Keroncong For Mariam

The slow revolving fan was no match for the stifling Saturday afternoon heat. Beads of sweat fell upon his worn-out shirt, frayed and discoloured long ago from extended use. Shahril, a clerk at the Public Works Department by day, and keroncong bandleader extraordinaire by night, had very specific priorities in life; serviceable apparel, obviously, wasn’t one of them. That he was living in Kampung Baru of the fifties – the enclave of upwardly mobile Malays at the time – had no impact on him whatever. He had a role to play, he had responsibilities; he wasn’t about to let something as mundane as the need for presentable clothes get in the way of his conviction.

Living with his sister and her husband had many advantages. He never had to pay for room and board and there was always food on the table. The couple was one with means and always had the grace never to ask him for anything. After all, his brother-in-law was a Superintendent in the police force and his sister a headmistress – positions that were highly esteemed by the Malay community of the fifties. Nevertheless, Shahril never once took his stay at their home for granted. He always worried about outstaying his welcome. Regardless, all he needed was just another eighteen months.

As he sat in the humid living room, looking out at the newly refurbished Kampung Baru mosque, he heard his sister come into the room. Judging from the sound and rhythm of her footsteps, she was in one of her famous mess-with-me-and-you’ll-die moods. Shahril mentally prepared himself for the worst. This time, he might just have to pack his stuff and leave.

“Shahril, I’d like a word with you!” his sister boomed.

“Yes Kak Sal, is there anything I can do?”

Dressed in her figure hugging kebaya nyonya, Salbiah was a handsome woman -even at age forty two. But that day, her foul mood completely masked her beautifully sculpted face. She sat herself down across from Shahril.

“You have got to stop this madness, Shahril!” she demanded.

Shahril lowered his eyes. He knew exactly what his dear elder sister was talking about.

“Just how long do you intend to keep this up?” she continued.

“Until Mariam graduates, Kak Sal…” he replied.

Shahril had been supporting Mariam ever since she left to further her studies in London two and a half years ago. Every sen he earned, he would put aside so that he could send it to her – lock, stock and barrel – at the beginning of every month. When the money from his job at the Public Works Department proved to be inadequate, he started Orkes Keroncong Rindu Malam and started playing the nightclub circuit in and around Bukit Bintang. That helped a little, but even that was barely enough.

He had stopped taking the bus to work and instead, walked the eight kilometres from Kampung Baru to his office everyday. Similarly, after work, he would return home for a quick meal and a change of clothes only to walk another five kilometres to Bukit Bintang. He would only come home to sleep at about two in the morning and wake up at six to start the process all over again.

“Until Mariam graduates!” Salbiah bellowed, “…and what if she doesn’t come back to you, Shahril? What then?”

“She’ll come back to me, Kak Sal. I know it…”

“Shahril, I don’t want to be the one to burst our bubble, but look at you: You’re already thirty-five for God’s sake! And how old is Mariam? Nineteen? Twenty? Be realistic, man! What are the chances that she’ll be coming back to you?”

“But we made a pact before she left, Kak Sal. She’ll come back to me.” Shahril replied, almost pleading with his sister.

“Shahril, you’re my brother and I love you. I just don’t want you to end up hurt – that’s all” Salbiah explained.

At that moment, Samad the gardener entered the living room, waving an airmail letter. He handed it to Shahril with a knowing smile.

“Is that from Mariam?” Salbiah asked

Shahril nodded.

“Well, aren’t you going to open it?”

“No, Kak Sal. I never read her letters in haste. It wouldn’t be right.”

Salbiah looked at her brother. Something inside her broke free and reminded her of what it was to be in love. Mariam had clearly stolen his heart and it seemed that she had no intention of returning it to him – ever.

Salbiah’s heart softened. She touched her brother lightly on his shoulder. “That’s alright, Shahril. You go do what you have to. We’ll always be here for you. But what are you going to do if she doesn’t come back, Shahril? What guarantee is there that she’ll come back to you?”

“There are no guarantees, Kak Sal. But do I stop loving her just because there aren’t any guarantees?”

“No, Shahril. I guess not…” As Salbiah left the room, she turned and added, “By the way, we’ve bought you some new clothes and a new pair of shoes. You’ll find them in your room, OK?”

“Thank you, Kak Sal…” replied Shahril, struggling to fight the tears.

Once he was alone again, Shahril gently opened Mariam’s letter. It was the most precious thing to him in the whole world.


11 thoughts on “Keroncong For Mariam

  1. Sheesh, you can’t do this to me. It’s way past 1 am and I can’t sleep, not knowing what the letter says!


    It worked out alright. Shahril (my great uncle) eventually married his Mariam and they lived happily ever after – with their 23 grandchildren. Although there are never any guarantees, things always work out for the better, don’t they?

  2. ouh! i thought maryam left him.


    No, she did not dump him – amazingly.

    Sometimes things do work out, despite the odds. Perhaps their love was strong enough to withstand the ravages of time. Like my friend likes to say, if you have the tenacity to hold on to your dreams, someday, they will come true.

  3. Bro’, I love this period piece. It’s tricky, I know, to try to re-create a period scene: the mannerisms, figures of speech…the authenticity required to bring the characters to life.

