Sunday 31 May 2009

A Walkabout in Paris

Paris is not a place to walk around in a pair of tattered old shoes with no brandname. But around Paris I did, acutely aware that the heels which started giving problems in Amsterdam were going to make a hasty departure in Paris. But the heels clung on to dear life throughout my trip. In fact, it survived the vineyards of Bouzy and made it with aplomb at poco-poco in Paris.

Inching along Champs-Élysées, a five minute walk from our cosy little hotel, in search of a decent bite, brandnames upon brandnames jumped up at me. It is not a place to be if you can’t pronounce, never mind afford the LVs, the Chanels or Christian Dior , Christian Lacroix, Yves Saint Laurent, and Van Cleef & Arpels, to name but a few.

It was an unusually warm afternoon in Paris and in fact the whole of Europe was bathed in sunshine, so out came my sunglasses; a five-dollar fake something from a marketplace in Siem Reap. Through the tinted glasses, I could see that almost everyone was carrying an LV, the way people carry the Primark carrier bags here. I was again acutely aware of the bag with no name, clinging faithfully on my shoulder.

The Parisians, I must say, have style. They are chic from top to bottom.

We made our way to Notre Dame near the Latin Quarter and the famous Shakespeare’s Bookshop. It has always been my favourite eating place but we dilly-dallied, taking in the promise of sales from the shop windows, mentally working out Euros in pound sterling until the sun disappeared from the horizon and rendered the Arc de Triomphe even more majestic at night.

Notre Dame is magically transformed at dusk; the lighting does wonders to the Parisian sky, reflected in the Seine as cruise boats ply the tourists to take in the sights of the French capital. Lovers at street corners, on benches and along the bridge swayed and cuddled to the beat of African drums from the sidewalk.

From the 388 eateries offering kebabs to sushis and seafood galore, we found a halal Moroccan with couscous and chicken tagine. The place was indeed a tourist attraction, and if there was anything to learn about tourist attractions, this is the place to see and learn. There is no use opening up big restaurants where there’s no character and no soul.

That night, almost midnight, we decided to walk back until our legs could no longer carry us. But before we gave in to hailing a taxi, we took in Paris by night, stopping to admire the bridges and the Baroque architecture. Cutting across the park, with its numerous statues, we were mesmerised by Eiffel Tower in the distance, which started shimmering against the summer sky. It was quite a sight that halted the treks of most walkers; whipping out their cameras to capture the moment. Alas, for amateur photographer like me, Eiffel Tower emerged a big white blob. Apparently the Eiffel Tower light show lasts for ten minutes every hour and we caught it just before midnight.

Here's one I got online:

The Eiffel Tower Light Show

Suffice to say, this trip took me to several places I had never been before such as the magnificient Chateau de Versailles or The Palace of Versailles to see its beautiful gardens. There were miles and miles of queues from every direction. And then there was Jardin du Luxembourg, a garden populated with statues and a large lake for sailing model boats. Apparently these model boats are not remotely controlled and are modelled on the original boats that sailed with the power of the wind.

Crouching Tiger Actress + Famous Shoe Designer = Malaysis's Got Talents

As if to put a perfect end to a very interesting trip, the bonus on the last day was a meeting with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon actress, Michelle Yeoh. The jet setting actress had just returned from the Cannes Festival, before setting off again to Hong Kong, or was it China and then back to Malaysia for a documentary. And not a bag under those famous eyes.

A Charlie's Angels Remake? In front of Versaille
Note to self: Time I get meself a new pair of shoes and perhaps a more effective eye gel.

Kak Teh's other adventures in Paris:
To Paris with a Mission

Thursday 28 May 2009

She stops to smell the flowers

Hi all, this is an article that appeared in my column today.

The quiet Sunday afternoon in the French town of Bouzy, with its undulating hills and miles and miles of vineyards, was suddenly broken by the upbeat sound of Malay joget. Behind the closed gates, guests; French and Malaysians alike, were up on their feet doing the steps. The hostess, a pleasant French woman with her newly acquired Malaysian batik scarf around her waist, was already learning the routine, never before seen in this part of the world.

