Sunday, October 1, 2017

Speech by Tan Sri Johan Jaaffar at the launch of The Inverted Banyan Tree and the Way Thither By JK Asher

Selangor Club, Bukit Kiara
Tuesday, 12th September 2017

It is indeed an honour to be here, among friends, to celebrate the publication of JK Asher’s novel, The Inverted Banyan Tree and the Way Thither.

It was Datin Paduka Suhaimi Baba who spoke to me about her friend who had just published a novel. “She would like to get in touch with you,” Suhaimi said. I googled the novel, which had recently come out in Australia,and the author but there was very little about both. Asher and I got in touch via email and later WhatsApp. We met briefly over a cup of cappuccino and a pot of Earl Grey tea. And  my fate was sealed. I am to launch this novel of hers. Her first.

This is no ordinary novel. It is dense, challenging and pleasantly confusing. Wait a minute, let me explain. Those three words are enough to describe some of the toughest yet best works of literature in history – from Don Quixote to Moby Dick, from Ulysses to The Name of the Rose, from Brothers Karamazov to One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Some say these works are impenetrable classics. They have complex structures, their allusions are diverse and the linguistic styles are unique. In short, they are not your Jeffrey Archer. Don’t get me wrong. I find Jeffrey Archer interesting, so too Stephen King and JK Rowling. You cannot fault best-selling novelists, can you? 

Some say the quality of a novel is inversely proportional to the number of its readers. Wait till you read the original version of Don Quixote, The Name of the Rose, Doctor Zhivago or even The Lord of the Rings. We are made to believe, thanks to filmmakers and the state-of-art of today’s film making, that these works of literature are episodic and easily adaptable to movies. They are not.

They are “difficult” novels. Some are even least read but much talked about. Daniel S Burt came out with The Novel 100: A Ranking of the Greatest Novels of All Time. Not everyone will agree with the ratings, but then again, no one agrees on all things literary anyway! Let me read you the top 10 according to this ranking:Don Quixote, War and Peace, Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, The Brothers Karamazov, Moby Dick, Madame Bovary, Middlemarch, The Magic Mountain and The Tale of Genji. Yes, in that order.

I can bet that most of you in this room have read Madame Bovary at best or not at all at worst. Yet, we all, at least most of us, claim that we love literature, with the capital “L”. 

Take the case of Ulysses, always in the list of one the world’s best novels, top of the Literary 100 List, number 3 in fact in The Novel 100 list. Yet it is probably one of the least understood novels the world has known.There is a cottage industry trying to make sense of this supposedly classic. Marilyn French was probably right when she wrote that Ulysses by James Joyce is more than just a novel, it is a world in itself. She wrote a book about the novel, succinctly titled, The Book As World. It was published in 1982, 50 years after the publication of Ulysses.

“After 50 years of intelligent and dedicated exploration, the huge subcontinent of James Joyce’s Ulysses still contains unclassified flora and fauna, untraced streams,” she concludes.

God forbid that Asher’s work would fall into this category. Based on my reading of the book, I can testify, as a reader and a lover of novels, that The Inverted Banyan Tree is not an impenetrable novel. It is, in fact, readable but with all the trappings of some of the finest literary works I have come across. It is in a class of its own, a book that demands attention. It is a classy novel.

I have reasons to be curious initially. Here she is, a Malaysian who is like Si Tanggang, who had spent years abroad, 17 to be exact, who then balik kampung and writes about a place that had helped define her, a little enclave in Port Dickson, Negeri Sembilan. This Tanggang, “an exile” as she called herself, was away far too long.

 But she could not resist the temptation of writing about the days growing up in Malaya/Malaysia. Her formative years came rushing back. Even as a “displaced person” (again her own words) thousands of kilometres away, she could not forget her childhood and the people around her that had affected her so much.

And interestingly, it is the sound of the azan, the call for the Muslim prayer, which has had an impact upon her in more ways than one. She grew up listening to the azan. Loving it. The azan is a call by the muezzin at a designated time. It is very much part of a Muslim community. For Asher, a non-Muslim, the azan took on a special meaning. Perhaps it was about acceptance, about diversity, about tolerance, and more. Anyone living in a Malay village back in the 1950's and 1960's would be drawn to the simplicity of village life, where social norms were observed and religion, alongside culture, played an important role.

That was then. Religiosity has yet to rear its ugly head. Today, as the Malays become more Muslim, they become less Malay, discarding even the best values their race have to offer. I call it the Arabisation of the Malay race.
How things have changed from the era depicted by the novel. We are a troubled nation now. Our people are drifting apart. Notions like muhibbah (harmony) and perpaduan (unity) are taken for granted. Even multiculturalism, the very foundation of our existence and the bedrock of the characters in this novel, is frowned upon. 

 It is within such a construct that Asher has created her characters – men and women who had lived during the period, when innocence was not yet lost, humility the rule of the day and decorum was observed to the letter. Asher’s keen attention to history’s bitter hold on the present is remarkable. She knows what history means. She uses history as backdrop, skilfully weaving it into a tapestry of happenings, big and small. The tapestry provides the setting for her novel’s love story, which is both complex and riveting.

More so because it involves the various races in pre-Independence Malaya. And what a love story it is, replete with suspense and intrigue, with a minefield full of clear and present dangers and, more importantly, a forbidden one. I shall not divulge details of the story line for it will not do justice to the author and the readers for now. Suffice to say, the love story itself is worth a movie.

But I am drawn to the discourse in The Inverted Banyan Tree, particularly one pertaining to the concept of “cultural appropriation” that is taking a new dimension, especially in the West. There is a lot of debate about cultural appropriation during a time when racism is taking centre stage in the American psyche. The concept in itself is interesting – “the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture.” In fact, such adoption (there are others who are labelling it as plundering) is not new.

