Monday, August 18, 2014


Sometimes, we feel very down. Down and out. Depressed. So low that it seems this black hole we’re in is a never ending cyclone of despair, pain and anger.

All this negativity swirls, rising up to a crescendo we can’t bear to listen anymore. We close our ears, our hands pressed to the sides of our head, trying as much as possible to filter all of this out.

At times, though, it can be a calm sea of disappointment, a strangely soothing oasis of ire and anger. It is tempting to wallow in it, to soak ourselves in the pain and the sorrow.

After all, what is life without pain? Pain is one of, if not the very principle of life; to not feel pain is to be lifeless. You may be breathing, but you are not alive. It is one of the standard against which sentience is measured.

I may be wrong here, but the very deep meanings garnered in our journeys are usually made even more meaningful by the stumbles we take along the way. The punches to the solar plexus, the slaps to the face and the enziguris to the back of the head are all little lessons and events that punctuate our existence with shame and ridicule at times.

In the long run, the bigger picture is made more colourful by them.

Sometimes, though, there is too much pain. Too much shame. The heart breaks, wrenching under unbelievable pressure. It squeezes out its very essence, the beats of our life beaten into submission That pressure builds, over time, to the breaking point we did not know exist. Unless we find the faucet in time, we can’t help but feel…trapped, helpless, alone.

Feeling and knowing, however, are two different things.

Ending it all is not that difficult, truth be told. There are many different ways people have chosen to end their journeys. In the blink of an eye, a cut of the wrist will let it all out...literally, and it will all be over before you know it. The irony, though, is that it is not without its pain. Funny, that. Right near the end, the very thing that makes us alive becomes unbearable to the end point.

At least, that’s what I suspect. It could very well be that such endings have no real, physical pain to speak of, but I think it’s likely to be excruciating on some level.

What is most certain is that it most definitely will be painful for those we leave behind.

This is the part we sometimes forget. Then again, who knows? Perhaps it is even in their very consideration that we are driven to such acts. Perhaps, in the belief that our non-existence will make their lives easier, our loved ones will move on, capable of braving this new world without us just fine.

The opposite is true. Many would indeed go on, but their journey now charts a new course, a path hitherto unthought of. This is not the choice we'd like to take, but we have no power to dictate it. The direction is set, with only the speed of our travels determining how far along we get there.

It is a path filled with pain and sorrow. It is not a pretty journey. Our lives are interconnected webs of love, happiness and joy. There are, of course, negative emotions there too, but the fact remains that we cannot and will not redress balances simply by not being there.

At times like this, what do we do? A basic principle: when we don’t know, fall back on what we do know. Seek help. Release the pressure. Talking, you may be surprised to find out, is a form of release. Listening might even do so. Others more qualified will be able to help, for it comes in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes, just talking to a person who has nothing to say may be the best form of help. For others, a more hands-on approach is required, a step-by-step guide to overcoming this unbearable pressure.

For the human race is not built to live by itself. All through history, it is been proven time and again that greatness is achieved never through singular means, but on the shoulders of giants working together. The greater the magnanimity, the better the achievement. Even though some of these actions have led to pain for others, it does not mask the achievement attained in unity. Whether we are all in agreement is probably another matter.

Nevertheless, relying on others is paramount, for no man is an island, and no voice in the wilderness fades into insignificance. As much as the independence to those who make their stand against this can be admired, we want to achieve. We want to win.

In the twenty first century, at a time when the ending of human lives becomes even more prevalent, we must remember that survival is the new winning. Endure, as Alfred said to Bruce, as it means that our story continues; it is our stories that allows us to taste the sweet champagnes of life, for we are the stories we are told and tell.

And there’s no version of our story where we don’t come out the winner.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Prayer

It’s early in the morning. I have not had a restful sleep. Quite the opposite, in fact. I was kept awake for a number of different reasons, my (sub)consciousness unrested the entire time.

I sighed, and got up, sitting perched by the edge of the bed. The room was cloaked in its darkness. The light was not turned on, for once, but the street lights peeked through the curtains, finding its way into this enclave of mine.

I’ve often referred to my resting place, my home as the bat cave. It’s largely in reference to the fact that people find it difficult to contact me. I like it that way. I turn my phone off or put it in silent mode. Many have not accepted that, but then again, many have misunderstood the existence of a mobile phone to be a blank cheque for them to contact me anytime, anywhere they please.

