Saturday, March 20, 2004

The Twenty-Year Journey

The Twenty-Year Journey

I'm back in my hometown; and what an interesting time I had rummaging through my old book collection. I managed to find my copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. Flipping through its pages I saw the date of its purchase, scrawled in black ink on the title page: sixth of December, 1984--almost twenty years ago.

This strange semi-autobiographical work is difficult to classify; it was a favourite of the hippie generation when it was first published in the early seventies and remains, arguably one of the most influential books of our time. (It's even available online.) Using a motorcycle trip across America with his son as the narrative framework, the author takes you on an intellectual discourse about philosophy, science, technology and morals as he muses about his past, one that was haunted by intellectual doubt and insanity.

The novel begins with a tantalising note from the author:
What follows is based on actual occurences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact. However, it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It's not very factual on motorcycles, either.
It is difficult for me to even attempt to review the book. I actually stumbled on this book by chance as a teenager. I was intrigued by its title which seemed to suggest an attempt to synthesize eastern mysticism with modern technology.

At that time, I had just finished reading another book by a physicist (Fritjof Capra) called The Tao of Physics which outlined the parallels between modern quantum mechanics and philosophies of eastern mysticism. As a schoolboy who was in love with science, I read it with breathless attention.

It is quite interesting to analyze how one's intellectual development evolves: My interest started from science; then The Tao of Physics introduced me to Zen Buddhism, Hindusm and Taoism. That stirred my curiosity in these eastern religions, which was what led me to this book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

And then Zen got me interested in western philosophy because there's a lot of discussion about Aristotle and Plato in the book. And after that I started devouring books on philosophy--read my earlier blog entry, Philosophy and the Adventure of Thinking.

Reading is an enjoyable thing to do. But to me it is more than that: it is a spiritual quest for Truth, a journey of self-discovery--one that is still very much on-going. Truth might never be found for it might not even be there in first place. Ultimately, what's important is the spirit of enquiry.

As a teenage schoolboy, I started a motorcycle journey with the protaganist of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Twenty years later, I'm still on the road.

Friday, March 19, 2004

The Magical Guitars of Los Indios Tabajaras

The Magical Guitars of Los Indios Tabajaras

I received the most unexpected e-mail the other day from a stranger--a Frenchman--who wrote to thank me for introducing him to a guitar group called the Los Indios Tabajaras. He expressed surprise that I knew about them.

The Los Indios Tabajaras is an instrumental group that comprises of two Indians--who appear in performances in their trademark native Indian costumes--from the tribe of Tabajaras in Brazil. They gained some measure of fame in the sixties for their simple but skillful guitar tunes.

The tone of the e-mail and its subject line, which mentions the movie, Days of Being Wild, made me rule out the mail as spam or a missent mail. I am indeed acquainted with the Los Indios Tabajaras and Days of Being Wild happens to be one of my favourite movies. My first thought was that the sender must have read about it from my blog. But for the life of me, I don't recall mentioning the Los Indios Tabajaras anywhere!

I ran it through my search engine, and true--there were no references to the group. I have mentioned Days of Being Wild and Wong Kar Wai (the director of the movie) a couple of times before in my blog but never the Los Indios Tabajaras.

I replied him and asked him how he got my contact; he sent me a link to a Wong Kar Wai website, where I had made a very casual comment in a forum (two years ago!) answering another reader's question about the soundtrack for Wong Kar Wai's much-acclaimed movie, Days of Being Wild.

Ever since I watched Days of Being Wild ten years ago, I've been haunted by this movie. It disturbed me so much then that I remember watching it three times in a row at the old PJ Majestic Cinema, in three consecutive days. One of the soundtrack tunes--plain guitar strains set against a slow acoustic rhythm--sounded strangely familiar to me when I first heard it. It felt like an echo from my childhood, but I couldn't recall where I've heard it before.

Those were the days before the Internet; so after scouring the record stores for sometime, I finally figured out which group was responsible for the music--The Los Indios Tabajaras. One can still find digitally remastered CDs of their vinyl records in the stores today. When I saw the cover of their album, bells immediate rang in my mind--I had indeed seen and heard their album before as a small kid. My neighbour--a doctor--had it in his vinyl collection.

The song that haunted me (and the Frenchman) was Always in My Heart, a languid instrumental piece that occured probably four times in the movie. The first time it appeared, during the title sequence--a slow panning shot of green tropical jungles from a passing train--was like magic. It set the tone and mood of the movie, one that explores Wong Kar Wai's favourite themes: loss, identity, memory and time.

