by Azly Rahman
If there were two very close friends in my life and especially during my childhood, they were: 1) An imaginary friend who had multiple personalities who lived up on a tree I frequently climb, and 2) Great books I slept with.
I don’t know what fascinated me about the power of words and about imaginary friends I could run around with and have battles with behind locked doors. Books, books, books... how great books are.
I slept with a world history book ‘Sejarah Dunia’, ‘Hikayat Bayan Budiman’ and ‘Hikayat Seribu Satu Malam’. I can still remember the delightfully musky smell of those classics. The history book was light green in colour, the ‘Hikayat Bayan Budiman’ light yellow, and the ‘Hikayat Seribu Satu Malam’ was light brown... light reading there were not.
I read novels I found in my mother’s closet or ‘gerobok’ as the Johoreans would call it. The novels were in Jawi. My mother knew I loved reading and subscribed to Reader’s Digest for me. I looked forward to the postman delivering each issue of the book that opened windows to the American culture. I loved the feature sections as well as those that made me chuckle and laugh - ‘Humour in Uniform’ and ‘Laughter the Best Medicine’.
I always had a pocket-sized encyclopedia in my schoolbag; one that has everything about serious and fun facts such as world’s longest, tallest, highest, lowest this and that, capital of cities, famous quotes of the English Language, and tons of information that I could ‘google’ by flipping the pages every time I want I would read my little encyclopedia I bought at an Indian bookstore in the Main Bazaar (Pasar Besar) of Johor Baru of the late sixties.
I was happy that I knew so many things and I could quiz my friends on and be able to answer end-of-day questions on general knowledge my teachers in school would ask the class, the reward for the correct answer was to leave the class five or ten minutes earlier than everybody else.
I could them start playing outside those extra minutes while waiting for my ride home. I could play my ‘bola chopping’, ‘sepak yem’, ‘gundu’, ‘superhero cards’, ‘chepeh’, or those games boys of that time played.
Later when I was sent off to a boarding school in Kuantan at a tender young age of 12, I was introduced to a good librarian (and a homeroom ‘mother’).
Coming from a kampong in Johor Baru and as a child getting chased out of bookstores almost daily for ‘just reading’ and not buying those ‘mini encyclopedia’ from which I tried to memorise the interesting facts, the Kuantan school was like the Library of Congress! There I read encyclopedia of Charles Manson cover to cover, a pictorial coffee-table book of ‘The Godfather’, world maps, American movies, story of rock and roll, and The Beatles. Some of my favourite books I read at fifteen were ‘Summerhill’ and ‘Dr Spock’s Radical Child Rearing’, and later ‘The Wanderers’.
And I fell in love with the ‘Asterix’ and ‘The King is a Fink’ series.
At that age of 12 or 13, too, I got hold of a book ‘Education and Ecstasy’ by the American social reconstructionist in education, George Leonard. I actually liked it and read it twice and remembered the part where he discussed the importance of the child, with the help of adult members of the tribe, to speak about what he/she dreamt of as important data to help members of society to move on.
I though the sight of children sitting in their little ‘chawat’ or tribal hot pants talking about their dreams to adults in bigger ‘chawat’ interpreting dreams was cool. I suppose George Leonard was very much influenced by the idea of the sixties of which Anthropology was beginning to a break-away from its colonial mode’ with actually the influence of Margaret Mead as a ‘spokesperson of the sixties’.
Later Mario Puzo’s ‘The Godfather’ novel became a favourite, leading me to read more and more stuff from the gangster-movie genre; ‘The Don is Dead’, ‘Omerta’, ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, etc. Another favourite was ‘Papillon’, which was later made into a movie starring Steve McQueen.
It was always a pleasure to be in the library stocked with readings on American culture. Whether influential or not, I read Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to Win Friends and Influence people’.
No, I was not interested in influencing anyone, not interested in girls, too, because then I thought they were strange creatures, nor was I interested in becoming an influential politician. I was simply interested in the title of it! Sounded like how to see ghosts and communicate with them.
Hanging out, hanging around and ‘chilling’
The library sometimes feel like a Barnes and Noble cafe in New York city - there would always be those little boarding school children hanging out, hanging around, and ‘chilling’ with the librarian-cum-homeroom mother and one of my favourite English teachers! May God bless her soul wherever she is. I will write about my other English teachers later. It was also a gossiping joint.
I still continue to read Greek and Roman mythology and my World History book (in Malay) every time I go home. The library of Sultanah Aminah in Johor Baru was another place I loved best.
A deeply shining moment in one of my English teacher's effort to make teaching interesting was when she brought a friend of hers, I think from Universiti Malaya, to our English Club meeting and performed this short existentialist play concerning a corpse that kept growing and growing out of the closet, maybe Eugene Ionesco’s ‘Oriflamme’.
It was such an effective two-woman performance that I got so scared towards the end and actually had a nightmare right there in the dorm.
That was one of the many moments of effective teaching. Later in life I became very interested in French existentialist literature, reading more Ionesco, and obsessed with Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and finally immersed myself in Existentialism. I went on to read the major classics of English and World Literature.
My English teacher taught me two words with which I can never forget how excited I was when I was in Form One; the words were ‘nocturnal incursion’. I got so obsessed with the words that they became part of me - I started sneaking out at, many nights and got myself free to roam the city of Kuantan at night and see what ‘nocturnal incursions’ means, and what freedom entails or escape from Alcatraz is about.
I read the novel ‘Papillon’, about life in a French prison, three times when I was in Form Three. I read ‘The Godfather’ novel five times. Later I found out that Saddam Hussein’s favourite movie was ‘The Godfather’!
She got us to read a novel, ‘Istvan Zolda’, about a soldier in Yugoslavia during the time of the war of the Partisans.
When I was in Form One she told me that I had “perfect English”. I was thrilled, excited, flattered. But I found out later that it was not true at all. I still work with brutal editors for all of my writings, while as the same time editing other people’s work.
May all the good work be blessed. Teachers like them are rare these days; they are now politicised.
Such is the joy of reading back in the day - before Facebook, WhatsApp, iPads, and the culture of Mat and Minah Rempit.
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