Hello Yama

    By Aneeta Sundararaj

    Based on Actual Events

    Every year, individuals and communities are affected by natural disasters that disrupt their economic and social development, as well as jeopardise their mental health and wellbeing. … Disasters may put the victims in a state of despair and shock. This traumatic experience disrupts the normal functioning of the victims and severely impacts individuals, families and communities. Families face a loss of their identity by being placed in temporary shelters. The loss of privacy, resources and social support, and the lack of control over one’s own possessions, are all associated with elevated levels of acute psychological distress. Additionally, family separation, lack of safety and loss of livelihood, also contribute towards this decompensation. Most people affected by emergencies will experience feelings of anxiety, sadness, hopelessness, fatigue, irritability or anger, as well as difficulty sleeping.

    Professor (Adj) Dato’ Dr. Andrew Mohanraj

    Oh my! A pewter grey sky with stunning mandarin clouds criss-crossing throughout was more than the necessary drama in what promised to be the tail end of two weeks of misery. The repeated warnings of flash floods, constant worry and having to obey RELA officers’ instructions gave way to this sight which could only be described as a painting by the Divine. It was one thing to brush my teeth at a shared sink in the relief centre. It was quite another to change underclothes knowing that nothing but a thin curtain separated me from a leering and wrinkly, albeit harmless, infirm man.

    It was good to be back in the village however geologically unsafe Kampung Sungai Tua still appeared to the authorities. Besides, I would be here for a short while, a few nights at most.

    “Stay inside as much as possible,” the officers had instructed before I left the relief centre.

    I needed water, though, and to collect the pouch. Yes, there was a water pump from which to fill my plastic water bottle, but the pressure was not strong enough. So, there I was, squatting behind the village mosque, holding my breath to quell the stench of rotting debris from the landslide and contemplating the path I was about to take. There was a time when I wouldn’t have known the difference between tembusu, mersawa, kapor and merbau stacked by the riverbed waiting to be transported to the lumber mills at the mouth of the river. Now, with a single glance, I knew that it was logs of cengal that floated downstream.

    The notice from the meteorological department two weeks ago warned of possible floods. No one anticipated that it would be the worst floods that the inhabitants of Kampung Sungai Tua ever faced. They were considered lucky because the water surge that began upstream on Gunung Induk triggered landslides which resulted in the destruction of several villages nearby.

    “I am going to accept the government’s offer to relocate,” said Kak Tom, my neighbour and landlady, a week after the notice arrived. Poor thing. She’d been looking for her missing child, Suriani for a year now to no avail. I had to keep the girl’s whereabouts a secret, though, in the same way I’d have to keep my own.

    I glanced at the logs one more time, careful to avoid bringing too much attention to it lest someone was watching me. I caught a glimpse of the pouch’s strap peeping out from the hollow in between the logs.

    It was safe.

    I was safe.

    I was alive.

    Then again, maybe, to die was better.

    Maybe, the day would come when I’d see His – I refused to say my husband’s name; it was best to use pronouns, instead – body floating among the logs.
    Because of Him, we ran for our lives.
    Because of Him, we gave up all creature comforts to live as one of the hard-core poor.
    Because of Him, we’d pretended to be part of a religion we weren’t born into.
    This was what happened to a Convent girl who, at eighteen, abandoned higher education and fell in love with a low-life, instead.
    I looked out at the river once more. The water flowed at a sedate pace, taking with it filth collected along the way.
    It was time.
    I stood up, arranged the folds of my kaftan and held the Tupperware close. It still hurt down there. I wasn’t ready, yet, to seek any form of treatment. Sighing and wincing in equal measure, I strode, duck-like at first, and then with increasing confidence. I was eager to eavesdrop on the cakap-cakap by the water pump. All the way to this gossip session, I couldn’t help but lament as to how my once-charmed life had come to this.

    ***
    The gunpowder grey sky was punctuated by twinkling stars the night it all began. He received a phone call from an ah long. The loan shark informed Him that he’d splashed red paint on my father-in-law’s house night before. The Chinese man also threatened grievous bodily harm if He didn’t settle his debts as soon as possible.

    “It’s your fault,” He said.

