November 19, 2009
Khalwat (close proximity between unmarried Muslims of the opposite sex) and durians are a steady presence in my new short story collection, Velvet and Cinder Blocks. In one story, a KL taxi driver recalls an overbearing father who threw durians at him as a form of punishment, or sometimes just for the heck of it. Elsewhere a chef-turned-journalist-turned-chef again invents a durian-based fish-head curry that wows the critics. In a draft of the closing novella, “The Guesthouse,” a young Malay woman and expat bond alone over a durian in the jungle.
Never, though, in extending my imagination to the 10 stories set about kampongs, KL and New York did I think to make durian a key ingredient of a khalwat raid, as happened recently at a Kuala Lumpur condo.
I wish I had. We fiction writers love our irony. And the stranger-than-fiction case in question is dripping with it, perfectly tailored for Malaysia.
From its funky smell to its elaborate sweetness, the durian is the rarest of breeds. Less recognized but equally peculiar is its ability to unite people. Plop a durian down between people and watch differences – racial, religious, gendered – momentarily fall away.
I still fondly remember my first trip to the rural northern Malaysian state of Kedah. Over durians (five for RM10), the locals’ suspicions of me (CIA agent?!) perceptibly eased. Last week in KL, I asked a man if I could park my car in his lot for two minutes while I ducked across the street to the pasar malam. Grudgingly he agreed. When I returned with a bag full of durians and offered him one his face transformed to pure delight. At durian stalls, Malaysians of all races are bound nearly as one by the unassuming ritual: sweaty seller slapping and chipping into the spiky hide with his timeworn parang; customer inserting a finger to confirm the texture is milky-soft, before squatting on plastic stools to get down to business. Within moments the fruit’s magic takes hold, tingling the chest and cheeks, dilating the nostrils, lingering seductively in the mouth, subtly rousing the mind as the body slackens. Afterwards, we lumber to a hose or water bottle to extract the caked flesh drying about our nails. Someone will inevitably complain of feeling “heaty” but that doesn’t subtract from the collective nature of the experience.
Last month at the condo in Prima Damansara section of KL, the durian was bringing Malaysians together once more; the five “sinners” who were about to munch on the king of fruits comprised men, women, Christians and Muslims.
But that proved too much to bear for several men from the local residents’ association, who reportedly raided the condo and roughed the group up for khalwat, an action beyond their right to carry out as members of the public.
Velvet and Cinder Blocks explores how ideological devotion is driving a wedge between individuals and societies in our post-9/11 world. And as any Malaysian can attest, narrow allegiance to dogma is a growing threat to the country’s fragile racial unity. But who would have guessed that it would do so by getting between Malaysians and…their durians!
Without overstating the significance of the thorny episode in Prima Damansara, one is left to wonder, how far will it go? How many tenets of democracy – of which the right to privacy is a central one – must be violated before Malaysians say enough? Will they say enough? Or is the divisive politicization of the durian a harbinger of what’s to come?
Making too much out of cross-gender intermingling leads to dysfunction (more social than erectile – but still). An Iranian friend recently told me that prohibitions against “free mixing” has reduced the youth in the Islamic Republic to discreetly exchange phone numbers on crumpled up pieces of paper tossed through open car windows at stoplights. More basically, it means people come of age without having had a meaningful conversation with a person of the opposite sex – in other words, having been cut off from one-half of humanity.
In Velvet and Cinder Blocks, a number of stories involve unmarried men and women with varying beliefs and values in a time of global upheaval. Needless to say, they have their differences. And yet it is precisely their refusal to live in fear of zealous authorities that gives them a shot at overcoming their dissimilarities.
None of this is to advocate sex, drugs and rock n’ roll; every society needs limits. But if Malaysia is to blossom into a civil, plural, functional and progressive nation, one’s right to privacy and dignity must be protected. Trivializing differences through intimidation stunts both social and economic development by making us less rational, nuanced, expressive and inclusive.
Our beloved durian now stands as a powerful reminder.