Sunday, 30 May 2010

Sitiawan Stylo, My Hero

Sitiawan Stylo was a portly man with a pleasant and somewhat alluring disposition. He often made friends of everyone from big wig corporate men to waiters at the local Chinese restaurant. He was fair-skinned, bordering on a yellowish tan he said he got from his mother. He had a thick head of hair which never seemed to grey and light brown eyes that had a hint of bluish grey at the iris edges. He always saw the glass half full and led others to see the same through his actions and sheer energy. In his later years, it was common for him to have a pack of youngsters around his chair during the holidays, usually seeking his counsel or just basking in the warmth of his affection.


Sitiawan Stylo accompanied his 6 y.o. daughter to her first kindergarten race. What he did not expect was for the headmistress to suddenly announce a parents’ race as part of the events. Stylo’s daughter knew he knew he had little chance of winning, but instead of backing out of the race he had been randomly picked for, he chose to be a sport and take part in the race. As expected Stylo did not win. Or stand second or third or fourth. He was the second last. He was no runner for sure. And in spite of his daughter standing on the sidelines looking aghast at what she thought would be a colossal failure for anyone in a competiton, Sitiawan Stylo trotted back from the finish line, gleaming and clapping. When his daughter asked, “Acha, aren’t you sad you didn’t win?”, he cheerfully responded, “I would be sad if I didn't try. Because if I didn't try, I would not be able to show you that you don't always have to be sure of success to try something. Trying, whether it brings you failure or not, is the first step to success." His daughter was still sad then, but as she grew up, these words resounded in her head at every class debate, singing contest and writing competiton.


Stylo, now 55, was medically boarded out of work where he'd earned accolades like "Insurance Man of the Year" and made manager despite his lack of education. He was diagnosed with a severe heart condition. His now 11 y.o. daughter and 7 y.o. son were oblivious of the lifestyle implications. Instead, the kids were ecstatic that there would be someone at home when they returned from school every day, especially since both their parents worked late. Stylo felt restless and restricted at home, as he was still completely mentally productive and alert. Despite the high likelihood that he would descend into depression, it was amazing that Stylo did the opposite; He found ways to keep his mind satiated - teaching his daughter and son cooking, home chores, fix-its, wood work, pet care etc. He also inculcated their reading habit, set a time for listening to classical music and introduced physical activity on alternate days of the week for good measure. His daughter, being the elder of the two, was the first to notice how he turned his life around all on his own. Later in her own life, she always looked to that part of Stylo's for strength in her own.


No one but the angels knew that 62 y.o. Stylo was days away from his fatal heart attack. He was smiling and happy during his last few days, but increasingly demanding of his children; especially of his daughter, who he insisted, enters the accounting profession. His daughter was peeved feeling that a career in English literature or music would be more up her alley. However, after futile arguments, she begrudgingly settled for an accounting course. Stylo died on the day she signed up. It was only four years later that she understood how far sighted and planned Stylo’s decision was, given that financially, the family was struggling. Stylo's daughter graduated in accounting and was snapped up by a major accounting firm, laying foundations for a very stable income source and therefore being able to support her retiree mother.

To date, these three episodes with Stylo remain monumental in his daughter’s life. She always remembers - "failure is what you encounter while you practice for success", "strength is something you build, not have" and, "think through your plans before you act".

Acha, you are Sitiawan Stylo, my hero!

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Beyond Idli and Naan

Fret not! You are not alone. There is a large community of Indian expats in Malaysia with most of them hailing from South Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andra Pradesh and Karnataka. And though I'd in the past found most to be cautious about stepping away from familair food, they are all not just rotating between doshas, idlis and naans.

Yes, you the South Indian expat, is tempted to keep an eye out for the familiar smells and sights of food. To some of you, you may have been somewhat concerned at the onset, that living in a foreign land could mean no Indian food within quick reach. But you later discovered in your first week in Malaysia that this country hardly fits into that stereotype. Here, getting acquainted with the quintessential Malaysian past time, i.e. food (Indian or otherwise), would have been followed by the realisation that the familiar tastes of India are all at a stones throw from wherever it is you are!

Yet other South Indian expats have been timidly declining food choices that my fellow Malaysians have been pointing out over time. Sometimes, you may have accepted a dinner treat or two, realising post-meal, that neither the treator nor you, was educated on what was going to be acceptable to your palate. Those meals could have turned out to be disastrous, leaving you hungry, unsatisfied and craving for a good biriyani. Worse still you would have gone on to conclude that the best thing would be to remain safely devoted to your previously chosen Indian restauraunts. You must have made about 15 trips to Sharavan Bhavan in two weeks, if you'd done that!

However, what my point is that your journey does not need to end with successfully identifying Indian places to eat. The induction to Malaysian food that you will receive, if you so allow it, will cover the smogasboard of fascinating Malaysian cuisine. And all within the boundries of familiar meats (chicken, fish, prawns, beef, mutton and lamb). Vegetarians may be at a loss away from India, but the meat eater has no excuse to seek the comfort of sambar a day into your Malaysian stay. You need not worry that eating in a regular city restaurant will result in the unwitting introduction to pig's blood or snake meat, as some of my friends have experienced in their trips around exotic Asian cities. Having said that, a choice of extreme cuisine is not impossible to find. This post is however, not about the extremem choices, but just everyday ones.

Back to "common Malaysian food" - You can often discern the palatability of a dish, through your nose, can't you? So, to start with, remember use it to guide you to what's good to eat. Chances are, perhaps the spicier dishes will call to you immediately.

