Saturday, May 27, 2006

Leaving Home (continued)

An alarm clock goes off and one of the daughters of the house knocks on my door. At five in the morning. I wake up feeling hollow and dried out (the way you do when you've cried yourself to sleep the night before). I go into their cavernous bathroom for a cold bath and dress up for my first day of training.

The daughter (I don't remember what her name was) is very nice. She helps me get on the number 17 bus I am supposed to take (she takes it too) and shows me where to get off for my newspaper. She gives me instructions on how to get home and I listen intently. I could tell her it's a lost cause. At home, I am used to being ferried about by my Mom and Dad so I never learned the bus routes. Besides, JB is so small that you can't possibly get lost. But Mom said it's time I learned about real life. So here I am.

Anyway, I stumble off the bus and find myself walking past a row of stalls to the little building tucked away at the back. This is the training centre. Our haven from the real world and the newsfloor for the next six months.

I feel rather hungry, having had no breakfast, so I stop at one of the stalls to order a sandwich and coffee. The young Indian boy who takes my order answers me in English and I am pleasantly surprised. In JB, it would be rare to find someone working at a stall speaking English. I look around at all these people (the stalls are crowded as everyone is having their breakfast) and wonder how many of them I will get to know. Right now I feel lost and alone and a little overwhelmed.

I am very early so I linger a while before making my way to the training centre. Or "balai latihan" as it is called. There is only one young boy there waiting. He arrived early from Kelantan by bus that day. He is only 17 and rather cute (I am 19 and therefore too old for him). Later, I will discover that his dad sent him to KL to get him away from the drug dealers in Kota Bharu. This young boy with the angelic face was a teenage drug dealer and would talk knowledgeably about coke and marijuana distribution networks in this, our one Islamic state. He will also tell us how the cafes get around the "No Alcohol" ruling. They serve beer in covered coffee mugs. For now, however, he is just a cute stranger. I think he is Malay, but he tells me no, Chindian. Indian father, Chinese mother. Ahhh. You know how the mixtures are always the best looking people over here. A very good argument for mixed marriages.

Anyway the others start trickling in. Soon we are herded off to the two classes (one for the English language newspapers and the other for the Malay language newspapers). The instructors are really nice. Having come straight from a government school, I find it refreshing. Over here, you're expected to give your opinion, argue, be a pest. They brief us on this, that and the other, and I think, wow, this is really up my alley. My last encounter with anything school-like was falling asleep in the numerous science classes (chemistry, biology, physics) I was subjected to in Form 6 because my mother had fond dreams of me becoming a doctor. Me? A doctor? I cried for days after dissecting a live frog. Instead of doing my Physics homework, I would write long involved poems about how much I hated it. And as for Chemistry, I always nodded off in Mrs Ooi's class. She was interesting but I was painfully uninterested.

So here, as I sit listening to what is expected of us, I think, no problem. I can do this. This will be easy. Right up my alley. Writing? I have always written. Reporting? OK, I'll have to learn that but don't think that should be a problem. Curiosity? There I lose out to my little sister Julie, but I'm curious enough. Memory? I have a pretty good memory. I glance around the class, listening to our trainer with varying degrees of attention. I am struck by the number of strikingly beautiful women here. I mean, do they hire on looks? (Stupid question. Of course, it's a factor, For the women at least).

We get through the day and I make a friend. The little gay guy seated next to me (OK he's married, separated, but still, gay). I tell him a little of what happened with the landlord and he listens sympathetically. Tells me not to worry. Things will sort themselves out.

We are asked to go up and introduce ourselves. Some people are given a hard time. Some people are let off easily. Joyce, who is to become one of my best friends later, goes up, glares around at the class and says: "I like asking questions, I don't like answering them. So there!" Anita, who is simply stunning, gets a lot of flak for her American accent and the fact that she smiles a lot. A common question is "so, do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?".

When I go up to introduce myself, I tell them I ended up here because I was supposed to be a doctor and failed. One of the trainers twinkles at me. "Malayalee?" she asks. "Yup." I reply. "I thought so. I can relate," she grins. Something in common? We are going to be good friends.

Anyway, the day passes very pleasantly and I feel this curious joy well up. For the first time, I am among my own kind. People who are essentially creative, who take what I take seriously. Maybe it wont be so bad living in that horrible house if I have this to come to everyday.

I catch the right bus back (which is a miracle if you consider how scatty I am) and get off several stops too early. Now I am lost. I wander through Section 17, wondering how I am going to find this house when I didn't even bother to take down the address (I told you I was scatty). I wonder if I can find a public phone somewhere and call my mother. But I keep walking, praying and chuckling at stuff that happened in class today. By some great miracle, I find my way to the house in question.

There is a visitor. An aunt I have met, maybe twice in my life. When I walk in, the matriarch of the house says: "Varene." As in, "she's come". I'm frightfully late, of course, but I wonder why they care. I mean, it's not yet 10 o'clock, the curfew time. But my aunt who smiles at me: "Oh look at her, she looks so sweet..." and tells me to pack.

"Your mother is very unhappy. I'm taking you away. Uncle has gone off in the car to look for you but he will be back soon I think." She comes upstairs to help me pack. I can't quite believe what is happening. "So they bullied you? You poor thing. Your mother called me yesterday, very upset. We were shocked. After all, these people asked if we knew anyone, they wanted to rent out their room. We didn't approach them. But no, we will not stand for this kind of behaviour."

I feel curiously light. My things are packed. The uncle (whom I've never met before) has arrived. We load up the car, the matriarch gives me back my rent and deposit (deducting nothing for the one-day stay which is nice of her) The family are upset by my abrupt removal and the stupid patriarch is uncharacteristically silent. I think this aunt is the fiercer of the two.

We take off to Lucky Gardens where they live and we go off to some restaurant for dinner. I am not hungry and they keep urging me to try this, try that. "You eat like a bird. No wonder you're so skinny."

They have found another place for me to stay. With Carol, a nice young lawyer who studied in the UK. She is hardly home, gives me the run of the house and a key. I go to bed that night feeling so much better than I did the night before. I am actually happy. My course is going to be great. I like where I'm staying. I have family within walking distance.

Things couldn't be better.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Leaving Home

Mum decides not to come. I hug her goodbye. She doesn't get up and I feel the tears sting.

I blink them back.

Tomorrow I will be in KL - a new life, new place to stay, new people. Ripped from my old life. I still can't quite get my head around it. Who are these people I am supposed to be living with? It all happened so quickly. Yesterday I was sitting in this tiny little Chinaman office pretending to be a clerk and today, I am off to the capital to train as a journalist.

An essay, a test, an interview, a phone call:

"We are offering you a place in our cub reporter programme. Yes? No?"

Another phone call, an accommodation secured.

Who are these people I am supposed to be living with anyway? I don't know. Except that they're from our church. They're Malayalee. They're supposed to be "nice". Nice as they are, they will still be strangers. Surrounded by strangers. No familiar faces.

What if the newspaper discovers it made a mistake and I'm actually not good enough? Will think about that later. Will worry about everything later.

I get into the long white Toyota Crown. It will get us to KL. Barely. It shoots red sparks from the exhaust. Frequently, Dad will pull over. Then he will start the car, coax it gently along. It takes 11 hours to make the four-hour journey. Ivan takes over the wheel for the last stretch. He nods off and the car swings across the road.

We nearly die but not quite.

