Read time: 11 mins

False Teeth of Pudu Market

by Sheera Ghafar
9 August 2021

Translated from Malay to English by Adriana Nordin Manan

Translator’s note

Syntax is always among the first things to look out for when translating from Malay to English. Just as I’ve learnt that translating from English to Malay adds 30 per cent of text, the flipside is also true. First draft translations from Malay to English always appear clunky and excessive. Terms of endearment or respect in Malay are also hard to translate while retaining all cultural nuances. In my earlier years as a translator, I would have translated ‘pak’ to ‘old man’ in the third person, but this doesn’t solve the problem of use when addressing someone directly.

I was intrigued by how Sheera handled a male protagonist as a woman writer. He had a lot of interiority, but he was also laid back and didn’t appear to occupy himself with opinions about other people, which made him endearing. The story is quirky, and most of the humour lies in the descriptions of events and not the words said by the characters. I had to come up with a way to convey the quirkiness in the Malay cultural context of assumed familiarity among people who are not related by blood. Hence the choice of the term ‘combat granny,’ for example.

Bluntness in describing people of different races is also something in Malay that could be shaky in English. ‘the Chinese pakcik’ or the ‘guy with the nose like a Hindi movie star’ are harmless and friendly terms in Malay, but readers unfamiliar with Malaysia’s cultural landscape might see such descriptions as too on the nose or otherising.


