A Short Story by Ooi Boon Seng

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Ooi Boon Seng

Ooi Boon Seng was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on April 21, 1940. He joined the V.I. in January 1952 from the Pasar Road School. Boon Seng’s record of academic achievements was a formidable one; he topped his class in all the form tests in the school. He was Treacher Scholar in 1955 and he made nationwide news when he aced a perfect 8 A1s score (including an A1 for Latin) in the Cambridge School Certificate examination, arguably the best results ever for any Malayan schoolboy. This earned him the coveted Rodger Scholarship. Boon Seng was a keen Scout and editor of both The Seladang and The Victorian. He was a School Prefect, the Honorary Secretary of the Literary and Debating Society, the Secretary of Davidson House, the Secretary of his scout troop and represented the V. I. in various debates, quizzes and chess competitions.

Boon Seng had two older brothers in the V.I., Boon Leong and Boon Teck, who in their time also won the Treacher and Rodger scholarships. Boon Leong is a lawyer in Kuala Lumpur while Boon Teck is Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at McGill University, Montréal.

Boon Seng received his MB, BS, in 1964 from the University of Singapore and the FRACP in 1976. He became a faculty member in the University of Singapore. In 1968, he moved to USA, settling in Chicago where he joined Michael Reese Hospital and became Assistant Professor of the Pritzker School of Medicine, University of Chicago. Boon Seng specialized in nephrology, the branch of medicine that deals with kidneys. His research area through his career was on immunology of the kidney.

In 1973, he joined the College of Medicine, University of Cincinnati where he rose to the rank of Professor. In 1989, Boon Seng moved to Washington D.C., where he was Chief of Renal Section at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Professor of Medicine (Nephrology) and Co-Director of the Renal Division at George Washington University Medical School.

Boon Seng was a member of American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Society of Nephrology and American Federation of Clinical Research. He was listed in American Men and Women of Science which is the Who’s Who of the scientific community. On October 29, 1997, Boon Seng passed away after a stroke.

Reproduced below is a short story written by Boon Seng during his student days.



Obsession

It came as no surprise to him, all E's. Wan Hor stared at the brown sheet of paper in front of him, relaxed the wrinkles he deliberately furrowed on his forehead and went back to "Justine." Sharp electric tinkle - school bell. There was no Alexandria, only the arid classroom and the guttural emancipated voices all around him. The report card faced him disconsolately - Botany, Zoology, Physics, Chemistry, E's and his own despairing sigh. They equated well. He dog-eared the page of the novel and placed it in the leather-bag.

Outside, the heat was oppressive. August and exams, both oppressive. He threaded his way past other boys, heading for the bus-stop. The car was busy today, and he was to make his own way home.

"I say, Wan Hor, can I give you a lift?" Wan Hor looked up. Ee Beng. He wanted to refuse (Ee Beng only liked to talk about his school-work and cricket) but it would be too troublesome to invent a plausible excuse. Cream Volkswagen, starched Arrow shirt, Wembley tie, and Ee Beng's father. Perfect congruence. Wan Hor checked himself. His own family combination was but a slight variation.

"Hullo, Mr. Tan," he greeted the father. He could never bring himself to address his own father's friends as "uncle," or "auntie," as he had been taught to do at home; somehow it was too slyly personal.

"Wan Hor, you haven't come to the house for some time," Mr. Tan asked him. "How is your father? - haven't seen him either - not lately." Mr. Tan had a habit of asking two questions at any one time, and not expecting you to answer either. And Mr. Tan continued to relate what happened in the office in which he worked - it was in the Ministry of Education - how many scholarships there would be, how fortunate they, the youngsters, were, and many other details Wan Hor did not bother to follow. He made suitable grunts. Ee Beng did not seem in the least embarrassed.

"Well, here we are," Mr. Tan concluded, "come over to the house sometime, Wan Hor."

Wan Hor thanked him and hurriedly got out, only to remember that his mother ...no, the car was not back yet; there would be still some little time when he could be alone. Inside the house, the hall was cool, and for once he was grateful for the air-conditioning (when it was first installed he had suspected that his mother was merely keeping up; an air-conditioner was as conspicuous as a television aerial and in addition it made a noise). Somehow, being insulated from that humid heat made a difference; he could understand how ascetics, weary from the insistent tortures of the body could be made to believe in their own hallucinations. His own problem, which only perturbed him a little in school, had been stretched by the tedious ride home into absurd proportions.

