Thursday, October 30, 2008

The 'Thing' At The Window

IT was the third term school holidays and I was waiting for my LCE (Lower Certificate of Education) results when Pah and Ayah (Grandma and Grandpa) decided to pack me off to Ipoh, to spend the school break with paternal grandparents I hardly knew - Megat Khas and Puteri Hawa.

The late Dato Seri Dr Haji Megat Khas was a giant of a man in both stature and reputation. Born in Istana Talang, Kuala Kangsar, in 1908 and a direct descendant of Megat Tarawis, the first Bendahara of Perak, Tok Megat Khas was also the first Malay to be accepted as a member of the prestigious Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh.

He retired as Perak State Physician, after which he started his own private practice. Tok Megat Khas died of a heart attack at the age of 71 in 1979. Datin Seri Hajah Puteri Hawa, my dad’s mother, was his first cousin and the first of his four wives. She was a chain-smoking, fair-skinned, reed-thin gem of a woman whom I adored from the moment I got to know her.

In reality, both the paternal and maternal sides of my family aren’t that far removed despite the differing locale. The common factor was my grandma Puteri Habibah (the one who raised me); herself from the same Megat clan and first cousin to both Tok Megat Khas and Pah Hawa.

She however broke ranks to marry not only a commoner but also a non-Perakian, a double whammy in every sense of the word. Her marrying an ‘outsider’ (a Kelantanese civil servant from Kuala Krai), was considered a serious breach of social and clan etiquette those days, the kind that would earn one a cold shoulder and a snub twice over.

But Grandma had a mind of her own and made her own choices in life. She married for love, even if it meant leaving the realms of title, wealth and comfort, for the unknown. If you are wondering where the stubborn streak in me came from, look no further.

Being raised by the maternal side of the family in faraway Bukit Besi, sans communication with the clan in Perak, I was naturally filled with trepidation at the idea of spending weeks with total strangers. I didn’t know any of these folks. Would they readily accept me, this gauche kampong girl with owlish glasses, who spoke with that funny East Coast twang?

Despite being 17 and English-educated, I was very much a small-town girl at heart. I had never been anywhere by myself, save for school trips within Dungun, school sports meets in Kuala Terengganu, and the occasional family trips to Kota Baru to visit relatives.

All my life till then, I had met the illustrious Tok Megat Khas only twice; the first time age six, taken to Ipoh on the first ‘proper’ train ride of my life (discounting trips to Dungun on the iron ore-carrying wagon train, of course) and the second time age 12, when he visited Dungun on his nationwide tour as the Commissioner of the St John Ambulance Brigade.

The second meeting, in 1966, was incredibly formal and lasted mere minutes. Grandma took me by the hand, led me up the stage and presented me to him soon after he had inspected the St John Ambulance Brigade's guard-of-honour at Dungun’s Padang Astaka. He gave me a peck on the cheek and enveloped me into a bear hug. And that was it!

Happily enough, I found acceptance in Ipoh that school holiday and enjoyed my stay enormously. Aunts and uncles of my own age group took the bright-eyed schoolgirl under their wings. I was taken to parties and social dos. I wore my first strapless dress (Pah would have whacked me had she known!), went to my first dance, and saw my first Hindi movie (Hethi Mere Sathi).

It was a Thursday evening when Pah Hawa suddenly cautioned, after we had just finished dinner, that I should sleep facing the wall instead of the window that night. Asked why, she nonchalantly said something about not wanting me to see things that might scare the sarong off me.

Put that way, of course her incorrigible granddaughter slept facing the window that night, and as predicted, received her dues. I awoke in the middle of the night to see a gigantic black form filling almost the entire span of the glass window. No features were discernible, only a humongous black shape that looked somewhat human.

My heart almost stopped, yet I had the strangest feeling - scared but not quite. It was more a feeling of wonder and fear rolled into one. Nonetheless, I pulled the blanket over my head and recited some Quranic verses. Mercifully, I fell asleep soon after.

I mentioned this to Pah Hawa over breakfast, with Tok Megat Khas listening intently. He didn't say a word but Pah offered some explanation, saying I had just witnessed the manifestation of the family "guardian", (Jin Islam as it were), who had been with the family for centuries, handed over from one generation to the next.

As I understand it, you can't accept or inherit such "guardian' willy-nilly. You must be a strict Muslim who adheres to all the religious practices and demands, things like daily prayers and such. Failure to do so may bring unpleasant consequences to your family, or the "guardian" may just leave.

I have no further explanation to offer on this matter, though. I am not sure where "it" is now; both my grandpa and my dad are gone and I don't believe the present generation inherits it. I did hear something about it when Mum was still alive, but let it remain untold, for now.

A Spooky Tale - The Murdered Man's Blood

SOME people have this ability to 'feel' things. Supernatural things. On one hand it is a blight because it evokes a sense of alarm and anxiety. On the other hand, it can be viewed as a blessing in disguise simply because it puts oneself on constant alert.

This instinctive inclination towards the unseen is something I have come to accept and live with. It is not something that can be breezily explained in simple terms. It's more like a hunch, an inkling, a sensation.

The earliest I could recall was in the early 1960s when I was in primary school in that iron mining station of Bukit Besi, some 22 miles inland from Dungun. I was probably eight or nine at the time.

There was a wooden bridge spanning a placid river right in the heart of Bukit Besi. Located about 1,000 metres away from my house in Kampung Baru, the bridge was the scene of a 'fight-to-the-death' between two Malay men. I no longer remember who and why.

All I could recall was it happened in the late afternoon, and that my grandfather, who had just returned home from work, hurried to the scene, joining the throng of horrified spectators already gathering there.

No one dared go near to pull apart the combating duo, for both were armed. They grappled and fought like men possessed, and eventually one perished on the spot from multiple stab wounds as Maghrib neared.

I can't remember what happened to the other. He must have been arrested by the police; Bukit Besi then had a minuscule police presence, maybe a two-man team.

As the shocked onlookers cleared the erstwhile battleground, for some strange reason, Grandpa joined some brave (maybe foolish?) souls to scoop up the bloodied earth to take home.

To this day I don't know why. He wasn't a bomoh (shaman) or anything; in fact, he was a very warak (pious), God-fearing man, to whom the nearby surau (mini-mosque) was a second home.

The blood-caked earth was then lodged high up on a shelf in the bathroom, and it was in the wee hours of the morning when I was awakened by an almighty din, crushing the stillness of the night to smithereens.

From the bathroom emitted a series of chilling howls and shrieks and screeches in terrifying crescendo, shaking the house to its foundation. The sounds were guttural and piercing, unearthly shrills enough to wake the dead.

And I was the sole beneficiary of this unwelcome racket, while others slumbered on peacefully. Quaking with fear, hardly able to stand and to contain myself (literally too!), I wobbled over, bawling, to my grandparents' bedroom.

Suffice to say Grandpa had enough sense (and courage) to pluck the packet from its perch and place it outside the house that very same morning.

I don't recall what he did with it eventually. He must have buried it high up in the lush hills somewhere, as they were wont to do with such 'unsavoury' baggage those days.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Suffer No More, Little Children

THE fresh mound of red earth, at the far corner of the cemetery to the right, just beside the retaining wall dividing the gravesite and the kampong lane beyond it, has been there since Friday.

I can’t help but notice it every dawn since, not only because it is in my direct line of vision the moment I slide open my balcony doors to invite the new day in, but also because of the seeming neglect of it all.

No flower petals strewn upon it, no pudding bush planted onto it. No stone marker, however modest. Nothing but bare earth, red and upturned, now slowly settling into evenness.

When they started digging the grave on Friday morning, I intuitively knew who it was for, and I hazarded a guess that the burial would be made after Friday prayers. I was spot on.

Barely was prayer over when a meagre procession of men carrying a coffin snaked though the entire length of the cemetery to the far end of this quiet little corner of God’s acre on earth.

From my perch ten floors up I watched with sorrow, for nestling in the simple wooden case were the pitiful remains of two little children, charred beyond recognition.

The little boys perished trying to escape a blazing fire that gutted a two-storey makeshift wooden structure, housing some 50 orphans and destitute children in Kampung Sungai Pencala last Thursday evening.

Why oh why, I asked myself, must they be interred right against the dividing wall on the far right, markedly removed from the cluster of existing graves on the left side of the cemetery?

Is it because one was an orphan and the other a destitute child that even in death they didn’t ‘belong’? Please tell me it is not so.

My heart bled for the innocent souls of the departed, who lived and died as eternal friends, buried in a diminutive single grave dug for two.

