Sunday, September 15, 2013

“A Subtle Degree of Restraint”, by Karina Bahrin

In this short story, Malaysian writer KARINA BAHRIN explores urban Malaysian life and society through the prism of weight loss, love and friendship

ON ENTERING THE RESTAURANT, she saw it. A large fuchsia orb that occupied the room with its gaudy hue, holding a generous spray of elegant brown willow twigs. The vase was probably imported from Vietnam, with a cracked lacquered surface intended to lend it an antique effect.

All through lunch, her eyes strayed to its bulbous presence. Everything else in the restaurant faded in subservience. The delicate, lithe backs of the dining chairs, the demureness of the cream carpet, the jade-coloured chopstick rests that perched four, sometimes six, to a table.

Until that day, nothing had stood out. Now, the vase colonised the room.

“So how come you still don’t have babies?” Badariah asked.

Elena had not expected this, especially not from the childhood friend who wasn’t even married. After high school, Badariah had gone to college and pursued a successful career in the United States. Now she was back after a ten-year absence. The last time they saw each other, they were eighteen. Elena remembered the moment well. They shared a thirty-scoop sundae in Swensen’s, their schoolgirl laughter fanning their indulgence.

“Maybe it just isn’t time yet,” Elena said. “Tak ada rezeki.” No luck. Except it didn’t just mean luck in Malay. It was a combination of things—destiny, fate, a blessing from God. But fate alone was never enough. One had to put in some effort. Just like she did to secure a husband. Azman would never have given her a second glance if she looked like her old self—plump and soft around the middle, ruled by her appetite and her tongue.

“Are you going to eat that?” Badariah reached across the table.

Elena didn’t have to reply. The unagi was already in pieces, its neat, uneaten half pried apart by Badariah’s deftly held chopsticks.

By now, two years into her marriage, Elena no longer noticed her own ravenous hunger. The bitter taste of bile that constantly hung in the back of her mouth was often masked with sugar-free mints. The sour festering of the walls of her empty stomach had travelled up her spine, permanently pinching her face into a pained expression. Those looking thought she was a harried woman when in fact she was just plain married, a lady of leisure who had little to do with her days except fill them to her fancy.

Fancy, she now knew, was a dangerous thing. It led to thoughts of cream horns and yard-long beer towers, fat dripping from ribs barbecued with honey, birthday cakes and babies. Babies. The plump, doughy ones with big pools for eyes looked good enough to eat. Slow-roasted on a rotisserie, until all their cuteness caramelised into gooey skins encasing juicy, tender meat. She imagined they tasted like lamb, only sweeter.

But the thought of subjecting herself once more to the assault of slimming centres was enough to keep her fancies at bay, even if the whims sometimes kicked their heels against the echoing chambers of her stomach. Before the wedding, between graduating from college and meeting Azman, her life was a disappearing act. An erasing of her superfluous kilos that were steamed, massaged and freeze-dried off her bones. The Iron Chefs of human bodies presided over her, poaching her belly in rare herbs, sloughing the puckered skin of her thighs until the cellulite retreated in terror, binding the peasantry of her waggling upper arms in searing linen ribbons so they emerged dainty and taut when she raised her hand to wave.

Even after the last wedding reception (there had been six in all), her uncorsetted waist did not expand to its former liberal self, restrained by her throat that constricted against all manner of deliciousness. She forgot the taste of real food, her tongue easily pacified with the insipid mulch of power juices in the morning, Jewish crackers and canned tuna for lunch, a snack of an apple or handful of nuts in between. The only time she ate with her husband was at dinner, when she would have a few frugal spoonfuls of brown rice and minute helpings of yogurt-based curries, lean chicken breasts or vegetables flash-fried in water instead of oil.

If Azman noticed anything, he never mentioned the absence of food on her plate. Talk turned, instead, to bigger things. How his secretary was going on maternity leave, the Chinese contractor’s Rolex (real, not fake), the Government, the protesters who unloaded cows and chickens and goats in front of the State Secretariat and how the Indonesians were planning to invade Malaysia with machetes and bamboo spears.

Later, as they both stretched limbs around pillows and claimed their own piece of the shared duvet, he kissed her goodnight, sometimes a hand brushing her breast, murmuring, “Sleep well, mother of my children-to-be.” Then, even though he slumbered with his face turned to her, he draped his arm around a soft, yielding pillow, fingers digging gently into its pliant depths, pulling it closer to his chest.

“So, do you even want babies?” Badariah wiped her generous lips. Her trunk-like hand reached out for a mochi, hesitating between the green and the white.

“Some tea would be good with that,” Elena said and summoned a waiter with her practised wave.

“Sure, thanks. Food’s good. Nice restaurant,” Badariah said, munching her mochi. She had decided on the green one.

