Saturday, January 27, 2007

Adibah AMIN ... As I Was Passing Vols. I & II (2007)

By Eric C. Forbes

By Adibah Amin
(MPH Publishing, 2007)

Those of us who have read Sri Delima’s two volumes of As I Was Passing way back in the 1970s will find the revised editions an enjoyable walk down memory lane. Eric C. Forbes reminisces …

REMEMBER Sri Delima’s As I Was Passing way back in the mid-1970s which started out life as a weekly or biweekly column in the New Straits Times? One of the most avidly read columns in the New Straits Times then, Adibah Amin wrote her column under the pseudonym Sri Delima (“the glow of a ruby”), observing human nature with an assurance of touch and insight, laced with her signature wry humour and humanity, without being sentimental or maudlin.

However, it’s such a crying shame that As I Was Passing Vols. 1 (1976) and 2 (1978), published collections of the columns, have been out of print for more than 25 years despite their overwhelming popularity and relevance.

It is a sin to waste good newspaper columns. Columns that are well written and insightful are always worth rereading, which is why they are still popular when compiled into books, among which are Adibah Amin’s As I Was Passing and such recent examples as Lee Su Kim’s Malaysian Flavours: Insights into Things Malaysian (1996) and Lydia Teh’s Life’s Like That: Scenes from Malaysian Life (2004). Teh remembers first reading As I Was Passing way back in the 1970s when she was a teenager: “Adibah has a rare knack for turning the prosaic into amusing anecdotes that appeal to both young and old. Rereading them almost three decades later, I find them just as charming as ever. Her understanding of human nature has rendered those tales into timeless pieces.” Lee remembers looking forward to reading Adibah’s column every week during her schooldays. “Today, Adibah’s books are still as delightfully enjoyable and enduring. Elegant, gracious, full of affection for her fellow Malaysians, her anecdotes give you not only a sense of nostalgia but also a deeper understanding of the way we were. She has written two books for all Malaysians to cherish, and in turn, books that inspire Malaysians to treasure our beautiful and unique multicultural heritage.”

Book compilations also give readers an opportunity to catch up on the columns they missed for one reason or another and to reread the pieces they enjoyed reading the first time. Books such as those by Adibah are well worth reprinting for a new generation of readers who have not read them because they are evergreen in terms of cultural and moral values, humour, local nuances, etc. Those among us who have read it in the 1970s will find them an enjoyable walk down memory lane.

Adibah’s finely wrought prose, beautiful in its simplicity, deftly captures the quirks and idiosyncrasies of Malaysians. She makes us laugh at our all-too-human frailties, our vanities, our obsessions, and the oddities of Malaysian culture (or lack thereof). She is especially adept at observing and capturing the nuances of mundane life and all the subtle contradictions buried beneath the stoic exterior of Malaysians. The wondrous real-life stories that she spins will engage and grip you with the clarity of her honesty and introspection. Adibah wrote in the 1970s, “We [Malaysians] have become hypersensitive, getting offended at the merest hint of criticism. We are fast losing a most precious gift: the ability to laugh at ourselves.” She continues, “There was a time not too long ago when it seemed we could never laugh again. But soon the jokes went round—a little bitter but deeply healing. They helped us to see our weaknesses and to start afresh.” Looks like we haven’t changed much since the 1970s: in fact, some of us would go so far as to say that we have gotten worse, what with the culture of excess and consumption permeating our lives today.

By mining her own life for material, these volumes at times read like Adibah’s memoir. She has a good eye for detail. The details of the 1970s are recounted so realistically that anyone today will be able to identify with them. Ask anyone about what they recall most about the 1970s, all you’ll hear about are the ghastly fashion sense, platform shoes, horrible hairstyles, the unspeakable disco music, Fanfare, Movie News, New Thrill, ABBA conquering the world of pop music, David Bowie, Donny and Marie, Teresa Carpio, Charlie’s Angels, Saturday Night Fever, Star Wars, campy disaster “classics” like The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake and The Towering Inferno, etc. However, one of the most wonderful memories of the kitschy 1970s was Sri Delima’s column, “As I Was Passing,” which we read eagerly when it made its appearance without fail in the New Straits Times on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Though Malay is her mother-tongue, her “gut language,” Adibah excels in the English language. “We spoke very little English at home. My mother [Tan Sri Zainon Sulaiman or better known as Ibu Zain] was a freedom fighter against the British and didn’t want us to speak English. She spoke only Malay to us, gave us Malay books and sent us to Malay and Arabic schools.” Later, when she was 10, she attended an English-medium school where students were permitted to speak English only. At the beginning, she struggled, but the books—with their fascinating pictures—captivated her. She now says: “I love English. You can do anything with it. I love its unruliness. The rules are not rigid. I don’t even mind the crazy spelling. I wouldn’t want it reformed. Of course, it depends on how it’s used. It can be horribly pompous. Still, I love Malay more. When I write anything in depth, it turns out to be in Malay. In English, I write in a light-hearted way because it’s my second language and I don’t like trying too hard. It’s not as good as I want it to be.” But, of course, we know she’s just being modest. She writes with such effortless skill and empathy, and has an eye and ear attending to every detail, every nuance of idiom and character. Though light in texture, Adibah’s prose is very filling.

What a joy it is to be able to reread such a smorgasbord of Malaysiana at their very best! The reissued volumes of As I Was Passing chronicle and celebrate the Malaysian way of life. In these delightful, inventive collages of anecdotal essays, Adibah looks into the heart and soul of Malaysia, past and present, with humour and through crisp prose. She dissects the Malaysian psyche and its quirks and idiosyncrasies with relish and abandonment. In particular, her memories of her childhood and the redolence of the Malaysian household will warm you from the inside out.

Adibah is an astute anecdotalist, a miniaturist, blessed with a talent for the closely observed detail as well as a keen sense for the foibles of others and a keener sense of humour about her own follies. There is much joy in her use of both the English and Malay languages, imbued as they are with rich morsels of descriptive writing. Her affection for Malaysia and Malaysians shines through clearly even as she pokes fun at them. She paints small pictures that tell big stories.

Though humorous, her wealth of intriguing stories also bristle with a tinge of a lament for lost times. And by immersing herself in the Malaysian experience, she has distilled with nitric intensity the essence of being Malaysian. If you need one book that captures the essence of what it is to be Malaysian or some idea of Malaysianness, you won’t go wrong with this one.

The republishing of neglected Malaysian classics such as these volumes should be welcomed with open arms. I once enjoyed reading them as a teenager growing up in the 1970s. I still enjoyed rereading them after all these years. I hope they do the same for you too.

Reproduced from my introduction to Adibah Amin’s As I Was Passing and As I Was Passing II (MPH Publishing, 2007)


Blogger Argus Lou said...

Hail, Puan Adibah, heroine of my little-read reading teenagehood.
Imagine my knock-kneed, dropped-jaw surprise to find her one day in the women's restroom of my former office.
It was an honour and a delight. Didn't care that I acted like a bedazzled kid.
Looking forward to the two volumes, Eric.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007 6:39:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Eric, are the books out already? Have been eagerly awaiting the reissue ever since I lost my old tattered copy.

Saturday, February 24, 2007 9:09:00 AM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

Both volumes will be released simultaneously in early March 2007. I believe you will enjoy rereading them.

Saturday, February 24, 2007 4:31:00 PM  

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