Short Story ID- 1/2015
My dear Isaka,
How many mothers have been forced to leave their children, only to communicate with them through letters? I am penning these words inKuching, bythe muara of the Sarawak River. I was told, and I believed, that you were still there. But by the time the steamer from Simanggang had docked by the bazaars, I was too ill to continue the journey to the Rajah’s palace. Dol, who was there to meet me, escorted me to the hospital instead. This faithful, quiet man, who once worked for my Abang Aing, my adopted father, quietly informed me that he would carrythese letters to you while I recuperated.
So now I express my thoughts in jawi. How strange these calligraphic letters must seem to you, and Dol, who was well-schooled in memorising Qur’anic verses after spending his childhood with an imam in LubokAntu, will have to read them to you. But how old will you be before you can truly understand each of these letters? One day, I hope that you will look back and read them from start to finish, to understand why I have decided to break my silence after all these years.
I doubt that you remember so much as my face. You were but two years old when we parted ways at Simanggang, I have wondered if you ever recalled your early life on the upriver regions of the Batang Lupar, fresh with the sickly-sweet smell of the jungle and drying spices, the caws of the hornbills, and the sight of the benak swamping perahu and sampans and even steamships. How about the house that we lived in, decorated with an assortment of kerisand geometric Arabic carvings? But for the last few years of your life you’ve known only the confines of the Rajah’s palace,and the secret world of your infancy is surely locked away.
I will write more if I can, but my progress is slow. I can only write a few lines at a time. Each week, Dol will walk to the Hospital to bring my letters to you. And most importantly, never forget that you are the Rajah’s son.
Another week, another letter. God-willing, I will explain to how I encountered your father. The Rajah will never tell you how this happened. In fact, Dol tells me that he has been expressly forbidden from mentioning my name in Kuching Town. My arrival in the capital is still a secret to Rajah Charles, who, I have heard, is no longer on speaking terms with his English bride.
I was fifteen when I first met him. He had been brought to the house of my adopted father unconscious, his ship having capsized just downriver. I remember that afternoon well. The monsoons had struck, drowning the trees and swelling the river. The bore had swept along and I instinctively understood that the half-drowned white man must have been a victim. Down by the river-bank, I saw farm boys and fishermen hastily running for the wreck, while Abang Aing, his son Arif, and Dol carried the young Englishman between them, up the wooden steps and into the guest-room. Outside, drenched sailors covered in wounds were limping along while the rescuers carted salvaged goods from the wrecked yacht; chipped Chinese vases, medicines in tins, and a biola snapped cleanly into half. The rest of the crew was surely dead, claimed by the crocodiles and the river.
“Who is that man?” I emerged from my room once the excitement had subsided, and with Dol watching over the youth who lay prostrated upon a mattress.
My adopted father was wiping the rain from his face as he spoke, while another servant brought out a pot of tea. “Ah,” he said with a sly smile. “That is the Tuan Muda himself.”
The Tuan Muda! The news electrified me. We had all heard of the EnglishmanJames Brooke, who had come from across the seas to become the Rajah Putehof Sarawak. My adopted fathercheerfully governed the river as the Rajah’s newfound ally, and a Resident had even been installed at the nearby fort.
But nothing ever proceeded neatly in Borneo. Resident Lee had quickly been killed by Rentap, the great war-chief. The people of the Interior called him the World-Shaker. The half-dead Tuan Muda, nephew of Rajah James, had come deep into Iban territory as Lee’sreplacement and already it looked like he would not survive the night.
I met Charles before dinner, just after the Maghrib prayer. Before I could sample the gulaiayam, Dol emerged, whispering that the Tuan Muda was awake. Your grandfather departed without sampling the morsel of rice already between his fingers. I followed.
Charles was lying on his mattress when I entered the room, protected from the mosquitoes by a muslin cloth draped over the window. To my wonder he already spoke some Malay.The accent was strange but he knew the words, as if he had been diligently studying a kamus. Dol had stepped aside to fetch some rice for the young man, and Abang Aing turned to me.
