4 stories from Malay Sketches
Out now from Gaudy Boy
When I first entered Pok ̊ Su’s house, the first thing I noticed was an ornate bird cage, hung near a window. There was a spotted dove cooing inside. Another bird cage hung next to it, but it was empty. I asked Pok Su how he managed to catch the bird.
“From the jungle,” was his terse reply.
I wanted him to elaborate. Did he set a trap, and could I see one?
Pok Su looked at me incredulously. “All you have to do is open the cage door, and one will fly in.”
It was my turn to be incredulous. Did he perhaps lay some bait inside the cage?
Pok Su turned his attention to the dove, making clucking noises at it. I was getting quite tired with his mystifications. This was what was considered the ‘wisdom’ of village people, and I began to see that it was built on secrecy and evasion.
Exasperated at not getting straight answers, I asked Pok Su, “Don’t you think that it’s wrong to keep birds like that? Shouldn’t they be allowed to y freely?”
Pok Su turned towards me. He smiled and said, “You come from the city, where you have radios to keep you company. But I have this dear bird to fill my house with music.”
I thought there was something unfortunate about having to imprison an animal merely for entertainment, but I held my tongue. Anyway, he had already drawn a line, putting me in my place. What did I know, as a ‘city person’, about how these village-dwellers furnish their solitude?
A few months lapsed before I returned to Terengganu. This time, both cages in Pok Su’s house were empty. I asked him what happened to the dove. Pok Su merely smiled and brought me to the kitchen. He showed me his brand new transistor radio. Then his wife served us some tea with Jacob’s cream crackers.
Throughout the six days that I stayed with him, Pok Su never once turned on the radio. He would, instead, sit in the living room, smoking and staring at his two empty cages. His head was itself a cage, in the cage was a jungle, and in the jungle was music, both private, and faraway.
Pok [b.m.] Terengganu dialect for Pak
After The Dusk Prayers
After the dusk prayers, Mak Jah would climb down the few steps in front of her first-storey at with a plastic bag in her hand. She would slip into her brown rubber slippers and make her way to the park, all the while smiling to herself.
At the park, Mak Jah would find a spot on a bench, preferably one that was not directly under a street lamp. She would look around for anyone who might look officious. She had a particular nervousness about those men in short-sleeved shirts and pants, who wore a lanyard around their necks. Attached to it would be a tag, which she imagined being flashed in her face, to demonstrate the person’s power over her.
Mak Jah would then untie her plastic bag and take out some sheets of newspaper to lay on the ground. She would then pinch some fish from the bag, placing them on the sheets.
And then she would wait for her friends to arrive.
Before long, a grey tabby appeared, tentative, staring straight at Mak Jah as if sizing her up. Mak Jah made soft, clucking noises to encourage him. He moved closer, the advance of each timid paw calculated as if he was testing the temperature of the ground.
Could he tell she was an old woman who was incapable of chasing him? Does human age secrete its particular smell? The tabby inched forward, and was soon chewing quite contentedly on the fish. Mak Jah bent down to scratch his head, and he started to purr.
“Where are the rest of your friends?” she asked.
Within seconds, other cats appeared, and very soon Mak Jah’s feast had accommodated a total of six. Two of them were white, with black patches, and she asked them if they were siblings. One of them, a scrawny brown tabby, was especially vocal, and would stop in the middle of nosing around the food to arch its head upwards and meow at Mak Jah. She imagined that he was complaining, “Nenek ̊, they’re not letting me have my share!”
She lifted him (she found out it was a her) onto her own lap, reached into her plastic bag, and fed her with her own hand. “Why is this special one so pampered?” she asked. She knew all Malay grandmothers had the same habit: to chide the grandchildren even as they were extravagantly indulging them.
Mak Jah thought about her time in the kampung ̊. She had kept chickens then, and every morning she would scatter grains of rice in the compound outside the house. There was also a cat called Comot, who was such a needy, hyperactive nuisance, whose favourite mode of getting attention was by weaving his body between one’s legs while one was walking. The men all swore at him, but the women, who walked around in long sarongs, had no problems with him.
Comot’s favourite spot was under a hibiscus bush outside their house. Mak Jah wondered what had happened to him. Sometimes, she also wondered if this practice of feeding the neighbourhood cats was a kind of penance for not having brought him along when they all moved. The whole family searched the kampung for him, but he was not to be found. Comot liked chasing butterflies...
When Mak Jah arrived home, her son was waiting for her. He said, “Mak, you can’t leave the door unlocked when you leave the house. How many times do we have to remind you? We’re not living in the kampung anymore, you know.”
“I forgot,” said Mak Jah, brushing past him into the kitchen to wash her hands.
“And have you seen today’s newspapers?”
Nenek [b.m.] Grandmother
kampong [b.m.] Village
My name was on the board. For two weeks I was assigned plainclothes duty, to nab those who littered in public. My colleagues told me that the National Environment Agency was recruiting younger members from the auxiliary police force not just because they were shorthanded. Apparently, people had started to wise up to their tactics. A typical profile of one of their enforcement officers was a middle-aged man, who liked reading The New Paper while hanging around groups of youths. The size of the tabloid made it convenient for him to keep a lookout while pretending to read.
