By Teo Xiao Ting
(1,103 words, five-minute read)
Dear Saloma and Vinod,
I first met the two of you seven years ago, when I was 16. I dissected your words, and tried to live alongside you in Off Centre. I fear I have outlived you. Yet after meeting the both of you again, I know I have not. I may never. So do many others since 2007, when your world became a cornerstone text read and studied by thousands of other 16-year-olds every year, as they prepare for a major national examination. The fictional world has a way of outliving what we know as reality. It restates that horrid, beautiful luxury each time Off Centre is restaged, reviving ghosts of those who have, who are, coping with their mental health. Reality has no such luxury. People slip through the cracks all the time.
To say that you are fictional characters feels disingenuous. You have been living, dying, and all the in-betweens since your world was made in the 1990s. That is longer than I have existed. As I walk towards my seat in the theatre, I see Vinod sitting on the edge of the stage, waving. Smiling. You were smiling, and I feel an immense urge to run up to you, to hug you. You bore the same nervous energy I remember. It is the first time I am meeting you in person, but you feel familiar all the same.
You see, Saloma, I have known that Vinod will die before the end of the performance. I have known that you and I will sit, alone, on and off the stage, wondering what will come after.
To see you, Vinod, alive and smiling, lodges an ache so deep I didn’t know it was still present in me. I have never forgotten you. The scenes unfold as I remember, and one particular scene, as your time in national service was reenacted, I watch you return yet again to the army barracks, your peers tentative after your suicide attempt. Your platoon commander unsympathetic, explicitly blaming you for being the reason they did not win the Best Unit award. How can a person be so callous in the face of pain? Why the insistence for accolades? As you yell that you “have balls, Sir”, dizzy with shame and unfettered confusion, I wonder what you would have said if you knew of the eight deaths that has occurred in the past year alone. Three young men out of the eight have killed themselves while “serving the nation”, during peacetime. I wonder how you will feel knowing that 26 years later, things have not changed. Bitter anger rises when I think of this, even as I am writing this now. Will change ever arrive in time?
I see the both of you anew, yet differently. Wong Chee Wai has made the stage cold and sparse, your rooms adjacent, unseen and untouchable by each other. Except after death. Isolation oozes into loneliness, and runs deep where you are, where we are. How many Vinods and Salomas do we know? Many, I’m sure. They smile, I smile. You smile, she smiles. Saloma, your mother was right, and she is still right. She stares into the mirror that we create, a faceless audience. We watch as she mutters, quietly desperate, that she can only smile. Everywhere she goes, there is a sign demanding everyone to “smile”. The Singapore Kindness Movement has done little when it comes to inculcating genuine empathy. Is it even possible to enforce kindness? The smiling lion mocks in the face of your helplessness. Vinod, I feel your frustration when you admitted that you never learnt how to walk. You were running, from the moment you were born. You don’t know how to not be a rat in this rat race, and sometimes I feel, neither do I. When did we lose the ability to feel our legs?
In my own struggle with mental health, I have prayed, over and over. I have lost and gained faith, hope—whatever you call the unnameable force to which we surrender our yearnings. Saloma, I resonate with your mother’s insistence to cling onto faith, that your illness is something that can be rationalised, wished away if only she, you, pray hard enough. I have tried many times to wish myself away too. But our minds, our brains, are inextricable from our very selves. She lights a small brown branch and the entire theatre fills with the scent of sandalwood. She is trying to bring you back. Doesn’t she realise you are already here? In her insistence for you to return to “normal”, she has lost sight of you. She paces across the narrow space in front of the wooden cabinet in your room. She does not understand, try as she might. She tries to convince you (herself) that you are not “crazy”. She is right. You are not crazy. You have schizophrenia.
Maybe it’s time to stop smiling. The house lights come on, and the audience’s applause implodes into excited chatter. The show is “over”. But is it? Even after people start leaving the theatre, I cannot bear to leave you alone on the stage. So do many others who stay. This is not finished for you. You sit at the edge of the stage where Vinod was, gazing backward at his room. You are crying.
A row of mostly women starts to form next to you, giving you hug after hug. Whispering words in your ear, over and over. I walk up to you, ask to sit alongside you. You nod. I ask if it is cold where you are. You shake your head. Barely a minute later, I am told that I “cannot sit on the stage”. I cannot sit alongside you, because I am not where you are. I reside in reality, where I can no longer sit. I must learn to walk, not run. We must all learn.
Minutes later, another crew member tells us that “Saloma needs to rest”, and I watch you get up to leave, heading backstage. The theatre continues to empty steadily, surely. And I know. I know we are, I am, complicit in the ways we witness your unfolding and have done nothing. I cannot do anything with regards to you, Vinod and Saloma, but there is much to be done alongside, with the many other Vinods and Salomas still walking, still finding ways to carry on.
The scent of incense lingers in the shawl I wore when I met you. I do not get to leave you in the theatre. I carry you, carry myself, on
Off Centre by The Necessary Stage is written by Haresh Sharma and directed by Alvin Tan. It was staged at the Victoria Theatre from 7-17 February 2019. This letter is written in response to the performance staged on 9 February 2019.
Teo Xiao Ting is a writer based in Singapore. She recently graduated from Yale-NUS College with a BA (Hons.) in Arts & Humanities, minoring in Psychology. For more information about this human, visit her website.
This review is part of the Performance Criticism Mentorship Programme with Corrie Tan, which is initiated by National Arts Council and organised by ArtsEquator. It is a six-month programme during which theatre critic and mentor Corrie Tan guides mentees Casidhe Ng and Teo Xiao Ting in reviewing one performance a month from September 2018 to March 2018. The program seeks to push the writers’ and the readers’ expectations of the forms and perspectives of critical writing, as a way to expand beyond the conventional shape and depth of criticism in Singapore.