|Sunday, May 2,1999
Sunday Plus: Page 4
I've the best seat in the house
Life With A View
And now, the stillness that hangs over my living room at night, does so with bated breath
I HAVE reclaimed my living room.
For too long, a work table and two computers -- one linked to the office, the other personal -- had dominated the room.
Even when they were switched off, blank and mute, the two monitor screens were an insistent presence, and I was never really logged off. Now that I have moved the computers into one of my two bedrooms, and can close the door on them, I feel freer. The living room has opened up again, reminding me of the time I had first stepped into the flat seven years ago and known right away that I wanted it.
My breath was taken away by the drama of the view outside the balcony windows.
Coming upon the wide balcony view suddenly after entering the flat had the same effect on me that the opening of the Beijing People's Art Theatre's production of Teahouse did, many arts festivals ago.
When the curtains were drawn open, all of a sudden on the stage was the set of a teahouse, brilliantly lit, and filled so vividly with so many actors. The effect was so powerful, also because it was so totally unexpected, that there was an audible gasp from the full-house audience.
Mine is a third-floor apartment in a small four-storey block, and the balcony opens out into mature trees and a small road, and across that road, the sprawling compound of a lovely old church and convent up on a slope.
On its left is the church's kindergarten, and on its right, a Tudor-style bungalow, and huge trees beyond it.
In the day, if it is sunny, the living room is wonderfully bright, even though it faces west and sunlight actually comes in only for a few hours in the late afternoon.
The drama of the view was what struck Juan too. He was the designer whom I approached to do up the flat after I had bought it.
I wanted the spare, restrained and natural look of a traditional Japanese home, and I had combed through the decor magazines for a designer who could do that.
I located Juan in his home office. He worked -- still does -- in the basement of his terrace house. The long clean lines in his home, and a certain Japanese feel to it, appealed to me.
I liked his story too. He had a design firm, with employees, and big projects, but had decided to give it up because he felt he had no control over his work.
He closed the firm and began operating from home, so that he could afford to choose his projects, even if it meant making less money. They would be his personal works, bearing his signature.
It was much later that I found out that he had never been to Japan. I told him I wanted the place to remind me of a Kyoto temple and that I needed bookshelves. And I got what I wanted.
Juan was trained in England. But he was clearly influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, whose style was informed by Japanese aesthetics.
After seven years, the nyatoh finishing on my bookshelves and living-room floor has begun to wear a warm, lived-in sheen.
"Unfinished wood, as it darkens and the grain grows more subtle with the years, acquires an inexplicable power to calm and sooth," says the great Japanese novelist Tanizaki Junichiro in his essay In Praise Of Shadows.
My living room soothes. It is where, in the morning, I still the remnants of the night's dreams and ready myself for the day. And it is where, at the end of a hard day, I reassemble the many fragments of my self, make myself whole again.
The best seat in the house is right in the centre of the living room, from where I can enjoy the view outside the balcony. It can still be dramatic sometimes, forcing me to pause and drink it all in.
Besides the nyatoh wood, the larger part of my living-room floor is covered by a sisal mat, and the entrance area is defined by a square of slate slabs. When you walk across my living room, your bare feet go from stone to wood to natural fibre. The use of textures for their sensual quality -- that's what Juan has taught me. You can divide up a room effectively that way, without erecting boundaries.
The sisal mat is fairly worn and there are large stains which mark the spots where friends had thrown up. These stains provide different shades to what is otherwise a dull mud colour.
Several Iskandar Jalil pots complete the earthy feel of the living room. Clay pots do have a "pensive lustre", as Tanizaki has pointed out.
I RESPOND to the austerity, restraint and the seeming artlessness of Japanese aesthetics, which coincide with the teachings of Zen Buddhism. They have shaped not just the way my home looks, but hopefully the way I have lived my life too.
To have a pensive, matte lustre as opposed to high-gloss, to keep the moods in neutral tones, and to have the mind clear of clutter -- that has always been my guide to living.
But it requires a certain detachment, and an unsentimental relationship with people and things. To keep a spare, spartan home, you have to be ruthless with unwanted things. Discard is the operative mode, as opposed to collect.
With people, the operative mode is to retreat whenever turbulence threatens. Emotions can be reined in very swiftly, the way a tortoise withdraws itself under its shell, as the Bhagavad Gita teaches.
And so I find myself become, over the years, less a participant and more an observer in the current of life that rushes past me. It has suited me, especially my journalistic conceit.
Yet, I'm beginning to chafe at the self-imposed restraints. Isn't it time, as I stand on the threshold of my fifth decade, to allow in the colours, to take some chances, to live with a certain abandon? If not now, when?
Since recently, the stillness that hangs over my living room at night does so with bated breath. The telephone may ring. Or in the semi-darkness would be made out the shock of black hair on the off-white cushion of Juan's signature long bench. Underneath the mass of hair is fragrant breath, and it smells like joy, and I'm going to reach out for it. Who needs calm and stillness?
So I have reclaimed my living room. But I'm not keeping the best seat in the house for myself.
02/05/99 I've the best seat in the house