Saturday, 31 March 2012

All About Rhinos (Part 2)

On December 26, an invite went out to press from all over Malaysia (and Singapore) from the Sime Darby Foundation. After 20 months of trying, just as the foundation money was due to run out, the Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA) had managed to capture Puntung, a female rhino, of breeding age.

Everyone was understandably jubilant. BORA had been trying for months. But the unusual rainfall meant that the rhino did not have to come by the river to drink. She could get water further uphill, in the thick of the forest away from the madding crowd, rhinos being solitary creatures, after all.

Sime Darby Foundation, which had provided the initial RM5 million grant had been watching anxiously. How could it justify the money spent if she hadn’t been caught, thereby injecting life and hope into the planned captive breeding programme?

The money, which would run out in July this year, had been used to construct the temporary quarters to place the rhinos as well to staff the wildlife reserve. But so far, there were only two rhinos there – Tam, the male rhino who had walked into an oil palm plantation and refused to go back into the forest in 2008, and Gelogob, a female rhino who had been translocated from Lok Kawi, who was found to be too old to breed.

“With Puntung here there is new hope for this critically endangered species. If we didn’t have Puntung, I don’t know how I could have made a case (for Sime Foundation to renew its financial commitment). But now we have her, I am confident I can. Of course, it’s up to the council to approve it,” Sime Darby foundation CEO Yatela Zainal Abidin says.

But she does regret that it took so long to catch the rhino. “We could have done more in a shorter time with better results if we had captured her earlier. But in the process, we learned the best way to rescue a rhino. If we continue with our programme, we are confident of capturing another one within a year. There’s evidence of another rhino in this place called Kalumba.”

BORA executive director Dr John Payne explained that the unusual rainfall was an enormous constraint. “Sumatran rhinos caught before year 2000 were almost all in accessible small patches of forest in a landscape with road access. That was quite easy to handle. Following the December 2011 capture and translocation of Puntung, we now know that it is possible to trap and move a rhino from extensive forested hills, where living and working – for humans - is not easy.

“As with any enterprise, this can be done only through good planning and tight discipline. We now know that it is possible to remove the rhino without chemical immobilisation, using a wooden crate and a big helicopter, and without the rhino “freaking out” or “dying of a heart attack” as some had feared,” he points out.

Puntung went into a trap which had been completed barely two days before she entered it. The first four traps built to catch her during 2010 to mid-2011 were located at sites convenient for people to build and monitor. The fifth and sixth traps were built at inconvenient sites on remote trails where they knew she moved from time to time.”

Puntung has only three functioning feet. She is believed to have caught the fourth in a snare when she was just a cub, and pulled it out, pulling out most of her hoof in the process. Her presence had first been detected in 2005. BORA chairman Dr Abdul Hamid Ahmad, who is also an associate professor with the Universiti Malaysia Sabah said the vets could never figure out why nobody could get a proper footprint with all four feet. “Then in 2007, she was captured for the first time on camera and we discovered that she only had three feet.”

They started trying to trap her in April 2010. “It was a drought then, and we built the trap close to the river on low ground, but when it was completed, it started to rain and it has not stopped raining since. Rhinos will remain on the hills if it is wet because they don’t have to go to the river. We built six traps progressively and the last one was at the highest point. It was a simple trap and she walked in on December 18,” says Abdul Hamid.

Once she was caught they had to figure out how to transport her to the sanctuary. She would have to be airlifted; the question was by whom. Payne says: “One choice was the Royal Malaysian Air Force and the other was the Erickson Air Crane from Miri, Sarawak which was usually used to lift heavy logs. We all agreed that it was best to pay these people and they would have to do it.”

She was scheduled to be airlifted on December 24, but like everything else in this operation, the rain got in the way. “We were ready to go at 6.30 that morning but it started raining at about 1.30 in the morning and didn’t stop till 5.30am the next afternoon,” Payne says.

The rain did not dissipate completely but had subsided to a light drizzle, with enough visibility for the pilot to see the crate suspended at the bottom of 350 feet of cable. The trip took all of eight minutes and so it was that Puntung made her arrival at the sanctuary on Christmas Day. Great was the rejoicing in the land.

She was a hit from the beginning. Even the company that helped airlift her took to her. In fact, according to Abdul Hamid, they returned RM29,000 of their fee, charging only for the actual flying time, rather than all the waiting time as well.
Since she arrived at the sanctuary, her wounds have been treated, and she has taken stock of her surroundings and found that she likes it. Mostly, she loves how much food she is getting. Payne points out that the staple of Sumatran rhino food are leaves and twigs of a variety of woody plants, mainly from saplings and young trees.

In the interim rhino facilities at Tabin, each rhino is provided with a minimum of 50 kilograms of leaves and twigs, harvested daily from the forest at Tabin Wildlife Reserve, and mostly from a dozen or so favourite plant species. As a supplement, about 1 kg of horse pellets and fruits are provided daily to top up protein, vitamins and minerals, which tend to be lacking in a diet of leaves alone.

But Puntung eats about twice as much. Her daily intake is carefully weighed and monitored and she is up to about 102 kgs of fruits and leaves a day. Abdul Hamid says she doubled her intake of food two weeks after she arrived. “She has about 6kg of fruit and 50 kg of leaves that we hand feed her. That excludes the leaves we hang on the walls to keep her quiet at night. But when we come to her stall in the morning, she’s already asking for more food. We are trying to train her for feeding times but it looks like she is training the trainer.”

In addition to ensuring good nutrition, medication is applied as necessary. Both Puntung and Tam were covered in green antibiotic cream on their various cuts. Payne points out that routine medication tends to be treating of minor cuts and abrasions, and de-worming medicine.

And hygiene is of prime importance. “Vehicle tyres and human boots go through a bath of disinfectant every time they approach the rhino night stalls. The biggest threat to the rhinos’ health is build-up of common bacteria on floors and in water and food. Each rhino is bathed with plain water at least once daily. Sumatran rhinos in the wild bathe through the hottest hours of the day in liquid mud, in wallows that they create themselves. Bathing in mud helps keep away biting insects, maintains a moderate body temperature, and keeps the skin in good condition. Rhinos in captivity also need to bathe in mud daily for the same reasons.”

During the press trip to inspect Puntung, there were also representatives from the Leipzig Zoo in attendance. Leipzig Zoo and Berlin-based Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) signed an MoU with the state government to work out the rhino management plan. The IZW will provide, among other things, veterinary and scientific assistance that will be partly funded by the Leipzig Zoo.

Leipzig Zoo director Jorg Junhold was there, measuring Puntung’s bad leg so it can fitted with a prosthetic which will allow her greater freedom of movement. Her bad leg caused a few heart-wrenching moments even as she continued to feed and vocalize quite happily at the visitors.

At a speech during the round of presentations at Tabin, Junhold, who talked about the importance of zoos worldwide and their role in conservation programmes, reaffirmed his commitment: “We will continue, we will make funds available, we will share our knowledge and experience.”

Payne says it is early days to talk about breeding. “Puntung probably needs a couple of months to recover physiologically from the stress of capture. Preliminary hormonal evidence suggests that she is cycling in terms of regular production of eggs. A more complete investigation is scheduled for late February 2012, to be led by specialists from the IZW.”

He explains that this institute is a global leader in getting recalcitrant, rare large mammals to breed. Its work in Sabah is funded by German Government and by Leipzig Zoo. “The decisions on how best to get Puntung to produce baby rhinos will be up to Sabah Wildlife Department. Sumatran rhinos are by nature very solitary animals, and they have to be kept separate from each other for most of the time. Natural breeding will need several ingredients, including regular hormonal cycling in Puntung and good sperm production by Tam, as well as behavioural compatibility between them, plus a better paddock than we now have available, for them to be put together on a roughly monthly basis.