That’s not going to happen. It infuriates a lot of people, but the peace of mind I (sometimes) garner instead is worth it.

Tonight, however, was anything but peaceful. A lack of electricity has thrown me back to the stone age, and it had left me feeling rather sweaty. My t-shirt stuck a little to my chest, and I took it off. The cool air covered my chest and arms, and I took a deep breath.

It’s nearly five o’clock. Might as well, I thought to myself.

I got up and prayed.

At times, it is a systematic routine perpetrated by society at large as a way of weeding out the good and the bad, a system that helps to entrench further who is worthier than most. At times, it becomes a flawed method to (mis)judge a person’s character, the number of times a person bowing in reverence and submission accepted as proof of a person’s piety. At times, the religious fervour and favour surrounding this seems to override anything and everything else.

The prayer system is a flawed one.

And yet.

Yet I do it. Why?

Force of habit can be considered, though I can’t claim to be the most disciplined of prayers. Despite the very best of my family’s efforts, my prayers have been sporadic at best. I pray when I can, which, if you believe in the principles of Islam, is probably not the best way forward.

I do pray, though. I go through the motions, say the lines, and wish for the best for my friends and family. Sometimes, it feels a little empty, especially during mass prayers, and as your face is pressed to the floor, you’re left wondering whether the imam chose the longer verses of the Qur’an to get more pahala. The spiritual aspect is an important one, but I think it’s also important to consider the private character of faith and prayers.

Praying is not without its physical benefits. Keep to the movements rigorously enough, and you’ll find that it works the muscles that needed working. The legs and stomach are given an especial workout; on one of the rakaats, the bending of the right food can be unnaturally strenuous. Keep at it, though, and a certain comfort arises of this.

Just like everything else.

I pray for a number of different reasons, but a part of it is always something of an attempt to develop in myself a bigger discipline that can be beneficial for other purposes as well.

The five prayer times, for example, are prime times for those wishing for a productive day. Subuh is when the early bird should be up and about to catch the worm, while the day prayers are physical and spiritual breaks from this tiring chase, allowing you to take a step back, recharge and recalibrate the perspective that may have gone awry in that time.

The maghrib prayers should probably be done at home, at a time when you should already be with your loved ones, while isyak is a good indicator of when you should already be winding down for the day.

Spirituality can be a fulfilling existence, and I get that from this as well, but to claim that it is without its real world benefits would be fallacious. Those who are able to maintain this on a regular basis usually works more effectively, emboldened ever more by this strong discipline. Even the political leaders who cheat the people are more effective in doing so precisely because of the discipline that acts such as these prayers helped to build.

It is not the only way to be disciplined, of course, for to the sea the rivers run. For me, it is a clear example of the real world wedded to a more spiritual one that does not have to be a negative.

Of course, after I did the subuh prayers, I went straight to bed and fell asleep. So much for discipline.

At least I’ll be up in time for zohor.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Squared Circle

I love professional wrestling.

That’s not an admission many would find interesting or appealing. More often than not, such a revelation has, in the past, invited more disdain than anything else. Usually, they are of the mildly amused kind. Nothing threatening or malicious there, at least to the best of my understanding.

Nonetheless, there is a clear lack of acceptance of professional wrestling by many people on a more serious level. It is relegated to a more kiddie category, one that lacks the credibility often afforded to other forms of sports and entertainment. It is an unfair comparison to make in many ways, primarily because it is both sports and entertainment, a social media phenomenon that is also a film production company in its spare time.

This is not to say that sports can’t be entertaining. If anything, it can appeal to the very base of our tribal senses whenever we hold a personal stake in the match involved. This can be from a long-standing interest held in the performer to more nationalistic objectives at play. Watching the Malaysian national football team take on Indonesia, for example, will always stir the hearts and minds more aggressively than seeing our boys take on (and lose to) Tajikistan. A similar notion exists in professional wrestling as well, with certain characters encouraged to espouse specific nationalistic spiel when the time suits them.

