by William Tham Wai Liang
I am back but it feels like an exotic holiday, not a homecoming.
The heat is too much even as we step into the carpeted lounge of our chalet at Saujana resort. My mother lifts the suitcase, which is unusually light. This time she has not brought anything back. No chocolates from Switzerland, no watches from Germany, and no Brazilian delicacies. Just a suitcase of practical clothes and broken dreams. At that moment she does not look like a diplomat any longer and she looks older than I have ever seen her.
“Mem, perlu bantuan tak?” the bellboy says. He is nervous, of course, and is unsure of whether to offer to help my mother or to let her suffer alone with the suitcase. How does one serve a traitor?
“Tak payah,” my mother replies. She sets the suitcase heavily on the floor and the bellboy departs, but not before mumbling in Malay so quickly that I cannot follow what he is saying.
There were no good signs anywhere. We had left twenty hours earlier on a direct flight back to the peninsula. Two weeks before, my mother had been contacted by Datuk Fadzil (the bastard), informing her of the decision. She was to leave the Consulate as soon as she could to return to Malaysia. I was there when she received the phone call in our living room in Arbutus. She was quiet for a while. She never wept. She was far too strong for that.
“I will be going home,” she said. I watched her slowly unclasping her handbag, reaching for her passport. “Can you take care of yourself for a week, sayang? You can stay with Pakcik’s family in the meantime…”
I told her that I would go with her. I had no exams left and I wanted to leave the cold city. Even more than that, I knew that my mother needed me, even though she never said so.
The flight aboard the MAS (business class of course, another perk of being a diplomat) was uneventful for the most part. The stewardesses were happy enough to chat with my mother in Malay, but when it came to me they were uncertain. They spoke in accented English that sounded painful to the ears. But it was the only language that we had in common.
Mother has been stressed for months. When she removes the headscarf I can see that even the dye she uses is not working, that her hair is slowly turning grey. I asked her if there was anything that I could do but she smiled sadly. “I have a lot of secrets,” she said. “But there’s only so much I can say, Nora. Don’t worry about mak. Just focus on your schoolwork.”
I wanted to tell her that I could not focus on my schoolwork when she was under so much pain, but it would be no use. I was only eighteen, just out of school and applying for a part-time job at the Nouveau, and she was my mother, the diplomat, who had worked so hard for so many years to get that post. She had given up hope of a normal life to get as far as she did and now everything she had worked for was crashing down around her.
I was with my mother when we watched the Elections. It was at the Consul-General’s house. Pakcik had somehow been able to stream the news from KL, and we watched impassively as the results were released. The funny thing was that none of them had shown any emotion that night. “We don’t tell anyone who we’re rooting for,” my mother had reminded me before we drove into the driveway of Pakcik’s house. She had never told me who she herself voted for.
When it was done and everything was over, Pakcik had got up unceremoniously. “Back to work,” he said kindly. “Looks like nothing has changed. It’s back to life as usual.”
My mother did not say anything as we drove away from the house. We had lunch at a café down the road where she ordered an enormous plate of rice. Then she spoke. “It was not fair,” she said. “It was rigged.”
“Not like there’s anything you can do about it, mak,” I said.
“Trust me,” my mother said, her voice rising an octave. “We can do so much.”
My life had shifted uncontrollably as my mother moved from one office to another. One year I was in Singapore, where she was first posted as a Tourism Malaysia attaché. Then I was in a kindergarten in Germany. Or was it Switzerland? I no longer remember. And then I was growing up in a bitter winter, attending primary and high school in a place so cold that when I walked into the classroom after the walk from my house, my eyebrows and any exposed hair were crusted in fine frost. But it had been wonderful there. I felt free.
That had all been after my father left. I barely remembered him. I had been three then, or so my mother had said. They had never gotten along well, being match-made by his parents, one of whom had been a former attaché to the Prime Minister. My mother sometimes told me of the nights she had spent being ignored as my father ate noisily from the plate of rice and the dishes that she had prepared, back when she was still working in Tourism as a humble clerk. They split up in the end. I was told that there had been uproar in the newspapers. The son of Tan Sri __ was being divorced-by his own wife!
There had been a death threat before she left. A bullet sent to her in the mail. If you come back I will kill you.
But my mother had never been scared, had never looked back. She had ignored the death threat without even lodging a police report as she accepted her posting to Singapore.
“What was it like having to leave your whole life behind?” I asked her one evening after an entire day spent at the Consulate, worn-out after registering a bunch of Malaysian scholars.
