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from the June 2021 issue

Theo

A conversation between two Malaysian expats from different generations takes a surprising turn in this excerpt from Fahmi Mustaffa’s novel Amsterdam.

 

 

Ah, Theo! Come in, son. Here, let me get your coat.

Thank you, uncle.

You can just call me Pak, it’s more friendly, right? Ha, come in, come in.

Theo was led to the living room. Every inch of the space was neat and well organized. Strangely, Pak Latif’s house had no television.

Theo, where are you from, son? Eh, it’s OK for me to speak Malay, right?

From Vondelpark. Oh, that’s fine, Pak. I’m half Malay, half Dutch.

Oh, that’s why you’re fluent. How many years did you live in Malaysia?

All my life, Pak. This is my first time in the Netherlands.

I miss Malaysia so much. I can’t go back, though, I’m all alone.

I understand. Your children, they’re all here, right?

Yes lah. Eh, hold on a second, Theo. I am heating up the food. We can chat for a while. Here, have a drink. Pak handed him a virgin mojito.

Pak Latif went to the kitchen to check on the food. The entire house smelled of Malay cooking. Theo was familiar with––was in fact very fond of––the aromas. As his eyes wandered he saw something, leaped to his feet, and headed to the corner.

Books were shelved from the floor to the ceiling. Goethe, Kant, and Plato filled the space next to hundreds of hikayat, lipurlara, novels, philosophy books, and major works of literature from around the world.

Theo was impressed. Clearly Pak Latif was not like other people!

No voracious reader, he reached for one of the thinnest books and looked it over from front to back. On the back cover was written: “If truth can set us free, where do we find it?”

Oh, you like that, Theo?

Pak! Oh, forgive me. I chanced upon this corner just now—you have many books indeed—I took one to look through. This is a book by—

J. Krishnamurti. My favorite philosopher.

Wow, you’re a philosopher, are you?

Haha, far from it, son. Let’s eat first, and later I’ll tell you all you want to know.

The table was spread with Malay dishes: rice, pineapple chicken stew, petai anchovy sambal, beef rendang, and mung bean porridge. Pak Latif obviously hadn’t overlooked basic life skills, even if life’s other demands took up much time and energy.

Ha, dig in, son. I cooked all this.

Wow, what a good cook you are, Pak!

My wife has long passed. Living like a bachelor, you need to know many things, right, son? All these, I bought from the Asian supermarket Aunty Ng. It’s where many Asians from Rotterdam shop.

Oh, I see. Do Daud and Daus come home sometimes?

Once in a while, yes, but young people have their own lives, you know. But that’s good, I like living by myself.

Oh, if you have a lot to do, it gets less lonely.

That’s right, Theo. But that’s the thing, humans are so scared of solitude, I don’t know why. I used to be like that. Anxious about the thought of being alone in my last days. I'm from Terengganu, near Kuala Kemaman, a fishing village. After secondary school, I got government assistance to continue my studies at the London School of Economics. At the time, there weren’t that many Malays there. My friends and I had a great life.

Haha, great life?

Yes lah! I was let loose like a deer that came to town. You name it, I smoked it! But after a while, that life got boring. Momentary pleasures get you nowhere, Theo! Until the day I met Camella. They’re lookers, Theo, the Dutch!

So she was your first love, Pak?

Ish, I don’t know if it was first love or not, I think maybe it was one-sided. I was in my second year. We were in the same class. Camella wasn’t only beautiful—she wasn’t like the other white women! Sweet, didn’t wear sexy clothes, didn’t cozy up with just anybody, didn’t even drink! I was so taken by our Camella, but I was shy, she was a stunner, and then there was me, with my flat nose and dark skin, she might have laughed at me if I confessed . . .

Haha, but if you never try, then you’ll never know, right?

That’s right, Theo. I was young then. Young blood is impatient. Young people want everything now. So one night, I tried to approach Camella. After a while, we got close. Oof, many people went around gossiping about us, but I liked that! Camella too, it looked like she was also into me, we always took study breaks together, just the two of us. All that young people stuff. I think I was your age then, Theo.

Then what happened?

We were a couple for more than four years, but there was no way forward, Theo. Her parents didn’t allow it. My parents were worse—chasing a mat saleh, as if there were no more Malay women on earth! they said. When I went back to Malaysia after my studies, Camella went back to Rotterdam lah. Every two, three months we sent each other letters—in those days we didn’t have Whatsapp and email like now—and sometimes there were things I wanted to tell Camella, but I missed my chance. It was too late.

Too late?

One day I received a letter, the return address was Camella’s but actually her brother had written it. He said that she had died in an accident. You can imagine, Theo, it was like the world had ended for me. Everything was a blur! I still remember, I was so upset with my parents that I packed all my bags, left their house, and went to Kuala Lumpur to start a new life. I went half-mad because of Camella.

I understand, Pak. The one I loved passed away too . . .

