Friday, 31 July 2009

Notes to close this month of July

July is a birthday month for me. Nothing really spectacular happened this time around except for the experience of my first gout attack. As I ponder on the addition of another year that the Almighty has extended me, I cannot help but reflect on other events that happened in our country this month.

While birth is the beginning of one's journey in this world, death signifies the end. The deaths of two personalities brought about controversies, albeit for different reasons. I wasn't intending to post about something sombre but the following are my observations on this, and other issues.

1. Will be missing those sentimental TV ads

The talented film director/producer Yasmin Ahmad, passed away on 25 July 2009. She collapsed during a business meeting at Sri Pentas (TV3) and slipped into a coma. Although surgery was done at Damansara Specialist Hospital, Yasmin did not make it.

It is not necessary for me to list out her achievements in film-making. Her movies won international awards but failed to gain the recognition of her peers in the local film industry. Why is this so? We can only speculate.

Her movies touched on subject matters that most other local producers dare not explore. Things like inter-racial romance and religious understanding. Some consider her movies to be controversial but to me, she's simply telling the true face of our society... the prejudices, the mistrust, the differences, the cooperation and the understanding. It is a pity that there are some among us who cannot see beyond our narrow self-interest.

Even in death, allahyarham Yasmin is tailed by controversy. A local Malay daily newspaper published stories of her in an apparently distasteful manner and this has prompted journalists from other publications to launch a protest to that paper's publisher. What surprised me was that it took the demise of a talented individual for the journalistic circle in Malaysia to realise the lousy reporting standards some journalists and editors have practiced. If something good can come out of this, then the nation owes Yasmin a lot more. May Allah swt bless her soul.

Yasmin's death reminded me of what happened to my cousin a few years ago. The way my cousin died is very similar. She was a lecturer at UiTM and was having dinner with some friends at a restaurant in Subang Jaya. During the after-dinner chat, she felt a sharp pain in her head and then collapsed. Her friends rushed her to the nearby SJMC. The doctors said a blood vessel in her brain had burst. She went into a coma and two days later, left us forever. She was in her late 40's.

2. Death under interrogation?

On the 16th of the month, the nation was shocked to read of the death of Teoh Beng Hock, the political aide of a Selangor Exco. Teoh's body was found on the fifth floor podium roof of a building that housed the Malaysian Anti Corruption Commission's Selangor headquarters.

Teoh had been summoned by MACC to answer questions relating to an investigation of purported misuse of the state assemblymen's allocations. The circumstances of his death are most mysterious. Did he fall? Was he pushed? Was he killed first and then thrown out of a higher window? Is is suicide?

The general public were told not to speculate and not to make it a political issue. Under these conditions, how not to speculate? You tell me. And of course it's a political issue because the deceased was a political aide and the MACC investigation involves politicians!

An inquest is presently in progress, although some parties had pressured for a Royal Commission of Inquiry. I'm not sure if that would make any difference because, as I recall, the last RCI conducted on a top lawyer (who said that a video recording of a person, looked and sounded like him, but was not him) doesn't seem to be getting anywhere.

Nonetheless, I do hope the authorities get to the truth of the matter. Whoever caused Teoh Beng Hock's death must be brought to book.

3. The necessity of recycling

Still on the subject of death. Around two weeks ago, my mother told me that the grave of my youngest brother who died at birth, would be unearthed and his remains be repacked and shifted elsewhere. He is buried at a very small plot in the Muslim cemetery of Pusara Aman in Singapore.

Due to scarcity of land, the Singaporean authorities have decided that the graves of Muslims who have been dead for more than twenty years, would be unearthed. The remains from eight graves would be grouped and re-buried together in a presumably much smaller plot. This would free the original cemetery to be re-used for future `occupants'.

You have to hand it to the Singaporeans to come up with ideas on recyling. They are already experts on recycling sewage water. They are now doing the same for burial plots. Muslims in Malaysia should count their blessings.

