Saturday, May 15, 2010

Writings on the Wall

I looked around the room, taking in the history of it all. It is a relatively small dormitory room, though it is slightly bigger than the one I had in Korea. There, four guys would share their lives and laughs together for four years. Here, my little sister wouldn't quite share it with other guys, and it wouldn't quite be for four years either, but she'll be here long enough to have left her mark.

Not that she's the only one, for it appears that others have beat her to it. “Hey, Little One, check this out,” I motioned towards the wall against which her bed is lined up. Words, some legible, some not, can be made out, though I have to admit that I've seen better handwritings. These are not merely the act of dogs marking their territory, as school kids of my generation are wont to do. We used to do it everywhere, writing down on walls and doors statements like “Jason woz 'ere 98.” I got into the act myself once, and wrote down something along the same line in my Maths classroom. My teacher, a red-haired woman whose love for the colour purple cannot be underestimated, wouldn't have noticed. Or so I thought, for lo and behold, a week later, the words were no more. “What happened here,” I quietly thought to myself, and then checked again to make sure that it was the same spot along the same wall. Evidently, Mrs Ward noticed me turning my head here and there, and promptly announced to me that my efforts would be fruitless. “I had it cleaned up, Fikri,” she said, before further admonishing me in front of the class. “What a stupid idea, to leave scribblings like that on the wall. I don't understand why kids would do it...” I was still a little perplexed, and so in a moment that would rival my time in Standard 2, when I proudly proclaimed that a cat has two legs and two arms, asked probably one of the most stupidest questions of my life: “How did you know it was me, Miss?” She blinked in disbelief. “Well, there's not that many Fikris about, is there?!”

Had I been born a Jason or David like every white boy, I might have gotten away with it.

Alas, it is with some regret that I inform you that the scribblings on my sister's room's walls are nothing of the sort. In fact, I reckon some effort was made not to identify themselves, but to provide little notes of encouragements. “Come on, you won't regret the effort later on!” “Work hard, play hard, pray hard!” “Pay the price now, and enjoy later!” “Finals will be over soon!” These are the words that the students have written as something of a pep talk, to provide the final push required over the finishing line. I find it interesting, however, that the words are structured not just for themselves, but it is also relevant for the newcomers to take some heart from.

“This is pretty cool,” I said to my little sister, turning to look at her as I did so. She was busy rearranging her own items, cleaning every bit of surface clean of dust and other unwanted particles. She merely nodded, gave me a silent agreement, before continuing along her task. My other sister, on the other hand, didn't really do much, but then again, I suppose that she had pulled her weight before I got there. Across the room, another young girl, a newbie, was also doing the same thing, and an elderly woman (most probably her own mother) sat quietly, casting a watchful eye over her efforts.

I had spent a lot of time with my little sister when she was younger. She had been born in what I consider to be my best year, 1992, a year during which I attained my highest academic achievements to date (2nd overall in Standard 2, 1st placed student in Bahasa Malaysia), and it may well remain that way, for I have grown to realise the true value of such academic achievements. Nonetheless, 1992 was also the year we moved to a new house in Setiawangsa. It was a year of new beginnings and bright starts to bright futures. It was also the year she was born in, and truth be told, I had wanted a little brother. You know, boys will be boys in that way. The same could be said for girls as well.

Over the years, we would spend a lot of time together. That's a given; she's my little sister, after all. However, there was a point when I slowly realised that the time I had with her would not last forever. She wouldn't be a little girl, a little princess until the end of time. She'll grow up, there'll be other guys who will come and take her heart (and break them once in a while, perhaps). She won't be laughing at my jokes for long, and neither will she truly enjoy playing around with her teddies with me. I used to always (and still do) 'control' her 'children', imbuing each and every one of them with voices, characters and personalities. It became our thing, something me and my siblings continue to this very day (so if you do happen to come across us talking in tongues, accents and weird voices, don't be freaked out and wonder whether it's got something to do with my mother being a psychiatrist, there's a perfectly logical explanation for it all :) ). From that moment on, I tried harder and harder to spend more time with her, tucking her in every night, reading and making up stories whenever the time called for it (ask her why tom yam is actually from Holland...). Half the time, she couldn't tell whether I was telling the truth, but she'd enjoy it nonetheless. Once in a while, it gets out of hand, and she does piss me off sometimes, but the reverse is also true. We're siblings, after all; who else would you fight with otherwise?

