Actor (as Writer): I once lived in a place which was almost perfect. It was beautiful in many ways. It was safe and clean. People were nice and polite. All the services one could want were a handy distance away. I had a nice job. The only problem was there was a faint almost imperceptible smell hanging in the air all the time. It was just the slightest hint of an odour, actually, always wavering just below or just above the limits of my ability to sense it, so sometimes I could smell it for sure, however weak, and sometimes I could almost not smell it, if you get what I mean, so I couldn’t tell whether the smell that I couldn’t smell was there or not, or was just a trick of my memory or mind. I don’t know if I am making sense in saying that something can be utterly subtle but also blindingly evident at the same time.

The smell was of rotting flesh. It made me want to throw up. It was repulsive, when you think about it, especially when you try to imagine its source.At first, I thought it was just me, that perhaps there was something wrong with me, with my nose. I even thought that perhaps I was the source of the smell, and at one time, I took out all my belongings and started sniffing them one by one. And I turned my house inside out, looking for some dead, slow decomposing animal. And, of course, I sniffed my body, very intently, very hard. But there was nothing that suggested that any of these things was the source.

At first it seemed to be just me. No one seemed to be noticing it. I scanned the newspapers, but there was nothing written about a strange smell going round. I thought I was going crazy. But then I started to notice that a few people also seemed to be suffering the same problem. I would for instance catch a person taking a deep breath for no reason, with a puzzled look on their faces, and then doing it again, as if trying to catch hold of some shadow in the air that they were not sure was there at all. I caught a few people sniffing themselves. Or looking at people near them with their noses crinkled, wondering whether to stop breathing so as to end the horrible smell or to breathe in harder to see if it was really there and coming from someone.

They were the exceptions. I never dared or thought to ask any of them if they were experiencing the same thing as me. I was too frightened to find out either way. These people as I said were rare. But they proved to me that the smell was not the creation of my imagination but a fact. Most people went on with their lives totally oblivious to the odour of decaying meat that pervaded the air.

What had made them immune? Were they the lucky ones to not notice the reality? Or were they pitiable in not even knowing that they were constantly steeped in this putrid vapour that hung about them all the time like an invisible blight? I, of course, was otherwise so comfortable that I didn’t think of leaving. And I think that was also true of all those who were like me.

Later when I left the place because of circumstances outside my control, I thought about the nature of imperfection. There is first the imperfection of the material, and it seems to me that these can be tolerated. A television that does not give a perfect picture, or clothes that are less than totally fitting, a car that makes a rattling noise. Then there is the imperfection of the spiritual. And it seems to me that such imperfections, no matter how small are intolerable. That is, we would be less human if we see these imperfections and do nothing about them.

After I left that place of the rotting flesh, I also thought hard about those people who could not detect what was at certain times so obvious, no matter how faint. What had made them lose their ability to smell? Or what had made them unable to smell it in the first place? And again I go back to the question of what it is to be human, truly, fully human.

Fear of Writing by Tan Tarn How is published by Epigram Books.

Get your copy at Select BooksKinokuniya or other good bookstores.

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