30 August 2012

FGC #24 - "Mystery in Old Penang"

           Yasmeen was her name, proclaimed in Arabic script across her high stern, where the poop deck towered above the rudder.  Henry and Annie Innes preferred such native craft for coasting journeys – or short passages like this one from Madras to Pulo Penang.  In any event, the French privateers lurking round the Bay of Bengal would be on the lookout for a private trader’s schooner flying British colours.  They almost never gave chase, now, to Chulia traders’ dhows, carrying cotton cloth, gunny bags of Godavari rice, indentured coolies, and a few pilgrims returning from the Hajj, their money already spent.
            She was an old ship, built of Tenasserim teak on the beach at Masulipatam, with a dilapidated patina to match her raggedy nakhoda and crew.  However, with the yards of her lateen-rigged sails hoisted, gleaming white canvas billowing before the monsoon, she sprang to life, frolicking amongst heaving blue waves, making eight or nine knots.  The nakhoda navigated with only an antique astrolabe, a staff, and a length of string, but after four days out of sight of land, they spied circling, screaming gulls and rocky islets off the north end of Little Nicobar. 
            “Eight hundred miles and perfect accuracy!”  Henry nodding appreciatively. “Shabash – excellent seamanship!” 
            The crew braced the yards, the helmsman eased the rudder to larboard as Yasmeen’s short bowsprit swung toward the southeast, and the nakhoda gave a shout once they were on the course that would carry them to their destination.  Annie, standing at the bow with her husband, peered into the waves, clapping her hands and laughing, delighted, as dolphins danced in front of them, weaving back and forth, rolling their gleaming backs up into the blazing tropical sunlight.
            “They’re happy,” Annie said.  She wore salwar kamiz, aboard the dhow, to avoid offending the Muslim crew and passengers, and her dupatta, or scarf, fluttered round slender shoulders. 
            Henry, wearing farangi clothes –  but not his scarlet regimentals – stood beside his wife, according the playful dolphins a wry smile.  “Have they seen any Frenchmen?”
            “All ships look the same to them, my dear,” she chuckled.  “They only distinguish them by size.”  She stared into the water for a moment, and said, “No – they’ve seen only native craft, with shallow hulls.”
            “They measure them, do they?”
            “Indeed – by shark lengths,” Annie said, one side of her mouth turned up slightly as she glanced at Henry from the corners of her eyes. 
            “You’re teasing me.”
            “What’s the use of being able to communicate with animals if I can’t have a little fun?”  

*          *          *

            The nakhoda sailed past Penang to find a southerly breeze that would allow him to come about, entering the harbour by the southern passage.  Two miles of muddy water separated Pulo Penang from the mainland of the Malay Peninsula.  From the deck of Yasmeen, the world was a vast, steaming jungle lapped by the sea and pierced by dramatic heights – Georgetown, with its citadel, Fort Cornwallis, flying the East India Company’s flag, was an outpost of civilization on the verge of a tropical wilderness.            
            They landed at the jetty – rickety, narrow, and built of bamboo, extending out over exposed mudflats.  A new stone jetty was being built before their very eyes by Indian coolies stripped down to loincloths, toiling with baskets of mud and spades, or driving piles into the mire.    
            “Convicts,” said Mr. Lawrence, who had come from Suffolk House to convey them up to the Governor’s villa.  “We employ them on public works projects.”
            “Are they paid?”
            “Forty paise daily – enough, what with rations and clothing allotments.  But you’ll soon be up to your ears in all that.  Come, Captain Innes, you and your lady must be exhausted.”
            Mr. Lawrence was Malay Translator, an important post here at Penang.  He conducted Henry and Annie to the Company’s daftars, or offices, where they sat down to a refreshing cup of spiced Indian tea, rich with milk, while servants attended to their trunks.  Only two of their Indian servants had joined them for this journey – Ibrahim, who had served Henry since he was a raw cadet, straight off the ship from England, and Madhu, Annie’s maid.
            “The Governor and his staff arrived from Calcutta two months ago.  They’re still settling in,” Lawrence explained.  “I’m afraid you’ll find our society limited, compared with Madras.  Tho’ the Directors elevated us to the status of a Presidency, there are but ninety-five Europeans on the island, mostly country traders, free mariners, box-wallahs, and planters.”
            Henry smiled affably, letting Lawrence speak.  Annie took advantage of the lull to change into a stylish dress suitable for being presented to the Governor and his lady.  She was short, but her trim figure complimented the fashions of the day.  These sought – idealistically – to make even the most plain of women look as if they had fallen, animated, off the side of an ancient Attic vase. 
            The coach sent from Suffolk House carried them through narrow, crowded bazaars while Annie spoke briefly with Ibrahim and Madhu, in Hindustani and Tamil, asking them how they fared.  They swayed their heads, smiling, but no doubt were eager to settle down.
            “The city hasn’t changed,” Henry remarked, peering through the windows at the narrow-fronted shops.  “ʼTis exactly the same, only larger.”
            “Penang is a success, then, after all?” Annie replied, turning toward her own window only to flinch as a string of firecrackers exploded close by, filling the coach with acrid white smoke. 
            “Scaring away demons,” Henry chuckled. 
            The horses, however, reassured Annie, with their whinnies and snorts, that one would grew accustomed to such surprises. 

