He writes short stories and plays, he acts and does stand-up comedy. He is also a raconteur, philosopher and social commentator. His real name is Aziz Mirzan Murad, but in his childhood, for some reason, it was contracted to ĎJití which his entire family knew him as. So, on the first day of school when the teacher called out for ĎAzizí, he didnít even respond.
Jit Murad first fell in love with story telling when his mother told him the story of Mermaid when he was four years old. Although he took part in school concerts, the future playwright did not decide on a career in the creative arts until much later. In the V.I., which he attended from 1973 to 1978, the boys were encouraged to do things on their own like organising a concert themselves if they wanted one. As a result, Jit found himself on the stage a lot. He won the annual prize for English from Forms One to Three. In Form Four he was named best debater for arguing in a friendly debate against the Bukit Bintang Girls School that "censorship is inconsistent with democracy." Poor in maths, Jit realized through his debating experiences that he was actually strong in linguistics, that he enjoyed playing with words and mobilizing them in action. In his Form Five year he led Loke Yew House to victory over Thamboosamy House in the annual Latiff Trophy Debates. Again, Jit was declared the best debater for arguing that "modern civilisation is a failure." The following year, Jit won kudos for two more triumphs - over the Royal Military College and over the MBS in the annual Thuraisingham Shield debate.
As with most middle class families, Jitís parents - his father was Tan Sri Datuk Haji Murad bin Mohamed Nor, the then Director General of Education - expected their children to train in some professional fields and pursue prestigious, well-paying careers in law, medicine, accounting or engineering. So after his Lower Sixth year Jit headed for the United States where he earned a Bachelorís degree in Sociology (Urban Studies). He went on to read his Mastersí degree in Art History. On his return to Malaysia around the time of the mid-eighties slump, he landed his first job as a copywriter at a well known advertising firm. It paid well but he was miserable. "The education system only makes sure that youíre in one place safely for ten years. But it does not show you how to survive after that," he says.
But as it had always been his passion to write and heal through bringing his message to people through humour, Jit decided to take the chance and venture into theatre. His parents - his biggest fans today - were in a state of shock when he told them that he was venturing into theatre full time. "I understood their fears, but I did do my part and put one toe in first to check it out before I got myself fully involved. Financial security is essential for everyone, but we also need to pursue our dreams realistically," Jit recalls. He had to start from the bottom, doing everything, from wearing a chicken costume for launches to appearing in fast food commercials. When his acting stints came, they included appearances in A Midsummer Nightís Dream, Romeo & Juliet, The Merchant Of Venice, Death Of A Salesman, Death & The Maiden, Black Comedy, An Actorís Nightmare, Art, As Is, Talking AIDS and Gross Indecency: The Three Trials Of Oscar Wilde and The Storyteller as well as several Cerekarama episodes on local TV channels in the nineties. He also appeared in fellow Old Victorian Thor Kah Hoongís Caught In The Middle.
"When I first started, I was too shy to say that I was an actor, especially when meeting friends or attending family reunions where people expect you to be either a doctor or engineer," says Jit. "But now, I am proud to say that I am an actor. I believe that everyone should be proud of what they do. Life is about options and we should let go of our prejudices regarding professions." Jit, however, does not regret the years he spent pursuing his tertiary education. "Knowledge leads to wisdom," he says. "It is never wasted and experience counts. We all have our commitments to our family or loved ones. Thus, we do really need to maintain a right balance that would allow us to explore our full potential and talents as well. You will stop exploring if you think that there is only one way to success. Realistically, our life is full of Plans B or C that we may have never thought of."
In December 1989, he co-founded the Instant Cafe Theatre Company which garnered an immediate following with its wickedly funny, biting social and political satire lampooning everything from Malaysian social mores to political skullduggery. ICT has now become a distinctive voice in contemporary Malaysian writing and theatre and a breeding ground for writers, producers and comedians honing their talents in the framework of political revue shows. In 1993 Jit helped start Dramalab, an arm of ICT specifically dedicated to encouraging new writing. His first play, in 1992, Gold Rain and Hailstones, was a successful production that played to full houses in Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Singapore. His sparkling script poked fun at the quirks, drama, joys and agonies of life within a family. In 1996, Dramalab produced The Storyteller, a musical comedy by Jit about South East Asian oral traditions.
Jit has written countless skits and has acted in even more and has been a constant feature in many local films and TV dramas. He does voice-overs too. Jitís alter ego, René Choy, an effeminate Sungai Wang hairdresser extraordinaire, with a cockeyed opinion on every subject under the sun, has been a favourite of KL audiences for many years. As a stand-up comedian, Jitís inherent compassion, self-deprecation and lightness of touch gives him licence to play court jester/philosopher. Says Jit: "God bless my parents! If I am more universal, I praise them. If I am less nationalistic, I blame them."
Jit is regarded by some as Southeast Asiaís most talented playwright, Malaysia's own Woody Allen with a formidable corpus of hits. Among them is Spilt Gravy on Rice, a dark comedy of five siblings with five different mothers, coming up against their eccentric fatherís mortality, which won the Best Original Script award and the Kakiseni Audience Choice Award for Best Play at the Cameronian Arts Awards. One mental patient, one motor-mouth nurse and one bitter spinster populate a high class mental asylum in Jitís Visits. Everything happens in just one room, setting the stage for humour, pathos and everything in between. Entourage is a critique of what Jit perceives as the mindlessness of middle-class Malaysians. Like his earlier works, the play makes pointed observations about his country and his compatriots.
Although he is now one of the most prominent figures in Malaysian theatre, Jit Murad is a very friendly and humble person whose dream is to "create that kind of art that would inspire unity". As if he isn't busy enough already, his collection of short stories, Two Things, was published by Rhino Press in 1997. The first story, Stealth, deals with a 12-year-old Raz trying to cope with a combination of wrangling Westernised parents, loneliness at school, and mounting abuse by his P.E. teacher. He re-invents and distances himself through role-playing a secret agent, interpreting all he goes through as a set of coded messages. The story ends with Raz's problems unresolved, but on a symbolically hopeful note. Here is Jit Murad's venture into short story writing:
"Espionage," Razman thought, "involves a lot of paperwork."
