Friday, May 9, 2014

JALAN BABA AHMAD - Named after my grandfather

CAPTAIN BABA AHMED JP (Justice of the Peace) 1888 - 1967

One morning, as I watched the sunrise from my balcony, my mind flashed back to the day when I was with my grandfather. It was the first time that I watched the sunrise, and how the sky slowly changed colour from darkness to grey, to golden orange, and then to blue. We were at a holiday bungalow in Tanjung Bungah. It was truly an aesthetic phenomenon for a little girl. Whilst observing, my grandfather would tell me stories, and these are still ingrained in my mind.

Baba Ahmad Road – Off Vale of Tempe, Tanjung Bungah.
I had many fond memories of my early years in Tanjung Bungah. It holds a special place in my heart. To add to this, the Government named a road in Tanjung Bungah (off Vale of Tempe) after my grandfather, in appreciation for his services. He was once known to the people of Penang as the 'grand old man". So, no matter where I go, Tanjung Bungah will always be my favourite place in the world.

Today, few may remember him, and what he did for the community. Most have long gone, including my father (his son) who departed in 2012. It is no surprise if the people living on the road, wonder who "Baba Ahmad" was. 

Baba Ahmed served the government, and the people in different capacities under the British administration. His concern for the welfare of the people, especially the under-privileged, and years of dedicated service, earned him the name, 'grand old man'. 

This appreciation was well earned. Over the years, he initiated, and assisted in improvements to their health, living conditions, education, and recreation. These were performed honorably, during his tenure as the Medical Officer, Hospital Assistant, Captain of the former Straits Settlements Volunteer Force, President of the Government Pensioners’ Association, Justice of the Peace, nominated Member of the Rural District Council, Secretary of Penang Muslim Orphanage, and as active member of 20 Sports Clubs, and charitable organisations.

Acknowledged for his exemplary service to the Malay community, people of other races benefited equally. No political offer or persuasion, could deviate him from the tasks he set his mind to. He was nominated to serve the people, and this he did, for the people. He did not at all yearn for recognition or reward. 

He was gracious, and modest. The first, and only time he saw the sign on the road, with his name etched, but incorrectly spelt (Ahmad instead of Ahmed), he smiled sheepishly, and said it did not matter. 

Age caught up with him, and a minor accident compelled him to retire. Penang lost an irreplaceable son, who was most respected for his integrity, honesty, and humility. He was to the people, a role model of a caring citizen, a devoted family man, and a dedicated social worker. 

Today, I proudly dedicate this page to Captain Baba Ahmed JP, my grandfather, and share some of my happy moments with him, and the wisdom he left behind.    

Below, an excerpt of the eulogy, published by a local newspaper, Straits Echo on 30 March, 1967

‘GRAND OLD MAN’ of Malay community dies.
One of the few remaining grand old men of the Penang Malay community died yesterday.  He was Captain Baba Ahmed bin Ahmed, aged 78.

Capt. Baba Ahmed, who had been suffering from a prolonged illness, succumbed at about noon yesterday at his Jalan Bunga Cempaka home, Bukit Glugor.

A retired Government’s Hospital Assistant, Capt. Baba Ahmed had been in the forefront of the Penang Malay community, having served and associated with numerous Malay bodies.

He retained his commission as Captain of the former Straits Settlements Volunteer Force of which he served as Commanding Officer of the “C” Malay Company in 1931.

Appointed a Justice of the Peace in 1951, the late Capt. Baba Ahmed, served as Secretary of Penang Muslim Orphanage for 5 years since 1945.  

He was President of the Government Pensioners’ Association from 1957 to 1962.  An active sportsman in his younger days, the late Capt. Baba Ahmed, was a member of more than 20 sports clubs, some of which are now defunct.

His last service to the public was as a nominated member of the Rural District Council from 1952 – 1957.  In appreciation of his public services, the Government has named a new road in Tanjong Bungah (off Vale of Tempe Road) after him.”

He came from a reasonably well-to-do family, but worked hard, and succeeded, solely by his own merits, and efforts. 

He completed his secondary education at the Penang Anglo-Chinese School. Here was where he became multi-lingual, and learned to write and speak fluently in English, Chinese, in addition to Malay, Hindi, and Tamil.

From 1912 to 1923, he worked as a Medical Officer at the Special Ward for European patients, and local patients, respectively. 

From 1924, he was appointed the Medical Officer/Hospital Assistant, at the Balik Pulau District Hospital, by the government, under the British administration (photo above).  As hospital administrator, he introduced preventive measures to curtail the spreading of several infectious diseases, that were common to the community. He was very popular with the multi-racial villagers. He persuasively changed their mindsets, to accept treatment via Western medicine.

Life in the good old days
He had a nice family house in Balik Pulau, with an orchard filled with fruit trees including durian. These would now be worth millions. The picture below was the government residence, where my father, and his siblings stayed, when they were small.

