Monday, October 01, 2012

Flight MH72

Flight MH72 by Krish Ram

Susan has managed to find an empty table after hovering around a couple with large Coke in one hand and a bag of french fires in the other, and waiting for them to leave, at the McDonald’s outlet at the departure lounge of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

She looks around her as she nibbles on a piece of deep fried spud, feeling lonely seeing all those others who have come to send off families and friends but, at the same time, she’s glad that she’s alone. Her children are in school, and know that she’d not be home when they return in the afternoon in the same bus, for they are aware that she's leaving to Hong Kong for a job.

“Two years? Why so long? Can we come and visit? Hong Kong has Disneyland, you know?” Mei Ling is only seven. Kar Jin, her boy, who is fast becoming a teenager at nine, had simply shrugged like he knew everything, but didn’t. Or, did he?

We’ll see, darling, she had said, giving her a hug and a peck on her cheek and turning away quickly as she fought back tears, whilst pretending to shout out homework instructions to her son who was already on his way out to the bus-stop. She had cried miserably after they left, while her husband watched her wordlessly from the living room couch. At least, he had lowered his newspapers.

Only her husband knew, and she had had his approval, not that it mattered much. It had not been his idea and had hardly offered an opinion. He had increasingly withdrawn into himself ever since the restructuring exercise in his company. It was a choice between taking a pay-cut and voluntary retirement. He had chosen the latter, and it didn’t take him long to understand what the 8% national unemployment figure meant. He had too much pride to take a job that paid less than his earlier one. That was three years ago, and he has not worked since.

Susan thought she should have seen the signs. She had wondered about the increasing numbers of ‘Bank Lelong’ notices along the roads around Bangsar, written with marker pens on packing-box cardboard, and stuck to lampposts. She had once said to her husband that they should seriously think about using these bank auctions as a means for home upgrading. He had smiled and remained silent. Then, she started noticing the notices in banks, too. She once took a hefty printout, and browsed through it while waiting for her number to be called by the teller. She had been mildly surprised at the number of houses being foreclosed. She had shuddered, and had been glad her family was not part of that statistic. “Poor things,” she had thought. “Where will they live?”

To be honest, she had never understood when friends talked about ‘the economy tanking’, although she had shown sufficient concern, nodding and agreeing vigorously when they talked about the bursting property bubble, or the crashing stock market, or unemployment figures, or the plunging ringgit. To someone like her, who’d been a home-maker most of her adult life, these were mere numbers that existed in a parallel universe, like video-game scores. Sometimes it would get heated, particularly when they discussed politics, at which point Susan would quickly go into her kitchen and return with nonya kueh she had bought from the auntie outside TMC that morning. “ Anyone for kueh bengkang?”

Then they got a notice from the bank. Her husband had not paid the mortgage instalment for almost two years; nothing, since he lost his job. Maybe there were other notices that she had not seen. She doesn’t know why she had opened that letter, because it’s not like her to open her husband’s mail. She had slit open the envelope and had started reading it absent-mindedly before realising it was addressed to him.

They had argued that night. Well, she did. Him, not so much, his stony silence saying everything. Then, she had sobbed for a long time, thinking of all the worst-case scenarios. He said calmly that they should sell the house. She had argued and sobbed some more at that. It was almost paid for, she had cried. “We can’t repay the mortgage any more,” he had said. “I don’t have a job.” Well, if you were not so damned stubborn she had wanted to say, but had bit her tongue. He had worked so hard for so long before. They had been living on his savings all this while, he had said. He had not serviced the housing loan because he had not wanted to affect their lifestyles.

“What were you thinking? What happens when we run out of money?”

That's what happened, finally. The house was sold at an auction; they got some money back after the bank did the sums, and they rented a seven-hundred-square-foot flat in Taman Desa.

