THE TELESCOPE SAT slightly apart from the clutter of the room – aloof, cool, shaded by a closed curtain. Azlan Muhammad ran a chubby hand down the length of its metallic form as he whistled a loud and tuneful melody. He paused to thumb the plastic toy rocket superglued to it before covering it carefully with a cloth. He belched, scratched an arse cheek, then traced a circuitous route through the stacks of books on the concrete floor, nimble for a man of his size. He had important things to do, after all.
Coffee first, though. He made it strong, sweetened by condensed milk, making sure not a drop spilled down the side of the cup. He hated that. ‘Coffee first, and the rest’ll fall into place’ – he could hear his old boss’s thick Aussie accent, even now. Azlan turned on the radio, his eyes still trained on the telescope. A serious voice was commenting on the imminent election. The lead-up had been full of skullduggery and intrigue, and there was a sense of excitement that after more than fifty years in power, the government looked to be in its death throes and the opposition was gaining traction. Today was election day.
Azlan cared little about the messiness of his house, but the surface of his body was sacrosanct. He showered and brushed his teeth fastidiously. Drops of water shone on his hair and big belly before rolling down to the concrete floor. He had once prided himself on a full, Samson-like head of black waves, but he’d taken to cropping it short as it receded slowly to the back of his head. He swore the receding had started around the time his daughter, Rozana, had been born, and he’d tried his best to cover it up by combing his remaining hair forward. But there comes a time, he had told Rozana, where you just have to give in. She was only eight, but the way she had thrown back her head and laughed with such gusto had already seemed so mature and defiant.
Azlan looked at the clothes he’d laid out for himself on the single bed: a traditional Malay outfit – the baju Melayu. He struggled into the matching dark red, long-sleeved shirt and trousers, doing up the imitation diamond studs at the chest. The long-sleeved baju strained at the belly, but how proud and striking it looked. He admired himself in his mirror. He’d hardly ever been able to wear his national dress during his life in Australia, other than that awful work function where he had been cajoled to wear it, to show ‘diversity’, of course. He tied the kain songket carefully around his waist like a short sarong, its pattern of gold threads shimmering and bending in the light. Last of all came the jet-black songkok, tipped jauntily on his head.
ELECTION DAY, YES, but food first. Even on an important mission, like today’s, Azlan could never stop thinking of it. After spritzing on some cologne Rozana had sent him from Australia, he hurried, puffing slightly, outside into the humidity and headed straight for the restaurant next to his family home. He ordered three plates of kueh teow goreng and sat watching the clientele. All Malays. Was it true, as he had read somewhere, that 90 per cent of Malaysians had never dined with someone of another race? Multiculturalism – bah! Malaysia had moved on, his family kept telling him, it had become advanced, but they told him this while sitting in front of that damned television, awash in wave after wave of advertisements and dirty politics, the young ones staring into their mobile phones, letting the bullshit and religious rhetoric wash over them without listening. And they never read books! He seethed at the moral policing and juvenile displays of public piety but, nevertheless, he still went to Friday prayers where he recited Arabic he didn’t understand and knew only by rote, thinking of the stars and constellations in the privacy of his own head. He’d never considered himself a political man but today was his chance to make a difference. By voting.
His plates of noodles arrived, steaming, and he picked up a marble-sized lime to squeeze juice on to them.
He looked up, surprised. Two men were grinning at him from the street, leaning on their mopeds as they watched the restaurant TV and smoked. Imran and Amir – he recognised them from high school. They had hardly changed since then. How classless they looked in their grubby football jerseys and thongs, particularly compared to his magnificent baju Melayu.
‘Hey Azlan,’ called out Imran, ‘Did you see anything last night?’
‘I saw something,’ he called back good-naturedly, ‘but who knows whether it was anything important.’
‘Remember, Azlan, anything is possible with a good attitude!’ yelled Amir. The two men laughed again, before ashing their cigarettes simultaneously and turning back to the Liverpool game playing on the flickering screen.
They had been making fun of him, he knew that. The ‘anything’ they were referring to was something he’d let slip in a conversation they had once all had over tandoori chicken. As Azlan had crunched the chicken down with red onions and spear-sliced pieces of cucumber, he’d mentioned that with his prized telescope, he hoped one day to take a photograph of paranormal phenomena – a spaceship, maybe, something unnatural against the stars, something not seen before, anything. The two of them had caught each other’s eye and roared with laughter. They thought he was pretentious, he knew they thought he felt himself above his station because of all his years working as an engineer in Australia, so they had relished finding something to mock him with. And of course that gossip had inflated and distorted his words, so the story got out around town that Azlan was using his telescope to look for aliens. He looked down and realised he’d devoured two of the plates of kueh teow and was about to tip more chilli sauce onto the third. With a sigh he squeezed the last bit of lime juice on to them and forked them up, smacking his lips. When he stood to pay, he inspected the front of his red shirt carefully for spots. Still immaculate, he noted proudly, reaching for some money.
