It was not until I reached the age of seven that I began to read. Although I started learning how to read at a young age of six when I attended my first school at the Sekolah Bandar (Town School), I did my reading only in school and I hardly read anything at home because most of the time at home were spent running here and there with my three ‘sisters’. When I began my primary school in 1957 at the Ismail School Two, I started to understand some simple English words like “thank you, yes, no and alright”. Then I learned some simple sentences like “today is a sunny day, the sun is shinning”. By and by I began to converse in the English language with some of my non-Malay friends and we spoke the English language our style. “Come eat” would be the normal invitation extended to a friend passing by while I was eating and so obviously if my friend invited me for some gaming activities he would say “Come play”.
By the middle of the first year at the Ismail School Two, I began to read some books of ten pages or slightly more. Most of these books were fairy tales like ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, ‘Cinderella’ and few others. Then I got hold of my first comic called ‘Beano’. Reading the comics attracted me more because I did not have to imagine many things and the cartoon drawings were so fascinating. Then there was another comic called ‘Dandy’ and a slightly bigger comic called ‘Topper’. So everytime after having my dinner, I would read the comics first and the second and third also another comics and finally off to sleep without even touching my school books.
The cost of each Beano and Dandy was twenty cents each while Topper was thirty cents. We could get these comics at the Ban Heng Bookstore situated along Jalan Abdullah. In Standard One I was already receiving twenty cents to spend at the tuck shop (school canteen) and out of this I would save five cents a day to be able to buy my next Beano which was sold weekly. By and by I collected many Beano comics and kept them in a special place. Sometime instead of Beano, I would buy Dandy comics.
Later many other comics came into my life and cartoons too like ‘Tom and Jerry’, ‘Donald Duck’, ‘The Road Runner’ and few others. Sometimes I would take a blank paper and drew the cartoons of my liking especially ‘Mickey Mouse’.
One evening, grandma called me from the front of the house and as I went out I saw Auntie Kamala and her son Maniam. Grandma said Auntie Kamala wanted me to friend with Maniam and that was our first meeting. Maniam was my age and was an intelligent boy and he was also schooling at Ismail School Two. The first thing he said was that he had a lot of comics and I could borrow them anytime. Likewise I told Maniam that I had some collections too and so we began exchanging comics. Maniam had a lot of Topper comics while mine were mostly Beano. That was the beginning of our friendship when we were both seven years old.
By the time we reached Standard Three, we began to read the ‘Junior Classics’ comics. These comics were adaptation from various famous children’s book written by famous writers such as Hans Christian Henderson and stories from Aesop’s Fables. Stories like ‘Jack and the beanstalk’, ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ and many more. However, in spite of reading all these new comics, I still read the Beano as well as Dandy and Topper.
Another comics that would soon became another of my collection were the comics of ‘Classics Illustrated’. These comics feature stories like ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, ‘The Ten Commandments’, ‘Last of the Mohicans’ and many more. They were all adaptaion from the famous early classic books like ‘Treasure Island’, ‘Moby Dick’, ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ and almost all of Charles Dickens’ works.
While I bought some of these comic books, Maniam too bought his and we kept on exchanging these comics.
For the magazines, I bought them only if there were pictures of my singing idols like Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard, Frankie Avalon and Paul Anka. If there were none, than I would not buy them. The famous magazine of my time was a local publication called The Movie News. It featured all the latest movies as well as some stories about the famous actors/actresses and singers. These pictures would soon be cut and paste into my ‘Song Book’ and that was the only purpose I bought them. The Malay magazines too were in circulation featuring all the latest Malay movies and the profiles of the actors/actresses and the most famous was the ‘Majalah Filem’. Both the Movie News and Majalah Filem costed fifty cents each.
When I reached Standard Five, I was already reading the collections of Enid Blyton and the one I liked most was ‘The Famous Five’ about five young kids who always got themselves involved in many adventures. It was only in Form Three and Four that I began to read novels particularly those written by Harold Robbins. I liked also reading novels about the legal court battles of Perry Mason written by Earl Stanley Gardner.
I had just finished bathing and it was quite unusual to have a bath at 4pm but that day it was not only extraordinary hot, I could feel the humidity surrounding the neighbourhood. Earlier I had just finished reading the last two books I borrowed from the Town Library and today I need to return them failing which a fine of fifty cents per day would be imposed. The Town Library was situated at the last end of Jalan Omri near the junction of Jalan Petri where stood the present Istana Hinggap of the Johor Royal family. I told grandma that I would be back by 5pm and she told me she had just finished cooking my favourite ‘bubur pulut hitam’ and I could always help myself upon my return.
While cycling I could feel the heat and some parts of my shirt was already wet affected by the continous sweat. It was only three junctions away before I could reach the Town Library. There were not many cyclists on the road maybe most of them were taking their nap due to the hot weather.