She thought she’d get a job; she did have a masters degree in English Literature from the University of Malaya, after all. She tried running tuition classes. She got a few students, but only made enough money only for utility and grocery bills. There were far too many unemployed graduates, and they were all running these classes. Schools were not hiring; not even kindergartens. She was willing to work as a clerk or a secretary, but she got no calls for interviews. She was over qualified for them, they said when she inquired. The unemployment figures were now at 9% and rising. No one had expected it to get so bad so quickly. Meanwhile, they kept eating out of their piggy bank. Once, she thought she was desperate enough to flip burgers at the local MacDonald’s, but her pride would not let her. What if I’m seen, she had thought.

Then, she saw the advertisement by an agency. She applied for the position, a job overseas. She was desperate. She was interviewed, and selected. The pay was good; almost RM3000.00 plus when converted back. But she didn't speak Chinese. The agency told her not to worry about anything; they’d be given training and language lessons before they left. It was also the agency that suggested she changed her name to Susan from Wei Fern. It was easier to say and remember it, they said.

So, here she is in the airport, waiting for her flight to Hong Kong. She had chosen to fly on her own by Malaysia Airlines. Let me at least save a little of my dignity, she had decided. The others were travelling in a group on a budget airline, but Susan was afraid someone might see her. We’ll meet in Hong Kong, she had said, lying to them about some prior commitment.

“Malaysia Airways flight MH72 to Hong Kong is now ready for boarding. All passengers are requested to proceed to Gate C11 immediately,” she hears over the PA system. She sees some people grab their bags, and their children; some hugging, some kissing. She decides to wait out the rush.

Finally, on the third announcement, she gathers her bags and heads to the immigration counters to begin her two year contract as a domestic maid in Hong Kong. The couple have two children and I have a masters in English; maybe I could be their governess, she’d think sometimes, before real visions of toilet brushes, scrubbing pads and mops crowded her mind, and a sob ran up her throat. Anyway, she has decided tell that to her friends on Facebook and that she’ll mainly teach English to little Chinese brats in a palatial home on the island. I’m sure they have a big home.

It was only three years ago that she had had her own live-in Indonesian maid in Bukit Damansara. She remembers how she had complained to her neighbour when her husband took the maid to Pantai Hospital for treatment when she collapsed suddenly.

“No need to waste so much money, mah,” she had told Mrs Khoo. “She's only a servant, what?”

She, suddenly, stops in her tracks. “Oh my God; what if they beat me?”

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Blood-thirsty vegetables

(This a story from the next book [no. 4] in the Silverfish Malaysian Classics series called Malaysian Fables, Folk-tales & Legends)


Once upon a time, Jagong, the maize-plant, made boast and said, “If rice should cease to exist, I alone should suffice to sustain mankind.” But Dagun, the liane, and Gadong, the jungle yam, each made a like boast and, as the parties could not agree, the case was brought before King Solomon.

Said Solomon, “All three of you are perfectly right, albeit it were perhaps better that Jagong should sustain mankind because of his comrade-ship with Kachang, the bean.”

There at the wrath of Dagun, the liane, and Gadong, the yam, waxed hot against Jagong, and they went off together to hunt for a fruit-spike of the jungle fig-tree [libut] whereon to impale him, but found none. And, meanwhile, Jagong hearing news of their quest, set to work to find arrow-poison. And, when he had found it, he poisoned Gadong therewith (wherefore to this day the jungle yam has narcotic properties). Then Gadong, the yam, being wroth thereat, speared Jagong in turn (wherefore, to this day, the cobs of maize are perforated). And Jagong, reaching out in turn, seized the pointed shoot of a wilang stem and wounded Dagun therewith.

At this juncture, the parties to the quarrel went before the Prophet Elias, who said, “This matter is too great for me, take ye it before Solomon.”

And Solomon said, “Let them fight it out between them, that the rage of their hearts may be appeased.”

