Wednesday, January 24, 2007

On why I write.

In a world where I never measure up, writing is the place where I know what I’m doing.

I am socially inept, ever with the wrong thing to say or do. I am basically immature, although most people think it’s of my own doing. I always just barely scraped by school with As or Bs, and I didn’t really stand out that much -- not in the fields that mattered, anyway. I am temperamentally short-fused, with little patience and a very poor ability to concentrate. Physically, I never seemed to match up to the standard idea of beauty, or even prettiness, though truth be told, I never saw what was so unacceptable about me. In a world where I was beginning to be judged purely by how much I scored in my exams, I seemed to have barely failed everything else.

I’d always felt so lost all those years before I rediscovered my deen, my Islam, and in those times, where all I had were my emotions and my tears and God, I would find myself with paper and a pen/pencil, and I would write. I would live out my daydreams of ridiculously soap opera-scenarios in a small spiral notebook I hid under my sock basket. I would jot down my incoherent anger (although it seems a tad harsh a word) and frustration in my journal, and release my feelings of loneliness and ineptitude in my poetry, which was basically just metaphoric prose.

When I let myself down, I immersed myself in writing, where there are no rules, other than maybe making sense. In poetry, I could say even more, and still safeguard my private thoughts. I enjoyed my despair because it sounded nice in writing. It gave me an illusion of profundity I could hide from the world, and it showed me sides of me I never knew.

Looking back and reading my work, I can understand the pain, although I no longer feel it. I no longer loath myself, because learning and understanding about the person God made me to be has made me accept myself better. I face criticism with careless abandon where the occasion calls for it; otherwise I deal with it with (what I hope is) patience and tolerance. I relish the fact that God made me the way I am, and with a little effort on my part, I could be better if I wanted to be; if God willed it. But I could also be content with the fact that God made me the way I am for reasons I may not know, all the while knowing that it is what’s best for me. And when all else fails, God would be enough.

With these relatively new principles in mind (and heart), I can see my writing grow with me, or on me; depends on where you’re looking. I used to be obsessed about huge, impressive words not usually used amongst humankind; now I prefer simple words that say more. I used to want to relate to pop culture; now I want to relate to now and forever. I used to allow my imagination to run wild, justifying that it’s all unreal; now I hold responsibility for the things I say, and I prefer to keep my feet grounded on firm reality, painful though it might be.

I think I’ve said this before: I want to spark change, open minds and provoke thought.

Words are such heavy loads in our lives. People use words to tell a story and captivate millions; you can affect politics with the phrasing you choose; you can turn words into a war, or you can bring it to a halt. Mightier than the sword, I believe the saying goes.

In retrospect, I understand why the first verses of the Quran that were relayed from Gabriel to Prophet Muhammad were:

In the name of your Lord and Cherisher who created,
Created mankind out of a clot of congealed blood.
Read, and your Lord is most Bountiful;
He who taught men the use of the pen
Taught man that which he did not know.
Know, but man does transgress all bounds in that
he looks upon himself as self-sufficient
Verily, to your Lord is the return of all.’

It seems ironic to me, that a person who is so well-known for doing so little, should choose so important a medium. But I did not choose this, exactly. Were the decision up to me completely, I would have chosen something simpler, plainer, quicker to get over with, so that I could get on with my life, easy. But words, instead, pulled me in their direction; forcing me to take another look, another perspective; give another try and see what it means. At times, inspiration will come to me, and when I am done, I cannot believe all this came out of ME. It can get quite scary, although it makes sense. Scary sense, but still.

Now I understand, the way humankind understands everything -- from a purposely stunted point of view. I suppose that God wanted to show me from the start that life is a journey, not mere play, and as Robert Frost once put it --

-- 'The best way out is always through'.


Labels: , ,

this has been a rant by Syazwina Saw at 2:13 am


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

These days, I wish I was six again...

In a matter of days, I will turn into an adult.

That’s the idea, anyway. In less than two days, I will no longer have the number ‘1’ as the first digit of my age; no longer able to hide behind the overworked suffix of ’teen’.

It’s quite scary, the prospect of losing all valid excuse is.

The way my mother expects it, having a new digit at the front of my age will force me to mature -- to grow up into an working, functioning adult. How I wish to have the gall to say, “If only things worked that way, Ma”.