The exhumation was carried out on a working day and my mother informed me too late for me to take leave. Otherwise I would have liked to be there. I've been to my brother's grave only two or three times. I didn't get to see him when he was born... I was studying in the UK at the time. If he is alive today, he would be 29-years old.

To Mohd Taufik, the little brother that I have not met... if by the grace of Allah swt, we cross paths in the hereafter, do say hello to your eldest brother, will you?

4. No escape from the taxman

The two things in life that you cannot run away from are death and taxes. And it seems that the taxman is not giving me a break at all.

When I completed my income tax returns at the end of April, I calculated that my total monthly tax deductions is more than the tax payable. I was therefore, expecting a refund from the Inland Revenue Board. However, in early May, I received a letter from IRB saying that my account does not show any credit that can be refunded. But the letter does not give any details on how much I owe them.

Last week, IRB sent me another letter saying that they have instructed my employer to further deduct from my salary, a total of RM4,986.01 spread over the next 7 months. How they arrived at this amount, they didn't say. No calculations, no details, no explanation. Nothing. Just the instruction to cut.

The folks at IRB must be so heartless. The language in their letters is so dry. They should include an explanation or two on why they are taking away more of our money. At the very least, they should include the name of the person in charge of our account so that we can call for clarification. So much for the new administration's `Rakyat Didahulukan, Pencapaian Diutamakan' approach.

5. Art and charity

One way to reduce the amount of tax you pay to the government is to donate to charity. But this applies only to charities that have obtained the approval of IRB. The charity that I want to talk about next is not on IRB's approved list... maybe not yet, I do hope sometime in future (actually I'm just making a feeble attempt to link the previous thread with this one).

I was most heartened to read that blogger-friend Pak Zawi is helping to organize a sort of online bidding process for a piece of drawing done by En. Mazeri Othman aka Deen. The objective of the bidding is to set up a benevolent fund known as Tabung Kebajikan Tok Sangkut. The first piece on offer is an oil painting named Grandma's Mangosteen.

Do pop over to Pak Zawi's blog to learn more about the charity. Alternatively Pak Zawi has set up a special blog to handle the online bidding here -> Tok Sangkut Benevolent Fund. Your's truly has made the second bid.

The artist Deen also has his own blog that can be accessed here -> Exploring and relaxing the countryside.

It's nice to end this post with the story of an honourable effort. Let us see what the month of August, our merdeka month, has in store for us.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Getting better

Thanks to all blogger friends and readers who wished me well. The pain in my left leg is almost gone now and I was already back at work today. Only a hint of the swelling is left and I believe it should disappear by tomorrow.

This incident has added another leaf in the `Pain' chapter of my life experience history. I do hope to avoid another such experience, if at all possible. The lesson has been learnt... I have to watch what I eat.

So consumption of red meats, anchovies, beans, lentils and certain seafood need to be controlled so that the cholesterol and uric acid levels can be kept in check. Hmm... this can be quite a challenging task. And with the Muslim fasting month coming up, how can I not be tempted by all those delicious juadah buka puasa?

Since my leg is better today, we went out for dinner at the BBQ Chicken Restaurant located within the Tesco Hypermarket in Plentong. I guess I'll be eating more chicken now and this place claims to use 100% olive oil in their preparation. My second son Harith, is back home for a one week semester break from UiTM. He invited along a roommate of his from Kota Kinabalu to spend the break with us here in JB. So it's the first time I'm treating them out for dinner since they got here on Saturday.

Again, thanks for all your kind thoughts, tips and suggestions.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Knocked out by a bout of gout

It had to happen. Probably better sooner than later.

On Sunday morning, I woke up with an aching pain in my left leg, around the ankle joint. It is the type of pain that you get when you've sprained the ankle, except that I don't think that my ankle is sprained because there is no tell-tale swelling. The day before, I did some hard trekking at the project site which involved climbing some steep slopes and hacking through undergrowth. But apart from being slightly out of breath, I didn't think I hurt myself.

As Sunday wore on, the pain got worse and it became impossible to walk properly because I couldn't put any weight on my left foot without feeling severe distress. The clinic that I normally go to is not open on Sundays, so I had to tough it out by taking some Panadol Extend.

