Ben and I in Cambridge in 1995 during the healthier days
I came back from Kota Tinggi crushed and devastated in all respects. As I ponder what to do next, naturally I turn to the one person without whom I would never have done many things I had in the last 17 years.
I have not spoken to Ben for a very long time, somehow we grew apart these last few years. He and his illnesses and me and my hectic schedule; and my insistence to pursue what I wanted – even if it was not in alignment to what we had always talked about way back in school and colleges; made us see and talk to each other less.
I used to chat with Ben regularly since I was 14. He used to write from Oxfordshire and Cambridge regularly when I was in college and I remember how I proudly displayed the letters on my desk under the plastic sheet, knowing it would be an envy to those who care. Each time he came back from the UK, I would be among the first one to call Kampung Tunku. We would chat and for hours I would be standing at the phone booth – when my telephone card ran out of its credit he would call me back. I used to write to him regularly too sharing every little update of events in koleq.
Such was our friendship that even when I was offered an Esso scholarship to the US before I sat for my SPM – my preoccupation was to find another scholarship to go to the UK; which eventually I managed to get.
On the second day I was in the UK, he took me for a dinner with Sdr Akramsyah Tan Sri Sanusi at Khan’s in London. I remember that night vividly – Akram was reading Mein Kampf and both were in the process of formalizing UKEC; Akram repeatedly asked many questions to gauge how “worthy” I was to be regarded so highly by Ben. Many times I was given the impression that I was not worthy of all the praises Ben had showered me.
I had to put up with that so many times with Ben’s circle of friends because of the high respect the people who knew him gave to him, so naturally they expected someone as larger than life to fit in the shoes laid ready for me. Ben would bring me to all his meetings and appointments; I would sit quietly at one corner with eyes looking at me weighing and judging. There was one night in his room in Cambridge that I broke down, because at 18 years old I just could not understand what the fuss was all about and why I was subjected to so much scrutiny; when all I wanted was to be left alone.
As cliché as it sounds, I was told that some of us do not have the leisure to live a casual life at the pace we wanted like the rest – because there were things given to us that others didn’t have. That night I came to realize many things that defined who I am as a person today.
Then came 1998 and we made choices. The choices we made had the largest impact on Ben so I had no right to talk about how 1998 turned my life upside down. I never regretted a single day the choices I made in 1998 onwards and I am sure neither would Ben. However along the way some parts of our ideals died with it.
So when I was restless and could not reconcile the turn of events at Kota Tinggi; I sent this SMS to Ben:
“Hi Ben. Thought of buying you dinner tonight. I missed the days when we chatted the night away it feels age ago. I could use a friend now”.
I found out later that he was in hospital – not that I was alarmed so much because going in and out of hospital is his routine nowadays.
But to actually saw him on the bed with breathing assistance, wired all over his hand for IV and blood and all the other physical deteriorations – I felt really sad. Here is a person whose genius and intelligence I have not found any match so far for his generation (and maybe other generations too), yet he is so beaten and broken by his illness. When I found out the real illness and diagnosis, I could not hide the tears.
But Ben being Ben, put on a brave face despite sometimes having difficulty to breath and we chatted away – sometimes with tears flowing unconsciously on my part. Even at his low point, Ben would have put aside everything to lend an ear and it made me felt so guilty that I had to bother him for something as trivial.
Ben had always been around throughout my life. There was a period in summer 2000 that I was at the lowest point of my life – he made a point to drop by in London occasionally in the middle of his business trips to buy me food and brought me out to watch movies; at a time when I couldn’t afford a movie struggling with low pay, high living cost and battered emotionally. There was a time he even paid my rent when I was short of cash.
Looking at him last weekend, I wonder whether I had been by his side as loyally as he has for me, especially during the periods he was fighting the illnesses. I don’t think I had – and that put things into perspective as the learner always took the learned for granted. He told me that with everything in life people grow old and someday we just have to let go – I guess there was a time that Ben too realized that I had grown up and was no longer the small F1 debater that he discovered in 1990; and he graciously let me go.
All this put things in perspective as I ponder many things that are weighing heavily on my mind.
Ben once wrote to me in 1992 this poem that had since become a standard banner for the MCKK debating team:
Long ago I shot my bow
Where it fell I didn’t know
Much later in a huge great oak
I picked it up still unbroke
Ku layangkan panah ku ke udara
Hilangnya jatuh entah ke mana
Nun jauh di kebun getah
Bila ku ambil tak jua patah
We have always been told to become that arrow that travels far to vanquish the enemies; that arrow which remains intact at the end of a battle.
If there is an arrow that fits the bill, it would have been him. I am sure he will prevail in this illness and remains intact at the end of it. Even if it doesn’t, Ben nonchalantly told me that he doesn’t have a single regret because he had lived an extra-ordinary life to the fullest.
Because he is extra-ordinary and those who know him would have agreed with me.