Short story selected for the 2014 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
He first saw her walking through the gates of Tumpat station as his taxi slowed down at Jalan Stesen. She carried no luggage except for her knapsack, probably a backpacker like him. The next time he saw her was after he had clambered into his lower berth in the sleeping compartment of the southbound train that would take him away from the modest platform on the northeast coast of the peninsula, when she climbed aboard, peering at her printed-out ticket culled from the confusion of timetables and travelling classes on the KTM website.
Her berth was also near the end of the carriage, past the families with young children who shouted out and screamed with excitement at being on board a train. He sat down, pulling his cap off his close-cropped hair, as well as his well-worn sneakers, while old men, and women in headscarves carrying suitcases and shopping bags filled with what seemed like their worldly possessions limped past. Behind their bunks, just outside the sleeping compartment, smokerscongregatedin the gangway in-between carriages, squatting or standing by the swinging doors to watch the sunset over the shifting landscape. An imam with a skullcap, dressed completely in white, stepped on board, his gnarled hands holding on to a Koran, gingerly stepping past the piles of baggage by the berths. Last-minute stragglers hurriedly clambered into the train as blue-uniformed conductors waved flags from the train doors, signallingtheir departure. Evening sunlight cast sinuous shadows in the carriage as wheels clacked over rusted rails, the carriage vibrating under their feet. They were off.
He lay on his bunk a moment longer, watching the platform as it slid out of view. The small collection of shops and little concrete and wood houses of Tumpat slipped away and they passed villages that would have looked identical a hundred years before. He thought that he saw the sea for a moment but when he reopened his eyes all he saw were fields and unremarkable trees. From Tumpat, the train, easily fifteen cars long, would wind its way towards Wakaf Baru and Pasir Mas and finally into the jungle like an enormous metal snake.
On the night train from Tumpat there were few stops. The southbound KTM would not stay long in the jungle, its diesel engines thumping continuously through the night to its destination of Tanjong Pagar in Singapore, near the southernmost edge of the continent.Soon the sun had set and the last of the heat had dissipated, the air-conditioners throbbing.
Late-night travellers had drifted off to sleep by the time he finally said hello to her.It was one of those things he did to break the tension that sprung up when two strangers were alone in the same place with no distractions, no old women with carts of freshly-cut jambu meandering down the length of the train, no televisions turned on like in the brand new ETS locomotives that now plied the KL-Ipoh line. She greeted him warily, as if he was one of those maniacs who plied on young women travelling solo, but they began to talk all the same.
They had entered the jungles at the heart of the peninsula.
He was travelling alone for the first time. For once, he was in neither the suffocating confines of the house just outside Kuala Lumpur, where secrets passed between ministerial colleagues each Raya at the gatherings that his father enthusiastically organised, where ministers joked about politics over non-alcoholic fruit punch, or in the dull lecture halls at his medical college in Penang, which his father had insisted he attend.
“We need an honest worker in the family,” his father admitted to him before he left Kuala Lumpur for his studies. “I won’t be in the government forever and you need to make a living someday.”
When you were a minister’s son there was no chance of an ordinary life. He had to be escorted everywhere he went, even school, by a chauffeur/ex-army captain, and also shopping malls, where students and businessmen and old folks gawked at the security details from his father’s ministry that tailed him menacingly.
Medical school was hardly an improvement. He spent hours memorising the location of the bones in the hand and the mapping of the carotid arteries, but he had no interest in any of it. His whole life had been planned out from the start and he felt just as trapped as ever. Sometimes he even saw the familiar guards from back home sipping tehtarik in the canteen, watching him.
On a whim, he had caught the Transnasional that departed the island and trundled along the East-West Highway, once overrun by Communist guerrillas and wild elephants, arriving in Tumpat. He told nobody that he was leaving Penang, and had only a vague idea of his own plans. He just wanted to be free for once. His motivation was as simple as that.
Recently, the newspapers they talked about how the Tanjong Pagar terminus, the last remaining parcel of Malaysian soil in Singapore after the Separation, would be closed down for good. Doodling on the notes that he had made in review sessions at the College, he had drafted out his journey. He would make his way to Singapore during what was supposed to be his study break, before returning to Penang. Tanjong Pagar was one of the three great railway stations of British Malaya, the others being Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh. All three of them, marble-faced, stark white, had been in their heyday the great colonial stations of the east, dominating the cities with their promise of adventure. But the highways had bypassed them and now Tanjong Pagar was about to be shut down, while the other stations had been reduced to being mere stops for commuters, hulking white elephants that awaited their future abandonment. He had planned, in his own circuitous route, to travel through all three of them, before resuming his own life as a minister’s doctor son.
