I want to tell you about my friend Kandan. Full name Kandan A/L Palanivel. Twenty years old. Handsome bastard. Of course we men don’t stare at each other and think who’s handsome, who’s ugly, of course not. I’m just saying only. If you had seen him, you also would have said the same thing. We all—me and Kandan and one whole group of fellers—used to lepak at one bhaiyyi coffee shop near KL Sentral there, and even the stylish college girls, the ones from rich-rich families, talking with hell of an American slang and all, used to come and sit with us on Saturday afternoons. Giggling, blinking their big eyes at him like he was God. Even if I strip naked also nobody will look at me like that, I tell you. Fooyoh, terror lah that feller, six feet tall, big shoulders, hair like a TV model, and dunno from where he got brown eyes, almost like mat salleh like that. Next to him Hrithik Roshan also will lose. But he was just a simple boy from Rawang, laborer’s son, never gone anywhere. Cannot even speak English properly.
First-first when he came to work in my uncle’s shop I didn’t even know him. He just landed up out of the blue one day and said to me, “Dhaya, isn’t it?” And I looked at him one kind, wondering how this feller knows my name. Then he smiled like a film hero and whacked my shoulder. “Eh you don’t remember ah?” he said. “We used to be together in primary school in Rawang.” Then only I knew why his face was so familiar. Of course. Kandan A/L Palanivel, biggest troublemaker in our school I tell you, in Standard Five itself smoking behind the bicycle shed, ponteng class every two-three days, and if he came he sat in the back and exchanged naked pictures and dirty drawings with the other rowdies. Our headmaster saw him only he would shout: “Dei rascal!” My father’s time the headmaster used to carry around a rotan, you misbehave you get one nice cut on the leg. But Mr. Kumarasingam got to keep his hands to himself, otherwise kena report, get blasted by the Education Department, name in the newspaper lah, all that hoo-ha. For sure the poor man was wishing like mad for a rotan, looking at Kandan’s cheeky smile, his sideburns almost up to the chin, asking for trouble. Almost could see the thoughts coming out from his head, like cartoon like that: All these bloody boys growing soft only without the rotan. Climbing on their teachers’ head. But tell you the truth anh, I thought Kandan was damn great, man, that he could get away with all that. You can say I used to admire him—I mean not in that way lah, not saying I was his admirer, not like how boys used to admire girls and girls used to admire other girls—but just that, you know, when I looked at him, I felt like—like I wanted to be like him. Yah. I mean in those days lah, not now.
At first when he started working in the shop, my uncle also not sure about him. “Dunno whether to trust him,” he said. “Look at him also like some kind of samseng. That type of feller will be forever talking big only, but never do any work.” But that was nearing Deepavali time, and my uncle needed extra help. You know what, Deepavali time Masjid India becomes a madhouse, so many people coming going walking here walking there, the music so loud your head like going to burst like that, the flower-sellers everywhere with their garlands, some more the beggars nonstop, and every shop got people in the five-foot-way shouting Come come, see our shop, our shop is best, special discount, latest fashions straight from India, this that and the other. My uncle wanted someone to do that work but aiyo, I was too shy for all that. You ask me to unload boxes for ten hours also I will do, but don’t ask me to stand on the road and shout at people.
So that time only we all saw Kandan’s special talents. For him that job got syiok lah, he knew how to talk to people, how to sembang nicely, how to look at the ladies with his brown eyes until they themselves want to come inside and buy everything we got. Miss, you from where? Madam, we got brand new kurta-pajama set from India, all type all color, cotton linen silk nylon, cream-color one just nice for your son so fair, please come and see.Aunty this, Uncle that, che wah, a real salesman he was.