“My adopted daughter, Dayang Mastiah,” he introduced.
Dayang. The title should not have been mine. I was really only a distant niece of his, rescued as a mere child after my real parents were both killed. We had been upriver at Kanowit, where my father’s trading post was raided by an Arab Syarif’s mercenaries. My father refused to surrender. The pirates set fire to the building. I heard spears and parangs clashing from where I hid. A frightened servant rescued me from the ruins. I was crying for my parents but they were surely burning to their deaths. For a month I lived with the servant’s family in a shack with a nipah roof that leaked each time the rains came, until my uncle’s dhow finally arrived. Without question, he adopted me. I thus became an accidental noble.
“Assalamualaikum,” the Englishman greeted me in the Moslem fashion.
“Walaikumsalam,” replied I. “I hope you are not too badly injured, Tuan.”
He managed a smile. “I am nobody’s Tuan,” he said. “I’m simply your servant. The Rajah sent me to be the Resident, after the attack by Rentap…”
“You are here to capture the World-Shaker, aren’t you?” I voiced my suspicions.
“Tia, cukup,” your grandfather said sternly. He then apologised to the Englishman.
The Tuan Muda stared at me. “She is right,” he breathed. “I must make Rentap pay for his murders. He may be a freedom-fighter to the people of the Ulu, but to me he is just a criminal.”
“You are English,” Abang Aing shook his head. “Your customs and laws have no place in Borneo.”
“Perhaps I need new ones,” he countered.
I would not have known then that this young man would later become the Rajah Charles after his uncle’s death.
This is all I can write today. Dol is coming today to collect this letter, and he has already notified my husband that I am ill. Take care, my son, and may you be well.
I have no photographs of you. Neither do I have one of myself. My likeness does not adorn museums or the walls of the house in Simanggang. Meanwhile, Rajah Charles’s portrait appears in the Sarawak Gazette and the offices where his bureaucrats work with typewriters and telegraph-machines. Nothing shows the three of us together, as if we never existed, as if my story was a hallucination dreamt up by the opium-smokers in the Chinese Quarter. But I don’t need pictures to remember you. You were such a handsome child, dark as any native, and you ran and crawled through the lawns of the garden of the Astana in Skrang where your father and I lived for two short years.
All I have of you are memories, and I fear that is all I will ever have. As I grow weaker, they become confused and fleeting. The happy days in the Astana are the ones that I remember least of all. All those times spent with the Rajah are shot through by pain. You must imagine that I hate him but I still love him. Yet I do not know if he still thinks of me.
Our marriage was shaky from the start. I was pregnant with you when Abang Aing paid an unannounced visit to Skrang. He had arrived by dhow in the evening, and disembarked on the dirt paths by the Iban longhouses. It was almost Gawai. The tuak was being brewed and the rice-harvest was almost completed. The sound of boys practising the drums hung in the air as my adopted father entered the modest Astana, where Charles and I sat in the garden. From there, the view is beautiful. You can look out at night and see the stars stretching an infinite depth into the sky, constellations tracing out a path through the darkness, framed by the ridges of the Interior and perfumed by honeysuckle. We had been talking about something I no longer remember when my adopted father made his presence known.
After the formalities, he settled himself down on a rocking-chair. “My servant Dol, whose relatives work in Kuching, tells me that Rajah James may die soon,” he muttered. “And that you are being considered as the new Rajah.”
Charles did not meet his gaze. “He has mentioned the possibility,” Charles uttered. “But I don’t believe he is serious. He has plenty of other relatives to consider…”
“We both know,” my adopted father said sternly. “that your ballah defeated Rentap at Sadok. You are James Brooke’s nephew. You have the support of the people and the Rajah himself. The other heirs are either mad or scoundrels. Who is better qualified to be king?”
