Read time: 28 mins

Ennui on Locomotive 46

by Johan Radzi
19 May 2021

Translated from Malay to English by Adriana Nordin Manan

Translator’s note

The most compelling aspect of Johan Radzi’s writing is its thoughtfulness. His writing doesn’t appear didactic or with the express intention of educating readers. He commits to presenting one idea per sentence, and this clear presentation makes it relatively easy for a translator to interpret what he is saying. The contemplative tone of Johan’s writing, however, risks sounding repetitive in translation. He spells out everything—the way the passengers lay down on the train floor, the number of tourists he saw at the café. In English, as I translated, I feared that it described too much, even banal details. The Thai Malay words were tempting to translate, but I decided otherwise. There was no way that I could have translated them into English and be free of any suspicions that I was mocking marginal dialects. Finally, because the text exceeded 4,000 words, we had to agree on cutting a scene involving Chinese Malaysian characters, which showed how Johan juggled speaking Chinese-accented Malay and Thai Malay. It was a snapshot of ‘World Malays’, to paraphrase the term ‘World Englishes’. The story of Hang Nadim, a young boy murdered by the Sultan who feared the child’s intelligence might threaten his rule, often appears in public imagination to symbolise society’s disregard of the young.


 

 Ennui on Locomotive 46

 

The train screeched into motion on the weathered tracks and slowly pulled away. I leaned against my seat, gazing at the window and its changing backgrounds. We had just departed the Padang Besar station that connects Malaysia and Thailand and were headed to Hatyai station, Southern Thailand’s public transportation hub.  

It was via Hatyai that I was told, by the pakcik train worker with the Kelantanese accent, you could head to three Thai-Malay states within a journey of only an hour. Mu gi situ, deh. Oghe Melayu seghupo kito jugok. I nodded, smiling. But that wasn’t the goal of this trip. My destination was the heart of the city—Bangkok. 993 km from the border.   

Pakcik Daud spoke Thai with the other workers, peppering his words with ‘Malaysia’ now and then while gesturing towards me. They smiled. We chatted while the train passed through orchards, green fields and squatter houses as the sun faded further aground. ‘I’ve driven the train for thirty-seven years,’ said Pakcik Daud. ‘We go back and forth from Bangkok to Padang Besar to ferry passengers. I love this train and crew like my own extended family.’ 

‘When you get to Bangkok, be careful with the food. Ask first if they serve pork. Or sometimes they use pork oil. But in Bangkok there’s plenty of our Malay people too. Ask them about the halal restaurants there. They’ll know.’ 

Apart from the pakcik, the coach was silent. Not a peep of activity in the five-foot way. A few rows behind me, an elderly European couple were resting. To my side were a Buddhist monk and a middle-aged Thai lady hauling a heavy bag. From what I gathered, the journey from Padang Besar station to Hua-Lamphong station would take 18 hours. I was ready as ever. [2]

‘How old is this carriage?’ I wondered. 

‘Two decades,’ Pakcik replied. ‘But it works well and hasn’t a dent. We take good care of it.’ We chatted and exchanged stories. ‘Yes, I am from Kuala Lumpur. Still young, pak. Not yet married. True, both my parents are still alive and working. This is my first time to Bangkok and my second taking the train from the border. Before this I took a holiday to Hatyai, for four days. That was two years ago. I’m on an overland trip to three countries: Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam.’ 

Finally, our locomotive arrived in Hatyai. He pointed to a poster on the wall: a red boxing glove hoisted into the air, above a line of Thai characters. ‘That’s our union,’ he smiled. ‘We fight against the towkays who try to slash our wages and ride over our rights. Unfortunately, a few of our friends were arrested. Four years in prison for subversive charges.’ He shook his head.  

He stepped off, before extending a wish to me for the onward journey. ‘May God be with you on your trip, son. Let me know when you visit Patani next. I’ll take you around. Don’t forget to visit the River of Sadness once you arrive in Bangkok. The river will tell the stories of our people’s sorrow.’ 

The train was at a standstill. A few makcik in farmer’s hats walked back and forth along the five-foot way, calling out in Thai. I didn’t know what they were saying but saw them holding trays with pieces of spiced fried chicken and yellow sticky rice. My belly rumbled. I gestured towards them and paid for a set. For the night journey. 

Kapungkrap, they replied, pressing their palms together in the customary gesture of thanks in this country. I reciprocated, albeit awkwardly.  

