This short story was written in Malay by Mohamed Latiff Mohamed. It was translated into English by Nazry Bahrawi.
I was the happiest person that evening. We were due to leave for Changi Airport at eight, where I would finally be meeting my brother after three long decades. I tried to imagine what he would look like. Ibu said that he resembled my dad the most among all the children. I visualised him with a fair complexion. Not as pasty as a Caucasian, of course, but he would most certainly not be as dark-skinned as the rest of us. After all, he had been in England, not just for a couple of months or years, but for four decades.
I had always wondered how he became a British citizen. He was born here. According to Ibu, he left for England while he was going through a period of despondence. He first found work as a sailor. Over time, he built a life. Got married. Had children. His three young ones were of English-Javanese descent. Based on the photos that he sent us, they were strapping young lads.
“Ibu, what was he despondent about?” I asked her one day when she was in the mood to talk about him.
“It was over a girl. He felt dejected. So he went. He was crazy about that girl. Head over heels. But when I asked for her hand in marriage, she rejected me. She chose someone well-to-do. That’s why your brother left.”
I visualised his demeanour. Surely, he would be hyper-modern. He would speak with a British accent. He probably dined with a fork and knife. He would possess European mannerisms. Everything about him would be Western. I envisaged his appearance. His fair skin would have a reddish hue. The skin tones of a Javanese mixed with English. How wondrous!
I then tried to picture his wife. A full-blooded English woman. What did she see in him? How did my brother treat her? Was it easy for them to get married? How was her cooking? My brother must be so used to dining like an Englishman. He must eat potatoes, cheese, and butter daily.
“When is his flight scheduled to land?” asked Ibu as she peered nervously at the huge clock in the arrival hall.
“In fifteen minutes, if all goes well,” I replied, trying to assuage her anxiety. I could sense that Ibu was aching to see him. After all, it had been thirty years since she last held him in her arms. It is the nature of mothers to be maternal; and mine was no different. Without fail, she would speak of him at every Hari Raya gathering. She had expressed her hope that he would meet her sooner than death.
Once, she had even expressed a desire to visit my brother in England. We managed to collect some money to fund her trip. Yet, when we had finally gotten enough, she decided against going. Instead, Ibu instructed me to pen dozens, even hundreds, of letters to my brother. Tell him to come home, she said. Come visit, his mother is old. His mother misses him. Her eyesight isn’t as sharp. She can’t hear as well. All manners of things she had instructed me to write.
Thus, I became the conduit for her feelings. Each month, Ibu would prod me to pen another letter. Each week, she would ask me if he had replied.
“Has it landed?” asked Ibu impatiently. She was visibly restless. She could not sit or stand in one place for long.
“Which door will he come out from?” she asked, just seconds later.
“There, that door right in front of us,” I pointed to the arrival gate that would soon be graced by my brother’s presence. Squinting, Ibu’s eyes stayed transfixed on the gate.
I could sense the boundlessness of Ibu’s love for her child, her son she had not seen for three decades. In an attempt to calm her, I asked her to recount the reason for my brother’s departure, though I had heard it countless times. “A girl. Your brother was foolish. If I were a man, I wouldn’t have felt as rejected. If a girl wasn’t into me, I could always find another. There are plenty of girls in this world. She wasn’t even pretty!” said Ibu, sounding bitter that my brother had left out of unrequited love.
“If your brother hadn’t left, he might’ve been a school principal today. Before he left, he was a trainee teacher. Fool! Ran away because of a girl,” Ibu kept going. Meanwhile, my brother’s plane was delayed by ten minutes.
Moments later, my brother appeared. As he exited the gate, Ibu rushed to him. He hugged her, and pecked her on her forehead and cheeks. He kissed her hand. Tears lined Ibu’s cheeks. My brother looked calm. I suppose he had matured in a foreign land. Having spent much of his adulthood elsewhere, he would not be the soppy or sentimental sort. I too hugged him. He looked fit. He did not seem fifty-eight years old. More like forty-five. His face was clear, his cheeks full, and his eyes sparkling. His lips had a perpetual gloss.
“Where’s your wife? Didn’t you say she was coming?” asked Ibu.
“No. She couldn’t get off work,” said my brother in near perfect Malay. He alternated his gaze between Ibu and I. “Where’s Timah and Ramli?” he asked.
“They’re waiting for you at home,” Ibu replied.
My brother had on him a perplexed look throughout the taxi ride home. He was rather taken aback by the changes in the local landscape. “So this is what became of Temasek.”
I was surprised to hear him use that word. Temasek.
