By A. Jessie Michael

The parcel arrived in a postal van and James’ wife, Doris, put it aside for James to return from work and open it. It was an annual ritual — its arrival and his opening of it. This cardboard box measuring one foot by one foot by ten inches, wrapped in brown paper, with colourful stamps all over the top right hand corner and cross-tied with twine, came all the way from Mathagal, James’ home village in the Jaffna peninsula to the North of Sri Lanka, by sea-mail, to Malacca in Malaysia, and it contained his very own piece of home.

Actually, two similar parcels arrived every year, the other one landing at the house of James’ brother Joseph in Singapore.  Joseph, naturally a little sardonic and less nostalgic about the contents, let his wife Lily open the box. Nevertheless he appreciated the efforts put in by their sister in Mathagal for sending them this parcel, with a whiff of their homeland. He made Lily  list each item in the box so that he would not forget them when he got Lily to write his sister a thank you letter in Tamil. His written Tamil was pretty rusty after near fifty years of disuse.

James came home at about 5.00 pm exhausted from office, saw his parcel and instantly his tiredness lifted. He hastily cut through the twine, tore off the brown paper and pried the box open, a boy-like delight showing on his face. A treasure-box of edible memories — fruits of the earth and sea!

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TBASS

“There’s no poison in this,” Grandma said.

The teacup rattled, sending spurts of black liquid onto the saucer. Grandpa grunted. He ignored the wafts of steam that curled out of the cup like fine strings floating in the air. He kept his eyes on the typewriter as his fingers drummed on the keys, weaving crisp black letters on paper. Grandma shook her head, knowing that there was no way Grandpa was going to inch away from the machine.

For as long as I could remember, it was the same routine every morning at ten. Grandpa, or Tok as my siblings and I fondly called him, would crouch on a stool in front of his butter-yellow Remington typewriter. He would take a Good Morning towel and rub the machine until it gleamed like Aunty Noh’s marble table. Satisfied, he would load a sheet of paper and turn the carriage knob. After adjusting the paper arms, he would set his fingers free to do the jig on the keys, competing with the sound of Grandma’s ladle on the wok as she busied herself in the kitchen.

TBASS

We studied the extensive menu, which listed both international as well as local cuisine. Joe and I were fast decision makers when it came to selecting our dishes. Joe settled on rice with Crispy Catfish in Chili Paste and a side order of the ubiquitous tangy Green Mango Salad to share, while I chose rice with Red Curry of Roasted Duck, a dish Joe had suggested after describing it as a bracing Thai classic combining tender roasted duck with a perfect blend of spices, coconut milk, and pineapple. The food arrived within ten minutes of ordering, and was excellent in both presentation and taste. My duck curry surpassed Joe’s mouth-watering description. I complimented Joe on his recommendation. His quiet response was “I’m happy you liked the duck.”

Food aside, what do you talk about with a charming Thai man whom you have just met on his home turf? A lot, apparently. I told Joe about my job, and he pressed me to tell him more about the documentaries I had shot from Singapore to Bangkok. As I had at least a dozen documentaries under my belt in Singapore but only one in Bangkok, I gave Joe capsule highlights of my work. He seemed impressed. It was now Joe’s turn to talk about himself. His voice was even and fluid as he told me about his student days majoring in

TBASS

 

Mirah—

Here there is so much paranoia. They are angry and afraid that the colonial powers will keep coming and they will never stop. They say that the peninsula is just a puppet nation, run by the British imperialists and greedy conglomerates…In Sumatera, at least, I am far away from Jakarta. There the soldiers and the Islamists and the Communists are going to kill each other one day. But for now I am in Medan, where I can stay with people I trust.

Our ancestors came from here, they say. This is where all our stories began. The name ‘Melayu’ itself: In old dictionaries it meant ‘to flee’. In that sense we’ve always been wanderers, sojourners in the archipelago. But how much of that do we remember today? Does any of it still matter to us, in an age of atomic weapons and satellites?

How much I miss Malaya. I never saw much of it after I was taken to prison. Five years of prison, kept in filthy cells, where they beat us if we tried to talk to each other. Funny how many whispered stories still passed through the walls of Pudu, keeping us angry and alive. And then they told me that I had a choice of more years in prison, or I could go to Indonesia to join the rest of my people. How I laughed when they said that, how they forget that this region is a mixture of faces: There is the Malay, the Bugis, the Javanese, the Sulawesians, even the Chinese. In Medan I am close enough to home that on some days, when I drive to the coast, I imagine I can see the peninsula on the other side of the Strait. But I cannot cross it.

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Half a decade after the Japanese invasion, Malaya was wising up. Malayans did not believe that their colonial masters were their saviours anymore. Everyone was talking about independence and everyone was laughing a lot these days.

People seemed to be in a hurry. Office workers, in long dark baggy trousers and long sleeved starched cotton shirts, wove through pedestrians, scurrying on their shiny new bicycles, ringing their bells. The cyclists appeared to be annoyed by the slow-moving bullock cart with lethargic bulls sauntering along the tarmacadam roads swishing their tails rhythmically in the tropical heat of Penang. Honking in the background on the island’s little street were the Morris Minors and the Austin multi-purpose vehicles, the latest additions to the city landscape. Oblivious to the vexation they were causing, the pullers of the bullock cart batted their lush eyelashes, seemed to mutter something into their chest and continued to drag their load at their own leisurely pace.