Tomorrow, we find the house I am supposed to stay in. It's massive and the old python of a patriarch regards me with malevolent pleasure.

"You have to be home by 10."

"We won't be giving you a key."

"You can't use our telephone."

"And no boyfriends."

He leaves and I turn to say goodbye to my family. Julie throws herself at me and bursts into tears: "I thought they would be nice Jenn-fer..."

I thought so too.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

An Alternative Ad

A while ago a friend sent me a few hilarious marriage ads from newspapers in India. I wish I still had them so you could see. Being extremely busy at the time (I had at least three assignments due) of course, I took the time off to dash off an ad of my own. (I usually write poems and read Jane Austen as part of my study avoidance strategies). This is what I came up with:

I am a simple girl with blue hair and purple eyelashes. Sometimes I like to fly in the face of the full moon. It is nice and silver. I like colours and the lack of it. If you have similar interests (or colouring) please write.

If not, look out of your window on full moon nights.

I usually fly naked.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

You are WHOSE daughter?

I just watched The Da Vinci Code. Never having read the book (although it has been on my bookshelf for the past year) I had a vague idea of what it was about, and of course, the punchline. My brother, a devout Catholic, was frankly bored. He couldn't see what all the fuss was about. It was harder to gauge my sister's reaction. But she was the one who insisted we should all go see it and make up our own minds.

I, on the other hand, was intrigued. Not because it was a new concept or even particularly well done. But because it dealt (inaccurately, I might add) with ideas I had already been exposed to, oh many times in the last decade.

There was this party in 1996 and I went because it was given by a good friend, although I was very very sick. I ended up talking to this South African psychic who had also been invited and she told me that she was part of the bloodline. Of the Holy Grail. Oh that, and the Jesus hadn't really died (they took him down from the Cross and healed him, the Essenes being a sect of healers and suchlike) and that he had gone off to France and had three children with Mary Magdalene. Pretty heavy stuff for me at the time, what with my aching head and all. She challenged everything I believed in and of course I wanted to attack her. She was not interested in defending herself, or for that fact, even talking to me. I'm afraid was a bit of a persistent infliction and she removed herself from my vicinity as soon as she could. And my head ached some more. And there was no one to fight with.

Later that year, someone I met in France (why does it always come back to France?) gave me a book, The Hidden Face of Jesus which was about all this stuff that the South African woman talked about and then some. My book was stolen (a colleague with light fingers), recovered, lent out for more than a year (the guy didn't want to return it), returned and finally lent out to a dying man (the father of a friend and I couldn't say no although I wanted to) and now it's gone forever I think.

Although I have chattered on about this quite a bit, that's not what I wanted to talk about. Because I don't think it makes much difference if Jesus was fertile and in fact sired a bloodline. (Actually I think it would be rather cool if he had)

What I wanted to talk about was a little incident that happened in Australia, which came to mind when I was watching the movie. I give it to you as I wrote it then:

For Colin Smith (not his real name), it is important you believe he is who he says he is. And although he introduces himself as Colin, that is not who he says he is.

"Whose picture is that," I ask, pausing awhile at his tarot card stall at the Psychic Fair in Fremantle.

"You don't know St Francis of Assisi?" Smith picks up the portrait and places it alongside his face. "I used to be him. Don't you see the resemblance?"

There are some points of similarity - the beard, the thin, rather emaciated face. His blue eyes rake me in desperation, willing me to believe him as his words tumble over each other in eagerness.

"Lots of psychics have recognised me. People kept coming up to me and asking if I knew who I was. Then a few years ago, they told me. The greatest of all saints! Some say even greater than Jesus! Not that it's not an ego thing," he hastens to add.

"I met my soulmate, Clare, at a bus stop. You know Clare, the beloved of St Francis? We never spoke but I love her and she loves me. We couldn't be together then, and we can't be together now. My life, you see, is a sacrifice, a decision I made before I was born," he says shaking his head sadly.

"Maybe you shouldn't be so caught up with who you were and just concentrate on being who you are," I venture.

His eyes harden and he shrinks instinctively away from me. "I never listen to advice. Many people attack me, try to make me doubt who I am."

The clock tower strikes upon the hour and St Francis-that-was starts packing up. "I have to go. I work at a Chinese take-away and I don't want to be late. It's embarrassing."

Addendum: I described this incident to a friend and she told me that every year at this conference which apparently regresses people to see who they were in previous incarnations, the number of St Francis of Assisis are exceeded only by the number of Jesus Christs. Oh well.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Ode to a Porcelain Princess


Every year your image becomes a little mistier. You gaze at the camera, quivering, afraid to disturb the hushed air. Around you, the worshipful glances. Your beauty is heart-wrenching. You know it.

Yeah, I went to uni with that girl. I used to tremble everytime I passed her and she barely knew I was alive.

You went from normal to translucent to transparent. The snow queen, the champagne flute brimming with bubbles, the ghost. I can't believe I used to sit next to you in school. That you were there cleaving the air, occupying space. Even then you moved like Dresden china.

You knew my friend Jo.


Yes, at college. You were interested in her, weren't you?

Well, you know, she was some chick. She was the girl to be seen having lunch with. She was the girl to be seen dancing with. It conferred a status. But no, I never really knew her.

You fed on romance novels. You tried to imbue the sublime into everyday ordinary things, into everyday ordinary people. For a while we would see through your eyes. But then you would leave and the glorious reds and purples would fade to prison-block grey.

Where is Jo?

I don't know. Nobody knows. She just disappeared.

I sometimes wonder how your life turned out. Maybe you are the wife of some rich businessman. He covers you in silken draperies and diamonds until he realises that diamonds are too hard, bright and real for your beauty. So he gives you congealed moonshine, Mikimoto, naturally. And all adorned he stands back to worship you, softly gleaming in the purple air.

He works off his passion on his teenage mistress, all lipstick and body fluids and thick eyebrows. But he doesn't love her, see? She's just there for convenience.

Because you are too ethereal for clumsy hands. Because you need to be laid up in lavender, framed behind non-reflective glass.

You're not real Josephine. You never were.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Some People

Have you ever met anyone who attracts and repels you simultaneously? Meeting them, you want to remain silent (so he can suspect you're a fool, but you don't open your mouth to remove all doubt) and you want to babble incoherently and you just want to get the fuck out of there. Or maybe that's just me.

He called me to come in for a meeting, the one senior vice president of this company I'm doing work for, that I had never met, but heard of. In fact heard so much of that I really, really didn't want to meet him at all.

But he got his HR manager to call. And say come in. We want to talk business. So I went. Apprehensive as hell. The others, who are sweeties and very good buddies of mine, had let me know he was a little, um, how do you say, difficult? Hard-headed, masterful, strong.

They forgot to mention that he was also incredibly handsome.

So I sat in the meeting room, reading an essay by Jeanette Winterson because I always have a book to tide me over these interminable waiting periods. But the words were jumping all around, tying themselves into slipknots, a noose, a noose, what's with the capital punishment imagery?

Anyway, there were the footsteps, and in he came. We looked at each other. And I wished I was somewhere else.

He sat down, fixed me with a penetrating look and asked whether I used to cover this company in my days as a reporter. Yes, I said. Were you kind to us? So, he didn't even know who I was. Cos that was a stupid question. Very stupid.

Probably the kindest any reporter has been, before or since, I replied.

