Malaysia is said to have been inhabited 40,000 years ago by the same tribes who populated the Andamans. Situated on the trade route between China and India, they assimilated varied cultures into their lore, including that of the Arabs. Phases of colonial occupation by the Portuguese, Dutch and British wracked their history from 1511. They suffered from Japanese occupation during the Second World War. The Federation of Malaya achieved independence after a struggle on 31st August 1957. In 1963, the British colonies of Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo were combined with Malaya and the country was rechristened Malaysia.
In 1965, Singapore was voted out due to ideological reasons, some of it being racial and political. This Partition was free of political bloodshed or violence between the two countries, unlike the earlier Partitions within Asia which led to much violence and bigotry — India, Pakistan and North Korea and South Korea (where the split along the 38th parallel was initiated by the West post-Second World War to settle matters between the ideological blocks of communism and capitalism).
Malaysia continues a federal constitutional monarchy with a Sultan and an elected Prime Minister at the helm and has a mixed population of Malays (Bumiputera), Chinese, Indians, Portuguese and other ethnicities. We present a selection of writing from this country, put together on the occasion of their 64th independence day, also known as Hari Merdeka or National day.
Ratnottama Sengupta translates from Bengali the excerpts recorded by Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016), who witnessed an upsurge in the wake of the Quit India Movement, part of India’s struggle against colonial rule. Click here to read.
On August 8th 2021, the chief of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, pointed out during the closing ceremony that these games were “unprecedented” and brought messages of “hope, solidarity and peace” into a world torn with the desolation generated by the pandemic. It was a victory of the human spirit again, a precursor of what is to come. That the Japanese could get over their pandemic wrought hurdles, just as they did post the nuclear disasters wrought by the Second World War and by the 2011 earthquake-tsunami at Fukushimaya, to host something as spectacular and inspiring as these international games reflects, as the commentators contended, a spirit of ‘harmony and humility’. The last song performed by many youngsters seemed to dwell on stars in the sky — not only were the athletes and organisers the stars but this also reminded of unexplored frontiers that beckon mankind, the space.What a wonderful thing it was to see people give their best and unite under the banner of sports to bring messages of survival and glimpses of a future we can all share as human beings! Our way of doing things might have to evolve but we will always move forward as a species to thrive and expand beyond the known frontiers.
One such explorer of yet unknown frontiers who mingles the historic with the contemporary, Goutam Ghose, an award-winning filmmaker and writer, has honoured our pages with an extensive interview showing us how art and harmony can weave lores that can help mankind survive. This is reinforced by the other interview with Singaporean academic, Dr Kirpal Singh, whose poetry reflects his convictions of a better world. With our intelligence, we can redefine processes that hold us back and grind our spirits to dust — be it the conventional ‘isms’ or norms that restrict our movement forward – just as Tagore says in the poem, we have translated this time, ‘Deliverance’.
…On this auspicious dawn,
Let us hold our heads high in the infinite sky
Amidst the light of bounteousness and the heady breeze of freedom.
As the Kobiguru mentioned earlier in the poem, the factors that oppress could be societal, political, or economic. Could they perhaps even be the fetters put on us by the prescribed preconceived definition of manmade concepts like ‘freedom’ itself? Freedom can be interpreted differently by multiple voices.
This month, on our pages, ‘freedom’ has found multiple interpretations in myriad of ways — each voice visualising a different dream; each dream adding value to the idea of human progress. We have discussions and stories on freedom from Nigeria, Argentina, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Malaysia and more. Strangely enough, August holds multiple independence/ national days that are always for some reason seen as days of being ‘freed’ by many — at least from oppression. But is that true?
Indo-Pak independence, celebrated now on 14th (Pakistan) and 15th August (India), reflects not only the violence of the Partition which dislocated and killed millions historically but also the trauma caused by the event. Capturing this trauma is a short story based on memories of Partition by Nadir Ali, translated from Punjabi by his daughter, Amna Ali. Ratnottama Sengupta translates from the diary of Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016), a woman’s voice from the past that empathises with the subjugated who were subdued yet again after an upsurge of violence during the Quit India Movement (1942) against the colonials. Sinha contends that though the movement frittered away, the colonials were left with an after-taste of people hankering for self-rule. A thought-provoking short story by Sunil Sharma explores the results of self-rule in independent India.
