A to Z Challenge: Reflections

When I signed up for the challenge, I remember taking the word ‘Challenge’ seriously. I wanted to know if I had what my mother calls ‘stick-to-it-tiveness’. Was I ready, able and willing to complete this challenge? Could I do it? Would I flounder half-way? Should I give up even before I’d started? In effect, I challenged myself.

I also knew that preparation was the key here; I started planning things early. Throughout March, I did what I called a ‘trial run’. Each day, I would write out a story about the alphabet. For about 18 stories or so, I could produce new material. Of all the new material I produced, my favourite is still ‘A for Ammachi’. I loved that story and judging by the many comments I received, so did others.

For the rest, however, I struggled and wondered how I was going to cope. I spent much of March worrying about these ‘gaps’. How was I going to come up with material that would fit a particular alphabet?

Having identified this problem, I refused to compound it by fixing a theme to work with. I decided to be free and easy.

As April approached, I fretted. I still didn’t have these ‘gaps’ filled. Then, a few days into the challenge, I realised something when visiting other people’s blogs. They were using material that they’d published elsewhere. This gave me an idea. I dug up some stories that hadn’t seen the light of day in many, many years and worked on them. The story for ‘Y’ was a perfect example. ‘Yamuna’ was not the name of the original character in the story. However, to fit the ‘gap’, I changed the character’s name and made it fit.

In some cases, I had to have courage to share what I’d never shared before. The one for ‘W’ is an example. This was the first time I was sharing any of my paintings of Ladoo.

What I enjoyed was the camaraderie of other people who had taken up this challenge. I enjoyed vising other people’s websites and reading their stories. And I was sad when some of them who had such potential gave up half-way. I’ve made new acquaintances and I hope that we will all continue to keep in contact.

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Z for Zebra

ZThere was a story in the papers about a runaway zebra that died after a golf course chase. Police chased this runaway zebra from Tokyo zoo across a golf course. It collapsed in a water trap on the golf course and died.

It’s such a sad story, but I could not help be amused by one aspect of this story: this failed attempt to recapture the creature came a month after the zoo held a drill practising this very eventuality.

The reporter wrote as follows: ‘Every year, a zookeeper dresses as an animal and stages an escae, giving colleagues the opportunity to hone their techniques. This year’s creature was a zebra which was successfully collared and returned to its pen. But as if to prove that practice does not always make perfect, this week’s real life response did not quite go to plan.’ (Runaway zebra dies)

Whenever I hear the word zebra, I’m always reminded of a couple I knew in University. They were my mother’s friends: Aunty Saras and Uncle Gordon.

It was the summer of 1996 and I was in Aberystwyth visiting some friends. I decided to rent a car and do a cross-country journey to Kent. On the way back, I decided to stop in Ilfracombe, Derbyshire and visit Aunty Saras and Uncle Gordon.

Keep in mind that there was no GPS and the mobile phone wasn’t going to work on some country roads. And Aunty Saras and Uncle Gordon’s house in Ilfracombe wasn’t exactly easily visible on a map. Duly warned, I was prepared to get lost. And being lost was exactly what happened. I’ll never forget driving up a slope in a very small lane and being comforted when I saw a small car in the rear-view mirror. Then, it disappeared and I was alone. Petrified, I reversed all the way down this lane until I had enough space to make a U-Turn.

To this day, I have no idea how I found Aunty Saras’s house, but find it I did. After I’d settled into a very comfortable room, we started talking about their ‘old’ times. Theirs was quite the love story.

From what I can remember, in the 1960s, she was the warden of Malaya Hall in Bryanston Square in London. She came in contact with many Malaysians. As a testament to her popularity, whenever she visited Malaysia, she was always welcomed into the homes of some of the most high-ranking people in the land.

By the time she met Uncle Gordon, she was already in the late 30s and had a child from her first marriage. Nonetheless, they fell in love and, she divorced and they married.

Uncle Gordon was no ordinary Englishman. He had served in Malaya (I have no clue as what, but I presume it had something to do with the war) and was an engineer by profession. He surprised me by being one of the few Englishmen I knew who loved everything about Malaysia.

They had a happy life together and travelled a lot. The thing about Aunty Saras was that there was never a journey where there wasn’t some sort of drama. On their African safari, she was the one who suffered from a rare mosquito bite. When she came one to Malaysia, she fell and injured her leg. There was the time she walked into a department store and something fell on her. Still, they were a jolly couple.

As for zebras, she told me a story that I’ve recalled each time someone deliberately insults me … like in my Xavier Ealy story. Aunty Saras, being Tamil, was, naturally, dark. Uncle Gordon, being English, was very white. I was describing to her some of the racial slurs that I had to endure from time to time in Aberystwyth.

Aunty Saras laughed and said, “You have no idea how close to the family racism can get. When Uncle and I first married, we had some funny things said to us. Then, when I was pregnant, one of his relatives came up to me and asked, ‘Will this baby be like a zebra? Will it have stripes?’”

How does one respond to something like that?

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Y for Yamuna, the Brahmin

Y“Look at her now. Nobody wants to be her friend,” said sixty-year-old Suresh.

