Borderless, September 2021


The Caged Birds Sing…Click here to read.


Professor Anvita Abbi, a Padma Shri, discusses her experience among the indigenous Andamanese and her new book on them, Voices from the Lost Horizon. Click here to read.

Keith Lyons talks to Jessica Mudditt about her memoir, Our Home in Myanmar, and the current events. Click here to read.


Be and It All Came into Being

Balochi poetry by Akbar Barakzai, translated by Fazal Baloch. Click here to read.

Adivasi Poetry

A poem by Jitendra Vasava translated from the Dehwali Bhili via Gujarati by Gopika Jadeja. Click here to read.

A Poem for The Ol Chiki

 Poetry by Sokhen Tudu, translated from the Santhali by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar. Click here to read.

About Time

Korean poetry on time written and translated by Ilwha Choi. Click here to read.

Of Days and Seasons

A parable by the eminent Dutch writer, Louis Couperus (1863-1923), translated by Chaitali Sengupta. Click here to read.

Road to Nowhere

An unusual story about a man who heads for suicide, translated from Odiya by the author, Satya Misra. Click here to read.

Abhisar by Tagore

A story poem about a Buddhist monk by Rabindranath Tagore in Bengali has been translated by Mitali Chakravarty. Click here to read.


Click on the names to read the poems

Arundhathi Subramaniam, Michael R Burch, Sekhar Banerjee, Jeff Shakes, Ashok Suri, Tim Heerdink, Srinivas S, Rhys Hughes, A Jessie Michael, George Freek, Saranayan BV, Gigi Baldovino Gosnell, Pramod Rastogi, Tohm Bakelas, Nikita Desai, Jay Nicholls, Smitha Vishwanathan, Jared Carter

Nature’s Musings

In Sun, Seas and Flowers, Penny Wilkes takes us for a tour of brilliant photographs of autumnal landscapes with verses. Click here to read.

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

In Memory Gongs, Rhys Hughes creates a profound myth tinged with a tongue in cheek outlook … Click here to read.


Crime and the Colonial Capital: Detective Reid in Calcutta

Abhishek Sarkar explores the colonial setting up of the Calcutta detective department in 1887. Click here to read.

The Myth of Happiness

Candice Louisa Daquin ponders over the impositions on people to declare themselves happy. Click here to read.

Once Upon a Time in Burma: Of Babies and Buddhas

John Herlihy takes us through more of Myanmar with his companion, Peter, in the second part of his travelogue. Click here to read.

Bhaskar’s Corner

Bhaskar Parichha explores links between Politics & the Media. Click here to read.

Musings/Slices from Life


Mike Smith muses about a black and white photograph from his childhood. Click here to read.

Leo Messi’s Magic Realism

Sports fan Saurabh Nagpal explores the magic realism in famous footballer Messi’s play with a soupçon of humour. Click here to read.

Infinite Possibilities & Mysterious Riddles

Keith Lyons gives a lively account of traveling across borders despite the pandemic. Click here to read.

Word Play

Geetha Ravichnadran explores additions to our vocabulary in a tongue-in-cheek article. Click here to read.

Musings of a Copywriter

In When I Almost Became a Professor, Devraj Singh Kalsi gives humour tinged reasons on why he detached himself from being an academician. Click here to read.


Flash Fiction: Turret

Niles M Reddick relates a haunting tale of ghosts and more. Click here to read.

Silver Lining

Dipayn Chakrabarti travels through moods of the day and night. Click here to read.

Captain Andi is in love

Dr. P Ravi Shankar explores a future beyond climate change in Malaysia. Click here to read.

The Cockatoo

Revathi Ganeshsundaram captures the stardust in ripening years. Click here to read.

The Missing Tile

Saeed Ibrahim’s story reflects on the ties between an old teacher and a student. Click here to read.

The Literary Fictionist

In Return of the Ghost, Sunil Sharma explores the borders between life, ideas and death. Click here to read.

Book Excerpt

An excerpt from Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore, translated by Somdatta Mandal, showcasing Tagore’s introduction and letters. Click here to read.

Book Reviews

Rakhi Dalal reviews Anvita Abbi’s Voices from the Lost Horizon. Click here to read.

Basudhara Roy reviews Bina Sarkar Ellias’ Song of a Rebel and Other Selected Poems. Click here to read.

