That’s What Blinkers Are For

lovers4

The sweltering heat under the zinc roofing of our favourite ‘mee goreng’ stall was even more oppressive than the recession that swept the country at the time. It was 1997 and the economic downturn – almost at its peak – had spawned more prophets of doom and gloom than there were people who were actually unemployed. Almost overnight, anyone who thought they had even half a brain, had hunkered down and fashioned themselves as either a world-class economics expert or a know-it-all political critic – and in some cases, even both.

Curiously, however, despite the extraordinarily large talent pool of verbally vitriolic, albeit self-proclaimed ideological warriors, there was precious little that was on offer other than the usual angry call to assassinate George Soros. It was either that or the all too predictable petty fault-finding assault directed at the Government. Sadly it was a time when criticism – almost always of the non-constructive variety – had become wildly more fashionable than trying to find workable solutions. Like the old saying goes, “When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail.”

Our scalding hot, sickly sweet ‘teh tarik’ tasted refreshingly good; strange considering the weather was so hot that the shirts on our backs were soaked in perspiration. I turned to Azman, who oddly enough, appeared unperturbed by the recession even though he had just been retrenched about two months earlier. His unruffled composure was all the more infuriating when I thought of his wife and four school-going children. Didn’t he care at all? How could he take things so easy?

What was even harder to comprehend was why he had never told his family about losing his job. Did he imagine his problems would all go away if he closed his eyes and pretended it never happened?

“I know what you’re thinking.” Azman declared. He was looking directly at our mate, Osman. I was relieved; I was off the hook.

“Huh?” Osman was caught unawares.

“You’re wondering why in God’s name I’ve not told my family that I am now jobless, right?” Though he was talking to Osman, I had no doubt that whatever explanation he was about to give was intended purely for my benefit.

“I was thinking no such thing!” Osman protested.

“It’s OK, mate. But let me tell you its nothing to do with pride or anything as petty as that.”

Unable to contain my curiosity, I interjected, “OK, tell us why then!”

Azman took another sip of his scalding ‘teh tarik’, and carefully considered his reply. He didn’t speak for a long time. I began sweating even more profusely – and it wasn’t just because of the heat. In my heart, I wanted so badly to understand. He could have come up with the lamest excuse and I would have still believed him.

“That’s all right, Man. You don’t owe us – or anybody for that matter – an explanation.” Osman tried to change the subject.

“I know. But I’ve got to get it off my chest. Its been eating me up so bad that at times I don’t even know if what I’m doing is right or wrong.” Azman took another sip of tea. “I have not told them what happened because…” his voice began to trail.

Not known for my emotional intelligence, I blurted, “Why, man! Why?”

Azman looked at me with eyes soft as a daughter’s goodnight kiss and said, “Because they are my responsibility…” It was barely a whisper.

“You keep them in the dark, pretend to go off to work every morning knowing full well you haven’t got a job to go to, and lead them to believe that everything is hunky dory – and you call that being responsible? Isn’t that a lot like cheating? Isn’t that too much like running away from reality? What’s wrong with you, Man?” By the time I realised I had uttered those words, it was too late.

“Get off his back, Bangkai! Can’t you see he’s going through a tough time already?” Osman reprimanded me – and rightfully, too.

“Look, I am doing this precisely because they are my responsibility. With or without this bleeding recession, life still has to go on. With or without a job, it is still my responsibility to provide for them. What good would it do them if they knew I didn’t have a job anymore? Would it help them any if they knew how bad things really are for me right now? They are my responsibility – I am not theirs.” Azman explained.

I was beginning to see his point of view. I was beginning to appreciate that mine was not necessarily the only valid way of looking at things. But must of all, I was beginning to be ashamed of myself. Insulated by the comfort of a life that had been relatively unaffected by the recession, I had been too quick to judge others by my own narrow standards. In a last ditch attempt to understand, or was it to justify my fast flagging conviction – I can no longer be sure – I asked: “But if they knew the real situation, don’t you think they’d be able to understand and maybe even help you?”

Azman thought about this for a while and said, “You simply don’t get it, do you? It’s my job to make things right for them – not the other way round! I’ll go on pretending that I’m going to work even if there is no job to go to. But as long as I’m busting my ass out there looking for work, it’s alright – I’m not cheating. Sooner or later, by the will of God, I’ll get a job. But in the meantime, I will not give them any reason to think that our lives could soon be crumbling like a house of cards. Why do I have to put them through all that? So that I could feel less pressured?”