And therein lies a large part of the criticism against the art. The very fact that it was arranged beforehand does, for many, take away the mystery of what would happen next. In general we are driven by this very desire to know what would happen next. I mean, if everything was known beforehand, it would be such an exciting endeavour, would it? At the same time, when it comes to the arts there is a desire by many to see the ending pre-ordained according to their own tastes. In short, many look for the happy ending they can't find in life. It highlights a certain inconsistency, our willingness to expand more of our efforts and monies to secure a fixed future, and yet we are attracted to the idea of the unknown. We may fear it, but this form and level of attraction can not be denied.

We are driven by the stories around us. The story and narrative is king in the determination of the course of our lives, and the fact that it is or is not real is secondary to the reality that is taking place.

For it is a reality that is worth considering. The art of wrestling is one that is already intricate and impressive in its own right (not unlike the art of other arts). Trying to really hurt someone is actually quite easy: you move and hit as fast and as hard as you can. Trying to make it look like you hurt someone, however, without actually hurting them is another story. The amount of training and skill required to pull this off is incredibly high, and one that deserves a certain amount of respect.

The fact that it's not real, though, as a part of a number of other factors, is the reason it is commonly vilified. Why, though? Why the common snigger amongst some and hatred between others whenever professional wrestling is brought to the table? There is an incident that illuminated this issue for me, and it may be useful for us to consider.

Sometimes, prior to the start of my classes, having come over early enough to finish setting up the lecture slides and requisite videos, I am left with some time to kill. Taking advantage of that, I would often play another video, just to have something to watch. At times, I have fallen to the temptation of loading up my wrestling fix on the big screen and sound. It is, at least to me, marvelous to behold, a euphoric happiness one often get with the expansive expression of interest and passion.

My students would stroll in, one by one, but I’d keep the video running; there’s still time before I’m to officially start the class. Many would, as I mentioned above, react incredulously at the idea of their lecturers being a wrestling fan, but a lot of them would sit and watch (incidentally, this is a reaction of most people I’ve come across; whatever their leanings may be, people's heads will always be at least turned to the screen).

Quite a number, though, would not. They would actively turn away from the screen, almost exactly at the right moments when a body was about to be slammed into to the mat, or when a limb has been painfully contortioned. I’d ask them later about their reaction, and their response of “Ganas giler” was interesting: it was too violent for them.

It is interesting, precisely because many have claimed professional wrestling to be fake. Yet here is a significant enough sample size to indicate that the level of aggression was not something they can or are willing to take.

Professional wrestling may have similarities to the movie industry in the telling of unreal stories in an unreal way. However, in the movies, many can console themselves that it’s not really New York City that’s being demolished, but a computer generated rendition of it. Similarly, on screen deaths performed by actors covered in blood or blown to bits are received as the performances they are. Capable of inspiring real emotions though they were, a significant amount of thanks must be given to the costume, makeup, art and (again) CGI departments.

That’s not really the case with professional wrestling. In wrestling, what we see is what we get. Somebody’s head being bashed off the ladder step is…somebody’s head being bashed off the ladder step, however controlled that movement may have been. The Undertaker, performing a chokeslam by grabbing someone’s throat before lifting them up and slamming them on their back, is still another human being throwing a body to the ground at great speed.

It is then I realise that perhaps at least a part of the reason why many is not so into professional wrestling is not necessarily because it is fake. Quite the opposite, in fact. Could the high nose snobbery aimed at professional wrestling be an attempt to mask this? I wonder whether it is something is pushed to the margins and presented as fake because some find it too real to take.

Baudrillard would have loved this.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Rhythm and Hues

There is the age-old argument of whether a tree that falls in the forest did indeed fall if no one is around to acknowledge it. Ultimately it depends on the context; primarily because the world does not revolve around us, I am inclined to say it did.

Having said that, that’s subjecting myself to the perspective of others. At times an admirable (and challenging) trait, but the truth remains that we can all only see what we see. Anything beyond that is little more than very educated guesses at best, and lazy impressions at worst.

In short, how can that which is unknown exist, truly? Doesn’t it require some sort of affirmation to truly validate its existence? And how do we validate something that we don’t know?

I speak here of music.

There is a certain rhythm and musicality in life. Not many are privy to it, as it becomes the domain of the few simply as the majority are not overly concerned with identifying the musicality of day-to-day life. It is this musicality that becomes the concatenation that serves as inspiration for the arts.

To be sure, perhaps we are aware of it to a certain extent. There’s a lot of music out there that touches us, an ethereal connection that draws from us certain recognitions we either have yet to make or have buried deep in the past.