Waking up this morning, the pain hadn't gone away. With my son to provide temporary crutch support, I hobbled into the clinic to the amusement of my doctor. My ailment is gout-related, he says, although the full symptoms of gout such as swelling toe-joints is not visible. The heavy stress on my legs during work on Saturday may have been the trigger that flared this pain.

He gave me a jab of painkiller and some other tablets to be taken later. I was told to rest and not move around too much.

Apart from the throbbing pain in my leg, starting from the ankle joint and going up to my buttocks, the rest of me is okay. I am not feverish or feeling poorly in any way. It is the lack of mobility that is truly depressing, and at 47 years-old, feeling like an invalid is not cool at all. For the first time in my life, daily solat prayers had to be performed sitting on a stool.

As some of you may have read in an earlier post, my annual blood test results revealed that I have high levels of uric acid and as such, is prone to gout attacks. Subsequently, I have revised my diet to reduce red meat, ikan bilis and tempe while having more fresh salads that include capsicums, cherry tomatoes and carrots. Apparently, the change in diet regime is too late in preventing this first painful encounter. Nevertheless, we shall strive on.

As I type this entry, the pulsating pain in my left leg has reduced significantly but the signs of a slight swelling around the ankle is now visible. Hopefully, the whole thing will go away soon.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Finger lickin' delicious

Headnote : My reference to a particular animal in this post is not intended to offend any persons or that animal.

Talking about the UK in the previous post brought back some memories of life as a student in a far away land. We sure did a lot of dumb things back then but hey, it's all part of the learning process. You can call us naive or, to use a current Malay word, poyo.

In the 1980s, a lot of Malaysian students were sent to the UK for further studies because it was still relatively cheap. The monetary exchange rate was less than half of today's rate. The students who scored good results in the MCE/SPM exams were offered scholarships. Year after year, hundreds of wide-eyed boys and girls, most of whom never set foot outside Malaysia, were packed off onto airplanes to land at Heathrow Airport in London.

We were barely 17-years old at the time and almost every one of us had to face the culture shock. We were about to enter adulthood in an unfamiliar country with nobody to guide us except ourselves. We had to learn how to manage our money, cook our own meals, pay bills, make new friends, take care of our health, suppress the feeling of homesickness while at the same time, not forget the main objective of being there, and that is to study. For Muslim students, even eating can become a problem. At some of the towns, getting halal meat was not easy. We were also warned to read the ingredients label of most basic foodstuff such bread and biscuits. I hadn't known what lard was until I lived in the UK.

Most coped with the situation fair enough but there were a few who get swept away by the currents of change. Hanyut is the Malay term for it.

While living away from parents has its difficulties, the freedom from supervision and control is very exciting. It is the time for adventure and opportunities. No adult to tell us not to do this or not to do that. It is the time to rebel, if that happens to be your fancy. For the boys, keeping long hair is the `in' thing. Sporting short and neatly-trimmed hair is simply not cool. From the photos of overseas students that I now see in local newspapers during Hari Raya time, the situation is still the same I guess.

With the absence of parental control, the behavioural standard of us boys vary a great deal. The very pious amongst us are strict and reserved. They also do the good deed of reminding friends and fellow countrymen to obey the rules and not go astray. Then there's the middle-of-the-road guys who take things easy. There were also, of course, the other extreme of guys with the couldn't-care-less attitude.

Perhaps to illustrate the varying degrees, I use the example of food. The pious group will always ensure that the food they eat is 100% halal. Meat products like chicken or beef must come from animals slaughtered according to Muslim rites. Some of the guys in the easy-going group have no qualms about eating non-halal chicken, beef or mutton. The don't-care-about-it guys never bother to read the labels for the doubtful ingredients although they will avoid eating pork or the other porcine products.

You may observe that the not-too-good Malay men can be caught committing all the sins you care to name except one. They would steal, drink liquor, gamble away their money and sleep around... but even the worst-behaved among them would stop short of eating pork, at least not knowingly. Such is the cultural taboo since very young.

