The story of Malaysia is that of a people torn into three islands. While the peninsula calls itself only one half of the whole, it is not hard to assess that it contains that which the eastern isle does not: wealth- material and hedonistic.
Penang separates itself from the mainland thanks to the gigantic bridge across the Malacca Strait, and if not for the timely runs by the ferry, one could almost have heaved a sigh of reassurance at the anonymity it offers.
Mahmud, 35, who runs a record store on the island, complains about the easy connectivity that the bridge affords; in another country, he might have been mistaken for being anti-national. Penang’s seclusion stems from years of sequestration, and one can hardly blame the residents’ ungracious attitude towards denizens of Kuala Lumpur; for all they know, the capital might be on another planet.
The sun rises on Jalan Kartar Singh and sets to the west of Fort Cornwallis. George Town, which lies somewhere in between, is content enough to lap up the smiles of strangers. The Esplanade- named extravagantly after the British (who arrived and then left in much haste)- allows hawkers to rest in the shadows of the early morning sun that falls on the Town Hall. The latter brusquely proclaims Adelaide to be the sister city of George Town and celebrates fifty years of the announcement.
The Chinese temple of the Goddess of Mercy- Kuan Yin- looks past me as I search for a plate of Wan Tan Mee to satiate the hunger that is borne more out of passivity than non-attachment; I am temped enough by its outwardly curved arches. The walls talk to me in a language that I do not speak, and not for the first time in my life I am assailed about my incoherence of things outside of my immediate purview. For all my showboating, I may never be able to learn everything that is there to learn in this world.
The thought strikes me as gloomy as the Wan Tan Mee I seek, aided by a generous helping of Satay. A cup of Teh Tariq, which I am offered rather generously free of charge when the proprietor gets to know my nationality, washes the former down in its smooth, almost silky outflow.
If Penang Hill is all that the British have left of their eros to conquer the outcrops of George Town, I am not surprised by the serpentining queues waiting for a spot on the funicular that takes one to the top.
Rarely have humans chosen to avoid luxury in favour of easy movement, even if it entails a wait time of two hours or more, and such is the case here as well. In the end, I am so exhausted by waiting for the funicular that my spirit breaks down, and in a moment of brash impudence, I choose to go down having barely seen what the top offers.
The panorama of the strait to the east and the jungles to the west is not enough to keep me sated, and before I know it, I am in the waiting line for the train back down. This, of course, takes another hour.
Batu Ferringhi, to which I am cajoled solely on the imploration of a newfound friend from Tunisia, surprises me because of the gentle waves and barren sands. I try to offer my gratitude to the heavens, who in turn, respond with a torrential downpour that soaks us to the skin.
Abdul, barely fifteen years old, runs a fishing boat business on the coast and offers us shelter in his cadjan hut. He takes the downpour- a slight break in proceedings, if I may- as an opportunity to practice his Hindi upon me.
I amuse him for as long as I can before introducing him to the delights of Google Translate. He smiles, says Shukriya and turns to the rain. I find the weeds beside the hut flush with sludge.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Malacca, where I had lodged before turning to the north, seemed to be much easier to navigate than the cumbersome state/town of Penang. The main tourist district- the red town, to some- was to the north, and could be quite comfortably encompassed by the cruise over the eponymous river.
Jonker Street defeated me even before I stepped foot in it, but the myriad fragrances lifted my spirits before I was tempted enough to take a second look. The port attracted me, but my forays southwest were cut short thanks to the rumbling in my stomach.
The streets of this town had a sense of belonging that men can only hope to achieve in their lives; its conquest by the Portuguese, Dutch and finally the British was reason enough for me to stay a night.
I tried to seek a sense of belonging from this town’s convoluted history, and was only slightly reassured that it was named so by its founder, Prince Parameswara of Sumatra, after the Amalaki tree (Indian gooseberry), under which he had taken refuge.
Kuala Lumpur begets classification and I worry endlessly that I cannot give it one. When the bus from Penang arrives late into the night and the Petronas welcome me with open arms, all I try to attack them with is the criticism they do not merit.
I feel like I have earned an Indian meal near the end of my trip, but a generous helping of Roti Canai allows me to postpone my cravings for another day, when I shall be safely ensconced in the arms of Hyderabad.
The Petronas allow me to come as close as I can to them without spawning a touch; it takes the policeman on night duty as much gentleness as he can muster to inform me that it is closed for the night. I walk back amidst the empty streets; faint traces of Bhupinder Singh’s Ek Akela Is Shaher Mein reverberate in my soul.
Decoding the public transport system takes up the next day, and I am left questioning as to why anybody needs a vehicle of their own in this city at all. This metropolis seems to offer something to everyone, and there is hardly any corner that its train or bus systems do not encircle.
The heat of the day gets me before I am able to calm myself down enough to take in the confluence of the Gombak and Klang behind Masjid Jamek. The unabashedly muddly confluence that one sees here is where Kuala Lumpur gets its name from but few travellers take the trouble to comprehend that this is its real character, memorialised by a series of heartbreaks, mishaps and skullduggery.
I turn around as Merdeka Square beckons me, almost as if in reprimand. Such is the price for insular peace.
Written by: Mohul Bhowmick
Mohul is a national-level cricketer, sports journalist, poet, travel writer and essayist from Hyderabad, India. Having represented the Hyderabad cricket team at the under-16, under-19 and under-23 levels so far, he has also published four collections of poems and one travelogue so far. Mohul has also written prolifically for various literary magazines. He is employed by the sports news website Sportskeeda and is a part of their cricket and football departments. Mohul’s latest collection of poems They Were My Heroes came out in 2022. More of his writings can be found on his website: mohulbhowmick.com.