Now, however, that time has pretty much ended. Now, she has grown into a beautiful, smart and fine young woman, a young lady about to take her first tentative steps into the bigger and wider world, away from the confines of home living. She's no longer my little girl, my little princess, and I have to say, that makes me feel so sad. Me being away for years and years didn't help (though it does help to make the time that we did spend together that bit more precious), and not living together for the years that I wasn't away nailed the coffin firmly shut. She'll go on to prove why she'll be the best of us, the best of my siblings, why the strength hidden within her will come to the fore, a strength that she had fostered through difficult times, and will stand her in good stead. She doesn't see all of this, of course, but I do. I see it.

I have seen my little sister grow up into a young woman who will leave her own scribbles on the walls of the world. We never will go back to where we were before, but she has this whole new world at her feet.

I suppose this is what bittersweet is.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Heroine of the Day: Zasmani Shafiee


It was a shock, a visual statement that reverberated to the very core.

I walked towards the kitchen, passing by my mother's room along the way. At that moment, she decided to open the door to have a chat with me. I had triggered the proximity alarm she had armed, and though nobody in the house was quite asleep yet, it must have been something of an irritant, at least. I haven't mentioned the neighbours, yet; I doubt whether they themselves would be best pleased at alarms sounding like dead cats wailing in the middle of the night.

Of course, dead cats don't wail, but...I imagine it'll be unpleasant nevertheless. That wasn't the shock, however.

The shock was seeing shocks of whiteness in my mother's hair.

She had let her hair down for the night, and have already removed her tudung for the day. Ever since the day she had remarried, she had become more and more pious, and one of the things she did on a regular basis was to wear a tudung. At that moment, not only did I fail to recollect the last time I did see her hair, it was also a reminder that my mother, my dear, beloved mother...is aging.

Gracefully, beautifully...but aging nevertheless. You'd never would have guessed just by looking at her. Her body had remained as slim as ever, her face as kind for as long as I have remembered it so. Her wit and humour remained as sharp as ever; just a few hours ago, she told me a lame joke that even I wouldn't have been able to anticipated had I sat at the metaphorical joke typewriter and banged away for a thousand years. Her intellect is high, her mental strength is strong, everything about her is just the way it was ten years ago. We've gained a little bit, lost more than just a little bit, but everything else is the same.

Except for her hair.

It is a timely reminder. Age does a lot for us, but unfortunately, for me at least, it does something to the memory. Our memory retains mainly the memories that we want to keep, rather than an exact recollection of what had happened. Sometimes we forget things, and one of the things that I have forgotten is how far and how much we have grown apart. There's a lot of things that masked this. One of them is distance. Being halfway up the other side of the continent doesn't do much for appearances, and because of that, the memories I retained of people are those that I generally want to keep. Even here, however, the desire is shaped by an unconscious force, a part that I don't really control. I thought of adding 'not even me' to that particular statement, but it made me realise just how high-and-mighty I would sound like. I am not God, I am not even a reputable man of any sort just yet. I am merely a man, a fact that is always hammered home when I join a congregation for prayers. I am merely a man.

She, however, is more than just a woman. Beyond her family, she had worked long and hard at her career, and is the very definition of successful career woman, a pioneer in her chosen field of child psychiatry. Even today, there are no more than a few who choose this field as their vocation, a field of paramount importance in the development of our children. What's more, she worked at and for a public university hospital for years and years, when she could have been raking it in in private practice. Many others I know would have done that, but not my mother.