The felt-tip was greying. Pak Din would have to drive him to the 7-11 to get a handful of 0.4 point pens which he found most suited for his reports.
Paper he got by the reams from his mother's secretary. The woman was loud and sly and gossiped about his mother, and would make a big show of handing him the block of still-wrapped paper if his mother was around.
"Amboi, kertas lagi, Razman? Makan kertas ke ? "
Or she would say that he must be a very smart boy as if paper usage indicated intelligence. Once she cheekily asked her boss if she knew what her son did with all the paper. For a split-second Raz's mother had a stricken, blank expression. She didn't know. "I'm making the world's biggest origami stork," Raz said, allowing his mother to laugh off the moment.
"The operative has faithfully been passing me necessary supplies. Her manner arouses some suspicion. She's an amateur - more a sneak than a spy. She's no femme fatale, that's for sure." Razman wrote.
On rereading, he decided that 'femme fatale' didn't look right and struck out the last aside altogether. He couldn't be sure, of course, but he imagined that the Head of Command, the Chief, must appreciate his wry observations leavening the reportage.
Razman was of the age where writing, actual handwriting, had an air of archaic ritual. It was done at school, sure, but Razman saw that as a tedious, dishonest exercise in finger dexterity. Normal writing for twelve year olds like Razman was done on a keyboard. These reports however, as secret as prayer, he did long hand, pausing in between thoughts to embellish a capital or a border with monastic industriousness.
The papers were filed into boxes. Family Mini Market delivered eggs and milk and Tiger beer fortnightly so Raz knew there'd always be boxes. Sometimes it took months to fill up a box. Then the box flaps were carefully interlocked and the box carried out to the shed.
Raz would stamp his feet a few times before entering the shed, sending lizards skittering. Once he saw a snake, a harmless ular lidi, trickling out of sight. The shed, built when the house had a full-time gardener, was missing planks now. Raz dropped each box in a corner. Each one hit the ground with a thud and quickened the motes dancing in shafts of ghost-light. He never entered the shed unless to deliver a box.
He was still dimly aware that the whole report-to-the-Chief thing started as a game nearly two years ago.
"Dear Chief. This is field agent Raz reporting from KL Central. Just had the worst birthday party in the history of mankind..." or something diary-ish like that. He'd been depressed and making that first report had amused him. He was able to turn, for the Chief's review, the agonising games and inexplicable relatives into comic episodes. But the reports had gradually become Raz's focus, the reason everything else occurred. For one thing, it helped him deal with school.
"Chief. I raise a respectful objection about the surveillance work I have been assigned. These monkeys show nothing new in their behaviour even after many years of observation." He later added 'long' to 'years'.
He'd read his father's cache of spy novels years ago. The Saint and 007 were his Hardy Boys, his Famous Five. Then, going through boxes he met Le Carré and Forsyth, then C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Vonnegut. Even though he was still a kid, it would be wrong to say that he read without any empathy. His youngness was a fine mesh, yet some substance of each writer's words sifted through. But twelve was twelve and depth takes time. Raz became one of those people for whom recognising their own intelligence was enough. He conjured an image of his superior mind, like a trophy or a crown, which he secretly held aloft but which remained spit-polished and unused. That it set him apart, and was a good reason to be set apart, was cool enough.
Besides, his life didn't lend itself to any heavy-duty intellectual application. He lived more than half a day, five days a week, going through what he saw as the occupation of childhood. Naturally, he didn't know that he shared this resignation, in its various guises, with most of his schoolmates.
During recess, he stood by the chain-link fence, staring out at the terrace houses across the street. Behind him, other children were in groups quietly trading interests or running and screaming in combative games.
"The man in number 344 left for work at 10.05 a.m. and yelled at a girl. He gestured with his briefcase. Indicating something was not right with its contents? Later I saw the girl standing with a hose aimed at one spot for a long time. It looked like she was crying. Who is she? What was in the briefcase?"
Occasionally the other kids would get bored of their games and turn their attention to Razman. They called him 'Razimodo' and 'Razman Gump'.
They came up behind him as he stood by the fence, fingers curled around the thick wire looking across the road.
"Oi! What are you staring at, Razmanian Devil? Ha? Thinking about eating bugs and slugs izzit?" And they'd chant that he was an alien or retarded or something and the chorus was about him eating bugs and slugs. That was okay. But sometimes the collective energy boiled over and one or more of the boys would knock Razman around a bit.
"Perhaps it was something lacking in my training, Chief. In any case, I have been programmed to forget all preparation for this mission, haven't I? Am I the only one who sees the irony in this? That to be truly prepared, I have to be truly unprepared? Pardon the tone but today the monkeys at the Institute attacked me again. It doesn't seem possible that this is the only place for me to be in order to continue my surveillance. Chief, is it not possible for me to be anywhere else? Please?"
The teachers also regarded Razman as a curiosity. His grandfather had been a famous man and several of his uncles, his father's brothers, had risen to prominence. Some teachers would ask with cloying friendliness which Son was his father. When he told them, their smiles would fix for an instant as they tried to recall what this particular son did, and they'd end up saying, "We've met your Uncle though."
There were also younger teachers for whom Razman was ill-lit by his grandfather's reputation and they sneered openly at his halting Malay, and worse, his vagueness during Ugama.
"The instructors at the Institute seem to be suspicious of my real identity, Chief. I couldn't say exactly how I know this. Except they seem to be testing and probing me, pushing me to make a slip."
Raz had no friendships with his classmates, so on the playing fields he was barely touched, let alone filled, with esprit de corps. He played whatever position with a soloist's gung-ho. He charged, blinkered to the rest of his team, and often scored. The PE teacher was amused by this daredevil hit-or-miss style and helped make a public point of congratulating Razman. He'd put his arm around Raz's shoulders and shake him heartily in front of the other kids.