Having inherited her father’s strong will, Avanti wasn’t going to back down in this all-day argument father and daughter had been having.

“Nonsense! Everyone wants to be Yamuna’s friend,” Avanti replied. “I just don’t think they are suitable enough to be close to my daughter. They’re half-castes, at best. Yamuna is pure Brahmin. I will not allow a full Brahmin to fraternise with all these …” Avanti made a face to show her disgust.  She then glanced at the wrist watch her husband had presented to her as anniversary gift three months ago. It was 5.35 and she was already an hour late in serving Yamuna’s evening meal. This wouldn’t do.

“How can you say that?” Suresh stared at Avanti, ignoring his wife, Shoba. She had been trying unsuccessfully to get a word in.

“Why not? Until she becomes a full adult, I will choose who she’s friends with. Isn’t that good parenting?” Avanti looked at her father.

Suresh looked at Shoba and said, “See what your daughter is saying. I don’t understand why she’s keeping her daughter, Yamuna, from making friends. Yamuna is our granddaughter and we don’t mind her making friends. Why? Why would you do that?”

“I’m protecting her,” Avanti said in a matter-of-fact manner.

“Protecting her? From what?” Suresh stared at his daughter.

“She could get diseases from all these … these untouchables.”

“You’re becoming just like your friends. You complain that they stifle their children’s growth. Now you’re doing exactly the same. And yours is a little worse.”

Shoba put her hand up, as though she were asking for permission to speak. Her voice was feeble when she said, “But …”

Avanti turned at stared at her mother, too angry to be respectful. “Don’t interrupt, Mummy.” To her father, she said, “I’m protecting Yamuna.”

Suresh scratched his head. Taking a deep breath, he pulled out his smartphone from his trouser pocket and said to his daughter, “You’re fooling yourself. Come. Let me show you this video I took of how Yamuna behaved when her friend came to visit.”

Avanti pulled the chair closer to her father and leaned in to look at the screen. She rolled her eyes when her father said, “Can you see how the friend is putting her hand through the gaps in our gate and calling Yamuna out to play?”

Suresh pressed ‘Pause’ and looked at his daughter, raising his chin, as if to ask, “What do you say to that?”

“That’s what I don’t like,” Avanti replied, nonplussed. “That hand is all grubby and filthy. I don’t know where it’s been. It’ll be full of diseases and infections.”

Shoba leaned against the table and drummed her fingers on the table top. “You know, this doesn’t make sense. You’re fighting with each other for nothing. Yamuna is-”

“You’re such a snob, Avanti” Suresh said, ignoring his wife. “And you’ve passed this on to your child.”

“No-lah. Yamuna is absolutely sweet.”

“Humph! Watch the rest of the video and you’ll see that your baby is also a snob.” They watched the rest of the video and when it ended about a minute later, Avanti was shaking her hands in front of her.

“I never taught her that. I never taught her to lift her head so she could look down on her friend on the other side of the gate, make a U-turn and walk away. Not my fault.”

“Humph!” her father said and picked up his glass of water. He took a sip then said, “Not your fault, it seems. You keep telling her things like she’s Brahmin and pure. You make her feel and think she’s better than all the others and she does this. And you still think it’s not your fault. It’s all your fault. This is not good parenting at all.”

Shoba banged her palm on the table. Father and daughter jumped, then stared at her.

“Stop it! Both of you. You do what Yamuna really is, yes? It doesn’t matter if she’s Brahmin or not. None of it applies to her and you’re arguing for nothing. Whole day, I’ve had to listen to both of you go on and on. Yamuna doesn’t care. That friend of hers doesn’t care.”

“But-” Avanti said, poised to defend her actions with her mother.

Shoba put her hand up. “I’m not hearing another word.” Looking at Suresh, she said, “From either one of you.” Turning her head, she said, “And Avanti, you have to remember that Yamuna is a dog. She’s not human. There’s no such thing as a Brahmin dog.”

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X for Xavier Ealy

W The bare walls of the conference room I’ve been left in adds to the uninviting ambience. Surely, being the corporate headquarters of Chanda, the poshest shopping centre in all Kuala Lumpur, the least management could have done was splash out on some decent décor. Then again, I am not here to criticise the artwork, or lack thereof. My assignment is to interview Anthony Ealy, the shopping centre’s Chief Executive Officer. My editor wants a story about this man’s involvement in a project to raise funds for the Cystic Fibrosis of Malaysia. After a string of dull stories, this promises to be a fascinating one.

In the next instant, a man I presume is Ealy walks in, spritely and confident. His hand is already extended to greet me.

“Good morning, Ms. Pillay, Anthony Ealy,” he says with a heavy Australian drawl.

I stand and take his hand. The palms are soft and skin smooth, which is in contrast to the many wrinkles on his face. His mousy hair, cut very close to his scalp, can’t disguise his very high hairline.

He takes his place at the head of the long table and I sit on one side of him. On the other is his Public Relations Manager who arranged this interview. From our telephone conversation yesterday, I know her name is Veni. How her efficiency completely belies her petite frame.

Time to start. I take a deep breath and say, “Please don’t be angry with me, but I have to ask for your age? The papers requires this of me.”

