It had another name but I don’t remember it.
Everyone just called it the Pusat: the Centre.
They were there because they had lived on the streets and worked in massage parlours and brothels. Because they had been the victims of incest, rape and unprotected sex.
The Pusat: a school, a jail, a home. A purgatory for the sins of others.
A collection of sorrows.
Outside, it was the never-ending summer of Malaysia. The sun was high, the sky relentlessly blue and the grounds as well-tended as any country-club’s. The girls saw the lawns and bougainvillea only from the windows, however, or through the concrete lattice where they hung their flowered bajus to dry. So they strolled along the open corridors of the Pusat instead, wrapping and unwrapping, adjusting and readjusting their sarongs with graceful unconscious gestures, their brown faces streaked white with powder, the sun a blue glint on their black hair.
The dormitories of the Pusat were named Rose, Orchid, Hibiscus. Everything tidy, clean, the teal green coverlets (the colour of Islam) uniformly smooth. On the bulletin board, pictures of David Cassidy and the six-million dollar man were neatly pinned beside those of Asian film stars.
In the evenings, they squatted on the painted concrete floor between their beds and carved jewelry out of coconut shells. Tattooed each other’s bodies. Read and re-read letters from street-wise friends in Penang, perhaps, friends who knew how you could have nice American clothes, or from families in poor kampungs. They whispered secrets and fought. Into this strange world I arrived. A white girl from Canada, free.
I lived in the principal’s house in the Pusat compound with some of the teachers and house-mothers.
If the Pusat was a nation, four-foot nine Ramlah in her floor-length Western-style dresses was its plump, straight-backed little queen. She crackled with purpose, energy and fire. (A story went around about how she had once lifted a manual typewriter that weighed as much as she did and thrown it clear across the room.)
Ramlah told me different stories. Of her doomed love for an American boy her parents forbade her to see. Of his accidental death in the Middle East. She had never married.
The house was run by Sita, a Tamil girl who had been picked up in a massage parlour in Kuala Lumpur. This I knew from reading her file in the office. After graduating the Pusat, she had stayed on as Ramlah’s housekeeper. Quiet, efficient and wise, she was trusted and respected by both the staff and the girls. When there was a late night crisis in one of the dorms, she was often the one summoned to mediate.
Sita spoke Tamil, Chinese and Malay but she could not read or write. I don’t remember how we communicated as I spoke only a little Malay. But we did, as people always do. She revealed little about her life before the Pusat, and I did not inquire. I was afraid to stir up sadness. And I felt guilty about what I already knew.
Sita told me stories too. Of spells and magic, a girl who became crazy for a man after he gave her a Thai love potion, and of how she was not cured until her mother sent some special water to the Pusat, which she was made to drink unknowingly. Of a woman who threatened to burn her daughter’s hair if she returned home.
I liked to watch Sita as she cooked our meals. For years afterwards, I would remember her whenever I smelled garlic and ginger frying together. And I still use her method for cooking rice, covering it with water up to the level of the first knuckle of my index finger.
My bedroom in Ramlah’s house had the distinction of being the only one with screened windows. This was supposed to render it insect-proof. But while the rest of the household snored under their mosquito nets, I itched and scratched and burned pyrethrum coils; I warily followed the progress of fat centipedes above me on the ceiling, knowing that some time during the night, one of them was bound to fall.
A Muslim, Ramlah was up at first light to pray. As she turned the radio on at full volume then, I got up too. I bathed, not in a bathtub, as in Canada, but standing beside a cistern in the bath house sluicing my soapy body with lukewarm water. Afterwards, we all sat down to Sita’s breakfast, an egg boiled so gently that it lay in a translucent puddle on the plate before being doused with soy sauce and slurped. I preferred the traditional Malay breakfast; a small packet of white rice, tiny dried fish and hot pepper sauce wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed, but this we only had on special occasions.
The girls’ day also began early, with prayers and baths, then breakfast in the dining hall. After thirty minutes of physical exercise they did chores, scouring pots and pans, sweeping the dorms, washing the toilets and bath houses, scrubbing the drains that carried the Pusat’s grey water back to the earth. The rest of the day was spent in academic upgrading, religious education and home economics. They taught me how to use a foot-powered sewing machine. I showed them how to make my mother’s vinegar taffy.
I remember them all as kind and gentle.
A stately sixteen-year old with a turned-up nose and slightly simian features and shoulders as wide as a man’s. The daughter of a converted Indian Muslim and a Malay but raised by Hindu grandparents, she had been pregnant at the age of ten.
A shy Malay girl who would be released in August when she turned twenty-one. She smiled widely but her eyes were perpetually misty, as if she was always thinking of something sad. She lifted her sarong once to show me the name of her lover tattooed on her thigh.
Tattoos were illegal for girls in Malaysia. It had something to do with Chinese secret societies and gangsters and the Communist insurgents in the north, also Chinese. When a girl entered the Pusat, her tattoos were inventoried and a record kept of the number. There were severe reprimands when a new one was discovered.
Then there was the girl Ramlah and I visited at the hospital right after she had given birth. The baby was to be given up for adoption and a marriage had been arranged to an older man in a distant province. This was considered a happy ending.
I remember her wide beautiful eyes and dark wavy hair overflowing the pillow. How she began to cry when she saw Ramlah. I stood by the bed feeling awkward and helpless.
One weekend, I get away from the Pusat with the other Canadian volunteers. We stay in an echoing wooden hotel with no electricity on the coast of the South China Sea. We have made a rule and gleefully stick to it: no rice, no fish and no bananas for two entire days.
My roommate and I have just fallen asleep the first night when the sound of many feet resonates on the hallway floor. There are shouts and cries and fists banging on doors. A hard light shines in my eyes, sweeps the bed and the room. Someone outside yells, “Laki-laki?” Someone else answers, “Tidak, perempuan.”
Pushing past the woman posted at our door, I learn that we are being raided by the vice squad. While the hotel is searched for prostitutes, we stand bleary eyed in the erratic beam of electric torches, waiting to be interrogated. Some of us regret the sassy things we wrote in the hotel register, thinking that no one could read English.
The squad leader is Inspector Wong, a squat pregnant woman who is loud and rude. I recognize her from the Pusat, and she does me, but she still demands to see my passport.
Later, I reflect that it would have been in such a raid that Sita was apprehended. In a squalid hotel room like this one, with unpainted wooden walls and someone else’s blood-stained sheets on the bed. With a stranger, a Chinese businessman perhaps, or a Malay bureaucrat. Someone whose life would go on as before.
But I am a guest in the country, I have the immunity of the orang putih; Inspector Wong just orders me back to bed.
Evening at the Pusat. The tropical night presses in against the walls of the house. I smell its moist exhalations at the open windows, hear its cries and the rustling of its many feet, feel its disquieting pulse. In the living room, Ramlah and the teachers are watching television and doing hand-work. I am in the kitchen with Sita.
On this night, her offerings are small tender pancakes tinted a delicate green and wrapped around a melting coconut filling. They are considered too sweet by the Malays so she makes them just for the two of us. We eat them greedily, standing.
Even then, I know that this is how I will remember Sita; standing at the gas burner in her electric blue sarong with her hair tied back on her nape, silver bangles flashing against her dark skin, looking calm and bemused. Making others happy.
I hope that she has had a good life.
This piece of creative non-fiction first appeared in Issue 5 (Nov. 2008) of Cha
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