Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur – Beggar’s Lane

Kira’s life is music.

Every morning, she wakes from dreams filled with sound to the symphony of life playing out on Kuala Lumpur’s streets. During the day she wanders these streets or sits and listens to the tunes that pass her by: the clipped affanato interplay of a couple arguing, the staccato choir of two dozen taxis all heading the same way, the day-long intermittent marcia of people flowing in and out of the monorail.

The music of the world fills her during her daylight wanderings. She takes it all in, follows the beat from street to street. The cacophony of sounds that is the city gestates in her mind. The different tunes intermingle, bounce off each other, combine. During the hours she walks the streets beneath the glaring sun, a song forms in her mind. A song about life and the city. A song only for today. And in the evening, at nine o’clock, Kira takes her violin out of her tattered backpack and plays to the city the song it gave to her that day.

She plays her violin on Beggar’s Lane.

 

The street sign on Beggar’s Lane reads Jalan Bukit Bintang. It is a very busy street, right in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. All day long people walk up and down the sidewalk, on their way to the MRT station, the office, one of the many malls located in KL’s city center, their hotel, Starbucks, KFC. Every day, thousands of people walk this street. They walk down Jalan Bukit Bintang, past the people who spend most of their day, and days, on this street. The ones who eat – or don’t eat – by the grace of others.

And they are many, here on Beggar’s Lane.

The mid-thirties women sitting on pieces of cloth with a small child or baby in her lap, trying whatever they can to stop them crying. The old men sitting in a squatting position, head bowed, plastic cup held up high in between hands in prayer. The man without hair, his face covered with burn scars. He has no hands and thrusts his cup upward – as best he can – with two stumps. The man with even less than stumps, the remains of his arms end just below the shoulder. He holds his begging cup clenched between his teeth. The man with one arm and one leg lying on his side, swaying back and forth because of the warps of his mind; disease or despair, no one knows.

The crippled, the sick, the down-on-their-luck. The elderly, the young. The families, the loners. They line the sides of Beggar’s Lane, behind their line of worn, empty plastic cups.

People hurry past. On their way to shop, work, relax, or whatever else they do in their daily lives. They look straight ahead as they pass the people with arms outstretched for alms, pretending not to see life’s unfortunates.

Beggar’s Lane makes all who walk its sidewalks feel discomfort. Colors and sounds appear muted, as if the vibrancy of being seeps away through the misery draped over Beggar’s Lane. Until nine o’clock that is, when the Lane comes alive. Color returns, the gloom dissipates, and sound, oh the sound, is sublime.

At nine o’clock, Kira plays.

 

The first notes drift down the street, clear and bright as a solitary star in dark, moonless sky. People look up from their phones, conversations end mid-sentence, as the gentle caress of the opening chord reaches pedestrian’s ears.  The sound touches the listeners like no music has ever done before. The notes feel like the kiss they received from their lover upon waking that morning, as the sunlight falling upon them during lunch in the park earlier today, momentarily washing away their worries with its warm, soothing glow, like the relaxing swim they took in their apartment building’s pool after coming home from work.

The tempo changes, and so does their mood. Suddenly they relive other moments of the day. The argument with the Grab driver, the call with the client that everyone at the office tried to avoid, the judgmental look from the wife when they forgot to pick up groceries on the way home.

Yet, even reliving their negative emotions, the listeners are enraptured by the sounds of Kira’s violin. The music speaks to them. It seems to know them, understand them. This song seems to be about them.

The tune softens again as Kira plays the happiness of a family of three, soon to be four, shopping for baby apparel. The next three chords tell of the elderly Chinese couple sharing ice cream on the street corner where they’d first met. Three months before their wedding, forty-nine years ago.

Traffic on Jalan Bukit Bintang, both on foot and on the road, has come to a standstill, every person on the street entranced by music reaching into their minds and hearts. The song of life today in KL fills the air with a profound sense of being. This is music in its purest form, music larger than life.

The song ends. The spell is broken. Those who have not yet wandered over to the source of the music do so now. They join the crowd surrounding the slip of a girl studiously wrapping her violin in cloth and putting it carefully away in her backpack. Impossible, some think, that she was the source of the exquisite music. Impossible, some others think, that she is playing here, on this street, instead of at the Royal Albert Hall.

