Sunday, February 14, 2016

In Memoriam ~ Isako San

Pak Sako's account of his experience
as a political detainee after World War II
I can’t claim to know him well personally, just enough to know that his kind is rare and his death a sad loss. Dato’ Ishak Haji Muhammad, journalist and novelist, and nationalist oddball, better known as Pak Sako. I remember well and quite fondly the two novels on which his literary reputation rests, and also his spicy and entertaining columns in Utusan Malaysia (a leading Malay daily) and Gila-Gila. The man himself I’d met only two or three times. The first time was about seven years ago, when he came to Universiti Malaya, where I was then teaching. We met in the famous Baccha’s canteen in the Arts Faculty.
I had long wondered if the writer in person would be as interesting as his writings and rumours one heard about him. It is a pleasure to report that the answer was yes. I was struck, though, by something about him that the rumours concerning his political and literary antics, both past and present, didn’t quite lead me to expect. He was soft-spoken and wasn’t at all provocative in what he was saying. Perhaps it was the academic environment that made him seemingly reticent that day. But I was sure that the reticence had an eloquence of its own; he was obviously watching the academic scene and the pretensions of the puffed-up little minds there. I certainly thought I saw a glint of impish irony in his eyes. I was also struck by the smartness of his dress; a fashionable bush jacket, no less. “Did they say he was a ‘bohemian’”?, I murmured to myself; the “rolling stone” who was justifiably proud of the fact that he had not gathered any moss? But that bush jacket which, I was told, he sometimes wore with a stylish cravat, didn’t quite mock his reputation as a plain-speaking and plain-living champion of the common people.

The image of Pak Sako as a dashing frequenter of cabarets, and later as the “dandy” of Chow Kit Road and resident wit of the New Hotel in Jalan Raja Muda was nurtured by the same source as that which fed his passion for life, and for the justice and freedom without which that life would have been meaningless. He always liked to keep in touch with the common people, but there was nothing about him that was even remotely like the self-conscious middle-class poseur compelled for ideological reasons to go slumming among the rakyat.
A dashing frequenter of cabarets
He may have been soft-spoken but his speech, like his writings, was often spiced with sharp and earthy wit, his famous humour salaciously sly, nicely vulgar, and his notorious skepticism of people and politicians always wryly ironic, quite often given an added punch by a fitting pepatah (maxim) or pantun (four-line Malay verse). He was a traditional Malay enough to be compulsively fond of the pepatah and the pantun. He even had a column called “Pepatah Petitih” in a popular humour magazine Gila-Gila. These have been collected and published in two volumes in 1989. The fact that Pak Sako was invited by Gila-Gila, a magazine aggressively committed to youth and hedonism, and that the old man enthusiastically accepted the invitation to be a gila-gila (literally “mad-mad”, i.e. eccentric) columnist speaks volumes for his natural talent for being at home in any generation, and to be a bridge between the old and the young. Many of his surviving comrades and protégés, like Pak Samad Ismail, consider him a “typical Malay,” but in the best generously open sense of that ambiguous phrase. As a good “typical Malay,” he was earth-bound, kampung (village)-rooted but very far from being a Melayu with a katak-bawah-tempurung (frog under a coconut shell) mentality, either personally or ideologically. He was the type of Malay nationalist whose concern for his race was informed by a breadth and generosity of vision; his native intelligence and instinctive lust for life, if nothing else, made it easy for him to laugh at the rhetoric of chauvinism.

He could number many non-Bumis among his friends and admirers: even Lim Kit Siang (the leading Chinese Opposition politician) became his champion in Parliament. It was basic common sense and instinctive humanity in him, not abstract idealism, which made him stress the need for mutual tolerance, respect and concern among the races of this country. Typically, he would remind his fellow Malaysians of the obviousness of this need by making a light but highly suggestive joke about it or illustrating his point with a tellingly earthy and risible anecdote culled from his own rich experience of life. Like that marvellous story he told in a speech at the gathering held in his honour at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in 1987.
In 1948, so the story goes, he was in a small party of detainees being transported from Taiping to a police station in the then Campbell Road, Kuala Lumpur. There was somehow a shortage of handcuffs and Pak Sako had to share one with a fellow detainee who happened to be a non-Malay. Well, you know what it would be like travelling long distance chained to another person; you would have no choice but to be together all the time and everywhere – including the intimate moments when the call of nature is simply irresistible. As a parable of man being bound together by common humanity despite the difference of race, I cant think of a better story than that; and only a Pak Sako could tell it the way he did that night at Dewan Bahasa.
Pak Sako, yes. My 10 year old daughter said the name sounded like Ajinomoto when we read the news of his death last Friday; and how right she was. Sako, as fans of the old man should know, is Isako, which is the way the name Ishak was made euphonically tolerable for the Japanese tongue. Isako later became Pak Sako, thanks to Ishak Haji Muhammad’s journalist friends. The “I” was dropped and substituted with “Pak” – and that natural process of repossession of a name made alien by the tongue of a former enemy carried a small but suggestive symbolic significance. The softness and the sense of familiarity of “Pak” as normally spoken by the Malays, and its connotation of spontaneous respect and easy but concretely felt sense of solidarity, kampung-kind and rooted in the common earth – yes, its rather nicely symbolic that out of “Isako” came Pak Sako.
Ishak became Isako, then Pak Sako
I’ve always thought that the best way to honour the memory of someone like Pak Sako is to re-read his books. The two novels, Anak Mat Lela Gila and Putera Gunung Tahan, certainly can bear re-reading after the lapse of a few years, if only to appreciate once again the satirical wit of Pak Sako, a wit which is quite rare in modern Malay literature. Yes, go back to his books – and stop dribbling about what a great man and writer he was. The chorus of inane praise that greeted the old man’s death was typically and quite sickeningly Malay. Having failed to give the man adequate appreciation for his service to the nation when he was alive, we overcompensate by cheapening the words “great” or “giant” in calling him “a great writer” or “a literary giant.”

Pak Sako himself would have been utterly embarrassed by such a chorus of katak bawah tempurung. I can imagine him, still disoriented by the darkness of darkness, turning in his new grave with embarrassment for the inanity of his people. I can imagine him saying to the two black angels with green eyes, Munkar and Nakir, sent to question him about matters of faith: “Listen to them up there! Calling me “great writer,” “Literary giant” and what other nonsense! My people have infected my name with their own lack of proper modesty and sense of proportion. When I was among them, most of them could only bitch and be envious... I wanted to teach them pride, proper pride and faith in themselves, with due sense of realism and proportion… Now look at them! They make me feel I’ve miserably failed…”

13 November 1991

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