    “Why?”

    “You wanted us to have that big fancy wedding. And you couldn’t get along with my mother. So we had to live here. Pay rent and all. I am only twenty-seven, you know. Where was the money going to come from? My parents didn’t give any ang pow for the wedding also. I borrowed lah. Now, see what happened.”

    Ang pow? I hadn’t known that he’d expected the gift of a ceremonial red packet full of cash from his parents. I poured the tea back and forth briskly from stainless steel jug to ceramic mug until it created the teh tarik’s foamy head. I plonked the mug on the dining table. He picked it up and slurped the brew, unaware of my angst.

    When a shiny new parang was left outside our front door with a note attached to it saying, ‘U R Next’, He insisted that for our safety, we leave the flat He’d bought barely a month ago. Still a new, obedient and petrified bride of no more than six months, I obeyed Him. Within seventy-two hours, we emptied our meagre savings, locked up His flat, abandoned His Proton Saga, packed our bags, including the parang¸ and changed our identities – me by donning the hijab and He by growing a beard. We boarded the next available bus out Alor Setar. We got off when it stopped outside a mosque in the middle of nowhere. We remained silent when Wahab, the penghulu of Kampung Sungai Tua and pseudo-Imam, assuming we were Muslims, saw it as his moral duty to offer us shelter.

    “If you don’t mind doing a bit of housework and helping the other villagers,” Wahab said, “our sister, Kak Tom, has a small place next to her house. You can stay there for a while.”

    As we lay on the mat spread out on the floor that first night in our new home, He turned to me and whispered, “Just imagine. From being Ricky, I’m now Ahmad. And you, from Bhoomi, you’re now Putri. So easy. If we stay like this, when I die, I have a chance to have seventy-two virgins in heaven.” If the daggers in my eyes could have killed, I’d have officially been a widow that very night.

    With icy blue skies for days on end, He took to kampung life like the proverbial pomfret to the river. Together with Wahab and the other kampung folk, He ventured into the jungle behind the village, taking with him the parang to hack the overgrown foliage along the way.

    “There’s this interesting thing up there, you know,” He shared after a week.

    While I doled out his dinner of rice, kangkung sambal and fried anchovies onto tin plates Kak Tom had lent us, He described a place the villagers had discovered six months earlier. Referred to by the rather unimaginative name of ‘The Hut’, it was situated on a plateau three- quarters up the hill. When I went with Him a week later, I realised that it was neither a hut, nor a shed. It was somewhere in between for the floor was nothing more than dried cow dung, as was the practice in the kampung. The walls were pieces of wood leaning against each other to form what architects called an A-frame structure. There were carvings on these walls such as names of people, row upon row of four straight lines that were struck out to mark the passing of five days each, little hearts with arrows. There was one of a boat with stick people half in, half out, and some upside down. In an urban studio, these might be regarded as art. Here, they were more like scratchings of the desperate, especially when we learnt from a forest ranger called Boon Teong that this was once the temporary shelter for Rohingya women, waiting for middle men who promised them safe passage to their waiting menfolk in Sumatra and beyond. Instead, they were shipped off to mamasans in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur who accepted these nubile maidens for work in the brothels. Once this prostitution and human trafficking ring was busted, the villagers used The Hut as a place to rest whenever they went in search of herbs and other medicinal plants in the jungle.

    “I’ve got new work,” He whispered, one day about four months after we’d first arrived.

    “Some people need to clear the jungle. They want the land to create a latex clone forest farm.”

    “A what?”

    “It’s about rubber trees. But the trees will later be used for wood also.”

    “Who told you all this?” Nothing was mentioned about this during the latest cakap-cakap either.

    “Remember Boon Teong? Chinese man. He guessed that I am actually Chinese.”

    “How?”

    “I don’t know.” He looked at the kettle with boiling water bubbling away.

    “This is dangerous.”

    “No lah. No need to be so frightened. He is nice, one. I want some tea. Make for me.”

    He picked up the parang and started to sharpen it. “This will protect us. Don’t worry. He wants to help me get extra money to pay off the ah long and go home.” “He knows about the ah long?” I put the kettle back on the stove.