“Well…there is nothing to fear. You must come with me to Kuching if that ever happens. Everything will continue as it is.”
Abang Aing smiled sadly. “I will not go to Kuching to be among the infidel Datus. I am wary of their crocodile smiles and politics. When you become the Rajah, I will remain in Simanggang.”
“But you are my father-in-law…” Charles began.
“I worry for my adopted daughter,” he said, this time gazing at me. “The English will look down on her. She, me, we are Malays. She’ll never be accepted as a queen.”
My blood was cold and my skin clammy. “Abah, with all due respect…”
“Dayang Mastiah,” he said with a cold iron ring to his voice. “You must know your place. You married a Tuan Muda. But things are changing. The Rajah will have to find an English wife.”
Even the beady-eyed cicak on the rafters of the Astana seemed to have grown silent.
“She is my wife,” Charles said defiantly. I felt a surge of pride.
But in the end my adopted father was the wisest of us. He had lived so long and he understood politics perfectly. He would be proven right.
You were born amidst this turmoil. Weeks after your first steps in that same garden, a sailing boat came for Charles after his return from an upriver raid at Katibas. A messenger conveyed the news that he was now the king, and from being the daughter of a poor Kanowit trader, I had become the Rajah’s wife.
Within months my own happiness would crumble. My world disappeared, and I would lose you. All that I would retain would be a birth-certificate proclaiming that I had a son named Isaka.
My darling son,
Last week, Dol told me that you are now called Esca. My husband, Arif, was with me at the hospital. We both listened while Dol told us about how you had shyly posed in front of a camera in Malay dress, while the Rajah watched on. In the far side of the palace, the Ranee, his English wife, was waited on by her retinue of Datus, ignorant of your presence. But I don’t care which name you choose to go by. You are still my son.
It has been four years to the day I last saw you. The monsoons were long gone and the earth was dry under my feet as I carried you to the yacht where the Rajah had sailed on from Kuching. He wore a ring of extravagant cost that must have been inherited from his new wife-he hated frivolities, dedicating his every dollar to the Treasury. His attendants had been dismissed. In the heat, the world looked dead, all life dried out from it. You were asleep, nestled under the woven batik cloth in my arms. Stoically, he watched me.
“Isaka will grow up to be a brave young gentleman,” your father said tenderly as he lifted the veil to gaze at your sleeping face. Even then, you looked more Oriental than English. “I will take him back to Kuching. Your father has insisted that Dol accompany us so that he can care for the child. I have an allowance set aside…”
I tried to imagine where your path would lead. Surely you would not remain in Sarawak forever. You would be taken somewhere else, perhaps to England, or maybe even to America, where it is said that one can begin a new life without their histories weighing down on them. But you would be out of place, a child half a world from his homeland.
“Goodbye, Mastiah. May we meet again.”
He could not meet my gaze as he gently took you. And reluctantly I let go. I turned away and never saw him again.
My dear boy,
The illness has worsened. It has been several weeks since I entered the hospital, and I am beginning to fear that I may never leave. Dol has convinced the Rajah’s personal physician to look at me, but even he, with his credentials from the universities of England, cannot diagnose my sickness. The rains distort everything-one may suffer from malaria or dengue, and even healthy young men die in their beds, their skins yellowed and their bones brittle. This sickness had followed me from the time I married Arif. My adopted father knew that nobody would wed me after my divorce from Charles. Only his son agreed to do so. Silently, we were betrothed. Just as silently we became husband and wife.
Do not misunderstand me, I do love Arif. He is as stoic as your grandfather, and equally fascinated by politics. But he lacks the same fearlessness and love that the Rajah felt for the vast Interior.
Arif had some knowledge of medicine, as befitted a man who had his sights set on becoming a Fort Officer. He had quinine and laudanum, some of which he administered to me in Simanggang. But even then I knew that I wouldn’t recover. The exhaustion of my own life and my separation from you had taken its toll. Even in a town where I had friends and relatives, I felt uneasy and weary.
