Monday, August 31, 2009

A story for Merdeka Day

Malaysian flag 

I wrote this short fiction awhile ago. It was my vision of Malaysia and thought it might be appropriate for today as we celebrate the 52nd anniversary of our Independence Day. Although many incidents had happened in the past few weeks that had hurt some members of our communities, I am still hopeful that things will change for the better.

This is for all Malaysian who wants to see a OneMalaysians rather than OneMalaysia.


`Malaysia BOLEH Cari Makan’ hosted by PPP a.k.a Puthu Piring Pandan

As a child, Muthusamy son of Doraisamy had many dreams. He dreamed that one day he would no longer be ridiculed for his name, the colour of his skin, the innate tilting motion of his head from side to side and accent when he speaks, his likes and dislikes. When he became an adult, he would only have one dream and that would be for the day when his parents would finally stop nagging him about how he would never become a successful man (and by successful, they meant a doctor, lawyer or engineer, which according to them were the holy trinity of all professions).

And so, Muthu developed the only friendship he ever had with a boy named Salim bin Abu Bakar, who one might say, is the only person who truly understands him.

The last time Salim saw Muthu was five years ago. Muthu was unashamedly dressed in an ill-fitting white V-neck t-shirt, which bore three identical fluorescent orange letters that seemed to scream out PPP! Both sleeves had been cut out at the shoulders exposing faded-looking indigenous patterned tattoos on his meaty biceps. The fake tattoos were courtesy of a recent trip he made to Sarawak. The XL sized t-shirt did nothing to conceal his protruding belly, a proud gift from two years of fine dining, according to Muthu’s own standard.

The sight of Muthu’s thick, coarse and curly hair, peeking obscenely at his chest level would have been an eyesore to any self-respecting men and prudish-upbringing women. But instead of repulsive looks being thrown at him, he received gazes of immense respect and awe by those within the parameter of his imposing figure.

That was the Muthu whom Salim knew for more than twenty years before he packed his bags abruptly and relocated his whole family to London. What was initially a two-year work stint turned into five when Salim’s wife became pregnant with their second child. This had all contributed to his extended sojourn in a foreign land.

Salim remembered his parting words to Muthu over their usual late night roti canai and teh tarik at Lingam’s Corner in Taman Tun Dr. Ismail. “I hope PPP finds what he’s looking for,” to which Muthu responded with a shrug and a goofy smile.

To Salim, Muthu was a decent enough kind of guy. The kind who would not go through arm’s length to help someone but neither would he harbour malicious thoughts against another. It wasn’t so much as he had no malice in his soul, he just couldn’t be bothered. Muthu was the kind of guy who wouldn’t necessarily devote himself to charitable work but would help a blind person cross a street, only because he thought it was the right thing to do and no one would find out about this as he was also the sort who would never advertise what others would consider as benevolence.

There was nothing really special about Muthu in terms of being a student. He didn’t excel in anything in school, he was the average kind of student who sat quietly in class, did his homework satisfactorily and would never bother to disturb the girls. In fact, come to think about it, Salim had never seen Muthu expressing any interest in girls when the rest of the boys would put on either their best or worst behaviour just to get their attention. Muthu did not have much opinion about anything even to the point of avoiding any potential need to express an opinion. So, Muthu was a complete misfit in that sense, much to the annoyance of those who were unable to figure him out.

Once, Salim with a group of boys gathered in an otherwise empty classroom during recess time to chat about whom they thought was the prettiest girl in class.

Oohhh…no way, man. No-lah, I tell you, I think nobody can beat Carol. She looks shy only but I’m sure she would like to be kissed,” Ti Chong said with a bit too much gusto as he puckered up his lips and like a freak gold fish that squeals like a rat, released a shrill and obscene kissing sound, those often made by sociopathic boys on the street to gain the attention of virginal-looking maidens in flower patterned head veils.

Oi, Chong! We’re talking about who’s the prettiest-lah. Not who’s the sluttiest. Aiyoh….this guy damn hamsap, man!” Salleh pretended to chastise them as soon as he caught the disgusted but curious glances of two Chinese girls with identical haircuts, brown hairclips and brand new turquoise pinafores, presumably Form Three girls whose parents decided that they should start to learn Bahasa Malaysia properly if they were to qualify for Form Six.

Ti Chong turned to look at Muthu and asked, “Eh Muthu Keling! What you think, huh? Carol pretty or not?” If Muthu’s skin was several shades fairer, he wouldn’t have been able to disguise his embarassment and discomfort, being confronted with a question like that. Instead, he barely answered Ti Chong, stood up and left the room looking neither perturbed nor interested in the outcome of the ensuing discussion. His departure was followed by a cacophony of Muthu Keling is a pondan, Muthu Keling likes boy, Muthu Keling is this and Muthu Keling is that. Salim never thought that for someone who was as unremarkable as Muthu could be so many nasty things at one time but still, he kept his mouth shut. Like Muthu, he preferred not to voice an opinion in such situation.

Salim never ceased to be amazed by how Muthu tolerated all those childish indiscretion committed by their fellow classmates. Being labelled with a double derogatory names like keling and pondan must be no doubt damaging to one’s self-esteem but surprisingly, Muthu never allowed any of it to disparage him and in fact, he just couldn’t be bothered like the many other things in his life. That might have been the reason why Salim became close to Muthu, not for the latter’s indifference but self-preservation instead.

To say that Muthu was completely devoid of any interest in life was untrue for he did have a passion for one thing. While the other boys longed for extended sessions of Physical Exercise so that they could kick-ball instead of pretending to know-all, Muthu secretly wished that he could join the Home Economics class and for the rest of his teenage years, he would also secretly continue to curse the education system’s discrimination against his gender.

Whatever the other boys knew about football, computer games and comic books, Muthu replaced them with his then rudimentary knowledge of food, cooking TV programmes and recipe books. Maradona was who all the other boys aspired to be, but for Muthu, Chef Wan was his idol. When the boys discussed about how the amazing Spider-Man rescued Mary Jane from the evil clutches of the Hobgoblin, Muthu mentally visualized Chef Wan pouring coconut cream on sago pudding.

During recess time, when all the students jumped up from their seats to thank their teachers in unison and rushed off to the canteen to beat the queue, Muthu would bring out his often two but sometimes three-tiered stainless steel tiffin filled with all sorts of tantalizing scent of cardamom, cloves, lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, turmeric and the occasional pungent and fishy smell of fried ikan bilis. The symphony of smell was enough to make anyone within two feet salivated and cursed Muthu for having a mother who chose to prepare intricate lunch boxes over gossiping with their next door neighbours while collecting the early morning newspaper.

Although most kids tried to disguise their jealousy by making a mockery out of this, “So what time Mummy had to wake up this morning to pack your stylo-mylo lunch box, huh? Muthu Keling? Or did you cook them yourself? You pondan, mah?” Muthu ignored them and Salim had to admit that Muthu’s nonchalance was a shrewd tactic because at the end of the day, who were the losers? The rest of them who had to settle for the unpalatable and often inedible stale karipap and cucur udang at the school canteen or Muthu who savoured the mouth-watering and wholesome sustenance of Mrs. Doraisamy’s expression of love for her only child?

Salim believes that this quest of Muthu’s is perhaps the main thing which has connected them for all the time that he was away. It is that “constant” in their friendship. They may have grown apart in many ways, but there have been many times when Salim wonders about Muthu’s unfulfilled dream. You see, Muthu had a certain innocuous obsession which many found peculiar, but that was just being Muthu and nobody could understand that but Salim.

For all the time that Salim has known Muthu, he had never once seen him eating anything else but Malaysian food. Forget about treating him to a succulent piece of chargrilled rib-eye steak in an expensive restaurant because he would insist that he was “just-not-so” into Western cuisine. (His “just-not-so” was a complete understatement because Muthu would never contemplate shoving anything that wasn’t laksa, char kuey teow, nasi lemak, roti canai, rojak or anything un-Malaysian, as he would always call it with an added hint of scorn, down his throat.)

