(excerpt from a forthcoming memoir)
If there were two very close friends in my life and especially during my childhood, they were: 1) An imaginary friend who had multiple personalities who lived on a tree I frequently climb, and 2) Great books I slept with.
I don’t know what fascinated me about the power of words and about imaginary friends I could run around with and have battles with behind locked doors. I will not talk about that imaginary friend for now.
Books, books, books… how great they are. I remember these friends of mine.
I slept with a world history book Sejarah Dunia, ‘Hikayat Bayan Budiman’ and ‘Hikayat Seribu Satu Malam’. I can still remember the delightfully musky smell of those classics. The history book was light green, the Hikayat Bayan Budiman light yellow, and the Hikayat Seribu Satu Malam was light brown… light reading there was not. Then there were also some bawdy Jawi magazines I found at home, called Mustika I secretly read. Scantily-clad Malay women “berkemban” adorned the cover page. They were not real photos but something that looked like water-color paintings.
I read novels too. I found them in my mother’s closet or ‘gerobok’ as the Johoreans would call it. The novels were in Jawi, the Malay writing that uses Arabic scripts. My mother knew I loved reading and subscribed to Reader’s Digest for me to spend time in between eating, roaming the village, and playing soccer alone in the field across my kampong house. I looked forward to the postman delivering each issue of the book that opened windows to the American culture. I loved the feature sections as well as those that made me chuckle and laugh – ‘Humour in Uniform’ and ‘Laughter the Best Medicine’, and in general, what living in America is about.
We didn’t have much in our house – not much “cargo” as the New Guinean Yali, in UCLA evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond’s study Guns Germs, and Steel called possessions — just the basics of a family on the level of village poverty, but I had enough time and interest to read and be wealthy with myths, tales, legends, and stories. My best friends: words. That became flesh. And inscriptions. And installations of spaces of knowledge and power, as I later wrote about in my doctoral dissertation at Columbia University in the City of New York.
A book about a bloody riot
My fondest memory was reading a banned book: Peristiwa 13 Mei 1969 or the Incident of May 13, 1969, written by the first Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman. My mother told me it was “haram” to read it and the book was at home because my father who was a soldier in the Malay Regiment in Singapore was given a copy. He spent many years patrolling the jungles as far as Jesselton, Sabah, fighting the Communists who were keen on taking over Malaya and install a Mao-Leninist style rule. So, my father was in the then British Malaya Malay Regiment, though a mere prebet (private) trying to defend the country from Chin Peng, Rashid Mydin, Abdullah CD, Shamsiah Fakeh, and the merry band of Malayan Commies who knew only violence and terrorism to affect social change.
The banned book on the bloodiest incident in Malayan history were Malays fought and killed the Chinese especially in Kuala Lumpur, was about the prime minister blaming the “young Turk” Dr. Mahathir Mohamad for helping Tun Razak (Najib’s father) to secure power because the young and ambitious leaders were feeling that the first prime minister was giving too much freedom for the Chinese to control the economy. Later I came across many stories concluding that Tun Razak planned the riots so that he could use the Emergency Rule to take over the country. A theory.
That’s the banned book I read when I was a kid. I was of course confused as to why there were also talks that Malay folks in my village were preparing themselves with martial arts skills and “magic powers” and with red headbands with the Arabic phrase “LailahailAllah” (There is no god but God) were getting ready to travel to the city of Kuala Lumpur in the village of Kampung Baru to do one thing: to “slaughter the Chinese”!
(Today, there is a revival of the ideology of Communism in Malaysia, amongst the leftist-activists in her public and private universities.)
Yes, May 13, 1969. What a horrifying memory of a child of perhaps 10 years old to have!
I always had a pocket-sized encyclopedia in my schoolbag; one that has everything about serious and fun facts such as world’s longest, tallest, highest, lowest this and that, capital of cities, famous quotes of the English Language, and tons of information that I could ‘google’ by flipping the pages every time I want I would read the little encyclopedia I bought at an Indian bookstore in the Main Bazaar (Pasar Besar) of Johor Baru of the late sixties.
I was happy that I knew so many things and I could quiz my friends on and be able to answer end-of-day questions on general knowledge my teachers in school would ask the class, the reward for the correct answer was to leave the class five or ten minutes earlier than everybody else.
I could them start playing outside those extra minutes while waiting for my ride home. I could play my ‘bola chopping’, ‘sepak yem’, ‘gundu’, ‘superhero cards’, ‘chepeh’, or those games boys of that time played.
Later when I was sent off to a boarding school in the coastal town of Kuantan at a tender young age of 12, I was introduced to a good librarian (and a homeroom ‘mother’). It was said to be an experimental American school in Malaysia, modeled after the Bronx School of the Gifted in Science and the kids were openly called the “guinea pigs” by the educationists.