Bhaskar Parichha reviews Wendy Doniger’s Winged Stallion and Wicked Mares. Click here to read.

Independence Day


Malaysia is said to have been inhabited 40,000 years ago by the same tribes who populated the Andamans. Situated on the trade route between China and India, they assimilated varied cultures into their lore, including that of the Arabs. Phases of colonial occupation by the Portuguese, Dutch and British wracked their history from 1511. They suffered from Japanese occupation during the Second World War. The Federation of Malaya achieved independence after a struggle on 31st August 1957. In 1963, the British colonies of Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo were combined with Malaya and the country was rechristened Malaysia.

In 1965, Singapore was voted out due to ideological reasons, some of it being racial and political. This Partition was free of political bloodshed or violence between the two countries, unlike the earlier Partitions within Asia which led to much violence and bigotry — India, Pakistan and North Korea and South Korea (where the split along the 38th parallel was initiated by the West post-Second World War to settle matters between the ideological blocks of communism and capitalism).

Malaysia continues a federal constitutional monarchy with a Sultan and an elected Prime Minister at the helm and has a mixed population of Malays (Bumiputera), Chinese, Indians, Portuguese and other ethnicities. We present a selection of writing from this country, put together on the occasion of their 64th independence day, also known as Hari Merdeka or National day.


Benderaku (My Flag) by Julian Matthews. Click here to read.

A False Dawn by  Malachi Edwin Vethamani. Click here to read.

Colours of Words, three poems by A Jessie Michael. Click here to read.


Brother Felix’s Ward

Malachi Edwin Vethamani takes us to an exploration of faiths and borders. Click here to read.

The Night of Sirens

A Jessie Michael tells us of riots that set in during elections in Malaysia. Click here to read.


Colours of Words

By A Jessie Michael


Diversity is our last name.
Born speaking three languages (or four),
We, unconscious code switchers,
created creole 
before linguists caught up with us.
Colourless and colour blind.
Playing in each other’s homes,
Their food, became ours 
 Ours, theirs.
Their foul words ours,
And our curses theirs.

We walk into temples,
Mosques, churches,
attending christenings, weddings
and funerals.
No discomfort we feel 
participating in diverse festivals
of each religion and race.
Come to think of it, 
Diversity must be our middle name.

We don each other’s costumes 
as a matter of daily wear;
no one claims ownership,
it’s all national fare.
Then of course we marry each other
Creating a lovelier mess
of bi-racial and tri-racial children
of no definite ethnicity.
Growing up bi-religious and tri-lingual,
Colourless and colour blind,

We live everywhere in this world,
Never feeling we are different
until we have to fill a form.
Asian, Indian, European, East European
Middle Eastern, African, African American,
 American and other.
How the heck do we know?
Dang those forms that ask us so,
to tick boxes to put us into boxes.
Dang the politicians of single colour 
because they cannot see the rainbow.

Actually, diversity is our first name. 

HAVE WE?  HAVE WE?        

Have we learnt another language
to challenge our little brains?
Have we walked in others’ shoes 
and learnt of their pain?
Have we shared with them a cup of joy
and freely drunk of theirs too?
Have we sat at their table and
broken bread with them?
Have we stood beside the others 
and thought them just the same?
Have we risen above ancient anger,
forgiven our fellow men,
thought them worthy of our compassion
and stretched out our hands?
Have we emptied the bitter cup
that diminishes all men?

Our colours are but geography,
our religions but pathways 
to the same universal One.
So, who is to say who is better?
It is always our own buried fear,
that we pray at the altar,
then curse the man on the street
just because he looks different 
and is from another land;
just because we will not say
he is really a God-made-Man.

A. Jessie Michael is a retired Associate Professor of English from Malaysia. She has written short stories for local magazines and newspapers. She has published an anthology of short stories Snapshots, with two other writers and most recently her own anthology The Madman and Other Stories (2016).



Orang Minyak or The Ghost

A Jessie Michael explores blind belief in a Malay village

The nerves of Kampong Semut were aquiver with anxiety, fear and excitement, all melded together. The haven of wooden houses several miles from the nearest town and surrounded by coconut groves and padi fields, which were more and more a rarity, now had its slow, meandering peace shattered and its people shaken awake.  Adrenalin flowed fast and they jumped at shadows.

