Q for Questionable Character

QI only realised how strange it was that Apek lived with us for so long when I told a friend about him.

“Apek was a carpenter. We gave him a room in our house,” I said. “You know,” I added, giggling, “because we lived in a Chinese taman (housing estate), everyone thought that he was the owner and we, the Indians, were his servants.”

I expected my friend to laugh. Instead, he frowned, looked at me and said, “You mean, he lived inside your house?”

“Err… yes. Inside. We had a room downstairs. We used it to store stuff, yes, but he stayed there when he visited.”

I could see the confusion in this man’s face. I imagined his thoughts: This girl’s family was odd. They allowed a stranger to stay with them. He wasn’t even part of the family. He wasn’t even Indian. A Chinese.

Until that moment, for 25-odd years, I’d never thought it was odd that this ‘stranger’ lived with us. He wasn’t someone of questionable character to us … ever. To me, he was always, and will continue to be, Apek.

I cannot give you an exact date when he started to live with us because it was a natural progression. Way before I was born, I was told that my grandfather in Bukit Mertajam (BM) used to call him to get some odd jobs done like create that unique driveway of little squares of cement surrounded by patches of grass. He made all the built-in cupboards for the house.

In our house in Alor Setar, when my father needed some carpentry work done, we always called him. He would turn up when he was free, stay with us for the duration of his work and leave when he wanted. Our photo frames and even our beds were made by Apek. I used to wonder why his work took so long when people installed beds in their houses in less than a week. Then I learnt about his ‘basah-kering’ technique – every slab of wood had to be left out in the open to endure the rain and sun for at least a month. That way, by the time he was ready to mould the wood to his liking, the wood had already been baked and was warped. Whatever furniture he made after this would never go out of shape. There was a finesse about Apek’s work. He knew that you never shaved wood across the grain. He knew how to measure things so accurately with his basic tools. He knew how to apply Shellac so that the eventual effect on the wood was smooth and there were none of what I call ‘paint grains’. Indeed, 35 years later, all the furniture that Apek made is still as good as new.

It wasn’t all about carpentry. He taught me that it was wrong to steal the eggs from a bird’s nest. Instead, I should observe them daily, wait for the eggs to hatch and watch how effort the bird made to feed her chicks. He taught me to cook simple Chinese food.

All these memories suggest that Apek was a learned man. He must have had some sort of education. But, we have no way of ascertaining any details about him. All we knew was that he had a ‘place’ in BM. My mother calls it a ‘lean in’ and describes it as an extension to a house. I never went there and can’t describe it, but my parents say that it was so small that his feet used to stick out when he went to sleep. Perhaps, ‘hovel’ is a better word to describe this place at the back of a tyre shop across the road from my grandmother’s house. No wonder Apek preferred to stay with us.

Today, I have many questions which none of us can answer. When he was not working with us, did he stay with others? Did he have a wife and children? To be completely honest, I don’t even know his real name. I don’t know how old he was when he died in 1987. And we don’t have a single photo of this man. We took him when he came to us and asked no questions. We accepted him as he was and he lived with us until the day he died.

Now, I can see that we became his family. It was Daddy who conducted the last rites during his cremation and placed his ashes in a columbarium in a Buddhist temple in Alor Setar. If I could go back in time, I would like to meet Apek again. I’d like answers to all these questions, I suppose, if only to strengthen my memory of the man.

Do you have a being in your life that is almost an enigma?

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P for Palms Together

PMy friends tell me to move on from Matthew. What happens when there is nothing to move on from? We were never lovers and there was no relationship to speak of. At best, we had a clandestine friendship. Should I move on from a friendship?

With all these thoughts, I am, obviously, not ready to see Matthew. I have little choice in the matter, though. I have to attend this Memorial Service for Mummy’s best friend, Aunty Ruth, who passed away seven days ago. Matthew will also be there since he’s the deceased’s nephew.

As I stand at the top of the stairs by the side of this house built on a hill slope, I can see Matthew in the front row of the many chairs arranged on the lawn. Did all the steps going down have to be so uneven? Quick. Grab the metal banister. Concentrate and forget Matthew for now. Tumbling down the stairs will be worse.

Clink!

My ring hits the metal banister and everyone looks up.

“Sorry,” I mutter. How embarrassing.

Matthew sees me and quickly looks away. Even from this distance, he looks so beautiful with those long lashes, almond shaped eyes and day-old stubble.

When I am on the final step, I can hear the priest instructing the congregation to stand up to recite a prayer. It’s the penultimate one on the Order of Service the usher hands to me. I am so late.

I hold the ends of the white dupatta behind my back. This long diaphanous shawl keeps slipping off my shoulders. This is what happens when I dress in haste and forget to pin it to the shoulder pads of my black salwar kameez.

Walking past a tinted glass door towards an empty seat, I can’t help but turn to admire my reflection. The kameez now hangs loose on my shoulders. Lovely. I’ve lost weight.

The priest invites the congregation to sit down so that he can say a few words about Aunty Ruth. Once seated, I can see the back of Matthew’s head in the gaps between people.