My mother had regarded me with a detached sadness as she removed her coat, splattered with freezing rain. “I hope you never have to know,” she said. That night, she sat down at the mahogany dining table, typing tentatively in her newly-started blog, which I had spent hours trying to help her master. It was called Hati Nyamuk. Mosquito Heart. She had got it from an old Malay proverb. The words did not roll off my tongue as I pronounced the unfamiliar syllables. Hati gajah sama dilapak, hati nyamuk sama dicecah. What did it mean?
“We share everything,” my mother explained. “Malaysia’s not a big country, remember that. We should share what we have, petroleum, timber, and oil-palm….but I’m boring you. You have an exam to study for!”
I turned my attention to the Geography textbook, and I found myself flipping to the atlas, tracing out the outline of the peninsula. Kota Bharu, Pulau Pinang, Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru…those were places that I had barely known. They were like myths and legends, reminders of a place that I had spent barely four years of my life living in, a place I had never truly felt at home in, where I could hardly even speak the language.
My mother’s blog went too far. On the day after the 13th General Elections, she posted a scathing attack on the Party. She had lashed out at the ministers in their million-dollar houses and their fancy sports cars, at disappearing ballot boxes and magic blackouts, and most damningly, she had posted up a photograph of the Opposition standing in a stadium ringed by ten thousand supporters, chanting in the tropical night rain. REFORMASI, they cried. Reform! In the end she had not been careful enough. Datuk Fadzil (bloody bastard) had found out.
I met Datuk Fadzil when he flew to meet us as part of his North American tour. He was wearing a cravat under his massive fedora hat, bundled up tightly even though it was barely even fall. My mother warned me about him, the whistle-blower and sometimes-spy who wandered from embassy to embassy, under the guise of making sure everything was up to date. He had the most ridiculous moustache and a slow, deliberate way of speaking. He had arrived at the Consulate, ostensibly to discuss politics with the ministers, but it turned out that he had already lived a high life in the City after three days, taking a seaplane tour of the ski resorts in the Whistler-Blackcomb valley. He chatted with my mother and the rest of the office staff with crocodile teeth, and then he turned to me. He spoke so quickly that I could hardly understand him.
“Maaf,” I said. “I…Saya tidak begitu faham.” I had come straight from school, and was tired out. I had lost track of his words after they became muddled up in short forms and slang.
His eyebrows shot right into his thick hair. “What is this? You are Malay and you can’t follow what I’m speaking?”
I tried to explain. It was the same story each time I met another Malaysian outside of the Embassy, whose staff were sympathetic, with their own children speaking only English and French and sometimes Mandarin Chinese. “I grew up in four countries. I only lived in Malaysia for four years, you see. Less than half of my life. And I spent those years in international schools.”
He seemed to feign understanding but he lost interest and went back to my mother. They spoke a bit about the rallies back home as Elections drew closer and closer, and the chants for ‘Reformasi’ (Those protestors, why don’t they do something useful? It slows down our economy). Eventually he decided to leave (for a dinner of Alaskan King Crab at the Halal Restaurant down in Marpole), but not before making one last remark.
“Your daughter, make sure she wears a tudung when she goes back home. It is not appropriate,” he said bluntly.
Datuk Fadzil was in Vancouver for a few more days. He joked about the Opposition and the students who held demonstrations in front of the Art Gallery. But he seemed very interested in the Mosquito Heart blog. “It’s become very famous in Malaysia,” he said over a glass of pink Bandung syrup as the sun set over the skyscrapers. We were having a dinner at the Consulate, catered for by a Malaysian restaurant. “I mean, even the politicians are quoting from it! The blog post just went viral. Insyaallah, the people are more fascinated by it than Anwar’s antics! And it seems like it was posted by someone in Vancouver. I shall like to meet the person.”
My mother was not in the room when this happened, but I sensed that the Consulate staff was suddenly still. Did they know about my mother’s blog as well? I tried to intervene. “It could have been a student,” I said, trying to distract him. “Maybe one of your own JPA scholars.”
“Would you happen to know who did it?” Datuk Fadzil leaned towards me. His breath smelled of shallots and garlic and I tried not to gag. “I mean, it is very informed…sounds like only an insider could have written it…”
I could have sworn I paled and that something changed in Datuk Fadzil’s reptilian eyes.
“Is there something you want to say, Datuk?” the Consul eventually said.