In the good old days, it was considered prestigious to own cars. The car (below) was a dream car for many.  

He loved the sea, and this photo was taken in Port Dickson, during an outing with his children. They were a happy family, and hardship was unheard of.

Second World War
Then, unexpected events happened. The Second World War came, and Malaya was invaded by Japan. The above government residence became barracks for Japanese soldiers. 

During the Japanese occupancy, like most people, life became a living nightmare for him, and his family. He lost everything he owned, and struggled to fend for his family. Food was scarce, and many were undernourished, and even starved. Those he knew were suddenly taken away, and many disappeared without trace, and some were beheaded. He had seen the worst, and, fortunately, he and his family survived this ordeal. 

When the war ended, and the British returned to Malaya, he slowly built himself again, and later operated a government dispensary at Buckingham Street, in George Town.  

Man of knowledge
Baba Ahmed enjoyed reading, and maintained a library in his home, throughout his life. I am fortunate to have inherited, many of his books, and diaries. He was a man of knowledge, and was never weary of searching, and expanding his knowledge even in old age. This was his well-known quote -  "seek knowledge even from a beggar on the street". 

He had lived a well balanced life, and believed that both material and spiritual pursuits, were equally important in life. He devoted his time equally to his family, and community, and inspired everyone around him, by his examples. 

Justice of the Peace
As a Justice of the Peace, his house was made accessible to anyone, day and night. People frequented his home to seek his advice, favours, signatures, food, money. These were given spontaneously, without any personal gain or reward.

Honoured posthumously by Penang Museum
In the 80s, he was honoured posthumously by Penang Museum. An exemplary exhibition of his journals, diaries, photos, records of his achievements and contributions to the community, were displayed for public viewing. In this corner of the Museum, these inscribed words, caught my attention:
"Captain Baba Ahmed, JP,  ...respected...dedicated...served the community tirelessly, .." 
The words moved me to tears, but on that day, the tears I shed were tears of joy. I was proud to know that this was how he was viewed, and appreciated, by the people he served. 

My grandfather's paternal roots could be traced to a ‘Meah’ family somewhere in a region in North India, neighbouring Afghanistan, before Pakistan came into existence. His grandfather spoke Urdu, and English. He came to Penang as a soldier in the British Army, in 1850s. He settled in Penang, after leaving the army, and married a local woman.

"In 1826, Penang, along with Malacca and Singapore, became part of the Straits Settlements under the British administration in India, later came under direct British rule in 1867 as a Crown Colony". (Wikipedia)

My grandfather was born on 13th December,1888 at Lorong Pak Haji Dollah (now known as Swatow Lane), Penang, opposite the old New World Park. 

There were many inter-marriages especially in the early 19th Century. My grandfather was married to Siti Fatimah Sheikh Abd. Razak Al Madan of Middle Eastern origin (my paternal grandmother). She died long before I was born. For many years my grandfather remained a single parent with seven kids, and his mother lived with him. 

He later married Che Puteh binti Din, from Kuala Lumpur, a woman chosen by his mother. (His mother was ill, and knew she was dying.  She kept her illness a secret, as she was afraid of hospitals). Che Puteh was the only grandmother that I knew, and loved. When I was born, she pampered me more than her own children. She was of Indo/Malay lineage, and was also my grandauntie (my mother’s auntie). I know this is confusing, don't bother to figure out.

My mum was of mixed parentage too. Her father was a mixture of Dutch, and her mother, Indo/Malay. I am proud of my heritage, and, my ancestors' contributions to this country.

"Penang's prosperity attracted people from far and wide, making Penang truly a melting pot of diverse cultures. Among the ethnic groups found in Penang were Malays, Acehnese, Arabs, Armenians, British, Burmese, Germans, Jews, Chinese, Gujeratis, Bengalis, Japanese, Punjabis, Sindhis, Tamils, Thais, Malayalees, Rawas, Javanese, Mandailings, Portuguese, Eurasians and others. Though many of them no longer impose a felt presence today, their memory lives on in place names such as Burma Road, Rangoon Road, Siam Road, Armenian Street, Acheen Street, Gottlieb Road, and Katz Street, and the Jewish Cemetery" - (Wikipedia)  

With this diverse cultural heritage, I grew up in a home, rich in knowledge of the antiquity. Over the years, I learnt to sieve, and extract what was useful to me, and discarded what I considered as sheer folklore, and superstition.

That little girl in the picture was me, when I was 4 years old. I still remember most of the stories told by my grandfather, even those told, when I was this age. What I distinctly could not forget, was how he punctuated every story with these words “when you grow up, remember these stories”. He wanted me to remember the moral values behind the stories he told, so that I would become someone that he would be proud of. Sadly, he passed on, before he could see, that he had inspired me, and that I had done fairly well myself.  (A link to my memoir/profile). 