I can feel it, that treacherous yearning inside me to speak with him. Even if it’s merely to say hello. Even though he hurt me. I shouldn’t be this stupid. There’s no point talking to him. After all that happened.

A part of me prays he’ll ignore me altogether after the service is over. There’s no guarantee that he’ll remember me with any fondness.

When I first met Matthew six years ago, everything in my life looked possible. I gave away the paintings an ex-boyfriend presented to me as a birthday gift. I painted the walls of my tiny flat a light shade of green. For the first time since I started my writing career, I dared to attend a writers’ festival. The face that was reflected in the mirror then was more than pretty – it was confident. I was absolutely ripe to fall in love.

We met at yet another funeral. Certainly, an unconventional way to meet a man, yes. But how exciting it was to hide the fact from all our mutual friends that we were deeply attracted to each other. From the moment he said hello, I was smitten.

In the months ahead, we met for coffee, dinner or even a game of poker. You might see us huddled in the corner of Alexis Café, sharing a chocolate mud cake. Or drinking from the same glass during the intermission of a concert at the Petronas Philharmonic in Kuala Lumpur City Centre. Thanks to Matthew, I’ve become an expert at baking meringue pies because they are his favorite. Each time, in the privacy of his car, when he dropped me off after one of our meetings – for I still refuse to call them dates – he pulled me close for a hug.

I must concentrate on listening to the priest’s final words. It’s hopeless, though.

Unfortunately, my mind remains firmly on the past. In particular, on the sun-shiny day Matthew and I went to the animal shelter. I brought home a beagle I named Maleficent, while he adopted a pretty Bengal cat, already named Aurora.

Other than Daddy, Matthew remains the only man Maleficent readily went to. How she wagged her tail at the mere mention of Matthew’s name. He was the first person I called when she died. By then, Matthew had turned his back on us.

The priest invites us all to recite the Lord’s Prayer with him. When he says, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” I whisper, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we have great difficulty forgiving those who trespass against us.”

When Aurora dies and Matthew turns to a friend for comfort, I pray that his friend will not treat him with the same indifference Matthew showed me in my time of grief.

Why can’t I forget all that happened between us the last time we met? Why? I close my eyes. I pray. God, please remove the memory of what happened between us on that ‘Loop of Torture’ inside my head. Here they come again. Those awful memories.

It was October 2012. We met at a coffee shop in a mall in Bangsar. He ordered the specialty tea called teh halia. I hugged my white Sembonia handbag, as though for protection.

The words tumbled out of my mouth. “How you must laugh at my pain.”

He frowned. “I don’t know why you think that, Anjali. There is no merriment in this,” and he turned to look at the waiter.

If only I had the courage to touch him. Instead, I gave a short laugh then asked, “Are you sure? We have no chance at all?”

Matthew shook his head and said, “You have to accept reality and live life.” His tone was like that of a man frustrated that his aged-and-hard-of-hearing parents asked him to repeat everything he said. He touched his chest and said, “I feel nothing when look at you.”

Why couldn’t he look me in the eye when he said that? Did what had happened in my car park months before mean nothing to him? It had been after and we walked to his dusty Volvo parked in my garage. For a while, we had remained quiet. Then, he had put his hand on my waist and pulled me close. In that moment when I had looked into his eyes, my world was all Matthew. I had yearned to feel his lips against mine. I had also remembered a promise made to him when we first met that for as long as he remained with his Korean girlfriend, I would be nothing more than his friend. I had pulled away.

I will regret that decision for the rest of my life. I should have kissed him. Seduced him, even. I am sure he would have willingly reciprocated.

So, when he said he felt nothing for me, was he lying? If so, was he lying to me, or to himself? Still, I realized that there was no point in prolonging this meeting. So, I took a deep breath and said, “OK. Let’s go.”

He drank the last bit of tea, paid the cashier and we walked out of the coffee shop. Since he’d parked his car elsewhere, I was going to have to walk to my car alone. I felt a chill run down my spine. Wasn’t this the same car park where a woman was raped a month ago? Would I be safe? I prayed for protection.

Matthew held out his hand and said, “Goodbye.”

I looked down at it and blurted out, “Oh, we’re back to this.”

“Well, it’s better this way,” he replied.

Our fingertips touched, an apology of a handshake.

We turned and walked out of each other’s lives.

The Memorial Service for Aunty Ruth is now at an end. The congregation disperses and through the gaps, I can see Matthew turn towards me. Does he mean to come over? What do I say to him? I pull the ends of my dupatta and it tightens around my neck.

“Hello Anjali,” he says when he’s in front of me. He’s poised to shake my hand.

I release the ends of the dupatta, look up into his eyes and give a time-honored Indian greeting: I put my palms together and say, “Namaste.”

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O for Orwell, Bell and the English Language

OWhen I started writing many, many years ago, a friend referred me to 2 resources. One was an essay by George Orwell called ‘Politics and the English Language’. I studied the essay, summarised the points and have used the teachings ever since. The other was a book called ‘Plot and Structure’ by James Scott Bell. I’d like to share what I learnt below.