One thing about him, when he started talking, you can’t move, can’t do anything. Just like he could bring all the maamis in to look at our Kanchipuram sarees, same like that he could make us all mabuk with his words, like he put jampi on us like that. Because, he was the one who first told us about HINDRAF, you know? If not for him, where we want to get involved in that type of thing? Even then, when he first started telling us about it, my uncle said: “Aiyo athelaam vendam. Please leave us out of all this politics, don’t get us into trouble. If you got any brains, you also will just quietly-quietly do your work, earn money, buy a house, come up that way. Mind your own business and don’t expect the gomen to take care of us Indians. We got to take care of ourselves.”
I’ll tell you one small secret. You keep it to yourselves, no need to carry tales round the whole town, can or not? Ha-ha! No need to ask also, I already know the answer: where can? For you bastards, keeping one story to yourselves is as hard as not scratching your arsehole when it’s itchy.
Take care of ourselves?” Kandan said. “That is all okay, but how are we supposed to take care of ourselves if every time we climb up one step the gomen kicks us down two steps? How is that when they want something from us they know how to take it? When they want our votes they start talking about Bangsa Malaysia, one country one race, and very nicely like goats we line up and vote for them year after year, BN BN BN.” The sweat started to come out from his forehead. He was wearing only a singlet that day, can see his muscles everything so clearly, because just before that I think so he was unloading boxes. Or maybe climbing on the ladder to take down more stock. Anyway, even he started sweating, even his muscles looking like going to burst also, he couldn’t control his anger. He just kept on going: “We Indians are in this mess because of that only, because for fifty years we have trusted this bloody gomen blindly, worshipped them, waaaah, as though working for this shithouse gomen is the greatest bloody honor a man can hope for, as though whatever crumbs they throw to us we must fall at their feet to grab. What have they really done for us? What?”
Mr. Kulasegaran from the eversilver shop adjusted his veshti and cleared his throat, ahem ahem ahem, but he didn’t say anything. Right in the back of the crowd somebody said “Hah! Did you all hear?” but I couldn’t see who it was. Slowly, the two uncles from the sundry shop who were forever sitting and complaining about the price of sugar and rice and gold started to nod together like two dolls.
“No answer?” Kandan went on. “You know why you got no answer? Because there’s nothing to say. They’ve done nothing for us. For one hundred and fifty years they’ve sucked us Indians dry, first the vellakaran and then the naatukaran who took over from them. They can force us to join their army but when an Indian girl dies at the training camp they spit in the face of her father.” He wiped his forehead sweat with the back of his hand and looked all around the shop. His brown eyes, I tell you, like got fire like that. Gold color. Sun color. Like a wolf he swallowed all of us whole with those eyes, and inside his burning stomach we could only hear his words, booming and echoing like they would never stop: “They bulldoze our temples and laugh at us when we cry. They take away Hindu children from their own parents. Their police beat our boys to death and then feed us bullshit like we were born yesterday, Your son committed suicide, dunno why lah, Your son died from asthma lah, oh you didn’t know he had asthma is it? And even our dead bodies they can snatch away just like that when they want, just to show us who is boss here, Sorry madam, your husband was actually Muslim, they tell the wife, you didn’t know but we know. And what do we do? We hide like mice and cry to each other. We—ah yes Uncle—we quietly-quietly do our work and earn money and pay taxes to a gomen that treats us like dogs. You want to go on doing that for the rest of your life, Uncle? You want your children and your grandchildren and their grandchildren to go on living like this until the end of time?”
By now even the beggars from the five-foot-way also came inside to watch already. Amba the flower-seller standing there with her vethelai mouth wide open, bright red, one tooth. Achudan from the music shop smiling so big like he just won first prize in the lottery. And behind them, wah, must have been thirty-forty people crammed into our shop just to listen to Kandan. Achudan started to clap, and one by one people joined him. One man in long-sleeved shirt and tie, doctor or lawyer or what I dunno, came forward. “Listen to this boy,” he said. “Just a shop assistant and he got more courage and cowsense than all of us put together.” Then he gave Kandan a good whack on the shoulder like as if his wife just had a baby boy like that. “Enough is enough,” the man said. “The boy is right. They can play us out for forty years, fifty years, but they can’t play us out forever. Why shouldn’t we too have our rightful share of this country? Don’t we deserve something after fifty years?”
