When people talk about ecological damage, what bothers me most is not that future generations will gradually have less and less to subsist on – I believe too much in abstract ideas to fear that. This is selfish, but I am saddened by the knowledge that even within my own lifetime, sacred places are going to be lost.
When I speak of sacred places, I do not mean pilgrimage monuments. I speak of those things that have allowed my soul to touch centre by being in their presence. These things are paradise only to me. I believe the earth is sacred, and so are coasts and trees. I do not think this is important to anyone but me, just as I expect people to respect that I may not share their beliefs.
I recently resumed work on the novel I have left alone for almost a year, a novel that was begun at all because of one such place: Pasir Ris.
Pasir Ris is a beach in north-east Singapore. It’s a strange place, an aberration in a nation known for its perfectionism – unkempt, wild, lonely, and the water sometimes coagulates with oil. It is barely a beach, by any standards. When I tell Singaporeans that it’s my favourite place in their whole country, they are puzzled. Some of them have never even been there; why would they? There’s nothing there.
But I am writing an entire novel in which the characters, the plot, entire lives and events, are just a way to tell a story about this place that moves me so.
I became obsessed with Ris because of a poem someone else had written. It was years before I discovered that it had been fiction, and by then it was too late. I was miles deep in a story that was more real to me than the scars those lies caused me. By then, it had become my personal sanctuary.
There isn’t the space here to describe all the synchronicities I’ve seen relating to Ris, but one particular incident matters. I had gotten it into my head to have a photoshoot there, dragging a friend clear across a border and then across the island to do it. It transpired that this friend, a multi-award-winning prodigy, had written his first poem at the same beach. We used a clay vessel in the shoot. I left it there because I felt I needed to give something back.
I went back a month later. A single piece of that vessel remained, almost impossibly given all that would have happened in a month. I knew only blessings return that way.
The last few times I was there, I saw that the amusement park nearby was being expanded. I don’t know when I will next go, but I do know it will no longer be my Ris.
Here is the irony of all this: Pasir Ris, like many Singaporean coasts, is reclaimed land. “So much sand,” someone told me. “I don’t know how they found so much. One day it was just there.” Tampering with ecology produced one of my places of pilgrimage, and yet I worry about ecological damage.
I cannot explain this, except to say that the same person who told me about the reclaimed land also told me that because he had grown up by the sea, he did not realise it had a smell until he was nearly an adult. We only know the worlds we inherit, the metaphors and realities we are lead to believe. We lose these worlds. And we do what we can to immortalize them, to keep paradise in our pockets. I write.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.