Wherefore, there was battle between them for twice seven days. Now Mata Lembu, the ox-eye tree, stood nigh to watch the battle and its skin was grazed by bullets (whereof its bark still shows the scars). But the perachak shrub on the other hand was filled with fear and, instead of drawing nearer in order to see the battle, it stood upon tiptoe (wherefore it still grows long and lanky). But Andram, the sedge, was the most afraid and ran to a place afar off, but as it still heard the noise of battle it plunged into the river (wherefore to this day it grows over the surface of water).

And when the twice seven days were ended, the battle being still undecided, the combatants were parted and a space was set between them by Solomon. And Gadong, the yam, made he to sit down and Dagun, the liane, to lie down. But Jagong, the maize-plane, and Kachang, the bean, he made to stand together.

Monday, July 02, 2012

The Epic of Bidasari

Easily the most charming poem of Malayan Literature is the Epic of Bidasari. It has all the absorbing fascination of a fairy tale. We are led into the dreamy atmosphere of haunted [a] palace and beauteous plaisance; we glide in the picturesque imaginings of the oriental poet from the charm of all that is languorously seductive in nature into the shadowy realms of the supernatural. (Below is part of Song 1 of 6.)

(Metrical Translation by Chauncey C. Starkweather, A.B., LL.B.)(1901)


Hear now the song I sing about a king
Of Kembajat. A fakir has completed
The story, that a poem he may make.
There was a king, a sultan, and he was
Handsome and wise and perfect in all ways,
Proud scion of a race of mighty kings.
He filled the land with merchants bringing wealth
And travellers. And from that day’s report,
He was a prince most valorous and strong,
Who never vexing obstacles had met.
But ever is the morrow all unknown.
After the Sultan, all accomplished man,
Had married been a year, or little more,
He saw that very soon he’d have an heir.
At this his heart rejoiced, and he was glad
As though a mine of diamonds were his.
Some days the joy continued without clouds.
But soon there came the moment when the prince
Knew sorrow’s blighting force, and had to yield
His country’s capital. A savage bird,
Garouda called, a very frightful bird,
Soared in the air, and ravaged all the land.
It flew with wings and talons wide outstretched,
With cries to terrify the stoutest heart.
All people, great and small, were seized with dread,
And all the country feared and was oppressed,
And people ran now this way and now that.
The folk approached the King. He heard the noise
As of a fray, and, angry, asked the guard,
“Whence comes this noise?” As soon as this he said
One of his body-guard replied with awe,
“Illustrious lord, most merciful of kings,
A fell garouda follows us about.”
The King’s face paled when these dread words he heard.
The officers arose and beat their breasts.
The sorrow of the King was greater still
Because the Queen was ill. He took her hand
And started without food or anything.
He trusted all to God, who watches o’er
The safety of the world. The suff’ring Queen
Spoke not a word and walked along in tears.
They went by far campongs and dreary fields
Beneath a burning sun which overwhelmed
Their strength. And so the lovely Queen’s fair face
From palest yellow grew quite black. The prince
Approached the desert with his body torn
By thorns and brambles. All his care and grief
Were doubled when he saw his lovely wife
Who scarce could drag herself along and whom
He had to lead. Most desolate was he,
Turning his mind on the good Queen’s sad lot.
Upon the way he gave up all to her.
Two months they journeyed and one day they came
Unto a campong of a merchant, where
They looked for rest because the Queen was weak.
The path was rugged and the way was hard.
The prince made halt before the palisades,
For God had made him stop and rest awhile.
The Sultan said: “What is this campong here?
I fain would enter, but I do not dare.”
The good Queen wept and said: “O my beloved,
What shall I say? I am so tired and weak
I cannot journey more.” The King was quite
Beside himself and fainted where he sat.
But on they journeyed to the riverside,
Stopping at every step.

(The Epic of Bidasari will be available in the middle of July 2012 at all major bookshops.)