"One of the instructors appears to be an ally. He seems to be offering me encouragement on this mission and in plain sight of the monkeys. Crafty. Do you know him? Mr. H. teaches physical education, Jasmani, and he looks like Agency muscle. Big hands - probably broke a few necks in his time. Just the kind of back-up this situation is crying for. Can I expect more information, maybe a detailed profile, on H?"
Raz believed that the Chief relayed information to him through the media. A report on a distant seismic movement, a Blimpish letter to the editor, foreign players being traded in the League - any of these items could be a coded message. Mostly HQ spoke to him through cable news. He'd learned to listen very carefully.
The television was in his father's study.
"Why must you keep calling this a 'den', 'yang?" Raz's mother asked. "It's a study. An office, kan? Tempat kerja ? When I hear 'den', I think of the Brady Bunch or, or, Yogi Bear. A huge cuddly family settling in to hibernate." Then she had one of her long giggling fits.
Father sat on a swivelling, coasting office chair and he propelled himself all over the room, but the most worn track ran from the TV to his desktop. As she sat on her armchair, Mother would mutter audibly to herself. Raz sometimes felt she was talking to him but usually it sounded like she was making asides to a malevolent invisible friend. As she watched her husband sliding back and forth in his chair, she grumbled, "Why can't he just get up and walk? Macam Hawking. Tapi bodoh."
Cable news was on and Father was going on and on about an American news feature. "What is this over-reaction?" He explained. "Fund-raising is in itself a huge flaw in the machinery's design! Ask instead where party and government must diverge! These pathetic people are scapegoats diversions - from the systemic paradoxes. They're soap opera!"
"Will you shut up?" Mother said, most definitely to her husband.
He and his chair stopped moving. From the corner of his eye, Raz saw his father attempt a grin.
"I've got some great Clinton jokes from my alumni website," his father said in one exhalation.
"Look at you," Mother said and turned to the TV.
During a station break, Father asked, "What do you mean, 'Look at me'?"
"Tak da pa."
"No. Tell me."
"Nothing. You were macam orang gila and I was trying to..."
"It's okay to react emotionally to news you know?" Father chuckled lamely. "They used to kill messengers, you know?"
"Ya ke? Habis, apa pasal the only news you know, in fact the only opinions you have, are on foreign news?"
"Maybe we should buy a second TV so..."
"Tell me: How long have you been back?"
So Raz concentrated and decoded communiques from HQ.
Art was a double period when the kids were given a subject to draw. Raz would do a rapid and often abstract rendering, hand in his piece, and spend the rest of the hour enhancing his reports.
The subject was "A Future Home" and Raz swept his brush to make a dome on a dish. He was painting a stick figure family when Mr. H. knocked on the door. The Art teacher looked up from a paperback titled 'Kiss My As*'. The kids whispered that it was a sexy book and this made the Art teacher hip but Raz had seen the sub-title - ' The Take-No-Prisoners Approach to Excellence in the Marketplace.'
The teachers spoke and then both turned to Raz. Mr. H. smiled. The Art teacher said, "Razman ah? If you finish already you can go help Mr. H in the storeroom."
"I need somebody to help me count the equipment," Mr. H. said.
Raz stood up and floated to the front of the class. This was transcendent. He could feel the eyes of his classmates on him - the chosen one of the popular Mr. H. Should it matter that maybe now the monkeys will see how their oafish blind-spot to Raz's unique cool has damned them forever?
The school had lost some of its field to a new feeder road. The sport storeroom rumbled with traffic noise. Mr. H. watched the fluorescent tube above them struggle to life; he was holding a clipboard.
"Why can't they just replace everything?" he said, referring to the balls, bats, hoops and nets around them. "Even the shit that looks okay is on its last legs."
Raz was thrilled by the casual swearing but said 'yeah', and shook his head ruefully. They inventoried the equipment like a conspiracy: "Why not we just say all the batons are broken, eh?"
"Look at these," continued Mr. H. "Not one bounce left in them. Inflating them also no point already - these are dead balls, what say you?" he winked. "We like them round and firm, don't we?" The teacher was squeezing Raz's behind.
Raz sidled away.
"Don't worry. You can touch me too. Come here."
There must have been a second somewhere in there when Raz could have stopped it.
Later he'd put that first storeroom day on playback a few times to isolate that second when he could have shouted or laughed boldly and walked out of the storeroom. But he had hesitated, caught by the sudden shift in the tone of their complicity. He didn't shout or laugh, the second passed and they continued.
"It was a test, wasn't it, Chief?"
The second and third times he followed his teacher because he was curious and deeply anxious about this new connection. Mr. H. had sought him out especially for this and the possible reasons terrified Raz. Hadn't the teacher made a mistake perhaps? By the fourth incident, it was obvious he hadn't. Before this, Raz was never made to do more than watch. This time, Mr. H. was nuzzling his ear and neck, making low, hoarse demands.
"Now this is getting out of hand, Chief. I must be getting interference, I can't tell what information you're relaying to me as per H. I trust you'd tell me if we switched to a new code. Is he or is he not one of our operatives?
"Here is my guess: H. was one of our rogue assassins. Perhaps his cover was blown. Ten-to-one he lost control of the last assignment, freaked. I say this because there is a touch of overkill about the man, Chief, even in hiding."
Raz thought for quite a while before deciding to add "Please help me here as I'm truly scared."
When Raz made attempts at resistance, Mr. H. just incorporated these into the game. "You want it, you do."
Things went on at school for Raz until one day he pulled in a deep breath but no air rushed in. When he opened his eyes he was in an egg-blue room, and a pock-marked nurse was standing over him. One of his aunts, a doctor, was there.
"The drip was unnecessary." Auntie Doctor was saying.
"Ngapa putak?" It was his grandmother. She had on those big two-tone sunglasses, looking like it was already his funeral.
"He's not asthmatic," said his aunt. "The boy had an anxiety attack, a paper bag was all we neededÖ " she stopped to answer her hand phone.