But I didn't grieve for long, for they are at peace now. They have gone Home. They are with God; they belong to Heaven. Al-Fatihah.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Ann's Deevali Debut

Ann (in glasses) with her futsal gang, at a friend's wedding

The photojournalist in Krabi last year on assignment

WHAT can I say about Deepavali? Only that each time it comes around, I think of my elder daughter Najiah (whom we call N or Ann), simply because she was born on the morning of Deepavali many years ago.

That she chose to arrive amidst the 'muruku' and 'vadeh' and 'idli' amused us all no end, providing fodder for good-natured ribbing over the years. But she sportingly took it all in her stride, although there were times in her childhood when she lamented: "Apasal la mak beranak kat Ann on Deepavali? Kalau Christmas kan best, dapat present!"

Ann is a go-getter who loves adventure; the most appropriate Malay word to describe her would be 'lasak'. She scuba-dives and keeps the goal in futsal. It's a game she picked up while studying in the US, where she kept goal for her university team as well. Last year she won a couple of awards in a local futsal tournament, namely 'The Best Player' and 'The Find of The Tournament'.

Never one to do things by half, I would like to think that Ann has inherited some of my 'ketegaq' traits. For one, she is fiercely independent, doesn't suffer fools gladly, and very loyal to friends and family alike. Unlike her mother, however, Ann is taking the tried and tested path of laying a solid foundation for her career first before settling down, and I am glad.

To Ann, who recently left news-reporting to become a travel writer for an in-flight magazine, and currently somewhere in southern Thailand on assignment, happy 'Deevali' birthday sweetheart! But no 'puri' for you this Deepavali, Ann. We shall wait until you are home and celebrate your birthday according to the Gregorian calendar, which is the 1st of November.

And to all my Hindu friends, Happy Deepavali.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Bread Pudding's Birthday Surprise

Eastern delights here

The well-polished plates

(Sigh..) the golf wheelings & dealings never end..

The oddball couple....may they be wacky forever..

FOR years, the bread pudding served at the Royal Lake Club in Taman Tasik Perdana had no peers. It was so heavenly that each mouthful was a delight, to be savoured ever so slowly to heighten the pleasure.

Pak Abu and I, being consummate lovers of this delectable English teatime treat - bread pudding aficionados if you will - would go the extra mile to sample this mouth-watering treat anywhere, only to return time and again to the one served at the Royal Lake Club, anointing it as THE one to beat.

Then some time back the Club changed caterers, and the bread pudding standard plummeted. Its fall from grace was total, nose-diving from its prime perch to somewhere at the bottom of the heap. It was that bad.

This new caterer's offering of leathery exterior gave an indication of what to expect and it didn't disappoint. The pudding was consistently hard, its smooth creaminess gone, its custard sauce sickly yellow and lumpy to boot.

I sang a sorrowful dirge and penned my requiem in the memory of the Royal Lake Club bread pudding, lamenting its untimely demise.

This afternoon I was the recipient of a special treat by dear Pak Abu - it being my 54th birthday today - a scrumptious lunch for two at the Sri Angkasa revolving restaurant atop Menara Kuala Lumpur (KL Tower).

I have to add here that I had never step foot inside KL Tower before, despite it having been around for more than a decade (it was officially opened by the then Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir, in 1996).

I had been making the right proper noises at Pak Abu, though, about wanting to visit KL Tower just to find out what the fuss was all about, and of course, to capture an overview of the city.

Well, he decided to give me a lunch treat at KL Tower for my birthday and I must say the experience was well worth the jam; we got stuck for a while at the Bank Negara roundabout.

It totally escaped us that, it being Saturday, city folks would come out in droves for pre-Deepavali shopping at the nearby Jalan Mesjid India.

We arrived 30 minutes after booking time and was fortunate to still have our reservations. There were quite a number of tourists, Caucasians mostly, having their lunch.

Pak Abu and I were intrigued to see some Mat Salleh young men in kain pelikat walking about nonchalantly to and from the food stations, until we were told that bermudas were not allowed in the restaurant and those clad in one would be issued kain pelikat to cover up. What a lovely gesture!

Lunch was buffet, spread over three stations - eastern and western cuisine, and desserts. It was simply delicious. The music (piped-in and 'live') too was commendable, the staff courteous, and to top it all, the bird's eye view of Kuala Lumpur was stunning.

But it was something else that made today's occasion truly a memorable one. We had just discovered a bread pudding to rival even the Royal Lake Club's previously unbeatable offering.

The first mouthful blew me away. It was THAT good. The consistency was just right. The taste, yummylicious! The silky smooth, sunshine-hued sauce draped the raisin-studded pudding like a golden coat.

Now, if bread pudding is your scene, the KL Tower revolving restaurant is the place to be. As the proverb goes; the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Nothing could be more literal that that!

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Rantings of Janda Baik

THERE is a world of difference between janda (divorcee) and balu (widow). A janda gets to be one when she is divorced; a balu earns the title when her man is dead.

The irony is that only when a man is dead and gone does society accord his wife some respect. If he is still alive but chooses to discard the wife for whatever reason, more often than not, the erstwhile spouse, now a janda, is the unwitting recipient of flax from that very same society.

When you are a janda and some horny bast*** harass you sexually, expect no sympathy. No one takes you seriously. People you turn to – family and friends included - are reluctant to believe you. Many think you got it coming.

The image of the pleasant, housewifely you that they have known all those years somehow goes down the drain the moment you turn janda. You have been conveniently transformed into a man-eater in the blink of an eye.

If you get sexually harassed, it's your fault. You must have initiated it. You must have given the SOB the eye. In other words, you asked for it. You are a janda after all; so it must be your own doing. The fault lies squarely at your doorstep. No two ways about it.

By anyone’s reckoning, a janda belongs to that vile specie of sexually starved vixens with tentacles out to trap any unsuspecting male (especially someone else’s husband) and milk him dry, in more ways than one. To all and sundry, a janda has nothing but sex on her mind and that all she wants in life is to get laid.

Well, I’ve got news for you. And I speak with the highest authority on Jandahood because once upon a time I too inhabited Jandaland; not a pretty place to be for sure, but to the likes of some of us, it was home (even if for a while).

Although I eventually took the late train out, I faced enough to make me want to kick the groin of every man I met. Read on and you’ll understand why I held men (in general) in poor regard.

Bear with me please, for I am not out to diss men. There are some good ones out there, I know (and I married one too, bless his heart), and I salute them all. My diatribe is targeted at the scumbags and they should know who they are.

Being a janda was no fun. Married women kept you at arm’s length; they had husbands to worry about. Single women didn’t want to be your friend either; they saw you as competitor, even though you couldn’t care less about a prick (you left one, remember?)

Men – married, single, available, whatever – saw you as easy meat. To their sick mind, you had been deprived of the pleasures of the flesh that you must be dying for a poke. And they thought they were such pokers extraordinaire that you simply must sample their ware.

They failed to see that you were sick to death of anything that spelt P; prick, poker, pecker, to name but a few. In fact, you would rather immerse yourself in ice than go anywhere near one.

In 1988, age 34 and a year into my jandahood, I received a phone call from someone pretty high up in a key government establishment, asking me to present myself at his 6th floor office in downtown Kuala Lumpur “for a story.”

Because I don’t want to get my knickers into a twist (I didn’t then and certainly don’t want now!), I shall abstain from revealing too much details, to protect the innocent family of the SOB (who, by the way, is still alive and kicking, and living in relative comfort). I hope he reads my blog because I want to say “up yours!”

Sensing a scoop (ever the reporter that I was), I hastened to his office. I had never met this man before but knew of him, of course. He was a familiar figure to the press corp.

I was ushered into his office by an assistant and made myself comfortable on a sofa while he attended to some stuff at his desk, after which he came around and sat next to me.

Lo and behold! He held my hands – this cretin who was a total stranger – and boldly said: “I have a good proposition to make to you. All you have to do is say yes and we shall both be very happy. Think about it and let me know of your decision.”

By then I realised it was no scoop I was getting. To get to the gist of it – he offered to install me in an apartment somewhere, pay for all my expenses, provide me with a car and “whatever you need”, all for the price of regular ‘service’. Simply put, I had just been asked to whore myself.

Suffice to say the blood drained from my face. Thoughts raced in my mind. I resolved not to upset him with harsh words because I was on foreign territory – his – and I didn’t know how he would react. Instead I played dumb. That probably saved me that day.

I told him to let me mull over it. He said he would send me back to my office in his official car. So he escorted me down, got into the back seat and held my hands all the way from his office to mine in Jalan Riong, Bangsar. I decided the best way to handle the situation was to be as calm as possible in his presence.