From George Orwell’s essay:

[Words like ‘democracy’] are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like … The Soviet press is the freest in the world … are almost always made with intent to deceive.

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself as least 4 questions:

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

[And 2 more]

  1. Could I put it more shortly?
  2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

Follow these rules

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

From James Scott Bell

Bell gave a structure of how to craft the opening paragraph of any novel that will capture the attention of an agent or publisher. He used ‘Midnight’ by Dean Koontz and explained how it should be done:

First sentence: “Janice Capshaw liked to run at night.” Follows the rule: Open with character – named – in motion.
Next two sentences: Author explains something about her running, gives her age and something about her appearance (healthy).
Next five sentences: We learn the time and place (Sunday night, September 21, Moonlight cove). Description of the place. Mood established (dark, no cars, no other people). Background on the place (quite little town).
Next three sentences: Mood details in the action (as she runs).
Next two sentences: Background on Janice likes about night running.
Next five sentences: Deepening details about Janice (why she likes night).
Next three sentences: Action as she runs. More details and mood.
Next sentence: Action as she runs. How she feels.
Next seven sentences: Deepening Janice by describing her past with her late husband.
Next two sentences: First sign of trouble.
Next three sentences: Her reaction to the sign.

I found it hard to understand if this really worked until I took apart the opening scene of a book I liked and applied his advice. Here is what I learnt.

First, let me copy out the opening scene from James Clavell’s Taipan.

Dirk Struan came up onto the quarterdeck of the flagship H.M.S. Vengeance, and strode for the gangway. The 74-gun ship of the line was anchored half a mile off the island. Surrounding her were the rest of the fleet’s warships, the troopships of the expeditionary force, and the merchantmen and opium clippers of the China traders.
It was dawn-a drab, chill Tuesday-January 26th, 1841.
As Struan walked along the main deck, he glanced at the shore and excitement swarmed over him. The war with China had gone as he had planned. Victory was as he had forecast. The prize of victory-the island-was something he had coveted for twenty years. And now he was going ashore to witness the formality of taking possession, to watch a Chines island become a jewel in the crown of Her Britannic Majesty, Queen Victoria.
The island was Hong Kong. Thirty square miles of mountainous stone of the north lip of the huge Pearl River in South China. A thousand yards off the mainland. Inhospitable. Unfertile. Uninhabited except for a tiny fishing village on the south side. Squarely in the path of the monstrous storms that yearly exploded from the Pacific. Bordered on the east and on the west by dangerous shoals and reefs. Useless to the mandarin – the name given to any official of the Chinese Emperor – in whose province it lay.
But Hong Kong contained the greatest harbour on earth. And it was Struan’s stepping-stone into China.
“Belay there!” the young officer of the watch called to the scarlet-coated marine. “Mr. Struan’s longboard to the midships gangway!”
Yes, sir!” The marine leaned over the side and echoed the order.
“Won’t be a moment, sir,” the officer said, trying to contain his awe of the merchant prince who was a legend in the China seas.
“Nae hurry, lad.” Struan was a giant of a man, his face weathered by a thousand storms. His blue frock coat was silver-buttoned and his tight white trousers were tucked carelessly into seaboots. He was armed as usual – knife in the crease of his back and another in his right boot. He was forty-three, redheaded, and his eyes were emerald green.
“It’s a bonny day,” he said.
“Yes, sir.”
Struan walked down the gangway, got into the prow of his longboat and smiled at his younger half-brother, Robb, who sat amidships.
“We’re late,” Robb said with a grin.
“Aye. His Excellency and the admiral were longwinded.” Struan stared at the island for a moment. Then he motioned at the bosun. “Cast off. Go ashore, Mr. McKay!”
“Aye, aye, sorr!”
“At long last, eh Tai-Pan?” Robb said. “Tai-pan” was Chinese for “supreme leader.” In a company or army or fleet or nation there is only one such man – he who wields the real power.
“Aye,” Struan said.
He was Tai-pan of The Noble House.

Analyse this and you’ll find as follows:

First sentence: Dirk Struan came up onto the quarterdeck of the flagship H.M.S. Vengeance, and strode for the gangway. Follow the rule: open with a character – named – in motion.
Next sentence: Where he is.
Next sentence: We learn the time and place (dawn, Tuesday, Jan 26th 1841).
Next para: Author explains something about why Dirk is where he is.
Next para: Describes the place. Explains why Dirk is interested in it.
Next few sentences: Mood details in the action.
Next few sentences: Gives background on Dirk Struan – shows how people admire him.
Next few sentences: a few more details about Dirk.
Next few sentences: Action – what he’s doing.
Next few sentences: How Dirk feels.
Next few sentences: Explains he has a half-brother.
New two sentences: First sign of trouble/interest.
Next three sentences: His reaction to the sign/he is Tai-pan.

If you’re writing a novel and have some tips to share on how the task can be made easier, please do share your knowledge.

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N for No Idea

N“It’s already 9.30 at night. How you are going to go to the church for the funeral service tomorrow” Clarice asked her father as she opened the passenger door of her car.

“You are not coming with me?”