He, and his son  Hashim, my father, that he raised well, and my beloved mother, were my early source of inspiration.They had inculcated the necessity of living a balanced life  and that material and spiritual pursuits, are equally important.

My grandfather had a way of telling stories that could fill a young mind with awe. This is an example:
“Once there was a squirrel. It would jump from tree to tree. It would deliberately irritate a crocodile lying below, on the ground. The squirrel knew that this hungry, angry, crocodile would never be able to catch. For days, the crocodile waited patiently. One day, the squirrel jumped on the same branch, but this time, the branch broke. The crocodile immediately opened its mouth, and the squirrel dropped right into the crocodile’s mouth”.

Seated near his feet, with my eyes, and mouth wide open, like a sponge, I soaked in every word. As an adult, I realized the moral value behind this story, and his penetrating words are still fresh in my mind:-

No matter how rich and powerful a person is, it is best to be humble. Misfortunes can happen to anyone. An arrogant person gains no sympathy, except contempt.
“Pandai2 tupai melompat, satu hari ke tanah juga” - a Malay proverb.

The messages below, were conveyed to me in the same unique way, in stories. These were actually teaching modules, from a wise old man.
“You have two hands, one for giving, another for taking”
“Balance your life between the material, and the spiritual”
“Action speaks louder than words”
"Lead by examples, and not by mere preaching"
“Clean your own backyard, before mocking on your neighbour’s garden”

Lets take a break, and listen to a traditional song ‘Inang Pulau Kampai’ from my last album. Had he been alive, I know my grandfather would have enjoyed listening to a song of his time.

We were a closely knit family, especially when my grandfather was alive. He believed in family unity, and that meant family activities, including regular trips to the beach. Of course, as kids we loved the sea, and would soak ourselves in sea water for hoursUltra-violet rays, ozone layers, etc. were unheard of. We enjoyed nature to our hearts’ content.

There was one ridiculous thing we had to do, which I hated most. My grandfather insisted that everyone lined the beach, and be completely covered with sand, from head to toe. The only thing exposed was the face. For me, it seemed like eternity. I could not understand why everyone found that intriguing. It reminded me of ‘death’, because I had seen a dead person buried, and covered with sand. I could never forget that. My late grandfather did not explain the benefits of sea water, and sand, which have recently been researched into.

Here is another silly tradition, but this was fun. After a regular brushing with toothpaste, I was made to gently rub charcoal powder all over my teeth. I left it on for awhile, before rinsing. This gave me time for mischief (which I was good for, and still am). I would cover myself with a white cloth, and then exposed my black teeth, and pretended to be a ghost. The elders, including my grandfather, were amused, but not for long. This prank immediately ceased, when I was made to clean the stained sheet myself. I recently noticed a charcoal toothpaste on a pharmacy shelf, and was surprised. It reminded me of my childhood days.

These are but some of the hidden treasures of the ancient. Had my grandfather explained then, I would not have understood, the benefits. As a child I only obeyed. Today, I have researched, and put to good use most of the things I learnt when I was young, and if he was alive, he would have been pleased.  

Sadly, when the time came for him to leave, I was not by his side. This song was my favourite, which I sang in my last TV show - a  song that I associate with 'goodbyes'. This, is my goodbye to my beloved Dada - 'Hasta Manana' - (till we meet again).

He endured a prolonged illness, as Parkinson's was a degenerative disease, with no known cure. As days went by, he persevered in dignity, without being a burden to anyone. When his body began to slowly deteriorate, his feeble voice could be heard during the day, and even on nights when he could not sleep, the house was filled with his prayers. He had never missed one single prayer in his lifetime. When his voice could no longer be heard, his lips were seen moving, reciting prayers, till the last moment, when his soul gently left his body. 

This para in the newspaper brought hundreds to his home. 
"The funeral will take place at 176, Jalan Bunga Cempaka, Bukit Glugor, today and the cortege will leave at 5 pm for burial at the Perak Road Muslim cemetery.”

Emotions were high on the funeral day. People from all walks of life and all races - his friends, their families, friends of his children and grandchildren, thronged the street of his home, to catch a last glimpse of him. Those who were not in time, waited at the burial ground to pay their last respects. None in Penang, had seen a funeral of this stature before. 

At the burial ground, as he was laid to rest, my tears mingled with droplets of drizzles that came down from the sky. To me, the drizzles were Blessings. The gentle breeze that accompanied, was a sign that he was bidding his last farewell to me, to those he loved, and, to the people he once served. He had lived a simple life, but on that day, he was sent off as a King. He was their hero - my hero.

Years have gone by, and I often thought of him. He is remembered in my everyday prayers, and is forever loved, and cherished. May his soul be placed among the souls of the righteous, in the Hereafter.



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