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Maybe you haven’t heard of a wet market before. It’s a nightly event in most south Asian cities, a place to buy fish, fresh produce, meat, and assorted spices and herbs. Fruit aplenty, including the much maligned durian, king of the fruits in the equatorial world. I used to saunter across the street from my house in China Town, or as it is called in Malayu Petaling Jaya, a pleasant suburb of Kuala Lumpur. Everything has a meaning in this part of the world, and the name Kuala Lumpur means muddy estuary. By the way, Hong Kong, notorious for much of the early 20th century, was a fishing port and stunk of rotting fish, hence the merchant wisdom to call it sweet-smelling harbor.

Anyway, the wet market sprawled out in myriad temporary stalls piled high with their wares. The men and women behind them cut, sliced, bagged up the purchased goods at lightning speed and had them in your hands in under a minute. Always in plastic sacks, with a thin red ribbon tying it up. I had to elbow my way to the front in a dense crowd of housewives, maids, kids, the occasional old man as we struggled to be noticed and get our orders in. You had to be pretty brash and talk over the din to get noticed, but once there, with a nod from the clerk, you were home free. I’d get my fillets of fish, some chicken parts, a few onions and carrots fresh from the farm, maybe a sack of soy sauce, seasonings of all sorts, and the sum was always a staggering five or six dollars for the lot. What fun it was.

I once bought two egg rolls filled with spicy cabbage a few chunks of tofu, the crumbs of some salty condiment that made the tongue curl a bit. I couldn’t find an available seat to sit and eat my snack, except to squeeze in between two hefty middle-aged men looking about pensively as they chewed on peeled stalks of sugar cane. Naturally I was offered a piece and politely refused, pointing to my bag. It was lovely there, with the smells of freshly cut garlics and onions heaped up in platters nearby. I had a view of the fish stalls, some twenty or more of them, which ran along one low wall with drainage pipes dribbling out a bit of last night’s rain water. The men were flashing razor-sharp knives as they cut up a big fat grouper with thick, pouting lips and sad, owl-like eyes. The flesh came off like slabs of blubber, but they were all good white meat, and you need only turn them over a few times in a skillet or wok and the perfume would seduce you into dabbing the slices with a bit of soy and chili powder and then dream over your feast at the dinner table. So I took special interest in the nearly incandescent white flesh as it piled up on a scale under the vigilant gaze of thrifty old women.

I watched other magic acts with cleavers, long thin knives, a machete for breaking the bones of some sea monster that lay there in a coma as it was being dismantled. The talk was high-pitched and rapid, and the verbal play must have been witty. Lots of laughter and joyous banter as everyone rejoiced in the abundance before them. Nothing cost very much, except maybe the more exotic sea life on offer. An octopus, a very large lobster, abalone were the stars of the gourmet stall where rather dignified elderly gents poked a finger here and there and brought out their wallets to pay handsomely for their treasures.

I stared out of sleepy eyes, having taken the edge off my appetite. My wife and kids were back in the house waiting for me to arrive. Their only plea was that I didn’t bring a durian with me and stink up the whole house with it. I loved the fruit but it did have the thin reek of vomit to it if you didn’t wrap the thorny beast in layers of waxed paper and stick it in the back of the fridge. I wasn’t going to torment them, though I would later steal off and buy a durian from a truck parked under a pale street light, and carve it up quietly in the kitchen.

There it was, a carnival of food, probably not much changed from how fresh food was sold in the middle ages, or even before, maybe in the Greek agoras. I should tell you what I was doing in Kuala Lumpur for a year. I was part of a group of faculty teaching American literature and attempting to get these native Malay kids to talk about what they had read. But they were far too shy to venture an opinion. They were from outlying villages, the sons and daughters of farmers and cattle ranchers, and there was nothing in their firmament that invited opinions or personal revelations. So they sat and copied whatever I said and passed the tests. The government there had invited us over and told us to give the students the same treatment as regular Americans back home would receive. Not an easy task, when you realized that these were kids who had been raised to think as a group, to accept their group soul and not a private personal one. No Emersonian individualism here. The boundary between dreams and reality was very thin indeed, and some of the young women had already fallen in love and become pregnant. When the imam called them in after learning of this moral trespass, the usual explanation was that a wood spirit had seduced them and they had no control over his spells. That seemed plausible enough to the imam who forgave them and instructed the parents to raise such kids as part of the family. So how was I to teach self-reliance, pangs of conscience, doubts about the rules of conduct? Not very well, I’m afraid.

Back to the wet market, with all the frantic motion and cacophony of voices and dialects swarming over me. I began to wonder what happened to the scraps and offal of the fish that were being carved by the ton just in front of me. I guess it was all hauled off to a land fill, but then, there was no land fill around here. No sign of one. Instead, I followed the motions of one cutting master as he finished his job on a plump sea bass. He scooped up the guts and the skin and bones in one hand and threw them behind him to the cement. Okay. Maybe some street cleaner was paid to scoop up this trash and haul it away to some mysterious hole in the ground. But no, as I watched a little longer, I saw an enormous gray rat slither out of one of the drain pipes and gather up the fish remains in his powerful jaws and back itself into the drain hole again. He wasn’t the only one. Every fish monger along the whole row of stalls was doing the same thing, tossing guts and bones behind him with the rats emerging and dragging away mounds of treasure to their drain pipes. The rats were almost tame, well behaved in not nipping anyone’s ankle or getting into fights with other rats. They got what they could carry and went into reverse into the darkness again, and left the cement sparkling clean.

Nature was in balance. Man was part of the great scheme of things, feeding the lowly creatures down the food chain with what he and his customers couldn’t eat. No middle man was needed in this exchange. No one had to worry that all this discarded excess would be left behind to stink up the back of the fancy stores on the street. There was no bad odor here. Even the fruit rinds got thrown behind and were whisked away in an instant. Part of the joy of this scene was that no one was at odds with the other creatures around them. We were all part of the dance of life and shared the benevolence cheerfully. We were home in the world.

But you couldn’t ask any of those knife-wielding magicians carving up the bounty of the sea and the fields if he had doubts at night, the soul-twisting agonies of a loss of faith. He would look up at you as if you had been snorting too much opium. The life they led was given them to enjoy, and to relish hard work, to be thankful for the abundance of food and the serenity of these warm days and nights as nature thrived under its dark canopies and sun-baked meadows. At night, you washed yourself from a hose and cooled down in the back alley before sitting down to dinner of rice and a bowl of pho, some fruit afterward. No liquor in the house. No need. In an hour you would be in deep, untroubled sleep and rise in the morning eager to set up your stall and do a day’s business. And the rats would lie there in their glossy fat bodies thanking the same gods for their generosity. They too would enjoy a dreamless sleep and wake to the glitter of sunrise, and the sound of knives being sharpened for the feast to come.


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