*          *          *

            “Mr. Raffles, who is still Secretary to Government, said you’ve been here before?”
            “Aye, sir,” Henry nodded, walking in the tropical gardens of Suffolk House with Charles Bruce, the Governor, a tall, square-jawed Scotsman.  He was only a year older, but civilians had more opportunities than soldiers in the Company’s service.  Nevertheless, Henry felt a pang of jealousy.  His own career had been eventful, but not very profitable.    
            “I gather you were here auditing the administration last time,” Bruce smiled.  “So – tell me – was it as bad as Raffles says?”
            “There were inefficiencies,” Henry replied, being vague on purpose. 
            Bruce smirked, hearing his visitor’s cautious words.  “Innes, I’ve been out here in the East even longer than you have.  I know this:  there are only a handful of European officers with the knowledge and skills required for – shall we say – unusual assignments.  You’re one of them, and – moreover – they tend to send you to all the places where the problems are especially complicated and unique.” 
            They paused, in a corner of the garden, admiring the view – a vast arena of jungle-clad mountains rising up through low-hanging grey and white canopies of cloud.  Georgetown sprawled across a flat shelf of land at the southeast corner of the island, unbroken jumbles of glazed tiles and steeply-pitched attap rooftops lining rigidly-surveyed streets – ordered chaos, but good feng-shui.   
            “As I’m sure you know, Innes, this city was founded twenty-four years ago.  Look at the place!  ʼTis quite the little metropolis, but like all things that rise quickly, it has problems.  The founders preferred – and still prefer – to work outside the system.  Penang has not had the benefit of proper policing.  Indeed, I believe the recently-proclaimed civil code and the establishment of a Recorder’s Court were the result of your report to the Supreme Government, following your last visit?”
            “I will do what I can, Your Excellency, but I’m sure you realize there are entrenched interests who will not want me to succeed.”
            “Such as?”
            “Brown & Company, to begin with,” Henry said, taking deep breath.  “I understand Charles Brown inherited the firm and estate of one of the city’s founders, James Scott.  Brown’s rise has been meteoric.  He now sees Penang as a personal fief, never mind the East India Company’s interests.  Like his former partner, he doesn’t want the government here endowed with the revenues necessary to enable it to regulate private trade.  Being the chief landowner on the island, he also doesn’t want to pay taxes.”
            “Boldly put, Mr. Innes,” Bruce observed, but he did not seem too dismayed.  “Go on?”
            “Well, Your Excellency, the Chulia , Chinese, and Malay Kapetans will not be happy to see a Superintendent of Police meddling in the affairs of their respective communities.  And then there are the heads of the Chinese clans.”  Henry looked very grave, saying this.  “There’s a network of quasi-legal brothels, opium dens, and gambling halls, and one of the secret societies has ties to the Sultan of Kedah.”  Henry gestured to the northeast, toward a high, blue mountain.  Bruce pursed his lips, also looking toward the famous “high land” of Kedah.  “Now that Penang is no longer a fishing village,” Henry continued, “the Sultan wants it back.” 
            “Which of these, d’you think, is the most urgent problem?”
            Henry smiled.  “D’you want to know what the real problem is, Your Excellency?”  He pointed toward the town.  “You’re looking it.  Almost everything down there is built of wood, bamboo, and attap.  The whole business could go up in flames like the devil on a spree if we’re not vigilant.”
            “Yes,” Bruce said, “I was told you have a knack for seeing what’s hidden in plain sight.”
*          *          *