But once in a while, there comes along certain individuals who break convention. And this now leads me to the story that I want to tell...

My second year of A-levels was spent at the small town of Wrexham in North Wales. There were around 40 Malaysian students at the time, quite a sizeable number. There were no halal meat shops in Wrexham and we had to buy our chicken, beef and mutton from the largest nearby city, Liverpool which was more than an hour's train ride away. Because of this distance, we cannot be eating meat as often as we like.

When I first arrived at Wrexham in the autumn of 1980, there was a shortage of available accommodation. For the first few months, I had to share a small flat with 6 other Malaysian students. Our flat is located next door to a Chinese Takeaway shop. For those unfamiliar, the Chinese Takeaway is a food outlet that can be found almost anywhere in Britian, even in small towns. It sells a variety of Chinese dishes listed in a numbered menu displayed at the front of the shop. You place your order at the counter, wait for a few minutes while your order is being cooked and then packed for you to take home. If you have a copy of the menu at home, you can also call the shop and simply quote the number on the menu if you find the name of the dish difficult to pronounce. You then walk in, say 20 minutes later, to pick up the package. Very convenient.

Being next door to such an outlet meant that it was convenient for us too. Sometimes we were lazy to cook and the takeaway food was cheap. So we simply ordered. Our dish of choice was egg fried rice. Yes, I know what some of you are thinking... halal ke? Did I not mention something about naivety in the early part of this post? I did check with the cook that the fried rice contained only eggs and no meat and that only vegetable oil was used. Lame excuse, I know... but that's the way it was.

From a simple egg fried rice dish, some of my housemates later progressed to ordering dishes with chicken or beef. Then they got bolder by ordering weird-sounding dishes as long as it does not contain pork.

One evening, I got home from class just in time to see my roomate finish eating his takeaway dinner sitting in the living room in front of the TV. He had finished munching on some meat on a thin bone and was tastily licking the juices off his fingers. The following is what I recall of my conversation with him... it was in Malay and I'm not putting up the English translation because the impact would be lost. We'll identify this friend of mine as `F'.

Me : Engkau makan apa tu?

F : BBQ spare ribs. First time aku order dari kedai sebelah.

Me (looking puzzled) : Engkau tahu tak spare ribs tu daging apa?

F (slightly surprised) : Eh... bukan daging lembu ke?

Me : Engkau tak tanya?

F : Kalau bukan lembu, daging apa?

Me : Babi.

F : Eh... tak lah!

At this point, another housemate by the name of Gabriel, an Iban from Sarawak, walked into the room.

Me : Kalau kau tak caya, kau tanya Gabe.

F : Gabe, BBQ spare ribs daging apa?

Gabe : Wei... itu daging babi la brader.

A short moment of silence.

F : Nak buat macamana... dah termakan.

Me : So, apa rasanya BBQ spare ribs yang kau makan tu?

F (grinning) : Heheheh.... sedaaaap!

Adeh, hampeh betul kawan aku seorang ni.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Speaking the Queen's English

Here's another post on the English language but this in a less serious note. But before I tell my story, a bit of background on the land of tea and biscuits, our former colonial masters, the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom is a nation made up of four distinct and culturally different countries; England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Politically, they are one nation but not quite a federation like Malaysia or the United States. They do however, have the advantage of sending four separate teams to qualify for the football World Cup. Their full and proper name is The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Quite a mouthful, right?

All the people of the UK speak English of course, but with distinctive accents. If you have lived in the UK for some time, it is not terribly difficult to distinguish them. I did my A-levels at a college in Wales and am therefore familiar with the Welsh accent. The Welsh, in fact, do have their own written and spoken language but I can hardly speak a word, despite having lived there for almost a year. It is a language that makes miserly use of vowels and for a foreigner like me, even reading a sentence is next to impossible. Might as well have been Greek.