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Marong Mahawangsa (an extract)

(This is an extract from a forth coming title from Silverfish Books, Marong Mahawangsa, that we have edited to make it more accessible to the modern reader -- but without changing too much of the old style of language -- and cross referencing with other books covering the same periods for improved coherence. The original author, of this tale of Homeric proportions, is unknown but the current is, largely, based on a translation by Lt Col James Low in 1849 in The Journal of the Indian Archipelago.)

The voyage and shipwreck of Marong Mahawangsa

The work begins with praises of the Prophet Suliman, or Solomon, “to whom the dominion of the whole world and every living thing in it was entrusted by God.”

There was a Raja of Rum who despatched an ambassador named Raja Marong (Maha) Wangsa to China in order to negociate a marriage betwixt the prince, his son, and a daughter of His Chinese Majesty. This ambassador traced his lineage from the inferior gods. His father was descended from the genii, and his mother from the devadeva, or demigods. He was a great raja amongst the many rajas who had been assembled by the king on this occasion, and he moreover wore a diadem.

Raja Marong Mahawangsa had married, contrary to the wish of his parents, a girl whose father was a girgassi raja and whose mother was descended from the rakshasa. Whereever he went, he took her with him as he feared the grandees of the [Persian(?)] Court who dreaded his preternatural powers.

After the war of Rama, the island of Lankapuri became a desert and fell under the rule of the mighty bird, Girda(Garuda), which however had previously harboured on the island. He was a lineal descendant from Maha Raja Dewan and he was strong in battle, of supernatural power and dreaded by animals, reptiles and birds.

It happened that the bird, Rajawali, paid a visit to Girda, and asked him if he had not learned that the King of Rum intended contracting a marriage betwixt his son and a princess of China although these two countries lay wide apart and that, on account of the distance between them, a fleet of vessels was to be despatched from Rum to convey the royal lady from China. Girda replied that the old Crow had already given him this information as he had seen the gift bearing embassy on its way to China. Girda further observed that the King of Rum would most likely fail in this attempt to display his power and consequence to distant potentates.

“Have a little patience, Rajawali, I will instantly fly off and pay my respects to the Prophet Suliman (Solomon) whose superhuman wisdom has exalted him over all the other kings of the earth, and whose prime minister is Hurmanshah. His Majesty will, assuredly, interdict the King of Rum from negociating such an alliance.”

Girda having reported to King Suliman the state of affairs, His Majesty observed that when a prince and princess are once betrothed, it is not an easy matter to break off the alliance. Girda, not satisfied with this remark, swore that he would abandon the haunts of men and cease to wheel in the heavens, should he fail to effect their separation. The king said, ‘Very well, let me know the result.’ Girda now soared aloft on his dusky pinions and speedily reached China. He here alighted in a garden where the princess, attended by her foster mother and an attendant, was gathering flowers. Girda instantly lifted the three into the air, one by his beak and the two others in his talons, and carried them over the sea to Lankapuri where he protected them, and supplied the princess with every delicacy she desired.

The Sultan of Rum gave a large buhtera, or ship, to his chief, Marong Mahawangsa, for the accommodation of the prince, and another for himself and his people, for the voyage to China. To these were added many smaller vessels for the suite. The fleet sailed on a fortunate day and, as it went along, touched at all the ports which were then under the empire of Rum, the embassy receiving, at each of these, the accustomed marks of respect. At length, it entered the Sea of  Hindustan and beheld its wonders. Then, coasting down that continent, the fleet anchored occasionally in the bays of the islands where the people sought for shell-fish, fired guns and, otherwise, amused themselves.

After a while, it reached the mouth of the Changong River where reigned Raja Galungi, or Kalungi.

