The last few days have been really hectic. Ask anyone who has started school again, and they will tell the same story. Not that I have to wash and ‘kapur’ my shoes or sharpen my pencils- but I had to gather my thoughts (again!) and psyche myself up for the term and the year ahead. I think last year, I did very well, considering that I had not been a student for the past what…30 years? I remember sitting on the steps of the uni, biting my fingernails, not unlike my first day at primary one. The only difference was that, I haven’t got with me the tupperware tumbler with ice tea, wrapped up with tea towel, held together with a rubber band. Mak used to remind me to bring this.
Anyway, a year had passed and what a challenging year that was. I had classmates who were as young as my children but were very, very nice – never once asked my age and always included me in their activities. One professor is even younger than me. And needless to say, I felt so young again – a new lease of life.
This second and final year is a bit of a drag but a challenge nevertheless. I have older classmates and thus wiser and much more experienced and very well read and well informed in their area of studies. And apart from that I am left very much on my own to prepare for my dissertation. The last few days, I have reacquainted myself with Syair Dang Sirat, an old unpublished syair that I found at the British Library. And believe me, I sleep, talk and dream in old Malay Syaer! Last year I did Hikayat Indraputra and Syaer Bidasari. Go to Hkt Indraputra for the finest art of flirting and get two boxes of tissue before Reading the plight of Bidasari!
And yes, I have had to learn the Jawi text all over again. Learning Jawi is one thing, but learning old Jawi scripts is quite different - for me at least. But I am plodding along.
I can’t explain my fascination with these old Malay texts. When I told friends that I am going back to uni, the reaction was a mixture of encouragement, envy and downright insults, such as : “Are you maaaaaad???” Well, there were times when I thought I was. But I have had the most enriching year as I had spent a lot of my waking hours in the library – looking up old manuscripts and hikayats. I’d be quite happy with a sleeping bag and a flask of coffee between shelves H-J, cos these are where some old Malay books are kept. My uni is one of the oldest centre for Malay studies outside the Malay region and indeed it has some of the most respected authorities on the subject – and they are not even Malay. The year has also been most fruitful as I had attended some conferences in Leiden and Paris where I met more great minds on the subject that I am working on.
I believe being away for so long has made me go reverse in motion, if that is possible. I look back and I realised that most of the things that I have dabbled in involved going back to my roots, to the Malayness of my being. I have tracked down old Malay sailors who ventured out to sea in the forties to document their expeience at sea, I have documented old Malay letters that our Sultans wrote to Raffles and Light and from them to our Sultans and now I am devouring old Malay manuscripts as if there’s no tomorrow.
I feel so priviledged to be able to see (and even handle) original manuscripts such as the one written by Sultan Ahmad of Terengganu to Baron Van der Capellan, written in 1824 and now kept in a museum in Berlin. This is considered one of the most beautiful Malay manuscripts, with its fine decorations and even finer language. There are other letters, funny and interesting ones in reply to Raffles’ requests for help to drive the Dutch out of Batavia.
These replies reflect how diplomatic our rulers were even then. Rather than give an outright rejection, some of the most original excuses were conjured. One request for food was met with something along the lines: Ayam, kambing dan lembu semuanya terkena penyakit”. So, there!
Francis Light once wrote to a Perak Sultan, asking Perak to be an ally of the British. But Perak was already then an ally of the Dutch, known to be quite possesive and ruthless when dealing with straying partners. Thus this reply from Perak: Kami bagaikan perempuan yang cantik, tapi sudah ada suami yang sangat cemburu!”
Oh, I can tell these stories until the cows come home – and it is now 06:28 and I need to get ready to go to school. More later.