A whistle blew from the station, a signal that the train would soon continue on its journey. Slowly but surely, it picked up speed. In spurts, it accelerated and sent my carriage shaking, punctuated with the shrill grinding of the tracks that rattled one’s hearing. Other than these sounds, the carriage was awfully silent. Maybe everyone was knocked out after waiting for the train at Padang Besar. The sun had made a full descent by then. The only view outside was trees and houses under shades of darkness. People were home for dinner and rest. I put on a Tom Waits song and dozed off. That moment felt like a perfect one to listen to the weepy American singer, while watching the world pass me by like distant dreams of despair.  

 

Kilometre 45 

The train worker approached and asked me to get up. He rustled my seat around and voila, it became a clean and comfortable bed. I thanked him and continued my lie-down. But not for long. The view outside was uninspiring. A few other passengers had their curtains down in their mini-habitations, maybe to sleep or catch a movie on their phones. I tried reading a book I had brought along, but my focus went haywire. The carriage shook.  

In the end, I asked the worker, where’s the café? He didn’t understand. I asked again. Café. My hands made a gesture of eating. That, he understood. He pointed behind me; a few coaches away was a small café managed by a lone worker. Ah, the foibles from the age of Babel, rearing its head yet again on this train… 

I crossed from coach to coach. The first two looked identical to mine: bedded, air-conditioned, with green curtains and private spaces for passengers. First- and second-class coaches, I reckoned. Nine hundred and sixty baht, I remembered. Not a pittance.  

I stepped into the coach in front of me—this was clearly different. The third-class carriage was like ones you saw on classic films: upright chairs, people lying down criss-crossed on the floor, windows gaping wide, punctured by sounds from outside. Dim lights. Eyes were on me as I passed by. Many of the passengers appeared to be labourers, farmers or generally people who depended on cheap tickets to reach their destination. Comfort wasn’t a priority. A sticky rice seller in a farmer’s hat rested her head against the wall, perhaps dozing off from exhaustion. There were also those who were fast asleep on mats, unfazed by the tremors of the carriage manoeuvring twists and turns on track ballast.  

Two men in denim jackets were seated by the window. They looked Malay. I borrowed their lighter and joined in for a cigarette session. It was a good thing I managed to buy two packs of Chesterfields in KL before getting on the train. It turned out they were also from Patani—there were many passengers from there on the train. The train stopped. I popped my head out the window. There was a signboard with a string of Thai characters. It was a quiet town. I asked, what’s the name of this place? I caught a glimpse of what looked like Roman characters at the bottom, but I couldn’t catch the whole picture. They stuck their heads out too and read the writing, at a slight crawl but with the exact nasal undulations I came to associate with the way Thai people speak. They told me the name of the town, which I forgot to write down. But I was impressed at these two young men who could read the characters.  

The cafeteria was deserted when I arrived, save for a Thai makcik speaking animatedly on the phone. It looked bland and slightly worse for wear, its counters lined with kettles and instant noodle packets with Thai and Jawi characters on the packaging. I sat at the corner table and ordered milk tea. My drink came in a paper cup, together with a few packets of sugar. Leaning back, I rested my gaze outside: a few passengers were getting on and off the train. Most were local. On the platform, the station master waved a green flag, signalling that it was safe for the train to continue on its way. Through the window, Southern Thailand passed by like a downcast, desolate screen. All of a sudden, I was unsure of this journey of mine. What preparations had I made to cross these three countries? Zero. Nil. Zilch. I didn’t even know the name of the hotel I would be staying at once I reached the metropolitan city. I didn’t have a shred of an itinerary. The basics of their language was also beyond me.  

 

Kilometre 358  

A group of Malay men sat at the next table. We chatted and exchanged stories. A few of them used to or still work in Malaysia—as security guards, waiters, factory workers and lorry driver assistants delivering kitchen necessities to the states along the east coast. Some spoke formal Malay mighty fluently—courtesy of years gaining experience in my homeland. The two guys from earlier joined us. All were warm and friendly.  

I always find it a bit strange when meeting Malay people outside Malaysia: if you live under a coconut shell for too long, you’d think that Malay people are from your country alone. When in fact, it’s the opposite. For a long time, Malay people have been dispersed across Southeast Asia, shaping a collective identity that can be classified Greater Malay, free of today’s [1] national boundaries that dot the world atlas. In the company of cups of milk tea, we spoke at length of the land we had left behind momentarily. 

