THE LITTLE BROWN MOTH
By Halimah Mohd Said
In Memory Of A Dear Father
It wasn’t big and magnificent. It wasn’t streaked with brilliant hues. It was just a little brown moth.
It fluttered across the room just before subuh on the morning of July 24, 1996, brushed my left shoulder, flitted around awhile before fixing itself onto the old marital bed head suspended from the ceiling across the wall of the living room of Teratak Jasa. There it lay inert despite my vibrating efforts to stride across the room, vigorously shake the bed head post and will it to stir just once more with the promise of the quiet, unspoken presence of an aged parent.
I wanted it to kindle my much-diminished spirits, soothe my bleeding heart and nurse my aching grief. But it had done enough, so it must have thought. It had come and was simply and unobtrusively there when I needed it. It was time to leave me to wrestle with my own garishly-hued ghosts and demons just as it would have wrestled with its own brown dreams. We sons and daughters pray for our dead parents to ease their passageway (so we think) when we are in fact praying for our own souls, cleansing our own guilt.
That was my father – Mohd Said bin Mohamed – a man with sturdy brown dreams in a steady slumber behind translucent corneas that never vacillated as my heavily-tinted ones often do with each night’s vividly haunting reprieve. Bah was a man with deep intent and unshakeable values – brown ones that were not conspicuous in the hugely colourful world outside. He was old-world and therefore old old-fashioned, unyielding and therefore uncompromising, unchanging and therefore un-modern. Un-dynamic, so some thought.
So he was when I first noticed him with my youthfully fickle eyes. And so he obstinately remained in spirit throughout the last, feeble, opaquely brown days of his life.
But in those earlier days, those who knew him knew him well even when they might not have liked him for calling a spade a spade. They knew that through the clear black-rimmed spectacles he saw a world that was white, where there appeared no murkily grey areas. For this most feared him. Many respected him. A few were fond of him.
We his family strived to love him despite his unwavering paternal discipline, his oftentimes unrepentant aloofness, his consistently strange shyness at showing us he cared. As children we desperately lamented the emotional deprivation of his selfish aloneness, much preferring the company of his books to that of a rather large, female-dominated family. But now in conceding middle age, I am utterly and shamelessly convinced that he did give us his everything, all that he was capable of. Bah loved us with the same understated appreciation he had for his other loves – medicine and English literature.
Perhaps as loved ones and offspring often expect a single, visible, verbal manifestation of affection makes up for the thousand voids and silences we patiently bear.
So it was when he was a medical officer in government service. Those who still remember say he was brutish in expecting devotion to vocation, ruthless in demanding perfection in work, and merciless in instilling commitment to duty in the matrons, nurses and hospital assistants who worked with him. He was neither forthcoming in his appreciation nor open with his thanks. When Dr Said stalked the wards, the floors would quiver and the walls would tremble in empathy with the assistant nurses who would menikus, scurrying away like frightened mice. Only when Dr Said reluctantly managed a rare smile did they feel he actually cared. Then they would smile and care in return. Underneath the irascible surface, they admitted, he was a good man and he meant well.
But thankful patients and their families always remembered him well and wanted to show it in funny ways. So it seemed in those days. And so the family peeled the delicious mandarins that gratefully arrived on Chinese New Year’s eve and gingerly bit into the still-soft kuih bakul made by the appreciative patient herself. These little niceties the family was allowed to relish at Bah’s expense but never, the more concrete manifestations of human gratitude. Thus we reluctantly returned the generous angpow thrust into our young palms and pockets. Back in our rooms in quiet rebellion, we discarded dreams of wonderful gifts and beautiful presents from a parent who was frugal to the point of being kedekut by sheer circumstance and necessity, we now magnanimously concede.
I remember the younger Bah so well, although being the youngest of seven children, six of whom are daughters, I was relegated to the care of beloved Mak or Nek Yah – so many colourful dreams ago.
As a politician, Dr Said was commended not for his great politically manipulative craft or his resounding oratory skill but for his integrity and honesty, his undying devotion to principles. It was said that he was so highly principled and incorruptible he flatly refused to entertain guests, his many anak buah and sepupu from Linggi, his kampung. He would not suffer fools especially those from Linggi, except that Linggi was also his constituency and the anak buah and sepupu had voted him in.