Wah, after that Kandan became the great hero of Masjid India. What-what all happened because of that speech, I tell you also you won’t believe. Anyway why should I tell you? All you bastards like to talk, that’s one thing I’ve learned. Even you don’t know anything also you’ll simply make up stories. My father and mother always taught me, don’t talk bad about the dead, but other people don’t care, man. Everywhere you bastards are whispering kucu kucu kucu like you know everything. Somebody simply makes up one story, then slowly-slowly people repeat it to each other: It seems. They say. You know. Next thing it becomes the truth, no use denying it. From the jobless goondas in the mamak stalls to the Indonesian maids gossiping over their fence to the office workers getting paid to waste time, all say: Aiyah come on lah everybody knows.
So, you know so much means tell me lah. Tell me what really happened to Kandan. Cannot ah? Why suddenly so quiet?
Okay I’ll tell you one small secret. You keep it to yourselves, no need to carry tales round the whole town, can or not? Ha-ha! No need to ask also, I already know the answer: where can? For you bastards, keeping one story to yourselves is as hard as not scratching your arsehole when it’s itchy. Never mind. I’ll tell you anyway.
You know how everybody says Kandan never had a woman? Something funny about him, they say, so handsome but never went with a girl? Well shaddup your mouths and listen: that day itself, after Kandan finished his speech, one of those college girls we knew from the coffee shop near KL Sentral came straight to the back of my uncle’s shop to find him. Turns out she brought her mother and one vanload of relatives there for their Deepavali shopping that day, just to have an excuse to see Kandan. This girl’s name was Sheela. Some bigshot’s daughter lah of course. Hell of a bloody pretty, fair, tall, slim, everything. Sexy clothes, blue color contact lenses. But you look at her relatives only you know they were from Jinjang. Fat-fat women, noisy like chickens. One maami with the pottu on the forehead as big as a haw flake like that. The young girls with enough oil in their plaits to fry vadai. I knew lah, this Sheela’s mother must be the type who takes the poor relations shopping in KL every Deepavali to show how good and kind she is. For herself and her daughters I’m sure she’ll never come to Masjid India. I’m sure they’ll go to KLCC, Star Hill, dunno where-where else these people go. But for those ulu people Masjid India is good enough, isn’t it? They won’t know how to behave themselves also in KLCC. They’re lucky they’re getting all this for free, clothes, palaharams, housewares, where other people do so much for their families? You could see it on Sheela’s mother’s face, as clear as newspaper headlines: You all should be grateful. Standing there in her five-thousand-dollar saree, looking all around my uncle’s shop like as though the walls were covered in shit. Cannot even breathe, that woman. But the daughter—at once I saw she had her eye on Kandan. Of all things, a rich girl like that who can have any man she wants, right in front of her mother and all her relatives —
Okaylah not right in front. All the aunties all gone upstairs to look at sarees. Smart girl that one, she waited until they were all out of sight and she was left there with two-three idiot cousins, see their face also you wonder who comb their hair for them in the mornings, that type.
“Malar,” she called one of them, “why don’t you try on some of these Punjabi suits?” Even to her own relatives she was speaking in English. Tamil pullai, Tamil pesa theriatha? But I didn’t say it out loud. If she wants to act like a vellakari, that’s her own business what.
And then Malar, heehee haha covering her mouth as though the Queen of England just looked at her: “Okay Akka, thank you Akka.”
Malar went inside the changing room only, Sheela followed her there. Whole time I was standing outside, quietly folding one new shipment of kurtas. Nobody knew I was there. “Not bad, not bad,” I could hear Sheela say. “How about this one?”
