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Writing and the City: “Neon and Rain” by Shahriman Latif (Part 1) 

UnRepresented: KL, the writing program in and about KL and the lesser known narratives within its midst, wrapped up its 10-week run in May. This is a work-in-progress excerpt from a piece written by participant Shahriman Latif and workshopped during UnR. 

In essence, power over a place belongs to those who claim it the most. A place belongs to those who shape its identity, impose upon it their ideals, and create meaning to its existence. All that needs to be done to have power over a place is to build upon the land, imbue upon the structures your will and ideals, and when enough people believe in it, you will have power over those people as well. Such is the way of power over most things.

Encik Mahadi and Parjo walked along Jalan Wisma Putra, the night humid and warm, slightly past midnight and a long way to go before the break of dawn. Parjo noticed that the concept of time seemed to be somewhat less tangible than what he was used to whenever he was with Encik Mahadi. He was certain that when Encik Mahadi met with him at Medan Tuanku, it was about four in the afternoon. After following Encik Mahadi along unfamiliar alleys and back roads (which surprised Parjo: he had thought he was well versed in the back alleys of the city by now, but Encik Mahadi led him through strange shoplots and houses which seemed out of place), they emerged at their present location, bathed in the sickly orange glow that was the city night. Encik Mahadi was his usual non-committal self, walked through their surroundings with a general disposition of disinterest, as though his undertaking was an annoyance that he had no choice over. Parjo had gotten used to Encik Mahadi’s behavior, or rather, the behavior of such people: he had worked for years under numerous important men, or men who thought they were important. He noted that most men of power usually were out of touch with their current predicament. They worried about the bigger things, Parjo always tried to rationalize this to himself, so they probably found most things trivial and annoying in the grander scheme of things. Parjo knew, early on as he arrived in this city, that he would probably never fully understand the grander scheme of things, and current events had reinforced Parjo’s belief that this was his lot in life. He was thankful to Encik Mahadi’s intervention. He could not imagine how he would cope with the loss if he was still in his rented room in Kampung Baru.

Encik Mahadi hesitated as they approached the exit into Jalan Choo Cheng Kay. The street was lined with low density shop houses. Parjo noted that he appeared flustered and annoyed. Encik Mahadi muttered something under his breath and Parjo remained silent, awaiting his new employer’s instruction. A solitary youth breezed by them on his 125cc motorcycle, its engine wailing waywardly into the night. Apart from that the roads were empty, which seemed to Parjo as though the entire city was deserted. Encik Mahadi lit himself one of his black cigarettes, and blew blue smoke into the warm night. He offered one to Parjo, who wordlessly declined. They stood near a dumpster, and for brief moments as Encik Mahadi blew his cigarette like incense into the night sky, the smell of the city’s waste evaporated.

‘Now, we are meeting with a difficult character,’ said Encik Mahadi as he exhaled a waft of smoke, ‘he may not be entirely friendly to us, do you understand?’

‘Okay, boss,’ Parjo nodded at Encik Mahadi’s explanation. He did not expect Encik Mahadi to be the sort of man who would be involved with unfriendly or violent people, but Parjo would not be entirely surprised if he was. He slid his hand in his pocket and felt his kerambit on the tips of his fingers.

‘Don’t be quick to get in a fight, Parjo,’ said Encik Mahadi, still hesitant at the entrance of the street, ‘I am certain he will at least be cordial, but just keep your eyes open, yes?’

‘Yes, boss,’ said Parjo.

Encik Mahadi tossed his cigarette butt and extinguished the embers with the tip of his shiny shoes, so out of place where they were, thought Parjo. He sighed quietly and beckoned Parjo to follow his lead as they walked into the silent road. They walked the dimly lit street until they reached a row of colonial styled shoplots. The night seemed darker than usual as Encik Mahadi knocked on the door of one of the shoplots.

Parjo heard the sounds of an er-hu playing a Chinese opera over a gramophone somewhere in the distance of the night. A female voice sang wistfully of a longing which she would never have again, thought Parjo. He could not understand Cantonese, but this was what he felt in that music, a sense of longing. He thought of his mother and sister, how young and hopeful he was when he left his village, how his mother smiled at him, and how bitter that smile was, it seemed to Parjo now. He felt the guilt of his broken promises again; a sense of futility overcoming him, a longing to see his mother smile for one more time.

Someone shuffled from inside the shoplot, and Parjo’s mind jolted back to their task at hand. Someone opened the door for them. A Chinese teenaged boy, Parjo saw. He nodded at them quietly before disappearing back into the shoplot. Before they entered, Encik Mahadi turned to Parjo and said in his usual uncaring voice, ‘Don’t let it get to you, Parjo,’

Parjo felt embarassed at the remark, as though he was a child caught feeling things he should not have. He touched the kerambit in his pockets out of habit. They walked into a dimly lit restaurant and to the back room, where Encik Mahadi seemed to have regained his confidence and strode purposefully. The place smelled of thick incense and seemed bigger than the outside, thought Parjo.

The back room was a hall with a huge mahogany table across the other end, its walls lined with intricate floral motif, an altar on one side and jade tigers sitting guard beside it. Parjo noticed there were jade tigers beside them at the entrance of the hall, as well. An elderly, distinguished looking Chinese man was sitting at the mahogany table. He seemed like a small, frail old man, with receding silver hair and a perpetual scowl. He gave them a cursory glance, his gaze cold and calculating.

To be continued…

Keep an eye out for more content from UnRepresented: KL over the coming weeks. For more information on the writing program, check out Facebook! Featured image via Photo Everywhere.

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