My advice is to try, try and keep trying different "common Malaysian food" like nasi lemak, roti canai, char kuay teow, mi siam, nasi goreng, rendang ayam/ daging (photo above)etc. If your saliva glands do not respond the first time, remember to start with something closest in smell to your more familair foods. These would be chicken rendang, roti canai and nasi goreng - the last of which I've even found in menus at restaurants in Chennai! Roti canai is probably the best example of something that is very close to home - it is almost synonymous in taste and texture to the pranthas you will find in India. And though your next instinct will drive you to a meal of that ever so familiar idli or tandoori roti, try steering yourself in the direction of a well-prepared nasi lemak. You may be pleasantly surprised and best of all, you'd have expanded your food repertoire.

Remember that repeated trials of the items in the above list of Malaysian choices will most likely lead you to a new opinion of a particular dish you've already sampled. Why? Because it is not guaranteed that a dish tried in two different places is likely to be exactly the same! Though a nasi lemak is a nasi lemak, you will find more than a few subtle differences from one vendor to another. This is characteristic of Malaysians who love to vary their recipes of standard dishes, to show off their creativity in the kitchen.

A nasi goreng pattaya with its eggy covering may be just about the only common denominator between the dish being served in shop A versus shop B. I've had red hot looking nasi goreng pattaya and a completely bland version. The best part is that Malaysia is so diverse that consumers who enjoyed shop A's version may be a set of clientelle that is completely different from those who prefer shop B's. And yet, both shops thrive. There is no absolute answer to the best dish.

So the best test? Your nose. If it smells good, you'll probably like it. So dive in. If your nose has deceived you once, don't give up. As your nose trains you to distinguish tastes you prefer among Malaysian dishes, you'll get savvy enough to be the official food guide for your friends and family visiting from your homeland!

So, be adventurous and try Malaysian food. Rest assured that by the time you leave Malaysia, you'll be wishing Chennai had a restaurant selling Char Kuay Teow!

Monday, 3 May 2010

Are You Happy Yet?

“Declare War on Negative Thoughts!”, is a quote I see proudly displayed on a poster in my office pantry everyday... Probably the souvenir from a very vivaciously delivered motivational speech on positive thinking. Sure it sounds logical at first glance, but really, is that the best way to treat negative thoughts - by denying any dignity to the moment?

I’ve always felt that society rewards us a bit too much, not for positive thinking, but for simply and successfully denying communication of negative thoughts. Yes, yes, I've heard that positive thought is the highway to happiness. Or is it?

I've always felt that society rewards
us a bit too much, not for
positive thinking,
but for simply and successfully
denying communication of negative thoughts.

Perhaps a case in point would be how when I once lost my enviable placement in a singing competition due to some underhandedness of the orgnisers’, I was overcome with rage to the point that I could not pinpoint what it was that drove me up the wall – Was it my hatred for these unscrupulous organizers? Was it the feeling of helplessness from a lack of control over the situation? Was it the sheer nonchalance of the others in the competition with the same fate, who seemed to take the incident with such a lack of remorse?

Allowed a little more exploration of my negative thoughts, I may have come to the root of my erupting emotions. I recall keeping my calm at the competition, waiting to enter the safe arms of family and friends to vent. However, upon sharing my experience, my friends’ and family’s immediate response was to dismiss the “negative thoughts” and instead, to “think positive”! But how? Why was the crowd around me quick to suggest, “Don’t cry!”, instead of saying, “Go on - Cry and let it all out”? In a turbulent sea of rage and hatred, is it that simple to skip one’s probable response to impropriety and directly ascend to peace and equilibrium? I think not!
It may feel all to obvious that if a negative thought ceases to exist in our minds, that the obvious replacement for it is a positive one. How reductionist and simplistic. Not logical to me, simply because the positive negative relationship of thought is far from balck-and white. Sorry, my dear compulsive optimists, but I think people are afraid of negative thought more than they are sold on the benefits of positive ones! So we always try to appear happy just to avoid the "think positive" admonishment - even when doing so isn't the best thing. Think of all the mondays you have come into the workplace feeling like you've been hit by a bus, but chirped, "Oh...great!", to a workmate enquiring about your weekend. Isn't that just to avoid being seen as negative by another person?

Think of all the mondays you have come into

the workplace feeling like you've been hit

by a bus, but chirped, "Oh... great!", to a

workmate enquiring about your weekend.

We’d much rather get really quickly from the point of negative thought to a place of resolve at the fastest possible speed. Perhaps there is a misconception that one cannot cope with another iota of misery that comes from acknowledging negativity. Little do we realize the recovery we so desire is sometimes cloaked in the delicacy and graduality with which we explore those negative thoughts. So, let those thoughts linger a while!

Perhaps the most ironic behaviour in the pursuit of (urgent!) happiness is how we consider negative thought to have a space and time within which they are considered valid. Apparently, within these parameters, negative thoughts are not only accepted, but also expected! A 4 year old child laughing innocently during his grand-uncle’s funeral is quickly shushed. But one year later at the deceased's death anniversary gatehring, his grieving spouse of 50 years was coaxed and cajoled by relatives, quite insistently, out of her misery! All this in the pursuit of getting from that negative thought, oh so quickly to acceptance because apparently, someone had decided that her time to grieve was over!

I say let her cry. Let her have her fears magnified, purpose questioned, reality checked and her emotions inundated. She’s earned the right to treat this event as she wants to, for it defines her life. Remember that each person is different and each situation is unique for every individual. Be there for her, but for God’s sake, even if she takes more time than you can accept, don’t tell the woman to “Declare War on Negative Thoughts”! Her negative thoughts are hers to work out or wallow in. The question is whether you acknowledge yours enough to give them the dignity she has given hers!