T for Terribly Upset

TTo enter our house, there is a door, of course. But like most houses in Malaysia, we also have a grille. So, to let someone in, I would have to unlock the door, pull it open then slide the grille to the left. All this information is important because of the story I’m about to tell you.

One day in 1977, I was a very small child. My mother was recuperating from surgery upstairs and my father had come home after work. It was about 8.30 pm. As usual, I unlocked the door and pulled it open. I heard the hiss first, before I registered what I saw. In that space between the door and the grille was a cobra. Already agitated, it had its hood open and was swaying, ready to strike.

I screamed and banged the door shut. I don’t remember what happened next, but I am aware that my father killed the cobra. I remain terribly upset by the memory of this. That, in itself, caused the family to be agitated and worry for the next few days. First of all, Hindus are not particularly fond of killing snakes. Frankly, even though I’m petrified of them, I don’t like that they are killed unnecessarily. Secondly, there is a belief that when you kill a cobra, in particular, its mate will come looking for it. True enough, in a few days, we sighted another cobra in the garden and chased it away.

From that day, I have been very scared of snakes. My family didn’t understand how serious this fear was, and still is. They tried everything to desensitise me to this fear from making me look at photos of snakes and taking me to the Snake Temple in Penang. I am a little better now. At least, I can see a photo of a snake. But I will probably pass out if I see one live.

When I was studying in Cardiff, I remember going into a pet shop that also sold wildlife creatures. In hindsight, I think this shop was also a conduit for those involved in the illegal trafficking of illegal wildlife. Anyway, when my friend and I entered the shop, the cages were all empty. We went to the back to talk to the owner, whom my friend knew. When we had to leave, I realised that the workers had put some animals in the cages. There were exotic lizards and many snakes. I could not take a single step towards the front door. After 20 minutes of trying to talk myself into having courage, my friend was so fed up that he took my hand, told me to close my eyes and practically dragged me out of the shop. It was the only way we could leave the place.

One of my more memorable assignments for the papers was when I had to interview some conservation experts about the illegal trade of snakes in Malaysia. From them, I learnt two things: that people are extraordinarily cruel to snakes and that I will try my best never to buy anything close to a snakeskin handbag. You see, many times, the designers of luxury goods like handbags and so on have a label on their goods to say they have sourced these skins ethically. There is nothing ethical about the whole trade. Imagine that a shipment of snakes from Vietnam are bound for Europe. These snakes have to arrive in Europe alive because their skin needs to be ‘fresh’. Now, on transit in Malaysia, they go through Customs and the label on the container says ‘100 snakes’. Do you think an officer would be brave enough to open the container to count the live snakes and make sure that there are only 100 snakes there? Often, there are many more and these make their way to Europe and become part of the luxury goods industry.

On a lighter note, on the day of the assignment, I made the mistake of writing my story in the evening. I went to bed very disturbed and Ladoo didn’t help one bit. Every time she snored, I thought it was a hiss.

My fear of snakes is even more ironic seeing that my grandmother’s name was ‘Nagarathinam’. This translate to ‘Jewel of the Cobra’ and I was told by the elders that apparently the cobras keep this jewel inside their bodies and use it at night to search for prey. I’m sure there’s a scientific reason for all this, but I’ve never investigated this, nor do I intend to … ever. But, my grandmother was the one who taught my father never to harm a cobra unnecessarily; just let it slither away.

Indeed, many Hindus believe that when you see a snake or a cobra, it’s a good omen for they have divine properties. They bring good luck and should be respected.

Then, in March, there was a story in the papers that horrified me. I am sure that others will see the funny side of it, but I almost passed out reading it. Apparently, a gentleman, Hiroshi Motohashi, 46 was eating at the popular sushi place in Los Angeles. He had a companion with him. His companion was no human being but a tiny snake. Other patrons complained and he was asked to leave. He marched out. But he returned later, with a larger snake which he let loose in the restaurant. He was arrested and the snakes were captured. (http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/los-angeles-angry-customer-unleashes-13-foot-long-python-snake-sushi-restaurant-1551524)

Whether or not the presence of a snake brings good luck or not to the person the snake visits, I doubt I will ever eat in this restaurant.

Have you had any ‘encounters’ with these slithery creatures?