Muthu also firmly believed that whatever is expensive does not necessarily translate to being good and therefore, Malaysian cuisine makes perfectly great food in terms of value for money. Muthu did however, make the exception for what he would call “MM” short for Malaysian Mongrel food in reference to the gastronomic fusion of local flavours and those from other countries in Asia, savoured by all Malaysians.

Muthu eventually began to receive less and less invitation to dine. His refusal to flirt with un-Malaysian food was met with much consternation by others. Their friends decided that they could no longer tolerate or accommodate his irrational prejudice. According to them, Muthu was even worse than a Malay. His self-imposed dietary prohibition wasn’t targeted at pork alone but also anything else short of the standard Malaysian appetite for chillies, belacan, Indian spices, coconut cream and pandan-flavoured sweets. At least in Malaysia, Malays like Salim still enjoy halal McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut.

As for Salim, Muthu remained as a faithful dining companion because he would always make an effort to choose Western-Asian restaurants that are widely available in Kuala Lumpur to accommodate Muthu and his own occasional cravings for lamb shanks and T-bone steaks. They had spent a significant amount of time travelling around the country filling their stomachs with local fares and one must admit that the choices of Malaysian food is truly abundant, if not endless.

Salim’s friends often wondered how he, as a Muslim, was able to cope with Muthu’s demand for authentic local food. Even as a child, Salim remembers how his own family had subjected him to a lot of grief when it came to eating food which was prepared using “unclean” utensils. When he was invited for lunch at Muthu’s house, his father would go on a long lecture on how his son’s iman would be tainted should the latter partake in any food prepared by those who did not share the same faith. No matter how hard he argued, his father insisted that Glo dish washing liquid would not cleanse what was already spiritually impure to begin with.

In order to appease both father and son, Puan Rokiah would pack her son’s lunch in plastic Tupperware with a pair of metal spoon and fork for safe measure. While it seemed like a fair compromise, Salim could not imagine the humiliation he would cause the Doraisamy household if he were to refuse their food and adding salt to injury, brought out his own lunch boxes. It would be like telling Muthu right to his face that although he accepted his kind invitation, he wouldn’t want to risk having diarrhoea from Mrs. Doraisamy’s cooking.

So, Salim never told his parents how he emptied the content of his lunch box after he had his fill of chapati, dhal curry, aloo gobi and resam, at the back alley of Muthu’s house much to the local stray cats’ delight. In a triumphant note, he would later announce to his father that he didn’t even allow Mrs. Doraisamy to clean the Tupperware but Puan Rokiah would always wonder why the cutleries had remained spotless.

Muthu once asked Salim whether he had ever wondered how pork taste like over a conversation on a recent scandal about some restaurants being shut down on suspicions of operating under the falsification of halal licensing in Ulu Bernam.

“Well, does it taste like beef bacon and turkey ham?” Muthu burst out laughing and while wiping the tears that had begun to trickle down from the corners of his eyes, he said, “Let me ask you something, Salim. Do you think that those char siew made from tofu tastes anything like the real thing?”

Salim stared at Muthu incredulously, expecting him to realise that he wouldn’t know since he has never tasted barbecued pork before.

“I-say-man, how would you know?” Muthu said with a chuckle upon the realization of his own folly and then paused to ponder for awhile. He creased his nose several times the same way he always did in school when cornered into answering questions in class, which probably explained those permanent horizontal lines imprinted on the bridge of his nose. For anyone who didn’t know him better, they would have thought that Muthu spent all his childhood making offensive piggy faces at other children and as punishment, will always wear this facial flaw on him.

“Hmm…ok, ok. Like this,” Muthu said. “Do you think that vegetarian rendang taste anything like your mother’s rendang?” Salim looked at him, thought for awhile and realised that he has never tasted vegetarian rendang either, but he got Muthu’s point and so he shook his head.

“Same thing, brother. All this beef bacon nonsense, you cannot compare with real bacon! They are even worse than MM, I tell you. They are what I would call CDPC, Cows-Dressed in-Pigs’-Clothing!” Muthu declared scornfully and then laughed at his own joke. Salim would have laughed too if he wasn’t alarmed by his friend’s ridicule and low impression of halal pork.

“No need to look so worried-lah, Salim. I know you’re a Muslim and I respect your religion and the way you stick to it,” Muthu said. “I think nobody can understand this better than me. What difference does it make that you don’t eat pork and me with all this rubbish Mat Salleh food? You respect my taste, I respect yours. Simple as that!”

Comforted by his statement, Salim seized the opportunity to ask Muthu what he had against non-Malaysian food. “Salim, I’m a keling, as some people like to call me but I don’t know anything about India and being an Indian. And I’ll tell you straight, brother. I-don’t-care. I am Malaysian. But you see-huh, you and I are different.”

Salim retorted, “What do you mean by we are different?” slightly worried that Muthu would embark in a debate about how racist he thought the Malays were.

“Relak-lah, brother. What I’m saying is, you have an established identity already and me? I’m still finding mine. I find that food seems to unite us all Malaysians. It’s enough that we have the chinese, malays, indians, mamaks, chindians, nyonya and babas and all this not including what we have in Sabah and Sarawak. Right or not?” Salim nodded his head in agreement.

“I tell you, who needs these blardy Italians, French, Japanese and all the other rubbish to compensate for our already rich flavour,” Muthu continued. “You go to a mamak stall at 2 o’clock in the morning and what you see, huh? Tell me what you see, Salim.”

Without waiting for Salim’s reply, Muthu went on with his merdeka speech. “You see all these flers. Kopi susu-lah, horlicks-lah, kopi-o, whatever-lah! enjoying roti canai and teh tarik. To me, that is what Malaysia stands for. I don’t care about the politics, racial sentiments and all the other nonsense. But food, ahhhh….that is different altogether!” Muthu paused for a split second to catch his breath before he continued, “And that, Salim, is the identity I am proud of and will defend to my death. Right or not?”

Salim swore that if their founding father, Tunku Abdul Rahman was still alive, he would have adopted Muthu straight away and if they were both twenty years younger, they would have been selected by Petronas for this conversation to appear in one of those touching once-a-year Yasmin Ahmad National Day advertisements on Astro channels. Ti Chong however, would have to be included for best measure.

Salim had to confess that the conversation reinforced their understanding for each other. If anything, before they were like new lovebirds about to enter into one of those steady relationship conundrums where both are unsure if it’s still too early to ask how many babies they like to have once they are married. If you ask too soon, it might give the other the impression that you’re already planning in advance for a lifetime together and the next thing you know, the phone calls stop and you curse yourself for taking that leap pre-maturely and not to mention unilaterally. Often than not, you are simply too afraid to hear anything which might disappoint you. However, if you don’t ask, you might end up wasting your life committing to someone who doesn’t share the same ideals.

While being completely aware of their differences in cultural and religious upbringing, neither Salim nor Muthu had the courage before to speak about their fears and what could have unwillingly jeopardized the friendship they have.

Soon enough, their food expeditions became a regular affair and what would have been previously off-limit, Muthu now took Salim to hawker stalls and night markets where both take-outs of non-halal and halal food were available within close proximity. Sometimes, Salim would queue with Muthu while the latter waited for his turn to take his order and in the beginning, Salim was uncomfortable with the curious stares of the Ah Kows and Thambys standing next in line. Their looks however, were not as hostile as the Ahmads and Tambichiks standing across the next stall waiting for their murtabaks.

There were many times when Salim was tempted to dispel their silent pre-conceived judgment of him by asking cheekily, “See only, mah. Cannot, meh?” but as time passed by, he managed to reason with himself that he hasn’t done anything against his religion. If anything, didn’t the Quran said that God has created them from the same male and female and given them distinct people and tribes so that they may recognize one another? What he did was simply recognizing Muthu’s “tribes”.

