Excerpts from Inland Island

Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé

malgré lui :: in spite of

“Sleep will come,” Gigi says to the lover of her midday dreams. “But it will arrive in spurts, sputtering like a broken pipe. But you will hear it like the song of home.” Her lover, those eyes like something oceanic, has gone out in front. There plotted on large reams of graph paper are the charts, these beds of arrows, for each one of us. Intoning like a deity, Charles Simic is lilting from the room’s ceiling speaker. He sounds mellow in our exhaustion, as he reads “I Was Stolen By the Gypsies”. It sounds like a koan. It seems there are families and villages in the poem too, at least the illusion of them, and to the far ends of the waking world, the big picture Gigi seems to hear of so often. Of our lovefools’ paradise like a snatch of serendipity. “Is this the way they feel my Sri Lanka?” Her lover looks at her, same eyes a glistening cerulean. “The sentiment is still, like a teardrop to stay, deathly still like a clock that has decided to stop, and the minutes stopped counting too.”


modus vivendi :: mode of living

“I feel the stillness too,” Gigi echoes the sentiment. “It’s like the violin, its ripples pushing outwards and inwards, in so many quivering directions, where all of us plunge our hands into the waters, the waters swirling to grasp our padparadshah sapphire.” It is a delayed sentiment, one that unraveled itself only after the evening had arrived, as if whatever was portentous had disappeared. Nakasone has been invoked, to discuss the idea of the autonomous individual resonating with all others. In a world of mutuality and happy relations. In a life influenced by complex causes and conditions. How would one put words to one’s individual karma, as if on a scale of names, as if in a dance, in relation to everyone’s collective karma? “We are all dependent on each other,” her lover writes his thought in the sky, along the outline of a cloud. “There’ll be a pink hue tonight. A pink that is paying it forward, its orange, its soft singe, like new daybreaks. They ginger over horizons.”


exempli gratia :: for the sake of example

“I like Arionomics,” Gigi’s lover says simply. “Have always liked it. It not only alleviates poverty through the poor together helping themselves, but also challenges conventional economic wisdoms. You used to understand that once, when we worked after school, me at the library and you at the patisserie down the street. Have you forgotten those times, and what it means to have to struggle? To have to fight to do what you love?” Gigi looks back at him, only offering him a small glance that quickly turns into narrowed eyes. Once, she would have been taken aback by his raised voice. Even titillated by his tone, no matter how patronizing and unwarranted. The same urgent questioning seems so much less important now. It has turned into a mellow drivel, throwaway sentiments nonetheless. Like something borrowed or owed to someone else that eventually needed to be aired. It doesn’t sound like the words are uttered in real time, between two human beings in a shared space so inhabited, everything looks the same from every different angle. “The Hindus understand the naga mostly as a serpent,” Gigi says, pointing to the painting of Queen Samuddaja on one wall. It is done on rice paper, in Chinese ink. This makes it a rare piece, with its lack of color and simple strokes. It looks like one big Chinese character. Sometimes the shades of grey turn into graphemes. “Some people also believe the naga to be synonymous with mahanaga, the Buddha. It’s a simple exchange. Nothing is bartered. Nothing is being gained or lost.”  


au contraire :: to the contrary

The paragraphs are laced with no irony. They say what they mean, and they mean what they say. It’s the same with comments about the weather, when it comes to Gigi’s lover. If there’s heat mixed in with rain, he says there’s heat mixed in with rain. Gigi takes a magnifier to the paper, as if to analyze the detailed serif. It took years before her lover abandoned the typewriter for the computer. “In response to Weber’s view of magic and ritualism associated with the Bodhisattva as ‘even less conducive to rational economic development’, Ariyaratne would compare ‘Sarvodaya’s conception of the path to that of the Bodhisattva, the being who postpones his own enlightenment in order to remain in the world to work for the enlightenment of all’.” Weber has got it all wrong, Gigi thinks. Here, it seems superstition and magic and the supernatural fit nicely into daily life, so much so there’s little distinction between that world and Weber’s idea of the world of rational thought. “It’s rational when the mendicant places balm on the baby’s skin,” Gigi says out loud, as if speaking to the sentence on the page. “Just as it’s rational when he chooses the right blessing for the moment. Rational too when the rash disappears a day later. That’s how he makes his living. There’s no fancy leather office chair or a banker’s table with heavy drawers, but that’s how he brings home the bacon. It’s a decent living.”