The movie, starring the late Leslie Cheung (who won a best actor award for his role), remains my favourite among all of Wong Kar Wai's movies. Wong, who was voted best director at the Cannes film festival a couple of years back for his movie about gay love, Happy Together, has wowed audiences worldwide with his arty and meditative (some say dull) movies. All his movies are done together with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who possess a unique eye for angle and lighting and makes every frame--even the most mundane scenes--look special, like something out of a timeless painting.

Judging from the many websites out there on the Internet, looks like Wong Kar Wai has touched people from many different nationalities with his movies. His movies have the power to seep deep into one's emotional psyche; and after watching them, they forever lodge in one's soul.

It is strange how powerful a simple guitar melody, fused with the right images could be. That e-mail from the Frenchman brought back disquieting memories to me: of those long hot afternoons I'd guiltily spent at the PJ Majestic cinema, utterly transfixed and lost in another world.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

The Mind of the Gambler

The Mind of the Gambler

It is interesting that the Singaporean government is seriously considering opening a casino on Sentosa island. I know quite a number of Singaporeans who are extremely fond of gambling. Some routinely drive all the way up to Genting to indulge in their passion.

I consider it a great blessing to be completely disinterested in gambling. It can be very addictive; and I possess an in-built early warning system for anything that is even remotely addictive. It is one "pleasure" which I am happy to be completely ignorant about.

Gamblers always lose because they are greedy and blindly optimistic: if they win, they think they can win even more; if they lose, they think they will win everything back the next round. People who bet on the stock market suffer from the same weakness too.

For non-gamblers it is difficult to understand the lure and attraction of gambling. I once asked one of my Singaporean friends (who told me that gambling is better than sex), why is he so fond of gambling when he very well knows that he will end up losing?

Without as much of a hesitation my friend told me that gambling is not about winning money, it is about buying excitement. He knows very well that he will lose money at the casino, but he is merely paying for the thrill like how other people pay to experience the excitement of bungee-jumping or sky-diving. If these "dangerous" sports can be considered healthy activities, why not gambling?

To a gambler, if he loses, it is alright, for he is merely paying the price of the excitement. If he wins, he gets both the excitement and the money. So a gambler can't lose, can he?

There seem to be some perverse logic to it. I've since learnt not to argue with a gambler--you can never win.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

The Virtues of Simplicity

The Virtues of Simplicity.

Edward De Bono, in his book argues that Simplicity, like Quality is a value that every organization should strive for. There should be a "Simplicity Department" to ensure that things--be it products, procedures or processes--are not unduly complicated.

Simplicity is a virtue. The best inventions are often the simplest ones. In art, the work of a master often has an underlying simplicity. In mathematics, the most elegant solution to a problem is the simplest one.

I also admire people who are simple in their taste and conduct. It does not mean these people are unsophisticated or "simplistic" in their thinking; they are merely confident in themselves and do not see the need to be loud and flashy just to show their importance to others.

A simple person should not be equated with someone who lacks the desire to do well in life. There are people who shun the rat race just because they are afraid to compete on equal terms with other people. These are people who are afraid to face up to their own weaknesses. A simple person is not a loser; he does not lack in ambition. He merely works quietly and diligently, and enjoys the fruits of his labour moderately.

A simple person would consciously choose to under-reward himself because in allowing himself a little less pride and pleasure than what he is entitled to, he disciplines his ego and keeps it in check. He is grateful for the blessings he receives and shares his success with others. Nor does he bear any grudges against people who choose to indulge themselves extravagantly; for the joy of others is his joy too.

A simple person is a happy person, because he is at peace with himself and with the world. That in the end, is the greatest reward of being a simple person.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

The Happiness of Cipanas

The Happiness of Cipanas

I'm happy to be back in KL for the elections this time. I have to go back to my hometown in Pahang to vote and I kind of relish the opportunity to see my childhood home again. Even though it is located very near to KL, somehow for the last couple of years, I rarely found the time nor the inclination to make a trip there.

Whenever friends in Indonesia ask me what my hometown is like, I tell them it is a bit like Cipanas--a small spa town located about two hours drive away from Jakarta. Anyone taking a road journey to Bandung will definitely pass through Cipanas. The name "Cipanas" stems from the Sundanese word "Ci" or "Cai" meaning water. The name Cipanas probably came about because of the presence of hotsprings there.

Like Cipanas, there are also some hotsprings near my hometown. It is also nestled in the middle of lush tropical mountains. The road that goes to Bandung always reminds me of the old winding road connecting KL to my hometown before the KL-Karak highway was built. As a child, a trip to KL was a journey I dreaded, for the tortorously winding road made me very sick everytime.

