I took the Air Asia flight out of Delhi to Kuala Lampur, and as expected my in-flight companions were back packing westerners and newly married Punjabis’. The former, dressed in their most comfortable, inexpensive, thrift shop buys and the latter wearing powerful perfumes and outrageously stylish clothes. The women mostly wore the red and white chooda, symbolising their newly married status. I was travelling alone and that gave me a lot of time to just sit back and take things in – the look of utter boredom and jet lag on the faces of frequent travellers and the excitement, which was followed by the non-stop clicks of point and shoot cameras, on certain others.
I landed at 11pm and as a single woman traveller, I knew I had to be cautious, especially at that time of the night. Clearing immigration, I was out on the streets at 11.30 pm and decided to call the hotel to confirm my booking. As I struggled with the pay phone, which had instructions in Bahasa, a lady stepped forward and offered to help. When I heard the phone ring at the other end, I looked at her with a grateful smiled. Thinking back, I believe it was then that I first fell in love with that country.
My hotel was very close to Petaling Street or the commercial part of KL. So the next morning, I set out to explore the area. I was early – the shops were just opening, the streets were being cleaned and fresh vegetables brought in. Old men seated on the benches were dozing off; catching an extra hour of sleep before the busy day. As I wandered aimlessly through the streets, now entering an alley and then the other, I saw vegetables and groceries I’d never seen before – sea weed, durian, mangosteen… an endless list of local delicacies.
I walked further down, and entered a Chinese temple. The Chan See Shu Yuen Temple is a well-known landmark on Pelting Street. Baskets were hanging above the entrance door and each of them had within a hanging piece of paper. Mei Xing, a girl I met at the temple told me that these were written prayers, left hanging for a whole day. Enlightened I stepped out, and nearly bumped into a couple who were getting their pre wedding photo-shoot done.
This couple represented the multi-cultural and multi-ethnic Malaysia. The groom was a Sri Lankan Tamil and the bride was Chinese. He had in his hand a floral wedding garland, typical to Tamil weddings, and she had with her a Chinese umbrella. Their wedding pictures they told me, was going to represent both their heritage. “So what wedding will you have – Chinese or Tamil?” asked I. Aghast, the bride replied, “Neither!!” The Malays are stylish and chic as well.
The Hindu Mariyamman temple was on the same street. It was decorated and there was a reception committee at the gate – signs of a Hindu wedding! I met Manoharan, the bride’s uncle. Originally from Tanjore, a district in Tamil Nadu, India, he was only too happy to have someone from his home country at his niece’s wedding. He requested me to stay, and I did. Unlike the big, fat Indian wedding, Malaysian Indian weddings are simple affairs. I counted a total of 45-odd people, so much lesser than the 800 plus who turned up at mine. The functions and the rituals were slightly different. The familiar tunes of the naadaswaram and the thavil set the mood and the bride and the groom first married the kalyana murungai – an auspicious tree, before marrying each other. As I sat there witnessing a wedding in a strange land, I somehow felt connected to this family. Who would have thought?
After the wedding, I left the temple and walked further down on that road, and there I met a lady stringing flowers. Kasthuri Amma has been sitting in this exact spot for years. She is originally from Madhurai, also in Tamil Nadu, but has no recollection of her life in India. Though she had lived in Malaysia for most part of her life, the inquisitive Indian in her was intact. She asked, “If you are married, why do you travel alone, and how come you don’t have any children?” I smiled in reply, because in her I recognised shades of my mother, grandmother and those many ‘aunties’ I meet every day in India.
Night time in KL is also charming. From a distance the twin towers and the KL Tower looks like well decorated Christmas trees. The street sides eating places come alive with sights, sound and smell that will drag even the strictest dieter towards them. Living statues, portrait painters and street singers liven up the evening. And as I continued my wanderings around the city; I made more friends – a Malay lady Leena and her colleagues. She was a producer with World Broadcasting Channel and asked if I could go on camera to speak about my Malaysian experience. Of course, I could do that. To the rolling camera I said, “It is easy to feel lost in a large city like Kuala Lumpur, where the language, cuisine and the customs are so very different from mine. But it is easier, to make friends and to find a family.”
That pretty much sums my Malaysian experience!