It was April 14, 1971 in the quarter houses. Three am on a Wednesday morning, when a dark figure left his house, crept across the moonlit courtyard, down the dark hallway and toward the front steps of Peraman and Victoria’s home. The figure, a bulbous, paunchy figure, looked furtively left and right before steadily murmuring an incantation and pouring an oily substance onto the front steps. He wanted to turn away and disappear as fast as he could, but somehow his feet would not move. His eyes fixated on the cursed liquid seeping into the pavement, leaving a dark, slippery residue. What have I done?
From the corner of his peripheral vision, the fat Indian man noticed the shoe rack by the door, a rickety thing made out of wood. He had helped Peraman make the shoe rack for his five girls and wife. He turned his face away from the oil and toward the shoe rack, taking in the many pairs of tiny shoes with simple lace or flowers on them: slippers, sandals, work and school shoes, and the one pair of intricate-yet-sensible ivory-colored heels.
A surge of jealousy shot through his heart: Peraman’s wife, Victoria Padmavathy. With a wife like Victoria, no one would disrespect him. Every husband in the quarter house wanted her; every wife envied her for the hold she seemed to have over their men. It wasn’t because she flirted with them or that she was promiscuous in any way. No, she was the perfect wife. She got up early, made Peraman’s tea and morning toast, packed some leftovers as lunch for him, stood by the door to send him off to work, and then did all the household chores. She even waited every night, after putting their five daughters to sleep, for Peraman to come home. She never caused problems like the other wives did. She was polite, courteous, and always had a smile for everyone. It wasn’t fair. Peraman was never home. Never there to love her. He would love her, the man thought. He looked at the substance he had poured on the concrete floor. Maybe soon I will.
The man’s mind wandered to his own wife. Mean spirited, lazy, and self-centered. She never did anything nice for him. She was always reprimanding him or getting him to do something he didn’t want to do. The man crouched down, bitterly surveying his work, wrinkling up his nose at the putrid odor of the oil. Maybe, once Peraman is out of the way, I’d finally be able to stand up for myself and leave her for Victoria. Having finally found the strength to commit to what he had done, the man hoisted himself up. The sheer exertion from squatting and then standing to his feet caught the fat man off balance. Stumbling, he tripped on the step behind him and fell back on the ground. The soft thud brought his fears running back to him, and this time, it was his fear that picked him off the ground and helped him run off into the darkness.
Victoria lay in bed, her eyes staring straight up at the ceiling. She knew she shouldn’t have eaten the last three slices of cake, but it was the first time she had managed to bake the perfect marble cake, and it had been almost three days since Josephine’s seventh birthday. It seemed perfectly justifiable during dinnertime that she should finish it up. Now, however, she was regretting it. It was already three am, and still she couldn’t sleep. Victoria turned her head to the left, to where Peraman was sleeping. His soft snores comforted her. Victoria liked having her husband beside her. Peraman had two jobs, and, although their family desperately needed the money, Victoria hated how often he wasn’t with the family. As she looked at Peraman’s sleeping face, the feeling she knew as the love she had for him twirled inside her heart.
She wondered what he saw in her. Peraman Joseph Subramaniyam had come to her father and asked him for her hand in marriage. He even agreed to her mother’s wishes and converted from Hinduism to Catholicism for her. Why would a handsome Indian man want to marry a Chinese girl who was adopted into an Indian family? Interracial marriages weren’t common in Singapore, although the country was home to the Chinese, Malays, and Indians. She believed it was because she had grown up with an Indian family, knowing the customs and traditions of an Indian and knowing what was expected out of an Indian woman. She also wasn’t a stranger to the general belief that the fairer the woman, the prettier. She was, indeed, fairer than any of the Indian women who lived in the quarter houses, and yet, she seemed to have more knowledge on the customs of an Indian woman than many of the Indian wives she knew. Perhaps that was why Peraman wanted her–a woman able to fulfill the role of the perfect Indian wife.
But somewhere deep in her heart, Victoria hoped Peraman had married her for more than that.