Somehow in school, the images of Alexandria had blotted out the urgency of his own situation, the repercussions which his dismal end-term report was sure to provoke; but in the car Mr. Tan's intrusive chatter about scholarships, the cramped discomfort, had forced his attention on the question again. Now back home, he felt secure. The clock struck one. Almost involuntarily he walked to his room, fished the Zoology text-book from amongst the clutter on his table, and went back to read in the hall. It would soften her irritation to see him pouring over a text-book. He leaped through his "Grove and Newell" and he cursed each protozoan he met, its conjugation habits, and its endless life-cycles. If organisms had to reproduce they should do so simply and neatly. He worked himself into a frenzy of frustration, like a violaceous boil pointing to burst. Only today, there would be need of more patience, more tolerance.

Once before, he thought he would spite her, and kill himself - that would really upset her - and he had smuggled a rope into his room - he wanted to make it frighteningly dramatic, his corpse swaying pendulously from the ceiling and he had tightened it around his neck whilst lying in bed - this was in the practice run - and he had to give up in a splutter of coughing. It was much too difficult that way. In any case, he found out later that he had attempted it badly, unprofessionally. Death by hanging was supposed to be instantaneous, due to a severance of the spinal cord - he had almost only succeeded in choking his air-passages.

He stared blankly at the conjugating paramecia, with his own caption - "What the butler saw" -it did look like one of the modern paintings he had seen of two people locked in a furious embrace trying to sustain an orgasm. That was the only way he made his pages endurable, with his own irreverent annotations.

The phone rang.

Her commanding voice sounded over the ear-piece. They would not be back for lunch. His gush of relief was almost audible. Last injunction he was to study hard in the meantime. Putting the phone down, he flipped the text-book shut, and crossed over to the piano - the only piece of furniture he liked. And even the piano was decked with mementos of his parents' European tour, leaden miniature of the Eiffel Tower, grotesque Dutch dolls, etc. - memory had to be solidified into palpable possessions.

His mother had introduced him to the piano. (If he had been a girl, he would doubtless have also taken ballet lessons - it was like learning your table-manners.) Wan Hor had taken to the piano. He remembered his first few lessons; he remembered the excitement he felt when he discovered the versatile simulation of natural sounds which the piano allowed, and it had enraptured and possessed him; he practised the keys with an obsessed determination and he enjoyed devising his own permutations of sounds; and one day, after his own decision, he asked his mother if he could study music as a career:

"You want to become what?"

"I'd like to study music."

"You can study all the music you want when you've graduated - when you're a doctor."

"But what's wrong with taking up music. I mean, I like music - I can learn it easily. I'm no good at science subjects."

"How do you expect to be clever at it when you don't study. Now you look at Chee Peng. How do you think he comes out first every time. He studies - every day. He wants to be a doctor; he doesn't want to be a clerk. What do you think you can do if you study music. You think that you'll be world famous?"

"It's not that - Ma. I just like music, and I can become a music teacher and give piano lessons. I mean . . ."

"Now listen to me, Ah Hor. I've stood enough of this nonsense. You'd better learn to grow up. You're going to study and become a doctor, you understand. Just because you live in a fine house and you've everything you want. You think what - how much do you think you'll make as a piano-teacher. Surely you want people to look up to you. First you must have money - but that's not enough; you must also have a profession - you look at your Uncle Chong - don't you want to be like him. . . ."

From that day he was forbidden to play on the piano.

But he managed to steal time on it, with the ready connivance of the servant.

He caressed its keys, and he tarted to play the "Heroic Polonaise" - the resplendent mood suited him. And when he had finished, he felt clean as if he had rinsed himself of the resentment which clogged up his pores and threatened to suffocate him. He laughed aloud - he liked the way he ended the piece - his own style.

"The next part of the concert is a recital of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata," he spoke aloud, using the accent of a B.B.C. announcer. He grinned to himself and began.

"Ah Hor, Ah Hor, your Mama is back."

It was the servant - she had spotted the car winding up the road.