Until today, however, the most influential thing she has done for me and my siblings is her decision to take us, all of us, with her to England, where she continued her studies under the legendary Sir Michael Rutter, a man who I only remember as writing really, really expensive books. I had noticed the name before on her files and folders at the time, but it only hit me when I was assigned to scout a particular book of his for my mother at Waterstone. The book cost hundreds and hundreds of pounds, which may well be the standard for such academic books, but coming out of the background that I did (Hardy Boys and Stars Wars novels for me at the time), when the books I buy rarely reaches the higher end of a ten-pound note, it is shocking.

Shocking. There's that word again.

It was in England that she has now made me realised how lucky I am. I spent the majority of my formative years there, the time and period of anyone's life when we'd all start to look outside our own spheres of influence, outside our own family, and into the wider world of the society at hand. Entertainment, sports, politics, general ethics, religion...it was all here that I started to grow up for the first time. She would take us on trips across Europe, to Holland, France, Ireland, and Belgium (where we only passed by because we had to get to Holland). We drove up to Scotland not once, but twice, those eight-hour journeys made possible because of my mother. She was determined to give us, the family, her family, the kind of education and experiences that we didn't really have, the kind that she didn't have before, and it was all a brilliant and shape-shifting adventure that would live with us until this very day. Old videotapes of yesteryears would bear testament to this; for the record, I looked like the proverbial duckling, with big glasses and even bigger hair. "Eh, mate," one of the other students stopped me in one of the corridors at school, "you do know that the Jackson Five broke up, yeah?"

I get bullied a lot in school. Looking back, it's an experience that served to toughened me up in that one sense. It was a nightmare at the time, though. I used to get sent to the medical department a lot. The doctor's office at the time was located right next to the school's main reception. Due to their proximity, I became known, by way of my frequency, as Reception Boy. My mother would be my hero, coming to pick Reception Boy up from the reception after school hours. My later years would be spent playing with my Russian friend, Yaroslav. We'd be looking for pebbles, or empty cans of drinks, and kick them around as if they were football. By that stage, I no longer bring my football to school, because the naughty kids would take them away from me and kick them right up unto the roof of the gym. Wankers, the lot of them. I wonder what happened to them, sometimes. But when the bully boys come calling, my mother would be the one to be there for me, to soothe me and help to build up my confidence again.

It's not always repaid in kind, though. I remember a trip down to Bournemouth many summers and winters ago. My mother had been posted to a hospital in Norwich for a period of time, and the whole family decided to make a trip out of it. My father drove the van down to Norwich, to pick her up, and we'd make our way down to the beach. I, however, was disappointed. I had progressed quite far in Championship Manager 96/97, and I was rather unhappy to be divorced from my beloved Manchester United. Nowadays, I'd managed teams other than the big ones; I get a lot of satisfaction building up something new, rather than take over something established. I raised a little bit of a fuss...well, OK, more than just a bit. Here's one memory that won't be denied. My mother became pissed, and angry at me: "I wanted to take you to the beach, I want to take all of us here on a trip. I want all of us, as a family, to have a nice day out, and this is how you treat me." I was an asshole, and in some ways, still am. At that time, however, I just remained silent, very much aware of my own guilt and pettiness. She would take us all over, just for us.

She did a lot of things just for us. Even back then, her own marriage to my father had some cracks in it, though this is something I realised only after I look back with the benefit of hindsight. It is a crack she papered over because she had not wanted us to be affected by it. We were there for the ride, to be sure, but it was also an important period during which we still had to settle into the British way of life. For my part, it was equally important; I had essentially skipped a year of school (compared with the Malaysians, the British start their young's schooling a year early), and so there's a little bit to catch up with. Furthermore, it is the only year before I would transfer to secondary school, so I needed to be on top form. She wanted the best for me, and in her search for the best, we settled on Dulwich College, a rather prestigious private school. However, after taking the entrance exam, I knew immediately that I had failed it. She had dropped me off before the exam, and was waiting for me when I had finished it. I didn't have the heart to tell her how I felt I did, but she knew. She never held it against me, though. I suspect very few members of my family even remember that I tried to get in there, and it'll no doubt be nothing more than a hazy memory for her. Once again, the things we remember...