A hysterical village girl claimed that she had seen, against the light of the moon, the shape of a naked man climbing through her window. When she sat up, the shape slid out again and vanished. The village religious body initially put the claims down as the imaginings of a frustrated young woman but when more girls made similar claims, the villagers decided that there might be some truth to the matter. The village elders claimed the sightings could be that of an Orang Minyak, (Oily Man) — that grease covered, naked, dark, male malevolence that prowled villages, seeking to molest and rape virgins. This entity had long been quiet in the whole country and was beginning to be dismissed as myth.

 The village police first looked suspiciously at the village boys but could find no evidence. No fingerprints, no grease trails. Their parents, some of whom were in the police force too, could vouch for the male members of the family being home on the nights of the intrusions. It must have been a male from a neighbouring village; but, increasingly, by the very nature of these apparitions, they were prone to believe the old myth. The apparition came on moonlit nights and never in the rain. The police could only advise stop-gap measures. The girls were told to sleep close to their mothers or grandmothers and barricade all the windows. The men set up night patrols.

The ‘prowler’ stopped for a couple of months and then struck again when the villagers had dropped their guard a little to enjoy their evenings with family meals and chatter. This time, the Oily Man attacked Pak Din’s daughter as she was going to the outhouse nearby late at night. The light of the moon was bright enough so she carried no torch or lantern. The outhouse was clearly outlined as were the clumps of vegetation around. She could leave the outhouse door open for the quick visit.

 He succeeded in raping her as she was returning. Her family could only glean scraps of information from the shattered girl — a naked, oily, masked, man, the whiff of a strange incense and passing out. By the time she recovered to find herself half naked and screamed, the intruder had disappeared without a trace.

As usual the village descended on the village headman’s home. As usual Tok Baharuddin was not yet home. Tok Baharuddin was village headman, businessman cum politician, all rolled in one, who had to travel to town daily to drum up grass root support as well as business. As everyone knew, politics and business go hand in hand; one cannot exist without the other. He was good for the village, getting them a decent clinic, school, roads and always writing job recommendations for school leavers even if most did not land the jobs. He was so busy with meetings that he was out every day and often travelled out station for a few days. He was a feather in the village cap for the mention of his name put Kampung Semut on the local map.

When he returned that evening, Tok Baharuddin was apoplectic that the police were so negligent as to let this crime happen and not have any clues or suspects. He visited the victim’s house for a first hand version of the incident. “I’ll talk to the Police Chief,” he declared. “I’ll make sure this criminal hangs.”  As village chief he must be seen to take action to secure the safety of his village and naturally his own effectiveness and reputation.

The villagers listened to him respectfully. He was a good leader but he straddled the old world and the new and more and more he leaned into the new. He tactfully avoided, meaningless rituals and shunned dabbling in the occult.

The village men gathered again in each other’s homes to study the situation from another perspective.  Ariffin, a retired police officer who had served in other states, gave some hair-raising information. “You know, the Indians and Chinese also have this spirit phenomenon. Another being or spirit can enter a person and completely alter the personality and behaviour of that person until the spirit decides to leave. The spirit can speak in strange languages, make the host sick and harm others. When the episode of possession is over, the person reverts to normal but cannot remember anything of what happened.  In the most idyll of places, evil preys; it roams to feed its primal lust.”

Ariffin’s audience looked at each other. Was he saying it could be any of them? Perish the thought. One of the men burst out, “This is evil let loose. It is not human. The police can’t do anything. We will have to call the bomoh (local shaman /medicine man) from Trengganu to exorcise this village”.

Such practice was publicly declared to be pagan and unIslamic, so, a little argument arose if this was even allowed. The village Imam was soon outvoted and persuaded that all old customs could not be thrown out at the risk of harming their daughters and that they were to resort to this without blaming God for what was going on. The Imam bowed out gracefully, since his prayers all these months had proven ineffective. They did not worry about the headman who they knew considered himself a little too advanced to believe in shamans and bomohs. So, he could be expected to close an eye to their plans and not attend the exorcism exercise out of political correctness.

The exorcism was to be an expensive affair, for even a bomoh needed to make a living. And he had to exorcise the evil entity not only from the victims but from the whole village as well, which meant a visit to each house and building and there must have been fifty buildings at least. Every household contributed; at least RM200 each. Life was disrupted for two days over the weekend. The bomoh arrived from across the state border with his paraphernalia of keris (dagger), frankincense, pots, roots, oils and herbs. The village women sourced flowers and limes to make large pots of infusions.

