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TALL TALES: Well-told stories turn to literature when we accord them the attention they deserve
PAWANG Ana lived in times of yore but not too long ago that you will not be able to make sense of his tales. There is also another side of Pawang Ana. He was the psychic detective who found the body of James W.W. Birch that went missing in the Perak river after he was murdered in 1875.
We would have lost Pawang Ana too had it not been for the prescient Richard O Winstedt, a colonial officer who recorded and published (aided by a local man of letters Raja Haji Yahaya) the story-telling of this sleuth and story-teller. My enjoyment of his works increases with each passing year.
Languages die and stories get lost everyday in the dark crevasses of our memory. We are now fetishists of technology, tall buildings and readable digital gizmos.
At the peak of his achievements Al-Ghazali, the medieval philosopher, was in such terror of the fitna of learning — the cloak of arrogance in which it dresses you and its overweening ways — that he fled for two years from the cloistered life of learning into anonymity, literally on his own road to Damascus, to sweep the steps of mosques in Syria.
We believe even today that literature is found only in written words and that a culture without text is decidedly inferior.
We look at our own National Library, a grandiose rather than grand building on the verge of snarling traffic, and for all its bulk of books, it is doing precious little for what we are losing everyday – people of memory who store in their minds the narratives of our collective past.
I was corresponding about this recently with a gentleman who, by the grace of God, is still in his early, lucid seventies. He has just written a record of men in their eighties who are still able to recall the days and describe the people who were involved in the pioneering days of our newspaper industry.
Someone should spend days, months, with them to record their conversation and preserve what they’ve said in the vaults of our National Library or the National Archive, I wrote to him.
There are old people out there who remember what it was like before Melaka went into that mad frenzy of land reclamation, before Trengganu started to demolish its old landmarks, folk who probably travelled on the
Madras or Rajula to start a life here, old Nyonyas and Babas, Chinese octogenarians who remember or probably heard what their fathers had to say about their life of resettlement when the old Sultan allowed them to settle in Pulau Ketam that is still there now, in its buzzing, vibrant whole.
“Ahh,” the spetuagenarian said, “I’ve been trying to get them interested in that for a long time.” And then he gave a baleful pause that I could sense even in that email.
The British Library, a behemoth that is also not free from majestic follies, is now on a project to record the conversations of ordinary people, everyday doddering folks like you and me. Now, what will that do? How many carats has a gleaming star? Perhaps you can tell me.
I’ll give my eye tooth to hear Pawang Ana again, but I decided to settle for less than that a few days ago and tried to look up any available moving image of our selampit troubadours.
What I found was some unsatisfactory work done by an amateur, a rank one as you will say, but still, bless his or her soul.
Would our National Archive have a recording — audio or video — of a selampit singer? Would our National Library? Has the thought ever passed their heads to record the everyday conversations, stories, well, ramblings then, of the ordinary people of Kuala Lumpur?
Technology worshippers are prone to think that literature is the special achievement only of advanced civilisations.
Folk narratives and oral historians are suspect, amusing curiosities at best.
Writing is the key, but writing is just one way of expressing ourselves, there are many other ways, may other languages.
Writing brings some and then it takes away too, so for Bringhurst the sadness of a writing culture is that “it radically alters every society into which it is introduced”. It breeds people who look down at people who don’t write I would say, but no, before you start to point your finger at me, let me clarify that.
It is a desirable thing to learn to read, and a good thing if you can write, but people who have neither of that are not necessarily gaga.
When Winstedt died, an obituary in the journal of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London said that he lived among charming but ’illiterate peasantry’.
But it was an illiterate peasantry that gave us Awang Sulong Merah Muda.
If someone or something speaks well, if I may paraphrase the
Canadian poet and cultural historian Robert Bringhurst, that’s literature.
“Every natural human language has a literature,” he says.
“Any well told story turns to literature when you pay it close attention.”