Be melting snow.
Wash yourself of yourself.
A white flower grows in the quietness.
Let your tongue become that flower.
At the end of this sentence, rain will begin.
At the rain’s edge, a sail.
Slowly the sail will lose sight of islands;
into a mist will go the belief in harbours
of an entire race.
Note: Masturah Alatas, a Singapore-born writer and teacher who lives in Italy, has written a children’s story that is not just for children. Clever grown-ups may have to reflect on what is put there for them, though not just for them. The story was originally published by Ethos Books, Singapore, in 2008.
Chapter 1 Miss Lim
Ariana Hashim’s special powers would have never been discovered had it not been for Miss Lim’s keen ear for music.
Miss Lim was a music teacher in St Mary’s Convent School, and Ariana was one of her Primary 3B pupils. Sometimes, though, it was hard to tell the teacher from the pupil.
Miss Lim was twenty-five years old and therefore could no longer be considered a ‘girl’. Yet, if she wore St Mary’s pink uniform, she might have easily been mistaken for one of the older pupils because she looked so girlish.
Miss Lim was thin and not very tall. She had shoulder-length, straight, black hair and she wore glasses which she would often push back into position with her index finger when they slid too far down her nose. Miss Lim liked to wear flowery, cotton dresses with sandals. When she stood, her feet pointed slightly inwards. Her short, clean toenails were never painted.
Miss Lim hardly ever smiled. But she pouted. Her small lips would protrude, as if she were waiting for someone to kiss her. Her pupils knew that when she pouted she was deep in thought.
The fact that Miss Lim hardly ever smiled didn’t mean that she was a stern and strict teacher, though. On the contrary, her pupils weren’t afraid of her at all. But they respected her and looked forward to her lessons.
Miss Lim often encouraged her pupils and made them feel relaxed and safe. She made her lessons interesting by giving her pupils snippets of information that were cut down to size for their age.
For example, she once told her Primary One class that the word ‘piano’ comes from the word ‘pianoforte’ which in Italian means ‘soft-hard’.
“Producing music from the pianoforte is all about hitting the black and white keys soft or hard,” Miss Lim had said to her Primary One class.
She told her Primary Two class the same thing, just adding that the pianoforte is also called fortepiano – “that is what the ‘f’ and the ‘p’ on the music note sheets stand for, so you know where to hit the keys hard and then soft” – and that the fortepiano was invented by the Florentine, Bartolomeo Cristofori, around 1700.
After lessons with Miss Lim, her pupils always felt as though they had learned something important that they would keep within themselves for the rest of their lives. They would go home and eagerly repeat to their parents the new knowledge they had acquired.
Chapter 2 Ariana’s voice
It happened one morning when Miss Lim was trying to teach her Primary 3B class the song ‘All the more, Singapore’ for the upcoming 1999 National Day celebrations. Amidst the childlike chorus, a little bit out of tune, Miss Lim was able to distinguish one beautiful voice coming from the back of the class. She traced it to the corner where Ariana was seated.
“Class, please stop for a moment. Now I want each of you to sing the song one by one,” Miss Lim said.
Miss Lim was so curious to hear Ariana’s voice on its own, but she didn’t want to make her curiosity so obvious. Ariana was quite a shy girl. If she knew that Miss Lim was trying to single her out, it might have made her self-conscious and that would have affected her performance. So Miss Lim called on Shoba to sing first, then Ai Lin, and then, finally, it was Ariana’s turn.
Ariana stood up. Ariana was as small as any Primary Three girl should be. But she had presence. She had an aura which commanded attention even if she wasn’t doing anything particularly spectacular. Some people said Ariana looked like a powerful, dynamic gymnast because her body was compact and muscular. And she wore her hair in a tight bun. She was the only girl in her school who wore her hair that way.
As soon as Ariana opened her mouth to sing, the most beautiful sounds came out of it. Ariana’s voice had a very unusual pitch. It was very difficult to describe. It was a unique blend of female voices characteristic of Chinese wayang, Malay dondang sayang, Italian opera and Indian Bollywood songs.
Ariana stopped singing. The whole class was stunned, so stunned that all the little girls broke out into peals of laughter. Ariana herself was smiling. She knew that her classmates’ laughter was not laughter of ridicule but it was laughter of amazement.
Miss Lim looked extremely pleased even though she wasn’t smiling. Her suspicions had been confirmed. The beautiful voice she had discerned was indeed Ariana’s. She simply said “Ariana, that was very nice. Sit down, please, and class settle down now. Let’s get back to work.”
Chapter 3 The first time
The next day, another surprise awaited the entire school congregation at the ritual morning flag-raising ceremony. St Mary’s Convent had both a morning session and an afternoon session. Every morning, at 7.45 am, the whole morning session school gathered in the open assembly area to sing the national anthem, Majulah Singapura, while a prefect from one of the upper classes raised the flag. Each class had to stand, two by two, in neat rows. No talking was allowed. On special occasions, like Children’s Day, one of the girls — usually the head prefect of one of the classes — would be called up to the microphone to read a speech to mark the event. If it was raining, the flag raising ceremony was done in the school’s indoor assembly hall.
That day the sun was shining. And it wasn’t Children’s Day or any other special day. Still, just before the flag raising ceremony began, Miss Lim pulled Ariana out of her class row up to the front to stand with all the other teachers and Sister Kelly, the school’s principal. Ariana was surprised. She found it odd to look at her school for the first time from the point of view of the teachers and Sister Kelly.
Sister Kelly was actually no longer a ‘sister’ — a nun — because she had left the mission. Nobody ever really knew why. It’s not like she then got married or anything. Some teachers and pupils just remember that one day Sister Kelly came to school wearing her nun’s habit and the next day she showed up in a skirt and blouse, her hair cut nicely short. Nevertheless, everybody still referred to Sister Kelly as Sister Kelly and not, more appropriately, as Miss Wong.
Now Miss Lim must have evidently spoken to Sister Kelly about Ariana, which was why Ariana was in the front row with all the other teachers. Everybody seemed eager to see for themselves what novelty was about to befall them that morning. Sister Kelly walked up to the microphone and spoke.
“Good morning, school. This morning we are going to do something a little different. Only Ariana from Primary 3B is going to sing Majulah Singapura and we’re all going to listen.”