That she was already doing the steps, just minutes after serving freshly made strawberry tart to her Malaysian guests, was testimonial to the fact that she had had a good teacher. Taking her by the hand was Malaysia’s very own Tourism Minister, Dato Sri Dr Ng Yen Yen who does not believe in wasting any time when she said she wanted to bring Malaysia to the people of France. In fact, she said she wanted to bring Malaysia to the small towns of France, Holland and Britain. Bouzy, famous for its champagne, was a good start.

Dr Ng was on her last leg of promoting Malaysia across cities in the continent and Britain; twelve gruelling programme packed days that saw her reaching out to the local tour operators, singing Rasa Sayang during a boat ride along the canal of Amsterdam, luring the British to retire in luxury in exotic Malaysia and extolling the beauty of eco tourism to the French.

I work hard and I play hard, she admits, working people around her to a frenzy and at the same time, rewarding them with her gracious smile and compliments at the end of a trying day.

Being on the road with her, not once seeing her succumb to lethargy that we lesser beings are subjected to, reminded me of trips with Tun M when he was Prime Minister. At the end of a long exhausting official trip to Hungary, he turned to face the press pack which was beginning to look like the war injured, and asked: Aren’t you all tired?

Only a small lone voice at the end of the room managed to give a meek answer: If the prime minister is not tired, we can’t afford to be tired.

On the last night of her official stay in Paris, Dr Ng hosted a dinner to thank those who made her visit a success. Looking chic in a shimmering short, white jacket that would make any French couture leap out and exclaim Oooh la la, and not a strand of hair out of place, the 63 year old minister had all of us gasp in amazement. Sporting bags under my eyes and wilting under the unusually hot French sun, I couldn’t help but envy her boundless energy and relentless enthusiasm – be it at work or play.

Like Tun M, Dr Ng is a medical doctor and they both know how to look after themselves and without fail look fresh whatever the circumstances. And whatever it is that they have in their supplement box, is certainly missing from the supply of supplements that my other half usually wrap carefully in foils for my journey.

“A breath of fresh air” was the murmur around the room when she finished her off the cuff presentation on Malaysia, “unpredictable and unconventional” were the whispers when she interrupted traditional dance performance to explain further the finer points of the Malaysian songket but all in all, almost everyone was smitten by Malaysia’s new Tourism Minister.

The crowd of tour operators in the opulent surrounding of Hyatt Regency Churchill conference room fell silent as she strode in cutting an impressive and fine figure in her modern yellow silk batik kebaya; the same one that she wore in Amsterdam. That she would appear in the same kebaya didn’t faze her one bit because that was simply not important; a trivial matter for someone who was more concerned about what she was going to deliver and not what she was going to deliver it in.

Throughout the trip, it was evident that Dr Ng was at her elements when surrounded by flowers and plants in the gardens of Kuekenhof, the Chelsea Flower Show and Kew Gardens. It is her vision to make the gardens of Malaysia a tourism product.

“My husband said that I am like a child in a toy shop,” she said as we walked out of the tulip gardens that brought in 800,000 visitors from all over the world. Dr Chin Chee Sue, the unassuming albeit significant other half of the minister was always by her side; helping to carry her bag, taking her pictures and smoothing the crease of her jacket when the need arose. The strides she took are long and fast as she walked among the beautiful geraniums and lilies and tulips. And just when we thought we couldn’t catch up with her, she stopped to smell the flowers.

Tuesday 19 May 2009

Tuesday 12 May 2009

Langkah Kanan Moments

I am sure there’s a lot of wisdom and truth in the practise of doing everything with the right limbs. From pointing to eating and writing, we use our right hands. I remember the slap on the wrist, or a pinch on the thigh, albeit discreetly, each time as a child I handed over something using my left hand.

Walking out of the house and starting out on a journey, the same theory applies. We walk out with the right leg first and say some prayers to accompany us on our journey, even if it is to Mr Patel’s down the road.