“Get inside first,” Clarice replied, sensing a long discussion ahead. Once she was in the driver’s seat, she said, “I can’t come with you. I can’t just leave work to go to a funeral.”

After her father’s dismayed, “Oh” they said nothing for the next 20 minutes.

When they arrived at Clarice’s two-bedroom condominium unit, she placed her father’s overnight bag in the guest room, and went to the kitchen to make some coffee for both of them. Her father followed her and said, “I suppose I will take the taxi to the church myself. Can you book one for me?”

“Which church is it?” Clarice dropped two lumps of sugar into the mug of coffee and handed it to her father.

“What do you mean which church?” Her father stopped stirring his coffee. “I have no idea.”

Clarice took a deep breath. “Dad, this is KL. It’s the city. There are hundreds of churches. Don’t tell me you didn’t find out which church it is?”

“Oh …,” he said, as though it was the first time he was privy to such information. He walked into the sitting room and followed behind him. They sat opposite each other in the living room and slurped their coffee.

“I know, I’ll call Directory services. I’ll ask for Sudah Karan’s address and phone number.” He plonked the mug down on her glass coffee table and pointed at Clarice.

“Daddy, it’s not Sudah Karan.” Clarice shook her head and said, “His name is Sudhakaran. Say it the Indian way. Sudah Karan sounds likes sudah karam. If you do direct translation from Malay, it’ll mean already sunk. And, honestly, Dad, Bandar Utama is a huge suburb. Without the exact address, I don’t think they can help you.”

“Aiya, at least let me try,” her father said and picked up the mobile phone outside Clarice’s room. “Don’t tell me what to say. I am Chinese. What can I do if my sister married an Indian and I cannot say his name the Indian way? We have been calling him Sudah Karan from the time they got married.”

Clarice drunk the last of her coffee.

“OK. It’s ten fifteen. I have to sleep soon,” she said and took his mug into the kitchen.

“Ya, ya, ya. You go and sleep. Leave me in peace,” her father said to her back and started pressing the digits on the phone.

Clarice gritted her teeth and concentrated on washing the mugs in the sink. When she finished and dried her hands, he came to stand in the doorway of her kitchen. “They don’t know any Sudah Karan in this area.”

Resisting the urge to say ‘I told you so,’ Clarice made a suggestion: “Why don’t you call Mummy? She might have the number.”

His eyes became large. “No way. She will only get angry with me.”

Clarice shook her head and watched him walk away. He had to sort this out himself. He was using the phone again. Who was he calling this time? At one point, she held a plate mid-air and didn’t open the cupboard door in case it creaked and she couldn’t hear her father’s words. She heard him say, “I knew I shouldn’t have called you. No need to shout at me. I just want the number. It’s clearly written. My handwriting is better than yours.”

It had to be her mother on the other side of the line. Clarice put the plate away and went to stand in the doorway of the kitchen. Her father’s back was to her and a notepad was thrown onto the table top. “It should be under ‘S’ lah.”

Clarice walked past him and sat on the sofa. He didn’t look at her, but continued to speak into the phone. “What do you mean it’s not there? Are you wearing your glasses? It must be there. I would have written it down.” He picked his nose while waiting for an answer. “See, I told you it was there.” He flicked his nose pickings away and rubbed his hands on the front of his shirt. “What do you mean why is it under ‘B’ and not ‘S’. ‘B’ is for brother-in-law lah. What is the number? 012, 2345. Ok, then what? 805. OK. OK,” and he hung up.

Better to be silent right now.

Clarice rose to her feet, went into her bedroom, closed the door and changed into a tracksuit bottoms and T-shirt. Back in the living room, her father was staring at the painting of a waterfall mounted on the wall.

“So, are you going to call him?”

“How to call? So late. Already past midnight.”

This was the limit. “Aiya. Just call. I tell you. This is a funeral house. No one will sleep. They’ll hold a vigil for the body. At least that way, we will know where he church is and I can book a taxi to take you there tomorrow.”

“You are like your mother,” he muttered. Still, he stood up and picked up the phone again.

While he made the call, Clarice checked that all doors and windows were locked.

“What happened?” he asked when he was back in the living room.

“Err… It’s all over.”

“What do you mean it’s all over? He only died very early this morning.”

“My sister and her children became Christian. Sudah Karan never converted. He was a Hindu until the day he died. So, they cremated him in the afternoon. It’s all done.”

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M for My Angel, Parineeta

MThe shopping centre’s toilet had such an awful stink that it was difficult to breathe. I pulled the door open to leave, but couldn’t take another step because my path was blocked by a burly man talking to a girl with ringlets down her back. Why did they have to stand here? Couldn’t they stand somewhere else?

“Excuse me.” I am still ashamed that my tone that day was curt.

They moved aside. I walked past them and couldn’t help hearing what the man was saying.

“Don’t worry. You go to the toilet,” he said. “Papa will stay here.” So that was why he was standing outside the ladies’ room in the first place. In spite of his reassuring words, there was no doubting the anxiety in his voice.

“Papa,” the girl replied, “please come in with me. Please?”

I slowed down. What would the man say? What could he say?

