“Do you want to play with us?”
He looked at them warily. He was used to being ignored. This was one of those playgrounds for rich kids after all. The ones who came in fancy limousines and who carried their own smartphones and credit cards even before they had sprouted pimples on their faces.
And yet, here they were. Three of them, two boys and a girl, staring at him with frank, appraising eyes. The girl was pretty. She couldn’t have been more than ten years old, exactly his own age, with strawberry curls and dimpled cheeks. The boys were similarly good looking, blond, fine boned with firm jaws. They would grow up to be dashing young men. Arrogant and entitled.
By Tan Kaiyi
This is my 3,184th New Year—or so I’ve counted.
I might have forgotten a few years along the way with all those bloody calendar changes: the Chinese, the Mayan, Julian and the Gregorian. There are definitely miscalculations but once you go past your 3,000s, who really cares? It’s funny when I hear some young ones complaining about how old they are in their 30s or 40s—hell, even 70s. Why would you want to live so long?
There’s nothing new under the sun. Not that I would know.
From the rooftop, I look at the windows of the opposite block. Most of them are dim. I’m guessing the flats’ occupants are out for the last night of revelry of the old year. The ones that are lit contain groups of friends and families, choosing a quieter and homely transition. Some are alone. An old woman is sleeping in front of her TV, the soft glow of the screen accentuating the wrinkles on her face. I feel a tinge of envy when I see them.
Curious about what she is watching, I attune my hearing to her flat. From the strains of modern Mandarin, Indian and Malay pop melodies, I come to understand that the TV is tuned to a countdown show.
Two floors down, I see a lady at her dining table. She drinks a glass of wine by herself. I scan her flat for heartbeats and I locate her son’s in his own room. I try to read her mind, capturing her scattered thought streams. From the pieces I put together, she married young to a Korean man she met at a conference. They bumped into each other in an elevator which malfunctioned halfway. They struck up a conversation while they waited for the repairman to get their lives going again. However, years into the marriage, they found their fiery temperaments too incompatible and they decided to live apart. He would fly back to Singapore, or she would fly to him in Korea, on occasions to keep the marriage alive. This arrangement allowed them to maintain their bond, and the semblance of a family for their son, who rarely speaks to her. Right now, she wonders what would happen if she had taken another elevator instead. She feels that it would have been the better path.
Title: The Best Asian Short Stories, 2019
Editors: Hisham Bustani (Series Editor: Zafar Anjum)
Year of publication: 2019
Links: Kitaab Bookstore
About: War, loss, love, compassion, nightmares, dreams, hopes and catastrophes; this is literary Asia at its best. From a wide range of geographies spanning from Palestine to Japan, from Kazakhstan to the Malaysia, mobilizing a wide array of innovative narrative styles and writing techniques, the short stories of this anthology, carefully curated by one of Asia’s prominent and daring writers, will take you on a power trip of deep exploration of local (yet global) pains and hopes, a celebration (and contemplation) of humanity and its impact, as explored by 24 writers and 6 translators, many of whom identify with many homes, giving Asia what it truly represents across (and beyond) its vast territory, expansive history, and many traditions and languages. This book is an open celebration of multi-faceted creativity and plurality.
Contributors:JOEL DONATO JACOB (Philippines); LANA ABDEL RAHMAN (Lebanon): RAZIA SULTANA KHAN (Bangladesh); DEENA DAJANI (Palestine); ALAN IRID FENDI (Syria); SAMIDHA KALIA (India); SCOTT PLATT-SALCEDO (Philippines); ANITHA DEVI PILLAI (Singapore); ANGELO WONG (Hong Kong); ODAI AL ZOUBI (Syria); SIMON ROWE (New Zealand / Japan); SEEMA PUNWANI (Singapore); VRINDA BALIGA (India); NAMRATA PODDAR (India / USA); T.A. MORTON (Ireland / Hong Kong); HAMID ISMAILOV (Uzbekistan); SUCHI GOVINDARAJAN (India); YD CHANG (China / Malaysia); JOLIN KWOK (Malaysia); IMRAN KHAN (Bangladesh); YAN TI (Taiwan); ZIRA NAURZBAYEVA (Kazakhstan); KAISA AQUINO (Philippines); JOSE VARGHESE (India)
Title: Scream to the Shadows
Author: Tunku Halim
Publisher: Penguin SEA
Year of publication: 2019
Price: SGD 14.50
Links if any: Penguin Random House
About: Unconfined to a single theme, this new collection of twenty short stories by Tunku Halim offers five distinct worlds—the paranormal mysteries from ‘The occult world’, with its dark settings reveal supernatural existences in the characteristic Halim style.
Translated by Cho Yoon-jung
I had been walking back and forth in front of the house for an hour already. But still I couldn’t knock on the door. Nothing conclusive had been found. With things turning out this way, even I found it hard to understand myself. Why was I so hung up on this unsolved case that I’d taken a day off to come here. Like a real estate agent, I was scouting the houses in the neighbourhood, as if I had nothing better to do. In this high-tech age, when most families relied on AI robots to play not only housemaid and babysitter but even lawyer, judge, doctor and fund manager, the lives of the people on the fringes continued to be as dismal as ever.
At the pocket park inside the neighbourhood hung a banner that reads: “Making Mt. Bukhan a global park.” The residents had responded by pulling down the walls. All the houses had been built so close together in the first place that even with the walls gone, a garden only the size of a picnic mat was left. But the clustered pots of marigolds, geraniums, and cyclamens were more than enough to wipe away the gloomy air of the neighbourhood. That small excess of loveliness, however, could not wipe away the uneasiness in my heart. This was one of those rare places in Seoul inhabited by people who tore down walls. Until recently K had been living here among them.
