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Indigo Indigo

by Wong Yan Kwai
translated from Chinese by Suyin Mak

One year, I was wandering around Rajasthan, India, and I came across a village where all the houses were made from cow dung. In the only village shop, jars large and small contained various pastries and candies. The shopkeeper was a young man, long and thin as a mosquito. He sat in a corner just within reach of the sunlight. I wanted to buy something, but the pastries all looked very sweet — the kind of sweet only kids could love. Then I saw an old padlock hanging on the door handle. The paint on its surface was almost completely worn, revealing the light brown colour of rust and a sheen that could only belong to iron. “This padlock, is it for sale?” I asked the shopkeeper. After a long while, the young man answered, “300 rupees.”

When I left the village I noticed that none of the houses had locks. Now, even the village shop would be unguarded.

One year, I found a child’s shoe in the Gobi desert basins of Outer Mongolia. It was a left-foot shoe that had weathered the desert sun for who knows how many years. That stretch of the Gobi was unpopulated for hundreds of miles. I could tell from the shoe’s styling and workmanship that its owner must be older than me. How far and wide had parents and livestock travelled before they realized their child had lost a shoe? This fossilized flower of leather, ever blooming, followed me back to the South.

One year, in the river valley of an old township near Xian, China, I found a piece of blue and white porcelain, a cylinder with a hand-painted cloud-and-dragon pattern, perhaps once the base of an oil lamp. I wondered how many people and events might this lamp have illuminated before it fell into the river, how many torrents and rains might it have experienced before it reached this valley. I had found other fragments of hand-painted blue and white porcelain before, on the island of Tung Ping Chau in Hong Kong. None of the pieces had points or corners; they were like seashells with tattoos. The villagers said that on the opposite shore there had been official kilns throughout the dynasties, and faulty or broken pieces would get thrown into the sea. The tides polished them endlessly to return them to nature.

When I was growing up, we used a blue and white porcelain teapot as a water jug at home. It had neither dragons nor phoenixes but just a few hand-painted orchid leaves. The teapot lid might have had some other pattern, but we moved around a lot and the original lid was long gone. The eventual replacement we encountered at a street stall. Still blue and white porcelain, but the colour was jumpy. One could immediately tell that it didn’t match.

Yet I also know that stories could only be traced because of mismatch.

There are many such objects that carry with them all sorts of stories. How large a cabinet is needed to contain and arrange them all? They say that painting is two-dimensional representation, and sculpture three-dimensional. Is memory one of these dimensions?