Someone said that if Leonardo da Vinci had to tweet five times a day, people would still be riding bicycles. But modern living with all the technology has made us empty. We are mostly half-present with the other foot in the digital world somewhere. Modern life has created an urban dweller who is more isolated in the big city than his ancestors were in the kampong. Today, modern living fail me. My astro television subscription got cut off, my attempt at online payment failed, my mobile phone had a flat battery, and my laptop went missing. There was no television to watch my favourite Fox movies, no mobile phone to chat on, and no internet to browse or “google” (it seemed “google” is now accepted as a verb in modern English).
Suddenly I had plenty of time on my hands. My mind began to wander back to the 1960s. Just how did yesterday’s 9 year olds lived in the 1960s and 1970s, back in the then little town of Alor Setar, with almost no technology? We watched black & white television, and listened to only one radio channel. People took time to communicate with each other by having real conversations and not through whatsapp. Young people back then took time to read print books because print media was the only way they could get any information and bask in their imagination. I used to read a lot of books, the Enid Blyton Famous Five series and as I grew older, spy thrillers, such as “The Day of the Jackal” by Frederick Forsyth, first published in 1967. I doubt any of my children ever heard of the book.
In the evening I would cycle outside on the dusty laterite road on my father’s bicycle twice my height. Riding an over-sized man’s bicycle was tricky. It required children to contort and wrap their bodies underneath the horizontal crossbar in such a way that their legs could reach both pedals, their hands could steer the handle bar while safely remaining in almost perpetual motion. If only a machine of perpetual motion is possible. Regardless, I landed headlong, together with my over-sized bicycle, into the green slimy ditch when the bicycle veered to the side and the brakes failed me.
But nothing beat the experience of catching fighting fish in the dark murky swamps behind my kampong house. It never occurred to me then that there could be a python or water snake slithering in the dark mangroves. Now I would squirm at the sight of a rattlesnake on National Geography television. We would be so engrossed with catching the fighting fish that we almost always hardly noticed the setting sun. On weekends, we would go out to play with the morning sun and head home with the setting sun. On one occasion, I remember a second cousin being chased around the kampong by his 80 year-old grandmother because he came home late. He was hoping to outrun her as the chase would probably tire her out. But with a stick waving in the air just inches above his head, he was not about to take any chances.
Back then a household would have one bread winner present to take care of the home. Parents of that period practically allowed us children to be doing our own thing. I would like to think I was much happier than children of nowadays living in a big city like Kuala Lumpur. Modern mothers, hovering over their children about homework, or in anticipation of some danger lurking round the corner and fathers who never were quite home is the norm nowadays.
But my father was always home at magrib. I recall my father was a man of few words and deeply, deeply religious. He was a chief clerk in the land office in Alor Setar, and he cycled to office everyday. I remember I was 5 or 6 years old running around in my skirts when I joined my father for magrib prayer. He never uttered a word as he turned around to check the saf. His gentleness and patience encouraged us all towards prayers. He hardly laid a hand on us or caned us as far as I could remember except for that one time. Perhaps it was to teach us some much needed discipline. My mother on the other hand, was illiterate and not able to read except for some jawi with a little rumi. She loved to socialize, visiting friends for long hours.
Don’t get me wrong, we children of the 1960s had our fair share of responsibilities. We washed, starched and ironed our own school uniforms especially during secondary school days. During those days the girls uniforms had box pleats and ironing starched box pleats was no mean feat especially if you had only coal-fired metal irons to press clothes. Coal-fired metal irons were heavy and impossible for a child to handle. But washing school shoes on weekends was a breeze. We helped our mothers sweep the floor or buy groceries from the nearby shop run by a Chinese family.
I walked to school when I was seven years old. When it rained heavily, the river would swell, the fragile wooden bridge would be swept away by the strong currents and we had to skip school that day because there was no way of crossing the river to the other side. Sometimes I would take off my school shoes if it rained, at the risk of my feet getting cut by broken glass buried in the mud, only so that my shoes would remain sparkling white when I finally get to school that morning.
School of yesterday was not as burdensome as school of nowadays. There was no tuition classes when we were 10 years old. But punishment was considered necessary. Wrong answers in class would mean a painful crack on the knuckles with the corner of a blackboard duster by the teacher. Knuckles would get swollen but we never felt the need to report back to our parents as we took punishment as part of learning. Perhaps we were tough kids back then.
I would like to believe that the punishment paid off, turning many of us into upstanding citizens. We became decorated naval admiral, school teachers, scientists, chemical engineers, mechanical engineers. If there was anything to be proud of, two prime ministers of Malaysia called Alor Setar home, one even returning to serve for the second time at 93 years of age. Alor Setar was also home to the first woman deputy prime minister of Malaysia, an achievement for kampong boys and girls like us, many with parents who were unschooled and illiterate.
Yesterday when I was young
The taste of life was sweet as rain upon my tongue
I teased at life as if it were a foolish game
The way the evening breeze may tease a candle flame
The thousand dreams I dreamed, the splendid things I planned
I always built, alas, on weak and shifting sand………………………Charles Asnavour