They followed closely the political developments in Malaysia. An elderly pakcik shook his head when I mentioned ‘Tun Mahathir.’ He spoke cautiously, but I sensed his disdain. ‘It’s already time to pass it to Anwar…’ Or something to that effect was the agreement sealed before the transition of power in May 2018. The mere mention of these two politikus heavyweights sometimes nauseates me. Are we so bereft of other figures, maybe from the ranks of the young? But that’s downright impossible. In my country with its deep-rooted feudal heritage of self-effacing propriety, a young face is the last that you’d expect on the frontlines of mainstream politics. It’s as if there’s an enshrined preconception that the old are adept at running the country, while the young only have to abide by any decree. Of course, what can you expect from the country that punished Hang Nadim?  

‘But your country eventually changed government, even if after six decades…’ quipped a man with a thick moustache. I didn’t know how to respond. I flicked some cigarette ash out the window and took a sip of warm tea. ‘But our economy isn’t doing as well as we expected…’ I replied. I was halfway pained recalling the currency exchange transaction made in KL a few days earlier. From what I remembered, when I visited Krabi with my friends a few years ago, the Ringgit still fetched a princely sum. Malaysia’s currency value was expected to dip in the coming weeks… 

‘But it’s peaceful…your economy’s stable…your people live in harmony.’ 

I stayed silent. Who was I to refute words from the lips of one whose land is in disarray? ‘Yes, relatively that’s true.’ 

‘I once invited a friend from Terengganu to visit. “I can show you around. About language, you don’t have to worry. I’m here. We can speak Nayu, we can speak Siye.” ’  

‘But he was scared,’ continued the tan guy in front of me. ‘He said he didn’t want to get struck by a bullet.’ I didn’t say anything. 

‘But abang, you’re brave. Coming alone from KL. Actually, there’s nothing to be afraid of. They won’t lay a finger on the public. It’s true, our land is wracked by conflict, but it’s no battlefield.’  

I pictured those states as perpetual battlefields. I had never set foot there, or had any relatives from Patani, Yala and Narathiwat. On my father’s side, my lineage hails from Pahang. My mother on the other hand is a child of Negeri Sembilan, a few generations down from West Sumatra’s Minangkabau migrants who settled in Malaya and set up their own villages. 

In short, I’m a son of the west coast peninsula through and through. Different from my new friends, whose mornings are spent facing the sun that rises from the South China Sea. 

From the writings of Karim Raslan, Farish Noor, Zakariya Amataya, and Isma Ae Mohamad, I can only conjecture or connect pieces of a story into an incomplete picture. I know it’s a place of strife, and the relationship between the Bangkok government and Malay people is tense. I also read about the Anglo-Siamese Treaty 1909 and the Siamisation project. Of how the government tried to erase traces of culture and language of the people from these three states, so they’d assimilate and become ideal Thais, turning their backs on five hundred years of history that bind them to their homelands. What struck me was how these conflicts took place so close to my country.  

A stone’s throw away from our northern and east coast states, you hear about forced identity, separatist uprisings, bombs, schools burning down and casualties that claim lives in the thousands. A complex issue, certainly. It demands that you travel there to unravel the layers of problems.  

‘So how? Is the relationship with the centre still good nowadays? Or…’ 

‘That’s a sensitive issue,’ the elderly man quipped. He let out a laugh. 

‘You ask like a journalist. Ha ha ha. But yes, it’s not as tense as before. Even though a few of our young ones are sent to national schools, we still teach them Malay. We don’t want them to forget their mother tongue. We also encourage them to learn Thai. We need both to make it in two capital cities. This is what you call the dilemma of people at the border…’ 

My eyes landed on the two young men in denim jackets who helped read out the signboard for me. They are the breathing outcomes. Youth who speak Malay at home but learn to recognise Thai characters in the classroom. What is it like to be born and grow up along a country’s borders—where do you pin your identity, language, and to which state do you direct your loyalty? These questions are certainly compelling to field researchers or for scholars who regularly convene in the highest ivory towers, but for those crushed by conflict, life must be riddled with confusion.  

Sometimes, death awaits at every intersection. The 2004 Tak Bai incident flashed brightly in my mind.  

A train worker approached our table. He said something to the young Patani men. One of them turned towards me. ‘They want to close this café. We can come and have coffee here tomorrow.’ 

