Remembering Shahnon Ahmad

ONE of our most respected literary figures and poets left us peacefully on Dec 26 at the age of 84. He was beloved Emeritus Professor Datuk Shahnon Ahmad (1933-2017), humbly known as Cikgu by many of his fans and "students", real or imagined. The latter is by virtue of his exceptional creative works that penetrated the literary sphere worldwide. Shahnon created a tsunami of brave ideas, untainted values and genuine concerns that brought keen awareness and compassion to almost every level of society.

I was one of those who was privileged to benefit from Cikgu's thoughts and toils. He was an academic in the School of Humanities, Universiti Pulau Pinang (later USM) when I set foot on the campus as a science student. I was left restless by the emptiness of "science" devoid of values and concerns that Shahnon spoke and wrote about.

Our science seldom spilled meaningfully out of the laboratory into the community. Thus we remain oblivious to the plight of the common people. Even though many would like to sympathise, they have neither the language nor the vocabulary to express themselves. No surprise because "social need" and "national well-being" entered the public vocabulary of British science only in the 1930s. Locally it has yet to find its way into our lofty lecture halls. Even then it is still regarded as part of the "rootless" STEM.

I attended many of Cikgu's seminars and followed his works to fill the void that was frequently felt. Eventually I got to know closely the humble scholar who awed many with his higher sense of purpose and authenticity.

Etched in my mind was when he apologised ahead of time for having to use the literary expression "bunting padi" in his academic discourse.

This adab is almost forgotten nowadays where vulgarity in the language used by just anyone is common. In fact the power tends to reside in vulgar deeds as well.

Then several issues that got the students engaged (and enraged) happened to come from the areas where Shahnon hailed from.

It is as though the issues leaped out from the pages of his creative writings, putting to test some of the theories learned in sterile lecture halls. I was captivated because somehow it felt as though the labs were suddenly thrust into the heart of the community with real life actors and real problems of social diseases and injustice. It was almost like a dream come true to experiment with the little I knew in trying to solve a long-standing community problem.

After all it was often touted how techno-science is the panacea for human suffering. Yet Shahnon's novels testify that this is untrue until today depicting how sordid life has been so well captured by his pen. It kept me thinking how to change this academically.

I got the hint when I realised how Shahnon too was a passionate public intellectual without fear or favour. He walked the talk. His infamous Sh*t said it all. After he was the second Sasterawan Negara, next after the equally eloquent Usman Awang or Tongkat Warrant.

With Shahnon gone, the public sphere is more muted now. If not for their everlasting contributions that still voice out the plight of the downtrodden, the silence in the academe can be deafening.

Take the shutdown of Ampang Park Shopping Complex on Dec 31. Talking to some of the long-standing tenants a couple of days before the event, it was apparent that the fight to "Save Ampang Park" was a lop-sided one. They had to concede when told that come end of 2017 all utilities would be cut. Metaphorically it is as cruel as switching off the life-support system that the tenants needed to survive.

Even the powers that be seem to have been helpless to save the "patient" so to speak. When asked why this is so, no one seems to know for sure. But many attributed it to the need to make way for a multi-billion transport project.

Be that as it may one cannot help but recall some of the hurts and pains that Shahnon was trying to consistently communicate through his works.

This time it took place in an ultra-urban setting using hi-tech but still with no regard for hi-touch. And at the expense of what is regarded as the first shopping mall of its kind – another heritage of sorts to be torn down.

To those of my vintage it means the demise of an experience so precious not just as a place to (window) shop but more significantly as a "park" to intermingle as the name implies. Beyond the physical facade are many livelihoods that depended on it. Now that too are obliterated just like how Kampung Kerinchi and Abdullah Hukum are buried without much debate.

These fit well with what Shahnon has been telling us all along: "Greed" prevails over the disadvantaged as soon as the situation is rendered mute yet again.

So as we step into the new year, while there is so much to be thankful for, we need to speak up even more especially when the rights of the ordinary people are trampled on.

This must be the resolution for 2018 and beyond to qualify as a developed nation in 2020. It is imperative to remember that their plight is yet to be satisfactorily resolved. For this we owe much to Shahnon – may you be rewarded for it. Rest in peace, Cikgu.

With some four decades of experience in education, the writer believes that "another world is possible". Comments: letters@thesundaily.com