Of the three non-native English countries, the Scottish accent is perhaps the most difficult to comprehend. I won't even attempt to describe it. If you are a Man United fan and have seen Sir Alex Ferguson's interviews on TV, you'll know what I mean. I'll give you full marks if you can fully catch what he says in the first instance.

Okay... now back to the story that I wish to tell.

In 1993, or thereabouts, I was working in a consulting engineering firm carrying out a project in Johor Bahru. Our site management team included two very experienced British expatriates. Jim Payne, our Project Manager, is an Englishman while the other Brit is a Scotsman named David Morgan. Mr. Morgan was our Senior Project Engineer who was primarily in-charge of site construction matters. He's a real hands-on guy with a no-nonsense approach.

Mr. Payne on the other hand, is a cool and composed gentleman not prone to any temperamental outbursts. He has worked in many countries before settling for a final project in Malaysia. I reported directly to Jim and assisted him in the project management tasks, especially in liasion with local counterparts. I learned some of my report-writing skills from this kind man.

One particular afternoon, Jim and I were in the office discussing about work when David stomped in with a pissed-off look on his face, grumbling loudly about something.

Jim calmly said, `What's the matter, David? Why don't you tell us what's wrong?'

David immediately went into a tirade about bloody this and bloody that and bloody everything else, mumbling and grumbling all the way. This went on for a few minutes and included some choice words that I rather not repeat here.

At the end of David's outburst, Jim turned to me with a puzzled look on his face and asked, `What did David just say?'

I couldn't stop myself from grinning! I sort of caught the gist of David's rant and proceeded to explain to Jim in plain and clear English. Apparently, David was unhappy with the work of one of our sub-contractors and had instructed him to rectify the work. The sub-contractor didn't think he had done anything wrong and had argued back. They ended up quarrelling with each other when neither party wanted to give in.

At the end of my explanation to Jim, I looked at David for confirmation, `Am I right, David?'

`Bloody right!', was his terse response. Heheheh...

`No problems, David,' I said. `I'll settle this matter for you.'

In all honesty, my sub-contractor probably got into an argument with Mr. Morgan because he couldn't understand half of what was said. If even Jim can't make sense of what David said, what more a local Class F chap?

So there's my story of an Englishman who had to ask a Malay guy what a Scotsman was saying. True story, I kid you not.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

The mastery of the English language

The government has made its decision to revert the teaching of the Mathematics and Science subjects back to Bahasa Malaysia. Many opinions have been published on this matter, be it in blogosphere, in the comments section of online news portals or in the printed media.

This is the first time I am sharing my views on this issue. After mulling about it for the past few days, I decided that I should post something on a subject that is close to my heart.

I have been educated in the English medium all my life. From pre-school right up to university. I am one of the last batch of students that took Malaysia Certificate of Education (MCE) in 1979. At that time, the subjects that were already taught in Malay were Geografi (Geography), Sejarah (History) and Pengetahuan Agama Islam (Islamic Religious Knowledge). From 1980 onwards, all the non-language subjects are taught in Malay and Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) became the only examination available to Form 5 students.

When the government switched the teaching of Maths and Science in English some years ago, part of the objective was to arrest the decline in English language skills of our students. It was feared that the poor command of English would make our students and graduates less competitive in the international field. Proponents on the use of Malay, on the other hand, worry that the national language would fall in prestige and importance. The proponents slogan of choice being, `Memartabatkan Bahasa Melayu'. In simple terms, it became a nationalist versus internationalist debate. Discussions and arguments have been raging on ever since and the latest decision announced by the Deputy Prime Minister cum Education Minister a few days ago may not see the end of it.

Let us analyse some of these arguments so that we can understand some of their merits.

1. The command of the English language among our younger generation is on a decline

In the course of my work, I have on many occasions, had young engineers as my subordinates. They come from both local and overseas universities. With very rare exceptions, most of them have lousy English. Some of them can speak it well enough, but when it comes to writing it down, reading their output makes me cringe. My favourite adjective used to describe their written English is `atrocious'. I even once told my young engineers to look this word up and tell me what it means.