My carriage was still silent when I arrived, wobbling from side to side, trying to stabilise myself on a ground that was always in motion. 

I pulled aside the curtains and laid my body down. Maybe the tea I sipped earlier made me sleepy. Milk is always my magic potion to make sure I don’t stay up late if I need to wake up early the next day. 

The view outside the window was still pitch dark. There was nothing I could see this late at night. The occasional howl of Locomotive 46 from a distance grazed my ears gently. Not long after, I fell asleep. The train charged ahead, traversing the skin of night. 

At who knows what time, the train passed through the Isthmus of Kra, the narrowest land route on the peninsula, before advancing into the much wider Thai continent.  

 

Kilometre 768  

The first spears of sun stabbed me in the face. Groggily, I got up. The fluffy mattress and cool air were like conspirators in my return to slumber, but the sun was already splayed across the window’s chest. Across from me were vast fields of green. Brown blades of lalang grass waved occasionally, dew drops clinging tightly to its tips. I rubbed my eyes. Where was I? For a few seconds I almost forgot that I was hitching a ride on a wizened locomotive, headed to the heart of Thailand, and last night I had fallen asleep with the phone’s wifi still on (I should have turned it off before going to sleep, to conserve energy and data). Clouds of mist dissipated on the horizon, retreating behind mighty trees on a grassy edge. Nature’s decree, I whispered to myself.  

Once again I headed to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee or maybe a friend or two to engage in conversation as we barrelled through the countryside. In the third-class carriage, the lights were already on. Most of the passengers from yesterday were awake and chatting, fussing over friends while enjoying the scenery. The two men I spoke to last night were still asleep. A few others were nowhere to be seen. Maybe they had gotten down at station who-knows-where while I was still asleep. The cafeteria was a din of activity. Sounds of Thai, English and French competed with the shrill pitch of the locomotive engine. A cup of warm water arrived at my table. I rested my gaze on the royal portrait hanging on the wall: King Bhumibol, who had just passed away a few years ago. Behind me, a farang fiddled with his camera. Maybe he had boarded when I did in KL. His face looked familiar. But I paid no heed. A train worker asked me something, but hearing me reply in another language, he ignored me. My Patani Malay conversation partner from hours before appeared. Laughing, he said, ‘He thought you were Thai. So we wanted you to speak Siye.’ 

I smiled. 

We ordered instant noodles from the counter (my friend proudly pointing out the Jawi characters on the packaging: ‘Look, my brother, this is a product of the Southern Thailand people’). We basked in empty banter to pass the time. He complained about job opportunities being difficult to come by. ‘My children, I have four in the village. I want them to learn English. Students in Malaysia are fluent in English; that’s why they do well.’ 

‘But you can speak Siye! That makes it two languages that you know already.’ 

‘True, but what good are these languages that I can only make use of in this country alone? If my children are fluent in English, their windows to the world would be open wide. I don’t want them to shoulder the same burdens I do.’ 

‘That is true,’ I said while blowing at the steam rising from the noodles. Sometimes I think about how if British colonialism never happened, maybe Malaya and later Malaysia would not speak the lingua franca as we do today. Western colonialism has pillaged much of my homeland’s natural resources, apart from bequeathing us with social afflictions of a divide-and-rule system that set root at the peak of its administration. But a benefit, even if indirectly, is exposure to the English language that took on a more global face through international trade. So Malaysia, and its small neighbour Singapore, are able to claim opportunities in trade and related areas compared to other Southeast Asian countries, generally speaking. Here, I am consciously avoiding a debate on the issue of marginalised mother tongues, an issue cast in sharp relief by government policy and globalisation, which dictate whether a language is ‘worthwhile’ based on its usefulness in business or other pecuniary pursuits. Mother tongues remain important as a plinth for our identity in a world that adapts and transforms at will. They are a mark of identity and national pride that cannot be compromised. But still, the importance of English can hardly be refuted. There is beauty in commanding a language, or if so fortunate, two or more.        

We shifted our attention to a group of labourers arranging bricks, wood and cement alongside the tracks of Locomotive 46. Nearby was a row of pillars. I was intrigued.       ‘What are they doing over there?’ 

‘They’re building another track,’ said my friend. ‘For a more modern and fancy train.’ 

‘A bullet train?’ 

‘Maybe.’ 

‘Where will it start and end?’ 