It's because all of this that I have a fear of failure. I suppose this is also influenced by my father, but ultimately, I never want to disappoint my parents. In my mother's case, the bond is somewhat stronger, both scientifically and also socially. In all my years, it seems somewhat inevitable that I have spent more of my life with my mother than I did with dad. My father being the successful filmmaker in his own right, he never seemed to be around at home as much. There was always a shoot, always a production going on. His most successful and well-known film still is Sayang Salmah. During the shoot, he was away for months at a time, coming back only on the weekends for a change of clothes. He'd spend a night at home before going back the very next day. To see him, I'd have to spend time with him on set. I'd have to go and visit the set to see my own father. It never really crossed my mind at the time as a negative thing, though. It just is. It just is that his life, his chosen life, or the one chosen for him, keeps him busy in that way. It just is that my mother would end up spending more time with me.

It is the choice we make in our life that defines us. For that part, it pains me at times that it is the choices I make (and those made for me) that has kept us apart for so long. I rarely see my mother these days, because we have such different lives. The family isn't what it used to be, and neither is my mother. Neither am I, for that matter. I have grown to be a rather forceful young man at the best of times. Strong-headed, stubborn...a bit like my parents, actually. I used to fight with my mother a lot. I had fought on a lot of things, tooth and nail, and even to this there, there is still that instinct to voice out something when she says something I disagree with. In time, I learned to tame this, somewhat, because I try hard to enjoy the times that I do spend with her. Life is short, time is precious, and whatever of both there is left should be enjoyed fully and earnestly. It is because of this realisation that I try to see as much of her as possible, because even though things change, even though I no longer live with her, even though she is now someone else's wife (I couldn't, just couldn't, see him as my father, just as my mother's husband), even though we are, for the most part, nothing more than just voices at the other end of the phone line, even though we have hurt each other deeply in some of the times when we did get together...the simple truth is that they hurt because we care for each other.

A friend of mine (well, a friend of an ex, actually), once posted on Facebook: Why does it hurt so much? I suppose she was talking about relationships, and even though I was never that close enough to her to get deep down into it, I still felt like saying something. So I did: "Because we care?" I pose it as a question, because there could very well be other reasons, but at the end of the day, it can be broken down as simply as possible to just that: because we care.

My mother and I...we've had a long and storied life together, a life that is no longer as close or as together as perhaps either of us would really want right now. We've hurt each other, but it hurts because we care. Going beyond that, the cuts cut deep because we love each other. I love her not just because of the love that she has given me, but to those around me; once in a while, she would try to help my friends as well if she could. She gave me life, she gave me love, she gave me all of the tools I would ever need to be successful in life. Could I have asked for more? I don't think so, for it is only one of the few hopes in life that I have grown up as a good enough person, as a strong enough man, as a loyal enough son, to not have disappointed her much.

These are merely simple words, but they express such complex and unimaginable emotions and feelings. For what it's worth, Ibu, I love you. I love you so much it sometimes makes me cry. I hope I have not disappointed you, for you have never, in all your wisdom, disappointed me. I cannot and could not in any possibility hope to pay you back in this lifetime the gratitude I feel for you.

For now at least, a simple "I love you" will have to do.

Happy Mother's Day, Ibu. I miss you even now.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Standard Standards


"Listen, you'll be fine."

The night's clouds gathered above me, though for now at least, they lay unmoved, unstirred by the events below. My friend was driving the car, while his housemate was in front, half-heartedly engaged in a half-hearted effort to discuss the directions of Jeonju. We were on our way to my friend's friend's house, who decided to christen their house, and meet me for the first time. My friend had been talking about me for a fair amount, in glowingly positively terms, and it stoked their curiosity. So they wanted to meet me.

My attention is not on them, however. I was told of the release of my sister's high school exam results. It is a highly-anticipated and long-awaited highlight, even if the time gap between the actual exam and the release of the results is not that big. I've done a Korean proficiency test before, it took almost three months to release. OK, perhaps it's not that long, but still.

Still.