"We never heard of such a thing," his grandmother said, glaring at him. "Tak pernah ada on our side."
And on cue, Raz's mother walked in.
She was his only grandmother. His father was one of her five surviving sons. Her husband had died of a stroke, nonchalantly, in his car. His driver asked him a question at a red light, glanced in the mirror and saw him stumped, which was an unusual posture for the old man.
At the funeral, Grandmother looked grim and mummified. Raz remembered a whole year when the uncles met nearly everyday, when his parents argued about papers, when there were often lawyers and secretaries around, but it was his grandmother's presence which loomed over them all with the remote control. She moved into a large apartment near the Polo Club. Since Raz's father was the only son who didn't own a home, their family moved into the old house.
"Chief. The Widder paid a visit to KL Central. We accorded her every respect. She was unhappy with the new set-up. She had words with the female agent."
The Widder was wearing bright silks again. She was an enigma. She had mysterious power, perhaps equal to Chief's.
Raz had dripped pudding on his gown. The stain seemed enormous, terrain-tike, but that was because of the drugs. He picked at the driblet and listened to the people in the room. Grandmother wanted to know what this whole thing was about, this pitam-pitam, hysterical, macam factory girl.
His parents argued that a nervous breakdown was a serious thing.
How are we to treat this? Is it something in his nerves? Grandmother asked, adding that Datin Poh Leng's son was a neurosurgeon at Mount Elizabeth.
His aunt said that his nerves were fine.
Which means, Grandmother deduced, that the boy dah tak betul.
Temporarily, Mother said.
Grandmother enquired if anybody else had thought beyond the diagnosis. What are we to do next? If he's nervous, maybe he should go to a boarding school, or RMC, toughen him up.
Mother said that his results were pathetic, way below admission requirements.
Nonsense, snorted Grandmother.
The boy needs rest. It was his Father's voice. A breakdown has to be treated like any illness, with treatment and recuperation.
And psychiatrists too? Grandmother supposed.
Raz's aunt knew a child psychologist seconded from somewhere.
Good. Grandmother stated. So the whole world will know that one of my grandsons is mad.
His parents and aunt all said: Emak!
The compromise was perfect for Razman. He was taken out of school temporarily, due to an unspecified illness. For a while he had a tutor, a college student who was stoned a lot and liked to talk about China's nuclear capability. Razman enjoyed his paranoid fantasies of remote mountain silos and Southeast Asia's easy annihilation. "Which is why they've as good as got the Spratly's, man."
The tutor backed into his mother's car one day, and was told not to show up anymore.
"Tengok mummy's car, Raz! That idiot boleh mintak severance pay pulak tu," his mother said, caressing the damage. "We'll find someone more civilised."
But no replacement tutor arrived. Razman settled into living his days at home. There weren't many houses like this left in the city - a long driveway which looped like a lasso before the front door, a garden with trees full of personality - a set for a solitary child.
"Just in case you had any doubts, let me tell you, Chief, KL Central has plenty to keep me busy. My recommendation is that the Institute and all its monkeys be ground zero. I am finding personal items of the old man, putting them through pretty close examination. Guess I never could buy the coroner's verdict. Plenty of untraceable poisons. The Widder's been bringing vials of liquid for us to consume. We're cautious."
Razman looked at the pictograms on the packaging and thought of his discharged tutor's nightmares.
"Can you believe how much each of these little bottles cost?" His father said.
"Oh, she left the price tag, did she?"
"She wants us, especially one of us, to get stronger," Father reasoned.
"Ya ke? I read somewhere that people tumbuh bulu bila makan royal jelly," Mother said.
Razman observed his parents' movements.
"7.45 a.m. she rises. Due to last night's field work her mood seems unpredictable. Best to avoid eye contact.
"8.05 - she's barking commands to her co-agent. He seems unconscious. Drugged? I've seen similar symptoms in victims of gradual poisoning. They seem nervous lately. A double-cross? Or have I somehow blown my cover and they know why I'm here? Trust you'll know when to get me out.
"10.23 - she's left for debriefing. Clue to her whereabouts last night: matchbox with three pink-tipped matches and six burnt-out ones. Why were burnt matches retained?
"Box reads 'Chanson d'Amour KTV Lounge'. There you are, Chief - the French link I was expecting.
"Last month, the male agent went through some papers and spoke angrily of nuclear bombs and the bloody French bastards. (Please note that there has been a tendency to swear as tension mounts.)
"And now we discover that the female has been doing late night field-work at a French lounge. Must investigate initials KTV.
"11.52 - the male agent is up. Is instantly in front of the computer screen. Whatever else you can say about him, Chief, he's a dedicated decoder."
His mother was microwaving something when Raz came up from behind.
"Oh hi," she said, mildly surprised. "Want some?" She pointed at something rotating.
"No," he said. Best to cut to the chase. "I want to talk to you about something."
"Ya ? Apa dia?" She asked. She had a ball of tissue paper in her fist which she jammed in her nose again and again. The official story is "aggravated sinusitis". But Razman wondered if those years in Central America had not started her on a relationship with the old coca.
"Apa dia, Raz?"
Perfect opening. "It's the way you call me 'Raz'. It's wrong," he said.
"What? Wrong? Wrong like how?" The microwave went ding.
"You say 'Rahz'. It's Razz, rhymes with Jazz. Not 'Rahz', Razz, gedd it?"
She was handling a plate of roti-jala and chicken curry. It looked scalding; Raz took a step back.
"Oh, it's Razz, is it?" she said, like she hadn't been reminded before. "And who told you this?"
"Nobody," he said. "It's how I want my name to be. I can decide, can't I?"
"Please! It sounds so Mat Salleh like that." She had two forks in her hand. She jabbed one in his direction. "Come. Share this with mummy."
"Attempts to get female to use appropriate code-name continues to fail. She will undermine the mission in many ways by this. But foremost, because unless I'm referred to by the mission-name, other operatives will not recognise me. How many messages have I missed? Any ideas, Chief?"