“No, not at all,” Datuk Fadzil said in the end, smiling his crocodile smile again. “Everything is fine. Eh, mengapa tak mahu makan bihun…”
I think I am being followed. I was out on one of the first days back. There was nothing to do in Putrajaya. The Saujana resort was vast but empty, lush gardens full of nobody. Even the lobby looked deserted, except for an undernourished bellboy in a Baju Melayu a few sizes too large for him. Finally, my mother, who had been out for the first few days at the office in one of the Precincts, I don’t remember which, came back and looked at me as I watched TV serials on the idiot box. “You need to go out,” she said. “You’ll get bored in here. Have you contacted your friends yet?”
I told her that I had. I still had a few friends in Malaysia, picked up the last time I went to boarding school in Sri KL. There was Danielle and there was Nina, and there was Tommy (whom I had a crush on before he ended up with Nina, both of them now studying in Dublin) but it had been years since I had contacted any of them properly. Facebook helped, of course, and they were among the first to comment on my status after announcing that I was returning ‘home’. But only Danielle seemed to be free. My mother decided that Putrajaya, that vast, quiet city in the middle of nowhere and populated by no one, was safe enough for me to spend the day out. I did tell her that I would be careful, that I would snap photographs of taxi number plates and send them to her before I got in.
So I met up with Danielle at Alamanda, after she had agreed to take a bus down from Subang. The mall, like the rest of the city, was quiet. “Can you believe that the PM himself works here?” Danielle whispered as we walked through deserted corridors. “There’s nobody here at all. It’s so quiet, like a museum.”
We didn’t even feel the urge to talk loudly, or to laugh like we had done all those years ago. Certainly, we were not as close anymore, but also, the mall was so quiet and empty that it was just like a library or a tomb, imploring us to keep our voice down.
“It’s so weird,” Danielle continued talking after we had gone for frozen yoghurt, the man in the black glasses standing in line behind us looking confused at the choices on display. “You’re Malay, but you don’t act like you are.”
“Well, am I supposed to act?” I asked, annoyed by the question. Didn’t anyone else have anything else to ask me?
“Well, for starters, you don’t wear a tudung, and we’re in Putrajaya.”
“Danielle, we’re in a mall, not a mosque.”
“Still, it’s weird.”
Our conversations were becoming more forced. I did not know what else to say. The same feeling always gripped me whenever I went back to visit my grandparents in the kampong. I would be there with the tudung and my mother would be all smiles as they sat on old rattan furniture eating kuih, but I couldn’t say anything because I hardly understood. My grandmother could speak not one word, but my grandfather did give it a try. “Train,” he said once. “Train to Kluang, ten minutes!” I later found out that he had been a Station Master but that had been years ago, and dementia had steadily chewed up what was left of his language faculties. So I sat there like a deaf-and-dumb child, unable to do anything.
“Wait for me, yea,” Danielle said as we exited H&M (with its overpriced handbags and summer tops), as she went into the washroom. I took a seat on the bench, turning to gaze through the deserted mall, when I stopped. My heart raced a beat faster.
It was the man with the black glasses. He was nearly out of sight, but I recognised him instantly as he pretended to browse through the books in MPH’s storefront window, sometimes turning in my direction. For how hard was it to see a familiar face in a shopping mall with nobody inside?
Danielle? She was taking her time. I stared at the man again, and there was no mistake this time. He was walking closer, confidently now that I was alone.
I remembered my mother’s advice. “Look for a security guard,” he said. “You don’t know what people are like nowadays, there are so many sick people out there…”
I couldn’t wait any longer, my brain paralysed with fear. I started walking, and headed for the escalators. They took me up a floor and I kept walking. I was alone again. There were a few people around but no security guards. That was what happened when I showed up in a mall on a Monday morning…
He was there again. I turned a corner and saw him walking up another staircase, looking like the Terminator with his muscled arms and his expressionless face. I needed a place to hide. But where? The ladies washroom? No, too quiet. I turned and went straight into Chef Wang’s Kitchen. I instantly hurried for a seat as far away from the windows as I could, as the waiter came up. “What can I get for you?” he asked.
“Barbequed pork,” I said without thinking, suddenly thinking of the bustling Chinatown near my house, where my mother took me to even when it snowed. “Char siew?”
He looked at me funny. “Sorry, mem, we don’t serve that here. Non-halal,” he said. I felt my face redden. Good God, he thought I was some foreigner.
I selected something at random from the menu. “Please call your manager,” I said urgently. “I have to ask him something.”
The manager himself emerged, for who was he to ignore a foreigner’s request? He came in and spoke to me with a deferential faux-English accent. “Sorry Madam,” he said. “Is there an issue?”
“Yes,” I said urgently. “There is a man outside. Black glasses. I think he is stalking me.”
He sounded patronising as he replied. “We are in a shopping mall, miss,” he said. “I am sure it is just your imagination.”