Within five minutes I was already at the compund of the Town Library and I parked my bicycles along the same row of some other bicycles. I locked my bicycle, took the two books from the back carrier of the bicycle and headed towards the entrance. I approached the counter where stood a middle-aged Indian lady and she nodded and smiled at me. I gave her the two books and presented my membership card. She acknowledged and asked whether I would like to borrow any other books. I declined the offer and thought that I would rather look for my two close friends Yem and Halim. As I proceeded towards the exit, I noticed a girl reading on a big table at the far end of the hall. I though she looked very familiar and decided to return and find out. I approached the Indian lady again and told her on second’s thought I would like to have a look if there were any other interesting books to read. She smiled and nodded again and showed her hand towards the direction of the hall welcoming me to be her guest.
I walked slowly pretending to look at the books nicely arranged on the first shelve before reaching the big table where the girl was sitting. As I approached nearer to the big table, I adjusted my eyeballs slightly toward the edge while my face was at the book shelves still pretending to look for some interesting books. I noticed while she was reading, she did some writing like copying some notes. As I began to get a clearer view of her, I immediately remembered her as the one I danced with at the Diamond Jubilee Hall last week organized by the Jalan Daud boys. While pretending to browse through the books, my mind began to plan few things like “shall I take a book and sit quite near her” or “shall I wait for her outside the building?”
She was staying somewhere in Jalan Temenggong Ahmad and was schooling at the Convent School and would be sitting for her LCE this year. I did mine last year and passed with four credits, five passes with no distinction and I thought I did fine. While we were dancing the rumba at the party, she told me that her mother had wanted her to excel well in her studies hoping to see her enter University Malaya. I did not respond to her conversatiion but nodded in agreement to her mother because my mind was absorbed with the rumba steps hoping not to step on her foot. The song was Elvis’ ‘Its Now Or Never’ and the rumba steps were quite fast so I had better be careful with my steps. She danced pretty well and quite at ease holding my shoulder while both our other hands were clutched to each other. When the song ended I brought her to her seat and asked whether I could have another dance later? She respnded positively and I’d better take the chance. Two songs later I saw her standing and walked straight outside the building into a waiting car. It was her parents who always insisted that she returned home early when attending any social party. That was the last time I saw her and since then I was determined to get in touch with her.
The moment I had been waiting for was now right at my doorstep but my mind was still unsettled between the two options and finally I decided to wait for her outside the building. To sit near her at the table and pretending not to notice her presence seemed unnatural and might raised unnecessary suspicion. Furthermore we would not be able to converse comfortably in a library where there were two or three other people sitting at the same big table. I was never a casanova, in fact quite a boring person whenever faced with a girl, but this time I wanted to do it right.
I took a thick book something about world history (can’t remember the title) and went back to the Indian lady, produced my membership card and paid the fee. I went outside the building with the thick book hoping to impress her later what a fine reader I was and sat at the concrete bench not far from the main entrance. I had a good view of every movement at the entrance and hope to be able to approach her when she came out later. The sun was beginning to decline towards the western horizon and the heat was subsiding and I could now feel some smooth flow of the evening wind coming from the Muar river. I looked at the thick book and began to open its cover to begin the first page. What a boring book I took, but never mind, it was just to impress her. The first paragraph was hardly readable and it made me really sleepy, but to achieve my strong desire to meet her made me to continue. When the second paragraph ended I understood nothing because my mind was flying everywhere and suddenly all kinds of images began to appear. I could hear the hooting sound from afar of some boats passing by the Muar river and my mind began to display some psychedelic images. Then I felt someone holding my shoulder softly.
“Encik, encik…bangun” (Sir, wake up). I saw a man looking down at me and behind him was the smiling Indian lady I met inside the library. “Tidur ke?” (Are you asleep?), asked the man. I was not composed but managed to answer the man, “Oh ye ke? Pukul berapa ni?”(Oh is that so? What time is it?). The man smiled at me and said, “Dah nak masuk pukul enam” (Its almost six). The Indian lady told me that this man was the watchman and it was time to close the Library. Then she saw the book on my lap and said, “That’s a very good book about early civilization, I’ve read it. It’s good for a young man like you to read it”. Then she bade me goodbye and hoped to see me again to collect another thick book.
When the watchman walked to the building, I stood up and went straight to my bicycle, the only one left. As I was about to peddle I remembered the thick book I left at the concrete bench. I parked my bicycle and went back to collect the book and as I gazed at the book, I said to myself while looking at the thick book, “You are the reason why I slept. I should have brought my Beano comic and read it instead”.
I had just missed one great opportunity and I blamed it on the thick book about some early civilization. It would be a different story if I had read my Beano comic.