“I don’t want to tell you that.”

That was abrupt. Still, not one to give up, I try again. “OK. Can you tell me if you’re married? Children?”

“No. I don’t see why you need this information.”

This was going to be tough. I look down at the table and take three deep breaths.

“Mr. Ealy, I am writing a feature article. Not a paragraph about the event. I need some background information or else there’s nothing for me to write.” My speech is deliberately slow, lest my growing frustration shows.

He raises one eyebrow, but remains silent.

Perhaps, I should try another tactic. I take the sheet of paper Veni gave me when we first met. It’s meant to be Ealy’s biodata. I read that his full name is Anthony Roger Stedman Ealy. The meaning of the word that his initials make is not wasted on me. Ealy went to a university in Gunnedah. Did this university actually exist? He’s probably just another dumb expatriate we Asians hired because of the colour of his skin. I can’t say that to him. He snatches the piece of paper from me, scans the words, crumples the paper and chucks it at Veni.

Startled, she picks up the paper from the floor then smoothens it out.

“This is all wrong,” Ealy says to a spot above Veni’s head. “It’s ridiculous. I’ll deal with is later.” To me, he says, “I’m not going to tell you about my days in university. I don’t see why the Malaysian public needs to read any information about me.”

I am too mortified to speak.

Time for being polite was over. An ignorant fool needs to be treated accordingly.

“Well, you do realise that this interview is a profile story about you? It’s for the MENs pages.”

“We thought the story was for Style,” Veni replied, her voice feeble.

“I am from Style. It’s the magazine section of the paper.” Looking directly at Ealy’s face, I ask, “Do you read the papers? Surely, when you request that a part of the newspaper interviews you, you would read that part of the papers?”

Both of them look down at the table.

Still, I need to take something back to the papers or else the editor’s going to be furious. “OK. At lease tell me about this project.”

“OK,” he replies quickly and his shoulders drop. “A few years ago, I went to London for a business trip. During a visit to Buckingham Palace – where the Queen of England lives, we saw a group of autistic children being taken around the palace. You know Buckingham Palace?” Giving a once-over my clothes, he whispers, “Maybe not.” Scratching the loose skin on his neck, he says, “Anyway, I paid £15 to go in.”

Idiot! Just because I was dressed in a t-shirt and jeans didn’t mean I was too poor to visit London.

I studied there you cretin. I stood in line from 7 a.m. to get a ticket into the palace when it was first opened to the public in 1997. And I paid only £8.

Stop it, Susan Pillay! You have a job to do here. The story he’d just told was something we could on. Perhaps we were getting somewhere.

I ask hopeful, “So, can I put this in my story?”

“No.”

I throw my pen down on the table. “So, what can I put in the papers?”

“Well, …” He ran his hand down his hairless arms and said, “You know, it’s amazing how little is done for Malaysian children. This government doesn’t do a thing for its people. When I spoke with the Minister of Health, he said sorry and that the Ministry couldn’t allocate funds here. He said sorry and that’s it. The only reason the Cystic Fibrosis Society is doing well is because it’s the parents who run it. You people – you Malaysians – don’t care about children do you?”

This asshole had the audacity to come to my country and criticise its people in this condescending manner. Still, what’s the point of losing my temper? After all, don’t these whites love Asians for our smile? We can rob them blind, but we’ll still smile. We can write terrible things about them, but we will still smile. So, I smile.

Placing his palms on the table, he says, “OK. I’m done here.” With a nod in my direction, he walks out.

Veni and I stare at each other for a few seconds, unsure of what to say.

She opens her mouth to speak. She closes it. Then she opens it again and speaks, her voice feeble. “We are so sorry about this.”

I put my palm up to stop her saying anymore. Apologising isn’t going to help. It’s time I say what’s at stake here.

“Let me tell you this. You want me to focus on one particular aspect of this project? OK, I can do that. That’s one paragraph. You want me to mention the event? OK. Another paragraph. Then what? This isn’t the news desk, you know. It’s the features articles. I have no story and you know what’s worse?”

Veni’s eyes fill with tears. I sympathise, but the cost of coming for this assignment needs to be made clear. “As a freelance writer, with no story to submit or publish, I won’t be paid. So, you and your boss have effectively wasted my time.”

Veni says nothing for a while before she says the only thing she can: “Sorry Susan.”

I give a one-sided smile. “Well, this another case of measuring waste with a sorry.”

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W for Watercolours

WSince I’ve shared many stories about Ladoo and written a book about her, I decided to share something in this challenge that I’ve never share before: my watercolour paintings about Ladoo. I am not a professional painter nor do I have any special training. I just have an interest. That is all. So, here goes…

This shows how I took a photo, used to create a painting and used that as the cover design for my book.

And here are some other images:

 

 

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V for Vigil

VAbout 12 years ago, I was in the plush office of the legal firm that I worked for. In front of me was my client. With the passage of time, I cannot recall all his facial features. What I can remember is that he was Indian (probably Ceylonese) and since I can’t remember his name, let’s just call him Dr. Lingam. He was well dressed in a beige coloured suit with a yellow necktie. I think he had a moustache. We were discussing a medico-legal case where he was being sued. I only remember that he was a neurosurgeon because of the story I’m about to tell.

