The Forgetful Goddess in Catherine Lim's The Bondmaid

Beside the pond, under an old gnarled tree, stood a little stone shrine housing a little goddess, but so long abandoned that both shrine and goddess were in a sad state of decay. The shrine was a mere cluster of worn bricks and the goddess a shapeless block of stone with eyes and ears completely erased. There was only a patch of faint red paint where her robe must have been and a graceful curve of stone where her breasts must have been.

The abandonment, it was said, was the fault of the goddess herself. She was a forgetful goddess, always falling asleep so that prayers were unanswered and even her most loyal devotees left, after a while, in disgust. Perhaps one had even, in a fit of anger, smashed the statue against a rock face and blunted the divine features. No rusting urn for joss-sticks or blackened candle stump remained to tell that she was once loved and worshipped. She woke up from her sleep one day, remembered the prayer of a young lovesick maid and granted it, but by that time it was too late. An abandoned goddess, anxious to reclaim her power, would prove a most valuable ally, far more than a god replete with obeisant regard. So Han untied the bundle she had brought with her, took out a cluster of joss-sticks, a small earthen jar, a box of matches and a handful of flower petals, to initiate this process of reclamation.

She lit the joss-sticks, stuck them in the jar and placed them reverently in front of the broken statue, then, as reverently, scattered the petals on the broken head. she cast down her eyes, put her palms together and moved them up and down, in graceful and ardent supplication.

'Forgetful Goddess, be forgetful no more.' She did not feel the need to tell the deity precisely what she was not supposed to forget, convinced that she would know anyway. It was an exclusive prayer, for him and herself alone. For us to be together. For us never to be separated again. [176-77]

Together with the joss-sticks and two gift oranges, Han brought out a cleaning rag, for sometimes small jungle creatures ran over the goddess and dropped their dirt on her. She went to the edge of the pond, wetted the rag and came back for a thorough cleaning of the small stone statue; there was indeed a streak of something black across part of her face.

Then it was time to paint in the eyes and ears, so long absent from the divine face. Heavenly dragons were brought to life by potentates dotting their eyes with a brush; this sleepy goddess might be roused by freshly painted eyes and ears. With extreme care, she stood the statue on the hard earth-seat and, with a small brush dipped in black ink, she painted in, first the left eye, then the right, two almonds, irregularly shaped, with large dark pupils She then did the ears, crude teapot handles, no better than a small child's efforts. She wished she had red paint, to give a pretty mouth.

The goddess was returned to her place in the shrine, now seeing, hearing. The act of revitalising a deity was itself revitalizing. She felt an uplifting of spirits and was in the mood for chatter, so she sat down and chatted with the goddess, as with an understanding mother or an affectionate sister. 'Listen, Goddess. Two men want me and call for me incessantly. I want one man who never calls for me at all. Now that you have eyes to see and ears to hear, why don't you put things right? Why don't you put it in his mind to send for me and say, "I have sent for you, I and no other, because I want and love you ? Come. "' [206-7]

, 222, 251, 277, 278, 320, 334-6, 338-9


Lim, Catherine. The Bondmaid. [1995] London: Oriel, 1997.

Postcolonial Web Singapore OV Singaporean Literature Catherine Lim