While there are some who look at cultural appropriation or misappropriation with a negative connotation, I would like to take it positively. After all, culture is dynamic. Culture evolves. Trans-cultural diffusion is an integral part of cultural transformation. Therefore, cultural appropriation should be viewed as inevitable and contributes to diversity and free expression.

Asher’s judicious and clever use of the Malay culture and infusing it with her own is commendable. The very strength of this novel is in the audacious use of different cultures and, with it,their worldviews and perspectives. I would suggest serious readers and scholars among you to look into the discourse on cultural appropriation when you study this novel.

Asher has treatedhistory differently. In the tradition of story-writing by “native” Chinua Achebe, history is merely a backdrop. But The Inverted Banyan Treetakes history to a new level. After all, Asher is an immigrant, though once a native, who has lived in a faraway land.

I salute Asher who, despite her immigrant status, still writes about her roots in Port Dickson. Many of the so-labelled “immigrant novelists” writing in English and based in the UK, such as Arundhati Roy and JhumpaLahiri, are obsessed about non-resident Indian characters or NRIs. They look at themselves as part of the immigrant issues in foreign lands. Their characters are metaphorical renderings of immigrants coming to terms with their existence.

But Asher is looking back with lots of nostalgia, emotions and psychological references. In this first novel, she is more concerned about a Serani Roman Catholic girl and two Malay gentlemen who are in love with her. Perhaps, in Australia, Asher feels unreal, outside her skin. Thus her novel is about love, sacrifices, understanding and a reconciliation of sorts. It could even be autobiographical; who knows.

The Inverted Banyan Tree is a long, erudite novel, with a post-modernist tendency, reminding me of Garbriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and our very own ASamad Said’s Hujan Pagi. Both are modern fables shrouded in the chronicle of memory. 

Asher opens her novel with a prologue, “1956: Year of the Inquisition”, not unlike Marquez and Samad who borrowed the traditional story-telling style in their works. There is a lot of “memory” involved in the grand tradition of post-modernist writers. I am not saying Asher should be categorised as such, at least not yet, but this much I can say, The Inverted Banyan Tree, using memory (selection of events) and chronicle (order of events),is framed in a unique narrative structure. Living history is satirised into “magical realism” in The Inverted Banyan Tree. Even the “tree” – a symbol that appears in all major religions – has a special meaning in this novel. But not as a tree per se or a religious symbol as such, but as a literary totem pole of faith, even hope.

The Inverted Banyan Tree is unique in another way – the way it is written. The story itself takes place in two parallel periods of time: 1950's Colonial Malaya and 1980's Post Independent Malaysia. Both periods are woven artistically by. Asher to reflect on the travails of time. Historical terrains matter in a novel like this, in which history is not just a smoke screen that separates the characters’ lives from reality itself. It is a necessity as a meta narrative. We are seeing images being deconstructed and remodeled according to the grand paradigm of postmodernist construct.

Which reminds me of John Fowles’The French Lieutenant’s Woman. This 1969 novel is labelled a post-modernist historical fiction. What is interesting is the parallel lives of characters living in a Victorian period and those living in contemporary time. In that novel, Sarah Wood ruff is a complex and troubled woman who is discovered by paleontologist Charles Smithson at Lyme Regis as she watches the brutal waves smashing the cob. The modern Sarah is in the form of an American actress, Anna.

According to Fowles, his idea to write the novel came when he envisioned a woman standing at the end of a deserted quay and staring at the sea at Lyme Regis. It was 1966. The novel was published three years later and made into a film by Karel Reisz in 1981 starring Meryl Streep and Jeromy Irons as lead characters.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman received a lot of attention because of its treatment of the gender issue. I would like to see such attention be given as well to The Inverted Banyan Tree. Mariam is my idea of our very own literary Sarah – perhaps troubled but emancipated, independent and beyond stereotypes.

I have warned you earlier that this is no easy novel to read, not your typical novel, one that you can enjoy in one reading. You will need a number of re-readings! Before I scare you, let me qualify by saying, it is rich, fertile and seductive. It is one of the best novels that I have read in many years.

That leads me to my next question: why now, why was this novel not written 17 or 20 years ago? With such talent, I find it mind-boggling that I have not read any of Asher’s works earlier. There must be a reason. As they say, better late than never. Age matters little in penning a literary work. Some writers are simply late bloomers. Or perhaps they can only find time to write after the age of 50 or even 60. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her first novel at the age of 64, Frank McCourt at 66 and Mary Wesley at 70.

Last year, I launched a novel by Sonia Mael. Don’t Forget to Rememberwas her first novel. She is in her late 60s. Perhaps one of the pleasures of increasing age is that one starts reminiscing plentifully. Memories come cascading in fragments, in snippets or in whole. Like The Inverted Banyan Tree, Don’t Forget To Remember is also about forbidden love, in this case between a mat salleh(an English man) and a Malay girl in the 1960s.

Again, I must congratulate Asher’s success in publishing this novel. My wish is that it be published in the UK to qualify for the coveted Booker Prize. Now, this is not about winning. I assume that Asher was not thinking of the Booker Prize when she wrote the novel. But let me put this in perspective. Less deserving novels have won the prize, so you can understand what I mean. Let me say, it has all the trappings of an award winner – great writing, wonderful characterization, marvelously written. You cannot ask for more.

Asher, I hope this is not your first. Keep writing. You have the flair and more. In the difficult circumstances that we are in now, we need people like you to make sense of the turmoil, the trials and tribulations of this beloved nation of ours.

Your characters, Mariam, Ummah and Ismael, despite their imperfections and misgivings, have seen better days as part of a nation. This is a nation that needs a lot of soul-searching. Thanks, Asher, for your intuitive understanding in bridging the bridgeable – while it is not too late to do so. You have given the characters hopedespite their hopelessness, and faith despite their weaknesses.

We are like them – longing to see better days. You have expressed humanity in a way that we have always wanted to. You cannot change the nation single-handedly. Like your characters, we are merely simulacra of portraits and images. But we have our strength in  our differences and our diversity.