“Dr. Lingam,” I put my pen down and relaxed into my chair. We had just concluded discussing what his defence was to a claim for medical negligence. He had rejected my advice to settle the matter out of court and was determined to defend his actions. “Can I ask you about one of your patients?”

“Y-e-s?”

“No. Don’t worry. I’m not asking you to disclose her records. I just want to know if you know her.”

“OK?”

“Her name is Molly.” I scrunched up my nose and added, “Errr… I think Molly Khoo. I think that’s her surname.”

“I sort of recall the name.”

“She had a terrible accident two months ago.” Shaking my head, I said, “She opened the gate and drove her car into the driveway. Like my father-lah, she also didn’t pull up the handbrake when she stopped the car. Just put the gear into ‘P’ and that’s it. So, when she went to the check the post near the gate, the car rolled back into her. She was pinned underneath the car.”

“Ah, yes. Molly Khoo.” It was the way Dr. Lingam said her name. Something wasn’t right about his reaction. He was looking to the side, as though the firm’s new wall paper was the most captivating thing on earth. What was this man hiding?

Suddenly, he looked straight at me and said, “What she did was wrong.”

“Huh?” It was all I could say. I didn’t know why he had become defensive. I wasn’t accusing him of anything.

“Actually, Dr. Lingam, I wanted to know what her injury was. Molly is from Alor Setar and so am I. My parents say that no one there really knows. They just know it’s bad.” I had gone to visit Molly in the hospital a day before. I had never seen a patient like that in my life. She was lying flat on the bed, her entire body strapped, almost, to the bed. She could not move her neck at all as it was in what I understand is called a ‘halo’.

“Oh,” he said, his shoulders relaxing. He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms across his ample belly. “Well, to put it in simple terms,” replied Dr. Lingam, “she came in with this injury and we did all we could to stabilise her.” Shaking his head again, he said, “But they were wrong-lah.”

He wasn’t going to let this go. I decided to ask him about what he thought Molly had done wrong. “What do you mean, Dr. Lingam?”

He came forward and rested his elbows on the table. “We were willing to do everything for her. But just because she had a friend in another hospital, they transferred her out before we could do anything.”

This wasn’t what I’d heard from Molly’s family. As per the rumour mill in Alor Setar, when Molly first arrived at the hospital, Dr. Lingam refused to attend to her until he heard from the Accounts Department that her husband had paid the deposit sum. Then, when Dr. Lingam arrived, he examined Molly, but refused to tell her husband his diagnosis. “I am the doctor. I’ll tell you when I tell you,” were his exact words, apparently. The last straw was when Dr. Lingam wanted to perform a complicated surgery on Molly’s spine without explaining all the risks of the procedure to Molly’s husband. No other option was provided. The husband did the only thing he could think of doing at the time – he called another doctor friend of his and asked for his help and within 24 hours, Molly was transferred out of the hospital.

I could have told all this to Dr. Lingam. But, his entire attitude towards me made me aware that there could be some truth to the rumours about how he’d treated Molly. And it was no wonder he was being sued, yet again, for malpractice.

I decided to say something that I know went against many doctors’ beliefs.

“Dr. Lingam, you know, I remember coming to visit Molly in hospital. Did you ever look up at the ceiling when you were visiting her?”

He frowned, perplexed. “Huh? What for?”

I smiled. “Well, if you’d looked up, you would have seen that on the ceiling, they’d stuck the verses from the Bible and the Hail Mary on the ceiling. She may have been on her back, but her gaze was firmly fixed on God.”

“Err…” Dr. Lingam responded. Shifting his weight back and forth, he was all fidgety.

“I’m not finished,” I said and lifted one eyebrow.

He looked at me and said in a sheepish tone, “Go on.”

“She’s from Alor Setar. And so am I. If only you could see what’s happening in the Catholic church there. They are having a non-stop vigil in that church, I tell you.” I paused to let the information sink in. “And you know, they’re still having it. I think her operation in this new hospital was last week. From what I can tell, the op was successful and she’s on the road to recovery.”

We sat in silence for a while.

Then, he took a deep breath and held the side of the table and said, “OK, Miss Aneeta. I think we’re done with the case. I will see you in court next week. OK?”

I smiled and rose to shake his hand. “Yes, Dr. Lingam. I’ll see you in court.”

I never quite understood why he was so cagey. As it happened, Molly Khoo made a full recovery. And we lost the negligence case that I was defending because the Plaintiff proved that Dr. Lingam was intoxicated when he treated her.

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U for Unholy Deal

U“Your fee is too high, Shanta.” Jude leaned back in his chair at Sid’s Pub. He’d called for this meeting to negotiate my fee to ghost write his book.

Before I could respond, our waiter, Davy took a step closer to our table to allow three burly men to make their way to the bar.

“Here’s your whisky, Jude,” Davy said. “Neat. And soda by the side.”

One of the men reached for the remote control and changed the channel on the overhead flat screen monitor to Star Sports.