“I know,” Elena, head turned, a slight tilt backwards, watched the waiter return with a fresh pot. “It used to be nicer.”

Badariah frowned. “How so?”

“The décor. I don’t know why they put that thing in the middle of the room.”

“What? The vase? I think it’s lovely! Don’t you like it? It’s so—”

“Vulgar,” Elena interrupted. “It’s too … round.”

The word fell out of her mouth like a giant marble, clacking onto the table, clinking against Badariah’s teacup.

“Maybe that’s why I like it.” Badariah laughed, eyebrows raised, patting the soft bulge of her belly. “I’m a skinny girl in a bodacious body. Just like that vase. Inside, I’m thin. See those willows?”

“You know,” Badariah continued in a whisper, “they say that sometimes you can’t be too skinny if you want to have babies.”

Elena mentally calculated how much Badariah weighed. Pushing eighty kilos probably, judging from the spillage of thighs over the edges of the delicate dining chair. Almost twice the size of Elena, whose own limbs stayed neatly within the boundaries of her seat. No extra flesh oozing over the lip of the chair’s bottom. No deep lines on the back of her thighs where the wood cut into her skin. She wanted to grab the chair from beneath Badariah, force her to stand up.

Instead, she said, “Skinny women have babies all the time. Look at all those supermodels.”

Badariah cackled. “Darling, they pay people to make them skinny again. Nobody stays thin when they’re pregnant. It’d be like starving your baby!”

Elena wanted to pick up the vase and hurl it against a wall. She would buy the restaurant a replacement. A tall, slim crystal receptacle that shimmered light from its bevelled edges, matching the willowy reach of its contents. She wished she could heave her friend out the window. The glass would shatter with a spectacular crash.

“You can never eat too much if you’re pregnant,” Badariah muttered, reaching for the last mochi. Lips together, she stretched her lower jaw, her face momentarily bulging in places where her tongue rolled around her mouth.

Elena watched her friend chew, imagining the soft elasticity of the white ball in her own mouth, its pliant dough sticking to the teeth. The crunch of finely ground peanuts bursting salty amidst the sweetness. She wanted that last mochi. But Badariah had devoured it without asking.

“Azman likes those, too.” Elena swallowed, her saliva sour from the cups of green tea.

“I always think dessert should be eaten first, you know?” Badariah said, staring at the now empty plate. “That way you get to eat what you like best, as much as you want.”

That was why dessert always came at the end of a meal, Elena thought. A means for convention to force a subtle degree of restraint.

Badariah erupted into a coughing fit, banging her chest. “Oh, God,” she wheezed. “Mochi, stuck. I-I need the toilet.” She stumbled towards the washroom, waving an arm behind her back, signalling for her friend not to follow.

When Badariah reappeared, her eyes were bloodshot. A thin stream of mucus ran down her nose. She sipped a warm cup of tea, cradling it between both hands.

“One mochi too many?” asked Elena.

Badariah stared into her teacup. Then, lifting her gaze, said, “I’m pregnant. He’s Malay. Fancy that?”

All these years, Elena assumed Badariah didn’t have a love life. The protective instinct of men who felt threatened by a woman larger than them. Malaysian men were modestly built, unlike the monstrous American football players.

But somehow, Badariah had managed. Elena felt a hunger build, gnawing the pit of her stomach. “But when—who married you?”

Badariah leaned back in her chair. She drew in a long breath, nostrils narrowing. “You silly bitch,” she said with a wry smile. “Not everyone has to starve themselves to get a man. Mine actually likes me this way.” She rose, tossing a clutch of ringgit on the table. “That should take care of the whole lot. After all, you hardly touched your food.”

Alone, Elena beckoned the waiter. She ordered another plate of mochi. A trio of rotund, bite-sized spheres. Green, white and pink. All hers.

By the time she finished them it was four p.m. The waiters were on their break. Only the brazen vase stood watch.

Elena left the cash on the table and walked towards the restaurant’s entrance. The florid, pinkish vessel loomed steadfast in her path.

She reached out and pushed it with the palm of her hand. It rocked left, right, and then settled on its flat base. The willows were askew, bunched now on one side.

She tried again, giving the vase a shove. This time, it tipped, scattering its contents across the table. It rolled around, bumping over the willow stalks, its empty mouth a hollow black “O”.

She gave it one final push. It spun off the table and careened across the carpeted floor.

Elena opened the restaurant door. She watched the orb roll out into the sunlight, down the gravel path that cut through the Zen garden, past the swaying bamboos, finally settling beneath a bush.

In the gloom of the undergrowth, the vase looked less menacing.

Elena wiped her palms down the front of her blouse. Hitching her handbag strap higher on her slim shoulder, she walked towards her car.