“So, you’re putting blinkers on them?” I asked.

“Oh! Shut up, Bangkai! Deep down, you know he’s right” Osman interrupted, rather rudely

Before we parted, Osman went to his car, got the two bags of groceries we had bought for Azman and handed them to him; along with an envelope containing some cash had we put together to help tied him over. “These are for the kids,” said Osman. “And they don’t need to know where these came from, OK?” he added with a wink. As we drove off, I thought about my remark about blinkers: They put blinkers on horses for good reason.

Not too long after that Azman got a job as a teacher at a tuition centre, and then as a manager of petrol station. Now he is back where he belongs, running the Agency Department of a major insurance company. And till today, his family doesn’t know that he was once without a job for nine painful months.

With the spectre of a recession looming over 2009, I often think back to that ‘teh tarik’ session I had with Azman all those years ago. Far more important than quibbling about inflation rates and how bad the recession will actually be, or pointing our fingers at others who are supposedly screwing it up royally for the rest of us, we’d fare much better if each and every one of us pulled together, hunkered down and gave it our best collective shot. The recession is coming and no amount of pseudo-intellectualising is going to make it go away.

But with hard work, solidarity and determination – and a little bit of mutual trust – we will make it through this: Just like we did in 1997

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18 thoughts on “That’s What Blinkers Are For

  1. It is all doom and gloom here in the UK and according to reports crime is already on the increase. I wonder too how many people will
    wake up and get ready as if to go to work. Its not just the habit, its good for the mind. Just imagine if you just let depression take over.
    Osman had to be strong cos he had people depending on him.
    Insyaallah, I hope and pray we will pull through.

    Kak Teh

    How right you are, ma’am. No matter how bad things are, no matter how depressed we get, the recession is still going to be barreling through – with or without our permission.It is during times like these that if we adopt the ‘casualty mentality’, we will surely become one.

  2. ‘Will some one out there in this bloody world help this Bangkai to turn into a millionaire writer’!!!

    Splendid entry.

    His on par with any Economic,Political and social editor in the mainstream,That is for sure.on par with any fraction writer know to us.
    A class of his own.A personality not to be fogotten.Kalau tidak,suatua pembaziran daya kreativity dan interlekualisma anak Malaysia yang gitu.

    Daya penarik untuk generasi muda untuk berdepan dengan kenyataan.Realisma dalam persuratan.Sinis dalam pengupasan.Lengkap,padat tanpa kecacatan nahu.

    Yes,he is a dear friend but we give credit where credit due and he deserve it all.

    Wassalam Mankind

    Pak Tuo

    Thanks,mate.

  3. Mat B, this piece of yours brought tears to my eyes, tears as I recalled how my world crumbled 1997/1998, leaving me pretty much in a situation like Azman. My PR consultancy folded, my debts piled skyhigh, creditors chased for payment when no money was forthcoming (clients weren’t paying thus suppliers couldn’t be paid).

    Subsequently I lost my house, sold to pay off debts. I remember having to rely on a few close friends to feed the kids. PR skills counted for nothing in a recession. Nobody was hiring. God, that was truly a horrible time to recall.

    Puteri Kamaliah

    I feel for you, ma’am. Except for the names and a few other changes, my story is the same one.

    I know you had to go through hell. But the important thing is you went through it anyway. You should be proud of yourself – not sad!

  4. Again Mat,
    sedapnya cerita you! Your friend ni is a very good breadwinner and rare breed of a husband.
    Imagine dia tak cerita perit dia pada his wife and kids.Ini dah macam cerita drama TV.

    If ever his wife treats him wrongly or his children fail to appreciate him later, you must tell them his touching sacrifice..you’re lucky to have such a wonderful friend who is so admirable in character kan?

    Mamasita

    If I ever hear of his children being rude to him, I will personally slap them. If I ever hear of his wife mistreating him, I will get him a new wife. This is how I feel about Azman.

    When I grow up, I want to be like Azman 🙂

  5. Excuse me, Pak Tuo, will you let me plagiarise you? Oh, thank you. I ll buy the next round of coffee.

    Mat,

    Will some one out there in this bloody world help this Bangkai to turn into a millionaire writer’!!!

