"Are you sure you are not a serial killer?” The Grab driver is joking, of course. He is driving me back to my cottage — Rumah Balai — set within the dense foliage of Rimbun Dahan in Kuang, Selangor, where I am the writer-in-residence for five weeks. The moon is hiding behind the clouds and the solar lights along the way are completely dark; there is no illumination at all. Our cottages are not air-conditioned, water is re-circulated, and everyone is encouraged to create compost for the herb gardens from the food we consume, but even the eco-warrior in me understands how driving on a non-tarred road by the light of car headlamps can make grown men a little nervous.
During the ride from Taman Tun Dr Ismail in Kuala Lumpur, we have discovered that the Grab driver has the same last name as a deceased journalist married to my distant uncle in the Bengali community. It now ceases to astonish me that no matter where in the world I am, the enormous Klang Valley operates as a village, and a link to community can always — always! — be found. We feel like family, and have spent the journey discussing the Grab driver’s 16-year-old daughter who wants to study creative writing at Nottingham University. He worries she will never make money from writing. He is actively dissuading her from her dreams. I have been mentoring Malaysian writers for over two decades and I know the sad realities of the profession; I have said nothing in her defence.
Suddenly, like a glowing white mirage, Rumah Balai is framed in his headlights. Rumah Uda Manap and Rumah Penang, the two other historical buildings lovingly restored to their former glory, tower like monuments in the darkness. The headlights catch the glints of the flowering trellis in the frosted windowpanes as the light of the moon starts to shine dimly through the clouds.
“Waaaah!” says the driver. “You live here?”
“How much is the cost, ah?”
I tell him that I have been awarded a residency, and it costs me nothing. I open my front door while he waits. His eyes are still open in wonder when he asks if he can see inside.
Much later, I will think how stupid it was to invite an unknown male inside, no matter how many acquaintances we had in common — I am still a lone woman. But as the lights from the antique lamp holders flood the house, I just open the door wider and invite him in.
The intricately carved four-poster bed with the princess mosquito net, the Chinese cupboard with the frolicking phoenixes, the picturesque kitchen with the enamel mugs … he takes it all in.
“I had a Russian passenger once who told me that in Russia, writers are treated like royalty,” he says. He flashes me a megawatt smile before turning to leave. “I think my daughter should become a writer!”
I stand on the balcony, grinning happily, as much for me as for his daughter, as the car’s red backlights are swallowed by the forest. One of the many cicak sounds thik-thik-thik over my head; in Bengali, it is saying truth-truth-truth.
The home of architect Hijjas Kasturi and his wife Angela, Rimbun Dahan occupies 14 acres and is about half an hour’s drive from KL. It is a world of artists, dancers, painters, sculptors, poets and writers … all developing traditional and contemporary art forms. There are multiple artist studios, a dance studio, an air-conditioned artist lounge and a library with spotty internet. There is also a remarkable underground art gallery. We are free to forage in the extensive herb garden for aloe vera and curry leaves. In a corner of the herb garden, I find the Proiphys amboinensis from the family Amaryllidacea, which the Malays know as sepenoh; not only do the applied leaves reduce swelling but the plant is also used to fend off pontianak and hantu from entering a new home.
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