Saturday, September 3, 2016


Around midnight we were cruising down Imbi Road, headed for my usual tea stall.

The roti pan was still sizzling but empty and the small heap of unsold nasi lemak indicated that we had arrived ahead of the late night movie crowd.

“What will you have?” I positioned myself where I could keep an eye on the street life. The man came over with a damp rag to wipe the tea rings off our table.

“Boss, teh tarik dua, kurang manis.” I ordered two teas with sweet milk, pulled to aerate and cool the steaming brew.

I looked at her, probing to see if she felt comfortable here. She smiled, then leaned forward solemnly: “You know, I really enjoy talking to you.”

Our drinks arrived. I grinned and ritually raised my glass to her. “Cheers! The best conversations are held over tea.”

“I’m bored to death with my job,” she said. “The other girls are quite friendly, really. But they’re strictly lunchtime, you know what I mean? The guys there are corporate jerks. Well, most of them. David’s okay, he comes over to my desk every day and chats. He’s the only one who’s relaxed, who can be himself...”

“It’s the same everywhere,” I offered.

“Well, my pay will be reviewed next month, if I am confirmed. Another three months and I’ll have saved enough to move into my own place. God, I can hardly wait! No more explanations and excuses, no more nagging. Mother will probably turn on dad and drive him up the wall. Oh, I just wish working life wasn’t such a pain.”

“Look at it this way, you could have been born a Rohingya.” (My latest all-purpose consolation.) “Besides, you’re not exactly dumb. You’d do well in any job. Anyway, even geniuses have to put up with occasional employment. Take my situation, for instance.”

She giggled. “That’s another thing I like about you... you’re modest!" Her tone was teasing but I could tell she was sympathetic towards self-styled aristocrats-in-exile.

"One thing I know... you can't become a genius if you succumb to boredom," I added with a wink.

“My, my... I guess I don’t qualify as a genius yet. I felt bored, even more so, when I wasn’t working.”

“Maybe boredom’s not such a bad state. Billions of civilians find comfort and security in it. People like complaining, that’s all.”

“Oh well, if you’re going to be bored you might as well get paid for it!” She finished her tea with a flourish.

A few yards away on the kerb, two painted ladies were waiting for a taxi. Pointing with my chin, I remarked: “Look, there’s two people on their way to work who probably couldn’t agree with you more.”

“You’re terrible” She kicked me in the shin (but not too hard).

“More tea, madam?”

“Hmm.... okay.”

I decided to investigate the nasi lemak. “Want one?”

“No thanks. You know, it’s really ironic.”

“What? The nasi lemak?”

“No! I mean life. Life’s pretty ironic.”

I chuckled heartily. “That’s because so many people are still living in the Iron Age. Although, personally, I prefer to call it the Age of Irony.”

“Hey, I’m serious.”

“Sorry, carry on...”

For a few moments she absently watched me unwrap my packet of cold rice and I pinched myself mentally for having interrupted her so flippantly. “I’m listening,” I said.

“Well, take my parents. They’ve worked their butts off to be comfortable, so their kids could have all the advantages, you know. They’ve worked and worked and worked and now they’ve made so much money they don’t know what to do with it. They’re very generous with their children. I could ask them for anything and they’d give it to me. But there’s always a string attached, you know what I mean? That’s why I decided to get a job. The only reason I can find for working in a office is just so I can get away from my parents. Isn’t that ridiculous?”

“You’re lucky. Some people have to work to support their parents. At least, you can quit anytime you want and you won’t starve.”

“I know... but what bothers me is that I really don’t need a job. My family’s well off enough to support the next few generations in style and here I am, taking on a job just so that I can enjoy a little independence. Well, that hasn’t happened yet, but it’s what I’m working towards. I mean, sometimes I can’t help feeling guilty about depriving someone else of a job - someone who might really, really need the money. It’s no problem for me to get employed. My dad has all kinds of connections.”

I nodded sympathetically. “You know, this nasi isn’t bad at all. Sure you won’t try some?”

“Positive. Well?” She refused to let me off the hook. She insisted on some kind of response.

“Supposing you give up your job. Do you have any idea what you’d do with your time and energy?”

She rested her chin on the back of one hand and pondered my question with mock profundity. Then she broke into an impish smile: “Well, for a start, I’d sit around and read and think and dream and meditate until I become a genius. Then I’d write a book or an opera or make an amazing film or just go about inventing wonderful things. What do you think of that?”