Tok Baharuddin tactfully took a two-day business trip out of state, leaving his wife to attend to all the rituals.

 The main ceremony began at the village hall where the bomoh lit a small bonfire in a pot, fuelled with the herbal leaves and roots. He held a silver keris hanging on a chain over the flames and declared that the swing of the keris indicated the presence of an evil spirit lurking in the village. Someone had sent this entity from the nether world and it was unlikely to leave until it had claimed its prey of seven virgins to satiate its lust if the exorcism was not performed. The bomoh threw incense into the flames and a great cloud of smoke enveloped him and most of the room. While the smoke billowed and the attendees choked on the pungent odour of the incense, he muttered incantations and occasionally gave an almighty shout, commanding the evil spirit to leave the village.

The exorcism in the hall lasted an hour, ending with the medicine man sprinkling water infused with flowers and cut lime and into which he had blown and spat vehemently. No corner of the hall was spared. A similar but shorter, smoky ceremony was enacted at every house after which the occupants were instructed to bathe in the flower and lime infusion which they had prepared and into which the Bomoh had blown spells. Unmarried girls and women were given amulets to wear around their necks to ward off all harm. The following day all the public buildings were exorcised – the school, clinic, the police station, and as an extra precaution, the little mosque too. The villagers gathered at every building, the older ones, nostalgic for the practices of their forefathers and fearful of missing out on something, the younger ones fascinated by these old rituals they never knew existed in their culture. It was quite a spectacular performance at each stop. When it was all over, the bomoh was gratefully sent off with his tools and stash of cash. The villagers finally breathed in relief.

The exorcism gave the village two weeks of peace. Then the bold, daring, greasy phenomenon struck again in the dark, to attack Muna, the twenty-year old only daughter of the widower Pak Som.  Fortunately, Pak Som had not let his guard down. He boarded the windows and doors and kept a long pounding stick next to his mat. He gave a knife to Muna to keep beside her. They regularly burnt incense in the house to ward off evil. But that night Muna felt a slimy hand smelling of car engine oil trying to smother her. She could not scream but her hand clutching the knife obeyed her father instructions. She swung the knife hard against the thing’s back and it yelped. Her scream had her father out, swinging the pounding stick but he hit only air. The thing was gone. He rushed out and could not spot anything. The moon was shining full and looking up he saw, silhouetted against the silver orb, a black dog flying.

Allahu Akbar,” he muttered repeatedly. The neighbours were alerted and they came with their lanterns. They could only see the gap on the floor of the raised house where the Orang Minyak had removed a plank, and traces of blood on the knife, nothing else.

It was mid-day by the time Tok Baharuddin rushed over. He had been delayed arriving home from one of his late-night meetings in the town. A crash between his car and a buffalo had landed him in hospital to tend to his minor wounds while a mechanic tended to the car’s wounds and made in drivable. The villagers were too distraught to bother with his misfortunes. They were on a warpath. “The bomoh has been useless — not powerful enough. This evil had to be fought with evil. Someone has set a curse on the village and that person has to be found and destroyed by a stronger evil entity!”. Muna’s father was distraught. Black magic had the propensity to attract all the jinns and dark forces to the place where it was practiced and to the people who practiced it. Already he felt its tentacles tightening around his chest. He was quite sure his death was imminent. He had seen the ominous sign – the flying black dog.

The headman complied with their request. There was no other way to appease them except to let them fight fire with fire. He also had to show concern for his daughter just returned from the University in the city. Her polish and elegance might make her the next target. His wife was super vigilant, barricading the doors and windows, covering the wooden floors with linoleum and nailing planks against the eves so there was no entry to the rafters. What more could one do?

Tok Baharuddind’s daughter, Hasinah, while respecting the fears of the villagers was thoroughly bemused in private. She was quite sure it was a case of mass hysteria, the kind that occurred with village girls confined in boarding schools; only here they were confined to their village. To appease her mother, she agreed to keep a big stick next to her. As a precaution, despite her doubts, she took her camping flick knife to bed too

“I’ll be back at midnight. Be careful to lock up properly,” Baharuddin announced to his wife and children as he left for yet another business/political meeting.

His daughter played with the flick knife while waiting to sleep. She imagined the many ways in which she would attack an intruder and surprised herself with her imagination.