“I can’t. I have to wait outside.”

Should I go back? But it wasn’t my child. It wasn’t my problem.

I heard her say, “OK, Papa. I will go in.”

I stopped walking. That tone. I recognised it. It was the same one that seven-year-old me had used. Petrified, I had dragged Mummy by the hand to stand guard in front of the toilet. I had believed that the toilet-ghost would eat me up while I was peeing. And our toilet had been inside our house. This little one needed to use a public toilet all alone.

I retraced my steps and reached them before the huge tears fell from the child’s eyes.

“Excuse me. Maybe I can help.”

The father turned to me. Before he could register the intrusion, I said, “Don’t worry. I’ll go inside and stay with her.”

He sighed and pulled his jacket close, the relief and gratitude in equal measure washing over his face.

I ushered the girl into the toilet and she ran to the nearest cubicle. I spent the next few minutes practising holding my breath for as long as I could.

When she came out, I held her shoulders and guided her to the sink. I turned the tap and this tiny brown human stood on tiptoes to wash her hands. When she turned her head, I looked down into huge brown eyes. Shyly, she bit her bottom lip and smiled.

I smiled back and said, “Come. Dry your hands and let’s go back to your Papa.”

Moments later she leaned against her father’s legs and both of them looked at me.

“Thank you, ver-” His voice broke.

I shook my head and blurted out, “No problem. If ever my child needs help, I hope someone will help her.”

He nodded and we parted ways.

I often think about this. Who was this man? Maybe, he was a widower. Maybe, he was divorced and this was his day out with his child. Maybe his wife needed some time alone and asked him to take the child out for the afternoon.

I forgot to ask the little cherub’s name. So I have given her the name Parineeta. It is part of my name with ‘Pari’, Hindi for angel, added in front. To this day, the memory of her shy smile in that smelly public toilet soothes my soul.

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L for Lamb Chop

L(This post was first published in June 2015, but I am reposting it as part of the ‘A to Z Challenge’.

 

“What are those ducks doing?” asks one of our goggle-eyed friends during a walk around the property called ‘Eight Acres’. Uncle Kam, our tour guide turns to look and replies, nonchalant, “Oh, they’re mating.” Later, in the privacy of our shared accommodation, we four urbanites admit that we have never see such a thing before.

Waterfall at 'Eight Acres'

Waterfall at ‘Eight Acres’

At the time, though, we are forced to pay attention to Uncle Kam as he continues with his story about this eco-resort in Raub Pahang which recently won a prize for Best Eco Initiative. He says that when his son, Paul Kam (Group Managing director of ‘D Jungle Resorts’, which owns ‘Eight Acres’) first brought him to the property, it was the sound of water cascading from the waterfall nearby that convinced Uncle Kam to support his son’s dream to create this sanctuary. That was four years ago.

Today, ‘Eight Acres’ has evolved into a place that can only be described as a banquet for the senses. To appreciate its extraordinary beauty, you must set aside the creature comforts available at other resorts like air-conditioned accommodation, toiletries on demand and an à la carte menu.

Instead, embrace communal eating, apply liberal amounts of insect repellent and open your heart to the warmth and hospitality of its gracious hosts. In so doing, you may come to see that ‘Eight Acres’ is a place where the humans and animals don’t merely co-exist – they have just about switched places. Where the humans have been lovingly creating and building this place, the animals are involved in scandalous sexual behaviour, acts of horror and even attempted murder.

For instance, there’s Justin, who is in charge of all recreational activities, tenderly stroking an injured bird who made the mistake of flying into the ceiling fan. Uncle Kam monitored the planting of a whole host of trees on a particular section of the property, “because we wanted to create a colony for birds to come.”

'Java House' at 'Eight Acres'

‘Java House’ at ‘Eight Acres’

Then there is ‘Java House’, a structure brought over from Java, Indonesia, and reconstructed here on ‘Eight Acres’. Imagine the scene from its balcony during the twilight hour: a waterfall on your left, verdant tropical flora in the background with a majestic ‘Tualang’ tree right at the top, and row upon row of Heliconia and Hibiscus on your right. When night comes, the Orion constellation is prominent in a cloudless sky.

The geese, on the other hand, says Justin, will soon have to be confined to a particular area. Decidedly destructive, they’re eating all the plants that they can get their beaks on.

Uncle Kam adds to this and says that they sometimes fight with each other. He points to one gander on his right and says it has two followers. On his left is another group where the gander is called ‘John’. The two groups don’t like each other. If you use your imagination and put words into the honking of the geese on Uncle Kam’s right, it’s possible to conjecture they are fighting over which one is going to spend time with John after dinner.

Lake at 'Eight Acres'

Lake at ‘Eight Acres’

Uncle Kam then points to the serene lake supported by the use of gabions in the middle of the property. He narrates the horrifying tale from three years ago when a snake emerged from the murky depths and bit into a shrieking duck preening itself on an islet.

Confusion reigns supreme when Justin says that there’s a new animal on the property – a cross between a duck and goose. We decide to call this aberration of nature a ‘guck’.