Oh, goody. It was the repeat telecast of the Rugby Finals 2015 at Twickenham. I’d read on the internet that the half-time score was New Zealand 16 – Australia 3. Now, with ten minutes remaining, the All Blacks, the nickname for the New Zealand team, were still in the lead at 24 –17.

“How are you, Shanta?” There was a genuine tone to Davy’s query. “You fine, Shanta?”

“Yes, thank you, Davy.”

“You’re fine Shanta. That’s good. Would you like something to drink, Shanta?”

Poor Davy. His head was all messed up because his devout Catholic family vehemently refused to let him follow his heart and join the Jehovah’s Witness movement. Now, he repeated everything at least twice.

Air suam,” I replied.

“Warm water? Why don’t you order something else? A proper drink?” Jude rolled up his shirt sleeves.

“No.” I shook my head. “I don’t want anything else. Water is enough.”

“No. No. No. You get her a drink.” Jude shook his head, trying to overrule me.

Davy cocked his head to one side, waiting for my response.

“I’ll think about it and get back to you.” This was my go-to answer to buy time and reject an offer without causing offence.

“OK.” Davy nodded and I watched him walk past the bar into the kitchen.

On the flat screen monitor, the time stamp read ‘74.00 min’. Oooo… I’d read that this was an important moment in the game. And so it was – Carter scored from a massive penalty kick 49 meters out.

“Wow!” I clapped my hands.

Jude rolled his eyes.

“So, Shanta… about your quotation.” His nasal voice brought me back to our makeshift negotiating table in this pub.

“Yes? My quotation?” I reached into my tote bag and pulled it out. I tugged at it when it got stuck, crumpling some of the papers. There was no need to be this nervous.

“Do you know that in the UK, the going rate to ghost write a book is £2,000 a month? That’s close to RM10,000.00 a month.” I smoothed out the quotation with the palm of my hand.

Jude picked up his glass and I expected him to sip his drink. When I saw his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down, I wondered why he was drinking so fast.Was he nervous, too? A good sign.

“Jude, since it will take me ten months to write your book, by UK standards, I should be paid RM100,000.00 to write your book. My fee to write your book is only RM28,000.00. That’s not high.”

Hopefully, this ‘compare-contrast’ tactic would work. If Jude was made aware of how much other writers charge, Jude wouldn’t accuse me of naming a high fee.

“We are in Malaysia. Not the UK.” Jude raised his hand to get Davy’s attention. “One more whisky,” he called out, and Davy nodded.

I exhaled. What else could I try? Speaking of tries, I glanced at the screen and the All Blacks were attempting convert a try. Carter was going to kick the ball.

“Are you interested in my book or not?” Jude turned his head to look at the screen. “You seem more interested in the game.”

“No. No. No.” I shook my head, quick to apologise. “I just like rugby, Jude. Don’t you? It’s the world championship. I missed it because I fell asleep. It was five o’clock in London, but something like one in the morning here. Sorry. Where were we?”

“Hmmm,” he replied. “My book. I still think your fee’s too much. I can’t afford it.”

Can’t afford my fee? The man had just bought a new Honda CR-V and retail price was more than the cost of my flat. Did he take me for a fool?

“How much did you actually think of paying me, Jude?”

“About RM10,000.00.”

I stared at him. He did take me for a fool.

“You can’t be serious. You want me to do all that work for RM10,000.00? In ten months.”

“Yes.” There was no smile on his face. He then waved his right hand in front of him, as though he was showing his cards face up in a poker game. “I can pay you RM1,000.00 a month. That’s a regular income for ten months.”

I wanted to throw something at him. A plate. My shoe. The glass of water. Where was that glass of water, by the way?

Breathe in, Shanta. Breathe out.

“Let me get this straight,” I leaned my elbows on the table. “You want me to put aside all other projects and work exclusively on your book for RM1,000.00 a month? You know that even a maid gets paid at least RM1,200.00 a month? And minimum wage is RM1,000.00?”

“See?” He cocked his head to one side. “I’m willing to give you more than the minimum wage.”

The gall of the man.

“This is for charity, Shanta,” Jude’s voice was a little less patronising. “Our non-profit organisation, LUPS – Lupus Support – is going to pay for this.”

“I know. That’s why I gave you the 50 per cent discount on my fee. Otherwise, my fee for this project would have been RM56,000.00.”

Davy returned with Jude’s second glass of whisky, another can of soda and my glass of water. Jude took the can, pressed his thumb into the centre of the tab and pushed the tab inside using the pin on the rim. He poured the soda into his glass then handed the can to Davy.

“There’s a bit more.” Davy shook the can and tilted it to empty its contents into Jude’s whisky glass.

“I didn’t want more soda.” Jude took the can from Davy and placed in on the table. “Leave it here. I’ll pour more if I want.”

“Oh. Ok.” Davy took a step back.

I smiled at the waiter, an apology for how rude Jude was. Davy left us alone.

“You know there is something special about this book.” Jude lifted the glass to his mouth, took a sip then said, “If you write my book, you will get wisdom and become holy. You will go to heaven.”

“What are you talking about?” I blurted out. “I was born a Hindu. And I’ll die a Hindu. My place in hell is already reserved. Even if I write a thousand books for you, I’m never going to go heaven.”