Firstly I asked him how he got to know about me. He said someone from MY office (his regular contact and my own colleague as it turned out to be, that despicable scrap of humanity!) alerted him that there was a recently divorced lady reporter worth trying his luck on.

Sadly enough, a lot of men out there think women journalists are easy pickings, just because they run around so much, meeting people and chasing after stories. Well, listen to me and listen hard. They aren’t. So keep your pecker where it belongs. We have no use for it.

Anyway, the moment I reached Balai Berita, I rushed into the office of K. C. Boey, my editor, plonked myself in front of him and cried. He was pretty pissed too and asked whether I wanted to make a case out of it.

Since it was very much a "her-word-against-his" situation, with nary a witness, we decided not to. We were sure the SOB's assistant and chauffeur would not upset the status quo, given the circumstances.

Boey said he would devise a way to protect me from this man, and he did. The plan involved my fellow colleagues in the Malay Mail who took turns screening all my calls.

The SOB tried to get through to me a couple of times but was intercepted by my colleagues. In the end he wised up to the game and gave up.

It was a painful episode in my life, to be thought of in such a humiliating way. To be so brazenly approached, with a proposal to become someone's perempuan simpanan (kept woman), was the ultimate insult to my janda dignity. That harrowing incident, in no small way, contributed to my decision to lay off men and marriage.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

TSM Charity Golf (TSMCG) Raya Do

TSMCG founder members Dato' Mustapha Buang (right) and Tn Hj Hashim Harun (middle), taking a breather

TSMCG Founder & Patron, Tan Sri Muhyiddin with TSMCG advisor Tan Sri Shamsuddin of Sapura (left) and other guests

Guests enjoying the raya spread

TSMCG member, Tn Hj Sulaiman (in baju melayu) with firm supporter En Azizul Kallahan (standing) and guest En Zainal

Kama taking Qs from the Press, with TSMCG executive Eida (left, in blue) looking on

Entertaining orphans from Rumah Anak-anak Yatim dan Ibu Tunggal Kg Medan

It's duit raya time! Puan Sri Noraini doing the honours, flanked by Tan Sri (right) and TSMCG GM, Tn Syed Muhd Zahid.

A queue worth joining.... orphans getting in line for bersalam & duit raya from the Founder.

TSMCG member Tn Hj Jamil (right) with guests

Tan Sri Muhyiddin Charity Golf (TSMCG), a non-profit NGO that raises funds for charity by way of corporate & individual sponsorship of golf and related events, held its first Hari Raya open house this evening (Wednesday 22nd October 2008) at the Kuala Lumpur Golf & Country Club, Bukit Kiara.

Some 300 guests attended the function. They included political figures, donors and supporters of TSMCG's various charitable undertakings, as well as orphans and single mothers from Rumah Anak Yatim dan Ibu Tunggal Kampung Medan. Petaling Jaya.

TSMCG was founded by Cabinet Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Mohd Yassin five years ago, mainly to assist financially strapped tertiary students studying abroad. It has since progressed to providing help and assistance to the underprivileged and the needy, especially children, single mothers and the ederly, as well as to disaster victims here and abroad.

TSMCG has a select membership of 22, comprising industry leaders, corporate figures, professionals and politicians, all of whom share a passion for golf, who use golf as a platform to raise money for the organisation's various charity projects.

TSNCG recently embarked on a new project - to set up a dialysis centre offering free or minimal fee treatment for needy kidney patients in Klang Valley. It is now in the process of raising funds to turn this dream into reality.

[We organise charity games abroad twice yearly as part of our fund-raising programmes. Last year we went to Auckland and Surabaya, the year before to Gold Coast and Jakarta. This year it was to have been Sydney and Bandung but Sydney had to be cancelled due to circumstances beyond our control (read PRU and its messy aftermath). The Bandung trip is still on, in December 2008].

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Sweet Smell of Heaven

The Rehal (Quran Stand)

Over the weekend, we were invited by our adopted son to dinner at his girlfriend's pad in Pantai Hillpark, where I spied two obviously well-fed cats sprawled contentedly on the wooden floor of her plant-filled, kerchief-sized balcony.

The duo, one a local breed with orange and white markings and the other greyish white peculiar to Siamese stock, eyed me with interest as I advanced to give them a pat each. As soon as I reached them however, both bolted. But not for long.

The orange cat proved friendlier than the two, for she later waddled over to the well-scratched, cream-coloured sofa where I sat, and rubbed her body against my leg. The Siamese at first kept his distance but later cautiously approached and started sniffing at my handbag on the floor by the sofa side.

That was when the girlfriend said "Uh oh!". I looked up enquiringly, and she explained that the cat had bad breath. No, make that awfully, incredibly foul breath. "Habislah your handbag!" She added for good measure.

Obviously she didn't know me well. My love for these furry felines is such that I could, and would, endure anything just so I could have them near, for a touch or a cuddle. Also, I have had numerous cats with unbelieveably rancid breath before, so it was no issue.

She said she had taken the cat to the vet, who had told her that the poor thing had gum problems. At nine years of age (63 in human years) there was nothing much that could be done except to put him on prescription. And he has been taking medication regularly ever since.

The cat's rotten breath somehow rekindled bittersweet memories long dormant when I got home that night, and I resolved to write about it when the time was right. Well, here it is. By the way, it is not just another story. It is a lesson well-learned.

Unlike many children, I started learning the Quran later than most. I finished the Muqadam (a collection of must-learn verses, the minor Quran as they call it) at the age of 10 and started on the Holy Book proper only at 13.

At that time my grandfather had just retired from his clerical job at the Bukit Besi iron mine. He bought a piece of land in Dungun, 22 miles southwards by the sea. It was a prime acre by the main road not far from Dungun General Hospital.

There he built a two-storey building, turned the ground floor into a sundry shop and the top floor into our living quarters. He also built a single-storey shoplot next to the building, and two units of kampung houses behind the main building. All three were then rented out.

The single-storey shoplot saw many tenants over the years during my childhood but none as memorable as imperious Mok Ku Teh, the blue-blooded baulu maker.

For the uninitiated, baulu is a a traditional kueh (sweetmeat), a kind of spongy cake made of lots and lots of eggs and sugar, and good as a teatime treat. Kampung people usually eat it dunked in black coffee.

Fair-skinned Mok Ku must have been a real beauty in her youth; she was still comely in her 50s. I am not privy to how Mok Ku and Grandma came to know each other, but they were the best of friends. Now, Mok Ku Teh's baulu was famous throughout Dungun and that I can vouch for.

My best friend Hamidah (daughter of the family maid/helper, Mok Cik Selema), whom my grandparents adopted to keep me company, and I sometimes would go over to Mok Ku Teh's little shop next door and watch her at work. She wouldn't allow us to help, though.

At around 3pm on certain schooldays and most weekends, Hamidah and I, dressed in baju kurung, with a selendang covering our hair and a copy of the Quran under our arms, would trudge along the criss-crossing kampung path, walking past tall, swaying coconut trees, clumps of kemunting (purple berry) bushes, and attap-thatched huts, to a wooden house on stilts belonging to Tok Ku, our Quran teacher.

Upon arrival, our first task would be to draw water from a nearby well and fill the two humongous tempayan (water jars) flanking the wooden stairs leading up to her house. Then we would wash our feet using a gayung (a kind of ladle) made of coconut shell, before entering the house for our daily lessons.

We would sit in a complete circle around her, our Quran in place on a carved wooden rehal (special Quran stand, pix above) and begin reciting. The number of students at any one time varied, usually 10 to 15, boys as well as girls.

The birdlike old lady was Mok Ku Teh's mother. While not imperious as the daughter, Tok Ku was nonetheless one fierce teacher who taught with a cane in hand. She would make us recite the verses over and over again until she was satisfied with our pronunciation.

Now, Tok Ku had one major problem. Her breath was a real stinker. Even now, I feel like a snitch telling this story, but you have to hear me out. For a good reason.

Of course, now that I am almost as old as Tok Ku then, I know she was probably suffering from halitosis. Whatever the case, Hamidah and I almost always nearly gagged when she peered into our faces to correct our recitation.

It wasn't long before Tok Ku's predicament came to my grandmother's knowledge, no thanks to my blabbering. I didn't realise Grandma overheard my bellyaching, and asked me about it. My woes came pouring out - how we couldn't stand the foul smell and didn't feel like continuing our lessons with her.

When I finished griping, Grandma took a deep breath, looked me in the eye and said evenly: "What you smell is not stench, it is the sweet smell of heaven, from the mouth of an old woman who teaches the verses of the Holy Quran to an ignoramus like you."

