Wesley Leon Aroozoo’s story of love and betrayal in late-19th century Singapore, alliteratively titled The Punkhawala and the Prostitute, centers around two characters at the lowest rungs of a society that has traditionally been portrayed, at least during the colonial period, from the perspective of privileged classes.
A wala (sometimes wallah) is an Hindi-derived word for “someone who has a particular duty” (eg chai wallah) while, for the uninitiated, a punkha (or punkah) is
a large rectangular swathe of pure white cloth suspended across a wooden rod from the ceiling, is attached to a cord and pulley that run to the veranda outside the room. On the veranda, the cord is pulled in rhythm by a slave, never to be in the presence of those privileged enough to feel the breeze coming from above. “Punkha” originated from the word “panhk”, which refers to how the wings of a bird produce a draft when they are flapped.
Gobind, the punkhawala of the title, arrives in Singapore on a ship of Indian convicts. Deaf and mute for most of the story, Gobind “works” for a British master. To pass the time at his tedious job, he speaks in his mind to his late wife, Renuka. Although she died before Gobind was shipped out, her spirit keeps Gobind from going mad in Singapore where he has no rights and is beaten with a whip once a month when he “checks in” at his “parole” center.
The prostitute is a young Japanese woman named Ozeki, who is betrothed to a “husband” in Singapore, only to be turned over to a brothel on arrival; her name changes to the Malay Panjang, which means long or tall and refers to the length of her legs. She is one of a sizable number of Japanese women called karayuki who were sent against their will to places like Southeast Asia, Siberia, and Australia, among others, mainly to work in brothels. Panjang employs the same means to keep sane, but speaks in her mind to her father, remembering the Japanese folktales he entertained her with from an early age, among them the maneki-neko, or waving cat that has become a staple in many restaurants as well as the ohaguro bettari, a young woman dressed in wedding clothes with a white face, no eyes, no ears, and a mouth full of blood and blackened teeth. When she was a young girl, her father promised to always look for her if they were separated. It’s this empty promise that gets her through tortuous days and nights at the brothel.
The two protagonists eventually meet when Panjang is sent to the home of a British tiger hunter named Osbert. Osbert is Gobind’s master and part of a British group out to hunt the man-eating tiger, Rimau Satan. When Osbert first speaks of killing this tiger, another British man warns him against it.
He has killed more men than all the other tigers combined. He is not a kitten that you can get your father-in-law to buy for you. No disrespect, but I wouldn’t want to read about your death in The Straits Times after you get mauled. A waste of bloody ink and page space, if I do say. These tiger killings are already making the news every other day.
Narrative and folklore intertwine throughout the story and the mysteries of Gobind’s and Panjang’s exiles from their home countries unravel toward the end. While Aroozoo occasionally uses contemporary terms like “updo” and “stalker”, his story is otherwise a throwback to a bygone era. The folklore, both Japanese and Indian, work nicely with the tiger hunt that also stays constant throughout the novel. The Punkhawala and the Prostitute is a nice addition to Singapore literature.