It was at midnight, when she drifted between sleep and wakefulness that Hasinah felt a hand slide up her thigh and another smother her. As she struggled against the naked being mounting her, she flicked the switch knife clutched in her outstretched hand and transferred all her strength into plunging him deep in the neck.

It was definitely blood, not oil, that spurted out of the Oily Man, warm and musty, mingling with the suffocating smell of grease and oil. He sprang up and ran to the front door, stumbling. She chased him and grabbed his arm but he slid from her grasp as the grease was intended to allow. She followed him out, shouting for the sleepers to awake. She looked around and saw a black dog flying, silhouetted against the moon.

The neighbouring men brought out torches and hurricane lamps and followed the clear trace of blood but could not track it beyond the front door. Still they persisted, fanning out their search. No one could bleed so much and go far, and spirits don’t bleed. Half an hour later they found the village headman, naked, oil covered and masked, bleeding to death in a ditch. Next to him, a dead black dog.

A. Jessie Michael is a retired Associate Professor of English from Malaysia and a writer of short stories and poems She has been published in anthologies and literary journals online.



Two poems from Malaysia

By A Jessie Michael

Caged Birdsong

They stride in graceful rhythm

Qi Pao* fluttering in morning breeze

They swing their cages with gentle sway

Going to Nanjing Park

To bathe in sunshine and breathe fresh air.


Their feathered friends rise and bend on perches

Flap their wings and stretch muscles.

They are one in movement, master and bird

Lifelong learners each, going to Nanjing Park

To bathe in sunshine and breathe fresh air


There’s a crowd of cages on every low branch

And sweet birdsong fills the air

Feathered friends chirp and tweet and trill

Outdoing each other; hearts are bursting

Here to bathe in sunshine and breath fresh air


Old men’s yarns and chortles mingle

With caged birdsong flowing free

A daily short spate of being alive

Voices let loose in cacophony

Bathing in sunshine and breathing fresh air


Then cages are curtained into darkness

Echoes of birdsong dissipate in the wind

Men in silence swing cages home

To drown in the darkness, and choke in the haze

Of crowded cubicles with no window space



My heart is a kite with a stone on its string

Straining and fluttering to be free

But it is anchored to earth while the wild winds sing


It longs for new love and youthful flings

It wants to break free, fly over the sea

But my heart is a kite with a stone on its string


It wonders what the future will bring

When the heart is corralled to what can only be

It is anchored to earth while the wild winds sing


I was the air beneath the falcon’s wing

I was the joy of sunshine before day’s reality

But my heart is a kite with a stone on its string.


Sometimes in a dream I feel the old zing

Of our youthful love, my heart’s soaring glee

But it is anchored to earth while the wild winds sing


The loss is too great, no end to the longing

The fluttering and flittering of fantasy

My heart is a kite with a stone on its string

It is anchored to earth while the wild winds sing.


*Qi pao – Cheongsam, a dress of Manchu origin.

A. Jessie Michael is a retired Associate Professor of English from Malaysia and a writer of short stories and poems. She has written winning short stories for local magazines and newspaper competitions and received honourable mentions in the AsiaWeek Short Story Competitions. She has worked with writers’ groups in Melbourne, Australia and Suzhou, China. Her stories have also appeared in The Gombak Review, 22 Asian Short Stories (2015), Bitter Root Sweet Fruit and recently articles in Kitaab (2019) and poems and Short story in Borderless (2020). She has previously published an anthology of short stories Snapshots, with two other writers and most recently her own anthology The Madman and Other Stories (2016).




Poems of Longing

   By A Jessie Michael

Be Longing

Like waves rolling to and fro

I land on distant shores,

Longing for better

Stretching for more.


Bird and beast speak

But in one voice;

Longing to belong

I speak in alien noise


The soul I sold             

For freedom and fame

Roams longing in a limbo

That has no name

Now I look to

The abandoned shore,

The tongue longs to caress

 Forgotten lore


My battered soul yearns

For the lost soulmate,

The waves of longing

Will not abate


Will I,

Wanderer forever,

Forever be longing

For a belonging?


Song of the Broken Migrant

I cross the ocean

Shimmering sea like shattered glass

The water fractures, breaks and blends

I see my contorted face.


On land my self- mirror finally breaks

I see fractured reflections Pieces of myself.

I am broken and cannot stitch myself together.

