“Take another one,” I said, handing Julien my phone – “with more of Luther.” I stepped closer to the statue, brushing aside a plant. “Smile,” said Julien, but I held my face in a stern arrangement, locking eyes with the lens, chanelling ingrained Protestantism. Later I would upload the double portrait to Instagram, tagged #lutheran4lyfe. Beside me Martin is dark blue, looking down at the Bible, as if embarrassed. “Do I look like him?” I ask. “Somewhat,” Julien politely replies. It’s clear that I need something to show for my unseen heritage, so unkonwn in my hometown. A German brow, a Lutheran chin. Here in KL I find my founding father, and newly resolve to read him one day.
We are leaving the capital for the province, tracing in reverse our migration journey. It’s also the highway on which I travelled to Taiping and Kuala Kangsar 15 years ago, in wide-eyes recovery from Bangladesh. We board a bus that features wide seats and gold curtains. Similarly unique vehicles pull out nearby: executive coach, club class, first class massage coach. If you will be delayed, you might as well do it comfortably.
What brings me back to this highway? I’m repeating something with a view to improving it, dooming myself in the attempt. As Gospodinov puts it in The Physics of Sorrow, I’m “longing for something lost or that had never taken place.” Having cancelled Calcutta I’m back in KL, seeking to repeat and refine the past. As we pull out of the bus station I see a future of further imperfect bus rides in which only the vehicles change: same quest, different curtains.
Before the trip we’d eaten at one of the Indian retaurants so prevalent in Kuala Lumpur. The menu hadn’t changed since my last visit fifteen years before. Teh tarik with roti canai, again, with a second roti for the same old road. “What menu item are you,” I asked Julien, “and why?” When my turn came I said I was the scoop-by-scoop buffet – ultimately generous, but somewhat hard to approach.
These restaurants always make me happy. Something about how successful ordering seems so easy to achieve. It’s the opposite of a Melburnian ordering coffee, knowing in advance that it won’t be the best she’s tasted. Teh tarik with roti canai. Why visit India?
Near the entrance to the restaurant an old man orders not one but two cups of tea – one milky, one black, with ice to stir through the black one. I am mesmerised, until I see the young man behind him who has also ordered two different teas. What have I been drinking for the last fifteen years? Clearly a sequence of two teas is what’s needed, moving from dark to light, cold to hot. A minute later friends of both men have arrived and taken their single teas. So it’s one or the other not both. But I can’t unsee my first impression.
We had stumbled on Martin Luther, but in Penang I was looking for a statue. This city was founded by Francis Light, father of Colonel William Light whose statue looks over Adelaide a block from where I lived during my first year of studies. Luther Seminary, attending St. Stephen’s Lutheran church at which I appeared as Jesus in the Easter play. This site of peak Lutheranism nourished my soul, associated in some way with wider pride in the colony of South Australia and the city of Adelaide, which Colonial Light (Francis’ illegitimate son) had planned.
They used this Adelaide statue as a likeness for his father’s, given equal prominence in Georgetown. Did they etch out any trace of his South-East Asian mother, or did some of this weirdly survive in the rendering of the old man, moving up a generation as it sailed back from Adelaide? I’ll have to check another time, or else live with the mystery, as Captain Francis was walled up in his fort when we passed, guarded by cannons.
We walked back to our hotel through the arcades of shophouses converted into hotels and cafes. “It’s like a toy city,” I said. Julien said: “It’s like Europe.”