S for Semantics of Democracy

SThis essay was previously published on this site. I am publishing again as part of the ‘A to Z Challenge (2016)’


In the wake of the dramatic political events in the Middle East in February 2011, there are many who wonder if some countries there will now embrace democracy. Indeed, since the revolution in Egypt, there is analysis of how fast its citizens were able to start the revolution to oust the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Also, there has been debate about the blueprint for democracy that Egypt will now adopt. From a writer’s perspective, however, one question remains strangely unanswered: what, actually, does the word ‘democracy’ mean?

Let’s start with the events in Cairo, Egypt, by referring to the story told by Umapagan Ampikaipakan, a columnist with the New Straits Times of Malaysia: approximately two months before the revolution commenced, Mohamed Bouazizi was a 26-year-old man who had a university degree. When he could not find work, he decided to start a small street stall to sell vegetables. Without a licence, the police stopped him from doing business. Frustrated and angry, the young man committed suicide by setting himself on fire. Furious, the citizens of the town rioted and there were clashes with security forces. A few days later, another disillusioned man ‘climbed an electricity pole, shouted “no for misery, no for unemployment”, touched the 30,000 megawatt wires and electrocuted himself.’ These were men who had nothing to live for. The response of the authorities was as expected: although they regretted the incidents, they thought that people had taken them out of context and were using them to reach unhealthy political ends.1

Mr. Ampikaipakan also states that, ‘… the idea of democracy, that practice of social equality, that notion of “by the people, of the people”, has long been considered to be the last best hope. Because it places the responsibility, the burden — even the eventual guilt — in the hands of the many. Because it forces the individual to think with the collective; like a collective.’ 1

Khor Swee Kheng, in his letter to the New Straits Times, adds to the story of the political drama in Egypt by saying that the attention of the world was more focused on the angry young men and their internet tools than maintenance of democracy. He believes that democracy is the least ‘imperfect system of governance, and (in combination with capitalism) probably the vehicle that has done most to eradicate poverty, raise living standards and improve “happiness” levels worldwide.’ 2

Mr. Khor makes the statement that an entire nation of angry young people coming together and using technology to revolt against an autocratic government does not necessarily bring about democracy. He argues that, in the absence of large middle class, the template for proper government does not contain essential elements for democratisation. For instance, the people must be aware of their rights, have the intellectual and emotional courage to fight back and the tools to organise such a fight. In addition, leaders of a democratic nation should have the ability to govern the people. Finally, there should be democratic tools such as ‘a free media, a working legal system … and independent universities.’ In the absence of all these, when a country moves rapidly from autocracy to democracy, there is chance that it will be much harder to build an effective civil service as ‘we hardly can expect the brave leader of the revolution to automatically be a competent minister of roads, and his underlings to also happen to be trained civil engineers.’

Karim Raslan, a columnist with The Star, somewhat echoes Mr. Khor’s sentiments when he writes as follows: ‘When people invoke “democracy,” they mean much more. They mean freedom, prosperity, good governance, social justice and peace … At the same time, democracy … isn’t just a simple process of calling elections and voting. In order for the process to work, there needs to be a media that is free and fair as well as counter-veiling institutions – NGOs and law courts that are objective and above the fray. It’s also important that there should be a 50:50 chance that the present bunch in government can be thrown out of office: otherwise why bother?’ 4

Mr. Raslan goes on to argue that democracy also depends on the culture, religion, history and politics of a nation. In the end, he makes a plausible conclusion that because human nature is such that we are always evolving, (in other words, we always want more), ‘democracy allows for this constant evolutionary process, responding and adapting to popular sentiment.’ 4

The point that democracy is constantly evolving was illustrated very well by the chart that Anup Shah created in his article, Democracy. He starts by explaining that the word ‘democracy’ literally means ‘“rule by the people”, taken from the Greek terms, demos (meaning “people”), and kratos (meaning “rule”).’ Then, he plots the development of democracy and its application throughout the ages from Ancient Greece (where democracy was only practiced by citizens who were male and had completed military training; women and slaves were excluded) and Ancient India (where a less rigid form of the caste system practiced a type of democracy that was similar to the kind practiced in Ancient Greece) to England of the Middle Ages (with the introduction of the Magna Carta and eventual establishment of the parliamentary democracy) and Post World War II which saw the overthrow of corrupt dictatorships and transitions of so-called Third World Nations to democracies.5

Here’s the thing: only four writers (three in Malaysia and one from the US) have been highlighted above. While all of them have used the word ‘democracy’ liberally, each person seems to have his own definition of the word, how a country will achieve democratic status and how democracy should be practised. No doubt, there is some overlap in their views, but consider this: if one were ask for the views of people from other parts of the world, there is bound to be confusion when trying to define an ideology that is as seemingly simple and universal as democracy. No one makes this point better that George Orwell in his essay, Politics and the English Language: ‘The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning.’3

Mr. Orwell points the crux of the matter when he writes that, ‘Words of this kind 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.

