Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Malaysia Notebook 1 & 2 December
The beautiful monastic guest house and the half-empty purse

I kept a pretty copious notebook on Malaysa last time, about sixteen nmonths ago (you could start from here and move back or forward) discussing politics, religion, culture, people and places. My intention is to continue as from there.

Population of Singapore c 55 million: population of Malaysia has just broken the 30 million mark. It's a shortish hop by plane (about an hour twenty) from Changi in Singapore to Subang in Malaysia. But for the occasional massing of clouds you can see what is below you. It is sea, river, lagoon, jungle, settlement, town, neat and lush palm oil farm, and red clay soil. Subang is a small airport but the difference from Changi is marked. Subang is pocket-sized, scrappier, more like a downmarket version of Luton Airport in England. The small plane is full and judders a little through the heavier cloud which, for the most part, is broken up and under us. They serve us a drink and a slice of cake which is more than Ryan Air does. People go to and fro for family and work reasons.

Eddin is there to take us to Bangsar Village where we are staying. It is a well-to-do suburb with concrete modernist houses. The drive through KL is not like the drive through Singpo. Singpo is ever neat and clear: KL has a more raffish look. From Singapore it looks dangerous. Maybe not just from Singapore. Other friends who were here in previous years have expressed great affection for the place but have also issued warnings. Nor do you need friends to do so when the very street signs in this comfortable, somewhat fashionable neighbourood point to the danger of bag snatching.

But this is Monday and after settling in to our ultra modern, beautiful and faintly monastic guest house in which we have a room  the rest of the place being empty but for Shiva, our Nepalese caretaker who must be spending much the most of his current life in the house. (Photos of the house will follow)

Eddin and Pauline call back in the car about 8pm to take us to supper with Karl, a young lawyer, and Khalid Jaafar, scholar and politican with a new appointment. This is a reunion of sorts as we met Khalid in Malacca last year, and Karl was a constant companion on last year's travels. Everything is a little late because of KL traffic. A strong yellowish light in Fierce Curry House. We are open to the street, the fan turning. The curry is not quite as fierce as the restaurant name suggests.

GS, Khalid J, Pauline, Karl, Eddin, Clarissa

Talk turns, as one might expect, to books, translation, the state of our various nations, extending to the triads and the Japanese yakuza. I find myself engaged and fascinated, both listening and talking. But we're a little tired now so are driven back to the beautiful monastery.


Now it is Tuesday. After a larger than necessary breakfast in a nearby eaterie we return to the room and wait for our daughter's good friend, who has lived here for four years, to take us for coffee as arranged. It is near the shopping complex just down the road. Her advice runs as follows:
  • Watch out for bag snatchers. 
  • Carry a spare half-empty purse even if you are in a car. 
  • Walk closer to the wall than the kerb because bag snatchers might be on bicycles or motorbikes.
  • Don't rely on the police. 
  • If you are driving don't use a filling station at night. 
  • Don't walk at night.
For all that she likes being here. She has grown very fond of it. She is not looking forward to leaving though her family will have to soon as her husband's contract runs out. It is just being streetwise and is more or less what the road sign was telling us. This, among other things, is what being raffish means.

Coffee is served by an exquisitely beautiful, delicate looking girl called Snow who greets our friend with genuine warmth. She has, our friend explains as Snow goes to get our coffee, a one year old son at home in Burma whose first birthday she could not attend because the agency who brought her here has confiscated her passport. This is pretty common and though her employer has tried to help her it's not much use going to the law. The girl returns, smiles and wrings her hands as she talks.  Her hands shift and fly and clutch. She is grateful that her customer asks her things and offers her affection and respect. Is she too cowed, too grateful, I wonder. Waiters at home don't behave like this. They are your equals who just happen to be waiters. Any day the situation could be reversed. Not here. Life presses down on the poor and is unlikely to lift its foot off their necks.

Migrant labour can be pretty much slave labour. But there's no need to feel superior about this. It happens in England too. I have seen it at first hand. It is a rarely acknowledged fact of life.


Later we go for lunch with our hosts,  Pauline and Eddin, two forces of nature. Both write columns for the press, both translate, both fight for threatened cultural causes; they establish magazines and publishing houses for translating world literature into Malay. Both are scholars of an imposing kind, Pauline more quietly but just as impressively. Eddin, who has several books on the go, is in perpetual motion around the world as speaker, lecturer, scholar, writer, historian, advocate. He has hardly been home for months. Pauline runs the show in Malaysia.

Our time together is an endless conversation: the same territories as before, but deeper each time with ever new elements drawn in. There is much personal history too: the dramas, eccentricities and expectations of parents and grandparents, our memories of public events and how they flowed around us. Conversation with them is as dynamic and wide ranging as they themselves are. It can switch from James Callaghan to Paul Celan and back again in minutes. It is exhilarating and touching at the same time.

I don't want to report too directly on conversations though. It always feels like a betrayal of confidence. As in Singapore I will try to give a flavour of things said, maybe a memorable phrase dropped here or there. The gist is that we all feel as though the world has entered a period of madness. For Eddin that period started in 1967, it seemed to me to begin in 1979. I have every confidence that he is right.

In Singapore you try to put your finger delicately on the pulse of social life. You have to seek the pulse out. Life is more sushi than fierce curry, more fresh fish than mutton. Here things are more overt. The subject is constantly in front of your eyes.

A few fragments from the high street bank of the imagination:

From the museum of misery. Two hands moving in the dark. The smell of wrung cloth. A rusting star. Miles of rough sea.
From the museum of misery. Three coins of negligible value. The pavement under the pavement. A tongue in a plastic bag. Rain scraps.
From the museum of misery. An impeccable uniform with change of cheap clothes. Consolations. Tin sheds. Rooms with teeth. A white smile.
Those at the bottom smile and hope to survive. They mount scaffolding, dig ditches, clean windows and serve, serve, serve.
Seasons? Hot and wet, or hotter and wet. Days merge into aeons, clouds gather and disperse. The powerful dispense their wisdom and piety.

Not exactly imagination. Today to travels. An island. A tribe. Details next time.


Gwil W said...

Be interesting to learn what the locals think about the missing plane MH370 and the circumstances of its disappearance and the search etc. including any views on the official pronouncements

Gwil W said...

MH370 is in the Austrian papers again today. Is there much in the Malaysian press about ongoing search or any new lines of investigation etc.? I wonder if they are being kept in the dark.