For music, much like the other forms of art, is subjective, and beautiful music is even more so. Lyrics can be the king to some, holding the key to better understanding the intent of the artist. To others, they are not important in the slightest, preferring instead the rhythm of musical notes to tug at the strings of our hearts. For the rest, it’s both, but perhaps it’s also neither; remember that the world does not revolve around us.

But it does exist.

I forget that. I get swallowed up by the cynicism of the day, a pessimistic perspective that perpetuates itself more and more with every single Facebook post by idiots I happened to scroll into existence. As of late, I’ve taken to trolling those who appear to mindlessly and uncritically regurgitate the texts of others as proof of validation. I enjoy the process of tearing down their fragile psychological identities, ones that attains affirmations from 1s and 0s with easily coded bias.

I forget that in life, there are better things to indulge in, the kinds that truly resonate with our souls and spirits.

The arts is a way to do that. Paintings, drawings, music, films and such have an aura. Walter Benjamin said that the appreciation of such works draws an aura that is unique and special, existing only in that moment. You are simultaneously a part of and making history. It is not an unproblematic hypothesis, but it doesn’t make it untrue all the same.

Such special moments I was reminded of recently. There are many wonderful musicians, such as Frank Sinatra, Bryan Adams and Pamela Choo, but for now I must pay special attention here to the score, the lyricless sounds that delights me.

I am a fan of composers such as Hans Zimmer, John Ottman and even the lesser known Bear McCreary, whose work on Battlestar Galactica on a relatively shoestring budget was astounding (Celtic music in a spiritual science fiction show, anyone?). Closer to my own continent, the works of Joe Hisaishi is an especially nostalgic delight, bringing me back down the memory lanes I built of the Studio Ghibli films. They, and many others, bring their own to the table, a wonderful pastiche of art and artists. Many of these I credit my friend Tan Meng Yoe, whose especial obsession with the Hayao Miyazaki films were instrumental in sparking my own interest.

Few, however, match up to Yuhki Kuramoto. I became a fan after watching the film A Bittersweet Life. As a film, it stands as one of the most influential I’ve ever seen, a reminder of the potential of film to create powerful emotions. One of the elements in play was the music, a key part of which was Yuhki’s very own Romance.

I had not known of the composer and the song prior to the film’s screening. The first time I watched it, though, I find myself struggling to hold back the tears. The song appeared twice in the film, the second of which created such depths of meaning I failed to truly comprehend at the time. Looking back, I realise what I was experience was a form of catharsis, even if there’s little of my own I can truly relate with to the character on screen.

Yuhki’s music, however, reached into the very depths of my soul, and grabbed at the last vestiges of emotions I had left at that time. I have rarely felt sadder watching a film, and I am well aware that a big part of that is due to the music, that rhythm and musicality of a life beyond my understanding.

We’ll have our moments where we falter, wondering how to truly move on from this moment to the next. Music, and the arts, may not necessarily be the main answer, but it can be a part of it. There should be some sort of bulwark against which we can combat and repel the cynicism of the day, to validate ourselves with some sense that…yes, at the end of the day, I can feel…something.

Sometimes, this something is all that's needed to grab us from the abyss.

Yuhki reminded me of that. I hope to never forget.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Jar of Hearts

There are many times when I feel somewhat lost and confused.

A number of years ago, I was in my office. It was late night, possibly around 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning. The security guards at Monash were, by then, well adjusted to my habits. They walked past my door on their rounds, checking in on me with a polite knock.

I was slaving away, researching on Walter Benjamin’s idea of the aura of art, and how applicable it is to the medium of film. I had done so for an article that eventually never got published, but that’s fine. It brings me a lot further down the road.

I dropped a message to my sister, just to say hello, and got a shocking reply. The chain of events may differ from what I recall, but the point is this: “Farah’s mother passed away.”

Farah is one of my sister’s friends. My sister had cultivated a strong bond with a group of friends from school, through which their families also became somewhat familiar with us. While this is a secondary impact from a key event in someone else’s life, my sister was equally affected all the same.

I pondered whether I should head over there. Though the relatively empty roads would mean a speedier travel, I didn’t know whether I had it in me to drive to the other side of the other city to Farah’s house. Pretty quickly, I realised that such considerations were irrelevant in the bigger picture, and left soon enough after that.