            Charlotte Bruce insisted that Annie prevail upon Henry to take up a bungalow on Flagstaff Hill, assuring her that the Hill was the only proper residence for Europeans – cool, perched thousands of feet above the town, almost like home. 
            “You don’t want to live in Georgetown - ʼtis filthy and full of natives.  Chulia Street reeks of cardamom and turmeric, and China Street’s no better – garlic and ginger, joss sticks burning all the time round the temple, to say nothing of the muezzin bellowing, the gongs, the incessant crackers going off at all hours.  And the Malays!  They drench everything in smelly fish sauce and throw plantain peels everywhere.”
            Annie smiled, but only because her parents had raised her to be polite even to fools.  Once alone with her husband in their chamber, however, she cried, “Really!  You’d think she was some wilted flower, fresh out from England, instead of being country-born and bred.”
            Henry sighed, having seen Annie steal sad glances at Charlotte’s new-born daughter, Louisa, cuddled in the brown arms of her Bengali ayah.  After ten years of marriage, they were childless, though not for lack of trying.
            “We can’t live on the Hill,” Henry said, firmly.  “ʼTis too far away:  ʼtis not so much the distance as the elevation.  I would need a horse, and we simply can’t afford one – not here.  A palanquin won’t answer, either.  We can economize by living in town.”
            Annie had been enchanted by the idea of a mountain-top bungalow, but she knew Henry was right.  His job paid well in terms of honour and responsibility, but they practiced a thousand economies, stretching his official salary, drawing every permissible allowance for diet, travel, and housing.  Even so, saving up to return to England for their next three-year leave, on half-pay, required sacrifices even from a captain of the Madras Army and his memsahib.              
            Three days later, they moved into a house in one of the lanes off
China Street – a deep, narrow lot with a two-storey shop-house at the front.  Stepping through moon doors and sidling round wooden screens inside the door of every room, they explored their new home.  The house was built in the Peranakan style of the Straits-born Chinese, whose Hokkien heritage was tempered by subtle Malay influences.
            “D’you think we should take out the spirit screens?” Henry asked, rubbing his chin as he contemplated what he hoped might become their bedroom.
            “The air will circulate better if we do,” Annie said, running her hand over a particularly fine wooden pillar carved to resemble a sinuous dragon coiled into a column.  “Yes – I think with a few feminine touches, this will be comfortable.”
            Henry’s duties compelled them to travel widely, with little warning, and Annie was adept at setting up house.  With Madhu at her side and a parasol over one shoulder, she visited the Queen Street bazaar.  The Gujarati merchants were unfriendly, being disdainful of farangis, but Annie was warmly accepted by the Chettiyar shopkeepers, especially when they learnt she could speak a little Tamil.  Soon enough, she was seated with a cup of chai and a dish of Bengali sweets, dripping with fresh yoghurt, examining printed cloth, rattans, and carved teakwood furniture as she debated and haggled.  Before long, she could walk down the narrow lane, smiling happily as even the grey-bearded old Muslim traders stood on the pandals of their shops, making their salaams as she passed, accompanied as usual by Madhu, bearing a basket filled with fresh greens, fruit, and coconuts.  Annie had made a generous donation to the little dargah in Chulia Street on the urs, or death anniversary of the shrine’s pir, Syed Shahul Hamid, a thing no other memsahib in Penang had ever done before. 