One of the things that Salim liked about eating with Muthu was the anticipation while waiting for their food to arrive. Ironically enough, Salim thought that Muthu, who had never given his time of the day to girls, would have been a great lover if he applied the same method of foreplay he used to describe food. Muthu had the ability to tantalize the thalamus and occipital lobe with his slow and yet attentive commentaries, often paying careful and yet enthusiastic attention to special details like the smell, taste and texture right down to the sound of the first bite. All this did nothing but contribute to slowly building up Salim’s appetite which gradually turned into an explosive crescendo of flavour when he finally sampled the food, which, to Muthu’s credit often turned out as good as his choice of words. To Salim, Muthu was the reincarnation of Martha Stewart meets Steve Irvine.

Once, they stood in a long queue at a char kuey teow stall in Lorong Selamat, Penang. Muthu, as excited as a kitten captivated by a moving object, chattered all the way through the queue about the benefits of frying the long thick strands of white translucent rice noodles with hot burning charcoal instead of a gas ignited flame. If he had a tail, it would have wagged at the speed of a hummingbird.

As if he, himself were the fisherman responsible for the prawns, he could not stop bragging about how big and succulent the prawns were compared to other stalls that often parsimoniously pinched on essential ingredients like prawns and deep fried pieces of pork lards. He also insisted that the cockles used in this particular stall were among the freshest judging from the bloody dark reddish brown liquid that seemed to hold them together in a huge plastic bucket, when accidentally shaken would cause the contents to tremble like cellulites on flabby arms. Salim imagined that the freshness could only be matched by its strong taste and smell of ferrum. According to Muthu, any vampire who took the pledge against cannibalism would be happy to find an alternative here.

One weekend, they managed to purchase one of those ridiculously cheap Air Asia flights to Sarawak. Salim was looking forward to visit the Santubong Fishing Village and the turtle sanctuary of Satang Island. Muthu of course had other plans for them. He insisted on going to the Annah Rais Longhouse Village to see what the Bidayuhs eat (in other words, he would like to actively partake in the eating process rather than just being a passive witness on the side). Salim might as well count his blessing just in case Muthu decided that turtle eggs were better used as food ingredient than to preserve the specie.

On their last day, Salim and Muthu spent the entire afternoon searching for the best Sarawak laksa in Satok. If Muthu had a choice, he would have brought a couple of them back with him to Kuala Lumpur. Unfortunately, he could not fashion a way to pack them securely without any risk of spilling the spicy and fragrant soup, something which would have been a disaster of an apocalyptic proportion to him.

One day about seven years ago, while Muthu was googling for more local places to eat, he came across a random comment made by someone in a food forum which unfortunately insulted him to an unimaginable proportion. If a computer can be programmed to carry out human bodily functions, it might as well spit on his face. As he sat there staring at those seven words, “Malaysia doesn’t really have a national food,” he was filled with tremendous despair, much more than the time when Mr. Doraisamy had declared to the whole world that he was a gundu-good-for-nothing son, the kind who had failed to live up to their parents’ dreams. Not only had he failed to secure any of the three sacred jobs considered worthy by his parents, he did not qualify for Form Six and hence, ended up as a salesman for a second-hand car dealership company.

Yes, yes…nowadays we cannot force our children to do anything. Unlike your son Rajen who is now a big shot doctor, our Muthu is a gundu-good-for-nothing-son,” Mr. Doraisamy sighed for a brief moment before he continued hastily,”We have given him everything but see what happened? During our time, it was different. Right or not? Where got their appapa give us everything? But we continue to work hard so that we can give them everything. Right or not?” Muthu overheard what his father said to some relatives who were visiting from England one night while he was untying his shoe laces outside the door.

“Aaahhh…but we always tell our Muthu. No space for Indians in Form Six never mind! Appa got enough money to send you to India to study but what did he say to us?!” Mr. Doraisamy lamented, followed by another sigh. That night, Muthu laid on his bed and like a remote control, he turned off the power switch to his brain and started dreaming.

But now, the sheer thought of how he had preserved his eating lifestyle and food culture at the expense of friendships and possibly a normal relationship with any women, often even more fanatical than a Taliban, was more than Muthu could swallow. He never once considered the fact that none of these local dishes actually represent all the ethnic races in Malaysia, and hence cannot really seek to claim the coveted title of national food.

In his moment of anguish, he realised that he had found his calling. He must try to invalidate that wretched random-whoever-it-was-who-until-now-did-not-exist-to-ruin-his-life’s opinion, at all cost.

Over the next few months, nobody knew what Muthu had up his sleeves but Salim knew something was amiss. Muthu’s sudden disappearance from his life created such a vacuum that he began to fill his mind with all sorts of sinister thoughts, especially when Muthu refused his invitation to a new Indian restaurant in Bangsar South. The fear of Muthu abandoning him in one of his eating sprees did come across Salim’s mind. Or worse, perhaps Muthu had found a new dining companion who wasn’t Malay but another thamby who could share thoughts over a glass of beer and bona fide bacon, not CDPC, an acronym he invented once as a disparagement.

After about three weeks, Muthu’s phone call never came. Instead, he had simply turned up at Salim’s front door looking like the cat that has swallowed a canary.

Muthu told Salim that by a stroke of good fortune and his persistent display of strong conviction, he managed to convince someone who knows someone at the Asian Food Channel to produce a food programme called Malaysia BOLEH Cari Makan, loosely translated as ‘Malaysia CAN look for food’ and it would be hosted by none other, but him. And so, Muthu Keling Pondan became Puthu Piring Pandan, a name picked deliberately as an overt extended-middle-finger to those who remembered him as the effeminate-dark-skinned-Indian.

The show helped transformed Muthu completely. From an unopinionated person, he suddenly became the most opinionated person on TV. Malaysia BOLEH Cari Makan was a catharsis for Muthu. Like an unwanted morsel of bread crust tossed away on the floor without as much of an afterthought and attracting thousands of ants in a matter of minutes, Muthu became an overnight icon, loved by many Malaysians, partly due to the “romantic” idea that finally an ethnic minority Indian had publicly expressed his love for his country by his own volition, even if it was through his stomach that had grown in proportion with his new found fame.

Malaysia BOLEH Cari Makan became known as a cook show with an ooommpphhh, generating a wide demographic range of local audiences. It owed much of its success to Muthu’s innovative approach based on the concept of audience participation. The producers might have been the ones to ensure the funding and execution of the show, Muthu was certainly the creative mind behind it.

In each episode, Muthu selected two local dishes to compete with each other. He would then visit different restaurants, food courts, hawker stalls and sometimes even catering companies all across Malaysia famed for the selected dishes. At the end, there would be two short low-budgeted but nevertheless witty music videos featuring the competing dishes and Malaysia would vote which of these dishes deserved to be crowned as the ultimate national food. The winning dish of each episode would then compete with each other to become Malaysia’s National Food in the final season.

Muthu tried his best to target different demographics by reserving the more conservative story lines to older generations and then something more edgy for the younger ones.

Once, he tried to propose a video clip in conjunction with Valentine’s Day which would have set off a precedent with its underlying sexually provocative tone. What would have been called the Venus de Mil’O-Chian video, featuring a woman climaxing to a song describing the aphrodisiac properties of the fried oyster omelette (incidentally, was also the competing dish) to the music of Barry White’s You’re the First, the Last, My Everything, didn’t make it to the TV screen. The show’s very own censorship adviser decided that the idea was too close to pornography for the ultra-conservative members of the public, which unfortunately, were also the majority of the population. It might as well didn’t make the cut because it would have been easy for the casting crew to find a large Indian man resembling Barry White to be featured alongside the woman, but nobody knew whether the man could have carried out the vocals as convincingly.

The personal downside of the show for Muthu was that during the course of his food tour, he learned a lot about the origins of his subject matter. And truth be told, he finally understood what that random-person-who-ruined-his-life-once-upon-a-time-ago meant.

Through the process of pork elimination, anything not halal can never be regarded as Malaysian. The Nyonya food which every Malaysian knows comes from a specific community called the peranakan is a mixed between the Chinese and Malays at the straits settlement or modern day Singapore, Malacca and Penang during the British colonial period . All those lovely roti tissue, roti pisang, Maggi mee goreng from the ubiquitous mamak stalls which have become an essential after-dark melting pot of local culture, can never be truly Malaysian for isn’t mamak essentially means Indian Muslims?