You see, I have always had this aversion against growing up. Now, let me get this straight -- I have no problems with becoming a year older; I just have issues with maturity. I prefer regression to cynism; naivete to jadedness.

I think Dawud Wharnsby hit it right on the dot:

I don’t wanna be a grown-up
Like the grown-ups I have seen
‘Cause the grown-ups I have seen
Don’t seem to have much fun.
They don’t get down on the floor enough
To pray, or play with toys
So when I’m a grown-up
I won’t wanna be one.

For as long as I remember, I have always been against growing up. In fact, when most of my peers had already hit the watermark of puberty, I was more than glad to be left behind. I was perfectly happy to be left to my hopscotch and Barney videos (nicely borrowed from my toddler cousin) while the rest of my friends were busy comparing ‘first period’ experiences and boy-hunting.

I suppose you could say that I was late. And happily so.

But now, with my mother heavily hinting about the cumbersome day, I’m becoming rather wary. She’s desperately waiting for me to grow up; become mature. In short, to become less of a worry to her and my father. And to the rest of my aunts and uncles.

And every time I hear about it, I get a twinge in the pit of my stomach. I know how much my family wishes I could learn to be an adult. I just wished I knew how.

Last night, I had a hurried chat with my best friend. She’s happy with where she is in life right now, and I’m glad. My life for the years since we left school has been somewhat lacking her perspective on things. So it wasn’t so surprising that when I asked her opinion of my blog, she gave it to me straight: She told me that I was a little biased, and a little idealistic.

I felt tempted to reply, “When have I ever not been?”

My trip back to Malaysia, which has changed so much and yet remains so familiar, has made me think a lot about how life has changed for me, throughout the years. Ever since I could remember, the mostly part of me grew up here. I guess the change of mailing address has given me a new perspective on things. Little bits and pieces of my past seem to be catching up with me.

Just when so many of my friends are struggling to step away from their past, I’m trying hard to recollect mine.

When I was in kindergarten, I was happy. I was talkative, sure, but I cannot remember a time when I never was. Life was easy, and I suppose that deep down inside, I knew it. Maybe I had an inkling that life then was as leisurely as it was going to get. I remember gymnastic lessons for the annual concert, music classes, and sort-of cheating during after-school Mandarin, and having banana cake for recess. I used to hate banana cake.

When I was in primary school, I felt my first taste of labelling -- I was the smart kid; the bookworm; the chatterbox nerd. I think I was even called weird. I didn’t really have much common sense (some things never change), and it was beginning to worry my mother, in particular. I didn’t know how to keep the friends I had. I guess I just valued my privacy too much. Maybe I was just lazy.

Wow. That was painful to remember.

When I browse through my Friends List on Friendster, little flashes of memories pop into my head. I see the classmate I used to hate (he is a guy, which was reason enough, back in the day); I see my first crush; I see winces from social faux pas; I see the first person I was rumoured to be dating (ever just rumours). But only barely.

I see the people I grew up with, for the better part of my life. And yet now, I can’t really see them clearly in my mind anymore, because to me, they no longer represent my world, or even a semblance of the reality I‘ve come to know since leaving the bubble that was secondary school. I used to think life was what we played at between classes, but it turns out I was wrong.

When I stepped into pre-U, I learnt that there was so much more to life than dating, and looking good, and staying in cliques. I immersed myself in the new environment -- the new, always nice people and I relished that we all came from such different backgrounds. I was happy that being a smarty-pants was a common thing we shared, and most of all, that being one had brought me into AUSMAT 16 of INTEC. I learnt so much, and I enjoyed life so much.

I guess that was where I learnt to celebrate life, and the person I am.

And just when I thought I couldn’t change anymore, I did, again. This time, it was nearing the end of AUSMAT, just before the exams. I suddenly found myself with a whole new set of principles embedded within me, all without my asking. I found a deeper connection with life, deeper than I ever expected. I also found new meaning in living. The intensity and almost suddenness of that particular change -- of me, becoming more of the religious sort I usually evaded all this while -- almost made me forget how transitional and parallel it was. In fact, it was that very change of outlook that made me decide on Melbourne.

Melbourne taught me to be ready to change my mind at anytime. The city and its people taught me to never judge a book by its cover -- a lesson I’m afraid I’m beginning to forget. Melbourne taught me that each person is like an onion -- deeper than the grubby exterior, with many layers to peel, each a different shade. The Aussies taught me not to judge, and the land taught me to be quick on my feet and to trust myself. And my fellow Malaysians taught me everything else.

