Excerpts from A Backpack And A Bit Of Luck
THE DANCE OF LIFE
In the beginning, wherever I went, all I saw were crusty little hands with palms up, stretching out at me from various heights.
“Hello…hello…money ...” their owners would demand in a rather offensive manner. Into the third week, I was burnt by the sunshine almost as dark as a native, filthy as the street I stood on, and children had stopped harassing me for money. And so I enjoyed my new-found identity and the privileges that came with it.
One day, as was I sat on a mud brick at a stall eating fresh salad in a disposable bowl made of dried leaves, a young street urchin watched me surreptitiously. She was in dirty rags too big for her and had a trail of snot running down her nose. Her shoulder-length tendrils were thick with dust. Every time I looked at her she lowered her eyes and concentrated very hard on peeling her orange. The juice trickled down her thin arms and cut a clean line through the dirt. Then she glanced at me. I smiled and teasingly stretched out my palm to her. She split her orange and, without any contemplation, placed one half onto it.
Running parallel along the busy street was the Yamuna river. A chorus of tall and weather-beaten poles stood along its sandy bank, like tree trunks confused by years of chaotic and indecisive winds. They were pulled in every direction by thick long ropes that sagged with the weight of dozens of large tattered sheets that were hung out to dry. I heard soft “thwack-thwack” sounds as women in colourful saris beat their laundry on stone steps by the river and was hypnotised by the gentle swaying of the sheets drying in the warm breeze.
Then something woke me up. Something incredibly white and shimmering came into view, through the holes in the sheets and between the gaps as the wind blew. Revealing a little of itself with every sway. Whispering to me to come a little closer each time. As I walked forward, the gaps became wider. Between a grey wool blanket and a stained piece of muslin, I saw for the very first time, the Taj Mahal. Aloof and silent, rising out of the far horizon, against the aquamarine sky.
When I eventually got to the most stunning declaration of love in history, I couldn’t help wondering if it would have been as joyful to look at had it not been for half an orange.
POSTCARDS FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD
I took my slippers off and went up the dark stairs. The timber felt cool and smooth under my feet. It must have come into contact with many, many feet over the last hundred and fifty years to get this shine, like seasoned leather. Occasionally, a loose floorboard would creak under my feet. When I reached the top, I turned left and saw a shaft of light from the air well that cut through the darkness of the hallway, illuminating tiny particles of dust in the air. A breeze stirred the particles a little. Straight ahead was the room that the man instructed me to go to.
There was an old lady sitting up in a single bed by the window. A portable radio tuned to the Rediffusion station was softly delivering the news in Mandarin. The old lady looked up from the line of cards she was laying down before her. I excused myself and asked if she minded if I used the bathroom.
When I came out, I asked her what she was playing. She explained to me that it was a very simple game.
“It’s the only card game you can play by yourself,” she said in Cantonese. “When three cards from the front and back add up to ten, twenty or thirty, you pick them up. But more than one person can play it. You try to spot the cards and pick them up faster than your opponent, and at the end of the game you total up your points.”
Then she asked me if I wanted to play with her. I sat on the old wooden chair next to her bed as she swept the line of cards into a pile. They were old and worn, and they had pictures of Prince Charles and Princess Diana on them. He was in a naval uniform and she was in a wedding dress. The old lady shuffled the cards clumsily. Her fingers were thin and knobby and crooked with arthritis so her rings moved loosely between her knuckles and joints. On her left hand she wore a green jade bangle. The skin on her arms was tanned and wrinkled but her face had a radiant glow. She smelled faintly of jasmine.
“Where did you get these cards from?” I asked, as she laid out the first few cards in a line.
“A friend went to England many years ago, and bought them for me.”
“You must really like them, to have kept them for so long.”
“I like the pictures on them—the queen’s son and his wife. I like England even though I’ve never been there.”
She asked me if I have been to England. And when I told her that I have, a string of questions streamed from her about the British Royal Family, what food they ate, if they went shopping like normal people, and what the exchange rate was now. I told her that it was probably six ringgit to the pound. She said that was the rate a few months ago, and it was likely to be higher now.
“England’s very expensive,” she said. “One bar of chocolate costs two pounds. That would be about fourteen ringgit.”
“That’s not expensive,” I replied. “The quality of chocolate in England is much better than in Malaysia. Local chocolate is not nice because it’s made to withstand the heat here. That’s why it tastes a bit waxy and doesn’t melt easily.”
She suddenly started chuckling, revealing a perfect row of white teeth, albeit loosely fitted.
“What’s so funny?” I asked, smiling myself.
