Truth Be Told

Author
Picture of A.K. Kulshreshth

A.K. Kulshreshth

A.K. Kulshreshth's short stories have been published in nine countries. He has co-translated the classic Hindi works Chitralekha (1934) and Vaishali Ki Nagarvadhu (1948-49) into English. His first novel, Lying Eyes, was longlisted for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize 2022 and selected as an Editors' Choice by The Historical Novels Review.

A. K. Kulshreshth homes in on the wheeling and dealing to stay on the right side of history in his sharp depiction of an unlikeable protagonist. The man is fictional, but how can one tell amidst the “lies, half-lies, truths, and half-truths”?

Ahmad is slowing down. As a driver, as a man. It is time for him to go. Has been, for a while. I am too kind, he tells me. They all say it. It is true.

Earlier I had lowered the window so that I could hear the songbirds at the corner bird shop next to Hulu Temple. The blast of air is still warm and muggy, though the sun is pale. Ahmad’s braking propels me forward and my palms feel the soft leather of the seat in front. Time was when he would have honked and whoever it was would have got out of the way. Yes, he must go. No harm in that. He knows too much, though. Too much about what I have been up to in the last twenty-odd years.

I have in mind what to say to him: “The river flows thirty years to the east, thirty years to the west.” Yes, I like the sound of that. It is not true of that shit-stream, Singapore River, of course. But it is for real rivers. It is true also for the river of our destiny. Singapore is changing, changing course fast. The sands are shifting. And I will not let them swallow me. Not I.

My hand closes on the cold steel of the window lever and I crank on it without realising why. I work on it frantically and the handle turns slippery from sweat before the glass starts rising. The bow tie hurts my Adam’s apple, but there is no time to adjust it now. The songbirds go crazy. Their calls turn into a harsh, horrible medley. 

It is Mei-ling, the mad woman, the wife of the stupid worker who died in the riots back in 1955. I get it now. She is the one who made Ahmad stop. She is advancing towards me, towards the still-open window. Crazy, crazy bitch. She has harangued me earlier, after she heard the rumours about those troubles. She better go as well, this crazy woman. I really have been too soft, as they say.

A fine layer of sweat glues my Brooks Brothers shirt to my back. The window barely rises as I work the lever furiously. “Ahmad!” I shout. “Go on!” Ahmad sits slumped in the driver’s seat. The woman’s fingers are reaching for me. Her nails are long and dirty. When the window surges shut, the silence is sweet. I breathe huge gasps of the cool, air-conditioned draft. After a few jagged breaths, I exhale slowly in relief.

For such a slight crone, she packs a lot of power. “Police!” she shouts in a hoarse voice. I can’t help smiling and shaking my head at her hope that the police will turn against me. As she pounds on the car, though, the thuds reverberate in the closed space.

Ahmad is still lifeless. It is incredible that Mei-ling’s knocks are jolting the Cadillac.

It is, in fact, Yi Fong tugging at my shoulder even as she remains half-asleep herself.

The knocking comes from the door of the flat. Now the guttural sounds melt together to form words. I bolt up to sitting position. The red-oxide floor is cool on the soles of my feet. Yi Fong’s shapely wrist gleams in the soft light as she reaches for me again.

I get to my feet and my knees and ankles screech in protest at this untimely stress. I am in my pyjamas, thankfully. It all sinks in as I take my first, painful step. This is it: the midnight knock. The discussion with Koh has not helped.

We met at a sarabat stall on Bras Basah Road. 

“Why here?” he asked.

“It’s better here. Very open. Nothing to hide, hor?”

Koh’s face clouded. “You know, those days are going. It’s not up to me any more.”

He meant he couldn’t take bribes. At least that was what they claimed. Ah, but I know better. There’s no place where money doesn’t help. Not America. Not hell. Anyway, I took out the file and put it on the table.

He had grown cheeky over the last year. He had a slight smile, as if he was chiding me for wasting his time, as if he was humouring a losing man like me for old time’s sake. He opened the file, froze, and slammed it shut. He looked like I had kicked him hard in the balls. Ah, that look. I have seen it so often. I cannot count on the kindness of others, unfortunately. I have needed to convince people so often to take my side and not be against me. Just help me live, keep face. Let me breathe free.