I was speechless. And properly chastised. Truth be told, in the months to come, her bad breath became tolerable to the point where it ceased to be a problem because, somehow, we were no longer aware of it. Thanks to that blessed woman, Hamidah and I completed the entire Quran almost two years later...

Monday, October 20, 2008

What Will Be, Will Be (Final)

IT was a whole new world out there in Kuala Lumpur, running around covering assignments of all manner and kind, and enthusiastically chasing after stories, as rookie reporters are wont to do.

Assigned to the afternoon daily, The Malay Mail (then the only noon paper around), my life revolved around work and nothing much else. The hours, long and arduous, were at the expense of my social life, but being social was the least of all my concerns.

Journalists (then and now) tend to date and eventually marry each other, and I was no exception. Having a fellow scribe as one's spouse in a way eliminates potential misunderstanding and mistrust as he/she understands the nature of one's work, especially the long hours involved.

I dated N, a fellow journalist, whom I eventually married, followed him to London where he was posted as a correspondent, returned home with a baby in tow and moved to Kuantan on yet another posting, where two more tykes came our way.

The close proximity between Kuantan and Dungun saw us driving up to visit Grandma and Grandpa often, mostly to let loose the children on their doting great-grandparents. Occasionally we would take in Kuala Terengganu as well, day trips mostly, to shop and poke around.

It was during one of those trips that I inadvertently ran into my erstwhile suitor Z, the English teacher. My two little boys and I were looking at some batik and brassware in the marketplace of Kedai Payang while their father was somewhere ahead at one of the stalls, when Z came sauntering down the narrow pathway.

We chatted civilly for a while, with him making the appropriate kind comments about the children. But when I asked about his marital status, his face changed: “Hati yang luka masih belum terubat dan sekarang sakit balik bila tengok you dengan anak-anak you.” Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.

[My heart has yet to heal and now it is wounded afresh when I see you with your children].

It has been 29 years since that fateful meeting in Kedai Payang. I have not met him since. Wherever he is today, I hope he has found love and happiness. Z was a good man with good intentions. Only time wasn't on his side where I was concerned.

In 1980, my indefatigable grandmother passed away of cancer at the age of 59. Her sudden departure left a void so big that until today my heart aches at the mere thought of her. She was larger than life and when she died, part of me died with her.

A year later N was posted back to the head office. I took the opportunity to return to school, entering Mara Institute of Technology (ITM) as a full-time student, to study tourism management and administration.

I had earlier applied for a place in the School of Mass Communications, but was unsuccessful because I did not possess Higher School Certificate (HSC), and my MCE together with journalistic experience were deemed inadequate. Tourism was offered as an alternative, and I took it as other options were unappealingly business-based.

Be that as it may, at 26, with three children age 6, 4 and 2, I was the oldest student in my class and the only one given the NR (non-residential) privilege because as a wife and mother, I couldn't possibly board at the hostel. I graduated top ten of the class at the age of 30, mighty pleased with my own little academic achievement.

While I rued the fact that Grandma wasn't around to see me earn that scroll, I was happy Grandpa was, to share my joy. He died of old age in the mid-1990s. With the passing of the two beloved, a key chapter of my tumultuous life came to a close.

The year 1985 marked both a low and high point of my life; low because I had to decline offers from a couple of universities in the US due to N's adamant refusal to allow me to further my studies, and high because of the unexpected and unplanned yet welcomed arrival of my youngest child.

She was my muse in my moments of despondency due to N's reluctance to give me an opportunity to achieve my ultimate dream - to become an English lecturer. In more ways than one, that was a contributing factor to the big D.

After failing to to continue my studies, I returned to my old life in the Malay Mail, but the marriage began crumbling from within. I was firm in my belief of "bertolak ansur" (give and take) in a marriage. The will of one party should not be imposed on the other.

Where I had expected support, I found strong resistance and outright denial that left my dream in tatters. The marriage ended in 1987. I am not proud to say I initiated and walked out of it, bt I did.

Not long after the split, I made a major shift in my life's direction. I left journalism for public relations, because working under the same roof with an ex-spouse after a divorce proved both awkward and uncomfortable, especially if you kept bumping into each other at the coffee machine!

The split was, however, an amicable one and we remain friends until today. While N remarried a year after the big D, I chose to stay single, raising my four children alone. I was happy and contented as a single mother. As God wills it, Pak Abu came into the picture in 2001.

Today, the kids are working and living on their own. Two are in the media while the remaining two are in advertising. Pak Abu's three children are also in the workforce and leading their own lives. None of the seven are married. Yet.

By the way, I am not done with school. I started my Masters programme in communication studies in UiTM five years ago, but gave up soon after due to overwhelming workload at the office. I couldn't cope with both work and study.

At 54, I am now semi-retired, doing public relations consultancy work for a select clientele. I have a few loose ends to tie before the curtains are drawn on my life. I would like to pick up where I left off, studywise. And I would like to teach. English, if possible. It's self-actualisation.

Funny how life turns out. I have come full circle. Those days I couldn't wait to pack my bags and quit school. Today I am hankering to go back to the books.

Looking back, my protracted academic journey, with all its unexpected twists and turns, was as meandering as the placid and lazy Dungun River itself. But I have no regrets. Whatever the obstacles, life has alway been beautiful, and by the grace of God, will continue to be.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

What Will Be, Will Be ( V )

WANTING to break free from the shackles of school was one thing, but it was quite another to try and convince the one footing all your accumulated bills that quitting school was your wisest decision yet.

I had created enough havoc in the reasonably placid lives of my long-suffering grandparents that I was loathe to surprise them with yet another bombshell – that sixth form and I didn’t quite see eye to eye.

They had left me in Kuala Terengganu with such happy thoughts and a long sigh of relief; that the dust had finally settled on their highly-strung and fiercely independent scamp of a granddaughter.

They were looking forward to some semblance of peace and tranquility in their own lives, now that I was safely cocooned in the arms of Sultan Suleiman (the school, not the ruler). Little did they know their lives were about to be rudely upended once again.

It is said that if you pray hard enough, your prayer might just be answered for God listens, and He listens well. I must have prayed harder than usual, because an escape hatch had opened suddenly and unexpectedly.

Scanning the newspapers one day, I spied something that was to change my life forever. Nestled within the classifieds pages of the New Straits Times (NST) was an advertisement seeking recruitment of fresh talents for publications under the national daily.

Without further ado I submitted my application, well knowing it was a mighty long shot. An 18 year-old schoolgirl, I had neither the experience nor the qualification to become a newspaper reporter. Would they as much as cast a look in my direction?

To my utter surprise, a letter arrived from the NST head office in Kuala Lumpur, asking me to present myself at their regional office in Kota Baru, Kelantan, for a preliminary written test.

Taking my housemates into confidence, not to mention borrowing their money for good measure, I quietly made the three-hour trip to Kota Baru. I remember skipping a day of school for it but couldn't for the life of me recall the excuse that I gave.

It was not long before another letter presented itself from NST, asking me to sit for a second written test as well as to attend a personal interview, this time at the NST main office in Kuala Lumpur.

Thinking long and hard, the schemer in me began mulling over a plethora of plausible excuses to be presented to my grandparents on the need to be in Kuala Lumpur, before I realised the interview date coincided with the second term school holidays.

Heaving a sigh of relief, I just knew what to do. And so it was that the term break saw me ‘visiting’ Kuala Lumpur, playing tourist purportedly to reward myself for a job well-done with regards my MCE examination.

Frankly, I don't think I even saw as much as a shopping centre (except perhaps Foch Avenue for the change of bus), for I spent my entire time in NST, firstly to complete a series of essays and secondly to attend a lengthy personal interview.

I put up with my kindly aunt and her family in Cheras during that memorable trip. I did draw her into my confidence, safe in my knowledge that she wasn't the kind to blab, not even to her own mother.

But one can only stretch it so far. When the offer letter from NST finally arrived, I had no choice but to own up and tell the truth, or decline the job offer. I chose to face Grandma’s wrath head-on.

Surprisingly, she didn’t as much as bat an eyelid. She must have given up on me and my wily ways. With the benefit of hindsight, I think she wised up long before to my miserable antics, but chose to give me ‘face’. For all my plotting and conniving, the old lady just looked at me straight in the eye and said:

“Pah nak sangat tengok awak masuk universiti, pakai jubah, pakai topi segi, dapat ijazah. Nampaknya tak kesampaianlah hajat Pah.” (I had so much wanted to have you go to university, and see you in the robe, with the mortar board on your head and the scroll in your hand. Looks like it is not going to be).

