Thursday 28 August 2008

How Do I Wake You Up, Let Me Count The Ways……

...or The Art of Waking People Up For Sahur.

In my recurring dreams, especially during this time of the year, I sit salivating before the biggest bowl of the most yumilicious bubur lambuk any mosque can offer. There are generous helpings of lamb pieces with prawns and a sprinkling of celery and crisp fried shallots floating on melting ghee. As soon as the sound of the canons fired from the state mosque is heard, and ignoring any etiquette for berbuka puasa, I’d plunge my spoon into the bowl which had been sitting there tantalising me for the past half an hour. As soon as the rich, creamy taste of the gastronomic delight hit my tastebuds, the dream turns into a nightmare. It leaves a salty, very salty taste in the mouth. At other times, it is a taste not unlike that of raw badly produced belacan, that goes drip, drip, drip right to the back of my throat. And that is when I wake up.

Any Freudian pyschoanalists who happened to chance upon this piece of navel gazing, might be forgiven for concluding that the nightmare has its roots in my childhood. And he/she couldn’t be far wrong.

Growing up in a household with siblings who refuse to grow old, we are forever at the mercy of those more creative and innovative in ways that manage to make others look foolish. Take the month of Ramadan for instance. In other normal households, there are etiquettes as to how one should wake another for the sahur. You wake a person up gently, call out his or her name repeatedly until that person wakes up. But no, not in my household; that tactic is deemed too civilised.

Nursing a stomach full of delicacies Mak had prepared for berbuka, we go to sleep hoping to dream of nice things because we are told that devils and ghosts are locked away for the whole of the holy month. But of course, there are other people that should be locked up as well – people like Abang.

While Mak prepares the sahur downstairs, Pak would wake us up. Gently he would repeat our names in a sing song manner that served to lull us more into deep slumber.

Having failed his mission, Abang is then deployed to use any merciless tactic and device that he could think of in his waking hours. One way is to do a concoction of belacan juice, which he then carefully drips into our gaping mouth. The experience is not unlike eating otak udang, neat. On other days, it would be salt water and that leaves you with a very dry throat that you do have to wake up for a drink. Having succeeded with the mission, he’d go back to the dining table and we’d all be given applauses as we descend down the stairs, hair in disarray, eyes still half closed.

On days when the buka puasa feast proved to be more fatal and caused us deep, deep sleep, Abang would come up with another plan. Armed with a charcoal pencil, he would proceed to work on our faces. Many a times, I have woken up with a Groucho Marx like moustache or a Fu Man Chu one, which ever took his fancy.

I have yet to try these tactics in my own household now. My husband, like my father, would start with a gentle call of the name. He had tried sprinkling water, but the most effective is still to pull off the duvet. Responses range from, “in a minute,” “I know, I will wake up” to “I am not hungry”.

During my more svelte and lighter form, which must be some twenty years ago, hubby used to carry me downstairs, prop me against the sink before proceeding to wash my face with very cold water. Now, a feat like that will break his back.

Selamat berpuasa and bersahur everyone!

More Ramadan Ramblings:

Of Mak and Ramadan
Memories of Pak This Ramadan
Fussing over Fasting
Cerita Ceriti Bulan Puasa
What's For Sahur?

Saturday 23 August 2008

Listless in London

The shadow across the unruly lawn long neglected enticed my gaze up the evergreen which is now towering above all at the foot of the garden. It stands testament to how long we have been in this present place, a cornerstone of my memory set in a faraway land that is England.

This is our fourth place that we call home. I remember the surge of excitement when I saw the size of the garden. What do we do with an 80 ft garden? We know nought about gardening so, it certainly helped that the house came with a garden savvy neighbour, who instantly took charge. An apple tree was immediately put in place and several border perennials became our pride and joy, with tomatoes, potatoes and even sweetcorn. The perennials in my hands, eventually died. Even the apple tree wilted and went, now replaced with a Japanese acer that gives a lovely colour in summer. But it is the evergreen standing stoic and proud that still holds a special place in my heart.