Razman skateboarded along the cement walkway that connected the main house to the quarters behind. The quarters would have housed five in the old days; now two rooms stored Raz's parents' stuff, things not needed for now or things out of fashion. Pak Din and his daughter occupied the other three rooms. One bedroom each and a sitting room with a TV, VCR, boom-box and furniture that once graced the main house.
Pak Din was Raz's grandfather's driver for decades. Drove him everywhere; long excursions around the peninsula, jeep rides to the 'interior', drop-offs and pick-ups at the Club or the Federal Hotel. When the old man died, Pak Din removed his cigarettes before driving his body home, but Grandmother had always smelted tobacco on her husband. As long as she didn't have to watch him kill himself.
Grandmother drove her own Merc everywhere and Pak Din's job evaporated, but he couldn't bring himself to return to the kampung even though there was a wife and little girl waiting and making do with visits on holidays.
Pak Din begged Raz's father to let him stay on as driver.
"Of course, of course," Raz's father said. "You're family."
Pak Din had cried with gratitude.
"The transportation specialist had his eyes glued to the screen, Chief. I explained the urgent need for supplies, i. e. the pens required for continued reports."
Raz hugged his board and ahem-ed. "Pak Din," he said.
"Bagi salam dulu," Pak Din said, staring at a local drama.
"Assalamualaikum," said Raz crossly. He was the only person in the world who had to say that when entering Pak Din's quarters.
"He insists I use the password despite my ranking. Don't worry, Chief, I play along."
"Raz nak pergi 7-11, Pak Din."
"Nak beli pen."
Pak Din pulled out a Kilometrico from his shirt pocket.
"Tu bukan pen betul," Raz said when what he meant was it wasn't the right type of pen.
Pak Din turned to look at Raz. He blinked. "Bukan pen betul? Macam mana boleh tak betul? Yang dah berapa banyak Pak Din tulis tu apa? Surat tak betul?"
On the TV, a stepmother was begging forgiveness, bawling, from a stepdaughter she'd forced into prostitution but who'd since married well. Raz kept silent for a while, watching.
"Boteh tak?" he finally asked. He listened to Pak Din's silence for a couple of beats and left.
Passing Mazli's room, he noticed the door ajar. Just a crack but still unusual. He dropped his board, pushed the door and walked in. It was the same, still rosy from Hari Raya, when Mazli had bought metres of pink fabric for curtains and bedthings. She'd sewn and stapled ruffles on everything, but some of these had tears now or sagged to show the vinyl of the '60s furniture given by Raz's mother. But when it was freshly done up, it had been a room that hoped for both order and romance.
"The transportation specialist has a daughter who works in one of our plants. I suppose you'd have in your records the exact nature of her work. She's shown me photographs of herself and her coworkers in tight blue uniforms. They looked quite happy."
Raz walked to Mazli's writing table. There was nothing on it now but a Mun Loong desk calendar from last year. Before, the table would be littered with letters. And deliriously colourful fan magazines which she eviscerated for pin-ups and in whose back pages she encountered her many pen friends. She read her letters to him and filled him in on pop-star gossip. None of it seemed real to Raz. It was like overhearing his younger cousins play house, lost in the convolutions of earnest make-believe.
"I've managed to crack some of her code, Chief. Have decided her reports unimportant, after all, if anything, she's just a minor operative in the Org. Still, to summarise, it seems that quite a lot of drama occurs among the machine operators. Quite amusing. And I also sense that she needs to talk."
Raz lay on Mazli's pink bed. Sour fruit crossed his mind. Yellow, finger-staining pickled slices of unrecognisable fruit. She bought packets of these which they crunched and sucked noisily as they talked. He could eat dozens.
"No," she said one day. "No jeruk hari ini."
He made the acting sulky face she liked.
"Raz makan banyak sangatlah," Mazli complained. "Hari tu Mak Raz marah Maz sebab Raz tak lalu makan dinner, sakit perut."
"But I love 'em!" Raz wailed.
"You love 'em!" echoed Mazli, laughing. She liked to try out English phrases, parroting his accent. "You love the jeruk or you love the Mazli?" She gave him a sly, friendly look, then she laughed some more.
Raz turned on his stomach. The sheets coolly met his skin and the mattress pressed back against his groin.
"Razman buat apa dalam bilik Mazli?" Pak Din asked. He stood at the doorway looking as if he'd only just recognised the boy on his daughter's bed.
"Tak da," Raz spluttered, sitting up, pressing his thighs concealingly.
"Tak baik masuk bilik orang, semak-semak katil orang," Pak Din's voice grew. "Nanti dia balik, nanti Mazli."
He stepped into the room, the pinkness.
"Keluar!" he suddenly shouted, lunging forward. He grabbed Raz's shoulders and pulled him off the bed, shouting some more.
Then Raz was outside Mazli's room. He scooped up his board and ran back to the main house.
Pak Din was left redundantly shouting "Keluar."
"Chief, I had a violent encounter with the transportation specialist. He caught me in the restricted area. I'm unharmed. Really, he was just doing his job, the scene must not be disturbed until the investigation is over. It's hard to believe she's gone."
There was hardly any ink left in the felt-tip. Raz licked the nib and pressed out a watery grey full stop.
It was noon and he could hear his father hacking and blowing his nose in preparation for his shower. Soon he'll drive to the Club for lunch. Kway teow and beer and he'd tapau a burger and fries for Raz.
That was routine since Detta left to marry an electrician. Raz's dad would occasionally ask his wife if there was progress made in finding a replacement maid. She'd make testy noises about work permits and shady agencies and no more was made of it. In truth, her secretary used to call leaving messages about interviewing new maids, but Raz's parents never bothered to meet with any of the candidates.
Detta visited once, with a husband who called her Bernadetta and held her hand adoringly. All through the short visit Detta made small gasps of dismay at how messy the house was and hugged Raz before she left. She was the only person who knew that Raz wet his bed once when he had a Mr. H. nightmare. One Sunday, Raz's mother took a look at their home and said, "I can't believe we've reached this stage! Ish! We'll have to house clean before getting a maid."
