Allow me to be personal, for a short swing to a place I was born over the weekend has brought back plenty of memories of my long departed father. It was a trip I decided upon when, several weeks before, rummaging through things I kept in the storeroom produced a necktie he gave me when I was about to start work, and about a week before he left me for good.
The “Windsor Knot”, it was that he taught me how to tie, being then a gentleman living his life in the still very British military garrison we were in. The episode that afternoon caught me by surprise. We were never close and that conversation where he imparted some of his life’s experiences was perhaps one of the longest we ever had.
A strict disciplinarian with the heart of a lion, he was a man of few words and who was very frugal with his smile. With sentences of merely a few words, he could make me feel as insignificant as a speck of dust.
At times I wondered how on earth was I to look up to the man when I was always looking down at my then tiny toes when spoken to.
But at times, his fatherly instincts did show such, as in one instance when he had taken a few steps heading towards a nearby mosque for the evening prayers, I remember asking him just as thunderclouds gathered overhead how rain occurred.
He just ignored his 6-year-old son, but to my surprise, turned back afterwards to actually sit down and answer my query.
One phrase he could not stand hearing from me was “I don’t know”. For him, I was expected to know everything under the sun. I got into a state of panic one morning when he yelled from outside, asking me to look for a crowbar in the storeroom as he was fixing things around the yard. As a 9-year-old boy then, a crowbar hadn’t yet registered in my still limited vocabulary. After a while of me pretending to search, he walked in and picked up the piece of iron rod lying right in front of me and said: “This is a crowbar. You use this to pick out nails. Didn’t they teach you this in school?”
I instantly felt very small.
Another time, he asked me to follow him to the post office and when we got there, he passed me an envelope, telling me to send it via registered mail while he waited in the car. Not knowing what a registered mail was, I promptly approached the counter, bought and attached a stamp to the envelope and dropped it in the mail box.
I almost fainted when I got back to the car and he asked me for the registered mail receipt. When I told him that I did not have any and that I had just dropped the envelope in the mail box, he gave me a look of disbelief.
When his friend came by later asking what we were doing there as we waited for the postmaster to open the mail box, he said: “I told my son to send something via registered mail and this idiot dropped it in the ordinary mail box instead.”
I really felt inadequate that day.
To my late father, everything that happened was an education in life. When he retired and we moved to the kampung, I had to help him put up the perimeter fencing around our huge tract of land.
Tears flowed down my cheek as I sat under a tree nursing my blistered palm one day during break after we laid out the barbed wires. He came to me, took a look at my palms and said: “As you grow older, the knowledge of what we do today will help you get by in life.”
As a 10-year-old boy that time, I wondered just when exactly in my life would I be required to string up a line of coarse barbed wires.
He knew well the value of education, and the importance of the English language. His education for a medical degree at the Raffles College in Singapore was cut short by the war.
He, however, knew the importance of acquiring knowledge and made sure that I read and read a lot. He subscribed to all the newspapers around, including one published in Jawi and was also a subscriber to the Reader’s Digest magazine right to the day he died.
When I was sent to a boarding school, I had to write to him in English and he kept all my letters in a file. As an organised person, whenever he writes back, he would type his letters with carbon copies. The file where he kept our letters was neatly arranged, where each of my letters was followed by carbon copies of his replies.
I was sitting on a bench last weekend within the compound of the mosque he always went to, and immersed in the memories of the man when I recalled that final conversation where he told me:
“When you work, be careful if you are handling money. Do not take what is not yours. In the final analysis, you will be remembered for your honesty and integrity.”
That was a long time ago and that afternoon, exactly 32 years after he left me, my only wish was that I had turned out to be the man he wanted me to be.
Mustapha Kamil is the newspaper‘s group editor. The profession has taken him to all corners of the globe