Perhaps this was because he became a politician late in life and already set in his will, not of his own volition but because he was asked to by a trusted leader. The country needed well-educated men at the helm of the newly-independent nation and that Dr Said certainly was. He was intellectually well-seasoned, peppered and salted. His hunger for knowledge knew no bounds right up to the autumn of his life when his failing eyesight deprived him of the very books he adored, of the very manna he eagerly tucked into when the day’s work was done. He read voraciously in English, having been tutored by English teachers at the Malay College Kuala Kangsar for whom he had the greatest admiration. By day he would devour the great thoughts of the great minds of the writers he met nightly in his brown dreams.
Just as he relished the well-articulated feelings and thoughts of the best English poets and writers, Dr Said articulated his own brown thoughts extremely well in the best of English. At home, not a single morning passed after a typical English breakfast of half-boiled egg, toast and marmalade served after subuh, when he did not faithfully sit in the same breakfast chair to enter the previous day’s happenings in his diary. Thus, his impressions of every political happening of some significance and every person of some consequence in his brown eyes were painstakingly recorded.
It was with the greatest mischief and the most dishonourable betrayal of human privacy that my siblings and I oftentimes sneaked our noses into his sacred book in order to sneak into his mind and discover whether our misdeeds had been critically assessed and duly reprimanded. And so, rather sneakily and cheekily, we came to know who he liked and who didn’t strike his fancy and why so. Secretly we grew to understand the issues and concerns that absorbed his thought-filled days and dream-filled nights. And thus with some care we chose our friends and acquaintances. With some reluctance we allowed Bah’s taste in life to influence ours.
At the more formal level, his writings on favourite themes like reminiscences of his schooldays at the Malay College and adat pepatih were well documented in the Straits Times and other newspapers of the period. To this day readers of that era remember well Dr Mohd Said’s ruminations written in the old-world English style that came to him so naturally. In retirement, the first part of his autobiography Memoirs of a Menteri Besar was published and was well received by readers with the same literary penchant. Lat’s Kampung Boy illustrations juxtaposed against Dr Mohd Said’s vivid and humorous descriptions of his own boyhood pranks grace the pages of The Straits Times Annual of some years ago.
Dr Said was a man wise with the words and wit that realised his simple brown dreams. But in the world of politics, wisdom takes different forms and dreams, different hues even in those early days.
I was a foolish teenager and shortly after, a more foolish young adult when Bah was the wise Menteri Besar of Negeri Sembilan for two elected terms of ten years. So many dreams have passed and so many more incongruities have emerged it seems. Have those dreams changed? Will they ever? Bah’s dreams never did – they remained steadfastly brown. Mine are as horrendously colourful as ever. More garish in middle age. I fear being gaudy and ungracious in old age unlike Bah who gently and quietly slipped into his octogenarian days and… oblivion.
Memories are short especially political ones. One that remains horribly black in my mind’s eye is that of Bah in early retirement, being openly snubbed by the brother of a Negeri Sembilan chieftain whom he had restored to power. The brother of the chieftain had himself recently acquired financial power and was therefore – powerful? My wickedly vicious mind can not, will not erase the memory of Bah, walking stick in hand, respectfully reaching out to this younger man as he emerged from his limousine at Subang Airport – only to be ignored in total un-recognition. And then there was a confident attempt by virtue of being a retired Menteri Besar to apply for a short stay at York House, the government guest house in London. Dr Mohd Said’s application was politely turned down for reasons known only to the officer in charge then – many dreams ago.
We your children remember you, Bah. Your dear friends Suffian and Bunny remember; so do your anak buah and sepupu Intan, Bok Chik and Atan; so do those like Wan Radzi and Zainal who worked closely with you. We all remember you dearly even when, having incurred your wrath, we were duly chastised and admonished.
Strangely, in my mind’s eye, your clear brown dreams are juxtaposed against the motley hues of my imaginings and somehow they do not seem incongruous. Are incongruities in life imagined? Some are I suspect. Perhaps like Chomsky’s challenge to the linguistic world “Colourless Green Ideas (Can And Do) Sleep Profusely “ in some worlds. Sleep in peace in yours dear Bah