Book Review: The Gift Of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

The Gift of Rain tells a story of how Phillip, an Anglo-Chinese boy, discovered a sense of belonging in an unexpected friendship with Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat, just a few years before the Japanese Occupation took place. He was never able to connect with anyone – friends, family, himself. But by being a student of the diplomat, he trained in the art of aikido and gained strength physically, mentally, and spiritually.

When the jipunakui (derogatory term for Japanese) invaded Malaya, he was often at crossroads, deliberating on whether to choose the side of his master, or his own kind in Penang.

Here are five reasons on why you should read The Gift Of Rain:

  1. The language is simple; the descriptions, “visible”; the storytelling, impeccable.

Many books often over describe something just to paint a clearer picture in the mind of a reader – one only needs to write just enough to let the reader paint his/her own picture. When writers do this, they are forced to stop telling the story. The Gift Of Rain manages to keep this delicate balance between story development and visibility.

Also, the language here is simple enough to read through without often checking Google for words unheard of; hence it flows even for the novel novice. I included here a few examples of my favorite passages:

I have never seen the light of Penang replicated anywhere else in the world – bright, bringing everything into razor-sharp focus, yet at the same time warm and forgiving, making you want to melt into the walls it shines on, into the leaves it gives life to. It is the kind of light that illuminates not only what the eyes see, but also what the heart feels.

She drew in her breath. A light layer of mist rose up from the surface of the river and, in the trees, shining as though the stars had fallen to earth, tens of thousands of fireflies were sending out their silent mating signals. We were caught in a frenzy of fragmented light. I heard Michiko let out a sigh and felt her hand reach for mine. I move it away and gently spun the boat in a circle, keeping it in the same spot as beneath us the river ran to the sea.

The journey was pleasant, the scenery a rushing blur of greenery broken by clumps of little villages near the tracks. […] Near the town of Ipoh the train went across a vast lake, its surface smooth and reflective, so that for the ten minutes required to cross it I felt we were skimming across a pool of mercury.

   2.  It’s situated in Penang; hokkiens/Malaysians will love the familiarity.

Hardly when we read fiction do we ever get to read about our homes, neighborhoods, beaches, trees, birds, and people. For anybody who would like to take an extra step further to learn how to describe our surroundings, reading a book like the The Gift Of Rain will help immensely.

Besides that, it takes you through the Japanese occupation in the eyes of a local. For several times he traveled to KL, Ipoh, and back to Penang, and I never failed to feel as though I was there walking in his shoes, hearing the waves of the sea and the rustling of the coconut fronds, taking the tram up to Penang Hill and the steam train to KL, and walking along the hawker stalls in Gurney Drive and the dense forests the guerrillas called their home.

   3.  It teaches lessons of aikido, friendship, and love (but not in a way chick flicks portray romance).

There were many moments Phillip developed himself spiritually: connecting with his family, his grandfather, his mother (whom he had never met), and Hayato Endo. The type of love was not one of romance, but of something stronger than a brotherhood:

That moment notched the beginning of our relationship, our real relationship. We had passed beyond the boundaries that encircled the pupil and the master. From that moment, he began to treat me more as an equal, although I sensed that he held back as though he did not want to repeat a mistake made in his earlier life.

This was a bit more romantic, but in a very tragic sense:

I found a hole and inside I found Ming. She had dug up Ah Hock and turned him over, so that his eyes stared through me and beyond to the sky. She lay next to him, her eyes open to the tender rain, her arms around her dead husband. I could not see her blood, but I smelled it. I went into the hole and grasped her wrists, slippery from her opened veins. She was still breathing, her eyelids flickering once, twice, like a statue that had turned to flesh but was now reverting to stone.

I searched in my pockets for a handkerchief to bind her wrists but the cloth blackened immediately. She shook her head. “Stay with me,” she whispered. I held her hand and sat down in the cold mud.

Towards dawn her hand tightened on mine and she moved her mouth. I leaned over her and asked, “What is it?”

“Bury us together.”

   4.  It’s deep AF, but still easy to follow.

The recurring theme in this story revolved around this idea of enlightenment, peace, and fate. When I was reading it, I was (but still am) going through tough times – anxiety, paranoia, fear. All these things clogged up my mind, but reading this book was a form of consolation. The idea of fate was central to the plot too:

Then you understand that certain things cannot be stopped, that they must be allowed to proceed, regardless of the consequences?

