I was halfway through the plate of Indian rojak when he came into full view. Bald and bespectacled, he was pushing a cart, which is a common sight at food centres and coffeeshops. The difference between him and the many cleaners I’ve seen was the way he walked. Taking very small steps at a time, it suggested that he might have suffered a stroke. Yet, on a muggy evening, he was doing his honest day of work, cleaning tables and clearing the plates spoilt Singaporeans like me leave behind without any thought about the thankless task.
For a while, I couldn’t finish the rest of the food before me – fried fishcake, beancurd, prawn fritters and egg fritter. My stomach started to churn at the sight of that old man, reaching for a plate on the table because it would probably be an effort if he were to walk over to the other side instead. Slowly, he deposited the remnants of food into a compartment by the side of the cart and then took out a piece of rag to wipe the table. Then, he collected a stack of plates from the cart and with the same small steps, akin to a toddler who has just learned how to walk, he headed for one of the stalls. At least the stallholder gave him a gentle pat on his back as he bent down to deposit the plates in one of those plastic buckets. Then, it was back to the cart and the next table…
I watched the entire scene without taking another bite of the food. He could have been someone’s father, my mind reminded. Of course, there was some voice that countered that thought. It argued about how this man could have done some evil deed in his life when he was younger. Perhaps he was once a serial womaniser which prompted his family to abandon him to his own devices. Perhaps he committed some terrible crime which caused his family so much embarrassment that he had to be disowned. Perhaps he had no other choice…
But these arguments were promptly drowned out by a single thought. It was that of what my emotions would be if it was my father in his place, a stroke victim slogging on a muggy night just to earn his keep. How would I feel? How could I possibly ingest another morsel of food knowing that an elderly stroke victim would be clearing my plate long after I’ve vacated my seat?
I thought about life. Then, I thought about this sin-cursed world. I thought about the many unjust things and issues that I read about, watched or experienced. I thought about the vileness of men. I thought about the vindictiveness and cruelty human beings were capable of throughout history, recent or otherwise. I thought about where this society was headed that some of us have become “immune” to such sights and more. I thought about the two-year-old girl who was left alone to die while 18 people walked nonchalantly past her and that it took a lowly rubbish collector, the 19th, to care enough. I thought about the excesses of this world. I thought about the protests that erupted. I thought about gaps which we know exist but never care enough to bridge them. I thought about the growing need for healing to come into our modern society, our super-wired-up society, where the technology might have brought us closer in minds but not our hearts or spirits.
I thought about the words of an ancient Chinese philosopher. I juxtaposed them with my thoughts.
And then, I realised where those dark, foreboding thoughts of mine originated.
I watched as he almost apologetically and sheepishly explained himself. It only occurred to all in the room later that there was one very important thing he omitted in his explanation.
When he was subtly and tactfully exposed, it didn’t take much for the red mist to descend.
He had insulted art. In one fine swoop, he not only disrespected himself and his craft but he insulted those who sacrificed for the sake of wanting to create for art. There were people who, ditched their careers and plunged into the unknown – living hand to mouth sometimes, because they wanted to pursue the arts. They felt that they needed to be real to themselves, rather than being stuck in a dead-end job while habouring unfulfilled dreams of “I’ve always wanted to do something else.”
But there he was, given a shot (albeit the final one) that many envied. Disregarding the opportunity and the amount of blood, sweat and tears of others, he submitted a piece of slipshod work; he didn’t even care to go through it to remove the most obvious piece of inconsistency.
In the end, five others – at his beck and call and some of the most talented people in the room, wasted six hours in putting up something that was, in essence, a lesson that he shouldn’t have to learn but was now taught.
It was an insult, but also a wake-up call for me. That I should be mindful that I should never do this to trample on something that not I love and yearn to pursue, but in the hearts and minds of others too.