Imah ran a wide, back-toothed comb across her coarse hair, sorting through the tangled knots with iron consistency.
She examined her reflection in the mirror and looked to soften what was rough, seeing a figure of health in the brave woman with protruding white teeth. These were the very same teeth that deliberately clashed with the harmony of her cheekbones, the same teeth which had caused her much grief throughout her life.
The thought often crossed Imah’s mind that if she had half the amount of money her employers gave their children, the first thing she’d do is fix her teeth. She had lived long enough to understand that it was not beauty alone secured love. Nevertheless, she never bargained to lose her girlhood so soon: the day she decided to cross land and sea to work in Malaysia.
At the age of 26, she had been wrestling with the roles of domestic housemaid, resident cook, as well as adopted parent, sibling, and friend to a family of six.
Like all other human beings bred by dissatisfaction, Imah would often lie awake at night besotted with ‘what if’s as she skimmed through rivers of possibilities in her head. Her mini radio often accompanied her as she pondered. Had she simply been a victim of circumstance?
She remembered the warm flush of affection – subtle glances which would later face many retellings in her head, the brush of hands in private moments, the sensation of waking up happy to begin her days. But four years ago felt like a lifetime. She was no longer 26 and she did not believe in the permanence of romance anymore. But knowing this did not help make her feel any less lonely.
Imah imagined a different future, one where she could show off a fuller body, an emblem of successful births. Her eyes would drink the sight of her husband daily and they would be two polarities working in sync. He would work, she would stay home. Yet they would sustain each other and their two naughty boys. Her hands would be rough and she would have to make do with little, but at least it would be through the expense of her own home.
She was brought back to reality by the sound of a voice yelling from the living room.
“Bibik, tolong buatkan Firdaus Milo Ais,” yelled Firdaus, the 15-year old of the family. He made no eye contact, refusing to compromise his attention from the PlayStation. He had rushed to play FIFA first thing in the morning and Imah knew his stomach would be growling at this point.
“Sebentar ya, Firdaus,” replied Imah over her shoulder. She set her comb down and moved to the direction of the kitchen, unfazed that her time alone had been interrupted.
She did not completely hate her job. She had even developed a fair share of genuine affection for her employers. She knew, from the many horror stories she heard, that she was in a better position than many.
She had heard that certain employers paid no regard to sensitivities. One of her friends, a Muslim, was forced to regularly prepare pork and eat non-halal meals because “it would be impractical to make exceptions for just one person”. Another reported frequently being verbally and physically abused.
Imah had never had to bear the brunt of any real anger from her employers, Puan Hazlina and Encik Ridzuan. For that, she was grateful.
Nevertheless, she hated to admit that it was the little things that got to her. Losing connectivity to her name was one of those things. She had grown so used to being called ‘Bibik’ that sometimes she, too, would forget to find familiarity in the name her parents had given her. Sometimes the sight or sound of her full name would confuse her slightly, foreign to the tongue. Her full name seemed to only exist now for legal forms.
It could be said that the three year-old toddler of the family, Alif, was the one person she clung on to, perhaps even the person she loved the most. This was because innocent Alif, with his chubby limbs and dimpled smile, did not judge.
Imah could be completely herself around him. She could be as goofy or as emotional as she wanted to be, and Alif would accept her in all his innocence. Since she had tended to Alif since his birth, she truly cared for him like he was her own. Sometimes, she felt as if Alif even preferred her company to his own mother’s. Imah felt a sly sense of accomplishment over earning this level of trust and affection.
In the kitchen, she rationed three spoonfuls of Milo powder into a mug and added in a teaspoon of condensed milk, followed by half a mug’s worth of hot water. This was her personal formula for a fail-proof mug of tasty Iced Milo. She popped some ice from the ice cube tray and continued to stir the mixture. As she did so, she caught sight of her own chaffed hands, her fingernails stained by orange-red henna. The skin on her palms had been peeling because the new liquid dish detergent did not quite agree with her.
She set the mug of iced Milo on a coaster next to the TV and gestured to it to Firdaus. He gave a brief thumbs-up to acknowledge he knew it was there.
Imah glanced quickly at the clock on the wall. It was nearing noon. It was a Sunday and Puan Hazlina allowed her a free Sunday each month. She appreciated the trust which brought her this “privilege”. But secretly, she also thought that Sundays off should be a given right.
Today, she had made plans to meet Yati and Dian. They were to meet at the LRT train station and go to Petaling Street together. There were several items in mind that she wanted to purchase, and she hoped she had enough without having to use the money she set aside for her DiGi top-up.
She had received an SMS from the kampung, once again with a request for her to call home the next day because of urgent news. She knew this meant they needed her to send more money back home. Imah felt guilty, yet dreaded the expected phone call. The kampung had begun identifying her as a rich young woman working abroad, unburdened by a family. They could not understand that she was still hungry for her own life, her own things.
Although she looked forward to meeting up with Yati and Dian later, a sense of trepidation started to creep into Imah’s stomach. It often did when she knew she would wander out to the city alone.
