The training gig was scheduled to take place at the client’s training academy located in the quaint little town of Batu Gajah. Thinking about it, I realised that this was perhaps a peculiar (if not unfortunate) name for a town. Brushing aside the recurring vision of pachyderm testicles being displayed proudly by the townsfolk in the town square, I started my long lonely drive.
I thought the drive would take me to yet another faceless town like the many faceless towns we were likely to find off the beaten track. Instead, I found myself in a place where I had never been before but felt as if it was one where I had been all my life. Instead of arriving at yet another non-descript business destination, it felt as if I had found myself in a place I would have called home had I been around in the late 40s or early 50s.
That my vision inexplicably turned into sepia tones as I crossed Sungai Kinta on a typically over-engineered JKR bridge on the outskirts of town should have told me something of the things to come. The more modern houses were not unlike the ones you’d find in Petaling Jaya in the early 60s. The older ones reminded me of the old colonial government quarters that had cool, 12-inch thick walls and would probably survive a nuclear attack. No, I hadn’t just arrived in Batu Gajah: I had somehow come home.
Along the way, the mature trees lining the road seemed to join overhead creating a much welcomed canopy that created a mottled pattern of sunlight on the road. As part of the welcoming committee, a cooling breeze blew from the east – which was just as well because somewhere past Sungkai my air-conditioning had died. Suddenly, I was no longer in a hurry to locate the training academy.
It was time for a good cup of coffee. I pulled up in front of an old-school coffee-shop that had an equally old-school Chinese name. No doubt about it. It was an honest-to-goodness kopitiam. No, it wasn’t one of those overpriced coffee-shops masquerading as a kopitiam: it was the real thing! There was an old Chinese geezer (probably the proprietor himself) who was dressed in the mandatory blue-striped, light cotton, draw-string shorts and the equally mandatory Pagoda T-shirt. He wore round gold-rimmed glasses and looked as if the last time he had smiled was when the Japanese left Malaya.
“Apa mau?!” he asked. It was more of a challenge than a question. I felt right at home immediately.
But when the coffee came, it was well worth the proprietor’s questionable customer service ethic. It was Hainanese coffee as it should be: thick, sweet and buttery – the kind that stuck to the side of your throat. The coffee went down a treat with two (or was it three?) sticks of Winstons. On my way out I bought some Hacks cough drops that came out of a tall bottle with a rusty screw-on lid. Yes, the bottle had probably been there since the Japanese left Malaya, too.
A Moor-inspired clock tower stood guard over Batu Gajah’s main junction. The dome glistened in the sun as the breeze blew past the old shophouses of the almost deserted main street. I could not fight the feeling that even if you took a nap in the middle of the street, no harm would come to you: the only traffic – probably a Pos Malaysia van – would only come trundling along by Monday morning.
Going past the old golf course I saw the District Officer’s official residence in all its splendid colonial glory. It stood on what appeared to be an acre of the most perfectly manicured lawn I had ever seen – tended to, no doubt, by a team of gardeners headed by a mandur who would invariably be called Maniam. Meanwhile, inside the colonial mansion’s pristine white walls, I imagined a Chinese manservant (usually called simply Ah Pek)- wearing a stiff linen tunic with brass buttons – standing guard over the tea service of Darjeeling and scones, waiting for the Tuan to come. At the same time, somewhere upstairs, the Malay nanny – usually called Gebab – was probably struggling to apply Cuticura talcum power on the tyrannical little ones after their late afternoon bath.
It was a déjà vu moment if there ever was one.
Perhaps because I was there standing with my jaw hanging down my chest for a good fifteen minutes, a policeman came around to enquire if I had a problem. I politely said that I didn’t. But that was one big lie. I had a problem alright; I had a problem the likes of which I had never seen before: I wanted to be the District Officer of Batu Gajah! But I couldn’t tell him that, could I? So, as I sullenly climbed into my beat-up Proton and I asked him the way to the training academy. He obliged a little bit too quickly – perhaps relieved that he had gotten rid of a glassy-eyed lunatic who could very well have been a terrorist.
On the way to the training academy, I spotted the local KFC and 7-Eleven. Immediately the dream was shattered and I found myself jolted back into post-independence Malaysia.