Monday, June 12, 2017

REHMAN RASHID, 1955 - 2017 by Umapagan Umpikapagan

Michael Chabon's "Wonder Boys", that miraculous meditation on the eccentricities of writers, begins with the following line: "The first real writer I ever knew was a man who did all of his work under the name of August Van Zorn".

For me, that man was Rehman Rashid. He was the first real writer I ever knew. He was also the best. The finest. No contest. The love and care he had for his craft was one that bordered on obsession. His mastery of the English language was second to none.

I remember once asking him about his writing... about why he used the words he did. He told me that the English language was vast and varied. He told me that the English language was loaded and lavish. He told me that there was always an exact word for every sentence and for every situation. And that it was our duty as writers to constantly seek out that perfect expression. He told me that anything less would make us lesser writers.

Rehman Rashid was the first real writer I ever knew

I knew him first from his work: from his many NST op-eds (which would often be read out aloud on my breakfast table) and from his magnificent and enduring treatise on the Malaysian condition.

I knew him better when he was my boss and editor and mentor. When he took in this twenty-something, armed only with the notion of wanting to be a writer, and taught me everything I'd ever need to know.

I knew him best when he was my friend. When he would confess the many conflicting ideas he had about life. When our shared insecurities about writing and putting ourselves out into the world would often surface and come to light.

There are very few people who have been as encouraging about my life and career choices as Rehman has. I will miss his voice. I will miss his words. I will miss him.

I love you boss. Always have. Always will. Rest well now.
REHMAN RASHID (1955–2017). "The stories go on forever; they'd outlast eternity if they could."
It was with great sadness that we heard this morning of the death of our friend, Rehman Rashid. He suffered a major heart attack while out cycling in January, and never recovered. Our deepest thoughts are with his family and friends. Rehman was a singular character. Some found him abrasive and opinionated, "difficult" even. But that was to misunderstand the man. He cared deeply about his country and its peoples – not in some kind of narrow chauvinistic way but in the hope that the country could realise its fullest human potential. And Rehman cared deeply about language as the potent conduit for ideas (and his use of language was masterly). He disdained mediocrity. He didn't suffer fools gladly. If those are faults, then so be it. Recently, Rehman seemed to have discovered a newly minted contentment, not least because of the reception to his two final books: Peninsula and Small Town, both published last year and offering some kind of vindication We corresponded a lot – about language, about cycling, about books, about the state of the world. I hope he wouldn't mind me sharing his last letter, written in January not long before his fateful last ride, when he reflected on the fact that Peninsula was once again at the top of the bookshop's bestellers' list. His generosity was palpable. Here is what Rehman wrote:

Today I want to wallow in this like a kerbau in a mudhole: mmmm, how cool, oozy and exfoliating it is. Would you like to know how it feels? It feels like I can STFU at last. It means this isolated, solitary & reclusive life of mine now becomes right & good & proper, when until just over a year ago it felt all wrong that I should be so distant and alienated from everyone. I had friends once; family too. It's normal for these circles to diminish in the latter years of a life. We grow tired of other people's bullshit and they grow tired of ours. None of this changes with my book on top of the charts – ten thousand readers may not mean a single new friend – but it validates it, and I'm happy for that. I knew there had to be a reason I turned out this way, and this was the reason: so that I could write my heart out without thought of consequences.

Still in that situation, only deeper, so I'm not closing the gate on whatever might emerge henceforth. "The stories go on forever; they'd outlast eternity if they could." I'm quite excited about the prospects ahead, to be honest. Writing what I do is like pulling away layered veils one at a time; each one revealing tantalising shapes and forms still to be uncovered. Puzzled as I've been by the absence of any "mainstream" attention to the phenomenon of 'Peninsula' last year, I now take it as a form of carte blanche: I remain free to do (or not do) as I please with what I have. From feeling rejected and disdained by the "literary fraternity" in this country, I now feel weightlessly above the mists & mire, and I like the view from up & out here. I've paid my dues and owe you nothing but my gratitude now.
Al Fatihah.
Every once in a while, a great love story is told. Rehman Rashid shares his with treasured memories in this master piece –