Imah often visited nearby malls with the family. Her presence simply felt more necessary and natural this way. She felt secure within the company of the family and quietly appreciated the way Encik Ridzuan or Puan Hazlina took responsibility of things during these outings, be it in ordering meals or in purchasing groceries. All she had to do was to shadow the family as she tended after Alif, and she was free to be a curious spectator to the city of Kuala Lumpur and all its inhabitants.
She felt vulnerable without the presence of her employers; she felt self-conscious in the way she spoke and her tendency to pronounce her ‘z’s as ‘j’s, felt out of place with her wiry hair, oversized T-shirt, and knock-off Crocs. The hugeness of the malls engulfed her and she could not navigate them. Too many things reminded her of how dissimilar she was and the feeling hurt her dignity.
She knew that the discomfort could be attributed to her status as a housemaid. Mostly it made her mad, which was why she would go about the city with her frame puffed up and her voice extra loud to hide the discomfort she felt inside. Her skin would heat up in anger at the suspicious stares shop owners would give her whenever she entered their stores. She would flinch at how they would readjust every item she touched and how they sometimes overlooked her as she queued up or treated her curtly when it was her turn. She hated the idea of being regarded as somebody of lesser importance.
Despite her discomfort, Imah was determined that her Sunday off would be different. It was going to be a good day because she would make sure of it, and she had a natural knack for making sure that things happened the way she planned them to. Yati and Dian had promised to introduce her to some boys and the idea of boys far from home was still a somewhat thrilling concept. The idea of possibilities excited her.
Back in her room, Imah returned to the tiny mirror propped against her bed. She applied pink lipstick, tasting a bitter, perfumed taste when she rubbed her lips together to distribute the color. Looking through her modest pile of clothes, she put on a red blouse that had the texture and sheen of foil. She had never worn this one before. It looked like it was a memento from the 80s. The material would not absorb sweat very well under the hot weather that was common in recent weeks, but she felt transformed in it as soon as she put it on. It gave her a sense of confidence and it made her feel steadier.
Purchased at a pasar malam long ago, the gaudy blouse had been one of those spontaneous buys. She had fallen in love with the bright crimson radiance of it, drawn to the fabric like a moth to light. She knew she had to purchase it even if she had barely enough money with her that day.
Imah had been saving the blouse for a while now and knew that today was the day to wear it.
She hastily paired the blouse with a long, black skirt and stuffed her purse into her handbag, a hand-me-down from Puan Hazlina that had seen better days. She peered from the window to see if her friends were there. Both Yati and Dian were already waiting: she could already see Yati’s gaunt figure and Dian’s bright smile.
“Nanti Bibik pulang petang sebelum Maghrib, ya. Pesan ke Mama,” said Imah to Firdaus. She did not dare notify Puan Hazlina personally, for fear of intruding on private time. The rest of the family members were still in their respective rooms, probably enjoying the leisurely pace of Sundays in bed. Perhaps some of them had gone out, she was not sure.
“Ya,” answered Firdaus, once again not bothering to make eye contact. Imah could be wearing a sombrero and Firdaus could care less, so long as his game was not interrupted.
Putting on her black sandals, Imah felt aware that both Yati and Dian were watching her as she made her way to them.
“Wah, cantik bangat Imah!” squealed the both of them as they flocked around her and touched the material of her blouse. They were both in their twenties and Imah believed that their eyes gleamed in genuine admiration.
“Ya udah, biasa aja,” Imah said as she tried to bat the fuss away. She beamed happily and her cheeks grew hot but her posture improved. She still had a girl’s shy vulnerability to compliments.
The three women chatted as they walked to the train station close to the housing area, barely able to conceal their excitement. They felt like tourists in Kuala Lumpur in spite of the fact that most of them had been staying in Malaysia for years now.
At the LRT station, other migrant workers, mostly from Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar, were also present. They took clear note of the presence of other migrant workers in their vicinity; their lingering gazes to each other did not always carry a hidden meaning, but were often merely calls for reciprocated acknowledgement. They knew that they were similar enough to be different people.
The rich hustle and bustle of stimuli overwhelmed the train station. It soon became clear that there was no way that the human traffic in the train coaches would subside in the next few hours
It took fifteen minutes of queuing up before the girls could finally shove themselves into a train coach. They giggled at the amount of vigorous pushing and stumbling that was happening around them, holding onto the other for balance whilst looking for handles to cling on to.
The art of weaving in and out of the monorail at peak hours meant that personal space was a frail concept. It was the perfect setting for unwarranted intimacies. The scent of perspiring bodies and the sharpness of elbows were reminders of involuntary closeness. The sensation suffocated Imah. It filled her up with a mixture of discomfort yet excitement for what was to come.
As the train finally closed its doors and began to move, Imah stared out the window and ruminated about finally deciding her own fate one day. It would be far away from all that she knew, separate from all the characters that had been prominent in her life. She dreamt of liberation, and wondered how much more of her youth she had left to truly enjoy.
She wished that she could tell everyone that she wasn’t even asking for a perfect, happy ending. In her case, she wasn’t even asking for much: merely the possibility of straighter teeth and a fuller stomach.
Illustration by Lyn Ong.
This story was workshopped in the first edition of the UnRepresented KL writing programme.