This was one way how Endo perceived aikido:

As with all the principles of aikijutsu, you do not meet the force of the strike head-on. You parry, you step to the side to avoid the blow, your redirect the force and unbalance your opponent. It is the same with the ken, the sword. These principles apply to you daily life as well. Never meet a person’s anger directly. Deflect, distract him, even agree with him. Unbalance his mind, and you can lead him anywhere you want.

This referred to the hardships Phillip had to face when he betrayed Penangites for the greater good:

What made it worse was that we could never truly share such burdens with even those closest to us. In the end, the mistakes were our own, the consequences to be borne by us alone.

    5.   You can lansi your way overseas and at home telling everyone the author is Malaysian.

Come on. Support Malaysian literature. He’s an IP lawyer from Penang. How awesome is that? That is what I have been telling people when they asked me about the book, and I never felt prouder to reveal that this Malaysian author does such a fantastic job in storytelling.

Stories need to be simple and clear, leaving out unnecessary characters and situations, only including those that can drive forward the theme and progression of the story. Tan Twan Eng did just that. If there is one thing I applaud him most for having, it is the ability to make things flow.

Fun fact: I normally take more than 3 months to finish a novel (I’m a very slow but focused reader), but this took me less than a month and a half.

All in all, if you would like to read it, I’d gladly lend it to you.

in one month I finished half. now I don't feel like finishing the other half sigh

Ideas at 3.41 a.m.

It’s 3.41 a.m. and I can’t sleep. I just finished reading The Gift Of Rain, and I cannot wait to give it the review it deserves; people need to know.

Outside, the thunder occasionally rumbles. In my mind I see flashes of white pulsing behind the thick grey clouds – a powerful force reminiscent of ideas that brew in our minds.

Behind the clouds you don’t see the full force of the lightning, but you hear it. And no matter how much the clouds try to block its light, you can still hear it. Our ideas have always been there, but it is futile to ignore them; some will never go away.

I can see That’s What Shaun Said go to places, but all this while I have never taken any steps forward as though daunted by fear and uncertainty. I am not sure if it was the conclusion of the book but I was at peace when I came to realise this is a work in progress.

Everything starts somewhere, and before things can be improved my work needs to scrutinised, and that I should treasure the support of those who wish to offer any, in various forms should I wish to acknowledge them.

As Barney Stinson loves to say, “It is going to be legend… wait for it.”

I wonder if in our lives whether “-dary” ever takes place. It was never about the destination anyway; it has always been about the journey.

The Bangsa Melayu Book Launch: who said what?

There were three events today: the KPUM Lexicon, What Women Want: The Economy, and the Bangsa Melayu book launch. Lately I have grown tired of oversimplified ideas, recycled opinions and superficial “analysis”. So, the decision was clear.

Weeks before the book launch, I spotted Bangsa Melayu at Subang Parade’s MPH. I did not know what to think of it then; I have a better idea of what to expect now.

Bangsa Melayu: Malay Concepts of Democracy and Community, 1945 – 1950 was written by Ariffin Omar, who is currently a senator representing Penang in the Malaysian parliament. He founded Aliran, wrote several books such as Revolusi Indonesia dan Bangsa Melayu and The Bumiputra Policy: Dynamics and Dilemmas, and is now based at the Penang Institute, the public policy think tank of the Penang state government.

The event was held at Rumah Gerakbudaya, the Kinokuniya of Malaysian literature.

Ariffin Omar kicked off the small, but powerful public forum with great impact, and spoke from his heart about the concept of being a Malay and its difficulties.

People tell me, “You are supposed to be Melayu”. What do you mean by that?

He continued, “There is no pure bangsa itself. A Malay could be a mixture of Chinese, Siam, everything! The Malay identity is diverse, open, complex, that you could never have a narrow definition of Malay. The constitution’s definition cuts off Malays’ freedom on who they are.”

At this point, Zaid Ibrahim in his wildly retro floral shirt was finding difficulty with drinking water out of those sealed plastic cups we normally get at CNY or Raya open houses. He poked it with his pen a few times, but to no avail. Then he decided to rip off the seal, and spilled water in the process.