But that does not stop me from continually giving them writing tasks such as preparing draft letters, reports and minutes. If they are willing to improve, then I am willing to teach. What is important here is to have the right attitude.

2. We do not need to learn Maths and Science in English to become a developed nation

The examples often quoted in supporting this line of thinking is Japan and South Korea. They are the two most developed nations in Asia and yet their general command of English is no where near as good as ours. This has not stopped them from being research pioneers in many fields.

True. But we do have to make cultural comparisons between the people of Japan and Malaysia to understand why the Japanese are light years ahead of us in terms of technological development. Having lived for a short period in Japan, the cohesiveness of the Japanese society is something I have never seen anywhere else in the world. They may disagree on little things but when it comes to the major issues, they are quite united. In Malaysia, we can't even agree if recycling our garbage is a good thing.

3. Our teachers are not skilled enough to teach Maths and Science in English

If the teachers cannot be relied upon to teach the subjects properly, how can we expect the students to do well?

This obviously, is a defeatist approach. Given time and resources, I am sure enough personnel can be trained to become good Maths and Science teachers. It is only a question of priority.

4. Teaching Maths and Science in English does not actually help in improving the English language

Mathematics is a subject that deals with numbers, rules and formulae. Physics deals with laws, principles and concepts. Biology is a study of living things while Chemistry is a study of all the different elements in this world. Teaching these subjects in English only helps the student to understand the terminologies in a different language but it doesn't make him a better user of English. A number is still a number, whether you say it in Malay or in English. Doing a medical degree course in Malay does not make you less of a doctor compared to having done it in English, Arabic or Russian. Salt is known as sodium chloride but in Malay it is called natrium klorida. In this case, the Malay term actually follows the chemical symbol (sodium's chemical symbol is Na).

This line of contention can be propogated either way. I tend to agree that having these subjects taught in English doesn't necessarily make you a good English user. But where it falters is the fact that you need a good command of English to expand and explore the sources of information and knowledge, in whatever field of study.


Having said all that, it is perhaps pertinent to bear in mind the primary reason why the government is reverting back to Bahasa Melayu. This is revealed in yesterday's report on The Star Online -> Poorer results when subjects taught in English, says Muhyiddin.

It seems that our rural students (read : Malay), do poorly in examinations because the Maths and Science subjects are in English. If this is to continue, then the number of Malay students that do well in their SPM exams may dwindle and this in turn, may result in less Malays entering university. Apparently, this situation is quite serious and the government has to yield to the pressure of the proponents of change. In the end, it again boils down to the consideration of quantity.

Anyway, what are my personal views on the matter?

Do I think switching back to Malay is a step backwards? Yes, I do.

Do I think the government made a wrong decision? No, I don't. Having considered the position that Muhyiddin is in, I can somewhat understand the decision that he has made. Under the circumstances, I believe he has made the right choice, although for some quarters, not a popular one. Honestly, whether it is popular or not depends on which side of the fence we sit.

For instance, it is reported that the poll on former PM Tun Mahathir's blog indicate an 80% result for those who disagree with the decision. But blog polls are only as good as the composition of its blog readers. A similar poll on a pro-nationalist blog would yield the opposite results for sure. Even that, we need to be aware of the larger section of the population who do not have internet access.

The decision has already been made, by the government of the day, based on circumstances of the time. Perhaps this decision may result in our future leaders and professionals having such poor command of English that our manpower resources are no longer competitive in the global market. Perhaps our nation may falter in its vision to become fully developed by 2020. Worse still, the country may become a laughing stock of the whole world for its embarrassing English translations and join other infamous countries in

But I do not think that will happen. For as long as there those among us who believe in the importance of a good command of English, there would always be a pressure group who would ensure that we do not slack too far. Perhaps, some years down the road, there may be a situation where a significant support for English would cause another reversal.

As it is now, let's move on. As parents, if we personally feel that English is important, then make sure we instill the correct attitude in our own kids to improve on their own. Don't blame the government if our own children's command of the language is atrocious.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Ke mana tumpah kuah

My eldest son, who is studying medicine at Jordan University of Science and Technology, has started his own blog.