Sometimes, my husband was requested to watch over the Skrang longhouses while the Resident took a leave of absence to Labuan. I travelled with him, but the jungle, which I had once spent years living in, overwhelmed me. The longhouses, full of life, reminded me of the thirteen years that Charles had spent amongst the Ibans. He had become one of them, eating their food and dressing in their style. Every eye was on me when I entered, the stern tattooed men who told the story of SingalangBurong knowing without a doubt that I was the woman that Charles had once been wed to, now dispatched as he took on a rich spinster with the money to keep Sarawak afloat.
I owe so much to the Ibans though, especially the women. Even though I was a stranger in their midst, they cared for me, making sure that I ate the boiled rice that they mixed in with chicken and vegetables, spiced by white peppers.
“You still love the Rajah, don’t you?” my husband asked one night in Skrang as we sat under the crescent moon on the steps of our bungalow.
“I cannot lie to you.”
“He is a charismatic man,” Arif admitted, taking my hand in a rare show of intimacy. “But there’s nothing either of us can do. He has made his choice, and I am afraid that nothing you do or say can change your own history. This is an island where we will go on to live separate lives. The Malays and the English and the Dayaks and the Chinese will talk and barter with each other, but can never truly be one people. I’m afraid it is the reality of our lives, Tia.”
I remembered that I had taught Charles a similar lesson. Years before, when he had first moved upriver and was learning about the customs of the people from your grandfather while preparing for an eventual attack on Rentap, I had taught him the languages. I understood all the subtle differences between the Iban and Malay languages, and painstakingly, he learned them.
I had grown to know Charles so well. We grew older together, and in return he told me about his life in England, the damp, cold country where frigid snow fell from the skies, where his famous uncle returned to after bouts of illness in Sarawak, his apprenticeship in the British Navy, and his love of adventure which had landed him on the confluence of two hemispheres. And he talked on, about the expeditions into the ulu, over the rapids with his ballah of warriors and war-perahus, off to face warlords and pirates, where the spirits of the Kayan and Penan dwelt and the world, for once, seemed to make perfect sense.
But that was a long time ago.
Dol says that the Rajah wants to send you away. It is impossible for you to remain in the same palace as the Ranee Margaret, especially since she fears that you will someday be declared the Rajah’s true heir. Perhaps she fears me too.
I am told that the Rajah has a friend, an archdeacon named Daykin, who has agreed to adopt you. Dol will accompany and keep you safe on your travels. I can hardly imagine that you will see so much of the world in your youth. You will pass through the burning heat of the Red Sea, navigate the Suez Canal at Alexandria and arrive in London.You will surely take the archdeacon’s name and become Esca Daykin. In time you will travel further still.But where to? South Africa, where seafaring Malays have made their home, or perhaps to the Dominion of Canada, where the Rajah has relatives?
I suspected that you would be taken away from Sarawak in the end. I want nothing more than to see you one last time before you and Dol depart for a place where the food lacks taste and the people dress in elaborate costumes, where the stars that shine in the night sky are completely different, as if we are separated on different worlds.
If marriage could cause me so much pain, why did I consent to be Charles’s wife? Why would I choose to marry a man when I knew that I could be left behind, not even to be recorded in any of the annals or his diaries? You are too young to comprehend the subtleties of politics or the affairs of the heart, but when you have had your fair share of lovers and broken hearts, you will finally understand.
For my adopted father, a wedding was advantageous. He would be the Tuan Muda’s father-in-law, and his power over the interior would be cemented. He would be remembered in history, perhaps one day schools and towns would be named after him. We both knew this the moment I accepted Charles’s proposal. But he failed to realise that I so willingly agreed to his plan because I had fallen in love with Charles. I admired this intrepid Englishman so far away from his cold island, thrust into a world that he had happily adopted. But my heart bled. I knew that he had mistresses and the Englishwomen in Kuching were making plans to court him.