Quickly he shut the piano, dived into the sofa and snatched the text-book as well, opening it. A car screeched to a halt at the porch. Two doors slammed. He was glad his father was also back. His father did not mind so much that he was backward in class - his father seemed happy enough if he was left alone - and he would help to cushion the reproaches which would follow when the report card was read.

His mother and Uncle Chong. (Uncle Chong was his father's brother.) She was in an expressively happy mood, and then she noticed Wan Hor bent over his book.

"No need to be so hard-working. Your uncle is here - talk to him; find out how you can be as clever as he is."

And then Wan Hor heard her explaining to the servant how the master of the house was busy, and in fact she had not intended to be home, but because Uncle Chong happened to stop by, she had decided to return. The servant was to set lunch for three.

Wan Hor looked up at Uncle Chong - handsome Chinese features, which meant that he was fair, very fair, and had an appropriate dimple as well - but actually Wan Hor did think he was good-looking, if only he had no uneven exaggerations of profile. Wan Hor had been bored often enough by his winding sermons on methods of studying, aims of living, the same long-playing record, stereophonic and doubly amplified, and the same scratchy intonations. Wan Hor decided that perhaps this was an opportune moment to let his mother review the report-card, before her effervescence settled. He excused himself from Uncle Chong and searched amongst his books in the bag, and fetched it to her as she returned to the hall.

Her features straightened into a harsh frown, and then she exploded, despite Uncle Chong:

"All E's. Last term also it was all E's. You promised to work hard. Now the Higher School is just three months off, and how are you going to pass it - I ask you. You've got no heart in your work."

She paused. He was silent. This was fairly routine.

"You want to be a doctor, don't you?"

(He interposed in his own mind that she knew damn well he didn't.)

"I can't understand you. Mrs. Chua's son - he's a blockhead - I know that - his father's a blockhead - the whole family is stupid - and yet he can pass his exams. Why can't you just spend these few years working hard. You look at your Uncle Chong - he'll tell you how much hard work he put in - but look at him now - he's not just anybody - he's a respected man - just a few years of hard work."

He wanted to say many things, but he kept his silence. He wanted to ask her what was wrong in being a businessman, like his father, for example; why it was so necessary to be a doctor. It was not that he wanted to take up the business, but then there would be more reason for the vehemence of her ambition.

Next movement.

"I've spent money to get you a private tutor. I've bought you any number of books - model answers, correspondence courses, but they're all useless. Last year, also all failures in your subsidiary exams. What's the matter. If you don't know how to study, why don't you ask people - your Uncle Chong. He obtained eight distinctions in the School Certificate; he was the intermediate scholar and the professional scholar - you are lucky to have such a brilliant uncle, and yet you won't ask. I know what's the matter - half the time I'm not here, you're reading one of your poetry books. Don't think I don't know. Your father, he doesn't seem to worry if you pass or fail, but look at him."

She checked herself fortunately, or Wan Hor would have lost control of himself. He could endure her panegyrics about Uncle Chong but he was genuinely fond of his father, and he was resentful of any sort of comparison between the two. Uncle Chong was all right, but he had been cited so many times as the paragon Wan Hor should imitate, that he bore him an unreasonable dislike. If she had been less insistent, less bullying, he might at least have made an attempt, however ineffectual. But her obsessive wanting killed any interest he had.

"Chong, you used to keep a notebook when you were a student, Planning your time-table; I wish you would let this loafer read it, so that he can learn to plan his own studies."

"Now, Leng, there is no need to be too harsh on the boy," Uncle Chong interceded.

"Yes, I remember, Ah Hor," she disregarded Uncle Chong, "here is a pile of old books and letters in my cupboard - I remember Chong, you gave it to me - and there is a green book. Read it and learn to plan your studies." She did not heed what Uncle Chong said.

Wan Hor reached his limit of tolerance. To be ordered to read some absurd catalogue of time-tables and parrot methods of swotting compiled by somebody who did not have more intelligence but just mulish sweat, goaded him to rebel. Somehow he resented having to touch anything concrete that belonged to Uncle Chong. So far he (Uncle Chong) had only been some sort of disembodied bugbear merely mentioned as some other figurehead Samuel Smiles would quote in the Duty, but now Uncle Chong had suddenly materialised. He was a three-dimensional flesh and blood bugbear who promised to haunt his life, and Wan Hor decided that if he submitted to this humiliation he would lose his self-respect.

"I am not going to read that Student's Guide."

