It was a terribly cold day yesterday, one that promised snow, but the snow never came. I was somewhere in Trafalgar Square and desperately needed to get to somewhere warm. And Waterstones by the corner of The Strand and Northumberland Avenue, offered a brief respite. I walked out a few pounds (sterling) lighter and my handbag a lot heavier with three books – one, The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks. This one book compounded my belief in the importance of the notebook.
Notebooks, no matter brief the scribbles, no matter trivial the contents or illegible the writings, offer glimpses of moments in your life, never to be thrown away or discarded for it will leave you forever. Reading it back will provoke a frown, solicit a chuckle but most likely it will open a floodgate of memories.
Over the years, I have been privileged to share glimpses of jottings in notebooks by people who never thought that one day his or her notebook would be a point of reference.
The late Datin Peggy Taylor with her chest full of history
When Datin Peggy Taylor left, she left a suitcase of history, among them notebooks in various sizes and colours, with anecdotes of her life in Malaya, her friendships with famous names, and jottings of historic moments that we can’t find in history books today. It was in the midst of helping her to type out these jottings from her notebooks that Peggy left us last March and now her voice from the past is coming back to me. It wasn’t easy transcribing Peggy’s writing; but it transported me to her past in India, the voyage on the ship to Malaya, the fun theme parties in her house and the way Tunku did the ronggeng. Afterthoughts were written in slants by the side of the page and towards her last few months, she took to leaving blank pages opposite her jottings, to fill in what she had forgotten. At times, she’d phone me up in the mornings to add in what suddenly came to her during her restless nights.
Almost two years ago, the weather just as bad, I said goodbye to another friend. I had known of his heart condition for some time since I acquired his friendship. When he went, no one knew about the notebook that he left behind. He told me about it because he wanted me to read and see if his jottings would help someone else in his condition. I told his sister about this notebook and she found it among his things that she packed to take home. It was jottings about how he felt during those early days when he was undergoing a heart transplant; his fears and apprehensions, his sorrows all neatly written down while he was in and out of hospital.
During this week alone, I had a chance to glimpse into two people’s pasts – again all written down in notebooks.
Glimpses into our past
During these few months, I have occupied myself with one story, which has now made headlines in the media. It all started with a brother of a plane crash victim who wanted to know more about the incident that happened 58 years ago. It was his initiative that led to the discovery of the plane which crashed in the jungles of Malaya on 25th August 1950. It was during our second meeting with the brother that I discovered, among the things that were sent back in a box to the parents, was a notebook. It was a blank notebook but it is now being filled in with the journey of the discovery of the plane, by his surviving brother. That will make one fine reading one day.
Yesterday, I saw one notebook with Malay pantuns, penned during the writer’s time as Prisoner of War in Changi. Admittedly, the pantuns and other verses were scribbled in pieces of papers but they were neatly transferred into this notebook, which has been kept since the end of the second world war. It must have been the pantuns and other verses that kept the writer sane during what must have been a torturous and horrendous time in prison. It never ceased to amaze me the almost flawless old Malay that the young MCS officer wrote in his notebook. I had a difficult time trying to explain one naughty verse about heaving bosoms, to his son.
That notebook from a prisoner of war brought me back to the story that I heard at a conference some years back from a scholar who showed me scribblings and jottings from one of the few Malay POW who worked on the Death Railway in Burma. Apparently, the writer scribbled on pieces of papers and hid them in pots and in the ground whenever a Japanese soldier marched by. These jottings were then transferred into notebooks once he made his escape. It was quite a riveting read.
I will continue to carry my notebook around. If anything, it will tell people how much lambchops I bought from our local butcher and what Kissinger and Tabby were up to during the day.
Kak Teh's other notetakings:
History in a suitcase
A painting incomplete
Goodbye, My dear Peggy
A weekend of sorts