Money, previously disinclined to leave the possession of those walking down Beggar’s Lane, now flies out of hands as if drawn by a magnet to the dented plastic jar standing in front of the girl who plays music. Kira sits and waits stoically as the jar quickly fills to the brim. The street slowly empties. Kira picks up her belongings and wanders to a quiet corner to bed down for the night. On pieces of cardboard, with yesterday’s newspaper for a pillow.

She dreams of music until the light of morning signals the start of a new day.

 

The Royal Albert Hall is the setting of Kira’s earliest childhood memory, even though she does not know the name of the iconic concert hall, or that it stands in London. Nor does she know the name of the violinist whom she heard perform there on the TV in her parental home. That performance incited a passion for music in her, a passion above all else. The memory often surfaces in her mind when she wakes up to another morning of Kuala Lumpur’s song.

It is all she can recall from the time when she had a home. At least, that’s how her mind makes it appear, as it keeps all the other memories of the bad place called home locked away and safely hidden.

Kira doesn’t care that she can’t recall much of anything, all she cares about is music. Her life is the daily chase of the next melody. Day in day out she wanders the streets of Kuala Lumpur, discovering notes and chords in the world around her. Another song forms, and she practices in her mind. Until nine o’clock, when she plays, day after day after day.

Sometimes her body feels weak, from all the wandering and practicing. And the not eating. But her mind, filled with music, stealthily makes the hunger dissipate. She’ll eat later, after her performance maybe. Or on another day, after she has reached her dream of dreams and plays her violin at the Royal Albert Hall. Even though she does not know the building’s name, or that it stands in London, half a world away.

Dreams of music, music in dreams. Music is life, Kira’s life is music. Every day she wanders the streets, creates a song, and plays. Day in, day out. As the days pass, the dreams lengthen, and the wanderings shorten. A moment comes when she stays in her dreams, on her cardboard, in her quiet corner.

 

Kevin walks down Jalan Bukit Bintang almost every single day. To the monorail station, back home, to a mall, to Starbucks, sometimes to KFC. Every day he walks past the beggars, the riffraff, the cripples. Some try to catch his eye, hoping that this connection will entice him to part with a Ringgit or two. Most however, have long since given up trying to reach out to the passersby. Still as statues, eyes cast downward, they just hold their cups or hands up in disheartened wait.

Kevin ignores them. He does not feel inclined to give them anything. He wishes they would all just go away, so he could walk down this street without having to pass them every day.

One beggar though, is able to reach out to him. Yet she does not even try. He doesn’t see her on Jalan Bukit Bintang very often. Only when he walks the street in the evenings, probably somewhere around nine.

A small girl of maybe ten years old. Barefoot, dressed in tattered jeans and a faded t-shirt, she always sits in the same spot. A dented plastic jar stands in front of her. An empty backpack lies beside her. She never tries to make eye contact with Kevin, or with anyone else as far as he’s seen. She doesn’t try to beg or plead. Every time Kevin notices her, he drops some change into her jar. Well, almost every time at least.

Tonight, he spots the girl again. She looks even dirtier now. Even thinner. He once again gives her money. A little more this time, he’s feeling generous, and he feels momentary concern for the girl; he puts a whole ten Ringgit note in her jar. Once again, she doesn’t acknowledge the money – or him. The girl doesn’t seem to be aware of much of anything. She just sits there, like always, on the pavement, here hands and fingers moving through the air as if she’s playing an instrument.

Kevin doesn’t know much about music. He basically listens to whatever his girlfriend shares to his iPhone. He’s never played an instrument or gone to a concert. But looking at the girl he figures she’s playing a violin. Or something.

It looks kind of sweet and a little sad at the same time, this slip of a girl playing on her air instrument as if she’s a professional musician. Oh well, Kevin thinks, who is he to judge how she passes the time, out here, on the street. He’s made his donation and walks on to a mall, Starbucks, the MRT station, wherever.

Thousands walk down Jalan Bukit Bintang every day. Some notice the girl, some don’t. Some give her money, some don’t. Some stop and watch her play her air violin for a moment.

Those who take notice of the girl as they pass her by, once or on separate occasions, do not take notice when her appearances become ever more sporadic. And when the spot on the pavement once occupied every night at nine o’clock by the scruffy girl who played the Royal Albert Hall in dreams alone stays empty indefinitely, the people walking down Beggar’s Lane don’t give it a thought at all.

 

 

My own story of  Kuala Lumpur

I have visited Kuala Lumpur many times, and each time I would stay for long. I could almost call it home. I have walked down Jalan Bukit Bintang hundreds of times.

For the rest I’ll let the story speak for itself. It’s my favorite.