Everytime I pass through the town of Cipanas, I would recall my hometown and the simple small-town life that I used to lead as a child. Growing up in a small town or kampung makes you feel a deep affinity with the land; you develop a certain kinship with the trees, the rivers and the mountains that surround you; and later in your life, no matter where you go, you continue to carry that rustic spirit in a special place deep inside you. It becomes a wellspring of inspiration and strength, a place where you constantly tap for spiritual nourishment.

That is why whenever I take a trip to Bandung, I would feel a certain peace of mind. It is like homegoing to me--leaving behind the ugliness and cruelty of the city to enter a place of unspoilt innocence. And when I see Cipanas along the way, I imagine a small child living there who cycles everyday to school and plays ducks and drakes by the riverbanks.

This weekend, when I go back to my hometown, I'll probably think of Cipanas and Bandung, and I'll think of all the good friends and good people I met along the way and all that sweet happiness I left behind in Indonesia.

Kota Lights

Kota Lights

I've seen how for the past two years, Chinatown in Jakarta has grown to be a busy and bustling place again. It makes me feel elated to see new restaurants and entertainment centres sprouting up everywhere. Kota--as what the locals call the Chinatown area--has come a long way since those dark days of the riots in 1998.

During that time I was based in Singapore, travelling in and out of Jakarta every other week. I was there in Jakarta the week before the riots and was about to book my flight to go again the following week when my Indonesians friends called me to tell me that all businesses were closed as riots had broken out.

The weeks and months leading to the riots of May 1998 were frantic ones. I saw how the rupiah tumbled from the region of 2,500 rupiah to 17,000 rupiah to the US dollar. No serious business could be conducted during that time as the rupiah was plunging without control. Price quotations done in the morning had to be revised in the afternoon. And then the IMF measures brought things sliding further downhill. The atmosphere was a tinderbox waiting to ignite.

Two weeks after the riots, I managed to sneak into Jakarta again on the pretext of a business trip. My friend Setiawan took me on a tour of what remained of Kota. It was a sad sight: Pasar Glodok was burnt, McDonalds at Jalan Gajah Mada was smashed and looted, there were broken windows and burnt out buildings everywhere. One could hardly see a soul in the streets.

And of course, there were those horrifying stories of atrocities which circulated widely over the Internet. Friends told me how they had to arm themselves and take turns to patrol their neighbourhoods. It was a sad chapter in Indonesia's history. Hopefully the lessons of the past have been thoroughly learnt.

Before I left Jakarta in January, I made it a point to catch a last glimpse of Kota: The neon lights were flashing gaudily in the smog-filled night, discotheques were choked with Ecstacy-intoxicated youths, Chinese businessmen were happily carousing at the bars, massage parlours were operating furiously like meat-processing plants and lipsticked hookers roamed its numerous alleyways.

That was the Jakarta I knew before the riots and for a moment it felt like the good ol' days again.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Missing Subject

Missing Subject

I missed the last elections in 1999 because I happened to be in US on a business trip. But I followed events here very closely through the Net. It was an exciting election. And it was the only occasion that I had failed to vote ever since I was elligible to so do. Looks like this time round, I'll be in town and will definitely be able to exercise my voting rights.

I follow Malaysian politics very closely but I never blog about the subject. This is a conscious decision of mine because there are already enough blogs in cyberspace that dwell on the subject. Some do a better job than others. I don't think I have anything original to add to the views that are already out there.

A Thai friend of mine who visited Penang over the weekend commented that Malaysians are very fond of talking about politics. But I'm not sure if this is something peculiar to Malaysians alone; Indonesian taxi drivers I've met often lament about KKN (corruption, collusion and nepotism) in their country and the Singaporean ones like to rant on and on about the high cost of living in theirs (PAP = "Pay and Pay").

Conversations about politics can be very tiresome sometimes because people are often very one-sided in their views. When it comes to politics, everyone is an expert. Well, I suppose this is understandable because politics directly affect the lives of people. Ultimately it is what the average man-in-the-street perceives that matters, even though his or her perception could be totally wrong.

Talking about politics is a pleasurable way to pass the time with your friends over a few rounds of beers but being the bookworm that I am, I enjoy reading political memoirs more. Lee Kuan Yew's two-volume memoir ranks among my favourites. I also remember fondly listening to an audio version Margaret Thatcher's memoirs, read by the author herself. We do not often get to hear the Israelis' side of the story: Benjamin Netanyahu's A Durable Peace argues their case quite eloquently.

Maybe someday, when I'm through blogging about spirituality, science, art, Indonesia, books, movies, music and travelling, I'll start writing about politics. But I hope that day does not come.