I am forever changed into an unrecognizable me.


A.Jessie Michael is a retired Associate Professor of English from Malaysia and a writer of short stories and poems. She has written winning short stories for local magazines and newspaper competitions and received honourable mentions in the AsiaWeek Short Story Competitions. She has worked with writers’ groups in Melbourne, Australia and Suzhou, China. Her stories have also appeared in The Gombak Review, 22 Asian  Short Stories (2015), Bitter Root Sweet Fruit  and recently three articles in Kitaab (2019)  and a poem and Short story in Borderless (2020) She has previously published an anthology of short stories Snapshots, with two other writers and most recently her own anthology The Madman and Other Stories (2016).



The Night of Sirens

By A Jessie Michael

It was 11.00 p.m.  On the third storey of Luther House on Utara Road, in the furthest corner of the corridor that skirted the whole left wing on each floor, Chris was on night watch,  braving the mosquitoes and watching for strangers that might walk up the pitch dark entrance approach from the main road just a few hundred meters away with only an unlit torch for company. His fellow students stayed quiet in the meeting room downstairs, whispering and waiting for their turn to patrol the building.

It was not meant to be like this at all. They were twenty students from their campus Christian Society on a pre-semester formation camp.  Such live-in camps were always better than attending lectures.  In such camps they talked and brainstormed and changed and grew. The group was fired with the anticipation of examining liberation theology and the documents of Vatican II and the students burned with a newfound energy that questioned all that they had been taught. They had meticulously organised the speakers and the forums – rebel priests, political science advisors and lecturers, politicians – people who would split their young brains and say things otherwise left unsaid in classrooms and in the public arena.

How exciting that the camp was taking place on Malaysian election week – the election that might be the game changer for the nation, according to the experts. And only the day before, as the poll counts came rolling in, one of the students had procured a transistor and given running commentaries on the results. It was clearly a game changer – the non-race-based opposition groups were leading. The ruling Alliance, with the dominating Malay party and its weaker Chinese and Indian partners, polled only 48 percent of the vote, although it retained a majority in the legislature. The students’ evening forum would be quite a fiery one, of what direction the country could be expected to move in.

However, the harried telephone call had come in at 3.00 p.m. The main speaker would not be able to attend. There were roadblocks in the city and talk of gangs causing violence. The caller advised caution about anyone venturing into the streets. Within minutes, the early guests for the forum were sent off in their own cars and advised to book into a hotel or a friend’s house in case of roadblocks. The transistor became the student group’s focal point. The announcements came fast and furious – racial riots, curfews.

The camp leaders, their chaplain, and their host, the pastor of Luther House huddled to discuss the situation and decided that the students stay put. Campus was barely three kilometres away but there was no transport and there was rampaging on Pantai Road just outside the campus.

Then the sirens began. They were ceaseless. From the highest points of Luther House on the low hill could be seen the tops of ambulances, fire trucks and police cars frantically running on either side of Pantai Road, sirens screaming and lights flashing red, blue and yellow.  Flames flared sporadically in the distance with black smoke twisting high upward, thick, and then dissipating into the greyness of the dull sky, the acrid smell of it pervading the air.

 The twenty students and their chaplain were left as unwitting guests of the pastor of Luther House. There was enough food for a couple of days, if rationed well. The camp programme had disintegrated but there was a different fever in the air – the excitement of violent change. This was real. They were living the change but did not know what to make of it. They met periodically during the day, all afire, to discuss the transistor news. They knew a national emergency had been announced and the army had taken over all operations, imposing curfews in the city of Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya; but besides announcements of curfews and warnings of penalties for breaking curfew, news was censored, the interim between announcements filled only with calm, happy music. The students phoned home to reassure parents of their safety. They kept busy organising cooking schedules, watches, patrols. No lights were allowed. Complete blackout at night so as not to attract rioters. And no noise. Only the sirens. Ceaseless. And intermittent gunshots.

On the morning of the elections, Murad, Bakri and Sulaiman, all college mates and too young to vote, had left the campus to see a movie in town. It was late evening when they caught the bus back to Pantai Road from where they could walk into campus. However, the bus was roadblocked at the entrance to Pantai Road, not by police, but by rough youths shouting at the passengers to go home on foot. People tumbled out of the bus in panic and scattered. The bus driver abandoned the bus. The three boys ran down Jalan Pantai only to be met by another cluster of men yelling incoherently and throwing firebombs into buses and cars already trapped on the street. It was a free for all. The shouting was in Malay and Chinese and it was hard to tell what they were shouting about. While some people dodged into back lanes and buildings, the three boys lost track of each other. It was every man for himself and Sulaiman could only think of the campus gates perhaps just half a kilometre away.