Hardly a foot tall, we brought it back from a friend’s place in Weybridge and Mick dutifully plonked it in. That was twenty three years ago, when child number two must have been about one and she sat on the swing among the tall trees in Rachel’s backyard that summer afternoon as we selected our plants to bring home. Today as I looked up that tree, she is somewhere in Hampshire attending an office meeting. Child number three was still a baby in my kangaroo pouch when we visited Weybridge to bring this tree home and as I write this, she is on her way to India.

It didn’t seem too long ago that they were out there riding their three wheelers, playing catch and jumping on bouncy castle in the garden, neatly trimmed by Mick. And when they were brave enough, joined by friends from the neighbourhood, they camped out in the night but we found them sprawled in the lounge the next morning. The foxes must have paid them a visit during the night!

A basketball net used to be the centre of activities for family and friends and saw one of the most hilarious matches between sons and mothers. Now it is replaced by a punchbag, cutting quite a lonely and useless figure from where I am sitting now.

The garden in summer had witnessed many a barbeque party with the wind bringing the sweet smell of grilled satay over to the other side of the A40. Farewells and reunions or just plain get-together were held in the garden and we would stay out enjoying the summer nights and what’s left of the barbeque.

Today, as son of Mick laid out a plastic sheet across the front lawn to control the weeds and try to save some so called perennials wilting in the borders, I wonder where did all those years go.

And today, I ventured out and looked up the evergreen and felt a kind of melancholic feeling sweeping over me. It has grown so tall, lording over the neighbour’s pear tree. And more importantly, it now provides a permanent shade for Jasper in his final resting place. The garden was Jasper's playground - his and his alone, chasing other cats away across the fence.

And today, with Jasper out of the way resting at the foot of the evergreen, Tabby, Snowbell and Kissinger were free to laze about in the summer sun.

Wednesday 13 August 2008

A Parents' Guide to Backpacking

.........Or how to survive duration of child away backpacking with ventolin

When your child announces that he/she is going backpacking, take a deep breath and a puff or two of ventolin . When your breathing is more regular and your hands stop trembling, google “backpacking” and that will take you to several sites, as this is indeed a very popular mode of seeing the world amongst youngsters, especially those who refuse to tag along with their parents and want to avoid the well trodden path of visiting relatives and museums and familiar places that Tourism Malaysia has on offer.

Most sites will have keywords, such as “unlimited level of flexibility with travel itinerary”, “cheap accommodations” and “cheaper means of travelling”. That alone should be enough to tell you that you DO NOT call up friends and relatives in places where your offspring plans to be. If you had unwittingly called friends, or friends of friends and relatives or relatives of friends or friends of relatives, then apologise profusely to child in question and say that you only wanted her/him to call them once he/she is there to convey your salam. Then, take more puffs of the ventolin.

And when child in question announces that he/she is backpacking in Thailand, attach inhaler permanently to your nostrils and at the same time, trembling hands permitting, go through 25 ways to calm your nerves here.

Several other tried and tested tactics are also recommended. (Success rate not guaranteed)

Bribery: Go to Bangkok BUT only on transit and offer to pay for the rest of the holiday in Malaysia.

Blackmail: You go to Thailand and I promise you I will NOT sleep and eat, until you come back. (add "breathe " if you are really desperate.)

Eleventh Hour Emotional Blackmail at departure lounge: Compose your face suitably as you hug him/her at the departure lounge. Quivering lips accompanied by endless flow of tears and loud blowing of the nose is recommended.

If all of the above fail – doa. Lots of doa.

PERSONAL NOTE: Called up travel agent friend and scolded her for issuing the ticket and not lying and say that tickets not available or too expensive.

Preparation: Ask not just once or twice about travel arrangements, travel companions, parents and background of travel companions. Get phone numbers of travel companions, and that of their parents and grandparents.

Backpack and contents: Go through contents of clothes and essentials to make sure the child does not carry anything you or customs on both sides of the immigration table don’t want he/she to carry.

PERSONAL NOTE: Got at least five padlocks for each pocket available on backpack. Not satisfied with padlocks, get backpack to be cling-wrapped twenty times over at the airport. With backpack looking more like nangka bungkus, child relented for backpack to be checked in, rather than carried on back.

MANTRA PRE DEPARTURE: Don’t talk to any strangers. (But seeing that everyone will inevitably be strangers…) don’t talk to suspicious looking strangers. (Googled images of suspicious looking strangers…couldn’t find any). Don’t accept anything from anyone, keep drinks close to you. Go in groups, do not wander off by yourself.