"Chief. You're not going to believe this but the agents are co-operating today. The female initiated a thorough reorganising of KL Central. They are very cordial like before."
Raz left the report and raced downstairs to help his parents. The French windows were open, the house was gold green, with light bouncing in from the garden. His parents were in their jeans and T-shirts talking loudly over humming appliances, recalling their student days. Raz, assigned to wipe some shelves, was giddy from all this amity. The moment suffused with a barely recalled sense of family was as light as pure relief.
It was soon over. It passed when the novelty wore off; the spring cleaning became a game of "Iím doing more than you". As daylight staled, attacks masqueraded as terse compromises. "Don't put your discs here, lah! Look, this is my station and if anything isn't mine, I'll just campak saja," until finally, invisible lines were drawn all over the house separating their things, their smells, their lives. Raz was stunned at the moment's passing then sank back and the familiar yearning seemed sharper.
"Dear Chief," he started, and then just stopped for the day.
Raz heard the shower and his father's expectorating barks turn to gurgles. Raz scurried over to his father's study. The large room suffered trimmings of Americana - football pennants, miniature licence plates, a basketball hoop screwed onto the pelmet, a Mickey phone. "Nak tengok? My husband's nursery?" Raz's mother would say archly, leading her friends in to look and giggle.
Raz pulled a drawer open and found a mess of envelopes, Post-its and paper clips. No felt-tips. A letter opener that had the Liberty bell on its handle, like a flat, cracked thumb. A ball-point pen with the lady and her disappearing nightie. A Happy Meal toy.
He saw the photo album with the batik cover. It was his father's. The first few pages were group shots. The Old Man and the Widder surrounded by their male offspring of varying heights. Father was a powdered infant on the Widder's tap in one, a toddler in another and about seven in the last. His brothers gave him no chance to catch up as they grew moustaches, donned caps and gowns and even brought wives into the picture.
Then there was a series of send-offs. Each beaming brother, surrounded by the rest, on the brink of a University education somewhere abroad. The earliest of these photographs, where Father was a boy young enough to be carried by the departing brother, looked as if the entire family had walked all the way onto the airport runway for the send-off. Then there was Father's own farewell. He looked scrawny and smiling with a touch of panic. There was only one other brother present, but he brought a son of his own. The Old Man and the Widder sat side by side in their VIP lounge armchairs, an immutable partnership from which young men were formed and promised the best.
Razman wondered if any of his uncles had also retained the entire series of photos or if it was his father's position as the youngest, the last to university, that made him custodian. He imagined the young boy in the early black-and-whites being scrubbed and dressed and thrown into a ceremonial convoy year after year, as another brother got on a plane and flew off to manhood. Raz gazed at the collegiate paraphernalia in the room and he wondered what 'abroad' must be like and what it meant.
"What are you doing in my stuff?" His father asked. He was damp and wearing a hotel bathrobe. "That's why I never find things when I need 'em."
"I was just looking for a p-pen." Raz said.
"Well, you're not allowed to look for one here. Anywhere else . . ." his father paused to gulp, a little dramatically, Raz thought. Then he dropped his butt into his coaster-chair. "Can't a guy have one room, hell, one desk, in the whole frigging house to himself?"
Raz slid the drawer shut as quietly as he could. It jammed slightly and he had to rock the desk a bit. "Sorry," he said.
"It's like I'm being crowded out of my own house. She's buying something new every week. That dresser, that ugly old dresser. Have you seen it?"
Raz nodded reflexively."Antiques. Hah. Her junk, everywhere. And when is she ever home to enjoy the great mahogany bulk of her treasures anyway? Your grandparents' stuff is still all over. All, all over." Raz watched his father catch his breath like a sprinter would.
"So I'd appreciate it if you didn't go rooting around the one tiny little space I call my own."
Father tried a smile.
"Chief. The female agent has acquired what looks like a two-passenger sarcophagus but turned out to be a cupboard. While the agents discussed it in another room, I took the opportunity of entering it and checking for false backs and compartments. Nothing."
Yet Razman kind of understood his mother's constant buying. He had seen her gaze into the varnish of a side-table with an inner focus that went past the table's shape and function, its grooves and grain, and straight into the pact of ownership she had with the piece of furniture. The essence of each chair was its her-ness. He felt it too sometimes when she looked at him.
Razman knew his mother had been adopted by a poor family. She had worked hard at every examination they threw her way, had gathered all her resources to grab one of the few lifelines held for the "poor passive receivers of takdir and rezeki," as she called them. Mother never liked to talk about all that very much. She never used it except to say occasionally, "You really don't know how much harder things could be, Raz," but even then with some amusement.
Her acquisitions were like sign posts perhaps, marking periods of financial good health. Or maybe they were insurance. Quite likely, being not far removed from memories of entire possessions, whole measures of worth, being carried in single bundles has made Mother want her successes reflected in a large caravan. He wasn't sure. What Raz did know was that there was nothing flighty about Mother's buying jaunts and nothing casual about her relationship with things.
"Mummy says that everyday, with the felling of another tree and the death of another craftsman, her antiques appreciate considerably."
"With the felling of another tree..."
"Goddamned cynical bitch thing to say."
Somewhere in the house the phone rang. It was insistent, bring bring, then Raz heard Pak Din's muffled 'hello?'
"Do you get into what she's about, Raz?" His father asked. He pushed off with his feet and the chair whizzed him to the mini-fridge. He got himself a beer and Raz noticed three empty cans on the floor.
What I meant to ask was," Father said after a luxurious gulp, "Without causing too much trauma I hope, is, are you more in sync with Mommy or me?"
"I don't know," Raz said. He enjoyed his father tipsy. He was more expansive, more sentimental. And Raz believed, more of his own nature.
"No, I suppose not. Okay, alright, what about this? If, for whatever reason, you had to decide between living with one of us, who would you pick?"
Raz felt the hairs on his neck go 'zing!' "Why would I have to?"