“If any of those ingredients are lacking, artificial insemination would be a preferred choice, but that needs adequate quantities of excellent quality Sumatran rhino sperm, which as of now we lack. In the worst case short-term scenario, the only thing that could be done for the time being would be hormone stimulation to promote production of eggs, which can be flushed and preserved in liquid nitrogen until adequate sperm is available. But that would mean the need for in-vitro fertilisation, with sperm and egg being handled outside a rhino womb, adding to the associated technical problems,” he points out.

But rhinos are solitary animals. They do not take to each other and their tendency when confronted with each other, is to fight. Abdul Hamid points out that they have learned to keep the two apart until the female is in what is called “standing heat” when she stands firmly, refusing to budge, presenting her posterior to the bull who has nothing to do but mount her.

Even when a mating is concluded successfully, conception is still tricky, depending on the viability of the bull’s sperm. And even when the female gets pregnant, she is unlikely to carry the baby to term, as was demonstrated by Emi, the Sumatran rhino in the Cincinnati Zoo who miscarried five times before she gave birth to three cubs.

“A rhino cub is like a miracle. It is difficult, but we have to try. We cannot just let them go extinct when we could have done something,” Yatela concludes.

Friday, 30 March 2012

All About Rhinos (Part 1)

Remember, I said I would feature my rhino stories some time soon? That day is now. Here is the first. There are three.

In August 2008, a male rhino walked out of the forest and into an oil palm plantation, inadvertently triggering the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary breeding programme. He was named Kretam (Tam for short) after the forest reserve he wandered out of. Tam put an end to years of bickering and negotiations about how to most effectively save the rhino. Just one year before, what had started out as yet another wildlife conference had resulted in a pretty significant shift in the understanding of what it would take to save the rhinos.

The Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA) executive director Dr John Payne says the stakeholders had realised by this point that it would take more than measuring footprints and analyzing dung to do the job. They would have to bring this large, taciturn animal together and force them to breed, if they had to.

It was not like they hadn’t thought of it before. There was a landmark meeting held in Singapore in October 1984 which brought together various groups concerned with the dwindling numbers of this ancient mammal and trying to figure out how best to arrest the decline.

The meeting was led by International Union for Conservation and Nature (IUCN) and it included the various parties interested in saving the Sumatran rhino from Sabah, Peninsular Malaysia and Indonesia as well as the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums.

“The general idea of focusing on establishing protection forests for wild rhinos and forming a globally-managed captive breeding population were endorsed,” he says.
The Captive Breeding Programme aimed at capturing 10 pairs of rhinos from the wild, six in Sabah and four in Peninsular Malaysia. This six pairs from Sabah would represent the Sumatran rhino’s Borneo sub-species. The first two pairs would be kept in Sabah, at the Sepilok research station near Sandakan for breeding purposes. The other four pairs would go to the US, with the Los Angeles, San Diego, Bronx and Cincinnati Zoos getting one pair each. The four pairs from Peninsular Malaysia would be kept for breeding at the Malacca Zoo.

So far so good. But the Malaysian environmental NGOs threw back their heads and howled. One and all, they were dead set against the idea. From March to July 1985, local newspapers in Sabah, to say nothing of the Brunei-based Borneo Bulletin published a barrage of articles quoting the environmentalists as to why “exporting” rhinos to the US would be a bad idea.

For instance, a council member of the Malayan Nature Society, Dr Kiew Bong Heang was quoted as saying he would kick up an international fuss if it was true. “The idea of capturing any of the rhinos for export is a serious cause for concern,” he added, pointing out that if any breeding was to be tried, it should be done in Malaysia.

The president of the Environmental Protection Society of Malaysia Gurmit Singh was not behind in his views either. He said there was no reason for the rhinoceroses to be exported when they could not “meet local demand” and that the breeding of the animal should be done here in its natural habitat with the participation of Malaysian zoologists, instead of being done by foreigners.

Sahabat Alam Malaysia took it a step further and claimed that proposed agreement between Malaysia and the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums would result in this country losing its national heritage.

“Their attention focused, misguidedly, on the prospect of Malaysian rhinos being sent to the US, rather than on the overall concept or on the details of the plan, which had agreed to the first two pairs of any rhinos caught staying in Sabah,” Payne says.

Perhaps it was understandable that under this spate of negativity, the Sabah state government buckled. A new state government had been formed in April 1985, in the middle of this furore. In August of that year, the new government decided to withdraw from the global rhino plan. Unfortunately, there was no Plan B.

In Peninsular Malaysia, attempts to start a captive breeding programme for rhinos in Sungai Dusun failed miserably. The sanctuary was established in 1991 and there were seven rhinos rescued from various parts of the Peninsular, two males and five females. By 2003, all were dead, five of them within a span of three weeks due to septicaemia, that is, blood poisoning, and enteritis, that is, inflammation of the intestine.

Ironically, there was only one pair of Sumatran rhinos successfully bred in captivity – at the Cincinnati Zoo. The pair, from Sumatra, had three cubs and the eldest, Andalas, has been returned to Sumatra as a breeding bull.

Payne is understandably bitter about all this. “When the global rhino plan was aborted, a committee was formed to look into the matter. And we all know what happens when committees meddle in affairs that require passion and specific technical knowledge.”

Between 1985 and 1994, some 40 Sumatran rhinos were caught in Indonesia, Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah but each region ran its own programme. As mentioned above, only Indonesia collaborated closely with the US zoos.

“In Sabah, of the 10 rhinos captured from forests which are now oil palm plantations, eight were males and mostly old, so the odds were already stacked against reproduction,” he points out.

With the lack of any coherent plan in place, the numbers continued to dwindle. “Despite the establishment of protected forests, guarding and monitoring, the entire wild Sumatran rhino populations, which may have numbered up to a thousand or so in the 1970s have now dropped to around 150, almost all in Sumatra and Sabah.”

At best, he says, numbers have stagnated due to insufficient breeding, but almost certainly Sumatran rhino numbers continue to decline. “We have reached a stage where rhinos are so rare, that no technique exists to provide a reliable estimate of their actual number. But it is not rocket science to image a graph where the number of rhinos reaches zero in about 20 years from now if they are left where they are in the wild.”

When Tam walked into the oil palm plantation and refused to leave, the various interested parties had to scramble to put together a programme for his adoption and care. He was translocated to the Tabin Wildlife Reserve to start the breeding programme. Now, all he needed was a mate.

In 2009, the state government formally approved the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary programme to prevent the extinction of the species. Sime Darby Foundation provided immediate support in the form of a RM5 million grant over a three-year period to help develop and operate the programme.

The first thought was to mate him with Gelogob, a female rhino which had been captured before in Lok Kawi. But Gelogob was too old and infertile.
In 2010, they decided to capture a mate for Tam, specifically, a specific wild rhino that had been first sighted in 2005. During this time, Dr Zainal Zahari Zainuddin of Perhilitan, a full-time rhino veterinarian joined the programme at Tabin.

It, however, took 20 months to capture Puntung because as soon as the decision was made, Sabah experienced one of its wettest years in history and the traps, set by the river, were useless. She however, walked into one of the traps on December 18 last year and has since that time, been found to be “cycling” (with reference to her oestrus cycle) which makes her a good candidate for breeding, if not the natural way, then through artificial insemination. This will be led by the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin and funded by the German Government and the Leipzig Zoo.

Sime Darby’s money runs out in July of this year, but with the capture of Puntung, the foundation’s CEO, Yatela Zainal Abidin has ammunition to ask for an extension. There is one problem, however. Sime Darby had agreed to come in and finance the development and operational costs for this programme with the understanding that the state government would bear the responsibility for financing the construction of the essential permanent breeding facilities that would form the core physical element of the entire programme.

