When I arrived in Cherating on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia one blazing afternoon in April, I had it in mind to inform anyone who enquired as to my whereabouts that I was on an assignment for the papers. I wanted to speak with the locals to uncover stories about yesteryear travelers who were believed to have undertaken ancient trans-land trade routes between China and India. To prove my credentials, I’d whip out my mobile phone and scroll through several clippings of published feature articles all illustrated by my photographs of sunsets by the paddy fields of Kedah, frangipani from Bali and temples of Angkor.
Not a soul bothered.
In truth, I was running away from my second husband, the OB/GYN Edwin Somasundram, and my first, the medico-legal lawyer Vikram Singh.
The first two weeks in my new home, a sea-facing studio suite at the Holiday Villa, passed by with me engaging in conversations that lasted no more than two sentences, excluding “Please” and “Thank you”.
Breakfast? Nasi lemak and black coffee.
Only The Star newspapers? No New Straits Times?
Fried sotong with sambal and rice.
A light salad. Gin and tonic before dinner.
Chamomile tea before bed.
While my daily routine seemingly synced with Mother Nature’s, in the middle of the night, every time the waves hit the shore, I’d think Two husbands before thirty?
On day sixteen, when the hotel’s capacity was at ninety-eight per cent, and since I was alone, a waiter asked if wouldn’t mind sharing my space with another. More statement than question, I nodded in agreement.
Man was he chatty, this young man whose facial hair was still soft and patchy. His name was Anand and it took all of three minutes for him to reveal both his state of mind and life. Running his hand through a mop of shoulder-length curls that hadn’t seen a barber’s pair of scissors for months, this student from a nearby private medical college said that he was violently in love with one of his college mates. Unfortunately, the young woman in question was of both another race and faith – a Malaysian Chinese Catholic named Kylie. Her parents objected to this Malayalee Hindu boy. He’d retrieved his father’s supplementary Platinum credit card and booked a room at the hotel ‘to think things through’.
“I have to pass. If I fail, I have no future. In this country, especially.”
Since I simply stared at him, he made assumptions and further explained, “Don’t you note the absence of generosity here? People are not nice to you unless you have a title to your name. I must, at the very least, get that doctor title, no?” He lifted his chin that bit higher.
I’d seen that look once before, during breakfast at a buffet table of a city hotel.
Oh… the memory.
This was teetering on deep – exactly the kind of conversation that I was desperate to avoid.
I blurted out, “I’m here because I need to think about my failed marriages.” Then, I over-explained. “I used to live in the north, then the south. Now, I’m trying to live here, in the east, for a while.”
My prayer that this would keep him quiet went unanswered.
“I think that people who are separated or divorced or widowed are lucky.” He paused for dramatic effect. “They will know themselves. Or, if they don’t, they will know they don’t. Because, when you live with someone else, they hold up a mirror to you. They will tell you things about you that you didn’t know. And once you know all that about you, you have a choice to correct what is wrong or make what is already good even better.”
For one so young, what he said was true.
Petrified of my response, I smiled, called for the bill and retreated to my room.
I met Vikram when we were both fifteen years old and studying for a primer to a diploma in legal studies. Seven years later, two newly minted law graduates got engaged. Two years later, two weeks after he was called to the Malaysian Bar and added the title of ‘Advocate & Solicitor of the High Court of Malaya’ to his calling card, we became Mr. & Mrs. Vikram Singh Khanna. He not only personified the stereotype of a Sikh man in his looks, for he was tall and sported a full beard, but also in practice. Ever ready to fight for his client, Vikram soon stood out for consistently being successful in pleading obscure legalese. He was happiest whenever we visited the gurdwara and fed the masses during the langar. No one asked, anymore, why I didn’t join my husband in practice for word had gone round that the reply would be an acerbic ‘I don’t want to be damaged like all of you who joined your husbands at work.’ Honestly, though, I lacked the mental stamina needed for legal practice; so, I pursued a hitherto rather unsuccessful career as a freelance writer.
Shortly after our fifth wedding anniversary, I joined Vikram for a medico-legal conference in Kuala Lumpur. As the newest legal advisor to a Malaysian-based medical defence union, he was ‘making the rounds’ to introduce himself to potential clients.