I never knew how he truly felt until the night I met him alone at his Astana.
It was an unusual request. Ordinarily, he would only ask for me when he paid visits to Abang Aing. But this was a private request. My adopted father was not insulted. In fact, he was delighted, and Dol prepared the dhow for departure. We navigated upriver towards Skrang. Along the way we could smell roasted pork and tuak, and there was a scene of celebration when we disembarked at nightfall. The Ibans in the longhouses, members of Charles’s ballah, were dancing. Against the odds, they had returned from Sadok, where Rentap had made his last stand. Victorious. The brave warlord himself had retreated further inland, vowing to resume the battle against the Brookes when he recovered his strength. Even in our house, my nephews were celebrating, uttering war-whoops and fighting with wooden parangs and guns, commemorating the destruction of the ironwood walls of Rentap’s bulletproof fortress. I was told that Charles himself set fire to the World-Shaker’s longhouse in a show of might.
The Tuan Muda’s servants let me in, and I found myself in the garden once more. It had not been tended in the weeks that Charles had spent upriver under the rains and amongst the heat and leeches of Sadok. He stood amidst the wilted hibiscuses that he had lovingly planted, staring into the distance, perhaps towards Sadok itself.
“Tuan Muda, the men told me you were sick,” I said softly. “But you look well.”
“I lied,” he said after a while. “Forgive me.”
He turned around and I saw that his browned face held secrets from me, as if his own veins were flowing with a hidden pain.
“Dayang Mastiah, may I speak frankly?” His voice quivered, as if he was forgetting the Malays syllables he had spent years learning.
“Of course,” I said.
He continued, speaking a creole smattered by English and Malay words. “Rentap’s fortress was on the cliff,” he breathed. “We spent months-years-hunting him down. I was beginning to think that he was a ghost, or perhaps he had never existed at all. But that evening he was within our reach. We had hauled the cannon to the top of Sadok with brute force and breaking bones. Men were suffering from exhaustion and dysentery but I pressed on. It rained but we fired through the mud. We fired until the cannon broke. The fortress was on fire. But all we saw inside was a pile of corpses, and beyond that, a chasm so deep that it seemed to stretch all the way to hell. Neraka. And Rentap was not there.”
The Tuan Muda was stammering.
“The men mustn’t see me like this. I need to show them I’m strong. But inside, I’m afraid. I cannot take this life of war and fighting. But it is my whole life and I cannot run away.”
“I wish I could help you, Charles,” I said at last. “But I am only an unimportant Dayang. I’m sorry…”
“But you have,” the Tuan Muda smiled at last. “You listened. You are the one person I can show this side of myself to. Nobody else. Not your father or the Rajah or the Ibans.”
I could not have imagined that he was pouring out his deepest secrets to me, and I understood implicitly where our conversation as headed.
“You must have had many women to confide in,” I said teasingly. “I hear about those nights at the longhouse and in Kuching.”
“No,” he said softly. “Only you.”
My world has constricted to the brick walls of a hospital where I am continuously fed broth and medicine, but there is no escape from it. Only Dol and Arif are my visitors. I had come to Kuching to see you but I can go no closer, separated by disease from meeting youafter all these years.
I have wondered what it would have been like to meet the Ranee Margaret, had I arrived at the Palace in person. The servants and the visiting Iban dignitaries would have been astounded by my daring, and perhaps for once the Rajah would turn to them and admit that I had once been his wife. But of the Ranee Margaret I cannot imagine her reaction.
I saw her only once before, sometime after my divorce. The Rajah was in Simanggang, ostensibly on a tour of duty, in reality to speak to me, and he had brought his new bride with him. She was cooped up in the Astana while he journeyed alone to see me.
“You bastard,” I had screamed when he came to inform me of his plan to take you away. We were in the guest-room of the house while he left the Ranee at the Astana, and not even Abang Aing protested. “You leave me, and now you want to take my son away.”
