T A A H I R K A M A L C H A G A N
I CREEP ALONG the main road, quiet as a shadow, quick as a cat, trying to avoid the police.
Even in the rain, it is a hot and humid evening. A few small restaurants are open, and tourists are streaming up and down the street. There is a festive atmosphere in the air. I can smell the ocean. With me, I carry a backpack filled with posters and cable ties. An occasional burst of lightning lights up the night sky.
After two hours of work, I see the blue and red sirens of a cop car up front. Paranoid, I get off the main road, and head for one of the restaurants to take a break. I order a sandwich, a glass of red wine, and a glass of water. I listen to smooth jazz which mingles with the rhythm of the waves, and I gaze at the twinkling stars in the sky, while thinking back to the few fragments of memories of Miira I have to hold on to.
She had short brown hair with a single purple streak in it, and a purple flower to match. She wore a white dress with black polka dots. The bus was headed for Penang Hill, which boasted the best view of the island. I was sitting right at the back in the corner. I watched her stare out the window at the coast line for the whole trip. She looked so serene, a rare soul at peace. When we got off at the base of the hill, I spotted her walking a bit ahead of me. I speeded up. I called out to her, and she turned around with the sweetest smile the world has ever seen.
Later that day, overlooking the beautiful view on top of the hill with her, I realised that she possessed a sort of vulnerability and openness which I wasn’t accustomed to, but which pulled me closer to her in a way that I hadn’t been drawn to someone before.
After ordering another glass of wine, I notice a police officer talking to the barman. He has one of my posters in his hand, and he is gesturing to it as he speaks. I freeze. He doesn’t see me, and he leaves.
I leave some money on the table, and slip out through the back entrance. And then I creep back on to the main road through an alley, and I get back to work where I’d left off. I still had about 100 posters to go for the night. The stars shine bright. The waves crash on. I plan to walk in the direction of th—
“STOP!” I hear someone cry out from behind me. It is the police officer from the bar. He is making his way through the crowd toward me. I run.
I RUN ON the side-walk, trying to get through the groups of tourists. The rain beats down on me. I duck into another restaurant, run through the kitchen and out the back door onto the beach. Walking slowly along the beach, I take a moment to catch my breath. A burst of lightning brings the night sky to life. I’m catching my breath.
I decide that I will lay low for 10 minutes and then find a bus back home. It is too risky tonight. I sneak into an alley, and walk slowly, my senses on high alert. I sit on a rubbish container, cold, wet, afraid. Just a moment to think. Just one moment to think. A noise startles me, and my heart skips a beat. My heart skips another beat. A beat in my heart skips. It is just a cat. I’m safe, I’m safe, I’m SAFE… That’s what I am thinking – with relief – when I feel the cold metal of a revolver pressing against the back of my neck.
“At age 22, I’m still scared of the dark…” I say, “…Of course it’s just because I have an amazing imagination”
“Of course”, Thabang says, smiling.
We are at a cafe on top of Penang Hill, savouring a spectacular view. It is hot and humid. A gentle breeze blows.
“I have art inside of me”, I continue. “That’s for sure. I’m just not yet certain of what my specific medium of expression will be. I’m still experimenting, I guess”.
“Experimenting is fun. Any clues yet?”
“I think I’ve narrowed it down a bit. It looks like it’s between writing literature and creating sculptures”.
He listens. I like people who listen. When we finish our drinks, Thabang and I go for a stroll on the hill top. He is a travel addict, he tells me. He has a mental list of 30 countries he wants to visit in the next decade. Top six on the list are: Cuba, Japan, Senegal, Cambodia, Lebanon, and Colombia. He also has art inside of him, he says, probably music, he thinks, although he also loves to draw sometimes.
While he speaks, his big brown eyes enchant me.
I WAKE UP to doom. It is dark and dingy, dusty, dirty. It smells like piss.
The walls are a dull beige colour, covered with what looks like faded blood stains, and the floors are concrete, cold and hard. A small window in the corner is painted black, and it is barred, like the heavy steel door that separates me from freedom. The occasional cockroach scurries across the floor, and there is an ominous brown spider near the window.
