"Once We Were There" by Bernice Chauly
(2017), Epigram Books
In Once We Were There, the oddly named Delonix Regia, daughter of a prominent lawyer and somewhat accidental journalist, leads us through parts of Kuala Lumpur rarely seen in mainstream media.
Largely set against the backdrop of scandal-ridden Malaysian politics, the novel starts in 1998 as Delonix and her friends are protesting the arrest and beating of Anwar Ibrahim, government stalwart turned popular opposition leader.
Delonix is the main viewpoint character of the novel, but we also see through the eyes of two other characters; Delonix's husband Omar, foreign educated scion of a wealthy Malaysian and Marina, a transvestite sex worker from Sabah who has made her way to KL to earn enough money for her gender reassignment surgery.
Chauly peels apart the many layers of society from the socialite weddings in colonial bungalows to drug fuelled all-nighters in glitzy clubs to back alley trysts with sex workers, all in the shadow of the famous KL Twin Towers.
Chauly's prose is simple but evocative with passages that sometimes light up the page. Her love for her city shines through even as her protagonists grow increasingly jaded:
“Take a city, imagine it encased in a snow globe and shake it upside down. For KL there would be no snow, of course.
But there would be monitor lizards, tigers, giraffes, refugees, domestic workers, Bangladeshis, girls in pigtails and navy blue school uniforms, nasi kandar with all the condiments, chopped green chillies, beef in dark soya sauce, crab curry, cabbage with turmeric, mustard seed and dried red chillies, guns, machetes and parangs, BMWs, Protons, Kancils, Ferraris, Porches, BMW bikes, strawberry-flavoured condoms, pink Ecstasy tabs, politicians, policemen, taxi drivers, footballers, red plastic furniture, dogs, cats, parakeets, rabbits, snakes, ducks, the occasional slow loris, and some of most morally reprehensible people on the planet.
KL had unearthed a side that no one had ever seen before; it was new, exhilarating, but entirely unpredictable. Thousands had woken up, but no, this wasn’t like Indonesia where Suharto had resigned. Resigned. He was shamed, by his own people, students who took to the streets, by the tens upon tens of thousands. Indonesia had witnessed genocides, millions had died in seas of blood, but we didn’t share the same script. We had a bloodless transition from colonial rule to independence; we had only one major incident of racial riots in 1969. But what we did have was an endless simmering. Of something, and everything.”
We follow Delonix, Omar and Marina on their interwoven journeys through triumphs and personal tragedies as the city struggles to find its feet in a time of upheaval and injustice.
Marina's story is particularly fascinating, told in spare unflinching prose painting a picture of a strong character who is willing to do anything to preserve her identity.
“They scrounged for scraps from local restaurants, occasionally getting full meals from a portly Pakistani who owned a tandoori place and demanded payment in sexual favours.
Marina, who had then grown into a sleek, beautiful boy of 18, got on her knees three times a week to suck the man’s fat penis in the restaurant’s dank toilet, almost gagging, not from the bloated penis that threatened to suffocate her, but from the odour of rotting food that clogged the drains behind Restoran Al-Tandoor.”
At 350 pages, Once We Were There sometimes feels like some judicious editing could have tightened up its pace but that is something easily forgiven as the reader is immersed in both the lives of the characters and the descriptive prose that Chauly generously dishes out.
Chauly clearly loves KL but and her sadness at what seems to be a loss of the city's soul is palpable. By the end of the novel the reader feels similarly sad but that sadness is tempered by Chauly's optimism and her faith in the resilience of the Malaysian people.
Ultimately Once We Were There is a rare novel. One that succeeds in transporting the reader to a very specific place and time in a city's history without losing sight of the very human stories of its inhabitants. For that we should be glad.
Available at leading bookstores in Singapore and Malaysia and online at Epigram Books.