And thanks, Asher, for bring back such memories with style and finesse.
With that, I hereby humbly, but with great pride and honour, launch The Inverted Banyan Tree and The Way Thither by the incredibly talented JK Asher.

Thank you. 

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Speech by Tan Sri Johan Jaaffar at the launch of  

by Puteri Fateh Arina Merican

at the Sultan Azlan Shah Law Faculty Building,

University of Malaya,

on Saturday, 6 May 2017

Puteri Fateh Arina Merican Megat Suffian Merican, or Arina, is no ordinary 17-year-old.

She is not only talented and creative but she has a point to prove, a mission to pursue and a commitment to undertake. Her writing is the totem pole of her aspirations. She speaks about herself – her joys, anxieties, frustrations, love even. In her own words, “I have had unrequited loves, loneliness, despair, discrimination, isolation, and un-faulty situations.”

She writes about people who have affected her in one way or another.

As well as of events that had an impact upon her.

A student of literature would try to ‘appropriate’ her works in the context of a larger universe of the written word. Probably placing her work within a construct, a genre, or even a new microcosm of literary realm.

It matters little what one’s conception of this collection of poems and prose is. What matters is the content, the creativity that makes up Paracosm.

I scrambled formy dictionary when I first heard the title of this collection. Not that I have not come across the word before, but coming from a young poet and writer is something else. What does the word mean to her? I was curious.

‘Paracosm’ is no ordinary word. In fact, it is a big word.

If William Shakespeare were to be still alive today, he, like me, would be checking his vocabulary too. I doubt if ‘paracosm’ would be one of the words in the vocabulary that he possessed. He was said to have coined 1,500 new words, but the last time I checked, ‘paracosm’ is not one of them.

To put it in perspective, in all his 37 plays, he used 27,870 different words. According to The Complete Works of Shakespeare, in all, he used a total of 936,443 words.

In April 2009, the one millionth English word entered the dictionary. Come to think of it, Shakespeare’s arsenal of 27,870 words made him like a primary schoolboy, vocabulary-wise. The total number of English words is now 35 times more than his total vocabulary 400 years ago. Yet he is considered one of the greatest writers the world has ever known.  

With the author
Arina’s choice of word for her book title is rather incredible. Even Microsoft Word auto-corrects every time I spell ‘paracosm’. Hey, you guys at Microsoft, listen up, you need to upgrade, seriously!

So, thanks to Arina, ‘paracosm’ is to be part of the lexicon here in this country. Remember our former prime minister who was labelled by another prime minister as “recalcitrant”? The word caught fire. I hope this one will too, popularised by Arina no less.

‘Paracosm’ is one of the more than a million words registered in the English language, albeit least used, even least understood. After consulting Wikipedia and checking my Oxford English Dictionary (OED), I found out that ‘paracosm’ is a detailed imaginary world.

Let me plunder the definition from Wikipedia: “Paracosms are thought generally to originate in childhood…. The creator of a paracosm has a complex and deeply felt relationship with this subjective universe, which may incorporate real-world or imaginary characters and conventions.” I can continue with the definition but whatever for? This is not a discourse on etymology or the origin of words.

Now you have an idea of what runs in this young lady’s mind. One sophisticated, hugely creative, monstrously fertile mind that tags her childhood dreams and imagination, developing them into lengthy structured phrases, using moments and experiences as her psychological references, weaving words into a tapestry of expressions. What we are reading is the manifestation of an immensely imaginative intellect.

Her words trickle down effortlessly, woven with style and finesse, emptying into our consciousness, at times burrowing into our guilt and self pity, at other times with thudding awareness of the dark reality around her and us. At her age, she is a shining example of what a young mind can do creatively.

Arina is good at words. Very good, in fact.

Words matter. Going through 180 pages of text and illustrations, I can fully understand why she chose Paracosm as the title of her book.

Datin Sharifah Mariam Syed Mansor Al-Idrus, in her illuminating Foreword in the book, likens Arina to the Cambodian writer, Lang Leav. With best-selling titles such as Love and Misadventure and Lullabies, Lang Leav has been hailed as a voice of the young, her works being described as “between the whimsical and the woeful, expressing a complexity beneath its childish facade.”

There is an equally eloquent piece in the book by Puan Hajah Anismah M Noh that introduces who Arina really is. She is in fact the principal of the college where Arina studied for some years. We couldn’t agree more when Anismah writes that Arina is an articulate young lady who has had a flair for writing since she was seven.
I shall not be a spoiler;I shall not dwell too much on the content. Let the anthology intrigue and enthral you.  

Perhaps Love and Misadventure is Lang Leav’s ‘paracosm’.But Lang Leav, born in a refugee camp in Thailand, went through a different path in life; her travails and challenges are different. Arina was born into a reasonably well-to-do family, an established and well-known one at that.

Arina is as good a story teller as she is a poet. And she paints too – all the illustrations in the book are hers, except two. The combination of literary works and paintings is special. Not since the time of Anak Alam, the artists’ movement of the 1970s, has any attempt been made to utilise the forms effectively as had Arina in this book.

The likes of Latiff Mohiddin, Mustapa Haji Ibrahim and Dzulkifli Dahlan, to name a few, had enlivened the world of literary and artistic expressions back  then with  different forms, two platforms, each one complementing the other. Back then, they used the term “manifestasi dua seni” or a manifestation of two arts.

This is another area that triggers my interestin Arina’s works.

Perhaps this is a work in progress, an experiment on the part of Arina, testing the water if you like, for she is still young although full of vigor.

Being 17 isn’t easy. I have three daughters who have gone through that stage in life. I am no expert on the millennials, I must confess. But parenting is becoming increasingly more challenging than ever before. Arina represents a new generation of today’s youngsters who are reshaping society, lifestyle, consumption and even politics.

