My best friend’s biography

It began like a millennial fairy tale — with a text message and an Instagram post.

“You should write a book,” Daniel texted when he saw what I had written about defence relations and cocktails on foreign warships.

“What on earth would it be about?”

Daniel thought I should write a travel memoir. I demurred. We went back and forth. Finally I said, why don’t I write about you?

By then, after seven years, I had grown familiar with his story. Daniel was born with a congenital heart condition, multiple heart defects that offered a bleak prognosis. Doctors struggled to put a number on it, though they eventually settled somewhere between one and three years.

When Daniel’s mother visited her gynaecologist at her first postpartum check up, he patted her arm and said: “You’re still young. You can have other children.” She was only 21.

When I first met Daniel he was 17, and his heart was going strong. We were classmates at Tampines Junior College, sharing Theatre Studies classes and a common bus route home. Over time, I grew accustomed to summarising his medical history for curious friends and acquaintances, when Daniel had to leave school early for a doctor’s appointment or sit out the annual NAPFA test.

But these occasions were rare. Daniel played soccer and performed physical theatre in TPJC, chaired freshman orientation camp in SMU’s School of Social Sciences and spent his weekends at Zouk and Altimate and the formerly named Ku De Ta. He started a business and helped a friend recover from addiction, overcoming so much personal adversity in the process. It was uplifting, inspiring, and tailor made for a book.

Of course Daniel agreed. I’m sure he was secretly pleased, even if he never actually said so. I visited him in hospital in late 2015, the first time we discussed the concept of the book.

“I want to show that sick people can contribute meaningfully to society,” said Daniel, who by then had undergone two open heart surgeries in nine months, and was receiving a 24/7 intravenous supply of heart medication.

I had tendered my resignation to my full-time job and had the next few months on my hands to write and travel. Daniel, while hospital bound, had heaps of free time to market his book. It was the perfect plan.

“I’ll see you next week when I’m back from Nepal,” I said, gently squeezing his hand to avoid the IV needle taped to it.

In Nepal, I spent five days hiking up and down Poon Hill, a beautiful but punishing trek as lactic acid woke muscles I had never previously exerted. Some days there was sporadic wifi in the guesthouse common room, others there was just the beauty of the mountains.

On the second last day of the trek I tramped wearily into my final guesthouse. It was only a few hours away from Pokhara city, so even though there was no wifi, I had reception in fits and starts.

The messages came jerkily at first.

Doctors think Daniel only has a week to go, said Pratap, a close friend of Daniel’s.

I think you should come home, said my partner Dean.

Remember that no matter what happens from here on, I will always love you, said Daniel.

I returned to Pokhara the next day and flew out that very night, on connecting flights that put me in Singapore the following morning. Dean picked me up and we went to hospital, where Daniel struggled to talk through the pain, and painkillers.

“You came back early,” he said.

I wanted to see you while I could. “Nepal was too tough,” I joked.

“So I was your exit strategy.” Daniel looked wan, but his sense of humour was still intact.

“I’ll finish the book we started,” I said, fighting helplessness, wanting to offer something tangible.

We didn’t speak much, after that. Daniel lay in silence, his eyes half closed, and I stayed with him.

*

After Daniel passed, I didn’t write immediately. At first it was a relief that I didn’t have to wake up for work the morning after the funeral, but in less than a month I grew restless. #Funemployment was fun, but it felt unproductive.

So I started on the book. I reached out to Daniel’s parents, relatives, mutual friends; when we met it was less a formal interview than an hour or two spent reminiscing. “Tell me about when you first met Daniel,” I’d say, and then conversation would flow.

Daniel Selvakumar

People laughed and cried, and sometimes they asked me about Daniel too. What were his final days like? What did he want to do after graduation? How was his family coping? This was when I realised, as I thanked people for talking to me, that perhaps I had helped them find some closure too.

At the start of 2016, when I began writing, my first drafts were terrible. I wrote them like lengthy feature stories, full of facts and direct quotes. When I sent them to Andrew, a former journalism professor who agreed to help edit my drafts; he firmly but kindly told me the truth.