There, I learned to earn real friendship. I learned about dealing with mistakes. I gained the confidence that was missing from me all those years past. I found myself with so much independence that now that I’m home, I feel stifled and limited. I’m counting down the precious days until I’m forced to leave my family, but at the same time, glimpses of Melbourne appear in my mind, beckoning me to go back.

I used to be so afraid of trying new things. Now I’m just wary, is all.

I used to view change like I did make-up: Nasty and avoidable. I’ve changed my mind some since then.

Now, I’ve realized that if I had looked back more often, the same way I’m doing now, I doubt I would’ve gotten this far. I would’ve been too afraid to do anything other than what I was used to -- I wouldn’t want to improve.

So having a poor memory can come in handy too, in turns out.

Seriously though, I’ve learnt that the only way to live is to live in the present. I know, it is an overworked cliché from Christmas-themed TV movies, but it’s true. If you look behind, you’ll lose courage to take that first step forward or away. If you look too far ahead, you’ll lose your footing and crash on your face.

The only way to push ahead is to be thankful for everything you have right now, and know that God has bigger plans for you, made of stuff you won’t even be able to imagine.

So enjoy the moment. And make way for the next one.

Praise be to Allah for my life thus far. I’ll take it all with no regrets, insyaAllah, for as Imam as-Syahid Hassan al-Banna said,

“Nothing is better than what has become.”


P.S:- Should you happen to read this, this goes out to Najmina (4th of Jan), Sufia (10th, I think), Rizal and Intan Fairouza and Azza and Chie Chie (15th), Lyana (16th), Erin and Duck and Abang Pea (18th). If you happen to be born in the month, do let me know. Happy Birthday, all. Many happy returns.

Labels: ,

this has been a rant by Syazwina Saw at 4:06 pm


Monday, January 15, 2007

Of things I leave unsaid...

Assalamualaikum wrh. wbt.

Late last night, I had to get something out of my system. And I figured that like with all other things, I could do it by writing something. Anything. I didn't really care what is was about.

But somehow, I got this story that really wasn't my thing at all. It's so unlike me. But I figure that maybe I've been influenced a lot by the babies around me: the ones growing up like lightning, the ones I've only recently knew existed, the ones to come, and the ones who remind me so much of me and the fact that I really need to grow up sometime soon.

Maybe it's because I've stood by and watched my cousins get married and build families of their own, quietly sympathizing with the difficulty of growing up, and not wishing the same for myself.


But this story is pretty weird, and pretty short. And also, pretty much the only I've written in so long. And in the present tense, too. An experiment, of sorts.

So here you go:

He simply stares as long strands of her dark hair flutter over her face. Allowing himself a small smile, he remembers a time when he couldn’t even so much as glance in the direction of her head without a hearty blush. This, this ability to do without the infamous blush, is rather liberating.

She is reading about physics as she sits by the wide windowsill overlooking their backyard. It is one of the books he‘s started using in his lectures. Ever since the day she weaselled out an eternal permission to use all his things at all times, she has taken liberties with his share of books in their joint study. It suits him, anyway. He rather likes that the written word is a passion they both share. She has a head filled with daydreams dating back to her childhood, while he favours factual works on tangible topics. Together, he knows that they make up a sort of balance, like the Yin/Yang ideogram he remembers from his schooldays.

She looks up at him and makes a face. She has a silly smile on her face as he throws his head back and laughs, before she turns her head to look outside. He knows what she’s looking for. He planted that chestnut tree back in July with a silent plea for it to live. She wants to see chestnuts in her garden. She wants to stand back and watch as their children run about among the tall trees in the yard. He wants to grant both her wishes, but can only see one becoming real.

At times, he gets scared of looking into his wife’s face, afraid to face the familiar loss he sees. It lacks the maternal glow he’s seen in so many other female faces; the soft, gentle care that appears on their features. Something in him breaks when he watches the quiet longing in her face for the only thing he cannot give.

She has never blamed him, although she could. She mentioned to him once of her fear that he blames her instead. It is beyond his imagination. He considers himself lucky to have gotten what he once prayed so hard to get. He still mutters his appreciation to God everyday. Anything beyond her would be wonderful, but he can be satisfied with only this.