    “Aiya, no need to think so much, okay? See this?” He held up the parang. “With this, I can do anything, anytime and anywhere. So, no need to worry.”

    He raised his voice. I knew better than to speak at that moment. Instinctively, I pulled the ends of my sleeves to hide the fading bruises on my forearm. Had I the courage, I would have asked Him, ‘How does that parang help you?’ Instead, I quietly made his teh tarik.

    The day the government changed a year later, supposedly for the better, we had a marbled sky of bright blue with streaks of dull grey. The new politicians’ promises were for cleaner and more transparent management of all matters under the purview of the government, both local and federal. In Kampung Sungai Tua, this called for a gathering – far more serious than the usual cakap-cakap – inside the school hall.

    Dispensing with preliminaries, Wahab called the meeting to order.

    “There are logging activities upstream. Do any of you know anything about this?”

    I glanced at Him who looked straight ahead.

    Using layman’s terms, Wahab said that the forest reserve at the top of Gunung Induk had been cleared. The land, at one thousand metres above sea level, was what experts called a high hill dipterocarp forest and was deemed environmentally sensitive.

    “Do you all know what’s going to happen?” When no one replied, he explained, “It’s like this. Put a hen and a few chicks on some grass. Pour a drum of water on them and they will run here, there and everywhere, but the grass will absorb the water. Now, you take away the grass and make it a cement floor. Put the same hen and chicks there. Throw water and, what happens? They will be washed away, like a strong current is pulling them.”

    Shoulders started to droop.

    “What do you think will happen to us when there’s heavy rain now? We’ll be like those chickens. We will be washed away.” Pointing in the direction of the river, he said, “And, that place will become full of mud.”

    No one said a word, but everyone hung their head low.

    Petitions were organised and I helped by writing letters to the authorities. Well, at least to the district land officers. When the officers responded six months later by making a visit to the kampung, yet another gathering was organised inside the school hall.

    Once again, had I the courage, I would have narrated, in chronological order, the environmental crime playing out before my very eyes, or at least from whatever He told me. You see, Boon Teong, looking to side hustle wanted investors for a plan he’d conceived. Once he found them, a company was set up. Mercifully, He had the sense to decline Boon Teong’s offer to become one the directors of this company. The standout point of this meeting, however, was that, for all his talk and warnings of the environmental disaster at the doorstep of Kampung Sungai Tua, Wahab had given in to his avarice and become part of Boon Teong’s new cohort. Smiling from ear to ear at the top table, Boon Teong must have been overjoyed because with Wahab, he’d acquired a race-based bumiputra director, thereby, allowing this new company to get preferential treatment for all government-related matters.

    “Sad, lah.” He clicked his lips, satiated from the dinner of laksa I’d made using the eel he caught from the paddy fields nearby. “If I didn’t want people to know about this ah long thing, I would have become a director also. Win-win, you know.”

    Why didn’t He see that we would never win? The villagers would never win. Even Boon Teong wouldn’t win. The company was nothing more than the instrument by which these middle men could launder their earnings off Mother Earth. Their role as district officers who acted as watchdogs would be dismantled. Mother Earth was betrayed.

    Cakap-cakap

    “What happened to the latex clone forest?”

    “Not enough money. New company sold the land to an operator of a durian orchard.”

    “Durian? Our kind of soil, can or not?”

    “Sure can. If anything happens, also, they’ll say it’s geology lah. Or God’s work. No one will point-point finger.”

    “Why, ah?”

    “Wahab said because the company got director who is krabat. You know lah, with royalty, everything will be okay what.”

    “Ya lah.”

    “But now, ah, must help Kak Tom.”

    “Why?”

    “Her daughter, Suriani, missing. Donno where she went.”

    “Ya, lah. Must find her fast-fast.”

    The day the trees were completely uprooted for the durian orchard, the sky was ash grey without a single streak of silver. Soon, the kampung folk were buying gunny sacks of rice from farmers in a neighbouring village. Their previously water-logged plots of flat paddy land were now mud-logged testaments that their source of irrigation had become unsuitable for cultivating paddy.

    “How could this have happened?”

