Rat Alley for Real
After a short circuit round the block and being put off for further by the dark clouds, one of the girls pointed the way up the lane. You could get through there, yeah, she indicated. Back onto Jalan Trus, Straight Road. In broad daylight there was nothing to fear. (A newspaper report relayed to little Lia in Puchong, KL, had detailed the slashing death of a woman in the same suburb. Found by her car, you had to think robbery-gone-wrong. Li had been working illegally in Puchong so many years now and had herself been cut in a snatch-and-grab.) Groups of girls in the brilliantly coloured Indian dress lined the lane, though at least a couple might have been Indos like Lia. Again, the same as a year ago in the drab corner of Klang, the port up at KL, these painted ladies in their finery suggested the remarkable release offered the labourers, the construction and industrial workers in their harsh, dismal circumstances. Amid the broken paving, the dust, grime and grey, crumbling buildings, startling birds of paradise waited. In the age of affluence elsewhere there was nothing to compare; no possible costuming able to provide anything like the same contrast. Fantastically mesmerizing bright colours, the clasps for the hair, the flash of cheap glitter. Broken concrete, bits of garbage and streams of dirty watermarked the wider lane where the first of the girls loitered. Younger girls there still in their twenties; around on Trus near the methadone clinic cheaper older women stood in the entryways of the blocks without any of this finery. Pretty and fresh young girls some of them in the lower end of the lane, some with smooth, clear skin; not all “used up,” as used to be said for working girls. In the clasp of those arms wonderfully soft comfort. On the other side the alley proper, once it was entered, was every bit as wondrous. Single file only up along there; if someone had started before you in the opposite direction you needed to wait your turn. Two or three rats darted under the treacherous, wet concrete steps; handrails were unnecessary with the rearing walls so close. Any coddled boy would climb wide-eyed and flabbergasted along there; gritty noir movies could never hope to capture the scene. You would like to run the old corrupt former PM here up through there with a cracking whip behind him; he and his grotesque wife with her fondness for handbags. In the capital, the pair was currently undergoing numerous trials, defended by expensive lawyers drawing out the legal process every which way.
They basically don’t exist anymore, in cities. Not Western cities at least. When was the last time you saw one? All gone the reverse, as if they had never been. Here the Indians and Chinese still provided examples; almost never the Malays. This lad casting his eye over the morning paper couldn’t be guessed at that level—possibly something like 40-45kg, perhaps. Like a busy and discerning newspaper reader at the breakfast table, the chap turned the pages scanning the headlines. To begin he had focused on the momentous political upheaval raging in the capital on page 1, following the large print with his fingers like a pianist. In his case like a virtuoso practising the notes in his head without actually touching the keys at first. Entirely mesmerised, one might think looking on. Certainly, it was all wondrously dramatic; very difficult to make head or tail of the damn thing even for politico wise-guys. Finally, here it was the large fluttering Malaysian flag that brought the fingertips onto the paper, man grinning broadly with it. That there with the sun and moon was a known he showed you. (After a thirty or forty years absence flags were again prominent everywhere.) A coloured picture, Ya, you thought. Then returning to the headline below this time he struck the table-top fortissimo, rapping loudly along the headline. Ta ta ta ta! How well he fitted in the world of Perumal Murugan. Didn’t he light up too seeing the author brought up on the phone for him! Delighted at the surprise! Reading the name in English script what was more. That certainly was unexpected; a few minutes before the man had been underestimated…. Only three years working here. Highly unlikely he had received any English tuition where he came from in Tamil lands. Could he have sounded the name only after seeing the face below on the screen, despite what it had looked like? Perumal Murugan. Perumal Murugan…. Continuing to nag in the brain the thought of the mass waiting to be encountered on the streets over there. There was nothing on earth to compare. The Chinese cities were something else. Lovely Lizzie from Beaumaris had told the story of landing as a young woman with her boyfriend in Bombay, as it was known at the time, and after the ride from the airport locking herself in the hotel room for a number of days, crying after what she had seen. That traveller tale beat all others for India. (Some younger professional Indians did not like to hear it: there was so much more to the country, they complained.)
Johor Bahru, Malaysia Feb 2020
NB. Johor Bahru is the Southernmost City on the Asian continent