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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, February 20, 2022

Cast From The Herd Excerpt #25: The Bloody Devil Personified

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #25:  The Bloody Devil Personified

My teacher for the following year was a colonial man, a diminutive character with an unruly bush of wavy red hair. We were all afraid of him, not because he was stern rather that in our folklore, white was the color of the devil, and red, blood – the bloody devil personified! 

The Simmonses lived in a bungalow on the hillside, visible from the road. His wife was also short but matronly, a vivid contrast to his trim profile. Once we saw her kissing him goodbye on the porch. We boys let out loud whistles and wolf calls, more for the girls in our bus. We natives were not used to such public displays of affection. That was our morning excitement, not so much seeing the couple kissing as with the girls blushing. 

I still could not fathom what made him take his young family thousands of miles away into the hot, humid jungle to teach us native tropical kids. What new pasture was he seeking? 

Mr. Simmons taught all subjects except that I do not remember him teaching us much of mathematics. We spent most of the time singing nursery rhymes, reciting poetry, and reading aloud in class. He would call on someone at random, and woe would be if the poor fellow could not find the exact spot where the last reader had stopped – a sure sign of having dozed off. Mr. Simmons would spend more than just a few minutes scolding the hapless soul. 

I loved it when he picked one of the Chinese kids. Then I could count on the class being sidetracked as he would badger his victim on the importance of rolling your tongue in pronouncing “r.” 

“Rrrow, rrrow, rrrow your boat!” he roared. “Gently down the strrream,” he screamed. And the poor kid would repeat in earnest, “Llow, llow, llow your boat, gentilly down the setllim!” The more Simmons tried to correct the pathetic pupil, the worse the pronunciation, to the howling laughter of the class. 

Mr. Simmons once asked me to read aloud, and I went through with no difficulty. Clear and smooth, or so I thought! When I stopped, he took over and continued on and on, sounding like a duck while flapping his palm by his side. 

“Quack! Quack! Quack! That’s what you sound like, Bakri.” Then opening his jaw and pulling his cheeks wide apart, he shouted, “Open your mouth wide. Move your tongue around. Let it touch the roof of your mouth. Don’t let it lie flat and lifeless. Enunciate your words loud and clear.” 

I wished I could disappear beneath my desk. Embarrassed as I was, I did learn the meaning of “enunciate.” And I was only in Year Four!

Simmons’s enthusiasm was infectious. Unlike Mrs. Paul, he never sat behind his desk but would pace the room like an earnest televangelist soliciting donations from his congregation, his voice alternating between soft and spirited, all in an effort to keep our attention, or at least keep us awake in the heat of the day. Perhaps that was why he was so trim, and Paul plump. 

His favorite was poetry reading. He would write the entire stanza on the board and have us read it aloud together a few times. Then he would erase a few words here and there, and we would continue reading. Then he would erase a few more until only some scattered words were left. By that time we would have memorized the entire piece. 

Once he caught me looking outside while we were learning a new poem. He asked me to recite the piece as he covered the blackboard with his outstretched arms. I did, with no errors. That was the end of it; no reprimand. But then, no praise either. 

Mr. Simmons’ favorite was Wordsworth’s poems, in particular “The Daffodils.” I could not fathom why he was so enchanted by it. It was just another poem; I memorized it because I had to, nothing beyond. 

Today I cannot help but ponder the irony. Mohamad Noh instilled in me the love of poetry in one 45-minute class as a substitute teacher while Simmons could not in a whole year as my class teacher. 

Decades later, soon after I moved into my California ranch I happened one Sunday morning to sit on the patio enjoying the warmth of the spring sunshine and the gurgling sound of the nearby creek. I glanced towards the hillside, 

When all at once I saw a crowd / A host, of golden daffodils
Beside the lake, beneath the trees, / Fluttering and dancing in the breeze (3-6). 

The previous owner had planted some bulbs along the creek, and every spring she would enjoy the burst of fresh yellow daffodils, just as I was that morning. How enchanting and evocative were Wordsworth’s words! That was the joy and beauty Simmons had tried to impart with minimal success upon us tropical kids. 

Next:  Excerpt # 26:  A Hefty Price Tag


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