Tuesday, September 07, 2004

City of Hope

City of Hope

When I was a student, I was quite fond of reading Malay short stories, or cerpen. I used to buy Dewan Masyarakat and Dewan Sastera for that purpose.

One of my favourite cerpens--which I still reread often-- is Debu Debu Kuala Lumpur, written by A. Shukur Harun. This particular short story won one of the prizes in the Hadiah Karya Sastra 1974, organized by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. it is anthologized in a thin paperback volume which I happen to possess. (I bought it and read it in 1984 though).

I enjoy this particular short story because it paints a very evocative picture of KL in the 1970s. It starts with a panoramic sweep of KL city:

Senja jatuh di langit Kuala Lumpur. Cahaya matahari yang merah memanah puncak Hilton dan UMBC yang agung...

Hilton and UMBC--how nostalgically 70s! (Imagine the 36 storey KL Hilton--now Mutiara Hotel--was the tallest building then). The story then continues in this fashion, describing with a dispassionate voice, an omniscient view of the entire city: sweaty commuters packed in hot stuffy buses, uppity government officers returning from their round of golf to their bungalows in Bukit Kenny and Petaling Jaya, prostitutes in gaudy makeup loitering around cheap hotels; and snaking lazily across this urban sprawl is the murky and garbage-choked Klang River, the historical source of the city's wealth and now a sad but fitting symbol of its decadence.

But in the midst of this cruel city, there's still love:

Di celah-celah itu gadis dan teruna berpegangan tangan. Mengadap sungai yang airnya mengalir lesu. Berbisik di senja itu. Bercinta dan berdusta.

The story then slowly zooms in on one particular pair of gadis and teruna: Lela and Muhamad Khairi. Lela helps her mother at one of the roadside warungs, selling food and drinks. Muhamad Khairi is a youth fresh from the kampung, trying to eke out a living working at the many construction sites of this burgeoning city. (Yes, at that time, there were no illegal Indonesian or Bangladeshi immigrants yet).

Muhamad Khairi frequents Lela's warung often, and soon love blossomed:

...mereka bertemu di sana, menyedut cinta and segar di tengah riuh rendah kenderaan dan kekotoran debu jalan serta kekeruhan air sungai itu.

It seems to have all the ingredients of a mushy love story but the story triumphs in the the way it is written: the matter-of-fact manner of its narration, interspersed with constant references to the urban ugliness around the characters, casts a certain tragic inevitability to the tale. And at no point does the story descend into trite sentimentality.

Muhamad Khairi sees KL as his city of hope--he wants to attend night school, get a steady office job (perhaps as an office boy or clerk) and then ask for the hand of Lela. Lela sees Muhamad Khairi as her pahlawan--her knight in shiny armour, who conquers skyscrapers to build a brighter future for them together. Masih ada rupanya cinta murni di Kuala Lumpur ini.

Unfortunately these two lovers are like flotsam in this urban sea--tossed around by mighty waves beyond their control. And like those 70s Malay movies, tragedy inevitably occurs: Muhamad Khairi meets with an accident at the construction site. He is brought to the hospital in critical condition.

But the city is oblivious to it all:

Bangunan tinggi yang di kerjakan oleh Muhamad Khairi dan kawan-kawannya tegak membisu...Lela memandangnya dengan benci dan kesal. Sepi dan duka telah bersatu dalam dirinya. Kota ini tetap riuh dan rancak. Kenderaan terus berlari kencang dan bunyi hon kereta seperti mengejeknya. Awan kembara tidak lagi kelihatan bagaikan tidak ingin menyertai duka nestapa ini.

The story ends without telling us whether Muhamad Khairi survives the fall. But the final words of the doctor provide a note of optimism: "Harapan sentiasa ada"

Lela memandang kejauhan melihat denyutnya Kuala Lumpur.


Sigh, I guess I'm just an old-fashioned romantic at heart.

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