Wednesday, August 15, 2018
Almost unbelievable! These Indians didn’t know what they were dealing. The uppuma at Kader Restaurant RM3.50, just tipping one single dollar. Singapore or Australian dollar; well short of Uncle Sam. No charge for the water either, even hot. (The further one removed from the market dictate of Singapore the better: Muthu in JB normally charged 30sen; Muar two hours north nothing and now even in the capital.) As usual, sambal as much as you liked, spoon it yourself. Lakshmi Vilas across the road had closed between times, a number of months now the Kader cashier had said the day before. (Curt and uninterested in chat the man, but lay a word of Tamil on him see how he sparkles!) Woman adjacent feeding her man was somehow passed over blankly the first one or two times; giving him food from her fingers failed to register immediately. A minute or so later sitting up straight in the chair and training the binoculars hard and close as humanly permissible. There she went again, rice soaked in sambal licked clean from her fingers. Immediately adjacent. A couple fatties, his ballooning making it unlikely he would see his fifties. Again she does it and again he partakes like a baby. Strict doctor’s orders diet perhaps. Four or five times she has put him out of his misery passing some over, lad in his chair leaning his trunk forward and ear stud glinting. It would have been good to have view from the other side. You were the only one in the place batting an eyelid of course, open-mouthed staring in all probability. Screening the observation not so accomplished. Oh! Wow!... He’ll even stir one of her side dishes there on the table without being tempted himself. The 7-Up had been emptied quick smart, drained properly, a wonder the can didn’t blow away under the aircon. The doctor must have really laid the cards on the table and told the chap straight. While she sat at table the lady fell under the line of obese you thought; getting up to wash her hands afterward she was pushing it too. Didn’t even once resort to the phone while he sat there spectating; such a power of feeling in the relationship. Guys like that chap wouldn’t settle for anything less. Early thirties and not much more. Before she went to wash she had folded over the leaf screening the leftover from the poor man and waiter onside whipping it away promptly. Didn’t appear there were any children; immersed in each other like that nor was there likelihood. Leather bag holding a big wad and waddling out afterward, maybe one-ten on a frame of 1.70. Heartening always happening upon love, or as near as you’re going to get.
Tuesday, August 14, 2018
Four odd hours on the bus felt like more. Sealed up in the tin the elavator behaviour didn’t help, all understandable of course. Confession: Klang was endurable only for one single hour. Where was a sweet little teh place, Chinese would have done? What about a hotel for soft-feathered aircon refuge from the drab and dirty street? The only one visible on the round was a ten storey tower off a-way. Were the street people in this old port town foreign workers, or tough-living local Indian? It was hard to tell. The one single piece of relief was the frieze of Indian working girls in their colourful saris on a stretch of sheltered walkway. Picasso writ large and more colourful than the old Spaniard had known. (Gauguin knew better.) What man could resist an hour in their company in some sequestered nook away from the harshness on every turn. Grey, shuttered and dilapidated. Even colourful advertising boards would have helped. No one smiled calling you sir. (Only one of the Indian girls.) At the auto supplies shop enquiring about a wheel cap for Arthur’s Proton Jumbuck the woman answered with a smile, But you’re in kota bahru here! The train station was very far for walking. Once-over suspiciously given the bulging backpack. Thirty metres around the corner big silver bird with red stripes offering KL in one and one quart hours, RM3, a buck. Kotaraya what was more, in the centre. (The bus from Muar had deposited us at some moonscape Sentral depot perfect for a refugee camp.) One day there will be a return and a stronger effort applied, if there was any luck in company with Mike Tong, who has not returned to his home town in thirty years after the government diddled him outta plenty biz dollars. Wouldn’t that be grand, if Malaysia Bahru really did live up to its name, turn a new leaf and was going to play straight and honest from here on?
Saturday, August 11, 2018
In the seven months of the year to date the brothers had sold ten of their caskets, when years past they would sell that number monthly. Down in Singapore the trade had dropped off almost entirely with the scarcity of plots, and elsewhere the preference at that end of the market had switched to brass-lined conventional caskets.
Three weeks were needed to produce a new item.
This morning after breakfast elder brother was found working slowly with a small hand-plane smoothing the curve on the long side of a wing that was taking shape. Their wood here was sourced from up in Pahang toward the Thai border, the mill giving the first rounding of the thick timber in preparation for the subsequent curvature.
We shared some not very sweet mandarins after lunch, Pakistani the brothers guessed. One worked on a panel one side and the other another opposite. Neat joining fitted the six pieces together; there was no glue or biscuit.
After the hand planing and some chiseling elder brother brought out the electric drill for a series of holes; the timber had split at the end and long nails were needed to prevent any further splitting.
Their father had used a hand drill in his time, one that required a to-and-fro horizontal motion with a long rod attached somehow to some other pieces. Elder brother brought out the old rusty iron bit that their father had used. On the wall the long rod hung like a broom handle; how precisely it had functioned he too had forgotten. The other pieces of the assembly could no longer be found.
In the dim work-room the gold character at the head of a pair of caskets against the wall caught the light. Two other units carrying the same character were given a red colour and plain lacquer respectively. The clients in question had opted for those variations; mostly however glinting gold was the choice of clients.
The obvious question was the signification. What was a translation of the characters, one at the facing head of the casket and the other the foot? What final words would one choose for a coffin?
In front the character was hock; behind so.
It was not especially difficult to render in English: in essence a compound “long/happy” and “life” at rear. Both characters could not fit on the front medallion, younger brother explained. Why the characters needed to be of that large size was not addressed.