It was early on a Sunday morning, when I was fast asleep, that the discovery of someone’s SG was reported. It was after a night of tussling in bed with J and my body was limp. But when the phone sounded, shattering the dawn time peace, instinctively I reached for the SG lying next to the pillow. My tiredness vanished. A young girl shaking with fright was caught on the remote surveillance camera attached to the SG.
Ellen puts steaming bowls of soup on the table, while little May shows her granny some colouring she has done. But May really has eyes only for Eddie.
“You little coquette!” Ellen says, laughing. “Eat your soup before it gets cold.”
“So where do you work, Eddie?” asks Ellen’s mother, helping herself to an egg salad sandwich.
Egg salad sandwiches are Eddie’s favourite. With lettuce, just like this. His Mom used to make them this way, with onions and chopped pickle and not too much mayonnaise. And Ellen looks better than she did earlier, nicer hair. Kind of a chestnut brown, and the soft wave suits her.
What the hell’s wrong with me? Here I am, sitting at the table polite as can be, telling myself this creepo social worker’s not too bad looking, this stuck-up loser, as I grin and nod at her old bag of a mother. “And where do you work?” she asks me. Where the hell does she think? Who’s going to give Eddie Slocum a job? I mean, who am I going to work for; you think I’ll work for some jerk-off? Gofer this, gofer that?
A minute ago I was on my way out. For good, I mean. Jesus, I hate heights. That falling … But it doesn’t really go on all that long. You get used to it. After a few seconds everything goes black. Yeah. Nothing to it, once you get your feet wet.
The traffic on the Amity Causeway linking Singapore and Malaysia was especially heavy for a Thursday, which put Dennis Quek even more on edge. He took a deep breath as he approached the first entry point station, hoping that he could swallow any obvious distress signs that the inspection machine might detect.
Finally, Dennis reached the front of a long queue. His car was pulled automatically into the right spot before the inspection machine. The hazy blue light filled the whole car, followed by the voice of the machine. “One person in vehicle. A driver, no passengers.”
Dennis nodded. He then turned his head to the right, ready for the facial identification. This time it was the warm, lemony light that filled the front of the inspection machine. Dennis squeezed out an awkward smile, thinking this was best for the situation. The smile was starting to get uncomfortable when the machine finally announced the identification.
Book Review by Suvasree Karanjai
Title: Best Asian Speculative Fiction
Editor: Rajat Chaudhuri
Series Editor: Zafar Anjum
Publisher: Kitaab, 2018
Speculative fiction can no longer be dismissed as low-brow, trashy or pulp, or at the very least, unimportant and weird fantasy if one reads the collection edited by Rajat Chaudhuri, The Best Asian Speculative Fiction. To many readers’ surprise, this marginalised genre has lot to contribute philosophically to the dream of a technocrat’s world. The present age that can be well-described as an era of artificial intelligence (AI) is surely complementary to human intelligence developed with the purpose of mitigating our works in future. But the rise of AI and the philosophy of technocracy have, at the same time, given rise to multiple speculations regarding future of humanity — the fear of Frankenstein.
Speculative fiction is too large a subject to be represented exhaustibly in a book or a collection of Asian speculative narratives. The unique character of this specific genre lies in an impossibility to hold all its threads within a watertight definition. It encompasses several genres under its shed. Chaudhuri’s The Best Asian Speculative Fiction is indeed a suitable example of this broad compass. We are on an enchanting rollercoaster ride as we leap from one imaginative narrative to another coming from diverse authors from sixteen countries of Asia plus more diasporas.
Stephanie looked up at the corner of the kitchen. The dome was blinking again, but this time with a green light.
“No harm done.”
“I see you started cooking.”
Was that a hint of disapproval in her voice?
“Well yeah, I mean, I had no choice, you were taking longer than expected, and I just had to start first or else I would have no time before—”
“Stephanie, if you had waited, we could have saved eighteen minutes of preparation and cooking time. Furthermore, the spice level in your ayam buah keluak is too high for Sylvia Chan, and the amount of garlic too low for Siti Anissa.”
“How can it be too little garlic? I followed Mama’s recipe to the letter, the only thing I changed was to add sambal.”
“I tailor the recipe accordingly, depending on who you are cooking for. The taste preferences are shared with me by the Dianas of your guests.”
Ghost stories have always captured our attention… now we find them wander into the speculative genre. We find these stories in literature from giants like Rabindranath Tagore with his haunted palace in The Hungry Stones to modern online writers like Xu Yunfeng, Taiwanese writer Ho Ching-yao and Singapore’s own Russell Lee.
Recently in Taiwan, an attempt is being made to popularise this genre and assimilate it into pop culture. An exhibition on ‘Taiwanese Paranormal Literature and Contemporary Art’ is afoot in Taipei City till September 15 th. The curators tell us the aim of the exhibition: “We hope to help restore the paranormal to its former position of importance in Taiwanese culture.”
Little Fen’s funeral took place three days later. I walked woodenly among three dozen fellow villagers in a procession led by Widow Liu, accompanied by the sad tune of trumpet and suona horns. It was a cold spring day. The sun was shining without giving away much warmth.
It pained me to look at the mother of my deceased friend. A piece of white cloth tied around her head, like a bandage on a head injury. She was being supported on each side by a friend. Her grief had whitened her hair and aged her twenty years. And her thin form resembled that of a dried shrimp.
The funeral procession came to the village’s graveyard, which lay on a gentle slope of a mountain some twenty minutes’ walk from the village. Little Fen’s body was put to rest on the edge of it, next to a large plot with castor-oil plants. When the wind blew, millions of tiny castor seeds made disturbing noises. Black crows squawked, their cries echoing in the trees, like whimpers from those no longer able to speak.