I didn’t know why I should be surprised. But Shrey’s Corner was not just a name, but it was actually a corner shop at the end of a block, with a narrow alleyway separating it from the next one. There aren’t many people in the shop at the moment. Which was probably why I was invited here at 3pm on a Tuesday afternoon, so that I could interview the owner, Uncle Nav, who would otherwise be busy during peak hours.
I managed to find a space at the end of the next block to park my rental car. It took me a few minutes to fumble with with the parking coupon and figure out which bubbles to scrape off before placing it on the dashboard. Unlike Singapore, everything is still low-tech here. And not knowing how to read Malay makes it harder. Nevertheless, I got out of the car and locked it manually with the keys – something I realised I never actually did with my own car back in Singapore. Low tech indeed. It was a 15-year-old Proton Saga, the cheapest rental.
Everyone in the shop took a quick glance at me as I entered the shop. It instantly feels familiar. This place isn’t any different from any other typical mamak shops in Singapore. Though I must have looked out of place in a town like this. I was wearing big, round sunglasses and carried a Longchamp handbag, which I felt wasn’t too posh, but it does stand out in a place like this. It’s a giant flashing sign telling everyone that my natural habitat is a big metropolitan city and not a quiet, small Malaysian town like Taiping.
There were only two occupied tables at the moment. One is a table of three elderly men, and another is a group of girls in their school uniform, giggling about something. Smells of butter, spices, oil, and curry all mixed into the air. You could practically taste the food just by breathing. At the corner there was a man flipping the prata dough with a deftness that made me think of a matador wielding a muleta.
I saw Uncle Nav sitting at the counter. I recognised his face from the pictures of Shrey’s Corner’s Facebook page.
‘Hello! I’m Elsie from MakanStreet.com.’
‘Hi Ms. Elsie! Welcome! Welcome!’ Uncle Nav came out of the counter and shook my hand. He then lead me to a table.
‘Let me get you a drink. Our teh tarik is famous here. Want to try?’
He turned to one of his staff and yelled, ‘Pian, teh tarik satu bagi ah moi.’
I couldn’t figure out if ‘ah moi’ was an offensive term, or like the local equivalent of ‘chiobu’. I’ll ask my mom when I call her later.
‘Did you just arrive here in Taiping?’
‘Yup, I landed in KL yesterday. Then I rented a car and drove out here.’
‘Wow,’ he said, ‘I can’t believe a food magazine all the way from Singapore wants to do a story about my shop.’
‘A lot of our readers have told us about this shop. They said that your prata is famous.’
‘We call it roti canai here, but I don’t know if it’s famous…’
‘It does smell good.’
‘So…how will this work. Do we let you try some of our food?’
‘Yes, and maybe I’ll take pictures of the food and around the shop. If you want, pictures of you and the staff as well. I’ll also want to ask you more about the history of this shop. People are saying this shop has been around for a very long time. ’
Uncle Nav seemed enthusiastic. I started to feel bad for him. He thinks he’s getting great publicity for his shop, which he likely won’t. But I can’t tell him that. Because I can’t tell him why I’m really here. Definitely not now, anyway.
‘History, huh,’ he said, ‘I guess I could tell you a few things. I’m 60 this year, and this shop has been part of almost all my life.’
As he said that, he took a glance back at the counter. There were photographs in frames at the wall there, most of them in black and white.
‘Can I take a look at those pictures?’ I stood up and walked behind the counter. One picture in particular caught my attention. It was a picture of four kids, probably in their late teens, sitting at a table. Three boys and a girl.
‘That’s me,’ said Uncle Nav, ‘sitting next to the girl.’
I asked him who were the other people in the picture, while what I was really doing was focusing on that girl.
‘Perhaps first we should decide which items from the menu do you want to try? Because if you want to try the tandoori chicken, it might take some time. Pian is still preparing it.’
While they waited, I asked Uncle Nav about the history of the shop.
‘Over forty years ago,’ said Uncle Nav, ‘that’s a long time, isn’t it? It was the first time I set foot in this very shop.’
