THIS MERDEKA I REFLECT UPON THE BOOKS WHICH HAVE SHAPED ME
To say I have always loved reading is a little bit of an understatement. Memories of me hiding in a corner with a book huddled closely to my chest was synonymous with my childhood. Mother and later grandmother often remarked upon this – especially when they could not find me. This was my first inkling that perhaps, I was a bit of a bookworm.
A love for other activities that came with reading and storytelling flourished. Writing, especially poetry, choral recitation, foreign languages, acting, publishing – from school magazines to newsletters to books, watching theatre and movies and later blogging and creating mini videos, came naturally to me. Every other hobby, like interior decorating, gardening, management, world folklore and Malay studies also resulted in voracious reading of the subjects.
There are many books that have marked the milestones of my life listed here hopefully as a suggestion for books to read. It records a careful study of the journey I have made according to timeline. While today, some authors are clearly favoured over the other - at different points in my life, a particular author simply enthralled me and I would read no other. The books and authors mentioned here are all favourites at one point or the other for me and my five girls.
Sandy Bay Street, Hobart, Tasmania. I was taken care of by Mum’s and Dad’s fellow students in between university lectures and odd jobs and a sweet old lady, Mrs Ruth Bowling. My earliest recollection was that of the Peter and Jane stories by Ladybird. Obviously, I could not really read very well yet so television was still the major source of entertainment. Rolf Harris shows were the best. So were the children shows, Skippy, the Bush Kangaroo and Lassie.
Five years later, we came home to Malaysia. The first day at St Clare Kindergarten in PJ is particularly clear in my mind. I remember obstinately told the teacher I could write my own name. The first real book I remember reading back then was Enid Blyton’s classic Bimbo and Topsy and The Three Golliwogs. I was particularly fond of my own golliwog. And Noddy’s adventure when his little car got a cold. Noddy treated it to a mixture of hot tea and lemon.
I was sent to stay with my grandmother in our kampong Chenor, Pahang to study the Al-Quran when I was about ten years old and my mother brought me storybooks to read when she came to visit. We had an Encyclopedia set and lots of other Enid Blyton’s books especially The Naughtiest Girl in School and most of all, Nancy Drew books. At this time, my brother on the other hand read Tin Tin Comics which I loved as well and later in Canada, had the opportunity to read in French.
Grandfather was the headmaster of Sekolah Kebangsaan Bt Bota and grandmother was a teacher at the same school. Life then was idyllic. There were books abound, from the floor to the ceiling. It was paradise. I read Puteri Hijau, Puteri Gunung Ledang and cerita-cerita Hang Tuah. Hikayat Awang Sulong Merah Muda, Panji Semirang and Malim Deman were constant reading, even though I could not quite understand the flow and nuances yet. And I loved the Cerita Cerita Jenaka, Pak Kadok, Pak Pandir and Lebai Malang. I also read Shakespeare and the One Thousand Arabian Nights over and over again. One of my favorite stories in primary school was Urashimataro and The Turtle.
In guilty secret and constant fear, I read my auntie’s Barbara Cartland collection – I was whisked away to the lad of Gypsy Kings , Russian autocrats and damsels in distress - and my uncle’s secretly stowed away Harold Robbins books – I am sure mother would be horrified to read this – I was eleven! The Carpetbeggars made the biggest impression. No wonder grandmother could never find me for long periods of time. In the end, she just left me in peace until I was ready to emerge. I read behind curtains, up the rambutan tree, in the generator shed, under the house, in the toilet – much to the chagrin of my grandfather. I was forbidden to read in the toilet and I have obeyed this rule ever since - unless I find one there already.
Grandmother and I loved to watch Peyton Place every Tuesday and Thursday nights. I know now that Peyton Place was written by Grace Metalious and was considered to be outrageous in its time. What a strange mixture of influences for so young a girl. The truth is – I read everything I could get my hands on.
Poetry came naturally to me – literarily out of the blue and unstoppable. My first ever poem was about Florence Nightingale. It was about 20 lines long (5 stanzas). I also wrote short poems on Madame Curie and Helen Keller. I remember being very proud of my work and I showed it to my uncle Ghafar [not the owner of the Harold Robbin books – I have more than 10 uncles] – announcing that I wanted to be writer. It was not my first ambition though. When I was nine, I remember wanting to be an astronaut.
