Wednesday, July 30, 2003
It came to me in a lofty way, a massive volume perched on a shelf that towered over head in my uncle's house behind the 'White Mosque' of Sultan Zainal Abidin in Kuala Trengganu. I must have been barely 10 then. On the rare occasions when I was allowed to take a peek I saw many wondrous things: words I knew about, words I never knew could be used in certain ways, and many terms that surprised me and threw me into uncontrollable mirth. Winstedt’s is a dictionary unlike any other, for, in addition to collecting words that existed then in the Malay world, it also encapsulates the humour and the predilections of a people, and in just a few thousand words it gives more than your avearge book on human nature. Unashamedly it is a book I have taken to many places - in a more compact form of course - to dip into, to remind myself of my inherent nature, to look back at a gentler place
My uncle’s house disappeared soon after his passing, in a frenzy of urban re-development that ripped the heart of Kuala Trengganu. It came up again later, reassembled, on the edge of town, but of the Winstedt I know no more. In my little version though words still keep popping up in unrepressed jocundity. Take, for example, the Malay-Winstedt for ‘express train’,keretapi sombong, conjuring always in my mind a village woman spitting beetle-nut juice, head-balancing her possessions in a knotted bundle of batik sarong, running pointlessly at a non-stopping train. Sombong it is, proud. And for a bit of fun, look up the innocent, not the vulgar, ‘screw’ and up pops a total surprise, it’s the paku p*l*r itik , a duck’s thingummything. There are many more delights like that.
Winstedt was in a line of scholar administrators who observed and wrote the culture, and the language, and whatever else he did, he left a legacy of babbling words that stoke up, even now, precious memories. Back in Blighty when his stint finished, he re-deployed his knowledge in, and maybe even started, the Malay Service of the BBC. There were a few others too out there who kept their words like the delightful Winstedt, and which they later published in eponymous tomes. There was A.E.Coope for instance, as well-versed as they all were, in both the standard and the vernacular, who once wrote to my grandfather in stylish Malay-Arabic Jawi script. Their paths had crossed somehow, somewhere in Trengganu, and on his going my grandfather gave him a prickly gift, a landak, I think, a hedgehog of the Malay forest. From wherever he was, Coope sent back this ambiguous report laced with unmistakable Trengganuese: the landak was, he wrote, kohor sehari kohor baik, getting better by the day. ß
Monday, July 28, 2003
The rain made me realise that one of my shoes had turned crocodile that was snapping merrily at the passing trade. With the bottom of my right foot coming apart, and with water in my sock in Gilgameshian proportions, I beheld a miracle. I realised that I was inspecting the parlous state of my sodden footwear in front of a shoe-shop that was having a sale. By these little synchronicities are our lives made more interesting; you've a wad of cash and are possibly thinking of worthwhile things, then your heating boiler goes suddenly on the blink, you land a big catch while out at sea, your boat springs a leak while you’re hurrying back to the market…
There’s queueing at the dentist, and there’s shopping in a crowded place, the latter being marginally better. But it didn’t take long though; soon as I walked into the shop, I was walking out of it again, in a gleaming new pair, stopping on the way out only to finish the ritual. Old shoes into new box, into the bin. Farewell old friend, we’ve been places together.
Further down the street, further in the light, I looked down to my cacophony of feet. One shoe was tan, but the other, tanner. So back I went to the shoe shop, to the salesman who confirmed I was indeed walking in discordant colours. “I’m sorry, “ he said, “long exposure in window, colour faded in one.”
Then came the punch, “You have the box?” And that was how, on a Friday afternoon, in a slight drizzle, I was found rummaging in a rubbish bin in our little High Street in this little Blighty.ß
Monday, July 21, 2003
It was then that I started to think of Captain Bob, a friend who arrived early one morning as I was typing some long forgotten piece of work in the room upstairs. Looking up from the keyboard, I saw Bob perched in the open fanlight, looking very sad. When I picked him up - he made no attempt to move when approached - I saw that he had an injured leg. Needless to say, Bob came in to stay with us, nursed himself to recovery, ate all the grain we could feed him, and took the top of the store-room door downstairs as his adopted home. Daytime he'd fly freely over the roof tops, but nightime he'd return to sit atop the door, coo-ing broodily at the children below.
