Thursday, March 27, 2014

THIRTY-SIX YEARS AGO THIS SATURDAY, 13 AUGUST, 1978… AND COLUMBIA REVISITED. – PART I.

By Mansor Puteh



(I was given a Pan-American Airways (Pan-Am) brochure by my brother-in-law who had few months earlier returned from America where he had lived for six months for a surgery he undertook at a hospital in Washington DC following a bad crash while driving his new sports car, he experienced earlier in 1960. He was looked after by the Malaysian ambassador, Ong Yoke Lin, who later became Omar Yoke-Lin Ong, after he reverted to Islam few years later. I saw for the first time photos of the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building, and marveled at the sight of them. I did not know if I had wanted to go to the city where they were at but I remember wanting to go to America to study something.)  

This was the day, exactly thirty-six years ago, when Mustapha Kamal Anwar (Mus), Salleh Kassim and I took off from Subang International Airport outside of Kuala Lumpur, one night on a Saturday, 31 years ago, to fly off to America, via London, where the two of us had planned to stop over to see the city for the first time.
Many of my relatives had come to Subang Airport to send me off. My former colleagues and college mates also came including Zam and Khalid Jefri. Everybody was happy to see me off, considering how I had to suffer for one year before I was given a study loan from Mara, whose officer had rejected my application a year earlier because they were shocked to find a Melayu student of Mara Institute of Technology (ITM) in Shahalam could get a place to study for his Master of Fine Arts in Film Directing at a university as Columbia.
They knew what the university was, so they feared it even more, while I was totally unaware of what it was, thinking nothing of its reputation because I thought all universities were the same as what we thought of the few that we have in the country, so getting into one is as good as getting a place to study at another.
I had to work as a journalist for Utusan Melayu for exactly 13 months and 13 days to get by and it turned out to be an interesting experience, of being able to cover all sorts of stories and events while writing reviews for television dramas and getting a special column. 
I had a diary for this period where I had jotting all the things I had to do and endure, and even when I was given another chance to study at the Film Division in 1978, after failing to accept the offer to register for the Fall semester of 1977, I was still in a limbo as Mara was still taking its own sweet time to finally approve the loan for me.
Worse, when the School of the Arts, which issued the Form I-20 which is needed to students to apply for the visas at the US embassy was not coming, so I feared if my reapplication was not accepted. I had to write to Grafton Nunes many times before getting the form.
It was barely two weeks before my flight on 13 August; and this was despite the fact that their travel agency had already issued the one-way ticket to New York City via London, with a stopover in Brussels where we had to wait for the connecting flight for eight hours. So there was no time for me to say goodbye to.
I only managed to make one return trip to Melaka to inform my parents about my going to America to study for two years. My mother came from Melaka and sent me off together with my other relatives including those who live in Kuala Lumpur, including my elder sister, Asmah who had two weeks earlier returned with her husband and their two twin sons, Adam and Nizar, from Canberra. I visited them for two weeks in June/July, 1976, during the semester break at ITM and could still remember the chilly weather in the Australian winter. 
On my second last day in Malaysia, I went to the masjid (What is a mosque? This word sounds odd.) in Section 17 and got there late after almost everybody had started to perform the Friday prayers, in the middle of Ramadan. I was wearing my new pair of Adidas shoes. When the prayers were over I discovered someone had pinched them.
So I took two unmatched rubber sandals which were discarded at the footsteps of the masjid and walked to the Jaya Supermarket and bought a new pair of leather shoes.
I was not angry for losing the Adidas to some secondary school students who were waiting at the steps outside the masjid because I knew I could still walk further without them. To these kids, going for Friday prayers was not for praying but to prey on the shoes of those who go there to pray.
I was going to fly to America in a days’ time, I told myself. And I was willing to even walk bare-footed from the masjid to the shopping complexes. I might also be walking on air at that time with my heads sticking in the clouds as I wondered how it might feel to be flying to New York City the next day. 
Each time I drive pass by this masjid which is still standing there at the junction I would turn to look at it and at the steps where I had taken off my Adidas which I had bought at the Pertama Complex in Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman for M$60, which is quite a bit by today’s standards, so no wonder I was the only person seen to be wearing them anywhere I went until I got to the masjid in Section 14. It took me back to 11 August, 1978, when I was just about to go to Columbia. The Jaya Supermarket is now a total wreck after its old block collapsed.
(Who could be the Melayu student wearing blue ‘sampin’ around his waist from the nearby school, who might have stolen my Adidas track shoes? Is he, you, the now successful businessman or politician? You probably don’t remember which shoes you have stolen 31 years ago at the masjid in Section 14, because they were so many pairs of shoes that you might have stolen while in secondary school.
But I can still remember someone had stolen my pair of track shoes. Or, maybe you did not want Melayus to wear American-made products. I got a new pair of Adidas at a charity store in England recently for just three pounds. They are brand-new shoes. Don’t say it’s a steal; just say I got a very good bargain.)  
Mus, Salleh and I were graduates of the School of Mass Communication, ITM or Mara Institute of Technology now called Universiti Teknologi Mara or Mara University of Technology (UiTM), although we were not classmates and had graduated in different years. 
Mus had a friend called Lei, a Malaysian woman who had lived in the city for a few years. When I met her at Heathrow Airport the next day, she seemed to be very confident with herself living in the city and was able to find her way out of the airport to her apartment which was near the old Malaysia Hall in Brynston Square.
It was a very convenient place so we could go to the Hall often and because it was also not too far away from the famous Oxford Street, we could go anywhere by foot. Sometimes, we took the ‘tube’ to go further away from there, to meet Wan Hulaimi, another Malaysian friend who had studied in London and lived there for a long period of time, until he was able to speak English in the cockney accent, if he wanted to.
We put up at Lei’s apartment for a week, until Mus and Salleh flew off to go to Boston, Massachusetts and Athens, Ohio to study at the universities there.
I then moved to another apartment rented by another Melayu friend of mine called Kamarulzaman. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that this was also the room that the first and second prime ministers of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Razak had rented when they were studying law in London in the 1940s.
It was the fasting month then. We had fasted for only two weeks and were off to go on a trip that took us to our next phase in our lives.
I had never been away from the country this far before. The furthest I had gone to was to go to Bali, Indonesia, where I had gone to in May, 1974, a few months before I enrolled at ITM.
I enjoyed studying at ITM and living in Shahalam, which at that time was still being developed into a city, which was destined to be the new capital of Selangor, after it was moved from Kuala Lumpur that had become the country’s capital. The whole area was bare. And on the highest hill stood the newly-constructed Istana Alam Shah (Alam Shah Palace), where some friends and I would often rode in front of it because it was close to our terrace house dormitory where I had stayed at for the first two semesters in the first year at ITM.
More and more of the oil palm plantations had to make way for the development of the city. But when I was there, they were only chopping down the trees and leveling the land that made the city look like a desert.
In the second and third years, I moved to live on campus which was more convenient because everything was close, and we could go to the dining hall after walking a few steps or to the library and lectures easily.
I had always wanted to study in America for my master’s degree in film directing. But at that time in the first two years I was at ITM, I did not know which university would be the best – I mean, which one would be able to accept me. I remember when I was in Form Six studying at the now defunct Malaysian Tutorial College (MTC) in Jalan Barat, Petaling Jaya, I had applied for forms from the University of Southern California (USC) and University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
I got the forms though, but I was not able to submit any application because my Higher School Certificate (HSC) results were not good enough. Besides, even if I was given a place, there was no way for me to take the offer as it was very expensive to pay for the expenses.


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