Friday 16 February 2024

Don’t Be by Farriz Mashudi, latte

 Uma stares beyond the cameras not like a doe caught in the headlights but a newsreader caught in the glare of live TV, similarly frozen not by the moment but at the realisation of a blunder so large it fills the screens. Nationwide. Across Malaysia in the English broadcast at midnight.

Camera 1’s snigger. The gaping ‘O’ on Sound’s face, the only one who seemed to genuinely believe in her. The groan from the studio direct into her earpiece, the producer letting rip, his hands on the electronic panel unable to unpress this button. Did he lose a bet as well, she wonders. The post-mortem tonight would be hellfire .... Uma reads on to the commercial break then tunes out mentally waiting for the countdown to the last segment: To you in three . . .

Waving fingers flash before her eyes as the numbers down to one pound silently in her head. And we’re back, she hears herself deliver—smiling, smiling, smiling—the remainder of the broadcast a blur, followed by toothy banter exchanged with her male pair as the credits roll.

At a tingling pinprick under her makeup, Uma reaches for her compact, then stops.

Rising perspiration threatens to crack the caked mask of her face.

So, what if she’d made a mistake?

She’d read it the way it was spelt. Ending with S-A-S. Not S-A-W. How was ARKANSAS, arkansaw? Ah, must be from when Native Americans ruled and not Bill Clinton, the second-term President born there, a fact she’d dutifully read out, she tells herself. Only wrongly. And only botched up the legacy of a First Nations tribe in the same breath.

Sound sympathises as he removes her mic.

‘You lived in the US. How could you not know?’

            She agrees: How could she not? She wants to say it was Canada; even then, when she was little.

            ‘Oh well,’ Sound adds. ‘Guess you’ll never forget it now.’

No one else did either. Like his unerring audio cues from initial screen test to her becoming a regular, Sound’s remark would live on like an unbroken promise if not a broken record.

Resting her eyes under a steaming towel, Uma tries to switch off, feeling for the pressure points at her temples, focused on the task at hand—part clean-up job, part cleansing. The studio paint that always had her stuck too long in Makeup wouldn’t come off otherwise. Tan streaks of Kryolan stick No. 4 and the pink shades of Nos. 2 and 3 leave gungy trails. She drops the no-longer white towel into a willing basket and reaches for her second. Sometimes there’d be a third in the warming cabinet that maybe was for someone else. When she saw it, Uma would wonder about that a while then use it to wipe her hands. Tonight, it’s just the two. There’s no third wipe. ARKANSAS, she thinks, shaking her head. If only the world could unhear it.

Freshly scrubbed, Uma exits the dressing room reminded of another blooper—a real stinker, if she did say so herself. Transported back to her boarding school years, Uma didn’t think she’d ever better it, except that she just had.

Ignited afresh, the memory of the last day of the big exams that had scholarships and bright futures attached to them lit up in her head like a movie billboard with only horrors showing. She recalled how in the long shadows of that afternoon, she’d returned to her dorm relieved, thinking maybe—just maybe—she’d managed to pull it off. It was a room for four shared with a pair of Prefects. She was Games Captain, had spent more time winning sporting medals that year than revising. But her Assistant, who’d never taken kindly to the role nor her title and having to take the bed opposite, had her posse over.

‘How’d you do?’ they probed.

‘Lucky to be the worst of the best? More likely the best of the worst,’ she said lightly. But the remark, intended to be self-deprecatory, came out wrong. Without meaning to diss anyone— the wordplay targeted to avoid exactly that—she’d conceded the status of the lot to non-scholarship worthy. Like a fatal plane crash, what hadn’t landed right became a maelstrom which there’d been no coming back from either.

Uma sighs as she walks to her car, the lot adjacent to the studio next to empty.

Six months of no one speaking to her bar the usual pitifuls, she still carried those scars. Expert at misreading a room, social cues—like misery loving company—as demonstrated by that ambush in her quarters were still a bloody minefield: incendiary and unnavigable. An accident waiting to happen. Like her.


Flashforward to a coffee place in Dubai and Uma is mother to a teen who’s waiting at home worried about her. It’s not her usual haunt and Uma wonders how they’ll butcher her name, the practice of high-bucks coffee places to do so for comedic effect hardly comforting. By now she’d been announced as ‘Oompah’ too many times to care, and since the remake of the classic (now Wonka) even tolerated the occasional ‘Loompa’ added on.

