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 societyby 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.