I never thought I’d see the inside of a prison cell, let alone for a crime so harmless: putting up posters. Every time one of the other cells opens, the banging of the heavy steel doors echoes throughout the small prison. A tormented woman in one of the other cells wails unceasingly throughout the long nights, her wails echo eerily off the walls. A slight glimmer of moonlight is my only solace.
…A slight glimmer… moonlight… my only… solace… the only… connection… to… the world I know… the real world… but my hold… on reality … slipping… fading… my dreams… imprisoned… my memories….imprisoned … sleep… impossible… Miira… Gone… Forever… The sweet… the sweetest… glimmer… moonlight…ever… my only… solace… Sleeeeeep… Tormented by dreams… Miira…Sunshine… A little sweet warm ray of sunshine…
…A sweet little ray of sunshine…
After spending the weekend in jail, they released me on Monday morning. I walked out, my legs weak and wobbly, and bought a coffee. Then, I headed for the ocean. I sat down on a bench by the seaside, and wondered if Miira had seen the poster yet. Maybe she had seen it and sent me an email. My heart started beating faster. I headed off for the guesthouse in anticipation. I’d be able to use the computer there.
While I was walking, a car drove slowly by next to me.
“Hey man, got a light?” A man called out of the window.
“Sure” I dug in my pocket. “I’m always losing these things… Just give me a seco—“.
The man looked up and down the street, and then he sprung from the vehicle. He lifted me up and tossed me in to the boot of the car like a sack of potatoes. I tried to wriggle free, but he was too strong. He banged the boot shut. The whole world stopped and all that was left was darkness. The whole Earth stood still and all that was left was fear.
“It lasted for about two years” Thabang is saying. “But over those two years we changed in different directions”.
We are strolling on the pathway to the little temple that is nestled on top of the hill.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Well, it turned out that we wanted different things out of the next phases of our lives,”
“What did you want?”
“I wanted to travel, explore my curiosities, perhaps find a new city to live in, quit my job and become an artist, find work that would help me do all of this, plan less, live more”.
“I see. What did she want?”
“She… wanted to get serious about her career in the corporate world, staying close to her family and siblings. She wanted to settle down, buy a house, have some children… those kinds of things”.
At some point during our walk we lose each other in a crowd of tourists and I can’t find him. At first I am calm. Then it slowly dawns on me that we may lose each other for real, forever. I search everywhere on the hilltop for an hour before giving up. I sit down on a bench, and while staring blankly at the view of the island, I hope in vain that we could still find each other. During the little time we had, there had been that rare magic that occurs when soul’s commune.
But now Thabang is gone, for real, forever.
Listen… Don’t freak out: There are hundreds of posters all over Penang with your portrait on them! Some weirdo person with a strange name is asking you to contact him or her. “Thabang” is the name, I think.
What’s going on? Do you know what this is all about? I hope everything is okay. Thanks for visiting last week. How does it feel to be back in Bangkok?
In her rush to university, my friend hadn’t managed to see the full email address. And worryingly, she said that there were some dodgy-looking men taking all the posters down in a hurry. I ask her to see if she could find one in the morning and send me the address. She agrees but says that it’s unlikely that there are any left.
Thabang. Thabang. Thabang. I can’t think about anything else. I put on my favourite music classics: N.E.R.D, The White Stripes, Frank Ocean, Savage Garden, D’Angelo, and I think back to when Thabang and I first lost each other: I searched furiously on the internet for a trace of him, but found no matches. There were thousands of Thabang’s on Facebook, most with no pictures. And there was nothing on Twitter. The internet wouldn’t be able to help us this time.
I feel helpless, so far, far, far away. Tears follow, and soon after I feel like I am swimming in them, drowning. I had to get over my hopelessness and find a way to reach him. But how?
IT’S THE FEAR of the unknown that’s the scariest thing:
Who the hell are these people? And where the hell are they taking me? After a short drive, we slow down. We stop. The trunk opens. I am lifted up like a sack of potatoes and thrown out onto beach sand. My eyes are adjusting to the sunlight… My… eyes… adjust… My eyes have adjusted to the sunlight. I stumble around to get my bearings.