They are changing the feel and look of nations. They are getting their voices heard, loud and clear. They are sounding their positions without fear and favour. They are the children of the globalised world in the true sense. In her Preface, Arina writes, “We have evolved, we are separated from the previous generations and it is time for a new age.”

Her poems and prose manifest that world of the young. A world that parents like us might even find hard to understand. We are not talking about generational gaps anymore; we are talking about major shifts in the dynamics of the relationship between ‘Them’ and ‘Us’.

But, unlike many others, Arina has chosen her own path with certainty. She has made up her mind to be a lawyer, like her parents, but not just an ordinary lawyer, a human rights lawyer. A good choice, Arina. But writing and lawyering seldom mix. A lawyer’s ‘brief’ can be as lengthy as 40-odd pages, and I hope that her literary talent will not be compromised by the discipline in that vocation. Good lawyers seldom make good writers (sorry about that)!
We are not talking about clarity of thought, argumentative style or rhetoric here.Lawyers are good at that, but we need more in the literary word – aesthetics, beauty and finesse. Above all, a purpose to exalt, to soothe, to educate, to make the world a better place.

There is something special about this book, her words and expressions. They are uniquely Arina. While educationalists and editors are concerned about the new forms emerging in social media, Arina is perfecting her language.

Out there, thanks to SMS, WhatsApp and other applications, there is an emergence of an “aberrant world of abbreviations, numerals and pictorial icons.”  It has become the Wild West of communication.

Language is being rewritten, restructured and rearranged in a way that no sane linguist would approve. The written word is undergoing “major shifts in forms and functions.” What we are witnessing is the evolution in cyberspace and social media of some kind of linguistic centaur  - part speech, part writing; half human, half beast – that is seriously undermining ‘formal language’ and, in fact, affecting all major languages.

Thank God, we have Arina. Words are still words. Words excite. Words are alive. Written words can be verbose. Yes, they are structured, formal and expository. They can be abstract and lofty too. But that’s the beauty of words. The beauty of literature.

How else can you explain this:

Angels of heaven
The horn has been blown
The beacon has been lit
Bring forth your sword and shield
We will not let Devil see the daylight
Because in this war of faith
We will rise in glory
And rise in victory.
(Kingdom of Heaven)

Or this:

Why does the world hate me?
Is it my intention?
Or God’s destiny?
I am surrounded by lies and judgement
I feel trapped
Like an experimental specimen

And this:

Here in the woods
There resides old trees
Old trees of longing
And of new beginning
(The Old Elder Tree)
And this one is my favourite:
I miss you my lullaby
So I sing it to myself
Every night
But each time I close my eyes
I envy that you have
Reached paradise
Sleep well, my brother
Do not awake from your peaceful slumber
Because we will see each other again
Not in this world
But another
(Sleep Well, My Brother)

Arina is so gifted.

I am smitten by Paracosm.

You have a huge fan in me!
With DS Azman Ujang, chairman of BERNAMA

Let me share my personal experience of many decades honing my Bahasa Malaysia and English. Brought up in a village some 27 kilometers from the nearest town, I learned English the hard way. No one spoke the language at home or in the village. I went to an English school with just three words of the language, “Yes”, “No” and “Thank You.” The Englishman from Yorkshire,who was our class teacher,roared on my first day at school, “Anyone who speaks any other language in class will be fined 5 cents.” Back in 1960, I didn’t bring money to school. Understandably I was mute for three months.

I was fortunate to learn English by reciting nursery rhymes, singing gospel songs, acting in plays – in short,learning to read and write in English the old way. I can never forget my early schooling at Peserian Primary English School.

I was grateful to have gone to Peserian Primary English School, then Sekolah Menengah Semerah and later High School Muar.And it  was at this university (the University of Malaya) that I learned the ways of the world while improving both my Bahasa Malaysia and English. I was grateful for that as my job at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP), and later as a journalist, required a reasonably good command of both languages.

I was an editor of national newspaper in the 90s and many years later Chairman of the largest media group in the country – Media Prima Berhad.

The last 50 years too I was involved in culture and arts – I wrote plays, acted in them and directed some of them too. The book,Jejak Seni Johan Jaaffar: Dari Pentas Bangsawan Ke Media Prima Berhad, published by DBP this year is my artistic journey of 50 years.

Arina was at Tunku Kurshiah College (TKC), where she nurtured her interest in all things literary. I guess TKC can make or break you for the poems penned during her last years at TKC are sweet and boisterous, but at times dark and forbidding! Arina has a long way to go. But something has not changed. Then and now, words matter to us. As an editor I have to bring clarity to pieces meant for publication. As a journalist I  have to bring news with clarity and simplicity to be understood by the reading public.

As a poet Arina uses words to convey her feelings and her sketches and paintings to conceptualise her emotions.

It was in Afghanistan, at the Kunar Province to be exact, in the spring of 1989 that I met an old man. He was oblivious to the dangers around him. His notion of security was placing boxes of ammunition around him.

And I met this boy, Mir Muhammad, 14 at the time, three years older than Arina today. He was a boy soldier. He looked older than his age. He didn’t go to school like many others. But he was smart, inquisitive and alert. He asked lots of questions when we were there. He couldn’t understand what I was doing in the middle of the Afghan War. Bringing stories to the outside world was beyond his comprehension.

I was touched by Mir’s stories.

As much as Arina was moved by the images of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy found dead on the beach while fleeing his war-torn country.But I am not a poet like Arina. I wish I can write about Mir in poetry form.

I am not sure what has happened to Mir since I met him. He would have been 42 if he’s still alive. But Mir changed my perspective about life. About humanity. About wars.

I am sure Aylan Kurdi and many others had a profound impact on Arina as a writer.

I am honored to be here and to celebrate with you the achievements of this young lady.

She wrote this at the beginning of her book: “Allah, this year, I ask for nothing more than to make Mummy very proud of me, please Allah. I would give everything – even my soul to you to help me accomplish this.

Arina, you have certainly made your Mummy proud.