*          *          *

            The rains began in August, increasing in frequency and intensity day by day.  Water poured in torrents from dark clouds.  Ceramic and bamboo gutters rattled incessantly, overflowing, dripping, filling deep drains, which could not carry the deluge away fast enough.  The pond behind the Company’s daftars flooded, spilling across the waterfront.  Henry could see why so many structures along Beach Street were raised up on pilings and platforms.  Part of the fort wall collapsed as the rains continued, surprising no one:  originally built by crooked contractors, with the usual initial low bids and predictable “unforeseen” cost overruns, the fort was a textbook example, Henry thought, of why privatizing state projects was unwise. 
            During a lull in the monsoon, Henry visited Governor Bruce once more, accompanied by Annie, who took tea with Charlotte on the veranda. 
            “The Council considered your memorandum,” the Governor said, receiving Henry in his study.  “I’m sorry to say ʼtwas politick to deny your request.”
            “Your Excellency, the police are funded by fees imposed on the sale of land and the transfer of titles.  But the best land on the island is already occupied, and as the town is well-established, no property is changing hands.”  Henry explained that he needed more watchmen, a fund for rewarding informers, some properly-trained men who could serve as an armed constabulary.  He was about to outline his scheme for a harbour patrol, with its own boats, when the Governor raised his hand, smiling indulgently.
            “Mr. Brown and his associates also submitted a memorandum, I’m afraid, expressing concern about the bodies that keep turning up.  ʼTis bad for business, and they want to know what you’re doing about it?”
            “Without evidence, I can do very little, Your Excellency,” Henry said, trying not to look as annoyed as he felt.  “We’re in the tropics.  The bodies are removed and disposed of before I can see for myself what happened – they have to be.  ʼTis a matter of decency and public hygiene, as I’m sure you realize.  Most of the victims have been Chinese or Hindu, so they’ve been cremated.”
            “Even so, the natives are frightened – they say these murders are supernatural.  A few of them have told Mr. Lawrence they’ll take their business to Acheh if we don’t stop this soon.  I would be willing, Innes, to forward your request to Calcutta, to see if the Governor-General will provide the funds you need, but only if I see results.  ʼTis only fair.  True, Mr. Brown wants to weaken my administration, but he has a point.  When you were here, as auditor, you chastised the Council for investing in a shipyard that couldn’t build ships.  Why should I impose unpopular taxes to support a Superintendent of Police who can’t catch a murderer?”
*          *          *

            The rains tapered off in October, although the weather was chaotic – the transition between monsoons.  Ships gathered, sheltering from the cyclones that battered the eastern coast of India.  Looking out the open shutters of his daftar window at a crowded anchorage swarming with dhows, schooners, sampans, and prahus, Henry contemplated how difficult it was to find a murderer when one could never locate a reliable witness, or obtain a proper, corroborated description of the victim’s body.  He rubbed his face into his hands, trying to forget the girl who had been found on the stinking middens under the Hakka fishermens’ jetty, amongst the bamboo stilts, her body carried there by the tide.  She had been Malay, and had been interred in the Muslim cemetery.  Whether it was true she had been killed by having a nail driven into her skull, just behind her ear, was impossible to say.  Henry had decided not to dig her up – not after she had lain for three months in monsoon-drenched earth.  In any event, the Chulia Kapetan governed the mosque, and Henry needed the Muslim settlers on his side if he was ever going to bring law and order to Penang. 
            He was running out of time.  The informants he managed to keep in his pay, given his department’s meagre funds, indicated that agents of the Sultans of Acheh and Kedah were spreading rumours that a hantu or penanggal haunted Georgetown, brutally slaying men of property – all of them Indian or Chinese rivals of Brown & Company. 
*          *          *

