Ingin Jadi Pujangga by A. Samad Ismail (Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1994, 833 pages)
When I heard the news of A Samad Ismail’s passing on Thursday night, just one sentence came to mind: “Matinya pun pada malam Jumaat!”
(For the sake of clarity, I should point out that malam Jumaat means Thursday night, and is considered holy. So to die on a Thursday night is, in the Malay-Muslim scheme of things, a blessed thing).
The sentence isn’t mine but his. It’s the closing line of one of his greatest short stories. Make no mistake: Although he was known primarily as a journalist, he was also one of our finest short-story writers.
So to commemorate him, I took down this hardcover book and re-read some pieces. Ingin Jadi Pujangga collects 40 of his stories from 1944-91. The first that I headed to was “Ah Khaw Masuk Syurga” (1960), which is where the sentence came from.
The titular fellow is Chinese (you don’t say!) but is being sheltered by a Malay family to escape Japanese detection. It’s narrated by the youngest son of the house. Ah Khaw, who is in his 50s, is made to wear baju Melayu and songkok to pass as Malay. But the narrator’s mother gets it into her head that he should convert to Islam, too.
She insists because she cares about him, and she wants to see him saved in not only this world but the next. But the narrator’s older brother will have none of it, accusing her of being a sanctimonious bully. He asks: Isn’t Ah Khaw’s opium addiction a greater problem than his uncircumcised status?
The mother’s piety is really a form of narrow sentimentality, but her honest optimism makes a nice contrast to her older son’s brusque pragmatism. You could say the story is about a clash of values, but its brilliance comes from the fact that the characters are never just their viewpoints. You can actually see and hear them.
Decades before the phrase ‘inter-faith’ invaded our news, this story sets out potential grounds for conflict but does it with an earthy humour that subtly undermines any rigid sectarianism.
The Introduction states that this story was actually written hastily because Samad needed to fill a blank space in a newspaper he was editing. Ah, if only all of us could think so creatively ‘on the typewriter!’
This brings us to “Ingin Jadi Pujangga” (1951), a marvelous satire of a wannabe intellectual, Arif, who’s trying to write a short story. With his head chock-full of noble slogans and ideals, he tries to block out the mundane minutae of his domestic and working life to compose something. The story he’s writing – about Mariati, a selfless, thrifty heroine with a penchant for classical music – is perfectly ridiculous, but he doesn’t realize this since he’s too busy trying to use fancy (and preferably Indonesian-derived) words so that he can be taken seriously as a philosophical writer.
His high-minded ruminations collide hilariously with the crude reality around him. When he accuses his wife of spending too much, she snaps back that every cent he’s given her has now been excreted from his and their children’s bowels. No wonder he seeks refuge in Mariati instead!
Arif, you gather, is not an artist because he’s not honest or imaginative enough to take in his life and surroundings and make something of them. But the fun that the writer has with him is tinged with affection – there are worse things than intellectual pretensions, after all.
This short story was actually smuggled out of prison and published under a pseudonym. (There were several others and some are still lost because Samad used so many pseudonyms that it became difficult to keep track). It became very popular. Many people tried to copy the style but no one else could get that wry but hearty tone right.
Malay fiction since the 1970s became more solemn and didactic; in other words, it got worse. Reading these stories will energise you. How could they not? Samad relished life – and experienced so much of it – that his words had a throbbing, unfussy vitality.
Although I met him once, I can’t claim enough of an acquaintanceship to regale you with colourful anecdotes. But the best way to remember a writer is to go back to his books, anyway – and that’s something you can do any day of the week.
(Malay Mail, 10 September 2008)