Thursday, August 05, 2010


Malaysian travel writer ZHANG SU LI finds solidarity in the most unlikely of places during a heavy storm in small-town Malaysia

IT WAS A PLEASANTLY COOL and breezy evening—the sort that was made for walking. I decided to leave the car by a small village road in Kopisan and walk the rest of the way to Gopeng, where they made the best lai fun (rice noodles in clear soup) in the world.

I walked across the rugged landscape made up of soft red earth and mounds of grassy patches, sometimes with lalang that came up to your waist. That patch of land was the surrounding area of an old mining pool that was now a lake. It was beginning to get dark, but I could still see the large lily pads floating on the murky water, and pink long-stemmed lotus flowers opening up towards the deep orange sky streaked with a similar pink. The air was filled with the subtle scent of white frangipani, and an occasional whiff of cow dung.

Twenty minutes later, upon reaching the main road leading towards Gopeng, I felt a few drops of water land on my face. The sky had gone dark and the air had become heavy with moisture.

I ran until I saw a row of shops on the other side of the road. By then the rain was beating so hard against the pavement that I had to walk up a dark, narrow flight of stairs next to a sundry shop to avoid getting soaked. As I sat on one of the steps waiting for the storm to subside, my stomach rumbled impatiently.

The storm wouldn’t let up. I was still sitting there almost half an hour later, cursing the weather. Once in a while, there’d be a girl or two, dressed in short skirts, laddered black tights and high heels, walking back and forth on the pavement. From where I sat, I could only see up to their waists, but it was enough to know what they did for a living.

“Do you want some tea?” A soft voice suddenly came from the top of the stairs.

I turned around and saw the silhouette of a thin woman. I couldn’t see her face as the staircase was dark. But the kindness in her voice and the thought of a hot cup of milky tea made me accept her invitation.

I walked up the remaining steps and entered her tiny room. She gestured for me to sit at a small foldable table by the wooden plantation window. The bottle green paint on its frame and shutters was blistery on some parts and flaky on others. One side of the wall had stains in different tones of grey and brown running all the way from the ceiling to the floor where rain had been seeping through. Against the cleaner wall was a narrow and rusty iron framed bed.

My eyes did a quick sweep along the shelf above the bed and then stopped halfway. Next to a hairbrush, there was a round swivel mirror, a pale yellow enamel mug containing a toothbrush and a tube of Darlie toothpaste. Next to that was an old paperback wrapped in clear cellophane like the books you find in libraries and second-hand bookstores. The spine was so badly creased it took me some time to figure out the title. It was a collection of short stories by W. Somerset Maugham.

Reaching for a tin flask with red roses painted on it, the woman smiled and apologised that the tea wasn’t freshly made. She pulled out the muslin-covered cork stopper and poured some tea into two stainless steel cups.

Her name was Radha. She was in her early thirties, I guessed. She had an oval face, a straight nose and large eyes. Her expression was unreadable. And yet, one could tell from her eyes that they concealed an inner world very different from the town she lived in, and a history that went back far in time.

We sat at the table sipping sweet tepid tea. The storm had calmed down into a drizzle now. I heard a soft whimper and wondered where it came from. Radha bent down to look under the bed. Only then did I notice a toddler sleeping on a flattened Sunsilk cardboard box. The small chubby fingers with tiny round nails were clutching onto the arm of a plastic Pinocchio doll. He stirred a little and whimpered again.

Radha picked him up from under the bed and he gurgled at the sight of his mother. Her face was suddenly lit up by a smile, and for a few moments, it seemed as though she was unaware that I was there. For a few moments, it was just her and her child.

“What’s his name?” I asked.

“Prem,” she replied, turning to me.

“It’s a nice name,” I said. “What does it mean?”

“Love,” Radha said proudly. “It means ‘love’.”

I stayed for a few more minutes and we shared a plate of cucur udang. Prem sat on the floor sucking on a small piece that his mother had torn off for him. Pinocchio lay next to him, staring at me with a garishly painted smile on his face.

“I should get going,” I said as I got up. “Thanks so much for the tea.”

Outside, the rain had released the earthy scent from the ground and the air smelled faintly of cinnamon. I resumed my journey towards Gopeng market.

As I walked away from the row of shops, I couldn’t help imagining Radha lying on her back earlier that evening, in the rusty bed above her sleeping son, and sweat from the man on top of her dripping onto her face. I also imagined her sitting up in bed with Prem by her side, reading stories about casuarina trees, Tuan Jones drinking gin pahit on the verandah of a colonial house in Malaya, and missionary nurses falling in love with drunks.

For a long time I couldn’t help wondering about the room above the sundry shop, somewhere between Kopisan and Gopeng.

ZHANG SU LI is the author of A Backpack and A Bit of Luck: Stories of a Traveller with No Sense of Direction (Marshall Cavendish, 2007), a collection of travel stories. She also conducts creative writing workshops in Kuala Lumpur. Zhang has two travel pieces in a forthcoming travel anthology, Sini Sana: Travels in Malaysia, edited by Tom Sykes and Tan May Lee and published by MPH Publishing in early 2011.

Reproduced from the January-March 2010 issue of Quill magazine


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