Unperturbed, Jude smiled benignly. “OK. No heaven. What about reincarnation? Don’t you want to come back as a human?”

I held the side of my head and dropped my voice. “What the hell are you talking about?”

He shrugged, then said, “Well, if you write my book for a cheaper price, God will be kind to you. When you come back, you will come back as a human.”

How on earth was I supposed to respond to this? I couldn’t very well tell him that if he came back, it would probably be as a stingy monkey. That was sure to get his back up or, worse, make him withdraw from this project altogether. I needed the money to pay for Mummy’s heart medication. Besides, I wanted to learn something more about homeopathy, the subject matter of his book.

“Of course, I want to come back as a human,” I said. “But I need money for this lifetime. I can’t wait until the next lifetime to be paid for the work I do. Writing is my livelihood.”

Jude shook his head, nonchalant. He then picked up his glass of whisky and nursed his drink. I leaned back in my seat and sipped from my glass of water. The three men at the bar cheered. On the flat screen monitor, the jubilant All Blacks hugged each other, having become champions with a final score of 34-17.

I put my glass down on the table. “You know this is unfair, Jude. Why don’t you come up a bit and I’ll go down a bit.”

Quick to reply, he said, “OK. I will pay you RM10,500.00.” He jerked his chin forward and asked, “What do you think?”

I held my breath and narrowed my eyes. He was haggling as if we were in a fish market and he was trying to buy the biggest fish for the least amount of money. Or, for free if he could.

“OK. OK. No need to get upset. We’re only negotiating. You look at your rugby match. I want another drink,” he said and raised his hand to get Davy’s attention.

The All Blacks gathered to perform a celebratory Haka, a traditional ancestral dance of the Maori people. What a beautiful display of strength and discipline. The kind of discipline that artists the world over recognised. The soon-to-retire McCaw, Carter, Nonu, Smith and Mealamu stamped their feet. Jude was never going to give me my asking fee however many times I negotiated with Jude.

I took a deep breath. There were two choices here: take on the project and resent every minute of writing Jude’s book. Or, retire from this project even though we hadn’t even begun and trust that I would more lucrative work would come my way in due time.

After Davy took Jude’s order, I reached out to touch the waiter’s hand. “Wait.”

“Yes, Shanta?”

“Davy, I need a drink. Can you please get me a ‘Cosmopolitan’?”

“Certainly Shanta,” he replied and walked away.

“Ah-ha! We’re celebrating. You agree to do my book.” Jude smiled, smug.

I looked straight at him and said, “Let me think about it and get back to you.”

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T for Terribly Upset

TTo enter our house, there is a door, of course. But like most houses in Malaysia, we also have a grille. So, to let someone in, I would have to unlock the door, pull it open then slide the grille to the left. All this information is important because of the story I’m about to tell you.

One day in 1977, I was a very small child. My mother was recuperating from surgery upstairs and my father had come home after work. It was about 8.30 pm. As usual, I unlocked the door and pulled it open. I heard the hiss first, before I registered what I saw. In that space between the door and the grille was a cobra. Already agitated, it had its hood open and was swaying, ready to strike.

I screamed and banged the door shut. I don’t remember what happened next, but I am aware that my father killed the cobra. I remain terribly upset by the memory of this. That, in itself, caused the family to be agitated and worry for the next few days. First of all, Hindus are not particularly fond of killing snakes. Frankly, even though I’m petrified of them, I don’t like that they are killed unnecessarily. Secondly, there is a belief that when you kill a cobra, in particular, its mate will come looking for it. True enough, in a few days, we sighted another cobra in the garden and chased it away.

From that day, I have been very scared of snakes. My family didn’t understand how serious this fear was, and still is. They tried everything to desensitise me to this fear from making me look at photos of snakes and taking me to the Snake Temple in Penang. I am a little better now. At least, I can see a photo of a snake. But I will probably pass out if I see one live.

When I was studying in Cardiff, I remember going into a pet shop that also sold wildlife creatures. In hindsight, I think this shop was also a conduit for those involved in the illegal trafficking of illegal wildlife. Anyway, when my friend and I entered the shop, the cages were all empty. We went to the back to talk to the owner, whom my friend knew. When we had to leave, I realised that the workers had put some animals in the cages. There were exotic lizards and many snakes. I could not take a single step towards the front door. After 20 minutes of trying to talk myself into having courage, my friend was so fed up that he took my hand, told me to close my eyes and practically dragged me out of the shop. It was the only way we could leave the place.

One of my more memorable assignments for the papers was when I had to interview some conservation experts about the illegal trade of snakes in Malaysia. From them, I learnt two things: that people are extraordinarily cruel to snakes and that I will try my best never to buy anything close to a snakeskin handbag. You see, many times, the designers of luxury goods like handbags and so on have a label on their goods to say they have sourced these skins ethically. There is nothing ethical about the whole trade. Imagine that a shipment of snakes from Vietnam are bound for Europe. These snakes have to arrive in Europe alive because their skin needs to be ‘fresh’. Now, on transit in Malaysia, they go through Customs and the label on the container says ‘100 snakes’. Do you think an officer would be brave enough to open the container to count the live snakes and make sure that there are only 100 snakes there? Often, there are many more and these make their way to Europe and become part of the luxury goods industry.