“People won’t read your book because it is newsy,” he said. “They will read it because you made them care about the characters.”

So I figured out, through trial and error and a few more drafts, how to make people care. I learnt how to paint a scene in broad strokes based on somebody’s recollection, then shade in the gradients and shadows.

Nobody can remember exactly who said what during a conversation five years ago in a classroom or two decades ago in a hospital ward, or how exactly a young couple held each other in the hospital waiting room on Christmas Eve as their infant son struggled to breathe. I learnt to fill in the details plausibly, with one eye on the facts and the other on a compelling narrative.

Slowly my drafts got better. I knew this because Andrew said so, but also because I could feel my writing getting smoother, and I saw my characters take shape on the page. Sometimes I’d recreate Daniel’s conversations, and could almost hear the words I’d written in his voice.

I’ve always loved reading, but now I read with renewed purpose. Each new book became a piece of research. At first I picked up memoirs — Cathy Rentzenbrink’s The Last Act of Love, about turning off life support for her comatose brother after eight years, and Paul Kalanithi’s bestselling When Breath Becomes Air.

Later, I turned to local authors, learning how they set timeless stories in our city state, how they invoked the damp, sour tang of a wet market in one paragraph and the ennui of civil servants in the next. I nodded at all the places I could relate to, and wanted readers of Daniel’s biography to do the same.

Practically, this was also where I learnt that Singapore offers a great deal of support for the literary scene. I started noticing how many published books bore the National Arts Council logo, as I pored over publishing grants, writing residencies, scholarships, masterclasses. Of course these were competitive — I learnt this after a few rejection letters — but they were available. There were opportunities. If your writing is good enough, we will give you a leg up, they seemed to say, and it motivated me.

Motivation came that way, in fits and starts during an otherwise lonely process. Some days — as I’m sure anyone who writes will understand — the words glide onto the page like butter, and leave me invigorated when I reread them. Other times sentences don’t connect, my brain is full of cliches and I write paragraphs knowing I will eventually delete them during the editing process.

Mostly I just tell myself to keep going, to hit small milestones like finishing a chapter so I won’t feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task.

Daniel Selvakumar

In hospital, back when Daniel thought he had another six months to a year to live, I confidently estimated that I could finish the book in that time. I don’t know if I should laugh or cry because I’m almost a year and a half in and I still haven’t completed the manuscript.

Now, when people ask how much longer I have to go, I fight the urge to defend myself, to explain the glacial pace that writing a book demands. Instead I offer broad timelines. I hope to finish it by 2016, I used to say. Now I tell them I’ll complete it this year.

*

Even though I spend at least half of every work week writing the as-yet-unnamed biography (ideas welcome please!), for a long time I didn’t tell many people about it. It’s like putting an exercise plan on Facebook, or announcing your “before” weight before you begin a diet — scary because I didn’t know if I could follow through, and if I failed there were so many people who would see.

But life should be lived without safety nets — isn’t that how Daniel lived his? This year I made myself speak more openly about the book.

“I’m writing my late best friend’s biography,” I’d say, giving a brief summary of Daniel’s life to friends and strangers. Their response was less important than the act of putting it out there, keeping myself accountable.

“Thank you for doing this,” more than one person has told me, and sometimes they ask how I am coping with the process too.

Surprisingly, writing this biography has been less emotionally taxing than I expected. Daniel was my friend, but when I am interviewing and writing, he temporarily becomes a character. I focus, above all else, on making him as interesting, funny and ballsy on the page as he was in real life.

Daniel Selvakumar

It’s when I stop writing that I miss him most, in the space between 3am and daylight. Or when I reread a passage I’m particularly pleased with, and I wish I could show it to Daniel.

“There’s nobody else like me,” he used to say, only half in jest. I’d roll my eyes and shove him away, refuse to give him the satisfaction of agreeing. But now I have a book to write, because it is true.

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