    “Don’t ask so many questions, Bhoomi.” He opened the leather pouch and counted the notes inside, then sipped on the tumbler of fermented rice called tuak.

    “This is not good. The Gods will be angry. Then how? Yama will come to say hello.”

    “You and your Yama. You married me, okay? A Buddhist. No need to bring all this Hindu-Bindu gods. Especially the one about death.” Shivering, he showed his disgust for my faith by adding, “Eeee….”

    I looked away. Something wasn’t right. I could feel it.

    “Forget all this. Let’s put something in there.” He pointed at my belly. Our daughter, for He was sure it would be a baby girl, would be named Meera Sarah, after our mothers. With the money he’d saved – four thousand ringgit at last count – He figured that it was time to think about leaving Kampung Sungai Tua. His plan was to go home, pay off the ah long and then come back for me. Financially free, we’d return to our families, seek forgiveness and show off our baby.

    Before I could beg, “When you go, take me with you,” He said, “You stay here first. I clear everything.”

    Although couched in terms that offered to protect me, it was the moment when I first had an inkling that there would come a time when I would need to gather my wits about me.

    Cakap-cakap

    “Selamat petang.”

    “What-chu wan?”

    “Where you going?”

    “Why you wanna know? You see people chop trees and take away. You say nothing.

    Why?”

    “Don be angry lah.”

    “All wanna make big-big money. Spoil Mother Earth only.”

    “Mother Earth?”

    “Look around

    . You think that you can take so much and nothing happens?”

    “Donno.”

    “You talk about chickens washing away. No chickens lah. We are the chickens. No. Not we. Only me and others like me. We are the chickens.”

    “No need to be like this, Putri.”

    “Putri? Ha. Ha. Ha. I’m no princess. I’m Bhoomidevi, Mother Earth. You take what’s ours, make it yours and then use it against us.”

    “Huh?”

    “Ya. Take out the ‘devi’, put prince and then become bumiputra.

    “But you also bumiputra what, Putri. You and your husband, Ahmad?”

    “Aiya! Useless talking to you.”

    The rays of the sun shone on the spot where He said project signboards should have been erected for this new durian orchard. This requirement was dispensed with since there was no public announcement about the actual terms of reference for Boon Teong’s new company. Especially since there was a need to speed up the creation of a reservoir to irrigate the orchard. Reservoir was too posh a word, perhaps, to describe what was nothing more than a gigantic hole in the ground.

    “Did they at least plant vegetation to cover the exposed area? I mean, this is being built a slope, no?”

    “Where do you get all these questions from, Bhoomi?”

    “Aiya, you just look at Google also, you will know what to ask.”

    “No need to ask so many questions. As long as I get paid, I don’t care what happens.”

    True enough, none of the kampung folk bothered that they could no longer harvest paddy, catch fresh pomfret and eel, or simply allow children the luxury of splashing in the water on a hot afternoon. Having food delivered from the town to a new mini market – another one of Boon Teong’s side hustles – became the norm and, in some instances, preferable. Some, like Wahab, dabbled in the illegal trade of pangolins, his role as the guardian of moral behaviour within the village be damned.

    Life bumbled along until the day I couldn’t see the sky through the fat raindrops. As the twilight hour began, He rushed back from The Hut.

    “I saw him, Bhoomi. I saw him.”

    “Who?”

    “Him.” When I stared, perplexed, he shook his hands in front of him, frustrated. “The ah long.

    “W-h-a-?” I cleared my throat.

    “Boon Teong brought him to the durian orchard. Showing off his new Hilux and all. This ah long fellow is his friend lah! Die-die, I tell you.”

    As I watched him gather his things into a plastic bag – one shirt, a pair of trousers, phone charger and toiletries – it dawned on me. He was packing for one.

    “What about me?”

    He stopped. Stood up and held my shoulders.

    “I said, isn’t it, I go first? Pay this ah long fellow.” He continued to pack his meagre belongings.

    Suddenly, he started hitting his head with his palm. “Alamak! I forgot the pouch.” He began pacing. “It’s in The Hut. I go back there to get money.” One more squeeze of my shoulders and he added, “But I will leave some money there for you. Five hundred ringgit. Enough for you. Very easy to find. On the shelf, next to the table.”

