I never trusted my memory since I arrived in Malaysia. I just felt that words had ceased all production of meanings. Masjid Jamek, Tun Sumbanthan, Puduraya, Hang Tuah, Majaralela, Tun Abdulrahman and Menara Tun Razak never meant anything to me although I was forced to memorize them everyday just to get to where I was going. Most often, I was going somewhere at the 27th or 30th floor of buildings that all looked the same.
So, just to make friends with these strangers, I kept rolling them in my tongue as I inserted bills and pulled out cards at the Putra Train station, hoping that my mind can accommodate their strangeness. Only to discover a couple of steps from the train platform that they had all slipped away. How can I hold on to something that I didn't possess in the first place? I asked as I grappled with wild moments of panic.
I easily lost the memories of names because I never had any memory of the language in the first place. How many times did I catch Mujtaba (Taba), our Indonesian fellow, bursting with laughter because I mangled words in Bahasa and chopped and inverted names? He snickered when I asked the Indonesian fellow Wahyu, if his full name was Wayuatta instead of Wahyuana.
My mind seemed to be playing tricks on me because I thought the Burmese fellow's name was Zio Meow instead of Myo Zaw. After a short talk with Malaysiakini editor Stephen Gan, I stopped at the train platform to ask Taba again what the word "bumaputri" meant? Mujtaba, who was already having trouble how to juggle his work schedules with the time that his band of Malaysian friends wanted him to spend with them, frowned in confusion.
"Ahh! You mean, bumiputra!" he burst out laughing again.
That was why, after I left my cellphone in a faraway village of Sarawak, I was amazed to find out that I remembered the 12-digit telephone number that was supposed to be my lifeline. It was the only strange proof that my memory was working! On my way back to Kuching, I was prompted to remember a name that Prof. Wong Meng Chou had mentioned, but which I had kept inside my notebook and locked inside my luggage in a guesthouse in Kuching. I did not trust my memory to remember strange Chinese names at all. But all of a sudden, the name of Sem Kiong floated in my mind like magic. He was the person I was supposed to track down the Sarawak village of Belaga (pronounced B'laga here) to get to the bottom of my story.
Now, I know, my memory is working, at last, as I begin to feel comfortable in the increasingly familiar Kuching surroundings!