They are still trying, although five years of doing so might tire other people. He knows of how young they are, still; they had married young, in college. Still, sometimes he feels a keen sense of failure, especially when they spend time with the children of their friends. He knows that she loves children, as he does. He once suggested adoption, and she had given her approval. But her eyes gave her away, as they always do, and he decided against it.

Another thing he finds so fascinating about her are her eyes. Sometimes, when they’re babysitting, she will be sitting in the backseat with the child, and he would glance in the rear-view mirror and instantly know what she is thinking of. He would know how she is feeling. Her eyes were so sad by nature before they were married, but he learned to look past the inherent sadness and to read the twinkle in her eyes like he would his most favourite book.

Tonight… he bends his knees slightly to that he can peer into her eyes from where he is standing, near but away from her. Tilting his head, he leans forward, suddenly unsure of what he sees. Again, he is amazed by her simple beauty, which she covers from being seen by all others but him. Before he knows it, he finds himself sitting in front of her, spinning the Tous ring on her finger, round and round, all the while studying her face.

There is something in her eyes; an emotion he cannot place.

Finally, she looks up, her soft smile hit by moonlight. She asks him if she looks different tonight. He shrugs in return, placing a finger on the page she is reading and closing the book around it, pulling it away from her. It surprises him that she is so wrapped up in the question that she doesn’t even notice this. He tries again to distract her by fiddling more with her wedding ring, but her intent gaze unsettles him. He gives her a definite answer; yes, she looks different tonight.

She makes him guess the reason why.

He is not able to; what is the matter? Now he is concerned, and wanting to know. But he lets her play this small game for a little while.

She asks him; what is the one thing left that she wants, but cannot seem to have? He blinks, stammers as he weighs this in his empty hands. He looks up at her, trying not to answer.

You know, she says; you always have. But now, you don’t have to be afraid to say it. You don’t ever have to say it again. She takes his hands, and he realizes he doesn’t quite get her. She says; I’m going to have what we want. She places his hand in the small space of her lower stomach.

It takes him a moment for reality to sink in. She smiles at the expression on his face. This time, he can take his time to celebrate.


this has been a rant by Syazwina Saw at 2:10 am


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Traveller's Guide to Living.

I am a loner, I just thought you should know.

I prefer to be alone sometimes, and I only seek company when I desire it. I am so used to having a license to surrender in self-pity, that now when I no longer am forced to do so, I still retain the habit of keeping to myself.

I read a book sometime ago, where the young intrepid heroine claims that her entire machismo act is just a cover for her ardent shyness. I remember thinking, ‘she got it in words’ when I read that paragraph to myself.

And although I call it a habit rather than a negative attribute that I am so selfish, I have found that as a result, I am seldom aware of my surroundings.

So I guess it makes sense that my two favourite places are the cities I’ve visited nearly every year since I was born. I hope that they count, despite the fact that they are both my parents’ hometowns, respectively.

During the recent Eid celebrations, my family and I travelled to these two spots, and after years away from both, I rekindled my love for Pasir Mas and Penang.

Pasir Mas has always existed in my memory. The first realization I had that every year, I was going back to Kelantan, came when my mother announced to a friend over the phone that she was from Kelantan. I was six, and this discovery was something of a surprise to me.

“But Ma,” I couldn’t stop myself from saying, “I thought we went back to Johor every year.”

When I told her recently, she claimed that she wasn’t surprised, considering the state of the organization of my mind now, that I was so clueless, even as a child.

My grandmother’s mostly-wooden house was built from the highest quality wood (I forgot what kind) by my grandfather, who saw to it that it would last generations. Every year, on the way to my kampung, I fall asleep in the car, anticipating the solid thumps of the wooden panels as my young cousins, in the tens, run around indoors, either making barricades out of pillows and playing fort, or simply catapulting themselves from the window and onto the pebbly underside of the house. Much to the fear of their parents.

I look forward to the scent of mosquito coil smoke, staying put to our clothes and hair until days after we arrived back home.

I look forward to watching as old men work their trishaws past our house, or listening out for the tinkle of the homemade ice cream man on his bicycle, with wafer cones and tinny hot dog buns for ice cream sandwiches.

I look forward to watching wooden homes, each uniquely designed and painted, dotting vast spaces in between green bushes or yellowing paddy fields. In my mind, I would compare them to the ugly, bland uniformity of the housing areas back home, and relish the sights.