I kept silent and waited for him to continue.
Despite the long time, he said that he still remembered the very first time he entered the shop. Because it was the time he found out that Anis worked there – her father, Mr Rajan, was the original owner of the shop. He was with two other friends from school, Subhani and Irfan. Anis was also from their school, though in a different class and had never spoken to them before.
Uncle Nav said that back then, they usually didn’t like to go home after school, because it was really boring at home. ‘Those were the days without cable TV, or your smartphones and pads,’ he said.
They were hungry and wanted something to eat, so they stopped at the shop. As soon as they were seated, sixteen-year-old Naveen noticed Anis coming over to their table and asked for their orders.
‘Give me roti canai,’ said Subhani.
‘Nasi lemak for me,’ said Irfan.
Naveen froze and didn’t know what to say. Then he remembered that a man must appear decisive, so, since he didn’t know what to order, he figured he just pick something one of his friends ordered. But which?
‘Nasi canai,’ he said. And his two friends laughed. They asked, ‘Apa tu, Nav?’
‘Nasi lemak, sorry.’
Anis didn’t laugh as hard as his friends did, but she did smile a little, finding it a bit funny.
‘Are you sure you don’t want roti lemak?’ she said.
‘Unless you have mi kambing, or sup goreng,’ Nav said. Great recovery, he thought.
‘You guys are from 4 Merah, right?’
‘Yeah and you’re the class monitor for 4 Kuning?’ said Irfan.
‘Assistant monitor. You know, we actually do have mi kambing. If you consider mi goreng with a side of mutton curry, which is an additional fifty cents.’
‘You know what,’ said Nav, ‘I’ll just get that instead.’
* * *
‘Since then, Anis practically became part of our gang,’ Uncle Nav recalled with a smile on his face. ‘You asked about the picture earlier, that’s the four of us. Me, Anis, Irfan, and Subhani,’ he said as he pointed out each of the people in the picture. ‘I think we were seventeen when this picture was taken by Anis’ father.’
Uncle Nav said they began going to the shop quite regularly, a few times a week after school. Anis’ father was nice and friendly, and they began having free meals quite often.
By the time they were seventeen, Nav began to have an obsession with owning a motorcycle. As he told me about this, he kept saying now he knows how stupid it was. But he had just gotten his motorcycle license. So to a boy his age, having a license was one of the requisite things that marks you as an adult, and that adulthood means he is now able to do anything. He said again how stupid it was, but he was a bit obsessed with the image of him on a bike with Anis sitting behind him, hands around his waist and going to far-off, romantic places. Like on a hillside road with a view over the town or something.
Young Nav needed to save up money for a bike. It seemed to work out all just nicely that Anis’ father is willing to hire a helper. So he began working at the shop for four days a week, between 3 to 9pm. Sometimes, on weekends or school holidays he worked the late shifts between 8pm and 4am. Those shifts paid a little more.
* * *
‘An afternoon shift, then a night shift,’ said Uncle Nav.
‘Why did you put it that way?’ I asked.
‘I just realised yet another way how my life was bound to this place. Something happened to me while I was in the night shift, then another in the afternoon shift. Together, the two things changed my life. If either one of those things didn’t happen, I wouldn’t end up here at all.’
‘Okay, I’m intrigued now. Tell me.’
* * *
The first thing happened during a night shift. By then, Irfan started hanging out with Apek, whose real name was Richard Wong, according to the reports I looked up later. (Uncle Nav said his name was Frederick Wong, and I don’t know why he got the names wrong.) In any case, they called him Apek because he’s Chinese (Cina Apek). The thing is, Apek had a little ‘side business’, selling ganja, cigarettes, and alcohol. Ganja was his main business, since cigs and booze are easily available elsewhere. Irfan has been helping him out.
As a general rule, illegal businesses don’t like to see the light of day, and so Apek and Irfan were quite busy through most nights. Another reason why they’re mostly active at night was that was around the time people at nightclubs and pubs are craving for stuff stronger than alcohol.
