Back in May 2020, upon release from a Movement Control Order that was still shifting in shape, we realised, over a coffee catch up and an impassioned exchange of news, that everyone had in fact been journeying inwardly through these peculiar times of physical restriction. The isolation that radiated through the country and beyond took on a wide spectrum of definition.
We decided that it was important to document some of these experiences. We reached out to a diverse community of thought-provoking voices and found 17 storytellers willing to share experiences that percolated from this period through the filter of a short piece of fiction each. The last two storytellers are us.
The voices in The Lockdown Chronicles speak from near and far and sketch out worlds that are sometimes familiar yet distant. These stories reflect an existing Malaysian reality—a nation of lusty and corrupt politicians, inept bureaucrats, hapless migrants, and spirits past and present. Yet these are also stories of ordinary people in these extraordinary times of disconnect and longing, sacrifice and resilience, pain and hope. All magnified under the Covid microscope.
This year has also seen so many businesses threatened by closure. The book industry is no exception. From writers, proof-readers and editors, to book binders and our favourite bookshops, we have all felt the cold reach of Covid-19. By continuing to write, publish, buy and read books, we play an integral role in keeping this wonderful trade and all of its people flourishing.
Stories map where we come from, where we’re at and where we might be heading. The collective trauma of this pandemic is still not fully understood. The 19 stories in The Lockdown Chronicles may speak to some more than others, and in different ways. You may laugh out loud at some, cry while reading others, identify with a few, be informed, or even dismissive. But ultimately, a relationship between a story and its reader is singular and personal. We hope that when you sit with this book, you will escape through its pages and find your own connection. We offer an excerpt from each story below.
1. “The Affair” by Candice Foong
Rosie was walking past the chocolate digestives when she saw Dato’ turn the corner. Though he was masked, she could see his eyes light up at the sight of her. He threw a quick glance up and down the aisle before continuing past the rows of assorted Hwa Tai biscuits and Kjeldsens Butter Cookies until he stood before her. There, in front of Jacob’s range of Original, Hi-Protein and Weetameal crackers, the screen lovers finally met.
2. “Migrating To Community” by Viji Krishnamoorthy
Ammu watched as everyone made room for her children and her. As they moved closer, squeezing out air margins, the space seemed to grow larger. And just like a jigsaw waiting for the last piece, they slotted in, their slightly odd-shaped four- pronged piece completing the picture of humans spread out.
3. “#istillwantmypr” by Shida Mahadi
Antlines of people scurried back and forth in confusion. The place lacked clear signboards for the various strangely overlapping but apparently separate departments. The air was dense with the desperation of non-Malaysians uncertain about their futures in this country, and petty civil servants choking on their inflated sense of importance and power.
4. “The Batch Of Covid-19” by Michelle Soin
31st of March 2020
Today Kementerian Pembangunan Wanita, Keluarga dan Masyarakat ordained that wives should soothe their stressed husbands by speaking to them in a Doraemon voice. Apparently, this is going to help maintain household harmony! I googled Doaremon, so I can help Mum perfect her Obedient Wife Tone when talking to Dad. Giggle + Cringe = Vomit.
5. “The Obituary Of Lazarus Lee” by Pete Teo
It is a known fact that idiocy rains from above. You might even see it on a cloudless day if you look. That silver jet gliding across the sky isn’t what you think. There are no passengers or cabin crew onboard—just two people, the pilot and the assistant—one to drive and the other to spray.
6. “Look At Me” by Sarena Salleh
A passage that moved her profoundly, told of a simple but flawless repast of a single boiled egg and a solitary orange, peeled slowly and carefully. How alien yet beautiful was this other spare sensibility. That solitary literary supper had the quiet, emotionally resonant geometry of a contemplative still-life that her overheated mind could never have invented.
7. “The Burglar” by Mwaffaq Al-Hajjar
I still don’t know what day it is. My dreams are on the drying rack on the balcony. I remember washing them last week. The sky is silent today. I was pacing aimlessly on the balcony when suddenly I heard my laptop whispering, “Open me up”.
