I am in Singapore at a conference. I race from one talk to another and soon feel exhausted. We have reached the final day. The conference convenor is up on the podium thanking everyone for a successful event. She promotes the next conference to follow in two years time. It is a conference conducted by the International Association of Biography and Autobiography and I recognise many of the European and Australian delegates from previous conferences but this one is marked by the arrival of delegates from within and around Asia. Women in silk saris and kimonos, men in long white robes.
As we sit around in one of the many lounge rooms at the university where the conference is held I notice a wedding take place between a young man and woman. The ritual of courtship seems elaborate, for the man must first lay claim to his woman by taking possession of her with the authorities in writing. After he has undertaken this, the man then returns to his wife-to-be and the two prepare together for the more elaborate ceremony. This man however – a free thinker – has elected to pass up his patriarchal claim to the woman before the ceremony so that the two can be on an equal footing when they marry.
I am impressed by this procedure. There is an actor among the last few delegates. I recognise him from a play in which he stars at the moment and from his appearance. I am surprised to see an actor at an academic conference like this. He shows us how the light that we have seen flashing in the distance is actually a round electric light that can be submerged in the ocean and put onto a flashing rotation, hence the intermittent beam.
A woman comes along and asks us to take off our clothes in protest against repression in this country. I hesitate but in the end decide that I should join the protestors. I sit in front of the bus that carries us to the airport and am now naked, uncomfortably so. People look at me as though I am strange. A group of women dressed in saris walk by with blankets so that I might cover myself.
‘Put your clothes on,’ they say. ‘You are not decent.’ I refuse initially but in time when I notice that I now seem to be the only person naked on the bus, I decide that this derision is not helpful. I manage to get a dress over my head.
‘This is a Christian country, is it not?’ I ask a woman nearby and she reassures me that it is not. It is largely Muslim and Hindu. I have been confused, I decide. I had thought that my protest was directed against Christian repression, now I am not so sure.
We wait in a foyer for our plane to arrive. It is not due for several hours. The room is Singapore hot. I watch the man of the bridal couple escort his wife-to-be on a bicycle up the banister of a staircase, an extraordinary feat. I tuck one of the other conference delegates into bed, under my blankets because she is tired and I begin to wonder how much longer I will last myself.