Right, he nodded. He talked about the industry. Gave his opinions so decidedly. Would brook no opposition. If you opposed, it's only because you were stupid. Too dumb to understand. To know what's what.

Eyes narrowed, he judged everything I said.

I returned the favour. Everything. All words falling carelessly from lips caught in that vice-like net, to be gone over, evaluated, rated.

I stumbled and fell. Put my foot in my mouth, trying to express an idea.

Eyes narrowed, he judged. Lips curled in a sneer. I wanted to sink through the floor. Oh God, why did I have to say that? Why does he make me so nervous. I said once that I found it easy to like people. I was wrong.

He introduced me to someone to facilitate the work I would have to do, and drifted off without bothering to say goodbye.

I went home after and felt horrible for the rest of the day. And if you asked me why, I wouldn't have been able to tell you.

I am extremely attracted to him. And I never want to see him again.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


Here follows a sample of Manglish (Malaysian or mangled English) from Adoi!

Aitelyu-ah, nemmain wat debladigarmen say, mose Malaysians tok Manglish. Bekoswai? Bekos we all shai oni to spik proper English - afturds people ting we trying to action oni. But talk Manglish is best-la when you want to simply tokkok like fren-fren, la. Donkair you Malay or Chinese or Indian or everything miksup: at the mamak stall, on the awfis, sitting around in the kopi-shop, we Malaysians orways tok like dis wan-kain oni - got kick wat! you want to tokkok osoken, no problem we gifchan you flers, la. Simply by-heart the following list of popular Manglish words and phrases, and very soon oridi you can go round blarfing like tera oni.

A Condensed Glossary of Common Manglish Words and Phrases

atoyu (wat) - gentle expression of triumph: "What did I tell you?"

aidontch-main - corruption of 'I don't mind' - the extraneous "ch" indicates that the speaker is well aware of the subtleties of the English language and is making an effort to sound teh "t" in "don't".

aiseman - contraction of "I say, man!" A totally meaningless utterance, most commonly used by those with absolutely nothing to say.

aisked (la) - confession of nervousness, as in "I'm scared, I don't have the guts to do it."

barsket - uncouth interjection; a term of derision, often preceded by teh prefix bladi. Probably a mangling of "blasted", "bastard" and "bugger". An all-purpose expression of acute annoyance, as in "Damn!" or "Blast it!".

betayudon - mild warning, as in "You'd better not do that!"

bladihel - exclamation conveying intense irritation: corruption of "bloody hell!"

bollsdar - rude retort favoured by Malaysian Indians: essentially a scrotal reference devolved from "balderdash" or "bollocks". The deliberate slurring of the commonly heard vernacular suffix "la" imparts a more fervent measure of vulgarity.

chipsket - contraction of "cheapskate", somebody not known to be generous. Also used to describe anything low-cost.

dai-la - term of commiseration, usually mock, used in situations where an element of anxiety is present, e.g., "Oh dear, that means you've had it! or "Oh well, that's the end of that!" or "Shit, I'm in real trouble!"

debladigarmen - contraction of "the bloody government"; widely used as a scapegoat for all of life's disappointments, delays, denials, and prohibitions.

defler - contraction of "that fellow".

(don) tokkok - playful insult (Don't talk rubbish); the etymology of tokkok is uncertain but it probably derives from "talk cock" - as in "cock-and-bull stories."

fler - personal and/or impersonal reference, originally a contraction of "fellow" but frequently applied in neuter gender, e.g., You flers better wochaut! (Don't any of you try to be funny!)

fraskes - noun applied to any individual caught in an unenviable impasse; someone whose cases is frustating. Could also imply sexual deprivation.

gifchan (la) - half serious plea, as in "Please give me a chance, will you!" Could also mean "Do me a favour."

hauken - another flexible expression applicable in almost any situation, e.g., "That's not right!" or "Impossible" or "Don't tell me!"

ho-laif - adverb, meaning perpetually: contraction of "whole life".

huseso - as above: "Who said so?" Alternatively, hused.

hutoyu - mild challenge, as in "Who told you?"

izit - expression of mild unbelief, as in "Is that so?"

izzenit - from "isn't it?" but applied very loosely at the end of any particular statement to elicit an immediate response, e.g. Yused you will spen me a beer, izzenit? (You said you will buy me a beer, didn't you?)

kennonot - request or enquiry, contraction of "can or not?": "May I?" or "Will you?" or "Is it possible?"

kenoso - affirmative, "can also": in other words, "It's quite all right with me."

las-taim - expression denoting the past (last time) though not necessarily in any specific sense, e.g., las-taim we orways see picture but nowadays we like to see ooidio oni.

mebeken - contraction of "maybe can": in other words, "It may be possible..."

nemmain - casual dismissal: "Never mind."

notshai (wan) - from "not shy one" - meaning shameless, or not standing upon ceremony.

nola - a dilute negative, used as a device to interrupt, deny, or cancel someone else's statement.

oridi - contraction of "already".

osoken - affirmative, as above, with very subtle shift of emphasis: e.g. osoken kenoso means you may use these terms interchangeably.

shiok (oni) - expression of intense pleasure, etymology obscure.

sofanochet - meaning, "it hasn't happened yet"; can also be shortened to nochet, a slurring of "not yet".

sohau - polite interrogative, usually used as greeting, e.g., "Well how are things with you?" or "How goes it?"

so-poorting - expression of sympathy or condolence: "You poor thing!"

tera - noun describing someone who inspires awe; corruption of "terror". Often has a positive connotation, as in defler tera ladykiller la!

tingwat - highly adaptable expression stemming from "What do you think?". May be used as a challenge ("Who cares what you think!"; a rhetorical question ("Well how about that!?"); or as a friendly insult ("Please don't inflict your abysmal ignorance on us!") - depending on context and intonation.

wan-kain (wan) - adjective denoting uniqueness, oddness, weirdness, extraordinariness: contraction of one of a kind (with one repeated for a rhythmic symmetry). Sometimes rendered as wan-kain oni (only).

watudu - rhetorical question: "But what can we do?"

yala - non-commital agreement, liberally used when confronted with a bore. A tring of yalas issuing forth from your hapless listener is a sure sign that he or she wishes to terminate the conversation as soon as possible.

yesa - general expression of interest, usually inserted as a question during conversations, as in "Oh really?"

yu-a-yu - term of friendly accusation, meaning, "You are really too much!"

yusobadwan - expression of mild reproach: "That's not very nice!"

The Mysterious Malaysian

Before I left for America, my friends warned me: "Be prepared. Most of them are not gonna know where you're from. You have to sort of locate the place, above Singapore, below Thailand, like thatlar...."

"OK," I nodded, smiling cheerfully. I didn't care too much. After all, Malaysia is an itty bitty country and other than a mad Prime Minister who made the news abroad simulating masturbation in front of TV cameras (when he wanted to get rid of his deputy) and calling George Soros a moron (Soros replied in kind, calling him a menace) we didn't have much claim to fame. OK, OK, there were the twin towers. Ours, I mean. Those graceful fluting buildings that were the tallest in the world for all of one year. And then, there's durians, that king of fruits that we love but every Mat Salleh on the block (Mat Salleh is the way we refer to Caucasians. It's not derogatory. Really!) would run a mile from. Odour, they would say. You mean, perfume, we would counter, our eyebrows drawn up in puzzlement. OK, whatever. And the F1 (how could I forget). But other than that, just another South-East Asian nation, chugging along gamefully, trying to achieve double digit growth so we can be all grown up in a couple of decades. Same old, same old.