My designated spot was near a bus interchange, where there were seats carved into a circular brick structure. On my first three days, I managed to catch an average of eight offenders a day. On my fourth day, it rained. I saw some people lighting up but they were moving as they smoked, following the path along the covered walkway.
I was tempted to tail some of them, counting down to the moment when ash would touch the filter, the decisive moment when someone would commit an unthinking crime. But it made my job more sneaky than what I was comfortable with. If I were to position myself at the seats, watching from the side of my eye, then I was more a witness than a spy.
The skies only cleared when it was almost evening. My usual seat was wet. But some people still hung around the brick structure, as if it was not just a resting spot but also a landmark and meeting-point. It struck me that my observations were possible because I was an outsider. It was as if I had an aerial view of the place.
My hopes were raised when a delinquent-looking youth started on a cigarette. However, when he finished, he produced, from his pocket, what looked like a purse. I recognised it as a portable ashtray. It was a kind of anti-climax not to see the cigarette butt flicked, somersaulting into the air, with a contempt I associated with manliness.
I then heard a cigarette lighter ick (I had become sensitive to this sound), and turned to see a young lady inhaling from her stick. She reminded me of the sister of a classmate I once had. His house was often chosen as the venue for group project work, for obvious reasons. Once, I had found his sister’s bra, a lacy, black, sinful thing, draped on a wall bracket in the toilet. I told the rest of my group mates, and we all took turns visiting the toilet. Not much work was done, as we accused each other of sniffing the bra, with each of us taking turns confessing, and then retracting. We were passing and shifting the truth among us back and forth as if it was the bra itself, balled up and scorching.
I had almost wished that the young lady would also produce her own portable ashtray, but she let her cigarette butt drop from her fingers onto the pavement. I waited for her to walk away, and then I caught up with her.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’m in a rush.” It sounded less like an excuse than a sincere apology. She had large eyes, framed by thick, even eyelashes. I felt that I could not look at her eyes for very long for fear of looking into them. I took out my authorisation card from the agency and showed it to her.
The young lady sighed. Somehow I had expected her to inspect my card, to verify my identity. But it seemed to her that I had already issued her a summons, like a referee who had just flashed her a red card.
“You were smoking over there, just now, right?”
She brushed a few strands of hair with her ngers and tucked them behind her left ear. I have seen girls do this when they are nervous. I wondered what the back of her ears smelt like.
“I don’t know,” she said. “What proof do you have?”
“The proof is I saw you,” I said. “Come with me.” I led her to the spot where she had dumped her cigarette butt. Apparently she had shifted it with her shoe to the bank of the pavement, where other cigarette butts lay.
“There’s so many there. You can’t tell which one is mine.”
Fortunately for me, there was a single butt with a lipstick stain on it. I held it up and said, “I think you know where this colour came from. You still want to argue?”
I did not know why I sounded so brash. Where did I pick up such language from?
“Can I have your I/C ̊ please?” I then asked, trying to soften my words, or more exactly, trying to show her that I was capable of softness.
“Is it a fine?” she asked. “Because I’m really broke this month. I’m so sorry. I’ll just take that and throw it away. How much is the ne?”
“It’s $200. Can I please have your I/C?” I said. My throat was dry.
And then she switched into Malay. “Bang,” she said, “can’t you give me another chance?”
I had never been in a situation with a beautiful girl like this before. I had spoken to pretty salesgirls, and waitresses, but I had never been this close. And what I meant by close was that her vulnerability became a form of intimacy. She had used the word ‘Bang’, short for ‘Abang’, referring to me as a brother. But the word was also used by wives to call their husbands.
“I promise I won’t do it again. Just give me a warning. I promise.”
That was not the promise that I wanted from her. I wanted her to promise that I would be able to meet her again, or those like her, without an overblown offence and its ridiculous penalty to make such an encounter possible. I wanted her to promise that women would not just judge me on my physical appearance and allow me to fade into the traffic and scenery of a crowd. I wanted her to promise on their behalf that they would always allow me a second chance.
I took down her name. And her address. I told her that she would receive a letter in two weeks’ time. I never kept her details, even though I did not obtain them through underhand methods. I did, however, keep the cigarette butt that she had thrown behind.
Some days, I enter a shopping centre and ask for a match of the shade on the butt. Some salesgirls think that I am doing something romantic. But what interests me more are the fancy names that are given to these shades. Every time I learn a new name, it is as if I have learnt a new thing about her.
Guava Stain. Parisian Pink. All Heart. Strawberry Suede. Craving.
They are like the broken lines to a song, or a poem, whose missing words I will never find.
We made a makeshift barbershop in front of our bunk, along the corridor.
I was seated bare-bodied on a folding chair, directly under a fluorescent lamp. No mirrors placed in front and behind me to replicate my image towards diminishing eternity. No rectangle of cloth pegged at the back of my neck. No TV screen playing football matches. No stereo system blaring dangdut ̊ songs, with those distinctive bass beats that sound like the frenzied burst of magma bubbles. No electric shearers caressing my head, its serrated nib so close to my scalp I could feel my skull vibrating drowsily. And none of those after-cut treats: the chill of rosewater lathered along my mandible by a shaving brush, the razor blade scratching against my sideburn follicles in that most satisfying manner: along the grain.