He took a deep breath and let his shoulders loosen in resignation. “I suppose there is no point asking you if you have any shame. Your father and I–”

“Fuck that,” I said.

He nodded.

“You do what you like in your life,” I said. “Woman, man, goat. I don’t care. I only need your helping hand, hor? This one time. The photo stays with me, but I only use it this one time. Not again.”

He raised his eyes to meet mine. His eyes were red. Not the red of an angry man. He was broken, as he well should be. A lump moved in his throat but nothing came out.

“There is a list being made, right?” I said. “People will be picked up. Keep me off it. I’m no fucking Lim Chin Siong, hor? There are a thousand men like me. I am not in the top ten. Not in the top fifty. Keep me out.”

His words finally came out in a hoarse whisper. “It may not work. I will do my best.”

“I will go by the result. If I end up detained, that photo… There are copies and there is a small list.”

Koh scratched his forehead with his thumb and then pressed his temples with his thumb and middle finger. He nodded to himself. “All lists are wrong,” he said. “All.”

I did not call him a cocksucker. They say I am too kind, and it is true. I picked up the file, drained my teh tarik and got up to go. 

Now the cold of the floor on my soles is still jarring. I am in the drawing room. I reach for the switch and pull it down. The light hurts my eyes.

“Open–” The cry stops as if the light switch was connected to it as well. The front door is now just a few feet away. It seems Koh has failed. His wife and his bosses in Hill Street will get pictures of him pleasuring a rather large man, most of whose body is outside the frame. Such is life. Koh’s eyes are shut and his cheeks sucked in. He has the concentration of a great musician playing a flute. 

There is a gentler tap on the door. I draw up my shoulders. 

I am at the door now. After the knocking stops, I only hear the raggedness of my own breath. Then the night song of the insects turns louder. The car engine that was rumbling outside earlier has growled to a stop, cut off as soon as I turned the light on in the drawing room. The smooth grey enamel paint on the door bolt is smudged with fingerprints. Are they really only Yi Fong’s and mine? 

The air in the room is still stale from the last cigarette I smoked. My hand trembles and I curse my weakness. I clench my arm to steady it. 

So this is fear. Standing at my own door, in the flat I keep Yi Fong in, she with her fifty cheongsams, and wishing I was in my own house instead, with Foong Lian. Foong Lian, who can, maybe, even put in a word with her old flame Kim Sai. Though God knows if that would help in these times.

The dampness at the top of my head grows into a trickle of sweat that runs down the back of my head and makes me shudder. On the other side of the door is an unknown, fearsome world.  Behind me is a past that I might have lived differently, had I known how things could shape up. Here I am, at the threshold between the two worlds separated by one door. 

What would I change most, if I could? I really should have tried to make Foong Lian happier. God knows it was hard. What can you say about a doctor woman who kept crying about the pain I gave her on our wedding night? She was—is—a very serious person.  She could not pleasure me, and I could not humour her. Too much study is never good for women, my mother had said, with the benefit of hindsight. In a few months, Mother had concluded, astutely, that her dreams of a perfect union were just dreams. We became a flower-vase couple, admired by people around us even as our love rotted in the slush of our misunderstanding. 

Yi Fong was different. She was sixteen when I took her. She was keen to please. Her father had died in an accident in the factory—his carelessness, as usual—and that was before the union troubles had started. We gave the widow a job, of course. As the years went by, I watched Yi Fong blossom. Pretty, shy, eyes dancing and full of life, cheeks dimpled and quick to blush. So much more a woman. And wily, of course. It was, arguably, a better love story.

The thought came to me when I saw a picture of that Chan lady, the leader, the one behind the Woman’s Charter, in the newspaper, that there are women today who have grown up thinking they are like men—and they are. Once I had got to know Foong Lian, to have her for myself, I realised how much of a man she was. She carried the germ of the mannish idea in her flawed heart. In the unbridled modernity of her thought, her choice to become an orthopaedic surgeon instead of a gynaecologist. In the seriousness with which she stuck with her political friends, even after they had fallen on the wrong side.