“It is certainly a disappointment that there is no sign of the construction of the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary breeding facilities, even though the Sabah Development Corridor document published in February 2008 suggested a national level governmental commitment to the Sumatran rhino in Sabah,” Payne points out.

But even if the government does fulfil its promise, there is still the question of how to make the programme sustainable. BORA’s annual operational costs are about RM2 million. This covers the cost of 25 full time staff, running five vehicles, food, medicine and other costs of caring for rhinos, as well as the costs of seeking, trapping and translocating the rhinos, maintenance and repair of the human and interim rhino facilities and building interim facilities in the absence of permanent facilities.

“If Sime Darby Foundation is not able to continue its financial support, we would probably have to close down and hand it over to the government as our alternative options are insufficient to survive,” Payne says.

He has given the matter some thought, however, and come up with radical solutions to the question of sustainability. “I have quite strong personal views on this issue, which do not necessarily reflect those of BORA or any other institution.”

Payne says with very rare exceptions, governments are not appropriate mechanisms to prevent the extinction of endangered species. “To provide a serious incentive to save endangered species, governments ought to be willing to sell rare wild animals for private owners to look after and breed, or if that is considered too drastic based on philosophical or ethical arguments, then they should formally delegate responsibility for an agreed programme of actions to a non-governmental entity.”

He points out that any case of a seriously endangered species represents a situation where passion, non-stop effort, opportunism, abrupt changes of plan and absence of institutional ego are all needed for success. “This has always been the case. When the African and Indian rhino species were seriously endangered species in the late nineteenth century, private individuals took the initiative to prevent their extinction.”

He adds that apart from zoos, there are no institutions in the world today which are either philosophically or financially equipped to prevent the extinction of seriously endangered species, in cases where management in fenced facilities is necessary. “This is one of the major reasons other species of large animals will continue to go extinct. Unless one can get established successful and well-capitalised corporations involved.”

This, Payne says, has happened to some extent, with the grants provided by Sime Darby Foundation mainly channeled via BORA for the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary programme. “But of course this is not sustainable in the sense that eventually the passionate people involved in both of those institutions will have gone and funding will stop.”
Which is why he has an even more radical idea. “The resources needed to prevent species extinction are akin to those needed for any entrepreneurial attempt to provide a good or service, except that typically there is no product desired by lots of people, nor a financial reward.

“In the case of the Sumatran rhino, we have the opportunity of a life time because there are many people, albeit with more money than sense, who will buy powdered rhino horn at exorbitant prices, for its supposed cooling properties in traditional Chinese medicine. Sumatran rhinos ought to be saved be entrepreneurs who want to prevent their extinction and would breed them for their horns – which, by a stroke of luck, can be harvested sustainably, although at a rather slow rate.”

With this in mind, he says, the Sime Darby Foundation commitment could be regarded as seed money for such a venture. “Hundred percent guaranteed there will be people in government and many NGOs and concerned citizens who will be dead against this idea. It will be 1985 all over again. I have to be rude; those sorts of objections are usually sclerotic and irrational thinking, and those who voice them never have a viable alternative, nor are they willing to spend the next thirty years of their life doing what needs to be done to save the species.”

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Furry Friends

I wrote this article about two years ago. I was assigned to go cover a pet's day out, and asked to keep it light and lively. Naturally, the moment you tell me to keep it light and lively, I start to constipate over every word (is it light enough? is it lively enough?) But then after writing reams and reams of dross I just buckled down wrote the damn thing. Helped that deadline was near and I am a little intimidated by the editor in question.

I believe in the cause here...Arnold spent some time briefly at the Furry Friends Farm. It really IS a worthwhile charity, especially if you love animals.

There were Jack Russells and Schnauzers, Pomeranians, beagles, large Labradors, border collies, Alsatians and even a few mongrels splashing about in the pool, either having a grand old time or trying desperately to find their way out, while their owners, like parents of reluctant kindergarteners tried to get them to swim, and swim a little more.

The excitement of the humans was natural. It was not every day you were allowed to take your dog to a (relatively) public pool to socialize with all the other pooches. The event, organised by the Dr Dog programme in conjunction with Furry Friends Farm, a no-kill animal sanctuary in Kundang, was to encourage dog owners to take their pets out. In Malaysia, there are not many places that allow pets so this was a refreshing change. Most of the people who started filling the pool with their pets on a lazy Sunday afternoon, had got to hear of this event at Hock Choon on the Terrace from a friend or a friend of a friend.

For instance, Aily Cheong who stood by the side of the pool, clutching her 12-year old Shih Tzu, Sushi, had heard of it from one of her friends at the grooming school. Sushi wasn’t interested in splashing about in the pool. She stayed close to Aily, who didn’t force her to play if she didn’t want to.

“She’s old and besides, she’s pretty scared,” Aily explained. Her other dog, Bobby, a tiny Jack Russell, was not so scared. In fact, he was a hunka hunka burning love, putting the moves on a young beagle, Molly, who repelled his amorous advances, as best she could. Finally, her mistress, plucked the miniature Lothario off her dog, and proceeded to throw Molly into the pool. Molly swam purposefully for shore. Clearly, she was not in the water-loving category.

In fact, the only dog who really seemed to take to the water was Dr Lassie, who was part of the Dr. Dog programme. The sweet-tempered animal couldn’t wait to get into the pool to play fetch with her rubber twig, which owner Pauline Ng kept throwing for her. When Pauline felt that Lassie had been in the water long enough and took her out for a rest, the brown Labrador whimpered softly to let everyone know she wanted to get back into the water.

Dr Kylie, another therapy dog, also a Labrador, was the opposite. She skittered as far away as possible, circling the pool until she came to the ladder blocking her path, and then trying to figure out how to move into reverse. She got stuck at the ladder a few times.

The Dr Dog programme is where dogs, specially selected for their calm tempers and high tolerance level (they don’t snap when you pull their ears, press their paws or pinch their tails) are taken to charity homes to interact with the inmates.

Furry Friends Farm founder Sabrina Yeap said they visit the Amal Murni home in Kajang and the Damansara Utama Methodist Centre once a month for an hour under this programme and the dogs have played a wonderful part in bringing about positive changes in the residents.

“There was a girl with Down’s Syndrome who actually opened up after interacting with the dogs. First she made an effort to move forward and touch the dogs. Then she started talking to people. She talked to the dogs first and contact with them was healing and therapeutic.”

Sabrina, who runs Furry Friends Farm, as a community-based project, is concerned with the way animals are treated in Malaysia. She has started an online petition at to ban the consumption of dogs and cats as well and increase the penalty for cruelty to animals, and aims to collect 10,000 signatures before World Animal Day on October 4.

Basically, Furry Friends Farm is pushing for the increase of the penalty for cruelty to animals from RM200 and six months jail to a minimum fine of RM10,000 and a minimum jail term of two years including compulsory community service to be carried out in an animal shelter for a minimum of four hours a day during the jail term.

Probably the best-known resident of the farm is Joy, a stray mongrel who was found brutally beaten at a construction site in 2006. When Sabrina discovered him, Joy was almost on his last legs, with his broken lower jaw dangling dangerously. Joy’s jaw was so damaged that it had to be removed permanently and today, four years later, even without a lower jaw, he is a happy, healthy and friendly dog who takes a little longer to eat but enjoys his food, nonetheless. The culprits, believed to be the foreign workers on the site, remained unidentified and unpunished.

The event was organised partly to raise funds for the Furry Friends Farm, which now houses 180 dogs and 80 cats, mostly strays which have been rescued in the Klang Valley. The farm is run on donations, sponsorships and contributions and it runs through 80 kgs of rice and 200 eggs a day. So far, they have only managed to rehome 10 dogs and 10 cats, as Sabrina will not foster out the pets to just anybody. They have to prove that they can take care of the animals lovingly, giving them the care they need. And she prefers proper homes, rather than nurseries or factories.