On the very night when Malaysia voted by a huge margin to declare nasi lemak as the national food over char kuey teow, he celebrated the end of the TV season by googling nasi lemak in the privacy of his home. The first search answer popped out as “a famous breakfast dish of Malay origin”.

That was the last news Salim has on Muthu’s career as PPP. And so, in the wink of an eye, half a decade has flown by and Salim is sitting at what is now one of PPP’s chains of restaurants expecting Muthu to walk in through the folded wooden-panelled door at any time. Sitting at the exact same spot five years later, Salim wonders whether Muthu will look and behave exactly the same, with his prosperous paunch and signature apathetic attitude towards most things in his life.

As Salim looks around him, he discovers that the crowd is much bigger than when it was Lingam’s Corner. He can’t help but stare at the waiters’ white t-shirts that have the same fluorescent orange letters, those three identical letters, no more and no less and yet it carries with it all the dreams and aspirations which can only be fully understood by its owner and himself.

When Salim sees an Indian waiter speaking to his Chinese colleague who is then interrupted by another Malay waiter, he soon realises that it isn’t just the name of the restaurant that has changed. Muthu has cleverly and not to mention successfully created a whole new concept of local food culture. This is a restaurant which has incorporated the elements and spirit of mamak stalls, Chinese kopitiam and Malay warung under one roof, serving all the main local food, loved best by Malaysians. Muthu had personally handpicked the ten winning dishes which made it to the final season of his show, with the addition of the puthu piring, preserved as its specialty in honour of the restaurant’s namesake.

Salim has read about PPP’s success on the Lonely Planet guidebook about Malaysia. Imprinted on the page, it says, “Although local restaurants can be found anywhere in Malaysia, to have an unforgettable gastronomic experience on all the three major culture in one sitting, one must absolutely make a stop at PPP in Kuala Lumpur. And if you’re lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of Malaysia’s most fascinating and beloved icon, Puthu Piring Pandan, the proud owner of this chain of restaurants which have created a storm across South East Asia, up to Hong Kong and even India.”

Salim feels a sudden rush of pride overcoming him. He would never have imagined the proportion of Muthu’s success within five years, especially knowing how Muthu was an unremarkable boy who was taunted mercilessly by his peers and being looked down by his own family.

As soon as he thinks he sees Mrs. Doraisamy beaming at the cash counter, he hears a round of loud cheer coming from the front of the restaurant. Salim tries to scan through the crowd of diners who have begun to stand up, blocking his view and chanting PPP, Hooray! PPP, Boleh!

Salim tries to get a good look at the smiling man who is responsible for all the ruckus, who by now is moving slowly through the crowd and as if expecting someone, he looks around the restaurant. Once the man sets his eyes on Salim, he rushes towards him.

It takes Salim about a split second to realise that the man is Muthu but what he hasn’t expected is that half of the Muthu he knew has somehow disappeared. Standing before him is a younger, thinner, happier and better looking man. If not for the goofy grin and those permanent lines on the bridge of his nose (even more visible now since Muthu’s complexion has cleared up considerably), Salim will never have guessed. Of course, the biggest give-away is still the thunderous applause generated by presumably loyal customers and tourists who come in every night hoping to catch a glimpse of him.

Salim leaps from his seat and as if he was a long lost twin, Muthu gives him a lingering bear hug. Muthu’s warm welcome and public display of affection by now has made him an object of public curiosity.

As soon as Muthu releases him, he pulls a step backward and with both arms on Salim’s shoulders, looks at him from head to toe, as if to check whether he is indeed the right twin. After a few seconds, satisfies with what he sees, he finally says, “It’s good to have you back, brother.”

Salim stands speechless while he tries to recover from the shock and amazement of how much Muthu has physically changed. He secretly wonders whether plastic surgery has anything to do with this sudden transformation and hopes that fame has not driven his friend to narcissism and anorexia.

Muthu ushers Salim back to his seat and then positions himself on the opposite side. Before he has a chance to say something, a pretty and yet familiar looking young Indian woman approaches him from the back and brushes herself against him. The familiarity in which she interacts with Muthu can only make anyone guess the relation between them.

“Ahhh….Carol. You remember Salim, right?” The woman, whose face has suddenly became apparent to Salim at the sound of her name, smiles bashfully and greets him while his gaping mouth does nothing to disguise his surprise. As if he’s being nudged by an invisible person sitting next to him, he quickly snaps out of his confusion and utters, “Of course, Carol! It’s been a long time. How long has it been? Ten years? Eleven? Or maybe twelve even……”

Salim doesn’t know what has possessed him but his sudden loquacious manner must have sent off various signals at all conceivable directions, mainly awkwardness which by then has triggered off some sort of a comedic effect because Muthu and Carol burst out laughing and exchange looks of exclusive accomplicity which has succeeded in making him annoyed and embarrassed both at the same time. They whisper to each other and then Carol says something which he can barely hear, proceeds to excuse herself and then walks to the cash counter.

It takes about one hour for Salim to catch up with Muthu before he finally returns to his old self, the one before the improved version of Muthu walks in followed by his no-need-to-improve version of girlfriend, whom incidentally was also the object of every thirteen and above boys’ desire.

Muthu tells Salim that he had to go on a strict Atkins diet for nearly nine months before he finally lost twenty kilos worth of nasi lemak, curry mee, roti canai and laksa, which Salim personally finds it insulting and honestly wishes that Muthu would rather admit to the fact that liposuction was really the secret. What Muthu does admit though is that once he looks the way he does, many women seem to throw themselves on him, not that they haven’t before. Previously, they would do it for his money and fame but now, at least they find him sexy and physically worthy.

Salim shakes his head and replies dejectedly, “But Muthu, I can’t believe that you’re happy with the fact that women want you for these qualities only? What happened to you, man? Where is that thamby I used to know, huh? The one who wouldn’t even take a second look at Carol and all the other women?”

Salim can’t help but feel slightly disappointed by how much Muthu has changed about his perception of life. The Muthu before wouldn’t care less about what others think of him but now, he has given up his one and only passion just to get the women. Suddenly, he has an uneasy feeling or rather fear that the fame and glory of PPP has finally resurrected the buried ego of Muthusamy son of Doraisamy’s past.

Muthu, unable to give him an answer, simply sighs and says, “Salim, I’ll tell you this. I am the happiest man on earth. There is nothing more I could ask for.”

“So, I suppose you have found “THE” answer, then?” Salim replies sarcastically.

Muthu perks up as soon as he hears Salim’s question. Ignoring the hint of sarcasm in his voice, he looks pleased with the fact that Salim still remembers.

He smiles and says, “Believe it or not, I have!” and then proceeds to catch the attention of a waiter serving at the next table. He asks the waiter for two cups of teh tarik, with special emphasis on the kurang manis or less sugar.

“So?” Salim asks with a bit too much vigour because it only prompts Muthu to toy with his impatience. Muthu signals him to wait until the orders arrive and then after taking a long sip of the hot but not boiling milky tea, Muthu clears his throat and unfolds the story which changed his life forever.

He tells Salim that one day, while he was shooting on location in Klang for an episode on bah-kut-teh, he came across a young Chinese boy, about nine or ten years old. The boy was obviously excited and intrigued with the whole camera crew shebang. What caught his attention about this particular boy was the fact that the little rascal would make cheeky faces at him whenever he started recording, whether in an attempt to make him laugh or angry, he would never know because it subsequently became insignificant.

During a five-minute break, he seized the boy and ushered him to a quiet corner. Initially, he had wanted to scare the boy into putting an end to all the shenanigans but for unknown reasons, he asked the boy in his limited Mandarin, picked up from watching years of dubbed South Korean soap operas, “Siao ti-ti, for you, what is Malaysian food?”

The boy was more alarmed by the question than Muthu’s funny accent. He started to scratch his head as he pondered over the question. Then, he looked at Muthu and with a huge smile, said, “Of course it’s my mom’s cooking!

