Mother and I were walking back to the car after dinner. It was from one of those new hotels that sprung up after the torrent of development that continues to assail Melaka today. We navigated a sea of cars across the congested roads, as waves of the past ebbed at the corners of my mind.
“Ma, remember when we used to live thereee?” I wagged my finger excitedly at a derelict tower of apartments.
“And remember how you used to bring me across to Mahkota Parade for kindergarten, except back then there weren’t any roads. There was a huuuge field and I used to slow you down by picking the mushrooms that grew there!” I spoke excitedly, resurrecting the childishness in my memories.
Mother smiled at my risible act, and remarked at how I remembered all of that. “I used to be the only one who had the key to that tiny gate…it was a special privilege given by the management,” she playfully recalled.
Yes, I remember. Back then, I used to wait by the balcony, watching expectedly for mother’s return. As soon as I spotted her regally pacing across the field, I would alert the rest of the family – mom’s back, it’s dinner time!
Yet now, in place of a field that used to muffle her stern steps, we hurriedly cross a cold gravel road, watching warily for the noisy and impatient motorists.
Century Hotel used to be abuzz with excitement. Its walkways were always full of people, always pacing with a tropical hearth. I remember how the pools (there are two!) were filled with the laughter of children, and watchful adults that sometimes snuck into the basement sauna. The buffets were dazzling – we celebrated many occasions there, and it might be the filter of nostalgia, but those candles and lights always seemed just a bit warmer, just a bit brighter.
Yet now, it withers, only a shade of its former glory. The lively crowds, the thumping music that went on too late into the night, all replaced by an eerie silence, concierges concealing the abject bleakness of these halls with their forced smiles. There is not even enough traffic to drown the dull hum of air conditioning, and footsteps would click awkwardly and intrusively against the marble floor, inviting absolutely no attention.
When the hotel changed its management and rebranded itself as ‘Mahkota Hotel’, it changed the name ‘century’ to ‘crown’; in this effort to retain or rebuild its glory, I couldn’t help but see it as a poignant symbol marking the passing of a hotel that had had its time. It was indeed no longer the hotel of the century.
Since then, the hotel never really recovered. Other newer hotels were erected in the region, accompanied by more malls than I can bother keeping track of. Since space was becoming scarce, developers began building upwards. But Mahkota, the ‘crown’, stayed the same, rusting and wasting away with all its land, sticking out like a stubby thumb in the vast expanse of an emerging metropolis. I can only imagine how developers would hungrily eye the ‘crown’ with bated breath.
And so the tides of change continue, punctuated with reminders that nothing will last. These little, mute reminders scream of our transience, that one day the consuming earth awaits even those who remember us, until we are no more. That even the scribes of our stories will one day be mute, and our immortal texts perish by the humble moth or the indifferent fire.
For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 9:5-6
So, just like Century/Mahkota Hotel, even the new hotels will soon pass. The question is what do we make of it? How do we deal with the ephemerality of our lives?
A friend recently shared an article by Martin Hägglund on Knausgaard’s Secular Confession. In it, Hägglund describes Augustine’s passion for the eternity and transcendence of God, which does not fade like everything else does with the passage of time. However, unlike Augustine, Knausgaard decidedly struggles with ‘owning’ and ‘attaching’ to the wealth of his life in the present, fully understanding and appreciating its transience as a feature that makes his life richer as it happens, instead of trusting in a static transcendent reality that can dull and betray the beautiful ephemerality of our lives.
And thus, Knausgaard’s struggle encourages us to focus our gaze on our lives as they are being lived; not to restrict them to only those important or distinguished moments, but even prosaic and dull activities. After our gaze is turned inwards to appreciate the fulness of our lives, we are to acknowledge how we are attached to these transient things, and grow even more attached to them as they pass. This meaningful engagement is not an easy standard to live up to, and that is why it is a struggle.
Rather, to own our lives is to acknowledge that struggle belongs to the very life we want to lead. If we want our lives to matter, we want to have something that we can lose.
Here I see at least two ways to live. Knausgaard’s My Struggle describes a life that is material first. “We are spirit but also matter and the former depends on the latter. We can compose our lives—give them form and meaning—but in the end we will disappear in a meaningless process of decomposition. Knausgaard makes us confront such decomposition, while keeping faith in the value of finite existence. He turns us back to our lives to see both form and formlessness, integration and disintegration.”
And then there is the Christian, who, trusting in Jesus’ words, believe that life is spirit, and the material or the flesh is secondary. We heed his words to store our treasures in heaven, we look forward to the room he has promised in paradise, and we listen closely to his teachings on the Spirit, being assured that the Spirit itself will teach and remind us of all things.
Yet I find it difficult to immediately say that the Christian devalues the present. Jesus himself lived corporeally, thirsting and hungering, weeping and agonising. Despite his teachings on the eternal, the Teacher seemed completely immersed in the particularity of time. It truly is a mystery, if indeed Jesus was God, that he had existed in the flesh at one point of human history; that once, the eternal was made ephemeral.
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. – Philippians 2:4-8
After Jesus’ resurrection, he demonstrated superhuman abilities (like apparition), yet retained very human, very temporal habits (like eating). I do not understand it; not only how a God condescended himself to be temporal, but how the Saviour he appointed exhibits both temporality and eternity.
So, are we spirit first, and material second? Or is it the other way around? I don’t think Knausgaard denies the importance of spirit, and neither does the Christian, the flesh, as though one’s sins were inconsequential. Yet we must struggle with this.
And when struggle is such an inbuilt feature of life, I can understand the allure of Knausgaard’s secularism. It is much easier (and wiser) to believe in a continuous struggle that constitutes life, instead of in an end of this struggling through religion – when struggling ends, does not life also?
I, too, struggle with my faith. I struggle often to remember the necessity of God’s role in my faith, an assurance I can rest in. And yet the veracity of this truth hangs provisionally over my mind, as I contemplate reasons for that belief. Vacillating between many thoughts, it culminates as a dark cloud of incomprehensible struggle.
He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. – Ecclesiastes 3:11
My phone screen lights up, and a friend texts me a few photos. Blurry snapshots of a dark scene, with red and blue lights. I make out a police car, some traffic cones, and a white sheet spread over a large area.
“Mahkota Hotel. Suicide.”
“1 hour ago.”
Maybe in the loneliness of their lives, the forgotten crown had been a suitable throne to descend from. Equally neglected, equally forgotten – a place to be understood, and soon to pass away like the rest of us.
And in the blaring sirens, the news coverage, the funerals and tears, they would be remembered for a time. But eventually, we must all be forgotten on this earth.