When we try our hand at archery, ‘Lamb Chop’, the resident sheep tied nearby, complains non-stop and looks upon us with trepidation. It’s probably afraid of becoming our supper at the barbecue pit lest our arrows miss the target and find ‘Lamb Chop’, instead. The next day, sans bow and arrows in hand, when we say hello, the furry darling ignores us.

It is with a heavy heart that we leave ‘Eight Acres’ after our brief sojourn with nature. But we carry with us very happy memories of this little piece of heaven on earth.

***

‘Eight Acres’, Lot 7822, Mukim Gali, Off Sungai Klau, 27630 Raub, Pahang, Malaysia. For more information, visit http://eightacres.net


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K for Kotak

K“Makcik, have you eaten?” the little Tamil girl asked. She stood on one side of the iron gates at the back of her house.

The Malay lady standing on the other side of the narrow drain which separated their homes stopped scattering the rice for her chickens. She looked up and smiled. A slight breeze blew her wispy, white hair away from her face.

“Not yet,” she replied. “What did your mother cook today, Leela?”

“Chicken curry, Makcik.” Leela held the collar of the Alsatian that had come to sit next to her with a chubby hand. “Would you like some?”

“Why not?”

The child smiled, showing her missing front teeth. She turned on her heel and skipped to the back door of the house.

Twenty minutes later, Makcik spread a straw mat on the linoleum floor of her kampung-style kitchen. Leela placed a Tupperware full of food on it and sat down, crossed-legged. She salivated as Makcik dished out some rice onto a plate and poured some of the pungent onion curry on top of the rice. She reached to take the plate from Makcik well before the older lady finished teasing the fried fish for her. Makcik gave a soft smile and tweaked her nose.

The next day, to fulfil an earlier promise made to the child, Makcik prepared her signature dish, laksa. She brought this fish-based soup and rice noodles over to Leela’s house in a Pyrex dish. This time, they sat at a dining table. Leela’s mother found bowls, some cutlery and, together, the three of them shared lunch.

***

Makcik died three years ago of old age. My parents and I went to the Muslim funeral and gave our condolences to the bereaved family. Strange, but the lasting memory for me, for I am Leela, is not that Makcik entered out Hindu home or that she willingly ate from our plates and drank from our cups. Indeed, our Alsatian always gave a contented sigh when Makcik petted it as she walked past. It is that neither the Tupperware nor the Pyrex dish were returned. And no one made a fuss. Then again, this was some thirty years ago.

In many ways, modern Malaysia is still the paradise touted to the world as an example of a peace-loving country where its multi-racial citizens live in harmony. However, there are subtle changes which breed discontent.

My house in Kuala Lumpur is clean and the floor swept daily; the dishes are washed, dried and put away; I can barely control my sense of pride when friends say, “Leela, your house is so clean we can eat off the floor.” Yet, I do not know who my neighbours are. All I know is that they are a Malay family. I dare not invite them for a meal in case I unintentionally insult their sensitivities; the repercussions are too heavy a burden to carry.

All said and done, I tell my friends that come next Christmas, I am going to be different. I will follow, to the very letter, every rule set out in Hinduism. This is what I can see happening.

I am invited to a Christmas party hosted by some of my colleagues. I will attend the function as it would be discourteous not to. However, once I arrive at the venue, a newly painted bungalow, I will stand by the gates as it would be most un-Hindu to participate in the celebrations of another’s religious festival. I will refuse to shake the hand of my host when he greets me because I cannot touch a man. Besides, he is of a different race and religion.

When he invites me to taste the traditional Christmas pudding, which his wife brought back from London, I will insist that I cannot take even a mouthful because it contains brandy.

Ever hospitable, my host offers me a plateful of fried noodles prepared by the caterers he hired for this occasion. Still, I will refuse. Before my host can offer more food or drink, I interject with, “Please, can I have that kotak? That packet? For drinks?”

“Huh?” My host is perplexed.

“And a paper plate? I can’t use your plates-lah.”

We know that the plates have come from these professional caterers. Still, the problem is that the plates are stacked inside my host’s house. Remember, I cannot put one foot inside this non-Hindu home.

I will sigh audibly, frustrated that my host seems doesn’t pander to my need to adhere strictly to the tenets of Hinduism. I will frown and say, exasperated, “You eat beef-lah. I also don’t drink alcohol. I hope you understand.”

Having had every bit of his hospitality thrown back in his face, I doubt my host will understand.

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J for Journalist, Reporter or Writer?

JSo, what do you do?”

This is a question I’ve become used to answering when on a date. On one particular occasion two years ago, what followed exceeded anything I could have imagined. I was meeting a gentleman for coffee at a café where I also meet many of the people I interview. So, the staff knew me well.

“I am a writer; a journalist,” I answered the man seated across from me. All I knew about him was that he ran his own construction company. What he actually constructed was never revealed to me. It was his secret which he promised to show me one day. I became frightened. I mean, going to a construction site with a stranger wasn’t exactly the basis of a safe date, yes?

Anyway, I said I’m a writer because it’s an easy answer that covers everything from journalism, fiction and magazine articles to web content.

