Day 7

30 Days Of Art With NAC: A Visitation At Mustafa by Daryl Qilin Yam

To inspire and uplift readers as the country emerges from the Covid-19 circuit breaker, The Straits Times, supported by the National Arts Council as part of the #SGCultureAnywhere campaign, has commissioned 30 works by local writers and artists on the pandemic and what it will be like when all this is over

ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

It was like nothing had changed: We were in the luggage department, just two people among many others, trying to judge which suitcase would be ours by the end of the hour.

I never forgot how large the department was, but I suppose it's easy to forget how large anything is in Mustafa; the bags occupied one entire end of L2, hundreds of them displayed for sale, propped up and gathered together like relics, monuments. A memorial.

I asked my companion if there were enough tourists in the world to warrant the production of so many bags and he said sure, of course; it was just a matter of time. He then said something else, something that I felt was rather enlightening: "It's not about demand. It's not even about supply." He smiled. "It's about the illusion."

I blinked, somehow stirred by what he said. I was moved not by what I understood, but what I felt to be the truth of feeling that ran beneath his words. I remained by his side, watching him go through his usual process at Mustafa, staring, testing, endlessly calculating; he seemed ready to make a final decision when I received a text from a mutual friend of ours, wondering if we could buy a few things for her while we were here.

I showed the text to my companion. "We can get, for sure," he said. "But maybe you go buy first?"

I nodded. "Find me when you're done."

I spent the next 45 minutes feeling like I was on a scavenger hunt. The shaving cream was on L1, but the toilet paper was on L3; the HDMI adapter sent me down to B2, but the frozen dal, next on the list, meant that I had to make my way up to L2 again, where I'd last left my companion. He didn't message me, by the way, to say that he was done; I wondered what a privilege it was, to squander away time like that, running an errand for a trip overseas. And did I even want to be on this trip, I asked myself. Wasn't it too soon?

Earlier he asked if I needed a suitcase too, and I said no, I didn't. I'm happy with the one I have from before.

"Before?" he said. "You mean - before -"

"Yes," I said. "Before."

I walked up the stairs, pausing on B1. I loved the noise of this place as well as its smells, the combination of flowers, baby powder and fresh produce in trolleys. But B1 was special: It sparkled, quite literally, with gold and silver and diamonds. I went over to a nearby display and was peering down at a row of ornate bangles when I felt another change take place around me, a change I was unable to make sense of - like the lights dimming but also brightening, or like a dawn that was also a dusk.

And that was when I saw it, the robed figure, climbing up the stairs to L1. It moved unhurriedly, freely, seemingly without clear motive, its robes long enough to disguise the presence of its feet.

I followed it; I watched it wander around the ground floor. I saw the way it rubbed its hands together before it placed them over the shelves. It brushed its hands over the milk powder, the Maybelline mascaras, the contact lens liquid; it touched with love the painkillers, face masks, anti-flu medication - everything becoming shinier, brighter, all gleaming in their places. The figure continued to bestow its blessings over the Kenzo eau de parfum, the Gillette shavers and Lumix DSLRs, and later, up on L2, the Coach handbags and the Amul's shrikhand, the nuts and dates and the Ramdev tea masala; we were moving on to L3 when I realised, with no real sense of surprise, a growing throng of shoppers gathering around me, all following the figure like I was, all watching the radiant being bless every item in Mustafa.

I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned, nearly gasped - it was my companion, finally, with an urgent look on his face, asking me when the procession had begun. I told him I didn't know. He then pointed at the items in my shopping cart. Were they blessed? Were they touched by the divine? No, I told him; they did not have the opportunity. An older woman then asked the two of us, having overheard our exchange: Do you know where we are going? What happens next, once there is nothing left in Mustafa to bless? Will it bless us next?

I stared at her, calmly, as the crowd around me grew restless. She was asking other people now if the figure would bless us too, if we were worthy of its blessings. What about us, she said. Our lives! And I found myself smiling at her, sadder and yet more serene, just as the masses began to clamour and make their demands; I watched my companion chase after the figure, just as it ascended the stairs to the topmost floor.

• Daryl Qilin Yam, 29, has published one novel, Kappa Quartet (2016), and spent the circuit breaker finishing his next one. To read the other works in this series online, go to str.sg/30Days. To listen to them in a podcast, go to str.sg/JWkr

• For more local digital arts offerings, visit a-list.sg to appreciate #SGCultureAnywhere

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 16, 2020, with the headline 'A Visitation At Mustafa by Daryl Qilin Yam'. Print Edition | Subscribe