If you have political power, then the Malay identity is good for you. There is this waitress at a coffee shop I used to go and remember that she was a mamak. Now she is working for UMNO, and she became Malay.

He ended his segment with impact and substance.

The real battles are happening in the realm of ideas. The real fight is not against government and of which government is better, but the narrow-mindedness of what a Malay identity can be.

Aziz Bari was the next to speak:

Bangsar melayu is not static, it is something evolving. You cannot renounce someone’s lack of Malayness because of what the court said to Lina Joy.

Lina Joy was a Malay convert to Christianity from Islam. Although her change of name (previously Azlina Jailini) was recognised in her IC, her change of religion was not as she lacked a document from the Syariah Court. Once she filed a suit to the Federal Court, but was rejected because “a person cannot, at one’s whims and fancies renounce or embrace a religion”. What?

He also said, “It’s not a legal problem, it is a problem outside the law. FELDA scholarship. Malay reserve land. Whether the amount of Malayness in you is too much or too little. There’s no need to make any amendment to the law.”

Zaid Ibrahim was last to speak. He first admitted he never liked the idea of changing someone’s concept of something as a way to solve a problem as he referred to the Malay identity.

Concept is most difficult to start with to solve country’s problems. You start with people and their rights respected, their needs assured, their wants given. Everybody wants this. To be treated fairly. So, if we understand people we can address policy issues.

He added on, “Do you wanna be one people? Not 1Malaysia, that’s just another political slogan. Do you wanna respect others? If you do, then solving the country’s problems will be easier.”

Concerns of the Malays are that we don’t wanna be frank about our concerns. Chinese no loyalty? If Chinese wanna go vernacular school, you ask questions about national schools. Whats wrong with it?Islam. What makes it? There are people who say Islam is this, that. this and that. At one time if you mix around with UMNO, you are not Islamic.

We’ve always been sidelined, sidetracked by politicians who have their own agenda.

We have to start looking at basis human needs. All people have nowadays are propaganda and angry leaders. Baca paper tengok saja la

Concluding thoughts:

  1. I am going back to Rumah Gerakbudaya to buy more books at a 20% discount
  2. Ariffin Omar spoke a lot about his personal experiences, of which I did not have the capacity to remember. But the gist of what he said was for Malays to be open minded and less insecure about what makes Malays Malay, as a complicated string of events between 1945 and 1950 influenced this heavily in a bad way
  3. Zaid Ibrahim is going to publish his own book on Freedom in Islam. He mentioned a few times how Islam in Malaysia is a product of the government, the state, the politics, and the money, and that Malays should practice Islam however they wish to
  4. Not a lot of Malays attended which was sad, because if there was any one type of people whom this forum would have the most disruptive and positive impact on it would be the Malays
  5. The lady who wrote the Low Yat was about racism, deal with it op-ed piece was there. I introduced myself to her, and got her card. It was pretty cool.
  6. My mum and Priyanka bought Politico, along with its Sabah and Sarawak extension. Can’t wait to play it with the Leeds gang. It is going to be so fun!
definitely on the to-search-on-goodreads-for-reviews list
definitely on the to-search-on-goodreads-for-reviews list
everyone's just like smiling and thinking how long do i have to smile
everyone’s just like smiling and thinking how long do i have to smile
eventually it filled up
eventually it filled up
voila! we bought them!
voila! we bought them!

My Life: The Struggle of the Broken Soy Sauce Bottle

Today I had red velvet cake; it was a struggle thinking about it.

Sometimes I feel like the glass bottle I usually bring to work. It’s usually filled with water, not rice wine vinegar or vodka. Strong, solid, and transparent – proudly wearing its heart on its sleeves.

Then a few times it would break and shatter into pieces. Once I got out of my car (and not knowing that it was squeezed in between the seat and the door),  it fell on the ground hard. On the road there were countless pieces and shards of glass, and it was never to be the usual bottle it was once.

But if I were to spend time and carefully pick up all of them, melt them in a furnace, and blow the hot mixture into the soy sauce bottle it was once, I would be able to get the same bottle.

I imagine cutting my fingers while picking them up with my bare hands at first, because I would be stupid enough to not think of a better way.

Then I imagine my knees and back being sore, because I would have to take seconds, minutes, days, years to make sure every speck was not left out.

