Saturday, 10 March 2012

Ruby Red Reads

I had the fortune of proofing Adibah Amin's As I Was Passing I and II and Glimpses for e-publication several weeks ago. A lot of reading, which has left me mentally tapped (on top of a much less interesting manuscript that followed).

The three volumes were mostly compiled from bite-sized articles from her old column in the New Straits Times, "As I Was Passing", written under the pen name Sri Delima (the glimmer of a ruby). Put together, the three books are a love letter to Malaysia, Malaysians and Malaysiana.

Books by Adibah Amin: 'As I Was Passing' volumes I and II, and 'Glimpses'
Books by Adibah Amin: As I Was Passing Volumes I and II,
and Glimpses: Cameos of Malaysian Life

Her anecdotal essays, crisp and humorous, open windows into the heart and soul of this country, past and present. She dissects the Malaysian psyche and its quirks and idiosyncrasies with relish and abandonment, poking fun at her subjects with affection not unlike an old teacher (which she is) putting ex-students in their place with fond reminiscences of misadventures and mischief past. Through it all, she displays a keen sense for the foibles of others and a keener sense of humour about her own follies.

The existence of text scanning errors warranted a line-by-line examination, which meant I had to read the books for errors. That it took longer than necessary to complete the tasks had little to do with the number of errors, however. And there weren't many to begin with.

The writing surprised me. So succinct, so simple! Her economy of words and vocabulary enhanced the effect she, perhaps, didn't consciously try to achieve.

One book. Just one of her books. Any one. Pick it up and read, really read it. Don't you dare skim or 'flip through' the pages.

Do this, and I can guarantee that all your writerly aspirations will be consigned to a deep, dark grave.

The angles! The succinctness in the storytelling! The efficient exposition of Malaysian cultures, fables and foibles. The twang of your heartstrings as something familiar is so vividly described, before the pang that follows when you realise that it's from a past you can never return to.

What's her secret? Probably an eventful life well-lived, well-observed and well-told, her pen sharpened and coloured by years of experience.

(That I'm fumbling over this quasi-review/commentary of her work just deepens the hurt.)

You will put the book down, stumble to your bed like walking through deep water, slowly slither into the sheets and curl up in there and waste away, like your dreams of the next great Malaysian novel or short story collection.

Everything you've ever written, every literary trick, every commercial gimmick you've employed in your middling attempts to tug at heartstrings or hit a nerve, your personal collection of painstakingly compiled library obscure words and catchphrases... all rubbish, irrelevant, old hat. Before Sri Delima's innate touch in conveying so much with so little, you are but the emperor with his 'new' clothes.

Above all, you will break all your pens and swear never to pick one up again - not even to edit or mark papers.

Forget about being the next doyen/doyenne of Malaysiana. Somebody had done it, in a way the likes of which will probably never be seen again for a long, long time.

(So shoo, shoo, go and write about something else. Vampires, maybe?)

...Okay, maybe there are a few things that I didn't like. For one, she has her own collection of stockphrases. Instead of "Tom, Dick and Harry", she uses "the Azmis, the Angs and the Arumugams" (pretty good alliteration, actually). Certain anecdotes are replayed. And the aliases: "EF"? "GH"? Invent some names, for crying out loud! And every repeated "ants won't die in her tread" (a supposedly Malay description of supreme feminine gentleness) urged me further and further into a formicidal rage.

...Okay, I was just nitpicking back there. Maybe she does struggle to come up with a topic and meet deadlines - late nights and all that (she hints at that in one of her books but I can't remember which one). And after all, is it not the wont of column writers to repeat certain words, especially when the time between columns is long enough that the repetition is not noticeable?

With these 'glimpses' into our past, present and psyches, Adibah Amin has managed to capture the essence of who we are and what Malaysia is, and more (wow, look at me pile on the book review tropes).

We want to climb trees and steal fruit, ride bicycles through villages (and scare some chickens), sit through bangsawan and dondang sayang performances and play games that require more than just two fingers.

We long for Malaysian hawker favourites the way they used to be made; the sights, smells, sounds and tastes of our hometowns; the clamour in a kin-packed house, the market, and a village feast.

We yearn for the days when our neighbours were almost like family, when we could laugh at ourselves and toss jokes without causing offence, when those who asked for help really needed it - not like these days when crooks and conmen take advantage of the good Samaritan in you.

But you probably won't feel like hiring maids. You'll be wary of polite but cash-strapped "foreigners." And the plight of the young couple, held hostage by tradition and bossy relatives who rarely visit, will infuriate anyone. "Let them hold their simple wedding ceremony! Big dos are expensive these days. You rant, rave and sulk about being defaced with charcoal when you see them maybe once a year or so, flapping your lips so freely when it's not your money, your children. What nerve! What gall!"

...She's good. They just don't make writers like that anymore.

Sadly, Cikgu Adibah has stopped writing entirely since suffering a stroke several years ago. I can't imagine what she feels about the current state of this country... nobody needs that kind of stress.

And when the glimmer of a certain ruby finally fades away, the loss of a warmer, friendlier and more innocent era and the voices of that time so well preserved in these books will be more keenly felt than before.

This piece was later published in The Malaysian Insider, 16 March 2012. I was surprised they accepted the submission. Many thanks to The Malaysian Insider.

I know, I'm not supposed to shill for books published by my employers, but these are some of the best reads I've seen in a while.

Besides: E-book versions of Adibah Amin's As I Was Passing Volumes I and II and Glimpses: Cameos of Malaysian Life will be out soon. Details to come.

As I Was Passing
Adibah Amin
MPH Group Publishing (2007)
ISBN: 978-983-3698-06-6

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As I Was Passing II
Adibah Amin
MPH Group Publishing (2007)
ISBN: 978-983-3698-08-0

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Cameos of Malaysian Life

Adibah Amin
MPH Group Publishing (2008)
ISBN: 978-983-3698-58-5

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