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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Cast From The Herd Excerpt #7: At Last , In Long Pants


Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 7:  At Last, In Long Pants!

Just as the wake of a freighter would continue lashing against the shoreline long after it had passed, likewise the wash of Mr. Noh’s words kept rocking the edges of my consciousness long after that day. I too now yearned to be free, to sail the distant seas and explore strange lands. Chairil Anwar’s poem “Aku” had snapped my mooring line. 

Wait! My Minangkabau tradition calls for exactly that. Just as the shoot of the rice plant has to be uprooted from the soft nurturing soil of its nursery to be transplanted in the open field so it could grow and mature, so too a young man must leave his native soil and later return with the full harvest of his experience. That is the essence of the Minangkabau merantau (wanderlust) spirit. It is not just a yearning as per Steinbeck’s “virus of restlessness” afflicting the young, rather the very core of my culture.

Chairil Anwar’s stirring words reverberated in me well beyond that week, a rather tenacious hold on a teenager’s attention span. By the end of the following week however, I was back to my old familiar pattern of coasting through. Before long my school was into its third and final term of the year; the atmosphere now serious with non-academic activities canceled. The focus was on the all-consuming national examinations, except for us in the honeymoon-year class. For us there would be only an internal one. It would not matter to our future. No one would fail; it said so in the school policy. If I were to do poorly, I could handle the expected de-meriting remarks from my teachers and parents. I was already anticipating my senior year when it would be my turn to be king of the hill and lord it over the rest of the school. 

A privilege to being a senior was that one could wear long pants. The girls however, would be stuck with their same boring blue, knee-length pinafore over a white blouse. Parents loved that as they would not incur extra expenses. To me, long pants were like crowns to kings. 

During Form Four only a few – the prefects – could wear them, and they wore them daily. However, only my friend Ramli Ujang looked smart in them:  trim, tall and oh, so mature! His pants hugged him at the hips, embracing his thighs and legs like the casing of a sausage, lending a cool, casual comfortable look. If only I would look half as good in mine! Oh Allah, spare me the look of the other prefects, or worse. 

My recurring nightmare was that I would look like Mr. Tham, our previous history and now frequent substitute teacher. He was the antithesis of Chairil. I could never imagine Tham to cast himself from his herd. His long black, straight hair was clipped at the bottom all around as if somebody had put a half coconut shell over his head and then snipped off the extruded locks. I suppose that was an improvement over the pigtail-style of his ancestors. 

Please God, do not let me look like him in my long pants. No! His baggy pants, secured only by side buckles, rode high almost to his armpits, and starched stiff with the twin front creases resembling the hulls of a tall catamaran. He did not walk but waddled. Tham was a constant and irritating reminder of the potential sartorial disaster awaiting me in my long pants. 

My weekend routine was for our small school social group to meet on Saturdays at the library prior to going for the noon matinee movie in town. Those were occasions for us not to be in uniform. What a pleasant sight to see those girls looking so different, refreshing, and yes, beautiful. I would still be in my uniform because that was the only few clothes I had. Further, if I were not wearing my uniform, then my bus pass would be invalid, thus cutting into my allowance. 

One Saturday we saw “Jailhouse Rock.” While the girls went wobbly with Elvis’s gyrating pelvis, I was taken in by his army pants, desert khaki with pleat-less front and cuff-less legs – the Yankee drainpipe look. That would be my style. I fancied myself another Elvis, minus the singing talent or good looks.

I had a postal savings bank account that my father started for me upon my entering school. I remember putting my thumbprint on the application and the clerk remarking that I was his youngest customer. My father had been adding to that account every time I did well on my school tests. That last December I did well in my LCE, as did my bank account.

So that Saturday Ramli and I were at the tailor; I brought him for moral support. The specific fabric was there, and plenty of it. It was the hot-selling item, benefiting from the movie. Knowing my father (he was a regular customer), the tailor proceeded to measure me without bothering to ask what style I wanted. So when he put the tape around my tummy way above my belly button, I pushed the tape way down to my hips.

“Your father wouldn’t approve of this,” he muttered, forgetting that was his customer. I remained adamant, and he relented. Then another argument, the ankle cuffs. I wanted cuff-less, high and narrow. I feared looking baggy, a la Mr. Tham. 

A few days later I was back for the fitting. The pants hugged my hips perfectly. I paraded myself in front of the mirrors like a tom turkey surrounded by hens, except that the hens were only my reflections. The tailor slid his palm around my waist and suggested some loosening, but I assured him that it was perfect as I sucked in my tummy. 

The following Saturday my mother saw me in my new pants and complimented me. I was not used to being praised for my attire, least of all from her. Much to my surprise the bus conductor let me use my pass despite my not being in school uniform. He did give me a second look, as did later the usually taciturn school librarian. The girls said that I looked “nice” but I pretended not to be affected. Later that morning, as the movie was not worth seeing, we all went for a stroll at Lake Gardens. For me, more opportunities to parade myself. 

We went to the far end of the park. Our biology teacher, Mr. Sham Singh, lived there in a spacious bungalow set in lush surroundings. With no fences, the whole park was his backyard. He had such a luxurious lodging because he was recruited from abroad, in his case India. Local teachers did not enjoy such privileges. My elders had an apt expression for such misplaced generosity: Breast-feeding the baby monkey you found in the jungle but neglecting your own. 

Mr. Sham noticed the girls right away and was extra effusive in greeting them. He ignored us boys but we nonetheless tagged along. The twin-level house had a high ceiling and was cool, enhanced by the fan swirling above and the wide French doors. The colonialists knew how to make life comfortable in the tropics. 

Those government bungalows were clustered on a hill and separated by expansive lawns, with a panoramic view of the town. Tall casuarina pines and leafy flame-of-the-forest (Delonix regia) trees provided shade and color, but conspicuous by their absence, there were no fruit trees as in the villages. Those colonials had yet or refused to acquire a taste for local fruits, especially durian. It may be the king of fruits and fruit for kings to the natives, but to foreigners, it’s like eating ice cream in an outhouse, heavenly only if you don gas-masks. It is the Malaysian revenge for Munster cheese. 

On the far side of the hill stood a much larger house, that of our headmaster, Mr. McCumiskey. At the crest was the District Officer’s, an appropriate symbolic location as he was the top local official. 

No wonder Sham liked Malaysia. Back in his native India he probably had only a mud hut. 

In the excitement of the day I forgot all about my new pants. That was also a measure of how comfortable I felt in them. I wore them a few more Saturdays after that, but like sex, none matched the excitement of that first time. Assured that I would not look like my history teacher, I had three more pairs made in the navy-blue school color for my upcoming senior year, this time with pleated front and cuffed ankles. My tailor knew the school rules better than I did. 

Next:  Excerpt # 8:  King of the Hill, Briefly


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