the ugly side

there’s a crazy man in my neighbourhood. he wears a white singlet that reeks of stale vomit and a pair of khaki shorts. in my childhood memories he has a shock of uncombed grey hair. he has a pot belly, thin arms and a set of yellow buckteeth.

he sometimes stands on street corners, pointing and muttering indiscriminately at the vehicles that pass him. other times he wanders the neighbourhood aimlessly, talking to people who cross the road when they see him approaching.

no one knows why he’s mad. it is rumoured he had a daughter who died of dengue fever. others say that his wife left him and he when he fell into depression, he turned to drinking, but it did not keep him from losing his mind. whatever the case, it doesn’t seem like he has a family to go home to.

i remember clearly one incident involving the crazy man. i was 11 and it was sports day at my school. the tents for students were set up at the side of the field which faced the road outside. the man came and stood near the fence separating the field from the road. he started talking to himself, occasionally pointing at us. most of us took no notice of him.

all of a sudden, a group of boys started shouting at the man and threw stones at him. they let loose a string of profanities at him and encouraged everyone else to do the same. pretty soon there was a sizable group of primary school students throwing insults and pebbles at the man who, despite his efforts at returning the favour, was thoroughly beaten.

for some reason that incident has remained etched in my memory. perhaps it was my 11-year-old mind picking up what certainly must have been my first experience of man’s cruelty to one another. it’s unsettling that young children could be capable of such injustice, doling out punishment on a man who probably didn’t know better. come to think of it, his pot belly could indeed be evidence of a drinking habit, his thin arms of a malnourished life fed by alcohol.

i saw him again today. he looks the same as he did 14 years ago, minus the head of grey hair. i was suddenly struck with fear, as if he would recognise me as one of the students who was there that day, who watched as he endured abuse and did nothing. then i drove past him towards home while he remained there on the corner, saying things no one could or would hear.

although i know i should forgive my 11-year-old self for not recognising what that incident really was, i still feel guilty for wronging him by being like everyone else – afraid of what we don’t understand, reacting in violence or passivity to what we’re afraid of.

sigh it’s just easier to pretend we don’t have an ugly side than to admit we do.


11 responses to “the ugly side

  1. it’s scary the cruelty we are capable of when we were young just because others were doing it.

  2. You are right. It is fear of the unknown, that can drive one to be hostile, especially kids; but they learn from adults.

    Recommended read: ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee.


    Atticus Finch: I remember when my daddy gave me that gun. He told me that I should never point it at anything in the house; and that he’d rather I’d shoot at tin cans in the backyard. But he said that sooner or later he supposed the temptation to go after birds would be too much, and that I could shoot all the blue jays I wanted – if I could hit ’em; but to remember it was a sin to kill a mockingbird.
    Jem: Why?
    Atticus Finch: Well, I reckon because mockingbirds don’t do anything but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat people’s gardens, don’t nest in the corncrib, they don’t do one thing but just sing their hearts out for us.

    Dedicated to all the people who are ‘different’.

    As one of my friends said once – who are we to know – perhaps ‘these’ people see/hear/know something we ‘sane’ people do not.

  3. actually when i was writing this post i was thinking of somehow relating it to boo radley. however, boo radley was a myth, a fable – the children never met him nor had an encounter with him until the very end. i used to see the madman pretty often and have seen first hand how people treat him, so didn’t think the parallel would work.

    atticus finch’s closing argument in tom robinson’s case remains one of my favourite passages in literature.

  4. You are sharp. Good.

    (I didn’t really think anyone would have heard of this book.)

    Scout remains a (the) favourite of my literature character(s). Of course, (almost) everyone wants to (be) have a dad like Atticus.

  5. Can I just butt in here and say I thought ‘Mockingbird’ was pretty drab?

  6. Life is, sometimes, stranger than fiction.

    Harper Lee wrote just this one book, and no other books thereafter. She avoids public attention/adulation. She is still alive, an old lady by now. There are clips about her on youtube.

    She is a childhood friend of Truman Caporte, whose high point of fame was his book “In Cold Blood” (before that, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”). Harper Lee had helped him greatly with the research into the book, “In Cold Blood”, a book about a real life murder of a family in Kansas. Critics note no credit was given in the book by Caporte to Harper Lee for her assistance.

    Harper Lee is said to have based the character, Dill, in the book on Caporte.

    “To Kill A Mockingbird” was published in 1960. It has been challenged/banned in America over the years, as recently as in 2009.

    It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and has sold over 30 million copies, and translated into more than 40 languages. Gregory Peck won the Academy Award as Atticus Finch in the film as in 1962.

  7. you can’t really base the appeal of literature in the accolades a piece of work has won. i found catcher in the rye a tedious read (still haven’t finished it) while my friend, who mailed me her own copy, related to it perfectly. midnight’s children started out great but by the middle of the book, i wanted to slit my throat. yet it’s been named the best of booker prize winners so…yeah. haha.

  8. Well, you are right. Each of us is not moved all the time with ‘acclaimed’ novels, or poems, or paintings, or other works of art. It is only honesty if each of us only admit to works that move us.

    (As for ‘Catcher in the rye’ – I browsed through it in the bookshop, tried reading the first two pages…and then I closed the book, and walked away. Never went back. I admire your persistence.)

  9. ..having said the above about ‘Catcher in the rye’, though, there are books that only get going after say 20 pages, and I had been glad I got past those first pages for those books. I just have no idea why I didn’t go on with ‘Catcher in the rye’ – I guess it’s just one of those books that I don’t or can’t go on with. Like ‘Grapes of Wrath’.

    (Btw, the life of Capote was also made into a movie – ‘Capote’. A good see.)

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