 He got to the edge of the road and huddled behind a torched car and a smoking bus. He was almost in the bus when he heard crude shouting coming from around the corner. Instinctively he dived under the bus, crept to the centre and lay flat. Feet passed him but no one saw him. He was safe but fear now came in nauseous waves and he began shaking. From his low vantage point he could see only groups of feet running hither and thither at short intervals. Just when he thought he might peep out a little more to see if the coast was clear the shouting began again. Running feet. Just one pair. Running fast. Desperate. And hot on those heels, a mad crowd- maybe ten pairs of feet. The shouting rose to a crescendo. “Get him. Chop him”

Then a begging voice “Don’t! Please Don’t! Help! O God”,

Then silence.

Then ten pairs of feet walked back and Sulaiman now saw the machetes held downwards and dripping blood. He closed his eyes to utter a prayer for the soul of the butchered one, but no words came. He pulled at his hair to recall the prayer, however, his fear posed to be a barrier. He knew he could not show himself. He could not make sense of what was happening. Light turned to dusk and dusk to dark. There was a yellow flare, running feet, pungent smoke choking him and still he dared not move. The car in front of the bus was burning. Would it explode? Sirens. Ambulance or police or the fire brigade? Feet running away. If he crawled out would they nab him as the perpetrator? The car still burned. The sirens faded away, gone elsewhere, and then they began again till they rang relentless in his ears. He did not know when he fell asleep.

As Murad and Bakri ran into the wild bunch on Pantai Road they had realised they could not pass unless they were thought to be part of the unruly crowd. “Let’s pretend,” they said and yelled and screamed. They picked rocks off the ground and threw them at the damaged cars but made sure they were heading towards campus. Once close enough to the campus gates manned by police and campus guards and away from the violence, they sprinted blindly without looking back, pulled their student IDs’ out of their pockets and blabbered at the guards. Only then did they realise that Sulaiman was not with them. The guards would not let them go back for him. “They are killing people out there. They are wild. They don’t care who they are killing!” The boys were in tears, but the guards were adamant and escorted them back to their college.

In their rooms they prayed desperately for Sulaiman’s safety. They felt they had abandoned him. They refused to answer the curious questions of their friends who wanted to know details of their escape. How were they to tell that they pretended to be rioters to escape to safety and did not notice that they lost their friend? They went looking for Sulaiman’s sister who also lived on campus, hoping Sulaiman was there. But he was not. They told her their story, barely able to look her in the eyes as she burst into hysterical tears.

On the second day, the transistor at Luther House broadcast that there were short curfew lifts for people to shop for provisions within their housing areas.  The students felt safer when the sirens were blaring as it meant a lawful presence of a police car, an ambulance or fire engine. They were restless to be back in the safety of the campus grounds.

Chris, the camp organiser, knew he had to take a risk to go out to the main road during a curfew lift and hitch a ride to the campus on any vehicle passing by. He had worries that he could not voice. They were too vulnerable in the building; too close to the main road and the burning and rioting in the village not two kilometres away. He walked off casually, promising to contact the police to arrange for them to return to the campus. Chris prayed as he walked. This street, Utara Road, was clean. There had been no reports of violence on it, but anything could happen now that the curfew had lifted. He hoped a police car would pass. Anything would be good, even a fire engine. Within ten minutes an army jeep passed, and someone shouted his name. Chris froze in shock as the jeep screeched to a halt in front of him. It was his territorial army commandant ordering him to duty. All uniformed personnel had been called up.

Chris was quick. He negotiated. His uniform was at home, he needed to get there, but could he buy provisions for his aged and stranded parents on the way? And could the territorial army please send a truck to rescue the stranded students up in Luther House before they got attacked or starved?

In half an hour his parents were provided for, he was in fatigues and there was a truck at Luther house to ferry the students back to the campus an oasis of safety amidst the carnage. Music all day and college dances for two weeks till order was restored in the country. Keep them happy, feed them well. No classes. No talks. No news. No thinking. No changing. No growing.   The ignorance was bliss.

