Parables, Prophets & Pillocks

Datuk Tay Hooi Keat, “Weld Quay, Penang”, 1968-80, 60 x 90 cm, oil on canvas.

Cecil Rajendra is a pioneering human rights lawyer and acclaimed poet. He published his first collection of poetry – Embryo – in London in 1965 while still studying law. Parables, Prophets & Pillocks is the Malaysian wordsmith’s 20th collection.

Parables, Prophets & Pillocks is divided into four “testaments” in which run four different themes. The first testament takes on political shenanigans both local and abroad. News reels are echoed in the poems while verses about monk killings, judicial inquiries, Internal Security Act detentions and a quote from a US Marine Corps General are expounded upon.

Rajendra likens poems such as “A Threat to National Security” to the court jester, questioning and ridiculing the duplicity and irony of the situation where, if the words of the Home Minister and Police Inspector are both to be believed, threatening the life of a reporter is a threat to national security. Even a US president is not spared Rajendra’s probing words. Often ending in rhetorical questions, his poems take the reader on a journey through Malaysia’s political landscape where sore areas and wrongs are laid bare. “Coming Full Circle” touches on shameful remarks and the resulting fallout; “Rats!” and “Lost in Transition” depict the corruption in our judicial system; while the simple yet thought-provoking “Buy-election” challenges voters to think about who and consequently what they are voting for. Short and succinct, “Buy-election” draws from a blog post by Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat and speculates about how votes can be “priced”. Throughout Testament I, Rajendra challenges and reminds his readers of the broken and corrupt political landscape on which our world is built.

After pummelling Malaysian MPs, Rajendra takes on the tricky issue of religion in Testament II. Here, the hypocrisy of those who do not practice what they claim their religion preaches is laid bare. Rajendra also addresses the narrow-mindedness of some of Malaysia’s policies in “Mantra & Fatwa” where policies and bans against rock music and yoga contradict Malaysia’s self-proclaimed mantra of being a progressive, forward-looking Islamic nation. In one of my favourite poems from the collection, “If Only Our Prophets were Women”, he takes a clever look at what could have been. Here, history would have been “herstory” and our past wars would have changed dramatically. The World Wars, the dropping of an atomic bomb, the Crusades and the Battle of the Bulge would have been so very different “If only ALL our Prophets were Women”. This is an interesting, thoughtprovoking piece which portrays the different ways that men and women handle conflict and war. Nevertheless, it is good to remember the John F. Kennedys and Gorbachevs during Cuban missile crises and Cold Wars of the world.

In Testaments III and IV, Rajendra leaves the political and religious stage and instead writes about love and other odd topics. In Testament III, he contemplates the love between a man and his wife. He shows appreciation for a wife’s duties, the mundane tasks she does, the small, unnoticed sacrifices which are taken for granted in “Small Everyday Things” and pens down those sweet tender moments “’twixt sleep & waking” in “Auto-Pilot”. “Countdown” and “Passion” pay tribute to those powerful emotions that accompany love and a passionate relationship. Even the beautiful game gets its own poem. While this testament’s first poem, “Discovery Channel”, sets an exciting, passionate tone, its finale, “The Symphony of Silence”, requires thought and rereading on the reader’s part. The meaning of the latter poem is more hidden and diverges from Rajendra’s usual writing style in this book, which is fairly easy to read and understand. Taken simply, “The Symphony of Silence” calls for the appreciation of silence as that which gives words their meaning. However, interpreted metaphorically, it tells of our world where there is so much noise and attention on the surface that silence is a rare commodity that paradoxically speaks volumes when heard. Silence can represent the depth, peace and understanding of a person and when heard with words, gives harmony, wholesomeness and meaning to his speech and view on chaotic life. Rajendra’s poem gives silence the simple yet deep beauty it deserves that is so often lost in avalanches of meaningless words.

Testament IV does not seem to have a strong main theme but the sex/love theme from Testament III carries over into the first half of the poems, albeit outside the marital scene. The first poem “Down but Up” depicts the sex industry during an economic downturn, and “E D Martyrs” presents a comical “question for a theologian” about an “underwear bomber” and his 72 virgins in heaven. As is his wont throughout the collection, Rajendra pulls inspiration from the news, often titling his poems with blurbs from various news sources.

After lamenting the way times have changed in “Why Don’t They Treat Old Men with Reverence?”, Rajendra pens three light-hearted poems about the “Old”, the “Perils of the Native Tongue” and “Soap”. “Perils of the Native Tongue” in particular is a quirky look at the difficulties of learning Bahasa Malaysia, and may warrant a sympathetic smile from the reader. Following that, Rajendra highlights the efforts of the environmentalist who endorses their green drive through non-environmental friendly ways, thus defeating the purpose. “The Egg” is an original idea by Rajendra whom, by comparing his poetry to an egg, admits that he “shall never write a poem as perfect as an egg” – a modest admission by a master wordsmith. The second to last poem in the collection, “The Pugilistic Poetry Prize”, is a clever and humorous sketch of how two great poets, James Fenton and Adrian Mitchell, slugged it out in a boxing ring with their poems pulling the punches. Rajendra ends the book with “Suck!”, in which the last line loudly proclaims that “it all sucks!”. One wonders why “Suck!” should be the last poem in the book and “it all sucks!”, the last conclusive sentence. Is Rajendra being dismissive about his work or illustrating how everything is, at the end of the day, connected or that so many things in this world come about because one thing “sucks” on another thing?

Whether Rajendra is being overly self-critical or is challenging his readers to judge him and his work, this one reader would like to disagree with him. Rajendra’s easy-to-read writing style and rhetoricallyframed works cause the reader to take in the many issues he has thrown out and ponder them anew. While some of his topics draw from infamous real life incidences from a few years back, he pulls them to the surface again for the scrutiny of all. Malaysians will be reminded of these unpleasant instances hiding in between the pages of the book, where the often careless and contradicting statements of authority and the intellectual capacity of our leaders are mercilessly questioned by Rajendra.

Indeed, this is Rajendra’s court of law where governments and religious extremists are called on to justify their words and actions. Collected like a kaleidoscope of short stories in poetry, Parables, Prophets & Pillocks will have the reader transfixed and remembering past wrongs.

Carolyn Ch’ng is double majoring in Economics and Financial Mathematics in the us. She was recently awarded the Ramsayer Sophomore Prize, the top sophomore award for scholarship, leadership and achievement at the University of Mount Union, Ohio.

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