So imagine my surprise when this bouncer (who carded me) at a pub in Seattle, started chatting to me in Malay. There I was all ready to reel off, above Singapore, below Thailand, to his, oh so you're Malaysian, when he said:

"Selamat Datang (welcome). And apa khabar? (how are you?)" I mean to say, what?

So anyway, Nessa this one's for you.

We Malaysians are a pretty laid back bunch. (OK except on the road where we turn into your worst nightmare) At any time of the day, you can see us at the stalls (outdoor eating places) sipping our teh tarik (literally, pulled tea) and catching up with our members (no, not those, get your head out of the gutter). Member like gang, you know, like crony. Whenever my sister Jackie visits, she never fails to observe: "I forgot. Eating is the national pastime in this country." And Julie and I would look at her, wonderingly as in, yeah, so what's your point?

Kit Leee, a Tibetan cartoonist who wrote this brilliant little comic book, Adoi! (Basically, Ouch! in Malay) had this to say about teh tarik.

Without teh tarik life would be impossible in Malaysia.

Why? You ask. Well, it calms us down. You know watching the mamak pulling the tea from one kola to another, to cool it down. Serving it to you with a head. You drink it and ahhhhhhhhh.... are transported back to cooler times when life was not so frenetic and we were not trying to running to stand still because being fans of Alice we fell into a rabbit hole and have yet to emerge. Dream or nightmare? Who can ever say?

A Malaysian abroad misses his teh tarik and roti canai (you can get quite good roti canai and teh tarik at that restaurant Penang in New York) but still....I mean you can't shout to the mamak, hey boss, satu teh tarik kurang manis...(one pulled tea less sweet) and watch him pull your tea and forebear to add too much condensed milk.

Although a good portion of the country is covered by jungle (now depleting at alarming rates because of timber concessions which send elephants and tigers stampeding through villages for want of better occupation) we don't have many parks. So we spend a lot of time hanging out in shopping centres. Because the shopping centres support the need for recreation, they have to be massive. Of course sometimes they can go overboard, in which case, the sheer size simply stupefies, so you get back in your car and drive to a cosier one around the corner.

Some Malaysians live in trees. (OK there was this one aboriginal tribe that built their houses, called rans, in trees).

They are a pretty generous lot. Even when they're pokai (broke) they will fight to pay the bill. (Sometimes waiters are manhandled in the process)

We call all older people uncle and auntie. Or Mak Cik and Pak Cik. Some Mat Sallehs who come over here assume we are related to all this people, like the stallowner or taxi driver or security guard, but actually it's just a sign of respect. I feel a little sad. Where before, most strangers called me adik (younger sibling) not they refer to me as kakak (older sister). Soon I'll get to Mak Cik (auntie) and life as we know it will be over.

We're supposed to be very straitlaced and moral about a host of issues, but...

OK, case in point. I was in Sweden on assignment and was having dinner with a bunch of people from the company, some Europeans, a few Americans, and me, the one Asian. Anyway, the conversation which covered things boring things like supply chain management took a risque turn and we found ourselves discussing Viagra. Oh, quite scientifically, as in how it was trialled as a heart medicine and they found that there was a certain side effect, ahem. Anyway, this American dude goes all red and asks that we change the subject. And I think, gee, back home we would have taken it to town and no one would have felt uncomfortable in the slightest. Of course, I may have been thinking of my select salacious circle, but still...aren't we supposed to be the conservative ones?

We don't speak proper English as a matter of honour. I mean, if you were to enunciate your words and speak in a grammatical fashion, everyone would think you're just trying to show off. This is especially true when you have spent some time abroad. I didn't realise how closely my friends were listening to see if I had picked up the Aussie accent when I came back. The moment I tossed off my first lar (we use lar as a suffix for's how you tell Malaysians from say, Indonesians, or Singaporeans) they heaved a collective sigh of relief thinking, yeah, she's still one of us. My little sister Julie has trouble with this. She only talks Manglish when she remembers to. Otherwise, her accent is very neutral (almost British) and people keep mistaking her for a foreigner. And as for my sister Jackie who's been in the UK for the past nine years, she has to drop her Brit accent the moment she lands here. If not, we make fun of her until she does.

PS: Some Malaysians are cultured, although our Government, being a wee bit paternalistic, regularly bans anything worth seeing. Sometimes they reverse these bans. Often not.

We get around the heavy censorship by purchasing illegal DVDs at the pasar malam (night markets) for about a little more than $1.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

A Pale Shade of Azure

The sun is surely sinking down
but the moon is slowly rising
so this old world must still be spinning round
and I still love you.

Nostalgia is futile. A longing for things past. Long past. Never to be reclaimed. We get to keep the feelings. But that's about all. My arms reach out. They remain empty.

So close your eyes,
you can close your eyes, it's alright,
I don't know no love songs
and I can't sing the blues anymore
but I can sing this song
and you can sing this song
when I'm gone.

The dark, smoky interior of a pub. After Five. Or Apres Sanc as we used to call it. Amir's pub. That first time, we both went there early and you said, let's close our eyes and wish very hard that a cute guy walks in. And we did. And he did. Azy. The part owner. He was adorable. We asked him if there was any non-alcoholic beverage available. It being Lent and all. He raised his eyebrows: "Milk?" That sliver of contempt. People who don't drink shouldn't go to bars. Hah! It was only for Lent, after all. After that it was JD. Always neat. Because Joyce said only wimps or girls took it on the rocks. So we choked it down. Six in a row. Then you left and I danced alone.

It won't be long before another day
We gonna have a good time
and no one's gonna take that time away
you can stay as long as you like.

Jairus Anthony was the regular performer. He played old James Taylor numbers. A beautiful voice and he liked to keep things folksy. We would send up requests and he would play them first. Before the others ahead of the queue. He liked us. I hugged him once. He died a few years ago. Cancer. I wish...

So close your eyes
you can close your eyes, it's alright
I don't know no love songs
and I can't sing the blues anymore
but I can sing this song
and you can sing this song
when I'm gone.

And I miss you. And I miss us.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Molly Auntie

Mrs Pereira arranged her crisp white cotton sari around her. Funeral houses were notoriously warm and as a full-fledged member of the “funeral auntie” brigade, she was dressed to deal with the heat. She tucked her yellow prayer book into her handbag and patted her still fat bun of hair, neatly pinned up at the back of her head. She was ready to leave for the Moreiras. Helen had called earlier to tell her that the old man was gone and the other members of their little band would be there in the next hour or two. She was ready to leave and as she checked her reflection in the mirror, she saw a prominent nose that had become increasingly beaky with age, large liquid eyes hidden behind round, black-rimmed glasses and a thin, pursed mouth. Her jaw line was now blurred with fat; and her face was covered with a smattering of talcum powder. She smelled strongly of Zest soap, a nice, fresh fragrance. Though not exactly corpulent, she was no longer the slim, swaying figure of once upon a time.

She now looked like what she was – a forceful, majestic woman it was wiser not to cross. The leader of a small band of women who presided over the Catholic funerals in the area, she pronounced judgment on everything from the political situation to the morals of Mrs Fernandez’ daughter with the same authority that would brook no argument. She came across very much like an old-fashioned schoolteacher, but was actually a housewife. Needless to say, the young people who had felt the sharp edge of her tongue, feared and hated her, and were anxious to give her a wide berth.