Then a man pins me down, and ties my hands and feet up with rope. One of the men is tall, and he has tattoos all over his arm. I call him Inky. I call the other one Fatty because his belly hangs out of his shirt. Fatty walks over towards me. I am afraid.
“Well, looky here. If it isn’t Mr lover-lover himself”
Mr Lover-Lover? What the hell is he talking ab— Whack! — A big black leather boot kicks me in my face.
“Owwww!” I taste blood in my mouth, and I spit a red tooth out onto the beach sand.
“Your mother…” my dad was saying, shaking his head.”…I’m sorry to say this Miira, but that’s why she’s still alone”.
We were sitting in our living room in Bangkok on an icy cold evening. I’d come up with a plan to find Thabang. I was telling my dad about it, and about my mother’s response to it. I’d spoken to mom on the phone earlier that day, and she told me not to be ridiculous. Girls don’t just go around chasing after boys, she said. What do you know about love anyway, you’re just a child, she asked.
Dad and I sipped steaming chai tea. The fire crackled in the fire place, chasing away the icy chill. After telling him about my conversation with mom, I restated my plan to him. I’d need his permission for it to work because I’d have to take at least a couple of days off from university. Dad was gazing outside the window at the half moon in the sky. He looked at me with his soft eyes.
“Do you remember The Little Prince, Miira?”
“And do you remember what I used to tell you after reading it to you?”
“You used to say: always follow your heart.” – I smiled, remembering – “Everything else is inconsequential, secondary. And adulthood is overrated, so I should keep my inner child alive, forever”.
“Well” dad said, taking a sip of tea and smiling, “There’s your answer”.
“Hey wanker, look at me” Inky was saying. “Listen closely. Every street pole in this city is ours. You see all those loan ads you covered with your fuckin’ poster? Well those belong to our boss, Mr Chang. The king of the loan sharks. He runs this city”.
“So” Inky continues, raising his voice. “Mr. Chang is not a happy man now. If he can’t get dem new loans, den he loses money, and when he loses money he can’t expand his business to Java, Sumatra, and Bangkok like he planned. And that is pissing him off… I should toss you into the fuckin ocean… off that fuckin pier there.
I gulp. Fatty offers Inky a smoke. Inky lights it and begins puffing away, calming down slightly.
“We aren’t gonna throw you into the ocean… this time.” Fatty says “But we’ll be watching you closely. Stop messing around. Or else, we’ll find you, cut your balls off, and feed you to the mother-fucking fishies…”
They cut my ropes, and drive off. I look for my tooth in the sand. Then I head off to the main road to find a bus.
IT’S TIME TO go home.
The ferry bobs along the calm ocean toward the mainland. The fiery sun shines high in the blue sky. I look back at Penang and smile. I love South East Asia. It’s as if everything in this special region is carved out of the jungle. And that spirit of the jungle, of the rainforest, lingers everywhere. Everything is so green here, alive, pulsating with life.
Despite all the beauty around me, I stare blankly at the ocean, thinking about Miira, and I feel like shit. I fight against the urge to feel sorry for myself, to beat myself up for not making more of the moment we had. I try instead to mentally draw out the lessons from the experience. It isn’t easy. I work through my emotions slowly. The lessons begin to reveal themselves.
In relationships, we need to take the risk to BE VULNERABLE, to expose ourselves to the tenderness within – even in the early stages. Life is too short to play games. Buddha said it best: THE PROBLEM IS YOU THINK YOU HAVE TIME. I needed to become used to the idea that PAIN AND SUFFERING AND HEARTACHE ARE A NECESSARY STOP-OVER TO FINDING SOMETHING LASTING. All we need to remember is that we need to GO FOR IT because the sweet fruits of love could be so, so, so near.
I heard that you were looking for me, so here I am 🙂
I’ve decided that if this e-mail doesn’t reach you, I’ll fly to Cape Town and hang a huge banner off Table Mountain. You have no idea what I’ve been through trying to find you and your poster! (I’ll tell you that story some other time. All you need to know for now is that it involved a trip back to Penang and two days of getting dirty in a landfill!).
I have a feeling you’ve been through a lot too? Strange, hey: that you can still lose people in the 21st Century. But I’m just grateful that I found you. I’m waiting for your response impatiently 🙂
T h e E n d