And so, just like that Muthu finds his own identity as an Indian boy living in Malaysia. He is no longer haunted by the mocking and indiscretion he suffered as a child. He no longer needs to find a reason to seek the approval of others or accept himself as an ethnic minority group in Malaysia. He is borne and raised in Malaysia and hence, that makes him a Malaysian. Mr. and Mrs. Doraisamy are borne and raised in Malaysia and so, that makes them Malaysian as well. For him, it doesn’t really matter anymore whether there is an actual national food as long as it is being loved, cherished and shared by all the races in Malaysia.

There and then, Muthu stops searching but starts living. He tells himself, if Muthu Keling Pondan can become Puthu Piring Pandan, it can’t be all that bad.


Copyright Reserved © 2009 - Do not copy or print without the authorization of the author

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The first drop of cold water on a hot sunny day

In the past few months, I find myself receiving sad news from friends living abroad. The death of a loved one, a child inflicted with illness, frustration in relationships and the breakdown of a marriage. It has been a long time since I’ve heard someone ranting about something as mundane and inconsequential as office politics.

I am uncertain whether it’s because I’m an adult now and hence the people I know are bound to experience adult problems, or it’s simply a dark cloud lingering above us waiting to past, just like the economy.

Adulthood seemed to hit me once I got married three years ago. Gone are the days when I could just pack my bags and travel to post conflict countries like Timor Leste, got myself into life-threatening situations in Afghanistan and then still dream of doing something for the people in Darfur. The days of having only myself to account for are numbered.

During the last few years, I found myself living in the shadows of my husband. We travelled to Ethiopia and Cambodia for his work and what would normally have been a gratifying experience, ended up in self-deprecation. In case you’re wondering, the problem wasn’t my husband. It was the state of unemployment which nudged me into questioning my individual sense of purpose.

It wasn’t until I met a photographer in Ethiopia that I began to see that sense of purpose again. It has taken me a long and tumultuous journey before arriving here today.

The journey started on the day when I agreed to take a trip with my photographer friend to South Omo Valley, a region in Ethiopia where the lip-plated Mursi tribe habitates. She wanted to take some photos and needed a travel companion. Anything to do with travelling thrills me and although I was ready to go, I was unhappy with the fact that such rare and precious occasion would end up being just another fading memory.

Unwilling to settle as a tourist, I turned the images I saw and the conversation I had into child-like scribbles while sitting at the back of a Toyoto Cobra on a rocky journey to Mursiland. Once converted into typed-out letters, we submitted our stories and photos to travel magazines.

Unfortunately, our story didn’t sell but it reminded me how much I love to write. Since then, I’ve chanelled a lot of my thoughts and energy into writing. I became more focussed and happier as a person.

Although it was purely self-indulgent, it opened up my mind and heart in ways I never knew I could. I begin to pay attention to small details such as colour, smell, taste and sound; things I often took for granted.

Before, I thought the formula for my happiness includes having a family, friends and a well-paid job. If one of them was missing, it meant something was wrong and hence, I couldn’t be happy.

When we moved to Cambodia last year, I was more prepared to deal with the consequences of unemployment. I started a blog and although it’s not as successful as I’ve hoped for, I continue to write as fervently as I could. Writing became a reassuring comfort in the midst of great uncertainties.

I applied for a writing course and submitted a couple of short stories for competition but they were all met without success.

Yet, I continue to write. Some of you might wonder why don’t I just give up? It obviously proves that I’m not good at it.

The simple answer is, I was writing for myself. It was the only thing which I understand and in return, understands me.

It would seem that many of us sometimes forget the essence of our own happiness. We get caught up with family affairs, work stress, security threats, global miseries and all the sad stories surrounding us that we forget to live.

When a loved one is sick, a friend is in distress, a neighbour is wrongly persecuted or when our country is falling apart, we feel that it is selfish to indulge in what makes us happy.

On the contrary, I feel that it’s even more important for each and everyone of us to find that happiness during such bleak moments. For most parts, it helps to restore our hope for life and humanity. We all know that it’s easier to feel pessimistic and miserable about life when we’re down than when we’re up and yet we turn out backs on logical solutions such as finding joy and meaning in life.

Not too long ago, I asked my photographer friend whether she has ever felt uninspired with what she does. She admitted that she has her down days; when everything seems to go wrong and nothing she does ever feels good enough.

When I asked her whether she has any miracle cure for that, she answered, “Once a month, I take photographs of whatever I like. I set these photos aside and keep them for myself. Even if they’re really good, I don’t sell them. They are for me alone. This is how I remind myself why I love photography in the first place. I don’t do it just for money or glory but simply for myself.”

So when a friend confides in me how they are struggling with life, I often tell them to take some time and space to find something that fulfils them emotionally and spiritually. Like our bodies, these aspects of our lives need nourishment but sadly are too often being ignored. It is not being selfish, but self-feeding. We need to respond to the distress calls from our inner self rather than just hoping it would go away by itself.

Having said this, I don’t mean to advocate for people to start burying their heads in the sand. I’m advocating for people not to bury themselves in misery and learn to find some goodness and happiness in their lives.

If I had allowed myself to drown instead of looking for that buoy of life, I wouldn’t have gotten this column. Finding happiness during times of depression is like the first drop of cold water on your bare skin on a hot sunny day, the first gulp of air as you submerge from the pool and the first moment your head hit the pillow after a tiring day. It’s a gift that will help you gain the strength to brave life’s challenges.

When someone from the Malaysian Insider told me that I’ll be given a column and I can write anything I want, I thought to myself, “After four years, something good finally happens to me.”

I was wrong.

The good thing already started when I got married, when sixty job applications were turned down, when I was second-guessing my own worth and above all, when I thought I would never find my own sense of direction again.

The good thing started when I learn to embrace what makes me happy.

P/s: What would be a miracle cure for you? If you haven’t found one already, perhaps it’s time to look for one that works for you.

This piece was featured on The Malaysian Insider, 22 August 2009: 

Monday, August 24, 2009

Religion versus culture

My birth certificate states that I am Buddhist although I think my grandparents were Taoists. My parents are both Atheists. When I was 17, I tried to embrace Christianity and later attended an Anglican Church religiously. Then, when I was 25, I decided to explore Islam and spent about two years learning and practicing the religion.

I am curious about Judaism and Confucianism and even more intrigued by Sikhism and Hinduism. What am I then? I don’t really know and I am contented with not knowing.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “religion” is defined as a particular system of faith and worship or a form of recognition on the part of man of some higher unseen power as having control of his destiny to warrant obedience, reverence and worship.

So, if this is what defines religion, then I think I do have one because deep down, I believe in a higher divine power that has created all living things and each with a purpose. Although I have no idea who or what this divine power is, there is faith in me that it exists.

This faith is revealed to me and reinforced again and again whenever I witness the wonders of this world. The beauty and practicality of each organism inspires me to believe that there is a Creator who is amazingly creative and obsessed with perfection.

The only problem though, I don’t worship this Creator because I have no idea who or what it is, but I feel an absolute awe in its creations and try my best to respect them because it’s through the latter that the former is being revealed.

Now, I do wonder whether all these so-called religions practised by people around us today deserve to be called religion at all. For a start, many of them are either borne with the religion (such as my case), brought up to believe that this is the religion they belong to or by conversion through marriage or adoption.

I would like to argue that what we understand as religion today is actually a cultural practice. According to the Webster New World Dictionary, “culture” is the development, improvement and refinement of the mind, emotions, interests, manners and tastes, as well as arts, ideas, customs and skills of a given people in a given period of time. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as the intellectual side of civilization.

If you notice, all the religions as we know of today; Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc. were in fact revealed to a group of people at a specific period of time and through them, different practices were adopted and then practised for centuries later. Many religions have contributed to the development of great civilizations, arts, science, medicine, etc. In fact, if I remember my History lessons well, Islam was revealed to end the age of “jahiliah” or pagan ignorance.