To help raise funds during the event, Yuri Grooming Centre was on hand to groom the wet dogs for a token sum, which would be donated to the farm. The dogs would be shampooed, bathed and blow-dried. Some of them would have their nails clipped. As with the pool, some took to the grooming, better than others.

Eiffel, a golden retriever, closed her eyes in bliss as two groomers worked on drying her coat while one little Schnauzer screamed the place down when they brought her into contact with a hairdryer. She only quietened down when her owner came over and held her while the groomers worked.

A little further on, there were doggie dresses for sale, also to raise funds for the farm. Kevin Ho picked out an outfit for Jingle, his little Shih Tzu who looked contentedly out at the world from her master’s arms, her front hair caught up in a tiny pink ribbon.

She had splashed about happily, been groomed to perfection and was now arrayed in a new dress.

Life couldn’t be better.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Joyful, Joyful

This is a grand finale that takes my breath away and every time I watch it after a long time, my heart and my eyes fill up.

May it brighten your day as well.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012


I've just written out a birthday card to an old lecturer; earlier I interviewed a woman who was a dynamo...I felt breathless just listening to her and, there are people like that, people who don't get overwhelmed or depressed. People who can keep going and going, without breaking down; people who have it all together.

Last night I was at the Backyard pub with Sharon and Sue-Ann. Mark has added to his repertoire and I was blown away. Wow! Tomorrow, if I finish early enough (depends on what time we close), I'll go see him at Queens in Bangsar.

My life is full of trailing after Troubadours.

Thursday night. Saturday night. My friends are joining me on Saturday night...I'm looking forward to it.

I went with Addy last Saturday - it was kind of spontaneous and we didn't know the place but we ended up loving the place and (most of) the music...and just having a blast.

Sometimes, it's simple things that give you joy.

Other times, it's layers upon layers upon layers....tangled threads all interviewed, a scrap of poetry here, a splash of colour there...finding the perfect word to describe something...a phrase, an expression on someone's face. A sudden breeze that starts up and ruffles my hair.






Monday, 26 March 2012

A Finding Place

I had no one to help me, but the T.S. Eliot helped me.

So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn't be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language - and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers - a language powerful enough to say how it is.

It isn't a hiding place. It is a finding place.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, Jeanette Winterson

Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Professor and the Visionary

By Jennifer Jacobs

When Bangladesh-born Professor Mohammad A. Quayum first came to Malaysia to teach at the Universiti Pertanian Malaysia in 1996, he found that the institution of higher learning did not have an English Literature department.

When he asked his head of department why this was, that worthy replied that literature was frankly out of date. No need for a whole department; it was being offered as a minor in the education faculty. And that should suffice.

The professor was nonplussed. Where he came from, literature was the lifeblood of society. Little children read everything from the poets to the great writers. Nearly every child had grown up with the works of Rabindranath Tagore, for instance, the man whose poems were used for not one but two national anthems – India and Bangladesh’s.

There was no writer of a similar stature in Malaysia. And he was beginning to see why. “I told my head of department that he was wrong. Literature is very vital to any society. And I showed him a book that listed out the faculty in each department at Oxford University. I asked him to count the number of staff in computer science department. There were about 25. Then I asked him to count the number of staff in the English Literature department. There were about 100.

Obviously the UK is a very advanced society. So if literature was so outdated why were they placing such an emphasis on it? I told him that it showed that although they wanted to advance materially, they were not prepared to do so at the expense of their culture.”

In this simple, homespun way he convinced his head of department who took him to see the dean. “I repeated the same things to him, provided him with more information, and eventually convinced him of the importance of having an English Literature Department. When we started out, I had only six students majoring in literature. When I left UPM in 2003, there were 62. Now they’re even offering a master’s and PhD in English literature. And that is something I’m proud of.”

But it was not enough to have started a Literature Department. What the country needed to do was to produce writers of stature. And to help the public appreciate the writers who had been plugging away at the task for a while now, in the face of many obstacles and opposition.

In ‘Malaysian Literature in English: A Critical Reader’, Quayum and his co-writer Peter Wicks highlighted the major writers of this tradition: Lloyd Fernando, Lee Kok Liang, Ee Tiang Hong, Wong Phui Nam, K.S. Maniam, Shirley Lim and Kee Thuan Chye.

Quayum realized that they received next to no critical attention. And while the English departments in Malaysian universities may have set these texts for their courses, there was hardly any consideration of their work in peer-reviewed journals. In his book, ‘One Sky, Many Horizons’, a collection of essays on Malaysian literature in English published in 2007, he observes: “…there is a dearth of criticism for English language writers. There is no literary journal dedicated to writings in English. Their works are rarely reviewed in local newspapers and whatever attention they get is also questionable.”

The famous author, playwright and critic T.S. Eliot had pointed out in his seminal essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ that criticism is as inevitable as breathing. The task of the critic, then, is to ease, widen or deepen the readers’ response to literary works, functioning as an intermediary who helps to create the nexus between the reader and the writer.

But for this to happen, the critic has to both astute and independent. Not an easy combination, especially in a country like Malaysia which lacks writerly freedom and where, as Mokhtar Taib famously says, in reference to Malay literature, critics are often afraid of criticizing their friend’s work or the writing of national laureates because they fear losing friends or being excommunicated and marginalized by the powerful other.

“When I first came here, I realized that there was hardly any work being done on Malaysian literature in English. So I came up with an anthology of short stories for Malaysian and Singaporean writers because I was teaching at the Nanyang Polytechnic before I came here. Since then I’ve done quite a few anthologies and written books of critical essays on Malaysian and Singaporean writers.”

In most cultures, the writers shape society. In Malaysia, this has not been the case. Quayum, talking about the writers who use the English language as their medium, points out that they have come up against a whole host of barriers, not least of which is the absence of a local English language writing tradition. He points out in ‘One Sky’ that the absence of tradition makes the task of writers particularly difficult as they depend on tradition for their examples and inspiration. “As a first step towards establishing tradition, the writers will need to alter the language by giving it a more local flair and by infusing more ‘local blood’ into it. This will require considerable negotiation skills and creativity on the part of the writer.”

But although Quayum is firmly committed to the growth of a uniquely Malaysian literary tradition, his heart is now in translation, especially of Bengali literature, into English. And who better to translate than Rabindranath Tagore, the writer dearest to every Bengali heart? He recently published ‘Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Short Stories’, which contains some 19 short stories, in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of that great writer’s birth.

“I was 11 years old when my father gave me a collection of Tagore’s short stories and I’ve been reading him since then. Although outside the Indian subcontinent he is known as a poet, he was also the founder of the short story form in Bengali literature.”

 How did he pick the stories? “Tagore wrote 95 short stories and I couldn’t translate all of them. So I settled for the very best, by reputation and appeal.”

He launched his book at a celebration to mark Tagore’s 150th birthday, organized by the Indian High Commission and the Indian Cultural Centre. Quayum said he would never, however, attempt to translate Tagore’s poetry. “It is very hard to translate poetry. In fact, as Robert Frost once pointed out, poetry is what gets lost in the translation.”

However, Tagore’s prose is very poetic, and Quayum has tried to make his translations as faithful to the original, as possible. “But there are times when you are trying to translate cultural conventions and that is difficult. You have to understand that Tagore was a Hindu writer and I’m a Muslim. So really, I had to do a lot of research of Hinduism to understand the cultural practices, mythologies, religious values and so on.”

 Quayum started teaching Bengali literature at the State University of New York at Binghamton (Binghamton University) in 2003. He is still teaching Bengali literature at the International Islamic University in Malaysia today.