Then all of a sudden, like she just thought of it like that: “Hey, whaddya think, ain’t this color more suited—“ I mean okay I dunno how actually she said it in her American way. I can’t remember. Cool, awesome, baby, totally, wanna dance? That’s how she talked. You think I’m joking but it was true. Gimme lemme gimme oh baby groovy I dig it. Ha-ha! If you never saw her before and heard her voice only, you’ll think she was a USA actress with a pushup bra and can-see-panties shorts. Damn action. But I could understand what she was saying to that Malar girl lah, no problem: Eh, this color better for me man! Let me try this one, move, move, let me try it. And just like that she sent the girl out to look for some more bright red suits for her. I heard her tell Malar: “Find that tall boy, you know that one with the brown eyes? Find him and ask him to bring some more like this.”
Quietly-quietly I folded my kurtas. I saw Kandan coming with one big armload of Punjabi suits, lenggas, dupattas. I saw Sheela’s head come out from the changing room, oo wah, one sexy bloody smile she gave him, blinking, holding the curtain so tightly like she was naked inside there like that. “Please,” she said, “could you help me with something?”
For a few seconds Kandan didn’t step forwards didn’t step backwards. He just stood there, holding all those clothes like in a dream. Lucky for him he got those clothes, I was thinking at that time, otherwise the whole world will be able to see his erection. Look at him swallowing his spit so hard like a small boy standing up in front of the class but cannot remember the answer.
Then he took three steps and he was inside the changing room. Outside in the corridor that Malar turned around and suddenly saw me. She looked at me, I looked at her. We didn’t say anything. The time that went by, I could have cooked a pot of rice. I still dunno how come nobody else came and found out what was happening. The aunties all nicely stayed upstairs. My uncle up there with them, pulling out saree after saree. The other cousins dunno doing what in the front of the shop. Strained my ears also I couldn’t hear anything from the changing room, because somebody went and switched the bloody music back on after Kandan’s speech, isn’t it? But I will tell you one thing: when Kandan came out his shirt was not tucked in anymore.
What for she want to come and march in the hot sun? Rich people like that, where they care how we poor people are suffering?”
Ha! Padan muka you. Say what you like about him lah, now! Virgin lah, pondan lah, whatever you want. But did you ever fuck a girl in a changing room like that, while her mother was upstairs? No means no need to talk big.
That day I knew Kandan was waiting only for me to ask him what happened. I could feel him just itching like that. So I purposely didn’t ask, until he cannot tahan anymore and he himself came and told me: “So in return for my favor, Sheela gonna come to the rally.”
“What rally?” I said. Purposely buat macam tak tahu. I dunno why, I was feeling a bit irritated with him actually. Impressed is one thing but—tsk, damn action lah the bastard. Some more I couldn’t help it, no matter how hard I tried also I just couldn’t get it out of my head, the picture of him—
“Tsk the rally I told you about lah,” he said, “what else? The HINDRAF one.”
“Hanh? What for she want to come and march in the hot sun? Rich people like that, where they care how we poor people are suffering?”
“That’s what I’m telling you only. Normally they won’t care, but I managed to hook her on my fishing rod.” He winked at me.
I didn’t answer. Just pushed past him with a big box and kept doing my work. Actually—to be honest—inside me I was starting to boil. At first I thought I was jealous. But then, the more I was thinking about Sheela, the more I knew I couldn’t be bothered about that bitch. That type of high-class no-shame no-brains pariah butthi ponnu, we got plenty in this country, why should I be jealous? I’ll tell you frankly, I was angry because—because—
Actually I can’t even explain now, but maybe it was something like this: I thought, I better save Kandan from this girl. Those who got money got power, isn’t it? I knew, if she wants him, she’ll find a way. And then what? You think a girl like that is going to take him to her house to meet her parents? They’ll take his horoscope to the astrologer, fix the marriage date? That type of girl knows how to play games, man. Even the rally itself is just another game for her. For all those rich buggers. Just another timepass: come and march for one hour and then go home to their aircondition house and pretend like they’ve done soooo much for the poor. And all she wants, that Sheela, all she wants is to show off to her friends, Look at this handsome cowboy I got straight from the kampung, look, he doesn’t know anything, cannot even speak English properly, ha-ha hee-hee, like a Tarzan just straight from the jungle he is, I’ve to teach him what to wear and how to eat with fork and spoon, but see his brown eyes, his big shoulders, see his straight nose and his muscles! Then very nicely after three months she’ll dump him on the roadside and turn around and marry one nice banker bastard her parents found for her, and then what will happen to Kandan?
