“What do you have?” I said.
After scanning around him, the man pulled a cassette out of his green cloth bag. He put it back discreetly.
I already had an RCA cassette on me, a total flop when they hit the market. Probably 1958. I also had a zero value Philips from 1962. I waved him away.
In any case, I don’t purchase from random vendors. I’m just not that experienced, unlike Dad. It’s still through agents for me. Interested parties call ahead and figure out the specifics. But the man looked old, and I kept the window open out of respect, if nothing else.
“This is a rare one. Nothing else like it on the market,” he said.
He wore a songkok—he must have come from Friday prayers. His stringy silver beard accentuated his narrow features. I asked him to wait for a bit, then brought out an EMI LP with Malay songs on it.
“Saloma,” he said, excited. “I’m such a big fan. But this cassette is more valuable.”
I’ve seen many like him these past five years. This was a business where you stripped other people’s dreams to paint your own, if it brought customers. The man wasn’t going away, I knew that much. I invited him in. He took my hands in both of his in salam, and introduced himself as “Ismail.”
Meenakshi gave a panicked shriek as he made his way in.
“A gray parrot,” said Ismail.
“My father’s,” I said.
“You find plenty of these in Africa. A very intelligent bird,” he said. “I used to come here when Maniram was still well known. Is he still around?” he scanned the antiques in the living room.
I was annoyed he knew Dad, but didn’t show it. “He died some years ago,” I said.
“He was older than me.” The man showed neither surprise nor sadness. Perhaps death is nothing more than one more bit of news after a certain age.
“I don’t see many things that were here in your father’s time. There used to be these Japanese army swords from World War II, neatly arranged by the main entrance.” The man kept looking around. “Over here, he kept a six-hundred-year-old cannonball, in a basket. It was very dusty, and rusted. He thought cleaning it would decrease its value, so it remained caked with earth.”
“I’ve sold most of them. Some were rented out to exhibitions but never found their way back. It seemed a better use for them than decaying here, so I let it be,” I said. It was tiring to explain myself. I usually napped after lunch and suffered headaches at night if I didn’t.
“How do your customers find you, if the place is closed up?” he asked.
“Oh, this is just home now. I don’t let anyone in anymore. Who can I trade with, in a place like this, the Jerantut hinterland? In years past, my father had foreign tourists as customers, those that came to Taman Negara. After he passed away, they stopped coming. The house is up for sale, too. Just a few more months,” I said.
“It’s a nice house,” he said, staring at the roof. “Your father loved houses with wooden pillars. He bought the land on this hill to build a house for that very reason. The doors of this house were always open then, as if it were a gallery. It brought in a nice breeze.”
I didn’t reply. I usually don’t like anyone who carries on about Dad, but since this man seemed intent on rambling and raving like most decrepit old geezers, I kept my composure.
“Are you planning on permanently closing shop?” he asked.
“Not really. I’m thinking of selling the popular items online. Besides, I have another job.” I didn’t tell him I was a web designer. It’s not like he’d understand. I began to stare at his green bag, hoping he’d take the hint and come to the point.
“Could I get some water?” he asked. He was turning over an antique iron in his hands when I brought him his water. I didn’t like any of this. That’s why I kept everyone out.
“I’ve sold that. They’re coming for it tomorrow,” I said, taking it out of his hands and handing him the water instead.
“For how much?” he said.
“I’ve six of these. I agreed on a hundred each,” I said.
He frowned at the answer. “They’re not all the same. The ones with the rooster symbols are special, they’d be worth more. They’re unique to Malaysia.”
I started to get annoyed with my agents, but once again kept my thoughts to myself. “So what’s this cassette you’ve brought?” I asked pointedly.
“I’ll tell you.” He now went up to the old tiffin carriers arranged in a corner. “These were from your father’s time. They should be worth a lot today,” he said.
“Two thousand ringgit,” I said.
“No, they’d be as much as ten thousand,” he replied.
“Now you’re just making things up. That’s pretty much the market price.”
“That might be true. But do you see those pink flowers on those four-tier carriers?”