I felt like a worthless little worm. I wanted to crawl into a wormhole, never to surface ever again. I knew I had let my grandparents down with my decision.

It was one thing to quit STF - a major examination was at stake - but quitting Form Six (and the certainty of university) for a mere job was something else altogether. Couldn't I at least wait until university and graduation?

Therein lies my problem (then and now). It would be easier to rein a wild horse than to curb my will. The lure of journalism was too strong, the pull too great, that I just couldn’t let an opportunity like the NST job offer pass me by. It was the fulfilment of a long-cherished dream.

If I got past Grandma with hardly a whimper, I wasn’t so lucky with poor Z. He was so crestfallen that he cried. And so did I. He said my moving to Kuala Lumpur would spell the death of whatever we had between us.

Deep in my heart I knew nothing would die between us, simply because there was nothing alive to begin with. I held him in affection, not love. Maybe, given the liberty of time, that affection could have developed into real love.

But time was a commodity I could ill-afford. And for that matter, so was love. As matters stood, it was a one-way traffic from day one, with him as the ardent pursuer and me the reluctant obliger.

But it wasn’t easy to rationalise when you were breaking someone’s heart, even if you didn’t mean to, for the heart is such a fragile thing.

But I had a future to consider and that future did not involve love for a man, only love for the written word. Nothing could be more real or genuine. Anything as inconsequential as marriage and family had to wait.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

What Will Be, Will Be ( IV)

THE capacious wooden structure on stilts, with its narrow anjung (verandah) and intricately carved window panels, was typical of a Trengganu kampung house. It had a large, open compound and an enclosed well. There was electricity but no piped water.

In May 1973, the weatherworn brown structure was home to ten out-of-town young women. Its location, about 300 metres off the main road and some four miles from the Sultan Sulaiman Secondary School (SSSS), approaching from Kuala Ibai side that is, was ideal for us.

Six formers all, I was the solo representative among them to be in SSSS; the rest were in a private college called Maktab Adabi. We commuted by bus daily to attend classes while friendly neighbours kept an eye on the house in our absence.

There was a wakaf (open-sided shelter) 50 metres away from our doorsteps and the presence of ten teenage kampung maidens in such close proximity to the public shelter naturally attracted the attention of young, hot-blooded Trengganu males.

Most evenings saw bicycles and motorcycles parked this way and that all around the wakaf, their riders idling in groups on the wooden platform, smoking and trading light banter, with one eye trained on the open windows of the house on stilts.

[By way of mention, so were much much older men, who would lounge about rolling their rokok daun and playing dam (Chinese checkers) while surreptitiously watching the movements within the house]

There was nothing in the house save for our clothing, books, a transistor radio or two, and some cooking utensils. All of us slept in rows, on mengkuang mats laid on wooden planks in the big room within, and took turns to cook and fill the enormous dragon-motif clay tempayan (water jars) with water drawn from the well.

With the exception of myself, all the girls were decent cooks. Cooking was done on both dapur minyak (gasoline cooker) which I could handle, and dapur arang (open fire) which I definitely couldn't. Although we took turns in the kitchen, a couple of girls did it more often than the rest because they wanted to.

My housemates knew how to turn out good fluffy nasi (rice) on dapur arang. I couldn't even do justice to rice on dapur minyak. In 1973, there was no electric rice cooker in our lives to begin with. Such extravagance was only the preserve of city folks. Our lauk-pauk were simple but nutritious; ikan singgang, fried vegetables, sambal belacan and ulam.

By contrast, my culinary contribution did not go beyond 'kari ikan sadin', an unappetising, unimaginative and only reluctantly appreciated hodge podge of curry powder and coconut milk, into which were unceremoniously dumped a couple of cans of tinned mackerel.

That signature dish of mine eventually became the butt of good-natured ribbing amongst us. Not that I minded because I knew I wasn't kitchen material.

I had contemplated entering Mara Institute of Technology (ITM) in Shah Alam after MCE, but had somehow missed the deadline of the first intake. My grandparents, however, would rather I enter Form Six like my uncle Ayah Cik Ali had done, and subsequently go to university.

To them, sixth form was the true and tested path to tertiary education. While I wasn't exactly sold on the idea, it did seem like a good one at the time, in the light of the missed ITM deadline.

By any yardstick, I was off to a good start in SSSS. At the close of the orientation week, I was crowned Freshie Queen 1973, my takings being a sash, a bouquet of flowers, some books, and a bashful peck from the Freshie King!

School life was boringly monotonous. Of the six formers in SSSS then, I could only remember one girl - Mahdiah her name was, I think - all because she was the only student who drove to school. My provincial mind couldn't comprehend a schoolgirl driving to school in her own car. But she was distant and aloof, so there was hardly any interaction between us.

Barely a month into Lower Six, my social life took on a life of its own. Z, a young English teacher from Sekolah Menengah Sultan Zainal Abidin started courting me in earnest. Z was an old school friend from my Dungun days.

Four years older, Z was completing Form Five in Dungun when I first joined DESS. We remained friends throughout the years, and he visited my house once in Dungun during my STF school holidays in 1971. I believe he went for a three-year stint in a teachers' college to acquire a teaching diploma after his MCE.

Truthfully, I was oblivious to the fact that Z was holding a candle for me over the years. Had he not admitted to as much, I would still be in the dark. I guess, like most patient young men, he bid his time, getting into the act only when the coast seemed clear.

Z had a Vespa. He would fetch me from home in the evenings, sometimes for tea at Mok Mek's famous 'kropok lekor' coffeeshop in Kampung China; other times to make up the crowd during the recordings of Radio Malaysia Kuala Terengganu programmes at the RTM auditorium.

But most times Z and I would motor to Pantai Batu Buruk where we would sit together and talk. Z was a quiet but intense young man with two primary missions in life - to teach English and to make me his wife. He had achieved one and was seriously pursuing the other.

Occasionally he would take me home to see his widowed mum - they lived in Losong - where I would end up helping her in the kitchen and having dinner together with the family. At 18, I was still dense enough not understand the significance of all these manoeuverings until much later.

I wasn't happy in Form Six. After all the trials and tribulations of STF and DESS, school had lost much of its shine. The restless spirit in me balked at being reined. The aspiring scribe in me chafed to write, to create.

I wanted freedom - from textbooks, teachers, lessons - maybe even from the the earnest but brooding young English teacher whose increasing ardour was beginning to alarm and unnerve me somewhat.

I was 18 years old; I didn't want marriage, not by a long shot. I wanted to hitch my wagon to the stars....

Friday, October 17, 2008

What Will Be, Will Be ( III )

IF at all there was any resolution made during that soul-searching year-end school holiday of 1971, it was this: no way was I going back to a science class. Instead I would try to worm my way into Form Five Arts, whatever the cost.

Of course it was easier said than done as later events proved. In any case, the Form Five Arts class teacher I poured my heart out to upon returning to STF, understood my predicament and allowed me to join her class.

And so it was that I took my place at the back row of Form Five Arts, Class of 1972, Sekolah Tun Fatimah, happy as a lark, with a spring in my step and a lilt in my voice. I felt rejuvenated. I had a renewed sense of purpose. The dark clouds had finally lifted. So I thought.

Three months into Form Five Arts, all of us MCE exam candidates had to fill in some forms, one of which required us to list our examination subjects. Soon enough, I found myself ushered into the office of the headmistress, Cik K.

Cik K wanted to know why I listed Arts stream subjects for MCE when I was a Pure Science student. What happened to Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Additional Mathematics? Cornered, I told her the truth about switching streams.

She went red in the face and launched into a tirade, chiding me for my brazen action. “You are not allowed to switch streams. You were sent here to do Science and you shall do Science. If you insist on doing Arts, you can’t stay in STF. You have to leave. I shall not have you switching streams in this school.”

I pleaded. I cajoled. I wept. I begged and implored her to make an exception in my case. I appealed to her conscience and beseeched her for mercy. I promised her I would not let the school down. I told her I knew I would rise to the occasion in Arts.

I might as well be talking to a brick wall. She shut her mind to my pleas and repeated the threat of kicking me out of STF altogether should I fail to return to Science on the double. And then she asked me to leave her room, but not before giving me a parting shot. I have never forgotten those words and never will.

If I ever see you in the Arts class again, you better pack your bags because you are not staying here. You can go back to your old school. But mark my word. You won’t be able to cope and you shall fail your MCE miserably.”

My last day in STF was the hardest ever. I never thought I would leave in such an ignominious manner. Simply put, I was kicked out of an elite school for the 'unforgiveable crime' of switching streams.