Yah, that’s what I was thinking. Exactly that. Now I remember all right.
Thing is, I dunno why, even though I wanted to protect Kandan, I just couldn’t bear to go to the coffee shop with the gang after that day. They also must have noticed, because few of them came to my uncle’s shop one day just before the rally and pulled me aside. “What happened man?” they said.
“What happened?” I said. “Nothing happened. I just want to do my work and go home, that’s all. I don’t have so much money to waste in the coffee shop every weekend.”
“It’s because of Sheela ah?” one of them asked me. “Because of Kandan and Sheela?”
“What about Kandan and Sheela? Why should I care about them?”
They started to poke each other with their elbows. “Aiyo, our fren jealous lah. Our fren got feelings for the same girl.” “Maapulai quietly waited for the girl for months and now she gone with someone else man, how you’ll feel if it happened to you?” “Eh, don’t worry about that girl lah, got plenty of girls for you in KL.”
If they gave up after a few minutes and left me alone, I would never have touched them. But they kept on at it like small children poking a centipede with a stick—maapulai this maapulai that, our fren this our fren that—until I simply lost my temper. I tell you, suddenly I could only see colors inside my head. Red yellow orange red yellow purple red yellow red yellow, and my whole head was like one big siren, EEYON! EEYON! EEYON! and when I jumped forward I couldn’t even see who was in front of me or what I was hitting, and I didn’t even know who was shouting who was saying what who was pulling me off. Like that. Next thing I knew I was sitting in a chair in the back of the shop and my whole body was wet.
“Next time,” my uncle was saying, “I will pour two buckets of water on you. What you do in your free time is your own business. You’re a man, not a small boy. Who you want to mix with, what type of friends you want to have, all that is your choice. But when you make trouble in my shop then it becomes my business. I’m giving you one more chance. But one more time your friends come here and make trouble, I’m sending you back to your father’s house. Understand?”
What could I say except Okay uncle I understand?
What did I care what happened to Kandan anyway? Why, he was my brother ah? As if every minute I was sitting and thinking—I mean how he even knew what I was thinking or picturing?
And later that day when Kandan came and quietly asked me, “Eh, you interested in Sheela ah?” what could I say to him? Didn’t want to make him angry, but I also didn’t want to say too-too bad things about his girl, isn’t it? So I just said, “Don’t be stupid lah. You want that type of girl means you can have her.” I wasn’t going to say one more word.
But suddenly he said, “It’s not what you are thinking.” He even put his hand on my elbow, I can remember it, yah, his hand on my elbow, never before anyone was so—so kind—to me. “I just go along with it,” he said, “because this way is easier. Makes her happy, keeps her quiet. Otherwise, that type of girl, if she doesn’t get what she wants—difficult lah. Just more trouble only. That’s all. It’s not—not what you picture.”
“Oh,” I said. “Just to make her happy you went in the changing room with her? You yourself got no feelings for her? Don’t bullshit me lah. I only hope you know what you’re doing. That kind of girl is worse than a fox, worse than a wolf. When she chews you up and spits out the bones don’t come crying to me.” I pulled my elbow away and turned to go upstairs. What did I care what happened to Kandan anyway? Why, he was my brother ah? As if every minute I was sitting and thinking—I mean how he even knew what I was thinking or picturing? Whether she was sucking his cock every weekend or dancing naked for him, whether she went on top when they did it, or he went on top, or they did all types of Kamasutra acrobatics and somersaults and stood on their heads to fuck, what the hell did I care? As if I didn’t have better things to fill my head.