The school congregation was confused. Everybody looked at each other quizzically. Not sing Majulah Singapura? How is that possible? They remembered an incident when some students in another school were punished because they had kept quiet when Majulah Singapura was being sung. Somebody had spotted that they weren’t moving their lips, mouthing the words of the national anthem to the music, and reported it.
Sensing the school’s apprehension, Sister Kelly added: “You are not to sing it out loud, because that would drown Ariana’s voice. You are to sing it quietly to yourselves. Let the words and Ariana’s voice enter your heart.”
Ariana’s class began to fidget with excitement because they had already been given a taste of Ariana’s voice the previous day. They knew what to expect. But on the whole, they didn’t lose composure.
Ariana faced the entire school congregation. Her heart began to beat fast, her face felt hot, and her mouth went dry. Ariana had never sung on her own before in public. The first time she had sung in public was the day before, in class. But she didn’t consider her class public. Her class was where she had all her friends and her dear teacher, Miss Lim.
Ariana was standing in front of the microphone, but she was not tall enough to reach it. Never mind. She didn’t need it. Her voice was powerful enough. She began.
Mari kita rakyat Singapura sama-sama menuju, bahagia………
So far so good. Everyone was uplifted by Ariana’s melodious voice and was carried to the end of the national anthem.
Then something happened that nobody could have even remotely imagined. When Ariana got to the end, the ‘Majulah Singapura’ part, she held the last note for as long as she could hold her breath, like she had seen and heard opera singers on television do. Ariana had never done this before, but she decided at the spur of the moment to do it.
While Ariana held her voice on the last note, all of a sudden, the sky changed. The sun went away, clouds appeared, and the temperature dropped. It became very windy, the leaves on the trees near the assembly area turned crimson and rust brown and fell to the ground. Then it began to rain. Then – and this was the most shocking part of all – it began to snow!! But as soon as Ariana stopped singing, it stopped snowing, it stopped raining, the leaves on the ground flew back to the trees and turned green again, and the weather went back to normal. The sun came out again.
The entire St Mary’s Convent was shocked into a silent stupor at first. Ariana herself was so taken aback. She knew that she had a voice that people liked, but she had no idea that her voice had the power to change the weather.
The silence lasted only a few moments, however. The school congregation suddenly exploded into a loud round of applause, and everyone started screaming with glee. ‘Did you see that?’ ‘Did you feel that?’ ‘Is there still some snow in my hair or has it all melted away?’ ‘I can’t believe it. I can’t believe what has just happened.’ ‘For a few seconds it felt like the whole outside was air-conditioned.’
That morning everyone was allowed to break into a noisy chatter and lose control for a while.
Chapter 4 Headline news
Needless to say, Sister Kelly wasted no time in contacting Ariana’s parents. She phoned Ariana’s home first. She knew that she was likely to find Ariana’s mother there. Ariana’s mother was a translator who worked mainly at home.
Sister Kelly took care not to alarm Ariana’s mother on the phone. No parent likes to receive a phone call from the school principal while their child is at school.
“Mrs Hashim, we have some very good news regarding your daughter, Ariana,” was the first thing Sister Kelly said to reassure Ariana’s mother. “Would you and your husband like to drop by the school, say in a couple of hours, so that you may see for yourselves? Do you give me permission to contact the press as well?”
Ariana’s mother answered ‘yes’ to both questions. She assumed that Ariana must have got top marks in a test and the principal wanted Ariana to represent St Mary’s Convent in the televised ‘Little Genius’ show. Or maybe her teachers had discovered that Ariana could draw very well, and they wanted to enter Ariana in the National Drawing competition.
Ariana’s parents were, of course, also aware that Ariana had a beautiful voice because they had sometimes heard her singing to herself in her bedroom. It was only a question of time, they thought, that somebody else would take notice of their daughter’s voice. Maybe they were being summoned to school because Sister Kelly wanted to tell them that Ariana was being chosen to sing at the National Day concert which was to be broadcast live on television. What an honour, to sing in front of the President, the Prime Minister and all the ministers, not to mention the whole of Singapore!
After speaking to Ariana’s mother, Sister Kelly immediately phoned the radio, the television and the press.
“Get over here immediately,” she ordered them.
Sister Kelly was not, ordinarily, a bossy person. But under the circumstances she had to sound authoritative.
“We have a student who can do very special things with her voice,” she clarified.
The reporters and the cameras arrived later that morning. A perplexed Ariana was brought out into the school’s car park. She waved to her parents. She was surprised, but happy, to see them there.
“Show them what you can do,” said Sister Kelly.
The reporters and cameras were ready and waiting.
“What if it doesn’t work this time,” Ariana whispered to Sister Kelly, a little worried.
Ariana had never sung before in public until earlier that morning. But that was to her school. Now she had to sing to all these people from outside who were, except for her parents, complete strangers. She was mostly used to singing to herself songs she had heard on the radio. The funny thing was that she didn’t even sing under the shower because she didn’t bathe with a shower. She bathed with water that she dished out with a pail from a tempayan, a large one with a colourful dragon painted on it. And now, she was about to make it rain for the second time with her voice. Ariana was getting more than one chance to sing under a real, natural shower.
“Well, we will never know if you don’t give it a try now, will we?” said Sister Kelly, a little impatiently.
“Alright,” said Ariana, and she began to sing the national anthem.
It was the second time that day that Ariana had to sing Majulah Singapura. So even though she was very nervous, she was at least well warmed up. When she got to the end, she gave it all she had. “Majulah Singapuraaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa…..”
The same thing that had happed earlier in the morning happened again in front of the reporters and cameras. The sun disappeared, the temperature dropped, it became windy, the leaves changed colour and fell to the ground, it began to rain, and the rain turned to snow. Then, as soon as Ariana stopped singing, the weather went back to normal again.
“See what I mean?” said Sister Kelly to the gaping crowd in the car park.
Ariana’s parents had tears in their eyes.
“Now make sure you’ve got that on film,” Sister Kelly said to the cameramen.
“How did you do that? How did you do that?” the reporters wanted to know from Ariana.
But all she could say was “I don’t know. I found out only today that I can do that.”
Chapter 5 Stop press!