“Do you write for the newspapers?”

“Yes,” I replied. Journalists usually write for papers.

“Which papers?”

“The New Straits Times.”

He leaned back in the chair and asked, “So, do you write fiction or non-fiction for the NST?”

Was he teasing me? I couldn’t tell. I could tell him the running joke in the papers that, often, many of the reporters I know feel that what they write is fiction. What a waste of a joke if this ultra-serious man didn’t get it. I could tell him the truth – that I write for the lifestyle/magazine section of the papers. A simple, but truthful, answer was better.

“I write non-fiction.”

“Oh,” he said, as though I’d revealed a secret to him.

He took a deep breath and then asked me, “So, you are a writer, not a journalist?”

From that moment on, I have no memory of anything else he said. All I can remember is that the next time I went to the café for one of my assignments, a waiter who’d waited on us that night said to me, “Ms Aneeta, you looked so miserable that I think if I was on a date with you, you would have been happier.”

Had this man turned out to be a promising date, I think I would have explained a little more of why I write and chose not to focus only on one kind of work. I would have told him that at its most basic, I love writing. I try to create stories and work on the craft as best I can. Many times, I draw upon everyday situations and try to create a story out of them.

Yes, writing is a very solitary pursuit. But the struggle is not in creating that imaginary world inside my head. I can see it. Hear it. Taste it. That’s the easy part. But when I want to tell you, my reader, what it’s like, I sometimes can’t. That is the struggle I go through. I want you to see the same shade of indigo in a sari that I see my protagonist wearing. I want you to experience that same revulsion at the smell of rotting flesh. I want you to know the taste of something ubiquitous to Malaysians like durian. But getting the words right to create that perfect image can be such a struggle.

And that’s when I become frustrated and angry. And when someone or something happens to interrupt my flow of thoughts – usually an innocent caller on the telephone, someone delivering a parcel or Ladoo (when she was alive) – the reaction they receive isn’t always pleasant.

Indeed, in an article called ‘The unbearable solitude of a writer’, Akshita Nanda wrote:

‘Disturb a writer’s solitude at your peril. Steampunk author Gail Carriger once yelled at me for several minutes on the telephone because our scheduled interview had interrupted her creative flow.’ (http://news.asiaone.com/news/asian-opinions/unbearable-solitude-writer#sthash.Gk4I4wHr.dpuf)

What I have realised is that one of the best ways to get the words right is to meet other people. Other than the fact that I get out of the house more often, I also listen to how others describe things around them. What is their understanding of a situation? That way, I can tap into what a potential reader wants to read to understand something I’m trying to create. This, then, is where journalism comes into the picture. And to be certain, I am a journalist as well. I am not a reporter.

Yes, there are many journalists who are reporters and not many reporters who are journalists. I feel that reporters need a more specialised skill as they are involved with what I call ‘hard news’. They have to source facts, figures and the like. Whereas I do some of that, but I am allowed to explore storytelling when I am a journalist.

In that same piece by Nanda, there is a quote from an interview in the The Paris Review journal with the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The celebrated writer explained why he was both a journalist and novelist: “The writer’s very attempt to portray reality often leads him to a distorted view of it. In trying to transpose reality, he can end up losing contact with it, in an ivory tower, as they say,” he said. … “Journalism is a very good guard against that. That’s why I have always tried to keep on doing journalism, because it keeps me in contact with the real world.”

Since that awful date, I try to think of what I’d say to another to explain to them what I do. I still have no answer.

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I for Independent

I

Sometime in February, I read that Britain’s The Independent newspaper will disappear from news-stands from the end of March 2016. The 29-year-old title will only publish online. The article said that the paper, which was launched by a group of journalists in 1986, became Britain’s highest-profile casualty of our changed reading habits. Apparently, more and more people are reading the news online rather than an actual paper and, ‘from a peak of 400,000 copies a day, circulation has fallen to just over 40,000.’

The owner of the newspaper said that the move to make it solely online would allow the company to invest in high-quality editorial content. It also suggested that the change is being driven by readers and that future is digital.

Then, a month ago, closer to home, on 15 March 2016, the news portal, The Malaysian Insider went offline. Of the many reasons given, one of the most interesting comments was that there were financial losses amounting to RM10 million and that there were no advertisers. One writer suggested that without this platform, we would go back to reading actual newspapers and this would bring with a whole new set of problems.

That very day, I happened to read an article by Moira Allen about books, eBooks and the ‘future of publishing.’ She wrote, ‘… e-books have become a huge part of the “future of publishing” — without, oddly enough, having driven print books into extinction.  I’m not the least bit worried about the “death” of print publishing.’

All this got me thinking about my reading habits, both online and offline, and the newspaper. Reading the newspaper every morning has been a habit I inherited down from my grandfather. In my aunt’s house, we would all gather in the morning and each person shares bits of the newspapers to read. In our house, it’s a calamity if we open the front door and there’s no paper. We have both The Star and the New Straits Times (NST) delivered every day.

