Friday, September 10, 2004

Prayers and Blessings

Prayers and Blessings

The thought of terror striking anytime is ever-present in your mind when you are in Jakarta. But it is not too bad: It's a bit like going on a flight--the fear of the plane crashing is always in the back of your mind, but you learn to blot it out because the chances of it happening is extremely slim. You try to tell yourself that if it does happen, then it's fated--there's nothing you can do about it. You learn to live with it.

For Jakartans, there's no real choice. Life has to go on. Like those 9 victims in yesterday's bombing--it was just another morning; they went about their daily lives, doing their own thing; and suddenly Fate interrupted them rudely.

When you read such news, you can't help but think of your own mortality. You think of all the things that you've always wanted to do in your life and all the time that you have wasted. You think of the pain that families of the victims have to go through and you suddenly feel slightly ashamed of your own petty little complaints.

It always takes someone else's misfortune for us to start appreciating our own blessings. There are so many things that we take for granted--the gift of sight and freedom, the ability to read and to write. We often do not recognize the fact that many of the good things in life are free--we already possess them. Are we utilizing these gifts to the fullest?

To be able to work, to use our creativity and energy to make a difference, no matter how insignificant, is a privilege that we take for granted. Even the simple act of blogging--being able to write and share your thoughts with the entire world in an instant--is a great blessing.

Our prayers are with the bereaved families and the injured. May they find the strength to overcome this difficult period and regain their normal lives again--together with its many little blessings.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Ground Zero, Square One

Ground Zero, Square One

Another suicide bombing struck Jakarta again and like the Marriot bombing, the victims of this senseless act are again the innocent bystanders--security guards and probably petty traders or pedestrians in the streets.

It doesn't look like such acts can be prevented as long as terrorists are capable of getting their hands on explosives. Since the Marriott incident life has been very inconvenient for all Jakartans: cars have to be inspected thoroughly before they enter into the compound of any commercial building and everyone gets scanned at the entrance by security guards. It has become so routinely dull that I think many security guards were just going through the motions.

Jalan Rasuna Said--where the targetted Australian Embassy is located--is one of the three borders of the Golden Triangle business district. It is an eight-lane wide highway and many embassies (including the Malaysian one) and multi-nationals, such as Price Waterhouse and American Express are located there. No security measure could prevent a car bomb from exploding at the gates of a building, unless the authorities inspect every car before they even enter the street.

Terrorists acts could strike anywhere in Jakarta. The last bombing incident was a heart-wrenching one to go through--grim images of body bags, bloodied victims and wailing families filled the TV airwaves for a whole week. Normal life halted for a while and the entire city felt like Ground Zero. Now it looks like we are back to square one.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

City of Hope

City of Hope

When I was a student, I was quite fond of reading Malay short stories, or cerpen. I used to buy Dewan Masyarakat and Dewan Sastera for that purpose.

One of my favourite cerpens--which I still reread often-- is Debu Debu Kuala Lumpur, written by A. Shukur Harun. This particular short story won one of the prizes in the Hadiah Karya Sastra 1974, organized by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. it is anthologized in a thin paperback volume which I happen to possess. (I bought it and read it in 1984 though).

I enjoy this particular short story because it paints a very evocative picture of KL in the 1970s. It starts with a panoramic sweep of KL city:

Senja jatuh di langit Kuala Lumpur. Cahaya matahari yang merah memanah puncak Hilton dan UMBC yang agung...

Hilton and UMBC--how nostalgically 70s! (Imagine the 36 storey KL Hilton--now Mutiara Hotel--was the tallest building then). The story then continues in this fashion, describing with a dispassionate voice, an omniscient view of the entire city: sweaty commuters packed in hot stuffy buses, uppity government officers returning from their round of golf to their bungalows in Bukit Kenny and Petaling Jaya, prostitutes in gaudy makeup loitering around cheap hotels; and snaking lazily across this urban sprawl is the murky and garbage-choked Klang River, the historical source of the city's wealth and now a sad but fitting symbol of its decadence.

But in the midst of this cruel city, there's still love:

Di celah-celah itu gadis dan teruna berpegangan tangan. Mengadap sungai yang airnya mengalir lesu. Berbisik di senja itu. Bercinta dan berdusta.

The story then slowly zooms in on one particular pair of gadis and teruna: Lela and Muhamad Khairi. Lela helps her mother at one of the roadside warungs, selling food and drinks. Muhamad Khairi is a youth fresh from the kampung, trying to eke out a living working at the many construction sites of this burgeoning city. (Yes, at that time, there were no illegal Indonesian or Bangladeshi immigrants yet).