It was a bald statement. Only the last bit was tempered with some sarcasm.

"Ah Hor, what did you say?" She could hardly believe her ears. "Did you say that you would not obey me?"

She could never separate the universal and the particular. Every act of his was interpreted in larger symbolic terms. And how could anybody argue against such logic.

"Mother, it is not just not obeying you. It just seems not reasonable . . ." and he could not express his sense of rebelliousness. How could you compress so many years of irritation, of frustrated ambition, of suppressed talent into one rather insignificant perhaps indefensible excuse and reason.

"Mother, can't you see," he tried again, "can't you see that I don't want to be a doctor. And most of all I don't want to be an imprint of someone else's image."

"You young fool, can't you see that it is for your own good. Without my guidance you will be just like one of those Yankee boys loitering in the street."

"Yes I know how you have guided me; when I was in Form I you wanted me to take up swimming because Uncle Chong was a champion swimmer; when I was in Form Four, I had to speak in debates because Uncle Chong used to be a champion orator."

"Now, Ah Hor, there is no point. . ." Uncle Chong began, but he was cut short. (The one good point about Uncle Chong was that you did not know which side he was on because he usually kept silent to let the family sort out the quarrel.) "Chong, I will deal with the boy myself. Hor, I have had enough of your impudence for one day. You will apologise to Uncle Chong. Then tomorrow I want you to give me some sort of schedule of your studies based on what your Uncle Chong had jotted down. Now, quickly, say you're sorry." When you have to stay in the same house and eat with that person, and live with that person, what else would you do. She would be adamant anyhow.

"I'm sorry, Uncle Chong," he managed to utter.

"There, that's better. Now, go and study. And remember what you have to do tomorrow. And no more nonsense."

He went back to his room, and slammed the door after him. It always ended like this, his fights, in humiliating submission; only today, instead of planning the next evasion, he knew that he would have to settle his problem and his hopes. The bronze mask of Beethoven stared at him with its eyeless orbits, and he replied the look with a frustrated shrug.

He was no Beethoven but that did not mean that he should give up music. And more than his personal sacrifice, it suddenly occurred to him that if he gave up the struggle (and that was how it had started, why he was living among his straight-jacketed herd, because of the private acts of cowardice of individuals like him) he would allow this sort of thing to go on. It was not a strong emotion but it helped. And he wondered if any of his classmates were frustrated - it did not seem likely - they even seemed to enjoy pithing the spinal cord of a frog and watching it writhe and urinate and then slowly straighten out into its flaccid death paralysis. Perhaps it was just that he was a freak - and he stared querulously at himself in the mirror and decided he was normal. He was quite certain his classmates honestly aspired to be doctors, or engineers, but it was no good speculating endlessly, no point denouncing the society he lived in. Perhaps he was wrong, completely in the wrong. But there was nothing specially wrong - it was not even a moral question - he was just different. It might have been a good idea to talk to some of his classmates, only he could predict their response - stereotyped. If only at least half the other fellows were in the same predicament as he, he would feel some sort of comfort, however negative. But he knew he had to talk with someone, just to be able to talk, and you hoped the other person shared your feeling as well. Old Mr. Daljit Singh, that was who he should talk to. He remembered that Mr. Daljit Singh was the only teacher in school he liked - he remembered that in their first term, Mr. Daljit Singh had played to the class, a recording of forest sounds, a weird and beautiful symphony - afterwards Wan Hor had spoken to him and they had become friends.

"Now, Wan Hor," Mr. Daljit Singh began, and he was an oldish wrinkled man, with a pot-belly, not always sober, but just now still reasonably coherent, "I know how fed up you are. When you're young, nobody seems to understand you. Come on, I'll play you a record, first; it came today - I won't tell you what it is - you tell me your reactions."

Wan Hor was glad of the diversion. The old man always had something to show you - his room was littered with such stuff - untidily strewn - he was unmarried.

"It's a piece by Carl Orff," he remarked when the record had almost finished, "doesn't it sound primitive?" Wan Hor nodded. "Now about your problem," he resumed, "the thing to remember is that when you're young, it's so easy to think you're always in the right. But it isn't quite so simple. When your mama told you not to suck too much candy, because it was bad for your teeth, you thought you knew better. But mama's right, isn't she - you won't allow your children to gobble up the candy either."