As she collected her car keys and was about to leave the house, Mrs Pereira did something uncharacteristic. She sighed and allowed her shoulders to droop a little. Her thoughts flew to Colin Moreira, the man who had died a few hours ago. They had been children together, although he was a few years older, and attended the same church. He had been very handsome and popular and she had watched him secretly, longing to attract his attention, but not knowing how. The usual ways were forbidden. Her family was traditional and neither her mother nor her father would have tolerated make up or figure-revealing outfits.

“Chi, chi, chi,” she had often heard her mother say, “that girl is actually wearing lipstick. So cheap! I wonder what her parents can be thinking, allowing her to behave so loosely!”

Her father was even stricter. He did not allow his children to listen to the popular songs of the day. The word “love” was considered lewd in a society where marriages were arranged as alliances between suitable families.

She agreed with her parents. The short skirts and make up of the other girls disgusted her and she would never have resorted to such lascivious behaviour to attract attention. Still, she thought, it was hard. There were not many options open to her. Colin never threw a second glance her way. She was attractive, beautiful even, with her chiselled features, long hair and swaying grace, but her long, dumpy skirts, old fashioned blouses and thick plaited hair hid the fact effectively. Her parents beamed at her in approval. Their friends complimented them on their modest daughter. But the boys were oblivious. They only noticed her voice, which was gaining in stridence.

“A strong-minded woman, inclined to be bossy,” they thought, as they turned away to pay attention to flightier females.

At 23, her parents introduced her to Tom Pereira, a dark, undersized weakling with a university degree. He repelled her at once. There was nothing about him even remotely attractive. Having lived for so long with the shade of Colin Moreira, Tom could not but appear unappealing. She consented to meet him because she could not think of an excuse not to. She had realised by the significant glances of her parents and the fact that the old people who came to call now paid closer attention to her that they would be busy trying to formulate a match. This was their business, getting nice girls and nice boys from good families together, and they thrived on it. She just hadn’t realised that it would happen so soon. So she met Tom and hated him on sight. He looked her over and was quite satisfied with what he saw. Besides being pretty, fair and modest, she was reputed to be a good cook and housekeeper. Her mother had trained her well. When he asked if he could write to her, it was on the tip of her tongue to say:

“What for? There’s not the slightest use. I would rather marry a porcupine.”

But culture was too deeply ingrained. So she gritted her teeth, smiled and said yes, of course. Molly felt the python start to coil itself around her. After a few months of letters, she found that both families considered them practically engaged; and there was nothing she could do about it. She raged into her pillow at night when the rest of the house was asleep but she did not put up much of a fight. Having always been a “good girl”, she continued to fall in with what was expected of her.

If anyone had looked closely at the bride on her wedding day, they would have noticed her eyes were red and slightly puffy; and they would probably have surmised that she did not get much sleep the night before.

So she married Tom and submitted herself to his clumsy, unimaginative lovemaking, thankful for its brevity, if nothing else. In the beginning, she would get out of bed and scrub herself down in the bathroom till her skin was raw. But after a while, Molly stopped caring. She learned to distance herself from the act as effectively as she had distanced herself from her husband.

It was not that he was a bad husband. He adored her unquestioningly and in the first month of his marriage, he presented her with his entire paycheque of 500 ringgit, starting, as he would continue for the rest of his life. Being an excellent manager, she saved a good deal, which she put into fixed deposits and when there was enough, she would use the money to put down payments on property. She did not trust the stock market despite some magnificent bull runs. She watched her neighbours and friends lose their heads and end up poorer in the pocket than when they had started and resolved not to be similarly fooled, in another bull run were to come along.

Once Tom came to tell her he was thinking of quitting his nice, secure job as financial controller in an MNC to join some bright young things who were looking to set up their own dotcom. They had offered to double his salary and give him stock options. Molly, being the financial controller of the family, kept up to date with all the latest phenomena through the various business newspapers and magazines. She had followed the dotcom craze with some interest and seen the overnight millionaires it created. She did not, however, see what value these companies created or how they could hope to sustain their astronomical market valuations. Her husband had a good job with a good company and he had risen slowly through the ranks. The multinational was not likely to close its doors tomorrow and it looked after its staff pretty well. In fact, most of their housing loans were from the company at very favourable interest rates.

Molly looked at her husband with some amazement for imagining that he would be allowed to topple their carefully constructed life.

“You will do no such thing! Call them now and refuse!” she barked.

Tom sighed. And did exactly as she told him. He had fallen into the habit of going along with what his wife said that it would have been unthinkable to argue. If anyone had suggested that he was henpecked, he would have been surprised. The thing is, Molly was so terribly sensible. She saw things nobody else did and was never carried away with the excitement of the moment. He called the young entrepreneurs and told them he had talked it over with his wife and would have to decline. They were disappointed and tried to change his mind. This time though, he was unpersuadable. Five months later, the start-up crashed from a nasty cocktail of problems that included a lack of funding, management inexperience and an unproven (and unprovable) technology. Tom thanked his lucky stars for Molly.

They had two children, Rahel and Chacko. She managed them like she managed everything else in her life. She made friends with all their teachers, sent them for tuitions, picked their friends and decided on their careers. Sometimes her children, unlike her husband, would kick at their fetters and try to break free. But they were used to their chains. Besides, they loved their mother.

Today, she thought proudly, Rahel was a doctor and Chacko, an engineer. True, they had both migrated and were living abroad, but the silken threads that bound them to their mother were not exactly broken. She talked to each on the phone, once a week and once a year, they flew back for a visit. Neither was married but she fully expected to choose their respective mates. Nasty people whispered that the two had run away to escape being strangled in the maternal embrace, but she ignored such talk. People could be so jealous, she thought, shaking her head sadly.

It was time to go. The other ladies would be wondering what happened to her. She usually led the prayers and songs for all the Catholic funerals in their BEC (basic ecumenical community). Her brisk businesslike approach was appreciated by the bereaved families, who were usually too distraught to do much for themselves.

Mrs Pereira drove to Moreira’s house and parked outside. They lived in a less prosperous suburb and the street was choked with cards parked untidily in every available space around the house. Usually she arrived early enough to get a good spot, but today, being uncharacteristically late, she had to park a good distance away. When she entered the house, she spotted the members of her little band, similarly attired, like a brood of white pigeons, seated around the coffin. She glanced at the body and quickly looked away. Trying to preserve her equanimity, her eyes darted around the room until they came to rest on Rose Moreira, Colin’s widow, a diminutive figure in black, her greying hair falling in wisps around her still youthful face, looking dazed and heartbroken.

Rose was a gentle creature that Colin had married soon after Molly’s own wedding. Theirs was a “love marriage” a scandalous proceeding in their time, but their liberal parents had taken it in their stride. Rose was a loving, if weak wife, and she did not have Molly’s penchant for managing her five children. Each went their own way, with only Ruby, the eldest, going back to school at 25, to get her degree. None of them were married. The ladies of the parish (with the singular exception of Molly Pereira) were generous with their advice and warnings. Rose listened politely but never did anything. She and Colin had agreed that their children were adults and should be left to find their own way. The others could neither understand their attitude nor respect it. To them, not interfering in your children’s lives was tantamount to not loving them.