Suddenly I heard Kandan’s voice again, and I realized I was just standing there like a donkey, never even moved towards the stairs. “You will still come?” he was saying.
I didn’t say anything.
“You’ll still come to the rally? We need a big crowd, otherwise it’s no use. Let’s not let all this get in the way of the important things. Our silly fight shouldn’t be mixed up with our people’s struggle for justice.”
“What for you need me to come? You got Sheela, isn’t it? Ask her to bring her mother and father and all her relatives. Ask her father to pay ten thousand people to go and stand there. He can afford it.”
“Come on, Dhaya, think clearly. You can’t—”
“Why should I think clearly when you can only think with your dick?”
“We can only achieve anything if we stand together. Just like how the British played us out because we didn’t know how to stand together, today the naatukaran are taking advantage of us in the same way. Because each one of us can only think of himself, his own family, his own worries and wants, his own small life. I cannot force you to come. I cannot come to your uncle’s house and tie you up and drag you to the rally. I can only tell you the reasons once again. After that, it’s up to you.”
I thought to myself, wah, just like my uncle said, man, knows how to sweet talk people, this feller. Knows how to talk big and use people. I didn’t say anything.
“It’s up to you,” he said again. “I’ll leave it up to you.” Then he turned around and left.
You already know what happened, isn’t it, so why you sitting and waiting like doonggus with your mouth open, aaaaaaah, for me to tell you? You know I went to the rally. That morning I just got up, got dressed, and went, just like that. Dunno why. People say this and that—I already knew lah, I could sense it lah, I must have had a vision lah, dunno what all they say. After something happens everybody becomes an expert, but how come nobody can say it beforehand?
We were quietly sitting and drinking, suddenly those Malay bastards came and kacau us.
I met Kandan and the others at KL Sentral just like we planned. Our whole gang was there, all the fellers, Sheela and all the college girls. Sheela dressed up like going to a wedding. What, I wanted to ask her, you going for fashion show or protest? You care about the estate workers or you care about making Kandan’s cock dance inside his trousers? But I just kept quiet. No use making trouble. Quietly-quietly I followed them to KLCC.
I no need to tell you everything you read in the papers. Tear gas and water cannons, arresting-barresting, ah, bloody jokers man those police. Hell of a bloody hot some more that day, we felt like going to die like that. After the rally straight we wanted to go for a thanni session, damn thirsty for nice cold beer. But Sheela and the other college girls all went home, tired out lah, too much excitement already for them in one day, some more they were scared their parents will find out where they went and thrash them for running around with estate workers and laborers. So we fellers didn’t go to Brickfields this time, went to a coffee shop somewhere near Kampung Pandan there where the rest of the gang was staying. “Easier lah,” Kandan said. “Then after that if we want to stay the night there also we can stay.” Those fellers were renting one whole house together you see, got plenty of space for me and Kandan to tumpang if we too mabuk to go back home.
We were quietly sitting and drinking, suddenly those Malay bastards came and kacau us. First-first I didn’t even understand what they were saying. I was a bit innocent lah, thing is, I never had older brothers, in school also I was a good boy. All those dirty-dirty words all, sometimes I heard on the football field or in the bus, but I didn’t always know the meaning, simply pretended to know only because I was too shy to ask. Anyway Kandan himself said: “They’re trying to cause trouble, angry with us because of the rally, scared to let go even a bit of their Bumiputera Rights, so they’re simply saying whatever comes into their head. Just ignore them and they’ll leave us alone.”
So when they said pondan, mak nyah, peliwat, whatever, even what I knew the meaning also I purposely ignored. After a while, sure enough, just like Kandan said, they got bored and went somewhere else to make trouble. About midnight, we paid the coffee shop man and left.