On the second morning at Istana Hotel, I lazed in bed until I simply had to get up or risk missing the buffet breakfast altogether. I walked into the Coffee House at 10.15 and it was one of those days when I could intuit a warning of danger ahead. I chose a table by the ceiling-to-floor window even though I knew that because the sun’s rays filtered through unimpeded, it would be boiling hot being seated there. I was deciding whether or not to abandon my resolve to be vegetarian and indulge in a breakfast of slices of beef ham (no pork was served in this halal-certified restaurant), with eggs on toast, when I sensed someone standing next to me and staring. My intention was to stare rudely back. I did stare, but in awe. I would later learn that to get my own way, I must not look directly at this man’s eyes for his gaze had an unparalleled intensity to it. When he noticed that the waiters were already clearing the other tables, he asked if he could join me. I nodded.
Over coffee, Edwin told me that his lecture that day would be an overview of the abortion laws of Malaysia. He was still tired, though, having had to deal with a tricky case of dilation and curettage the night before.
Unexpectedly, he asked me what I thought of the institution of marriage. I shrugged my shoulders and said, “It’s okay, I suppose.”
“That doesn’t seem very promising.”
“Why?” I asked, a small smile developing on my face. “Are you running towards or away from one?”
He threw his head back and laughed.
Who would have thought it? I could make a man laugh.
Vikram hardly ever laughed at anything, let alone something I said.
“It’s my sister,” Eddie replied. “She’s thinking of getting married to a Swiss man. She’s scared of moving so far away from us.”
“Ah,” I responded, saying nothing more.
In so many ways, he was the first man other than Vikram – discounting relatives, of course – with whom I’d had a proper conversation since my marriage. We agreed to meet for breakfast over the next few days.
The next day, we talked about his recent trips to far flung places like Hawaii, Mozambique and Bhubaneshwar. Not that he saw any of the sites in these places for he was more acquainted with the insides of conference centres. Unlike Vikram and his family, who loved to travel in big noisy groups, his travels were solitary and educational.
On the final morning of the conference, there was a hurried air about our breakfast. Unsurprisingly, there was a collision of crockery between us. With another presentation due in less than an hour, I hurried Edwin into my room to clean up the mess of orange juice and coffee on his shirt. When I went into the bathroom to rinse out the stains on his shirt out, he followed me. He pulled my arm, I turned into his chest and in seconds, I committed adultery on the very same hotel bed I’d shared with my husband for the last three nights.
You see, this was no affair for that implied that there was a continuity in what we were doing. After all, it was no more than five minutes in another man’s arms. At least that’s what I told myself. In fact, the very night we returned home, I made sure to fulfil my wifely duties with such vigor that Vikram was astonished. I wanted to wipe out the memory of what I’d done. Perhaps not the memory, but more the knowledge that I, who had loved no other man except my husband, slept only with him, and cherished him, was capable of being intimate with another. I was not the principled woman that I’d been proud of. Then again, it takes two people to be intimate, no? Edwin had to take some of the blame here. He could have waited outside while I cleaned his shirt. Why did Edwin follow me? Why did an almost stranger follow another almost stranger? It was all his fault.
A month later, I received a WhatsApp message from Edwin: ‘When can we meet?’ I didn’t reply. Instead, I confessed everything to Vikram. His reply was that he’d anticipated it as he’d always felt that I was too good for him. This lack of self-esteem wasn’t unattractive, but surprising. I should have felt some guilt at the time, but I was too in lust to think straight.
“Okay, Lola. You go now,” Vikram said. “But we are fated to be together.” He kissed my forehead and walked out of the master bedroom of the single storey home we’d built together.
I married Edwin out of a sense of propriety three weeks after my divorce from Vikram came through. To make an honest woman of myself, I said. I thought it would make certain that Edwin would stay faithful to me even though at the back of my mind was the thought that it was adultery that brought us together in the first place. One year to the day, I checked into the hotel in Cherating.
Throughout my stay at the luxury hotel, Vikram sent me a message every two or three days. Punctuated with news of his successes and failures in court, they were more filled with the anguish of missing me. Edwin, on the other hand, sent nothing. Two months, three weeks and three days after I first stepped into the hotel, I received message with a PDF file attached to it from my husband’s brother, a lawyer. I was given notice that Edwin was divorcing me on the grounds of that catch all phrase, ‘irreconcilable differences’. In the next message, he took a screenshot which showed him the two blue ticks attached to this message. In lawyer speak, henceforth, this phone number and WhatsApp messages would be the method of service of all documents.
It was time to stop existing and start living.
Right or wrong, I accepted that what I presumed to be sexual satisfaction with a man whose arms I wasn’t supposed to be in, was a sense of guilt that I’d compromised my own principles. In the process, I’d found nothing but an emptiness in my soul. No amount of reading, writing, or conversing could erase the fact that I’d let something that should have never happened get so out of hand. Maybe, it was because I felt I had no purpose in life. Maybe it was because I was nothing more than a harlot. Maybe, it was because I was lonely.
