It’s about a little boy who lived in a kampong, a small rural village in Malaysia, back around 1950. Now, my dad would say, this boy was incredibly mischievous, always getting himself into no end of trouble–upon which his dad would come after him, stick in hand.
One of the boy’s favourite past times was swimming, due to the hot and humid climate all year round. The problem was, there wasn’t a proper swimming pool in the kampong. Not in those days. This village was inland, with no rivers or large bodies of water nearby. My dad would shake his head as he said this part, and the two of us would lean in a little closer. Where could he go?
Then my dad would grin, the kind of grin where you knew you were sharing a secret, and he would explain: The city was criss-crossed with canals, used mainly for transporting sewerage and other waste water, as well as excess rain water from the seasonal monsoons. So of course, on muggy summer afternoon–a year-round event–the boy would go swimming in the canals, ignoring the strange things floating past him, as only children can.
In such a small town, his father was bound to find out about his exploits from someone sooner rather than later. Sure enough, one day a neighbor mentioned that they had spotted the boy floating around the liquid muck. Outraged, the boy’s father grabbed his stick and went in search of his son, who was blissfully unaware of the approaching fury. My dad would imitate him at this point, slapping an imaginary stick against his palm, and my sister and I would suck in our breaths.
But luckily for the boy, his sister had seen their father leave the house, and immediately hopped on her bike. She cycled to his usual spot and shouted at him to start running. He did.
When she encountered their father, and he asked her if she had seen her brother, she shook her head and he continued on his now-fruitless search. My sister and I would be giggling by now, imagining the poor father storming around the village canals in search of a boy he’d never find.
I would like to say that, properly chastened by his narrow escape, the boy never swam in the canals again. Knowing him, however, that is highly doubtful. As you probably guessed, the boy my father told us about was none other than himself. My sister and I were always entranced by these stories of a world that was long gone by the time we were born.
This place only lives on in the memories of those who were there–and in the minds of those who hear the stories and create their own picture of the backwater Malaysian village and its inhabitants.
For as long as there is still someone to tell the stories, there will always be that small fragment of another time, and another place.