Wednesday 24 December 2008
Towards a Malaysian language
PUISI-PUISI PILIHAN by Usman Awang (Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1987, 192 pages)
Language is not just a matter of saying prinsip Bernoulli or segitiga Pascal instead of the Bernoulli principle or Pascal’s triangle. It’s about having a common vocabulary that is drawn from images, ideas and experiences that we share.
We don’t have a Malaysian language. Sure, we have the officially enforced words on street-signs and text-books, but this has become a discourse of division and mutual grand-standing. The ‘liberals’ can be just as chauvinistic, because each imagined community wants to draw boundaries in order to feel so much more secure in its self-righteousness.
Do we have a writer who is referenced by every Malaysian? Sure, we have a few men who have been crowned Sasterawan Negara (National Laureates), but, honestly, when was the last time we cared about what the literary bureaucrats think? Who is the writer who can come close to the pan-national appeal of Lat or Alleycats? (Notice that both those examples have been used for at least three decades.)
I read Neruda’s memoirs recently. There’s a bit where he talks about how hard it was for him to maintain anonymity during a period of political persecution; he had to literally remain silent because, apparently, even the rocks in Chile recognised the sound of his poetry! He was bragging, of course, but we roughly know what he meant.
Do our own natural formations recognise the prose of S. Othman Kelantan or Abdullah Hussein? Don’t answer all at once! Every swooning boy and girl recognises the Angkasawan, but there’s no mass love for the Sasterawan.
The most popular Laureate might just be Usman Awang. I bought this students’ edition of his collected poems when I was indeed still a student, and it is thus yellowed with age. But the fact that I didn’t chuck it away the way I did most of my other school books must mean something.
Like Lat and Adibah Amin, the late Tongkat Warrant (what a macho pen-name he had!) was so secure in his own identity that he did not feel threatened by others. The fact that he could celebrate a left-wing leader (Ahmad Boestamam) in one of the poems in this approved national text-book already speaks a lot about how he could make people cast aside petty divisions, if only temporarily, to listen to his humanistic melodies.
His works could be described as anti-feudalist (the play Matinya Seorang Pahlawan) or socialistic (the play Uda dan Dara) but the best of them just sing, whether in compassionate celebrations of life or in sharp denunciations of cruelty. He could be awfully sentimental and even purple at times, but the steely tenderness at his core shone through often enough. It’s like finding rubies in flour.
Like most of our Laureates, he is held up as a kind of wise elder. But he had a sense of mischief that is too often missing from the more self-consciously solemn scribes. In this book, mischief is particularly evident in the satirical poems of the 1980s such as Bagaimana Kalau (which imagines a few mock-outrageous scenarios that could puncture aggressively pursued national ambitions) and Beli Buatan Malaysia (which casts an amused glance at the gap between what the elites say and do).
His Anak Jiran Tionghua and Sahabatku remain quite rare in their celebrations of common values, and desire for ethnic equality. He remained, however, a staunch stalwart of the Malay language: his 1967 poem Keranda 152 (although presented without any explanatory foot-notes) is a veritable call to arms for people to defend Malay against being tramped upon.
One of his most celebrated poems is, quite rightly, Kekasih. This sensuous, even erotic (if you read it closely enough, that is) tribute to romantic love, with its seamless references to the natural world, remains one of the finest achievements of national literature. It certainly ranks up there with Neruda, for example.
(Speaking of erotic, his short story Betisnya Bunting Padi, while not widely known, must count as one of the few blatantly homoerotic local fictions of the 20th century. But I digress).
Since I am practicing to be an old fogey, I don’t know how many of Usman’s works are still in the school syllabus. I hope he’s still there, alongside lessons on the Pythagoras theorem (back in my day, we called it teorem Pythagoras – what a stretch!) because his words stay with you long after most things fade.
(Malay Mail, 24 December)