Karim Raslan in conversation with Tash Aw

Last Thursday, we sauntered out into the warm summer night, after a fulfilling evening with Tash Aw at the launch of his book “Map of the Invisible World”. He was in conversation with the ever so charming Karim Raslan. Our appetite was much whetted up by the discussion and we were ready for a meal.

There was Sharon Bakar, back in London for a holiday and some work, her li'l sister Therese and another blogger friend Fiona. We chatted so much that we must have forgotten which leg got out of the Asia House building first.

Ruth Rollit, Sharon and Therese

But out we went anyway, walking along New Cavendish Street, off Oxford Street, long after office workers and late night shoppers had gone home. We wanted a bite and extra time to catch up. Sharon has become so Malaysian after more than 25 years there that food is also permanently on her mind, even after the scrumptious currypuffs and springrolls on offer during the book signing.

Anyway, like I said, off we went, left and right or was it right and left. The conversation then centred on where to eat. Therese said she saw a Malaysian restaurant along the street, down the road. I heard the mention of the name Selera and I was delighted as I knew of its impending opening. So, off we went, giggling like schoolgirls being allowed out in the evening.

When we got there, the lights in the restaurant were already dimmed. Sharon and Therese knocked and a gentleman, doing some work near the counter turned around and mouthed the message “Opening on Monday”. We were disheartened. But I decided to try my luck and knocked and waved like a crazy woman for Encik Hafiz, for that was the person near the counter, to notice me. And voila, he did and he broke into a smile and beckoned all of us in.

Selera, he said would be opened on Monday – (last Monday) but come in anyway. He ordered some fried noodles and fried chicken wings. Imagine, we were there for the soft launch! And talk about langkah kanan!

Fiona, Encik Hafiz and Sharon Bakar

We got talking about this and that, Sharon’s husband being Malaysian and Hafiz’s wife being British, meant that there was some common grounds to cover, apart from food . When the wings were all demolished and the remainder of the noodles packed to be taken away, Hafiz casually asked Sharon where she lives in Malaysia. She mentioned a place, Hafiz exclaimed a name and Sharon gave a scream and went red! Talk about six degrees of separation! Langkah kanan brought them to the one person both had known all their lives. Sharon’s husband was Hafiz’s friend since Primary Two and ex MCKK to boot!

So more giggles on the way out until we said goodbye to Sharon and Therese going back to Harrow. Fiona and I made treks to Bond Street station talking about this and that. She asked that one question, “Where do you live?” I mentioned a place and she said, “Well, I stayed there when I first arrived,” and went on to describe the place.

More screams and shouts of disbelief! Fiona actually stayed in a house whose garden is back to back with mine! Langkah kanan? Yes, I think we all sauntered out of Asia House that evening with our best right leg first.

Any langkah kanan moments to share with me?


Address: 19 New Cavendish Street.
Nearest Tube station is Oxford Circus/Bond Street.

Sunday 10 May 2009

Selamat Hari Ibu, Mak!

Mak opened the cupboard to take her selendang and from where I stood, I was rendered breathless by the wonderful scent of jasmine flowers that Mak picked from Tok’s garden to scatter amongst her clothes. And from the layers of neatly folded kebayas and baju Kedah, she took a pinkish, round container which held all her precious possessions. She picked one item and put it in a handkerchief and wrapped it carefully and placed it in her handbag.

“Mak nak pi mana?” I asked, afraid to be left behind.

“Pi ginjat,” said Mak with a knowing smile.

Mak’s ginjat activities were quite well known amongst us siblings. She usually did it some time in the middle of the month, when Hari Raya was near or when there were kenduris to attend. It was not something to be embarrassed about anymore. It was almost a necessity.

Even in the high heels that she bought from Lorong Sempit on the way to Pekan Rabu, Mak was still pint sized. So, she still needed to ginjat to hand over her precious belongings; a diamond ring, the long gold necklace or perhaps the strands of bracelets, through the iron bars, in exchange for some cash much needed, perhaps to pay for our school fees or to buy our school uniforms.