We are all very happy for you.

Dengan lafaz Bismillah…. Dengan ini…I hereby launch Paracosm by the extremely talented Puteri Fateh Arina Merican.

Thank you. 

With the author (in black), DS Azman Ujang (2nd from the right)
& Datuk Dr Yaakub the grandfather (extreme right)

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Mencari Johan

Teks penuh Prof Dr Solehah Ishak, Penyandang Kerusi P. Ramlee, ASWARA memperkatakan buku Jejak Seni: Dari Pentas Bangsawan Ke Media Prima Berhad oleh Johan Jaaffar sewaktu majlis di DBP pada 20 Januari 2017. Buku terbitan DBP ini dilancarkan oleh Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Utama Dr Rais Yatim, Penasihat Sosiobudaya Kerajaan Malaysia.

Jejak Seni: Dari Pentas Bangsawan ke Media Prima Bhd (2017: terbitan DBP). Inilah tajuk buku hasil tulisan Tan Sri Johan Jaaffar—penulis (yang menulis rencana, esei, kritikan), penulis kreatif (yang menulis novel, cerpen, drama (sama ada drama TV, radio, pentas, adaptasi, terjemahan), pelakon, pengarah, tokoh budayan, tokoh korporat. Melalui kaca mata anaknya, Syahida, dalam bukunya Mimpi-Mimpi Ida “...many people know you as many things: journalist, writer, stage actor, Chairman, CEO, businessman, farmer, “ tapi pada Ida, Tan Sri Johan Jaaffar “ialah ayah, si penglipur lara, pengumpul cerita.”

Jejak Seni adalah kumpulan cerita peribadi seorang penglipur lars glokal yang tersohor. Saya mula melihat Johan Jaaffar melalui lakonan beliau dengan watak Mahatahu dalam Angin Kering, di Universiti Malaya, walaupun pada masa itu beliau tidak mengenali saya. Saya mula berkenalan dengan beliau dan isterinya Puan Sri Sarah, sejak dari zaman Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka mereka lagi. Pada saya, mereka ialah Jo dan Sarah. Sesungguhnya, Jo, sangat luar biasa orangnya.

Pada Dec. 29, 2016,  pukul 6:30 pagi,Jo menghantar mesej kepada saya, yang berbunyi “Hi Sol. Good morning. Would you be available on Friday, the 20th of January 2017, 3:00pm” diikuti dengan gambar kulit buku Jejak Seni [Johan Jaaffar] dengan nota “for this.” Diikuti lagi dengan mesej “I need you to talk about the book, please. Wherever you are going, tangguh le dulu....”

Sebenarnya, apabila saya diminta memperkatakan dan memperkenalkan buku Jejak Seni, oleh Jo sendiri, saya menerimanya dengan serta merta, kerana saya tidak berani menolak permintaan atau “arahan” itu.

Saya telah lama meneliti dan akan sentiasa mengikuti perkembangan Johan sebagai seorang dramatis yang berwibawa yang berwacana tentang dimensi sosio-budaya-politik-ekonomi negara dan masyarakat dalam pelbagai strata sosial dengan beraneka liku dan ranjau kehidupan melalui nada beliau yang begitu tajam, sinis dan kritis.

Pada 2014 saya menterjemahkan bukunya, Drama Pentas Johan Jaaffar (2012: terbitan Balang Rimbun Sdn. Bhd.) dengan tajuknya dalam bahasa Inggeris, Johan Jaaffar: These Are My Plays (2014: diterbitkan oleh Institut Terjemahan & Buku Malaysia). Dengan demikian saya boleh mengaku bahawa saya telah tahu dengan mendalam bukan saja tentang tujuh skrip drama karya Johan Jaaffar, tetapi juga tentang minda kepengarangannya.

Dengan hakikat bahawa saya sememangnya tidak boleh menolak permintaan Johan untuk memperkenalkan buku ini, yang diperkuatkan lagi dengan kajian saya tentang drama beliau yang saya terjemahkan, dan dengan persahabatan kami dan keluarga kami yang merentasi zaman, lautan dan pelbagai sempadan, saya dengan rendah hati,menerima pelawaan/penghormatan ini.

Saya pun menunggu untuk membaca buku, yang apabila dihantar kepada saya, disertakan dengan nota tulisan tangan Johan “Hot from the oven/press.” Buat sekian lama saya mengenali Johan, dan dalam proses menterjemahkan drama-drama beliau, sedikit sebanyak saya sudah tahu apa yang akan diperkatakan tentang pengalaman kehidupan beliau dari kecil sehingga dewasa, dari pelakon kanak-kanak ke pelakon dewasa sehingga lah ke masa terkini.

Saya pun membaca buku setebal 340 halaman ini dalam masa dua hari, siang dan malam. Saya ketepikan kerja saya yang lain untuk menghabiskan buku ini, kerana selepas saya baca, suami saya, Kamaruddin juga, perlu/mesti membacanya.

Kamaruddin mesti membaca sebab saya memerlukan feedback dari pembaca “outsider” yang walaupun sudah lama kenal dengan Johan, tidak mengkaji dan meneliti karyanya sedalam yang saya lakukan. Pada Kamaruddin,  semua yang dibaca semasa Johan tergila-gila dengan dunia bangsawan amat mengelikan hatinya. Beliau mengata bahawa “Johan ni lucu dan gila-gila la. Pecah perut baca buku dia.”

Saya pula membaca buku ini sebagai seorang pengkaji yang “dibebankan” dengan tugas saya untuk memperkenalkan kepada khalayak pembaca. Justeru itu minda saya tidak terlepas bebas untuk membaca dan menikmatinya sebagai sebuah buku secara santai!