“You want an honest opinion?”

“Of course!” she frowned.

“Now what’s a genius? I think the whole concept is vastly overrated. Do you know where the word 'genius' comes from?”

“Uh-uh. Pray, tell me.”

“Okay, since you asked. It comes from the Arabic word jinn, as in 'genie' - remember the story of Aladdin and his lamp? Right, the ancients were convinced that everyone has a Guardian Angel or Muse, some spirit guide or guides, that can bestow gifts of inspiration. See, even the word 'inspiration' contains the word 'spirit.' This belief is just as strong today. People still go into trances, speak in tongues, and they ask for all kinds of favors. Some actually try and bribe the spirits. I’m not kidding! They do - and sometimes they get results (but corruption breeds further corruption and they end up paying in full). Anyway, there’s a hidden teaching the in the Aladdin story. The magic is always waiting within the lamp, you only have to rub it and the genie appears to grant your wishes. Well, the lamp represents your mind. Rubbing, however is open to interpretation.”

“Mmmmmm... sounds like a good practice!”

“Indeed! Anytime you need some inspiration, sister - just come over and I’ll gladly give your lamp a rub.”

“ it habit forming?” she asked, feigning wide-eyed innocence,

I managed to maintain a serious expression. “Let’s just say there are good habits and bad habits. If you keep your lamp well rubbed - in other words, if you keep your channels open – you’ll receive a steady flow of inspiration and turn into a genius. As more people understand this simple trick, geniuses will become a dime a dozen.”

“Are you trying to tell me you don’t think being a genius really means very much?”

“Right. There’s a difference between getting inspired and actually putting it to some use. For example, you might suddenly get a flash, say, a really grand vision - but if you don’t have the energy or the skill to put it on paper and actualize it, the vision simply evaporates. Follow through is what they call it. And believe me, it’s just as important as inspiration. A lot of people find it easier to turn into village idiots or they just stay employed.”

“All right, I get the point. Deeds not words, or something like that. So how does one begin?”

There was a brief commotion at the next table: a fresh group of customers, shifting chairs noisily about on the uneven ground. And to punctuate the interruption, the hideous high-pitched whine of a toy bike hell-bent for Puchong or Salak South.

My answer was a grimace, by the time the din subsided at least 15 seconds had ticked by. I glanced at my watch and said: “Now, we could easily spend the next 10 minutes venting our displeasure at traffic noise in general and attention seeking hell-riders in particular... and work ourselves into a foul mood, saying somebody ought to do something about it... and, of course nobody will. Which means we suffer a 10-minute energy loss. Or we could spend the time discussing something pleasant and beneficial which would give us a 10-minute energy gain. What I’m trying to say is that it’s possible - in fact, I believe it’s necessary - for us to get into the habit of making conscious choices about how we use our time and energy, how we interpret and respond to environmental stimuli. For instance, you can finish your cup of tea and see nothing but tea leaves, and all you can say is 'Ugh!' But you can also choose to study the dregs and catch a glimpse of the future. Do you get what I mean?”

She peered cautiously over the rim of her empty glass and squinted moronically. “Yes.....yes.... I think I see it now!” she hissed. “The future will consist of .... more tea! No, I think I’m about ready to switch to coffee, how about you?”

“Excellent idea. Eh, boss... kopi dua!”

“Don’t complain. That’s what you mean, right?” she beamed at me like the brightest girl in the class.

“Right! But let me qualify that. Sometimes, rather than just complain to no one in particular, you can try and present it as feedback - and, when you feed information back into the system, it usually does some good because it can help increase awareness and coherence within the system.”

“Hey, don’t get technical on me!”

“Aren’t you in the IT department?"

"I'm still a trainee," she explained.

"Well, okay, but let me give you a little background to what we’re discussing. Not far from here, actually just a few yards behind you (no, don’t bother turning around, you won’t see anything), up in one of those shophouses, lives an extraordinary man I called the Wizened Metaphysician. His friends called him George and quite a few regard him as their guru.”

She couldn’t resist looking around, as though expecting George to materialize behind her. However, when she turned back towards me, our coffees were steaming on the table.

“Is he a real guru... do you know him personally?”

