Sometimes I become confused, unsure if I am here or there. Here is Glasgow, a city of rain and four seasons, of changing lights and a changed life. There is a town called Tampin in Malaysia, my birthplace, a tiny spot in the tropics. Here and there, thousands of miles and almost two latitudes apart.
Perhaps it is the long walks in the evening. When the many cars carrying exhausted men and women whiz past the window of my little flat in the Southside, when the engines hum the tunes of ‘home sweet home,’ the unsettled ants inside me begin to crawl about. They would form letters in my head: HOME, and then with a sudden quake, dissolve into tiny black dots, lying flat, moaning. Get out, and go look for it! They would whisper into my ears, urging me to lay down my book, pick up my notebook and put on my jacket.Like now.
I walk into the early autumn breeze, into the swirls of yellow leaves. Autumn, my first taste of seasons upon stepping down from the plane eleven years ago. It smells of rain. I check the little book in my hand. Like the air before the tropical storm reigns, the page marked 10th October 1994. On another page, on a different date: Above my head, the hail rattles against the thin fabric of my umbrella, like the monsoon rain that pours on the aluminium roof of the old family home. As if I have run short of vocabulary, or perhaps there really are similarities between these two places, it is always the usual phrases I round up for descriptions, associating the colours, the sounds, the smells, the people with those I’m familiar with.
It is a game of search-and-match, the walking and note taking, dating back to my early student days in the West End, in the mid-nineties. Cold, penniless, and new to the city and country, I spent hours strolling in the streets; chilled fingers tucked into pockets, hungry eyes opened wide, searching. From Kelvinhaugh Street crossing two traffic lights I stepped on the uneven pavement along Kelvin Walkway. Squirrel, magpie, sparrow. On the green lawn of Kelvingrove Park I noticed the same little beings I encountered in the faraway land. But bigger, rounder, bolder, I added in my notepad.
In those early days, this had become a routine: a match ending in a recognition of difference. Surprise and delight was countered by the feeling of disbelief, and so came the denial, the reluctance to fully compromise. Like, my first taste of Samosa. In a little shop in Bank Street, I spotted it, the triangular pastry, from trays of colourful snacks with alien names: Turkish delights, falafel, and other sweets and desserts from the Middle East and South Asia. Maybe it was the colour, or the presumed texture, or maybe it was merely an instinct that had prompted the choice. I held it with both hands as I left the shop, as I continued walking. Eating in the street was never the custom I grew up with. I contemplated the little brown triangle in my hands, its bulgy body, speculating about its content, the rules from home forgotten. A bite, and the thin layer of pastry punctured, pieces of tenderised potatoes melted under my tongue. Curry powder, chilli, turmeric – my taste buds recorded instantly. Curry-puff! I heard the loud cry inside me; the corners of my eyes turned wet.
At night, though, in my small room in the student hall, I wrote: too sweet, too soft (the pastry), and with the wrong shape (a half-moon fold, the Malaysian equivalent, tastes better).
This pattern repeated itself. In Great Western Road, I was lured into a shop by a window filled with a mixture of costume jewellery and ornaments. As I pushed the door open, whiffs of incense came right to my face. It was sandalwood, which my grandfather once burnt, everyday, in the morning and evening at the family altar.
I took a deep breath; the smell gushed inside me, a sudden flush of warmth. In the soothing scent of sandalwood I wandered in between the displays of bangles, nose rings, earrings, necklaces and rings - wooden, silver, bronze, copper and gold-plated - remembering the women in their saris, the Indians, who came from the nearby rubber plantations to my father’s butcher stall for a piece of fresh wild boar. Their nose rings, dangling earrings, and the many silver and gold-plated bangles that clanged on their wrists as they pointed their fingers for their choice portions.
I walked out of the shop in a trance, feeling lost for my finding, the match. This is here, not there, the voice inside reminded me. My pen felt heavy. Finally, after a long pause in the street corner, I scrabbled: The smell seems to be too faint. The words looked frail, reluctant.
It was laughable, the search for a sense of home in a starkly distinctive climate and geography, and more absurd, the refusal of recognition that followed. And so, as I strolled on, passing by the many food stores passing by the many food stores an, I noted that the word ‘Halal’ didn’t look right, maybe it was the handwriting; the basmati rice too white, its fragrance too strong; the ladies’ fingers, or okra, as they called it here, too short, too fibrous; the red chillies too small, too mild. Like a meticulous observer with a magnifying glass, I was determined to find even the tiniest fault.
I moved on. Further ahead, the mosques and temples lacked certain characteristics, and in New City Road, the Chinatown was too garish, though the red paint had faded. And of course, the curry houses, Chinese restaurants and takeaways were far from authentic – even though I had not tried them then.
Three years on, and the exploration continued, day after day. Walking, looking, writing.
Until one summer evening.
It was an unusually hot summer evening. Because of the torrential rain I was trapped in my room. And because of the heat, I had put on my casual cotton dress from the tropics. I sat close to the window, listened, like I usually did at home. Sheets of water splashed against the glass, the wall, the roof like rumbling waves. Such a familiar sound, and the heat, the dress. I closed my eyes, confused, as if I were there, sitting in my little room listening to the evening downpours after a long, steamy afternoon.
What would I write this time? I opened my notebooks – three of them, one for each year - flicking through them, and the smells, colours, tastes, sounds and shapes of the orient came bursting out. My little books. I looked at them, their tattered covers, the frayed corners. Day in, day out, without realising, they had developed themselves into an account of the cultures distinctive of their surroundings, a different face of Glasgow, of Scotland.
I read on, and was puzzled to find that as the dates progressed, the closing comments, the counter remarks, lessened. On the most recent dates, they disappeared completely.
Perhaps space and time had played their parts, the further and longer I walked, the greater their determination to mislead me in my search for a sense of home. Perhaps, too, it was the chill breeze, the rain, the snow during the long strolls. That not only had washed away the last trace of my tropical heat, but also worn off my critical eyes and mind. The differences were becoming ambiguous, indistinguishable.
And so there were times when the patterns of comparison took a turn. On my most recent trip home, in a heavily air-conditioned theatre in Kuala Lumpur, as I shivered in my summer dress I made a mental note: as cold as autumn in Scotland. On the open-air night market in my hometown I commented: with the same concept as the Saturday morning market at Govan Cross.
Returning to Glasgow, the walk resumes.
Like, this evening.
I stand in the middle of Elder Park in Govan, in the ferocious autumn gusts, a hand on my bewildered hair, the other on the hems of my jacket over my thighs. The dust. I close my eyes; immediately a faded picture comes to mind: a girl, aged five maybe, smoothing her hair, pressing her skirt down in the north-westerly wind. The ‘new year wind’, as we called it, that blows during year-end into the beginning of the year. The image becomes magnified, the colours turn clear, the figure merges over onto me.
Now and then, here and there, they merge. I write it down, in my thirteenth notebook.
This piece was first published in "Readings from Reading: New Malaysian Writing", edited by Sharon Bakar and Bernice Chauly. The book is available in major book shops in Malaysia, and fromAmazon.com.