I did not breach any school rules nor was I hauled up for any grievous misdeeds. All I did was switch from Science to Arts. But my action was unacceptable to the headmistress of STF. There was no compassion for me. So I had to leave.

The MCE exam was topmost in my mind. I would not take a chance on Chemistry just to remain in STF. If I had to go in order to succeed, I would, everything else be damned.

Actually I was extremely disappointed that Cik K didn't see it fit to give me a running chance. I attributed it to my lack of history in STF. Had I been with the school from the beginning, I don't think I would have been so shoddily treated.

There was a shocked silence when I reported for class in Dungun English Secondary School at the beginning of second term. I felt so small, my tail tucked between my legs.

But never underestimate the power of true friendship. Once the mist had cleared, everyone rallied around and I found myself back among old friends. And the teachers were simply great. One thing about provincial schools; the caring was genuine.

I knew I was at a disadvantage. I had lost one full year of lessons in certain subjects, but I had no choice but to take those subjects to fulfil exam requirements. I had to replace the four Pure Science subjects that I gave up with four others from the Arts grouping.

I opted for General Science, Mathematics, History and Malay Literature. The first two were a shoo-in but the subsequent two were tough as hell since I had to start from scratch, having to cover Form Four work as well.

So I crammed like crazy. I covered Malay Literature and History in six months instead of the standard two years. I was single-minded in my pursuit. I must excel in MCE, just to prove to the STF headmistress that I wasn't the birdbrain she took me to be.

Malay Literature wasn't easy. Without any foundation, one would not be able to understand a single thing. But I had a wonderfully patient teacher who understood my predicament and spent time guiding me though the literary maze.

That teacher is today the well-known but humble Datuk Mustafa Ali, the PAS Commissioner of Terengganu. To him I owe a big portion of my academic success. Cikgu Pa, THANK YOU.

It's true what they say about every cloud having a silver lining. Mine came in the form of Cikgu Jawariah Mohamud, an angel of a cikgu, who taught English .

Upon learning of my deep interest in and affinity with the language, she took me under her wings, lending me books and helping me with my writing. I was pleasantly surprised to learn Cik Jawariah too was a former student of STF (Class of 1964).

And she penned the following comforting words in my autograph book: "Science is for those who learn; poetry, for those who know." J. Roux.

The day the MCE results were announced, I was among the first to arrive in school to collect mine. I knew I had done my best and I was prepared for any eventuality.

My hands shook when the result slip was handed to me but the smile on my teacher's face comforted me somewhat.

Given the circumstances, my results, while not spectacular, were more than decent. I scored distinctions in both English and Bahasa Malaysia, and a string of credits elsewhere.

Both my grandparents shed happy tears. I didn't. I just bawled. Grandpa wrote a long, stinging letter to Cik K, detailing my MCE results. Of course there was no reply.

Me? I didn't waste much time celebrating because Sixth Form beckoned invitingly in Sultan Sulaiman Secondary School, Kuala Terengganu. But that's another story.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

What Will Be, Will Be ( II )

SEKOLAH Tun Fatimah (STF) in the 1970s, with its sprawling confines and musty whiff of intellectual aura, was truly intimidating to a naive teenage girl from the backwaters of Terengganu, especially one who had never stepped foot inside a fenced-up academic institution with a stern-looking sentry manning the entrance.

But there was no turning back. Come hell or high water, I had said yes to STF, so this was it. I opted to accept the placement offer for three reasons; (1) to satisfy my own curiosity and inquisitiveness about boarding school life, (2) because my younger sister was already there, and (3) to make my grandparents happy.

Of all three, it was the third reason that mattered most of all. Spurred by the sterling success of Mohd Ali, their son and my maternal uncle, Grandpa and Grandma now latched their hope onto hapless me.

I had impossibly big shoes to fill, for Ayah Cik Ali had inadvertently set the standard by which we, his nieces and nephews, had no choice but to follow and hopefully, surpass.

He had made his parents proud with all his achievements, academic or otherwise. A Colombo Plan scholar, he graduated in telecommunications engineering from New Zealand, joined Telecoms Department as an engineer and rose to become the Director-General of Telecoms before retiring in the mid-1990s.

He was the family beacon and I was to walk in his shoes. In reality, all I ever managed to do was shuffle alongside his footprints. It wasn't long before I realised the impossibility of my assigned task.

The answer was as clear as day; we weren’t cut from the same cloth. I wasn’t born to tangle with science, but to dance with words. Be that as it may, my love affair with STF was doomed from the very beginning.

Life with 400 incredibly brainy (and feisty) girls of all shapes and sizes, age ranging from 13 to 19, was full of surprises. It was also unsettling and dowright scary.

First and foremost, I learned to my utter dismay that I wasn’t as smart and clever as I thought. That realisation, to a certain degree, affected my sway and self-confidence.

Secondly, I had to do my own laundry. All my life, this was the servant’s territory and suddenly it was imposed on me. It took a while getting used to, a humbling experience nonetheless.

Thirdly, my love for the arts had no place in an elite school like STF. Emphasis was placed on the sciences – biology, chemistry, physics, additional mathematics – that any expressed interest for the arts was met with a pitying look, if not a downright smirk.

Newcomers like me (those entering the school in Form Four or Six) were not at liberty to opt for the arts. We were plucked out of our old schools to do science, and do it we must. Opting for the arts was only the privilege of those who had been with the school from the very beginning i.e. from Form One.

My “Form Four Pure Science” journey for the entire year of 1971 was arduous, for I found difficulties coping with Chemistry. It didn’t help that I had an ogre of a Chemistry teacher whose despicable antics only increased my loathing for the subject.

Since then I have yet to meet a teacher like her and have often wondered how a woman with such an unpleasant disposition got to be a teacher in the first place. She had only mean bones in her body. She had a permanent scowl and the tendency to shriek like a banshee.

I was her hapless victim all the time because of my perceived denseness in Chemistry. The truth was my mind went into instant paralysis at the sight of her that I actually forgot every single formula I had ever learned, rendering me completely useless in the science lab.

Her treatment of me was theatrical but cut deep in my heart. She would poke her finger at my forehead and screeched: “Stupid! Stupid! How did you get to be so stupid???” It was a searingly painful year, Chemistry-wise.

I also had problems with additional mathematics but my uncle Ayah Cik Ali, then based in JB, helped ease the dilemma by faithfully turning up every Saturday to give me personalised tuition at the canteen. That helped tremendously.

Off the classroom, I was my usual active self but deep down, I harboured a secret fear. With my self-confidence chipping away due to that troublesome Chemistry issue, I knew if I were to sit tight and do nothing, I wouldn’t be able to get past my Malaysian Certificate of Education (MCE, equivalent to today’s SPM), given the circumstances.

And if I failed, I would not only embarrass myself but also my entire family. For a family as education-driven as ours, failure was not an option. I had to succeed. I must pass MCE at whatever cost. In fact, I was expected not just to pass the exam but to spectacularly score as well.

As predicted, I failed Chemistry – lock, stock and barrel – in Form Four. I flunked every single monthly test and all three term exams. My mark did not rise past 10. I was beyond redemption and hope. Although I did well otherwise, the one subject I didn't stuck out like a sore thumb.

I went home to Dungun that year-end school holidays weighed down by this sense of worthlessness and humiliation. I was so ashamed of my report card that it never saw the light of day.

I kept asking myself the same question over and over again; "Is this what I left DESS for? To be disgraced and shamed beyond reason for my inability to perform to their expectations? Is it worth my time and effort? Am I truly the blockhead as perceived?"

Naturally, no answer was forthcoming that December 1971. But I resolved to do something – anything - to arrest the slide once I returned to STF as 1972 dawned.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

What Will Be, Will Be ( 1 )

THEY say you cannot escape your destiny. What is meant to be yours, one way or the other will be yours, even if it takes a circuitous route to reach you. By the same token, if it isn’t meant to be then it never will be, despite your best effort and the most skillful planning.

In 1965 my elder brother Fauzi, arguably the brainiest of our lot, became the first in the family to be selected for boarding school.

He entered Sekolah Datuk Abdul Razak (SDAR), then in Tanjung Malim, with the dawning of the 1966 school year, before moving on to ITM and eventually to Nova Scotia to graduate in Fisheries.

In 1966, I was in primary six at the same school, Sekolah Kebangsaan Bukit Besi, and gearing up for my own rightful place in the sun (so I thought). Just like him, I had been doing reasonably well myself throughout my six years of primary school.

I had never dipped below third placing in my studies, had represented and brought honour to the school in sports, debates and elocution contests many times over, had been head librarian since primary five and was eventually made head girl.

But the school board had other thoughts. They decided not to nominate another pupil from the same family for the same honour two years in a row.