Sure, they would like to believe that these practices are divine order and claim that it is through faith that they believe. My question is, is it really faith or simply cultural upbringing? After all, what they know about their religions are from secondary sources.

When a child is borne of a Hindu family, she is taught that cows are sacred and she is told to offer prayers and worship to the Hindu Gods. If she is being brought up in a Christian family, she learns that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and her Saviour. She will follow her parents to church every Sunday and told to repent her sins. If she is Muslim, then she will be told that pork and alcohol are completely forbidden in Islam. This child, depending on which family she is being borne into, will learn the Holy Scripture of the religion and have her believe that this is the religion she belongs to.

While some children may be lucky enough to be given an opportunity to learn about other religions and eventually an option to choose, many do not. Is this called faith then and more importantly, does this qualify as religion?

I have known a couple of people who identify themselves as Muslims and yet, they consume alcohol but never pork. Does that mean they are Muslims? I don’t know and I don’t question anymore because to me, it is irrelevant. I do not associate Islam as a religion, but merely a cultural practice. Does that mean they do not have a religion? Again, I don’t know because it depends on their system of faith. If they have faith that there is a divine power who determines their lives and deaths, then does it really matter to me whether they consume alcohol or not?

I left the Anglican Church because I thought that I have committed a sin which is frowned upon by the church and refused to embrace a religion without fully practising what it preaches. Then, I question this so-called religion. Did I commit a sin because “someone”  judges it so, or because God says so? Well, God hasn’t answered to me yet.

I am always curious what motivates someone to have faith in their religion. A common question I pose is how they know whether their religion is THE truth? Many people would often tell me, “It’s faith that guides me to believe.” But where does this faith come from? From your parents? The church? The mosque? Your friends? And most importantly, does this faith have to be defined, given a specific name and be exclusive rather than inclusive?

To me, faith has to come from within. I have no faith in a religion which makes me feel guilty about everything and instil in me a fear which I don’t truly comprehend. On the other hand, I have faith in a religion which teaches compassion, kindness, honesty, love and respect for all its creation.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Casting the Talibans away

Since my previous post, Afghanistan has seen another huge assault on their struggle towards democracy. With the Presidential elections two days away, the Taliban has fortified their determination to destabilize peace and security by instilling fear amongst those who hope to see a reformed government that was filled with corruption and abuse of power.

Having worked for the first Presidential election five years ago, it saddens me to feel as if nothing has changed. In fact, it would seem as if things have gone from bad to worse. Security has never been as fragile as now.

With more than 50 people wounded and 7 dead from the suicide bombing near the city of Kabul today, it’s hard to see any glimmer of hope for the people of Afghanistan. The BBC has reported on the widespread of violence in other other parts of the country on the same day.

The series of attacks and intimidation suffered by the Afghans may very well deter them from casting their ballots come Thursday. Will this then prove that the Taliban has won the war? It would, if this is precisely what will happen on polling day.

Having thought a bit about this, perhaps there is a silver lining somewhere along the assaults that have been carried out to injure the very spirit and essence of the Afghans. Would it be too presumptuous for me to think that the Taliban has increased their effort to reassert their authorities because they are finally being challenged by the very people they seek to control?

There is no denying that over the past few years, there is some sort of improvement in terms of human rights awareness amongst the Afghans, although many people would like to argue otherwise.

Sure, there are many things that are left to be desired; women’s rights, rule of law, freedom of expression and a government that is based on the principles of integrity and transparency.

However, if compared to five years ago, more and more Afghan women are starting to get back into the workforce although it is mainly in the cities only. The governor of Bamyan is a woman, the Chairperson of the Afghan Independence Human Rights Commission is also a woman and if I’m not mistaken, some women have also begun to learn how to drive.

Five years ago, there were no women candidates for the Presidential election. This year, there are two. Five years ago, there were 16 candidates but this year, 40.

Again, many would question the validity of these candidates but it doesn’t change the fact that there is an increasing space for democracy. I’ve read that presidential debates have been carried out and broadcasted live on Afghan television. I’ve read postings of local news and discussions by Afghan friends on Facebook and clearly see that there is a great shift from passive to being activists when it comes to the welfare of their country.

Five years ago, I worked with fellow Afghans who were local staff working for the UN. Last year, I know of one who has gone on to work in Sudan as an international staff and another who is travelling to Europe for his work with an international organization in Afghanistan. Not too long ago, it would be difficult to find an Afghan travelling abroad unless they are refugees, immigrants or those granted with political asylum.

I also know many of those who have remained in Afghanistan but continue to work courageously and fervently towards rebuilding their beloved country.

There are profound changes in the country no matter how insignificantly they might have appeared.

So perhaps, it’s not too far-fetched for me to assume that the Taliban has good reasons to be concerned. For the Afghans to give up now, it would greatly reduce their chance in winning the war against the Taliban.

As mentioned on my previous post, every Afghan has the power to change their country through the ballot box. It’s through this fundamental right that citizens have freed themselves from incompetent and abusive governments. It’s through this that a first African American was elected as the President of the United States.

Many good Afghans have died so that others can have the right to vote. Throwing this right away would make their deaths pointless and deny their children a future.

“Impress upon children the truth that the exercise of the elective franchise is a social duty of as solemn a nature as man can be called to perform; that a man may not innocently trifle with his vote; that every elector is a trustee as well for others as himself and that every measure he supports has an important bearing on the interests of others as well as on his own. "

- Daniel Webster

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The power to change Afghanistan

I am a fan of The Tudors series. I don’t know how accurate the story is but wish that history lessons in school can be made more captivating like the series.

It would seem that King Henry VIII’s reign in England during the 16th century was plagued by religious upheaval; mainly the Lutheran movement in a predominantly Catholic nation and the creation of the Church of England.

The series portrayed King Henry VIII as a monarch who was so obsessed and occupied with his love affairs that he would rule the country with great misjudgement, tyranny and oblivion towards the suffering of his people.

In order to marry Anne Boleyn, he went against the Catholic church (what was considered as the Divine faith) by divorcing his Queen, Catherine of Aragon. This would mark the beginning of England’s separation from the Holy Sea or The Vatican as commonly known today.

King Henry VIII, once discovered the Boleyn family’s plot to manipulate him, ordered for the execution of his new queen. Eventually, he married Jane Seymour who died shortly after giving birth to his first legitimate son.

He then married again for the fourth time to a German aristocrat but succeeded to get the marriage annulled.

This post is not really about the history of England. I’ve mentioned it because there’s one scene in the series which is linked to what I read today on the BBC news.

Apparently, Afghanistan has officially endorsed a law which provides the right for a man to starve his wife if she refuses to have sex with him. It baffles me that such a law should exist in this day and age, especially when Afghanistan is trying to move towards democracy.

To me, instead of moving forward, what’s happening in Afghanistan today is a huge regression towards an archaic period filled with brutality, lawlessness and injustice practised only  by medieval Kings and Emperors granted with unlimited power.

When Jane Seymour was told by Lady Rochford, her lady-in-waiting, that King Henry VIII has taken a mistress, the noble Queen, while feeling dejected, implied that she had accepted the subjugation of women as part and parcel of life. Basically, whatever the King wishes for, it shall be granted without resistance. Whatever he decrees, let it be law.

I couldn’t help but notice too that the King uses religion to suit his whims and fancies. He doesn’t question the sinfulness of debauchery, adultery, corruption and summary executions but will not hesitate to punish those accused of heresy or treason in the name of religion.

Afghanistan is reliving this dark period and I ask myself how could this happen.

The men who support this law stand up boldly and say, this is what our religion says and it is divine. The women, hidden underneath their burqas, remain silent and helpless. In the mean time, what does the President of Afghanistan say?

When I looked at King Henry VIII, he is nothing but a man, made of flesh and blood; pathetic even. He eats, drinks and releases his bowels to stay alive. He falls ill, ages and dies as nature would have predicted him to. And yet, he holds the power to determine who shall live and who shall die.

Who gave him the power? The simple answer is, the people. Without the acceptance of his people to submit themselves to him, he would be nothing but just a common man, like you and I.

