Anxiety over rapid urbanization takes a distinctly Malaysian turn in these stories by Sufian Abas.
Whether children or adults, whether they are wandering in a pristine mall (in “Rubina’s Blue Shoes” it is the Kuala Lumpur City Center, a shopping center housed in one of the capital’s most famous landmarks), or commuting in a shiny subway train (in “An Incident at Bangsar Station That’s Fading from My Memory” it’s Kuala Lumpur’s light rail system, completed in the mid 1990s), Sufian’s characters hunger not for modern conveniences, but for a connection. At a time of economic distress for many Malaysians, Sufian’s stories, first published in 2008, remind us why we need our dreams, our obsessions, our fantastical distractions from the world of automated subway and shopping mall doors.
An Incident at Bangsar Station That’s Fading from My Memory
She appeared, and then she disappeared, and she left behind a fragrance that left two or three men floating on air as they followed her invisible footsteps.
Her name was Maria, I think. And just now she sat next to me in the LRT. I think her name’s Maria, because she looked like a Maria: sensual, inconsiderate, and so, so beautiful.
Maria stopped at Bangsar station, one stop before mine, and hurried out.
What she left behind was her fragrance. I was just about to float on after her, but luckily the LRT doors closed on me.
I looked out but Maria had already disappeared. There was a disturbance outside, I noticed, as the LRT started to speed up toward its next destination. I saw two or three men floating, they were slowly flying away, knocking over people who were waiting for the next LRT.
Bangsar station faded into the distance.
I felt as though everyone in the LRT was learning to breathe again.
I don’t know why, but I felt a little sorrowful, as I do on evenings when the rain doesn’t come, and yet the sky keeps darkening.
Rubina’s Blue Shoes
Today is Rubina’s birthday. She is nine years old. What she wants most for her birthday is a pair of blue MB shoes. Rubina saw the shoes at KLCC two months ago. They called to her from inside the store.
Rubina ran to the store window and pressed her face to the glass.
“You called me, blue shoes?”
“Why did you call me, blue shoes?”
“Because I know you, and we’re going to be TFF!”
“True Friends Forever!”
Rubina clapped her hands with joy. She entered the store and spoke to the saleswoman.
“Sister, sister, those blue shoes—how much are they?” She turned toward the shoes that would be her TFF.
“RM1,800, Rubina. A poor child like you can’t afford such shoes. Even if you had that much money, I would hope that you wouldn’t buy those shoes.”
“But sister, those shoes called to me just now. The shoes said we’re going to be TFF!”
“Rubina, you mustn’t believe those shoes. They’re bad shoes. They’re purposely goading you into spending all your money, so that you’ll end up with none. I don’t want to see you forced to sell yourself in the street just so you can own a pair of lying shoes. You should buy your shoes from that store over there.”
She pointed in the direction of the Bata Shoe Shop.
Tears welled in Rubina’s eyes. She couldn’t believe that the blue shoes would try to trick her. They wouldn’t! Weren’t they TFFs? Or soon-to-be TFFs?
“Rubina, listen to me. I was like you once. Sweet and easily fooled. The shoes that lied to me were blue, too; I saw them at Ampang Park. They called to me, and made all kinds of promises. They promised we’d be TFFs. They made this promise and that promise. So I begged my parents to buy them for me. My parents didn’t want to, so I burned down our house and tried to claim the insurance. But after I went to buy those blue shoes the police came for me, and I was convicted of murder and went to jail for 15 years. It was only two months ago that I was released. I don’t even work here, to tell you the truth. I’m just here shopping with credit card I stole.”
Rubina nodded as if she understood, and walked out.
Two weeks later, on her birthday, Rubina goes with her mother to shop at KLCC.
“Rubina,” her mother says. “What do you want for your birthday?”
Rubina smiles, her eyes shining.
Sufian Abas was born in Taiping, Malaysia. He is the author of three short story collections: Rubina’s Blue Shoes; The Eye is a Telescope, the Heart a Ship in a Glass Bottle; and After Mankind. He has also published Malay-language translations of a novella by Kahlil Gibran and a short story collection by Etgar Keret.
Nicole Idar, Asymptote Editor-at-Large (Malaysia), has been published in World Literature Today, Rattapallax, and The New Ohio Review. In 2013 she was one of 18 writers from around the world selected to attend the Clarion West Writers Workshop in Seattle, Washington. She holds an MFA from George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard University.