In exchange, she was given a piece of paper with lots of Chinese characters, which told her to return at a certain date, with certain rates of interest that she had to pay. That slip of paper she folded neatly and put in her handbag again.

We never questioned why Mak had to do what she did. We always had food on the table and nice clothes to wear. But sometimes, just sometimes, we’d be short of money and Mak had to make that trip to town. Pak’s pay as a clerk at the land office wasn’t much, and later his pension saw to it that we had just about enough of everything. Pak was never one to save. He’d treat us to anything that we wanted, and then when there’s nothing left, we’d have to wait until his next pay. So, in the meanwhile, Mak had to ginjat.

Other then that Mak made kuehs. Early in the mornings, Mamak Ghani would knock on the door to collect the kuehs and placed them in his baskets before making his rounds in the neighbourhood. One morning, I remember, Mak was still in her telekung, giving her salam when Ghani came. She grabbed the trays of kuehs and made for the door, the kitchen lights shining behind her. She must have looked quite a sight in her telekung at that hour of the morning for Ghani left his baskets and ran off for dear life. We had a good laugh when Mak told us what happened and Ghani never heard the end of the story after that and I bet he repeated the story to his family when he finally left for India.

Where Mak got her strength from, no one knows. After making the kuehs, she’d turn her attention to the bales of cloths at the sewing machine. She was the local seamstress, just like Tok, and both mother and daughter were known for their fine stitchings and even finer tulang belud. The income from making baju kurung would increase during raya time and these were spent on new curtains and perhaps her new set of crockeries. She’d buy us raya clothes with money Pak gave but most of the time our clothes were never quite finished as she was always busy finishing other people’s clothes.

Mak did try a hand at selling clothes and kain batiks that she bought at Pekan Rabu, but business acumen was somewhat lacking in our family. Tok, who during her younger days did just that, didn’t quite like it when Mak went selling kain batik. Once I heard her say to Mak, “Amboih, pi dengan matahari balik dengan bulan,” and Mak didn’t like that but Mak wasn’t the sort of daughter to reply back. She just bit her tongue and kept quiet. Even when Tok was fussy and very frail and couldn’t move, suffering from bedsores, Mak was very patient with Tok. She was her only child. When Tok scratched off clumps of flesh from her back, Mak was forced to take desperate measures.

“Yun minta ampun minta maaf, Mak,” she’d say every night as she tied Tok’s hands before she went to sleep. Tok would look at her with pleading eyes, like a child. But Mak had to be cruel to be kind. To not tie Tok’s hands, there’d be clumps of flesh on the mattress in the morning, with fresh sores where Tok had scratched herself.

Mak was never tired of looking after Tok, her Mak. When Tok got too cranky, Mak went for walks to Pekan Rabu, or Lorong Sempit. Or if it got worse, she went to Kuala Lumpur to stay with Kak to release her tension. But she never spoke back in anger to Tok. When she came back, she came back a better daughter.

As a mother and as a daughter, Mak sacrificed a lot. This one day of Mother’s Day is not enough for all that she had done, for all that she had given. Nevertheless, Selamat Hari Ibu, Mak. Your children will make sure you will never have to ginjat ever again!!

Happy Mother's Day to all Mothers for their undivided love and sacrifices.

Monday 4 May 2009

A Blast on a Birthday

It was supposed to be a quiet birthday celebration together, just the two of us. A whole day enjoying the spring Monday Bank Holiday of 1980; the first time I celebrated the birthday of my husband of a few months. It was a beautiful day but we chose to remain indoors, perhaps a quiet dinner later at Khans of Bayswater or El Efez, our two favourite haunts.

In spite of the hustle bustle outside the window; the whole world walking in droves towards the park, we refused to budge and sat lazily on the sofa watching what must have been a John Wayne movie. And then, it happened. First the programme was interrupted to show developments on the events that had the world glued to the TV for the past few days. It was to be the latest on the siege of the Iranian embassy in Princes Gate, across the park from where we were.