KARINA BAHRIN is a seasoned writer of fact and a novice writer of fiction. She divides her time between her day job as a communications consultant and pursuing her dream of running a bed and breakfast in Langkawi. In between, she indulges the characters that live in her head. “A Subtle Degree of Restraint” is her second piece of published fiction.

Reproduced from A Subtle Degree of Restraint and Other Stories, a collection of stories published by MPH Group Publishing

Sunday, September 01, 2013

September 2013 Highlights

1. Traveling Sprinkler (Blue Rider Press, 2013) / Nicholson Baker
2. The Orenda (Hamish Hamilton Canada, 2013) / Joseph Boyden
3. The Aftermath (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) / Rhidian Brook
4. Accusation (Goose lane, 2013) / Catherine Bush
5. Margot (Riverhead) / Jillian Cantor
6. Lion Heart (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013) / Justin Cartwright
7. The Luminaries (Granta Books, 2013) / Eleanor Catton
8. The Childhood of Jesus (Viking, 2013) / J.M. Coetzee
9. The Man in the Window (Lake Union Publishing, 2013) / Jon Cohen
10. Duplex (Graywolf Press, 2013) / Kathryn Davis

11. Cartwheel (Random House, 2013) / Jennifer duBois
12. The Tilted World (Mantle, 2013) / Tom Franklin & Beth Ann Fennelly
13. The Story of a New Name (trans. from the Italian by Ann Goldstein) (Europa Editions, 2013) / Elena Ferrante
14. The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Knopf Australia, 2013) / Richard Flanagan
15. Songs of Willow Frost (Ballantine Books, 2013) / Jamie Ford
16. The Explanation for Everything (Algonquin Books, 2013) / Lauren Grodstein
17. Local Souls (Liveright, 2013) / Allan Gurganus
18. Enon (Random House, 2013) / Paul Harding
19. The Son of a Certain Woman (Knopf Canada, 2013) / Wayne Johnston
20. The Outcasts (Little, Brown, 2013) / Kathleen Kent

21. My Life as a Silent Movie (Indiana University Press, 2013) / Jesse Lee Kercheval
22. Moonrise (Hyperion, 2013) / Cassandra King
23. Doctor Sleep (Scribner, 2013) / Stephen King
24. Chasing the King of Hearts (trans. from the Polish by Philip Boehm) (Peirene Press, 2013) / Hanna Krall
25. Seibo There Below (trans. from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet) (New Directions, 2013) / László Krasznahorkai
26. The Lowland (Alfred A. Knopf/Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013) / Jhumpa Lahiri
27. Road Ends (Knopf Canada, 2013) / Mary Lawson
28. Dissident Gardens (Doubleday, 2013) / Jonathan Lethem
29. The Widow Tree (Douglas & McIntyre, 2013) / Nicole Lundrigan
30. The Figures of Beauty (HarperCollins Canada, 2013) / David Macfarlane

31. Unexploded (Hamish Hamilton, 2013) / Alison MacLeod
32. My Notorious Life (Scribner, 2013) / Kate Manning
33. A Beautiful Truth (Soho Press, 2013) / Colin McAdam
34. Someone (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013) / Alice McDermott
35. The Bastard Pleasure (Dzanc Books, 2013) / Sean McGrady
36. One Night in Winter (Century, 2013) / Simon Sebag Montefiore
37. The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon, 2013) / Mary Morrissy
38. Bleeding Edge (Penguin USA/Jonathan Cape, 2013) / Thomas Pynchon
39. Subtle Bodies (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) / Norman Rush
40. Help for the Haunted (William Morrow, 2013) / John Searles

41. The Woman Who Lost Her Soul (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013) / Bob Shacochis
42. My Ghosts (Knopf Canada, 2013) / Mary Swan
43. The Windsor Faction (Chatto & Windus/Pegasus, 2013) / D.J. Taylor
44. Goat Mountain (Harper/Text Publishing, 2013) / David Vann
45. Let Him Go (Milkweed Editions, 2013) / Larry Watson
46. The Maid’s Version (Little, Brown, 2013) / Daniel Woodrell
47. Marina (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2013) / Carlos Ruiz Zafón

First Novels
1. The Herbalist (Penguin, 2013) / Niamh Boyce
2. Kicking the Sky (Doubleday Canada, 2013) / Anthony De Sa
3. The Live and Loves of Lena Gaunt (Fremantle Press, 2013) / Tracy Farr
4. The Marrying of Chani Kaufman (Sandstone Press, 2013) / Eve Harris
5. The Dilettantes (Freehand Books, 2013) / Michael Hingston
6. Burial Rites (Little, Brown, 2013) / Hannah Kent
7. Arimathea (Brandon Books/O’Brien Press, 2013) / Frank McGuinness
8. Mount Merrion (Penguin, 2013) / Justin Quinn
9. Marriage Material (William Heinemann, 2013) / Sathnam Sanghera