“Well, it can’t be my imagination if the same man follows me up two flights of escalators, can it? Go and check for yourself. If not I will have to call the police.”
The manager did not want a scene, even when I was the only person in the restaurant. He nodded briefly and walked to the doors and when he returned, he looked serious. “I see him as well,” he said seriously. “But I can’t call the police. There is no proof and he is just sitting there. But sit here first. If he moves away I will tell you. Then it should be safe to go.”
In the meantime, he made the waiter bring out Peking duck rice (Halal certified, of course), and waived my offer to pay.
I looked at my phone and sent out texts. Danielle. I needed her to leave. It was not safe with the stalker in the mall. “Danielle, I was not feeling well. Had to leave. Sorry. You go home first.” Then I sent another text to my mother. “Mak, can you send someone to give me a lift? I think I’m being stalked.”
Then I sat there and waited, until the manager told me that it was safe to go. And there was a text back on my phone. “I’m sending one of the bodyguards to give you a lift,” her mother said. “Esmail, you remember him right? Wait for him at the cinema.”
As for Danielle, she did not reply back.
Torture. The whole return to Malaysia was a torturous idea. Back to a country where I had to watch behind my shoulders for strangers melting into the haze. To where people looked at me funny because I did not fit in all the right boxes. To the government’s rhetoric, and what had happened to my mother just because she had spoken out. She never told me but Mak Cik Aishah, wife of the Consul, had bluntly summarised everything. “Your mother couldn’t keep quiet anymore,” she told me in whispers at their Raya gathering in their house, an electric fire burning. “All of us were sick of what was happening, but she was the first to snap.”
I had turned and saw my mother in the living room. She was quiet and could barely even smile even as the children played noisily around her, chasing each other with satay sticks. The night before, the news had come through that my mother had been exposed as the author of the seditious Mosquito Heart, that she was a traitor and was on probation with immediate effect. Anything Datuk Fadzil said was like a commandment. Everyone turned on my mother like she was a criminal.
“Of course,” Mak Cik Aishah had said as her husband the Consul had returned to the living room to turn down the noise from the television, still wearing his dinner jacket, “She couldn’t have known that that man, Datuk Fadzil, would even bring it up. She didn’t even put her name on it. Imagine, if only she hadn’t done it, we could have been celebrating right now…”
I remembered what my mother had written on her blog: “As a Muslim, I should speak the truth. The punishment in the afterlife will be worse than anything in this world.”
“My mother was stressed, Mak Cik,” I said coldly. “She didn’t say anything to me but I noticed. She has been worried by everything that is happening back…home. She wanted to see change. Surely you must have wanted that too? And with all the cheating in the last election, it was the last straw for her. She didn’t care about whether she was a diplomat or not.”
Mak Cik Aishah had been quiet for a while as she unwrapped a ketupat. “We are all angry, even Pakcik CG,” she eventually admitted. “But we must keep our jobs.”
Meanwhile, on Twitter, the following meme was trending: ‘This kangkung is proof that I understand the People!’
After the incident with the stalker, I did not leave the resort much, preferring Saujana’s leafy confines to the outside world. But my mother was out most days, where she went for hearings at the Office. I asked to go as well but she refused to let me near it. It was only the day after finding out about the stalker that I was allowed to tag along in the converted Perdana that took us through the empty roads and to the marbled floors of the Office. My mother tried not to look afraid as she entered that quiet room. “Now you stay here, alright?” she told me. “I will be upstairs for a bit.”
I watched her climbing, as if to an execution. I then proceeded to wait. I was watched by Esmail, the bodyguard who had been appointed to us. He disappeared for a minute to light a cigarette. When he returned he smelled of smoke and for some reason, cloves.
“Your mother, she famous now huh?” Esmail said dryly.
“What do you mean?” I demanded.
“Sudah tengok The Star? The New Straits Times? She is in every newspaper now. People saying that she is being bullied by the gomen.”
“She is,” I said coldly. “If you can’t see that you are blind.” I was so angry with him that I couldn’t care less about what I was saying.
Esmail laughed. “We must keep our jobs,” he said. I did not speak to him after that, and we waited until my mother returned from upstairs, her face drawn. We left the office and returned to Saujana Resort.
“What happens now?” I asked her. We had been back in Malaysia for a week already, but she was not allowed to call her parents and relatives. It was as if we were in an immense, gilded prison.