False Teeth of Pudu Market


paper boat
rusty pen knife
These are the three things I found while making my way from my rented room near Pudu Market today. I jotted them down in my 555 notebook, fodder for my plans to write a few lines of poetry. ‘But, it’ll have to wait for later,’ I said to myself softly, closing the beat up book and rolling it up before stuffing it into the pocket of my worn out jeans.
A makcik of about 60 wearing a red, square scarf tied in a knot under her neck stole glances at the poster stuck to a polystyrene box in front of me, as she fiddled with a slice of Japanese cucumber under Uncle Lim’s blue canopy. ‘Maybe this is my rezeki for today,’ I whispered to myself.
I got up and handed her a smaller poster, printed on an A5-sized paper. The makcik’s grin revealed the few teeth she had left, all showing signs of decay. Uncle Lim winked at me. That was classic of him; since I was a boy he liked to give me encouragement, saying I was helpful and now took over my father’s role at Pudu Market in search of rezeki and another day on earth.
I asked the makcik, who introduced herself as Mak Cik Ina, to sit on the plastic chair I had ready which would make my task of planting false teeth into her gums easier. She was missing six teeth but asked me to fix the important parts first because she didn’t have enough notes in her purse, she said.
Once I was done planting four teeth in her mouth, I gave her a glass of salt water to clean her mouth. She spat out the gargled water into the drain behind us. For each false tooth I planted, I only charged 10 ringgit. ‘Thank you Kamil; if not for you where else would we go to fix up our teeth all pretty?’ I smiled at her after receiving the notes excitedly.
Today, it has been exactly a month since I began plying my trade on the five-foot ways of Pudu Market as a ‘dentist.’ This was the job written in the book of my life’s fate from the beginning, replacing my late Ayah, who was far more capable and reputable in these parts, thanks to his experience.
Since Ayah passed away last month, I continued my days peddling my services to all types of folks who frequented Pudu Market.
While waiting for customers, sometimes I wrote poems to be published in newspapers, magazines or submitted to poetry competitions. It was a way to add to the modest sum I earned selling false teeth to those in need here in Pudu Market.
A single guy, I rented a room on the second floor of a shophouse not far from Pudu Market, above a shop selling all types of audio equipment. Deafening. Because of the noise, I preferred to perch by the fringes of Pudu Market and sell these false teeth which had no expiry date.
I stopped school in Form 4 after the death of Ibu, who was my source of encouragement and financial support. She went first, followed by Ayah. Truth be told, I didn’t want to continue Ayah’s job of selling false teeth. The risks are high. But, to get on with life, gain some pennies for food and rent, I kept at it. As a matter of fact, before Ayah passed away he told me to continue living an honest life and working a halal job even though life can sometimes be hard. I don’t enjoy it, but selling false teeth isn’t all that difficult.
There weren’t other customers like Mak Cik Ina for me to ‘snag,’ and my stomach soon let out a little sing-song telling me it was time for lunch. As always, the daughter of Aunty Cindy, who sold Hainanese chicken rice and set up shop next to Uncle Lim the vegetable seller, came to deliver me a plate of chicken rice, with extra cucumber just as I liked.
Hui Ying, the Chinese girl with round eyes and fine curls, was the sweetest daughter of any trader in Pudu Market. Many of the men who worked here, whether from before or more recently, showed an interest in her. Her smooth fair skin, dainty mannerisms and friendly disposition towards her mother and the other traders melted the hearts of many men but perhaps not me. Bonus, she liked to slip into a snug kebaya!
Pudu Market at midday wasn’t packed with people, but it wasn’t empty either. So so, people would say.
‘Mama won’t be at home tonight. Want to keep me company?’ Ying asked as she sat next to me while I ate her mama’s Hainanese chicken rice, which I never tired of eating. Maybe the rice had enough butter or the chicken was marinated well? Who knows lah.
‘Do you want to?’ Ying asked, slightly shouting this time. Uncle Lim cleared his throat, grinning at us.
‘Let me see lah. Today, the plan is to finish some poetry. The idea and body is there. It’s just not written yet.’ I turned her down, thinking of my almost complete poetry which I should finish and quickly submit to the newspaper.
A bit upset, Ying went away after uttering a curt ‘bye’ to me.
Later, I continued waiting for customers while staring at the three words in my 555 book. The three things that caught my attention today and deserved to be brought to life in my poetry. ‘But how?’ I asked myself.
At 4 in the afternoon, many traders started to pack up. They were worried DBKL might come and chase them away if they stayed open beyond their trading hours.
I saw Uncle Siva, who sold fighting fish at the end of the Pudu Market street, taking down his fish which were hanging from raffia string.
I was folding my chairs when out of nowhere a husband and wife appeared with their son of about six years old, who was sobbing, sometimes wailing and slapping the left side of his chin with both hands.
Seeing the state of the boy who was writhing like a worm under the sun, I knew he had a case of tooth cavities.
I took down my plastic chair from the trolley and asked the boy to sit. He was reed thin, just like his parents.
‘I’ll have to drill for a bit before plastering. Could I ask the both of you to hold down his arms?’ The mother and father held on to their son while asking him to keep calm.
I drilled his molar tooth and coated it with ‘magic powder’ to seal the cavity. The boy squirmed about as I drilled, but it was the only way to reduce the pain. The ‘magic powder’ always did the trick to ease the pain of customers with cavities. It was Ayah’s recipe, a secret.
After the boy gargled and spat out the mix of water and blood into the drain’s edges, they went home and the looks on his parents’ faces changed from flustered to calm. This brought some peace to my heart too as I realised that the services I inherited from Ayah bring meaning to those with less means, who cannot afford to see actual dentists in the clinic or hospital.
As a matter of fact, more than once a few of Ayah’s regular customers came to me for many reasons and paid me compliments. They said my skills were at the same level as my late ayah, that I handled the equipment and treatment faster now, even though I was only a month into running the services alone. Without fail, this would make me miss Ayah.
Done for the day. I just wanted to go home and finish up the poetry which had been held up since morning.
It was a new day. I didn’t finish the poems last night. I fell asleep as soon as I got to my room yesterday afternoon, all the way till morning. I didn’t know what had worn me out that much. Damnit!