A train is often a good place for conversations, especially for two strangers travelling alone. Although they were cautious at first, only exchanging small talk (“People speak such bad English nowadays, and even the old toothless hawkers on Gurney Drive speak it much better!”). But soon they began to let slip hidden stories and other matters, and their conversation escalated. There was nothing else to do and nowhere to go on the train. All they could do was to talk.
For him, there was something romantic about the Jungle Railway, and when you took it, it was as if you were locked in time and back when the world was still vast and parts of it completely unknown. There was a sense of adventure as you made your way across ravines and the bends of silt-bearing rivers traversed by fishermen with their casting nets, unlike the boring industrial commutes from Kajang to Seremban on the air-conditioned commuter trains with piped in festive music. But the illusion faded away when you looked out at the neat parallel rails and imagined hundreds of indentured labourers and coolies who had signed their lives away to middlemen at the docks of Amoy and Chennai, ready to work themselves nearly to death by hacking down shrubs and laying gravel under the supervision of the British Sir who watched the railway extending further and further through the undergrowth.
For his friends, and almost everyone else that he knew, the idea of locking yourself down (on an unreliable Malaysian train, of all things!) for twelve hours with stale air-conditioning and nothing but jungles in sight, with primitive toilets and gangway doors that kept sliding open and shut at every rocking motion of the train was torture. It was slow and often delayed, and if there were young children on board, sleep would be impossible. There was no dining, save for the canteen car, run by the surly youth in a badly-fitting uniform that served day-old sandwiches and stale curry-puffs and instant noodles. You could wander from one end to the other, past the first class passengers with private compartments and washbasins and televisions, or the hopeful old parents sleeping on uncomfortable chairs in the cheapest section to see their children in the south, and that was it. There was nothing interesting on board the train itself. It was just a vehicle, transporting its tired passengers from one point to another as they slept through its journey. All in all, it was so much easier to take the highway that sliced right through the spine of the Titiwangsa Mountains, where the journey could be finished before dinnertime, while the train still languished back in Kuantan.
They were the only tourists on the train. The Jungle Railway was never popular with holidaymakers. The tourists did visit the islands off the East Coast, snorkelling in the turquoise waters, but they rarely saw the sleepy seaside towns of Kelantan or Terengganu, or the narrow-gauge tracks that linked the isolated kampongs. The Railway was just a relic.
The few stops on the night train flew by, nearly unnoticed, as they exchanged small talk. He happily told her all he knew about the railway, reciting nuggets of information that he had picked up off the Internet and Tourism Malaysia flyers. He talked about how labourers had nearly broken their backs as they hacked through the jungle to lay down gravel and how the railway was the only route out of the wild for some of the villages in the pedalaman. But now the jungle was being cleared, making way for plantations and factories, and in the future it would probably be called the Oil Palm Railway instead. She listened to him with interest, laughing at even the lamest of his witticisms.
Her accent was so refinedthat it sounded almost foreign.“Are you Singaporean?”
She shook her head, pushing back her long fringe. “Nolah”, she said, “Saya orang sini!”
“Well, you certainly sound very posh!”
“It’s a long story.”
He glanced outside but saw nothing. No lights or civilization. In the darkness,stray tigers and bulky seladang and nervous tapirs scurried away from the lights of the engine that cut through the night.
“It’s a long night”, he said, “and there’s nothing else to do except to sleep. So, why do you have such a posh accent? You must have gone to one of those fancy international schools in Duta, near the new Istana.”
“It’s definitely not what you expect to hear.”
“Trust me, I’ve heard a lot of stories in my time. Like what really happened during May 13.”
“Alright then,” she replied at last.
She had not returned to the peninsula for years. She had grown up across the ocean on the Canadian Pacific, where immigrants and refugees crowded the cities, bringing slices oftheir old lives from Hong Kong before the Handover, money from China, the vibrancy of the Saigon and of course a tinge of Malaysia. When she was younger, her parents brought her back for visits, but eventually the visits got rarer and stopped altogether. She had begun to lose her own memories of Malaysia, reconstructing them from the stories that her parents told and the Yasmin Ahmad film CDs packed between the clothes in their suitcases. Occasionally there were dinners at restaurants owned by migrant Sarawakians and old Cheras uncles, with whom her parents bantered with in pidgin English so heavily laden with slang that it sounded like a different language altogether. She had tried to imitate them, but she had been so awkward that the makcik at the buffet looked at her sympathetically. “Adik, we can speak English if you prefer,” she told her.
