A Starry Hill
Writer: Alfian Sa'at
Published: Fri, 27 May 2011
During their school holidays, Shazeela and Nurdiyana always made it a point to visit Kuala Lumpur. They would save up for the coach ride and a three-night stay at a modest three-star hotel.
Kuala Lumpur was different without their parents around. They would not have to tail them on trips to handicraft markets, where their mothers would coo over gaudy batik scarves, or eat at “Western” restaurants that were not halal in Singapore, their fathers enthusing over grilled steaks and roast chicken.
There was something provincial about their parents’ conception of Kuala Lumpur, which was perceived as a place of both familiarity (everyone spoke in Malay), as well as freedom (there were few dietary barricades).
But the girls knew that the place wasn’t just an expanded Geylang Serai bazaar. There was a pulsing energy to the city, and a dizzying cosmopolitanism that they could not find in Singapore.
Once, after jaywalking in front of the Pavilion Shopping Mall, they found themselves assailed by a sight they could not make sense of: Iranian women in chadors, Burmese men in cleaning services polo tees, towering Scandinavian backpackers.
The girls also felt that the nightlife in Kuala Lumpur held more promises of nocturnal adventures (cars audaciously parked on pavements, faces of indeterminate ethnicities). One of their favourite spots was the Bukit Bintang stretch. Since they were not locals, the name still retained its etymological innocence, and its very mention enchanted them, conjuring up a hill where people climbed to gaze at stars.
One night, the girls decided to check out a bar at Bukit Bintang, which a website guide described as having a “mixed expat and local crowd”. The girls had spent close to an hour ironing their hair, matching their clothes, ensuring that their eyeliners ended in perfect calligraphic upstrokes.
After all that, they would spray perfume on themselves, to create the impression that their appearance was not deliberate and laboured; they were effortless clouds of colour and scent.
The girls always felt confident walking around Kuala Lumpur. They knew that they were attractive, but part of that confidence—or superiority—also came from a certain self-image as Singaporeans. They were certain that they had an advantage over other girls in Kuala Lumpur, like the ones who came from smallholder farms (whom they called Minah Felda), or the “skanky ones” who wore low-riding jeans which exposed spotty posteriors (whom they called Minah Bohsia).
In the bar, the girls bought some soft drinks and parked themselves in a corner.
The crowd was thickening, and the girls tried to be nonchalant to the glances that were darting in their direction. A group of boys appeared and occupied the seats beside them. They were Malay youths, but well-dressed, in crisp ironed shirts, though something in their manner suggested that they did not do their own ironing. A couple of them had mixed features, with eyes and hair that would probably reveal their fiery brown hues under the sun.
After a few minutes, one of the boys turned to the girls and asked, “Can I top up your drinks? What would you like?”
He was not one of the mestizos, but he was fair-skinned, with thick, inky eyebrows.
“We’re fine for now,” Nurdiyana replied.
“Where are you girls from?” the boy asked.
“Singapore,” Nurdiyana replied, flattered that he had asked. “This is my best friend Zeela. And I’m Diyana. Are you from KL?”
One of the other boys, who was listening in, said, “He’s from the Royal House of Kedah!”
The boy who spoke first frowned at this interruption. “Are you on holiday?” he asked the girls.
Nurdiyana replied that they were, and in the next few hours found out that the boy was studying at the London School of Economics, and was back for the summer vacation. He bought jugs of drinks for his friends, who would wander off and come back, but who never attempted to join in the conversation with the girls.
Shazeela could see that Nurdiyana was quite smitten: she recognised the forced laughter, the anecdotes she had heard before, now polished for another airing. Shazeela assigned to herself the role of a watchful but somewhat indulgent chaperone.
When the girls left the bar, Nurdiyana showed Shazeela the namecard the boy had passed her.
“Tengku Azlan,” Nurdiyana said. “He said he’s going to call me tomorrow.”
“But we’re going back tomorrow,” Shazeela said.
“Maybe we can extend?” Nurdiyana asked. Shazeela did not like the scratch of hope she detected in her voice.
But the boy did not call. Nurdiyana waited until it was time to check out, and then rang him up herself. Three times. Nobody answered her call. On the bus, she was silent, leaning back in her seat with her sunglasses on.
“You know why we keep going up?” As her eyes were shielded, it seemed as if Nurdiyana was not addressing anyone in particular. “We do it just like our parents. We go up to discover who we really are.”
Shazeela wanted to feel some sympathy for her friend, but it was annoyance that she felt instead. Nurdiyana was too old to be nursing some fantasy of becoming a princess, or a member of some royal entourage. She should know better, coming from Singapore, where there were no palaces or farms, no peasants or kings. How silly these notions were!
No, Shazeela thought, we go up so as to discover who we are not. And we’ll keep going up to discover it again and again.
But she did not voice her thoughts aloud. She turned to the window, watching curtains of trees whisk by.
She wondered what it would feel like to reach her hand out, through the glass, to brush her fingers against the sun-shimmering leaves.