After-life in question, one would have presumed. But it was not the case.
The near coffin in the gold lettering had been ordered and bought in advance by a local woman when she had been in her early sixties. Now she had reached her nineties.
The inscription had worked like a charm.
This was the code: a happy, long life might be one’s fate with good and appropriate preparation; namely, warding off early death by this provision of the ready coffin bearing the inscription.
The ninety-year-old ancient was one of many who had prospered by this means.
Thirty and more years the brothers had kept that particular casket in their workroom for the day when it was needed. In former time clients would take their caskets home to store in a back shed.
The elder brother who because of poverty had never married said for himself he would choose to burn. When he might craft his own casket, the man preferred fire. Younger did not express a preference.
The characters were chiseled by hand front and back and painted according to the client’s wishes. For the characters there was no variance.
Happy, long in a compound, life. What more could one wish? (One did not want one without the other.)
Thursday, August 9, 2018
Middle distance the starlings crossing the sky can be mistaken for mosquitoes against the window pane. (At street level one often passed birdhouses in the inner quarter of the old town; one stood on the near corner.) Early morning before the heat with the wooden shutters fully opened the canvas of grey-white presented a meager offering; no painter would be interested in such a scene that lacked all colour and texture. When some blue did seep through the thin bleached wash was hardly worthy of the name. With the forest long gone it was only the starlings flitting about in the morning and evening cool. Two downpours to date, both late-night and only aurally received in the sealed room. Around 11pm the big digger on the corner started up with a night-shift of migrant workers putting in the new drains on Jalan Ali. Yesterday taking another route to the Cyber a marvelous home-stay was happened upon in an old traditional Malay house, the past imprinted in the timbers of the stair treads and the discoloured wooden wall panels. One small, cloudy mirror at least in back might have once reflected the faces of earlier occupants. There was a warm welcome offered by the Chinese manager who suggested a cuppa in the attached café in front. One had learned by now never to take halia in anything but a mamak shop in this region; only the Southern Indians knew how to portion the ginger. Told that the favourite tea was unlikely to be found in her establishment the woman immediately apologised. Sorry, sorry, she confessed, unfortunately they indeed could not offer Earl Grey. Ah, yes! There you had it true enough. You were a right proper Englishman, don't bother trying to deny it!... The week before a friend in JB had noted it was the Indian minority feeding the pigeons and the other wild birds on the equator. Cats were one thing, but there did seem to be a divide where birds were concerned. At a couple of locations in JB this was borne out, and then yesterday in Muar again.
Tuesday, August 7, 2018
Traditional Chinese coffins of the same form had been seen up in Chow Kit, KL five or six years before, the man at the shop there saying they were sourced in Penang, or Ipoh it may have been. The two brothers here in Muar were possibly too pricey.
One of those doco-perfect scenes of doughty old tradesmen with their ancient implements that had been wielded first by the grandfather back in the Mainland. The father had come down to the region in the thirties as a seventeen-year-old and established the enterprise on Jalan Mariam. Since the place had remained untouched; perhaps in celebration after the war and independence a bright blue had been pasted on the walls.
Miraculous entering the past like that, stepping over the threshold as if behind the looking-glass. The Teo Chew men were pleased at the guest’s keen interest; impressed too at the evident knowledge and scraps of their language.
— Only toh kays get this luxury, right Uncle?
Early-seventies, bright-eyed leathery old man could only agree.
Ten thousand saw you laid out in one of their products and about forty years housing in the ground.
The old Viking chiefs might have been set afloat off the coast of some Northern promontory in handsome caskets such as these.
The pair was working on a new item in front, the brother on the left chiseling a border line for a decorative panel and opposite the other with an adze scraping fine ribbons of wood for the curvature. Behind the pair against either wall polished and painted finished product awaited a great man’s exit from this world.
Surprising to the men, we had an acquaintance in common, the chap who ran Great Eastern Resto around in the next street.
Yes, yes, he was still operating. Roundabout eleven he would open. Yesterday—the Monday, would have been an off-day. But working still.
Which brother was the Abang here then, the Elder?
— Ah! No. Same, same. They were one company. They did not have that there.
Not all the old customs carried down; no precedence for the Elder in this particular casket business.
(Were the pair communist sympathisers perhaps?)
The more leathery still smaller man sitting to one side of the entry might have been a long-term employee. A little older again and incapacitated: one hand was missing. It was the right in fact.
The arm had withered somewhat, though no doubt the chap could still make himself useful.
There was no machinery of any sort visible in the shop, not even a plane or sander it appeared. It turned out the brothers did now use an electric saw for the thick wood.
Noticing the observation, the one-handed man moved to hide his stump under the point of his elbow.
Photographs were permitted, there were no objections. By all means.
It would be utterly impossible one knew in advance. Even a practitioner of the highest form would struggle to capture anything meaningful here.
NB. On the weekend Hiroshima Day had been anticipated; then yesterday with the travel the commemoration slipped from memory. In this morning’s New Straits Times a short column of 250 words was carried. There had been nothing on ABC online.
Sunday, August 5, 2018
Saturday, August 4, 2018
In recent days an online Irish literary journal by the name of The Linnet’s Wings has published a piece of mine titled "The Volcano," a longer work that unfolds a trip out to the sleeping old giant, Merapi outside Yogyakarta, Central Java.
Originally posted on the blog in 2014, here is the link — free access: https://www.thelinnetswings.org/?pageno=8&sid=31238
Hope you like it.