When queried, the school vice-principal, Cikgu Amin, gave this lame excuse: “Takkan nak bagi kat adiknya pulak? Baru tahun lepas bagi kat abang dia.” (I don’t think we should offer a place to the sister when we already did to the brother the year before).

Never mind the fact that I was my own person, with my own personal achievements. I happened to be Fauzi’s sister and the one-year age gap between us was too close for comfort for the school board, so I didn’t make it.

I was only 12 and took the 'rejection' rather badly. I sulked for weeks. I had worked hard for it and knew I deserved it.

Worse, I had pinned my hope so much on a boarding school that I had not even considered other options. It was akin to “masuk sekolah berasrama penuh” or bust.

That year saw two boys from my batch allocated places in boarding schools; the head boy, hefty Yusoff Ahmad, went to SDAR in Tanjung Malim and skinny but brainy Abdul Rashid went to Sekolah Tuanku Abdul Rahman (STAR) in Ipoh.

For the first time, the quota for girls was left unfilled despite my batch having two or three consistent high achievers, the names of whom I can still recall; Norlia dan Mariani.

In 1968, two years after my departure from Bukit Besi, the school acknowledged the academic achievements of my sister Zahana by sending her to Sekolah Tun Fatimah (STF), Johor Bahru.

And four years on, in 1972, another sister, Zaridah, won a place in Kolej Tunku Kurshiah (TKC), Seremban. In a way, the family felt vindicated.

But for luckless me, it was the Remove Class of Sekolah Menengah Inggeris Dungun some 22 miles away. For all intent and purposes, I had missed the boarding school boat (bus?)

Did I as much as whine and whimper in Dungun? Not on your life! Starting school in that small-town sekolah menengah turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Eventually I began to see a much bigger picture. I ended up having a ball of a time, acquiring Chinese and Indian friends for the first time in my life. In Bukit Besi, all non-Malay pupils attended the English primary school adjacent to our sekolah kebangsaan.

I was also learning Mandarin, indulging in school plays, debates and poetry reading sessions, not to mention joining a small-town band and singing at weddings and functions for a token sum.

We were young and oh so carefree. We studied hard and played hard. We organised frequent group outings, cycling in convoys to Sekayu waterfalls, Tanjung Jara, Teluk Bidara and Paka Bridge.

We had endless picnics by the pristine Dungun beach in the evenings where we brought our battery-operated turntables and vinyl records, set up campfires, unrolled our mengkuang mats and spread our simple snacks, whiling away time until the sun disappeared over the horizon.

And then there was the 'Head Boy' episode that saw me undeservedly earning a stake in the school's popularity contest for whatever it was worth. “The Slap” and Grandpa’s momentary loss of reason notwithstanding, I was having good, clean fun.

By the time Lower Certificate of Education (LCE, equivalent to today’s PMR) came a-calling in 1970, all thoughts of boarding school had evaporated into thin air. I was happy where I was. Friends were aplenty and the teachers were simply fantastic.

It was during the third term school holidays, in the midst of the 1970 monsoon season, when the school called. My LCE results had qualified me for a place in a boarding school. My name was duly nominated and accepted.

Four years after I had given up all hopes of becoming a boarder in an elite school, the opportunity presented itself. I was to make my way down South, to Johor Bahru, register myself in Sekolah Tun Fatimah (STF) in Jalan Larkin, and begin Form Four.

Was I elated? Well, not really. Why? Because I cherished Dungun English Secondary School. And I loved Dungun with every fibre of my being. Most of all, I didn't want to leave my wonderful friends and charming teachers.

I was scared of the unknown. I no longer had a single confident bone in my body about leaving home. I didn’t want to go anywhere. I wanted to live under Grandma’s wings forever...

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Slap

The cane was never spared when I was growing up. Grandma was pretty adept at wielding it, mostly on my derriere and calf. Occasionally the sole too received a hefty dose.

True, I was the so-called ‘cucu kesayangan opah’ (grandma’s blue-eyed girl), but that didn’t stop her from knocking me black and blue for misbehaving. And I deserved every whacking I got.

Truth be told, it wasn’t just the cane. Her wooden clogs got into the act with my back more times than I care to remember, to the point where I could accurately gauge her terompah throwing skills and successfully dodged the flying footwear.

And then there was the “chilli” treatment, dished out as the ultimate punishment for using foul language (that woman lip-read like a pro; she could tell even if you swore under your breath).

Having one's lips "tenyeh-ed" (vigorously rubbed) with chilli would set one's extra-curricular activities back for a day, for the process would leave one feeling as though the lips had expanded tenfold (imagine collagen-injected lips, and only at the cost of one red chilli).

There wasn't much pain really, just discomfort. And of course unrepentant brat that I was, I would wear the 'new' lips, skewed, slurring speech and all, like a badge of honour. Milking it to the max I surely did.

While I wasn’t exactly a naughty child, I got on her nerves often enough to earn demerit points. I was tomboyish and more interested in hanging out with my friends, mostly boys, than in finishing my homework.

I was in my element climbing trees, stealing rambutans, playing rounders, galah panjang and hopscotch, the swing and the solid-iron carousel at the edge of the community padang.

It mattered not that sometimes I played in the blinding Bukit Besi rain with nary a care for my school uniform and canvass shoes, let alone my safety, from lightning, gushing waters et al.

Linguistically, at age 10 I was also quite eloquent in the mencarut (swearing) department, courtesy of my more daring schoolmates who learned them by hanging around the salt-of-the-earth kind; the mine workers and labourers.

It was the swearing part that got to her the most. She went livid at the merest hint of a swear word. My grandmother hardly shouted or yelled at me. Instead she would hiss under her breath, working herself up to a dignified, controlled fury before deftly lashing out with whatever was at hand.

Where Grandma was voluble, candid and quite temperamental in ruling the roost and doing all the disciplining, Grandpa was cool, quiet and reticent. He never raised his hand at me all the years I was growing up, until I was 14.

It was then that I became the unexpected recipient of The Slap, Grandpa's swift sleight of hand delivered with such dexterity and panache that it remains forever etched in the deep recesses of my mind. It also marked the first and only stinging slap I ever received in my entire life, then and now.

I was then in Dungun English Secondary School (now known as Sekolah Menengah Sultan Omar), chalking up good grades in my studies and actively involved in extra-curricular activities especially sports, representing the district in high jump and hurdles at State level.

I was also within the amorous sight of the 18 year-old head prefect who made no bones about his interest in yours truly. It was a heady, intoxicating feeling, to be coveted by the Head Boy who used an intermediary to deliver mush-choked epistles to the object of his fancy.

Every evening he would wait until I finished my game practice (volleyball or hockey). Then he would accompany me home, cycling slowly while I took leisurely strides to my house which was about 20 minutes’ walk from the school. He would see me to the door; only after I entered the house and closed the door would he leave.

One day we arrived at my house just as the muezzin’s call for Maghrib prayers (the azan) began. As he ushered me towards the front door, it was suddenly flung open from inside and Grandpa appeared, looking grim. The young man quickly extended his hand and salaamed, after which he beat a hasty retreat.

As soon as I entered the house, Grandpa closed the door, spun me around and delivered two stinging slaps, one on each cheek. They came so suddenly that I was caught completely off-guard. Shocked beyond words, I ran upstairs to my room and bawled my eyes out.

Strangely enough, no one said a word, not then and certainly not since. I cleaned up and came down for dinner, carefully avoiding Grandpa’s eyes. Grandma prattled on at the dinner table, as usual. The maid and our two workers (we had a sundry shop then) pretended as though all was well with the world.

Life went on. The boy left school, went on to Sixth Form and eventually to university, and naturally forgot all about me. I too left school, worked, married, went abroad, had children, returned home, went back to school, graduated, got divorced, remarried.

Grandma passed on; Grandpa followed suit 14 years later. There was no one left to explain and make sense of Grandpa’s lapse that led to The Slap.

My late aunt once theorised it could be the call of the azan that triggered him off. She could be right for Grandpa was a deeply religious man.

To see his teenage granddaughter clad in T-shirt and shorts, standing together side by side, in close proximity with a non-muhrim young man at the door smack in the middle of azan Maghrib was too much for the old man. It insulted his religious sensibility. Maybe.

I had wanted to include this in my post earlier on, but thought the better of it. With the benefit of hindsight, I think it is worth mentioning.

There was one particular line my late grandma was so fond of using, directed at me each time I cursed under my breath. She would go:

"Mu kato ggapo tu hah?? hah?? hah?? Muluk mache b**** naik tanggo!" (What are you muttering under your breath hah?? Your mouth is like the pudenda climbing the stairs!)

