Ten by Ten by Ten
By Su Dharmapala
I grew up in an apartment that was ten metres long and ten metres wide and on the tenth floor. On one side (the only side that had any windows facing the open sky) was Bendemeer Road, the main north-south arterial of Singapore. And on the other side, a concrete common – a charming communal space complete with 1960s nuclear bunker aesthetic and the foul smell of stale urine that greeted you every time you opened your front door.
Needless to say, I spent most of my days as a young child looking out that window onto Bendemeer Road.
Not that that was a bad thing. See that window looked out onto a shopping mall and a trishaw rank. And I would spend hours making up stories about what I could see. Stories about skinny singlet-wearing trishaw-drivers. Or about the brightly dressed Indian vendors selling vadai or muruku from their bicycles. Or about the fascinating lady who spent hours under the large Angsana tree, dressed in a bright orange cheongsam waiting for a mysterious friend who came in a different car everyday. Yeah, it took me till Pretty Woman to figure that one out.
But all my fascinating stories came to an abrupt end when I started school. For if there were ever a system designed to smack the crap out of a child’s creativity, it is the Singaporean education system. So my wonderful tales of beautiful princesses (the lady in the cheongsam), handsome princes (trishaw drivers) and evil sorcerers (Indian vendors) were exchanged for rote learning lists of Malay nouns and the names of Sultans of Johor, Penang and Selangor.
And I didn’t really get time to sit still for another thirty years. There were always interminable exams to study for, alcohol-clouded universities to attend and careers I really didn’t even like to start with. So it wasn’t until I had my son that I actually slowed down.
Even then, having been brought up with a manic sense of industrious activity, the quiet I was forced to sit with wasn’t voluntary. It was just that my son was a very bad sleeper. To get a half-hour nap out of my son, I would need to rock him for close to an hour. And I would do this looking out of my bedroom window onto the green wedge of the magnificent Dandenong Ranges in Melbourne. Three times a day.
Windows must be the key to my creativity because within weeks of bringing my insomniac son home, I experienced a burst of creativity I hadn’t felt since the age of six. Characters, fully formed, came at me from the emerald green gum forests. Dialogue and witty repartee shouted at me as I watched the clouds in the sky cast interesting shadows on the mountains below. I hatched plots watching the rosellas swarm over the misty hills.
So by the time my son was eight months, I had mastered the art of rocking him with one hand and typing on my laptop with the other. And it was during this time The Wedding Season was born; as I learned to become a mother, I nurtured my own creativity. And I learned that staring out of windows could give you more than those funny shaped sunspots that stay with you long after you close your eyes. It can give you your dreams.
And oh, the street number of my house is ten.
Su Dharmapala is a social media commentator, writer and blogger.
She was born in Singapore and grew up between Singapore and Sri Lanka before immigrating to Australia in 1989. The Wedding Season, which was released on May 1, is her debut novel.