THE IGNOMINIOUS DEPARTURE
September 6, 1980
There is, stretching delicate as a bird’s head from the thin neck of the Kra Isthmus, a land that makes up half of the country called Malaysia. Where it dips its beak into the South China Sea, Singapore hovers like a bubble escaped from its throat. This bird’s head is a springless summerless autumnless winterless land. One day might be a drop wetter or a mite drier than the last, but almost all are hot, damp, bright, bursting with lazy tropical life, conducive to endless tea breaks and mad, jostling, honking rushes through town to get home before the afternoon downpour. These are the most familiar rains, the violent silver ropes that flood the playing fields and force office workers to wade to bus stops in shoes that fill like buckets. Blustering and melodramatic, the afternoon rains cause traffic jams at once terrible — choked with the black smoke of lorries and the screeching brakes of schoolbuses — and beautiful: aglow with winding lines of watery yellow headlights that go on forever, with blue streetlamps reflected in burgeoning puddles, with the fluorescent melancholy of empty roadside stalls. Every day appears to begin with a blaze and end with this deluge, so that past and present and future run together in an infinite, steaming river.
In truth, though, there are days that do not blaze and rains less fierce. Under a certain kind of mild morning drizzle the very earth breathes slow and deep. Mist rises from the dark treetops on the limestone hills outside Ipoh town. Grey mist, glowing green hills: on such mornings it is obvious how sharply parts of this land must have reminded the old British rulers of their faraway country.
To the north of Ipoh, clinging to the outermost hem of the town’s not-so-voluminous outskirts, is Kingfisher Lane, a long, narrow line from the "main" road (one corner shop, one bus stop, occasional lorries) to the limestone hills (ancient, inscrutable, riddled with caves and illegal cave dwellers). Here the town’s languid throng feels distant even on hot afternoons; on drizzly mornings like this one it is absurd, improbable. The smoke from the cement factories and the sharp odors of the pork van and the fish vendor are washed away before they can settle, but the moist air traps native sounds and smells: the staticky songs of one neighbor’s radio, the generous sweet spices of another’s simmering mutton curry. The valley feels cloistered and coddled. A quiet benevolence cups the morning in its palm.
In 1980 the era of sale-by-floorplan and overnight housing developments is well under way, but the houses on Kingfisher Lane do not match one another. Some are wide and airy, with verandas in the old Malay fashion. A few weakly evoke the splendor of Chinese towkays’ Penang mansions with gate-flanking dragons and red-and-gold trim. Most sit close to the lane, but one or two are set farther back, at the ends of gravel driveways. About halfway down the lane, shielded by its black gates and its robust greenery, is the Big House, number 79, whose bright blue bulk has dominated Kingfisher Lane since it was an unpaved track with nothing else along it but saga trees. Though termites will be discovered, in a few weeks, to have been secretly devouring its foundation for years (and workmen will be summoned to an urgent rescue mission), the Big House stands proud. It has presided over the laying of all the others’ foundations. It has witnessed their slow aging, their repaintings and renovations. Departures, deaths, arrivals.
This morning, after only a year at the Big House, Chellam the no- longer- new-servant is leaving. Four people strain to believe that the fresh weather augurs not only neat closure, but a new beginning. Clean slates and cleaner consciences. Surely nothing undertaken today will come to a bad end; surely all’s well with the world.
Chellam is eighteen years old, the same age as Uma, the oldest- eldest daughter of the house. Only one week ago today, Uma boarded a Malaysian Airline System aeroplane bound for New York America USA, where it is now autumn. Also known as fall in America. She left behind her parents, her eleven-year-old brother Suresh, and little Aasha, only six, whose heart cracked and cried out in protest. Today the four of them thirstily drink the morning’s grey damp to soothe their various doubts about the future.
The aeroplane that carried Uma away was enormous and white, with a moonkite on its tail, whereas Chellam is leaving on foot (and then by bus).
She differs from Uma in many other, equally obvious, ways. A growth spurt squandered eating boiled white rice sprinkled — on good days — with salt has left her a full head shorter than Uma; her calves are as thin as chicken wings and her skin is pockmarked from the crawling childhood diseases her late mother medicated with leafy pastes and still-warm piss furtively collected in a tin pail as it streamed from the neighbors’ cow. Severe myopia has crumpled her face into a permanent squint, and her shoulders are as narrow as the acute triangle of her world: at one corner the toddy shop from which she dragged her drunken father home nightly as a child; at another the dim, sordid alley in which she stood with other little girls, their eyelids dark with kajal, their toenails bright with Cutex, waiting to be picked up by a lorry driver or a bottle-shop man so that they could earn their two ringgit. At the third and final corner stands Ipoh, the town to which she was brought by some bustling, self-righteous Hindu Sangam society matron eager to rack up good karma by plucking her from prostitution and selling her into a slavery far less white; Ipoh, where, after two-three years (no one could say exactly) of working for friends of Uma’s parents, Chellam was handed down to the Big House. "We got her used," Suresh had said with a smirk (dodging his Amma’s mouthslap, which had been offhand at best, since Chellam hadn’t been there to take offense).
And today they’re sending her back. Not just to the Dwivedis’, but all the way back. Uma’s Appa ordered Chellam’s Appa to collect her today; neither of them could have predicted the inconvenient drizzle. Father to father, (rich) man to (poor) man, they have agreed that Chellam will be ready at such-and-such a time to be met by her Appa and led from the Big House all the way up the unpaved, rock-and-clay length of Kingfisher Lane to the bus stop on the main road, and from there onto the bus to Gopeng, and from the Gopeng bus station down more roads and more lanes until she arrives back at square minus one, the one-room hut in the red-earth village whence she emerged just a few years ago.
A year from today, Chellam will be dead. Her father will say she committed suicide after a failed love affair. The villagers will say he beat her to death for bringing shame to her family. Chellam herself will say nothing. She will have cried so much by then that the children will have nicknamed her Filthyface for her permanent tear stains. All the women of the village won’t be able to wash those stains off her cold face, and when they cremate her, the air will smell salty from all those tears.
At twenty to ten on this September Saturday morning, she begins to drag her empty suitcase down the stairs from the storeroom where it has lived since she came a year ago. "How long ago did your Appa tel...