So it was not uncommon for Apek and Irfan to be at the shop at 3 am for a late night supper. Nav doesn’t really approve of Apek being around that shop so often, but he doesn’t do his business there. So there’s no harm, right?
Until that one day, when they struck up a conversation with him.
‘How’s business?’ Nav asked.
‘Not that good lately,’ said Apek, ‘the police are turning the pressure on. So less people dare to buy our product, and it’s harder for us to move around with it.’
‘Say,’ Irfan seemed to have an idea,’ this place is just between club Rio and Jui’s. Maybe we could stash some product here?’
‘Irfan, lei seng mok ah,’ Apek exclaimed, ‘we always stop here on the way to Jui’s house.’
‘Yes! And since these days there’s always a police stop at Jalan Tun Razak, we kept having to take that huge detour that’s a fucking waste of time.’
‘Guys, I said no-‘
‘If we keep a stash here, we can get through Tun Razak and then collect our product from here!’
‘Dammit, guys. I just clean the tables and floors. There’s no place to hide it without someone else finding the stuff.’
‘You’re the only person who cleans the toilet, right?’ said Irfan, ‘We can seal bricks in plastic and keep it in the cistern.’
‘Look, Nav,’ said Apek, ‘this is a business proposition. We’re not asking for a free favour. You’ll be compensated for your part.’
Irfan nodded, ‘Stash houses get paid,’ he said.
Suddenly, the motorcycle flashed across Nav’s mind. He paused for a moment. He was about to ask them how much would he get paid, but then Anis also flashed across his mind too.
He was going to marry her some day, and it would be perfect. After months of working here, her father seemed to like him too. He would be the perfect son in law in the perfect marriage. So everything has to be perfect. There’s no way he was going to taint this by keeping cannabis in her father’s place of business.
‘No,’ said Nav, ‘there’s no way. Someone else cleans the toilet on the days I’m not working. There’s no way to do this without getting caught.’ That wasn’t exactly true, but he had to say something to end the conversation.
* * *
Sometimes, while he worked in the afternoons, Anis sat at one of the tables to study or to do her homework. Nav would either be sweeping the floor or cleaning the tables around her, and he would get a chance to chat with her a bit.
‘Nav, Encik Tan teaches mathematics in your class right?’ she asked Nav one day.
‘Nope, we got Puan Faizah. Everyone loves Tan, I heard.’
‘I guess. He was talking about this “sunset problem”.’
He asked her what the ‘sunset problem’ was, and it was about a simple calculation during susnet, on the time it takes between the bottom of the sun to pass under the horizon until the top goes under it.
‘He never gave us the answer,’ said Anis, ‘but according to what I’ve got, it seemed to be a few minutes.’
‘Oh, cool,’ said Nav.
‘Have you ever been to Bukit Kledang?’
‘According to Encik Tan, there’s a road along its side. At the highest point, you can get a nice view over Taiping. It faces West. So you’ll get to see the sunset from there.’
‘Ah, I see what you mean now. You can actually measure the sunset time for real.’
‘Yeah. I mean, it’s way too much of an effort to go all the way there to get the answer. I think I have gotten the answer here.’
‘Maybe one day we can go there, and find out for sure,’ Nav suggested.
‘Maybe,’ said Anis, and she looked down at her homework.
This is how it’s going to happen, thought Nav, when I get my motorcycle, I’ll take her to Bukit Kledang to see the sunset. It’s perfect and romantic! It would be the perfect time to ask her to be my girlfriend!
Young Nav wondered if it was a good idea to turn down Apek and Irfan. Because just by working at the shop, it would be another two months until he’s gotten enough for the motorcycle. He even planned another one or two weeks for him to get used to riding the bike until he’s confident enough to drive Anis around on it.
But good things come to those who wait, right?
Nav felt good about himself. He’s even enjoying his work, which includes cleaning the bathroom at the end of each shift. He did everything well too, putting in the effort and making sure the floors and walls are spotless. Anis’ father was impressed with him.
‘What do you plan to do after school, boy?’ said Mr Rajan.
Marry Anis and live happily ever after, ‘I don’t know, uncle. Start looking for job somewhere?’