I pushed my trolley to my trading spot. Hui Ying and her mama had finished setting up their table and were hanging up a few freshly boiled chickens. She smiled at me coyly. But I was unable to return the gesture because my poems were still not done!
paper boat
rusty pen knife
I opened my 555 book to the page where these three words were written. ‘Ah, why is my brain so saturated that I can’t come up with anything apart from these three things?’ I asked myself.
A new day and I had started it with a mood that wasn’t too good. Today, I hoped more customers would come, or at the very least I would get to ‘snag’ any senior citizen who had only one, two, three or four teeth, or…
Normally, in a day there were at least two or three people who would come in search of false teeth. They’d request a full set of teeth or bridges, sealing of cavities and the like. Usually, payment from two or three customers was enough for my expenses the next day, with a little left over for rent.
It was 10 in the morning and Pudu Market was jam packed; if you wanted to pass through you had to give way to someone else. People could rarely keep calm at Pudu Market while it was filled to the brim. I saw the grumpy faces of those sucked into the sea of humanity trudging along the narrow market alley.
And then appeared in the throng of people Devend, the son of Fighting Fish Uncle Siva, among the most accomplished pickpockets of Pudu Market. During these hours Devend and many other pickpockets would be out at ‘work.’ If not, you’d be lucky to see even the bridge of his sharp nose, which looked like it belonged to a Hindi film star.
He grew up with me, and according to Uncle Siva, that was the one skill God had granted Devend, but at least he was able to contribute something to the family because Uncle Siva had many children who were still young and in school.
‘It’s alright if our life is hard, whether we steal or sell drugs even, as long as we’re not caught and Devend’s younger siblings can stay in school.’ What a stark contrast of opinion from this head of the family compared to my father who opted for me to stop schooling so I could help him treat customers in Pudu Market, after Ibu left us.
Personally, I didn’t feel the need to report the pickpockets because, sometimes, I and a few other traders would be slipped a gift of one or two red notes. We can call it a bonus. At other times, they were inspiration for the poems I wrote. Once, one of my poems titled ‘Pilfer’ won the Berita Harian Newspaper Poetry Competition!
As I looked here and there in rapt attention, a granny lunged at me and kicked my box of false teeth. I tried to make out who ‘sudden combat granny’ was. Unfortunately, I remembered that I had once treated her and made a full set of false teeth for her. However, I couldn’t remember her name.
Today, on my left was the table of Pak Cik Teo, seller of male energy supplement ‘Vigra’ and a few sex toys. He too had a fright and quickly got up. We tried to calm down the granny, who proceeded to shout out a few words that weren’t easy to make sense of, followed by ‘I will call the police!’
‘This kid is selling false teeth that are fake!’
‘You people better not buy from him!’
‘No wonder it’s cheap; it’s fake!’
It was the first time I was attacked in such a way, so I was a bit flustered especially when a crowd gathered to watch and record the antics of the granny, whose name still escaped me. She yanked out the full set of false teeth from her mouth and threw it onto the tar road. Wearing a baju kedah top and batik sarong, she squished the dentures with her rubber flip flops, crying and wailing throughout. Her sarong was hitched to her thigh.
In the crowd, there were those who whispered among themselves, some tried to record everything on their smartphones, others laughed from afar but a few tried to calm the granny down. Me? I gathered all the false teeth strewn on the ground and rearranged them in a box, with the help of Pak Cik Teo. As we cleaned up, the old Chinese man didn’t stop quibbling about the trouble brought upon us by the granny who complained that her false teeth were fake.
‘Gran, these false teeth, my father has sold them for three years, and now I’m continuing the trade. It’s only been a month, but so far I haven’t gotten a single complaint that the false teeth are fake.’ I said what I had to say in a tone that tried to convince Granny, who had just spat on the broken teeth and paper boat lying on the road.
Granny appeared to have calmed down a little and stopped crying.
‘These teeth are fake because I can’t chew. Once, I tried to eat nuts; I chewed on the nuts but the molar fell apart!’ She spoke word by word. Even though her lack of teeth gave her an odd lisp, I could still follow what she said.
I pretended to be shocked. A few people standing about gave me a look that I couldn’t quite describe. Many had left the scene once granny appeared to have calmed down and pulled the hitched part of her sarong down. She sat cross-legged on the road, the false teeth on her side. Had Ayah’s stock of false teeth passed their expiry date? That was all I could think of.
I started thinking up ideas for a new poem that I could merge with the three items noted down yesterday. But no, it wasn’t the right time because I could hear police sirens and that wasn’t a good sign!
I thanked Pak Cik Teo for helping me pick up the false teeth from the ground, lifted my boxes to the trolley which I then pushed away, leaving the granny in the middle of the road, staring blankly. I shook hands with Pak Cik Teo who was also busy clearing his medicine and ‘play’ equipment. Pudu Market had returned to calm as if nothing had happened. The incident of the granny shrieking that her false teeth were fake and hitching her sarong to her thighs was now forgotten. But I was confident that it would still be laughter material in the virtual world, at the very least for two days in a row.
On the way home, while pushing my trolley with the boxes of false teeth and dental equipment, I kept my eyes on the ground. Many cockroaches wallowed in the drains, while a gutsy few made it to the middle of Pudu Market street before being crushed to death under the rubber flip flops of market visitors.
Ah, today there wasn’t even one mouth for me to plant some teeth. This means not a single ringgit made it into my pocket. There must have been complaints from people about me whom they called ‘phantom doctor.’ The incident with the granny surely drew people’s attention, and a few of them must have reported my selling of ‘fake’ teeth. Ok, this time I promise, when I reach home the poems will get done!

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Illustration by Syafiqah Sharom

About the Author

Sheera Ghafar

Sheera Ghafar is a writer for one of Malaysia’s major political organizations. She writes on a wide range of topics and is particularly interested in writing about social issues such as poverty and oppression. Sheera Ghafar ialah penulis untuk salah satu parti politik terbesar di Malaysia. Dia menulis tentang pelbagai topik, dan mempunyai minat khusus dalam isu […]