Monday, September 24, 2007

Tales from Seventh Earth

After having a good moan at the New Straits Times for a lack of anything literary (and most particularly reviews on the pages) columnist Rehman Rashid gives us not one but three excellent reviews of recently published local books (Dina Zaman's I Am Muslim, Kam Raslan's Confessions of An old Boy: The Dato Hamid Adventures and Antares' Tanah Tujuh) with a promise of more to come next Friday. This is good news indeed.

Antares' book was also reviewed by Shakeel Abedi in Starmag yesterday.

Now I feel some rumblings of guilt. I've had the book sitting on my "needs-to-be-reviewed pile" for ages, with every intention of reviewing it, so please Antares forgive me for the tardiness of this post!

Tanah Tujuh (which literally means "seventh world" and refers to our earthly abode) is a collection of short pieces (including previously published articles, memoir pieces, and legends) in which Antares writes about the Temuan people he lives amongst with genuine warmth, clear sightedness ... and a deliciously wry sense of humour.

He recounts how he decided to get away from.
... the monstrous machinery of industrialized society
by moving to an idyllic spot on the river in Pertak in Ulu Selangor in 1992 with the plan of building an "ecospiritual" artistic community.

His neighbours, the Temuan people had had had their lives radically changed by "rapacious intruders". Antares recounts how man-made decrees had turned them into mere squatters with 99 year leases on ancestral land.

When the property changed hands, Antares moved to another perfect spot near a waterfall. Sadly the place was not to remain pristine for long, and it's impossible not to feel his grief and anger at the extensive environmental damage wrought by the timber companies. And then of course it was decided that work on the Selangor dam would go ahead.

When Antares married Anoora Chapek in 1995, his close relationship with the Temuan was further cemented, and as an "insider" he was able to collect information about their legends and belief system. It was a race against time though, as many of the older folks who remembered the old stories and traditions were dying. But these rescued stories provide the richest material in the book, and I would have loved even more of them. (My favourite was the story of how Buaya the crocodile got his teeth!) The individuals who told the stories are also lovingly captured on the pages and in photographs. (You can find a gallery of Antares photos on his website).

I also very much enjoyed the accounts of traditional healing practices which Antares recounts with a definite twinkle in his eye, and his hilarious story of Ramu and the tunnel of terror. Antares turns out damn good prose, and I have to agree with Shakheel's assessment that he's one of the country's best writers. (So more please, Antares!)

If I have one criticism of the book, it is that it seemed rather bitty with the pieces differing so much in terms of tone and focus. I also found it hard to relate to the more esoteric passage relating to universal cosmology ... perhaps because I'm one of the most cynical individuals you could meet in any matters of faith.

Nevertheless it is an extremely valuable book which both entertained me and taught me a great deal.

I found myself thinking about Orang Asli issues recently when I was in Pahang visiting schools and found myself watching my teacher-trainees teach classes with large populations of Batek children from the nearby national park area. It struck me, as it strikes Antares in the book, how hopelessly inappropriate the current model of education is for these kids ... but I saw how it's also true that if the learning is made fun and relevant they really do want to participate.

It also struck me how bloody patronising these tourist trips to visit an orang asli camp at Taman Negara (to blow a blow pipe and watch these guys make fire) actually are. (One such trip was included in the package I took my sister and her family on last year and I really felt it was demeaning ... people are not anthropological specimens to be gawped at!)

A picture I'd rather hold in my head is footage of happy Temuan children playing in the river in a video Antares showed at the KL Litfest earlier in the year.


Antares said...

Thank you so much, Sharon! You more than made up for the "tardiness" of your review by coming up with what I'd describe as my "dream review." Couldn't have done better myself - and I totally agree with the few criticisms you included! :-) As for Rehman's excellent non-review, well... at least I got the book's cover featured in the NST, which helps!

bibliobibuli said...

you had a good few daya, antares, will all the reviews coming in at once! i reckon all your stars were in alignment or you'd been indulging in some shamistic practices!

Chet said...


Too early for you, Sharon? Or rushing off somewhere?

bibliobibuli said...

hmmm you area nitpicker, chet. you definitely need a job as a line editor for someone *LOL*

it's "days" if you were unable to guess from the context

actually blogger was playing sillies with the comments so didn't think this was up

and yeah, i'm off to bali a bit later

Anonymous said...

Having read these 2 reviews it seems that your book is a 'must read' for me too Antares. Love you
Margaret from sunny Qld

bibliobibuli said...

hi margaret. wondering - did we meet in ubud? met lots of australian booklovers there!

really am glad your appetite is whetted for antares' book. you buy it from silverfish books