    To do it in the third person (something I have never attempted myself) is even harder because of the POV angle. That’s why I take my hats off to you, bro’ for braving it. My lame attempts have always been written in the first person to inject that sense of realism, so the reader can emphatize with the character, often invariably in my case, my alter-ego. And still it mostly falls short.

    May I make a small suggestion, Sir? Your use of ‘kilometers’, for instance, troubles me. And no, it’s not because I’m an unabashed Anglophile. (I graduated as a redneck in Texas remember?). If I may, since the story is set during colonial times, ‘miles’ would probably suit the story better. As a wannabe editor (to you, the successful author– in my next vocation, post-roughneck) ‘kilometres’ screams out of the page to the present (writer’s voice) when the reader is lulled in nostalgia of the past. Maybe it’s just me, Sir.

    But I do agree whole-heartedly to your comment, “if you have the tenacity to hold on to your dreams, someday, they will come true”.

    I’m a Capricornion-Ox: slog is my middle name. And I really believe it to be true. Even flogging a dead horse has its merits. πŸ™‚

    But Sir, I think you’re truly well on your way . . .

    My dear brother Madsalo

    Heck! The word kilometre didn’t belong anywhere near that story, did it? What was I thinking? Thank you for pointing this out, bro! Sometimes, I really think we are the reincarnation of Maverick and Goose ( from he movie ‘Top Gun’ )

    As Rick Blaine said to Inspector Renault at the end of the movie Casablanca, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

    Bro, one of these days, your keen intellect and sharply-honed refinement is going to breakthrough and utterly demolish that uncouth roughneck image you so fondly portray.

  4. My dear two brothers: MadSalo & Mat Bangkai,

    You two seem to agree on the saying of, I quote, “if you have the tenacity to hold on to your dreams, someday,they will come true”.

    You know, the last time I had the tenacity, I made a complete fool out of myself.

    Nowadays, I remain a skeptic. It’s safer that way. Sigh.

    As usual Mat, a great post. Immaculately written. I wish I could write like this…


    You, my dear, are nobody’s fool.

    I, on the other hand, have been a fool far too many times. I used to think I was a fool for having failed. But I was wrong: Failing didn’t make me a fool; giving-up did. Case in point, I wasn’t a fool because I flunked out of law school; I was a fool for having given up on the idea of law school.

    You are much stronger than you think.Therefore, you don’t want to write like me: You want to write like you!

  5. Tak nak start tulis novel ke? Ada bakat nampaknya…Mesti turun dari Atok ni….


    Maybe someday. When I do, shall I write about Embun?

  6. On a diffrent note mamak,
    my late Atok Wak a keroncong violinist himself kena perhambat with parang by my grand ma,while playing at a keroncong party coz he’pasang spare tyre .
    Absolutely true story,the Air Molek first generation remembers the incident well.

    Yes,tune for my sleep.
    Keroncong between 10-2 am at Best 104 FM
    That romance again bro.

    Pak Tuo

    I guess 9 out of 10 men will, at some point in their lives, get the ‘perhambat with a parang treatment’. My own grandfather got chased around Jalan Pekeliling with an axe, no less!

    And don’t get me started on romance: Samurai are the least romantic people on God’s green earth. Hmmm, and also: No sex, please: We’re British! πŸ™‚

  7. Ayoyo bogart-san, u shudnt reveal the ending (via your comment). Shud have part 2 or 3… trilogy macam star wars… hehehe!


    I’m lousy at keeping the suspense going – orang tua, tak tahan lama πŸ™‚

  8. This is so beautiful. Really.

    And your reply to Elviza’s comment .. what talk you about being a fool?? You don’t just write beautifully, you inspire!!

    Makes me want to actually sign up for that writing course I meant to take, but then got pregnant, then had baby, then chucked the idea on the back-burner, yadeyadeya… but I still wouldn’t be able to write pieces like this. And I certainly am no penglipur lara. I’m such a bore, like that. πŸ™‚


    You give me more credit than I deserve, ma’am. But I’m glad you liked this piece.

    You may have put the writing course on the back burner, but I am certain you are no bore.

  9. Bro Bangkai,
    Why u choose Bangkai as your nama penulis? There is nothing “bangkai” about your writing or even you personally… I wonder…


    Hmmm… actually, when I started the blog, I felt like I was a “bangkai”. I still do – sometimes

  10. huh? u still feel like bangkai even though now u have thousand gazillion fans out there? biar bebenor!

    eh! have u met any of your fan?

    btw, send my regards to the “king”!


    A thousand gazilion fans? That’s stretching it a bit, bro. But the readers are a godsend, really; they help keep me sane. Yes, I’ve met a couple of my readers. Should have met a lot sooner.

  11. Your story made me thought about how my maternal great gradfather met his wife. The story involved running from Penang to escape the British officers, kidnapping, young female dancer and Siamese lord. I am tempted to write about them but I’ll probably dishonour their story with my writing.


    The intriguing and heady mix of British officers, kidnapping, female dancer and Siamese lord would have been a fascinating story should you have decided to write it. But alas…

    Sure you don’t want to give it a go?

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