In truth, there’s very little that can be done. When a person dies, you feel like there’s nothing you wouldn’t do in the world to mitigate the situation for their loved ones. This is especially true of those who are close to you, but it doesn’t change the fact that such situations strips away much of our agency and faculties; I can’t do much beyond offering a few words of consolation that means little to the bereaved. As such, I went to Farah’s home without really knowing much of what I would do once I did arrive.

I walked into their home, shaking hands with people I didn’t know much, if at all. They have a lovely house, complete with a small fountain in the middle of the house, and a rustic d├ęcor that is very homely. This, then, truly is a home, one that houses a family forever changed by tonight’s events.

I spotted my sister, sitting close to Farah somewhere on the other side of the spacious living room. It was, however, filled with people, a score of gatherers and well-wishers who had come from near and far in the middle of the night, paying their last respects. Farah’s father, seated next to the body in the middle of the room covered in white, was reciting some prayers.

I sat down near the main door. There was very little room elsewhere. Someone passed me a copy of the Yasin, a chapter of the Qur’an. They tend to be published in smaller sizes, making it easy to pass around for occasions such as this. I opened the book, and started saying things I don’t truly understand.

The teaching of the Qur’an in Malaysia has largely focused on the reader saying the Arabic words properly. Much emphasis is placed on pronouncing and enunciating the right words in the right way. I suppose that is considered the original language of the Qur’an, and as such it represents a good way of getting closer to the word of God.

However, getting closer and actually understanding it can be two very different things. This approach basically deifies the ability of a person to read Arabic, above and beyond actually understanding it. In short, many Malaysians tend to read it without knowing what was being read.

This lack of emphasis has resulted in me finishing the Qur’an twice in my lifetime thus far without understanding a single word of what was said and its context. For that, people are encouraged to refer to their Ustaz or, as I did, read translations of the Qur’an.

I’ve often thought of this to be a bit silly. Should we still wish to prioritise the reading of the Qur’an in Arabic, I figure it’s a lot better to adopt an approach where we are actually taught Arabic, allowing us to actually understand the Qur’an in its original form the first time around.

As it is, too much power is given to too little people, having to rely on more people with agendas to have an inkling of what the Qur’an means. Lest we forget, the Qur’an is the word of God written by man; where man is involved, I am inclined to believe that a perfect accuracy is not to be expected.

All the same, being a product of this part of the system, it does mean, at least, that I can read the Yasin. As I did so, with everyone else reading the prayers at their own pace, I realise that the sense of uncertainty, of not knowing what to do, started to ebb away. It was not an obvious feeling at first, but it did wash over me in the end.

In that moment, I better understood the value of religion to me. My understanding of it allows for the creation of a structure that can be filled with your heart’s desires. It is like a jar, if you wish. Some pour in hatred, others keep their love there. I keep my faith there, even some believe a life lived as a perpetual introduction to something you hope will be better in the future is a life of disappointment.

Better understanding faith, religion and their idiosyncrasies, however nonsensical it may be at times, is the building of a bigger jar, of a certain pillar upon which you can rely on when the going gets tough.

I am not advocating people stop thinking critically and logically about their respective faiths (or even lack of it). Far from it. This is merely a reassessment on something which I had previously placed little value in, believing a lack of a coherent logic being enough to render something less credible. There is value here, and though that value can be further enhanced by constructive discourse, it is not to say that these structures are valueless. At least for that night, it worked for me.

For things were certainly tough that night. I felt lost, but I fell back on what I knew, even if I was yet to fully understand it.

I met my sister after having finished reading the Yasin. I offered my commiserations to Farah and her father. We hung around until near the end of the session, during which time we felt hungry. There was a mamak near the area, and we decided to walk for it.

There, in the middle of the road, before the breaking of dawn, my sister started crying. I hugged her, providing a shoulder for her to cry on. She lamented how it’s unfair. Farah’s mother had been there for her when our own family fell apart, the proverbial other mother who would offer her love and support when it was needed. I’ve only met her a few times myself, but I am left in no doubt that the feeling I felt earlier was not unique to me, that many others that night also felt just as lost. Perhaps even more so in many respects, for theirs is a loss that can never be replaced.

Turn back to your jars of heart, to love, religion, faith and kindness, when the road is dark. Light will always be found, for the night is darkest just before the dawn.

And I promise you…the dawn is coming.