On 30th April 1980, a six-man team of the Democratic Revolutionary Movement for the Liberation of Arabistan (DRMLA), took over the embassy, taking 26 hostages; staff and people who had gone there to get visas to travel. They killed a hostage and threw the body outside the building,

This was my first taste of terrorism, bomb blasts and security alerts; with more to come.

On the screen, several men (SAS) were seen on the balcony of the building and before too long, we heard what seemed like a distant thunder; both on screen and from outside the window. It was real drama unfolding almost at our doorsteps. It was scary. We looked outside the window and people stopped in their tracks and were looking at the black smoke billowing from across the park. Within a few minutes, five gunmen were killed and 19 hostages were saved.

Yes, I still remember the evening of 5th May 1980. London, or rather the UK has always been a playing field, fertile grounds for foreign terrorist groups or freedom fighters, depending on how you see it.
Tomorrow, 29 years on, we are hoping for a quiet celebration, with four children and five cats.

Happy Birthday AG and thank you.

I feel a syaer coming but that will have to wait.

The one I prepared earlier:
Syaer untuk Sang Suami

Friday 1 May 2009

Memories of an Absent Daughter

Once in a while I am asked to write something which I find most difficult to do. Recently I was requested by Her World to write a piece for Mother's Day.
Here I reproduce the whole article.

Memories of an Absent Daughter
By Zaharah Othman

Mak’s latest picture on Flikr did a lot to put my mind at peace. She is a picture of contentment as she watches the antics of her children and grandchildren at one of the many and frequent family gatherings. I found myself clicking on it many times to see her smile as it helps to take away a little of the guilt gnawing away at my conscience.
Pix by Nadya Shahabuddin.

It is the look that I want to frame forever and keep in the deep recesses of my mind. It is the look that helps erase the sad picture of confusion and helplessness as she searches for her glasses, handbag and her false teeth that she frequently misplaces. Old age has rendered this once formidable woman helpless and frustrated and more often than not confused. We have yet to hear any of us utter the dreaded word Alzheimer’s to explain her predicament.

Similarly, tucked away in my mental album are recordings of our Skype sessions together. She sits in the front room of my sister’s house in Bangi, while I sit in my lounge in London; both of us connected and communicating, courtesy of modern day technology. Once in a while she reaches out to touch the screen, caressing my face;
“Anak Mak,” she’d lament again and again as it dawns on her the distance that separates us.

Other than that I have numerous collections of MiniDVs clearly labelled, “With Mak during raya”, “Mak in 2001/2002”, and many more. In most, Mak is her busy, healthy self in the kitchen doing what she loves doing best: cooking for the family. We sit around the big table in the house that Pak built for her, while she fusses about, cooking every dish that we mentioned. A mother’s pride is being able to serve what her children crave for.

“I found some fresh crabs at the market today,” she’d say after sneaking out in the wee hours of the morning after subuh before the crowd descends upon Alor Setar’s wet market. Thus, there’d be sambal tumis ketam for me, banana spadix for abang, fresh fish on the grill for the rest of the family. She knows each of our favourites and would refrain from eating or cooking them if one of us is away.

Technology has made separation and distance a lot easier but it does not necessarily ease the pangs nor erase the guilt of being away. Mak had made it very easy for the absent child to feel less guilty. At the airport 29 years ago, she waved me goodbye as I clung on to her and hugged her for what was to be only a three-year separation.

“You are now someone’s wife and you have to go with him,” she said bravely, pushing me gently towards my husband waiting at the departure lounge. When three years looked set to stretch to thirty years, she never once said, “Come back.” Last year, too weak to see me off at the airport, she said, “Go. You don’t want to miss the plane. The children are waiting in London.” She still has the knack of making things easy, without making you feel guilty. No emotional blackmail that we lesser mortals tend to employ in times of desperation and selfishness.

Communication via Skype is the only way we could talk to each other; her grandchildren fit her with a set of earphone and microphone, without which she couldn’t hear. Normal phone conversations are almost always painfully frustrating. Her impaired hearing means that she answers questions I never asked and repeated questions I had answered several times before.