The next morning a huge crowd gathered outside St Mary’s Convent. They had all heard about Ariana on the news the day before. But it hadn’t snowed in anybody’s living room, so they were disappointed. They wanted to feel the weather change for themselves, so they showed up at St Mary’s Convent just before flag-raising ceremony, hoping that Ariana would put on a show — or ‘put on a snow’ as somebody put it — just for them.
But Ariana became a little frightened by all the attention she was getting and all the pressure she was being put under. So, in good Singaporean fashion, the forces of order were called in to keep the situation under control. In less than an hour, the police succeeded in peacefully dispersing the disappointed crowd that had gathered outside Ariana’s cool. Sorry, that was supposed to be Ariana’s school.
Everybody realised they had a big problem on their hands. Later that morning, a representative from the Ministry of Education, a psychologist from the Department of Health, a neurologist from the National University of Singapore, a meteorologist from the Climactic Sciences Department, the various directors and editors of the media, Ariana’s parents and Miss Lim were all summoned for an emergency meeting in Sister Kelly’s office.
“You have all acted very irresponsibly,” said Mr Koh, the representative from the Ministry of Education, “by making this news about Ariana’s powers public. You should have consulted with us first. We know too little about this phenomenon. The public doesn’t need to know yet.”
“What if, when it suddenly starts snowing when Ariana sings, this causes car accidents?” Miss Rashidah, the psychologist added. “What if someone gets a heart attack from the shock of seeing it snow in Singapore? What if someone kidnaps Ariana, to make her sing in a circus or to try and commercialise her power in some way or another?”
This last, doomsday scenario really alarmed Ariana’s parents. Sister Kelly, Miss Lim – who was pouting – and the members of the media all had their gazes focussed sheepishly on the Persian carpet in Sister Kelly’s office. Not even Miss Lim’s dainty little toes peeping out from her sandals could distract them from their thoughts. They were all feeling terribly guilty. Nobody needed any convincing that from that moment on, Ariana’s powers had to be banned and kept very hush-hush.
“However, we do want to do research on Ariana,” Mr Koh continued. “If Ariana’s parents are willing, and if it doesn’t cause too much stress on Ariana, we would like to carry out tests on her after school. We will be very discreet, of course.”
Ariana’s parents agreed. After all, the research was for a good cause. It was to be done in the name of science and progress.
“Now Miss Wong…I’m sorry…Sister Kelly, please announce to the school that the strange events of today have nothing to do with Ariana’s voice but it was a freak meteorological accident. It wasn’t snow but hailstones. The cold air was brought by the winds from Australia, where it is now winter. Press, I’d like you to write up a report with the same information. And you, Dr and Mrs Hashim, please tell Ariana never to hold her voice on a note again. She may sing, by all means, but she should never hold her voice for a long time. She is never to repeat this incident again and change the weather in Singapore. It is for her own, and everyone else’s, sake. I’m sure we can count on your cooperation.” Mr Koh had said all he needed to say.
Ariana’s parents nodded vigorously.
Chapter 6 The experiments 1
It was decided that the best place to carry out scientific experiments on Ariana in secrecy was at the National Stadium. There, the public could be kept out easily. There, if it snowed, nobody would get into a car accident or die of a heart attack.
The scientists – a group of men and women dressed in white jackets – arranged to meet Ariana at the National Stadium after school and only after she had done all her homework.
One of the first things that the scientists wanted to establish was the range that Ariana’s special powers covered. After all, it had snowed only on the assembly at St Mary’s Convent and nowhere else.
So what the scientists did was to place Ariana in the middle of the soccer field. Two observers were placed near her and three others were spread out far away in the stands. One scientist was sent outside the stadium to observe the trees. Then Ariana was told to sing Majulah Singapura and hold the endnote for as long as she could.
True enough, the weather changed. But it snowed only over the heads of those who could hear Ariana. The three observers in the stands didn’t feel the weather change because they couldn’t hear Ariana’s voice. All they saw was a tiny little girl in the middle of the soccer field of the gigantic national stadium. The observer outside the stadium reported no changes to the trees’ foliage.
So the scientists decided to use a microphone. This way everyone could hear Ariana’s rendition of Majulah Singapura blaring across the stadium. But the strange thing was that the weather did not change at all, not over Ariana, not anywhere.
Then the scientists repeated the same tests indoors, in one of the press rooms of the stadium. Observers waited to see if, when Ariana sang, it would snow over the head of the person standing outdoors, who was within earshot, and also over the heads of all those indoors. But again, Ariana’s powers failed to work. The weather didn’t change over anybody’s head.
The scientists came to the following conclusions: Ariana’s powers worked only outdoors, without the use of a microphone, and only for those within earshot of her voice.
It was a fruitful day of research. After singing Majulah Singapura so many times at the top of her lungs in an empty stadium, Ariana felt like she was rehearsing for the opening ceremony of the Olympic games.
Chapter 7 The experiments 2
On the second day of research, the scientists set out to establish if Ariana’s powers worked only with Majulah Singapura or also with ordinary pop songs in English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil. Someone also suggested making her sing an aria from an Italian opera, just to see if her powers would work.
Now the problem was teaching Ariana to sing songs in Mandarin, Tamil and Italian. She did not know these languages well, even though the first two sounded familiar to her. After all, she lived in Singapore where she was used to hearing Mandarin and Tamil around her.
It took several hours to teach her to sing in Mandarin, Tamil and Italian with the help of cassettes and CDs and with encouragement from the scientists. But Ariana was a patient and hardworking student. Besides, she was used to picking up songs quickly from the radio anyway.
The other thing scientists needed to know was how long Ariana had to hold the last note in order for her powers to work. Until she was completely out of breath and turned blue in the face, or was it enough just to hold her voice for a few long seconds? Did she have to wait till she got to the end of the song, or could she set off the magical effect somewhere in the middle of a song? In the span of one song, how many times could Ariana make it snow?
After many trials, these were the results. The weather would change only once, at the end of a song, in any language, when Ariana held the last note until she couldn’t anymore.
At the end of that day Ariana, a singing tower of Babel, was breathless and exhausted. It had rained and snowed over everybody’s heads at least four times. Everybody was tired and eager to go home, get out of their damp clothes and wash their hair.