            The murders had been ghastly.  Kidnapped infants had been found dead in the jungle outside the Malay kampong, necks broken, an arm or leg torn off.  Several Chinese and Indian men had been killed – bruised, slashed repeatedly, and left in a bloody heap with their throats ripped out.  One had been disembowelled, another beheaded.  Hearing the testimony of those who had found the bodies – terrified servants, mostly – Henry saw why people suspected ghosts and vampires. 
            “Ah, yes,” Mr. Raffles smiled, discussing the matter with Henry after the next Council meeting, “the Malays are very superstitious.  They say penanggals steal babies and eat them.  They can change shape, fly, and kill men.  You can turn one into a docile, loving companion, however, by driving a nail into her skull, at the neck.  Seriously, how does one stop an imaginary creature?  The Company’s government functions in the real world.  These people live in the shadows:  that’s why they need us here to govern the place.”
            Henry had heard this argument before, and he was not impressed.  In any event, he happened to be married to an uncanny woman who communed with fish, animals, and birds.  Although Raffles and Lawrence urged him to give up, he did so not because they insisted on it, but because the murders stopped.  Weeks passed, quiet and pleasant, and Henry turned his attention to other matters, such as finally removing the spirit screens in his house.
            Christmas was celebrated at Suffolk House with a banquet and ball for all the respectable European and Eurasian residents.  Henry and Annie attended, of course. 
            “Mr. Brown’s lady is quite pretty,” Annie remarked, nodding toward a willowy, dark-eyed Malay woman dressed in the latest European style, speaking in an animated tone with Charlotte Bruce and the Governor. 
            “One of his concubines,” Henry smiled.  “Impoh, I believe – the younger one.  Brown, in keeping with local custom, has two mistresses.”
            After a few turns round the ballroom floor, to music played by the band of the 20th Bengal Native Infantry, Charlotte asked Impoh – calling her Mrs. Brown – to poke her head into the nursery and make sure baby Louisa was alright.
            “The ayah falls asleep.” 
            “Certainly,” Impoh said, but as she turned to leave the ballroom, Annie caught sight of a scar upon her neck, behind the ear.  While Henry spoke with Mr. Lawrence, she slipped down the dark veranda, keeping to the shadows.  Entering the nursery, she found Impoh scooping Louisa out of a crib. 
            “Pray, give me the baby,” Annie said, firmly. 
            “My husband hasn’t worked out what you are, but I have.”  After a pause, she added, “Would you believe a Muslim saint came to me, in a dream, last night, telling me to pay a half anna to free one of the birds they keep in little cages at the Chinese temple?  Well, I did just that, this very morning, and guess what the bird told me?” 
            “What are you talking about?”
            “The dargah, in Chulia Street – the pir likes me.”
            “You’re insane.”
            “Blessed by Allah is what the pir said.” 
            “You memsahibs are jealous,” Impoh snapped, surrendering the sleeping baby with an angry, hungry look.    
            Annie scoffed, cradling Louisa.  “Do I not live in the native city?  I know you’d prefer it if we stayed on the Hill, with our heads literally in the clouds.”  Frowning, standing close to Impoh, Annie said, “That’s a nasty mark on your neck.  Did Mr. Brown do that?”
             Impoh covered her neck with her hand, staring at Annie.  Then she hurried away.
            “I’ll be keeping an eye on you – and so will all the birds on the island!” Annie said.
Word Count:  3,500     Word Limit:  3,500

Historical Note:

I like to write very realistic historical fantasy, which requires a fair amount of research.  In "Mystery in Old Penang," all of the characters are historical, including baby Louisa and even Impoh.  The only fictional characters are Henry, Annie, and their two Indian servants.  The Mr. Raffles we meet will become, nine years later, the founder of Singapore. 

As much as possible, Penang is described as it actually appeared in 1810, two years prior to the terrible fire of 1812, following which much of the town was rebuilt in brick.  The details of the Company's administration, local society and politics, and the overall context of the story are all accurate.  About a year ago, I was able to visit Penang to give a paper on the city's maritime history during this period, and I spent a few days soaking up the sights, sounds, and attitude of this remarkable, vibrant town.  I wanted to build my "urban fantasy" around the eclectic multi-culturalism of Penang, which is perhaps the only place in the world where a Chinese spirit-screen could prevent a Muslim saint from India from contacting a British memsahib from beyond the grave in order to save people from the clutches of a blood-crazed Malay vampire.     

The urs, or death-anniversary of Syed Shahul Hamid is celebrated beginning on 9 Jumada-al-Akhira, the sixth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, which corresponded with July of 1810 in my story.  The dargah in Penang is technically a shrine rather than a tomb, since the resting place of the saint is actually in Nagore, on the eastern coast of India.  However, the 13th century saint's followers were numerous in the Straits of Malacca, and they built several "satellite" shrines in his memory.  The little dargah in Penang, which is still there, was funded in part by a waqf, or endowment established by the East India Company.   