She began to tell me a story about chocolate set in Japanese-occupied Malaya during World War II. Her husband was a Chinese doctor who volunteered his services to the British Army. Although I didn’t know much about the war, I once read something about Force 136, a British-led underground resistance group of Malayan secret agents. They worked as informers for the British and performed occasional acts of sabotage and espionage against the Japanese. The locals in general were not politically savvy, so they possessed views that were based more on hearsay and rumours than on facts or well-informed predictions. Some were indifferent, a few backed the British, but most were afraid of the return of British rule, so they supported the Japanese.
Fourth Auntie—called so because her husband was the fourth child in the family—told me that every evening her husband would take their youngest daughter, then four years old, for a walk to the fringes of the jungle. He’d then leave her with her friends before going into the jungle to attend to sick and injured secret agents at a hidden makeshift clinic. Late at night, when the Japanese had stopped patrolling the streets, and most people had gone to sleep, Fourth Auntie helped out by preparing medications for the next day, grinding herbs and boiling them to make medicine balls. She had to make them by the light of a small candle to avoid detection.
“Wasn’t it dangerous?” I asked. “Your whole family would’ve been beheaded if the Japanese had got to know about it.”
Fourth Auntie replied that it would have been more dangerous if the Japanese had won the war and, at any rate, it wasn’t only the Japanese they had to be careful about. Most of the local people were against the British and if these traitors had found her out, they would have tipped off the Japanese for a few dollars.
“And I assume you got only chocolate from the British for doing such dangerous work?” I laughed.
“And schools, and hospitals, and factories,” Fourth Auntie added. She pulled out a white handkerchief from the pocket of her pyjama top and wiped her eyes. They were cloudy with cataracts.
“So, what happened with the chocolate?” I asked eagerly.
She told me that they used to get English chocolate and biscuits from the British soldiers, and that one day she gave their neighbours, the Wongs, a bar of chocolate because they had never tasted it before. Mrs. Wong’s family was so thrilled about it that they kept it in a drawer, not wanting to eat something so precious. The Chinese immigrants came from extremely poor villages, Fourth Auntie explained. She said that I could never imagine, nor would I ever understand, the kind of poverty that drove parents to exchange their daughters for enough food to feed the family for only another few days. Every year, when the farmers harvested their crops, they had sufficient food to last them through the year and even had extra to sell, but most of it was confiscated by the government. Some families began hiding their grains and cereals, and when the government officials found out, they were severely punished and left with nothing at all. The Chinese immigrants had originally come to Malaya not only with empty pockets but also the heavy baggage of hardship and suffering. So when they had a good thing going, they didn’t know what to do. When the neighbours, who were immigrants from a small village in China, got hold of something as luxurious and special as a bar of chocolate, they saved it by placing it in a drawer, like dogs burying food for safe keeping.
“One day,” Fourth Auntie said, wiping her eyes again, “Mrs. Wong appeared very distressed. She told us that when they eventually decided to eat the chocolate, and this was almost a year later, they saw that it had gone mouldy.”
Fourth Auntie paused for a while to count her points after our second game. Then she continued her story.
“Instead of wiping the mould off, they put it out in the sun to dry, like we used to dry vegetables in China during the winter.”
“Oh, no!” I exclaimed.
“By the time they went out to check on it, the whole bar had melted into a messy puddle on the pavement.”
She sighed and shook her head, saying that she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I told her that the sad thing was that the whitish appearance on the chocolate probably wasn’t mould at all. It was just cocoa butter rising to the surface, which was perfectly safe to eat.
“Ha, really? So stupid we were,” Fourth Auntie said, laughing.
I laughed along with her as I gathered all the cards up and shuffled them, preparing for the next game.
The line of cards had become a wavy snake between us. We must have missed several opportunities while talking. I asked her about life in China and she asked me about all the countries I had travelled to. While she spoke of the long village roads in spring where she used to ride a bicycle alongside the cherry blossoms bursting like pink fireworks on one side of the road, and weeping willows dripping from the sky to the ground on the other side, I told her about the lavender fields in France and how the air in Morocco was always laden with the scent of spices and fruit-flavoured tobacco. I listened with admiration about how Fourth Auntie, as a nine-year-old maid to a wealthy family, often hid behind a screen and peeped through the holes of the wood carving during the children’s lessons in order to learn to read and write. But she didn’t get very far as her employers found out about it and sacked her for neglecting her chores. She listened with amazement about how exhilarating it was to gallop on a horse in the Yorkshire Dales, and about a place on earth where the sun doesn’t set completely for six months of the year.