Chapter 8 The experiments 3
After having figured out the range and linguistic variety associated with Ariana’s vocal prowess, the next thing the scientists wanted to figure out was the cycle. What order did the weather change follow? Did it follow the natural cycle of the seasons? If it was hot and sunny (summer), did autumn follow, then winter, then spring? What if it was raining? Will it be warm and sunny next, and then turn cold and begin to snow? Or will it snow first and then turn sunny? What about winter? Will it always snow in the winter or can it just rain? After all, it doesn’t always snow in winter. Sometimes, even though it is cold, it can still be sunny with clear blue skies in the winter. At other times it can also be rainy and foggy.
The scientists already had the data from the sunny days and non-rainy, overcast days when the other tests had been carried out. The sunny or overcast day cycle went like this: hot and sunny or overcast (summer), cool, cloudy and windy (autumn), cold, cloudy and snow (winter), cool, sunny, no wind, rain (spring), then back to a hot and sunny day.
To find out the rainy-day cycle, the scientists had to wait for a rainy day to carry out the experiment. They didn’t have long to wait because in Singapore, it rains rather frequently.
So one rainy afternoon, Ariana was sent to the middle of the stadium field. But only after a big discussion among the scientists as to whether Ariana should stand in the rain with, or without, an umbrella. With an umbrella, some argued, it would be like her singing indoors, so her powers wouldn’t work. Without an umbrella, others insisted, she might catch a cold. Worse still, she could be struck by lightning.
In the end, the scientists decided – and only after consulting with Ariana’s parents –that Ariana should sing without an umbrella. Ariana was a strong, robust girl and probably wouldn’t catch a cold that easily. And Ariana was to sing only when there was no lightning. No risks were to be taken there. Several children get struck by lightning each year in Singapore. There was also a long debate as to which song Ariana was going to sing. In the end they settled for the most obvious song: Bulan hujan, a popular hit about the rainy months.
Everybody huddled around Ariana, under their umbrellas, almost falling asleep, while Ariana grinded through the slow, melancholic song. Finally, at the last held note, it stopped raining, then it became sunny and cooler, then it stayed sunny AND it snowed, then it stopped snowing, turned cloudy and was still cool but there was no rain, then it turned back to a warm, cloudy, rainy day.
Ariana got almost immediately soaked through with rain the moment she started singing. It was quite a heavy downpour. Her clothes clung to her. She felt cold and started to shiver. She was thinking to herself as the rain pelted down on her body: Thank goodness rain falls in drops. Just imagine if rain were to fall as sheets of water, not drops, like a guillotine…
The scientists concluded, after three days of experiments, that: the weather always returned to what it was at the moment Ariana started singing, and the sequence of weather changes brought on by Ariana’s voice followed the normal cycle of the four seasons. But strangely enough, there was never any thunder and lightning just before it rained. The other thing that the scientists noticed was that in the sunny day cycle, even though it rained when the sun was shining, no rainbow appeared. The scientists conjectured that since the change from one season to another was so rapid, there wasn’t time for thunder and lightning or rainbows to form.
Chapter 9 The experiments 4
The next thing that the scientists wanted to find out was if Ariana’s powers worked also if she simply shouted, without singing.
Now Ariana was asked to do something she was normally never allowed to do, that is shout and scream. Shouting is definitely unfeminine, and screaming is a sign that a girl is frightened, which is why nobody should hope to hear little girls scream.
That day, however, Ariana was told to shout like a warrior making a charge on a battlefield. She was very hesitant about doing something as boisterous as this. It was something her little brother, Ariffin, would have loved to do. But after much coaxing and telling her that she should imagine that she was an actress in a film playing the role of Hua Mulan, the female warrior, Ariana eventually let out the loudest roar she never thought she was capable of producing.
But nothing happened. The moment stayed warm and overcast as it was before she roared.
“Now scream like you’ve just seen a snake under your bed, or worse, you’ve just climbed into your bed and discovered Mummy snake and hundreds of little baby snakes under the covers,” one of the scientists instructed Ariana.
Ariana knew exactly what it was like to find snakes in her house. Her home in Bukit Timah was near a jungle. Many times she had the misfortune of almost stepping on snakes in her dining room, and they certainly did make her scream. So it was easy for her to scream as shrilly as she could for the scientists, as though she could actually feel the slimy, slithery snakes clinging all over her legs.
“Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee…….,” she screamed.
But nothing happened.
Ariana went home that day with a slight sore throat.
Chapter 10 The experiments 5
Finally, the very last thing that the scientists wanted to find out was if Ariana’s powers would work at night.
Now the problem was finding a truly, naturally dark place in Singapore. But where? How far can the gaze stretch out over Singapore without meeting artificial light – incandescent, fluorescent, neon or whatever?
One of the scientists remarked that the only time it was truly dark in Singapore was when there was a national blackout. “Outside there was no light anywhere. The flats, the people, just still or moving dark masses. The only light you would see were the fireflies and the orange glow coming from the ends of cigarettes,” he reminisced.
A national blackout? In Singapore? None of the other scientists had heard of such a thing because they were younger than Mr Blackout. The national blackout must have happened way before their time. Well, the scientists couldn’t very well sit around and wait for another national blackout to happen in Singapore. They had to find another solution.
There was no point in conducting the experiment in the stadium with the lights off. Some artificial lighting from the surrounding flats, the streetlamps and the cars would still be able to seep into the stadium.
Someone suggested carrying out the experiment in the middle of the ocean. “Now that’s a really dark place”, he said. Nobody asked him how he knew the middle of the ocean was a really dark place, but it was something they could all imagine to be true.
But if the scientists wanted to find a really dark place in the middle of the ocean, they would have had to go very far out, far away from the Singapore shoreline, far away from the lights of the Singapore skyline, far away from the lights of the other ships docked in Singapore waters. Practically, they would have to go to the proverbial ‘middle of nowhere’ where they would not be able to see the horizon, and where the only illumination came from the moon, the stars and the white clouds overhead.
All the scientists agreed that this option was not feasible. First of all, they would have to rent a boat and someone to steer it since none of them knew how to do it themselves. Secondly, they would have to get permission to venture out into the ocean, permission from the Singapore government and also from the Malaysian government in case they were to accidentally enter Malaysian waters. Several weeks could go by before permission was granted, and the scientists were not willing to wait that long.