Oh God, what a graphic description! The old lady was a hoot!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Of Ayah, Bapak and A Father

I grew up without a father - he abandoned a pregnant wife for a girlfriend - and that coloured my perception of men ever since. I know it's unfair, tarring all men with the same brush, but the pain never healed for Mak. Neither does it, for me.

I have no wish to speak ill of the dead. Suffice to say, that one single act of betrayal has lasting consequences.

The man I called 'Ayah' (father) all my life until he died some 15 years ago was my step-grandfather. He was the kindly man my grandmother married upon the untimely death of her first husband, of high fever, during the Japanese Occupation.

My grandfather's death at 24 left grandma a widow in her early 20s, with four young children; the youngest, a baby. She took to sewing, renting a stall in the Kota Baru market, to feed those kids. That was where Ayah met her.

I was foisted upon the couple at the age of nine days. My grandmother, not one to conceal things, never spared the details of how I ended up in their care.

But I never worked up enough courage to ask my mother about it. She knew that I knew, and that was that. There was nothing left to be said between us.

I loved my mother dearly and couldn't even begin to imagine how much she was hurting, how emotionally tormented she must have been, when she did what she did.

In the 1950s, there still wasn't a name to post-natal depression. Women were supposed to give birth and get on with life. Depression was considered part and parcel of the whole birthing process. So what's a little mood swing?

But consider this. She was hardly 20, with two children aged two and one, and the third on the way. Three months into her pregnancy, her husband upped and left for an old flame. He never returned.

And when she finally gave birth, abandoned, unloved and alone, who could have faulted her if she snapped? And snapped she did. Many women have lost it for less.

Grandma said she went to the market one morning and left me, then nine days old, in the care of Mak. I must have fretted or cried, like all babies are wont to do, when she calmly submerged me in a tubful of water and held me down.

Grandma said she arrived home just in time. "Kalau awak tak mau dia, bagilah kat Cek, biar Cek bela." (If you don't want her, let me have her). Those were Grandma's words. And that was how I ended up being a spoilt brat for the next 15 years of my life.

The 'surat cerai' (divorce papers) came via mail three months after she delivered, by which time my mother, a stunning beauty in her heyday, had a suitor.

The young bachelor married her in due course, taking her second son and raising him as his own from the onset of their married life together. They were blessed with five beautiful daughters, my dearest sisters.

The couple did live happily ever after. The marriage lasted more than 40 years, until Bapak died peacefully in his sleep 10 years ago. Mak passed away in May this year.

As for my biological dad, he did marry the erstwhile girlfriend and they were blessed with five sons.

Sadly, much as I tried, I could never muster any feeling of affection for him. I was numb emotionally. He broke my heart before I even saw the light of day. I forgave, but forgetting was well nigh impossible.

He remained distant in my life, even when he was close, physically. I respected him as a father, however miniscule his contribution to my upbringing (well, it was nil). I didn't respect him as a man. On both scores, I never wavered.

I visited him and his wife occasionally, so that the children could get acquainted with their grandpa and step-grandma. But that was just about it. I was dead inside. I shed the customary tears at his funeral, but I didn't and couldn't (and perhaps, with total honesty, wouldn't) grieve.

May Allah (swt) forgive me for my heart of stone.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Chatter Box, Literally

A lot have been said about the Internet chatroom. Many of the comments, unfortunately, were prejudiced, malicious and unkind. Some were downright venomous and hostile.

Strangely enough, a great majority of those who penned their two-cent worth about the perils of Internet chatting had never even stepped foot inside a chatroom, let alone indulge in chatting.

Their comments were based on hearsay, the kind that began with “I read somewhere that.....” or “I heard ....” or “My friend’s cousin sister’s brother-in-law said.....” You know what I mean; third- or fourth-hand news.

I am not out to defend chatrooms. There truly were some scandalous incidents involving chatrooms, mostly date rapes and love affairs that led to marital breakdowns, and women conned out of their savings by sweet-talkers and smooth operators masquerading as knights in shining armour.

I have seen them all in the chatroom that I frequented, the one where I met the man who would eventually be my husband. These broad shoulders of mine had, over the years, borne the tears of many a broken heart.

I am of the opinion that it is not the chatroom's fault but one's own because the onus is on oneself to decide how to behave and to respond in a chatroom.

Even dear old me wasn't spared the sexual innuendos, come-ons and invitations to online sex - filthy minds are everywhere - but it's up to oneself to determine what one wants from a chatroom.

The Ash-Cage nuptial was the first for the chatroom that we frequented. There were a couple more marriages after ours, the ones that we were personally involved in.

I heard there were a few more besides, but I wasn’t able to confirm them because they (the intended) retired from the room, presumably to get on with married life!

A defining moment for us was when a dear chat friend approached us to learn more about converting to Islam. A single dad, he had met a young Malay lady teacher in the room, had fallen in love and had wanted to marry her.

We put him in touch with Perkim which facilitated his conversion. We were there to lend him emotional support during the ceremony. I cried buckets – tears of joy they truly were. We also played parents to his wedding, from meminang to aqad to bersanding.

A few lady chatters got together at our house to craft his hantaran (wedding gifts) and to get the wedding trousseau organised. In fact, the entire wedding rombongan (party) from the groom’s side consisted of fellow chatters.

Yet another was a single mother who sought our help in marrying her Malay Muslim single dad beau. We were only too happy to get her in touch with Perkim. They have been happily married for three years now, God bless them.

For Ash and I, the chatroom was nothing but a blessing, not so much because we met and married, but because we had acquired so many new friends throughout the country (and abroad too) through it.

We used to chat with ‘Golfie’, a Malaysian lady dentist undergoing her specialisation in orthodontics in Scotland some years ago. She has since returned home, living and working in KL. Our friendship has endured and we meet occasionally for coffee.

And then there was this American grandmother, ‘G8Nana’, who loved all things Malaysian and was a frequent visitor to the room. She and her husband had wanted to visit Malaysia and had ended up with a roomful of people offering to take care of her and her husband should they come.

Unfortunately, she passed away before it happened. One of our fellow chatters called up her number when she mysteriously went missing for weeks, only to be told by her son of his mother’s demise.

Yet another was a gregarious Penang lady, ‘OrangKampung’ (OK), married to a German and living in Germany. OK was the life and soul of the room, with her witty comments and comic one-liners. We made it a point to meet this petite cili padi each time she returned to Malaysia.

Personally, I was pleasantly surprised to meet two ‘orang kampong’ of my own in the room. Bergen and Snowy both hailed from Dungun and we ended up good friends although we rarely meet due to personal commitments. Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon Bergen in blogsphere as well!

Shrimp was another chatter that ‘caught’ me line, hook and sinker. Shrimp is a London-based Malaysian Chinese lady (and a sparkling beauty, I must add) whom I met for the first time, hurriedly too, in front of Kinokuniya Bookstore in KLCC just hours before she left for London.

I love that woman to bits despite the distance. We share a love for books and she would buy them in UK and bring them along each time she returned to Malaysia for a visit. We have met twice since and I look forward to meeting her again, hopefully soon.

Because of our age, we ended up being affectionately addressed to as ‘Ma’ and ‘Pa’ by some of the younger ones and we truly love them like we do our own. A sweet young lady with the simple nickname of MalayGirl (MG) addressed me with the deferential Bonda.

And then there’s Talqin, that impossibly cheeky girl who has yet to make good her promise to salam my hand in forgiveness this Raya (he he he).

Another is Fie, a young magistrate from Sarawak whom we dragged to karaoke each time she came to Semenanjung. Naturally, she always humoured her Ma and Pa.

These days, whenever we plan a trip out of town, almost always it would include notifying fellow chatters in places where we are heading because it’s already a set tradition that we meet for makan or teh tarik wherever we are.

Heading north, our R&R would most likely be the house of Cheaky the teacher in Teluk Intan, where we would also meet up with Nila, yet another teacher in that quaint little town.

In Penang, almost always it would be makan sessions with that irrepressible Erica Nut, a lecturer of English who introduced me to sup gearbox and serabai.

In Johore it would be that loveable Chinese lady Daisy who, in tandem with Strongbow and Headhunter, would insist on a spot of karaoke in some chinky JB outlet. We would then have an uproarious time, before the next trip.

Likewise, when they descend upon Kuala Lumpur, they would be our guests (if they remember to inform us, that is). As usual, it would be dinner, some karaoke thrown in at KLGCC and perhaps a round of supper afterwards.

Somehow, the friendships that we made in the chatroom endure the test of time. So there must be something special about chatrooms after all .......