea that when two people truly loved each other, it had nothing to do with them, but was the work of the Divine. The last stanza was particularly awful:

When he sees her in all and sees all in her,

It is then they don’t leave the other.

Having a human experience is the Divine’s purpose,

Let the light of the Divine be upon us.

Though we be far, we seek the lovers’ embrace.

Although there was an intensity in Edwin-Lola, I still expected that, in time, my feelings would either plateau or taper altogether. I didn’t anticipate that they would ever deepen. When I became aware that he was the first person I thought of when I woke up, I studied him more than ever. The worst you could say of Edwin was that he worried silly about the details of his outer world. Where I saw a jacket, he knew the difference between a sports jacket and a peacoat one. For me, the all-purpose chiffon sari my mother had given me years ago was a suitable at all events whether it be a gala fund-raising festival hosted by an Odissi dancer, or launch of a book by desperate-to-be-woke junior member of one of Malaysia’s nine royal families. For Edwin, though, it mattered that he wore a batik shirt to one and a suit to the other.

This sort of compartmentalisation in his outer world was a reflection of the inner workings of his mind. For How Are You? it was as if he opened one drawer in his brain, took out the information there, put it into words and that was it. Such was his focused concentration that what he wrote didn’t warrant much editing.

The night we finished working on Stuffed in Malaysia, we went out to dinner to celebrate. Hours later, somewhat tipsy from all the sake, instead of dropping me off, he parked his car in the underground carpark of my condominium complex. We made our way to the now-closed poolside area and, cloaked in darkness, he took both my hands in his. For a full two minutes, we stared into each other’s eyes. Try as I might, I found it impossible to look away and the intensity of his gaze scared me silly. A while later, when the spell was broken, he walked me to my sixth-floor flat where we stood for endless moments. Quite suddenly, he nodded and turned to leave.

“Are you walking away from me?” I asked him, horrified.

He stopped mid-stride, turned and walked back to me. Gathering me into his arms, he patted my shoulders, as though he were comforting a dog with separation anxiety.

When he let me go and turned away, I blurted out, “Is that all?”

He didn’t stop this time.

“Next time, I want more,” I said to his back as he entered the lift. The doors closed on his silence. Hours later, woken up by the incessant ringing of my doorbell, I opened my front door to find him with a thermos in one hand and newspaper in the other.

What could I say to his, “Good morning. Can I come in?” So, I stepped aside and we shared our first-ever breakfast.

Love, even if it was analysed through a rose-tinted veneer of my mind’s eye, was enjoyable process. I pictured keeping him company while he worked. I would sit in his leather chair with my feet tucked under and book in hand while he typed away on his laptop at his desk. From time to time, we would venture to the balcony. Arms around each other, we’d look out at the stunning garden the landscape artist we’d hired had created. We’d make plans for a dinner we were going to host to celebrate Stuffed in Malaysia winning a prestigious award, thereby making us both award-winning writers.

It took courage to dream like this. Until now, I’d always been on the outside looking in at other couples’ happiness, observing how they lived their lives and thinking, ‘wouldn’t it be nice to be exactly like that?’

Therein lay the important words – to be exactly like that. In those moments when I was plagued by my fears, I made all sorts of presumptions about Edwin-Lola. What if this relationship didn’t work out? What should I do with this flat? What was the symbolism behind a nightmare where I entered the church only to bear witness to him standing next to another at the altar? When it becomes a habit to question one thing in your life, soon, you find that you begin to question everything else as well – why did a cat turn up out of nowhere in the flat? What’s the meaning of finding cigarette butts outside your front door? Could the charlatan you foolishly turned to be right when his divination confirmed that Edwin-Lola would never work?

Worse, what distress it must be to have all your desires handed to you on a silver platter? In the case of Edwin-Lola, it created within me an empty space where all the brooding about unrequited love used to take place. Married to Edwin, I wouldn’t want for anything. I wouldn’t even need to long for or miss him. It would be a moment of utter sadness when there was nothing left to brood about. When did the romance of ‘to be exactly like that’ become the reality of ‘it is exactly like that’?

Once you commit yourself to a path, though, a labyrinth of uncertainty and new dreams appear before you. Like a jumble of words that you must arrange and rearrange until the words convey your thoughts to the letter, you rearrange your dreams. You shoulder those spousal responsibilities. You keep the past firmly in the past. You move your world to be with the one you love. And on a cold morning, several months after your wedding, with your belly swelling from the child you’ve made together, you look out at the dew-covered lawn of the bungalow you now share with your husband.

On one such morning, Edwin came up behind me. Turning into his arms, I lay my head on his chest and breathed a sigh of pure joy. We fit together perfectly, a divine embrace.

Aneeta Sundararaj created a website and called it ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. She has contributed feature articles to a national newspaper and various journals, magazines and ezines. Aneeta’s bestselling novel, The Age of Smiling Secrets was shortlisted for the Book Award 2020 organised by the National Library of Malaysia. Throughout, Aneeta continued to pursue her academic interests and, in 2021, successfully completed a doctoral thesis entitled ‘Management of Prosperity Among Artistes in Malaysia’.

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