BBC Writing Competition
In January 2006, BBC World invited participants from around the world to submit 200-word stories that evoked their hometowns. The judge was Peter Kemp, fiction editor of the UK Sunday Times, who said that the story had to make the most of just 200 words to evoke a sense of place and what their hometowns meant to the writers.
In choosing “Penang” as the winning story from over 500 entries, Peter said...
"It stood out for me because I think it compressed, in a really magnificent way, so many aspects of the hometown in 199 words. The first thing was that it terrifically evoked all the different senses, the sights, the smells, and the tastes as well. Then it was about someone going back and being recognized. You arrive at the airport and the immigration officer knows that you're back, the taxi driver knows where to take the winner. So it was a little masterpiece of compression, of miniature atmospheric evocation. And it was for that reason that I thought Leela Panikar's evocation of going back to Penang was the one that was the best of a very, very good bunch of entries."
The story was recorded and played on BBC World in March 2006.
I return from a trip.
"Hello, Leela, you are back," calls out the immigration officer at the airport.
"Long time, no see," says the porter.
I jump in a taxi, "Appa khabar". The driver knows my destination, my family home.
At dawn, the air is crisp, ready for the long humid day. I make my way to the Chinese coffee shop, a tin shed, stopping from time to time to be asked after the health of my family. I sit under a tattered umbrella. The owner brings my coffee, thick and sweetened with condensed milk. He remembers. The Indian stall owner is still there: One dosa, please, sambar and coconut chutney.
I sit, I watch — Malays, Indians, Chinese, Eurasians, like ants they stop, greet, ask after families, look into each other's baskets. "What did you buy? How much was it?"
I make my way home. Vegetables are stacked on mats on the pavement, green, yellow, purple, red. I walk through the scent of starfruit, mango, rambutan and durian. The aroma of laksa, char keoy teow, mee goreng and roasted cuttlefish assail my senses.
"Sister, how long are you staying?"
"Not long, I'll be back. My heart is here."