Wan Hor thought the old man had suddenly gone woolly - after all his problem could not be reduced to such simple terms. But he did not like to reiterate his questions. The old man continued:

"And when you began to go to school, it was the same thing - your maths and your essays - it's only now you appreciate your teachers - and I'm not talking about myself." Low grin.

"What I'm trying to give you is a sort of grand view from above. What you're likely to feel in, say, twenty years time. The trouble is, we all want to do the things we feel we're good in - we've so much hope when we're looking forward. But it won't be the same when you've spent yourself and done nothing worthwhile. You see, so many of us call our tendencies talents. Just because we like to do a thing, it doesn't mean we must live our lives out doing it - that becomes a bad habit, inertia - Newton's first law. It also applies to people." The old man heaved himself from the rattan chair, and walked to his shelf of books and came back with one with a gaudy cover.

"Come here, I'll show you something."

It was a photograph - youngish bearded man, standing beside a painting. Wan Hor was more than perplexed.

"You don't recognise Daljit Singh at seventeen, do you? Me and my first prize, first in this country - I used to be good at painting - I thought I'd take the art world by storm; the art world wasn't in the least impressed - seven years in Paris. I'm back here teaching English. But I'm happy, because I know I'm doing a useful job here. You look at an old man and you laugh - sure, I found out I didn't have so much genius after all."

He sniggered and he looked at Wan Hor, trying to probe his thoughts and hoping to answer his doubts. "You think I'm too old and I don't know what I'm talking about. That's not true." He paused. "Remember that you're responsible for the happiness of others as well. Your mother - maybe she can't understand you, but she wants you to be happy. Look at it from that point of view. Maybe you'll feel better then - huh."

Wan Hor was fatigued. When you are weary of struggling, when you are too confused to discover your own solution, you get hypnotised into agreeing. That must he the answer. He would try his hardest to understand physics, chemistry and biology. He would yet become a doctor, and he would plot out that silly, no perhaps it was not even silly, time-table for his studies, and show her that he did mean business. He was happy.

All dawns are happy, if you are happy. Wan Hor felt happy. It was almost like a New Year's day, when you have a sort of boundary over which you are about to cross and there your body becomes clean again, disinfected, aseptic. His first duty would be to hunt for that diary and peruse it. Life seemed disconcertingly simple. The old cupboard with that bunch of old letters and the green Student's Handbook . . . it was curious how some of his own friends kept such daily records of their own progress, to measure in tangible terms what they had to do or have done. It was not difficult to find. He glanced through it - all sorts of formulae, a clever index of sorts, in neat legible handwriting. And then he noticed that one big heap of letters adjacent bore the same boyish handwriting. Well, there was no harm in reading one of them.

My dear Leng,

I know I've not written for some time, and what I'm going to say will be difficult, but it is better quickly said. I've found someone else. This sounds ridiculous, and a little unreal, that after our six years together, there will be only memories to substitute, and nothing more. But the passion we shared was real, the love I had for you real, and I know that at odd hours of my life, perhaps when there is a beautiful sunset, I shall remember the walks we had, your laughter and your face. Perhaps I should tell you something about my present someone else. I met her at a party; perhaps it is our separated longings (yours and mine), my loneliness, but whatever it is, and there is little point analysing and re-analysing, I did discover that she meant something to me. Perhaps if I were not in Singapore, studying, and you so far away, but again so many pointless ifs. I did try to preserve our relationship, by so many ways, but to go on pretending and believing that I'm in love with you would be a farce. I could never hurt you that much. I shall always be grateful for the love we had.

I know that you will some day make some lucky person very happy, because there are so many wonderful things about you. To me, you shall be like a sister, and ours will be a pure friendship, without passion.

Yours,

Chong.

P.S. My brother is coming back from England - he flopped his law course - try to cheer him up, will you?

The whole puzzle fell into place. Wan Hor got up, kicked the pile of letters and the note-book, and strode out. He was damned if he was going to become a doctor.


* * * * * * * * *

Extracted from:

T.Wignesan, Ed. Bunga Emas: An Anthology of Contemporary Malaysian Literature, 1930-63. London: A. Blond with Rayirath (Raybooks) Publications, 1964, pp. 108-118.




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Created on 20 May 2001.
Last update on 20 May 2001.