Monday, October 13, 2008

Reading in Secret

Flipping through the pages of Salman Rushdie’s “The Enchantress of Florence,” I was on my desk in our working room on the second floor of the apartment on Mapa street when the chimes played again, and I looked up at the yellow balloon that held them; which Ja attached to a cord from the ceiling.
“They’re trying to tell me something,” I thought. A subtle, almost imperceptible breeze from the huge picture window that framed the neighborhood of Mapa outside, tossed the balloon, causing it to turn and make the mysterious sound.
Moved by the playfulness of the wind, I think of Prathibha (simply Prateeh to me), and of those other chimes in Nepal; and my thoughts went back again to that two weeks in July, when we stayed together somewhere in Loyola Heights, a walking distance away from the university, in a room whose windows faced a high wall so that neither air nor light could come in. We only hear the sound of water when we awoke to a heavy rain early in the morning; and in Manila, it rained heavily in the middle of July; once, we had to come to class soaked in dirty brown water that flooded Katipunan Avenue (and I thought, it beat the hell out of the floodwaters in the hinterlands of Mindanao where the Matigsalogs live!), but scared of missing anything in Chay H.’s class, we merely left our clothes to dry as we tackled the ethical dilemmas of blogging, sponsorship, advertisements. We were on the second floor of the Ateneo de Manila’s old Bellarmine Hall. Unlike the other structures in the campus which were new, the building had a special meaning to Chay, our teacher--Chay, herself, pointed out--because it was still the one they used during her college days.
I had arrived at the airport late in the afternoon of a Friday, slightly out of my wits for leaving my boys in Davao, not knowing which part of Esteban Abada I was going, I had to stop the trolley and rip open my bag in the midst of the onrushing crowd at the passenger terminal, to rummage for that notebook where I wrote the number of the house where I was supposed to stay.
Seven. It was a house with a green gate, highly-fenced. A framed certificate on the wall said it was one of the accredited dormitories off campus. The taxi driver tracked it down very near where Esteban Abada met Katipunan in Loyola, where a flyover slowly made its ascent, across the 24 hour convenience store they call the Mini Stop, where Prateeh and I would sometimes drop by for a cup of instant noodles or a styro cup of coffee; and where, on the eve of my departure for home, I had spotted Jaybee smoking near the huddle of tricycles that parked outside the store.
From where we stayed, Prateeh and I would sometimes walk up to the campus gate, connected by a walk bridge somewhere near McDonald’s and Pizza Hut two or three blocs away. It was the walkbridge of my suffering, I told Prateeh, who laughed, because we were thinking of the 2,500 word assignment for Media Law that we had to send online only two hours away. But that was much, much later.
When I arrived at number seven, the woman who met me at the door said I had a Taiwanese woman for a roommate. I was still trying to figure this out because I was expecting to dorm with somebody from Nepal, when Prateeh came in, saying, she was no Taiwanese at all, although she admitted, shyly, she was a little bit fair for Nepalese standard, and we settled for such basic things as where to find food and water, where to find the nearest internet café and for Pratee, where to find the right currency. She kept talking about what it was like to be a journalist in Nepal, working for the Kantipur television, which was actively involved in a broad democratic movement that had forced the king of Nepal to resign.
I said, I was lucky to have Prathibha (she said I would never be able to pronounce her name correctly) for a roommate, first, because her simple joys consisted of a walk in the rain and poetry; she was easily scandalized by the sight of somebody (me) eating corned beef, because she never eat meat at all, a big problem when you’re in Manila, where it was very rare to find a store selling vegetarian food! But she said she loved the Philippines because it never cast her off like a stranger, something that she felt when she was in Europe. Here, everybody mistook her for a Filipina until she opens her mouth, because she speaks the English spoken by the Caucasian sisters, who trained her in Kathmandu and taught her the Hail Mary’s even if she’s a Buddhist.
I love her most for tolerating my infatuation for Salman Rushdie, whose book we found inside the bookstore, sinfully expensive, but which we bought and hid among my pile of dirty clothes to prevent Ja from discovering it when I’m home.
So, when I heard the chimes again in the other room of our Mapa apartment, I asked Ja if someone was playing with the yellow balloon. “It’s only the wind, Ma,” Ja called from the other room. So, I lay there, listening to the windbells, thinking of Prateeh, reading the book in secret, trying to figure out what the wind was trying to say.

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