It is called Safarku Di Bumi Syam. I hope he does well in his studies and his new blog-writing venture.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Gotta watch what I eat

The test results of my annual medical check-up came in on Saturday. The results are mixed.

The level of total cholesterol in my blood has dropped to 4.5 mmol/L (normal) from a high of 7.4 mmol/L just over a year ago. The level of LDL cholesterol (the so-called bad dudes) is down to 1.5 mmol/L, although triglycerides is still high.

On the other hand, uric acid level has shot up to 7.5 mg/dL, above the reference range of 3.3 to 7.0 mg/dL. High uric acid levels means that I may easily be inflicted with gout, a type of arthritis.

Three years ago, my cholesterol levels were borderline but my uric acid was high. Last year, I managed to bring down the uric acid level to within normal range but cholesterol levels increased. I've managed to control the cholesterol levels this time round due to the daily dose of Covastin 20mg and restricted consumption of my favourite foods (lamb chops and beriani kambing). However, the see-saw game by those uric acid molecules is pissing me off.

According to my doctor, high uric acid levels is predominantly caused by diet. The main sources are red meat, liver, anchovies (ikan bilis), sardines and even soybeans. Heck... all the food that I love.

Seems that I now have to go easy on that sambal tempe dan ikan bilis goreng during lunch... sigh...

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Heroic failures

It is the desire of most individuals to succeed in whatever they do. Nonetheless, there are certain spirited souls who are never destined to make it big, no matter how hard they try. But for some of these `lucky' ones, being not successful actually made them famous (well, to a certain extent, at least).

I am now re-reading an old book of mine titled `The Return of Heroic Failures' by Stephen Pile. It is the second collection of failure stories compiled by Pile after his successful first book, which I wrote about -> here.

While it can be hilarious to read about other people's bungling attempts, there are some inspiring stories too. I am sharing one today... about the spirit of never giving up.

Marathons Can Be Fun

In 1966, Shizo Kanakuri set a new record for the Olympic marathon. At Stockholm, he completed the 26.2-mile course in an unbeatable 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 8 hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds, having started in 1912.

He had run several miles before passing a group of people having a pleasant drink in their front garden. As he was suffering from chronic heat exhaustion at the time, he did the only sensible thing and tottered over to join them. Being a sociable sort of man, he stayed for a few more drinks whereupon he changed his race tactics dramatically, caught a train back to Stockholm, booked into a hotel for the night, boarded the next boat to Japan, got married, had six children and ten grandchildren, before returning to the villa where he had stopped and completing the marathon for the honour of Japan.

It is never too late to finish what you have started. This feat of Kanakuri's got him an entry in Wikipedia... and that is more than most of us straggling mortals can claim to have. So, never despair. If you think you did badly, don't worry... someone else has done worse.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

The answers to 13 questions

I'm sort of in the mood of writing reviews this week. Continuing from the previous post, this entry is a book review.

When the movie Slumdog Millionaire won this year's Best Picture oscar at the Academy Awards a few months back, I spotted the book on which the film is based in a bookstore. I thought I would give it a read before catching the movie although there's a likelihood that I could be disappointed with the movie later on. It is the sort of thing that happens when you watch a film based on a book that you have read.

Anyway, the original book written by Vikas Swarup was titled Q&A. Not really an inspiring title, I must say, but Slumdog Millionaire doesn't sound that enticing either.

Slumdog Millionaire is the story of a young man who works as a waiter in Mumbai, India. He is an orphan who goes by the name of Ram Mohammad Thomas. How he can have a name that reflects three different religions is neatly explained in one of the earlier chapters. It gives us, the readers, an early introduction of the racial and religious sensitivities prevalent in present day Indian culture.

Ram (or Mohamad, or Thomas, whichever you fancy) enters a TV quiz show called Who Will Win A Billion or W3B for short. The quiz follows the same format as the real-life TV show, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, the Indian version of which was hosted by the popular actor Amitabh Bachan. In W3B, the contestant can win a cool one billion Indian rupees (over RM72 million at current exchange rate) by answering 12 questions correctly.

