A few weeks ago I was in Penang again. I love the place. I love the way the Chinese shophouses are works of art and how the murals blend in with the trees that grow among the ruins and the landscape, so subtly it’s hard to believe street art is a relatively new addition. I love the simple cafés and the proud colonial mansions, the sweep of the bay, the history and the eclectic mix of people who call this home. I am tempted to sit at a peeling wood table on a tin chair and drink iced coffee made with Nescafé and condensed milk (even though I usually abhor the stuff) and sample the noodles that the locals slurp from chopsticks lifted to their mouths. I love to sit and watch and absorb the unique atmosphere. I may be even be more than a little infatuated. In short it inspires me. Ergo it must inspire poets.
I asked a local whether there were any poetry on the island and her eyes lit up.
“Oh yes!” she replied. “We have Cecil Rajendra. Would you like to meet him?”
It all happened so quickly that before I knew it I was sitting down to homestyle sweet and sour chicken, plain rice and green vegetables at Hing Kee on Lebuh Cina, with Rajendra on my left. I had just the time to skim through his 2011 collection Scent of an Island before our meeting. I’d read about the sugar cane seller and the rickshaws, the travesty of an island being carved up by commercialisation and I’d had a taste of the place in which this poet has lived for 70 years. I loved his work instantly for its honesty and grit. I was delighted to meet the man who became Penang’s first human rights lawyer though felt he was first and foremost a poet and an activist second. A man whose first book was published in 1965 and who remains passionate about and inspired by his home even if he does not approve of many of the things progress brings with it.
“I get inspired all the time,” he said. “Even when I’m walking down the street. I could easily write for 10 to 12 hours day, though 80 per cent of what I produce is not publishable.”
He talks fast and with enthusiasm. And there I was in Penang, asking a poet with more than 20 published books behind him a few questions. Only a few weeks earlier he had been invited to read his work in London at the opening of an exhibition at the Guildhall in London called No Colour Bar – Black British Art in Action 1960-1990, which runs until January 26th 2016. And as we dug in with our spoons and chopsticks he was my captive and so as we gorged on the food I gorged on his wisdom and experience.
He writes every poem as if he is setting it to music, he told me, claiming that he is a failed musician at heart. Many of his poems “fall out”, often in the middle of the night, while others can take 30 years for him to “shape” and some land fully-formed. He does not like to call it polishing. Rajendra has no website, no email address and not even a mobile phone. I envy him his switched-off life. Retired now, he has turned his old lawyers’ office in Che Em Lin Road into a reading room that people are welcome to use any time, free of charge. He says he sometimes meets people on the stairs unable to believe they can use it as they please. Perhaps his ideas are way ahead of their time, for the room has been “spectacularly unsuccessful”.
A passionate man, he works totally by inspiration, he says, believing “poetry is much larger than the law” and that it has immense power. It is for this reason that he has written much about the environment. His collection Rags and Ragas is printed on hand cut recycled paper. He writes about what matters. He spends his time doing things that matter to him, which is why last year he helped organise a series of concerts in cafés as part of the Georgetown August festival, because it’s tragic that many of them, now over 70 years old, are closing down. He continues to write and perform his poetry because he cares and he wants other people to care too.
After our lunch he took me up the red staircase to see his reading room. Its sign barely visible and the room cluttered and dusty, the remnants of a recent art exhibition leaned against the walls and furniture. I followed behind him as he bolted off to introduce me to his printer, dodging storm drains, broken paving stones and bicycles discarded in alleyways. He needed bookmarks printing for an event he was putting on at the E and O hotel. Dizzy from his enthusiasm I thanked him and took my leave, making a beeline for the nearest bookshop so I could stock up on his work.
It was hard not to be affected by his slightly eccentric scatteredness that was somehow focused. It was hard not to be inspired by a painting of a windswept girl looking out to sea beside the Beach Blanket at Babylon bar and so I was compelled to write a poem in his honour.
Windswept girl in pastels
gazes wistfully to sea,
a tendril whips across her lips,
grey rock and rubble
that skinny grubby, slip of sand
beneath her feet
The ocean’s whispers
above the clink of cocktails
shaken by the icy chill
of land swell, land fill,
a fast-approaching future
that shuns the sampan
shrinks the shore
and steals the ground that lies beneath
the feet of her Malacca Straits.