My father had informed me some time ago that the Little One (my youngest sister) had received her results. He mentioned it almost in passing; that's one of the things that upsets me a little, being out of the loop. You'd expect to be kept pretty much in the loop even when you're away, but even then, there are still many, important things that crept through the cracks. Things like exam results.

Out of sight, out of mind. Perhaps Soderbergh should make a sequel to his film to that effect. George Clooney is still a bankable star these days, while Jennifer Lopez still looks good, even if she has been involved in some career-killing bombs recently.

"You did really well," I told her, still considering the right words that could lift her spirits even higher. There's no embellishing on my part here, for it is the truth as I see it. "You did a lot better than me when I was at school. Listen, Little One," I paused, wondering whether to reveal the big secret of academic life that many parents wouldn't really want their children to know, "the truth is, in a few years, nobody will really care about what you did or how well you did in school. It's true, it's important, and we have to work hard for it to get as best a result as we can get. But," heavy emphasis on 'but' here (perhaps I should write that in italics) "the fact is, it is a stepping stone to the next level. Having good marks are important, but it's all it ever is: marks. There will come a point in time when you'll look back and see that all the worrying and being upset about it is not really worth the time and effort."

She murmured an affirmative, perhaps more to get me to shut up and off the phone so she can go into the corner to sulk a little bit more. A short while later, having tried my best to do so, we ended the conversation, promising to keep each other up to date as to the date of my impending return and other things.

Out of sight...

As my friend drove on, still looking for his friend's new house (an apartment, really. All the craze in Korea here), I pondered as to what is wrong here. There's something that's not quite right, a disconnect that is not easy to rectify within a single phone call. Though I don't want to blare out my sister's achievements on loudspeaker here, I truly and honestly believe that she had done really, really well. She far surpassed me many times over if our high school results are put side by side to each other. She has many more As compared to my single, solitary top mark (though I got Bs in six other subjects. Six!). That one A is for Religious Education, a subject that compares and contrasts a lot of the major religions of the world (no analysis of the Jedi Church, though, to my personal disappointment). I remember a class bully who had become a fairly decent friend of mine, Daniel Bush, complaining about my grade after we received the results for the mock test. "But he's a Muslim," as if that was any excuse, "it's not fair that he got top marks because that's his religion." Until this day that never fails to bring a smile to my face; I must have done rather well on the questions about Christianity and the major religions' opinion on euthanasia as well, Mr Bush. (I called him Bush baby once. He wasn't best pleased, and proceeded to physically show me what he thought about that).

I remember, still, the hard work that I had put in for that particular exam, but I also remember the relief and satisfaction that came afterwards. You appreciate things more, however slightly, when the circumstances and situation seem to work against you. The personal sense of satisfaction and achievement is all the better for it, and in that light, things are viewed in a more positive light. That's the problem with grading everyone with a single approach, I suppose. It provides the effects, but it doesn't explain the cause, doesn't explain the context that surround the text. I can still remember Dr Pat Goon explaining during my Monash days that the text is also a form of context, and vice-versa.

I liked Dr Pat very much. I never got around to calling her Dr Goon, but we share a common love for the Lord of the Rings. She is a complete geek when it comes to sci-fi stuff, and some were the times when I would merely pop my head round her office and she would greet me with a character's name. "Remember me?" "Yes, Faramir." I wonder if she still remembers me to this day, but I'd walk away all the happier at being called Boromir's younger sibling.

I remember these moments more than the grades that I received from her. Obviously, it wasn't all that great to begin with, and that may well explain the lack of instantaneous recollection of my own grades that I had metaphorically moved mountains for before. It's always in the moment that you fail to look up and realise...that at the end of the day, you'll do the exam, you give it your best shot, and whatever happens...happens.

I do not see it around me, though. I do not see many other people seeing the paper qualifications for exactly what they are: paper qualifications. The knowledge garnered along the way is important, but at the end of the day, everything can be simplified into you, the student, paying a lot of money that probably belongs to your parent, for a single piece of paper to set you off into the world. Once again, we see only the effect, rather than the cause. The context, ever so important in grounding the achievement within a particular set of framework, is missing. I do not know of any of my friends who received their diploma and say out loud, "Wow, this is so totally worth the RM70,000 my daddy paid for it."

