Sunday, October 26, 2014

My Father's Golden Treasury

My most treasured book is one that I inherited from my late father; he passed away peacefully in his sleep at the age of 82 last Sunday.

The title of this small hardcover book is, The Golden Treasury of the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language, selected and arranged by Francis Turner Palgrave. It was one of my father's textbooks for his English class in Standard VIII, 1950.

Neatly scrawled on the first page is his name in blue ink, the date of purchase: 21/12/50 and the price $1.75. The pages are all yellowed but the binding is still sturdy. This classic anthology of poems has been a favourite of mine ever since my secondary school days. It is from this volume that I was introduced to English poetry and developed a love for the major Romantic poets: Byron, Shelley, Worthsworth and Keats.

When I was in University, this volume was my constant bedside companion. I would often read a poem or two before going to sleep. These timeless English verses inspired me a lot and became my springboard for exploring some of the modern poets like W.H Auden, Dylan Thomas, Yeats and TS Eliot. I remember spending many happy hours in the university library, scouring the literature shelves, flitting from one musty tome to another, immersed in the insatiable pleasure and beauty of the written word.

I have my father to thank for my love of books. In his younger days, he was fond of buying books, amassing a small collection which I had the pleasure of exploring during my childhood days. In his later years, with increasing family commitments, he became more prudent with his spending. Still he would bring me during school holidays to bookshops along Jalan TAR in KL, where he would indulge me with one or two books of my selection but very rarely did I see him buying any for himself.

This is how I would like to remember my father--always self-sacrificing for the family. Yes, he was a stern and strict parent (like all parents in those days), but he inculcated many values in me that I'm thankful of: discipline, diligence, care and prudence.

And as I type these words, my father's volume of The Golden Treasury sits quietly on the desk beside my laptop, an ever-present reminder to the times we spent together, and the many life lessons that he passed on to me and the many more that I have to learn on my own, as I grow older.

I remember when I was small how my father used to speak fondly of his English teacher. Imitating his bombastic style of teaching, he would quote a fragment of poetry: "...a violet by a mossy stone. Half hidden from the eye" -- which only much later did I recognize was a line from one of Wordsworth's famous "Lucy" poems.

In the last decade of his life, my father struggled with Parkinson's disease. It was one of the reasons why I decided to quit my life in Indonesia, where I had so many beautiful friends and experiences, to return home.

Over the years, as his strength faded and his dementia worsened, it became difficult for him to coherently express himself. Neither newspapers, books nor television programs interested him anymore. We tried our best to keep his mind active and occupied to impede the retardation of his mental faculties.

My father was quite fond of watching movies in his younger days. War movies, especially those on the Japanese occupation were his favourites As a child I had watched many of such movies together with him. There's one particular war movie though that was an all-time favourite of his: David Lean's award winning A Bridge Across the River Kwai.

In his later years, whenever I put on the River Kwai DVD, and when the famous Colonel Bogey whistling march tune came one, his face would lit up. After a brief 3 hours, all signs of fatigue and dementia would be gone as he became completely engrossed with the adventures of Alec Guinness and William Holden in the tropical jungles of Burma. The River Kwai DVD served as my secret medication to revitalize--albeit so briefly--my father's mind. It was one of those rare moments when I say a flicker of joy lit up in his eyes.

On other occasions, I would try to engage him with recollections of his schooldays. Once when I brought out and showed him his 1951 copy of the Golden Treasury, there was moment of fond recognition. Thumbing through the yellowed pages, I tried to trigger his recollection of that "violet by a mossy stone" phrase from the Wordsworth poem, but was unsuccessful. Instead he surprised me with another fragment that either I had not heard from him before, or I had not recognized previously: "I die, I faint, I fail!".

Having read all the Romantic poets, the line sounded familiar to me but I was not sure from which particular poem it was from. I suspected Shelley. True enough, upon flipping through the pages of the Golden Treasury, I found the poem: Shelley's Lines to An Indian Air. It was a love poem, and the last stanza goes:

O lift me from the grass!
I die, I faint, I fail!
Let thy love in kisses rain
On my lips and eyelids pale.
My cheek is cold and white, alas!
My heart beats loud and fast;
O! press it close to thine again
Where it will break at last.

I bade my last farewell and cremated my father last Tuesday. The thought that I had spent the last decade living together with him and caring for him daily, gives me some small measure of comfort. Perhaps, growing up, there were many areas that I had failed him. For that I seek his forgiveness, and I shall continue to strive and do better.

We are all creatures of our upbringing. "The Child is the father of the Man". Like it or not, everything I think and do carries the echoes of my father's beliefs and values, ingrained in me as a child. We are all fugues strung together by the voices of our ancestors. "Music when soft voices die, vibrates in the memory".