A One-Of-A-Kind Education
Boarding school life brought me to Sekolah Menengah Perempuan Jalan Kolam Air, renamed Sekolah Seri Puteri later. The school name was changed because we were constantly teased as the ‘Katak bawah tempurung’ who lived near the water pond by students of other residential schools. It was here that I met my English teacher and later, gymnastic coach, Mrs Khaw Choon Ean. She turned our English classes into a world of discovery. We learnt about the Bermuda Triangle, Nostradamus, time travel and many other mysteries. Reading books selected by her and books from our library boxes resulted in literary debates and exciting English classes. We were driven to do well in English. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and The Hounds of Baskerville by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made the biggest impression on me. The latter spurred a continued love for Sherlock Holmes stories and Agatha Christie’s mysteries. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde epitomed the study of insidious evil and Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott was utterly romantic. We read Mill On The Floss and Silas Marner by George Elliot and The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. Mrs Khaw’s love for mysteries and science fiction led to us having to read The War Of The Worlds, The First Men On The Moon and The Invisible Man by H G Wells. Jules Verne’s Journey to The Centre of The Earth, Around The World In Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues were memorable. We also read, and loved books by Daphne Du Maurier, Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney. And SHE by H Rider Haggard. I remember Du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek and Jamaica Inn so well and a discussion on the Flight Of The Falcon. But the best of the lot was Rebecca. Another book that caused much debate in class was George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Til today, I still cherish my copy of Touch Not The Cat by Mary Stewart given to me by Mrs Khaw for coming in third place in a writing competition she organised.
Mrs Khaw also led a team of us to publish a monthly English Bulletin, The Grapevine. While we published articles and stories by all the students, I generally became the resident poet, so to speak. We would often discuss and dissect my poetry. Mrs Khaw taught me how to self critic, edit and analyse my writing. I had quite a few followers who would tell me how my poems affected them. Some poems that I remember being published were A Stranger, Revenge, Lily Of The Valley and The Band Life – In The Sun. When we were in Form Five, one of my dearest friends Shazlin included in her speech a poem I wrote about Nadia Comaneci.
This amazing English teacher also treated us to the movies – special class projects –Sealed with a Loving Kiss starring Mark Lester among others. We studied the lyrics and sang the songs Melody Fair and First Of May in class. We also saw Butterflies Are Free starring Goldie Hawn. The song Starry Starry Night, another class project, introduced the genius Vincent Van Gogh to us.
During our SPM exams, our beloved head warden treated all the fifth formers to the hotly debated movie The Blue Lagoon. And our history teacher encouraged us to watch Superman and Endless Love – the latter of which was earlier banned in Malaysia! I have excluded their names for fear of getting them into trouble. Another teacher, Cikgu Fawziah Ali made geography classes the most important subject when she was around. Suffice to say, we had one-of-a-kind teachers at Seri Puteri.
I would like to mention a temporary teacher who came to teach Bahasa. She introduced Shahnon Ahmad’s Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan which was the only book to ever make me cry when I finished reading it. It has remained my all-time favorite book in Bahasa. This teacher, whose face and mannerism I can recall so clearly remains a mystery to me today. I do recall that her father’s name is Ahmad Isahak. I was inspired to write a short story entitled Moyang in her class.
Sekolah Seri Puteri was like a fertile land, and we grew into adolescence to emerge like young saplings trees which strengthened with time. The roots of our foundation were deeply entrenched.
The very day I landed in Toronto, Canada, I bought two books at the airport, Clan Of The Cave Bear and Valley of The Horses by Jean M Auel. I am afraid my first few days in Canada were confined to staying in the hotel room and my new room in the basement of 18, Dianne Drive in St Catherines. I sat still, devouring every word Auel had written in these mammoth books. I also started my Agatha Christie’s collection with Death On The Nile. I remember buying a book every time I had to take a bus ride to Guelph or Toronto when visiting friends. Very soon after, I subscribed to Double Day Book Club and received a monthly featured book. This book collection, and those I bought and second hand shops and other bookstores was the treasure I horded home.
University life brought me to Ottawa. A Persian lady who lived directly below our apartment on Merivale Avenue, had a cat called Ming and one summer, she asked us to babysit Ming regularly. The perks – she had a great book collection. And she was the biggest fan of Tanith Lee. I was hooked. She gave me some of her extra copies of her Tanith Lee collection and I went on to start my own. My favourite is still The Birthgrave.
In the second year, I chanced upon Dune by Frank Herbert. I remember how I was sucked into a vortex leading to this new world of Arrakis. I lived and breathed the book. Dune The Messiah and Children of Dune were no less riveting. And on and on until I funished reading Chapterhouse Dune. We watched the much awaited movie by David Lynch. Until today. the Dune series have remained the most thought provoking books I have read. Here, I experienced true escapism into another world. Every phrase Frank Herbert wrote was a revelation. The Litany of Fear became my favourite quote. Paul Muad’dib was my dream hero.
One summer, I was browsing a second hand store and found The Lord Of The Rings. Again I was hooked from the first page and later on got The Hobbit and The Silmarrion as well. I am afraid by this time I was consumed by science fiction. Two other series I could not put down were the Dragon Lance Series by Margaret Weis and later, the Death Gate Cycle by the same author. Works by Ursula Le Guin like The Tombs of Atuan and C J Cherryh’s haunting Rusalka were past-time reading.