Alluding to Jinnah’s vision for women, Aysha Baqir muses emotionally about the goals that remain yet to be fulfilled 74 years after independence. Moazzam Sheikh’s story of immigrants explores dementia, giving us a glimpse of the lives of Asian immigrants in America, immigrants who had to find a new home despite independence. Was this the freedom they dreamt of — all those who fought against various oppressive regimes or colonialism?
Tagore’s lyrics might procure a few ideas on freedom, especially in the song that India calls its National Anthem. Anasuya Bhar assays around the history that surrounds the National Anthem of India, composed by Tagore in Bengali and translated to English by the poet himself and more recently, only by Aruna Chakravarti. We also carry Dr Chakravarti’s translation of the National Anthem in the essay. Reflecting on the politics of Partition and romance is a lighter piece by Devraj Singh Kalsi which says much. ‘Dinos in France’ by Rhys Hughes and Neil Reddick’s ‘The Coupon’ have tongue-in-cheek humour from two sides of the Atlantic.
A coming-of-age story has been translated from Nepali by Mahesh Paudyal – a story by a popular author, Dev Kumari Thapa – our first Nepali prose piece. We start a four-part travelogue by John Herlihy, a travel writer, on Myanmar, a country which has recently been much in the news with its fight for surviving with democracy taking ascendency over the pandemic and leaving the people bereft of what we take for granted.
Candice Louisa Daquin discusses a life well-lived in a thought provoking essay, in which she draws lessons from her mother as do Korean poet, Ihlwha Choi, and Argentinian writer, Marcelo Medone. Maybe, mothers and freedom draw similar emotions, of blind love and adulation. They seem to be connected in some strange way with terms like motherland and mother tongue used in common parlance.
We have two book excerpts this time: one from Beyond the Himalayas by the multi-faceted, feted and awarded filmmaker we have interviewed, Goutam Ghose, reflecting on how much effort went in to make a trip beyond boundaries drawn by what Tagore called “narrow domestic walls”. We carry a second book excerpt this time, from Jessica Muddit’s Our Home in Myanmar – Four years in Yangon. Keith Lyons has reviewed this book too. If you are interested in freedom and democracy, this sounds like a must read.
Maithreyi Karnoor’sSylvia: Distant Avuncular Ends,is a fiction that seems to redefine norms by what Rakhi Dalal suggests in her review. Bhaskar Parichha has picked a book that many of us have been curious about, Arundhathi Subramaniam’s Women Who Wear Only Themselves. Parichha is of the opinion, “Elevated or chastised, exonerated or condemned, the perturbation unworldly women in India face is that they have never been treated as equal to men as spiritual leaders. This lack of equality finds its roots not only in sociological and cultural systems, but more particularly at the levels of consciousness upon which spirituality and attitudes are finally based.”One wonders if this is conclusive for all ‘unworldly women’ in India only or is it a worldwide phenomenon or is it true only for those who are tied to a particular ethos within the geographical concept of India? The book reviewed by Meenakshi Malhotra, Somdatta Mandal’s The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs, dwells on the fierce independence of the early twentieth century women caregivers of the maestro from Bengal. These women did not look for approval or acceptance but made their own rules as did Jnadanandini, Tagore’s sister-in-law. Bhaskar Parichha has also added to our Tagore lore with his essay on Tagore in Odisha.
As usual, we have given you a peek into some of our content. There is more, which we leave for our wonderful readers to uncover. We thank all the readers, our fantastic contributors and the outstanding Borderless team that helps the journal thrive drawing in the best of writers.
I wish you all a happy August as many of the countries try to move towards a new normal.