May my father's soul now rest blissfully in some untrodden way. He has climbed Shelley's last steps of Time. His copy of the Golden Treasury--my secular bible--that I clutch dearly to me now shall continue to be a constant source of solace and wisdom, helping me to find strength in what remains behind, in years that, hopefully bring forth the philosophic mind, promised by Wordsworth.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Gymnasium in Paradise

I had always imagined paradise as a kind of library. - Jorge Luis Borges
The most enduring image that has lingered in my mind from the movie Minority Report (starring Tom Cruise and directed by Steven Spielberg) was the final scene where the pre-cogs were seen in a some kind of rustic cottage, surrounded by piles of books, blissfully reading. I thought to myself then, heaven must look like that--filled with wonderful books and all everyone does is read all day, and all night.

Reading is one of the greatest pleasures of life, and among the cheapest too. People like to complain that books are expensive. No they are not. The price of a paperback book is probably about the amount you'll spend on a typical outing with friends at Starbucks. And how many books does an average person read a year?

You'll be considered quite an avid reader if you manage to read a book a month. If the average paperback costs RM50.00, that amounts to only about RM600.00 a year spent on books. I'm sure your smartphone (which you'll probably change every year) costs more than that.

And don't forget, you can also read for free at the local library. Not to mention all the free e-books that you can also download to your favorite reading device. No other equivalent pleasure in life comes that cheap.

Why don't people read more then? In Malaysia, if you ask someone what he or she is reading now, you'll probably get a blank stare. Ask them what TV series they are watching now or which nightspot do they hangout these days, they'll probably light up immediately.

Most people consider reading boring. It takes a lot of effort to focus page after page of words. Reading is hard work. Reading is passe. Why not surf the web? Isn't it a much more efficient way of absorbing information in today's fast paced world?

Yes and no. I don't disagree that the internet is a great source of information and knowledge. One can probably find out more up-to-date information about a certain subject much more quickly from the web. I'm a great fan of Wikipedia and Youtube. One can learn whatever one desires to learn these days. All knowledge is available on one's fingertips, if only one is willing to invest the time to absorb them.

No, surfing the Net does not provide one important benefit one gets from reading printed dead-tree pages: the practice of concentration. Reading a book from cover to cover, tracing the authors thread of thought one word at a time, watching his ideas and concepts take shape sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph is like a kind of meditation, with words acting almost like prayer beads.

It is the hard work of slowly scanning line after line of monotonous text, lumbering along page by page at snail's pace that provides the necessary exercise that our mental faculties need. The book is the mind's exercise machine. One reads to sharpen one's mind. Reading keeps the brain sizzling with healthy electro-chemical activity, forging fresh connections among neurons, stimulating neuro-transmission across synapses.

Reading keeps one mentally fit. And I can imagine Borges, who passed away in 1986, blissfully working out at the gymnasium of the mind in Paradise.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Nectar of the Material World

The Chinese Lunar New Year eve, when screeching fireworks blaze the skies and the blasts of firecrackers punctuate the silence of the night heralding another round of gaudy crimson celebrations, is my usual time for some self-reflection.

I have some Beethoven sonata playing in the background to put me into a reflective mood. Beethoven always brings me back to my childhood days, of bright morning sunshine bustling with birds, of thick jungles and citadel-like rubber trees where we played our childhood games--ah, that wellspring of innocence and happiness that has sustained me throughout my life.

When I was an engineering student at a local university here in PJ, I spent a lot of time reading and writing poetry. My bible, which I kept on my bedside, was Palgrave's Golden Treasury of the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language--a small hardcover volume which I inherited from my father. It was this volume of poetry that introduced me to the world of poetry; my favourite was the Romantic poets--Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Keats. I still have the volume with me, even now, beside me as I type these lines on the computer. It remains my most prized possession.

I've been nourished by so many books that I've read. Reading has been and continues to be the greatest pleasure of my life. I make no apologies nor pretensions for being a bookish person. I'm as hedonistic as any one of my friends who chase the pleasure of material things and of the flesh--only that my pleasures are those of the mind. I find pleasure in learning, and that pleasure, to me, is an end in itself.

Let me make it clear: the pleasures of the mind are not superior to the pleasures of the flesh. All pleasures contain the seeds of pain. (or they wouldn't be called pleasures, would they?) You just need to know where these seeds lie and deal with them wisely when they sprout.

There should not be a conflict between the mind and the body, between saintliness and worldliness, between intellectualism and pragmatism. Everyone is born with a tendency towards one, or the other or if one is lucky, an aptitude and appreciation for both.

The spirit of the Chinese New Year is growth, abundance and a hopeful positive attitude towards what's ahead. It is an unabashed celebration of the material life. The school of the material world is where one hones one's mastery of karma yoga. The pleasures of the material world are explicit and beguiling; the painful lessons, unrestrained and merciless.

In the material world, one learns quickly but one also learns the hard way. We must never be blindsided by its pleasures, nor be deterred by its pain. It is the interplay of pain and pleasure that creates wisdom.

Let's all celebrate the coming Year of the Horse, let's wish ourselves great wealth, health and abundance. Let's reflect again at the end of the year and see, how much wisdom we have distilled from our life experiences, and drink the intellectual pleasure of its nectar.