It amuses me no end when people almost scold me and say, “I only read The Star. I don’t want to support the government paper. I am for the opposition,” I smile, nod and say nothing. If I could bothered, I would tell them that the NST has been the paper of the government for the last 150-odd years. If the opposition became the government tomorrow, it would become the newspaper of the new government. Would they buy the NST then?

Back to the online-offline business of newspapers. The more I think about it, the more I realise that for as long as I have the option, I will still opt for an actual newspaper. In the same way that I will choose to read an actual book. Several things have happened in the last few years that strengthen this resolution.

First, when I started writing for the NST, I asked a few journalist friends for advice about how to store these articles. One person said, “Don’t buy the papers. Just get a digital version of it.” My godmother said the opposite – that I should keep an actual copy of every article I wrote. She also told me that I should write in my name and not use a penname. I am so glad I took her advice. She, too, was a journalist at one time and she reminded me of the lazy autumn evening in Sydney, in her small flat, when we’d looked through all her articles. I am very glad I followed her advice above everyone else’s.

Grandpa-in MemoriamYou see, the NST website underwent a sort of spring clean recently and had I listened to this, I wouldn’t have any copies of my articles. There would be no physical evidence that I’d written for the papers at all.

And if we didn’t have actual papers, I wouldn’t have this funny story to tell. A year after Grandpa died, my grandmother placed an ‘In Memoriam’ ad in the Obituaries. The whole family was listed in the obituary. From complicated names like Sharayu, Sundararaj and Gharpuray, I imagine that this must have been a difficult ad for the typesetter to get right. Still, my grandmother had so listed all the grandchildren as well including one called Nesta. The thing is, who on God’s good earth is Nesta? Have a guess.

What stories can you share about things that appear solely in print or online?

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H for Hatred. What’s Its Real Intention?

HPeople often ask me whether or not things are different having moved from the legal fraternity to the publishing one. I reply with a question: “What do you mean by ‘things’?”

Taken aback, they usually mumble something and the conversation ends soon after.

On days when I have nothing better to do, I remember this and wonder what they mean by ‘things’. Could it be the camaraderie between colleagues? Was it office politics? Could it be that both require me to write?

Here are some of the more common things between the two industries. First, if you’ve made it, your life is a glamourous round of parties and fun. If you’re still struggling, you’re going to learn what it means to work hard and get paid very little.

Similarly, there are friends you’ll make that you will go out of your way to help. I still have friends I made when we were chambering students last century. There are people I met when I first published The Banana Leaf Men who became very close friends.

On the other hand, one time, when I was still in practice, a former classmate called me because she wanted me to put in a good word with my bosses so that her sister could get a job in the firm. Once the phone call was over, I never heard from her ever again. There are people who wanted me to collaborate with them on books because of the success of The Banana Leaf Men. When the project was over, they badmouthed me and I never heard from them again.

Another thing that’s common between the two industries is that everyone knows everyone. So, if you say something about one person, say it knowing that the recipient will hear about it. You’re lucky if the recipient hears your words and not some convoluted version of it.

Something along similar lines happed a few weeks ago. I was told by friend that someone, let’s call him ‘Mr X’, has an aversion towards me. This was enormously perplexing because I’ve met Mr. X once in my life. I attended a dialogue with a writer and Mr X was facilitating that dialogue. When the dialogue session was over, all I said to him was, “Hello. I enjoyed the talk. Thank you.”

He dismissed me, but I wasn’t so fazed by this at all. He was busy and so on and so forth. And all this was about 10 years ago.

I decided to ask others who knew Mr. X if this was true and I got three different answers:

“Mr. X hates you.”
“Mr. X is repulsed by you.”
“Mr. X can’t stand you.”

Hate. Repulsed. Can’t stand me. Three different emotions with equal weight.

I wasn’t quite sure what the intention was in this whole scenario. Should I feel hurt that Mr. X has such negative feelings for/about me? Should I confront him? Should I analyse what I’d done wrong? Then again, this seemed to focus enormously on what I’d done … or not done.

I decided to cyber stalk Mr. X for a few days and I began to see a pattern – any woman who published something was shamed. If it was a popular and commercial book, then it was, of course, terrible. He was quite dismissive of celebrated writers the world over. Maybe, there wasn’t anything wrong with me after all.

If it was not me, it had to be him. What was going on inside his world that made him appear so negative? What was going on inside his world? Was he really so damaged that he could hate this much? In the end, I found him and what he was saying very amusing.

Now, if he’d said he hates my work or can’t stand reading what I write, that’s a different thing altogether. That wouldn’t be so ridiculous.

And here’s the thing about being part of two different industries. In legal practice, one of the things that we always focused on was the intention of the perpetrator of a crime. Did the defendant intend to commit the crime he is accused of?

Similarly, when someone verbally/literally abuses a writer, what is the intention of so doing? Is it to highlight what they feel is the substandard work of this writer or to shame the author? When someone says they hate you, what does that mean? And is there really a thin line between love and hate?

Towards the end of all this analysis done when I have nothing better to do, I wondered, why hate at all? Isn’t it better to spend one’s energy looking for something good in each day. Isn’t one’s energy better spent being kind and loving?

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