Between the pages of her book is an eye-opening journey and an ode to love. Zaharah Othman finds out more
TAN Sri Aishah Ghani’s tale is a love story on many levels. Love for her husband, her children and her country. But it was what she called her first love that took her away from them. In search of her first love that had long eluded her, she boarded The Canton at Tanjung Pagar Harbour in Singapore on April 10, 1955 leaving her husband and children aged 8 and 6 at the harbour. The youngest, aged 20 months, was too young to be there.
During the voyage that took her halfway around the world, Aishah, who wrote Ibu Melayu Mengelilingi Dunia: Dari Rumah Ke London under the pen name Aishah Aziz, documented her visits to Colombo, Bombay and Eden where the ship docked, taking her readers on an eye-opening journey as she described the local politics, commented on social issues and customs and traditions.
The book, published by The Standard Engravers & Art Printers in Campbell Road, Kuala Lumpur, was written in Malay and featured some black and white pictures of the writer during her travels. What shone through was her attempt at travel writing at a time when not many people were travelling, putting into perspective her astute observations for her readers to experience.
After reaching her destination at Tilbury Docks in London on May 9 of the same year, she embarked on what could only be described as her passionate affair with that first love — education. In the beginning of her book, she had penned a very moving poem, promising to come back to her husband once her thirst for education was quenched and her passionate affair with her first love was over.
All these and more were written in a slim book that I found sandwiched between other heavyweight titles of Malay books on the shelf at the British Library nearly 20 years ago. With the colour of its pages fading, it would have gone unnoticed, if not for its title Ibu Melayu Mengelilingi Dunia: — Dari Rumah Ke London.
Reading through the thin, fragile pages of the 83-page book, I couldn’t help but feel in awe of this woman who must have wrestled with her conscience and struggled with her sense of responsibilities, to give priorities to an ambition she had nurtured even before her marriage.
“Only God knows the pain,” said Aishah, her voice resonating with the pain she must have felt as she lost sight of her husband and children standing at the harbour in Singapore that day 57 years ago.
As a writer she used her husband’s name Abdul Aziz Hassan, her rock throughout her political career. After discovering the book in London, I blogged about it at www.kakteh.blogspot.com and the entry attracted a lot of readers including her family. I had wanted this interesting book to be reprinted. It did not materialise until last year when I met Mohd Khair Ngadiron, managing director and CEO of Institut Terjemahan & Buku Malaysia, who immediately put the wheel in motion.
The new edition was published late last year with a new cover and new black and white pictures.
What is profound about Aishah’s writing is her nationalistic feeling, her yearning for the country to be independent and progressive. She had visions and great ambitions for her country and the people she left behind. Her accounts of her stint in London, her visits to places like Liverpool and Kirkby resonate with reflections and comments on current affairs and social developments during that time. While she enthuses about women’s rights and the British love for arts, she laments the moral decadence, infidelity and free sex.
“I wouldn’t be able to do this again,” said Aishah when we met at her office in Kampung Baru in December last year. She had admitted that she didn’t even have the original copy of the book and was indeed delighted with the reprint.
“But let me tell you something. My husband was one in a million. He encouraged me to further my studies and was willing to look after the children while I was away. He wrote every day about the children and never once did he complain,” she said of the sacrifice her husband made to enable her to realise her ambition.
For someone who had just celebrated her 89th birthday, her memory is still sharp and she took me back to the day she met her husband — an English teacher in Padang, where she was studying at Maktab Perguruan Tinggi Islam.
“I met him on Jan 1, 1942. I remember the day because it was during the war and we were all stranded. It wasn’t really a love affair. I saw him three or four times but there was something about him. He was a caring person. That attracted me to him. We didn’t get married until 1946,” she said.
After her marriage, it was apparent that she was still restless. As a bright child, she was made a trainee teacher at the age of 11 and was handpicked by the school inspector to go to the Kajang Convent. However, her father opposed. But she was thankful for the opportunity to study in Indonesia the year after as it allowed her to be independent and, more importantly, that experience sowed the seeds of nationalism and politics in her young mind.
Upon her return, she became politically active but she still harboured the ambition to continue her ystudies.
“My husband took me to see Dr MacPhearson, who told him that there was nothing wrong with me. He said there was something that preyed on my mind... something that I have not achieved.”
Her husband’s willingness to look after the children enabled her to pursue her course in Journalism at Regent’s Street Polytechnic. On her return, she worked as a journalist at Berita Harian. When she became active in politics again, it was her husband who stayed at home when work demanded that she travelled.
“Some colleagues made fun of him and they phoned him and asked him what he was doing at home. He would say, ‘I am wearing a skirt!’” she laughed. Upon being made the first woman senator in the country, her husband bought her a Mercedes, while he himself drove an old car.
“It was my husband who wanted me to write this book. He was very proud of me. He helped to publish it,” said Aishah. In a way the reprinting of the book is a tribute to not only a great politician but also to her dedicated late husband.
The book may not be true to its title of a woman’s journey around the world. But spurred on by her political aspirations and achievements, Aishah has indeed travelled extensively as a leader who had contributed so much to the country.
Excerpts from the poem on her opening page:
“Tahukah kau, oh, sayang,
Sebelom kau dan aku berkenalan,
Aku telah menchintai sesuatu,
Kuanggap ia sebagai kekasehku pula
Tapi keadaan tak meizinkan kami bertemu,
Kerana kekurangan sharat pada diriku.
Izinkan aku pergi menemui kekasihku,
Dan aku akan kembali kepadamu,
Setelah kami puas berchumbu, berchengkerama,
Did you know, my darling,
before you and I met,
I have loved before,
one that I consider my lover
but situations did not allow us to meet, because of what I lacked
allow me to go and meet my lover,
and I will return to you,
after our passionate affair
on the shores of ambition... “