"I don't know. Let's just say ... let's just say an earthquake split the land. Mommy on one side and Daddy on the other."
"We're not a fault line." Raz suddenly felt like crying.
"Uh-oh. Look, it's okay, it's fine."
"Yes, it is!" Raz said quite loudly. "It is okay. Why don't you make it okay, Daddy?"
Father didn't say anything because he was taking a swig.
"You're supposed to be a stockbroker, Daddy, tapi you just cruise the Net all day and all night and lepas tu you drink! And you never want to do anything..." Raz was blurting with almost simultaneous regret. He wished his voice wasn't so high, wished he wasn't hiccuping tears, wished he wasn't saying any of it at all.
Father threw the empty Tiger bottle at a wall and it smashed. It was nowhere near where Raz was standing, it was just a 'shut-up'.
"Yeah, you're her son," Father mumbled as he straightened himself in his squeaking chair. "Except all the bad parts. Unfocused - got it from me. Highly-strung - got it from me. Lack of spiritual background - woah! Now how is that my fault?"
"The Widder came to Central. She wants the agents to engage an instructor for me. In preparation for a mission? It involves a foreign language."
His grandmother had come to tea with a cake far grander than the one Mother bought. She was recommending that Razman attend koran reading classes with a couple of his cousins three times a week.
Father, the only one eating his wife's cake, asked if he wasn't learning that in school anyway.
Which was something a father should know, Grandmother pointed out.
His mother asked Raz if he belajar ngaji at school tak? as she poured tea all round.
Grandmother wanted to know what difference it made since the boy was not going to school. Parents must prepare their children's souls, it is their duty, and there is a shop in Bangsar where you can get some interesting blends of tea.
Father said that Raz was a good kid with a good enough soul, winking and adding that he was no James Brown though.
Grandmother sighed her fed-up sigh and said that she was not talking about heaven and hell but about the people who are going to take over the country. There will be no place for apostates like her son, too late for him - he is doomed. But she would like to know that when they came to question the family, to decide who lived and who died, at least her grandson would be able to quote the koran.
After this, only cups and saucers made sounds until Grandmother announced her departure.
"Your mother is bored of me is all," Father was saying as he slipped a polo shirt over his head. "She's sick and tired of me."
"No," Raz said.
"You're right. I'm a big loser. Good thing you take after her." Father coughed and sat on the bed to put on his loafers.
"Do you just want the usual burger and fries again today?"
Raz forced himself to stop shaking and he walked past his father, through the house, and sat on the front door steps. He was angry and ashamed and scared. And dizzy from the size of all three emotions.
A while later his father passed him, saying "See ya in a bit, son" and tried to pat his head.
His cologne, like his self-pity, hung around Raz even after he had driven out of the compound. Raz still had the hiccups, and he was sniffling like his mother. He looked down the garden and saw the shed. If this was an f/x movie he'd be able to see a pile of papers glowing through the wooden walls. He imagined the boxlike structure bursting into flames, showering burning bits of wood and paper.
"Dah, dah. Jangan nangis."
It was Pak Din. Razman thought he'd stopped crying some time ago. Apparently not.
"Razman dah besar. Sudahlah tu."
The old man looked away as Razman forced out the last few sobs. He scanned the garden and said something about the tembusu not flowering because the piling next door had damaged its roots.
Razman stopped crying with a silent burp.
"Kata tadi nak pergi kedai Seben-Leben beli pen." Pak Din said.
The DJ on the car radio was receiving phone-calls from people talking about their kampungs. Since she'd moved to the city, a nasal woman was saying, she has felt like a foreigner in her own country. This was not what we were promised, an angry man said, we must shape the city with our beliefs, not the other way around.
Pak Din reached to turn down the volume. "Mazli balik lusa Raz," he said.
"Dear Chief. Picking up clues about the girl's sudden disappearance. They must have come at night suddenly to take her away. Why a machine operator would be sent for reprogramming is the real mystery. She was a lot more significant to our organisation than you led me to believe, Chief."
"For what we want to look after anak orang?" Grandmother had said.
"Don't you think we owe Pak Din something for his services? His loyalty?" Mother said. She was using her office voice, which she'd never done with her mother-in-law before.
"Pak Din worked for my husband, what is it you owe him?" Grandmother returned.
"Lagipun bukan Pak Din yang bunting."
Instead of backing away, Raz's mother crossed the room and took the chair next to Grandmother's. They looked at each other measuredly when Father broke in.
"Okay, alright. What are we going to do about it?"
"She can raise the child here. I can't think of any reason why not."
It was still office voice.
"Lepas tu you all bolehlah ajak dua tiga orang drug addict pindah sini, betut tak?"
"Tu tak da kena mengena lansung mak," his mother said. "It's not going to be easy for her, tak kan mak tak tahu orang kampung? She's going to be ostracised."
"Siapa suruh gatal?" Grandmother asked.
"She can find some work to do here, at home. It's better for her to be in KL."
"Yes, I agree," said Grandmother, stunning everybody. "And she can leave the anak haram with somebody in the kampung."
"Why would she do that?"
"Macam you kata tadi, she needs to work. Husband tak da, Pak Din can't really support her. Susah kalau ada baby. Mesti ada relative kat kampung tu."
Mother was about to say something, but Grandmother patted her head, smiled and went on.
"Good idea, you. Can't leave the baby at an orphanage, itu cruel. Alah, kat kampung tu mesti ada relatives who'll bela it. You should know, kan ?"
Pak Din drove quite slowly and he always honked on the road. A mini van full of teenagers passed and middle fingers were raised, but Pak Din just stared ahead as usual. But he was unusually animated.
Raz's mother had paid for Mazli to get an ultra-sound at a private clinic in Kuantan. And, Alhamdullilah, the baby was healthy. Pak Din's grandson had everything.
"Chief. The female agent had an altercation with the transport specialist. Male agent interceded. Situation returned to normal."