Where, then, does that leave Egypt and other countries who are on the path to democracy? Decidedly, it is only proper that the citizens of a country revolt against an unfair regime that denies them basic rights and causes them to suffer such imaginable hardships. It is proper to be rid of leaders who ignore human rights abuses, are uncaring and corrupt. Once a revolution has been successful, to rebuild a nation, it is wise to take the cue from Mr. Orwell: whatever ideologies or system of government this new nation would like to adopt, its leaders must be honest at all times. In other words, when drafting the rules, regulations, constitutions or any other instrument of government, every effort should be made to ensure that the words used should not be ambiguous, confusing or subject to semantics. Such a task will take time and patience and cannot be rushed or coerced.

Ultimately, if one were to take all of the above into account, and add some flexibility to the equation, the task of nation-building will probably be less fraught with tension and uncertainty. Perhaps, such genuine effort on the part of new leaders will go some way towards showing people that they now have something to live for.



  1. Ampikaipakan, Umapagan. One Step At A Time On The Road To Democracy. New Straits Times. 15 February 2011 (Accessed 21 February 2011) < http://www.nst.com.my/nst/articles/17umia/Article/>
  2. Khor Swee Kheng. Democracy May Not Take Hold. New Straits Times. 14 February 2011 (Accessed 21 February 2011) < http://www.nst.com.my/nst/articles/18revo/Article/>
  3. Orwell, George. Politics And The English Language. First published by Horizon, UK. April 1946. (Accessed 21 February 2011) < http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit>
  4. Raslan, Karim. Democracy Can’t Be Imposed. The Star. 15 February 2011. (Accessed 21 Febraury 2011)< http://thestar.com.my/columnists/story.asp?col=ceritalah&file=/2011/2/15/columnists/ceritalah/8064797&sec=Ceritalah>
  5. Shah, Anup. “Democracy.” Global Issues, Updated: 30 November 2008. (Accessed 21 February 2011) <http://www.globalissues.org/article/761/democracy>

R for Room and Board

R“You know, I know a little bit about Brisbane. I used to stay there during my school holidays.” The lady on the other end of the phone line was called Usha. We had been introduced to each other by some writers in Malaysia and the plan was to collaborate on an online writing project. I’d insisted on speaking with her before we even started. We’d already sorted out the preliminaries when I decided to tell about the people I’d once stayed with in Brisbane. After all, the Malaysian community in Brisbane was quite small. And the first thing a Malaysian will often do in a foreign country is find another Malaysian.

“Oh, where in Brisbane?” Usha sounded chirpy. She had already told me how happy she was having made Australia their home years ago.

“Somewhere called Kenmore.” I answered, not expecting her to know the place. After all, Australia is a vast place and Brisbane was big city – by Malaysian standards, at least. I mean, if you come to KL and ask me about Puchong, I would be lost. I know about Puchong and how to get there. Beyond that, I’m lost.

“Ah. We live there,” Usha replied, surprising me.

“Let me think.” I scratched my head. It was more than 15 years since I’d stayed in Brisbane. Could I even remember the address?

“Ah, yes. I remember. The address was 25 Mabb Street.”

I was so impressed with myself. I could remember the exact address after all these years. It took me a few seconds to realise that Usha was completely quiet.

“Hello? Usha? Are you there?”

“Err… Yes.” There was something strange in her voice. I detected a smidgen of shock in it. “How do you know that address?”

I replied, nonchalant. “I told you. I used to stay there during my school holidays. With some family friends. They are called the Menons.”

Again, there was no response from her. I was getting worried. Had I said something wrong?

“Usha? Are you there?”

I could hear her take a deep breath. Then she said, “Aneeta, we bought their house. We’re now living in that house.”

Is this what people mean by a coincidence? Have you had such coincidences?


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?


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.


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.”


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.


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.”