Bentong! Go Back to Bentong! by Aliyah Kim Keshani
We walk on wet gravel, following the silver hearse up the hill. In front of me, my eldest cousin. He rests his hand on the boot of the car, his face scrunched with tears.
‘Bentong!’ he shouts. ‘Go back to Bentong!’
In the heat, the car’s fumes curl dark and toxic. There is the crunch of gravel, the engine’s purr and the sound of my aunties crying.
At the top of the hill, we pile into the air-conditioned coach which pulls out of Kuala Lumpur, makes north for Bentong. The large, winding road is quiet on Sunday save for the occasional ruckus of the motorcycle rallies. They stream past the window single-file – skinny boys in helmets and shorts, the sleeves of their t-shirts rippling at the elbow. They overtake us, the hearse, with ease; speed away into the distance.
‘Eh – if your uncle could afford to buy a car,’ says the man in the seat across from me, ‘he would insist on buying motorbike instead!’
‘Yah-la,’ his wife agrees. ‘Very humble-one.’
I turn to look out the window. On either side, the trees rise up, steeped into mountains of green. The plants here grow fast, gorged on sunlight and water – greedy for life. The jungle tops dissolve into mist. I cannot shake the sense that there is magic here.
Bentong is old like I remember. A crowd of coloured houses and faded ice-cream parlours. The coach follows the hearse through the small streets, the locals gaping as we pass. We stop at the mouth of the Chinese cemetery, climb down into the hot afternoon sun and make our way to the plot of land my uncle bought for himself.
The hum of insects takes over. We walk the dirt path between the thickets of grass, pointing out dragonflies large as our fists. The sun has baked out the morning’s puddles and the shallow craters teem with ants.
The land rises and falls. In amongst the tall grass are plots of paved concrete – big semi-circles with elegant borders. The headstones are pale grey, lined with Chinese characters and a photograph of the deceased. Once a year, the graves are tidied, the grass cut back. The rest of the time, my sister tells me, it is left to grow wild.
Along the path, my cousin stops beside a stone staircase. It leads up to two graves set into the hill.
‘This one – your great-grandfather,’ he says. ‘Great-grandmother on this side.’
I stand for a minute, gazing up at the tiny portraits of people I have never met but whose blood runs through me. I know nothing of my great-grandmother but there are stories about her husband and the misery he caused. His wealth, his lust. His wives and concubines, and the hoard of illegitimate children.
Behind the headstone, on the walled border lies a large tan dog. It sits up, yawns lazily at us, then sinks back down, half-submerged in the grass.
I follow the path around the bend and stop short at the sight of the silver hearse. For a little while, I have forgotten why I am here.
The plot is at the back of the cemetery, set just in front of the rough tin walls. The grave has been dug and the white coffin sits above it, held up by three strong sticks.
We are given prayer books and lilies then the service begins but I cannot follow it. Cannot understand how this tiny Chinese man draped in white silk can be my uncle. His stocky build and wide-set face shrunken back to the bone.
When the pastor has finished, they lower in the coffin and, one-by-one, we walk to the edge, toss down our lilies. We scoop handfuls of the gritty earth, scatter it as gently as we can.
The undertakers pick up their shovels.
The sun is so hot on the back of my neck.
Then my mother and my aunties begin to sing Amazing Grace in full, rich acapella harmonies.
We watch the coffin disappear under the earth. Then we leave my uncle behind. To the hills and the mist and the grass.
After lunch, the coach heads back to Kuala Lumpur but my family decide to stay behind. We stop at my uncle’s favourite ice-cream parlour, sit inside the cool dimness and spoon back ais kacang with pandang ice cream. We eat and talk, ignoring the small half-feral cats curling around our ankles.
When we’re done, we make our way to my grandparents’ house – The Old Bentong House – where my uncle lived. There is a cardboard sign hanging from the front door, his unexpected handwriting: ‘Going for a jog’.
We stand there, say nothing.
It is tied so neatly with yellow string.
We leave it intact, go round to the back door which opens into the old kitchen. Light streams in, and it is hard. His laptop is open and wired to the mains. His shirts and socks and underpants hang on the rack. There are eggs in the fridge, and vitamin bottles, nutrition drinks, prayers on scraps of paper. There is a tub of half-eaten pink ice-cream.
I take the stairs up into the long main room. It is dark, the wooden floor warm and covered with dust. I go – as I always do – to the old electronic organ. And I sit and I play and I sing.
My sister pushes back the curtains and the Bentong light hits the floor, makes it gleam. Sooner or later, we all end up here, in the main room, picking through knick-knacks – the row of old Encyclopaedias, handing round his many faded trophies.
My brother-in-law takes his turn at the organ, cranks out a tune. He dabbles with the side panel and, suddenly – lo! – a disco drumbeat. It pulses out from the instrument louder than I thought it could. We turn around to watch. Then, for no reason at all, we begin to dance – my brother stuttering a moonwalk across the floor, my father doing the chicken dance. I Chuck Berry it across the room. We hop from leg to leg, clumsy and uncoordinated, arms swinging free. Our faces glisten with sweat. And it feels so good to move.
Days later, alone in the taxi, I cry on the way to the airport. We pass mamak stalls and tin shacks, trees heavy with papaya. It dawns on me finally how, for my whole life, Khing Joo has meant Malaysia and Malaysia has meant Khing Joo.
My uncle – king of roti canai, iced milo and durian. The first graduate of the Tan family, the Maths teacher, the plantation-worker. Followed by his pack of loyal dogs, crossing the river with his shoes under his armpits, laying cocoa beans out in the sun. My uncle – the Genting-gambler, the stock-market strategist, the tennis champion, badminton champion, ping-pong champion, trophy winner. My uncle – the cancer sufferer, the fighter, the stubborn. Homesick and yearning for Bentong. With the oxygen mask in the hospital bed. My uncle.
Out. Gone for a jog.
Aliyah Kim Keshani is a London-based writer who has just completed a master’s in creative writing at Birkbeck. She has had short stories and poetry published in the Mechanics’ Institute Review and will feature in My Lot is a Sky (2018), a new international women’s poetry anthology. In 2017, she was awarded a commended place in the life writing category for the Wasafiri New Writing Prize. She was also selected to attend the Penguin WriteNow London Event and was later shortlisted for the Penguin WriteNow Novel Mentorship Programme. She is currently working on her first novel.