    Splendid entry.

    His on par with any Economic,Political and social editor in the mainstream,That is for sure.on par with any fraction writer know to us.
    A class of his own.A personality not to be fogotten.Kalau tidak,suatua pembaziran daya kreativity dan interlekualisma anak Malaysia yang gitu.

    Daya penarik untuk generasi muda untuk berdepan dengan kenyataan.Realisma dalam persuratan.Sinis dalam pengupasan.Lengkap,padat tanpa kecacatan nahu.

    Elviza

    I don’t know what else to say except, “Thank you”.

    So how is your short story going along?

  6. What short story?

    Oooh, you mean the half-finished-mediocre-unpolished-the ugly half sister of this current post of yours?

    Yeahh…she’s in the closet somewhere, along with the handbags and shoes, trying its damn best to fit in. Heh!

    Elviza

    Yes; I mean the very same one you are going to win the MPH-Alliance Bank Short Story Competition with.

  7. Oh, I remember that time.

    There was some mornings when I went into the office, sat down and realised that I had no clue what I could get done that day – cos there was no money to get things done.

    And worse, some mornings when I half-expected to see a small HR team at the gates coming to shut down the facility.

    Now, thank God, we managed to persuade management that bad times were coming – way back in May last year.

    As a result of which we’ve already made substantial measures that would keep the company in the black in 2009, at least, insya Allah.

    Cipan

    What foresight! Good on you, mate.

    May your company proper despite the gloomy outlook, insya Allah

  8. Boe (do not like what you are calling yourself now)

    I thank God for you. And I thank you, that was a highly inspirational piece.

    When I grow up, I want to be like Azman too.

    tok milla

    I assure you, ma’am, the pleasure is all mine. I am glad you liked this piece. I guess our English teachers Dorothy Choo, Shanti Dairiam and of course, Helena Chu did a good job with me, huh?

  9. Mat-san,

    I`ve gone through two major recessions in my working life(that is a good indicator of how jurassic I`ll soon be, though I am stil full of zest for life and am still gainfully employed,and stillhave a reasonable handicap at golf).In fact , have never been so busy in my working life as now,what with the heavy responsibilities of full-time employment that keeps me going and travelling all over, and puts bread on the table, and some private businesses which are sputtering along rather well but are still at the “wonder years” stage presently, if you know what I mean.These “indulgences” pay for those extras in life, like family travel, wining and dining here and there, overseas college education for the kids,and the like(yes,including adding on to those memorabalia of old LP`s of Joplin, Cream, GF Railroad,Zepplin, Clapton,CCR,Hendrix, etc, etc).

    Your story is very touching, but it is absolutely real and I know so many people like Azman(your story`s main protagonist… my namesake some more…thanks mate!)As a survivor of those 2-very tough periods, my advice to anyone out there who would want to know how one deals with such adversity is just this, plain and simple but not necessarily easy to put into practice…when everything seems just about to crumble aroud you,just continue to believe in yourself and your capabilities,don`t think of the future too much, or even the very next day, and just focus on living out the current day as best as you can.Zen, Karma, Providence,Divine Justice …whatever you`d want to call it, will take care of you, and tomorrow(and the next day,and the next, and so forth until you`ve really survived the whole terrrible period)provided you`ve been kind and generous to others all along.Of that I can almost guarantee.The key thing is…survive the day,have faith in the natural order of the universe which goes beyond reasoning and logic, and just be yourself!God willing!

    Cheers!

    Higashi-san

    How profound! Thanks, my friend.

    “Live out the current day as best as you can” shall now feature prominently in my conscious psyche. I guess I must have known this for a long time – but only at the subliminal level. It took your took words to help crystallise the idea into something concrete: A serendipitous convergence of the right idea, expressed in the right words, and spoken at the right time.

    I guess that makes you kind of like a sensei to me, eh?

  10. I’ve never looked at it that way before, and now after reading this entry of yours, I understand why drama Melayu sometimes get written like that – the husband suffering in silence while pretending to go off to work. It’s not merely about the male ego.

    It’s really sad, but your friend did the admirable thing by shielding his family from the worry and the despair. Alhamdulillah things picked up for him. And he was lucky for friends like you.