“I’ve been living outside Bangladesh for 29 years now. Keeping away from the culture and the country while writing about it is not easy. You’re looking at it from a distance. In some ways it helps you gain perspective. In others, you are not able to keep up with the latest developments,” he says. But he grew up with the stories and the poems and so they are in his blood.

And to him the stories are more than just stories. They are radical and reformist, exploring the problems of the society at the time and provide gentle hints about the way Tagore thought it should be. The story ‘Kabuliwala’, for instance, is about a friendship that springs up between a Kabuliwala (an Afghan street vendor who sells dried fruit) and a little girl, Mini.

“In the early days of the 20th century, many Afghanis would come to Calcutta for business. One day, the protagonist who is an author and obviously a shadow of Tagore himself, is sitting with his daughter who sees the Kabuliwala passing their house and calls out to him to come in. There is a bonding between the little girl and the man. And he comes to visit her every day bringing her presents of fruits and nuts.

“One day, he is sent to jail for injuring a man who took some money from him and refused to acknowledge the debt. When he comes out of jail, the first thing he does is look for Mini, who by a strange coincidence, is getting married on that day. Mini’s father and the Kabuliwala realize that the latter should go back to Afghanistan and re-establish a relationship with his own daughter whom he hasn’t seen in his eight years in jail. In fact, they realize that he is so drawn to Mini because she reminds him of his own daughter.”

Quayum describes the story as an absolutely moving one which transcends many barriers: “Firstly, he’s trying to create an inter-religious relationship and show that fatherly love transcends all religious barriers. Secondly, Tagore was a Brahmin and in those days it was taboo for a Brahmin to have a Muslim in his house. And thirdly it spoke about father-daughter relationships in general. At the time, fathers did not love their daughters as much as they loved their sons. Tagore is showing that is OK to love your daughter, and Mini is an only child who spends all her time with her father rather than her mother.

This father-daughter bonding was a role model for people in Indian society.” In this way, each story is radical in its own way, questioning a woman’s lowly place in society, or the oppression of the lower castes and even, the holy of holies, nationalism itself.

Quayum pointed out that while people outside India knew Tagore as a poet because he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 for his most famous work, Gitanjali, he was actually a tremendous reformist. “India’s history is one of riots between the Hindus and the Muslims. Tagore was trying to build a bridge between the two.”

And while he was good friends with Gandhi and respected him, conferring on him the title “Mahatma”, the two actually did not see eye to eye in terms of politics. “Gandhi believed in the idea of the charka or spinning wheel, which is still in the middle of the Indian flag. To him that was the main symbol of Indian identity. He said Indians contributed cloth to modern civilization and going back to the spinning wheel was a way of reclaiming their national pride.

“Tagore said all this was nonsense; what the people needed were more schools. So he established a university of his own which has produced many great minds such as Amartya Sen, the leading economist and Nobel Prize winner and Indira Gandhi,” he says.

Basically, Tagore wanted India to move in a different direction. “He said if India gains independence from the British only a handful of middle class people would benefit. What it really needed was an internal freedom; freedom for the untouchables, freedom for the women. Tagore pointed out that unless Indians were prepared to reform their society, this political freedom brought about by the independence was not going to bring freedom for the masses.”

He believed that India could be a role model for the world. “He used to say that Europe was one people divided into many countries. India, on the other hand, was many people living in one country. So India stood for the future of the world and could serve as a role model on how to create a global society through the unity of various races and religions.”

Basically, Tagore was a man ahead of his time: “We talk about about globalization now; he was talking about it then, in the 1920s.”

Quayum disagreed with the popular perception of Tagore as a mystical writer which came about after his collection of mystical poems, the Gitanjali, achieved worldwide acclaim when he won the Nobel Prize. But how did a translation of his poems land up in the hands of the Swedish Academy in the first place?

“When he visited England in 1912, he became friends with poets W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound. He recited some verses from the Gitanjali to them (in Bengali) and the two were mesmerized by the music of the words, although they didn’t understand what he was saying.

“They asked him to translate it and Yeats was so enthralled with the result that he wrote an introduction to it and sent it off to the Swedish Academy. The Swedish Academy awarded Tagore the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, sparking outrage among Westerners who had never heard of the Indian writer and could not even pronounce his name. It was supposed to have gone to English novelist Thomas Hardy that year,” explains Quayum.

Ezra Pound once paid Tagore the greatest tribute, saying that although he had read many poets, Tagore was the greatest of them all. And he had come to this conclusion after carefully considering the matter for a month.

“The Gitanjali is a mystical book and it fits in with the popular Western perception of India as a place of mysticism. But Tagore is a greater writer when it comes to social and political issues. He gave lectures in America and Japan against nationalism. Nobody has highlighted those writings and I think it is important to do so,” he says.

Quayum has also published a second book on Tagore in conjunction with the anniversary. It is a collection of essays entitled ‘The Poet and His World: Critical Essays on Rabindranath Tagore’ and it discusses the various aspects of his life, writings and philosophy. The essays are written by various noted Tagore scholars and Quayum has included his own article about how Tagore perceived the Muslims.

“The Bangladesh national anthem is one of Tagore’s poems and the fanatics don’t like that. They always try to project him as someone who glorified Hinduism and oppressed the Muslims. I have responded by saying that he loved the Muslims as much as he loved the Hindus because Tagore was a lover of humanity. And because he was a humanistic writer and wanted to create a global society, religion was never a barrier for him.”

The professor grows especially passionate as he expounds on this theory: “The mark of greatness is the ability to rise above religious differences and see human beings as human beings. Our primary identity is that we belong to the human community. Of course we each have our culture, religious and gender identity but beyond that all, we belong to one human community.

“To understand this is important for the redemption of humanity. If we keep fighting along racial and religious lines, there will be no end to it. We’ve been fighting about religion for centuries now. What has happened? Who has won? There can’t be any winner when the environment continues to be violent. There can only be bloodshed. And hatred only begets more hatred. What we need is mutual respect. What we need is to be able to see that while you may be different, at the core, your essence is the same.”

The lecturer pauses, smiles and loses some of his gravity. He has said what he has to say. When he resumes, he is talking once again about creating a body of literature in Malaysia. “I keep saying if the IIU cannot produce a great writer in 20 years, we should close down our English department. There’s no point in having one if we cannot produce a few respectable writers.” Not that there haven’t been any. Quayum admits that the department has produced a few stars who are looked upon as its future.

“We have a very young lecturer who obtained a first class when she was studying here. She went on to do her master’s in Cambridge and now she is doing her doctorate in Germany. She is extremely bright and the future of this department. We have another lecturer who also got a first class and went on to do her master’s in the department. Now she is writing a lot of poetry. That is what we want.

“What’s the use of having people like us sitting around, teaching English literature? We are not looking to produce application writers or purveyors of entertainment fiction. We want to produce literary writers, poets, playwrights; people who have something to say, people who are willing to shape society. Otherwise we become irrelevant,” he points out. Quayum, who also lectures in Australia, says creative writing courses are very big there, but have yet to catch on in Malaysia.

“But really, I think if a society wants to grow culturally, it has to produce writers. If you argue a lack of creative and political freedom, my response would be that you have to push the parameters and that is the responsibility of the intellectuals in society. That is the responsibility of the writers.”

The professor himself continues to write. To date, he has published 21 books, not to mention numerous articles in peer-reviewed journals. “I teach for a living, and I love it, but that is not what sustains me. It’s my research, my writing, my translation, my publications. I became a professor 10 years ago, which means I have nothing left to strive for as far as my academic career is concerned. So people ask why I still write so prolifically.