On a lighter note, on the day of the assignment, I made the mistake of writing my story in the evening. I went to bed very disturbed and Ladoo didn’t help one bit. Every time she snored, I thought it was a hiss.

My fear of snakes is even more ironic seeing that my grandmother’s name was ‘Nagarathinam’. This translate to ‘Jewel of the Cobra’ and I was told by the elders that apparently the cobras keep this jewel inside their bodies and use it at night to search for prey. I’m sure there’s a scientific reason for all this, but I’ve never investigated this, nor do I intend to … ever. But, my grandmother was the one who taught my father never to harm a cobra unnecessarily; just let it slither away.

Indeed, many Hindus believe that when you see a snake or a cobra, it’s a good omen for they have divine properties. They bring good luck and should be respected.

Then, in March, there was a story in the papers that horrified me. I am sure that others will see the funny side of it, but I almost passed out reading it. Apparently, a gentleman, Hiroshi Motohashi, 46 was eating at the popular sushi place in Los Angeles. He had a companion with him. His companion was no human being but a tiny snake. Other patrons complained and he was asked to leave. He marched out. But he returned later, with a larger snake which he let loose in the restaurant. He was arrested and the snakes were captured. (http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/los-angeles-angry-customer-unleashes-13-foot-long-python-snake-sushi-restaurant-1551524)

Whether or not the presence of a snake brings good luck or not to the person the snake visits, I doubt I will ever eat in this restaurant.

Have you had any ‘encounters’ with these slithery creatures?

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S for Semantics of Democracy

SThis essay was previously published on this site. I am publishing again as part of the ‘A to Z Challenge (2016)’

***

In the wake of the dramatic political events in the Middle East in February 2011, there are many who wonder if some countries there will now embrace democracy. Indeed, since the revolution in Egypt, there is analysis of how fast its citizens were able to start the revolution to oust the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Also, there has been debate about the blueprint for democracy that Egypt will now adopt. From a writer’s perspective, however, one question remains strangely unanswered: what, actually, does the word ‘democracy’ mean?

Let’s start with the events in Cairo, Egypt, by referring to the story told by Umapagan Ampikaipakan, a columnist with the New Straits Times of Malaysia: approximately two months before the revolution commenced, Mohamed Bouazizi was a 26-year-old man who had a university degree. When he could not find work, he decided to start a small street stall to sell vegetables. Without a licence, the police stopped him from doing business. Frustrated and angry, the young man committed suicide by setting himself on fire. Furious, the citizens of the town rioted and there were clashes with security forces. A few days later, another disillusioned man ‘climbed an electricity pole, shouted “no for misery, no for unemployment”, touched the 30,000 megawatt wires and electrocuted himself.’ These were men who had nothing to live for. The response of the authorities was as expected: although they regretted the incidents, they thought that people had taken them out of context and were using them to reach unhealthy political ends.1

Mr. Ampikaipakan also states that, ‘… the idea of democracy, that practice of social equality, that notion of “by the people, of the people”, has long been considered to be the last best hope. Because it places the responsibility, the burden — even the eventual guilt — in the hands of the many. Because it forces the individual to think with the collective; like a collective.’ 1

Khor Swee Kheng, in his letter to the New Straits Times, adds to the story of the political drama in Egypt by saying that the attention of the world was more focused on the angry young men and their internet tools than maintenance of democracy. He believes that democracy is the least ‘imperfect system of governance, and (in combination with capitalism) probably the vehicle that has done most to eradicate poverty, raise living standards and improve “happiness” levels worldwide.’ 2

Mr. Khor makes the statement that an entire nation of angry young people coming together and using technology to revolt against an autocratic government does not necessarily bring about democracy. He argues that, in the absence of large middle class, the template for proper government does not contain essential elements for democratisation. For instance, the people must be aware of their rights, have the intellectual and emotional courage to fight back and the tools to organise such a fight. In addition, leaders of a democratic nation should have the ability to govern the people. Finally, there should be democratic tools such as ‘a free media, a working legal system … and independent universities.’ In the absence of all these, when a country moves rapidly from autocracy to democracy, there is chance that it will be much harder to build an effective civil service as ‘we hardly can expect the brave leader of the revolution to automatically be a competent minister of roads, and his underlings to also happen to be trained civil engineers.’

Karim Raslan, a columnist with The Star, somewhat echoes Mr. Khor’s sentiments when he writes as follows: ‘When people invoke “democracy,” they mean much more. They mean freedom, prosperity, good governance, social justice and peace … At the same time, democracy … isn’t just a simple process of calling elections and voting. In order for the process to work, there needs to be a media that is free and fair as well as counter-veiling institutions – NGOs and law courts that are objective and above the fray. It’s also important that there should be a 50:50 chance that the present bunch in government can be thrown out of office: otherwise why bother?’ 4

Mr. Raslan goes on to argue that democracy also depends on the culture, religion, history and politics of a nation. In the end, he makes a plausible conclusion that because human nature is such that we are always evolving, (in other words, we always want more), ‘democracy allows for this constant evolutionary process, responding and adapting to popular sentiment.’ 4