But there were some nights, when light snow fell over the city of bright lights, that she remembered flashes of old times as she drifted in and out of sleep, distracting her from her studies at her university. There was the time that she had gone up to Genting Highlands, wandering the misty theme park in a brown parka with her mother clutching her hand, while inside the casinos, her grandparents from the banks of the sluggish Sungai Perak enthusiastically tossed coins and chips on to the roulette tables and into slot machines. She recalled the sea at Batu Ferringhi, startlingly blue as the waves raced up beach as if to claim her, sending her scurrying for the shelter of the casuarinas. And once, she remembered taking a luxury E&O as a girl, journeying from Butterworth to KL with her parents for the wedding of her adopted aunt’s niece, or her aunt’s adopted nephew.
Over the years, her tenuous connection with home grew slimmer and more fragile, ready to snap at a moment’s notice. She thought about how her ancestors had left the villages of famine-ridden China for the South Seas. Her parents never regarded the Motherland as home. They found it amongst the humid valleys and peaty soil of Nanyang. But now she, after growing up in a foreign country, had begun to cease thinking of Malaysia as her home, rather, she saw it as just another country where she had once lived, a mere point of interest with no emotional baggage attached.
After her graduation, before she was due to start work at the pharmacy on Main Street, her mother had insisted, that after so many years, she return to Malaysia before her memories were to fade away entirely.
“Look outside. What do you see?”
“Not much. It’s pitch-black.”
“I don’t see anything either, but if you look carefully, you can see moonlight reflected off something. Those are limestone cliffs. I doubt you’ve seen many of them around. They just dot the landscape, everywhere you go.”
They had just pulled out of the logging town of Gua Musang, the Cave of the Civets, where the tiny railway station, placidly running at the foot of an enormous limestone hill. Limestone caved away in distinctive sheets, leaving behind stalactites and caves as white and jagged as a shattered tooth, the top covered by shrubs and trees that struggled to cling on to the fragile rock. He told her how, when his father was a young man and working as a surveyor in the Department of Land and Mines, he had walked up the stone steps and peered into the cave opening where the limestone hill had been seemingly split into half. Inside, there were echoes all around, sometimes from the rustling of bat wings from the roof, or maybe it was his own heartbeat, or perhaps the echoes came from the footfalls of the civets that gave Gua Musang its distinctive name. “He told me,” the boy recalled as they drew away from the platform and back past the darkened trees, “that it was so peaceful inside, and he felt as if he was transported back in time to a thousand years before, before there were Indians and Chinese and Malays in the peninsula, as if everything around him never existed.”
She listened. “But have you been inside yourself?”
“No,” he admitted. “I listen to stories and pass them on. But I have hardly experienced anything first-hand. That’s why I’m travelling right now. I just want to see things first-hand.”
He talked more about the limestone hills, framed lovingly in his father’s study, about how miners fresh off the boats built homes and temples and entire villages in the caverns in Perak, and how the Hindu devotees, would each year pierce themselves during their march up the endless steps to Batu Caves, where their prayers and devotion bought them a respite from the crime and poverty and desperation of the peninsula.
Behind them, the town disappeared. In time, its railway station would be closed down too, making way for a brand new one that signalled the encroachment of the cities and companies.
“You don’t have a boyfriend, do you?” he asked slyly over the rattling of the train over the rails.
“What a personal question!” she laughed. “Why would you ask such a thing?”
He hesitated and came up with an excuse. “It’s not safe for a young woman to travel alone,” he said.
“Well, in that case I’m glad you are accompanying me.”
They had stepped outside the sleeping compartment. Everyone else was asleep, save for the old imam who was quietly studying his Koran in the soft orange reading light in his upper berth. They tiptoed past the children who clutched second-hand teddy bears, not wanting to wake them or to disturb the imam, and then they were in the gangway. The doors that they used to step into the carriage were always left unlocked, for some reason, and they swung open and shut periodically. The both of them were alone, the smokers who usually haunted the gangway having fallen asleep by then. Once, the door had simply refused to shut at one point as they crossed a viaduct. The crescent moon was low in the sky and they stood there watching it over the jungles, before clouds rolled over and blotted it out again. The train was not very quickly for safety, and to him, it felt like he was in a dream.