Penang Island did not want to be left behind. Penangites of all races — Malays, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians — seemed to be of one heart trying to rebuild their town as they said it had been. The world had modernised and they wanted to keep pace. The men from the East were no liberators but squanderers of wealth. Now, the British had returned to resume pilfering the lion’s share of their loot.

TBASS

 

It was not always easy for John to understand Zoe’s English, but this time all he had to do was to look where she was pointing.

In the middle of the track was a large otter, standing on its hind legs. It was looking in their direction. John and Zoe, unable to move lest they disturb the creature, kept quiet. After some minutes, another large otter bounded from a pool to the right of the track, slowly passed across the track and into another pool on the other side. It was quickly followed by a troop of much smaller otters hastening across the track. When all the others had vanished into the pool, the guarding otter followed suit.

“Well, it’s the first time I’ve seen an otter traffic warden,” said John, as they both fell about laughing.

The sandy track became more defined as a road and, as the jeep climbed to the top of yet another hillock, before them lay a series of three huge, interconnected dredge holes. They had become filled with water; around them were trees and bushes. The expanse of water seemed to stretch for at least a couple of kilometres. Green islets, dotted here and there, added yet more mystery to that already intriguing expanse of water.

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

state of emergency

 

Title: State of Emergency
Author: Jeremy Tiang
Publisher: Epigram Books, 2017
Number of pages: 245

Jeremy Tiang’s State of Emergency won 2018’s Singapore Literature Prize (SLP) for fiction. Kate Griffin, one of the judges for the award, wrote in an article, “Erasing Histories” (https://nationalcentreforwriting.org.uk/article/erasing-histories/): ‘State of Emergency, Jeremy Tiang’s beautifully written first novel, highlights a lesser known side of Singaporean history, exploring the leftist movements and political detentions in Malaysia and Singapore from the 1940s onwards, through the stories and memories of an extended family.’

Focused mainly within the local and Malayan Chinese community, the Communist movement found refuge in the jungles of Malaysia. The novel traces the development and then the quelling of this movement through the stories of three generations of Jason Low’s extended family. Jason’s wife, Siew Lee, chooses Communism over her family and leaves for the jungles of Malaya, partly to save herself and partly to live by her beliefs. Jason loses his sister in the 1965 Konfrontasi terrorist bomb blast in MacDonald House where she worked in a bank. The Konfrontasi was an Indonesian reaction to oppose the colonial decision for the formation of a separate Malaysia (of which Singapore remained a part till August 1966). These political movements in the ASEAN rip through the fabric of the Low family, tearing it apart.  Though his daughter continues to work as a Singapore government official, his son leaves him to immigrate to the United Kingdom and Jason Low finds himself in a ‘C’ class geriatric ward.

His dreams were still nascent. Titi told Mama that he wanted to be a zoologist. He elicited quiet fulfilment from watching chameleons catching stick insects with their tongues and gulping them whole and ostriches campily gorging star fruits. Mama said that he should stow his dreams for later and wait for the dough to leaven; for the yeast in his mind to breathe and bloom, for him to turn plump, ready to be baked. He chuckled.

And he watched, quietly (well not really), as she plucked the fruits of her dreams. His hands hovered over the preheating oven, despite his mother’s constant reproach. She kneaded cottony dough with her gnarled but tender hands and folded it into itself. The furrow blended seamlessly and disappeared, before she wrung the dough to fold it again. The scattered flour he tried to swipe surreptitiously with his finger. Powdered sugar, he thought as he sneaked a pinch into his mouth. It exploded in his mouth as he puckered his lips, never to permit flour onto his sensitive taste buds again.

Beads of sweat lingered on Mama’s skin as she kneaded and kneaded in the kitchen, with its windows open to the sun-baked outside. Cracked streets and faded sign paints littered about as Aunty Norma, her head covered in a batik tudung of teal and navy blue, doled out nasi lemak, wrapped in newspaper, to passers-by on their way to the bus stop hidden in the far corner of the road. The oven emanated even more heat waves, preparing for the dough’s entrance. Soon, the dough, coated with glistening egg yolk, would bloom. It would turn crisp and fluffy, like a pillow waiting to be pinched and pulled. The boy salivated as he thought about the savoury patches of salt and butter that would soon linger on his tongue. The yolk sheen reminded him of lumps of peanut cookies with their brown egg coats on top, baked by Mama during Chinese New Year; the pasty lumps that crumbled in the boy’s mouth, unlocking sweet, savoury and a child’s gaiety. The boy could not wait for Mama to fire up the ovens for the next batch of CNY cookies again. Few more weeks and he would have school off, with nothing but he and the food.

Mama looked at the little plump 7-year old and smiled as she wiped off her sweat with the apron. Her smile faded as she considered her son’s dreams. She turned to start the laundry.