That’s What Blinkers Are For

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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.

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Dad’s Swimming Trunks

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That he eventually became a doctor ought to have amounted to something. But sadly, it hasn’t. Because of his relative lack of progress in all things material, people have often accused him of not trying hard enough – in anything. In other words, most folks think of him as your garden variety lazy bugger. But then again, it is only too human to pass judgement such as this on others from the comfort of our snug little lives; a trap people with snug little lives have fallen into over and over again since time immemorial. Perhaps I have not fallen into this trap because he is a good friend – a brother, even. Or, more likely than not, the reason for this is because – unlike my contemporaries – my life, as it is, is less than snug.

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Today is a Bonus

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“What you doing, bro?” I blurted into the phone.

“Same old thing: Writing cheques to pay very angry creditors with money the company does not have. What did you think?” Jamal replied (real name withheld to protect the guilty).

“Again? I think you’re not allowed to do that, Jamal”

“I’ll be dammed if I don’t do anything about this mess. I’ll find the money to cover these cheques, tho. However, it won’t come from my useless shareholders, I can assure you that!”

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Like A Country Song

Lately, I think my life has reinvented itself into a country song – you know, the kind of song where the singer’s dog gets run down by the school bus; his mother accidentally burns down his house (while he is still in it); his girlfriend finds out he isn’t really that hot after all and runs off with their pet orang-utan; and the love of his life, his 1975 Honda CB550 motorcycle, is stolen (by the orang-utan).

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The Cakapaje (aka Arnold Schwarzene-gemok) Tag

I was tagged by Cakapaje, an otherwise regular guy but for the fact that he suffers from the delusion that he looks like me (in his dreams!). Anyway, this guy tags me and then leaves me to figure out what the tag actually is. OK, he may be a few soldiers short of a platoon but I will admit to all and sundry that he is a very good and dear friend – always have been and always will be. Thus, I will endure the chore of undertaking some detective-work to ascertain what the tag actually is. To the best of my ability, I guess he wants me to bare my soul and reveal 15 random (and hopefully interesting) facts about myself. So here goes:

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A Magical Picture Book

I was having a haircut at the local ‘mamak’ barber-shop a couple of months ago when Hussein plonked himself down on the chair next to mine. I could hardly believe the serendipity of the moment; I had only been thinking of him a few days prior: And there he was! When we were done with our haircuts, we quickly adjourned to he ‘mamak’ café next door for a ‘teh tarik’ session. There was a lot of catching-up to do.

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Where’s Yours, Man?!

He stood six feet tall and was perhaps just as wide. Big, black and ridiculously strong, Viv (his real name, I kid you not) had run out of suitable sparring partners at the dojo. The last one he had was still recovering at St Mary’s hospital with a broken jaw and a dislocated shoulder. Restraint and self-control obviously weren’t very high on Viv’s list of priorities. Naturally, nobody was looking forward to spending any sparring time with Viv, least of all me.

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A Man Like Uncle Bidin

Some thirty years ago, when climbing into a pair of Levi’s was still not yet an act tantamount to a do-it-yourself vasectomy, I went for a trip to Singapore with my friend, S. The reason for this trip was for S to meet his father, Uncle Bidin, for the very first time. They were separated the day S was born and had never met each other even once in the sixteen years they were apart. It was a minor miracle that they even managed to find each other again.

The story began when S’s father and mother met in the romantic post-war Singapore of the mid-1950’s. What else could they do? They duly fell in love and eventually got married. Like all real-life love stories, things began going downhill drastically soon after that.

Theirs was a relationship that many would consider as a disaster waiting to happen. She was a teacher, and as such, was part of Singapore’s upper crust (teachers were still held in high esteem in those days). Uncle Bidin, on the other hand, was a lowly lorry driver who struggled just to keep his body and soul together. It was not exactly a pairing that guaranteed the absence of strife on the domestic front.

But the young couple fought the odds instead of each other and managed to stay together. While she taught at a local school, he drove his lorry by day and competed in the semi-professional boxing circuit by night (yes, they had a semi-professional boxing circuit in Singapore back then). It was a tough life. But their love proved to be even tougher. Then one day, S was conceived.

As luck would have it, the very day before S’s mother went into labour, Uncle Bidin was scheduled to compete in a series of boxing matches in Jakarta. In his mind, he didn’t really have a choice. Money was tight and the arrival of a newborn meant that there would be even more bills that he would have to attend to. If he won the big money in Jakarta, it would be that much easier for junior and the wife. So, off he went to Jakarta, intent on winning big.

And win big he did! He rushed home with his winnings only to find an empty but hastily vacated house. His beloved wife was nowhere to be seen. And worse, there was no sign of his eagerly awaited first born son. Frantic, he hit the streets of Singapore and demanded answers from anyone who might have known what had happened. What he found out devastated him right to his core: his beloved wife had died in labour and his in-laws had taken his son, uprooted themselves, and made off for Kuala Lumpur. There was no forwarding address.

