Sunday, November 21, 2010

Cecil Rajendra

The lawyer cum poet shares his view about the world and literature scene in Malaysia. He ended this article with a poem. The article appeared in the Sun on Nov 12 2005.

Headline Poetic Reason, acidic rhyme

LAW and literature. Cecil Rajendra dabbles in both, the former he does full-time and poetry whole-heartedly. Using these talents to full measure, he tackles society's ills such as environmental destruction, poverty, oppression, corruption, racism and injustice with persistence and dedication. The poetic output continues with his latest collection Trail n Terror, and he was nominated for this year's Nobel Prize for Literature. To date, he has published 17 books of poems. His works have been published and broadcast in many countries and translated into several languages, including Japanese, Urdu, Tamil, Chinese, German, Tagalog, Danish and Spanish. Besides being president of the National Human Rights Society Of Malaysia, he is also the founding father of free legal aid in the country. BISSME S. finds out what makes this activist tick.

You earned a nomination for this year's Nobel Literature prize. How did you react?
The nomination and the support came from abroad while, sad to say, in my own country there was not even a single write-up on the book, with the exception of theSun newspaper last year.

Were you disappointed not winning?
Not really. The nomination itself was a great thrill and honour. Besides, I have been receiving reactions to the book from all over, including a personal note from the prime minister of France. It would have been nice to have won but my philosophy has always been to expect nothing. That way, you will never be disappointed and everything you receive comes as a bonus. And believe me, the Nobel nomination was a wonderful bonus. Anyway, I have always been a great fan of Harold Pinter (this year's winner).

The local reviewers often condemn your work. Do you think they are biased?
If you look at the reviews here, you will find they are in reality vicious personal attacks masquerading as high-sounding literary critiques.
Basically, they cannot stand someone who writes all the time, enjoy writing, refuses to take himself seriously, yet nevertheless has no trouble having his work published and accepted internationally. If you scratch, you will find a deep green streak running through these guys, which of course they will be the last to admit.

We understand you once entered a literary competition run by your critics but submitted your work using a pseudonym and won a prize. Was this personally to prove a point?
Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a certain mafia-controlled lite- rary column of a certain broadsheet.
Week in, week out, they would write glowingly of each other's works while taking cheap potshots at yours truly.
They got so hoisted on their egos that they decided to run a national poetry and a national drama competition, with their eminences as judges of course.
Now I abhor literary competitions but decided to teach the jokers a lesson by entering not the poetry but the drama competition; simply because the money was better.
I could not enter the play in my own name as it would have been chucked out in the first round. So I used a pseudonym and sent it in and surprise, surprise, my play titled The Political Trial Of Jesus won a prize. As I could not collect the prize money personally, I sent a young law student to collect it on my behalf of this fictitious dramatist. We cashed the cheque and drank to the collective idiocy of that literary mafia.

Some critics believe that by using poetry to highlight social issues, you are merely seeking attention.
If the poem gets people thinking about AIDS and torture or child abuse, what's wrong with that? There are worse things that a poem can do than highlight a social problem, for example eulogising a politician or the erection of a condominium.
Any critic who believes one can gain attention simply by writing a poem about a topical issue is clearly out of his mind, given the minuscule number of people who actually read poetry.
If you really want attention, a far quicker, more effective and less painful route would be to strip in the main street!

Some say you are being melodramatic in using poetry to highlight social issues?
I make no apologies for the social content of my poems. As for melodramatic, I don't know what they mean ... How can one write about tsnunami or Guantanamo or Darfur and avoid the label of being dramatic?
I write about everything and anything but when I touch on social issues, I am accused of being sensational or propagandist. One local academic even went so far as to say I was squandering my talent on social and humanitarian issues.
In the local literary circles, it appears perfectly respectable to write about the pain of an ingrown toenail or the death of your grandmother but not about torture or thousands dying of starvation in Darfur.
I think such criticism reflects more on the critics than the author. It shows how small-minded and mealy-mouthed these timorous clowns are.

Was there a defining moment when you became active in social issues ... during your childhood perhaps?
There was no sudden epiphany ... it was a gradual awakening during my student days in London - the Vietnam war, the anti-apartheid movement, the wars of liberation then being fought in Africa, the Black Power movement ... all served to heighten my social consciousness. Also the writings of the writers like Pablo Neruda, Frants Fanon and Aime Cesaire.
"Speak in the name of those who cannot write. If the poet did not make himself a spokesman of the human condition, what else is there for him to do," exhorted Neruda.
I began to believe that writing could make a difference and that every true artist has a duty to bear witness and speak out, no matter what the cost.
I started writing about racism in Britain and suddenly I found myself no longer the darling of the poetry set. For most part, the Brits were in denial about the racial discrimination and I was accused of exaggerating the situation.