ab urbe condita :: from the foundation of the city

“Undercutting fallacious assumptions about our innate selfishness, scarce resources and market demand, Ariyaratne calls for a value-centered and integrated development critical of the dominant materialistic, capitalist models deemed progressive in the world, which however neglect humanity’s cultural and spiritual development.” It’s not some Marxist diatribe her lover is going on about, that much Gigi knows. The paragraph goes on to explain how Ariyaratne redefines success as the measure of “better human beings”. How Ariyaratne rejects charges against his self-sufficient “social trusteeship” economics as divorced from modern challenges. “Does our acceptance of the market economy, in whatever form it takes, reduce the human being, and by extension, all of us, into a mere product, something that can be sold at the market? Am I really as alienated from my own need as I am led to believe?” Gigi is pruning their bonsai, and discarding the fallen leaves, which have turned a crisp brown in the noonday sun. The leaves are so tiny, she picks each up with her thumb and forefinger. She takes a few leaves and places them in the shallow dish of the rock garden, raking the fine sand over them till they are buried, and disappear. The new paragraph pushes itself through to a resounding finality: “Indeed, Arionomics reasons for a development based on an economic ethic that restores humanity to be at peace with nature and its own nature, in the hope that ‘a harmonious relationship between material and spiritual development also can be realized’.”


hic jacet :: here lies

The family at the end of the block has taken its cooking out into the yard, and the food smells have wafted over. There’s the pungent smell of belachan and chili padi, the sort of hot sauce that feels like hell on the tongue. This is like the soup kitchen in Wisconsin. Gigi made four pies every Thursday, and brought them there herself. There was chocolate cream, lemon meringue. A pumpkin pie with sliced almonds on top. Even a coconut and tapioca pie. This wasn’t a run-of-the-mill soup kitchen. Many of the stayers had been academics, in every sort of field, displaced from a college town nearby, which by then had become nothing more than a grid of empty streets. No cars. No children. No buses going in. Ariyaratne would have liked the talk in this grand basement, where issues of power were hot topics. How would these former professors speak of Sri Lanka’s colonial past? What of its inherited Western structures, if one could even call them that? Ariyaratne would have liked the cooperative spirit there, his own Movement a modern case study, like the pièce de résistance at a Sramadana “family gathering”. There, traditional notions of kingship, clergy, merchant and laity come into discourse like fodder. It’s food for thought, a thought that takes itself seriously. And the ideas and the language and the labour are all shared in the spirit of dana.


gegenschein :: opposite light

The gegenschein in Champa is different from the gegenschein in Sawankhlok or Kaiyuan or Songpan. The gegenschein is what you see in the night, that faint glow of light, the counterglow of the sun. “It’s residual sunlight from the day,” her lover likes to say. “Reflected off dust particles in space. It’s like the sun’s gift to us for the few hours we’re without it. The promise and reminder of its return in the morning.” On this island of Flores, the gegenschein seems brighter, as if the night sky is a stronger mirror, or manages to catch the full light of the sun just below the horizon. Gigi’s letters have reached a tall stack, several bundled together with a rubber band or twine. The newest letter seems to be winding down the correspondence, although Gigi convinces herself every letter is only the second to the last. “I want to deconstruct Bhikkhu Buddhadasa’s ideas from that last chapter ‘Till the World Is With Peace’ in Donald Swearer’s ‘Me And Mine’, then reconstruct them in a poem of him in a forest. He’s talking to the trees as if they were his mother. That’s a nice image to start with, and hold onto. And there is the poem I so want to complete about the Buddha walking the world as if it were a rock garden. Footprints. Sandals on the steppe. A long beach with good sand. Shingle. Gravel. A full surf, and no one playing in it. A tree made of jade and moonstone. I’ll pick up a pebble, and throw it into the sea, and it will give me an echo to tell me where it is.”


Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé is the author of an epistolary novel, a quasi-memoir, two lyric essay monographs, four hybrid works, nine poetry collections, a guided creative journal, and several chapbooks.

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