Incident in Miri
Leon Berger, June, 1966

Malaysia is paranoid. Well, maybe that’s a bit too strong. Certain Malaysians are paranoid. No, still too general. Perhaps I’m viewing it from the wrong angle, perhaps— yes, that must be it, exactly—I’m paranoid.

My incident took place in Miri, one of the larger towns in Sarawak, located on the northern coast somewhere in between Kuching and Brunei. No special reason why I was staying there. Only that I had missed a 9 a.m. bus to Brunei and would have to wait another five hours until the next bus left. What do you do in a town which has no more than four main streets, each of which is ten shops long and all of which have been walked through several times already? Sit in a shop, drink coffee, and read Dreiser. Naturally. Read Dreiser for no other reason than to finish highly sentimental Sister Carrie and then, as if by pure accident, leave the book on the table for some unfortunate native of Sarawak to pick up enthusiastically as if he had found the world’s greatest treasure, looking upon it as the key to his entrance into modern civilization. I am always leaving dreadful books behind, one of my pastimes being to imagine what sort of person will next possess them and suffer their monotonous drivel. Never leave good books behind. I could never think of doing that. That might be even regarded as a touch of humanitarianism. And you know the English are still in Malaysia.

Cup of coffee and four slices of toast with butter, please. Please . . . that’s funny. Reminds me of the Qantas (barbarians, no u!) advertisement where two attractive Asians, male and female, are dining—candlelight, Courvoisier, everything quite correct— and are being served by a Caucasian. An Englishman, I presume. Perhaps even a dispossessed colonial. Too bad everything’s changed. Then they could have an advertisement showing a Colonial, Kitchener type dining (served by one of the natives, of course) with Queen Victoria cutting into an India-shaped piece of steak. Steak is rare; streams of rich, thick blood are spilling over the .sides of the piece of meat onto the plate. Bloody good and all that. Strips of asparagus neatly decorating the meat. Potato halves lightly buttered and salted. Remnants of oil-black caviar on a plate lying to the side of the table. And a tall glass of strong, dark stout with which to wash down the repast. Don’t eat too much, though: indigestion. Here both coffee and toast. Thank you. Now to Dreiser. What page am I up to? Only a. hundred eighty pages left to go. Books like these should be numbered backwards. That way you always know how many pages ate left and it’s made absolutely clear that an end does exist.

So I kept on reading. Between paragraphs I took word-sized sips of coffee and sentence-sized bites of toast: My stock of coffee and toast would have to be replenished several times during the five hours. But by eleven I was getting tired and decided to take a ten-minute break, a break in this situation being an attempt to make myself consciously aware of the details, as opposed to the composite whole, of the place I happened to be in. When I closed the book I found that I was sitting at a marble-topped rectangular table—a one-half inch deep crack which, when you looked at it, made you momentarily shudder ran across the marble surface from the side opposite to mine My table was on the right as I was sitting towards the back of the room. The shop itself was three tables wide, rectangular settings decked with slabs of marble on either side but circular settings, also topped with slabs of marble, in the center. All tables except mine were occupied by at least two people. In fact, some were even overcrowded. Mine remained, with only one, that being myself. I rationalized that there .must be an Asian superstition about sitting at tables with cracks in them.

At the table parallel to mine on the other side of the room were seated five or six Malaysians. I didn’t take particular notice of each individual but just made a quick glance around the table. It may be asked why I looked at the table at all. For, had I not looked there, my incident, insignificant as it may be, would never have occurred. Neither would I be telling all this now. I can only say that the pictorial aspect of seeing these Malaysians seated at the table, good-humoredly imbibing their Carlsberg Pilsner and pleasantly tossing peanuts into their mouths, appealed to me enough to want to take a picture of this “typical” coffee-house scene. I took out my camera, focused, and then tried to determine the aperture opening. Why didn’t I first find the aperture and then focus? Simply because I enjoy focusing immensely and this way I get the opportunity to focus twice. Actually I just wanted to get an initial view of what the picture would look like. Anyway, my light meter showed that there wasn’t enough light and that I wouldn’t be able to photograph this scene at all. Unfortunately the people at the table opposite assumed that I had taken a photograph of them on first focusing because, after I had put the camera away, one of them turned and smiled. This being such a trivial affair, I didn’t bother to stand up, go over to them, and try to explain that I hadn’t taken one at all—there was something completely senseless in doing that. Just let the matter rest. Ten minutes having passed, I returned to my book.

I had finished a few more pages when my eyes were distracted by a form, apparently human, next to my table. It was just standing there, “it” meaning the form. I use this pronoun in place of the conventional “he” or “she,” because in using the latter we mean to express some kind of animate existence. Well, this man who was stationarily placed in front of me, all parts of his body immobile, blocking out entirely my line of sight to the left, showed no signs of animation whatsoever. His eyes, dreamily open, never blinking, showed such lustre that they seemed to have been polished with some kind of eye wax. They reminded me of a person I had seen on a ship with a glass eye—only at this moment there were two glass marbles vacantly, yet persistently, staring at me. They too, as the rest of the bodily parts, were immobile and showed no expression except perhaps for that of a cretin. The one other feature of this man which made itself immediately noticeable was the frozen, perpetual smile plastered on his face. Have you ever dreamt of lips smiling without a face? The smiling lips now before me, if looked at long enough, became distinct so that it seemed, as if the creator, originally never conceiving of bestowing upon man oral appendages, for the sake of amusement, both man’s and his own, had arbitrarily put them in anyway.