Furthermore, conducting an experiment in the middle of the ocean was dangerous. And not just because of the danger of drowning. After all, they would all be conscientious enough to wear life jackets. There were other types of danger. What if a patrol boat opened fire on them because they were mistaken for illegal immigrants? No, it was dangerous to carry out an experiment in the middle of the ocean. And very scary, as dark places usually are.
The other possibility was to carry out the experiment in the thick of the jungle, far away from the streetlights, the car lights, the flat lights, far away from any kind of artificial light.
Which jungle? Bukit Timah Nature Reserve or MacRitchie Reservoir Park? The scientists settled for MacRitchie because it was right in the middle, right in the heart of Singapore, and it was a place everyone could get to and find parking space easily. Good. That was an easy decision. The scientists did not squabble over their choice.
But then an argument ensued about something else. One of the scientists said he was afraid of the jungle. Another said she was afraid of ghosts in the jungle. Mr Blackout said he was afraid of snakes in the jungle. Finally, one scientist, who wasn’t afraid of anything in the jungle, took command. “I’ll conduct the experiment by myself in the presence of Ariana’s parents. All of you cowards can just stay home.”
So one night, at 10.30, the Brave Scientist, Ariana and Ariana’s parents made their way with torches through MacRitchie Reservoir’s jungle. It wasn’t difficult for them to penetrate the jungle because they simply followed a well-beaten path which went right through the jungle. People would go walking and jogging on this path, and school children would run their cross-country races on it, too. But at that time of night, there was not a soul in sight. Only Ariana, the Brave Scientist, and Dr and Mrs Hashim in the middle of the MacRitchie Reservoir jungle.
When they settled on their spot, the Brave Scientist, Ariana and her parents turned off their torches. The sudden darkness made them feel as though they were in a new, magical world they had never been to before even though they were right in the heart of their very own Singapore they knew like their own faces.
Dr and Mrs Hashim stood close to each other because the darkness made them feel uneasy. The Brave Scientist had no one to stand close to, so he just clenched his fists tightly. Ariana clutched her mother’s hand and seemed eager to start singing and get the experiment over and done with.
So Ariana sang Majulah Singapura in the middle of MacRitchie Reservoir’s jungle. She sang it once, she sang it twice, but nothing happened. It appeared that her powers did not work at night.
When Ariana went home, the first thing she did was to turn on all the lights in her house as she got ready for bed. She was relieved that the experiments were over. The scientists, too, as far as she could tell, were quite satisfied with the data they had collected. The only problem was that they couldn’t make their findings public. Information about the girl who could make it snow in Singapore was classified. Top secret. But at least there was information to classify, store away and perhaps, one day, base future research on.
Ariana was also a little bit sad, though. She knew that now the experiments were over she could never use her voice again to change the weather. She had no excuse to make it snow in Singapore again.
Chapter 11 The Majulah ghost
What Ariana did not know was that while she was singing in the jungle, someone had overheard her. A man, who had eaten too much for dinner, had gone for a walk on Lornie Road to help speed up the digestion of all the food he had consumed. When he heard this strange, beautiful voice singing Majulah Singapura emanating from the trees, he turned pale and rushed home to his wife.
“Do you remember that girl who collapsed and died of an asthma attack some years ago while she was singing the national anthem?” he asked his wife excitedly.
“Ya,” she said. “I just read in the newspapers the other day that a bunch of school kids were taken to visit her grave.”
“Where is she buried?”
“In in the Chinese cemetery opposite MacRitchie Reservoir, I think.”
“Reeeeally?” said the man, his eyes wide open with disbelief. “That’s where she’s buried? I didn’t know that. No wonder. I just heard the jungle in front of the cemetery singing Majulah Singapura…”
And so that was how the legend of the ‘Majulah ghost’, the ‘hantu in the hutan’, started in Singapore.
Chapter 12 Obedient Ariana
A couple of years went by. By the time Ariana was in Primary Five, people had stopped talking about the girl who could make it snow in Singapore. Sometimes, though, some of Ariana’s classmates – the ones who remembered what Ariana was able to do when she was in Primary Three — would cajole her into using her powers for them.
“Come on, lah. Do it just once. For us only,” they would say.
But Ariana was an obedient child. She wasn’t going to break the law. She wasn’t going to take any risks. She certainly didn’t want anyone to get hurt on account of her voice, and she certainly did not want to get herself kidnapped and spend the rest of her life singing in a circus.
So she lied and said “I can’t do it. I could never do it. The first time was just a freak accident. The weather went gila right at the time I was singing. That’s what the metro..metrologist told me.”
Ariana thought that if she threw in a big, scientific word, she would sound more convincing. But being only ten years old, she wasn’t quite able to pronounce the difficult word ‘meteorologist’.
Somehow Ariana’s classmates didn’t really believe her. It was hard for them not to believe what they had actually seen with their own eyes. But they respected her desire not to sing and hold her voice on the last note, and they eventually stopped badgering her.
Chapter 13 The boy in the drain
One day, however, Ariana had no choice but to disobey. It was a question of life and death.
While Ariana was waiting for her mother to pick her up after school, she went for a walk in her school field. As she was strolling about aimlessly, humming happily to herself, she heard a strange, whining sound coming from a monsoon drain nearby. Ariana wasn’t afraid to approach the drain because she thought she was going to find a dog, or maybe a cat or a bird, in distress in it. Ariana liked animals and she especially liked to nurse wounded animals.
But when she got to the drain and looked in, she didn’t find an animal. Instead she found a boy, sprawled like a wet, limp rag, in the drain. He had cut his knee and it was bleeding. He was conscious, but his eyes were shut tight against the high and strong afternoon sun.
Now Ariana didn’t waste time asking herself, or the boy, how he had ended up in her school field’s drain. All she could think of was how to help this boy.
“Aiyo!” was the first thing she said to him.
“Yaaaa,” he said. He sounded like a bleating sheep.
Ariana couldn’t understand why he had answered in the affirmative when her exclamation was just an expression of shock. It did not require a yes/no answer.
“Can you hear me? Can you understand me?” Ariana asked.
“Yaaaaa,” the boy bleated.
“Here, take my hand. I’ll pull you out,” Ariana offered.
The drain wasn’t too wide or too deep. And it had hardly any water in it. Usually, during a rainstorm, the monsoon drains fill up with kopi susu coloured water. But it hadn’t rained in a few days, so the drain was dry. The drain was about a metre deep and a metre wide. Ariana felt she was capable of pulling the boy out on her own from where she stood.
