Monday, September 7, 2009

Stranger In The Midst

Except for the week before and the first 2 days of Ramadhan, I have been spending nights awake in Kampung Baru, hanging around a burger kiosk with the strange name of 'Mat Salai'. Nothing really much to shout about with a name as that, but the products are totally different from the normal beef or chicken burgers Malaysians have been accustomed to. For one, the patty used here are 80% meat which makes them more filling to the stomach. Then, there's the sauce used...

Surprisingly, the narrow street of Jalan Raja Muda Musa, can be very busy and congested, equal to the traffic chaos that can rule the day in Kuala Lumpur whenever Selangorians enjoy a public holiday. On such a day of the latter mentioned, yours truly remember being caught in a 3hour standstill which nearly drove him and all in the vehicle crazy. Off course, the heavy rain that fell during the rush hour traffic was faulted by many. What, with big puddles blocking nearly half the roads of KL and Malaysian drivers known for their selfish attitude of not wanting to give but demanding to take, it was a wonder that except for small arguments and shouting of expletives, the situation did not deteriorate into anything unhealthy. Well, to the human physique, that is. As for those many vehicles then, that was another story. But for this narrow street here in Kampung Baru however, it sometimes boggles one's mind thinking about it.

The kiosk owner normally arrives between 10 and 11pm each night, except for Mondays which he gives his 2 helping hands, and himself, off course, the day off. Troubled by an ailment medically termed as Frozen Shoulder, he relies heavily on Mat Nur, a young man of 24, who has proven to be more than a handyman, priding himself as the cook for the kiosk and occasionally assisted by a lady of late 20's who is a divorcee with a 7 year old boy, but yet to enroll in any school due to some problems relating to his documents. To complicate matter, the father of the boy had left the family sometime back and is now untraceable.

As the Kiosk Owner (KO) walks to the kiosk which was hemmed in between a Raya cookie stall that specialises in Kueh Bahulu and another where the specialty there is Rendang Minang, the KO raised his voice to Rahman, the 7year old boy, to take his toys further away so that the helpers' movement are not impeded. Ranie, the mother, quickly ushers the boy away fearing a tongue lashing from her employer, but one which was only hinted upon but never given. That Sunday night however, proved to be the last night for Ranie there as the KO, due to lack of sales and Ranie's lack of attention to work, decides to terminate her. But before doing so, he holds consult with Mat Nur, and Kak Na, the Raya Cookie stall owner, who bakes her Kueh Bahulu in an oven on the open space behind the 3 stalls there. And as if blessed by the month, Ranie found herself a new employer in Kak Na, with the chores to be determined later.

On hearing the growls of an angry sky above, KO looks up to a beautiful sight of a full moon projecting its light onto the rain clouds, illuminating them with blueish orange splendour and making the clouds look less frightening than their dark bulging sizes filled with tiny water droplets still building within, and one which would normally be followed by shearing winds, earth shaking thunder, and the deadly split-second strikes of lightnings. While the inhabitants of modern concrete buildings may pass the expected storm unaware, the people living in the traditional houses or other structures where the roof is nothing but a thin sheet of zinc, the roar of the rain falling can be totally deafening, causing groggy eyes in the morning for those unaccustomed to such sounds. Shivering cold as such nights can be, they are none the less dry while those on the streets are soaked wet as the canopy of the stalls they seek shelter in, do not have walls to stop the rain water sweeping in brought by the winds. KO shrugs his shoulder knowing that were the storm unleashed, there is nothing much he can do but accept the will of Allah s.w.t. willingly.

As he walks back to the stall, KO is greeted by Nurul Islam, a one-legged young man who walks the streets of Kampung Baru using a thick long cane as a staff, and a crutch. Dressed in kain pelekat and baju Melayu, and wearing the kopiah, Nurul is a familiar sight to the the people here, where on a glance, hel might be mistaken as an Indian Muslim due to his skin tone and manner of dressing. He is however, not.

Years ago, Nurul came over to Malaysia from his native Myanmar, seeking ways to eke a living, and is now beginning to hold trust for his help in healing an aching muscle with his massage technic. And it is for that very reason which KO has been trying to catch hold of Nurul these past few nights ever since knowing about it, in hope of remedying the ailment afflicting him. Having secured a time and date, KO politely withdraw to give a helping hand to Mat Nur who was attending to a growing number of buyers. Just like the passing traffic, the buyers can grow in numbers within a few short minutes, and later leaving it empty for a longer duration. The buyers and the traffic snarl there, KO begins to notice, behaves quite like the tides of the sea: when the tide is in, the crashing of the wave play like music to the ears; when it is out, one can lie on the beach without fear of being dragged out to the open sea.

Another young man walks by. Sporting a cap which resembles a cross between a beret and a jockey's cap, his walk is almost like a gait similar to, if one would remember well, Huggy Bear, a character in a 1970's TV hit series "Starsky & Hutch". With his tanned leather jacker worn over his shoulder even on a sweltering night, one may well be forgiven that this young chap is of African descent. He walks from one end of the street to the other and back, sometimes repeating it 2 or 3 times in a single night without any seeming purpose. His hands are bare from any purchases, except for a litted cigarette which strangely, always seem to be half-smoked. Not a full cigarette, or one near its end, but always half-smoked. And interesting character, KO must have thought.

Suddenly, when all the buyers have left, 2 children crossed the narrow street and asked for a 'Teh Mat Special', a concoction of specially prepared tea and cream milk, shaken in metal cannister, and served in a plastic cup with white foam sprayed on top of the drink. Always happy to oblige children, Mat Nur wonders out loud at the danger of this street, where at any given moment, young motorcyclists would be whizzing by without much thought for the pedestrians there.

At 3am, the tide of cars come streaming in again only to grind to a halt. Along the stretch of this road, food stalls occupy the parking spaces and several cars park at their whims, blocking almost half of one lane. Then, some unthinking driver decided to double park just so he and his party could walk a shorter distance to the eatery of their choice, only to be asked to drive away by the stall operators. Such vehicles would only block the smooth flow of traffic and hence, put a damper on any buyers who thronged the street there. That in turn, would result in poorer sales for the stalls.

By 4am, KO is beginning to feel the strain on his left shoulder. His upper arm now throbs with a dull pain and he decides to call it for the night. Taking out the cash box, he counts the collection for the night, and then gives Mat Nur his salary for the day. Both men smile at one another as they shake hands customary to Muslim tradition.

Normally by 5am, Mat Nur would tidy up the kiosk and secure it with a long chain. The ratlle of the chain as it is pushed along the metal walls of the kiosk is now another sound to be added to the cacophony that can be on that street. That same rattling sound will be heard again around 4pm the following day.


To friends and visitors of this blog, should you pass by Jalan Raja Muda Musa in Kampung Baru, KL, do drop by the burger kiosk, easily recognised by its unmistakable bright orange colour. By chance, you might meet the Kiosk Owner who is also known by some as cakapaje.

Also, do click here for some pictures which might interest some.

* To my friends, kindly accept my apologies for not being able to visit you of late.