Some people may wonder if it was normal for Europeans to travel aboard indigenous ships and live in what was called the "native city."  Actually, this was quite common.  Europeans who were not afraid to "rough it," or mix with local people often found this to be a way to economize:  people like my protagonist and his wife lived well (after all, they had servants), but they were not rich by any means.  Then as now, trying to support a completely Western lifestyle in Asia was extremely expensive.    

Henry Innes is the chief protagonist of my unpublished "Adventures of Henry Innes" series, which follows his adventures from 1788 until 1827.  This particular short story was written specifically for the "Write Anything" Form & Genre Contest, and is based on an episode that probably will appear in one of the as-yet-unwritten later books of the series.  I enjoyed writing this one, and also stepping outside the current narrative, imagining what my characters will be like twenty years on, under very different circumstances. 
Although some people are dismayed by foreign terms (i.e., anything not written in their own language!), this is part of the flavour of my story.  The tale was written so that most of these terms ought to make sense in context, but here is a glossary that will shed more light on the words, for those who may be interested.

Glossary of Terms & Places

Madras - A city on the coast of southeastern India, now called Chennai.  Once a major headquarters of the British Raj.
Pulo Penang - An island and East India Company colony in the Straits of Malacca, near Thailand.
Chulia - Muslim traders from the eastern coast of India, operating in the Straits of Malacca.
Tenasserim - A heavily-forested area that is now part of Burma.
Masulipatam - A textile-weaving and ship-building town on the eastern coast of India, north of Chennai.
Dhow - A type of large indigenous vessel once common throughout the Indian Ocean region.
Nakhoda - The captain of a dhow.
Shabash! - An exclamation of approval.
Farangi - Foreign or Foreigner (i.e., European)
East India Company - A quasi-public corporation that managed British commercial, political, and military affairs in Asia until 1858. 
Paise - Small Indian coins, similar to pennies.
Daftar - An office.
Country Trader - An independent European merchant operating within the East India Company monopoly zone under license. 
Free Mariner - A European sailor licensed to participate in the non-monopoly maritime trade of Asia, with protection against impressment by the Navy.
Box-wallahs - European petty businessmen in Asia.
Hindustani - The old term for what is now referred to as Urdu.    
Attap - A waterproof thatch made of tightly-woven palm-frond mats, laid down several layers thick.
Kapetan - A "Captain" - a sort of alderman appointed by the British to expedite their indirect rule, being responsible for all people of his ethnicity within the city.
Kedah & Acheh - Two Muslim sultanates near Penang; Kedah was on the mainland, near the Thai border, and Acheh was at the northern end of Sumatra.
Ayah - A woman assigned to nurse and take care of upper-class children in both indigenous and European households.  
Madras Army - One of the three "Presidency" armies of British India; because India was so vast and ethnically complex, the British found it expedient to develop separate, regional armies, with officers specializing in local languages as well as the South Asian lingua-franca of Hindustani. 
Shop-house - The quintessential architectural style of Georgetown, brought there by Chinese migrants from Malacca and Batavia.
Spirit-screen - A partition put up at entrances in traditional Chinese buildings to prevent the passage of spirits, who are thought to be unable to execute abrupt turns.
Peranakan - The culture of the "Straits Chinese," sometimes called Nonya, who had inhabited the Straits of Malacca since the 14th century, intermarrying with local Malay communities.
Chettiyar - A highly-successful traditional trading group from Tamil Nadu, in southern India.
Pandal - An open front porch, usually made of brick or masonry, used for semi-public socializing.
Dargah - The tomb or shrine of a Muslim saint, an individual whose holiness is such that places associated with his life and death are empowered with positive, miraculous energy by the presence of Allah.
Urs - The anniversary of a death, celebrated by Muslims because the dead person is presumed to be in Paradise.
Pir - A Muslim saint.
Council - A three-person committee that ruled Penang, with the Governor as the First-of-Council.
Prahu - A Malay ship of a type that ranged in size from canoes to fairly large cargo-carrying vessels. 
Hakka - A Chinese community of boatmen and fishermen.
Hantu - A Malay ghost.
Penanggal - A Malay vampire.
Kampong - A Malay village, traditionally set off by a stockade and divided into compounds.

©William Lailey, 2012