    The next thing I knew, He was gone.

    I stood there, in the middle of our one hundred square feet dwelling place for the past five years, accepting my reality for the first time ever. I had married a useless, self-centred, good- for-nothing who didn’t care one iota if I lived or died. I was on my own.

    The speed of His disappearance from my life turned out to be somewhat of a blessing as He may not have left had I shared my news. At least that’s what I’d like to think. Within twenty- four hours of His departure, the pain in my belly was too much to bear. I screamed and Kak Tom arrived. She saw my need, took me in and summoned the faith healer. Nothing could be done, Kak Tom said and held me as I wept.

    When she pulled back though, in her eyes, I saw the words she couldn’t bring herself to say: ‘Poor thing. Husband supposed to look after. Husband gone. Now, baby also gone.’

    The words in my eyes commiserated with her loss: ‘Now I know what it’s like to lose a child.’

    The fading inky blue sky like rubbed velvet didn’t help to light my path up to The Hut to retrieve the money He said He’d left for me. If it had, there was a possibility I could have been forewarned. As it transpired, it was Boon Teong’s left hand I saw first when I stepped into The Hut. It was minus the ring finger. It seemed, He said months ago, Boon Teong had lost it at a goldsmith’s shop. Irritated with Boon Teong’s constant refusal to pay his debts, the owner had caught him off guard during one of his visits by holding him down and cutting off his finger, gold wedding band and all.

    The next thing I saw was the leather pouch.

    “Ah, there you are.”

    I should have held my breath instead of crying out.

    “There is a lot of money here. Five thousand lah. That Ricky made a lot, ah?”

    For a long while, I watched him. Then, I put my palm out and all but whispered, “Yes. We saved our money.”

    “What do you need so much money for?”

    I didn’t owe this man an explanation.

    “Please, give me my money. My husband’s money.”

    “Your husband?”

    I remained quiet.

    “My friend saw him the other day. Said he owes him money.” Sniggering, Boon Teong added, “My friend, ah, not so kind one, you know. And money still here, what? So, donno if husband still alive. Maybe… you know.”

    I held my breath.

    “Now, all alone.” Turning to fully face me, he asked, “Do you m-i-s-s him?”

    We made eye contact then. A brief encounter – one that left me uncertain if he knew my true identity, but certain of what he was implying.

    I tried to grab the pouch from him.

    “Ah, ah, ah,” the Boon Teong deflected.

    “Give me the money.”

    “Oooo… can get angry, one.” He lifted his chin, egging me on. Clenching his jaw, I heard his breath, short and loud. I glared. Our standoff lasted precisely twenty-two seconds after which he stepped forward until he was no more than two feet away.

    “Tell you what. Here,” he said, handing the pouch to me. “Take it.”

    I blinked three times.

    “Take, take, take.”

    He did not let go, though, when I put my hand on the pouch.

    “I want something in return.”

    I should have let go of the pouch then. But I needed the money. Besides, it was my money, no? My husband’s money? Our money?

    The pointy tip of the pouch was rough against my cheek. “Pretty. Just like that Suriani.

    She was much younger, though. Bangkok mamasan said she’s very popular.”

    What would He have done if He knew what happened next? Then again, how would I have explained it to Him? Or to anyone else, for that matter? What would I have said? That I reached out for the pouch anyway? That Boon Teong then pushed me until I fell backwards onto the table? That he turned me on my stomach, yanked my kaftan and …

    When I couldn’t even say it to myself, how was anyone going to believe a word I said?

    “Ah,” Boon Teong said when it was over. “Here. Give you ang pow. Five hundred ringgit.

    I will keep the rest. Keep safe for you.” Zipping his pants, he said, “You come back next Wednesday. I give you more money, okay?”

    With each step back down the hill, I recited a mantra to the spirits watching and begged for forgiveness for defiling their space. At home, I took off my kaftan, turned the tap on and poured icy cold water on my being. No one must know that I shivered from what I’d been forced to endure to stay alive.