“Yaaaaa,” the boy bleated again, without raising his arm to Ariana.
Ariana had the impression that whatever she said to the boy – even if she had said ‘Are you a girl?’ – the boy would have bleated ‘Yaaa’. So there was only one thing to do. Stop talking and get down to action.
Ariana climbed into the drain and tried to pull the boy out with all her might. But the boy, being slightly older than Ariana, was bigger and heavier than she was. Ariana was not strong enough to pull him out. Ariana noticed that the boy was baking, overheating, in the sun. He was sweating profusely. His shirt was all wet and was sticking to his skin. Ariana thought that with the time it would take her to run back to her school to get help, and then run back to him with help, it might be too late. The boy might already be dead. The headlines in the newspapers the next day would read ‘Boy dies of sunstroke in school drain’. How horrible.
So Ariana had to come up with a solution in a few seconds. She looked around her. There was no one about except her and the boy. The coast was clear. She took a deep breath and began to sing Majulah Singapura.
The poor boy in the drain, with his eyes shut, thought that he had already died and he was being given an official state funeral with the national anthem, gun salute and all.
When Ariana got to the last note, she held it for as long as she could.
True enough, the weather changed. It became cool and windy, then it rained, then it snowed, and then it became dry and sunny again as soon as Ariana stopped singing. The boy was able to cool down. He felt better and was able to climb out of the drain on his own, even though he was still in a daze. He didn’t really understand what had happened to him. Good. This meant that he would not be able to tell on Ariana and her secret would be safe. But he thanked Ariana anyway for saving his life and limped home with his sore knee.
Ariana was sorry that she didn’t get the boy’s name. Maybe she would never see him again. It’s true, Singapore is small. But it is possible, even in Singapore, for two people to meet and then never meet again.
At home, the boy tried to explain to his mother why he was late.
“I went to look for my football which I thought I had kicked by mistake into St Mary’s Convent’s field,” he said.
“Haiya, you. Only think about playing football,” his mother lamented.
“I fell into a drain,” the boy continued. “I almost fainted because it was very hot. Then a girl arrived out of nowhere. She opened her mouth, I heard Majulah Singapura, then it became cool and windy, then something really cold and wet fell on my face. Like ice.”
And his mother said: “What? A girl spat ice kacang on your face, is it?”
Chapter 14 Mrs Fernandez
Miss Lim was absent from school for two weeks. Her pupils were not told why. Was she sick? Was she on leave to do a course? Had she got married and was she on her honeymoon? Anyway, during Miss Lim’s absence, Ariana’s class was provided with a relief teacher: Mrs Fernandez.
The first time Mrs Fernandez walked into class, some of the girls had to suppress their giggles because of something Shoba had spontaneously said. As soon as Shoba saw Mrs Fernandez, she commented, under her breath: “She’s wearing a purple sari. Wah! She looks like my favourite, grape-flavoured ice-lolly that makes my tongue purple!”
Now Mrs Fernandez was one of those who believed that the whole Ariana story was just a hoax even before the press cover-up. A girl who could make it snow in Singapore? What a laugh! Mrs Fernandez, like many others, believed in the official version of the story: that Ariana could not make it snow in Singapore.
But Mrs Fernandez appreciated Ariana’s voice, even though she had a funny way of showing it. The first time she heard Ariana sing, Mrs Fernandez remarked: “Where did that voice come from? Is Dame Mari Te Kenawa hiding under your desk?”
On another occasion, after Ariana had sung a solo, Mrs Fernandez simply said: “Have you swallowed a Maria Callas CD or what?”
Whenever Mrs Fernandez asked a question, Ariana never put her hand up even though she knew the answer because she didn’t want Mrs Fernandez to think that she was a know-it-all, a smart aleck. But once Ariana would have loved to intervene, to come to Shoba’s rescue. It was when Mrs Fernandez had asked: “Where was Beethoven born?”
“Bonn,” replied Shoba impulsively, without even waiting to be called on.
Shoba was like that. When she was sure of something she became over-confident and over-excited. Even Shoba’s appearance matched her sprightly personality. Shoba was tall and gangly, and the curls of her hair looked like springs. She also had dimples on her cheeks which endeared everyone to her when she smiled. Shoba was so sure of the answer to Mrs Fernandez’s question because it was something Miss Lim had told the class a few weeks before.
“Yes, born,” said Mrs Fernandez.
“Bonn,” repeated Shoba, this time more clearly and with more stress.
“Yes, yes. Born, born. What is wrong with you? Have you turned into a parrot or something? Is the question so difficult?” snapped Mrs Fernandez impatiently. The whole class could feel her mounting irritation.
“Bonn, Germany,” clarified a very anxious Shoba in a trembling voice. Shoba could not smile because she was a little frightened. Had she smiled, her dimples would have shown and maybe Mrs Fernandez would not have lost her cool.
“Yes, Germany. That’s right. Finally. But what’s wrong with your English? Speak in complete sentences. What is this nonsense ‘Born Germany’? Where’s your subject, verb and preposition? And what atrocious pronunciation! Beethoven was BORN – not bonn – in Germany.”
At this point, Ariana wanted to jump up and say, “What Shoba meant to say was that Beethoven was born in Bonn, and Bonn is in Germany.”
But Ariana knew better than to challenge Mrs Fernandez. Mrs Fernandez would have thought that she was being impertinent. What was Ariana trying to do? Humiliate and embarrass Mrs Fernandez in front of the whole class? Was she trying to show that Mrs Fernandez didn’t know that Beethoven was born in Bonn?
The pupils were happy when Miss Lim came back. But they also missed Mrs Fernandez. They found her funny in her own way because she always spoke her mind. The pupils, although they may not have realised it then, had benefited from their exposure to teachers who had different personalities and styles.
Chapter 15 The three Ps
There were others, though, who, unlike Mrs Fernandez, truly believed that Ariana had the power to change the weather. They did not believe that the Ariana story was just a hoax.