This experience always leaves me punishing myself with a list of unanswered questions: when Mak could still hear, did I tell her enough that I love her, have I asked her for her forgiveness and blessings? When Mak could still see clearly, did I show my appreciation of her dedication and undivided love to her children, when she could walk, did I accompany her enough to places she wanted to go?

A punishing routine like this need not necessarily absolve or lessen the guilt of a frequently absent daughter. The punishing ritual usually finds its way into an online journal expressed in a form, which I could never verbalised. Ever.

The few precious moments I had with Mak during my trips home have left some mental pictures that will forever be there. There was the time I rushed to her bedside in the hospital after being told that she has the big C. Being away for too long, I was scared that emotionally I couldn’t cope being with her alone. My sisters had left me to change her diapers, an experience that left both of us in tears and laughter. I had put it the wrong way round and after three wasted diapers, I called for the nurse to help.

Mothering Mak is a painful yet humbling experience. It is painful not because I didn’t want to do it, but because I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that this once strong person, who had changed my diapers without as much as a moan, is now a child herself. Once, walking her to the bathroom, she nearly collapsed. Her sarung fell unceremoniously to the floor, leaving her naked and vulnerable. On her face, etched a painful look; one that said, you shouldn’t see me like this. And once, when I was supposed to care for her as she slept, she rolled off the bed and I found her clutching her head. I held her in my lap and consoled her the way she must have done to ease the pain every time I hurt myself as a child.

In happier times, she’d regale us with stories of her journeys to Mecca; recalling the experience on the Bunga Raya as she sailed the rough seas. Cleary etched on her mind as if it happened yesterday, was the busy Port of Aden, where she recalled vendors in small boats approaching their ship with their goods.

“They’d hoist a basket at the end of a long pole to show you what they have on offer and if you wanted to buy, you just put your money in the basket”, she told me as I was preparing to leave for my own flight to Mecca. She remembers the smell of salted fish that she and her cabinmates fried to eat with piping hot rice, and the sight of bodies being lowered into the sea as pilgrims died during the voyage before reaching their destination.

All these that happened forty years ago, are clearly etched in her mind. Not forgotten was also the fact that I cried on my first day at school.

That Mak’s memories can be selective is undeniable. Sitting at the dinner table with her one afternoon, she fretted about going home to the house that Pak built for her in Alor Setar. A subject she brings up on a daily basis.

“I am not well,” she had said. “I want to go home.”

“If you are not well, why go home as there’s no one to look after you there,” I reminded her.

“You can look after me,” she said looking straight into my eyes.

“I have some work to finish here,” I pleaded.

“When you were small and not well, I looked after you,” she countered my plea, hitting me where it really hurt. That was the only time she tried this emotional blackmail.

I had no answer to that and when none of us had answers for her frequent requests to go home to the house that Pak built for her, we resort to lying, an art that had been perfected over the years. Exploiting her failing memory, we had to tell her that she had just returned from the place where she thinks her chickens and duck run free in the compound which once had colourful bougainvilleas and orchids of different species. She wants to be there when passers-by stop and admire her flowers.

Although trips back to the old house have been frequent, she is now too frail to make the journey. A drive back, even with many stops, would tire her. Even the short flight back would take its toll on her health.

So, a small garden with plants from her precious plot is recreated in each of her offsprings house in Bangi and Kajang to make her feel at home. She’d be satisfied for a while and then she’d ask again, taking out her old bag to pack and repack her clothes.

All these reports are relayed to me eight thousand miles away via sms, skype and chats and these would nag at my conscience until I buy that flight ticket back. And until that happens, I pray that if Mak’s failing memory made her forget everything else, she would still remember her daughter who used to cling on to her kebaya sleeves, the one she waited for patiently after school on the old iron swing outside the house that Pak built, and the one she sang syaers and pantuns to when she was small. For all the distance that divides us, Mak is forever in my mind.