“Good weather today, isn’t it?”
It seems funny that the man should comment about the weather, as both of us are located deep in the labyrinth of the colossal shopping complex, where rain or shine, the temperature is kept at a cool 18 degrees, and the lights bathing the place are from artificial sources. But he looks friendly enough, offering a smile which exposes two missing front teeth, a feature that stands out amidst the surrounding salt and pepper stubble on his face.
“Yes it is,” I reply, out of respect for his seniority.
“Interesting place here huh? Never thought I will see a shopping complex this big in my life,” he continues.
I nod mechanically, not really interested to be mired in a conversation with this wizened old man. His sallow face is lined by wrinkles and he stands with a stoop. His fingernails are yellow and dirty, probably due to years of smoking. The outline of a pack of cigarette is jutting out of the front pocket of his blue T-shirt.
“My son said this shopping complex is smaller than those in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. But what do I know? I never took a plane before in my whole life. For me, this is big enough. Maybe too big for this place…”
What do you know, old man, I want to smirk with disdain. You are like a frog living in a well. How can the country progress if all people think like you? But I keep quiet.
Just then, a group of four dark-skinned teenagers walk by, their loud chatter diverts our attention to them. Two gangly guys; one in a chequered shirt faded with too many washings and jeans torn at the knees, the other in a bright yellow T-shirt and gray slacks, which I suspect used to be white. Two skinny girls; one in short sleeved V-neck tee and shorts above the knees, the other in a flowery baju kurung. They are chatting in a language that sounds familiar yet foreign, a hodge-podge of Malay mixed with some other dialects. Bahasa Sarawak, I suddenly realise.
Oblivious to the newly wiped floor, they trudge across, leaving numerous grayish imprints of their sandals on the otherwise spotless marble slabs. The old man shakes his head disapprovingly.
“These kampong kids are probably wearing the best T-shirt and trousers in their limited collection. The lipsticks on the girls’ lips are probably their mum’s, stealthily removed from scant make-up boxes and applied, then stealthily put back. The boys talk loudly and walk with a swagger to hide their insecurities. They need to be macho, even though deep down they are afraid of this foreign place. This is probably their first trip here, via the old steel mass called a bus.” The old man’s voice is suddenly animated.
My eyes linger on them. They are standing in front of the ESPRIT store, their mouths agape upon seeing the huge poster of a European female model on the display window. The spacious brightly lit store beckons, yet they seem afraid to go in. Perhaps they are overawed by the futuristic space-age façade of the store, so accustomed they are to the congested, packed-to-the-brim kedai runcit in their kampong. Tentatively, one of the boys steps across the line into the store, and like goslings following their mum, the rest join him.
“Their eyes will widen, big as saucers when they see the price tag of the clothes. Probably a piece cost as much as their parents’ monthly combined salary. The shop girls will watch them like hawks, afraid that their dirty hands will smudge those expensive wears. If they are intelligent, they will see their own reflection off the mirrors or these marble floors and get out of there quick. It is not their place to be here.”
The venom in his voice surprises me. He seems such a genial man, a dotting grandfather.