vendredi 3 mai 2013

THE AGELESS MAN OF KUALA TRENGGANU


THE AGELESS MAN OF KUALA TRENGGANU

For those who hide behind their identities and the exteriors of themselves and their skin as a protection of their cultural identity, I invite you to meet the Ageless Man of Kuala Trengganu who carries his cultural identity in his heart.
I had freshly arrived in Adelaide in the company of my schoolmate, Basant Kumar Samarasinhe and we were both eager to find students from Malaysia and Brunei.
I remember meeting the ageless man of KT at one such gathering of students from ex-British Colonies of the Far East. Malaya Singapore Borneo Brunei.
I remember thinking; this humble man with soft voice and demeanour must be Malay. He was an alumnus of some prestigious high schools in Malaysia.
Soon, he arrives with an Indonesian lady with a tinkling country Australian accent who amazed us all with stories of her native Thursday Island. I made up my mind to visit that exotic place after meeting that lady who later on became the Ageless Man’s wife who now has become the Ageless Couple of Kuala Trengganu!
In the next fifteen years, much water flowed under the bridge; I had qualified as a doctor, had finished my initial medical training in Melbourne and was looking forward to going to the USA for further postgraduate training.
I was in Brisbane at that time. Why not go to Thursday Island before leaving this brown continent for that other one?
Brisbane to Cairns, stay over night there and then on a small plane to Horn Island with a stop over in Weipa. I distinctly remember, looking at the motely group of passengers at the Cairns terminal, almost all of whom were fierce looking or black with frizzy hair or portly madams in colourful clothes.
The reason to go to TI was that distant evening in Adelaide when I had been introduced to the Ageless Couple of Kuala Trengganu. I had lost touch with them, but that sense of adventure drove me on. On arriving at the Horn Island where the airport is, I took the Ferry which deposited me near the Grand Hotel where Somerset Maugham had languorously spent some nights with locals, commenting that, TI, boasted the shortest interval between the arrival of a white man and him finding himself in bed with a native lady!
I checked into a local hostelry and wondered what am I to do in this isolated part, despite being inhabited where the flavour of New Guinea and Papua could be felt mingling with those of Ambon and Japan. A curious mixture of people descended from pearl divers of the century past, now an outpost of some Australian colonial types, I was bent on discovering this island, re create the history of its rich past.
I remember leaving the hotel, suitably attired to face the heat, when I spotted a figure slowly moving across the road just opposite the hotel. My heart raced, could this be the Humble Ageless Man of Kuala Trengganu (became that later). I shouted his appellation rather loudly and imagine my surprise, when he turned his head towards me, and showing great surprise walked towards me. It is not often in Thursday Island you meet your friends from the Continental Australia, especially ones forgotten in the mists of time.
Check out of your hotel, and you come and stay with us, was his humble request and I soon found myself in the studio (he is an artist and photographer) surrounded by the cacophony of the Melanesian days and nights. I met the extended family of his wife, who were of Ambonese origin, now diluted with mixtures typical of Thursday Island. No one spoke the original languages or kept their original belief systems but had blended into something unique. The Melanesian presence in the island was strong. Where there are “heathens”, there are missionaries, of course, so some frail Australian ladies were touting their large bibles while the Melanesian in his evening alcoholic stupor belted out songs of immense longing for something or other.
Another visit soon followed, it took me all day to reach from Melbourne, as it is the farthest you can travel in Australia and still be in Australia, a distance of over 4000 km. This time, I met Burmese nurses, Indonesian students, Australian outcasts (from Foolgarah?), an odd Filipino counting his rosaries. I was able to visit the Island where Captain Cook had taken possession of Australia, some islands that lay so close to Papua that you could feel the breeze from there of mangroves and human waste. A mutual friend had deposited me in an isolated island where I could spend few hours in absolute harmony with the elements.
Five years ago I was invited to visit Cairns by a distinguished doctor and I had wanted to revisit and reconnect with the Ageless Couple, with whom I had lost contact soon after I left our beloved Red Continent.
After Cairns, I was going to Malaysia and my newly discovered loves there, when I received an email, from none other than the Ageless Man who proclaimed that he had in the previous couple of years, had made Malaysia his home. Cancelling the plans to visit TI, I planned to use my repeated visits to Malaysia to reacquaint myself of this charming couple, the humble man who carries his identity not in his skin or clothes but in his heart. And the same voice that reminded me of the countryside of Australia which I first heard in Adelaide, that of the Ageless Wife of the Ageless Man…
We met a couple of times in KL in the company of my good friend and yoga teacher, MC.
Just a few days ago, I was in Malacca on my way to Bogor and I thought to myself, there is a visit that is overdue: to the ageless couple with cultural identities hidden in their hearts in Kuala Trengganu. After an uncomfortable bus ride overnight, I found them sitting quietly at a bench amidst the chaos of the bus station in KT.

We spent two days together, we had time to talk, and the Ageless Man and I, in the company of the genial taxi driver Pak Hashim, went exploring and did visit the temple dedicated to Zheng He/Cheng Ho. I also had to visit the Malaysian Moslem Follies, photocopies of the mosques of elsewhere and a 500 million-ringgit mosque for the faithful? Or for the coffers of the contractors? Why didn't they put that 500 million into upgrading their poor education system or the local hospital system, known to be backward even by Malaysian standards? Better to keep them ignorant and unhealthy but captured in their prayers I suppose, they must think, those who wear their cultural identity on their skin and in their clothes covering themselves head to foot suffocating in this hot climate!
I thoroughly enjoyed the visit, getting the flavour of the simple life of the Ageless Couple of KT, learning from their humility and the satisfaction with life, their distancing from faceless chatter or gossip.
And most of all, with a note of jealousy,
Their love for each other, the devotion and attachment even after 40 plus years of marriage!

I am writing this in Brussels, Belgium. Let me raise this glass of Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa and toast them, hoping that I too can carry my cultural identity deep in my heart, and not on my skin or in my clothes
LChaim and Toda Raba, as we say
Teremah Kaseh…