Finally I would need to blow the molten mixture carefully in order to get the exact shape I would want. And if I did not, I would have the choice of melting it again, or sticking with a different shape filled with its own unique curves, edges, flaws, traits.

Today I had red velvet cake. It made me think of that one time you baked it for a friend, and because it took so long the red dye was burnt. It tasted a bit burnt too, but I told you I liked it because I thought it was chocolate cake. I was willing to do a lot then, but now it’s a struggle every time I am reminded of you.

One day I’ll be a strong, solid, transparent soy sauce bottle again. But while I cut my fingers picking up the pieces, it is and will be a struggle for a while.

the red velvet cake was good tho
the red velvet cake was good tho

The KTM Series #17: Tim and his sandwiches

Every time I coincidentally meet Tim at the Shah Alam station, he would be eating a sandwich. He’s a market researcher, and his sandwiches are typically wrapped in paper towels very nicely, and then sealed in an Ikea zip lock bag (those ones la, where you use your thumb and index finger to pinch the opening to seal it; the “click” feel you get from sealing it completely is oddly satisfying; I think it gives people with OCD the time of their lives too).

The last time I saw him (which was today) he brought a tuna sandwich with cucumber slices;

the time before that it looked as though it was a grilled cheese sandwich-french toast hybrid;

and the time before that it was a plain tuna sandwich.

“Is it nice?” I asked.

“It’s not about how it tastes; it’s about what is put into it,” he replied in a dramatic tone.

“Your mum made it for you?” I continued.

“It’s the loooooove, you know?” The “love” was intentionally extended.

this is tim and his grilled cheese-french toast hybrid sandwich
this is tim and his grilled cheese-french toast hybrid sandwich

I don’t know if it is just me, but the new friends I made recently all specialise in the art of “bullshitting” -Gabriel, Joseph, Tim, and Farzan, this dude who pulled a mini prank on me last night at a birthday dinner, letting me believe for a second that I had met him somewhere before when such a thing never happened. I was pretty convinced by it, which is why I told Tim about it.

“Actually I aspire to be like him,” he was impressed.

“I can see that; I am telling you this because I know you will do this on someone else.” 

Then he immediately tested it out on me, “Eh long time no see weh!”

“No. The key is to pause for a while to let the guilt of not remembering sink into your victim slowly.”

“I see.”

I like people who know how to separate the good from the average, the truth from the bullshit, the idea of knowing what you want to do in life from what you are stuck with; Tim is one of them. Once Tim mentioned about going to Japan to live. The day before he had just returned from Tokyo, and when he saw me he said, “Every time we meet we keep talking about our destinies”. Deep sial, but no joke la we always do. Either that, or cynical jokes about Malaysians.

Sounds familiar, Gabriel?

Like many he wants to get out of Malaysia because 1) the whole world is your oyster, and 2) Malaysians know they can live a better life outside Malaysia. I can resonate with him: I always thought although Malaysians should try their best to assist their country, many of them are either unable to derive any satisfaction from the idea, or are doubtless put off by its worsening conditions.

Although I think the perception of how much shit this country is in is exaggerated (especially recently), perception is perception, and there is no point in trying to call to the rakyat on how they “should be grateful to the government’s effort”. I’d recommend one thing for all politicians though, especially Ahmad Maslan (check him out on balikcina.com): everyone should invest in a public relations team; if they already have one, time for REFORMASI la obviously.

I scrolled through my news feed that day to find photos of him hunting down various vending machines in Japan. He loves his job and he does not like to settle for the average pay that graduates can get, and although his tone is always a sarcastic one, I sensed in all our encounters that he knew what he really wanted to do.

Maybe one day I’ll see the location on his Facebook profile change permanently to Japan.

according to tim you need to stand four squares to right of the yellow "Bahaya Danger" warning to get good seats
according to tim you need to stand four squares to right of the yellow “Bahaya Danger” warning to get good seats

The KTM Series #16: Joseph

Joseph just got off at Subang Jaya. He doesn’t usually take the KTM, but today he had to because his dad needed to cut his hair. It doesn’t make sense to you. I know, but so do a lot of other things.