Molly offered her condolences a little stiffly (they had never been very intimate) and Rose invited her to take a seat, grateful that she did not press for details of Colin’s last hours. It hurt her to talk about it, but a procession of corpulent middle-aged relatives had seated themselves next to her in the past few hours demanding to know how it was. Rose was not the type to refuse and if Molly had asked she would have gone through it all over again.

Molly then rose to join the other ladies around the coffin, in one of the metal, fold-out chairs. The house, like most funeral houses, smelt of incense and formalin. The other funeral aunties eyed her expectantly and held their prayer books open in readiness. She led them in a Rosary, ending with the traditional petition for the soul of the deceased.

“Eternal rest grant unto him, oh Lord.”

“And let perpetual light shine upon him.”

“May his soul rest in peace.”


Having led dozens of funerals, the words came automatically, her mind a million miles away.

She kept her head resolutely bent over her prayer book as she announced: “ We will sing two verses of God of Mercy.” They quavered out the hymn mournfully.

When the singing ended, the others gathered around her for the news. Usually she would hold forth in an undertone. The topic, which held them in breathless suspense? The deceased’s last hours, how he died and who said what to whom, how his wife reacted, how his children reacted, how his doctors reacted and so forth.

It would run something along the lines of: “Yes, and in the morning the maid brought him his breakfast. He did not want his coffee though.” For no detail, however insignificant, was too inconsequential. The others would hang on to every word. Sometimes, she would break off in the middle of her narrative to comment on some new arrival, especially if the new arrival happened to be a young unmarried girl.’

“There, that one over there. That’s Menon’s daughter, you know, the reporter from Straits Times. Yes, good family and such a pretty girl, but very loose, you know. I heard her parents are looking for a boy, but how to find when your daughter has such a reputation? I don’t know what they were thinking, letting her work in a place like that. The girls today ah, donno how they were brought up. In my time we would have kept them under lock and key until they had been married off. Such trouble they give their poor parents these days,” she would trail off in disgust.

A few of the listening ladies may have been tempted to remind her that her own daughter was not married and living overseas, in a very free and easy environment and who knows what she was up to? But they didn’t dare. It was wiser not to cross Mrs Pereira in any way, as she made a very formidable adversary and never forgave an insult. So they clucked sympathetically and agreed.

Today, however, she remained strangely silent. She struggled to keep up a fa├žade but her sadness kept slipping through the cracks; sadness she had no right to feel and which she couldn’t justify. She had not known Colin well. To the outside world they were practically strangers. Molly had hardly exchanged two dozen words with him in the whole course of their acquaintance because he never sought her out and she was too shy to intrude herself upon his notice. The world may have thought her bossy and overbearing, but she did try to preserve the niceties. Besides, how did one speak to an idol? How to preserve your dignity and not appear a fool? The usually loquacious lady was tongue-tied in his presence. Through the long years, she berated herself for this stupid senseless passion she continued to feel for this man. She waited for age to bring wisdom and resignation. It hadn’t. The secret continued to linger in her deepest recesses that nobody knew about and nobody could touch.

Once, she glanced at the desiccated old man in the coffin but her eyes filled with tears and she was forced to look away.

“Don’t be stupid, Molly!” she told herself sternly, to no avail.

Once or twice, she allowed a sigh of such sadness to escape her that the other ladies glanced at her with some amazement. They wondered what had gotten into Molly Pereira. They tried to give her various openings to launch into one of her usual stories but she remained silent and pensive.

“She must not be feeling well,” thought Adela Gomez, a widow herself, looking at her friend with some concern. She had never seen Mrs Pereira in less possession of herself and she wondered at the cause. To guess at the truth would have been beyond her, or anyone present. The veneer of old age and respectability covered both parties concerned. Molly, in fact, had been middle aged, when she was still a teenager. Extraordinarily sensitive, with an excessive regard for appearances, she had never put a toe out of line.

Molly felt the glances of her friends with a sharpened sensitivity and tried to pull herself together.

“Have you heard about this flu strain going round? I was at Solly’s house the other day and his daughter was not too well. I think I may have picked up something,” she offered.

“Aiyoh, why did you come then? You could have called one of us and we would have been happy to take your place,” Mrs Gomez sympathised.

“Nolar, not nice. I mean, poor Rose, so sudden and all. I think the least we can do is come and show our support. How would she feel if I didn’t bother to show up?” Mrs Pereira countered.

Mrs Gomez looked at her strangely. After all, Molly was not close to the family. Why all the fuss? “She must be such a busybody that she can’t bear to miss a funeral, even if she’s sick. I hope I don’t catch anything.” And she unobstrusively moved her chair a little away.

Molly was having trouble controlling her expression.

“I am going to start weeping unless I think of something else,” she thought desperately.

She cast her mind back on her life, looking for something to hold on to. Anything. Her children? They had grown up and flown the coop. And no matter how she tried to fight the idea, they were living their own lives now. Her husband? He was about as significant to her as the beige wall behind the coffin - the Mr to her Mrs and the body on the other side of the bed. Otherwise, he did not signify. He hardly existed. She did not love him nor could she pretend to herself that she did, after all these years.

The only thing she had, the only part of herself that was still hers and not subject to the tyranny of the world’s opinions, was the love she bore this man. All else had been her Herculean attempt to conform to a society that was not fitted for people like her. Not unless you wanted to challenge the system, which she never did.

“Why do I love you? There is nothing special about you. I don’t even know you. So why does it kill me to think that after today, I will never see you again?” she was blinking back the tell tale moistness.

She sighed heavily: “You were the one excitement in my boring, mundane life. Filled with activities and busy-ness that really did not matter. All those little ways I kept myself occupied to pass the days. I used you to fill the emptiness inside. I never realised before how empty I actually feel. Everyone thinks I am strong. Strong? I am this scared, conventional woman stuck in a straitjacket of custom. I married a man I couldn’t stand because I didn’t want to disappoint my parents. A fool, that’s what I was. And now at the end of the day, I have nobody to love me and nobody to love. Not in the way I want to be loved. You never loved me. Why should you? What did I see in you?”

The hearse arrived. The pallbearers started to lift the coffin to take it out of the house. This was always the most painful part of the funeral for the family. It was the moment they realised that their loved one was leaving, never to come home. The grief-stricken widow collapsed in sobs. A howl rose in Molly’s throat. She strangled it into a whimper and covered her face. The ladies around started back in horror and amazement. Oblivious, Molly ran out the house, fumbling for her car keys. She drove home, sobbing uncontrollably.

She knew she had behaved madly. She knew she had set tongues wagging wildly and her husband would come to hear of her strange behaviour and draw his own conclusions. But she couldn’t help herself.

Her career as a funeral auntie was buried with Colin Moreira.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Too many walls

So there I was, pushing gamely on with my extremely boring (I want to stick pins into myself) novel, because I had just read the letter from Julia Cameron (Letters to a Young Artist) to whit, if you cannot make good art, make bad art, when she walked in.

I don't know why I noticed her. Maybe it was her black knit top, tight enough to be sexy, yet not overly slutty. Maybe it was the confidence of her stride and proud carriage of her head. She was attractive. And there was a youthful freedom about her movements. One I recognised but no longer shared. She walked into the place fully confident of her own power to charm, to attract, to hold attention. Which is why the following seemed so funny, almost to the point of absurdity.