Mr Rajan laughed. ‘You already have a job now!’
‘I guess when I’m older I should find a better job that can support a family.’
‘I know, boy. Just kidding,’ he laughed some more, ‘Nav, maybe one day if I’m shorthanded, you can be the cashier.’
‘Are you promoting me, uncle?’
‘It’s not actually a promotion, but young man like you must do different things and learn. You won’t learn anything sweeping the floor everyday. In life, you have to learn as much as you can because they don’t teach you everything you need in schools.’
* * *
‘Isn’t it funny how teenagers think?’ Uncle Nav asked me, ‘you would know, since you were a teenager yourself more recently than me.’
‘Yeah, I did stupid things when I was young too,’ I said as I got some flashbacks of my own stupid actions, ‘it’s unfortunate, at that age we have the ability and confidence to do all kinds of things, but we still haven’t understood the world yet. Or even understood people.’
Pian appeared at our table with the tandoori chicken. It looked and smelled amazing. Uncle Nav stepped away to tend to other customers while I ate. I remembered to take pictures of the dish first before eating. I am a ‘food blogger’, after all.
It was then I noticed that once he’s done with the customers at his counter, he turned around and looked at the picture. The one with Anis, Irfan and Subhani. He sighed and turned back.
* * *
The two months came, and he finally gotten his bike. It was a second-hand Honda 60 that he gotten for 300 Ringgit. It has been several months since he had passed the riding test and had not gotten on one since. He was quite clumsy with it during the first few days. So he gave himself a few weeks to get used to it before telling Anis about it, much less offering to take her to Gunung Kledang.
He kept working his usual shifts at the shop. However, during one rainy afternoon, while he was mopping the floor, he heard Anis’ laughing as she entered the shop.
And her laugh was accompanied by another laugh. A male voice.
She ran in from the rain together with Ram, another guy from school.
‘“Let’s walk back from the cinema,” you say,’ Anis laughed some more.
‘I thought we could save on the bus fare,’ said Ram. Laughing, too.
‘Yeah, right. Wait there, let me get you a towel.’
Nav saw the exchange with a sinking heart. He knew exactly what was happening. There’s no need to ask, or to check. No need to talk to Anis about this. No need to take Anis to Gunung Kledang anymore. Because from now on, as far as Anis is concerned, he’ll always be the guy mopping the floor of her father’s shop.
‘Hi,’ said Ram, ‘you’re Nav, right? You go to our school.’
‘Yeah,’ Nav replied. Wondering why does he have to be so handsome and charming.
* * *
‘The weird thing is,’ said Uncle Nav, ‘the first feeling I felt after that afternoon wasn’t sadness, jealousy, or anything like that. I actually felt it was funny. I didn’t feel like laughing. Just that it occurred to me that what just happened to me was something comedic. The sadness and anger came later. At night where I lay awake and couldn’t sleep.’
‘Your first broken heart, I suppose,’ I said.
‘See how dumb boys think? They think winning a girl’s heart was a simple sequence of cause and effect. Buy motorcycle. Take her to a hill. She becomes your girlfriend.’
‘Heh… yup, I’ve been at the receiving end of that kind of thinking,’ I said.
‘But I never considered how she felt about me at all. At the time, I just knew I had to look good, be cool, and have a motorcycle. It didn’t occur to me that the first thing I needed to be was someone she likes to be around. And since that thought hadn’t occur to me until I was much older, I just got mad.
‘I remember thinking what’s the point of being this nice boy, working so hard for that bike and got nothing out of it. I suppose you can guess what I did next.’
Knowing the old news reports about this place, plus what he told me earlier, I said, ‘oh no, you didn’t’
* * *
Of course he did. Since he has lost the desire to be Mr Rajan’s perfect employee, he went to Apek and Irfan and said he wants in on being a stashkeeper.
It was nothing much at first. Nav showed them the cisterns, and Irfan or Apek would come at night, slip off into the toilet and keep bricks in there. So Nav hardly ever needed to touch the drugs himself.
But one day Apek came to Nav and asked, ‘you want to make more money?’