Pembacaan buku ini sangat bermakna kepada saya.Sebahagian dari cerita lisan yang sudah diceritakan kepada saya mempunyai dimensi yang baru apabila diterbitkan sebagai buku. Saya melihat melalui kacamata yang berbeza tentang keperitan sejarah seni persembahan di tanah air, daripada seorang tokohyang amat luar biasa, yang sudah mula terlibat dalam dunia seni persembahan sejak semasa beliau di zaman persekolahan lagi, pada umur yang masih amat muda.

Membaca buku ini membuka pintu minda saya seluas mungkin. Minda akademik dengan teori seni persembahan saja tidak memadai untuk benar-benar menangkap pelbagai pengertian dan beraneka sub-teks yang disajikan oleh Johan.

Jejak Seni bukan hanya membincang tentang evolusi seni persembahan di Semenanjung Malaysia, tetapi juga, malah lebih penting lagi, membincang tentang transformasi sosial dan budaya, pendidikan dan teknologi, kemiskinan dan perubahan sosio-ekonomi, dan makna kehidupanyang terjadi selama 50 tahun, yang mempunyai dampak terhadap seni persembahan, berdasarkan pengalaman peribadi Johan Jaaffar sendiri.

Johan bukanlah sekadar seorang “orang seni”, tetapi sesungguhnya beliau adalah seorang pejuang yang tergila-gila berenang dalam ombak badai dunia seni persembahan, tanpa menyerah kalah. Oleh itu, memahami kisah perjalanan seorang seniman yang tergila-gila dalam dunia seni persembahan di tanah air kita ini, membangkitkan dimensi baru dalam pandang dunia (weltanschauung) saya terhadap evolusi dunia seni persembahan di Semenanjung Malaysia.

Buku ini mengandungi 76 bab. Sebahagian besar (48 bab) daripada keseluruhan buku ini ditulis oleh Johan sebagai rencana yang diterbitkan dalam majalah Dewan Budaya selama 48 bulan (Julai 2007 hingga Jun 2011). Bab-bab ini membincangkan pengalaman pahit-manis, suka-duka beliau dalam dunia seni. Bab yang lain membicarakan tentang pengalaman beliau mengarah drama adaptasi, drama tv dan juga tentang tokoh-tokoh seni dan seniman yang melintasi atau singgah dalam kehidupan beliau.

Buku ini merangkumi perjalanan seni Johan Jaaffar dari kampungnya, Kampung Sungai Balang Besar, “pekan koboi” di Muar, Johor. Dekad 1960an ialah era hiburan funfair dan juga era seni persembahan bangsawan masuk ke kampung, sebagai satu produk yang diperniagakan. Pada tahun 1965 itu, kumpulan Bintang Timur Opera masuk dan memperniagakan persembahannya kepada penduduk Kampung Sungai Balang Besar, tempat Johan Jaaffar dilahirkan dan membesar.

Ketika kumpulan Bintang Timur Opera mula mengadakan persembahan bangsawan di pekan koboi tersebut, Johan sudah berusia 11 tahun, iaitu di darjah enam di Peserian Primary English School, di pekan Semerah.  Kumpulan ini diketuai oleh Bakar M., dan dibantu oleh anak-anaknya iaitu Rahman B, Rahim B, dan Rohani B. Johan merapatkan dirinya dengan kumpulan bangsawan ini.

Pada mulanya dia bekerja sebagai pembekal barang tertentu yang diperlukan (buluh) dan tukang beli barang keperluan dapur, minuman dan rokok untuk mereka. Kemudian dia diupah sebagai penarik tirai panggung bangsawan tersebut.

Johan melihat seni persembahan bangsawan pada pertengahan dekad 1960an itu dengan ingatan yang tajam. Dia melihat pelakon bangsawan terpaksa mengepam lampu gas yang menerangi panggung, kerana ketika itu Kampung Sungai Balang Besar belum mempunyai bekalan letrik. Oleh itu, persembahan bangsawan tersebut tidak dapat menggunakan teknik pencahayaan tertentu. Pada masa itu juga, panggung bangsawan penuh dengan serangga yang datang kerana tertarik dengan cahaya lampu gas tersebut. Dia juga melihat bagaimana Bakar M menjaga disiplin kelurga kumpulan operanya itu.

Pada usia sebelas tahun tersebut Johan sudah tergila-gilakan kecantikan dan bakat Rohani B, primadona atau seri panggung kumpulan bangsawan itu. Oleh kerana Rohani B tidak boleh membaca, Johan menjadi tukang baca surat-surat yang diterima oleh Rohani B daripada para peminatnya, termasuklah surat cinta daripada tokoh penyair yang sudah pun terkenal ketika itu.

Amat lucu cara Johan menukilkan kisah membaca surat cinta tersebut, menapis isi surat tersebut (di mana perlu) sebelum diceritakan kepada Rohani B, dan memakan kuih-kuih yang diberikan oleh para peminat primadona tersebut (kerana Rohani B takut memakannya. Subteksnya ialah kerana beliau mungkin takut dikenakan ilmu pengasih terhadapnya).

Bangsawan mengisi kalbu Johan Jaaffar. Dia mengkagumi dan hidup bersama bangsawan hinggalah kumpulan Bintang Timur Opera berkubur tanpa nesan di pekan koboinya itu. Keluarga Bakar M menghilangkan diri. Rohani B, seri panggungnya, juga menghilangkan diri. Tiada lagi surat peminat yang akan dibaca. Tiada lagi tirai panggung akan  ditarik. Kalbu Johan kehilangan panggungnya.

Tetapi kematian bangsawan digantikan oleh seni persembahan “baru”: sandiwara. Walaupun sandiwara di Kampung Sungai Balang Besar itu lahir tidak dirancang dan tidak mempunyai primadona seanggun Rohani B, Johan tetap melibatkan dirinya. Sandiwara ini adalah produk seni orang kampung Johan Jaaffar.  Mereka menggunakan peralatan panggung yang kesemuanya ditinggalkan begitu saja oleh kumpulan Bintang Timur Opera yang terpaksa gulung tikar itu.