There she was chatting amiably on her mobile, sashaying towards one of the tables. Which one, I wondered as I swiveled around (I know, busybody, but what to do?) to have a look.

It was the one with a solitary ugly older man. Still chatting on the phone, she glided into the seat opposite him. And he glanced deliberately at his watch. There was thunder in his face. No welcoming smile. Even his unsightly eyebags looked threatening. I felt the waves of hostility from all the way across the room.

Oooooh drama, I thought gleefully, as I stole into my bag to retrieve my notebook. I had just been about to leave but this was too good to miss. (I know, I know, busybody, but what to do? We deprived ones who don't watch Desperate Housewives must also have our fun).

She finished her conversation and smiled up hopefully at him, assured of her reception. It was then she realised things were not going to go as planned. He looked furious. And not the hot fury that burns itself off in words but the cold variety of wounded pride. She leaned her head enticingly on one hand as she looked up into that heavily jowled face, but he was unmoved. They ordered drinks.

When his root beer arrived, he stuck a straw into his glass and concentrated on sucking. He didn't look at her. She was embarrassed. She ventured a few words. He ignored her. This was getting ridiculous. She glanced round the Delifrance to see who else was watching. I could see her eyes dart nervously in my direction, but there I was studiously scribbling away, apparently oblivious to what was taking place.

All the other tables were filled with talking, laughing groups, or solitaries, reading a newspaper, a book or gazing abstractedly into place. Except for me. Writing.

He continued to suck. She continued to look around. Silence can be so heavy. She had the stunned look of one who has been slapped in the face and doesn't want to cry.

OK, so she was 20 minutes late. So what? When he saw her trim young body encased in the snug sweater, the tasteful black trousers, shouldn't he have melted? Wasn't she worth the wait?

Apparently not. There was a newness, a discomfort about this relationship. Probably he hadn't even tried her out in bed. Maybe he was jealous of the person she was chatting with. A young man. Possible handsome. With roving hands. And here he was, a fool, alienating the girl. She already looked sorry she had come and glanced at her watch several times, wondering how quickly she could slip away. She had not bargained for this.

The light glinted off his wedding ring. But of course. A man needs young blood to remind himself he is young. Probably his wife didn't wear these snug black sweaters and even if she did, her breasts wouldn't press against the material quite so perkily.

But the girl looked tired. She sighed. She wanted out. She picked up the menu and pretended to glance through it, placing a physical barrier between them. At this, he thawed and leaned forward. Still sucking on that straw however. But he was running out of root beer.

She has tried to chat lightly to break the silence. He remained obdurate. The ball was now in his court. He said something to her. Gave her a half smile. She looked up, uncertain. An olive branch? After being treated to a 20 minute freeze, she was not so sure.

He continued to chat, words flowing like water, thawing out the ice between them. She started to reciprocate. A half smile. Soon, she was chatting, exclaiming loudly as something he said. By the time I rose to settle my bill, you couldn't tell there had been anything wrong.

I wondered if he was going to buy her a present. Something small but thoughtful and expensive to make her forget the torment of the past half hour (after all, moneyed older married men looking to have affairs with attractive younger women are a dime a dozen... what did he have to offer that the next guy wouldn't?)

Maybe a Sony Ericsson walkman phone...

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Before Breakfast: Six Impossible Things

Like and 'like' and 'like' - but what is the thing that lies beneath the semblance of the thing?

Darling, restrain this impulse to be purposely obscure. It doesn't serve, believe me, it doesn't.

But why then does a toffee apple appear to be particularly lascivious?

Pendant, maybe. Gravid, I give you. But lascivious?

That red, red pouting mouth. I ask you...

There you have me, I couldn't say, if you stuck me in the middle of Megamall with my eyes closed and asked me to nose out the Starbucks.

A conundrum, then. But what were you doing there?

Oh darling, what does one do in that place of discarded dreams? Haunt the aisles, finger the threadbare, always-on-sale clothes, eye the dessicated Belgian chocolate, lick the floss of the buns, content oneself with lurid movie posters, all sound and fury, signifying....


Either that or Parkinson's disease. I tell you, it simply isn't good enough...all these enclosed parks of jaded air. Suffocating the stealthy shopper with the shambles of self. Or Self. Whichever.

But, but, but...there is a bookshop, a large one, and you know how you are with bookshops.

Do you want me to quote some Prahalad? Throw in some TLAs like BOP?


The poor, darling, the very poor. Only now we call them underserved. Or Bottom of Pyramid.

Ah, I get you Steve.

And I skulked in mobile phone shops with my shiny little notebook.


Yes, and the shopkeepers looked at me askance. They said, wherefore the notebook, and I said, please mister, can I have some more, and they said, MORE, MORE? And I skulked right out of there. I tell you darling, all this pressure on my cerebral cortex makes me tired, so tired...

What is one to do, after all? There is the thing. And the semblance of the thing. And the thing that lies underneath.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The House Boy

It is the year 1927. Kupu, a scrawny little boy stands behind his mother at the doorstep of a large house. His mother is asking the Eurasian lady there to take him on as a servant. If the lady agrees, his mother will leave and he will never see her again. What a big house these people have. Kupu lives with his teeming family in a shack on the coolie lines in Shaw Road, far out of town. Kupu is of the lowest caste and his family are very poor. Now he is 12, his mother will find him a job to get him off her hands.

Mrs Van Tooren is not rich. This large sprawling house in the middle of a sizeable fruit orchard is rented. But she feels sorry for this half-starved creature, shuffling his feet at her doorstep. Besides, this is a time when even the less affluent households include cousins, poor relatives and a handful of servants. She agrees to take him, and Kupu’s mother thanks her and walks away. She does not hold her son or give him one last look or remind him to be a good boy. Outward displays of affection are a luxury for the rich.

The lady takes him into the kitchen and gives him a meal, the first he has had in two days. He smiles shyly at her. She is a nice lady. She then calls her five children – Avin, Leslie, Thelma, Marguerite and Audrey – together to tell them that Kupu has come to stay with them as their new podian, that is, servant boy.

It is the year 1929 and Kupu is now like one of the family. Seventeen-year-old Leslie goes for a holiday and brings back a hideous cloth mask with ginger hair and ginger eyebrows. They each try it out in turn, but Kupu presents the most gruesome spectacle and the kids realise that they are on to a good thing.

A beggar comes to the house, holding a coconut shell, shaking, as if with palsy. Kupu walks up to him with the mask, also with a coconut shell outstretched. The beggar stops shaking and quietly turns to go. But, as this creature still advances, the poor man reaches into his pocket and takes the coins he finds there, chucks it into the other’s shell and runs off.

There are road works going on at the bridge between Yap Kwan Seng Road and Circular Road. At night, there is a man on duty to see that the hurricane lamp, placed by the hole in the road, doesn’t go out. This man lies on the bridge singing Indian love songs when he suddenly feels something scratching his toe. He looks down, lets out a yell and somersaults over the masked Kupu, screaming to everyone within hearing distance that he has seen a “devil”.

In the 1920s, there are tiny little buses, a dull silvery colour, about the size of a van today, plying Circular Road. They are known as “mosquito buses” and can take up to 10 passengers at a time. Though small, they are seldom overcrowded, as there is one every 10 minutes and they stop anywhere along their route, to pick up passengers. One day, at around dusk, the bus stops for Kupu, who is waiting at the side of the road. When he ascends, the driver takes one look at him and hurtles out of the driver’s exit. The passengers, all eight of them, follow likewise.

