I just returned from a weekly film screening at D & P’s house – this time, it was Hitchcock’s classic film Rear Window. Though I’ve thankfully never witnessed the same images and scenes that unfolded in front of James Stewart’s window as he sat by helplessly, I confess to have an equally fertile imagination, near-obsessive sense of curiosity and instinct for something gone awry.
As I walked home, I was reminded of my own version of Rear Window – some of them sweet; others strange or inexplicable – during my recent stay in Singapore.
Jet lag had taken its toll on me, so I was wide awake at the oddest hours – mostly from about 4 a.m. onwards. I’d lie still, try to trick my brain back into slumber… but when sleep eluded me and all other efforts failed, I’d rise from bed and stand by the wide-open window in the kitchen.
My friend, A, lives on the 12th floor of an HDB – comprised of apartment units in large public housing blocks where most Singapore residents live (quite unlike public housing overseas). A slight cooling in the early morning hours – a welcome break from the ever-present hot weather – beckons to inhabitants of the surrounding blocks. Even in the pre-dawn hours, the day’s action begins…
Cab drivers returning from their night shift backing into parking spaces in one area. A woman washing her far, having brought a pail and rags down from her unit. An elderly man clapping his hands in the stillness, trying to rouse his neighbors – or his own body. Another man, helmet in hand, preparing to mount his motorcycle. A young girl, dressed in whites, a backpack slung over one shoulder, heading off to school. A couple, possibly returning from an all night party, emerge from their car and head home. Cats flitting across the well-lit parking area.
An elderly white haired woman comes out onto the front terrace and shakes something into the air. I soon see the flickering ember and realize she is holdings incense. She flicks it. In one direction and then the next, sending prayers out into the night, turning this way and that, finally turning towards a shrine mounted on the wall behind her, placing the incense sticks and returning inside. Someone below is putting suitcases into the trunk of a car. A delivery truck is moving slowly, almost stealthily, his lights not yet turned on.
A young guy zips by a floor above hers, with a helmet on his head – it takes me a moment to realize he is cycling – comes to a stop in front of a unit, opens the grilled gate door, then the inside door grabs something, tucks it into his skintight outfit and rides back to the elevator that will take him downstairs. Right behind him is another man, leaving his unit decked out in bright orange one piece jumpsuit. The brightest color I have seen this side of night. I later learn that he is decked out in Grand Prix duds.
The piece de resistance suddenly appears in my peripheral vision; what I imagine is a Balinese woman carrying a high basket of offerings on her head is none other than a dark-skinned Indian wallah, who’s hoisted a large pile of newspapers on his head and is in the midst of his delivery route. From the top floor down, he walks along the outside corridors, deftly pulling one newspaper out from the pile without letting the others tumble to the ground; rolling each one up to place in between the grilles, or dumping it on the ground inside an open doorway.
The newspaper wallah walks proudly and erect, this way and that, down stairs partially hidden from view. He has come down a couple of flights, drops a paper inside a doorway when I notice him heading back upstairs. Oops! I think he has missed a delivery – but apparently not, because he carries on without skipping a beat. Evidently, this detour is part of his route. By the time he has made his final delivery, the tower of papers otherwise intact, the wallah simply disappears from sight.
Which is just as well, because I am suddenly distracted by a scene unfolding at the other end of the parking area, where a group of seniors has gathered (as it would seem they do each morning) for a round of tai chi – or is it qi gong! – red fans fluttering in their hands.
By now the darkness has given way to a hazy dawn. Dogs are leading their owners around the neighborhood, birds chirp more loudly on the balcony below and the orchestral maneuvers of daily life – some mundane, others sublime – begin anew.
I’m no Grace Kelly, and James Stewart (even a look-alike) wasn’t anywhere to be seen – nor did I pull out a pair of binoculars. Nonetheless, I wonder whether the silhouetted form that stood still a very long while as I did, straight across the parking lot from me, noticed that I had my eyes on him too…