“He is right to,” my adopted father admitted. “The Datus have all the power now. I am just an old headman on a river-bank. Isaka deserves more than to live in Simanggang for the rest of his life. If he follows Rajah Charles, he will be become a Western gentleman. Think of the future, my daughter. It is for the best.”
Charles could not bring himself to say anything in my presence. “So you will never mention me again. I will be a ghost, like I’ve never existed,” I spat.
“I had no choice but to marry the Ranee,” he said at last. “I needed the money. I would gladly have married her mother if I had to.”
“Go away,” I said.
He obeyed and left. But I knew even then that you had no future in the up-river. You had a chance to experience a better life. I couldn’t keep it away from you.
I did not sleep all night. Before daybreak, on an impulse, I went to see the Ranee. It was still early and the roosters were yet to rise. Charles was upriver, summoned to quell a disturbance after the murder of a Chinese gardener. Silently, I entered the Astana, past the sleeping guards who had imbibed too much tuak. I passed through the corridors of the house which had once been my home, and eventually I reached the bed where I had once slept. In my place was the Ranee, a stern and beautiful woman tucked under the silk duvets. How I wanted her to awake and demand an explanation, and I would tell her everything. But she didn’t. I left the same way I came: In silence, without beat of drum.
Dol, when he came to collect my last letter, told me a story.
I had not contacted the Rajah since the day we parted ways in Simanggang. And now that he is estranged from the Ranee, with her having enough of the jungles and the heat of the equator, I believe that he wants nothing more than to return to the days when he could simply be one of the people.
He had gone upriver to the old Astana in some months ago, without my knowledge. Dol went with him, ostensibly to mourn for his late mother in LubokAntu. There were no raids or disturbances and his visit had been kept a secret. Instead of going to the longhouses like he usually did, Rajah Charles paced the garden, eventually settling in the rocking-chair. There, he spoke to Dol at length about his life with me, and Dol hesitantly told him that I was happy with my new marriage, and even mentioned my sickness.
“Convince her to go to Kuching,” the Rajah said as he cut a cheroot with trembling hands. “My doctor will look at her.”
“I will. Shall I tell her that you have decided that Isaka will be a member of Archdeacon Daykin’s family?”
“Isaka is her son. She deserves to know.”
He inhaled and offered a cheroot to the devout Dol, who declined.
“No parent,” the Rajah croaked, “should ever be separated from their children.”
To Dol’s unease, the Rajah bowed his head and cried.
One night, I had a dream.
My wedding night. There I was on the dais with your father, who was dressed in yellow, in front of Abang Aing’s house. The guests watched with approval, the men dressed in silken Baju Melayu with their best songkoks, the women in batik sarongs embroidered with gold thread and intricate swirls. The Ibans had journeyed from Skrang to solemnly watch as their chief was finally married, stitched jackets over bare chests, and there were even Chinese and European traders present, dressed in samfoos and bow-ties. They would not know they were witnessing the wedding of a man who would be king, and a woman who would be erased from history as if she had never lived. Over the food, there were explosions of Oriental fireworks and the beating of kompangs. I was smiling, I had never been so happy.
Later, we were standing in the Astana, facing the garden.
“You were prepared to marry me after all,” I said. I was twenty-and-eight and deeply in love.
“You will not leave?”
“If we have a son, what would you call him?”
Without hesitation, he replied.“Isaka.”
Author’s Bio: William Tham Wai Liang, 22, is a Malaysian writer currently living and working in British Columbia, Canada. He has had a strong interest in the White Rajahs of Sarawak, and this story was based on careful research and some speculation about the life of the nearly-unknown ex-wife of the second Rajah, Sir Charles Brooke. He has had several short stories published in anthologies by the Malaysian independent publisher Fixi Novo, including ‘KL Noir’ and the upcoming ‘Cyberpunk: Malaysia’.