Sunday, Jan 21st 2001
Life section


Of barbaric death and beautiful life

We die like 'an empire at the hands of barbarians'. Instead of aching for what is not to be, we should learn to rejoice that things are as they are

DO YOU not see the fallen leaves that rustle on the pavings and the steps; Will they become green again? -- Pao Chao (424-453)

I HAD seen Hongkong singer Karen Mok perform at the Canto disco by chance a couple of years ago. Although she did only a short set, backed not by a band, but by recorded music on a sound system that was cranked up too loudly, drowning out her voice, I was impressed.

She was dressed in a white Chinese silk blouse, and a pair of blue jeans. She just sang her songs, she didn't say much to the audience, and she didn't dance. All she did, as she belted out her songs, was to amble on her high heels from one end of the small stage to the other, and then back again.

She was tall and thin, like a model, although she wasn't exactly beautiful. But I was drawn by her obvious poise and style, something not common among Hongkong or Taiwanese singers, or at least the few I had seen. Her style spoke of grace, good breeding, luxury, and a sexuality that was natural and unself-conscious.

So when I heard that she was coming to do her first big show in Singapore at the Indoor Stadium last Saturday, I knew I just had to go watch her again, even though I'm tied to a permanent Saturday night slot at work. I would play truant, just for her.

That we had run many stories of her wild antics in her recent performances in Taiwan and Hongkong - of her stripping with abandon, wrapping her legs round some undeserved male singer and smooching another yet more undeserving - did not deter me from venturing forth to the Indoor Stadium.

When finally I saw her on stage, stripped down to her bra and a pair of shorts, I actually felt myself ache. I ached because here was this specimen who was so vividly, so perfectly alive - a state which D. H. Lawrence described as the 'supreme triumph... for man, as for flower, beast and bird'.

She may be 30 years old, but on stage she was the bright springtime of life, with the lithe body and taut limbs of a girl at her child-bearing prime.

Gazing at her from my 20th-row seat, I ached because she was this distant paradise that I could see but would never get close enough to, to drink the water from its spring, and to touch its soft, moist golden sands.

I have never known, and will never know, physical perfection. Arrested though as I am in adolescence, I cannot not know, however, that my youth is a distant past, never to be revisited again, except in memories and dreams, if not nightmares of missed examinations and of dirty sand being kicked into my face.

I don't think I have ever known wholeness, the way Karen Mok on stage last Saturday night was wholeness personified.

To ease that ache that stayed with me after I got home from the concert, I turned to the book by Holland's most popular writer-biologist, Midas Dekkers, titled The Way Of All Flesh: A Celebration Of Decay (1997, English translation 2000).

'Wholeness is an exceptional state, as fragile as a house of cards...,' he pronounces. 'Nothing lasts.'

We rust from the inside, but I'll spare you the technical and gory details which the dear professor retails in pellucid prose.

Externally, we shed flakes every day, even if we don't see them. In the course of our lifetime, we lose our weight in skin. A snake or a crab sheds its skin intermittently like a coat; we peel flake by flake, like old paint.

Our skin gets replaced 15 times in a year, the soles of our feet even more often. Our red blood cells live only for 100 days, and our intestines get re-upholstered every three days.

It is our nervous system which preserves the memory of the long-lost parts of our body. What we call dying is only the death of the leftover parts; almost everything else was jettisoned long ago.

We die, as Dekkers describes it, like 'an empire at the hands of barbarians'. Bacteria settle down to do the work. In about two or three days, our body is covered with a thin green layer of bacteria, most of which originated from our intestines.

Underground, a corpse takes eight times as long to decompose as it would above ground and four times as long as it would under water. In about 10 years, a grave is more or less empty.

With cremation, a corpse is turned into almost 3 kg of dust within a few hours. SO WHETHER whole or otherwise, we will all end up one day in a pile of ash. I've really got to learn to be more like T. S. Eliot's aged eagle in Ash Wednesday, and not hope to turn, 'desiring this man's gift and that man's scope'.

I've got to learn to rejoice instead that 'things are as they are and ... renounce the blessed face'.

I've got to take comfort in what Professor Stephen Hawkings said in Bombay two Fridays ago: 'The prospect of a short life made me want to do more. I realised that life was good and there was a great deal I wanted to do.'

This 59-year-old scientist-visionary was struck down with a life-threatening motor-neuron disease when he was 21, which led to muscle weakness, impaired speech and paralysis, confining him to a wheelchair all these years.

He can't be more different from Karen Mok physically, but I guess he is no less alive than she is.

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