“Peonies. Though they look like roses. The Chinese will pay far more for the peonies.”
I was really losing my patience now. Dad would spout the same nonsense, had for thirty-five years. In interviews on television, in newspapers. With a big smile. Even when Mom had cancer, even when we couldn’t afford her treatment. Keep them, he said, till their time. The added value of time was a tenet of the business.
The man stared at me with an odd look. “If something has artistry, isn’t it priceless?” he asked. So. He was a good businessman after all.
“Do you remember Mona?” he asked. “Mona Fandey,” he continued, when I didn’t immediately answer.
“You mean the bomoh?”
“Is that all you know?”
“She was also a murderer.”
“She was a singer too.”
“That’s right. She began that way in the eighties, didn’t she,” I said.
So that’s what it was. I checked my watch—it was nearing three. I’d promised to meet a friend at Maaran Temple at five. Driving out and back in the dark jungle was dangerous. Now that too without an afternoon’s rest. And apparently there were elephants about.
“You can get her songs online now. Even if you gave me that for free I couldn’t sell it,” I said, walking to the door, signaling this was over.
“Calm down, this isn’t Diana,” he said. “Shall we sit down?” He pulled up a chair uninvited. “Nice and sturdy,” he said. “This must be a Haji Sufian. The architect who built Kuala Kangsar’s palace without nails. Built this with the leftover wood. He was a genius.” He sat down. Cornered, I joined him on a metal chair nearby.
He sat quietly for a while. I thought he might be praying until he looked up.
“I came to see you as I believe you won’t tell anyone else,” he said. Up close, his eyes had a milky glaze. Probably cataracts.
“You know about her case?”
“Yes, who doesn’t. I was a boy then. People in the village said she’d killed a state assemblyman. She cut the corpse into eighteen pieces and buried them around her house, yes? It gives me the creeps to think of the way she smiled on the way to court. Every time.”
“Why were you scared of her smile?”
“Who would smile like that after such a thing? It was the same smile as the day she was arrested. She beheaded Mazlan with a single swing of the ax.”
“That’s right. And before she did that, she asked him to lie down on the floor and imagine himself being showered with gold.”
“Such cruelty. Apparently she was plucking flowers from her garden just before the murder.”
“You’ve a great memory. I was a photographer with Utama at the time.”
“Oh, you’re a photographer? Weren’t there Sony Mavicas already by then?”
“Those came to us late. Our offices only had SLRs. Still, other dailies didn’t even have those.”
“I have one of those models. Actually I prefer selling old tech. Most profitable these days.”
“I took the photos with those. The ax, the long parangs, the sharp knives. This was no rush job. Mona and her husband had really seen to the details. The right and left hand had been chopped off at the exact same point. The right to three pieces, the left to two. Same with the legs. The head had been split open. I captured them all, one by one.”
“Hadn’t they decayed?”
“A little. I then got permission to take photos of her bomoh sorcery wares. A police officer came in with me. The house was really big. I took as many as possible. That was when . . .” He stopped. He was working up a sweat. I switched on the fan and went to open the door.
“That’s alright, we’re fine here in the dark,” he said.
“Nobody was allowed into Mona’s room, the police had to complete their investigation. But I went in when my guy wasn’t looking. Everything in the room screamed that she was a singer.”
“Well, nobody could deny that, really,” I replied. “Ku Nyanyikan Lagu Ini was pretty much on loop on the radio as she was being sentencing to be hanged.”
“I’m glad you like Malay songs,” he said and took off his songkok. He looked quite different without it. The top of his balding head was smooth, with some dark spots. He was still sweating. I offered him some water again.
“No, I’d rather finish the story. In those brief moments, I searched the whole room. Given that the police were going to investigate, I tied a piece of cloth to my hand, to cover my prints. I saw a pretty glass box. Hard to open without leaving prints. Inside, there was a smaller wooden box. I put that in my pocket and returned downstairs.”
“Didn’t the police suspect anything?”