“I tell them, I don’t do it for promotions and I’m not a point collector. I write because there is something inside urging me to do it. In fact, I can’t sleep unless I do. Whether its translation or critical writing, I have to write every day. It’s part of my system. Sometimes I don’t set pen to paper but I turn the words around in my head. And this is what feeds my soul. And this is what gives me spiritual and moral nourishment.”

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Making Merry

As someone who is unutterably bored by work and would prefer to spend all my times baking cakes and cookies and making up gift baskets (for pleasure, not profit), I totally agree with Tom Hodgkinson. You know the guy? Read "How To Be Free"? Well, you should.

Anyway, I'm excerpting something from the book, the bit about Merrie Olde England....and why it was called that.

Seems apposite. That's one place I would have loved to live.


The tragedy of the 19th century was that Western man came to see himself, first and foremost, as a worker. Life became a serious business. Frivolity, mirth, play, ritual, dance, music, merriment, dressing up: those childish pleasures, all central parts of life for the nobles, priests and peasants of old, had been under constant attack since the middle of the 16th century.

Before the Reformation, England was one non-stop party. It really was merry. Ronald Hutton, author of a splendid book called The Rise and Fall of Merry England, writes of the all-year-round festivities of the merry English. Christmas, for example, lasted a full 12 days, during which time you were not allowed to do any work. This was quickly followed on 2 February by a holiday known as Candlemas and then more merriment on St Valentine's Day on the 14th. Then came Shrovetide, which started on the seventh Sunday before Easter and lasted for 3 days. Easter lasted a full 10 days, till the festival of Hocktide. There was just time for a bit of work. Then there was St George's Day on 23 April, another day off. A week after that came May Day, of course, which marked the first day of two months of merry-making and sex in the woods. Then there was 23 June, or Midsummer Eve, and the feast of Corpus Christi. Then came St Peter's Eve on 28 June, followed by Lammas on 1 August, opening a season of summer fairs and harvest suppers. In November came Martinmas, followed by the fasting of Advent, and then it was back to Christmas once again.


Be a jack of all trades; abandon perfectionism. Embrace the creed of the amateur. Do it for love, not money. A spade, a saw and a chisel, that is all you need to be free.

In play is freedom, says Huizinga, because it is self-directed and voluntary:

Child and animal play because they enjoy playing, and therein precisely lies their freedom. Be that as it may, for the adult and responsible human being, play is a function which he could equally well leave alone. Play is superfluous. The need for it is only urgent to the extent that the enjoyment of it makes a need. Play can be deferred or suspended at any time. It is never imposed by physical necessity, or moral duty. It is never a task. It is done at leisure, during 'free time'. Only when play is a recognised cultural function - a rite, a ceremony - is it bound up with notions of obligation and duty. Here then, we have the main characteristic of play: that it is free, is in fact freedom.

We need to make all of our time free. Do what we like all day long. Do nothing all day long. Much about all day long.

If you enjoy your work, then it's not work. As my friend Sarah says, the trick to living free is to wake up every morning and screech: "Morning, Lord, what have you got for me today?" She maintains that this really works. Freedom can start today, right now. You can change your life in one second. Freedom is a state of mind.

Friday, 23 March 2012

The Counter Image

I found this in a book I was supposed to read and review. I loved the image so much I thought I would put it here. I couldn't find the image on the net. I think it must still be a "work in progress". But what a lovely thought.

(The following is from Jonathan Field's Uncertainty, a book I would definitely recommend)

After decades as a director of stage plays and movies, repeated exposure to one of history's most horrific clips of documentary film - bodies being dumped like refuse into a mass grave during the Holocaust - left him rattled to the point of needing to find or create the opposite countering image.

The solution came in a dream, as detailed and vivid as a movie: a massive wave, populated by 55 people of all sizes and shapes frolicking and surfing in a state of absolute bliss. A mental snapshot of the absolute peak, as the wave's crest coincided with a collective state of maximum joy, would become Wallace's "blueprint" for a life-size metal sculpture that he felt compelled to create.


If you want to hear him tell it in his own words, watch the following clip:

Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Fringe Benefits of Failure (JK Rowling's Harvard Commencement Speech 2008)

The first thing I would like to say is ‘thank you.’ Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honour, but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and convince myself that I am at the world’s largest Gryffindor reunion.

Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I thought until I cast my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in writing this one, because it turns out that I can’t remember a single word she said. This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, the law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.

You see? If all you remember in years to come is the ‘gay wizard’ joke, I’ve come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step to self improvement.

Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that have expired between that day and this.

I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.

These may seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but please bear with me.

Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation, is a slightly uncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old that she has become. Half my lifetime ago, I was striking an uneasy balance between the ambition I had for myself, and what those closest to me expected of me.

I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever, was to write novels. However, my parents, both of whom came from impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that would never pay a mortgage, or secure a pension. I know that the irony strikes with the force of a cartoon anvil, now.

So they hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study English Literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern Languages. Hardly had my parents’ car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.

I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all the subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.

I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you. What is more, I cannot criticise my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticised only by fools.

What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.

At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at university, where I had spent far too long in the coffee bar writing stories, and far too little time at lectures, I had a knack for passing examinations, and that, for years, had been the measure of success in my life and that of my peers.

I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.

However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person’s idea of success, so high have you already flown.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.

So given a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

Now you might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I personally will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. This revelation came in the form of one of my earliest day jobs. Though I was sloping off to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working at the African research department at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London.

There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes.

Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to speak against their governments. Visitors to our offices included those who had come to give information, or to try and find out what had happened to those they had left behind.

I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting him back to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.

And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just had to give him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed.

Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.

Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard, and read.

And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.

Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.

What is more, those who choose not to empathise enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.

One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people’s lives simply by existing.

But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people’s lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world’s only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.

I am nearly finished. I have one last hope for you, which is something that I already had at 21. The friends with whom I sat on graduation day have been my friends for life. They are my children’s godparents, the people to whom I’ve been able to turn in times of trouble, people who have been kind enough not to sue me when I took their names for Death Eaters. At our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our shared experience of a time that could never come again, and, of course, by the knowledge that we held certain photographic evidence that would be exceptionally valuable if any of us ran for Prime Minister.

So today, I wish you nothing better than similar friendships. And tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom:

As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.

I wish you all very good lives. Thank you very much.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

How To Look 10 Months Younger

"How old are you?" he asks casually, like it's a polite question and not one that comes under “never ask a woman this if you don’t want her stiletto in your face” category.

"40 years and what month is it now, March? Well 40 years and 4 months exactly," I answer because firstly, I don’t wear stilettos and secondly, it is one my affectations to always answer this question without hesitation. (The other is that I insist on using a fountain pen rather than a Blackberry).

"Wow. You don't look your age at all. In fact, if you hadn't told me, I would have not pegged you at over 39 years and 6 months," he chuckles heartily.

I am stunned. 10 whole months younger! I must be doing something right. But what? There has been no botox, no eyebag surgery, no liposuction, no RM500 scar remover, no fad diet, no magical anti-aging creams, no Pilates, no personal trainer, no yoga routine, no transcendental meditation.

So I ponder on the good fortune of looking 10 months younger than my age without any associated effort and expense and try and figure out what my secret is so I can share it. I don’t get very far. So I try to summarise the things I do normally, because ostensibly they would be contributing factors. Bingo!

So here it is, painstakingly compiled for you, dear readers (all one of you) Jay’s Secret to Looking 10 Months Younger Than Your Age Without Even Trying:

1.Be a bum: Now, this one may seem obvious but it’s surprising how many people feel compelled to work. If you really have to work, try and stay out of the office as much as possible. Being away from the egos and the jostling for power of the petty bureaucrats will probably shave a couple of months off your biological age.

2. Lose your temper often. Repression is not good for you. When you lose your temper you let it out. And that’s for the best.