Finally, Victoria’s eyes began to close. Just as she was about to sleep, she heard a thud. It wasn’t loud enough to wake Peraman or her daughters, but definitely loud enough for her to know she had not dreamt it. Quietly, she slipped out of bed to check the front door. Not seeing anything, she opened the door and walked out, barefoot. She walked down the step and looked down the dimly-lit corridor. Seeing no one, she turned around and walked back to her door. Her bare feet came in contact with the oil, causing her to slip. She quickly caught herself on the doorframe. Thanking God she hadn’t fallen, she got a cloth out of the kitchen drawer, soaped it up, and wiped the oil off the ground. She noticed the oil smelt of rotten flowers. Gagging, she threw away the cloth and went back to bed, wondering where the oil had come from.
Victoria lay miserably in the hospital bed holding her mother’s hand, knowing neither mother nor daughter would have another moment like this again. She wanted to tell her what she knew, but she couldn’t find the courage to say it. Victoria thought back to the night when she had heard someone at the front door, the last night before everything changed. It was all because of that fat Indian man. Now, in her mind’s eye, Victoria could still see and feel him sitting on her head, weighing her down as she did the morning after she’d woken up. She had always thought he liked her, maybe even loved her. He was always so quiet and kindly. Victoria had felt sad that he had been married to a tyrant of a woman and had always wanted to help alleviate his hardships somehow. Which was why she had tried to be nice to his wife, hoping that if she brought peace in her, somehow that peace would transcend to the man’s home life. But no amount of kindness had been able to satiate the woman’s jealousy and hatred toward Victoria. Mind your own business, you Chinese woman. Victoria flinched at the memory of the woman shouting at her. It must have been hell for him to live with her.
Victoria thought back to her own husband, Peraman. He may never be around, but at least he never shouted at her or forced her to do things he knew she didn’t want to. In that way, she had been lucky. Victoria held on to that thought tightly. She had been lucky. All these years, she had nothing to complain about: she had a wonderful mother who loved her, five beautiful daughters who adored her, and a husband who never gave her reason to want anything. With that resolve, she finally spoke:
Amma, en talai vali. Kankalai tirakka mudiyatha. I will die soon. Yes, Amma, I will. And it is okay. I’ve had everything a person could want: beautiful angels for daughters, a man who loves me, and a mother who has fought for my life even before I was born. I am lucky, Amma. And when I die, the man, the dark skinned fat man that did this to me, will come to you and confess everything to you. He will tell you why he did what he did and how he did it. But, Amma, don’t be too harsh on him. He hasn’t had a life half as blessed as mine has been. And, Amma, for what he has done, he will die three days after I die.
It was an early Tuesday afternoon. Three days after he had gone to Madam Thailammai, Victoria’s mother, to apologize to her. The fat man who poured the oil on Victoria’s front step went to his construction job with a preoccupied mind and a broken heart. It had been three days since Victoria’s death. April 17, 1971. He vowed to never forget that day for as long as he lived.
With shoulders slumped and tears threatening to surface, he remembered hearing his wife’s gleeful yapping the night after he had poured the cursed oil onto Victoria’s door step. His wife told him that he had finally done something right by her: Victoria had woken up unable to open her eyes, with a splitting headache, and nausea like a pregnant woman with twins. He heard his wife laugh cynically. That Bomoh definitely knows how to mess with someone’s life. Serves her right for always poking into my business.
How could he have married such a cruel woman? Every night she’d pick a fight with one of the wives that lived in their area of the quarter houses. She was always arguing. Victoria was the only one who’d stand up to her, asking her to make peace instead of quarreling. Why fight? We women should be helping each other.
The fat man gritted his teeth and stared down the road, holding the green “go” sign and motioning with his hand for the bulldozer to back out towards him before turning the sign around, back to red.
He had gone to the hospital to visit Victoria the morning after she had been admitted. Peering into the room, he saw Victoria’s mother sitting beside her, holding her hands. He wanted to hold her hands. Amma, en talai vali. Kankalai tirakka mudiyatha, he heard her say. He did that. He made her head hurt, he made her unable to open her eyes. His wife may have wanted him to get a petty spell from the Bomoh just to teach Victoria a small lesson, but he had thought that since Peraman was the first to leave in the morning, he would have stepped on the oil. Then Peraman would be cursed with the illness, while giving him the chance to be there for Victoria. How did everything go so wrong? Filled with guilt, the man had left the hospital. Now he wished he had stayed at the hospital instead of fleeing.
Regret filling his heart, the man looked up at the bulldozer, only to find it seconds away from him.