THE BUS WAS relatively empty. He was only going a few stops, and when he was young and fit he would have walked, but now he thought it would be unnecessarily tiring and, in any case, he didn’t want to get his trousers dirty. He sat next to the window and watched the drifts of dust boiling up then dissipating to reveal houses speeding past. While the rest of Malaysia developed at the rate of knots, this place was still sleepy, still resembled his childhood memories. This was his village, his kampung, arranged along the banks of a broad brown river that led to the sea. It was in this river that Azlan had first found the plastic toy rocket. At the age of six, he had been swimming in the waters of the river when he saw something bobbing in the murk. ‘Don’t swim too far out,’ his mother called, ‘there are crocodiles out there.’ He didn’t believe her, but he didn’t want to get in trouble, so he held on to a supporting pole with one arm while he tried to figure how to get the toy. For her part, his mother, squatting on a wooden platform some distance away, observed silently and spat betel nut as he held on to the supporting pole with his legs, fashioned the end of a length of rattan into a loop and managed to guide the toy towards him. She looked up and squinted down the river at Japanese fishing ships, which sat flat on the horizon against an oily orange sky.
Dripping and laughing, Azlan climbed up on to the platform and showed his mother the toy rocket, this gift of the water. She dried it on her sarong and handed it back, grinning. He asked her whether a Malaysian had ever flown a rocket into space. She screwed up her nose, thought hard and then replied that she didn’t think so. Despite the fact that most of the paint had chipped off, he looked at the rocket with wonder. It was the first toy he had ever owned. That night, there was a clear sky and he could see a magnificent shawl of stars through a chink in the wall as he ran his delicate fingers and thumbs over the cheap plastic edges and curves of his new toy. One day, he vowed that night, he would become the first Malaysian astronaut.
No-one told him until high school, of course, that only a few countries in the world have space programs, that the chances of winning a place in one was as unlikely as winning the lottery, and that growing up in a kampung in Malaysia made it about as possible as actually learning to fly.
For a while, he imagined growing up in Russia or the US, but it didn’t feel right – Russia seemed cold, and America was full of cowboys. He remained interested in science and had a knack for it, consistently gaining top marks in his class. Over the years, as life went on, he tried to keep up with advancements in international space travel, and calls for more equity between rich and poor countries in this field. But by the time the Malaysian government announced a plan to send a Malaysian into space for the first time, Azlan Muhammad had already lived twenty years in Australia. He had a beautiful, rebellious daughter and a hairline so far back if he was asked to salute he would have to do so from the top of his head.
THE PALM OIL plantation passed by now, a hypnotic pattern of green on green. The salary for an engineer was good in Australia, and he was proud at how far he had come from the days in the kampung. Yet his mind, always, remained in the stars. At the age of forty, he saved up and invested in a telescope and camera gear that would allow him to take detailed photos of the stars. He loved fiddling with his gear, experimenting, setting long exposures, identifying comets, seeing stars turned into white-hot lines and satellites into dot points when printed up. He would pin his photos all over the house and his office. The really good ones, he got blown up and framed. Even Rozana, who generally thought everything he did was uncool as could be, had to admit how impressive they were.
The school where he would cast his ballot was coming up and the bus shuddered to a halt. Azlan tried to squeeze down the aisle as delicately as he could, but he kept bumping into people’s shoulders as he passed, to their great annoyance. He stood on the roadside in his baju Melayu, sweating already, somehow still unused to the humidity. The school was freshly painted white, with rich green lawns and a fruit tree out the front. It was the school he had attended as a child.
When his wife Janet had passed away and Rozana was off at art school, the idea of moving back to Malaysia had begun to obsess him. The family house was there, just as it had been for years since his parents died, the garden overgrown and no one was living in it besides a family of monkeys that neighbours kept shooing out. Azlan thought perhaps he could contribute something to a country suffering from brain drain. Also, he had always harboured the unsettling feeling that he never truly fit in in Australia. It was not the type of dislocation some of his Middle Eastern friends from the mosque felt, or Rozana, who railed against the ‘system’ with a fury that took him aback, but a kind of benign discomfort. So to Malaysia it was.
