Saturday, August 08, 2015

The readers

ALL I could see of the girl was two lavender ribbon barrettes that kept her hair in place.

But I could hear her very well. In the crush of boarding the MRT train for women with children, the elderly, and disabled, I wasn’t immediately aware of her.

But as the train went through its stops, I gradually noticed the girl and her father. Early morning rides are often the quietest. Even if half of the planet seems to be squeezed inside the train, morning commuters are cocooned in private, silent preoccupations.

Not this girl. From the window, she had an unimpeded view of the surly, smog-blanketed metro. Her father, squatting, had his head close to her. I thought they were chatting until I realized the girl was reading road signs, billboards or anything he was pointing out to her.

Unlike other commuters, the man did not have a mobile phone in his hand. The blue of his shirt was like something glimpsed under the waves. The girl’s clothes, too, were leached of color from frequent washing. The ribbons, though, were new. In that grey morning, they were like butterflies flitting astray in a silent train full of people.

The girl could read very well: Pepsi, Penshoppe, Jesus is Lord. For the first time, I saw the billboards of Edsa used as flashcards by a man who was talking to his child, not to a phone in his hand. Holding on to the hand strap, I forgot about my heavy bags and the fear of losing my gadgets to a pickpocket so I could follow the girl with the butterflies in her hair read anything the world threw back at her.

Travelling by MRT above the poor and the rich mired in Edsa, I’ve often reflected how civilizations rose in the deltas surrounding bodies of water, which served as ancient highways. Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, also known as Edsa, is notorious for traffic, billboards and flash floods.

That morning, a girl changed my mind. Edsa public library?

At Boni station, the train paused due to some glitch. The girl saw a sign and quickly read the first line in Filipino: “Bawal kumain.” The second line, a translation in English, made her pause: “Ea-ting not a-LOW-wed. Ano ‘yun, ‘Tay (what does it mean, Father)?”

What quirk decided this combination of English words? “No eating” is shorter and easier than “Eating not allowed”. An editor will point out that the second phrase is twice as long as the first, actually eighteen characters with spaces compared to nine.

My concern, though, is not with the science of creating signs or even translating for the masses. What made the day turn bleaker was the power of the past tense form of an ordinary verb to stop the girl with the butterflies. How could anything as pedestrian, phlegmatic and replaceable as “allow” suddenly become despotic and omnipotent?

When I got off at my station, the girl and her father had stepped out a station earlier. They held hands as the crowd eddied around them. If the girl is as sharp as I think she is, a second language will open doors, not keep these shut against her.

Watching the man pull his daughter into a sea of bodies, I could still hear him responding to her question: “Galing mo, ‘Nak (very good, daughter)!”

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*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 19, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

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