Is it true that only three bookshops in this country carry your books?
Absolutely! Silverfish, Skoob and Kinokuniya. I believe the reason goes way back to 1980, when my Singapore publisher was hauled up by the Malaysian Home Ministry and ticked off for publishing Refugees & Other Despairs. It was during the time of the Vietnamese boat people and "refugee" was a proscribed word. One could refer to the boat people as illegal immigrants. The book was never banned but my publisher was so terrified, he withdrew all the books from circulation and went into hiding. The pusillanimity of publishers here is unbelievable.

It is said you only write about human rights and social issues. Why not other themes?
That's not true. I write everything and anything. I have written about football, love, sex, marriage, children, old age and death. I have four collections of poems based purely on love.

What do you think of the local literary scene?
Frankly, not much. I find the literary scene here much too incestuous and inward looking. And with the exception of theatre, it lacks what I call "testicular fortitude". As for poetry, even at the best of times, only a handful of people ever read the stuff.

Is true that you are writing a book on the late (strip-tease legend) Rose Chan? How close were both of you?
Yes. I have already started on her story tentatively entitled The Last Days of Rose Chan. I came to know her in her last years when she was dying of cancer.
We met through a mutual friend and there was instant rapport between us. She was a truly independent spirit who didn't give a damn about public opinion.
She was also immensely creative and I am not referring just to her striptease act but to her culinary and entrepreneurial skills as well.
She was the most remarkable woman our country has produced ... there has been no other woman who could galvanise the rapt attention of kings and schoolboys, and be the envy of the housewife.
We spent many delightful afternoons at her establishment, drinking and listening to her stories. Once, after a particular boisterous rendition underneath the coconut tree, she cuffed me on the shoulder and chided, "Your mother born you too late. If only you born 15 years early, you and Rose have goody-good time."

Is it true you also plan to write a book on tantric sex?
It is almost completed and it is called The Secret Journal Of A Tantric. It is not just about tantric sex but encapsulates the whole practice and philosophy of Tantra. I have been studying and practising tantra for over three decades so the book is in a sense semi-autobiographical. It's an explicit, no punches pulled journal, so it won't be published here.

Why not?
How can it be published in a country that is so sexually uptight that it views homosexuality as a threat to the nation. Incidentally, I have never quite figured out how a gay minister is a greater threat to the nation than a corrupt minister.

Free legal aid is one of your passions. You are credited with starting this service here. How did it happen?
When I returned from London, I found that law was very much a rich man's game. It is meaningless to say all men are equal before the law if all men do not have equal access to the courts or justice.
So with the assistance of two farmers (who are still with free legal aid) and a social worker (now a practising lawyer), we started free legal aid in a pondok on the outskirts of the Bayan Lepas Free Trade Zone, offering advice and assistance to farmers, fishermen and factory workers. This was in 1980.
Then, in 1983, the Malaysian Bar, recognising the nationwide need for legal aid, passed a resolution levying a RM100 legal aid subscription on every lawyer and officially launched its programme.
This, incidentally is the single most noble achievement of the Malaysian Bar in its long history; for lawyers not only gave their services free but fund the legal aid centres as well.
We now have centres in every state, including a mobile legal aid clinic and handle thousands of cases pro bono. I still serve at the centres but have to confess that I am a little more impatient and grumpy with clients and younger lawyers these days. I am proud to say we have just celebrated our 25th year.

What do you think is the biggest achievement of legal aid?
Fighting for orang asli rights. Under a law passed in 1954, the orang asli cannot own land. It was easy to take their land for development such as hotels and golf courses. The worst thing is the orang asli were not paid proper compensation and they would be moved to reservations where the conditions were really horrendous. After years of going to court, finally this year, the court has given them the right to own land. Just imagine that, they have been in this land for many years, yet they can't own land.

What is the biggest resistance you faced in starting legal aid?
Our biggest resistance came from the legal profession. The lawyers felt that by giving free legal aid, we were throwing sand in the rice bowl of lawyers and the lawyers would not have any work. It took us a long time to explain to these lawyers that the people to whom we were giving legal aid could not afford lawyers at all. I remember a lot of judges referred to us as five and 10 sen lawyers. One judge even said that if people cannot afford lawyers, they should not come to court. Things are better now for legal aid. Still, less than 5% of 12,000 practising lawyers actually do legal aid.

Was law your choice, or your parents'?
Law was never my choice. If you were the eldest son in an Indian family and born somewhere in the middle of the last century, you had only three options - doctor, lawyer or the civil service.
When I was 12 or 13, I had made up my mind to be a writer. So I packed up this gurkha duffel bag with romantic notions of hitch-hiking to Rome to make my name as a writer in some garret. When my parents discovered my bag, I was given a sound thrashing.

