Everywhere we live, there is a place where we can linger in formlessness until form takes place. Everywhere we go, there is a path that leads the way; sometimes in the shadow of the moon and sometimes in the starkness of the sun. Every now and then, there is an unbeaten trail prodding a temptation. In this land where the sky meets earth and where place and path are soaked in contradiction, sensibility always brings us back to the core of our lives, which is to carve a world for our children.
There is a room that welcomes the western wind, setting sunbeam and song of the rooster. Where we rest and play, the outward gaze gives to a towering sheath of corn and fields of paddy and of damp firewood nesting a colony of translucent termites. And when the gaze continues, the landscape melts into lush green strokes dripping with tears from the showering sky. It is a room where the boys un-earth adventures in the smallest of spaces, and if imagination gives, opens up into an enchanting universe they call, The Ow-Pao Land. It is a realm that maps 13 universes, empires, kingdoms, enterprises and of intricate relationships between these entities. Their play in the overcast monsoon is mostly invisible but is groundwork that lays the foundation for understanding the complexities of the world. Through their little lenses, it propels an animating force for displaying constructs of their own mind – by picking up and piecing on their experiences of order, chaos and everything else in between. As absurd as it may sometimes seem to an adult, their world often reflects the rawness of reality but without the veil of politeness, righteousness and morality. It often just is.
Whilst trimming carrots in the adjacent room, traces of their conversation brings up the hilarity of sorts about the Ow-Pao Land.
I hear a buffalo enters the scene in the home of the Ragnaroks through a cut out door in the blue wall. On seeing the creature, Grandpa Ragnarok imagines transfiguring it into a delicious dish for dinner and hurries away to sharpen his knife. Papa Ragnarok is relieved that he gets to ride it into town, saving his tired legs from the long journey. Baby Ragnarok tugs at its tail and is delighted with the presence of a new playmate. Grandpa Ragnarok’s assistant is happy that she gets to feed her 3 babies with the leftovers if she helps him with the fire. And here we have a typical scenario of a potential family disagreement about the fate of the buffalo. The creative spirit comes into play, sometimes for a peaceful resolution or a dreaded massacre.
Trending news around the globe paints a parallel picture with roots of human nature weaved into an exhausting web. As wrecking news of political misfits and a tiring pandemic continue to threaten and shake Malaysia’s democratic and healthcare systems to its core, uncertainties loom gravely bringing into question what it means to embrace the 31st of August, our 64th Independence Day. When history is forgotten and distorted for works of propaganda, we become unaware of how things were, how we are changing and how it can change the future. We lose sensibility and perspective of how we came to be. The status quo would like us to believe what it is not, playing out on a kind of collective amnesia whilst politicising on discrimination. Our nation, like many other nations of today, is streamlined into conformity from a distasteful concoction of power games and mind control, often spiralling in the masses’ inability for independent thought.
We may ask how we have shaped ourselves into such an abyss of despair. The core in itself, blemished and tainted. How do we attend to the direness of the political satire? How can we secure a better world for our children? There is a slippery tendency to fall into despondency and to drown ourselves in sorrow. But that would do injustice to moving forwards.
Today, the 31st of August, is a day to remind us what it means to be a Malaysian. Today is the day when we have to unite as a people, as Anak Malaysia, to shout out how we have coloured ourselves. We are a nation known to embrace shades in all its possible glory and to imbue it in every streak of our lives. Unapologetically infused in our culinary cuisine, our speech, our clothing and our celebrations, this nation permeates a haphazard uniqueness that could only occur in a slice of geography that attracted people from across the seas and lands; and although not knowing what their future could bring, our forefathers ploughed through a gentle landscape just wanting to live and to make way for a brighter future for their children. And they did.
Although we have meandered into another path, we know that our motherland will always be there across the seas, always ready to embrace us when our journey takes another turn. Nevertheless, we make a home wherever we go for home is where love and support hold the foundation.
And when home is in place, play continues in the Land of Ow-Pao, sometimes smudged with a vein of preposterous rudeness:
Mr Boodhah has been upgraded to version 2.0. The Beyblade was on a streak of mischief. It twisted Mr Boodhah’s pecker, he went berserk and resulted in him losing his memory. Now Mr Boodhah thinks Mrs Sunglasses is his mother and refuses to not wear her. Little A continues to inform Big A that the Monopoly Mall’s most popular business is the pecker shop because they stock limited editions in there which means you can change your pecker if you wanted to. Today, they have a shiny version up for auction.
I stiffened up, goggle-eyed, unsure if the ears had heard it right. But with curiosity, I stayed in my spot and continued listening.
Planet Earth has aged. It is flattened from the destruction of the home sapiens and now merges itself into the Risk board game – the legendary 1957 game of strategy, conflict and conquest tucked in its box, with battle after battle playing out among the continents, under the side table of the Ow-Pao Land. Nothing on the planet has changed. There has been war since the beginning of time. And there emerges the detestable battle between brothers not agreeing on the rules of the game.
Their stories hit me and my thought process starts to crack, not quite knowing how to respond. I fumbled for words. And I settled for absurd. It gives room for interpretation.
Fibre optic appeared 3 months ago in our rented dwelling perched in the heart of the village. We were beyond ourselves. It has opened up a tremendous horizon, allowing us to pour in gargantuan loads of information and easing time during the 3rd lockdown and a wilful monsoon. Technology gives way to a degree of independence and freedom of expression, which as a tool, is a wonderful adjunct to learning and to help make sense of today’s world. We love discovering the planet’s landscape via Google Earth; we can very quickly absorb information about history, geography, science, music and the environment via YouTube videos and documentaries; we pursue daily core skills with Khan Academy, ReadTheory, CommonLit; we watch in awe what technology, engineering, wit and humour can do with Mark Rober; and we brave the wilderness from the comfort of our screens with Coyote Peterson. The list is endless.