Razman was playing a game with his father when they heard a commotion coming from the quarters. Mother went to investigate. More noises. Raz and his father left their computer and ran to the back where Mother was telling Pak Din that if he touched Mazli one more time she would call the police. Mazli was to tell her even if he as much as raised his voice at her. The girl was on the floor by her bed clutching a handful of pink ruffle and weeping. Her father was outside her room, in shirt and sarong, pacing in a small circle. He held the side of his face grimacing and groaning quietly. It looked like he had a toothache. Father asked Pak Din to come into the main house for a while. They sat in the kitchen, had coffee and talked quietly while Mother satyed in Mazli's room a bit longer.
Razman was surprised that he didn't have the urge to eavesdrop on either conversation, and he could have easily, as intense as the adults were. But this time he felt comforted that the situation was being handled by his parents. That was the best part - that his parents were handling it.
"Mak Razman tu baik orangnya," Pak Din said. "Bapak Razman pun baik. Kadang-kadang dia rusing, pasal bisnesslah tu."
A car passed them on the left and a Mat Salleh face shouted, "Get on the slow lane-lah!" Pak Din said that Mother had been in touch with Mazli since she left. Mother insisted that she return to deliver the baby, adamant that the baby be raised in the quarters. She said that the baby will have a mother, a grandfather and a big brother to love it and teach it things. Raz took half a second to realise he was the big brother in question and felt a swell of pride. Raz's mother had assured him many times, Pak Din said, that the baby will be looked after and that she will pay for his education. It will be a good thing for him to live in the city from birth, Pak Din theorised with a grin, because then nothing will shock it.
"Entahlah Razman," he said, still smiling, "Dulu kalau kita anak orang senang, senanglah hidup kita; kalau anak orang miskin, miskintah kita. Sekarang lain. Semua boleh turun naik, semua ada chan jadi apa-apa pun."
Razman remembered when he needed new uniforms for school. Mother hated department stores and, one Sunday, she asked Mazli to go with Raz. Get them a little big, Mother said, since we can expect a bit of growing this year.
And growing more handsome too, Mazli said, tapping his chin. Kakak will have to worry about his many girlfriends soon.
Let's not tell him that, Mother said. She started to give the money to Mazli, then to Raz's utter delight, she gave it to him instead. There's enough for lunch and magazines, Mother said.
The day got better. Pak Din and Mazli were in a jokey mood and they were doing unkind impersonations of people in their kampung. Raz was in stitches, gasping: "Buat lagi sekali, lagi sekali!"
Then, at the department store, they browsed and meandered. Mazli began to tease her father about his habit of flipping every price tag and saying "Mash'allah" every time. She pulled him to try on a blazer, and he protested as he put it on.
"Kan?" Mazli asked, as Pak Din stood transformed in the mirror. "Macam big-shot gitu. VIP tak Raz? Kelas?"
They ate at the food-court and Pak Din told the story of the letter in the suit. Grandfather gave Pak Din one of his suits. Time was taken to describe it: worsted, made at Chortimatt's, the grey of smoke. Of course, what could a man like he have to wear a suit for? It stayed hanging in his cupboard. The Old Man made Pak Din wear it to drive him to a garden party at the Istana once. Many people thought he was a guest, you know? But, no, mostly it hung in the cupboard, pensioned. Then one day, after the Old Man died, Pak Din thought to take a look at the suit. He looked at it inside and out, before he'd been almost afraid of damaging it. He didn't know about an inside pocket. What a clever idea, he thought. And when he looked inside it, there was a letter, an old letter that Raz's father had written to the Old Man when he was out of the country. And the Old Man had kept it with him all the time.
Or forgot to take it out, Raz thought, but every time this story was told, he listened intently, even while Mazli made ironic faces. The oft told story of the letter in the suit was Pak Din's gift to him, and some allegory was conveyed in its consistent retelling. After lunch, they were waylaid at a video shop. Razman heard his name being called. It was an aunt, one of his father's sisters-in-law, with some cousins and their friends. "We're going for ice-cream and then a movie. You must join us!" This aunt had a squeal for a voice."Must catch up, yes or not? My God, how long has it been since you cousins got together?"
They all mumbled incoherently.
"I've just bought some school uniforms, Auntie," Raz said with a polite smile. "I should go home now."
"No, no, no, no, no, no..." she said musically. "You must not feel like that. You must get out and meet people to build up your confidence. Nobody here thinks any less of you, yes or not, kids?"
One of his cousins stifled a giggle. Raz was aware that Pak Din and Mazli had moved away, were standing by the escalators.
"No movie today, never mind. But you must at least come for ice-cream," his aunt said. "Pak Din can wait, boleh kan Pak Din? Half-an-hour?"
Raz sat with his cousins and aunt in a snack bar scooping ice cream into his mouth.
Auntie talked about her friend who lost her marbles, and whose hair turned white after a stockmarket disaster. But you know, she's getting better now. It just takes time, Raz. He nodded. He could see Pak Din and Mazli sauntering around the shops waiting for him. They were why Raz took big, cold-painful swallows of the super sundae.
The car stopped at a yellow light.
Pak Din said that a baby would be good to have around the house, he will keep everybody young. Raz's mother was going to tell his father today. Your mother is, Pak Din started to say, then stopped to squint and think about what he was going to say.
Yes? Raz prodded.
She's more than she shows. She's good. And clever. She's very suitable for your father, you know.
Raz knew of course.
Pak Din bubbled with laughter. What? Raz asked. His daughter had called just now while Raz was talking to his father. Silly girl asked if it would be confusing to have two Razmans in the house. Pak Din said Surely! Who will know when he's being called?
Besides, Pak Din said, there can only be one Razman, the original. The baby with have to be his own original person, won't he? Lots of good names to pick from.
Raz was so happy that when the car behind honked to say that the light was green, he laughed more than was called for.
He was walking up to the 7-11. Instead of six pens, he might just get two and some pickled fruit. The Chief would have to wait, there's much for Raz to decipher and ingest. The glass door flashed as he pushed it open.
Last update on 9 February 2004.
Page-Keeper: Chung Chee Min