What? What you think went on in that house? I don’t care what you heard and who told you, we went straight to bed that night. To sleep. Bloody dirty-minded bastards, all of you. My head was so full of beer—okay lah I admit I can talk big but I wasn’t like the others, I couldn’t tahan five six hours of drinking like that—even lying down also I was swimming I was dancing I was flying in the sky. Inside that house got one type of smell, because there only the fellers were drying all their clothes after washing, no place to dry outside. I remember lying down there on the floor, I could see all the clothes hanging over my head in the dark, big-big black shapes like kites, like owls, like monsters. The house was bloody filthy some more, what can you expect when fifteen twenty fellers share one house? On top of the wet clothes can smell oil from the kitchen, old fish curry, kitchen rubbish never emptied out for days. Chhi, I was thinking. Living like pigs. Selvam already lent me one sarong to sleep but I wanted to ask for another sarong to put over my head, that bad it was.
“What’s wrong?” Kandan was asking me in the dark. Whispering like a small boy with a secret. “Why you covering your face like a new bride?” He rolled over closer to me so that I could hear him, so close that I could smell the sweat in his hair and the beer drying in his mouth.
“Nothing,” I said. “Dirty smell, that’s all. Can’t you smell it?”
“Just close your eyes and try and sleep,” he said. “Once you fall asleep you won’t smell anything.”
He must have waited until he thought I was asleep, or maybe he was trying to check if I was asleep, I dunno, but out of the blue, after about five minutes, he said: “You want to know what Sheela did to me in the changing room?”
I laughed and pushed him away. “Don’t give me funny-funny dreams, I said. You yourself told me to sleep and now you’re trying to keep me awake. Like the mother who rocks the cradle and pinches the baby’s thigh at the same time.”
He also laughed. After that we were quiet. We must have fallen asleep, both of us, even with the dirty smell and the other fellers snoring and farting all over the place. Dunno what time it was when the stone came flying through the window. Later the neighbors said, two thirty, three o’clock. At that moment of course we didn’t check the time. The stone crashed through the glass and before I could think what was happening I heard the voices outside, Selvam shouting, some more glass breaking. In all the commotion not one of us thought to switch on the light. But outside the streetlights were shining brightly, so that I could see their faces: the same Malay buggers from the coffee shop, plus some more useless fellers they rounded up.
“You ingat kita orang tak tahu?” one of them kept asking. But the way he was standing, and his face, like a playful schoolboy like that. Grinning at us. We know everything, they kept saying. We know all what goes on inside this house. Disgusting Indian pondans. HINDU pondans running like babies to the BRITISH government for help with your stupid Standard Four petition. Crying to the Queen to help you, Oh, Mama Queen, please breastfeed us, please wash our backside, the Malays are bullying us! Of course pondans must always ask other people for help, got no balls to help themselves. HINDU means no balls. Yes or not? Yes or not?
Only when Kandan said, “Ya. Ya, betul,” I saw him. I think so he didn’t stand up fast enough when they came in. Because one of the Malay boys had put a knee on his chest, and in that boy’s hand there was a knife. Yah, a knife. On Kandan’s neck. First first when I saw it, I thought, No lah. Where this type of thing happens in real life? Cannot be.
Almost like he was reading my thoughts like that, the boy with the knife suddenly took his knee off Kandan’s chest and stood up. “Okay, good,” he said. “Good thing you understand. Easier for everybody. Now we can all go back to sleep.” In the white light I could see he was sweating. Maybe this part I imagined, maybe not: the hand holding the knife was shaking. “You orang keling don’t make trouble for us,” he said, “and we won’t make trouble for you. We’ll leave you alone to do all your sick things that you do in this house. We won’t tell anybody, don’t worry. You don’t stir up sensitive subjects and we won’t stir up sensitive subjects. Okay?”
This time nobody said okay, but the fellers must have been satisfied for the night because they just laughed quietly, and then they turned around and went. Just like that. Under their shoes the broken glass from the window went krak-krak-krak like sand.
