Tuesday, April 17, 2007
Tuesdays With Bapak (10)
Happy 83rd Birthday, Bapak !- April 17 2007
His parents decided to call him "Comel" because he was such a tiny baby and because in those days they believed that calling a newborn by a different name would mean better health, wellbeing, or simply that the child would survive an illness and lived.
And in Abdul Samad's case, it was a matter of life and death. His parents, Haji Ismail Shirazi and Aida Majid did not want to take any chances.
Their baby son must survive because all their four older boys - Abdul Samad's older brothers - had died, either in infancy or childhood.
In those days, it was indeed a case of "survival of the fittest", in its literal sense.
The uncles and aunts I never knew died of diseases which we would, today, consider ordinary, like fever and diarrhoea.
I remember Bapak telling us that one older brother lived only a week or so. Another was about 10 years old when he developed fever and died not long after. Bapak also lost three younger sisters.
Bapak is eighth of seven boys and seven girls.
The surviving children of Haji Ismail and Aida were Fatmah, Eishon, Kamlah, Abdul Samad, Kamaruddin, Salhah and Abdul Majid.
Home was 11 Jalan Yahya, Off Jalan Eunos, Singapore 14. Until the late 70s when Kampung Melayu, earmarked for re-development, was torn down.
In Malay, they'd say that he was loved and nurtured like "di tatang bagai minyak yang penuh".
Comel was Haji Ismail's and Aida's first surviving son. He was adored like he was the prince of the house, nay, the whole kampung.
He was the pet and the jewel of the family.
But his parents did not spoil him, even if his older sisters did.
So loved, sheltered and protected was he, that his parents never allowed Comel out unaccompanied, unchaperoned through his growing years. And that was right through adolescence and the early part of his working life.
He was so precious that every year, his mother would take him to "Keramat Habib Noh" (shrine of Habib Noh, a sufi and revered holy man in Singapore) in Anson Road to have a "doa selamat" performed to seek the blessings of Allah SWT for her beloved son.
The visits to the shrine stopped when he joined Utusan Melayu.
Can you imagine that?
Haji Ismail Shirazi was a former headmaster of Rochore Malay School and later Katong Malay School in Wilkinson Road.
He was a man of great piety, a Malay scholar and a man of strict discipline,
He was tall, a six-footer, and handsome, so I was told.
Haji Ismail whose father, Harun Shirazi Murtadza came from Banyu Mas in Central Java, was also a mystic and an artisan, craftsman and artist, specifically in Islamic calligraphy (Khat).
He designed the beautiful Jalan Yahya house which he built with his own hands. Not a single nail was used to build the house.
He designed the beautiful staircase, fitted with elegant balustrade.
The living room of the house was decorated with some of Haji Ismail's beautiful "Khat" paintings which today can be found in the homes of his living relatives in Singapore and Malaysia.
Aida Majid whose family originated from the north-western Indonesian province of Cheribon (or Tjirebon), was of a more refined Javanese stock than Haji Ismail.
And she was proud of her pure, unadulterated Javanese pedigree.
I remember her sitting in her huge bed in the adjoining living area where a television set was placed against the wall in front of her bed.
All the grandchildren would be sitting around her bed while watching tv.
She was the family matriarch.
Year: 1968 in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.
Nuraina: Bapak, I would like to buy a swimming suit because I have joined the swimming club.
Bapak: Eh? No, no. You will drown. Withdraw your membership.
Nuraina: But, but....
Bapak: No, no... I will take you all to Changi next time we go to Singapore.
As a young boy, Bapak was deprived of many things a child should be enjoying.
He was never allowed to ride a bicycle for fear that he would bruise himself.
According to Pak Cik Melan (the late Melan Abdullah), Bapak "had never enjoyed a swim in the beaches of Katong Park, Bedok or Changi.
"He could only enjoy a picnic by the seaside or, perhaps, fish in the shallow waters of the beach."
It was, I am certain, for fear that he would drown.
Pak Cik Melan was like an older brother to Bapak. The older brother Bapak never had.
He was a family friend entrusted to take care of Bapak when Bapak got the job in Utusan Melayu.
In a biography, "A. Samad Ismail: Journalism and Politics", Pak Cik Melan was among those invited to write in tribute of Bapak.
Pak Cik Melan wrote:
"He led such a sheltered childhood. He was never allowed to leave the kampung without an elderly relative to accompany him. Even to watch a Sunday matinee at the Garrick Theatre in Geylang Serai or the Queen's Theatre in Geylang, he would be accompanied by an elderly relative or a trusted friend.
When he had to stay back in school - Victoria School in Jalan Besar - he had to go to his brother-in-law's shop in Arab Street who would then see to it that he got safely home.