‘What’s going on?’
‘You have a bike, right? You can make deliveries yourself.’
Nav was silent at first, not sure on whether to take the next step up in the game. But his silence didn’t last long. To his mind, Anis is with Ram now. And he has nothing. This seems to be the only way forward. Move past all this and enter a new world. He already has one foot through the door anyway.
Two nights later, Nav was on his motorcycle, with Apek as a passenger. In the basket between the seat and the handlebars sat a satchel containing the package.
Jui’s house was a small, single-storey terrace house in a nearby housing area. Apek told him to stop outside the gate. They both got off the bike.
‘Jui!’ Apek shouted. Nav wondered if this was a good idea to be shouting in a housing neighbourhood in the middle of the night while making illegal drug deliveries.
Moments later, the door opened. And a tall man emerged and approached them at the gate, but did not open it.
‘Nav, give him the bag.’
Without a word, Nav passed the bag to Jui over the gate.
‘Brother, this is Nav,’ he’ll be making the drops if I can’t make it.
Jui nodded. He took out a wad of cash and passed it to Apek, then turned to go back into the house.
Apek passed the cash to Nav, ‘This is yours, bro. You’ll be making the drops for Jui from now.’
‘Shouldn’t we split or something?’
‘Nah, this run is yours. I’m just here to make the intro. Just keep this in mind when you drop. Before you stop, always keep a lookout for cops.’
* * *
By making the deliveries himself, Nav was making lots of money. In fact, he was making way too much money than he knew what to do with. Mostly because he didn’t want to attract too much attention to himself by spending too much money around and having people ask questions. After all, he’s still a cleaner at a mamak shop, making a meagre salary.
Things start to go bad for Nav when he was just finishing his late night shift and was about to make a delivery one night. So he went into the bathroom to recover the stash from the cistern, but the package wasn’t there.
It was a big stash, worth almost as much as his motorcycle itself. Nav was fairly rich now to not worry too much about the money, but the problem isn’t really the money itself. The thing is, Apek wouldn’t take too kindly to lost product.
Panicking, he went to his house and banged on his door insistently until a very sleepy-looking Apek appeared.
‘The stash, it isn’t there!’
‘What do you mean? In the toilet?’
‘It’s not in there. Nothing but water!’
This woke Apek right up. ‘It’s Jui. He robbed us.’
‘What? How would Jui know where the stash is?’
‘Dammit, Apek. Why would you tell him?’
Apek didn’t respond. He looked angry, though he seemed to be thinking.
‘We can’t let him just take it,’ he finally said.
‘Are we even sure it’s Jui?’
‘Yes. He’s the only one who knows where you keep it. Unless you think it’s Irfan?’
‘No. Not Irfan.’
‘We can’t just let him take it,’ said Apek, going back to his original thought, ‘but we don’t have the muscle.’
‘Yeah, he’s got guys,’ said Nav.
‘And guns.’ That was the first Nav has even heard about guns in this business.
‘I have an idea,’ said Nav, ‘but are you really sure he has it?’
‘Do you think it’s in his house right now?’
‘If you’re thinking of stealing-‘
‘No,’ Nav interrupted, ‘I have an even better idea. We call the police.’
Apek’s face changed. Nav learned much later that there is a sort of unspoken rule that they had in this business. If there was any ‘honour among thieves’, as people say, it would be this particular code of honour. No snitching.
Nevertheless, he seemed to think it over. In the end, Nav thought that his anger at Jui seemed to overcome any desire to abide by any unspoken rule. So they went to find a public telephone, and called the police.
* * *
Nav went back to work. Two days later, while Nav was cleaning the toilet, Mr Rajan popped in.
‘Nav, your friend is here.’
‘That samseng Cina. I have to be honest, Nav, I don’t like him coming into my shop.’
‘I’ll go talk to him,’ said Nav as he put down the scrubber and washed his hands.
‘Did you hear?’ Apek asked.
‘What? Did the police get him?’
‘No. There was a shoot-out. One cop died and two were injured.’