Capt Bob the pigeon became my good friend. Uncannily he could tell the sound of the old Renault that we then had, and swooped down soon as it came whirring down the road. Much to the neighbours' amazement, Bob would perch himself on my shoulder as I, Long John Silver like, walked to the doorstep of our house. In the morning Bob would fly low above our heads as I walked our son to the nearby school, and then he'd fly back to the rooftops, or his indoor perch, or he'd simply sit in the middle of the open back door looking magisterially into the garden. One morning, when the son of our neighbour M came to tame the pyracantha on the garden wall, Bob sat on a branch just at head-level and started to peck aggressively on his hand each time he reached out. In his bird mind Bob must have felt that he was here to protect us.
And then one day, about a year after his arrival, Captain Bob didn't come home. We called for him in the garden, we looked for him in the neighbourhood, we kept the window open for him in the night, but Bob never came back. We presumed - in our best thought - that Bob had found happiness, and had flown to places where pigeons flew to once they'd found a mate.
Thinking of Bob, even now, years after he'd gone, I am reminded of a notice I once saw on the door of Shakespeare & Co., a second-hand bookshop in the shadow of the Notre Dame in Paris. "Be kind to strangers," it said, "they may be angels in disguise." Bob was a stranger who came to stay; perhaps he was an angel too, who brought a bag of blessings for us.ß
Friday, July 18, 2003
It was a sad place full of people looking either very glum, or very cheerily oblivious of the fact that the rain had indeed fallen on their picnic. One such woman greeted me with a hearty "Good morning, doctor!", a civility greater than offered me by the presumably sane guard who was sitting by the door and giving me a very cold look. A man clearly in grasp of the fact that - contrary to the sad woman's belief - I had never taken the Hippocratic oath and was now probably a few annas short of a rupee myself, or was completely and utterly lost.
I plead the latter, folks, and I still have my sanity to prove it, even if a little difficult to grapple with under the constraint of this strait-jacket. But as it turned out, my journey was a complete waste as the person I went to see did not need my help. By the time I was on the road again the rush hour had already set in, and the bus journey home must've been one of the longest I've made in recent times on just a few miles of road. Tired of looking at the pizza parlours and the Starbuck places that nowadays seem to be driving out all those nice little shops you once saw in every high street, I dipped my head into the newspaper but had to come up again for a bit of air as my head was starting to swim. It could have been the bus journey that was making me giddy, it could have been all those 'news' that I was reading. There was a good case though, for the latter, as it took me almost the entire length of Uxbridge Road from the Ealing Broadway police station to the Shepherds Bush Green to make out what Tony Blair was saying in his address to the two Houses of ill Repute in Washington.
Before he left he was saying here with certainty that evidence of the Saddam Hussien WMD 'programme' would be found, but now he was saying there that even if he was wrong he was still right, that history would absolve him, and so on. Added to that, yesterday, the committee set up by Parliament to look into this attack on Iraq and the WMD thing came out with a statement which said that the BBC reporter Gilligan who made allegations against the Blair government about his War for WMD thing had now admitted that he was wrong; and then the reporter himself popped up on the evening news to say that he'd done no such thing. I think it was this confusing background plus the dose of Blair on the bus that was sending my head in a spin, and not the Somali man who was now - like scores of his fellow countrymen - driving the London bus.ß
Thursday, July 17, 2003
It all goes to prove, I suppose, that big boys will soon run out of steam, and sooner or later a bird will pop out of a big fat cat.
Here in Blighty things are much the same as anywhere else in this age of the WTO dreamers. Fat cat monsters are swallowing little birds one by one, but surprisingly something that was started by the Thatcher government which institutionalised greed is now being religiously followed by the marauding Blair Labourites, once the party of Keir Hardie, now the party of the simply greedy. Many who voted for Blair did so in the hope that all those privatisation deeds would be undone, he being Labourite and all that. But no, instead of slowing it all down or stopping them entirely and returning to the public what was owned by the public in the first place, he extended the reach of the cigar-wielding money guzzlers, and broke up the national train network into many privatised parts, put the rails under the charge of one privatised monster, and threw a massive New Labour spanner into the works. The efect is that the trains are still running, but chaotically, and you can no longer buy the train time-table from W.H.Smith because it is no longer published. Why is it no longer published? Because the trains can no longer run on time, and that's sad.
And the more the trains are running late, the more they're raking in subsidies from the government. But just hold on, you may say, weren't the trains sold to them in the first place so that they could be run efficiently on a free enterprise basis, so the passengers (called 'customers' nowadays) would enjoy the benefits and the fat cats, the profits, and maybe the losses too sometimes? Well, dream on.