Muhamad Khairi frequents Lela's warung often, and soon love blossomed:

...mereka bertemu di sana, menyedut cinta and segar di tengah riuh rendah kenderaan dan kekotoran debu jalan serta kekeruhan air sungai itu.

It seems to have all the ingredients of a mushy love story but the story triumphs in the the way it is written: the matter-of-fact manner of its narration, interspersed with constant references to the urban ugliness around the characters, casts a certain tragic inevitability to the tale. And at no point does the story descend into trite sentimentality.

Muhamad Khairi sees KL as his city of hope--he wants to attend night school, get a steady office job (perhaps as an office boy or clerk) and then ask for the hand of Lela. Lela sees Muhamad Khairi as her pahlawan--her knight in shiny armour, who conquers skyscrapers to build a brighter future for them together. Masih ada rupanya cinta murni di Kuala Lumpur ini.

Unfortunately these two lovers are like flotsam in this urban sea--tossed around by mighty waves beyond their control. And like those 70s Malay movies, tragedy inevitably occurs: Muhamad Khairi meets with an accident at the construction site. He is brought to the hospital in critical condition.

But the city is oblivious to it all:

Bangunan tinggi yang di kerjakan oleh Muhamad Khairi dan kawan-kawannya tegak membisu...Lela memandangnya dengan benci dan kesal. Sepi dan duka telah bersatu dalam dirinya. Kota ini tetap riuh dan rancak. Kenderaan terus berlari kencang dan bunyi hon kereta seperti mengejeknya. Awan kembara tidak lagi kelihatan bagaikan tidak ingin menyertai duka nestapa ini.

The story ends without telling us whether Muhamad Khairi survives the fall. But the final words of the doctor provide a note of optimism: "Harapan sentiasa ada"

Lela memandang kejauhan melihat denyutnya Kuala Lumpur.


Sigh, I guess I'm just an old-fashioned romantic at heart.

Monday, September 06, 2004

The Religious Path

The Religious Path

The wise Dalai Lama is indeed rare among spiritual leaders: He believes that even secular humanism can help people achieve spiritual realization. He does not advise people to rush into religions blindly.

Organized religions with their rituals of worship and strict codes of conduct are merely different "methodologies" to achieve the same spiritual goals. They all tend to have slightly different emphases. Even within the same religion, there are always different sects and schools. This is inevitable, because, like what the Dalai Lama said, people have different mental dispositions--some prefer a more ritualistic approach, some a more psychological one, some a more philosophical one. The Bhagavad Gita talks about at least four different paths to God realization. It becomes sad when people emphasize the differences rather than the commonalities.

At the heart of every religion is an attempt to answer the deepest of mysteries: Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going?

Science and philosophy attempt to answer some of these questions. To a certain extent they have been quite successful. But human beings need more than intellectual answers. They need something that gives them hope, upliftment, inspiration and a promise of salvation--something that fills the so-called "God-shaped hole" in our consciousness. Religion provides that.

The problem with religion is that, when it begins to work on an individual, the experience can be very convincing. Sometimes too convincing. In a previous blog entry, I've likened the experience of religious awakening as akin to that of a teenager falling in love for the first time. That's when it is most dangerous.

When people first catch a glimpse of religious insight, they think they already have all the answers. They feel like all darkness has suddenly been dispelled from their hearts and minds and everything has become crystal clear. This insight feels so undeniably right that they think the rest of the world should listen to them--by force if necesssary. At one time, the Communists had the same heady onrush of revelation too. Which is why many historians liken Communism to a religion.

The form four science student who is first taught classical mechanics thinks that Newton's Laws of Motion can explain every physical motion in the universe. He is ecstatic. He feels that the entire mystery of the universe has been unravelled. Later when he enters form six, he gets to learn a bit about quantum physics and realises that the nature of the universe is a lot more complex than what he thought it was. He is filled with awe and humility.

Similarly, the religious awakening is only the beginning. One must always remember that the spiritual path is like a long hike up a mountain. There will be many more awakenings down the road; each one more mind-blowing than the previous one. Stopping midway to gawk and rave about the beauty of the landscape impedes one's progress. Some get so enamoured with the landscape that they even deviate from their original paths, not realising that they end up going downhill. Many of the problems we face today are caused by these people.

The truly religious person trudges on quietly and steadily and attempts to help others along the way. He savours the beauty around him but never once does he waver from his original destination. He knows that the higher one climbs, the more spectacular the views will be.