Living the poem

Malaysia’s best-known poet has been raising the hackles of the establishment for over four decades with his outspoken work. Politicians find Cecil Rajendra subversive, academics believe he is a “propagandist troublemaker”, and the legal fraternity scathingly refers to him as a “part-time” lawyer. Despite being pilloried by the authorities and suffering the indignity of having his passport impounded, Rajendra’s searing poetry is celebrated far beyond the nation’s shores by legions of global followers (Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former French Prime Minister Dominique Villepin, among them). When it comes to winning the battle for hearts and minds, Rajendra demonstrates that the pen is always mightier than the sword.

Sitting along a busy Penang street and talking to Cecil Rajendra is taking a serious toll on my self-restraint. It’s hot, noisy and the cold beer in his hand is making flirtatious overtures to me. I wish I had been better prepared and brought my own refreshments. I imagine that his legal training had prepared him for any sort of eventuality, hot weather included. In a funny sort of way the extreme pre-Chinese New Year heat is a reminder of global warming, a subject very close to Rajendra’s own heart.

Rajendra’s 19 books, the first published in 1965, features recurrent themes – human rights and the environment. His poetry has been used by Amnesty International and as set text for British GCSE English Literature examinations. His outspoken environmental poetry came to the attention of the Danish Cultural Institute, which invited him to the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference 2009 held in Copenhagen.

Cecil Rajendra has written 19 books of poetry, earning him international acclaim.

“I took part in a project called ‘Culture | Futures’ which involved artists, architects and engineers looking at ways to safeguard people and cultures from environmental change,” says Rajendra(who opened the first Culture | Futures Symposium with his reading of Requiem for a Rainforest). “It’s not enough to think about low-lying islands such as the Maldives being wiped off the earth; we also have to think about complete cultures being wiped out as a result of this.”

Despite the Summit’s ultimate failure to commit the developed and developing world to any concrete change, Rajendra had kind words for his hosts. “I’ve always found Scandinavians to be very concerned about the environment. I like how they try to bring about change through individual action. You just can’t trust politicians and local politicians are not in the least bit interested in green issues. Politicians have a five-year attention span and that’s it. I like to think that politics is the last refuge for scoundrels,” he says with a chuckle.

When I press him about his own green credentials, he points out that he doesn’t even drive, preferring to walk or take a bus. “Let’s get this clear. I’m not some dogooder who wants to save the world for altruistic reasons. I speak out because these things affect me. I’ve always had a very holistic view of the world and I’d hate to live in an environment without green and without trees.”

Rajendra baulks at the idea of being represented as a cheerless tree-hugger and describes himself as a “hedonist who enjoys a good party” – a tad understated perhaps when you consider that he founded Malaysia’s first Legal Aid Centre in Penang, which became a model for the rest of the nation. The centre provides free legal advice and representation for people who cannot afford it and has been instrumental in seeking justice for the oppressed – from sexually exploited factory workers and dispossessed Orang Asli to urban squatter communities.

Rajendra’s involvement in the legal profession was almost grounded after he returned home to Penang on completing his law degree. His application to be admitt ed to the Malaysian Bar was turned down after he told the panel of senior lawyers overseeing his viva that, “I spend less time writing my poetry than many lawyers spend drinking at the bar.”

Luckily for Rajendra, the intervention of the fiery Lim Kean Chye ensured that he was eventually called to the Bar. “In a way that incident made me realise I could never practise law in the traditional sense. The senior lawyers were more concerned that I spent some of my time writing a column for a local newspaper and felt I should be 100% devoted to the law. That’s just nonsense!” he exclaims.

Did he ever regret returning to Malaysia given that he had already successfully published three poetry collections in Britain?

“When I was studying in UK, many of my African and South American contemporaries used to say that if we really believed in what we were doing abroad we should return to our own homes and put it into practice. My son was also born in the UK and I was worried that he might grow up to resent never knowing his roots.”

Back in Malaysia, Rajendra immediately aroused suspicion, thanks to his left-of-centre leanings, his participation in anti-Vietnam War marches and friendship with Third World writers, academics and activists. Naturally, he was marked out for having possible communist connections and being involved in an “international conspiracy”. The first of his brushes with the shadowy Special Branch ensued when two officers were assigned to tail him from morning to night.

Rajendra says it was only months later that he noticed them. “I was sitting in a very dingy bar having a drink. I prefer to drink in loud coffee shops and bars to fancy clubs. Anyway I noticed these two chaps sitting at a table across me drinking soft drinks, in their well-pressed slacks and polished shoes. They just stuck out like a sore thumb!” he recalls, laughing.

Trailing Rajendra was just one part of their job according to him, the other part was waiting outside his home to intimidate any visitors.

“While it wasn’t very pleasant being followed, believe it or not after about six months of very brief chats I was asked by one of the officers to join him for a drink at the Special Branch mess in George Town. It was a very surreal experience and what really made me laugh was when the officer thanked me for having ‘shown’ him some really interesting places in Penang.”

Dealing with the Special Branch was never an issue for Rajendra and despite the harassment he never considered leaving Malaysia for good. “The sheer idiocy I come across here is a great inspiration to me; there’s a wealth of things to write about in Malaysia that I couldn’t do anywhere else!”

While Malaysia provides much of the background for his poetry, his work has a resonance that effortlessly skips boundaries. The Animal and Insect Act (originally about the ISA) was lauded by critics all over South-East Asia, who drew parallels with their own straitjacketed political systems. With international literary acclaim behind him – Rajendra’s work has also been used by National Geographic, UNDP, Unesco, WWF, Oxfam and Third World First – he remains firmly snubbed by the Malaysian intelligentsia.

Surprisingly, this doesn’t seem to rankle him at all. Rajendra says he has been described as “not a poet but a propagandist troublemaker” by a Universiti Sains Malaysia professor. (Incidentally three of the particular academic’s students who recounted the episode were doing doctoral theses based on Rajendra’s poetry.)

“’s vital to live what you write about and to walk the talk.

By his own admission, his Malay is not up to scratch and his work has never been published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. Rajendra shrugs off the I’ve never met a poor lawyer and I can’t see why lawyers can’t spend a day a month helping out at a legal aid centre. Any fool can practise law, and many a fool does! Moralistic people are always complaining to my mother and wife about me. The same moralistic people who have mistresses and what not. I can cope with Special Branch but dealing with religious extremists is another thing. They nearly unhinged me mentally. (In the aftermath of the publication of The Kingdom of Purplaya.) suggestion that he has not been duly recognised as a Malaysian poet.“I’m not affected by any of this, and the last thing I want is to be pigeonholed. This is one of the reasons I never got involved in politics, I just don’t want to have to toe the party line. I want to be able to speak out about anything and everything.” Hardly surprising then that he takes many contemporary writers to task for not “becoming the poem”.

“Too many writers cut themselves off from the reality of what is happening on the ground. I feel that it’s vital to live what you write about and to ‘walk the talk’. When I was younger I used to take part in marches and demonstrations, it was important for me to be able to ‘feel’ the cause and get an understanding of grassroots sentiments.”

How does this self-confessed “hedonist” unwind after a hard day spent agitating the masses?

Rajendra loves to cook and admits to being a devoted pickle and marmalade maker. I raise a dubious eyebrow and, as if on cue, his brother-in-law sweeps by and assures me that “Cecil makes a great curry!” I wonder what the Special Branch officers would have made of the domestic scene playing in my head: Rajendra hunched over his battered Harrods cookbook furiously stirring his whiskey marmalade. I hope it’s the image of an earthy man with a conscience and a huge appetite for life.

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