I first met Syed in January 1985. I was due to take up a teaching post at the prestigious boy’s school described since colonial times as “the Eton of the East”. I had arrived in the small town of Kuala Kangsar on an overnight bus from the capital. I was supposed to be staying at the Rest House. (Every small town in Malaysia had its government Rest House – they were places for officials to stay when they travelled to more out of the way places.) But at three a.m. on a Sunday morning in a strange town, I decided that the most sensible course of action was to rattle on the grills of a nearby small Chinese hotel, until the owner, sleeping on a palette bed in the hallway, grudgingly let me in and gave me a room.
A few hours later saw me trudging in the heat to the ‘Rest House’ situated some way from the centre of the town along the road to the Sultan’s palace, a heavy bag slung over my shoulder. An ancient, very battered car suddenly stopped for me. A man leaned out of the window and asked if I wanted a lift. His heavily pregnant wife was beside him, so I got into the car. His name was Syed, he explained, and this was his wife, Asmah. They were going to the Rest House for lunch.
We had a most enjoyable lunch. The food was simple but tasty (I later became good friends with the Rest House manager Kamal, and his beautiful wife, Mona, who did the cooking). The view from the Rest House dining room was spectacular: it looked out over the Perak River, and we watched the small ferry ply between the town and the village of Sayong on the opposite bank, laden with people and bicycles.
Syed was fascinating. I thought he was of Arab descent at first, given his name and the overlarge nose which dominates his face. But I learned later that his father was Indian and his mother Thai. He speaks with a cut glass English accent. He was the first person I’d ever met in Malaysia who had actually read Burgess' The Malayan Trilogy, the first part of which (Time for a Tiger) was actually set in this town. (Burgess called it Kuala Hantu: Estuary of Ghosts.) Syed had known Burgess (real name John Wilson) very well indeed: Burgess was his lecturer when he was training to be a teacher, the first intellectual he’d met and someone who had shaped the course of his life. The two had become drinking companions. Syed knew the characters who became immortalized in the fiction of the trilogy: knew the stories behind the story. And when A Clockwork Orange, Burgess’ cult novel came out, he sent several autographed first-edition copies to Syed (though unfortunately, they got stolen later on.)
I couldn’t believe my luck, meeting folks this friendly and this interesting within hours of landing up in a new town. Syed said that he would come and collect me at dinnertime and we would go and explore the town.
Dinnertime came and went and he and Asmah did not appear. I felt sad that my first friends had so apparently abandoned me.
But life moved on. I met up with my new colleagues, the other British teachers who had been at the school for a year already and was soon caught up in looking for a place to stay and getting settled in the school.
I saw Syed a few weeks later. Again the battered car skidded to a halt beside me. He apologized for standing me up the night I’d arrived: Asmah had gone into labour that very night and delivered their thirteenth baby.
I visited Asmah several times, riding across town on my Flying Pigeon bicycle. Asmah was a dental nurse at the government clinic and lived in quarters behind it: a tiny, single storey building. Like the old lady who lived in a shoe, there were children everywhere, scarcely a year between them in age. Asmah, not surprisingly, always seemed exhausted. Syed was always away in Kuala Lumpur. He worked for the examinations board.
And more or less that was it: someone who might have been a friend who slipped from my life.
Years later, I discovered to my great surprise that Syed was someone that Abu and I had in common. He had been a teacher at my husband’s school – taught him art. Unconventional, humorous, he had been a great favourite of the boys, more of a friend than a teacher. There’s a photo in my husband’s album of himself and Syed standing on the roof of the school, their arms around each other’s shoulders. There are so many stories about him – really he is the stuff of legends, and I’m not sure which of them are fact and which are fiction.
Syed loves to tell the story about how, as a young teacher, he had gone into a staff meeting where other, more senior members of the local teaching staff had upbraided him for not having a tie on. He immediately went upstairs to the headmaster’s office and cut off a piece of the rug in his office, and wore it round his neck as a tie. Fortunately, the headmaster, a very easygoing chap (and a friend of Syed’s to this day), saw the funny side of it.
I learned that Asmah was his second wife. Someone said that he had a first wife – a marriage that his parents arranged for him in Taiping, another small town about a half hour drive from Kuala Kangsar.
When he first started teaching, his first school was in a very small place, halfway between Kuala Kangsar and Taiping. Legend has it that every afternoon after school, he would walk down to the bus stop and wait for the bus. If the bus to Taiping arrived first, he would take it. If the bus came from the other direction, he would go home to Asmah. I don’t know how many children he had from this first marriage, but someone old me that he had another dozen or so.
The Old Man says that after working with the examinations syndicate, he got a good job with Bank Negara who commissioned art from him. (He paints wild abstracts full of swirling colours and textures.) He lived in the back of a van in the bank’s carpark: everything he earned had to be sent back to support his two families.
Then there was the day we met him in the Bangsar night market, buying vegetables with a very beautiful young woman who he introduced as “my wife”. We never met her again.
We met him again a couple of years ago with Nino, at the Rugby Sevens in Kelana Jaya. Now in his late 60's he looked well, younger than many of the boys he’s taught who are stumbling into overweight middle age. White hair tied back in a ponytail, fashionable silk shirt – always impeccably dressed.
Am I in love with him? Infuriating irresponsible rascal though he is, it would be impossible not to be. And everyone else who knows him feels the same way. There are so many gaps in the story of his life I’d like to fill.