Sunday, July 08, 2007

Celebrating Life with a Capital L

Also much enjoyed in Starmag today, Kee Thuan Chye's review of Adibah Amin's recently reissued collections of her 1970's New Straits Times Columns, As I Was Passing Vols. 1 and 2.

Chye puts his finger on just what's so important about these books. They show us just how much the psyche of the Malays has shifted over time (and notice too that this is a theme which emerged in my earlier post about Kam Raslan today). I think what Chye points out is very important, so excuse the long quote:
If there is someone Malaysians could look to as a role model, it would have to be Adibah Amin. As a writer, she is truly accomplished. And through her writing, she comes across as an open-minded, cosmopolitan, all-embracing person who sees the virtues and positives in people and things, and does not discriminate against what she is unsure of or is seemingly alien to her.

... From the two volumes, one can gather that she is solidly rooted in her own culture, and that being so, derives the confidence to explore and even enter into other cultures without fear of losing her identity. All those petty-minded chauvinists who constantly warn against cultural pollution would be wasting their diatribes on her.

The first three sections of Volume 1 immediately set the cultural milieu she lives in. Her love of her own Malay culture is clearly and lovingly expressed. She describes her fascination for ghazal, Quran reading, bangsawan, dondang sayang and so on.

On Malaysian humour, she writes:

“... our public today must be a lot more sensitive than that of past generations. The humorous Malay folktales, told orally by the village Penglipur Lara to generations of kampong people, contain some strong satire.

“They ridicule not only common kampong types but also traditionally revered people – kings, ministers, religious officials.”

In 2007, about 30-odd years since the above was written, you could say Malaysians have become even more sensitive. The number of taboo subjects has certainly increased. And there are sacred cows that cannot be criticised – even the slightest bit.

There is also reluctance by some quarters to open up and accept pluralism in our society. Remember the e-mail that went around last year telling Muslims not to greet non-Muslims on the occasion of their festivals? And yet, as early as three decades ago, Adibah was writing lines like these:

“Deepavali has for me all the mystique of tales from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.... It is part of a rich, ancient culture that has through the ages infinitely enriched mine. It belongs to a people who have become my people and are part of my present and future as they were part of my past.”

I feel the warmth in my heart when I read these words and the humanism inherent in them. Adibah celebrates Hari Raya, which she writes about in the book, but she also celebrates Deepavali and Christmas and Chinese New Year.

Recalling her childhood experience of Christmas, she writes of following her Eurasian neighbours into their house and singing Christmas songs “until the cocks began to crow”.

“It was heaven. To this day my idea of Christmas is sitting up till dawn singing song after song and stopping only to munch tapioca crisps and sip home-made pineapple juice.”

These days, some people might consider that culturally haram.

She writes, too, of Yin, her close Chinese friend, and how “wonderful it is to walk into Yin’s house on Chinese New Year Day ... and be warmly welcomed by the whole family”. She feels very much at home sitting among Yin’s multi-racial visitors, munching peanuts and melon seeds and “love letters” and adding “my noise to the merry din”.

“Perhaps you too have a Yin of your own – someone of another race with whom race becomes irrelevant, someone whose very existence makes nonsense of all race-based arguments. If you do, you will understand why I feel as I feel about many things.

“... I smile to think how far I have travelled from those childhood days when I sat by a drain and exchanged insults with Chinese schoolboys....

“In those days the Chinese held for me the fascination of an alien people. Their ways, I gathered, were very different from those of my people and were therefore necessarily wrong....

“I wonder what eventually shook my own conviction of my people’s monopoly to rightness? Was it reading, or thinking, or mixing? Or perhaps it was all three.

“But I know what shook my notion of my people’s monopoly to goodness. It was getting close to people from another race, culminating in Yin.”

I’ve let Adibah’s own words do the talking extensively here because she and her writing are so relevant to the present, so essential in these times when we find ourselves confronted with issues and sentiments in the public sphere that threaten to rend the fabric that holds our multi-racial, multi-religious society together.

What Malaysia needs now is not another bridge, another towering building, Malaysia needs more people like Adibah Amin.

... You should get hold of both volumes and experience for yourself how Adibah celebrates Life, with a capital “L”, in its various shades and colours and totally without prejudice. That is undoubtedly a ray of sunshine in this cloudy climate of life-negating taboos.


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bibliobibuli said...

i'm a nuffnanger dear. fine for now.

Argus Lou said...

Thanks for this post, Bib. It lifts my day. Puan Adibah Amin has always been my heroine. She's witty, smart, emotionally intelligent and highly observant of human nature, and at the same time generously, open-heartedly focuses on the positives. Nice work, Mr Kee!