A chilling and memorable summer read was The Summer Of Katya by Trevanian. Cheah Chee Kong, a good friend introduced The Bourne Series by Robert Ludlum to me.
Ottawa was of course the capital of Canada and across the Rideau River, was Hull, Quebec. French was widely spoken. I took up French and for starters, read Archie and Tin Tin comics in French. Then I found Le Petit Prince by Antoine St Exupery which I must say is one of the most poignant and delightful reading I have ever known. Italian came next and one book project was The Marriage of Figaro - a comedy which we acted out in class..
Thirty Something Years
Back in Malaysia during the tail end of the economic crisis of 1988, I took a part-time job as a waitress at Pizza Hut. A portion of my meagre salary faithfully went to books and this has remained a practice with me until today. My library collection grew and Anne Rice especially her The Servant Of The Bones was a favourite during this time. Raymond E Feist’s and Janny Wurts’s Daughter of The Empire was a book I could not put down. Later my sister Farah introduced to me Faerie Tale by Feist. I continued to enjoy her selection particularly, An Instance of The Finger Posts by Iain Pears and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, the latter of which being the one and only book I have never been able to reread as I found the subject matter of a humanity and world too horrifying simply too disturbing.
Return to the Nursery
By the time Iman, my first daughter, was born I began collecting books for children. I bought all the fairy tales, and enjoyed Andrew Lang’s renditions and classics like Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit Tales. A A Milne’s Winnie The Pooh and Enid Blyton’s The Wishing Chair and The
Faraway Tree Collection came back into my life. I read The Borrowers by Mary Norton, The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame and poems of the Flower Fairies by Cicely Mary Barker in adult life. Later the Harry Potter Series by J K Rowling, Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer and Mr Benedict’s Society by Trenton Lee Stewart were satisfying reads. We devoured Cornelia Funck’s Inkheart, Jeanne Du Prau’s City Of Ember and Kate DiCamillo’s Desperaux with just as much passion. Inas loved Madonna’s beautifully illustrated books especially The English Rose. All of them are exquisite books in beautiful hardcover and jackets.
Picture books School Bus by Donald Crews, Room on The Broom by Julia Donaldson [I used to conduct story-telling sessions in October reading this family favourite Halloween story], The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle became bedtime favourites.
A Hat for Ivan by Max Lucado and The Gingerbread Baby contained the most beautiful illustrations. The Adventures of Harold and The Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson became a shared family treasure.
Our monthly outing was to MPH or Kinokuniya, Borders and The Times. During holidays, visits to bookstores and the museum was a must.
Harry Potter books and earlier DVDs for the younger ones are shared.
Of course I did not keep to children’s books. New writers and , and some old continued to enrich my life. Of note, Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red, Shalimar The Clown by Salman Rushdie and The Reader by Bernhard Schlink.
My work at the Royal Lake Club saw me in charge of the Adult and Children’s libraries among other duties and I enjoyed this tremendously. I organised storytelling sessions and Member Authors luncheons. Under the advice of the Library Sub-Committee, we purchased books and held Book Sales.
Movies also introduced new books to read. Earlier movies like The Name Of The Rose by Umberto Eco and Cyrano De Bergerac by ____ compelled me to buy the same titled books. Later, The English Patient and Memory Of The Geisha are some examples. As for the girls, the movie Charlie and The Chocolate Factory introduced them, and me to Roadhl Dahl. The animated production of James and The Giant Peach was another classic which led us to the book.
In my favorite corner at home, I have created a special shelf for books by Malaysian authors and enjoy Tash Aw’s latest, Prema Sinnadurai’s Evening is The Whole day and Malaysian born Chiew-Siah Tei’s Little Hut Of Leaping Fishes. Placed in prominence are my handsomely bound Sejarah Melayu, 101 Puteri Melayu, Merong Mahawangsa and many more Hikayat. Books by Professor Ding Choo Ming become my guide to Malay literature. I enjoy all Karim Raslan’s Ceritalah series and delight in the crisp manner Tunku Halim presented A Children’s History of Malaysia. The work of Faisal Tehrani especially 1515 is simply amazing. Autographed copies of Glimpses by Adibah Amin, An Old Man Remembers by Tan Sri Coco Majid and Dato Zaid Ibrahim’s In Good Faith share space on a common shelf. Just below, lies my prized signed copies of Gavin Menzies’s books 14 21 and 1434.
I have penned a few reviews, of particular interest, on Francois-Rene Daillie’s Alam Pantun Melayu, Prema debut album mentioned earlier and Henri Fauconnier’s Malaisie, winner of the Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary award.
Today I enjoyed works by Murakami, Agatha Christie and revisit Salman Rushdie.
If I could turn back the clock
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