SMS every move you make.

PERSONAL TRACKER: In the absence of trackers such as GPS, have page permanently displaying TIME NOW IN BANGKOK as screen saver. Google every place mentioned by child, such as “backpackers hostel”, koh samui, th khao san, ferry to Koh samui. Click on images of the above and then more puffs of ventolin.

Place handphone, cheap international call cards nearby. Template added in handphone messages: Where are you? Where exactly are you?

On receiving reply via sms, call.

On hearing loud music and atmosphere of fun and laughter, take more puffs of the ventolin.

Saturday 2 August 2008

Courting stories

These last few days, sitting outside the courtroom waiting for the jury to deliver the verdict, chatting to police officers and interpreters transported me back to that café under the tree in Penang, just outside the courthouse. The temperature outside soared to a scorching 30, not unlike the temperature all year round on the island. Camera crews and photographers waiting outside the court building for the Jill Dando murder case, were wilting in the heat, but they couldn’t move until they got their pix of the day.

Watching the hustle bustle of men and women bewigged and in black robes carrying huge files and huger books for reference, I remembered similar activities along corridors of the impressive Penang courthouse. They were the likes of Karpal Singh, the late P Annamalai and their entourage, or Rajasingam and many more whose names escaped me now. I was young and naïve, wondering around the courthouse, looking for stories that would give me an impressive headline in the next day’s paper. I used to be in awe of hardcore journalists who wouldn’t be contented with just a life sentence.

“What? Only life, ah?” A death sentence would ensure a front page story and certainly a byline that’s a few katis in weight!

While waiting for verdicts, sentencing, or just whiling away our time for a more ‘interesting’ case, we’d sit and have chats with prosecutors, lawyers and police officers about all sorts of things. There was such a bond, and that was how we’d get tips about new cases; murder, drug traffickings, or small non headline grabbing cases like being caught redhanded watching blue films or stealing a bicycle. Once in a long while, we’d get sensational stories of illegal topless and scantily clad dancers who hid things where things shouldn’t be hidden. That would create quite a sensation, and would even solicit a smile and a chuckle from the usually stern magistrate.

The Penang courtrooms had witnessed a lot of stories of drugs in false bottom suitcases, or ridiculously high platform shoes hiding contraband goods. Even more ridiculous were the mitigation.

Lunch can be a long drawn out affair of nasi kandar at one of the restaurants dotting the streets of Penang, or at a more fanciful place with air condition depending on what time of the month it was. Or sometimes, none at all as we chased after lawyers, court clerks and police officers for documents to copy, especially after a verdict or a sentencing. Then a dash back to the office to bang on the old Remington which would then be typed out again by the teleprinter to the HQ in KL, while you stood in a queue; all depending on the urgency of the stories. How time has changed. Now, a quick call on the mobile, or sitting by the roadside with a laptop and a mobile internet connection, the story goes within a few minutes.

Court reporting was a training ground for all cub journalists. That was where we learned to listen attentively and take notes accurately. It used to be easy because in most cases, questions and answers were translated back, and very slowly too for the judge to note down everything.

But what I found difficult was to remove myself emotionally from the case. One that got me real bad was a case where both husband and wife were in the dock for drug trafficking and we all know that a guilty verdict would mean death. The wife was about to deliver – so there was a plea bargain. The husband would plead guilty and get life and the wife, was either given a lesser sentence or acquitted to look after the baby.

Another one was the Jelutong murder where the father massacred all his children as he thought life was not worth living when his wife flaunted her infidelities before his very eyes. Even the prosecution officer cried when he read out the son’s plea for the father not to kill him.

The last time I was at the Old Bailey, I heard an old Malay gentleman pleading his case. He stood there, a Quran in his hand and looked up at me at the public gallery and smiled in recognition at a familiar face. He spent 7 years inside and I visited him only twice. He wrote to me from Brixton and sent me visiting orders.

It is all very well to have hefty bylines but it is certainly a very draining experience - emotionally. Everyone is a victim of circumstances. Until today, I have forgotten, how emotionally draining it can be.