1. Stay Up With Me (Ecco, 2013) / Tom Barbash
2. Young Skins (The Stinging Fly, 2013) / Colin Barrett
3. Red Girl Rat Boy (Biblioasis, 2013) / Cynthia Flood
4. The O. Henry Prize Stories 2013 (Anchor, 2013) / Laura Furman (ed.)
5. Savage Love (Goose Lane Editions, 2013) / Douglas Glover
6. Oh, My Darling (HarperCollins Canada, 2013) / Shaena Lambert
7. Evil Eye: Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong (Mysterious Press, 2013) / Joyce Carol Oates
8. Between Friends (trans. from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) / Amos Oz
9. Nine Inches (St Martin’s Press, 2013) / Tom Perrotta
10. The Old Priest (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013) / Anthony Wallace

1. The Inside of An Apple (Wave Books, 2013) / Joshua Beckman
2. Stealing Sugar from the Castle: Selected and New Poems, 1950-2013 (W.W. Norton, 2013) / Robert Bly
3. E.E. Cummings: Complete Poems, 1904-62 (ed. George James Firmage) (Liveright, 2013) / E.E. Cummings
4. New & Selected Potatoes (Bloodaxe Books, 2013) / John Hegley
5. Division Street (Chatto & Windus, 2013) / Helen Mort
6. Six Bad Poets (Faber & Faber, 2013) / Christopher Reid
7. American Songbook (Ugly Duckling, 2013) / Michael Ruby
8. Nothing by Design (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) / Mary Jo Salter
9. 3 Sections (Graywolf Press, 2013) / Vijay Seshadri
10. Sleeping Keys (Jonathan Cape, 2013) / Jean Sprackland

11. The Book of Goodbyes (BOA Editions, 2013) / Jillian Weise

1. Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Natures and the Fortunes of Migrants (Harvard University Press, 2013) / Sunil S. Amrith
2. Levels of Life (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) / Julian Barnes
3. Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations (Liveright, 2013) / Mary Beard
4. Year Zero: A History of 1945 (Penguin Press, 2013) / Ian Buruma
5. Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China (Jonathan Cape, 2013) / Jung Chang
6. Calcutta: Two Years in the City (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) / Amit Chaudhuri
7. The Golden Thread: The Story of Writing (Atlantic Books, 2013) / Ewan Clayton
8. On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads (Bloomsbury USA, 2013) / Tim Cope
9. Wordsmiths and Warriors: The English-Language Tourist’s Guide to Britain (Oxford University Press, 2013) / David Crystal and Hilary Crystal
10. Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (Allen Lane, 2013) / John Drury

11. Religion Without God (Harvard University Press, 2013) / Ronald Dworkin
12. The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos (John Murray, 2013) / Patrick Leigh Fermor
13. Augustine: Conversions to Confessions (Basic Books, 2013) / Robin Lane Fox
14. Dancing with the Enemy: My Family’s Holocaust Secret (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2013) / Paul Glaser
15. Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 (William Collins, 2013) / Max Hastings
16. The Histories (trans. from the Greek by Tom Holland) (Penguin Classics, 2013) / Herodotus
17. Crazy Little Heaven: An Indonesian Journey (Transit Lounge, 2013) / Mark Heyward
18. Shady Characters: Ampersands, Interrobangs and Other Typographical Curiosities (Particular Books, 2013) / Keith Houston
19. Sightlines: A Conversation with the Natural World (The Experiment, 2013) / Kathleen Jamie
20. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (University of Minnesota Press, 2013) / Thomas King

21. Chasing the King of Hearts (trans. from the Polish by Philip Boehm) (Peirene Press, 2013) / Hanna Krall
22. The African (trans. from the French by C. Dickson) (David R. Godine, 2013) / J.-M. G. Le Clézio
23. Slow Reading in a Hurried Age (Belknap Press, 2013) / David Mikics
24. The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (Allen Lane, 2013) / Richard Overy
25. The Lives of the Novel: A History (Princeton University Press, 2013) / Thomas G. Pavel
26. The Jews in Poland and Russia: A Short History (The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2013) / Antony Polonsky
27. Salinger (Simon & Schuster, 2013) / David Shields & Shane Salerno
28. The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000BCE-1492CE (Bodley Head, 2013) / Simon Schama
29. Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History (Henry Holt, 2013) / Paul Schneider
30. Rhys Davies: A Writer’ss Life (Parthian Books, 2013) / Meic Stephens

31. The Consolations ofthe Forest: Alone in a Cabin on the Siberian Taiga (trans. from the French by Linda Coverdale) (Rizzoli Ex Libris, 2013) / Sylvain Tesson
32. Men We Reaped: A Memoir (Bloomsbury USA, 2013) / Jesmyn Ward
33. Olivier (MacLehose Press, 2013) / Philip Ziegler