‘I forgot,’ he said, scratching his head. ‘I read it in the Thai newspapers the day before yesterday. The government wants a faster mode of transportation that connects the South and Centre.’ 

Bulldozers piled clay and mud to the side. The track being built was right next to Locomotive 46. In the future there would be two trains transporting passengers from one point to the other. I didn’t see it the night before and certainly missed it in the early morning. Perhaps it was a new project. A few labourers resting by the side of a cement lorry shouted something while waving at us. ‘What will happen to this old train then?’ 

‘Maybe it will be replaced too. I’m not sure. They estimate it to be done in five years. Everything depends on the government’s smarts. This is your first time on this train, right? That’s a good thing, You’ve made it to Locomotive 46 before it’s changed—if the government is headed in that direction. You’ve won the right to tell all your friends when you get back to KL,’ he said, with a hint of sadness.  

I stuck my head out, tracing the length of the track’s frame that extended to the edge. Then, I leaned back into my seat. The train workers nearby also watched the goings-on outside. They looked earnest. But their faces betrayed an emotion that I couldn’t quite place. Were they sad, anxious, upset or maybe nostalgic that Locomotive 46 would be replaced by something else in the future? 

 

Kilometre 908 

Back at my bed, it had been changed once more to a passenger seat. The mattress that rocked me into the realm of slumber had already been taken away by a worker. There was a woman seated there, listening to music. 

The sun was up high now. It was 10 in the morning, local time. Our background, once dotted with countryside and animals, gradually gave way to sights of tunnels, asphalt roads, shops, highways, bridges, factories, squatter houses, churches, schools and skyscrapers. We’ve entered city territory, I thought to myself. Perhaps my destination wasn’t too far away.   

Once you get to Bang Sue let me know, messaged Isma Ae Mohamed, my friend and soon to be guide in the city. I replied with a thumbs up emoji.  

 

Kilometre 993—journey’s end 

Locomotive 46 arrived at Hua Lamphong station at 12 noon. A bit later than usual, explained Isma Ae when we met at the platform. We shook hands. The last time we saw each other was February 2017 in Kota Bharu, Kelantan. I had contacted him a few weeks before coming here. He kindly agreed to take me around the capital city of his country. ‘You must be hungry, right?’ 

We exited the platform and headed to some stalls for a bite of rice. The station was in the Italian neo-renaissance style, with Frankfurt (am Main) Hauptbahnhof as a prototype for construction. It opened its doors in 1916, six years later than the Kuala Lumpur station with its Indo-Arab features (to this day I still don’t understand why the main train station had to move from there to KL Sentral in 2001, but let’s leave that discussion for another day). At the gateway was a large portrait of King Chulalongkorn, the ruler who ushered modernisation across Thailand. During his rule, His Majesty was also known as the saviour of Siam from the clutches of Western colonialism. His sharp, medalled figure looked as if beckoning, or inviting, the people and tourists about to step out and absorb the cosmopolitan and rapidly growing capital city, with a tone of pride and warmth, welcome to modern Bangkok. The city of angels, the great city, the eternal jewel city, the impregnable city of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarma.[3]

And my journey had just begun. 


[1] Anthony Milner: Spoken Malay differs from one place to another. Kelantan-dialect Malay on the east coast peninsula differs from the Malacca dialect on the west coast and Johor in the south. Meanwhile the Deli people of East Sumatra speak in another dialect, which is different from the type spoken by their neighbours, the Asahan from the south. Nevertheless, Textual Malay does not display many differences. Source: ‘Kerajaan: Malay Political Culture on the Eve of Colonial Rule.’

[2] The official name on official documents of the State Railway of Thailand is Sathani Rotfai Krung Thep. Nobody seems to know what Hua Lamphong means and how the name came to refer to the main train station. Nevertheless, a few linguists believe that the name is a combination of two languages; Khua (Thai: Bridge) and Lumphong (Malay: Temporary).

[3] The translation of the city’s official name reads: Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit. It is recorded as the longest city name in the world.


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Illustration by Rohini Mani

About the Author

Johan Radzi

Johan Radzi is a practising lawyer based in Selangor, Malaysia. He writes short stories and essays on all things under the scorching tropical sun. His published works include Tinju dan Peluru (2017) and Stesen Titik Nol (2020), a collection of travel essays on his short sojourn in Indochina pre-Covid-19.        Johan Radzi ialah peguam dan menetap di Selangor, Malaysia. Beliau […]

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