‘Latte for—Thurman?’ a barista booms.

Because of that other Uma? Hah! The idiots. This one both loves and loathes how her name says nothing about who she is—where she’s from; the beliefs she’s meant to espouse; a clear misdirection of her race. Yet, like Hollywood Uma, it reflected what her father did for work. Both their dads were professors—one of Buddhism, the other a linguist. They were thinking of themselves not of their daughters and like her namesake, as she’d read, Uma’s given name prevented her from fitting in. Like ‘Elia’, too—Sound’s real one, which crews at the TV station never let him forget breathed foreignness. Because it was. The morons.  

Regular Uma silently accepts the cup. No caramel, or vanilla, no pumpkin spice, she takes a sour gulp of all her hot failures. Unable to embody certain words, traits she doesn’t have, she accepts she’ll never be cool like the cool kid that Dooa, her daughter, a lucky, lucky thing, is. Who, Uma won’t let down the way her parents did her—the name only the start of nightmares she would have done well to see a therapist for. It occurs to her just then to stop blaming her parents for the way they were. Dooa was doing the same.

‘Don’t even think of sharing, Mummy,’ was delivered with rolling eyes and alarmed brows. The teen’s, ‘Keep your thoughts to yourself. Don’t ask questions.’ How though, was any of the above being weird?

Well, she was here now. Dooa ensuring she’d duly R.S.V.P-ed to the Class Mums Coffee Morning invite (determined socially safer for Uma not to snub). Uma, armed with a latte settles her muzzled self in a club chair by the fire. It’s Dubai, the flames are faux—their warmth turned up and lowered with a remote—unlike the designer bags tucked neatly by the women’s sides, casually draped or slung just so.

For a second, Uma rethinks her strategy. Impressing these urbane mothers, some in yoga pants, while others chat in Converse, could be just the thing to shake off her cloaked reputation of unbearably heavy uncoolness. Uma nods to herself as she considers this, her neck bouncing in rapid bobs and generous Oohs! and Ahs! at other children’s extra curriculars. Might Dooa’s talents be likewise cheered in this warm circle?

Feeling the chi of wishing to speak openly rising in her breast, Uma quickly buries her nose in froth. Every other mum here was flexing. Why, if it were her would it be weird?

The gaping ‘O’ of Elia’s incredulity all those years ago flashes like mini smoke-signals connecting her to childhood memories of watching Tonto after school. Of how the sitting brave—whose name people everywhere now know means ‘stupid’—was forced to suffer the worst lines, if ever he was allowed to speak. The Lone Ranger excused for acting as directed; Johnny Depp’s revisionist take, panned. In comparison, she’d hurt—whom?

Arkan-saw: If only she’d got that right. So, she didn’t. So, what?

To the cold shoulders of her schoolmates: Reunion, shmeunion.

For not protesting when called an Oompa-Loompa—even if these days the punies were punching above their height . . . Well, alright, regarding this she was a tonta.

So, speak up?

Just don’t, Mum. Dooa’s plea rings in her ears, this umpteenth time a forever reminder of her daughter’s fears for the worst whenever Uma opened her mouth. And she’d promised: Beyond what she wasn’t (cool), Uma must mind her tongue. Mustn’t be what she was (weird).


She nods, nods, nods.

Sips. Sips. Sips.

Listens. Stays mum.

Uma forgets herself in the heat of the conversations and nearly passes a comment but catches herself. Just in the nick of, too! —Phew! No foot-in-the-mouth disease on display today, people. She arches her back and sits up straight.

Just then her compact falls out of her bag—an open top Lady Dior, much of its contents also spill. Uma picks up the mirror, gathers her wallet, a fountain pen, wipes. Her lipstick’s a gloss. The perfume atomiser, released from its protective pouch, rolls under the table the coffee toting mums are gathered around as a sofa is lifted for her to reach out and retrieve the itinerant container. As she dumps the various accoutrements back inside, protruding ‘O’s in the bag’s iconic quilting nudge, the rub of the criss-crossed lines gentle under her thumb.

How could she not?

Uma laughs and takes her cue.   


About the author


Farriz Mashudi is a former lawyer, journalist, and blogger, turned writer of fiction in short and long forms. Born in Malaysia, she has lived in Canada, Wales, and England. She currently resides in the Middle East. 

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