That is the ethos of greed, and whoever put into the heads of people that private enterprise always ran better did it with consummate genius. People believed it, students nowadays come out of universities believing it, and politicians are all bought into it, lock stock and leaky barrel. I once asked an official at the Commonwealth Secretariat why nowadays the Commonwealth is so keen to promote privatisation and free enterprise (as is so evident in its programmes) as if it is the local chapter of the Adam Smith capitalist greed institute; he gave me a look to signify that I was mad.
If I am, then I must seek a remedy fast before all the hospitals are privatised under the WTO diktat. But even now, if - God forbid - those men in white coats do drag me away screaming for a dose of the electric shock in the brain, who but who would be powering their nefarious little shocking machine? Why, privatised power, of course.
Which brings me back to the Courts. A Malaysian company in the energy supply business, which shall be nameless, is having a tiff with a big bank that is domiciled in the land of the little bird in the clock (cuck-o-o-o!). They are quarrelling over the busines of some big loans which the bank arranged for the big boys through an instrument that is so esoteric that even now they are still arguing in court what it was all about. And the Big Boys accused the big Bank of selling them a pig in a poke even if they only managed to suss out that out some four years after the alleged deed! Big Bank denied liability anyway but said - in effect - that Big Boys did not read the documents properly when they were proferred to them at the start.
Oh heck, the cat's just come in again through the flap, but let's hope no little bird will pop out of it this time.
It's 2 of the clock...cu-u-u-ck-o-o-o-oo!ß
Wednesday, July 16, 2003
Among these ancient rocks, these tunnels dug into the hills,– I was told – lay the bones of Archimedes of the bath, the man who shouted “Eureka!” as he forgot himself and went galloping down the street completely naked.
The necropolis in this fading light was an eerie sight: towering trees blocking rays of the oblique sun sliding down to sleep, throwing shadowy drapes over the burial chambers of old, but allowing still the passage of thin, weak yellowy rays through gaps here and there, onto footpaths that meandered beneath those mighty boughs, filling darker mystery into ancient depths.
How far this past that brought the chill? Well, quite far and then even further still. The latter was the ghost of Archimedes of course, out there somewhere among the rustling of leaves; but a particular sound from the more recent, lived memory, brought back a sound that was scarier still. It was the voice of my maths teacher from my old – but not ancient – school by the sea, on the coast where the monsoon winds blew.
She was a fierce lady whose disapproving glare made me forget temporarily the joys of her hidden symmetry; whose exasperation at my inability to grasp the magic of maths drove her into hair-tearing agony. This inability of mine which expressed itself also in my inability to grasp the mathematical side of physics, which she also taught.
But once, and only once I was pulled up from the bowels of defeat because the last question in the test that she devised for the class required us to do nothing more than to fill in a blank in a sentence.
Now, in that Siracusan dusk I had difficulty in recalling the complete statement that brought momentary uplift to my status in class; except for the last word ‘principle’; and in the blank before it I had to fill in a name.
It was old ‘Archie’, of course.ß
Saturday, July 12, 2003
Two ladies in mid retirement lived across the road from us, walking daily to the shops together, looking like two devoted twins. They were not twins actually, but sisters, L and L, a happy couple, who, like our late neighbour R, did thoughtful favours for us, like signing for parcels that were delivered when we were out, and rushing out to hand them over the moment they saw us coming back.
The elder L, a former secretary, passed away some years ago after a period of what used to be called senility, but nowadays, alzheimer's. The younger L stayed on alone in the house after that, but not long after, she too was taken away to another place by her brother, also suffering the same ailment that took her sister. We never saw nor heard of her again after that, and the house of the Ls is now occupied by a young family from a country which used to be in the Soviet bloc.
I learnt a bit more about the Ls from the younger sister, a couple of years before she too went away. As I was tinkering with the car in the street one day, she called me to the house and showed some old photographs and a yellowing clipping from a local paper. The clipping was a news report of a bomb which had dropped just a few doors away on our side of the street. It left a huge crater on the spot now occupied by a family from the Maghreb. The photographs were of Ls' father, who must have been one of the early residents of our street. He was a licensed cab driver, and one of the photographs did indeed show him standing proudly beside his vehicle.
