A Stranger to Love
Maya Press: 2017
K.S. Maniam might be considered Malaysia’s grand old man of English-language literature. At seventy-six he is older than the country he writes about, which gives him an over-arching perspective.
One of the first novels I read when I first arrived in Malaysia more than a decade ago was Maniam’s bildungsroman The Return. Published in 1981, it has long been a landmark on Malaysia’s literary landscape. During a road trip through rural Kedah I made a detour to the sleepy town of Bedong. An early scene in The Return depicts a young Ravi (Maniam’s alter ego) visiting Bedong with his father to buy his very first toothbrush, and some “tooth medicine”, since Miss Nancy, his new schoolteacher in the English school in nearby Sungai Petani, disapproves of the traditional method of using a chewed twig and wood ash to clean teeth. Afterwards father and son go to a coffee shop and sit at a marble-topped table, a rare treat.
Bedong is little changed in the decades since Maniam’s description, if you peel away the plastic and neon shop signs. The town is not big; there are few kopitiams, and I could find only one with marble-topped tables. I ordered a bowl of noodles and, while eating, fell into conversation with three elderly Chinese uncles at the next table.