A friend asked, "”What can we do for the women in Afghanistan?” The simple answer is, the Afghans themselves. Stop giving power to those who use religion to control and to subjugate. Stop giving power to those who allow these religious fanatics to create senseless and archaic laws.

Stop voting for the person who is responsible for this. Without your support, they will not have the power.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The narcissist in me

So I got hit by the vanity bug this week. I thought this day would never come, not even on my wedding day. For my wedding, I wore a simple dress bought on the day before in such haste that I still had the price tag on when we arrived at the registrar.

Anyway, I was informed that I would be given a column on the Malaysian Insider starting two weeks from now. Yes, very exciting news and I was really really chuffed especially when I was told that I can write about anything I want. Hooray!

In reality, I was shocked by the news. When I first started having discussion with someone from the Malaysian Insider, I never thought that this would turn out to be something so great. So, you can understand why I couldn’t believe it.

When I asked the person whether there should be some kind of a theme for my column, she suggested, “Why not call it Ka Ea’s life?” I was like, “Err….isn’t that a bit too egocentric?”

Truth be told, who was I kidding? It may have sounded egocentric but hey, aren’t most bloggers like that? (I know of one who is particularly self-centred).

So yes, as an afterthought, I realised what I said was purely false modesty and I hated myself for that. So, I’m going to try real hard not to turn my column into some sort of an intellectual emotional masturbation.

Anyway, going back to the vanity bug. I was also told that a photographer would be taking a photo of me and I must confess that I really felt uncomfortable. As far as writing is concerned, I have no problem feeling comfortable with who I am but when it comes to socializing or having my pictures taken by someone, I turn into a complete moron.

No joke. I guess I have my own complexes like many people. With writing, at least there is no actual physical contact with another person but when I’m in front of a person or the camera, I feel naked and vulnerable.

So, I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to make such a big deal out of this. If the photo turned out bad, I could always request them to Photoshop it. Then someone advised me that I should at least get my hair done. After all, this photo may accompany me for a long time if I manage to keep the column.

What started off as only a haircut went totally out of control. I insisted the hairstylist to keep it natural and messy. You know, the kind of hair where it looks nice and yet as if you have just gotten out of bed. I didn’t want it to look as if I had made too much effort.

When I explained to the hairstylist that I would be getting my portrait picture done, she advised me to get my make-up done as well. By now, you should realize that neither do I have naturally great hair nor a clear complexion. So much for having my ego boosted previously.

So now, she had really put me in a dilemma. Should I get my make-up done or not? If I did, then it proved that I was giving too much attention on this photo thingy. Wasn’t that a tad too narcissistic? Do I really care about people judging how I look rather than the substance of my writing? But if I didn’t, would I look at the photo and wished that I had done it?

Hmm…this has got to be the toughest decision of my life.

Of course, I gave in to the vanity bug. I traipsed to the cosmetic section, feeling rather silly. I felt lost and yes, naked. How does one get a make-up done and which one? Aahhh…Bobbi Brown. I’ve heard good things about it; neutral skin tone, etc. Just what I needed.

As soon as I was told that I had to purchase RM180 worth of products in order to get a free make-up, I immediately said no. What the hell was I going to do with the product after the photo session?

I was going to change my mind (I wasn’t going to approach all the cosmetic counters to be given the same answer) but the lady told me that Shu Uemura provides make-up service alone without the need to purchase any products. Goody! I always wanted to try out their fake eyelashes.

So there I was, sitting on the cosmetic counter on a Thursday morning, having my face covered with thick layers of concealer and what not. The funny thing was, I never realize how ridiculously delusional I could be.

I firmly informed the lady, “I would like the make-up to be as natural as possible. Neutral colours only. But ah, you see here?” I pointed at the angry spot on my right cheek. “Please do your best to hide it, ok?”

The lady looked at me with exasperation and as politely as she could, said, “Err….if you want the spot covered, I have to put on hairy make-up, wor.”

Hairy? What the hell is hairy make-up? I thought I had my hair done already.

After seeing how confused I was, she quickly added, “Ok, never mind. I know you don’t like hairy make-up. I will try to cover as much as possible. But can still see the spot a little bit. Okay-ah?”

Aahhh..she meant heavy make-up. Ok-lor what to do? Don’t have good skin but want to expect so much. See? This is how delusional I was.

Apart from learning the lesson that one should always dress up when having their make-up done (I was walking in shabby clothing around the mall but with a face that was ready to attend a ball), I’ve learned that anyone can look like a superstar. All you need is a professional make-up artist and fashion consultant.

J. Lo’s luscious long hair? Highlights and hair extension. Lucy Liu’s almond-shaped eyes with thick curly eyelashes? Mascara with fake lashes. Cameron Diaz’s luminous smooth skin? Concealer and liquid foundation.

I kid you not because the result was startling and I was unrecognizable. If you don’t believe me, I challenge you to try it out and see the result for yourself. Go on and surrender yourself to the vanity bug.

Monday, August 10, 2009

A personal matter of hygiene

I started doing my nails way before nail salons sprouted in Kuala Lumpur like weeds. At that time, Mom was appalled with what she saw as frivolous behaviour; paying someone to do my nails. Now, she understood that many women wouldn’t be seen dead in public functions without their nails done (although she’s not a convert yet).

Occasionally, I like my eyebrows threaded and plucked too. As far as personal hygiene is concerned, I limit myself to haircut, manicure, pedicure, facial, eyebrows trimming and body scrubbing. There’s one thing which I’m intrigued with but never have the courage to try. I’m thinking that most of you would have guessed what I’m referring to.

A few years ago, I was having my nails done at a beauty salon. A beautiful young lady in micro-mini skirt walked in and she was quickly ushered into a private room. I thought nothing of it except for envying her long slender legs.

A few minutes later, I heard a horrifying scream coming from the room. For that split second, I did wonder whether I was at a beauty salon or the dentist. The scream continued intermittently. The manicurist attending to me smiled apologetically and told me that the girl was having a Brazilian wax.

I first heard of the term Brazilian wax in Sex in the City and hence was familiar with the procedure. Nevertheless, I must confess that I was a tad surprised that Malaysians have started adopting it.

Since then, I began to hear more and more women I know who have their zones down under taken care of. Some personal testimonies I received were equivalent to that horrifying scream. Women have described to me how painful and uncomfortable this treatment can be. On top of this, they are subjected to vulnerable positions which are normally more suited for private bedroom activities. A gynaecology’s scrutiny would have been less invasive compared to this. Yet, some have told me that they can’t live without it.

So yes, my reluctance to try a Brazilian wax stems from my unwillingness to be placed under such humiliating and vulnerable positions in the hands of a complete stranger. Lying face down on all four and spreading my butt cheeks to expose my privates so that someone else can strip off unsightly pubic hair is too much for me to handle. However, I do admire the women who can; those who attend to it and those who get it done.

All these trimming, filing and plucking has made me ask this question: Since when did we start to think that personal hygiene isn’t such a personal matter anymore? We have begun to leave what our foremothers would have regarded as extremely private matters in the care of strangers? We expose our bare feet, discoloured toe nails, untrimmed cuticles and what not, right in front of someone else’s face to have them cleaned for us.

In some manners, women in the olden days were much more mysterious and fascinating. They turned up in public looking their best and got everyone wondered how did they do it? Now, everyone knows where a woman could get this and that done.

I used to get amused when I watched movies showing aristocrats being undressed, bathed, dressed and having their hair combed by a chamber maid. I often thought to myself then, “Damn. Don’t you guys have hands?” But when you look at how we willingly pay someone else to take care of many parts of our person, what difference does that make? The only difference is, only few could afford such luxury in the olden days but now, many of us can.

The bottom line is, whether it’s a frivolity or not, many of us cannot seem to live without. In the end, it’s really a personal matter when it comes to matters of personal hygiene.