3. Toss off phrases like “I don’t like idiots” and “I don’t suffer fools gladly” and then don’t: Suffering fools, gladly or otherwise, adds lines to the face and pepper to your hair. Soon the fools will give you a wide berth and you may lose your job, but hey, this is not about keeping your job, it is about looking younger than your age.

4. Eat more chocolate: You see, it’s all about being happy and more chocolate makes everyone happier. Gorge yourself silly!

5. Have brief forays into alcoholism: during which you write suicidal poetry: Read lots of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, paint yourself lips and fingernails black and recite Lady Lazarus in lugubrious tones. Sing “Stolen Car” by Springsteen for added effect.

6. Go for long walks at the Bukit Kiara arboretum (or any arboretum for that matter): You will probably notice how all the geriatrics are much fitter than you and overtake you with ease. You will sulk awhile and come home to eat a whole tub of ice cream. This will make you happy which will contribute to your general sense of well-being.

7. Hang out with people who are a lot older than you: I’m talking 50 years older. Then everybody will look on you as the kid. And there’s nothing like everyone considering you a kid to feel well and truly youthful. You may have to develop some parlour tricks or the older people will not want to hang out with you. These are people who have actual conversations so you might want to read a bit and polish up on your conversational skills.

8. Go through periodic bouts of intense depression: I know this may seem counter-intuitive but it’s all part of the cathartic process. And didn’t Aristotle believe in the power of catharsis? Who are we to argue with a genius?

9. Cuddle something: It may be your Mummy, your cat, your dog, your teddy bear. I think cuddling is good for our health, has youthing effects and costs nothing. There was a study done where these rabbits were fed stuff that was supposed to give them heart disease. One group of the bunnies who were supposed to have popped off from their frightful diet, didn’t, just because the student administering the fatal feed, cuddled them. Which just goes to show…

10. If all else fails, learn to make really good desserts: You can bribe your friends (if you have any left) into saying that you look 10 months younger.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Peace, Be Still

1. Listening to Paul Simon's "Call Me Al" (I need a photo opportunity, I want a shot at redemption!)

2. Watching Shakespeare in Love. (Peace, be still, as Othello told Desdemona before he thrust a cushion in her face)

3. Reading Maria Headley's Year of Yes. (Why doesn't anyone crawl up to me on the subway to lick the mud-encrusted soles of my feet?)

4. Reading Lysistrata when I'm supposed to be doing something else.

5. Listening to Mark play. (especially when he sings, 'Mr Beer-belly, beer-belly, get these mutts away from me, I don't find this stuff amusing anymore')

6. Adorning my nails with purple glitter.

7. Hanging out with Nits at After Five, when Jairus is playing.

8. Gazing at my dove of peace carrying the olive branch tile.

9. Writing poetry with Katherine. Or prose. Or poetic prose. Or prosaic poetry.

10. Hanging out at the beach at midnight with Tristan, drinking cask wine and munching on prawn cocktails.

11. Making up friends to play with. (refer to 10)

12. Believing six impossible things before breakfast. (sometimes even seven)

13. Dancing to the music in my head.

14. Wearing flowers in my hair so I can pretend I'm in Hawaii.

15. Answering, ‘only to excess’ when someone asks me if I drink.

16. Drunk writing. Drunk texting. Drunk Facebook status-updating.

17. Talking to strangers on park benches. Or cafes. Or sidewalks

18. Hanging out with Jackie at a cafe where she has a book and I have a book and we are both free to be as anti-social as the good Lord made us.

19. Quoting Lewis Carroll to explain the Meaning of Life.

The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master - - that's all.'

20. Being a mass of contradictions and telling those who point it out that "...a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds..."


Be still.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Go On Then, Win A Book!

All this time, writing this blog, I wanted to do a giveaway. But somehow I never got around to it. So here, with less than two months of joy blogging to go, I'm finally doing it. The book above, which I absolutely loved, and from which comes the poem by Li Po, found elsewhere in these pages, that I love to quote.

Rules for entering:

1. Think of something that gives you joy

2. Write an essay on it (an essay being a loose term - it could be everything from a sentence to, well, an essay.

3. Post your "essay" in the comments section.

4. Email me your mailing address separately. If you have my email. If you don't, well, you'll just need to leave your email address in the comments section, and I'll email you to find out. Then you can email me back. Sounds complicated but since I expect no more than two entries for this, at most, it should not be.

5. You have one week from this date to submit your entry. After which, I terminate the contest, because obviously, despite the signs I've received I'm meant to keep this book and not pass it on.

Simple enough?

And now, for an excerpt from the book in question:

At five, lighter shades began to overprint the sky. Then the stars peeled away, and Ula Shaan's black bulk and the trees on the spine of the ridge gained shape. He looked south toward his birthplace, the village where he had lived until he entered the monastery at sixteen.

Tsung Tai was born during the hour of Shen on the eighteenth day of the third month of Kuei Hai, March 18, 1925, in Lan Huu, north of the Yellow River. The youngest of four children, he was named Pao Sheng but called San San, 'the third son of the third son' - a mystical incarnation, his father liked to tell anyone who would listen.

He could remember waking in his mother's arms and hearing the 'wooden fish,' his teacher's prayer clapper. When Shiuh Deng chanted alone in his cave, the village people said they could hear him; he whispered in their ears. They called him Red Foot Truth, after his habit of going barefoot in even the cruelest of Mongol winters. They believed he could fly.

When Tsung Tsai was eight, a mendicant monk, a bhikku, wandered into Lan Huu and set up shop under a tent umbrella. He cured the sick with his bell and crooked stick; with medicines compounded of barks, twigs, roots, and flowers, of powdered horn, bone and gland; and with a holy potion he made by blowing sacred words, three times, into boiling water. When he left the village, Tsung Tai followed. After a few hours, the old bhikku tired of the boy's company and, with a shower of stones and a threatening stick, sent him running home in tears.

When Tsung Tsai was 10, his father died suddenly, and the boy ran off alone to Sand Mountain to mourn. He spent nine days walking among those wondering dunes in the wind that is called "blowing sand and running stones". He found he could talk to the wild horses. They told him that one day he would find a lohan, a great saint, and become his disciple. Then, on the ninth day, he saw a star fall from the western sky, and he was certain that it was his father gone to the Pure Land.

The trail that followed the fall of the river, bending west around the mountain and climbing five thousand feet to the pass. It was 20km from the monastery to the face of Crow Pull Mountain and another 25km climb to his master's cave on the mountain's sheltered western slope. Tsung Tsai made his way steadily up through a forest of willow, cypress and rhododendron. The trees were battered to thinness and twisted to the east by the constant yellow wind that blew out of two of the world's most terrifying deserts - the Gobi, where dinosaur bones, the dragons of heaven, litter the sand, and the Taklimakan, which roughly translates "you come in but you don't come out." At the top of the pass, a wide valley view opened , extending uninterrupted to the eastern horizon, mile after mile of grass steppe - the nomad's ocean.

The sun had crossed noon and cleared the peak; from a south-facing crevice, Tsung Tsai picked a wild mountain orchid, a lady's slipper for Buddha. Lifting his head in the thin dry air, he caught the tang of wood smoke from his teacher's cook fire.

Tsung Tsai climbed the last steep face of gravel and boulder and reached the ridge; he found his teacher boiling millet for two in a can and staring into the glow of the fire. For more than 30 years, Shiuh Deng had eaten only soupy millet or gruel. He seemed weightless. Hollow cheeks, legs and arms wasted to skin and bone by the hard years.

As always, his teacher was waiting for him. No cry of welcome or surprise, for like many Tibetan and Chinese shamans, Shiuh Deng practiced not only mystical heat but telepathy.