I recognized this fellow as one of the people who had been grouped around the table mentioned before, and decided that he was only trying to be friendly. I asked him to sit down sad started to converse. It happened that he couldn’t speak English. A thought quickly flashed through ray mind that if he couldn’t speak English, then why did he take the trouble to come over to me at all. The answer was simple—he was one of those people who just enjoy sitting with a foreigner. It didn’t matter if there was conversation or not. Even: if nothing was said, the mere physical presence of two cultures sitting at a table, smiling at each other was sufficient. (I, of course, by rules of social conduct, had to reciprocate my friend's smile, which I did for the whole time we sat together.) But even this kind of “transmitted” friendship and understanding has its weakness in that it may become tiresome. Therefore I told him about myself—my occupation, my home near Bangkok, why I came to Miri, etc. — and tried to ask him simple questions to which I gat answers consisting of a slight downward nod of the head or a slight widening of his smile and then a return to its former position. There was an effort on his part to establish some communicative level and it consisted of two English words, though actually only one since it was repeated. Neither were these words directed toward me but to the proprietor of the shop and formed the appeal of “Beer, beer!” Thus, we spent the better part of two hours together finishing several bottles Of Carlsberg and smiling at each other.

I enjoy beer. But I get drunk quite easily after only a few glasses, my state of intoxication being to get very tired and then fall asleep. Since I would be leaving soon I knew that I shouldn’t drink too freely. Yet, despite all my protestations, my silent friend continuously filled my glass with beer. What disturbed me was that he was drinking much less than I. I have mentioned paranoia. I admit to being slightly tinged with this mental condition which at times makes life much more interesting and unusual than it would be in its absence. My glass was always full to the brim; my drinking-companion, not drinking as much as I, ignored my now excited refusals of replenishment, even though he saw I was beginning to feel weak and tired. For a moment, for the tiniest fraction of time, I believed that he was intentionally trying to intoxicate me. But the rational part of my behavior triumphed and I dismissed the idea as absurd. This was only his way of demonstrating a non-verbal friendship.

It was now about one o’clock. I had to be at the bus station, a few meters away, a half hour before my bus’s departure so that I would be in time to reserve a seat. I should therefore leave the shop at one thirty. I was starting to feel uncomfortable, even strange, staying here with this extremely reticent Malaysian. By explaining that I had to be at the bus station an hour before, I could properly excuse myself from the table and extricate myself from this peculiar situation. By moving my fingers along the table, uttering individual words, and pointing to the clock on the wall, I explained that, because I was to leave Miri for Brunei, our pleasant entre-chat would now have, to come to an end. This my friend seemed to understand quite, clearly, so clearly, in fact, that by using his fingers and a few isolated words, he informed me that the, bus was not leaving for, another hour, Moreover, he wanted me to come with him for the remaining time. I thought it queer that just as I was about to leave this man should suddenly become animated. And, when I declined his hospitable invitation, whereupon he kept on insisting (he was now quite emotional about the thing) that I come with him, I began to think him queer too. This bantering back and forth of “Come with me” and “No, I can’t,” occasionally modified by a "Where?" lasted for some minutes. , Determinedly, I told him that I would not go with him until I knew where we were to go—he answered that we were to visit his house.. My mother had made me aware of certain men who find their pleasures in unusual outlets (my father not being of the disposition to engage in conversations of the “what every son should know” type), but 1 had never expected to find them in an isolated place such as Miri. My experiences, (visual only, of course) had been confined to the gay haunts of Times Square and the East Side, and, to a much greater degree, to the character and situational descriptions I had found in novels.

It may be asked why I should have believed this man to be, in one way or another out of the ordinary. For I had twice before received similar invitations, once, in Songkhla. And once in Malaya, invitations which I immediate1y and unhesitatingly accepted; and both those times I stayed as guest with my hospitable hosts for three days Why, then, should there be any feeling of ambiguity in the present situation? Was it another instance of paranoia? The answer to this is that the sudden change in the state of this man’s nature and attitude from one of complete reticence to one of almost violent insistence made me uneasy For the two hours we had been sitting together no emotional behavior had been shown—we had sat there drinking beer, hardly exchanging any words. Now, as. I stood up, about to leave, this fellow was excitedly shaking his head and saying I must come with him. Even if my original suspicion about him were wrong, I sensed that even an over-friendly person in extending an invitation would not get this disturbed over such a minor incident. Or was it really paranoia? Maybe too many Bond movies. I could spare the half hour in which he wanted to show me his home. But that wasn’t, the question. The question was whether my mental perception of the situation, was correct or incorrect; analogously, whether the rational or irrational was at work.

I decided in favor of the former since I felt that there was more in this man’s invitation than the invitation itself, an ulterior motive. I picked up my bag and walked out of the shop; naturally, my friend walked out with me, still asking me to come with him—he accompanied me all the way to the bus station. While I reserved my seat, he made a telephone call. I learned that the call was being made to one of the police, chiefs at the local police station. So my original suspicion was wrong, I tried to think of any offense I may have committed which would warrant police attention but couldn’t. All I knew was that this man wanted to detain me, for what reason I didn’t know. The police chief came and he and my friend went off to confer by themselves. I, meanwhile, took my seat in the bus. If they were going to detain or arrest me they, would have to drag rue out. Passport and health certificate in order. I knew that I hadn’t trespassed the law (what a strange idiom—makes one think of someone running through an open field treading down grey, wilted blades of desiccated law). Thoughts of Jose Ferrer, as a Turkish police chief detaining O’Toole as Lawrence of Arabia for contestable purposes, came to my mind.
Fifteen minutes later my curious friend returned alone and sat down on a bench in the bus terminal. He was still sitting there when the bus left for Brunei at two o’clock.
                         —Leon Berger
                        Group XI, Rajburia