We were selected through nationwide IQ tests and most eligible were kids from very poor families who were padi planters, rubber tappers, shopkeepers, and fishermen. In my case, I was a child of a Malay Regiment army prebet (private) and a seamstress who later became an electronic factory worker, assembling microchips for Siemens, in Singapore, going to work at 5 in the morning and coming home on a bus at 7 at night. She raised the five of us with earnings from the two jobs.
Coming from a kampong in Johor Baru and as a child getting chased out of bookstores almost daily for ‘just reading’ and not buying those ‘mini-encyclopedia’ from which I tried to memorize the interesting facts, the Kuantan school was like the Library of Congress! There I read an encyclopedia of Charles Manson cover to cover, a pictorial coffee-table book of ‘The Godfather’, world maps, American movies, the story of rock and roll, and The Beatles. Some of my favorite books I read at fifteen were A. S. Neill’s Summerhill and Dr. Spock’s Radical Child Rearing, and later ‘The Wanderers’.
And I fell in love with the Asterix and The King is a Fink series.
At the age of 12 or 13, too, I got hold of a book Education and Ecstasy by the American social reconstructionist in education, George Leonard. It was in my school’s library. I liked it and read it twice and remembered the part where he discussed the importance of the child, with the help of adult members of the tribe, to speak about what he/she dreamt of as important data to help members of society to move on.
I thought the sight of children sitting in their little ‘chawat’ or tribal hot pants talking about their dreams to adults in bigger ‘chawat’ interpreting dreams was cool. I suppose George Leonard was very much influenced by the idea of the sixties of which Anthropology was beginning to a break-away from its colonial mode’ with actually the influence of Margaret Mead as a ‘spokesperson of the sixties’.
Later Mario Puzo’s The Godfather novel became a favorite, leading me to read more and more stuff from the gangster-movie genre; The Don is Dead, Omerta, Bonnie and Clyde, etc. Another favorite was Papillon, which was later made into a movie starring Steve McQueen.
It was always a pleasure to be in the library stocked with readings on American culture. Whether influential or not, I read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.
No, I was not interested in influencing anyone, not interested in girls, too, because then I thought they were strange annoying creatures, nor was I interested in becoming an influential politician. I was simply interested in the title of it! Sounded like how to see ghosts and communicate with them.
Hanging out, hanging around, and ‘chilling’ I was in that reading joint back in the day, listening to the teachers and the librarian gossiping too.
In my school library
The library sometimes feels like a Barnes and Noble cafe in New York city – there would always be those little boarding school children hanging out, hanging around, and ‘chilling’ with the librarian-cum-homeroom mother and one of my favorite English teachers! May God bless her soul wherever she is. I will write about my other English teachers later. It was also a gossiping joint.
I continue to read Greek and Roman mythology and my World History book (in Malay) every time I go home. The library of Sultanah Aminah in Johor Baru was another place I loved best.
A deeply shining moment in one of my English teacher’s effort to make teaching interesting was when she brought a friend of hers, I think from Universiti Malaya to our English Club meeting and performed this short existentialist play concerning a corpse that kept growing and growing out of the closet, maybe Eugene Ionesco’s short play ‘Amedee’. (Or How to Get Rid of It.)
It was such an effective two-woman performance by the duo Miss Rahmah and Miss Maznah that I got so scared towards the end and had a nightmare right there in the dorm.
That was one of the many moments of effective teaching. Later in life I became very interested in French existentialist literature, reading more Ionesco, and obsessed with Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and finally immersed myself in Existentialism. I went on to read the major classics of English and World Literature.
My English teacher taught me two words with which I can never forget how excited I was when I was in Form One; the words were ‘nocturnal incursion’. I got so obsessed with the words that they became part of me – I started sneaking out at, many nights and got myself free to roam the city of Kuantan at night and see what ‘nocturnal incursions’ means, and what freedom entails or escape from Alcatraz is about.
I read that novel Papillon, about life in a French prison, three times when I was in Form Three. I read ‘The Godfather’ novel five times. Later I found out that Saddam Hussein’s favorite movie was ‘The Godfather’!
She got us to read a novel, Istvan Zolda, about a soldier in Yugoslavia during the time of the war of the Partisans.
When I was in Form One she told me that I had “perfect English”. I was thrilled, excited, flattered. But I found out later that it was not true at all. I still work with brutal editors for all of my writings, while at the same time editing other people’s work.
May all the good work be blessed. Teachers like them are rare these days; they are now politicized.
My mother smarter than Paulo Freire
Such is the joy of reading back in the day – before Facebook, WhatsApp, iPads, and the culture of Mat and Minah Rempit, Jihadists. And terrorists by any name.
And bless my mother’s soul for showing me the power of the word. With her schooling to only Primary Three (Darjah Tiga,) she was smarter than Paulo Freire, the Marxist-Leninist Brazilian educator, I presume. Certainly more peaceful than Marx, Engels, and Lenin combined.
She was my pedagogue. Of hope. And love.