Ten years ago today, I kissed my grandfather’s cold, but smiling face goodbye.
I had just turned eleven less than four months before that, and little did I know that he’d somehow always be around.
My grandfather, Syed Hussein Alatas, was an interesting man, to say the least.
To most people, he was known as an intellectual or as a politician. To me, he was a loving, humourous, entertaining and calm man who would always make Milo for my brothers and I every night, which we would drink while watching Mr Bean on television.
Holidays in KL
My brothers and I spent most of our school holidays in our grandparents’ home in Kuala Lumpur, and the time spent there was always delightful. However, being the young and perhaps clueless child that I was, there were some instances that occurred with my grandfather which I could not really understand at the time.
Sunday was the day that we would go to Amcorp Mall so that Jid (grandfather in Arabic) could spend what seemed like eons looking at second-hand books and chatting with the shopkeepers.
My brothers, Babsy and I would be sitting in the living room, waiting for him to finish getting dressed, knocking on his door every few minutes telling him he was taking way too long.
When he was finally ready, he’d be ready with his foldable stool, put it into the car boot, and off we’d go.
Speaking of being in the car, one of the memories I have, which I never quite understood when it happened, was when people in cars driving pass us would look into our car and smile at us, or rather, smile at Jid.
My reactions varied.
“Look Jid, they’re smiling at us!” or, “Why are they looking at us like that?”
This happened a number of times and would always surprise me.
Babsy would sometimes answer, “Because they recognise Jid!”
Other times, I remember looking at Jid’s side profile, knowing he was smiling, but at the same time trying to concentrate on driving safely.
He never really responded to those remarks. He would just smile.
Once we arrived at Amcorp Mall, I was sometimes asked to go with him to help with the books, and other times, just to keep him company. Occasionally, he would introduce me to the friendly shopkeepers, and they would tell me how lucky I was to have him as my grandfather.
Why did people keep telling me that? I wondered.
After he had bought countless books, we would sometimes go to McDonald’s for lunch, because that’s what every ten-year-old child likes to have for lunch (right?).
One of the most vivid memories I have of these lunches in McDonald’s was when a young gentleman came up to our table to introduce himself to Jid and shake hands with him.
I remember seeing Jid smiling, even though it was clear that he didn’t know who the gentleman was.
There we were, eating our burgers and salty french fries, hands all dirty, and he was shaking hands with a complete stranger!
Again, I never understood why random people wanted to shake hands with him.
Sometimes, I also attended his lectures. I remember going for the launch of Local and Global: Social Transformation in Southeast Asia in Singapore and I remember attending an event at the Singapore Soka Association.
In Malaysia, too, I have one memory of attending a lecture which he delivered in Malay.
Jid had brought his tape recorder with him, wanting to record his lecture. In the middle of his lecture, I remember very clearly a ‘click’ sound going off, signalling to him that he had to replace the tape with a new one, or flip it to the other side.
Upon hearing the sound, he then proceeded to ask the audience to wait for a second (“sebentar, ya”), while he did what he had to do with the tape.
He didn’t turn the microphone off, so the audience not only saw what he was doing, but heard it all!
I, of course, found it funny for some reason, and I laughed the whole time he was doing it. (This habit of laughing during lectures is unfortunately something I also do when my father gives lectures.)
But the point is, why were all these people gathered in such a big hall to listen to Jid saying all these words that I could barely understand?
“Because you’re an Alatas”
As I grew up, I came to understand why he was, and still is, so well-respected, so important, so inspiring, and why people said hello to him in McDonald’s.
After Jid passed away, I attended a lecture in Singapore which was delivered by his younger brother, Jid Naquib.
Sitting beside me at the table was a lady who had no idea who I was.
Upon finding out what my name was, and who I was there with, she excitably said, “Wow! I’m at a talk by Syed Naquib Alattas, being chaired by Syed Farid Alatas, sitting beside his daughter Afra Alatas, and I’ve just read Masturah Alatas’ book on Syed Hussein Alatas.”
That was extremely overwhelming for the fifteen-year-old that I was at the time, but at least I understood why she was so excited.
Every few years I would have teachers throughout all stages of my education who would tell me that they admired Jid, and I would always just smile and say thank you.
Coming to university, his name was always mentioned in a few classes that I took. Sometimes, professors would ask if I was “Farid’s daughter” and would then tell me about Jid.
In fact, this happened just two weeks ago. A professor whose class I’m taking for the first time, asked me if I was “Farid’s daughter”. Upon giving him a positive response, he said, “So Prof. Hussein Alatas was your grandfather, right?” He told me how he had once written an essay about Jid while doing his PhD, and that he spent some time with Jid when he was in NUS for a workshop a few years before he passed away.
Today, another professor said the words “because you’re an Alatas” to me.
Knowing that my professors know who Jid was is sometimes overwhelming, but at the same time, it encourages me to pursue my studies and interests with as much passion as he did.
After he passed away, holidays in KL were a little different.
There wouldn’t be anyone challenging me to see who could finish the hot bowl of Quakers oats first, nobody would be calling me “tomato girl” and nobody would be standing by the window, looking out at the garden and clapping his hands to signal to my brothers and I that it was time to get ready for dinner.
I wouldn’t be able to press the tobacco into his pipe and blow out the matchstick anymore, but I remember getting a whiff of his cherry tobacco once, even though nobody in the house was smoking.
Nevertheless, our holidays were still delightful and I would sometimes spend my mornings in the living room with Grandma, both of us reading the newspapers.
Sometimes I never finished reading the papers because Grandma would start recounting conversations she sometimes had with Jid and certain experiences she shared with him.
Her favourite story was about how she met him while she was working in Radio Malaya and even though I had heard it countless times before, watching her recount that story, so full of expression, was always a joy.
She also sometimes told me about her trip to Iran with Jid, which is one of the things my mother, an Iranian, had in common with them.
Besides that, cats were a ‘shared’ interest too. Both my grandparents loved cats and they both, together with Babsy, showed all of us what it meant to be loving owners and humans to our cats.
My mother, however, used to be afraid of cats, just like I was when I was younger.
I remember being most afraid of Tati and I would always put my legs up on the chair whenever she was near me.
Whenever this happened, Jid would always tell us that the more afraid we are of them, the closer to us they’ll come.
Over the years, I’ve watched my mother become much braver when she’s around our cats. I even see her smile when she strokes them, and I like to see how amused she is when she watches them play.
Continuing to inspire
At the end of all this, what I’m trying to say is that Jid had an impact on all of us in one way or the other.
From humble shopkeepers to strangers, and to a lecture hall full of scholars, Jid had meant something to all of them.
People still talk about him so many years after his death, and they continue to share with me their fondest memories of him, their favourite book that he’d written, or a quote they’d gotten from their readings of his work.
When people tell me about Jid and how much his ideas inspire them, or how much they enjoy reading his books, my heart truly warms knowing that there are many people, especially university students, who will always appreciate him and his passion for the issues that he wrote and spoke about.
When I tell people that I decided to major in History instead of Sociology, they still tell me that they believe I will somehow continue his legacy, just as they believe the rest of my family will.
His ideas and writings will always be an inspiration for me and many others, and his pursuit of knowledge will always be something that I will strive to emulate.