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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Rantau Panjang-Sungai Golok: The magic of Syed

The Star
Monday April 23, 2007

The Magic of Syed

Story and illustration

Some characters from our past are so colourful that they live on in our hearts.

KELANTAN. The black handwritten word stood out boldly among the fine print, as I stared at the official letter in my hand. Thus, I was informed of my posting.
Having just returned from Kirkby College, England, after two years of teacher training, I had a week to spend with my family before reporting for work.
I remember boarding the train at Tampin, taking the night train at Gemas and reaching Kota Baru the next morning. A day later, I reported for work at the state education department. I was ushered into the Assistant State Education Officer’s office and was greeted by a kind, elderly Chinese gentleman.
“Young man, you have been assigned to a school in Rantau Panjang.”
“Rantau Panjang! Never heard of it.”
“It’s a nice place. Plenty of good food in the Siamese town across the border.”
Perhaps noticing my innocent and worried look, he said, “Never mind, see me in a year’s time if you’re not happy and I’ll transfer you to another school.”
The next day I boarded the train for Rantau Panjang and was met on arrival by the headmaster. After my luggage was bundled into a waiting trishaw, we headed for a nearby coffee shop.
On entering the shop, I noticed four elderly men seated round a marble top table. After a brief introduction, a dark and wiry old man said to me, “Cikgu, we are all parents of pupils in the school. You are free to cane our children if they’re naughty as long as you don’t break their heads or legs. See us if you have any problem.”
I was thus introduced to the infamous kapak (axe) gang of Rantau Panjang. Under their patronage and protection, I was able to move freely about town even into the wee hours of the morning.
One morning, a month after my arrival, I was in the midst of a lesson when I felt an air of excitement pervading the classroom. Pupils were casting furtive glances at the corridor. There was gentle shuffling of feet and a few raised buttocks. Curious, I glanced through the window and caught sight of a dark, bearded man who was bent double by the weight of an engorged knapsack on his back. A tightly rolled mengkuang mat was slung across one shoulder.
Silap mato,” whispered one boy. No wonder all the excitement, I thought to myself. Which child would not be excited by the visit of the occasional itinerant Indian magician? A few minutes later, I was called to the headmaster’s office.
“Wan, I want you to meet Syed who will be joining our staff.”
There was an air of despondency when I broke the news to the class. However, although there was no magic that day, Syed brought with him a different kind of magic – of joy and laughter – to the school.
Night comes quickly to this remote town. Except for the flickering yellow light of the oil lamps, the whole town would be enveloped in darkness. An eerie silence would descend. Syed, who had just come from the bright lights of the city, would pace the long corridor of the rented house like a caged animal.
Standing in the semi-dark corridor, he would gaze at the brightly-lit night sky across the border. A yearning for the bright light would then stir within him, like a moth in the dark recess of a house that is instinctively drawn to the light of an oil lamp.
One morning in school, after a nocturnal visit to the border town, he was overcome with drowsiness. After he had assigned some work to the class, Syed posted the monitor at the back of the classroom to warn him if he spotted the headmaster approaching the class. Then, he proceeded to place his folded arms on the table and rest his head in the crook of his arms. He was just about to slip into slumber when the monitor shouted, “Sir, sir, headmaster is coming!”
Syed jumped to his feet. Pointing a finger at the nearest boy, he barked, “Yes, you, what’s the answer?”
The poor innocent boy sprang up from his seat with his mouth wide open. There was, of course, no answer, as there had been no question!
Barring that particular incident, I remember Syed as a conscientious teacher whose presence brought fun and laughter in and out of the classroom, adding spice and colour to our otherwise mundane existence.
One day, after the mid-term break, Syed failed to report for duty. Sadly, we were to learn afterwards that he had met with an accident and had passed away. The pupils had lost a good teacher and ourselves, a good friend.
Even now, watching magicians perform their magic tricks on TV somehow stirs the still sediment of my memory. I recall with nostalgia my acquaintance with Syed Ahmad, and the day the “magician” came to Rantau Panjang.

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