“Well, I’ve chatted with him a few times – and I’ve picked up some valuable ideas through him, so I guess he qualifies. But he doesn't have a white beard down to here or a fluorescent halo. His hair is getting somewhat silvery and sometimes I notice he looks a little more ... er, radiant than you’d expect to find in the average coffeeshop clientele. The most extraordinary thing about him is how ordinary his life appears. By day, he repairs video recorders, gets nagged by his wife, and enjoys freestyle discussions on metaphysics. He smokes a lot and washes it down with Chinese tea. I think he’s also a massage therapist and a renegade Jesuit. He seems to know an incredible range of philosophies from Aurobindo and Teilhard de Chardin to Gurdjieff and Tibetan tantra.”

“Good who? The first two I’ve heard of, but who’s Good Jeff?”

George Ivanovich Gurdjieff
“Goorr-chi-eff, Gurdjieff. Can’t spell his name offhand. A Greek-Armenian born in Russia, I think...” (I began to realize the enormity of her question.) Who’s Gurdjieff? Er... let me think. Well... I believe he was engaged in the smuggling of Sufi notions across the borders of Western Paranoia. Something like that.”

“I see,” she sniffed. “Very enlightening.”

“Look, I don’t even know how to begin telling you about Gurdjieff. Labels don’t seem to stick on him. You could say he was a mystery man, a magus – a student of life and limb, as another friend of mine would describe him – a shamanistic metapsychologist (hmm I like the sound of that!). At any rate, Gurdjieff attracted a small but influential following of aristocrats and intellectuals interested in the esoteric. They spent a lot of time devising techniques and terminologies to enhance and understand awareness. Some people dismissed him as a trickster but I think his work will prove very important in the near future. He died in 1949.”

“Where on earth do you pick up all this weird information?”

“Huh? Oh, it’s just like mushrooms, I suppose.” (I smiled at a private joke.) “As soon as you show an interest in them, they simply pop up all over the place.”

“This Goody-Chef fellow sounds intriguing. Has he written any books or something?”

“Remind me to dig in my library for something about him. But I was telling you about George, our friendly neighborhood metaphysian.”

“Oh, yes. Please do carry on.”

I looked at her, grinning. “Yes, I do carry on, don’t I?”

“No, no, I’m not bored at all. Bum’s a bit sore, that’s all.”

“By the way, Gurdjieff’s first name also happens to be George - but so what, right? Well, it was George, our George, who transmitted this very useful attitude to me: why complain? That’s really stayed with me and helped me emerge from the primal pits countless times. Now, don’t think it’s at all easy. Like everything else, you’ll find there’s a sort of learning curve where it gets harder and harder till, finally, you master it - then suddenly life becomes fun again!”

“Hmm... ‘why complain?’ You think it works for everyone?”

“Anyone who’s complained so much he’s sick of hearing himself moan should give it a go. Of course, you need to apply the correct visualization when you use this formula. You have to put yourself in the position of the pauper prince - do you know the story by Mark Twain? You have to be inwardly secure and insufferably superior, totally above it all. Be an extraterrestrial on a secret mission, a messenger from God disguised as an ordinary taxpayer, whatever. Okay, so the going is getting rough but why complain? You lined up to buy the ticket, you went on the tour, you wanted excitement, adventure, a blast of raw reality, so here you are... on Planet Earth! Am I making sense?”

“You’re making me feel tired! Must we always be forging on, chin up and all that ... can’t we be allowed to just throw a tantrum once in a while? You must have been a headmaster in a past life!”

“Oh, dear... I was just getting to the good part. A little trick George taught me. How to get yourself recharged directly from the Sun and redistribute the healing energy to your environment... never mind, let’s save it for another day, okay? It must be the coffee.”

It was her turn to chuckle. “You’re not exactly romantic - but I like your intensity.”

“I know. I get so intense I tend to overload people’s circuits.”

“Well, right now my circuits aren’t the only thing that’s overloaded. My bladder’s ready to burst!”

I wagged my finger at the empty glasses on the table. “That’s what tea does to you! It’s a dangerous substance - I ‘m about to explode myself. Let’s pay up and rush back to my place. You can do it in the loo while I pee on a tree.”

She giggled and then winced. “Ouch” she said. “It hurts when I laugh!”

“Patience and fortitude!” I cried, directing my thoughts immediately to more pressing affairs.

26 March 1985

[With thanks to Margret Voon, who kindly retyped the yellowing photocopied original and sent it to me so I could dedicate this to her father's memory. First posted 31 July 2013, reposted 28 June 2015]