    QOTH

    Though I never knew this was a common theme in Malay telemovies, here it is again:Played out in real life!

    I didn’t understand it at first (stupid boy!) but now I do. There is something to this keeping of secrets from one’s family. Tell-all, bare-all transparency may look good on paper, but in real life, it has its pitfalls.

    Good to see you again, QOTH

  11. Mat, what is there to say besides your very well-thought out and quite ’emotional’ piece.

    Your friend has a noble heart and so do you. It’s true what you said that no amount of talking and complaining would do any one of us any good.

    Your friend, Azman was without a job for nine months. That is a very, very long time indeed. Was once in the same situation a long time ago. Only two months and it’s like being in hell, physically and mentally. Don’t have any friends or family to help weather it through except for one person. Sometimes being in the middle-class is just one step ahead of becoming homeless.

    So, this time, would use the time to rediscover lost friendship and renew my belief and faith. And work harder!

    Thanks for the nostalgia-inducing piece. It does brought back memories.

  12. Bro Bang,

    What an inspirational piece!

    I’m not sure when u r going to write a book, so for the time being, i’m going to compile what u have here for my reading pleasure.

    Boleh kan?

    Digitalpix

    Why, of course you can.You are most welcome.

    Glad you liked this piece.

  13. Mat B

    Your silky penmanship is a joy to all of us. This latest piece is particularly resonant as you weave a wonderful narrative around the state of the economy and the innate pride of breadwinners under pressure.

    The ending says a lot about the author’s perspective on this current unfolding economic challenge. It gives us an uncomfortable sense of deja vu about the events from 1999 and the unfolding events in 2009.

    To pen a story set 10 years ago that is resonant in 2009 is an excellent literary device. I thank you for providing me with respite from the tedium of work through reading your writings. And, the economics allegory is just the greatest icing on a wonderful cake.

    More please, sir.

    de minimis

    To have someone of your stature appreciate my inane scribbling is indeed an honour, sir.

    I do intend to write some more, of this I am certain. But I cannot always assure you of the quality, though 🙂

  14. Honest to God mamak,

    I dont want you to be a cyber-busker.
    But,if that what gods shape and ‘Kun faya Kun’ it for human mankind ,so be it.

    ‘Innama al a’mal bil niyyat wainnama li kuli imr’in ma nawa’
    **All good action comes from good intention.

    Pak Tuo

    Cyber-busker – now there’s a concept!

    But if you mean, you would rather see me published in print rather than just plodding along in the blogsphere, I will get to that: just as soon as I discover a publisher who thinks I am worth their while.

    To publishers out there: Any takers?

  15. MB – eloquent & thought provoking..as always 🙂

    Justiffa

    Though provoking? Hmmm… thought provoking is good – I can live with thought provoking.

    And I can live with eloquent as well.

    Thanks, Justiffa.

  16. Salam Mat,
    I’ve never failed (so far) to visit your blog every now & then, and this posting is perhaps the most touching la… I tried to be like Azman after being asked to leave within 24 hours by the then CEO of Proton for blowing the whistle… I could take it for a couple of weeks… and then had to “consult” the wife & kids… alhamdulillah, I managed to survive & landed with another job soon after… not easy…. Azman sure is the rare species for being able to take/keep it that long!

    Dhahran Sea

    Welcome back, bro! Sorry for this late reply.

    Yeah, bro – Azman is really something else. I don’t know if I can pull off what he did. Got to hand it to him: He’s got balls of brass.

    Although it must have been difficult for you at first, I am glad things have worked out well – 24-hour notice notwithstanding! Good things come to good people, bro!

  17. Hi. Been reading your blog. I feel that you have a mysterious and unexplained way of touching people’s heart….through your writing, that is. Hope you will continue writing…..Just need to give my two cents worth. If I’m Azman’s wife (or daughter), I’ll never forgive myself for letting him suffer…and I’ll pretty sure find out the episode. Why won’t he share his problems with someone that vowed to be with him, in love and pain?

    ila

    What a nice thing to say about my writing. Thank you.

    Ila, the thing with Azman (and people) like him is, they would rather shoulder the pain alone rather than lay it on the people they love. Put it another way, would you want people who are close to you, people you care for, feel pain and be worried unnecessarily? If you could help it, you wouldn’t, right?

    Drop my anytime, Ila.

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