His mother made all the rules. Samad played the guitar and was a member of his kampung keroncong group. But he had to stay home on Thursday nights (malam Jumaat), could only leave the house after Friday prayers, and whistling or singing in the kitchen was strictly taboo. If he missed fasting for a day, he was the last to have dinner. He was not allowed to wear anything black."
I do, however, remember a story my aunt (Bapak's older sister) told me about how Bapak came home from a fiesta at the beach.
The story was that Comel followed a group of older friends to the beach, unbeknown to his doting parents.
A boy and the sea -- what a fascinating combination! Comel was carried away, playing in the beach and in the water in abandon. Naturally, he returned home late.
Traces of his beach affair were evident and when confirmed that Comel had a fun time at the beach (because Comel did not know how to tell a lie, even a white one), mummy was hysterical.
Her darling Comel could have drowned. Mercy me!
So, to ensure that Comel never repeated that unthinkable act, he was punished. His mother "smacked" his legs and feet.
I could not quite understand why Bapak did not allow me to join my school's swimming club.
I actually disobeyed him and joined anyway. Mak was an accessory.
Although she did not explain why Bapak was adamant not to allow me to learn how to swim, she told me not to withdraw.
"Tak apa. Nanti kita cari swimsuit, ya," she said.
It was later that I found out that Abang Med was also never allowed to go swimming. Neither was Kak Ton nor Kak Olin.
In Abang Med's case, Bapak was protective of him as he was the eldest boy.
Perhaps that was why Bapak encouraged Abang Med in music and guitar-playing as that kept him home!
We were also not allowed to ride bicycles. None of us ever had our own bicycle.
But we did learn to cycle, though. We had our ways. Not at home but in Singapore..
We had our cousins in Singapore to thank for this because everytime we were there for a holiday, learning to ride a bicycle was top priority.
You learn many things from your parents, including what not to be. That was why I made sure my children learnt swimming at a very young age and had their own bicycles to ride!
If anyone else knew Bapak intimately, it was Pak Cik Melan. Here is his story:
"I was A. Samad Ismail's chaperon and companion from the day I met his parents in Kampung Melayu after my return to Singapore from Johore. I became a chaperon under licence from his father and mother, in fact up to the day he became editor of the paper and married Hamidah.
"But what headaches I had with Samad during those days when I acted as his brother, chaperon and companion, especially when he was wooing Hamidah.
I was his chaperon in the strictest sense, his "amah", so to speak charged by his family to look after him. I was simply carrying on a family tradition.
Samad had always a chaperon to look after his whims. And I was his chaperon during the most boisterous years of his life.
"Thus, Samad grew up to be a very obedient boy with pleasant manners, like most children who are their mother's pet.
Samad had no older brothers as playmates. The only man who came close to be his elder brother was the late Haji Samon Haji Dahlan who owned a shop in Arab Street, selling caps and capals and was well-known in Singapore before the war as a social worker. But Haji Samon was too old for him.
"Haji Samon was married to Samad's eldest sister, Hajjah Fatmah before Samad was born.
.... this void in Samad's early life, his almost complete dependence on an elder person to serve as chaperon and companion, perhaps drew him to me.
His mother had wanted very much for Samad to be an ulama like his relative, the late Mas Isom, who had a large following in Singapore before the war.
his mother and sisters laid down the rules for him: Comel must never be allowed to drink..Comel must never be allowed to commit adultery... Comel must never gamble...Comel must never show any disrespect to his elders. Comel means small, or beautiful or darling.
As events later proved, he was neither small, nor beautiful nor darling to most people.
"He proved, instead, to be a veritable bundle of trouble to me. It was quite a list of do's and don'ts which Samad was supposed to observe for the sake of family honour and self-respect. But Samad flouted almost every single rule that was laid down for him."'
Bapak sure broke those rules. Emancipation? Free and unshackled?
Comel , so protected and sheltered, grew to be a non-conformist. A radical, some even say. An enigma to so many. Whatever.
Tomorrow, April 18, Bapak celebrates his 83rd birthday. Pak Cik Melan is gone. So have many of his close friends including Pak Cik Tongkat (Usman Awang), Pak Cik Kamal (Keris Mas), Uncle Swee (Lee Siew Lee) and Pak Cik Dahari (Dahari Ali).
We are glad that Bapak still has Pak Mazlan (Mazlan Nordin), Abang Syed (Syed Husin Ali) and Uncle Rajah (Dr M Rajakumar), to name a few.
Mak died in 1990 but Bapak sometimes asks for her. He probably is not even aware that he will be 83 tomorrow.
I remember how distraught he was when Pak Cik Tongkat died some years ago.
"Kawan-kawan aku ramai dah tak ada," he remarked.
Bapak.... Happy 83rd birthday and may your remaining twilight years be wonderful, blessed always by Allah SWT!
(Caricature by LAT in tribute to A. Samad Ismail, April 1986. The words below the caricature say: "Samad telling a joke.")