Ram in fact, answers all 12, well actually 13 questions correctly but rather than getting the prize money, he is arrested and thrown into a prison cell. The police, acting in cahoots with the quiz show organizers, suspect him of cheating because there is no way a waiter from the slums of Mumbai can know the answers to all the questions.

The book starts with a prologue of Ram in the prison cell. His captors torture and beat him up, in a bid to force Ram to reveal how he knew the answers. But Ram says he just knows. The police is not happy and the torture continues...

This book is not about the story of the quiz show per se, but rather about the life of our protagonist during the different periods of his growing-up years in various cities in India. Vikas Swarup has brilliantly used the backdrop of a quiz show to tell us this story. The life story of Ram Mohammad Thomas is not presented chronologically but follows the sequence in which the questions of the quiz show are asked. The heading of each chapter is the value of the prize to be won for giving the correct answer, starting at 1,000 Indian rupees (roughly USD20 or RM72). The chapter then starts with a story of a particular event in Ram's life, told in flashback. At the end of the chapter, we return to the present... in particular, to the TV studio scene where the quiz show host, Prem Kumar, relays the question to the contestant. When we relate back to the story we were just told in flashback, we immediately understand why Ram is able to answer it.

And so the story goes, question after question, all correctly answered... and the host continues to be dumbfounded. The tension builds as the prize money climbs higher and higher. The show organizers become nervous and they contrive to trick Ram into answering the last question incorrectly. I will not reveal how this is done but it caused our hero to face a thirteenth question before he can claim the jackpot.

I have made a summary of the quiz questions with the corresponding multiple choice answers. Click on the graphic below if you wish to know what they are. You may wish to attempt them yourself because I have not indicated the correct answers. Some questions relate to fictional characters and/or events... so please don't dream of hitting the jackpot :-)

Swarup has cleverly weaved different subjects within the fabric of his story about the amazing adventures of an orphan in India. While the book has been renamed Slumdog Millionaire, it is not purely about struggling for a living in the slums of Mumbai. There are stories on forced prostitution, child-beggar syndicates, life of Bollywood's rich and famous, train robberies and even vodoo. Ram's adventures takes us from Mumbai to Delhi to Agra and back to Mumbai. There is a final twist to the tale. Ram did not enter the quiz show with the intention of winning the prize money.

Generally, I find the book a good read although there are inevitably a few passages that are difficult for me to picture because of the intricate Indian settings. I guess, such difficulty would not arise if I am a Bollywood movie fan, of which I am not. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book immensely.

Vikas Swarup is a diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. This is his maiden novel and it has made bestseller list. In this respect, he is similar to Afghan doctor-turned-writer Khaled Hosseini, whose first book, The Kite Runner, also became an international bestseller. The Kite Runner was also made into a movie, which I have previously written about -> For you, a thousand times over...

These two gentlemen is giving me hope that one day, I might be able to come up with my very own novel too.

Book title : Slumdog Millionaire
Author : Vikas Swarup
Publisher : Black Swan (paperback)
Published : 2005
Pages : 361

Differences between book and movie

I have not yet watched the movie, so I can't really say what the differences are. However, I have read some of the movie reviews and from these, I gather that there are quite significant changes. First and foremost, the hero in the movie is now called Jamal Malik, a Muslim. Secondly, the jackpot prize in the movie is IR20 million. Let me watch the film and perhaps I can update this post with my views on the movie itself.

Update 6 July 2009 : I have watched the movie over the weekend. While the underlying story is still there, the plot has many significant changes. To put it simply, the movie is good... but the book is better.

The general observation therefore, still stands... that I tend to be disappointed watching a movie that's based on a book that I've read. I wonder if the reverse is true, i.e. would I be disappointed reading a book whose movie version I have already seen? Perhaps I'll test this with `Angels and Demons'. I've seen the movie but I'm mulling about reading the book.