A new generation, a different people are now moving into our neck of wood. Even before this happened, before the death of L and R, and E on the crescent at the end of our street (whose house is now occupied by a Punjabi family), there were already signs of a community slowly discovering itself. Council workers came one day to plant trees on the green, street lighting became brighter, and even more recently, more council workers arrived and painted yellow lines on all our roads. The old order changeth giving place to the new - M our former 'gardener' is now finally confined to quarters, after having remained extremely fit even into his seventies, old T the window cleaner no longer walks the street with his ladder, and even my friend Mr O, who used to look after the Methodist church down our way has now gone home to his native Ghana.
The trees on the green have now grown very tall. On the day of R's funeral, I saw M holding on to his two children, barely able to walk himself. He waved me a sad goodbye.
Now we have students moving in, and young Australians with their irrepressible chirpiness pausing awhile to finish work on the old ambulance that they're converting for a grand tour of the Continent. Our newsagent is a Mr Patel from the Gujerat, the old kitchenware shop next to the Catholic church on the main road is now something else selling what is mysteriously known as 'Ukrainian Parcels', and the old A40 that drones past our way is looking even busier. A local resident recently wrote a book about it, and called our area 'Leadville'.ß
Friday, July 11, 2003
If anything, the copy-writer was right about the fickleness of English weather. But still, part of the joy of an approaching summer is the way nature unravels itself, from the dank grey of winter to the first crocus of spring, and then that perennial Wordsworthian cliche, your heart leaping with joy at the sight of golden daffodils, too brief a pleasure for this time of year.
Queens Drive is a thoroughfare in the leafy Borough of Ealing in West London, steeped in middle class respectability; but otherwise it is quite unremarkable. It is lined with mock tudor houses with prices that soar with every freshly arriving Japanese family. It has its neighbourhood Japanese estate agency (always a sign of high prices), a middling state school, and a school for Japanese children. But driving from my part of London through this street in the early morning sunshine of early spring always fills my heart with joy.. There's the light shining through the burgeoning canopies of roadside trees, back-lighting a mixture of colours from various shades of green to the early burst of brownish hue, and the whole street is aglow with relaxing, rejuvenating light. It never fails to pull me out of the depression of winter with a happy thanksgiving in my heart for the beauty of God's world.
Our elderly neighbour R sadly passed away late spring this year. She was a dear lady who 'adopted' us when we first moved into this neighbourhood - not in the lush, green of Queens Drive, but not too far from there, yet miles removed in another sense and many notches down in the social strata. Her husband M used to look after our 'garden' and converted it from an overgrown backyard into a less overgrown one. He was pottering around in the front of the house one day when friends arrived unannounced. " But who are you? " they asked him, to which he replied, without a blink, " I'm the gardener. " It raised our cachet to a wholly undeserved high.
In her life R used to do many acts of kindness for us. She took in our washing when it rained and we were out. And she never failed to ask how we were, even if she herself, for most of the time that we knew her, walked on crutches, and always took tablets to kill some nagging pain.
As our immediate neighbours at the end of the road, the family of R and M have their back garden abutting our western fence. M told me once that he always kept the viewing space from R's bedroom, over the top half of our garden,and then across to the neighbours' back gardens beyond, clear from obstruction, as R always looked forward to seeing the blossoms of our distant neighbour's cherry tree at the end of every winter.
On the day of R's funeral I went to our local florist and realised how much things were changing. Around me were plants and flowers that were unknown in this country not too long ago. Now, standing among the blooms while our florist prepared the farewell bouquet I reflected on the two decades or so that we knew of R's life, and then felt a tingling from a distant period that I thought I'd long forgotten. " This really takes me way back in time. I grew up among these flowers in the tropics, " I told the florist, pointing to an arrangement of flowers that we -- in Trengganu -- called Balung Ayam
" Yes, it's called Cock's Comb here, " she said. ß
Note for the Uninitiated: Balung Ayam = Cock's Comb
Wednesday, July 09, 2003
Ramblings of Beta-Blogger
Jalan-Jalan, a sonorous sound, but can be a hard slog (blog?). It is the continuous journey, the myriad of roads, labyrinthine passways and by-ways that we are coursing through. Jalan-Jalan also indicates the joyful indulgence of merely passing, looking at things, walking, watching...
I have been on the road, I have walked the mile. And I am here still...
...and God-willing, I shall be back. See ya!
Meanwhile, here's the poste restante