When Joseph and Julien joined CPPS as interns last week, it reminded me of Gabriel and Me: one Chinese Malaysian boy who studies in the U.K, and one random angmoh who travelled halfway across the world to just to join a think tank; both Googled “Best Think Tanks in Asia” to find this opportunity.

Prior to the internship Joseph asked me loads of questions. One I could resonate was when his dad was not sure whether anyone (including the taxi drivers) could drive to the location of the organisation – it is quite ulu for KL; imagine a random patch of green in the middle of city, then add some narrow one-way roads that are actually two, throw in some monkeys, dogs, and the occasional monitor lizard and you get my workplace.

I cannot complain: this is much more conducive for thinking than being in the city where you walk fast just because everyone walks fast. It is unbearable how the heat radiates off the steel, glass, and cement too; I often felt trapped within it.

Honest guy la this fella. But in the beginning he reminded me of Brandon Lim because whenever he talked you could never tell if he was being serious or sarcastic. They both study in Warwick; sometimes I still can’t tell if the both of them are being serious or not.

“Pantai Dalam Station. You are reaching Pantai Dalam Station.”

Out of the blue, Joseph repeated the announcement; he said this shortly after:

“Eh. Beach in station.”

“Okay, Joseph. Okay.”

This is his first ever internship besides the experience he gained in music – dramas, gigs, competitions. It was odd looking at how seriously he takes the dress code: I occasionally wear a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, whereas he walks in with a fitted shirt, black slacks, and black formal shoes. “I want the full internship experience,” he told me. Onz mou.

After knowing him for about a month, I find that he has the “growth mindset”: always knowing that you have a lot to improve on. It’s one of the essentials in life – it keeps you going no matter how far behind you are compared to your peers.

Other than that, I got to know he got a perm. No wonder his hair is so curvy. Think he got it cut with his dad today. I think la.

everyday your outfit damn tight. why
everyday your outfit damn tight. why

The KTM Series #15: Pregnant

Today the train arrived KL Sentral three minutes earlier than the expected 18:17. How kind of it to have waited. I tell you, some trains come eight minutes early and don’t wait. I experienced it once at the Shah Alam station. I was glad at first, then we had to stop at Subang Jaya for about fifteen minutes. Stupid.

“Angkasapuri.”

The train was full of people standing, and there was a woman who poked the woman beside her, to ask her to ask a guy who was sitting to give up his seat. The intermediate woman for some reason did not have the courage to utter a simple “excuse me”, and instead suggested that the pregnant woman should stand right in front of the seated passengers (who were focused on their phones) to make it more obvious to them that she was pregnant.

After overhearing their unproductive exchange, I decided to just do it for them, and just said “excuse me” and pointed toward the mother-to-be’s direction.

Mr. http://www.ibfim.com then got up. He was reading the Quran on his Samsung Galaxy. The phone reminded me of Amir and the lime green casing of his Samsung Galaxy. Thankfully, he got a Xiaomi instead of an iPhone as a replacement. Anyone who says buying an iPhone gives back value for money is either super rich or hates Android for no reason.

mr www.ibfim.com's bag had shoes in them. sometimes i don't understand how people can tahan wearing heels all the time
mr http://www.ibfim.com’s bag had shoes in them. sometimes i don’t understand how people can tahan wearing heels all the time

“Nananananan nana nana na… DROP.”

Some guy blasted an EDM song and everyone could hear it through his earphones.

Which EDM song?

There that one la.

Which one?

The Top 10 one la.

Which one? The one with the nice drop?

Yeah. They’re all the same anyway. Freaking boring sial.

“Pantai Dalam.”

Someone farted. Oh god. Brb.

Back. Covered my nose for a while. Some deadly stuff.

“Kg Dato Harun.”

What is so scary about saying excuse me anyway? Or asking for a seat from a stranger because a pregnant woman needs it.

you see the padding not he shoulders? that used to be the coolest thing ever in primary school

“Batu Tiga.”

Mr. http://www.ibfim.com eventually got to sit down again. The seat was left empty for quite some time. I have no clue why we like to leave seats empty for a certain time before taking it. Is it being nice? For me, yes la. But when I have a bad day I can’t be bothered to offer it someone else. Usually I would pretend I was sleeping.

I’m evil like that la. Sorry not sorry.

why you don't open up more counters for people to gtfo the station WHY
why you don’t open up more counters for people to gtfo the station WHY