We met in 1987, soon after I returned from a year in the UK as the New Straits Times’s London correspondent. I was at the zenith of my newspaper career (yes, I peaked early) and she was an associate at the law firm of Rashid & Lee, involved, inter alia, in the legal representation of rural folk and Orang Asli. Her father was Brig.-Gen. Dato’ Chen Kwee Fong, one of “Templer’s Twelve” (the first Malaysian army staff to attend Sandhurst), who had retired from the Malaysian Armed Forces as Chief Engineer. Rosemarie was the sweetest little thing, bright as a button, with such dignity and grace, and a ready, pretty laugh. “Every time I see you,” I spontaneously blurted out early in our acquaintance, “it’s like seeing you for the first time.”
But those were harsh times for our country. I had requested the London stint for breathing space after the 1986 general election, during which I had seen the disease of money politics first-hand for the first time, for a total and instant loss of innocence and idealism. A year later, things were even worse. Team A/B, Chinese education; Operation Lallang loomed. Throughout that troubling period, Rosemarie was a beacon of stability and calm; au courant with the issues and au fait with the law. The night before I was to go to Bukit Aman to be intimidated by the Special Branch with our Internal Security Act, I went to see her in her family home in Damansara Heights. This could all be taken away just like that, I thought. She stood on her front step in the forebodingly dark and quiet night, looking up at me with such concern and understanding, I cupped her chin in my fingers, tilted her face to mine and placed upon her delicate lips the lightest and softest kiss; our first. (She subsequently called it our “ISA kiss”, and requested it frequently.)

The upshot of Operation Lallang was that I quit the newspaper. I was 32 and already a proven writer & award-winning journalist; no problem. Quite fortuitously, Asiaweek magazine in Hong Kong offered me a job and I took it. Rosemarie left Rashid & Lee to accompany me there. For a couple of months I supported us while she looked through the classifieds for lawyer jobs. She found a position with the Bermuda firm of Conyers, Dill & Pearman, then busy expatriating Hong Kong corporate residencies to the mid-Atlantic in anticipation of the 1997 handover to China. They adored her. (As did everyone, no surprise.) After a year of happily building our careers with our respective new employers, Rosemarie and I were married in the spring of 1989, at the Bishop’s Chapel in Macau.

I would never have asked her to “convert”. I always felt it was too much to ask of religion that it be swappable for any reason other than personal epiphany or revelation. The Jesuits of Macau asked only that I agree to a “Dispensation of Cult”, whereby I pledged never to compel my wife to raise our children in any way she did not approve or wish. That would have been my way anyway. (And we did not think children would arrive too soon; both our careers were opening vast new possibilities and potential.) For the next three years we were blissful as a couple; living well and comfortably, and operating at globe-girding levels. But I was not happy professionally, and Rosemarie understood why. “Your heart is in Malaysia,” she said.

“My heart is with you,” I said. “But Malaysia is my area of expertise.” And writing a book about it all became a notion, then an obsession. Asiaweek’s publisher and editor-in-chief Michael O’Neill understood it too, and let me have a year’s sabbatical to “get that bee out of your bonnet, and come back to us.” Rosemarie said she just wanted me to be happy, and if I needed to do this for that, she would back me completely. And so I went back to Malaysia to finish that book. Which process went so well, by the end of it I felt my place was here and I didn’t want to leave again. I might do the most good here, I thought. Malaysia could use me. Indeed, Malaysia *needed* me, whether it knew it or not. But our marriage would not have been recognized here as it was everywhere else in the world, and there was no way my lawyer wife & I would have transgressed that. So Rosemarie, who always thought so well of me and what I did, let me go.

Of course, I should have gone back to her as soon as the book was published. But then it took off so successfully, and she and I both knew me well enough to know that, wherever else we were in the world, I would only feel all the more that I belonged in Malaysia and nowhere else. So I feel now that our separation would have been inevitable, if for reasons very different from those for which marriages ordinarily end. And so Rosemarie went on, up & out into the world, while I…

…I, the biggest, saddest fool, gave up my angel for this country. Which is as much to say, for this hatred and contempt; this mediocrity and ignorance; this incompetence, cynicism and corruption. This religious arrogance and racial chauvinism; this vile mediaevalist barbarism.

12004750_10153605931064464_4400481438824407114_nI paid for my loyalty to Malaysia with everything good and decent that I had, only to be mocked and despised; to watch my profession usurped by “the right kind of Malay” regardless of literacy; to have my name smeared and reputation destroyed; and in the end to be hounded back to the very redoubt in the hills where I had written that book 23 years ago now, never again to write. Rosemarie never saw this place where I may now languish forgotten and ignored for the rest of my own days, and now she never will. I chose my love for my country over my love for her. Bad choice. Big mistake. My punishment has been a life of regret and insuperable loneliness.

See la, how beautiful was my bride. RIP Rosemarie P.Y. Chen, 1961-2015

Taken entirely from

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