“Singapore has progressed much too quickly,” he added.
His eyes darted left and right. His jaw stayed agape. Confused. Impressed. Amazed. I could imagine a tide of emotions surging within him. He enquired after every road name, every lane, as the taxi sped towards Marsiling.
We talked through the night. I asked about his life in England. Turned out that my brother had never forgotten his ethnic roots. He still practiced writing the Jawi script. He still enjoyed eating belacan. He kept up with developments in Malay literature. He was familiar with A. Samad Said and was keen on discussing his novel Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan. He had been close to Malaysian graduates in England. There, he would invite anyone from Singapore and Malaysia to his home for a chat.
“Take me to Kampung Wak Tanjung tomorrow,” he requested. “I miss my childhood playground.” I was speechless as my mind raced for an answer. Nothing was left of the Kampung Wak Tanjung that my brother knew. Bulldozers had obliterated that place years back. Eventually, I found my tongue. He was clearly stricken by the news. One could see that he was gripped by a sense of remorse.
“Take me there anyway. At the very least, I could still see the ground that had been beneath it,” my brother said dejectedly.
I acceded to his request and brought him there the next day. At his former childhood playground, my brother remained deep in thought as he lingered over the red earth. It was as if he was ruminating over a complex riddle. After some time, he asked to be taken to Sekolah Padang Terbakar. Once again, I found it hard to acquiesce. He insisted. I relented. Once there, I could see my brother overcome with a sense of wistfulness. He was standing at the site of his former school, an institution that did not survive Singapore’s development.
“How did it get to this?” he asked.
“Advancement. Progress,” I answered defensively. I detected a certain cynicism in his question.
“Is it progress to discard the old? Is it advancement to demolish the past?”
I kept quiet. Both of us remained silent for a while.
“Thirty years. For thirty years, I yearned for my kampung. For thirty years, I indulged in the sweet memories of my childhood playground. My formative years in beautiful Temasek. It’s all gone now. This change is harrowing,” he said, sounding like a true-blue poet. There was something strikingly romantic in the way he said it.
“The Singapore you see today isn’t the same Singapore three decades ago. Today, Singapore is a huge cosmopolitan city. On par with London. On par with Tokyo or New York,” I said, with a tinge of nationalistic pride.
“We’ve got to accept these changes. The Malay community has advanced, too. They’re quite pragmatic these days. Always pursuing success. They don’t want to be left out of this march of progress. A community that doesn’t change is a community that’s dead. Frozen in its tracks,” I continued, having found the courage to answer him.
I was convinced that my brother needed to understand the social change that was happening here. It stumped me, though, that my brother, who had been living in England for three decades, was now so distraught by the news of the demolition of Kampung Wak Tanjung. I could not understand the reason for his cynicism about the progress that had taken place on the island.
“There is an abyss to this development you talk about; a deep chasm to this growth. I welcome change and progress but they must coincide with the spiritual evolution and cultural stability of a people. I worry that you’re all standing at the edge of this chasm of growth. You’re all teetering at the brink of this abyss. And you’re all naked. Not a single garment protecting your skin.”
“You speak the lingo of progress. I fear that you’re all much too small to face the monster that is unbridled development. I fear that you’ll all have to pay a high price for this advancement. You’ll all suffer a loss that you may never recover from. Everything is up for sale,” came my brother’s morose reply.
I thought about his words as he played with the sand at what was once his alma mater. He peered at something in the distance. A flood of memories must be unfolding before his eyes. A thousand remembrances were probably passing through his mind. I thought this was an opportune time to continue our debate.
“Do you think culture is crucial for our survival here? Do you think that our conditions accord us the time to protect all that is considered cultural and romantic? Do you think that our fast pace of life gives us the luxury to even be cultural? Is culture supposed to be the priority?”
I could see my brother grimace at my questions. He stared at me in confusion. I could not read his thoughts.
“I don’t know. Perhaps I’ve been away for far too long that I’ve lost touched with the pace of life here. I have no idea,” said my brother, who had started to sound depressed.
“We can’t be frozen in time. We mustn’t be static. There’re hundreds of cultural organisations here. They are dynamic. Drama clubs. Dance clubs. Hadrah Kompang associations. Gasing clubs. Silat. Literature. Lots of religious institutions. Beautiful mosques. We still have culture. If you take into account all of these, do you still think we paid a high price for development?”
He was quiet for a time. I felt bad about my string of difficult questions. Then, he broke the silence. He asked to be taken to Tanjung Katong. I told him that the place no longer existed. The land there had been reclaimed. Instead, I took him to Marine Parade.