You lived in London for 13 years even after you gradua- ted. Why, and what did you do there?
Well, I was probably the most reluctant law student in London ... hardly attended any lectures or tutorials, preferring to spend my mornings in second hand bookshops, my afternoons in classic cinemas and my evening in theatre. Theatres and classic cinemas had special rates for students.
I was also writing for courses, and besides poetry I did scripts for a BBC radio programme on overseas students.
After finishing law, this laidback lifestyle could not continue as I had to earn my keep. I took whatever job I could - as cook, postman, factory hand, etc - and when I had a bit of money saved up, tramped around Europe writing, reading, visiting galleries, etc. Basically I was like a sponge with eyeballs hanging out, soaking everything.

In London, you started a Third World cultural forum called Black Voices. What was Black Voices?
Black Voices was an open platform where artistes and activists from Asia, Africa and South America were invited to bear witness to the situation in their country through music, poetry, talks, etc.
During its seven-year existence, a galaxy of writers, poets and activists were showcased. This included Pulitzer prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks, historian Dr Walter Rodney, Edwin Thumboo, Obi Egbuna, Ismail Choonara.
One of the fruits was an anthology of poems called Other Voices/ Other Places. The other was Third World Troubadours, a travelling band of poets and musicians that used the medium of poetry and music to highlight the socio-cultural problems in Third World countries.

If you are so passionate about social issues and the environment, why haven't you entered politics and push for change through the political process?
Because I have yet to meet an honest politician. I am not saying this rare species doesn't exist, just that I have not met one yet.
Let us be honest, the majo- rity of politicians nowdays are nothing more than self-serving opportunists. In my more cynical moments, I think that to be a really successful politician in the 21st century, you need to be completely corrupt and more than a little retarded.
Anyway, there is no question of my ever joining a political party in this country as all the major parties are drawn not on ideological but on racial lines and I am totally opposed to racism of any sort.

What changes would you like to see taking place in the country?
For starters, we could do with a lot more transparency and tolerance and a lot less materialism. The two recent AP issues are indicative of our warped sense of priorities. The first one about approved permits has convulsed the nation for months now - newspaper headlines, questions tabled in Parliament, ministers summoned, etc. But the whole issue is nothing but about cars, prices, profits, who benefited, who was left out, etc
For heaven's sake, we are taking about silly permits to import cars, incidentally a major source of environmental pollution. The second AP issue - consigned to the back pages and almost buried now is the Ayah Pin affair.
Now here is a guy - basically a delusional kook trying to promote interfaith dialogue and harmony, albeit through giant teapots and umbrellas - who though he harmed no one and is a threat to nobody, is nevertheless branded as deviant, hounded out of the country and has his commune and his property destroyed. The real culprits go scot free while the peace-loving members of the commune are arrested and detained.
For anyone with any sense of political perspectives, this AP (Ayah Pin) affair is far important - as it forebodes ill for the future of civil rights and the constitution of this country - than the other AP issue.

You have a reputation of being anti-establishment.
Only because the middle class in this country have backbencher sokong mentality. They accept without question anything the higher-ups, authorities or the government of the day proposes or does, no matter how preposterous or impractical.
Let me give you one example. A few years ago, there was a government sponsored Zero-Inflation campaign in which millions of ringgit were spent.
I went on record as saying it would be easier for Malaysia to put a man on Mars than achieve zero inflation. And for this I was branded anti-national, anti-government, anti-whatever. With today's spiralling prices and hindsight, who will say I was not right.
Now we have this anti-smoking Tak Nak campaign which is equally futile ... smokers will smoke whatever the price.
Anway, I feel it is the height of hypocrisy for a tobacco producing country which derives considerable revenue from the sale of cigarettes to embark on a no-smoking drive. Almost as ludicrous as petrol producing nations banning the combustion engine.
Again in the 80's and early 90's, I wrote and spoke out against the global destruction of rainforests. Immediately, I was branded anti-development, a threat to the timber industry and had my passport impounded.
Yet today, it has become fashionable to talk about conservation and reforestation and I was even asked to put together a collection of my environmental poems. And of course, I am anti those laws such as the ISA (Internal Security Act) that others think are necessary for good governance but which I feel are antithetical to human dignity and freedom.

As you age, do you find yourself toning down?
I sincerely hope not. Many years ago, I answered this question in a poem:

As I grow older
I grow wilder
not wiser
I respect nothing
do not talk to me
of the temperance
of middle-aged men
I have consigned
Caution to the wind.

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