I wave my flag in thorny poems
Because I am too embarrassed to show you off in tatters
Stripped of your stripes
Your crescent eclipsed
Your pointy star blunted
My words are meant to prick
But they are not daggers nor keris
It's not good for my constitution to keep them inside
It's also bad for my heart
But if you look closely
You can see the patriotism in the whites of my eyes
You can feel the nationalism when they are bloodshot red
You can hear the anthem of my soul crying out when I am blue
You can sense the pride when I march in unison with my fellow yellows
(We link arms and sing the Negaraku because—hey—it's our country too)
My poems are my battle cry for you
My rhymes are there to straighten their crooked lines
My alliterations are a raucous rallying rap to get us back on track
My puns are the stitching of your sides
My consonance are the higher thread count of your fabric, the higher ground we tread to discount their dread
My imagery yearns to return your colours that have run, insane
My metaphors are my longing to unfurl you in the sun, again
My Malaysia is a million valiant vigorous voices wanting to raise a nation's flagging fading fervour
Don't need to stand in attention to appreciate it
Just pay attention
Because it's freely given
And if they still can't take the brave words of us poetic souls
Then they can just hang us from the nearest pole
Julian Matthews is a former journalist and trainer currently expressing himself in poetry, short fiction and essays. He is based in Malaysia
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
The day Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009, I received a SMS from my eldest brother. He rarely messaged me, but since I was the only journalist in the family, I was the go-to person when any major news broke. “Is it true?” he asked.
I was away in Gua Musang, Kelantan, attending a funeral of a relative on my wife’s maternal side.
We had ferried my aging in-laws there from Ipoh. We checked in at a tiny hotel that didn’t have a lift and had to walk up three flights of stairs. My 90-year-old father-in-law was a little hard of hearing and had poor eyesight. So, when we placed him in a room several doors away from us, I showed him where ours was — he could knock if he needed anything.
The hotel didn’t have internet access, and I was unable to confirm the news with my brother.
My wife and I chatted about “MJ”, how we went to his concert in Singapore in 1993 and how we were blown away by his singing, dancing and the special effects at that memorable show.
Michael had taken ill after the first show, and we were informed of a postponement on the second show only after we had all gathered inside the Kallang Stadium. We chose to stay, extended our leave and burnt our return train tickets. We definitely were not going to miss this once-in-a-lifetime event. Expectations were raised by the delay but Michael did not disappoint.
I refer to Michael in the first person because I grew up watching him, as part of the brotherly quintet, The Jackson 5. Their afros rocked and they were a lot hipper and cooler group than the strait-laced, clean-cut Osmonds.
The Jackson 5 appeared on popular musical shows of the time: The Andy Williams Show, The Flip Wilson show, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, and eventually had their own self-titled variety show. Even on the black and white screen TV, you could tell their outfits were colourful and funky with floral motif tops and wide bell-bottom pants.
Michael, as the lead singer with his fancy footwork, always took centre stage, never missing a beat in coordinated choreography with his brothers or sliding smoothly out to do his solo turns.
His stage presence was magnetic; he was the consummate performer, an entertainer extraordinaire, the star of every show. As kids, we often tried to mimic his trademark move — multiple 360° spins — and flopped miserably in front of the TV in fits of laughter.
Fast forward to my mid-20s, I remember after late-night partying, I often crashed at a buddy’s house in Bangsar. He would always blast Michael’s solo album Off The Wall on his stereo system with its meter-high speakers and we would lie in bed, happy and high, mouthing the lyrics to Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, Rock With You, Workin’ Day and Night, and end with the lovelorn pathos of She’s Out of My Life, until we drifted off to sleep.
Then came the follow-up album, Thriller and we were sucked in by the mesmerising MTV music videos from the album — Beat It, Billie Jean and Thriller, the last with its iconic zombie-dance and Vincent Price’s ghoulish monologue and trailing creepy laugh.
In 1983, at Motown’s 25th anniversary concert, Michael unveiled the moonwalk, a gliding stride so smooth that it almost seemed he was floating backwards on stage. It was epic and became his new signature move, just when breakdancing was taking the world by storm.