“They want me to take down Mosquito Heart,” my mother said. From the television, the Prime Minister said something forcefully but unintelligible to the cheers of adoring devotees bedecked in red. “Then I might get transferred. No prison, insyaallah, but I will not be a diplomat any longer. They will probably put me in a Tourism Malaysia office somewhere in Kenya after all this.”
“Was it worth it, mak?” I asked.
She looked at me, her eyes moist. “Every moment of it,” she said.
The last time we were back in Malaysia before that was for a ball. The diplomats were called home every few years for debriefing and I was finally allowed to return to Malaysia with her. “See! Over there. That lady over there, if I’m not mistaken, is the ambassador to somewhere in South America, maybe Bolivia or Argentina, I’m not sure. You tend to lose track after you’ve been shuffled about quite a lot. That’s her daughter. Do you remember her? I doubt you do. You were both in the same school about eight years ago. What was her name? Visha, I think. Funny how one remembers details like that,” my mother had said excitedly. That was before the stress and strain had gotten to her, when she was still happy to promote Malaysia, Truly Asia, preparing visas and renewing passports.
One of the people at the ball turned his head and my mother pointed him out. “Be careful of him,” she told me. “That’s Datuk Fadzil. He made my friend lose his job at the Embassy in Brazil.”
Little did I know that four years later, he would be the reason my mother eventually returned home in shame. She had spent so long in silence, refusing to speak about her views, to be silent. Mosquito Heart had been her only escape and now it had ruined everything for her.
I have seen the man with sunglasses again. The first time I saw him, he was standing outside the resort. I stared back from behind the gates, hidden by a banyan, while he looked emotionlessly at the grounds. What did he want? Then he left in a souped-up Proton car.
The second time I saw him, he was sitting on the steps of by the roadside. He smoked a cigarette as he watched the Office where my mother went for hearings. I grabbed Esmail by the shoulder and pointed, but the man was gone. Esmail flashed me a dirty look and returned to reading his newspapers.
My mother did not say anything that night. I wanted to tell her about the stalker but I did not want her to panic. She looked so alone, even with me sitting with her at the café in Saujana. Nothing I could say would lift her out of the gloom, her whole life washed away.
“Tell me more about Dad,” I said to her that night.
My mother had always hesitated, refusing to say anything else. But that night she told me of unhappy nights and the glare of paparazzi, and the strain of him wasting his nights in the clubs, drinking away, and she had eventually left all of it behind. It had not been a simple departure. It had been messy and tangled in all sorts of bureaucratic nonsense, ending with a thinly-veiled death threat from my father’s family. I had no memory of him. Perhaps it was for the best.
“So what happens now?” I asked her at last. “Your hearing is going to end soon. Are they really going to post you to somewhere in Africa?”
“I am lucky for such a fate,” my mother said wryly. “You can’t make mistakes a as diplomat. I was always careful but it wasn’t enough. I didn’t even tell you anything about what I felt. But it is a terrible feeling. You have to keep secrets all your life. You are like a shell. An empty soul, with nobody to talk to. And now I have done it and everything is over.”
“Please, just talk to them again,” I pleaded. “Ask Pakcik for help…”
“No,” my mother said sternly. “Mosquito Heart has caused enough damage.” She stood up and left me for the living room. I closed her bedroom door and retreated to mine. On the ceiling there were two house-lizards, prancing uneasily. I watched them until I fell asleep.
I woke up later that night.
There was the sound of smashing glass from outside the room and sobbing. “Diam!” I heard a man saying from outside the door. “Dia kat mana?”
Shit. Someone had broken in. And I knew who it was. The stalker.
I glanced helplessly at my mobile. I had to call someone! But it would be too late, the man had my mother trapped outside and there was not enough time…
There was a muffled gasp. My mother!
I didn’t care, I had to do something. He had found my mother through my carelessness. I couldn’t let her suffer anymore…
The door next to mine was hastily kicked open. I picked up the ornamental vase from the table, and raised it as mine was kicked open next.
I hurled it as hard as I could and in the sudden glare of light I saw it shattering on the stalker’s face, his sunglasses shattering and him holding his hands to his eyes, screaming curses. I did not stop, and I picked up an umbrella and continued hitting him. He fell to the floor and I kept hitting him even when he stopped moving.
“Nora…please…” my mother’s voice was weak.
The man was unconscious, or perhaps dead, I didn’t care at that moment, but I ran out to see my mother with her gag spat out on the floor, her eyes red-rimmed. I untied her with shaking hands.
“That is him…Your father’s brother…he threatened me so many times because of the divorce…”
“Mak,” I said softly. “Mak, please, are you alright?”
There was blood on my hands but my mother didn’t care. She hugged me tightly. I didn’t let go.