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Sunday June 21, 2009

Playing in taxis

Charlene Rajendran takes readers on thought-provoking, unexpected journeys.

MALAYSIAN writer Charlene Rajendran only started taking taxis regularly when she moved to Singapore eight years ago.

A theatre writer, performer and educator, she currently works and lives on campus at Nanyang Technology University. Having decided not to own a car, her days are often punctuated by “little tales” in taxis.

The tales in her book range from the quirky to the profound, weaving together a collage of little journeys and the conversations that ensue in this “in-between” space. Rajendran finds that unlike most other spaces in our lives, it is free of expectations, a small release valve in our pressurised lives.

“I think our urban environments are becoming increasingly structured,” observes Rajendran. “You do this here and that there, and the two don’t overlap. Writing the book got me thinking: What do we do with all these little in-between spaces?”

The innately human trait of emphasising differences rather than sameness is a key issue examined in this book, as the author traces that which connects us. Upon closer inspection, what may at first seem to be a “blank space” shuttling one from A to B is, she observes, not at all neutral.

“I think a lot depends on my mood and the vibe of the taxi driver. Just their voice, as you rarely see their face,” she explains.

Rajendran’s own voice displays a confident and charming repertoire of accents. She often qualifies her statements with the postscript “in a sense”, which makes one wonder that there must be other senses.

As a Malaysian with South Indian ancestry who lives closer to Johor than Singapore’s Orchard Road, Rajendran sees herself as an “insider-outsider”. She recounts that from a very early age she realised that she didn’t fit into any one category: “When you have to narrow it down to one thing, it doesn’t work,” she explains.

For someone who refuses the convenience of conventions, simple questions don’t always have simple answers.“Playing devil’s advocate makes for good conversation. If you agree too much you won’t get a conversation, you will only get a moaning session – no point lah,” she says.

Perhaps it is her background in theatre that makes her comfortable with the concept of “playing face” or wearing masks, which, rather than being seen as duplicitous, can provide what she calls “an arrow to deeper realities”.

“I don’t think a mask is a bad thing, I think we are all wearing masks,” she says.

When I ask her how she sees herself, she answers that, “I’m really like a Joker, lah, with a capital J ... I want to play this game with you! I want to provoke you to think,” she grins mischievously. Like a cross between a court jester and a Zen monk, she prods your assumptions with invisible fists.

The crooked bridge in the title initially refers to former Malaysian Prime Minister (now) Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s failed bridge across the Causeway project, but as the story evolves so does the metaphor.

“When you build a bride you’re supposed to build it nice and straight, when in fact a lot of the ways we negotiate bridges between people is extremely circuitous,” observes Rajendran. In taxis, and in life, the direct route is rarely the best.

Written in the vein of folk tales, the book follows the tradition of oral story-telling. That “telling tales” can be viewed as a propensity to bend the truth only seems to excite her rather than put her off.

When writing the book, she discarded the idea of recording the conversations because she wanted to ensure the drivers remain completely unidentified. In these encounters, her own identity as the author is the only one that is revealed, and even that fact “is completely up for grabs”, she notes.“I wanted to be completely interpretive, completely selective and, in that sense, it borders on fictional: What really happened? What really was said?”

Rajendran observes that spontaneity is a rare commodity in Singapore, which is a high surveillance society that “rarely believes that play is edifying, knowledge-gaining, or thought-provoking”.

So how does a person like her survive in a place where kindness is instilled though public campaigns? She explains to me that she imagines Singapore as barren typography; its soil overworked, emptied of its nutrients – but yet, “In the cracks, people do survive, resilient, talented, and wonderful people”.

In the book’s final tale, the author turns the prescribed driver-passenger rules on their head by asking the driver to decide where to take her. I won’t tell you where she ends up – except that it isn’t the Esplanade.

Shefah Szetu is made in Malaysia but raised by Vikings up north. When she grows up, she wants to be just like you.

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