Each subsequent album — Bad, Dangerous and HIStory — added to Michael’s popularity and allure, whether the songs leaned towards harder, edgier rock numbers, Bad, Dirty Diana, Smooth Criminal; or message-laden anthems in Black or White, Heal the World, Earth Song; or softer tunes reflecting his vulnerability in Liberian Girl, You Are Not Alone and the confessional Man In The Mirror. Only Michael could pull them all off.
Michael had transitioned from the precocious child star to adult superstar. And we were fans for life.
But by the mid-90s, along with fame came infamy.
Michael was nicknamed Wacko Jacko, the subject of tabloid fodder with some bizarre stories about his exotic pets, his penchant to sleep in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber (note: later denied), his multiple plastic surgeries, his failed and supposedly “sexless” marriage to Elvis’ daughter (note: Lisa Marie Presley was quoted as saying the couple’s sex life was “very hot”), his extravagant shopping sprees and endless scrutiny on his changing skin tone (note: he had vitiligo).
Michael was quoted as aspiring to be Peter Pan, the boy who never grows old. He even named his palatial home Neverland, built his own private amusement park and movie theatre there and lived with a chimpanzee named Bubbles and llamas named Louie and Lola.
Along with the rumours, came more credible pieces on an abusive father, being robbed of his childhood, and a desperate need to connect with children by inviting them over to Neverland for park rides, to play arcade games, watch movies over popcorn, or just climb trees. And, unfortunately, for sleepovers.
In October, 1996, Michael was scheduled to have his first-ever concert in Malaysia. My wife and I were expecting our first child and we were deep in the throes of preparing, with gynae visits, birthing classes and acquiring baby things — the crib, baby bottles, diapers, baby car seat.
By then, we were over our concert-going, partying phase and were looking forward — albeit with nervous, fevered anticipation — to welcome our new-born.
The news headlines suggested Michael was also expecting his first child with an Australian nurse and the gossip mill was churning out exposés on the surrogacy.
A previous accusation on child molestation had also re-surfaced.
The week that Michael was in Kuala Lumpur, we heard of a few sightings of him about town. We were rushing to a family gathering one day and stopped by at Toys ‘R’ Us to get a last-minute gift. Something was obviously amiss at the mall when we reached there. There were children dressed in costumes aligning the escalators and as soon as we entered the store, we heard screaming outside. Suddenly, a group of men in suits, surrounding a slender shadow, entered the shop and the staff pulled the shutters down. We were trapped inside, along with 20 or so other shoppers.
It was Michael Jackson and his entourage. We were distracted, but only momentarily, as we knew we were late for our event and eager to just shop and leave.
Then Michael appeared in the very aisle we were browsing in. No bodyguards, no minders, just him alone. He was in understated black and had dark glasses and a black mask on.
He pointed at my wife’s pronounced bump, gesturing in a semi-circle and mumbled. I remember acknowledging she was pregnant and introducing us. I proffered a hand and he shook it gently but firmly with a pale, un-gloved one. His dusky, bright eyes peered over his glasses and it appeared he wanted to lower the mask and say something.
It was a surreal moment.
Perhaps, he was trying to convey our commonality, the three of us as expectant parents – a language we could share, just a normal chat with normal humans on upcoming baby matters. But somehow, he sensed we were not up to that conversation. How could we be? Something had changed. Here before us was not the superstar we knew but just another man in disguise, who maybe, just maybe, had a predilection for young boys.
We just wanted to get our gift and go. He moved on — and so had we.
The years rolled by and after awhile, I tired of repeating the story of the encounter and seldom spoke of it.
Back at the wake in Gua Musang in 2009, a light, dreary rain came down and we huddled under the makeshift tent which stretched across the narrow road in the village. Amid the chanting, tiny bells rang with regularity, and the air was infused with the smell of joss-sticks and burning charcoal from a nearby kitchen. It was a Taoist ceremony, the family was of Hakka descent and all the close family members in the funeral procession wore white.