The cave where Shiuh Deng had lived for the 30 years was at the back of the narrow cliff, cut under a knot of boulders. Its floor was swept and beaten flat. In winter, Tsung Tsai would pile bundles of dry grass in its mouth and slip away with his teacher for days, sometimes weeks at at a time, sitting on flat stones warmed by a small fire. Before Shiuh Deng, it had been occupied by another; Shiuh Guan, the lama who could walk on water, had wandered into Mongolia from Tibet toward the end of the 19th century. His ashes and a shinbone shard rested against the rear wall on a blunt stone shelf.

They ate in silence, using twigs as chopsticks. It was a lovely afternoon; the sun was warm on their faces and they sat as Siddhartha had, beset by sorrows and by demons, the night he became the Self-Awakened One.

No ear, nose, tongue,
no body or mind;
no form,
sound, smell, taste or touch.
No mind;
nor eye
until we come to...
no real of consciousness

Out of the silence, his teacher asked,"When?"

"Tomorrow, after evening practice."

In the long pause that followed, a yellow bird sang. Finally his teacher said, "I am too old."

Nothing more was said. Nothing more need be said. Nothing was missing. Everything was as it should be. As it always was. As it always would be. Even this dying. This goodbye.

A piece of the moon cut through the only cloud as Tsung Tsai walked down the mountain path. It was after midnight when he arrived at Puu Jih's gate. He wished there were another way, but there wasn't. That the monks would attempt to escape was never in question. There was no meeting. No vote. No decision. No choice. It was their duty to survive. To keep Buddha's true mind alive. It was their duty to their teacher as it would have been Shiuh Deng's duty to his teacher before him.

Because we are monks. Because we need freedom. Because we want to become Buddha.

On that last night, as Tsung Tsai slept, it turned sharply colder. How hard I am shivering. How the night drags on. He woke an hour before his brothers to exercise alone in the courtyard where the yellow wind of winter swirled.

At five, in the temple during the reading of Tzao Keh, the early morning lesson, his breath froze.

At six, during Nien Fu, speaking Buddha's name, a fast-moving low blew in out of Siberia. The coal in the incense burner hissed; and for the last morning, the voices of the monks could be heard rising from Puu Jiih:

Namo Amita Fu, all praise to the Buddha.

At seven, after a breakfast of boiled cabbage, as snow fell in sunshine, Tsung Tsai remembered the sweet taste of his mother's milk; the flavour of her breath when she bent down to kiss his cheek; and the poem "Frost Plum" which his father would recite on the occasion of the first snow of winter.

I counted
on two or three
ice flowers

newly dressed
by the wind
it grows

clear twilight
shallow shadows

and I copy
one sentence
of Linn Pau's

At nine, the monks began three hours of meditation, alternating rounds, each eight inches of incense long, first walking, then sitting blankness.

No ignorance
and also no ending of ignorance,
until we come to no old age
and death
and no ending of old age
and death.

The noon meal was boiled cabbage again and tea.

"I ate emptiness also," Tsung Tsai would later say.

The first break in the daily routine came that afternoon. The monks took off their robes and donned the baggy-patched and faded blue thick-quilted pants and jackets worn by all Chinese peasant farmers. The clothes hung loosely on bony frames; Mao caps with ear flaps covered shaven heads.

Tsung Tsai folded his robes. Then he went to the library and spent the rest of the day reading.

Lao Tzu, the Old Master, for strength and direction:

What is softest in the world
drives what is hardest

Li Po, the legend of the T'ang dynasty, who drowned drunk while trying to embrace a reflection, his own, in a moon-filled pond:

full of wine
night comes
falling blossoms
fill my robes
still drunk
but getting up
I wade
after the moon
when the birds have gone
and people are few

Tu Fu, the other giant of the T'ang, for the pain of poetry and exile:

forced to wander
I return alive
but only by chance
and so day after day I grieve
that again
I may have to flee
and wonder how to risk
or even think
of going home.

That evening, in near darkness - an oil lamp was the only light in the room - the monks of Puu Jih Monastery gathered for a last meal. Two facing lines of six Buddha heads bent in contemplation: Tsung Jieh, 'Ancestor Vigilance'; Shyang, 'Joy'; Fah, 'Dharma'; Shyr, 'Reality'; Jyh, 'Aspiration'; Wei, 'Dignity'; Hrng, 'Greatness'; Jenq, 'Witness'; Hang, 'Work'; Shiou, 'Practice'; Jiann, 'Miracle'; and finally, Tsung Tsai, 'Ancestor Wisdom'.

Potatoes, cabbage and weak tea. Nothing more. There was nothing left but evening practice and their escape. There were a few ways out, all dangerous. The oldest, Tsung Jieh, would lead the rest of his brothers west and south by various routes, toward Nepal and India. Tsung Tsai, the youngest, would walk alone, due south into the heart of chaos, toward Hong Kong.

It would have been about 10 o'clock, after evening practice, when Tsung Tsai decided to carry with him A Thousand Pieces of Snow, two hundred verses on the winter plum. He knew the risk. If the book were discovered by the militia, it would be his death sentence. But it had belonged to his grandfather, and his father after him. It was his legacy, perhaps all that would survive of his family, his culture. Carefully., he tore along strips of cotton from his robes, and tied the book of poems around his waist, under his clothes.

Next he picked up the rice paper scroll that lay on his writing table. It was his monk's certificate, the only other thing he would carry with him. It had been given to Tsung Tsai five years earlier, in the 32nd year of the Republic, 1954, after 13 years of study when Shiuh Deng had decided that he was ready. Gorgeously scribed and sealed, it was first given to monks in the T'ang dynasty to ensure their safe passage through the Middle Kingdom and was last modified in the fourteenth century by the Ming Emperor Hung Wu:

To inform all monks in all temples throughout the kingdom that any walking boys who might want to travel to various places to learn the precepts and study the sutras, listen to and learn from religious instructors, or to practice dhyana must be allowed to do so, whether in a temple or in a grove or on a mountain.

For Tsung Tsai, the monk in hiding, it would be a private passport, a personal proof of continuity, a reminder that this insanity was but a blot on 5,000 years of history. He smoothed the certificate with the back of his hand, then folded it in half three times. He took off his padded jacket and, with monkish precision, made a small cut in the lining and slipped the certificate between layers of cotton batting. Then he mended the open seam with tiny stitches. Satisfied that his handiwork was invisible, he put on the jacket, went to the kitchen, and filled his pockets with potatoes.

The monks' evening chants filled the temple. Then it was over. One by one the monks of Puu Jih filed past Buddha, lit an incense stick, bowed, and left the temple. No one looked back. Puu Jih was finished. Incense fumed in the bronze lotus boat, rising to the smoke-stained beams like clouds.

As they crossed the courtyard toward the front gate, the monks found Shiuh Deng waiting for them beneath the winter plum. He stepped out from the shadows, his robes blowing around him, his face lit by the faint waver of candles from the temple.

The monks bowed to their master, amazed that he had descended the mountain at night. But the time for ceremony had passed. He grasped each of them by the shoulders and held them for a moment. To Tsung Tsai he said, "Everywhere are hungry ghosts. Go quickly. Keep a strong mind."

Tsung Tsai said nothing. There was nothing to say, no gesture for endings. Soon, he knew, his teacher would forget the world, forget himself, simply let go, and die. He feared his older brothers too would soon be dead, and he could not contemplate the emptiness of the world without them.

Let us, like snow, whirl away, he thought.

So he turned and walked into the future.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

To The Brink Of Deliverance

I can't help it. Despite it all, I'm a romantic. I love the concept and not the reality.

My bounty is as boundless as the sea
the more I give to thee
the more I have
for both are infinite.

So I listened to this song, over and over again.