I look forward to slipping past my mother and her sisters and their respective husbands, as they flit through the kitchen, each bustling with getting kinder for the outdoor grill (which is still the best way to get anything cooked) or coconut leaves for the nasi impit, or peeling the onion and skinning the ginger. This year was notable for my being assigned kitchen duty. Dang.

This year was different. The house was coloured different, it was a different Eid, there were fewer people than I was used to, and my grandmother didn’t really favour the rich smell of the mosquito repellent coils anymore. But then again, I had not visited in years, no thanks to the awful timing of my exams. And I had been out of the country, so maybe everything seemed different, regardless.

This year was also different, in that I finally had a digital camera of my own, and as the competitive streak in me searched for bright, attractive photos for my Flickr page, I found my usually fleeting and random thoughts actually find some sort of continuity as they moved through my head, feeding me with comprehension.

I finally understand what I feel about my Malay heritage.

I guess it was also different because I was too old to camp out in the living room anymore. And also, my grandmother, Mek, could no longer afford to foresee the entire cooking operations down in the tiled kitchen. Her feet have been giving her some serious pain, and now she only moved from her room, to the telephone table overlooking the indoor kitchen, and if she could bear it, to the front.

It hurt me, to see her life so different from how I remembered it. I imagined having to change as much as she had. Looking back, I should have sat down more hours with her, and give mind to the guilty pang I felt every time I passed her by.

But I didn’t really, and before I knew it, it was time to kiss farewell to everyone, and make our way to Penang.

I have always had a particular fondness of that island-city. I was born there. I guess that’s reason enough.

But it’s more than that. It’s about how I’ve always known that when I entered Penang, I was entering another city, another state. There is a different charge in the atmosphere, a different vibe. It’s a land the rest of time forgot, until recently. I have never seen another city where everything took its own time to age and grown old. Penang really managed to age gracefully.

You know when a city is proud of itself. I see it in my Penang, where the current generation still live in the old houses they grew up in, even though they drive around in the latest Mercedez models. New businesses open up in abandoned Edwardian mansions. The same couple my parents used to visit for desserts still work where they left them, nearly two decades ago. And according to my parents, they look as young as ever.

The same ocean front, Gurney Drive, remains a famous dating spot, and an outdoors lounge for families at night. Not even the tsunami, which brushed up against it, could change anything much. Every time we leave the Evergreen Laurel, which overlooks the ocean, my mother glances up at her dream home: an apartment at Number One, Gurney Drive.

I cannot pinpoint my most vivid memory of Penang, but one of the stronger ones would have to be driving along the Penang Bridge, the third-longest in the world, with the windows rolled down and our heads jutting out, just so we could feel the face-whipping breeze past through our mouths, never mind that we whiffed more exhaust than ocean breeze.

Line Clear, the nasi kandar stall which operates in an actual alley, still makes the best stuff in the world. Near it would be the Indian clothing boutique, where I bought my most favourite peasant blouses. We would always pass the gorgeous Eastern & Oriental Hotel, and on cue, my parents would repeat stories of haunted elevators, and how Anna Leonowen’s husband was buried in the nearby cemetery. This year we didn’t visit Komtar, which used to be a modern landmark before I was born, mainly because nothing’s changed. At all.

I’ve always had the feeling that I, the directionally challenged, would actually succeed at driving in Penang, because I’d end up in the same familiar circles, going through streets with British names, and always passing the same girls’ school or kopitiam.

It is a small, cosy island, the soil I was born to. Now, I realize that the only fitting thing would be to visit the hospital I was born in, as I reach my twentieth birthday in eight days. It would be a trip I would go alone, because nobody else would understand. Also because I wouldn’t stand the company.

I guess now, compared to my primary school years, I am a loner by choice.

In any case, just like in Melbourne, I wouldn’t mind wandering the streets of Pasir Mas or Penang alone, safety reasons aside. I can just imagine it: Me, walking through the streets, snapping up photos of nearly everything and imagining what Helen would comment about them, and thinking --

-- as easy as God has given this to me, He can take it all away.

Life is a celebration; a gift from God. Treat it with respect and dignity. And treasure it.

'Do they not travel through the land, so that their
hearts (and minds) may thus learn wisdom and their ears may thus learn to hear? Truly it is not their eyes that are blind, but their hearts which are in their breasts.'

[Al-Hajj, 22:46]

Labels: , ,

this has been a rant by Syazwina Saw at 3:07 pm