Nav felt like the world was spinning. So much so that he felt dizzy, almost like vomiting. Somebody died. And it was his idea to call the police in the first place.
From then on, everything happened too fast that it took Nav years to process it. Standing at the table beside Apek, Nav was feeling the weight of the world crushing down on him, that he didn’t notice a figure coming in through the side, the open shutters by the alley.
Apek said, ‘Look, it’s not our fault that the cops-‘
The figure came closer and took out something that was tucked on his belt. This finally made Nav look up and realised that it was Jui.
‘You bastard, now I know why you sold me that huge package for cheap. You wanted to get rid of me.’
Apek said, ‘no, wait-‘
‘Using cops. Fucking coward,’ Jui opened fire on Apek.
Jui used up all six shots from the revolver. Apek immediately collapsed to the floor, and everyone scattered away. To Nav’s surprise, Jui ran away too, ignoring him.
Nav was just begin to shake when he noticed that the counter was directly behind them, where Mr Rajan was sitting. There was nobody at the counter, and Nav ran around to look for Mr Rajan.
Then he noticed feet sticking out from the side of the counter. Mr Rajan had been shot too, and was on the floor behind the counter.
‘Uncle Rajan!’ Nav screamed.
But there was nothing he could do. It was too late.
* * *
‘They said his death was instant,’ said Uncle Nav, ‘and that he didn’t feel any pain. But that’s what they always say, isn’t it?’
‘How did Anis take it?’ I asked, trying to hold back tears.
‘Not well, I imagine,’ Uncle Nav sighed and looked at the picture again, ‘I never saw her again. I left. I didn’t even go to the funeral.’
‘So what happened to this shop?’
‘It changed hands a few times. It was closed down for months after the incident. Eventually Mr Rajan’s sister managed to sell it to a company who used it as a distribution centre. Then it became a gift shop for a while.’
‘What about you?’
‘I was lucky. The police thought it was a robbery at first, but picked up on Apek’s drug connection. But Jui was never found, and they can’t prove that I’m connected to all this aside from being the guy who works at the shop and talked to Apek once in a while.
‘So I tried to move on. Or you could say I ran away. I found a job as an admin for a construction company. Even though I ran away, I had one goal for the rest of my life – to restore this shop to what it once was.’
And that he did. This made me realise what great things can be achieved out of guilt. Because saving enough money with a medium-paying job to buy and a shop isn’t easy in this economy. Much less to retire and run this shop at his age.
I asked if he did all this because of Anis or Mr Rajan, or both. He said it was neither of those things, and that it’s because what the shop means to all of them. I guess now I get why that picture was so important to him, one from way back in the early days. The days where things are the way they were supposed to be. Before he sullied it by making it a stash house. And a crime scene.
The mamak shop was where friendships are forged. I could already see it with the group of schoolgirls who are still giggling at their table. (It’s been nearly three hours since I arrived.) It’s almost never about the food. It’s about the people. This is also why Uncle Nav kept this place running twenty-four hours a day, at a time where very few shops do this anymore. It was so that it there would always be a place you could go to. Even at 4 in the morning, where a bunch of friends had finished clubbing, or others who are coming off a night shift, will always have a place to go to. Not everybody has a place to go home to, but everybody will have Shrey’s Corner.
Once I was done with the food and photographs, I thanked him and went back to my rental. Even though it was baking hot in the afternoon sun, once I was locked in the safe isolation in the Proton, I finally got to let it out. I cried. Because didn’t know how it exactly happened that day, until Uncle Nav told his story.
I fished out my phone from the handbag and called my mother.
‘How is he?’ my mother asked.
‘He seems to be doing okay. But seems like he’s still regretting everything.’
‘And the shop?’
‘I think he made it up to look just like it once was. It looks like the old pictures you showed me. Down to the wallpapers and everything.’
Silence. I could hear a sniffle through the phone.
‘Mom, you should come down and see him. See the place.’
‘I…No, I don’t think so. Not yet.’
‘I’m not ready to forgive him.’
With that, Anis bt Rajan said goodbye and told me to come home safely.