There, he stared far beyond the horizon over the sea. He was reliving his former life. His youthful years. His first love. Tanjung Katong was where he whispered sweet nothings to her. What is the meaning of life without love? His lover had responded to his promises with hers. They must have promised to stay faithful to each other. The pursuit of fortune and status was not his priority. She was, and he would give her his all. He had been gripped by the feeling of a great love. And wherever he went, her face never left his mind. He found the world more beauteous in love. And he was madly in love.
He had urged Ibu to ask for her hand in marriage. She did as he asked. That was when things turned sour. The rejection had made him feel like the skies had fallen on him, crushing him. He had felt like the earth had swallowed him whole. All he could see were dark, stormy clouds.
He began to hate all within sight. He gave up all hope in life. His body became limp. His ambitions no longer mattered. He stopped taking care of himself. Love had killed his life. He was a man in deep tormented.
At a friend’s advice, he signed up to be a sailor, traveling where the ships would take him. He brought with his travels his spurned heart. As he continued to stare into the horizon, he pictured his first love as an elderly woman. She must be about fifty now. She would have grandchildren. She must surely have performed the obligatory hajj.
“Here, a materialistic person can thrive,” exclaimed my brother, out of the blue.
“So too in England. What’s the difference?” I responded in an attempt to contradict him.
“The changes here are frightening. They terrify me. Here, machines wipe out cultures.”
“Machines kill culture everywhere. This revolution will eventually obliterate us all,” I countered. “How do you feel living in a foreign land?”
“I’m happy. My wife’s a good woman. My children are bright and in good health.”
“But your spirit. How’s your spirit?”
“I do feel lost. To live where no one knows or appreciates your culture. Still, it’s better to live there than here.”
“What do we have here? It’s much better over there. I’m happier not looking at all we have lost.”
“Isn’t that running away? Escapism?”
“Ah, but all humans are always on the run. Who isn’t running away from something? Who?”
“If you get the chance to live here, will you?”
“No. I wouldn’t.”
“I no longer feel any ties to this place. Except for family. My only tie to this place is my love for my family.”
My brother saw Singapore as a city that had robbed him of love. But was it his failure at love that had tainted his view of this place? He had always sought excuses to dislike the conditions here. What kind of person was my brother? Malay or English? What was his culture now? Or was he a half-formed human being? Half-Malay, half-English? What was his attitude towards the British who had colonised us for hundreds of years? What were his thoughts about the Englishmen who had fooled his race? Signs of such insults were still apparent.
These questions whirled in my mind. I did not express them to him. I was afraid that staying here longer would only intensify his hatred of this place.
I studied my brother’s face. He looked like someone who had lost a priceless treasure. He was missing something that he could never again possess.
After spending a week here, my brother proclaimed that he had to return to England. He said his vacation time had run out. Ibu was sad to be separated from him again. She believed that this would be the last she would ever lay eyes on him. She bawled when sending him off. And for the first time, I saw my brother weep, too.
I imagined him seated in the belly of the plane, suffering from the grave loss of something amorphous. Something no words could capture.
Ibu collapsed in grief. I held her. We made our way back to Marsiling, as visions of my brother danced in our minds.
Mohamed Latiff Mohamed is one of the most prolific writers to come after the first generation of writers in the Singapore Malay literary scene. His many accolades include the Montblanc-NUS Centre for the Arts Literary Award (1998), the SEA Write award (2002), the Tun Seri Lanang Award, Malay Language Council Singapore, Ministry of Communication, Information and Arts (2003), the National Arts Council Special Recognition Award (2009), the Cultural Medallion (2013), and the Singapore Literature Prize in 2004, 2006 and 2008. His works revolve around the life and struggles of the Malay community in post-independence Singapore, and have been translated into Chinese, English, German and Korean. Two of his novels have been translated into English as Confrontation (2013) and The Widower (2015).
Nazry Bahrawi is literary critic and educator at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. As a literary translator, he works on transforming Bahasa texts into English. Nazry has translated Nadiputra’s play Muzika Lorong Buang Kok (2012), and Fuzaina Jumaidi’s poem “Tika Hamba Menjadi Tuannya” (2015) for the National Arts Council of Singapore’s Mentor Access Project, as well as the 2017 winning short story for the Golden Point Award, “Balada Kasih Romi Dan Junid”. He has also subtitled the classic Malay film Noor Islam (1960) produced by Cathay Keris. Nazry was formerly the interview editor of Asymptote, an international journal of literary translation.
Feature image © The Wellcome Trust at http://www.wellcome.ac.uk