She described to me how, as children, they made bamboo traps to catch frogs and little birds in the paddy fields for their dinner. And on rare occasions when they were really lucky, they managed to catch a wild chicken. To cook it, their mother covered the chicken in a thick layer of mud and placed it in a pit in the ground with hot coals. When they took it out a few hours later, they smashed the mud casing open and inhaled the delicious aroma of freshly baked chicken with smooth white flesh that just fell off the bone. They ate it with salt, as that was often the only seasoning they had. I told her about a restaurant in Spain where they served pan-fried watermelon and smoked salmon ice cream, and that it was actually delicious. She wouldn’t have known what smoked salmon was, so I said “fish ice cream”. I imagined her retelling it to other people and how they’d think she was completely nuts.
The soft, recorded prayer from a nearby mosque floated in through the window. I looked at my watch. It was almost half past four. I told Fourth Auntie that I was on my way to Penang and that I should get going. I gathered all the cards and stacked them into a neat pile. She turned and looked through the window to the street below and informed me that the night market would be open soon and that I should try the noodles. They are still made of pure rice ground into a paste by hand, and the fish balls are the best in the country. Unlike the bouncy white ones in Kuala Lumpur, these fish balls are firm, made of real fish and have bits of dried tangerine peel that give them a lovely flavour. A bowl of noodles with yong tau foo costs less than three ringgit. I was tempted to stay for dinner, but decided not to, as I didn’t want to reach Penang at too late an hour.
“I really should get going,” I said half-heartedly.
“Maybe next time.”
She placed her hand on my arm and told me to drive carefully. As I walked out of the room, she said to me,
“Would you mind if I ask you a favour?”
“No, of course not,” I replied.
“Whenever you travel, if you have time, please send me a postcard.”
I promised her I would.
A WAR HERO
I remember how excited I felt when Dr.Morris was on sick leave one day, and there was no locum free at the time. Feeling important and being young enough to know everything, I found myself almost rubbing my hands with glee at the sight of a dishevelled old man who came in through the door. I was behind the counter when he very meekly asked me to help him pick a new pair of NHS frames—frames subsidised by the UK’s National Health Service. His shabby tweed jacket was speckled with what looked like crumbs of a high-protein biscuit from the World War ll.
In college, we were not only taught to be opticians. We were taught to be responsible opticians, and that meant your patients’ welfare, in every sense of the word, was priority. You gave them the best they could have and you didn’t cheat them with something they didn’t need. And you did it for the price of a bag of carrots. It looked as if this particular patient of mine could do with an extra pound.
I cleverly observed that he took off his spectacles with one hand rather carelessly and I tried to be helpful by advising him appropriately so as to save his spectacles from further decomposition. That they had already suffered breaks in a dozen places and were held together by three different brands of cellophane tape and Band-Aids that had become dirty and furry was not going to spare him a lecture from me on thrift.
“You mustn’t take them off like that, sir,” I advised him with a tone of voice that was polite but firm.
“You see, that’s why ...”
“Boott,” he squeaked in a Yorkshire accent.
“... they’re damaged, dear,” I pressed on.
“Boott Miss ...”
“You must always take them off with both hands, my love,” I tightened my jaw.
“... like this ...”With flourish, I demonstrated the correct way of doing it, then went through the procedure one more time just in case he wasn’t paying attention.
“B-b-boott…BoottMiss ...” he stuttered.
By this time, I was getting really annoyed. I was giving him good, unselfish advice so that he might extend the life of his spectacles, and he was disputing my better judgement with “but” after “but”. I was just about to tell him to stop interrupting when he collected enough courage to slip in an apology.
“SorryMiss…boott, ah’ve only got one arm...”
There was a pause. I imagined that everyone in Wetwang stopped whatever they were doing and turned to stare at me.
Of course, his jacket sleeve concealed what was not there. He lost his right arm to a German hand grenade. I genuinely felt awful about my ignorance and arrogance so I made him a mug of tea and sat with him to listen to a detailed account of the history of Great Britain from 1939 to 1945.
After our tea and history lesson I still felt bad so I brought out all the nicest frames for him to choose from and assured him that they were free. They weren’t, but I was intending to meddle with the accounts books to cover the cost. Good thing the practice wasn’t equipped with a computer system and bar codes. Mr. Sullivan changed the subject to amore light-hearted one—his wife. Instant relief fell upon me. History was never one of my strong points so I was glad to move on.
“Ah’ve bin coomin’ ’ere twen’y years, I ’ave,” he said.
“Well, it’s nice to know you’re comfortable here,” I replied, with a somewhat restored sense of dignity.
“Aye, memissus used to cum’ere too. She’d bin seein Dr.Morris for years.”