Girda, bent on his plan of frustrating the expedition, here raised a violent storm of wind and rain, thunder and lightning. He was beheld high in the air, casting his vast shadow over the fleet. The prince and the ambassador directed their men to shout and to fire guns, and discharge enchanted arrows at the direful bird who, wild with rage, had taken up his position to the westward of the fleet. Marong Mahawangsa now strung his bow, or busor, and adjusted to it the arrow called Ayunan. The common arrows and shots, merely, glanced off Girda’s feathers, but this enchanted one put him to flight. This, however, was only effected with the loss of three of the vessels. Girda had, before this, shifted from the West, and hurled another tempest on the vessels from North to South. Thus was Girda, for the present, driven off by the potency of the arrow Ayunan, which has its point tipped with red, as if with fire, and which ascended towards Girda with a noise like that of a tufan, interposing betwixt the latter and the ships a mountain barrier. The remaining ships cast anchor that night to see if Girda would return but, as he had fled to the forests on the shore, they weighed next morning and set sail southwardly.

After a voyage of some days, the ships reached Tawai River where it disembogues into the sea.

The fleet had scarcely arrived when Girda again appeared, sending a tempest before him of rain, thunder and lightning. The two vessels of the prince and ambassador were anchored close together, and the other ships were stationed around them and kept ready with their arms. Marong Mahawangsa, having seized his bow with the arrow named Bratpura, with its point flaming with fire, and having stood out on the gunwale, off shot the arrow towards the sky. It sped with a loud noise and, in its descent, dispelled the tempest. But, notwithstanding the innumerable flights of arrows, and the constant firing and shouting of the sailors, Girda contrived to carry off three more vessels for he was invulnerable to all these missiles. So, after a short respite, he returned to his work of destruction as before.

Again Marong Mahawangsa sent the arrow, Bratpura, at him, which he avoided and it thus fell into the sea. Whereupon, Girda snatched away three more ships in his beak and talons, and soared aloft with them. Thus, six vessels were lost with all their crews. On the ensuing day, as Girda did not appear, the remnant of the fleet set sail in its now dismantled condition, having had twelve ships with all their crews destroyed. The fleet soon after got to  the port of Mrit.

But here, at Mrit, it was again assailed by a furious storm, which darkened the heavens and shook the timbers of the ships, brigs, and gallies. Marong Mahawangsa resorted to the former expedient and, having got upon the top of the stern, drew his bow called Prasa Sampani Gambara and shot his flaming arrow, saying, speed arrow and slay Girda. But, Girda avoided it by making it glance off his plumage. Enraged, he pounced upon three more of the ships and vessels, and carried them off as he had done with the rest, in spite of the firing and shouting of the crews, for these vessels were also destroyed. Raja Mahawangsa, in a furious passion, shot another arrow towards the heavens, whereupon the arrow was changed into a bird named Jintayu, which gave chase to Girda. But, Girda vomited fire on Jintayu and consumed him. Girda, now, kept aloof in the mountains, dreading the supernatural endowments of Marong Mahawangsa. Next morning, the remnant of the fleet sailed away from Mrit and, after some days, came in sight of Salang, in the sea called Tappan. Here, having cast anchor abreast of the island, the ambassador sent a party on shore to ask permission of the chief, or raja, to wood and water, but the prince’s vessel with other ships stood on down the coast by rounding the point of the island.

About a day and night after the prince left Salang and was making for the island of Lankapuri, Girda espied his ships and perceived also that Marong Mahawangsa was not come up, so he attacked them with redoubled fury and sunk the whole; the men who were drowned far exceeded in number those who were saved alive. Fortunately, the Prince of Rum got hold of a plank and floated to Lankapuri. In the meanwhile, Marong Mahawangsa’s ship arrived at the spot of the shipwreck and picked up the survivors who were floating about.

Marong Mahawangsa was excessively grieved at the loss of the prince, especially as he felt himself responsible for it to the Sultan of Rum. But after a vain search, he sailed in his vessel, the only remaining one, to the eastward.

