notions of immortality

The walls come down the hill like two aged arms of the young Fort Canning Centre. People were shooting the Canning Centre, and the two plain two-hundred year old cupolas built by the architect Coleman, and the greens between the walls—with small and large cameras. None came up to the two old walls to see the tombstones embedded in them, mostly of Europeans—young men and women, some too young, and the old not very old. They have died in the first half of the nineteenth century, faced with a low life-expectancy, like Thomas Henry, Assistant Surgeon, remembered on these walls and who, at 22, has died well ahead of others whose lives he should have improved, or saved.

Fort Canning Wall Cemetery
I saw the walls the day after the Chinese New Year’s Day of the Year of the Tiger. The day before, a rock band performed on the greens between these cemetery walls. They removed the props and the chairs and the dismantled stage while I read Alain de Botton’s book on The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, in the pavilion by the entrance.

On the front of this Canning Centre is the gate of Canning Fort, and shortly down a bend from it is a remnant of the old fort wall. They speak modestly of this rather modest wall and gate, built in 1859, when the English in all their dominions felt the tremors of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 in India; here in Singapore they built this shelter for protection against potential local trouble. The smallest Indian fort will laugh derisively at this baby-fort, but who worries for Singapore’s scant history when in its present it shines to the envy of most others?

Just beyond the reach of the old arms of Canning Centre are the Singapore Management University and the Singapore National Museum. The museum is celebrating some other dead, with relics from distant Egypt, on loan from Vienna until April. The displays are from the Old Kingdom five millennium ago, through to Ptolemaic times. Whereas the tombstones of the dead Europeans lacked visitors this holiday, the response to this “Quest for Immortality” (as the museum calls the Egyptian gallery) has surprised the museum officials. I stood in line for an hour, and for another hour I craned over others’ heads and bent and twisted into gaps between people to read the legends and to catch a glimpse of the relics.

Singapore National Museum

People clicked more than they saw; even the legends they clicked, as though the right plan is to gather everything into digital memory and to view them later somewhere. So the remains of royals and nobles and commoners were digitized with great energy by common people armed with gadgets the ancients couldn’t have dreamed possible, and, in a way, the quest of the ancients for immortality was meeting with success, but in a way that I’m not sure they’d desired.

The men and women who became mummies would have known that their brains would be sucked out from their nostrils and discarded, but their liver and lung and other organs would be sealed in separate jars and would sit in the company of their mummy. Did they relish the thought of being immortal in that fashion?

I have been walking long distances, saying no to the taxi, enjoying the flora of this city. And I watched Avatar, and it seemed right to watch that movie in this city where the trees are like those in the film, if not in size and grandeur then at least in variety and complexity. Every morning at breakfast I look out to the trees and an embankment and higher trees above it, and the scene seems to have been created just to make this window perfect. But, after gazing through the window for a while, the trees begin to suggest the jungle this island has been, which now is no more a jungle, but is surely the loveliest of parks.

Speaking of Avatar again, if you consider that the word is of Indian origin, then consider that the gods came down in various avatars to settle matters with men, often with such men who’d gotten out of hand. Sometimes the avatar played mischief with man, but always to a good purpose in the end. Here in Avatar are men playing gods with the Navi people on planet Pandora and, when the film ends, the chief avatar helps the Navi to not accept tragedy from the hands of men.

This morning I saw an artwork in the Singapore Art Museum, by Ringo Bunoan who lost his mother on 1-June-1986 and sublimated his private tragedy, his “remembrance, loss, and sorrow,” through looking up another eight persons who had died the same day as his mother. His mother is depicted by four clean white pillows with a photograph of her memorial on each, and the other eight are identical pillows differentiated by a picture on top of each person’s memorial, and the total of twelve pillows are laid clockwise to communicate all things that life, time, and death mean. A Singaporean teenager standing next to me said the thing “looks eery.” I tried to find my emotion and name it, for I was born on a first-of-June.

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