Azlan stood in the line to cast his ballot, thinking about the opposition. Change was better than staying the same, anything had to be, but the opposition seemed a gallimaufry of different elements and he did not trust the ageing leader, so slick, so wily. But fifty years! He remembered how proud he had been of his nation in the early years, how optimistic they had all been. As time had gone on, he’d observed from a distance, and it had gradually seemed more and more disillusioning.
A young man in front of him was fidgeting and sighing loudly, as if voting was a chore. And dressed so casually! Azlan shook his head in disapproval and ran a hand over his scalp. He was casting a vote for the first time in over twenty years, since becoming an Australian resident. Resident, not citizen. He loved Australia, and his daughter was most definitely Australian, but he was Malaysian. Especially today.
He was near the front of the line now. He stood straighter and readied himself for the voting procedure. First, he would have to present his identification card, and they would check his name against the electoral roll. Then they would get his thumbprint and strike a line through his name using a ruler. Then he would wait until his name was announced and move on to another group of officials who would give him the voting slip. Then, then, finally, he could go into a booth behind a curtain, draw a cross next to the name of the candidate he wanted to vote for, then fold up the slip and put it in the ballot box. Vote.
When he finally got to the front of the line, he whipped out his identification card immediately. The official sitting at a desk in front of him was skinny, moustachioed and middle-aged, in good shape. He was an official and looked, well, officious. There was a younger official standing behind him. The older man stared at Azlan’s belly and baju Melayu before taking the identification card and looking down at the electoral roll. As the man flicked through the pages, Azlan noticed how carefully pressed his shirt was, but how cheap the material looked. The younger man had a pair of imitation designer sunglasses tucked in his belt, and thumbed the fake Gucci logo absent-mindedly. His own thumb, its whorls shaped like the spirals of a distant galaxy, would soon be covered in ink.
‘Excuse me, pak,’ said the officious-looking official. Azlan looked up sharply.
‘There was no need to come a second time!’ The man smiled haughtily and the younger official smiled too.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, you have already voted.’
Azlan’s mouth became dry. ‘No, I haven’t. I’m here to vote now.’
The man sighed. ‘Just look at this. Your name has been crossed off. You have already voted.’ He turned the page so that Azlan could see. There was finality in his voice and he was looking beyond Azlan in the line. Azlan stooped to look. Yes, he could see his name there, and it had been struck out. But he had not voted.
He stood open-mouthed. No words would come. If Rozana was here, she would stamp her feet, shake her dyed-blue hair and cause a ruckus at such a blatant injustice. But he could not. He did not have that same rebellious instinct. He looked back at the line and felt suddenly self-conscious in his baju Melayu. No one else was wearing one. He looked down at his un-inked thumb and at his identification card, which was grubby around the edges. A younger, skinnier man with a full head of hair stared back at him.
‘I went to this school,’ he blurted suddenly. ‘Then I became an engineer in Australia.’
The two officials looked at each other and smiled again. Azlan stared, unable to move his feet. Soon the officials got back to business and gestured impatiently for the next in line to step forward.
THE BUS RIDE back was cramped, but he managed to find a seat all to himself. He opened his wallet and slid his identification card back inside, then took out the folded newspaper clipping and looked at it for a long time. A young, handsome Malay man smiled out at him, dressed in an astronaut’s uniform with a helmet under his arm. This was the first Malaysian astronaut, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor. Azlan felt foolish for carrying it around, and knew there had been controversy about whether the man even qualified as a true astronaut or a ‘spaceflight participant’, but he’d always kept it nevertheless. Beneath the photo was part of the speech the minister had given at the launch of the space program: ‘It is not merely a project to send a Malaysian into space. After fifty years of independence, we need a new shift and a new advantage to be more successful as a nation.’
Not long to go now, to home and a comforting meal. He absently smoothed the songket fabric that reached halfway down his thigh, the intricate designs in gold thread, woven through the dark blue cotton weft. Once upon a time, everyone knew, the great weavers had heated real gold to liquid, coated the thread and woven the fabric for kings. The symmetrical patterns had to do with nature, but after so many years Azlan had forgotten what centre of weaving they had come from. To him, they looked like the stars, like comets and asteroids, soundlessly exploding in distant space, far beyond the dominion of him or any man. Like supernovae, with brightness enough to outshine an entire galaxy momentarily, emitting more radiance than a sun or an ordinary star does over its whole lifetime, but long spent by the time their light reaches us.
He closed his eyes. Tonight was going to be cool and clear, perfect for stargazing. He would point his telescope out of his window and the stars would be glowing without interference, close enough to press his face to. There would be a blur on the side of his vision, a pulse, a strange dot of a colour neither he nor anyone would have seen before. He would not be able to name it, or class it, or tell another soul about it, because it could be anything.