“Boss, how you want?” Sudin asked. Sudin was a storeman from the QM branch. I was a sergeant from Bravo company. We had both been con ned for the weekend; him, for losing one of the brushes from his rifle-cleaning kit, and myself, for forgetting to sign the book in/book out book.
I noticed something as Sudin snipped my hair and itchy tufts fell on my bare shoulders. I had an urge to talk. My memories of haircuts, when I was a child, and teenager, was one of humiliation. I visited a Malay barbershop near my old home in Tampines, one called Bugs Bunny but which had, in addition to the eponymous rabbit, pictures of Woody Woodpecker on the glass doors. One might think that the environment would have been one that was child-friendly. After sitting down on a cushioned plank placed across armrests, I would then be asked in which style I wanted my hair to be cut.
This was when terror would strike me, unfailingly. Because the question would be delivered in Malay, and I couldn’t answer in Malay. I was scoring quite distinguished Mother Tongue grades in school, but when it came to banter, I found myself rummaging through a mental dictionary. Furthermore, it was a dictionary submerged in water, soaked to the spine, its pages wrinkled and warped. The very act of diving to retrieve such a wreck involved breathlessness and the deceleration experienced when one enters another medium. What words to choose without sounding stilted or straying to silence in mid-sentence?
In retrospect though, I think it was my fear of not getting the inflections right that paralysed me, more so than a lexical poverty. Maybe I knew the words to use, how to string them together, but had no idea how to achieve that unreachable diction that would disguise the fact that these very words had been frantically translated from English.
So I would answer in English: cut the sides short, don’t cut so much at the top, leave a slope at the back. There was one time, though, when the barber frowned and asked sarcastically, “You don’t know how to speak Malay, is it?” I remember blushing when those words pierced me, my ears turning red, wishing the barber wasn’t so close as to notice such obvious signs of shame. That was the longest haircut of my life; staring into the mirror I saw a boy who, quite simply, didn’t belong.
There were other customers sitting on the bench outside: there were old men in white songkok Haji ̊, boys in soccer T-shirts, Mat Motors ̊ in their sunglasses and windbreakers, one with his helmet decorated with a sticker of a pair of Mercurial wings. When these people came in, they would smile at the barbers, call them abang (brother) or nak (child) with familiarity and ease. There would be nothing alien about the barbers’ mullets, nicotine-stained teeth, pious goatees or the stone-encrusted rings on their fingers. I wasn’t part of this network of easy rapport—my feet didn’t touch the hair-carpeted floor, my disembodied head was hovering in the air, cut off at the neck by a white sheet. A ghost, rootless, not of these customs and hence not of this world.
Haircuts became rituals of retreat. The snips of scissors and hum of electric shearers carried out dialogues around my head, and all the while I was submerging myself in a private silence, a stone dropped in a dark well, shrinking like my own reflection endlessly multiplied by the front and back mirrors. The closer the blades got to my scalp, the further I withdrew into my mind’s sanctum.
But hair grows. And what was severed is replaced, finds its own length.
So back again to last night, where I had Sudin hovering around me, snipping away. Another barbershop, another chance at redemption. As all the dead weight fell around me, accumulating in a black halo at my feet, I spoke about falling in love again, about the directions one takes in one’s life, how sometimes detours can take you full circle.
I spoke first in Malay, and then unconsciously switched to English. It didn’t matter. I was being understood. And I thought of that barber from Bugs Bunny, who oppressed a twelve-year-old and initiated a cycle of self-recrimination, with his disgust at my inadequate grasp of the language. Living in Singapore for so long, and having served customers of many races, was it even possible that he could not have comprehended my English? I thought of all the purists who appoint themselves as the linguistic police, who insist on rigid notions of cultural authenticity.
A humble pair of paper scissors. My hesitant Malay, my over-mannered English. As I admired my hair in the mirror later on, I thought: never judge the handiwork from the tools.
Dangdut [b.m.] A genre of Indonesian popular music that is partly derived fro Malay, Arabic, and Hindustani music
songkok Haji [b.m.] A white skullcap often worn by those who have performed the Haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca
Mat Motors [sl./b.m.] Slang for Malay males who ride motorcycles
Alfian Sa’at is a Singaporean author, playwright, poet, and translator. He has written more than thirty plays in English and Malay that have been read and performed in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, London, Berlin, Hamburg, Zurich, Munich, Copenhagen, and Stockholm. He is the author of the short-story collection Corridor and the poetry collections One Fierce Hour, A History of Amnesia, and The Invisible Manuscript. His awards include the National Arts Council Young Artist Award for Literature, the Golden Point Award for poetry, and three Life! Theatre Awards for Best Original Script. Malay Sketches is his first work to be published in the US. He is currently the resident playwright of the acclaimed theater group W!LD RICE. He lives in Singapore.