The point that democracy is constantly evolving was illustrated very well by the chart that Anup Shah created in his article, Democracy. He starts by explaining that the word ‘democracy’ literally means ‘“rule by the people”, taken from the Greek terms, demos (meaning “people”), and kratos (meaning “rule”).’ Then, he plots the development of democracy and its application throughout the ages from Ancient Greece (where democracy was only practiced by citizens who were male and had completed military training; women and slaves were excluded) and Ancient India (where a less rigid form of the caste system practiced a type of democracy that was similar to the kind practiced in Ancient Greece) to England of the Middle Ages (with the introduction of the Magna Carta and eventual establishment of the parliamentary democracy) and Post World War II which saw the overthrow of corrupt dictatorships and transitions of so-called Third World Nations to democracies.5

Here’s the thing: only four writers (three in Malaysia and one from the US) have been highlighted above. While all of them have used the word ‘democracy’ liberally, each person seems to have his own definition of the word, how a country will achieve democratic status and how democracy should be practised. No doubt, there is some overlap in their views, but consider this: if one were ask for the views of people from other parts of the world, there is bound to be confusion when trying to define an ideology that is as seemingly simple and universal as democracy. No one makes this point better that George Orwell in his essay, Politics and the English Language: ‘The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning.’3

Mr. Orwell points the crux of the matter when he writes that, ‘Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.

Where, then, does that leave Egypt and other countries who are on the path to democracy? Decidedly, it is only proper that the citizens of a country revolt against an unfair regime that denies them basic rights and causes them to suffer such imaginable hardships. It is proper to be rid of leaders who ignore human rights abuses, are uncaring and corrupt. Once a revolution has been successful, to rebuild a nation, it is wise to take the cue from Mr. Orwell: whatever ideologies or system of government this new nation would like to adopt, its leaders must be honest at all times. In other words, when drafting the rules, regulations, constitutions or any other instrument of government, every effort should be made to ensure that the words used should not be ambiguous, confusing or subject to semantics. Such a task will take time and patience and cannot be rushed or coerced.

Ultimately, if one were to take all of the above into account, and add some flexibility to the equation, the task of nation-building will probably be less fraught with tension and uncertainty. Perhaps, such genuine effort on the part of new leaders will go some way towards showing people that they now have something to live for.

****

Footnotes:

  1. Ampikaipakan, Umapagan. One Step At A Time On The Road To Democracy. New Straits Times. 15 February 2011 (Accessed 21 February 2011) < http://www.nst.com.my/nst/articles/17umia/Article/>
  2. Khor Swee Kheng. Democracy May Not Take Hold. New Straits Times. 14 February 2011 (Accessed 21 February 2011) < http://www.nst.com.my/nst/articles/18revo/Article/>
  3. Orwell, George. Politics And The English Language. First published by Horizon, UK. April 1946. (Accessed 21 February 2011) < http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit>
  4. Raslan, Karim. Democracy Can’t Be Imposed. The Star. 15 February 2011. (Accessed 21 Febraury 2011)< http://thestar.com.my/columnists/story.asp?col=ceritalah&file=/2011/2/15/columnists/ceritalah/8064797&sec=Ceritalah>
  5. Shah, Anup. “Democracy.” Global Issues, Updated: 30 November 2008. (Accessed 21 February 2011) <http://www.globalissues.org/article/761/democracy>
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R for Room and Board

R“You know, I know a little bit about Brisbane. I used to stay there during my school holidays.” The lady on the other end of the phone line was called Usha. We had been introduced to each other by some writers in Malaysia and the plan was to collaborate on an online writing project. I’d insisted on speaking with her before we even started. We’d already sorted out the preliminaries when I decided to tell about the people I’d once stayed with in Brisbane. After all, the Malaysian community in Brisbane was quite small. And the first thing a Malaysian will often do in a foreign country is find another Malaysian.

“Oh, where in Brisbane?” Usha sounded chirpy. She had already told me how happy she was having made Australia their home years ago.

“Somewhere called Kenmore.” I answered, not expecting her to know the place. After all, Australia is a vast place and Brisbane was big city – by Malaysian standards, at least. I mean, if you come to KL and ask me about Puchong, I would be lost. I know about Puchong and how to get there. Beyond that, I’m lost.

“Ah. We live there,” Usha replied, surprising me.

“Let me think.” I scratched my head. It was more than 15 years since I’d stayed in Brisbane. Could I even remember the address?

“Ah, yes. I remember. The address was 25 Mabb Street.”

I was so impressed with myself. I could remember the exact address after all these years. It took me a few seconds to realise that Usha was completely quiet.

“Hello? Usha? Are you there?”

“Err… Yes.” There was something strange in her voice. I detected a smidgen of shock in it. “How do you know that address?”

I replied, nonchalant. “I told you. I used to stay there during my school holidays. With some family friends. They are called the Menons.”

Again, there was no response from her. I was getting worried. Had I said something wrong?

“Usha? Are you there?”

I could hear her take a deep breath. Then she said, “Aneeta, we bought their house. We’re now living in that house.”

Is this what people mean by a coincidence? Have you had such coincidences?

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