It was done on impulse, a visit long overdue. As soon as I stepped foot on the third floor of the building, I felt a strange but familiar feeling, a familiarity that guided me to the place where I used to treasure the feeling of solitude while being at one with the surroundings. It was a feeling akin to visiting the place you used to haunt with a loved one.
I walked along the rows and rows of books, running my hand across the neatly stacked books between lane 92 and 94. There were loads of books from our literary greats, but my eyes were scanning and searching for one particular book.
And then I found it. I first set eyes on this book while doing some work at the British Library in the early nineties and I must say I was blown away by the courage of the writer, by her sentiments and vision.
A poem that she wrote in the book, and I reproduce a few stanzas here, will be etched in my memory forever.
“ Sekarang tibalah saat-nya kita berpisah,
Ku tinggalkan di-kau dengan penoh air mata,
Jiwaku dan jiwamu akan menangis meratap sendu,
Hanyut dalam kenangan yang tiada bertepi.
Tahukah kau, oh, sayang,
Sebelom kau dan aku berkenalan,
Aku telah menchintai sesuatu,
Kuanggap ia sebagai kekasehku pula
Tapi keadaan tak meizinkan kami bertemu,
Kerana kekurangan sharat pada diriku.
Izinkan aku pergi menemui kekasihku,
Dan aku akan kembali kepadamu,
Setelah kami puas berchumbu, berchengkerama,
It was in aisle 92I that I found this book again “Ibu Melayu Mengelilingi Dunia 1 – Dari Rumah ke London by Aishah Aziz, a second edition published in 1956 – the journey of a wife, a mother of three young children then, the youngest only 20 months, in pursuit of her first love. Thus the heart-wrenching poem above, which she wrote before she left her loved ones.
The poem and her vivid description of the moment the ship Canton, pulled away from the Tanjong Pagar harbour, tugged at my heart strings and brought tears to my eyes. After a tearful goodbye and kisses for her children and husband, she watched them disappear from her sight. All she remembered and what became the strength that saw her through their years of separation, she wrote, was the loving look of the husband she left behind to look after their young children.
That was 10th April 1955. Such was the resolute and strong conviction of a young woman, in search of education, to further her studies and widen her knowledge. That was her first love.
Reading through the thin, fragile pages of the 83-page book, I couldn’t help but feel in awe of this woman who must have wrestled with her conscience and struggled with her sense of responsibilities, to give priorities to an ambition she had nurtured even before her marriage. Along the way, I suspected that, her determination would take her a long way and I wasn’t far wrong.
Aishah wrote about her voyage on Canton, which started on 10th April 1955 from Tanjong Pagar, Singapore, a voyage sometimes on rough open seas that ended at the Tilbury Docks, London on 9th May of the same year. She chronicles life on the ship, in her cabin for four, her friendship with people from different backgrounds, the dancing, activities and entertainment on board as well as the meals served, which left her Malay palate yearning for home cooked food.
It was her account of the various stops in Colombo, Bombay, Aden, and the cruise along the Nile, Port Said, the turbulent waters and her reflections on events that made it compulsive reading. It is a travelogue that takes a reader on a journey of her mind and body.
What is profound about Aishah’s writing is her nationalistic feeling, her yearning for the country to be independent and progressive. She had visions and great ambitions for her country and the people she left behind. Her accounts of her stint in London, her visits to other places like Liverpool and Kirkby, resonate with reflections and comments on current affairs and social developments during that time. While she enthuses on the women’s rights and the British love for arts, she laments on moral decadence, on infidelity and free sex. And that was in the fifties. I wonder what her take would be on the latest story of a 13-year old father, with at least two other boys claiming to be sexual partners of the 15-year old mother.
What heightened my interest in this very thin book, written in old Malay, are several episodes of her life here which touched based, so to speak with some events in my life. She visited the colony of Malay sailors in Liverpool, a subject after my own heart. I visited them 40 years after her. She met Pak Cik Sailors who had been there for thirty or forty years before. And then her visits to Kirkby and Brinsford where Malaya then had Teacher training colleges. She has given us peeks and glimpses into the past. I had met some of the teachers who were trained in those colleges and heard their interesting stories. I had visited Brinsford and saw what remained of the college, and stood at the spot where my brother-in-law said he had his ballroom dancing lessons. I spoke to a local cycling past, who remembered the Malays who played football in the snow.
Another area of interest was her role as an extra in a movie “A Town Like Alice”. I know for a fact that many Pak Cik Sailors, like Pak Cik Ngah Musa and Pak Man Tokyo who made a lot of money in between sailing, working as extras. Aishah was an extra in A Town Like Alice. When I interviewed Pak Man in late 80’s just before he died, Pak Man told me he too acted in that movie, as a Japanese soldier. In 1990’s I was to take on the role of Fatimah in a BBC radio production of A Town Like Alice.
Since reading the book, I harboured a secret wish to meet Aishah. And I did some years ago at a wedding in Malaysia. She promised to give me the second part of the book.
I knew she’d climb to great heights. She, Tan Sri Aishah Ghani, was Malaysia’s Minister of Welfare Services in the 70’s and one of the pioneers of Wanita Umno.
Picture from Wikipedia Bahasa Melayu.
Terima kasih reader Lanangkota for this information and link.
A copy of this book is available here:
Perpustakaan Peringatan Zaaba, Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.