“I was a photographer at a big national daily then. And these were massive headlines. Nobody questioned anything. I decided on the headline images. I could’ve done anything with the photos, and it wouldn’t have mattered.”
“What was in the box?”
“Before her first album, Mona sang a bunch of songs that were never released. She’d compiled those songs into an album.”
He looked me straight in the eyes as he said this.
“This tape is that album.”
I began to run the numbers in my head. Such a thing could fetch a good price on the black market. Didn’t matter who the buyer or sellers were. It would be as easy as a wire transfer. I hid my greed and let him speak.
“There was a letter with the tape,” he said.
“I don’t know. But you know, the man arrested with her, Affendi, was her third husband.”
“What do you mean? Was she having an affair . . . ?”
“I don’t know. But it’s my sense she was writing to someone she trusted. Sometimes I’ve wondered if she wrote it to a stranger. But the letter itself speaks of someone she’d trusted her whole life.”
“What did it say?” I hoped I wasn’t betraying my curiosity. There were special rates for things that came with letters. Sometimes handwriting can quadruple rates. An old mangled football once sold for thousands because of a famous ex-goalkeeper’s signature.
“I’ve memorized every word. I must’ve read it a thousand times. She says she wrote the lyrics herself and had sung the songs with genuine feeling. She’d wanted them to be her first album but had gone with Diana due to prevailing tastes. She also wrote that she would die soon, and that she wanted the songs released as an album after her death, in case there were still fans out there.”
I saw the fear in his eyes.
“She already knew she was going to die. She committed the crime knowing it would be a hanging sentence,” I said.
“Maybe she knew her future.”
“Have you heard the songs?”
“No. I lived with work colleagues at the time. I was afraid my secret would be found out if I played it. I was afraid of arrest. Her songs were always on the radio. The public knew her voice. Plus, I was just too scared to listen.”
“I can’t believe you’ve never listened to them all these years!” He had to be lying. I watched Ismail with renewed keenness. Inventing stories to jack up the price—a common trick.
“I didn’t even bring the cassette to my room. I surrendered my camera to the office and immediately went to my mother’s house in the village. I hid the cassette in a cupboard. I only kept the letter in my shirt pocket. I read it and reread it. It was always with me.”
“Where’s the letter now? Can I see it? Her signature might be worth something,” I said.
“No. The letter robbed me of my peace. I used to read it even in the middle of the night, anxious I’d forgotten a line. Worried I’d missed some hidden meaning. I’d read every word again and again, several times a day. So over time, it tore, with a hole in the middle. One day, overcome with anxiety, I burned it. That’s when I realized I actually already know everything in it. Yes, now the letter is in me.”
Yes, this was bullshit.
“It was a really great letter. I’d never read anything so genuine, so heartfelt. I’d get a thousand letters from readers at the office, about my photographs. I read them, but none of them stuck with me. But Mona’s letter was beautiful. Perhaps she had studied calligraphy. The missive had roman letters written in an Arabic form on an unlined sheet. Surrounded by musical notes. I didn’t get it at first. The words were separated, as if torn apart. She’d written ‘Mian Ki Thodi’ in small letters at the end, and when I realized that was a Hindustani raga I even tried singing the letter accordingly.”
“So now you’re a musicologist?”
“No. But seeing that many Malays like Hindustani music, I thought it might be the case with her. I researched that raga just so I could perhaps understand the letter more. Get it out of my system that way. But no, too late, memorizing the letter through the raga only made it a part of me.”
I wasn’t sleepy anymore. The letter would’ve gone fast on Thor. I rued the loss of a few thousand ringgit.
“I tried copying the letter down, again and again. You won’t believe it, but words, entire lines, came to me easily. She was quite the bomoh—perhaps this was her revenge. I kept reciting the letter to myself. It went from poem to song in me, always resonating from within. I thought it might spill over to others when I spoke to them, and began avoiding people. I didn’t like my job anymore. I eventually quit and began farming in my old village.”
“And what about the cassette?”
“I was too scared to listen to it, after all that happened with the letter. After her hanging in 2001, I totally lost it. I felt her soul was waiting for the cassette.”