Three men, for example, — let’s just call them P, P and P — had come into possession of a complete recording of Ariana’s meteorological version of Majulah Singapura. Now nobody knows how they came into possession of the recording. Were they secretly hiding outside (or inside) the stadium when experiments were being conducted on Ariana? Did they just happen to have a recording device when they passed by St Mary’s Convent that morning and heard Ariana sing the national anthem? Nobody will ever know.
P, P and P had no intention of kidnapping Ariana. No, they were actually quite good men at heart. But true, they did realise that they had stumbled upon a gold mine in Ariana’s voice. They had come up with a brainwave of an idea to make a success out of Ariana’s voice.
The idea went like this. It’s always so hot in Singapore, right? Everybody knows this. But never mind because lots of places are aircon now – homes, offices, shopping centres, taxis, buses, even the public toilets. The three Ps’ idea was to find a way to use Ariana’s voice to create the four seasons in Singapore in a natural way. This way Singaporeans would save on their consumption of electricity.
The three Ps had no idea what the results of the experiments carried out in the stadium were. For example, they did not know that Ariana’s powers did not work indoors or when transmitted by electronic devices such as a microphone. So they had to start their own research from scratch, relying only on the recording they had. And they had to carry out their research in utmost secrecy. If they were found out, they would surely get into big trouble with the police. They might even be sent to prison and this, they definitely did not want. None of the three P’s wanted to go to P.
Under those conditions, it was very difficult for the three Ps to carry out research effectively. First of all, it was hard for them to get all the equipment they needed. Plus, they needed to spend long hours together cooped up indoors. It was quite hard for them to always come up with a credible excuse for their wives, girlfriends and mothers to convince them why they needed to spend a lot of time indoors together. Sometimes they said they wanted to surf the Internet together, sometimes they said they wanted to play Play Station together.
Nevertheless, the three Ps persisted in their research. They nurtured aspirations of becoming the first Singaporeans to win the Nobel prize for atmospheric physics. They fantasised about their four seasons invention being able to reduce global warming, and reduce poverty and famine in Africa, because if you can create the conditions where it rains regularly in Africa, food will grow.
Their ingenious idea was to find a way to silently broadcast Ariana’s voice in the atmosphere, but not concentrated all in one moment so that the seasonal changes take place only in that short span of time. The three Ps wanted to find a way to split up Ariana’s voice, spread it out at intervals of three months to simulate the seasonal changes in temperate climates. This way Singapore, too, would have four seasons, not just one hot and rainy and one aircon season. The three Ps were thinking of using rain flies in their research, those flies that come out at night and fly around light bulbs just before a rainstorm. The three Ps wanted to understand what the connection between rain flies, bulbs and rainstorms was, and somehow see if a similar mechanism could be established if Ariana’s voice was released electronically, at timed intervals, into the atmosphere.
The three Ps were harbouring dreams of their natural air conditioner becoming the greatest invention of the 21st century. The three Ps had a very difficult task on their hands. Let us leave them, busy with their research. Who knows, maybe one day we will hear from the three Ps again.
Chapter 16 Ariana goes to Italy
When Ariana left primary school, she joined Clifford Girls’ Secondary School. By that time, she had already become quite famous in Singapore because of her voice. Some people even nicknamed her ‘Aria’. Other, more superstitious, people believed that Singapore was destined to produce a world class singer because of the ‘sing’ in Sing-a-pore. But every time they put forth this theory, the reaction they got was “Cheh, that sounds like a very stupid joke. There is also a ‘pore’ in Sing-a-pore. Does that mean we are going to become world specialists in pores?”
It was not uncommon to hear Ariana on the radio or see her on television. She was often invited to official functions to sing. There was talk about having her sing in a movie. Ariana had also begun to write her own songs.
One day, when Ariana was in Secondary Two, she received a letter from the Italian Embassy inviting her to apply for an exchange programme in Italy. Somebody from Italy was to come to Malaysia and Singapore to study Chinese opera and Malay gamelan, and Ariana was to go to the prestigious Santa Cecilia Conservatory in Rome to study Italian opera. The programme lasted a month and Ariana was to go during the school holidays. She was to be accompanied by her mother, and all living arrangements and expenses were to be taken care of. It was too good to be true!
“Papa, can I go? Pleeease, can I go?” Ariana pleaded with her father.
Dr Hashim realised that going to Italy was the opportunity of a lifetime for Ariana. He was convinced that the exposure would be good for Ariana. He would miss her, and his wife, of course. But he and Ariffin could always go to Italy to visit them. Dr Hashim had never been to Italy before, and it sounded like a nice holiday. So he agreed.
Ariana was beside herself with joy. She was going to Italy, the land which produced operas and a singing style her own voice partially resembled!
Chapter 17 The interviews 1
When Ariana returned from Italy, she gave a lot of interviews to the Singapore media. She told them that she had learnt some Italian. She said that summer in Italy was very hot and dry, even hotter than Singapore, and that her room wasn’t aircon and didn’t have a ceiling fan.
“Cannot put ceiling fan because the ceiling was painted,” Ariana explained. “It had frescoes.”
Ariana also told the press that she had learnt to sing Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. She explained that though Four Seasons is a violin concerto and not an opera, she was taught to use her voice to replace the sound of the violins.
“Here, I’ll show you,” and Ariana opened her mouth to sing, sounding like a bird making a beautiful love call.
And finally, Ariana casually mentioned that she had been invited on Italian television to sing both Fratelli d’Italia — the Italian national anthem — and Majulah Singapura. She had also sung Ave Maria in Latin during an open-air concert to a crowd of thousands of people gathered in Piazza di Spagna, one of the main squares of Rome. Ariana sounded so proud of the fact that she could sing in Latin. Ariana didn’t mention, though, that the MC had introduced her as one of the youngest and most promising sopranos in the world because she didn’t want to sound like she was boasting.
Chapter 18 Against Ariana
Now what Ariana had blurted out about singing the Italian national anthem and Ave Maria sparked a nationwide controversy that Ariana would have never been able to predict.
“How can a Singaporean sing the Italian national anthem?” some said. “How can Majulah Singapura be sung, just like that, on Italian television? It is not a pop song. What if Italians weren’t showing enough respect when Ariana was singing Majulah Singapura? Maybe they were dancing, or talking to themselves, or holding hands, or kissing, or looking at their cell phones.”
Worst of all, others pointed out, “how can a Muslim girl sing Ave Maria? It may be alright for people of other religions to sing Ave Maria, but Muslims can’t sing it because they don’t worship the Virgin Mary.”
