The riverbank is unchanging: a tangle of shrubs and tree roots shaded by stately old trees that offer respite from the heat of the afternoon. At several points, someone—the town council, maybe, or an enthusiastic angler, or a group of high-spirited youths wanting somewhere agreeable to smoke or drink in relative peace—has built rickety wooden platforms that jut out over the water. Most of them are broken, collapsing into the murky brown water. When I venture out onto them, one foot placed gingerly before the other, they feel as if they might give way at any moment, and I will find myself in the river, as I have many times before. The warmth of the water will be uncomfortable rather than reassuring, the mud underfoot surprisingly cold.
It would be easy to say, in cases such as this—a local boy returning, after a long time away, half a lifetime in the capital and beyond—that such dilapidation is sad, or beautiful, or beautifully sad: the opposite of progress, it symbolizes a simpler existence, a gloriously perverse reaction to the so-called modernization of the rest of Malaysia, the rest of Southeast Asia. But the truth is that there has been no poetic degradation, for these little pontoons have been broken for as long as I can remember, and I am not a local—not really, anyway.
This is a small town in the heart of Malaysia, in the state of Perak, a land of limestone cliffs and wide valleys scarred by defunct tin mines that were, in my childhood, still working concerns. The colossal steel belts and diggers moved with crushing monotony as we drove past them, one after another, on our way from the capital, where we lived, to my grandfather’s house in that small town on the edge of the wide muddy river. That was where I’d spend my school holidays, with my extended family, attempting to be part of a life that was mine, and yet not mine. My parents believed in the continuity of things, in linking past and present so that our story would be seamless and we would know where we came from, how my grandfather had arrived from China as a boy and built his life in a small town surrounded by scrubland and jungle, and how they, my parents, had escaped that existence.
There was a moral intention to these visits, longer and more frequent than was typical in the Malaysian tradition of balik kampung, or returning to the family village. While other families who lived in the capital fulfilled their obligations by visiting their country relatives for two or three days, our sojourns stretched into weeks—long enough for our clothes to feel permanent on the shelves; long enough so that the thin mattresses on the floor, upon which my sisters and I slept, were left unfurled all day long, as if they were proper beds rather than temporary bedding that could have been tidied away during the day. On the other side of the partition between the bedrooms, our cousins grumbled about having to squeeze into one room with their parents. There was little ventilation apart from plastic Hitachi table fans, the bathing facilities were a pail and a bucket, there were rats on the beams above our heads as we slept.
Our prolonged discomfort was meant to show us how lucky we were to live in the city, how lucky we were to have an education that brought us closer to the modern world. The narrative of our story was that we were leaving—had left—this rudimentary life behind, were now becoming middle-class. We were surrounded by rugged beauty—the unpeopled forests, the broad sweep of the river—but we were encouraged to see it as a place of danger. There were currents and crocodiles in the river; there were snakes in the scrubland, and worse in the jungle itself—the phantoms Pontianak and Orang Minyak and who knows what else.
It was the lure of danger that first drew me to the river, sneaking away to find a quiet place where the steepness of the bank flattened out and allowed me to slip into the water and swim where I was not supposed to. I breaststroked gently, trying not to trouble the water, unmoving and lukewarm close to the bank, giving way to sudden, inexplicable flashes of cold farther out. Occasionally something would brush against my leg, a submerged log, probably, and suddenly the sensation of being taken by a crocodile would surge through me, and I would imagine struggling in vain, pulled down into the water and consumed by mud and teeth and blood—my own blood. And I would swim to shore, urgently now, kicking hard underwater and waiting for the beast to clamp its jaws around my ankle.
Safely standing on a half-broken pontoon, I would contemplate the water and find it lacking in mystery. Back then I wanted to feel thrilled by the place, to believe in its magic and its danger, but it always felt lackluster. Twenty-five years later, as I survey the riverbank—and later the bus stop and the single street that runs through town—I want to feel nostalgic, as if by leaving this place I have lost something fundamental, or rather found it by its absence, the way people realize that something important has taken place only long after the event, never during it. But the shabby rusticity holds no greater meaning for me now; it is just as it ever was. My uncle and aunt still live in the town, in the same house. My cousins have left to find work and build lives in the booming cities of the south. The old are aging, the young moving away. The decay is so slow it is imperceptible.
Tash Aw is the author of three novels, including, most recently, Five-Star Billionaire, which was long-listed for the 2013 Man Booker Prize.
Photo of the Parit River, Perak, Malaysia, by Yong Yen Nie
Such must have been the scenery that greeted writer Winston Churchill when, in 1908, on his first African journey, he finally left the Kenya of cantankerous British colonial settlerdom and crossed into the British-protected African kingdom: “Uganda is from end to end a ‘beautiful garden’ where the ‘staple food’ of the people grows almost without labour. . . . Does it not sound like a paradise on earth?”
I took a pinch of MSG from a jar and sprinkled it into the hollow of my palm, licked it with the very tip of my tongue, firing off the taste-bud nerve clusters, impulses shooting through the brain layers and triggering an electrifying buzz—as if savoring the vast ocean refined and purified, that sensory experience called “umami”!