“You’ve asked me a lot of personal questions, now it’s time for me to ask you a few,” she said.
He rolled his eyes. “I’m afraid I’m a very boring person. No secrets, nothing to hide.”
“That’s not true at all. You have this…reserved kind of personality underneath your chattiness and cheerfulness. I just have the feeling that you have so many things to hide.”
“Well, I’ve told you the gist of it. My father’s a minor MP and I’m just the spoiled brat who goes to an upper-class college in Penang. That’s about it.”
She was quiet for a while. “But you must have heard a lot of things, since your father is in the government. And there must be a lot of secrets that you can’t talk about. It must be an awful burden.”
For a moment his throat felt constricted. “It is,” he admitted. “Sometimes I wish that I don’t have to give a damn about it, that it’s my father’s responsibility and I can just do as I like. But it doesn’t work like that. Once you’re in politics your family, friends, and extended family get dragged in as well. The money and the prestige and the power is tempting, but it’s not a good life.”
“You’re going to be a doctor. Then you won’t have to get involved in any of that.”
“That’s true. I hate politics, at least for now. But who knows? I might change my mind later. You never really stick to your beliefs all your life. They change. I might change someday, you never know.”
They stood outside for a moment more, the wind rustling their hair, his sleeves, her skirt, before returning to the compartment.
He had rarely spoken of his past or his innermost thoughts to anyone else before, preferring to keep them under wraps. If he did, it was to his peers, children of government officials and bored rich kids, who moved in the same constellations as him, each one of them with complaints identical to his. He recalled Anis, whom he had once harboured an unrequited crush on, and about how she had once said, ever so loftily while they sneaked into movie theatres and away from their chaperones to live celluloid dreams instead of real ones, about how she would break away from the dirty politics her family played and to become an activist. But that had been empty talk, and now she had an internship in her uncle’s constituency in Perlis, where she had shelved her radical notions for ones that would ensure she continued to afford shopping trips in Jakarta and Manila.
He felt cheated and now kept his friendships to a minimum, leaving them as empty as possible. He could not be honest when it came to his circle of friends. Someone would always lie, and someone would always break promises.
But for some reason, he held nothing back from this girl on the train. Why? Maybe it was because they were both so different from each other and adrift in their own lives that they could actually trust and believe each other. Two strangers, born in the same country, their lives splitting off in opposing trajectories, criss-crossing on the sleeper-class compartment of an obsolete train. She listenedintently as he told her about the times when he wished he was like the rempits whose motorcycles screamed down the highways, dozens, sometimes hundreds of them, racing at the dead of night like desperate migratory birds, risking death for those few adrenaline-soaked moments that livened up their dull realities. But unlike those washed-out drug addicts and small-town boys hoping for a better life, he had no chance of escaping his. His father would see to it.
He would never talk about his trip. Rather, he would banish it to the back of his mind once it was over and return to a life already planned out for him, and in time he might even forget his journey.
“But have you ever spoken to your father about this?” she asked.
He laughed. “If you knew my father then you would know that is impossible.”
He spoke up after an awkward silence. “You seem uncomfortable. If I’m bothering you then I’m sorry-”
“No, it’s not you. It’s just that I have so much that I want to say, but next to yours my problems are not important at all…”
“Everything’s important,” he told her. “You can tell me. I’ll listen.”
She looked tired but she spoke on, even as the hours stretched on.
At Tanjong Pagar, one of her relatives would be waiting for her, a bird’s nest tycoon who did not know what she looked like, but he would be holding a placard with her name on it. There was to be a family reunion, which was held annually in a different fancy location each year. Her parents could not make it and insisted that she return home to represent them.Yet she barely remembered any of the relatives who would be there, and would be out of place, the sojourner who had returned to people and places she barely knew.
Her confusion grew as she reached Asia. In the short fortnight she had spent travelling, touching down in Bangkok via Hong Kong, taking a train from there to the Thai border near close to Tumpat,where the geography was so fluid that Kelantanese and southern Thais spoke a mixture of each other’s dialects as they wandered across the Golok, she suddenly felt a confusing mismatch of feelings. She was finally in touch with a missing part of herself, but at the same time she felt that she was unwelcome, having forgotten her own roots years ago.
A sojourner. That was what she was as she travelled onward to Singapore. She did not have a home or a past, only a future where endless paths stretched terrifyingly.