Keeping along this coast of the continent, Marong Mahawangsa arrived at a bay and a point of land. He inquired of an old malim (captain), who was in his ship, if he knew the locality, who said, “The large island we have reached is now becoming attached to the main land and its name is Pulo Srai (or Sri, my lord). That small island which Your Highness sees is named Pulo Jumbul, and that other, more inshore, is Pulo Lada.” On hearing this, Mahawangsa expressed himself satisfied and added, if such be the case, let us anchor. The vessel was then moored in the east of the bay, near to, or at the point of land, on the main shore; that is, the land more extensive than that large island.

Raja Marong Mahawangsa then went on shore, attended by his chiefs and followers.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Movie mania

The Translator (a story from the King of the Sea) by Dina Zaman

Rosli had just finished teacher training, and had come back to his hometown. He wanted to live, teach and die there – never really took to the big cities like Johor, Bandar Melaka and Kuala Lumpur. It was enough what his kampong offered: a school, the sea, his friends, and family, and on a monthly basis, there was entertainment in form of makyong, silat, gamelan and now, the cinema.

Films had finally arrived in his kampong (Name: Kampung Tokku Mangkok; Demographics: 3000 pax, predominantly Malay; Industry: fishing) when he was studying in Johor. His mother had written to him, to tell him that, “… kampong kita dah maju… sekarang kami pun ada wayang macam kat bandar…”

What he loved the most was lying on his mattress and looking out to the jungle across his home. Tall, black and reedy trees with branches reaching out to the sky, and the sound of the breeze dancing through the long wild grass in the jungle always accompanied his daydreams. One day he could be a millionaire, the next, he was a pahlawan with a maiden he’d be ravishing behind a shrub. Sometimes he was a great singer too.

It had been his habit since he was young - looking out to the trees and fantasising about a better, colourful life than he had in reality. Even the colours of the sky changed! If he frowned hard enough, everything would be exactly what he had in his head, but if his mind wandered; his dreams had soft edges to them. A frequent colour which teased his dreams was bright pink which danced and tangoed its way before fading into pale blue.

He had always lived in his head. When he was in primary school, cycling to school with his late father, the trip through the jungle was made easier by his thoughts of comfort and heroics.

“Ching!” he shot at imaginary tigers and ghosts.

“Dah lah tu… pagi-pagi dah ching, ching,” his late father scolded mildly.

And here he was back again in the room he grew up in. It felt so small. He had left it for three years, to attend training as a Malay Language teacher. Frankly, he wanted to teach English, but his late father was enamoured by the former, and cajoled him into taking up the course.

“Kita tak boleh lupa bahasa kita. Kalau kita lupa, siapakah kita?”

He had been assigned to teach at his old school. It hadn’t come as a shock to him. It was quite a relief, truth be told. One had to be gregarious to work in a city, and he was too shy. He couldn’t sing, or engage with a class of city schoolchildren. He had little talent for art and language. City people required more stimulation. He enjoyed films though, and when he was back in the teacher training hostel, he’d pretend he was back in his home, looking at the trees, and the films he saw, he was in them. If daydreaming was a talent, he had it.

Yes, yes, village schoolchildren were easier. And he’d come back to some sort of a hero’s welcome, working as a teacher in his village. He quite fancied that, being a teacher of some respect because he was the village’s son who had come home to teach his own people. Yes, yes, he could live with that.

He was to begin teaching that week itself. An old teacher had taken ill, and they needed someone to teach the students language. He was fine by it.
“Mak,” he called out.

Mak had always been quiet. If arwah was alive, there would be some movement in the house. But it was a quiet and dull family he was from.

After a while, his mother came to his room. She looked puzzled.
“Why are you calling for me?”

He was silent. Why did he call out for Mak?

“Tak ada apa-apa, Mak. Just wanted to make sure you are fine.”

She looked at him.

“I am well.”

This was what he had wanted and planned. Wake up for subuh prayers, bathe, go to school, teach, finish teaching, and come home by five in the evening. When he was home, he performed all the tasks his late father did when he was alive, and when night came, he went to his room and slept early. And this went on for a few months. This life was perfect for him.

