The Exile and The Promise

A personal reflection by E V Ratnam.

Somewhere in his book, A Malaysian Journey, a conversation arises between Rehman Rashid and a friend regarding an individual’s destiny. Each person, according to Azman, an ex-soldier Rehman had once met, is deemed to have made a ‘promise’ in a moment of his pre-existence. This hypothetical commitment, this ‘promise’, once made, becomes that person’s vocation. “You ask yourself,” says Rehman to the friend, “what would you do if you knew you only had a year to live…Does anyone know how long they are going to live? I asked myself,” he says, “and the answer was clear: Come home. Roam around. Write my book. Try and get it right.”

Writing is a lonely calling. The writer, like the migrant, is in exile; removed from parents, family and home. To him, says the philosopher Theodor Adorno, “writing becomes a home and a place to live”. In his 1993 Reith Lectures Representations of the Intellectual, Edward Said counteracts Adorno’s subsequent scepticism: that one’s own work can continue to provide a satisfactory respite from the anxiety of being marginalised. Even that home, says Adorno, can sometimes be a lonely and isolated disappointment. But exile, says Said, opens avenues of freedom and intense creativity. The intellectual in exile is the person who is answerable to no one; he is someone who does not toe the line; has no fear of disappointing anyone because he is connected to none.

I believe that at some point in time Rehman Rashid chose to live his life in self-imposed exile; first through travel, and then, on his return to Malaysia through isolation. But he balanced and manipulated the inflexibility of this ideological state through actual research into the grassroots of his homeland and his people. Unlike the migrant who has lost a home, and as Dante says, is reduced to climbing other people’s staircases and tasting the salt in other people’s bread, Rehman was at home; but as a member of his family I observed that the connections he made through social contact, and even family ties were tenuous, if not elusive.

We knew little of each other. I never saw him grow up. I never shared the pride and joy of his personal life or his successes. I was elsewhere. But our few encounters gave me some insight into the consequences of his resolve and an understanding of that obligatory distancing if an intellectual were to follow the path he had sketched out for himself, his ‘promise’.

In 1995, on his fortieth Birthday, he visited me at the Artists Residency in Kuang. We had little to say to each other. I cooked him a huge breakfast, gave him a tiny etching of a horse’s head which I had made with a quotation from the Iliad. He loved them. Vaguely aware of his temperament; that with him one was forever teetering on a cliff edge wondering which way the wind might blow, my homemade card said among other things, ‘What great men do, the less will prattle of’. He seemed to appreciate that Shakespearean line, loosely quoted. I gave him a book. I cannot remember the title. The breakfast went cold. I remember thinking that next time I should let him have his breakfast before giving him a book. The printed word came before all else.

But there was never to be another time. From a distance, I attempted the occasional communication: one regarding polemics; another concerning the oppression of minority groups and the duty to intervene responsibly through the written word. There was no response. In our last, very brief encounter, he addressed me as ‘Ma’am’. I wanted to be addressed as ‘Aunty’. I am his aunt, after all, and we are Malaysian. But I understood that the ideological position which he had chosen for himself entailed dislocation. He needed to distance himself from all but a few, in order to “Write my book. Try and get it right”, fulfil the ‘Promise’ …And what a magnificent fulfillment that was.

E.V.Ratnam   Doncaster. Victoria.  AUSTRALIA.