What is that, then? What is the disconnect that casually tosses away the context that is required in order to gain a set of perspective on these things? Why do people still get upset that they do not get straight As? They get only five, only six, only seven As, and they'd still be feeling down, still be murmuring on the phone. Never mind that international phone calls are freakin' expensive (another context there), but someone doing 5 or 6 or 7 times better than me still feel that perhaps, just maybe, the end of the world is not far off.

Could it be a fault of the society that we live in? The pressure to do well on academic terms have never been higher. It is even more so in Korea, where there is the extra pressure for students to have a good grasp of English. Recent surveys revealed that many people worry that they are losing their jobs due to the recent downturn in the economy; more tellingly, many people believe that their English (or lack of fluency in) will make them first in line to be fired. In Malaysia, the culture of after school tuition, of outperforming others, of getting all As is incredibly high. We, as a society, continue to encourage this. We, as a society, perhaps no longer remember what it's like to be a student. I still feel close enough to my learning days in university (my current programme excepted) that I feel I am able to recall the hardship, but also gain a certain amount of perspective that comes from the distance.

I keep up to date with the happenings in Malaysia via the online news portals. One newspaper released the results of the top achieving students for the SPM examinations. These students will inevitably be feted with all sorts of rewards and scholarships that comes with the territory of having their names splashed across the printed journals of the day. In Korea, high school students can even get discounts at some of the shops they frequent if they get good marks.

What happens to those who didn't get their names published? What happens to those who fall into depression just because somebody else's standards weren't met? Why are newspapers once again publishing exam results of not just students, but schools in the newspapers?

Have we forgotten what happened to Subashini?

Do we care about the disconnect between text and context, increasingly unrealistic expectations and pretty good reality as it is? Is this where we, as a society, as human beings, want to be?

"Well," said my friend, "we're here."

I just don't know where 'here' is, where we all are, and whether it's the place where we really, really want to be at.

Monday, May 03, 2010

The Prayer


I arrived slightly late at the mosque. It didn't really seem to matter; it's a Friday, and as ever, the place is packed to the brim with Allah's followers (and random Koreans taking pictures. On some days, you'll even find TV crews doing some filming), but there's always enough space if you arrive in time. Time was when I prayed in the parking lot, fulfilling my duties on the tarmac that has been graced many times by the presence of round rubber tubes going back and forth over and over with the sole purpose of movement: tyres. One place to the next, point A to B. It's also the only part of a Formula 1 car (or any car, for that matter) that touches the ground, and as I write this right now, I am fully aware of the most technologically-advanced motorsport division in the world facing the prospect of having no tyres to race with for next season. I doubt whether Avon could suitably fill in the breach to be left by Bridgestone.

But I digress. Praying on tarmac, parking lots, common, public roads, not the freakin' Nurburgring.

I slithering my way as politely as possible into the mosque proper. I found a spot I could just about squeeze myself down into, and lowered myself as humbly as possible. I noticed the wet spots on the edges around my trousers, near the bottom, the residual marks of the earlier wuduk I had undertaken. Many Muslims are required to do that to do their prayers, as a way of cleansing themselves before prostrating before the eyes of God. Another form, with a fair amount of substance, but would God reject those who didn't do it? Would Allah look less kindly upon those who pray without having cleansed of themselves? Hell, would God grant mercy on those who didn't actually pray?

I don't know. Big questions, a little too big to deal with within that particular moment of time. For now, however, is the only moment in time that truly matters, that the whole Friday comes down to. There are other prayers, but it's nothing like Friday prayers. The holiest prayer of the week, apparently (though some quarters may well contend that the Friday Maghrib may well be slightly more important).

Who's right, and who's wrong?