As our standard of living and level of education increase, there’s no denying that many urban Malaysian women are now much more eager to engage and share hygiene and beauty tips. I just hope that these women would be as equally eager to engage and share personal health care such as breasts and pelvic examinations. After all, you can’t possibly care about your pubic hair without caring for your vagina first.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Cheese omelette for the culinary challenged

An omelette is probably one of the easiest meals to cook, especially if it’s just a plain one. I remember making them a lot in university for fried popiah (spring rolls) fillings. While growing up, an omelette was usually used as an accompaniment; with rice, mee suah (rice noodles) soup, fried mee hoon (another type of rice noodles) and not a meal by itself.

Over the last few years, I’ve learned from the French and begun to eat them as a main course. These are not just the plain ones but filled with different kinds of ingredients; tomatoes, button mushrooms, ham, chives and ham. Sometimes, you can make a really good omelette with minimal ingredients such as the girolles mushrooms. The girolles is very flavourful which explains why it’s rather expensive. It might be difficult to find fresh girolles in many countries but you might be able to find dried ones, usually sold in small plastic container in supermarkets specializing in imported products.

While one would think that it’s easy to make an omelette without any possibility for error, I’ve done several mistakes of my own. I had made them too salty, dry or hard. I prefer my omelette a bit runny and not completely cooked, especially if there are cheese in it. I’ve somehow mastered a reasonably good omelette over the past few months.

If you feel like having a light dinner, this is a great recipe to fill your stomach without going over the top. It’s best eaten with fresh bread or baguette. Here, I added a simple tomato salad for that refreshing side taste.

Cheese omelette_com

What do you need:

(Serves 2)


  1. 4 eggs; lightly beaten with a small pinch of salt and pepper.
  2. A clove of garlic; finely chopped.
  3. 1 whole shallot; finely sliced.
  4. 4 button mushroom; finely chopped (I use a blender for this).
  5. 3 stalks of spring onions (only the green parts); finely sliced. If you can find chives, it’s even better.
  6. 2 slices of smoked ham; cut into strips or small squares. (Substitute ham with turkey ham if you eat kosher meal.)
  7. Some grated cheese; either cheddar or mozzarella.
  8. A small drop of sunflower oil


Tomato Salad:

  1. 4 red tomatoes; cut into small cubes.
  2. 1 whole shallot; finely sliced.
  3. 3 bulbs of spring onions (only the white parts leftover from the ones used for the omelette); finely sliced.
  4. Some cheddar or mozzarella cheese; cut into small cubes.
  5. Some salt and pepper to taste.
  6. A squeeze of lemon juice.
  7. A dribble of olive oil.

(See above: This is not tofu but mozzarella cheese. You can find fresh ones but for this recipe, use the processed ones normally found in pizzas.)

How to make it:

Ingredients Egg mixture 

  1. Start with the salad first because it’s good to let the salad soaked in lemon juice and olive oil for awhile before serving it.
  2. Mix the tomatoes, shallots, spring onions and cheese in a bowl.
  3. Sprinkle some salt, pepper and then squeeze the lemon juice on the salad.
  4. Dribble some olive oil over the mixture and then toss the mixture a couple of times to maximize blending. Leave it in the fridge until serving time.
  5. Heat the pan and when it’s hot, pour the oil onto the pan.
  6. Add in the shallots and fry it until slightly brown.
  7. Add the garlic just for a few seconds.
  8. Add the mushrooms and ham and fry them for a few minutes.
  9. While the mushrooms and ham are sizzling in the pan, put the spring onions in the egg mixture.
  10. Pour the egg mixture in the pan. Move the pan from side to side to ensure that the mixture covers the whole pan.
  11. Sprinkle the grated cheese over the omelette.
  12. Allow the omelette to cook over small heat for a few minutes. If you like them runny like I do, turn off the fire once the cheese are melted. Otherwise, leave it a bit longer but it might become hard.
  13. Serve the omelette on the plates with the tomato salad.

Bon Apetit!

Salad On the pan

Left: The ingredients in the tomato salad.

Right: The omelette cooking in the pan. It looks a bit like a pizza with great toppings.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Parents playing God

I was watching Ramen Girl the other day and something strikes me about the movie. It wasn’t just a romantic story where boy meets girl in a foreign country, they fall in love and live happily ever after. It’s a movie about breaking away from family expectations and finding your own path in life.

Brittany Murphy plays the character of a lost (by lost, I mean uncertain about what she wants in life) American girl, who while in search of her love, ends up in Tokyo. She loses her love but instead finds a purpose in life. For the first time, she realises what she wants to do and that is to be a ramen chef.

Defying her family expectation of her in becoming a lawyer, she studies under the tutelage of someone who appears as a mean and tyrannical Japanese ramen chef in a small but popular ramen restaurant. During this time, she learns and adopts what is considered as the epitome of Japanese culture; responsibility, discipline and commitment towards achieving one’s goal.

Inevitably, like many other movies, she finds love with a local guy, whom unlike her, sacrifices his dream of becoming a musician by working as a corporate executive in order to fulfil his family’s wishes. So, the movie is basically about how the two individuals from such diverse cultures learn from each other; her by learning responsibility and him by pursuing his dream.

The movie’s theme reminded me about how I used to think (sometimes I still do) that my whole life is about fulfilling my family’s expectation. Sometimes I feel guilty for breaking away from the tradition my Father started by building his own business and then expecting my brother and I to take over from him. There is a huge dilemma of wanting to do something for myself and yet feeling remorseful for disappointing my Father since I owe him so much.

Thankfully, albeit being disappointed, my Father only wishes for our happiness. As long as we’re able to lead an honest and respectful life, we’re given the blessing to do whatever we wish for. Unfortunately, not all children are bestowed with understanding parents.

Many years back, I met a girl who was nice and kind in my A-Levels class. She was the kind of girl who would never harm another person. She was sweet, soft-spoken, polite and warm. We knew each other for about a year and then one day, she stopped coming to class. I found out later that she had committed suicide. Words had it that she aspired to be a dancer but due to family pressure, she was forced to study medicine. She must had been very unhappy and yet nobody knew or suspected anything until she met her death in her own hands. If the rumours were true, I wonder how her parents must had felt, knowing that they were partly responsible for their daughter’s death.

In university, I met many interesting, intelligent and nice Malaysian students. Since we were studying abroad, we all felt a special kind of bond and solidarity towards each other. We would sometimes hangout together, share a Malaysian meal or participate in cultural events.

Naturally, being away from home, we were free to be ourselves. We were allowed to dress however we like, do whatever we want and fall in love with whomever we believed we could be happy with. We were living unadulterated lives and sure enough, we made mistakes, we got hurt and so, we paid for our actions. Above all, we learned to grow up through trial and error and making our own decisions.

A few years after I graduated, many things have changed. Some of us have taken up completely different styles of dressing while others have settled down with life partners who possess completely different characters and personalities from their exes. It was almost as if the people I used to know have reverted back to a generic or mainstream lifestyle.

I hope that what I said doesn’t come across as me being judgmental. After all, being a student is far from being a working adult with different sets of responsibilities and priorities. However, I do question whether people change because they want to or merely because they are conforming to family and society’s expectations.

Do we choose a specific profession because that’s what our families would be proud of? Do we choose our life partners because they fit the profile of who our families would be happy with? Do we express ourselves in the way our family and society would be comfortable with? It would seem that we often do.

Many people have condemned how doctors seem to play God by determining the life and death of a person. However, less people have questioned whether parents are doing the same thing. I believe that I understand what it means to make our families proud and happy simply because we owe them our lives. It took me years to break away from the guilt of not fulfilling their wishes because at the end of the day, we don’t choose to be borne. They chose to give birth to us and decided on their own paths but it doesn’t mean they have a right to expect us to live the life they want. If they were to determine what road we should take and who we should become, isn’t that playing God or perhaps worse because God allows us to have freewill.

However, I do have a disclaimer for this. While I am a strong proponent of freewill, I believe that we do owe our parents a lot for bringing us up and we should never forget this. We can show our gratitude by respecting them, attending to their needs and be grateful for what they have sacrificed for us. Their happiness means a lot to us but at the same time, it should be reciprocal.