“Here, try these,” I hurriedly shoved a few pairs of frames at him. My mind was split in two—one was concerned about his eyesight while the other tried to get an insight to his life so I might be able to serve him and his wife better. He said she used to come. Now, any caring practitioner would notice that past tense. And I assumed that his wife didn’t come to the practice anymore, possibly due to an unpleasant experience in the past. I was determined to make up for my earlier bodge-up and tried my best to give Mr. Sullivan the service he deserved.
“By ’eck, ah’ve given ye more work, lass.”
“Oh, don’t worry, Mr. Sullivan. It’s not a problem at all.”
“Ah reckon there’s not many folk who tek this mooch of yer time.”
“Oh, today’s fine,” I assured him, “though on market days I could do with an extra hand.”
There was a pause. In my mind, the people of Wetwang were now shaking their heads and whispering to each other while looking at me with disdain.
“So, how’s, erm…how’s ...” I stuttered. I was desperate to redeem myself in the eyes of this sweet old man. Assuming that his missus might have had a bad encounter with the previous dumb trainee I thought I’d make up for the previous dumb trainee’s lack of professionalism and tact. I decided on a subtle approach to test the waters.
“How’s Mrs. Sullivan?”
“Oh, she’s dead, luv.”
“Another cup of tea?” I asked.
THE ROOM ABOVE THE SUNDRY SHOP
As a child, I used to walk, run or cycle across the Kopisan landscape that is so unique to Perak. I used to travel for hours until my body switched to autopilot and I stopped feeling my legs moving. I’m sure I could even sleep while walking if I tried. The rugged terrain and its clumps of tall lalang grass look a little like the beaches of New Hampshire—except for the red earth. My friends and I used to spend our evenings playing around the old mining pools that had turned into murky lakes. By the time we got home, our feet were red, and the fine red earth mixed with sweat looked like chilli paste lodged between our toes.
Kopisan’s famous landmarks are the large cast-iron water pipes dotted at the joints with rivets like giant buttons. Built by the British during the colonial days, they channelled water from the hills to the mining pools. Our favourite place was a cool spot under a pipe joint where there was a leak, and the water pressure created a fine spray, like a mist fan. During those easy and carefree days, we made bird traps with slivers of bamboo and pretended to launch jet planes with lalang grass. To do this, we would tear a little bit of the blade on both sides of the stem, and place the two strips between our index and middle fingers. Then we would yank the strips off forcefully so the stem shot into the air like an arrow. We had to be very careful because lalang grass has tiny little sharp “teeth” that run along its length in one direction. On several occasions, we got a nasty shock from mistakenly pulling the grass from the wrong end. For a few minutes, we’d be speechless as a burning sensation seared through our bleeding fingers and numbed our arms.
The other unique feature of this part of the country is its limestone hills, densely covered with trees. From a distance, the layers of hills look as though they were draped over with velvet blankets in different shades of green. These hills form the undulating shape of the unique skyline of Perak. Water that flows from natural springs in these hills is so pure itmade the best sar hor fun and tofu in the country. People here take longer showers as the water makes it difficult to rinse the soap off their hair. Their bodies remain slippery even after they have sluiced bucket after bucket of water over themselves. And girls from this area are believed to be the most beautiful in Malaysia because the water gives them such healthy soft skin. It has been said by many that if you touched a girl and a piece of tofu with your eyes closed, you would not be able to tell the difference between them.
The last time I was in Kopisan, it was a cool and breezy evening—the sort made for walking. Thus I decided to leave my car by a small village road in Kopisan and stroll the rest of the way to Gopeng for a bowl of sar hor fun. I made my way across the landscape that was so familiar to me, one that I loved very much. But this evening, that part of Kopisan was like a lingering ghost. Most of the land was now dotted with new shop lots and modern houses blocking out the horizon where we used to watch flocks of birds fly home at dusk. The old cast-iron pipes had been taken down. But as I continued walking, once in a while I saw the remains of rusty frames that used to hold such pipes.
It was beginning to get late. I could just about make out the shapes of the large lily pads floating on the murky water of a remaining lake. Long-stemmed pink lotus flowers opened up towards the purple sky. Twenty minutes later, when I reached the main road leading towards Gopeng, I felt a few drops of water land on my face. The sky had gone dark and the air had become heavy with moisture. I ran until I saw a row of shop lots on the other side of the road. By then the rain was beating hard against the pavement. To avoid getting soaked, I climbed up a dark, narrow flight of stairs next to a sundry shop.
Copyright © 2016 Zhang Su Li. All rights reserved..