When we could see them outside on the road we finally turned and looked at each other. Somebody switched on the light at last. And only then I saw Kandan holding his neck. Something jumped right into my own throat like a frog. I bent down next to him. “Kandan!” I said. “Did that bastard cut you?” But I myself couldn’t believe it. There was no blood no nothing.
He shook his head a bit. When he looked at me his eyes were—I can’t describe it to you. It was not the color or shape of his eyes that was strange, not anything that has a word. It was like—it was as if his eyes were moving further and further away, even though he himself wasn’t moving. “Can’t breathe,” he said. “Can’t.” Then he lay down. When I touched his skin it was already cold.
They didn’t have a phone in that house, and you know how neighbors are these days, isn’t it? Don’t want to get involved, don’t want to put themselves in any danger. Mind your own business, quietly-quietly do your own work, that’s everybody’s mantra. So nobody had even called the police when they heard all the noise. One of the fellers had to go and bang on someone’s door to make them call an ambulance.
What the doctor said is no news to any of you. You read it in the papers, isn’t it? In two seconds you would have finished the article and moved on. Two inches worth of words in the newspaper because that day there was no space for any other news except the rally, the rally, the rally, the Hindu troublemakers, the racist Hindus, trying to kill policemen, telling lies about Malaysia. So I’ll give you the good doctor’s details. “Sometimes it happens like this only,” he said. “No symptoms nothing, healthy young man, out of the blue, finish. Happened before, will happen again. Sometimes there’s a defect in the heart and nobody knows. Your friend was just unlucky. Could be stress. Could be the heat today. Could be, sorry to say, too much drinking. Could be shock. After all, being threatened with a knife…. What to do? At least you were all here with him at the end. At least he knew he was surrounded by friends. It could have happened when he was all alone somewhere. Or walking on the road among strangers.
Aah, easy for you to say, Doctor saar, I thought at that time. But now I think he was right. Isn’t it? Last thing Kandan felt was my hand on his chest. Could’ve happened anywhere anytime anyhow. Now I know a heart can just give up like that, even a young man’s heart. But it was me who was there at the end. Not strangers, not any of the other fellers, not that hypocrite Sheela who came to his karumathi and pretended to cry to get sympathy from other men. Crying pretty-pretty dainty-dainty into her handkerchief, trying to look like Aishwarya Rai in Devdas. So what? In the end she couldn’t have Kandan. If I wanted to know, he would even have told me what she did to him in the changing room. So she no need to think she got some biiiiig secret. In the end she’s not so special. Not that I want to know all that type of thing, of course not, why should I? But if I wanted it I could have had it. It could have been mine. And the part of Kandan that I got, that part, she can never have.
Preeta Samarasan’s first novel, Evening Is the Whole Day (Houghton Mifflin, 2008), was shortlisted for the Commonwealth First Book Award and long listed for the Orange Prize. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including A Public Space, Five Chapters, Asia Literary Review, and Hyphen. She currently lives with her husband and baby daughter in central France, where she is at work on a second novel.
The Long Day Wanes: A Malayan Trilogy by Anthony Burgess
Burgess manages to say things about race and class in Malaya that even now, fifty years later, are rarely being said in fiction. Sometimes it takes an outsider to see a place with the clear, cruel eye that makes for successful satire.
Eating Asia: On the surface, this is a food blog, but the writer and photographer—husband-and-wife team Robyn Eckhardt and Dave Hagerman—use food as a window into Malaysian politics, history, and culture with great subtlety and intelligence.
Sepuluh Tahun Sebelum Merdeka (Ten Years Before Independence) (2007, dir. Fahmi Reza): This award-winning half-hour documentary provides an alternative history—one that has been excised from the official account—of the path to Malayan independence.
The15Malaysia project: Fifteen short films by fifteen Malaysian filmmakers, dealing with contemporary socio-political issues.