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It should have been a peaceful day in Kampung Merokok. At least that was what I pictured when I set about writing what was to be a simple and straightforward story featuring an amiable cast of nicotine-fuelled characters that would unquestioningly comply with my puppeteering. But one by one as they appeared it became clear they were drawn from defective stock. Rebellious and recalcitrant they resisted my deific whims with a strength of conviction that in other circumstances might be considered admirable, unanimously refusing to adhere to the plotlines I had so carefully devised. Nor would they parrot the simple lines I had prepared for them to utter between thoughtful drags on their cigarettes.

Aisha, the teacher’s pet, presumed to be timid and obedient, kicked off the fuss by creating a scene during the morning school assembly, tearing off her tudung with a scream. As if that wasn’t enough she hitched up the long skirt of her kebaya, squatted and defecated there and then in the playground. I was as shocked as anyone, perhaps more so, as none of the other characters present seemed particularly surprised by her behaviour, and when I questioned her apparent lack of underwear I was summarily informed that many of her schoolmates regularly went commando and that I was obviously out of touch with the realities of teenage schoolgoers to focus on such an insignificant detail.

Meanwhile, Puan Hamizah changed her mind about quietly savouring the steaming mug of Milo I had prepared her. She turned off the television, forgoing her usual day-time regime of Indonesian and Korean soap operas, and went directly to the neighbours’ house with the firm intention to berkhalwat with Fahmi, a young man ten years her junior and her best friend’s son.

Fahmi, generally averse to idle gossip, either as a subject or a practice, liked to keep to himself. Like most of the population of Kampung Merokok even if he invested more time, effort, and money to smoking than he did to prayer he still considered himself religious. But lately he found his mind increasingly troubled by the graphic and gruesome images featured on the cigarette packs, bringing to the subject the obsessive attention to patterns that often heralds certain forms of mental illness. He had been drawing dead babies all week. At least he assumed the babies were dead. They didn’t look too good in any case, which he understood was the point. But a simple photo wasn’t going to make him or any of the other denizens of Kampung Merokok swear off smoking, quite the contrary in fact. If anything the images, which included gangrenous feet, cancer-riddled throats, blackened tar-clogged lungs, and rotted gums and teeth, reinforced the inherent ugliness of life. Even if depictions of pain and suffering underlined the inherent fragility of life by being banalized and made quotidian they lost their power to shock. If life was so shit, reasoned Fahmi, it may as well be over sooner. He lit another stick, consoling himself that he was taking control over his destiny by committing slow suicide by smoking. Still, this business with the babies had him spooked. Seventeen in a row this week and it was only Wednesday. There was a message there he was sure, though quite what it might be he had yet to decipher. When Puan Hamizah knocked on the door it came as a welcome release and distraction from all this excessive cogitation and he forsook his cigarettes, allowing one to smoulder in the ashtray while he assiduously made himself a more than willing accomplice to his neighbour’s adulterous plans.

None of this was featured in my initial outline so I decided to leave these two characters to their debauchery and turn my attention to the local policeman. I had initially tasked him with arresting Rafiz Zaharuddin for trafficking syabu, but now it transpired that he was refusing to hold Rafiz in his cell, insisting between puffs of suspiciously scented hand-rolled cigarettes that to do so would be an injustice and persecuting such an enterprising young fellow for simply trying to make a quick ringgit was just plain wrong.

To crown it all off the Imam, an inveterate chain-smoker and as pious a man as his calling ever befitted and noted for his punctuality, gave in to sloth, lazing in the comfort of his bed well past the usual hour, failing to make the morning call to prayer, the result being that those who had not yet risen slept late, throwing the day’s activities out of alignment at its very inception.

Unbeknownst to me an angry mob of villagers had been secretly holding meetings, the result being that they assembled en-masse bearing teeth and cangkuls and newly sharpened parangs and turned themselves against me, insisting while smoking furiously that if I didn’t immediately construct luxury villas and furnish them with expensive cars they would riot, and assured me that if they did so they would guarantee that I came out on the losing end of things.

Outnumbered by this unruly and mutinous cast I had to concede defeat. Loathed though I was to do so, I finally abandoned the manuscript and the story of Kampung Merokok remains unwritten to this day, which is probably for the best considering the current climate.

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