Malay Sketches: Stories by Alfian Sa’at
214 pages – Amazon
Tanjong Pagar, 12 Noon
It’s lunch time, and he looks forward to the cigarette that he has been putting off for the past three hours. A practice since his secondary school days—the promise of a reward at the end of an ordeal (discipline and deprivation being close cousins), except that now the carrot is not drawn from a box of biscuits but a small pack of Marlboro Menthol Lights. He fishes in his pockets and realises that he has misplaced his lighter.
With the cigarette hanging from his lips, he takes the elevator down, drops by the Mama Money Changer, only to be told that they have run out of stock. He crosses roads, beats lights, breaks into a run. A man in search of an oasis, his cigarette quivering like a divining rod, not for water but re.
Last Saturday, at a Prize-Giving Ceremony for Top Malay-Muslim Students, I had walked up the stage to collect my scroll. Everything went as we had rehearsed, up till the moment I was face to face with the President. Suddenly I froze, snatched the scroll from the tray held by the girl beside him, and left his hand frozen in mid-air.
Of course, the protocol was that I should shake his hand. But I was wearing my baju kurung, and a tudung ̊. The President is a man, and I’m not supposed to have any physical contact with the opposite sex. That’s a kind of protocol too.
It was difficult to bring people around to my point of view. My mother said I had “shamed the whole community” with my “rudeness”. My father said, “When you do something like that, it’s so easy for them to call us extremists”. My sister said, “You dishonoured the guest-of-honour”.
I didn’t know how many people in the audience thought the way my family did. I made my sister describe what the scene looked like to her.
“You made him look so stupid”, she said. “He was reaching out his hand, smiling so proudly.”
“Yah what, you were the only girl wearing a tudung among all the students. He probably thought, oh, this is a girl who can balance between studies and religion. And then you had to spoil everything.”
“So what did the audience think?”
“People were shocked. He really looked stupid. His one hand sticking out. Like the Kentucky Fried Chicken Colonel, you know, but just one hand lah. Some people didn’t know whether to continue clapping or what.”
So overnight, I became this poster girl for Malay non-integration. Apparently the President, in his memoirs to be written years down the road, would one day describe how Malays had become more and more fundamentalist, just because a panicky girl one day decided not to shake his hand. As damage control, my sister suggested that I write a letter to the President. I showed her the first draft.
“You’re not apologising,” she said. “You’re justifying what you did.”
“No I’m not. I’m educating him.”
She rolled her eyes. “You nak ̊ educate the President? Who are you?”
I wrote a second draft, this time removing the parts that argued that the handshake wasn’t even part of our culture. I toned down all the rhetorical bits that began with ‘you, as a fellow minority member, should’. I focused on the fact that I had never meant to offend.
When I reached the post box later that day, I found myself confronted by two different slots: ‘Singapore’ and ‘Other Countries’. It made me pause for a while. My sister had asked who I was. What kind of country did I see myself living in? What kind of country did I want for myself? I wasn’t different for the sake of being different. And being different is not the same as being difficult.
I rested the envelope on the lip of the slot that said ‘Singapore’. I’ll describe the scene for you. There is a girl standing in front of a post box. She is wearing a baju kurung and a tudung. An envelope has just dropped, like a leaf, from her fingers.
But she is still standing, her hand frozen in mid-air.
Tudung: A headscarf won by Muslim women
Nak: From the Malay word ‘hendak’, which means ‘to want’)
A Toyol Story
It began one day when Fadly’s father stood at the doorway to his bedroom to ask if he had seen his pair of spectacles. Fadly glanced at his father, replied that he had not, and went back to reading his comics. A moment later, he suddenly recalled that he had seen his father wearing them, and walked out into the living room. His father had overturned cushions, created a haphazard footpath from magazines, and was sweeping an oar-like hand across the limbo of dust balls, oxidised coins and beetle husks under the sofa. Red-faced from exertion, he looked up at Fadly and declared, “I think there’s a toyol in our house.” His spectacles, in mock gold, were sitting mockingly on his nose.
Malay superstition has it that a toyol is a kind of changeling, a stillborn foetus brought back to life by black magic, and condemned to do the bidding of its master in return for its unfortunate resurrection. Its primary occupation is mischief: petty theft, random rearrangement of private property, relentless harassment of routine. The most effective way to use a toyol on your enemy is through psychological warfare, the desired target being the victim’s sense of reality. Let the victim’s mind be under pressure from the combined burden of minute mysteries, a kind of Japanese water torture where a single drop of water, directed repeatedly at a precise point on the forehead, produced the most excruciating migraine. Drip: the unsolved case of the missing thimble. Drip: the drawer that gobbled up pen caps. Drip: the self-unlocking front door.
In the next few weeks, Fadly’s father would complain of various vanishings: a particular segment of the newspaper, his favourite comb, as well as a pair of bathroom slippers. Hiding a growing sense of dread under a frosty icing of impatience, Fadly would explain how the Classifieds section had been used as a makeshift plate for the cat’s dinner, that the comb had been left in the bathroom when his father was dyeing his hair black, and that the slippers had been thrown away a week ago, since the soles had been exhausted to the smoothness of fish-bellies. His tense replies, however, could not shake his father’s belief that there was indeed some sorcery at work, in the form of an invisible, elfish intruder, whose operations were stealthier than electricity.
Inwardly, Fadly felt that his name was going to be called up soon from the register of filial sons. It was a summons as inescapable as being called up for National Service or vaccination. Fadly considered himself to be a reasonably respectful child, yet at the same time he feared the kinds of emotionally-draining adjustments he had to make in the light of his father’s inverse puberty. He waited, in agitation, for the definitive sign that his father’s increasing absentmindedness had spilled over into irrevocable senility. He knew that if that day were to arrive, his response would be a mixture of horror, fatalism and terrible loneliness—that between the two of them, only Fadly would be able to recognise the father’s mental decline.
In the meantime, he started entertaining his father’s theories that there was, indeed, a toyol in the house. “Yes,” he replied to his father’s laments, “someone out there is doing this to us.” Fadly somehow believed that having faith in his father’s system of delusions could delay his confrontation with the inevitable. “Yes,” he would say sadly, watching the old man swear for the umpteenth time the last location of the remote control, “this house is being disturbed.”
Fadly’s father, encouraged by his son’s reluctant support, started laying snares for the toyol. He bought a set of mousetraps, which he placed around the house; anywhere he figured where the hands of a kleptomaniac imp might wander. And thus it happened one day, while reading comics (although this time with an almost desperate absorption), that Fadly heard a cry from the kitchen. He rushed out of his bedroom to find his father sitting cross-legged on the floor and prying open a mousetrap that had clamped over his left big toe. Fadly’s father was sobbing, a look of bewildered hurt on his face. In a voice peevish and shrunken, he asked Fadly, “Who put this damned thing here?”
Fadly knelt beside his father, put a hand on his shoulder, and said firmly, “Your toyol did, Pak.” He had meant it as his habitual lie, but Fadly could have not been more struck by the truth in his words.