As for me, I did cut off public ties with the whole lot of them, whichever party, after getting too much into the thick of it in 1955. Back then, trouble had to be created so that it could be pinned on other people. I had the means to organise all that. I did, and then I stepped away completely from being seen with either side.

I did manufacture a little more stone pelting once, on behalf of the other side, to repay a favour. And I did also pass a little money to the Barisan Sosialis, in case they came to power, which had looked likely. At least it looked possible back then, and exploring and managing possibilities is what I am good at. Foong Lian had jumped at the chance to be the one to handle the money. She was a young, respectable, Singaporean doctor, I had explained. It was smoother for her to do it. 

My clerk told me that Kim Sai had called twice the next day. I didn’t want to know what it was about. I didn’t call back. Kim Sai, in any case, is not the kind of police officer who might be useful to a friend. Who knows, though. It may be different for an old friend like me if I am in deep trouble. Especially if Foong Lian puts in a word. Who knows anything, these days.

A man clears his throat on the other side of the door. My hand moves on its own. It jerks the bolt up and down and pulls it aside. It flings the door open. The draft outside is cool and tinged with the scent of graveyard flowers.

The man outside is bathed in the yellow light that spills out of the room. It is Kim Sai.

“I’m sorry,” Kim Sai says.

“Of course.” I shrug. “I understand.”

Lies, half-lies, truths, and half-truths. These are the threads that make up the fabric of life. Not man-woman, not food and drink.

And what is the difference between a half-lie and a half-truth?

Half-truths are what we say. When I say I understand, it is half-true. As I stand there, looking at Kim Sai framed in the door, with the pale light from the room playing on his impassive face and the silvery night in the backdrop, with two constables in shorts standing behind him, I must admit that it is half-true that I understand, in my bleary state. I know, and he knows, how things stand. Yes, he has a job to do. He has his orders. This was fated. We will see if my money will get me out of this one. Time will tell. What I understand is not that he is sorry that he has to come for me, that he has to do this though we grew up together in King Albert Park, that he has to arrest me. Oh, no. I understand that the moistness of his eyes, a moistness that glistens in the soft light, is faked. It is visible, but it is a lie. 

Half-lies are what others say. He is not sorry. Not half-sorry. If it wasn’t him, someone else would come for me. How do they know I am here? In my Tiong Bahru flat, with Yi Fong, on whom my demands grow less strenuous every day, even as her needs multiply? They know, because they make it their job to know. They have eyes and ears.

I have my eyes and ears as well. I got the phone call that same afternoon.

“My name is on the list,” Lim said in a whisper. “What will you do?”

“I’ll talk to you later,” I said.

What could I do? I counted on Koh, that’s what I did. That I had ever had anything to do with Communism, or ever will, is, of course, a lie. I gave money to a bunch of dimwits, yes, when Foong Lian insisted on it. Why not? We have drifted apart, Foong Lian and I. But she hasn’t cheated on me, though she knows that Kim Sai can’t wait to get his hands on her.

I understand also that if he does reach out for Foong Lian, she will not brush him aside. The truth is, I have given her enough reason.   

What made me stray? Ah, now that’s where it gets difficult to separate the many threads of truths and lies, even when I speak to myself. Something tells me that this year, 1963, will be difficult for us. For the country, for all of us. We are thirty-one, Foong Lian and I. Kim Sai is three years older.

Was it only ten years ago that I saw Kim Sai taking Foong Lian home in his father’s shiny black car, a Chevrolet Bel Air? They were returning from school at Bras Basah. He went to RI and she to RGS, of course. I went to Hwa Chong. My father had more money than both of theirs put together. But it was new money. These things were working their way into my young, feverish mind even as—for a short godforsaken timeI moved closer to Chong Pik, whose power among the communists grew every day. The hiding I got from my father when he heard about my dabbling with that crowd was the last one of my life. After it was done, I looked straight into his eyes and said, “Father, my mind is made up. There is nothing you can do or say to change it.”