One day, the Guru Besar announced that the school was hosting a treat for the village! The government was bringing the movies to the school once a month now! On every fourth Friday, after Maghrib prayers, everyone who wanted to come was to assemble in the badminton court, sit on the ground and watch Hollywood and Malaya stars come alive on screen! This initiative was to br proud of as the government has now recognised the village! They weren’t living in the boondocks anymore!

Rosli was astounded by the news. When he was just a trainee teacher, he spent a lot of his free time going to the cinema. He had thought films were going to be an annual treat when he visited the town, upon him coming back to kampong. Masyallah, the movies were coming to their village! This was rahmat! Rahmat!

That very first Friday which was the fourth Friday of the month, almost everyone turned up at the school badminton court. They couldn’t believe that a film was going to be shown. Some of them had seen films when they visited relatives in the bigger towns, and most had seen film advertisements in magazines and newspapers. A lot more had heard of the films on radio and from more… knowledgeable… and sophisticated friends, who had seen greats like Elizabeth Taylor! Rock Hudson! Casablanca! Titles they had never heard of!

A small car was parked by the badminton court, and huge film reels were stacked upon each other. Two men were busy setting up the film. One of them had a tattoo. A white screen made of cloth was stretched between the badminton poles.
Rosli and the villagers chatted casually. Everyone was excited. The Guru Besar was busy, shaking hands with everyone.

“All right everyone settle down settle down,” the Guru Besar shouted. “The film is going to start soon!”

Like children, all the adults sat on the court, eagerly waiting for the film. They heard the projector cranking and a white beam of light shot out from the back. Almost everyone clapped. Then two words which almost no one recognised were displayed on the screen, “Les Belles.”

It was a good fifteen minutes before the audience started getting restless. All they saw was Chinese actors, and heard Chinese being spoken.

“Ha? What are they saying?”

“Cikgu,” someone asked the Guru Besar, “Pemende cakak tu? Dok Pahang.”

“Is that Chinese they are saying?”

“What’s that writing below?”

“This is stupid.”

The Guru Besar ran to the technicians, flustered. What film was this? There were people dancing and all, and obviously they were speaking, but no one understood. Wasn’t there a Malay film they could see? Or even an English one?

The technicians shrugged.

“Isn’t there anyone who can translate this into Malay?”

Rosli never knew what possessed him, but he put his hand out.

“I can.”

Everyone turned to look at him.

“I can understand Chinese.”

“You can?” The Guru Besar was incredulous.

Rosli couldn’t, of course. But he couldn’t explain it. He felt like his head was fogged up and that something, someone was telling him that he could understand, and all he had to do was repeat what he heard in his head. Something was pulling him up and pushing him to the screen. It was as if he was watching himself in a film too, walking slowly, among his friends and colleagues.

One of the actors spoke. “Ni haw ma,” she said.

Rosli responded, “How are you?”

He felt that the actor had stepped into his body. The next thing he knew, he was speaking out all the lines. Whether they meant what was said in the film was another thing, but his mouth and voice just could not stop verbalising what the actors were doing.

“You idiot! You hussy! Whore!” he yelped.

The two actresses on the film were seen having tea.

“You just wait, I’m going to get a gangster to shoot you for stealing my man!”

The actresses started dancing on film.

Rosli’s audience gaped. They looked at the screen and back at him.

“Are you sure?” one of the older ladies asked. “They seem to be friendly with each other.”

“Of course I’m sure. I understand Chinese! And the Chinese, what you see is not what they mean!”

The audience nodded slowly.

The Guru Besar sidled up to Rosli. “Can you help translate?”

Rosli nodded.

Ah, the feeling he felt from just standing and mouthing off whatever came to his head, and being looked at. The looks of awe and bewilderment from the audience. And that film, that night was the beginning of his true, real life. Before, he was contented. And now, now, he was a someone. Not just a teacher but someone who knew the language of films!