The mask features in many satisfying pranks. One day, however, Kupu chooses the wrong person to tangle with. Leslie and one of his college friends are sitting on the veranda chatting when Kupu appears in the famous mask and moves menacingly towards the boy. The strapping 18-year old simply plucks a post used to hold up one of Mrs Van Tooren’s Joachim orchids, and chases him across the orchard. Kupu runs wildly towards the house of a Chinese caretaker, at the edge of the orchard, and that old man, spying this ghastly apparition running towards him, bandy legs splayed out like a monkey, sets his dogs on it. They attack Kupu viciously, and Mr Van Tooren has to take him to the hospital to be stitched up.

A year later, the two youngest missies – Marguerite and Audrey – are at school. Every lunchtime, Kupu appears, spruced up in socks and shoes, his hair slicked back, to present their lunches, freshly cooked from the kitchen. He stands at ease behind them, and when they have finished, gathers up the containers and flies back home. The family often comment on how speedily those thin legs can carry him. If Mrs Van Tooren sends him to the shop around the corner to buy something, he is back in no time at all. When little Audrey starts school, she decides that Kupu should be taught to read. Every evening, she brings her reader to him and stands by his side with her ruler as she has seen her teacher do, to take him through the reading exercises.

It is two years later. The family are on holiday at the beach in Port Dickson. The two youngest daughters are afraid to put their heads under water, so Kupu does handstands in the water for them, dangling his skinny legs in the air. Everyone laughs. He is no longer just the podian. He is now the family cook.

In 1942, Malaysia is under Japanese occupation and everyone is reduced to a diet of tapioca and sweet potato. Mrs Van Tooren’s brother, Dr Bertie Van Cuylenburg, tells the family that fresh toddy is very nutritious and they should try to get some if they can. The family send Kupu to a nearby plantation, which supplies toddy fresh, once a week. This proves to be his undoing. From fresh toddy, he graduates to the fermented variety and soon, to any liquor he can lay his hands on.

It is two years after the war. Kupu’s “home” breaks up as half the family move to Singapore. Both Marguerite and Audrey are now married and Mr and Mrs Van Tooren are dead. Kupu goes to live with Audrey but her husband Cecil turfs him out when he comes home drunk one night and nearly sets the house on fire. He then goes to Marguerite, and her husband Patrick, who put him in charge of their tennis courts. He is happy in his new role and does an excellent job, sweeping, rolling and re-marking the lines every day. In the evenings, he gives Patrick a massage and regales him with all the gossip of the neighbourhood.

It is 1953 and Patrick, a prominent lawyer in Singapore, is under doctor’s orders to take a break from work. With four small children, Marguerite is unable to accompany him so he takes Kupu instead. They set off for Penang on a P&O steam-liner and Kupu dons his first evening suit for dinner. An English steward comes up and asks: “Would you like to have a look at the menu, sir?” sending him into a fit of giggles. This is the first time a white man has ever addressed him as “sir”. When the steward comes back and asks, “What will you have, sir?”, Kupu, in another spasm of giggles, answers, “Yennything.” He has a fantastic time in Penang and they fly back to Singapore. Patrick overhears him telling his friends later: “From the herroplane, you look down on the herth, the people look like hants.”

Ten years later, Patrick dies of a heart attack. Marguerite packs up and moves to Australia. A heartbroken Kupu bids her a tearful goodbye. He will never see her again. He now works for Patrick’s cousin, maintaining tennis courts. But he lives mostly with the bottle. When he cannot afford liquor, he turns to methylated spirits. Sometimes he empties the kerosene lamp into his throat.

It is 1971 and Kupu lies dying. Years of alcohol abuse have destroyed his liver. His “family” have all migrated abroad and he is once again the little boy at the doorstep of a stranger, shuffling his feet. Now, however, there is no kind Mrs Van Tooren to take him in and give him a meal. No sweet Miss Marguerite to play with him. No nice Miss Audrey to take his part. His last wishes are for a cup of coffee and a cigarette. He dies without.

It was a life that never had a chance.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Shooting the breeze

Iago has been away from Malaysia for nearly three decades, moving around in the US - Michigan, Boston, San Jose, New York. He came back because of his parents. Plenty of our successful sons (or daughters) abroad come back because of this. I think if the Malaysian government is smart, it will capitalise on the parents getting old syndrome to effect a reverse brain drain.

Anyways, Iago is telling me that even after two years, some things still strike him as just plain weird over here. Like the tenor of conversations with clients.

"Now Raymond here (he indicates his colleague seated next to him), he calls up our client in China and starts asking after his wife and daughter, and here I am champing at the bit, wondering why he doesn't just get on with it."

Raymond, Wai Cheong (the other director) and I smile at each other in a superior fashion. Being Malaysian, Raymond's behaviour makes perfect sense to us. It is not "wasting time". It is "building relationships".

We each try to explain this to Iago.

I tell him that when I was a reporter, I would take out the people I wanted to cultivate and buy them dinner. And we would talk about everything under the canopy but the business at hand. Two weeks later, when I called, I would be able to get what I wanted without any fuss. I had moved from "contact" to "friend". And these people would even call me with leads. (Sometimes, being notoriously lazy and having other priorities, like hanging out with my sister at the mall when she was visiting, this eagerness would irritate. But it would get me frontpage stories)

I also recount a story I heard from a Kiwi who had been to Morocco. He wanted to purchase a beautiful vase at a bazaar. He indicated his interest, the owner named a price. Then they sat down, had tea together and talked about other things. While they were chatting an Aussie couple came up, asked about another vase, and plunked down the cash without attempting to bargain. The stall owner was horrified. He couldn't understand how anyone could be so rude. He shook his head sadly as he wondered aloud to my friend about what this world was coming to. My friend nodded sipping his apple tea. Finally, after a half hour, tradition satisfied, the stall owner sold him the coveted vase for one-third the price. Everyone went away from that encounter happy.

Iago shakes his head. Exasperation written on his otherwise kindly visage. To him, it is an incredibly roundabout way of doing business.

Wai Cheong suggests that perhaps there are other things as important as concluding the business at hand. "The difference between East and Westlar. Just take it like that! Haiya, you've been away too long!"

He is surrounded. Poor guy. I feel strains of weepy violin music coming on.

"Yeah, also the difference between men and women. Why do you think we hang on the phone so long while you guys take five minutes?" I chip in.

I know an Australian professor of linguistics who actually studied the difference between male and female phone conversations. He came to the conclusion that the male conversations were nearly always about settling the business at hand which is why they could be concluded very quickly. Female conversations could be about nothing in particular, but they were actually geared towards building relationships. The professor mentioned this to his son Lars, who was engaged in trying to get his sister Katrinka off the phone.

Lars: "Look, you just make a list of things you have to convey to the other person, and I'm sure you would only need five minutes. Cut down your talk time by 90 per cent."

Katrinka (ignoring him): "And she was like, so not impressed and I said, `k babe, if that's the way you want to play it..."

All this means of course, being both Eastern and female, I am twice as prone to such time-wasting behaviour.

Sigh. OK gotta go call Mary now. She hasn't heard from me in two days and will probably be worried.

On second thoughts, I won't. I've switched off my phone and intend to continue anti-social behaviour indefinitely.

We artists have to take time out to be eccentric.