Sandiwara ialah genre transisi dalam evolusi teater moden Melayu. Sejak diperkenalkan oleh cikgu Shaharom Hussein di Batu Pahat pada 1930, sandiwara menjadi genre drama yang menggunakan skrip. Oleh itu, pada 1969, Johan mula menjadi seorang penulis skrip drama. Skrip pertamanya ialah “Uda dan Dara” yang merupakan penyesuaian cerita Romeo dan Juliet yang dibacanya di sekolah Inggerisnya.

Sejak itu, pementasan oleh kumpulan sandiwara Badan Bestari Sungai Balang banyak bergantung kepada skrip yang ditulis oleh Johan Jaaffar. Dalam masa yang sama Johan mula terlibat sebagai pelakon drama, bermula dengan peranan sebagai seorang pak pacak dan badut. Dalam era sandiwara ini Johan aktif sebagai penulis skrip dan pelakon drama di kampung. Dalam masa yang sama, Johan juga aktif menonton filem di panggung Kandar, di Semerah.

Johan bukan hanya gila dengan bangsawan atau sandiwara tetapi juga dengan filem dan bintang filem. Kegilaan Johan terhadap bintang filem bermula  ketika bintang filem terkenal seperti P. Ramlee, Saloma, Saleh Kamil, Wahid Satey, Aziz Satar dan ramai lagi pernah membuat persembahan di funfair di Kampung Sungai Balang Besar. Johan begitu tergila-gilakan kecantikan dan bakat bintang filem Latifah Omar.

Johan “bekerja” sebagai pembekal air minuman kepada para bintang filem tersebut dengan upah 10 atau 20 sen semalam. Tugas beliau yang lain pula adalah sebagai “pembaca surat” dan “penyimpan rahsia” yang amat dipercayai. Minda Johan mula diisi oleh kegilaan yang mendalam terhadap seni persembahan. Kegilaan ini berterusan selama setengah abad.

Kerana aktif dalam dunia sandiwara ini, dan mungkin kerana asyek dengan dunia filem, pelajarannya terabai. Akibat drama dan panggung wayang, Johan gagal dalam peperiksaan MCE pada tahun 1970. Johan mengambil peperiksaan MCE pada tahun berikutnya dan berjaya mendapat kelulusan yang baik. Setahun dia tidak terlibat dengan drama.  Ini salah satu sebab kumpulan sandiwara Badan Bestari Sungai Balang juga berkubur tanpa nesan.

Johan melanjutkan pelajaran di tingkatan enam di High School Muar. Setelah itu dia melanjutkan pelajarannya di Jabatan Pengajian Melayu di Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. Anak penoreh getah yang miskin ini pergi ke Universiti Malaya dengan menumpang sebuah lori milik orang Cina yang membawa sayur ke Kuala Lumpur. Kemiskinan memaksanya bekerja sambilan. Biasiswa yang diterimanya hanya cukup untuk membayar yuran pengajian. Oleh itu Johan terpaksa bekerja sebagai budak jaga kereta, tukang bersih di kedai menjual motorsikal, pembersih tandas di bangunan NST di Jalan Bangsar, sebagai “tukang nangis” di upacara pengebumian orang Cina dan sebagainya. Johan terpaksa mengharungi ranjau di sepanjang jalan kehidupannya, terutamanya ketiadaan wang. 

Universiti Malaya menjadi tempat Johan Jaaffar kembali aktif dalam kegiatan teater.   Dunia teater di Universiti Malaya tentulah amat berbeza dari dunia bangsawan dan sandiwara kampungnya. Kumpulan Kesenian Universiti Malaya (KESUMA)  dan Panggung Eksperimen Universiti Malaya adalah entiti yang menjadi pusat kegiatan teaternya yang baru. Di sinilah bakat dan komitmen Johan terhadap dunia seni persembahan semakin mantap, terutamanya dalam penulisan skrip drama.

Suasana kampus banyak memberikan inspirasi untuk berkarya: politik kampus, pengalaman menjadi dan bergaul dengan warga miskin, menonton teater karya dan produksi orang lain, bergaul dengan dramatis yang sudah berpengalaman, kehadiran infrastruktur yang mencukupi untuk berteater dan sebagainya. Di kampus juga Johan berhadapan dengan konsep teater eksperimen yang boleh dilahirkan di Panggung Eksperimen Universiti Malaya.

Pada 1975 Johan memainkan peranannya sebagai penulis skrip. Dia menghasilkan skrip “Kotaku Oh Kotaku.” Inilah skrip drama yang dihasilkan oleh seorang anak kampung yang baru berkenalan dengan masyarakat kota Kuala Lumpur. Oleh itu skrip ini menampilkan 19 watak  yang terdiri daripada Pelacur, Tukang Sapu, Pengangkut Najis, Jebat, Penyair Agung, Pengarang Agung, Perancang Bandar, Doktor, Peon, dan pasangan Teruna dan Dara.

Kejayaan pementasan teater  “Kotaku Oh Kotaku” adalah mercu tanda kelahiran Johan Jaaffar sebagai seorang tokoh penulis skrip teater yang disegani. Selepas itu Johan menghasilkan skrip “Angin Kering” dan beberapa skrip lagi (lihat Johan Jaaffar:These are My Plays, 2014).  Dia mendapat gelaran “orang teater absurd,” “orang teater moden,” dan “orang teater generasi ketiga,” dan sebagainya.  Jejak seninya semakin ketara sewaktu menjadi mahasiswa di Universiti Malaya.