My father-in-law was seated in his usual long-sleeved light blue shirt, pressed brown pants, shiny black shoes and although it was already night, still had his dark glasses on. He had undergone eye-surgery again recently to rescue his vision after an earlier operation was botched. The dark glasses were for protection from the glare of the lights. This small-framed, Ceylonese man stood out in a sea of white.
As relative after relative came by to convey condolences to the family, there were whispers, a murmuring in Hakka among the older aunties and uncles, then raised voices recognising his presence.
Back in the day, my father-in-law, as a young medical officer, was a hospital assistant based at the General Hospital in Kota Baru in Kelantan. He must have treated many of those present at the funeral. They came up to him, acknowledged him, shook his hand and bowed low, almost in reverence. There was no language barrier in their paying homage to a 90-year-old man, who they obviously respected. With his dark glasses, under the glow of lights, he was a star in his own right.
Sometime in the middle of the night, after we returned to the hotel to sleep, I was awakened by someone knocking in the distance. I knew it wasn’t our door. The knocking grew louder and more persistent. I tried to get back to sleep, then realized, it might be my father-in-law!
I bounced out of bed, opened the door and sure enough, it was him.
He was knocking furiously on some stranger’s door, two rooms down the hotel corridor.
“Papa! Papa! Here!”
I alerted the wife and we sorted him out, got him a glass of water, and returned him to his room.
The next morning, on the return journey, the radio stations were playing many of Michael Jackson’s hits: Ben, Bad, Billie Jean, Beat It, Black or White, Man in the Mirror.
The one that finally got to me, though, ferrying my in-laws home, was Gone Too Soon:
“Like a comet, blazing ‘cross the evening sky…Gone too soon.”
We grew up with Michael. We watched him evolve from the lovable child prodigy fronting his brothers on our black and white TVs, twirling and spinning for us, to churning hit after hit as a solo artist. He was a brilliant, talented musician who gave us his all in exhilarating music videos and energetic performances in live concerts, as he ascended into superstar status.
For Michael, at age 50, the boy who never wanted to grow old, death came a-knocking too early. And indeed, like a comet, blazing across the evening sky, he was gone too soon.
Julian Matthews is a former journalist and trainer currently expressing himself in poetry, short fiction and essays. He is based in Malaysia
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
I remember when I was eight or nine, dad bundled us children into the Morris Minor 1000 and drove us to Port Klang. We were sending back a distant relative — an uncle with white hair — to Sri Lanka, an uncle my mother never liked hosting. She cursed him under her breath for being a kanjan, a word which even I knew back then meant stingy.
But we kids were excited to see the M.V. Chidambaram, an ocean liner, the size of which, we were told, was “several football fields” in length.
We were in good spirits, trying to pronounce the multisyllabic Chi-dam-bar-am with fake Indian accents and exaggerated headshakes, giggling excitedly like schoolboys did when the ice-cream man showed up outside the school gate; despite knowing that two adults and five children in a car no larger than an oven on wheels — and just as hot without air-conditioning — would stifle us to near-death even before we reached our destination. Unlike the Titanic, I thought, there would be no iceberg to end the suffocating mugginess of being squished like proverbial sardines in a tin can with the added ambiguity of a crowing cockerel on it. Perhaps it too was signalling to be freed from its labelling, as if to say: “No chickens in here, just us sweaty fish!”
(Ironically, the ship Chidambaram, which boasted of air-conditioning, was decommissioned a decade or two later after a fire broke out onboard fatally killing some crew and passengers before limping into a port in India)
The journey to Port Klang was uneventful — maybe we stopped for a fresh coconut respite — but what was memorable was turning the corner and gasping at the sheer size of the ship when it first came into view as dad parked the car. We tumbled out in awe.
By size, it was the closest thing to the Titanic, albeit less grand, but colossal by any measure, even bigger than the Seaview submarine in “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, a show on our tiny black-and-white TV back then. I wondered, deep within its bowels, if the ship might still contain a Flying Sub that could pop-out and fly, like its name implied, out of the sea and into the sky with the oh-so-cool David Hedison as Captain Crane in the helm.
