Ruby in the sky
You’ve heard of sky juice, of course. And if you haven’t, you probably would flunk one of those “How Malaysian Are You?” quizzes. The slang term for water seems to be unique to our shores. There is also another Malaysian original, Sky Kingdom. This is, or was, a commune of people on the East Coast who had some esoteric beliefs, not least of which was a fondness for giant teapots.
Well, there is also such a thing as a sky book. This is the kind of tome that makes ideal reading when you are in a plane. As I am such a jet-setter (but with unfortunately not the bank balance that the phrase might signify), I tend to do lots of reading thousands of feet about the ground. For the latest trip I took along a wonderful Malaysian book, As I Was Passing.
It is a compilation of columns by Sri Delima, which literally means “the glow of the ruby.” It even has a sequel, called (wait for it) As I Was Passing II. Both volumes have been recently reissued under the author’s real name, Adibah Amin, with different covers and rather large font-size. Some younger Malaysians, shame on them, would recognise Adibah solely through her hilarious turn as the priggish disciplinarian Cikgu Bedah in the film Adik Manja, her only foray into acting. If that is the case, they should check out these books at once.
I took along the original 1976 volume with me. It has been out of print for over a decade but I had purchased it at a charming second-hand bookstore, where I always feel the need to buy and to sneeze. The reissue is of course a good thing. The original is however more petite, and the fact that the author’s name isn’t explicitly mentioned somehow jibes with the self-deprecating wit contained within. The previous owner of my copy even left a name: “Khoo Mea Lee, Universiti Sains Malaysia, 1976.” Where is Khoo now?
As I Was Passing is priceless Malaysiana. It is the closest that prose has come to the magic of Lat. When you first read it, you are all aglow with the warmth of nostalgia. But there is an irony here: Many of the articles in it also seem to express nostalgia for an earlier age. One of the earliest and best pieces, “The Sweet Face at the Window” has a foreign-educated young man returning to his village to lament, “I have not changed , but everything else has.” The final paragraph of this article packs a real emotional punch, and we cotton on that Adibah is more tough-minded than a mere nostalgist.
Others, such as Kee Thuan Chye recently in The Star, have commented on Adibah’s embrace of cultural differences and how she sees plurality as a blessing rather than a threat. Her accounts of celebrating Deepavali, Christmas and Chinese New Year can attest to this. Kee says that Adibah’s benevolence and healthy curiosity are precisely what this country now needs to avoid descending further into factionalism.
What makes her writing special is that although she never seems to preach or hector, hers is an inherently moral vision. This isn’t the morality that is informed by petty spite and bitterness, but a luminous humanism born out of an acute awareness and love of her surroundings.
The fact that she was a woman in a male-dominated profession (journalism) is crucial to her persona, too. Many a piece would lacerate, oh so subtly, the male ego -- although she does seem to have a soft spot for a certain type of rogue. There are also criticisms of prudes, chauvinists and busybodies but delivered in an inimitable way, without malice, like in a modern folk-tale. Her criticisms are gentle enough that “ants would not die under her tread” -- a saying she uses more than once.
You can image some very serious readers using her column as a respite from the “hard news” of the day. But I wonder if some of her articles will then live in the reader’s memory long after the seemingly urgent news had gone with the wind.
Like Lat and a few others such as Usman Awang, her humanism is wedded to sensual appreciation.
Her descriptions of rituals, including the ones specific to her family, offer pleasure because, very often, they are about pleasure. At the risk of seeming like a perv, As I Was Passing is quite erotic.
The article on Hari Raya does not need to use theological dogma but richly describes how the day unfolded in her childhood, including how her “big brothers and boy-cousins” would stroll “through the kampung with faithful [her] in tow, softly strumming their guitars, seemingly unaware of glowing eyes behind fluttering window-curtains.”
Her accounts of dondang sayang and learning Hindi through songs are just two more examples of how much she appreciates the crucial naughtiness of life.
When she describes how addictive personal home phones are, it’s strikingly similar to how we now treat the Internet; when she predicts that latah will soon die out, you wonder why this has not been proven true at all; and when she says that the word ‘saya’ came from ‘sahaya’ (slave), you wonder why you never knew that.
Adibah is also known as a translator, and she demonstrates this in more ways than one. She translates her joy, intelligence and occasional exasperation to her readers in exquisitely fleet-footed words; she translates across communities and belief-systems in the spirit of sharing; and in the process translates back some home truths that no longer feel hackneyed or corny.
Her articles almost never mention people by name. When she would indirectly refer to a politician or poet or some other public personality, you are left to wonder who they are. The fact that her articles are not dated or footnoted also makes you want to know more about the specific circumstances that prompted certain allusions.
For example, “Dear Monster Revisited” describes a Deepavali visit to a formerly feared, but now gruffly affectionate, headmaster. He makes a reference to “the new forms of tyranny around and within us” and it ends with a description of his “sad, yet...trusting eyes.”
I wonder if some kind of socio-political trauma caused these sad eyes. After all, Malaysia in the 1970s went through many changes; not necessarily the physical ones of the subsequent decade, but certainly institutional ones that continue to have an impact today. But it would not be Sri Delima’s style to “ungkit” as to the causes; her (seemingly) more modest aim is to heal.
If you are reading her books for the first time, I envy you.