Book Review: A Song of the Wind by Isa Kamari

a song of the windFirst published on 8th September, 2013 in The Star

FINALLY, a local (regional) coming-of-age story teenagers can really sink their teeth into!

A Song Of The Wind by Isa Kamari probably wasn’t written for teenagers, but this book, translated by Sukmawati Sirat and R Krishnan, and recently published by Silverfish Books, is just the sort of “young adult” book I’ve been waiting to see on Malaysian bookshelves.

It’s set in Singapore, spanning the 1960s to 1980s, and tells the story of Ilham, the eldest of four children who live in Kampung Tawakala, a village near the Brown Hill cemetery, which still exists although it closed in the 70s – there’s even a Bukit Brown MRT stop.

When the book opens, Ilham is seven and the family has just moved to the village. Ham, as he is known, makes friends with neighbours Zul and Sevan, and describes the adventures the three get up to, including catching spiders, making go-karts out of soft drinks crates, and lusting after Ham’s sexy nextdoor neighbour, Kak Leha.

In fact, practically all the males in the village are in thrall of this woman. There is an early scene, set in the kampung’s one bath house, in which the author describes how an early morning queue for a bath is disrupted when Kak Leha shows up in a tight, lemon-yellow nightgown that is so translucent her “floral-print panties” can be seen clearly. Around him, he hears “several men sigh” and sees “some swallowing their saliva”. It’s a highly evocative scene, written to effectively conjure up the intense pleasure and alarm felt by a boy at experiencing the first stirrings of sexual desire.

Ham later falls in love and his various affairs of the heart are vividly recorded, as if Isa remembers only too well all the many ecstasies and agonies that adolescent relationships bring.

It’s also a joy to read in detail about kampung life in the 60s and 70s. Some of the anecdotes brought back memories of stories my parents used to tell, never mind that they lived in Malaysia, not Singapore. The account of the nightsoil collector (a man who collects the waste from bucket toilets) is especially familiar: Like the individual who services Kampung Tawakal, the one my mother encountered in her childhood responded to the taunts of young, stone-throwing hooligans by shaking his faeces laden broom at them. I really can’t imagine what it must have felt like to be on the receiving end of that!

Ham is seven the year I was born so I can relate to some of his experiences – like wanting a pair of bell bottoms … a fashion trend that stuck around for far too long, watching black and white television, and eating chicken only on religious festivals and very special occasions, like birthdays. Ham also faces the usual adolescent challenges like his sexual and spiritual awakening, peer pressure, and exam stress. He gains a place at the prestigious Raffles Institution and does well in his ‘O’ levels, but is distracted by a girl and fails his first attempt at ‘A’ levels.

The family eventually moves from the kampung to a Housing Development Board flat in Ang Mo Kio. Ham, Zul and Sevan’s friendship survives ups and downs, and tragedy strikes, signalling the end of a largely idyllic existence. Although I found the ending of Song a little unclear and disappointing, it does not overshadow the overall appeal of this mostly engaging and charming bildungsroman.

Song will strike a chord with anyone who lived through the 60s and 70s, and affords younger readers a fascinating glimpse of life during those times. These are details that must be recorded before they are lost – if for nothing else, then simply their entertainment value. British and American literature abounds with stories of times gone by. This is not only in the case of classic literature – contemporary writers continue to use the past as a setting for their stories. I hope Song will inspire Malaysian authors to see history, recent and distant, as a rich resource for material – and not just the “big” events like war and social upheavals, but also the minutiae of life as it was lived then.

A Song Of The Wind is one of three novels by Isa Kamari, translated and published by Silverfish Books. The other two titles are Rawa and 1819.

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