I raised and brought my hands together, touching my palms together as if to cup an invisible bowl, and slowly moved as if in a small trance, but without properly understanding what the heck the imam is actually saying. Most of the people from my generation don't. And my generation, I define as other Malaysian-Malay-Muslims (rearrange according to your own preference if that is what you may well...prefer) within my age range. I've no doubt that many others are way ahead of me in terms of memorising what needs to be said, and, like them, I may even hazard an accurate guess at what all the Arabic is all about. But the truth is...the truth is, I don't really know what the Imam is saying. And yet, here I am, nodding and silently chanting along like everybody else, fulfulling the form, rather than understanding the real content.

Is that right, or is it wrong? Should importance be placed on the style, or the substance? I don't know.

It's time. I got into position, having shuffled my way all the way near the middle of the mosque. The air conditioning is working today; woe betide the day when it doesn't. A grace during the cold winter months, but hot summer days demands different criteria to be fulfilled. Failing that, however, a stand up fan, metallic rather than plastic, swivels and turns its way left, right, and left again, as if its waiting for the sea of humanity to part before crossing the road. It didn't part, for we are about to start praying.

I went through the motions. I folded my arms, across my stomach. I uttered the words drummed into since I was young, reciting what I believe to be the prayers that descended down from the heavens, to which it is now being returned. I bend over, clutching my knees. I prostrated myself on the floor, before raising my hands, saying more words in Arabic I don't quite understand, before rinsing, repeating, and starting back at one (apologies to Mr McKnight for minor appropriation of his fine song).

The picture I have uploaded for this particular post probably represents the prostrate position about as well as any other photograph could have hoped to do. Funny, that; looking at the perspective presented by the photographer, it reminds me of the propaganda documentary that Leni Reifenstahl did for Hitler entitled 'Triumph of the Will'. I had recently watched the film, and though it was overly long for my taste, I did feel a sense of awe during certain shots. It has been talked about as a revolutionary film, and the point was hammered home when a particular paper I came across literally took several shots from the film and put them side by side with select snapshots from films like 'Star Wars' and 'The Lord of the Rings'. Perhaps there's little by way of direct, explicit influence that the filmmakers would admit, even to the themselves, but the fact that it came before them, and that it showed new things in new ways can't be denied.

Even if it was Hitler and his 'fellow' 'Aryans'. Note the double inverted commas here used for consecutive words here. What does it mean? Consider that for yourself, Ms. Mohan: it's not that hard. :)

Lest I be accused of comparing Muslims to Nazis, I merely make the point of the similarity between the visual images gleaned. What of the act in the image? The act of bowing and praying and begging for the mercy of a great, unseen One. The god may be one, the belief may be universal in nature, but even here the differences between the people are stark when constrasted against one another.

Let me give an example. There's a point when near the end, the prayees lift their forefinger, as if to point to Allah, before finishing off the whole prayer for the time being. The act of lifting the finger can vary greatly from one person to the next, and in some cases, from one nationality to the next as well. I have observed this in Malaysian and Korean mosques, which tend to collate a wider variety of Muslims. In Malaysian mosques, the finger remains outstretched, erect as a pillar, strong in its direction and purpose. Many of the non-Malaysians I've seen, however, do point, but in very different ways. Some wave the finger around wildly, as if it is a college student let loose at spring break. Others would flash it for a short while, lifting it and then setting it down almost as quickly as it happened, gone in the blink of an eye. I can't help but observe these sometimes, because it can be rather distracting, but also...let's face it. Anyone who is able to focus and concentrate for the entire Friday prayer without letting their mind truly wander off somewhere is someone who I can truly respect. Khusyuk, that's the term that we Malays happily 'stole' from the Arabs to describe it. It means, in short, focus, concentration, attention on only that one thing at that one particular time. Rare are the occasions that I can pray with deep khusyuk, and even rarer are the times that I do it five times a day. That in itself can be a challenge.

But then again, what isn't? Being involved in a religion, believing in its own sets of virtues, principles and laws, is always a challenge. I suppose we can widen the scope a little and spread its wings, for life in itself is a deep challenge. How do we meet this challenge? What is the one right way to do so? Perhaps certain cliques wouldn't say it out loud, but I know of people who would readily gossip and point fingers (without praying), saying and describing with glee the ways that people are doing it all wrong. "Arabs, that's how they pray. It doesn't look nice on the eyes." I can recall specifically two such events, and one of which is not limited to merely judging Arabs either. Nevertheless, perhaps that is another story for another time, because it suffices to say for now that for my part...I don't know.

