Freedom Square

After the torpor of the Museum of National History, I was walking along the far edge of Merdeka Square towards the River Klang - where Malay freedom was proclaimed in August 1957 - when I saw a tall skinny black man in shirt, trousers and sandals coming towards me. He asked me where I was from and how I liked it in KL. Oh, you should have been here when the British ruled, he said. Those were the days. We sat down to talk; he carried a small cushion because the stones were hard and his bottom was thin. He had no teeth, caved in cheeks and when he talked his very red tongue protruded from his mouth, top side up, like a large plum. His name was Gerald John Baptiste and he was a Christian. His plastic identity card showed a gap where the word Muslim would have been written if he was one. Three percent of the population, he said. We get a hard time. This was not his only grief. As a homeless man, he faced endless persecution from the police, who like to keep the old colonial district free of vagrants. They pick them up in their cars and take them far away and let them out in another part of town, which means they then have to walk back to where they stay. Over the road was the magistrates court and the high court, enormous faux Moghul and Arabic buildings built by the British in the 19th century; I had walked past there earlier, as clerks and lawyers with briefs in their hands, bizarrely suited and tied in the intense heat, hurried to court or to chambers. The pristine oblong of grass between us and the courts was a cricket ground where John Major had once played; behind us was the mock Tudor pavilion, now a classy restaurant. Gerald pulled a selection of tourist brochures from his bag, a pen from his pocket, put on the glasses hung around his neck and gave me a detailed, informative and very clear account of the local attractions, where the best markets were for electronic goods, cds, dvds, and so forth, all the time annotating the map in a firm, fine hand. He said he went to church every day; of the other religions, he liked the Hindus best because at their temple, when there was a wedding, the homeless could go and share in the feast. His ambition was to be a tourist guide, but there was no way the government would let such as he do that. He was not a sad or an angry man; resigned, perhaps, but cheerful along with it. He said he had a 2 million dollar bed, pointing to the immense flagpole at the end of the cricket ground. That's where I sleep, he said. Can I give you some money? I asked him. Oh, yes, he said, I am very hungry. I saw his eyes flash as he saw the colour of the notes in my wallet. Then we shook hands, exchanged names, and said goodbye.

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