“But that’s precisely the point,” others insisted. “Because they don’t worship the Virgin Mary, shouldn’t they be allowed to sing it because to them it’s just a song like any other?”
“No,” came the rebuttal. “The issue is not whether they believe or not in what they are singing, but that others would think they are Christian because they are singing a tribute to the Virgin Mary.”
People were phoning Dr Hashim and saying “How can bla bla bla…”. Everywhere Dr Hashim went, people were coming up to him, raising their hands and saying “How can?”
“It would be better if Ariana just stuck to singing Malay songs or nasyid,” they suggested. “She should only sing the songs that are part of her culture and tradition.” Others felt that Ariana shouldn’t even sing nasyid because her voice would distract listeners from the true meanings of the songs. “Religious songs are not supposed to give pleasure,” they said.
Needless to say, Dr Hashim did not agree with this diatribe against his daughter. He was faced with the problem of teaching his daughter how to be loyal to her own tradition while at the same time have interest and respect for other traditions.
But he also felt that Ariana was too young to take full responsibility and be the centre of a controversy. So he asked her to issue a statement to the press saying that she was sorry for offending Singaporean sensibilities and that she hadn’t realised the consequences of what she had done because she was too young and inexperienced.
In private, however, Dr Hashim said to his daughter: “Be patient, Ariana. Your time will come. At the right time and in the right place, flowers will bloom. You show the beauty and tolerance of your own culture also when you are able to appreciate the value of and correctly represent other cultures. Why is it that Madonna can sing the Sufi poetry of Jalaludin Rumi, but you cannot sing Ave Maria? Do you hear the whole world telling her that she has betrayed her culture or her tradition?”
Ariana was confused. How could the Madonna have sung Rumi’s poetry twelve hundred years before he was born? And then she realised that her father was talking about Madonna, the American pop star, not the Madonna, the Virgin Mary. Up to that point, Ariana didn’t even know that Madonna had sung Rumi. All of a sudden, she remembered her primary school teacher, Miss Lim, who was always able to teach a valuable lesson with even the simplest of examples.
“When you are old enough to defend yourself and hold your own ground, I don’t care whether you sing a Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish or Christian song, or the national anthems of all the nations of the world, just as long as you do it respectfully and with style. Then you will show that you are a truly cultured and tolerant person. And I will be just as proud of you as I am now.”
Dr Hashim’s voice was shaking as he delivered these words, and Ariana’s eyes filled with tears.
Chapter 19 The Interviews 2
The year is 2007 and Ariana is now sixteen years old. She has grown up into a tall, slender young lady. Her body has lost the stockiness of its primary school days. She does not quite fit the image of a typical opera singer. But she still wears her hair in a tight bun. And she still occasionally gives interviews.
Interviewer: What are you reading now?
Ariana: The biography of Om Khalthoum, the legendary Egyptian singer. My father gave it to me for my birthday. I am also listening to her songs even though I don’t understand Arabic. She had a marvellous, powerful voice. She was very popular in the Mediterranean, in Italy, in Israel, all over. Many men fell in love with her because of her voice.
Interviewer: What do you want to be when you grow up?
Ariana: I don’t know, maybe a teacher, a music history professor, a scientist or a meteorologist. Maybe even a veterinarian.”
Interviewer: What about a singer?
Ariana: Oh, ya. Maybe that too.
Interviewer: What souvenirs did you bring back from Italy when you were there a few years ago?
Ariana: I don’t know…T-shirts, CDs, pasta, the usual stuff. Oh ya, and a lute.
Interviewer: A what?
Ariana: A lute. A string instrument like a guitar except that it is shaped more like half a watermelon. The lute is common to Italian baroque and renaissance music, and Middle Eastern music. In Arabic, the lute is called ‘al-oud’ which means ‘the wood’. Perhaps the Arabs introduced the lute to Italy when they conquered Sicily in the ninth century. But the Italian lute is not exactly the same as the Arabic oud. Some people – archaeologists — say the oud originated in Mesopotamia. But the peoples who lived in Mesopotamia were not Arabs, though Mesopotamia was later conquered by the Arabs.” Ariana stopped herself from prattling on. She realised she was sounding too much like a teacher.
“Anyway,” she continued, “it doesn’t matter who introduced the lute to who, I mean whom, and when. Mrs Fernandez, a relief teacher I had in primary school, would be very happy that I corrected myself and said ‘whom’. Who cares, at this point, where the lute originated when it is common to so many music traditions? A Turkish lute teacher at the Santa Cecilia Conservatory, Maestro Alparslan, told me all about the lute. In fact, he is the one who gave the lute to me. It is supposed to be antique. The wood is very smooth and looks very old. I keep it in my bedroom. I like it very much. I wish I could play it, or that someone would play it for me.”
Interviewer: Are you going back to Italy to study at the Santa Cecilia Conservatory?
Ariana: I don’t know. Maybe one day.
Interviewer: Wouldn’t you like to live in a country which has four seasons?
Ariana: Well, I can listen to Four Seasons even in my bedroom in Bukit Timah.
Interviewer: No, I mean four seasons as in winter, spring, summer and autumn.
Ariana: Oh. Live for a while, yes, but live forever, no. I like the warm weather in Singapore. I don’t like the cold. [There was a long pause and then Ariana added… ] And I especially don’t like snow.
Ariana winked at the interviewer after she said this.
Interviewer: So you wouldn’t be happy if it were to snow in Singapore?
There was another long pause. Ariana didn’t answer the question. She just smiled.
Interviewer: One last question. Tell me, how long can you hold your voice on a note? Isn’t that something all opera singers learn how to do, and don’t they try to outdo each other, to see who can hold the note the longest and break the most crystal glasses?
Ariana: Oh no, I am very bad at that. That’s what Maestro Bontempelli, my voice trainer at Santa Cecilia, always used to say. He said it was because my lungs were too small. But he does want to teach me how to do it. He wants to prepare me to sing in stadiums across Italy during the next World Cup there. But, as I said earlier, I’m not sure yet if I’m going back to Italy to study. Anyway, don’t challenge me to hold my voice on a note now because I am bound to disappoint you.
Ariana was beaming after she said this. And her eyes were twinkling.