Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Alice CHEE reviews Adibah AMIN's Glimpses (MPH Publishing, 2008)

In her own inimitable style Adibah Amin once again captures and expresses to her readers the spirit that is truly and uniquely Malaysian
By Alice Chee

WHAT A PLEASURE it is to read any book by Adibah Amin; and Glimpses is another gem. This collection of captivating anecdotes portrays true cameos of Malaysian life, highlighting issues of concern to every Malaysian.

In her inimitable style, Adibah shows how, over the past few decades, lifestyle changes have affected Malaysian attitudes and behaviour; yet we retain certain unique traits. Many of her subjects are familiar: children caught up in the rat race, neighbours, table manners, reading habits, etc. The stories reflect her keen insight into human nature, as well as her empathy towards her characters.

Adibah is a sharp observer. Her observations, like those in ‘Merajuk and Manja,’ ‘Mat Jenin’s Dream Retold,’ ‘Oriental Modesty’ and ‘Facets of Face-Saving,’ sometimes reveal not just aspects of Malaysian culture and our idiosyncrasies, but also a bit of other cultures.

The book has a disarming humour. In ‘No Longer Taboo’ we’re amused to be reminded that some generations ago, a child often learnt forbidden words from his grandmother when she melatah (culturally accepted hysteria)! We see how children today usually learn colourful language differently.

‘Body Lingo’ shows us Adibah’s ability to make us laugh. In this anecdote, she asks whether we might be reading too much into body language and misinterpreting actions: whether someone scratching his head at a negotiation table might be doing it because his head is really itchy, not because he’s puzzled!

Some stories reflect the changes in our attitudes towards others of different ethnic origins. This is seen in ‘Unforgettable Papa’ where she writes about a remarkable Sikh schoolmaster whose daughter was Adibah’s close friend. How many Malaysian schoolchildren today can claim to have close friends from other ethnic groups? In another anecdote, ‘Them and Us,’ we see how polarized we are becoming; and how families, especially mothers, often unwittingly influence against their children to become prejudiced against others.

‘Long live Stomach Solidarity’ makes us think twice about what our festive open houses supposedly depict: solidarity. Adibah questions whether such an occasion can really allow Malaysians of different cultures to interact properly. Yet, she’s optimistic enough to believe such social interaction is better than none.

Adibah is outspoken on current issues. In ‘Speak English at Your Own Risk,’ we get a clearer understanding of why there is still ambivalence towards the English language and western culture in this country today.

In ‘Memories of Merdeka,’ we’re reminded there were many other freedom fighters, including young patriots who dreamed of a “raceless oneness,” conveniently left unmentioned in accepted versions of our Merdeka story. The author also comments on the sadly different reality today.

And, by acknowledging the integrity and courage of a schoolgirl who reported leaked examination papers in ‘Salute to An Unknown Girl,’ she makes us think about the scourge of corruption that we’re still struggling to wipe out.

Glimpses has successfully captured the Malaysian spirit in stories that reflect our past and present honestly, and make us ponder. I’m certain any reader will enjoy it as much as I have.

Reproduced from the July 2009 issue of Tell magazine


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