Mother’s shoulders shook as she pulled his hand away. “Stop it, stop it, now, please. You cannot do this any more, husband!” She used the polite term, bo.

“Look at him. He is taller than you. You… you have become so weak!” He had been drinking himself silly. 

“And you!” She turned to me. “You and those boys! Do you know how dangerous they are? The riots? You fool, how many boys got hurt? How many died? Does it make any sense for you to go mucking around with those trouble-makers, hor? Any sense at all?” Her voice was hoarse and her chest heaved.

By the time she paused for breath, two tears had streaked down her flushed cheeks. She scrubbed them away with impatient movements of her hand.

Tears, smiles, laughter. We can measure our lives by those as well. The tears we bring, only some of which we may savour; the smiles, the laughter we gift to others. Those tears of my mother’s cured me of my fondness for the bloody Communists.

Later, I made sure I kept wheels greased. In business, I didn’t place bets on which side would win. I made sure it didn’t matter much to me. This wisdom came soon. 

The very next day after that drama, I took Foong Lian to MacRitchie for a picnic. I drove once we were out of sight. Ahmad was reluctant to give me the wheel, but he was also clever enough to know how much it meant to me that I must impress Foong Lian. She had insisted she would prepare the picnic basket, which she held in her lap. 

We walked along the shore for a while, and then picked a bench to sit on. I kept standing as she smoothed her skirt and sat with her knees close to each other.  The still waters of the reservoir were a hazy blue, like the wispily clouded sky. There were only a few people around us—a European family with their daughters, pretty little girls with braided blonde hair; a Malay couple. 

It is incredible all these years have gone by—it was eight years, but as I stand here with Kim Sai looking as if he wants to strangle me , it seems it could have been eighty.

His eyes have hardened. I realise it is because Yi Fong has lurched into the room, still sleepy and drunk.  Her dishevelment does nothing to hide her allure. When I dozed off, spent, I knew from the urgency with which she had pressed her trembling body against me that I had again stoked her desire without sating her.

Ah, the complicated threads of this life. My mind careens as I wait for Kim Sai to say something more than that he is sorry that he has orders to follow, that there is a list, and that my name is on it.

It careens to the time at MacRitchie, when Foong Lian said, primly, “Why don’t you sit down? I won’t bite.”

I shrugged and said, “My butt hurts, you see. The car seat was all right, but this…” I use the polite term, lakong, for butt. “I got a hiding yesterday. I think I’ll be fine soon. But today… the bench is too hard.”

She rolled back and forth, her dimpled cheeks reddening, her teeth flashing. The evening light turned a bit redder. That was the first moment when I realised I wanted her, to be with her, this spindly girl who had strange dreams of becoming a doctor. I knew my mother desired the match. Foong Lian would hardly be a trophy wife, homely and demure. But the alliance would cement our standing. Our family had the money. Theirs had the scholars.

I ate standing.

The day after, I saw her in the car with Kim Sai, returning from school, and I saw her face light up with a smile. That, sadly, was the second moment of my wanting her for myself. It is true, and it is sad, that if only I had wanted her for myself and not to take her away from Kim Sai, if I had wanted her only for love, if there is such a thing as pure love, our lives might have been different. The one true thing that my dear departed father said was that ciashen and wenchang wang—money and learning—never bless a person together. They could have blessed the two of us and our home, but they didn’t. 

“Shall I change?” I ask Kim Sai.

He wants to hit me. It is the tremor in his arms which tells me that. “You bastard,” he says. “You stupid, stupid bastard. It’s Foong Lian who is on the list. Not you. I had to take her in. She is in the van. She asked us to come this way, so that she could talk to you one last time.”

Acknowledgments

The author is indebted to Clara Mok, Nolwen Henaff, Louis Tong, Xin Rong Chua, Yuen Kit Mun, Anand Raman, and Jee Leong Koh for their help with this story. 

Credits

Producer & Director: Eze

Camera Operator: Shirree Chee

Co-Editor: Chris Yeo

Starring Pearl Myet Che,

Cherry Khine, and War Lay.

Special thanks to Lee Min-Wei,

Kee Ya Ting, and Ryan Tan.

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