His students grew more attentive, and in the language classes, they competed with each other during reading and writing sessions. The women of the village, and even the men, would hail him over as he walked back home, to ask what really was the trouble between character A or B in a film.

Sometimes, Rosli would impress them by telling them that the film’s true meaning was really not what they had seen, but in the mind of the Pengarah Pilem.

“Ha? Pemende pulok pengaroh pilem ne?” they’d ask.

Rosli would cup his hand together and circle it around, as he did his best to explain what ART was.

“You’re very clever, Cikgu Rosli,” an old man said, his eyes wide behind his glasses.

“It’s Allah’s will,” he replied.

He didn’t know when he began to feel like this, but he began to resent the actors and the films he translated. True, the actors were just playing lives of made-up people and made-up situations, but they were leading lives that he wanted, other people dreamed of.

He was sure, after filming was over, the actors’ lives were as tragic or romantic as the films they worked on.

One night, he woke up, and felt his heart being gnawed at by jealousy and envy. Oh, he hated Humphrey Bogart, and that Sinatra guy. He wanted their looks, their women, their swagger. He had found a cinema magazine, and read up all the gossip on the actors, and despised them of their perfect lives.

He also began to feel contempt for his neighbours. The women were dark and ugly, not as pretty and slim as the Chinese actresses on film. The men were slothful in their dressing – now, if only they sported a cravat.

Even worse, he had begun to hate his life. His work. Everything was just dull, boring, bland. He wanted to be in the films! He wanted to be them!

He still was translating the films on Friday nights, but he began to be more frantic in his efforts.

Cikgu, you said that fellow said that he was angry with his father, but we see fairies dancing…”

“Keep quiet! How do you know? I’m the translator! Shut up!”

The villagers stared at him.

“Shut up! Shut up! I’m the translator, I would know!”

Cikgu, are you well in the head?”

He screamed.

The villagers panicked and called the Guru Besar, who huffed down the path in his sarong, with his sons. They grabbed Rosli, and brought him back to his house.

A bomoh’s services was sought, and Rosli was advised to sleep for a week. He had been possessed by some of the film characters, and they wanted to go back into the screen but couldn’t, as they were trapped in his body.

“So what do we do now?” Rosli’s mother asked.

“In a week, take him to the court again. If he translates like before, that means the demons have gone, but if he goes crazy again, then we will have a lot of work to do.”

All this, Rosli heard. Stupid simple-minded villagers! Bodoh lembu! There were no spirits in him, it was just envy and hatred for this life he had. Was this to be his life, to teach and translate every film on Friday nights? Babi, he screamed silently.

The next one week, he stayed at home, sleeping. He hardly took a bath; he felt no need. All he wanted to do was wait for Friday night, and translate again. He may envy those lives, but he could not deny the rush and pride he felt when his simple minded friends clapped and cheered at the end of a film.

That Friday night, they showed Casablanca. Everyone was awed by Ingrid Bergman’s cool beauty. And who didn’t think Bogart was cool, and handsome?

Rosli felt feverish. Suddenly, the film he was translating felt like a foreign film; like he was watching a film within a film. He was drawn to it.

“Cikgu?” one of his students asked.

Rosli walked closer to the screen.


“Cikgu Rosli! If you go any closer, the screen will tear and we can’t watch the film!”

“Eh, Cikgu kena sampuk ke?”

“Aaaa Cikgu buat apa tu?!”

Rosli could only see Ingrid’s lips. He greeted her in Bogart’s voice.

“Tolong! Tolong!” the audience shouted.

He heard them scream and shout, but he ignored them. He was going to join Bogart and Bergman in the film, and he was going to forget that life he had as a teacher and a lying translator. He reached out for them.

When he did turn back to look at his former life, he saw a torn screen, with puzzled and frightened villagers looking for him, through the tear, behind the screen, everywhere around the court and screen. He laughed and turned away, and disappeared into the blackness.