I don't know whether it's right or wrong, and whether it's correct or incorrect to be judging right or wrong in itself. To be merely mouthing the words we thought are right, or to truly live the truth that lies deep within our souls.

To paraphrase yet another singer, and with big apologies to Mr. Kid Rock...only God knows why.

Amen.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

End of the Road


It's the end of a dream.

Never has such a sentence been made with such resonance. Dreams, after all, are transient in their own ways. It does not have a measurable meter, nor is it physically grasped in the same way that you and I do. Reach for your dreams, aim for it, but of course, within the physical world, though those are the words that may, from time to time, ring within our ears, it is nigh on impossible to do so.

Dreams are things that, in the most literal of senses, do not exist.

And yet...

...and yet here I am, standing. Waiting and...feeling.

The hair on the back of my neck began to stand. Rise, erect, hailing the chief, the new leader, the change in atmosphere. We know not now the causes of such a situation, but the effect is palpable.

The dream is dying.

I looked around. The paint is as pristine as ever. The furniture are all in place, without as much as a fraction of soft leather out of place. The television doesn't seem like it has been turned on for a while, but the very thin layer of dust does not disguise its quality or functionality.

I walked over to the TV, and picked up one of the plethora of remotes next to it. Actually, I lied; there's only three. One each for the TV, stereo and DVD player. Still, it seemed to my trained eye, at least, to be three more than necessary. There's still a part of me that rejects the access of almost every single thing at my fingertips, despite the fact that I may well qualify to be a fully-fledged member of the 21st century. My soul is old; could I be a person reincarnated? "Dude," my friend Mus, once proclaimed, "I can't believe you walked in there and came out with 'The Very Best of...Frank Sinatra." It's true, I loved and still adore Ol' Blue Eyes. Mus, as an aside, is my cosmic brother, as we both share the same birthday. I doubt whether cosmic brother is actually an academically defined term.

Academics are not my concern for now. I put in the DVD, pushed play, and sat down. For a moment, I could hear the echo. It's the echo of silence ringing all around me. You know the sound you here when you are totally still, and there is nothing around at all. And yet, it rings, loudly, almost unbearably so. It's that sound.

It's the end of dreams.

I shuddered; the hairs are still standing, at attention, without the possibility of ease, at least for a few minutes more. The pictures surrounded me with memories of the past. One, a big one, on the wall, a portrait of two people; loving, caring, and mutually so. Theirs is a love that carried and powered its way through the thick and very thin of four decades or so. There are, and were, other loves, and of that I have no doubt, but they say that love, when it really is love, will find its way back to you eventually. For these two, it did.

The house used to be filled with sounds. Even in the far off distance, you would hear the television at the back of the house, turned on, even in the middle of the night. Nobody would be watching, of course, since the only audience member interested in the television would have been asleep by then. By the time the eyes shut for the last time, the watcher became the watch...ee. Yet you, sitting in the living room, or trying to sleep off the day's exhaustion, would be reassured that there is someone, somewhere, in the house. The TV becomes an indicator not just of the events outside of the house all over the world within that 24 hour period, but also a sign and symbol of life within the house itself at that very moment. At the worst of times, it can be rather annoying, and your mind would wonder about the environmental cost of keeping the TV on the whole night. There would be an urge within you to get up and shut the damn thing up.

At the best of times, it can be a soothing and calming influence.

It's not there anymore. Nothing, no one, except for me, right now, is there anymore.

The movie finished. It is my most personal film, and nobody gave a damn. Not a complaint, merely an observation. A telling one, nevertheless. I got up, and turned everything off.

And with a single glance back at the room, spacious, luxurious, and filled with some memories not of my own making, I turned off the light, and walked deeper into the deafening silence of the darkness.

Down the road where all dreams die.