Eventually, after 15 years of trying to find his son, Uncle Bidin located his in-laws. They agreed to meet with him but did not allow him see his son. Uncle Bidin pleaded his case as any father would for a chance to see a long lost son. Eventually the in-laws relented. However, Uncle Bidin had to return to Singapore first; they would send S to him later.

That was how we found ourselves in Singapore. After an awkward welcome and stilted hugs at the railway station, Uncle Bidin took us to his home. He showed us to our room so that we could rest for a while. He slowly closed the door behind him and went straight to the kitchen to prepare dinner.

“This looks suspicious, doesn’t it”, mused S

“What does?”, I asked.

“My dad says he never married again. But what are all these children’s clothes doing in these drawers?”

I took a quick peek, and sure enough, there were all kinds of clothes – ranging from infant clothing to things that teenagers like us would have worn – stacked neatly to the brim in all the drawers. It didn’t look good to me. Uncle Bidin had probably married again but didn’t know how to break the news to his long lost son. As a result, he lied about not having another family. He probably had sent his family away for a few days so that S would not have to meet them. Why did he have to lie about something like that? I wasn’t about to wreck a long awaited father-and-son reunion by confirming S’s suspicions. But I was at a loss to explain all those clothes.

“These probably belong to his nephews who come and visit him here often”, was all I could offer.

“Yeah… they probably are”, replied S. There was no hiding the feeling of disappointment in his eyes.

But what did he expect? Was Uncle Bidin to remain celibate for all those years? Let’s get real here!

A few minutes later, Uncle Bidin knocked on the door and asked us join him for dinner. It was a simple affair with loads of rice, some fish, and a few vegetables. But what struck us as odd was that the table had been set for four. There were only three of us.

Unable to contain my curiosity, I asked Uncle Bidin, “Are we expecting company? Who is the other setting for?”

“That’s for my wife”, he replied calmly as we all took our places.

“And when is she coming?”, S asked with a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

Uncle Bidin looked at his son for the longest time and explained, “Son, that setting is for my wife, your mother”.

In a burst of insensitive enthusiasm, I blurted, “You mean you never married again? Then who does the clothes in our room belong to?”

Uncle Bidin smiled and looked at the ceiling as he fought his tears. Then he slowly spoke, “They belong so my son”, gesturing toward S. “I may have failed to find him all these years. But I’ve never failed saving those clothes in that room for him, just in case he ever came home”.

Uncle Bidin passed away some 15 years ago. At the funeral, I recall thinking that the world just doesn’t make men like Uncle Bidin anymore. Even if it did, would there still be a place for people like him?

My Friend and Mrs. C

There was this guy at school (let’s call him B) who had an exceptionally good command of English. While the rest of us struggled with our Enid Blytons and the occasional Hardy Boys’ mysteries, this guy was already into Solzhenitsyn, F Scott Fitzgerald and a whole host of other writers whose names the rest of us could hardly even pronounce. Rumour had it that – because of his family background – B could speak English long before he could speak Malay. He was a pain in the ass that way. But in other ways, he was just like the rest of us: self-proclaimed MRSM tough guys who practically lived in our faded Wrangler jeans, Grandslam T-shirts and Adidas Rome trainers (after all, it was the seventies).

We didn’t actually mind his funky reading habits. In fact, on occasion, we even found it mildly amusing. We didn’t mind, too, his annoyingly flawless games of chess, although technically, ‘tough guys’ weren’t supposed to be playing chess in the first place. But what drove us up the walls with envy was what he was up to in the staff room of the English Department with the delectable Mrs C – the English teacher from heaven who had the face of an angel and the body of a porn star.

Being exceptionally gifted in the English language, it was inevitable that Mrs. C began taking an interest in B (professionally, of course). They bonded well and got along famously with each other – much to our chagrin. We’d all give our favourite Glandslam T-shirt and half a month’s supply of Benson & Hedges to be able to get that up close and personal with Mrs C. Before long, B could be seen hanging-out with Mrs C in the staff room of the English Department after class. They’d stay there till long after everyone else had gone. At this point, I remember some of us were practically tearing our hair out with jealousy.

Driven by curiosity (or was it jealousy?) some of us ‘tough guys’ took it upon ourselves to check up on what they were doing. Concealing themselves in vantage points that provided a good view into English Department, the boys waited and watched. For the longest time, nothing was reported. Then, someone actually saw B and Mrs. C holding hands. Not long after that someone else saw them engaged in a very long and passionate kiss. About two weeks after that, the bomb finally fell: someone actually saw the two of them going at it hot and heavy on Mrs. C’s desk! I remember how heart-broken I was (along with the rest of the MRSM male population) when I heard the news. Before long, reports were coming in saying that B and our dear Ms C were seen engaging in almost all the possible Kama Sutra positions. Some of us we ready to throw ourselves off the third floor of Hostel C.