“Does that mean you’ve never once heard the songs on tape?” I asked.
I leaned back and closed my eyes, thinking.
“You’ve burned the letter that says this is Mona’s album. How do you intend to prove these are her songs?”
“I took it from her house, her actual room.”
“But how am I to believe that? Why should I?”
He stayed silent. “You have a point,” he said. His eyes were red. “You may not believe it, but it’s the truth. I have no other reason to come and tell you such crazy things about myself. My story is the real price of this thing,” he said in a steely voice.
“So you’re here only to sell it, yes?”
“Yes. My daughter is getting married. I don’t want to keep it anymore. My son-in-law is a high-ranking police official—the wedding needs to be grand. And then, maybe, I could also have some peace.”
“I can’t offer much. We’d have to check its condition. And if it is really Mona on there.”
“It’s her, all right. Songs she hadn’t sung anywhere else. I’m sure they’re the real deal. But I have no idea how to do these things. That’s when I thought of your father. I’d met him before, for a newspaper interview. I spent a couple of nights here, interviewing him. You were still a boy then. Your father was interested in music. That’s why I came this far.”
“He was gullible like that. He’d have given you any price you asked. Then he’d babble at the parrot when there was no money left for food.” My words may have sounded harsh, but there was no other way to speak of Dad.
“What is your offer then? I have to get back,” he said.
I calculated again. I’d first need a music expert to determine sound quality. Past that, we were talking millions. The Malay music industry would snap it up. The competition would drive the price higher. People made up all sorts of things for a payout these days.
“Five hundred ringgit at the most. And after checking audio quality,” I said.
“That’s grand theft,” said Ismail. His breathing quickened, he was clearly enraged. Nothing I could do about that though.
“This is my life’s treasure. You’ll never find anything like it. You’re spouting nonsense. You’re trying to cheat me.”
I took out the Saloma LP that he liked. “Can you guess why this didn’t sell?” I asked. As he frowned, I pointed to the middle of the disc.
“I bought this for two thousand ringgit. But the information in the middle here is typed, not handwritten. So it’s only worth two hundred ringgit. The previous editions of this LP had handwritten details in the middle—they are now worth more than five thousand. We can’t buy something without knowing its actual value.”
Tears began to form at edge of Ismail’s eyes. “But there is only one of this,” he said.
“And how do we know that? We need to check if there have been other recordings or copies of this. The selling price can only be determined after a thorough vetting process.”
“Then I’ll wait till you finish your process. After it’s all verified, give me a cut from your sale,” he said.
“And who knows how many years that might take. Besides, I’m moving to Kuala Lumpur. If you’re not satisfied, feel free to find another buyer,” I said.
He wouldn’t leave, I knew. He’d made the mistake of telling me his secret. He’d been a journalist—surely he knew our crimes always catch up with us. First, removing evidence from a crime scene. And a cassette, at that. Who knows, it could’ve helped her case all those years ago. The letter could have revealed further suspects. I held a man’s guilt in my confidence. I glanced at my watch and feigned surprise.
Ismail sat very still, eyes downcast. I could see his hand trembling slightly, nerves maybe. The sight of him that way gave me great joy. Significant profits awaited. I can tell stories too. More logical ones that increase value. During her heyday, whenever Mona smiled, the public became frightened and curious. A smile free of regret. Nobody knew the reason behind it. What if the songs on the cassette could provide an answer? The public would go wild. The story around the thing—as Ismail clearly demonstrated—mattered more than the thing itself.
“Alright. I’ll take your offer.” Ismail’s voice was gruff.
“That’s great. Let’s get to that after we’ve heard the songs,” I said. I brought in an old tape recorder, still in workable condition.
“Let’s not. I’ll give you my address. If the sound quality isn’t satisfactory, you can come to my place and I’ll return the money.”
“I’m a businessman, not a postman,” I said. Bad audio quality would decrease my offer.
“No, I don’t want to hear her voice. The letter brought me enough grief. I’m scared,” he said. He seemed it, too, with his quivering voice. A bit much.