I wrote a message to Vikram and asked him to forgive me. He wrote, within the minute to say: I will always love you. We agreed to meet in Kuala Terengganu a week later. A city at the north eastern tip of the peninsula, it was unfamiliar to both of us and, therefore, the perfect way to start all over again.
The day before I left, Anand, now back at university and in arms of Kylie, became both my tour guide and driver. We’d crossed state borders and came to the one-street, seaside town of Chukai. The townsfolk watched us as a cagey lion watches its prey. A smile came upon them only when we walked into the kopitiam and asked if we could order some lunch. The local fare, which were the base dishes of fried chicken, fish, or seafood throughout the peninsula, was made distinct by the accompanying sambal and sauces. In Alor Setar, you’d get the distinct lemon grass flavour because of its geographical proximity to southern Thailand. Here, it was all hot, sweet and aromatic, with the peppery Szechuan flavor.
Much later, when it was cooler, we sat by the sea.
“Think about it,” I said to Anand, “Chukai can be cukai¸ no? The Malay word for tax.” I’d looked it up and this was indeed where taxes and levies were imposed on riverine traffic, and could have been part of the trans-land trade route between China and India in times gone by, a topic which I was still researching.
“Suppose so,” with the same kind of interest that an aged dog shows a gregarious puppy.
“Imagine,” I said waving my hand at the vast expanse of water. “There’s the South China Sea, full of money. USD3 trillion to be precise. There’s crude oil, natural gas, rights to fish and explore for minerals. China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia and us … all want a piece of that pie.”
“Err… Okay…” Anand nodded. “Speaking of China,” he said, pivoting the conversation to his favorite topic. He whipped out his phone to show me a recent photo he’d taken of Kylie. ““My Kylie is lovely, you know. Classical,” he said. I took it to be a simplistic term youthful romantics use, but had to admit that he was only being accurate. With hair that was thick, dead straight and black, it framed a face that was alabaster smooth.
“I cannot bear to watch her sleeping. It’s such an intimate thing, a solitary act, one which I can never be a part of. It’s sad that for one third of our lives together, if we finally do end up together, we’ll have to be apart.”
I stared straight ahead.
“Don’t you think?”
In that moment, I felt that the only appropriate response would be to strangle him for his innocence. How I longed for my hotel room, the one place I felt safe, except when I was with Vikram whom I now felt I didn’t deserve.
Instead, I sighed.
The clouds above slowly turned from bright blue to grey.
I sighed, again, then felt a pang of something strange – tenderness, I suppose. A need to protect Anand in the way a mother would her child. That’s what happens when you venture out into the world alone. Mostly, you’ll discover parts of yourself that could break that you never knew existed; hurt in ways that seemed improbable; you’ll discover the capacity and multitudes of love, including a protective kind for an almost stranger. Mystics like to find words that explain this – a soul connection, they call it.
Someday, this Cherating interlude would be a memory. Like Edwin. Throughout our tumultuous relationship, we hadn’t taken a single photo of each other or one together. As though we knew that our marriage was a temporary matter.
How lucky he was, this Anand. Love was simple to him. Boy meets girl, boy loves girl, boy waits for girl, they marry and live happily ever after. I had met boy one, married boy one, met boy two while being married to boy one, divorced boy one, married boy two, kept in touch with boy one, was now being divorced by boy two, returning to boy one and no longer believing in the myth of happily ever after. Instead, I called it all twists of fate.
I felt a tug at my sleeve. I turned to look and Anand handed me a crumpled paper and said, “It’s for Kylie, but you can have it.”
With neat writing, so unlike a doctor-to-be, he’d written:
I must share this moment with you. As the day turns into night, it hits me that we will always be as close as two people can ever be. I think of you with every breath I take. This is a beautiful moment.
Author Bio: Once upon a time, Aneeta Sundararaj created a website and called it ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. She has contributed feature articles to a national newspaper and also various journals, magazines and ezines. Aneeta’s bestselling novel, ‘The Age of Smiling Secrets’ was shortlisted for the Book Award 2020 organised by the National Library of Malaysia. Throughout, Aneeta continued to pursue her academic interests and, in 2021, successfully completed a doctoral thesis entitled ‘Management of Prosperity Among Artistes in Malaysia’. You can find her on Twitter at @httags.