Of course, eventually we got over it despite the steady flow of narratives regarding B’s exploits. We consoled ourselves by telling ourselves that our time would come, too. However, we would have to live with the fact that it would probably not be with Mrs. C.

The curious thing about the whole thing was, whenever anybody asked him what it was like bonking Mrs. C, B would quietly deny it and change the subject. If it were me (or any other 15 year old for that matter), I’d be vigorously giving a blow-by-blow (pun intended) account of the whole thing while busily printing flyers announcing my conquest. Right up till we left MRSM after our MCE (SPMs came the following year) B kept to his guns and denied the whole thing. What’s even more curious, none of us believed him.

The last I heard, B was called to the Bar and became a lawyer. But after a several very disastrous misadventures on the professional and personal front, he finally threw in the towel. He opened a small coffee shop somewhere in Bagan Serai and began living the life of a recluse. As providence would have it, I was in Bagan Serai not too long ago and decided to look him up.

He immediately recognised me and welcomed me with a bear hug that seemed to last forever. Articulate, witty and sounding very dignified with his immaculate British accent, he could have fooled almost anyone into thinking that he was the same B we had known before. But he wasn’t. Somewhere in his eyes I saw that a major part of him had died.

We talked and talked. All the while I suppressed the overwhelming urge to ask – once and for all – what had happened between him and Mrs C all those years ago. He was, after all, bigger than me and according to some reports, B was also a qualified karate instructor. But when an opening came, I could not hold back anymore and slipped in an almost casual, “Oh! By the way, would you happen to know what ever happened to Mrs. C?”

Upon hearing this, his head dropped and he remained silent for a very long time. I could see that he was trembling ever so slightly. It was getting seriously uncomfortable for me and I began fearing for my personal safety. Just about the time I was about to make a run for it, he spoke in a voice that was almost a defeated whisper, “She passed away a few years back. The doctors say it was pancreatic cancer. I was there with her when she passed on…”

“I’m sorry…” , was all I could manage to mumble.

“And if you’re still wondering – after all these years – if I’ve ever slept with Mrs. C, then let me tell you now: No. I have never slept with Mrs C”, he added.

Funnily enough, now when I think back to that meeting with B, I still don’t believe him. Like my father would say: “Whatever you do, never completely trust three kinds of people – lawyers, chess players and beautiful women.”

But more importantly, it finally dawned on me (perhaps 30 years too late), that something very tender and special must have happened between the two of them. And for reasons I will never know, they have chosen to keep it secret from the world.

Maids and Butlers

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After ogling some very sexy fountain pens at KS Gills, a couple of us pen fanatics retired to the famous Kudu bin Abdul ‘nasi kandar’ shop nearby for a bite. Eating almost always is a cure for depression; the onset of which is caused by the painful realisation that the only pens worth buying were the ones we couldn’t afford. This rude awakening was beginning to have its effect on Salleh – after seeing the price tag on the Aurora Talentum, the hard-on he got from touching the pen was almost gone.

We sat there like three very sad boys who had just been thrown out of a very special toy shop. Salleh broke the silence and lamented,”If only I still lived the lifestyle I had when I was a boy… ”

“And why is that?”, I ventured to ask.

“Our family had a lot of money back then. I’m sure a measly RM1,000 price tag for a pen wouldn’t have posed too much of a problem.”, he replied.

“Really?”, Ganesh chimed in.

What? This guy had a butler attending to him when he was a kid? I didn’t doubt his honesty but I had never met anyone who had a butler before. It was kind of surreal.

“You had a butler when you were a kid?” I was thinking aloud more than anything.

“Yeah, we lived in this old colonial house off the Circular Road. The Balai Seni Lukis Negara now stands on the very spot where the house used to be. Yeah, I had a butler. He and his family lived in the servants quarters adjacent to the main house”, he replied as a matter of factly.

“Wow!” was all I could say.

“It makes me sick to think how spoilt children are today!” interrupted Ganesh.

“Huh? What are you talking about Ganesh?”

Has he been drinking again? We were talking about Salleh’s butler. What has that got to do about how spoilt children are today?

“Nowadays, every kid in the country has at least a butler and a maid!” he explained.

Quite sure that at least my children were quite ‘butler-less’, I challenged him, “Have you been drinking again, Ganesh?”

“Look around you, friend! Look very carefully. Every kid has a butler and a maid. Nowadays they are called mums and dads! The sad part is mums and dads don’t quite realise this yet.”

Much as I would like to deny it, I think Ganesh was right. And he hadn’t been drinking,