They continued to talk, like old friends reunited, sharing more and more details on their confused lives. They spoke of bitterness and happiness and politics and economics, and love and life and the promise of the future. There was a burning intimacy in the conversation that they knew, even after promising to contact each other in the future, that they would probably never experience again, their lives intersecting briefly on the Jungle Railway,bound for a station that would soon cease to exist. They would drift apart after that night. No matter what promises they made to change their lives, those were just promises, crafted from thin air and the heat of the moment.Empty words, spoken with passion but without conviction.
The train eventually broke from the jungles, daybreak flooding the compartment as they stopped briefly at Gemas interchange for breakfast. It was where the East and West coast lines met, converging to share the same route through Johor. He bought a packet of sugarcane for her at the platform while the conductors and the driver smoked at the edge of the rails after a breakfast of Gardenia white bread and kuihpandan purchased from the early-morning station vendors. The imam with his Koran had already disappeared, as if he had slipped into the jungle.
They were both exhausted by then, having barely slept. Their journey that would have ended in the blink of an eye by plane, had stretched out all night, as if they were in a different time and place, transfixed like museum dioramas.But by then their conversations had slowed down as they strolled along the platform, watching as trains filled with letters and cargo and commuters pulled in and out of the interchange.
He did not need to tell her that he had a crush on her. Surely she could sense it too! But it would be fleeting and he would forget it by the time he returned to Penang, to continue becoming a doctor, while she returned to Canada to become yet another member of the great Malaysian diaspora, families fleeing at every opportunity they got, passports stamped and visas collected, leaving from one city for the rest of the world.
He felt a sense of regret as they returned to the train with its silver paint and liveried conductors. It had been so long since he was last able to speak so freely, with the kind of abandon that only comes when talking to a stranger. He could not explain why he had feelings for her. Perhaps he was mistaking his own excitement and daring for infatuation. Or perhaps, love just happened, without warning, and without reason.
Tanjong Pagar, officially leased to KTM for 999 years, still bore the insignia of the Federated Malay States Railway, as well as the hallmarks of colonialism: murals of farmers and rubber tappers and tin dredges that were sometimes still found in the abandoned mines of the Kinta Valley. It was there that they disembarked with the small crowd that still persisted in taking the train despite its antiquity, and they collected their bags and duly passed through Customs. All around them, huge notices proclaimed the grand closing ceremony of the station, where the Sultan of Johor himself would commandeer the last KTM out of the terminus to much fanfare.
They saw the old hawkers who ran their stalls at the station; when the party was over the hawkers would leave.Some of them who had already done so, kitchens dismantled and formica tables sold off, migrating back to the peninsula for new work. Where would they go? Would they head to the boom towns of Tanjung Puteri or Batu Kawan, or back to their villages in the heart of Pahang for a quieter life?
“That’s my uncle,” she said, as they neared the open doors to the street, adjusting her sunglasses. “I have to go. The gathering is at Marina Bay in three hours. Promise me you’ll keep in touch?”
“I will,” he promised. But he knew that even if they did, they would become just acquaintances, whatever intimacy they had shared on the night train just a faded memory.
They hugged under the white dome of the terminus. Reluctantly, they parted ways.
Author’s Bio: William Tham, 22, is a Malaysian citizen currently studying in Vancouver, Canada. This story is based on his experiences crossing the Malaysian peninsula by rail. He has had several short stories published in anthologies by Malaysian independent publisher Fixi Novo, namely ‘Love in Penang’ and ‘KL Noir: Blue’. His blog can be accessed here.
Adik-younger brother/sister, used to refer to a young person by elders.
Istana-Palace, referring to the palace of Malaysia’s supreme monarch (there are 9 Malay royal families)
Jalan Stesen-Literally ‘Station Road’, it runs parallel to the railway station in Tumpat, Malaysia.
Jambu-A tropical fruit.
KTM-Malaysian national railway company, Kereta-api Tanah Melayu, or the Federated Malay States Railway.
Kuih Pandan-Desert made using pandan leaves.
Mak Cik-A polite term referring to an older woman.
May 13-Infamous racial riot in 1969.
No lah, saya orang sini-Colloquial, meaning “No, I’m a Malaysian too.”
Raya-Literally translated, it means ‘celebration’, but is commonly associated with Islamic festivities such as Eid al-Fitr.
Pedalaman-The interior, usually used to refer to regions in the jungle.
Rempit-Illegal motorcycle street racers.
Sungai Perak-A river in Malaysia, literally the Silver River.