    A thousand curses to Him. He’d taken the parang with Him and I had nothing but my wits to defend myself. I heard the rumble and opened my eyes. Peeping through the gaps in wood, the sky was a canopy of velvety black. I must have dozed off. Quickly, I switched on the solar-operated emergency flash light. Turning my back to the apology for a door hanging off its hinges, I opened the pill box and dropped the tablets into the plastic bottle of tuak. Watching the effervescence, I prayed that the three hundred ringgit I’d paid for the pills be worth every sen.

    The faith healer promised that three pills was enough to knock out an elephant.

    The door opened. A gust of warm night air filtered through. I looked at the three men by Boon Teong’s Hilux. Three very different types. One scrawny with no bum but an enormous pot-belly, and the second with a smallish bum and love handles. Boon Teong, with his ill-gotten money, had eaten himself into plain fat all over.

    I heard their words.

    “Good-good lah. Nice face also.”

    “Yah.”

    “How much? Hundred?”

    “No lah. No need so much. Fifty each enough. This orang kampung only. Give this durian also enough already.”

    The bastard meant to short change me. There was only one thing to do – if he halved what was due to me, I would double what he thought was due to him. I slipped all the pills into the jug making it three pills each for three lecherous souls.

    I flung open the door. Boon Teong turned, saw me holding out the jug and three tumblers. In less than a minute, all three gulped down the tuak.

    Then, they all fell down.

    ***
    Cakap-cakap.

    “Putri. You smiling. Why ah?”

    “Why? Cannot smile is it?”

    “No lah. Have you heard or not, what happened?”

    “What?”

    “Two Chinaman and one Malay fellow died lah.”

    “Oh.”

    “Wahab found them near The Hut. But all hush-hush because the Malay fellow is related to krabat.”

    “Oh… You want? Fresh durian“Wah! Nice Tupperware also. Where you get from?”

    “Got lah. Somebody give.”

    “Wah! Delicious. Sad, ah. Kak Tom already left. What you going to do now?”

    “Donno yet. Must think.”

    Under the fading dawn sky, chequered in shades of pale yellow and powder blue, I squatted next to the logs by the river. I pulled the pouch from its hiding place. It was all there – the old notes He had collected and the new ones I’d taken from Boon Teong and the rascals. It was enough to leave this God forsaken village and start over.

    I also unfolded the cut out of the newspapers that I’d kept from my time at the relief centre.

    Kupang: The newly elected Energy and Natural Resources Ministry secretary-general Datuk Ramli Idris extends his condolences to the villagers who have lost loved ones surrounding Gunug Induk. The Minister also convened a task force to investigate the matter. The report states that the tragedy was a ‘cascading of geological processes.’ Heavy rain, landslides, debris flows and floods had been identified as the main cause of the worst floods in Kampung Sungai Tua’s history. The task force had also discovered that the erosion that occurred in the secondary forest was due to the conversion of the land for cultivation. Even though his administration cannot be blamed for approving the durian orchard project, which has resulted in siltation causing the river to become shallow, the Minister has communicated with his counterpart in the Health Ministry. Psychological help and counselling will be provided to all the victims of this tragedy.

    Utter codswallop!

    Counselling wasn’t going to help one bit.

    It was time to help myself. Putting the pouch into a plastic bag I brought back from cakap-cakap, I stood up. Crumpling the piece of newspaper, I flung it into the river. At that very moment, a body floated past. Face down, it was bloated, caked in mud, hands akimbo and fingers splayed. The ring finger on the right hand was missing.

    “Hello Yama.”

    References

    Mohanraj, A. (2023, January 3). Dealing with the psychological trauma of disasters. The Star Online. Retrieved in January 2023 fromhttps://www.thestar.com.my/lifestyle/health/matters-of- the-mind/2022/01/03/dealing-with-the-psychological-trauma-of-disasters

    Aneeta Sundararaj is an award-winning short story writer whose work has been featured in many publications. Her bestselling novel, ‘The Age of Smiling Secrets’ was shortlisted for the Book Award 2020 in Malaysia. In 2021, successfully completed a doctoral thesis entitled ‘Management of Prosperity Among Artistes in Malaysia’. Aneeta gives back to the writing community by managing the Great Story Competition (@httags) which is hosted on her website called ‘How to Tell a Great Story’.

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