However, I do find the need to be reminded, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau cautiously advise about 250 years ago that education cannot be substituted with books (and the internet) for understanding the world wholly and experientially. He points out that books (information) do not teach us to reason; it teaches us to use other people’s reasoning; it teaches us to believe a great deal but never to quite know anything.
I try to find answers back in time, retreating to my childhood and years of education. I pondered for a while, clearing out the cobwebs, searching for nuggets of inspiration and more importantly, remembering the people who had made a difference along the way. How did they teach to etch themselves permanently into my consciousness? Was there an O’ Captain, My Captain, a woman or a man that had transformed my classroom into a place of wonder like the way Robin Williams did in Dead Poet Society?
As far as my memory goes, mom found an inspiring English tutor known as Ms Ong. I was about 10 years of age, a painfully shy and introverted child. Ms Ong hooked me up with a girl who was outrageously curious and full of questions. A date was set for our first lesson where we were picked up from our homes and whizzed off in her car to a leafy neighbourhood. She parked adjacent to a field and we stepped out into an openness feeling rather puzzled about our lesson. School and tutoring in those days meant sitting quietly at a desk and listening to the teacher with devout attention, hence the absence of the familiar setting was markedly unusual. There, in the centre of the openness stood a magnificent umbrella of a rainforest tree drenched in red, scarlet and crimson blossoms; her thick branches inviting us under her shady embrace and there we stood, mouth gaping at her beauty, looking upwards at the expanse of life. I remembered not what was spoken about or if there was an attempt at a conversation or discussion. For me, that first lesson with Ms Ong was simply an act of observation and wonder in my quietude.
Other lessons appeared in a cosy corner of her home that held a table and five chairs. In that corner, episodes of wonder would continue through a myriad of lenses. I don’t recall slogging through grammar and spelling. Instead, my tiny worldview had opened up to the stupendously revolting and twisted narratives of Roald Dahl. I was given a photocopy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and read it compliantly but little did I know that words had the capacity to jump, leap and spring at me. The teachers at school would never tell us that we could read and write like that. On another day, a Picasso poem appeared. I was utterly confused, but the poem kept tugging at the back of my mind. It was a painting of words that could evoke emotion and strike the heart and not mean what it says. I kept the poem for 10 years and read it and re-read it and viewed it differently every time I found it.
Dr Doherty was a big man with a crew cut and small glasses that sat on his tall Irish nose. He could talk history like a flowing river bursting at its seams. His broad shoulders and angular physique reminded me of Frankenstein’s creature in the 1931 version, a towering frame in jacket and tie but with a stunning humane heart. He taught a class of modern world history that did not couch in academic tones but rather, his teachings came flowing out feverishly with unrestrained honesty from his heart and soul. He was fervent about lessons that we needed to understand and take away from tragic narratives of humanity during the 19th and 20th centuries. It plagued the world with blood, death and brutality and he made sure we imbued the essence of it – its origins, the nature of man and their intricate web of relationships. He broke down the barriers between teacher and student, talking in a way one would talk to a colleague, respecting the maturity of every individual. Ironically, in this light, I saw him with grander respect and cherished every class that had his name on my timetable. 1994 rolled in and we strolled to the cinema as a class to watch Schindler’s List. I shed my tears soaking the sleeves of my uniform, taking away the events of Nazism that made me look at the world in a harrowingly different light. It is a film that asks a thousand questions. Upon our return to the classroom, the air of nihilism was somehow lifted when powerful discussions were brought to the table and my horizons widened. With hindsight, I recognise why Dr Doherty stands out as a significant figure in my life, albeit a short 2 years it was. He taught us what humanity stood for and how the power of investigation can shape us to be better versions of ourselves.
Although Dr Doherty and Ms Ong may have just very briefly intersected my journey through life, their teachings continue to be a guiding force that I carry with me into adulthood. How can we do the same for our children? How can they have the capacity to be moved by the world and to let beauty stir so deeply within themselves? How can they maintain that sensitivity to aliveness that could make life so much sweeter and more wholesome? How can we create an impact greater than ourselves?
We are the bulb to light our children’s path and to carve an incandescent curiosity for learning. We have entered a place of a lifetime commitment where self-examination is the prerequisite. It is a place where someone could have warned us that it would be the most challenging place to be in. But no one tells you that at school, there isn’t a handbook for it and your parents most certainly wouldn’t let you in on that. And so it is a path that one has to grapple with, step by step, to be learned along the way. Bundling all that in and held together by a loving and supportive partner, one who eyes it with equal urgency but with a different scent of dynamism and approach certainly helps to trim the challenges and make it an adventure. G, educated in a vastly different environment, a gurukulam in his adolescent years, looks at the world a little differently. Our polarity may present a slap of satire here and there but the variation in our views and approach brings to the table a richer and more meaningful dialogue for heart and brain picking.
Each step tread may be a shedding, a layer peeled to reveal a vulnerable core. It may sometimes seem like a journey stumbling backwards but is in fact a clearing to make way for progress. Economic prosperity may not be the ultimate goal but perhaps, the journey on the path to get somewhere better, with the struggle and joy of finding the form and the formlessness that has yet to be shaped – is where we are. And yet this is the place and path that cannot be formed until we have the courage, humility and love to step out.