“Nothing is going to happen. I’m right here. Perhaps you were a little traumatized seeing a murdered corpse up close, sir,” I said to calm him down.
“No, no, it’s nothing like that,” he said. “Look, you don’t have to give me the money now. If you like it you let me know, I’ll come back later and get it myself.”
“Absolutely not. If something happened to the cassette later it would seem as if I tampered with it on purpose. No. We’re listening to it now, together.”
I put the cassette in the tape recorder and pressed play.
It played, nothing more than a hiss at the start. Ismail sat with his face away from the player. Since there was no sound I pressed fast-forward, then let go and pressed play again. There was still only a hiss, then complete silence. I decided to play the other side, and went to eject the tape—but by then Ismail had grabbed my hand. He squeezed very hard.
Meenakshi began to squawk. The sound was awful. She wouldn’t stop, squawking with ever greater urgency. She began to lose control, crashing into the walls of her cage. I turned to Ismail—his eyes were locked on the cassette in my hands. His grip on my wrist was far stronger than I anticipated, and I struggled to free myself. Ismail’s eyes were damp. His grip became hot, searing into me. Meenakshi began to molt in her frenzy. She started to headbutt the cage. She tried to bend the metal rods with her beak.
In a rush of pure will, I freed myself from Ismail’s grasp. I stopped the cassette player, then shook Ismail. He came to, as if out of some dream, blinking. The bird had collapsed with exhaustion.
“Did you hear it?” he asked.
This time I finally lost it. “Hear what?” I said.
“Her singing!” he said.
I’d had it. “You stupid old man! Do you take me for a fool?” I screamed. My hands found his collar.
If he’d at least been honest about his need for cash at the beginning, I might have helped. But nobody takes me for a ride.
“You didn’t hear it? Did you really not hear anything?” he said, panic in his voice.
“Enough! Stop this nonsense.” I was quite ready to slap him, and stopped only when I remembered he was my father’s age. Ismail recoiled.
“Get out!” I pushed him toward the door.
“Are you sure you didn’t hear it? Your parrot freaked out. Parrots know music, you know. Your parrot heard it. How could you miss it?”
As he stepped toward me I made to hit him again. I took out the cassette and flung it at him.
“Damn you. The bird freaked out because you freaked me out. Fucking idiot!”
“Oh don’t say that. I’m in dire straits. Give me four hundred ringgit at least. You’re supposed to give me a fair price. At least give me something and take this cassette.” The man was pleading, like a common beggar. Cassette hand outstretched.
I shut the door on him mid-sentence. A perfectly good afternoon, completely wasted. I had a good mind to go outside and just strangle him.
I turned to my birdcage. Meenakshi looked haggard. Her beak was bloodstained. Some of her nails had come loose. The floor beneath her was full of shed gray feathers. Feeling sorry for her, I tried cradling her to me, worried at how comatose she appeared.
In a flash, Meenakshi opened her eyes. She glared up at me, long and hard. When she began screeching I froze in place—the sound was shrill and sinister. Nothing like what I’d ever heard from her. She spread her wings and grew monstrous. I tried placing her back in her cage but she pecked at my fingers till I had to let go. She then flew straight toward the main door of the house and crashed against it. I ran to open the door and let her out.
Ismail was still standing outside. Circling above him, a thousand parrots, flying in enormous formation. I couldn’t begin to fathom where they’d come from. I observed Ismail closely. His mouth moved continuously, I could even glimpse his gums. His feet tapped out a soft beat. His right arm was up above his head, urging the birds forward. His eyes were closed, his eyebrows arched. His nostrils and throat flared open and shut without pause.
Ismail was singing.
But I couldn’t make out the sound.
The birds still spun around him, in the thousands. The sky grew dark with them. Their screeching drowned out all else. My injured Meenakshi slowly began to flap her wounded wings skyward and eventually joined her brethren above. I watched it all, paralyzed, voiceless.
© M. Navin. Translation © 2021 by Sreedhevi Iyer. All rights reserved.