Anyone who knows him will be doubly surprised. First of all, this is a man who has great disdain for mornings. Simply doesn't do 'em. Seldom rises before 1 p.m. and even then that's pretty early for him. (His breakfast is at 2p.m. and lunch about 5.)
Secondly, although he used to be an avid reader, he hardly picks up a book now from one year's end to the other. He thinks I'm quite mad playing arty-farty-literatti and mocks me quite shamelessly about going to launches and other events.
This book though was pretty special to him. The Last Expatriate:Reminiscences of an Educationalist in Malaysia (Utusan Publications) is written by his headmaster from his Malay College days, Neil Ryan. Abu actually holds the record for being caned more than any other boy in the entire history of the school, and was the bane of Ryan's life. Here's what he writes about Abu:
There were plenty of examples of boys using their initiative but one particularly stands out. One morning it was discovered that a 15 year old had gone missing. After a search throught the whole college area, one of the prefects remembered the boy's liking for advnture and went to search further afield. Later that evening, just before the police were notified, the missing person was found camping out in Ulu Kenas and was returned to base. However, this was only a foretaste, some time later he was gone again, this time from his home. Instead of returning to school he journeyed to Singapore where he joined the British army as a boy soldier. He was tracked down by his family and returned to College proudly displaying a tattoo acquired in the army. The person concerned finished his education, spent time in vietnam as a freelance journalist, studied overseas and became a successful lawyer.He actually ran away for several days the first time, before he was found in the jungle. He used to sneak back into the school kitchen at night to steal food supplies. His father had to make the journey up from Temerloh to see the headmaster. Secondly, he returned to Singapore several times to get more tattoes put on his arms. That's why you never see him without long sleeves these days.
One of the strangest things for a boy who gave his headmaster endless trouble - the two are now firm friends. We meet up with Neil and Josephine whenever they are back in Malaysia and visit them in Melbourne where they now live.
This wasn't the first time that Abu has been immortalised between the pages of a book. He makes a brief appearance in Rehman Rashid's A Malaysian Journey. Rehman refers to him as Joe Baker, the bastard, (Joe Baker is his nickname - Abu says it has some connection with the word for "ringworm" in Malay) and talks about how he was a total bully as rugby captain making him run several laps of the sports field for showing up late for rugby practice.
He even gets an indirect mention in a work by Anthony Burgess! John Burgess Wilson (the writer's real name) was housemaster at King's Pavillion, the large building near the residency where the prep school boys were housed. In Big Wilson and Little God, the first volume of his autobiography (my copy of which sadly went walkabout), he writes about the little boys (as young as 7), crying for their mothers at night. He also describes the little boys pissing off the balcony and then rushing inside when a teacher appeared and pretending to be at their prayers so they couldn't be reprimanded. (Abu denies vehemently that this ever happened.)
Whatever the truth about these things, there's no denying that Abu's become something of a legend in the school's history.
This weekend the school marks its 100th anniversary.