 For now, he had to go with his colleagues to check out the damage on Pantai Road.

The jeep Chris was in with three uniformed colleagues drove into Pantai Road. Their job was to assist the army wherever needed. Pantai Road and the adjacent village were a hotbed of rioters. The curfew kept people off the streets. Shoot on sight was the order. The jeep trawled the street, which was strewn with rocks, shattered glass and with half dozen burnt motorbikes, five scorched cars and three buses still warm from smouldering. The air smelt of petrol, burnt rubber and death but there were no bodies. At one spot there was a dark shadow on the ground, trailing off towards the sloping edge of the road. Blood. Someone had removed a body. A dog barked. Can’t curfew a dog. Should they shoot the dog? But the dog was barking at a torched bus. Or rather barking at something under the bus. They shooed the dog away and went on all fours to see. It was a young man. Motionless. They dragged the body out. No marks of assault. No burns. Probably asphyxiation from fumes from the bus. Slightly bloated. Not rotted. Someone thought of examining his pockets. A student ID. Sulaiman bin Roshidi. University of Malaya.

Chris cursed. Another body bag to join the thousands already piled in the hospital morgue.


A. Jessie Michael is a retired Associate Professor of English from Malaysia and a writer of short stories and poems. She has written winning short stories for local magazines and newspaper competitions and received honourable mentions in the AsiaWeek Short Story Competitions. She has worked with writers’ groups in Melbourne, Australia and Suzhou, China. Her stories have also appeared in The Gombak Review, 22 Asian  Short Stories (2015), Bitter Root Sweet Fruit andKitaab (2019)  She has published an anthology of short stories Snapshots, with two other writers and most recently her own anthology The Madman and Other Stories (2016).




The Future Starts: The Past Departs

By A Jessie Michael

In my heart thunder, in my eyes, only clouds.

 “Here already? Here already?” asks his mother,

for hours his favorite rendang* stirring.

She is incoherent with love

and breathless from using her lungs as bellows.

My son comes home today with wife and child.


A man steps out of a car, not a child;

 It’s the laterite dust that our vision clouds.

He’s dressed like the city. Where is the boy I love?

Not seeing us still, “Pa!”  he echoes the buffalo’s bellows.

Then child-like, calls “Bu” in his mother-

tongue, peering thru the dust still stirring.


The wind sets the young padi* stalks stirring;

It’s whistle like the reed flute, reduces me to child-

like sobs and I stand speechless like a love-

lorn fool as they kiss my hand. The cloud-

laden sky turns dark and heavy with a mother-

load of rain. In the paddock the buffalo bellows.


The young child frets. “I’m hungry!” he echoes the bellow.

“I made rendang*,” proclaims his grandmother, stirring

spittle in our mouths while the mother

of all storms begins. “I want KFC” — truly a spoilt child

and for a moment my appetite clouds

till I remember that till he’s grown, KFC is puppy love


The rain thrashes the ground, a love

offering to the padi fields, drowns the bellows

Of our lungs, conjures memory clouds

of bare bodies and muddied feet and the first stirrings

of manhood riding on the buffalo, laughing in child-

ridden delight towards his padi-harvesting earth mother.


“Pa the roof leaks, the house creaks and this mother

earth is dying. Laterite will become tar. This love

nest will soon be concrete flats. No more child-

friendly fields, but roads with the horn bellows

of trucks and automobiles. Change is stirring.

Come with us to the city. Will you live among exhaust clouds?”


I see the future start in this man- child trying to mother

us, clouds of grey hair mingling with mists of love.

Slow the past departs, deaf to my heart’s bellows and my soul’s stirring.


*Rendang –aromatic  spicy meat dish with ground coconut flesh and milk, sautéed for hours.

*Padi – unhusked rice

*Bu (Ibu) – mother


A. Jessie Michael is a retired Associate Professor of English from Malaysia and a writer of short stories and poems. She has written winning short stories for local magazines and newspaper competitions and received honourable mentions in the AsiaWeek Short Story Competitions. She has worked with writers’ groups in Melbourne, Australia and Suzhou, China. Her stories have also appeared in The Gombak Review, 22 Asian  Short Stories (2015), Bitter Root Sweet Fruit and Kitaab (2019)  She has published an anthology of short stories Snapshots, with two other writers and most recently her own anthology The Madman and Other Stories (2016).