Setelah bergraduat, Johan Jaaffar bekerja di Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka mulai Julai 1977 hingga Oktober 1992. Antara tahun 1977 hingga 1989, Johan aktif dalam kegiatan teater di DBP. Dia menulis skrip, berlakon dan mengarahkan teater. Selepas 1989 Johan tidak aktif lagi dalam dunia teater. Ketika bertugas sebagai Ketua Pengarang Kumpulan Akhbar Utusan Melayu (1992-1998) beliau masih menulis tentang dunia filem. Antara tahun 1998 hingga 2009, setelah tidak lagi bekerja dengan Kumpulan Akhbar Utusan Melayu,  Johan bekerja sendiri dalam bidang penternakan dan pertanian, dan masih menyumbangkan tulisannya tentang dunia seni persembahan untuk majalah Dewan Budaya mulai Julai 2007. Johan meneruskan  kegiatannya menulis tentang seni persembahan Melayu sehingga Jun 2011. Beliau dilantik memegang jawatan Pengerusi Media Prima Berhad antara April 2009  hingga Ogos 2015. 

Jejak seni dan kehidupan Johan Jaaffar adalah sebuah drama panjang yang mempunyai ratusan babak dan adegan yang kompleks,tetapi diikatke dalam satu jaringan lebar oleh rangkaian tali kegilaannya yang jujur terhadap dunia seni persembahan yang mengisi kalbunya.

Dalam Jejak Seni, Johan juga bercerita tentang tokoh-tokoh dalam dunia seni persembahan tanah air seperti Usman Awang, Anuar Nor Arai, Krishen Jit, Zakaria Arifin, Yassin Salleh, Mustapha Noor, Wan Hanafi Su, Hatta Azad Khan, Sabri Yunus, Othman Haji Zainuddin, A. Jalil Hamid, Fauziah Nawi, A. Rahim Muda, Dinsman, Pak Samad Said, Pak Samad Ismail, Anwar Ridhwan, Sutung Umar RS, Zaharah Nawawi, Tiara Jacquelina, Baharuddin Zainal, Atondra dan ramai lagi. 

Peranan setiap orang yang namanya disebut dalam bukunya ini diceritakan seadanya. Jejak seni Johan Jaaffar sesungguhnya bercampur baur dengan jejak tokoh-tokoh tersebut.

Antara ratusan seniman, bintang dan kawan yang menjelma dalam kehidupan Tan Sri Johan Jaaffar, saya ingin menarik perhatian kita semua kepada rakan beliau bernama Yassin Salleh, dia ‘halimunan yang baik yang menjelma sebagai sahabat setia semasa susah,” (ms.206). Seperti dinyatakan didalam buku ini “Selama banyak tahun saya berada ‘di luar lingkaran’... Yassin...bersama-sama saya, menemani saya, meladeni saya, memujuk saya, menenangkan saya,” (ms.206).  Zaman berada “di luar lingkaran”ini dinyatakan kepada saya sendiri dengan lebih kesat lagi, “I became a pariah, Sol....”

Memang wajar dan tepat, dalam buku yang membincangkan tentang jejak seni, Johan hanya menyatakan secara sepintas lalu (dalam beberapa ayat, semasa membincangkan tentang sahabatnya, Yassin Salleh) zaman “di luar lingkaran ini.” Saya memberinya fokas sebagai satu lagi ranjau dalam kehidupan Johan. Tetapi kesemua ranjau ini sebenarnya menjadikan beliau seperti besi yang disepuh, semakin kuat dan tajam.

Saya tidak akan membicarakan jejak jejak yang diambil oleh Johan dengan terperinci, sila beli dan bacalah buku ini sendiri. Tetapi, sebagai pengkaji drama dan seni persembahan teater, saya mesti mengimbau khalayak untuk melihat Johan Jaaffar sebagai seorang tokoh penulis skrip teater yang disegani dan dikagumi, sama ada beliau dilihat sebagai “orang teater absurd,” “orang teater moden,” atau “orang teater generasi ketiga.”

Pada saya, buat masa ini, kalau saya terpaksa memilih sebuah drama beliau sahaja, saya akan memilih “Asiah Samiah”, sebagai drama beliau yang terbaik, buat masa kini. Sayangnya, drama ini  masih belum lagi dipentaskan. (Ini satu harapan dan cabaran saya kepada penggiat teater untuk mementaskannya; dan cabaran saya juga kepada Tan Sri Johan Jaaffar untuk menulis drama baru yang akan menandingi dan mengatasi “Asiah Samiah”.

Pada saya secara peribadi,  membaca buku ini, adalah satu tour de force bukan semata-mata tentang kehidupan, tetapi tentang manusia yang bernama Johan Jaaffar. Dulu, pertama kali saya pergi ke pejabat Tan Sri di bangunan New Straits Times, di Bangsar, beliau berkata, “Sol, I used to collect old newspapers here and clean the building;” dan sambil kami berjalan  ke tingkap pejabatnya, beliau  menambah “and I used to work at one of the motorcycle shops down there.”

Sememangnyalah, “life is a spinning wheel” -- kita tidak akan sentiasa berada di bawah atau di atas buat selama-lamanya.Jejak jejak kehidupan Johan membuat kita kagum dengan kegigihan beliau dan menghormati beliau  dengan lebih lagi.

Dan pada saya, Tan Sri Johan Jaaffar, adalah manusia yang mempunyai “moral compass” yang tidak boleh dirundingi, dan untuk itu saya tabik dan menghormati beliau.Lebih daripada itu, Jejak Seni membuat kita memikir tentang hati dan jiwa Johan, terutamanya tentang nilai kemanusiaannya, kegigihannya, tentang ketulusan dan semangat juangnya yang sentiasa membara, yang menyebabkan tanggapan saya terhadap insan yang bernama Johan Jaaffar ini mengalami pemantapan dan enforcement yang cukup besar.

Buku Jejak Seni ini sangat penting dibaca oleh para pelajar dan aktivis teater, para budayawan, seniman dan ilmuwan yang ingin mengenali dunia seni persembahan Melayu. Buku ini adalah satu dokumentasi yang mantap dan jitu tentang sejarah seni persembahan tanah air. Jejak Seni juga penting untuk mereka yang ingin menyelami makna kehidupan, persahabatan, kuasa, kekuasaan, pemimpin dan kepimpinan.