In those days there weren’t things like mental illness diagnoses and all that. People said I went mad because I read too many books! When in fact I was sad because I didn’t get to see Camella for the last time. I almost felt like taking my own life. Every day I felt life was more painful than death.

How did you heal from all those feelings, Pak?

Five years after that, I bumped into Camella in Kuala Lumpur.

What?!

It turned out Camella was still alive! Her elder brothers were the ones who wrote that letter after they found out we were still in touch. So we lost contact for no good reason, but that ended when we got back together and got married in Indonesia. She took on the name Camella Abdullah. Daud and Daus came along five years after we got married, and Camella passed away in childbirth.

I’m sorry, Pak.

That’s what I actually wanted to say, from the time we’re young we’re taught to fear loneliness, because that's what the people around us believe, a life like that is not normal, they say. Life must be festive, with lots of people and many things to do. But I don’t like that. I like being on my own. There’s a blessing in every solitude. In life, Theo, there’s no such thing as one good thing. Life’s gifts, they come in pairs.

How do you mean?

If you risk yourself to love someone, you also take the risk of being heartbroken. But to love someone, Theo, is a blessing. To be heartbroken is a blessing too. Don’t forget that.

To be heartbroken is a blessing too?

Yes! There is a blessing in not getting what we want.

I get it, Pak. But it’s hard to move on. Hard.

I understand, son. I know just by looking at your face you’re facing some problems. If you feel ready at some point, you can share. There’s just one thing I want to say: everything heals, Theo. Everything. Our heart operates like our mind—it will only function when it’s open.

Thanks, Pak. I really needed this!

OK then, no more being sad. Let’s eat first. If you want to come by again, feel free. Daus and Daud’s room, I was thinking of turning it into an Airbnb. If you want to stay over, you just have to tell me. That’s more convenient, you can stay here for a long time. After all, we’re both Malaysians!

Thank you!

Theo missed Malaysia upon taking the first bite of the dishes made by Pak Latif. He missed Mama and Benjahmin van Koen. He missed Lucas and his therapy sessions. But there was a gentleness in Pak Latif’s soul that put him at ease. In addition, Pak Latif was learned and experienced. Theo thought about inviting him for a stroll around Amsterdam one day. Pak Latif felt calm. He smiled seeing Theo happy and with such an appetite—it made Pak Latif’s mind wander to Daus and Daud. The fruit of his and Camella’s love. His one and final love. In his heart, his longing for his late wife grew. He accepted everything. Rest in peace, Camella van Koen, Pak Latif whispered softly.

*

After they finished dinner, Pak said, Tonight we’re going to the red light district, OK?

Er  . . . what for, Pak?

Eh, to watch naked dancers lah! It’s Amsterdam!

At night, Amsterdam turns into a city of possibility. At the end of May, summer begins to wind down, but its remnants can still be felt. Earlier in the day, the sun has no qualms about baring itself in the Dutch sky, but at sundown, a mysterious cold sets in. The afternoon turns to dusk, but the night is a festive riot where anything’s possible.

Now we’re here!

Theo felt a bit shy when they arrived at the city of possibility. The crowds, tourists and locals alike, poured into the city at night. Coffee houses and bars were brought to life by the visitors and their endless partying.

Pak, before . . . before we . . . walk around, I . . . I have a confession.

Oh, what is it?

Er . . . I, I’m not like you.

Not like me? I don’t understand lah Theo.

I, I think we shouldn’t be here.

Aih, but we’re almost there, Theo. Just a few steps ahead. Why? Are you sick?

Er . . . actually . . . I . . .

What is it?

Er . . . I’m gay, Pak.

Hah, what about it? My son Daus is also gay.

Oh.

What’s up, why don’t you tell me?

I thought, I thought the plan was to have fun . . . around . . . around here.

Here? In this red light district? Theo, you don’t have to worry. It is not what you think it is.

Lights were on at every pedestrian crossing. Red lights.

A place that looked normal in the daytime turned one hundred and eighty degrees at night. Glass walls draped with lights and curtains looked like a scrumptious feast for all who were looking for one.

Taking their time, they passed by the rows of erotic dancers in the red light district.

Occasionally, a dancer knocked on the glass window and locked eyes playfully with the tourists—anybody who was aroused and interested in more just had to come in—the curtain would be drawn. There were also those who entered in packs.

What a wonderful place to be, eh, Theo?

Leaving the red light district, they returned to Centraal Station.

Theo, can you get me some mineral water? All of a sudden, I feel thirsty.

OK, Pak, you wait here.

Pak Latif smiled.

Theo walked to the convenience store at the end of the block. As soon as the young man was out of earshot, Pak Latif quickly took out his phone. His wizened fingers hurriedly typed out a message.

He’s with me. Don’t worry.

Message successfully delivered. Pak Latif grinned.

 

From Amsterdam. © Fahmi Mustaffa. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Adriana Nordin Manan. All rights reserved.

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