I remember my paper-folding skills were quite advanced back then and I could make a flying sub, apart from cranes and sampans, from watching Origami With Robert Harbin every Sunday.
Unfortunately, I was not allowed on board, to find the flying sub, although we did get up the gangplank, like pirates off to a raid, only to be shooed away for being too small, or maybe, not fulfilling some height requirement — as while boarding a Ferris wheel at a funfair.
Or, maybe, there were just too many of us and the captain was worried we would cut ourselves with our cutlasses — and fall overboard.
We were reduced to just waving from afar portside to our departing relative — just like at the Subang Airport in the 1970s — but with one exception. I was introduced to the odd tradition of holding onto a roll of toilet paper. Yes, people on board were flinging toilet paper at us, while they held on to one end of the roll, by the ship’s rails.
I was allowed, tentatively by my older siblings, to hold on to a rapidly uncoiling roll as the ship pulled away, making sure it rolled off uniformly — like fishing lines tied to the end of a kite that picks up in the wind — although much more fragile. The slightest tug and it would snap. I held on gingerly until it sped up and reached the roll’s end and, with a final sad tug, did snap. And I watched as other rolls around us snapped, one by one, the ends curling in the wind in almost slow-motion waves signifying the metaphorical link that bound those on land and those on sea were now temporarily cut. With a turn, the giant ship, its foghorn bellowing like a hoarse whale, was gone. We then gathered the remnants of the paper, as I recall, half of it already in the waters, and discarded it at a nearby bin. Or maybe, we were delinquent and just left it. Environmental concerns were not top priority those days.
I was reminded of that tenuous, unfurling link of paper, as we viral-vulnerable humans on spaceship Earth today, hold onto the threads of this unfolding drama before us. Like the ship of those days, Life is floating away, severing our ties to the past and snapping us into a New Norm. Our carefully paper-parcelled lives up to this point, which was always anchored to some reality, even though we indulged in escapist divergences or substance-fuelled partying, are now losing its moorings as days float into weeks and weeks submerge into uncertain months. We are now unravelling like so much toilet paper, untethered from somewhat stable ground, into a surreal journey to unknown ports. Even the onboard entertainment has started to repeat, and the binge-fest of “free” entertainment has lost its novelty.
There is a quiet panic in the pandemic and I-told-you-so environmentalists are tut-tutting like lizards on the ceiling of our caged abodes, as if to say we are now paying for the sins of decades of single-use waste for all those portside farewells.
Hoarding toilet paper is now shamed online and deemed criminal. Even paper money has been dethroned so much so all delivery must be served “contactless” — as if that were even possible. And we must stand a reasonable six feet away from each other, or two meters if you prefer, the 17.12 additional centimetres making all the difference, or microdroplets will kill us.
We risk collapsing social distances through free Zoom-ing screens, even though we knew all along anything free — free lunch, free email, free wi-fi — always came with strings attached.
We connect relatives at new births, or funerals, through Facetime, changing the paradigm from womb-to-tomb to cradle-to-iPhone-to-iPhone-to-grave.
But when you cry, you still cry alone.
All “meetings” are oxymorons, even though the same persons keep showing up. But at least they aren’t breathing the same oxy-gen. In fact, they never did.
Some of us are on the verge of snapping, for real, and yearn for an avenging glove to restore our old masks. We harbour hopes — outdated pre-snap, pre-pandemic, even pre-pubescent beliefs — like nostalgic fools hanging onto false memories, that things would somehow return to the way it was.
But this ship has left the pier. The ground below us has shifted. The shore has permanently changed.
We look to the stars for navigation but they have faded and lost their lustre. Even the moon has paled and gazes at us and sighs. We can never, ever go back in time to fix the broken promises to ourselves — our fragile humanity — and to Mother Earth who hosts us.
Like that distant relative, we are overstaying guests who have lost our welcome.
We can only move forward by paying it forward.
Nature calls, and yes, we’re out of paper.
Julian Matthews is a former journalist and trainer currently exploring expressing himself in poetry, fiction and essay forms. He is based in Malaysia.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.