8. “Death In The Time Of Corona” by Shireen Zainudin
There he was. Standing in the shadowy moonlight under the fig tree. A single leaf loosened and fell, a languid yellow spiral to Death, landing on his outstretched palm. He read its veins smoothly with his fingertips before tucking the leaf into his back pocket. Then he looked straight up at our house, straight at me with a sweet humourless smile, before slipping like liquid into the unlit darkness beyond the tree.
9. “Roti Manis” by Nur Suraya
Baking bread is a journey that is almost meditative. It begs you to be in the moment, to be conscious of what is before you—very humble ingredients of love, time and patience. With the right temperament and accompanied by a cup of your favourite tea, the baking and breaking of bread is one of life’s most generous gifts. A gift of these two hands.
10. “Fruit From The Loom” by Renie Leng
The star outside our bedroom is the water or java apple tree—the syzygium samarangense. I had bought it from a Felda stall off the highway on the way to Grik on one of my road trips with my dear missus. My cherished tree! The java apple harvest season is always February. Just in time for my Chinese New Year visitors.
11. “The Dao Of Carpenter Street” by Alasdair Clayre
In the stillness, Carpenter Street had filled itself with echoes of a century past, when disease stalked the town and fire engulfed it. Memories that clung to the walls, suppressed by the hum and bustle of people, trade and traffic, peeled off in the silence and floated free, spectres in full sight, demanding recognition. For lives lived and lost.
12. “MCO—Manicure Control Order” by Marc de Faoite
Afterwards he shows his shiny painted nails to his friends. Now half the men also want coloured fingernails. It is more work, but also more fun and everyone laughs and laughs. Some keep laughing until they are crying. When you are far from home and missing everybody, laughing can very easily turn to crying. We all know this.
13. “Rites Of Passage” by Pauline Fan
She stood there between the trees for a long time, long enough for the indistinct contours of darkness to pull apart like beads of oil in water. She only stirred when she heard a jackfruit drop heavily onto a patch of soil beside her. Like the weight of a newborn child.
14. “Vaastu Shastra” by Lavina Valiram
“People say it is going to become a global pandemic. She’s old. She’s high risk!” But Mother has the stubbornness of a mule and the unwavering focus of a horse with blinkers, and was not to be deterred so easily. With one fell swoop, she shot down all my excuses. “Shanti is seventy-eight, you can hardly call that old.”
15. “The Hunter” by Clarice Chan
His family would roast his bounty over the barbeque pit. The elders, the orang tua-tua, chewed betel nut or picked their blackened teeth with straws, while telling spooky stories of the uuuwek, the bloodthirsty Red Eye who lived just beyond their mountain range.
16. “River” by Sujatha Sekhar Naik
It’s the indifference that disturbs me, the absolutely abhorrent attitudes that allow the indiscriminate disposal of refuse. I take them all, having no choice in the matter. I gag on a used condom, attempt to spit it out, without success.
17. “Waiting” by Hartini Zainudin
On nights like this, a breeze would break away from the angry wind and float down gently to touch his face. Once, a leaf from the tree outside glided in while he slept, lying next to him, in comfort. When he woke up and stretched his hands, he touched the leaf. It made him so happy. A bit of the outside had come in to say hello, he thought.
18. “Unmasked” by Tham Su Ming
“My name is Hanim and I am a nurse.” This is my opening line at every roadblock. I have my pass and my documents on the passenger seat, and after several questions of where, what and why, I am waved through by the policeman. These are bleak times, the time of COVID-19. The lockdown rules are strict and restrictive, and I am exhausted every time I have to explain that not all nurses wear uniforms, and nurses don’t just work in hospitals.
19. “Sembilanbelas: A Play Of Words” by Ranjit Singh
CID: My Worldly Lord, there are plusses and minuses to these divisions. And the problem is multiplied by human nature. It is their tribal instinct to cluster along lines of blood, ideas and beliefs, and reject all other non-conforming groups. Sometimes, these groups further subdivide and start rejecting each other. They can be families, clans, teams, religions or countries.
‘The Lockdown Chronicles’ is available at BookXcess stores and online, as well as select bookshops nationwide.