KUALA LUMPUR CITY is filled with all manner of movement and vibration. Each step, each rotation of tyres, occurs in frightening tandem, like the impersonal building bricks of a construction site. Souls gather in masses, moving in their own designated directions, likely oblivious to the spiritual networks bonding them together. This is the grand central station and its modern splendor which we boast proudly of through shiny personal parades.
If we perhaps stopped ourselves, in that very subconscious part of our mind, this station might stand still; as we look around for a change, and dare to ask that bigger question: ‘Where are we going?’
The City Center, the center of the city. Adorned with historic, once-glorious though now-abandoned architecture of forgotten times; decaying with the harsh and unforgiving weather whilst life anxiously creeps among the cracks of the promised bond of concrete. Each turn of the head gives an eyeful of insights worth silver prints of film photography perfected by a crafty master. Underneath each glance lies the true cost of our advancements.
It’s a strange notion isn’t it? An artist ought to be happily surrounded in an abundance of culturally rich artifacts and yet the growling of his stomach seems to be the bigger concern for the yearning aesthete.
Many Malaysians tend to close one eye every time they pass these street artisans. Ignorance may be bliss, but no one can deny the fact that the rising homeless population is the collateral burden of a developing nation.
As the city expands in architectural innovation and an increasing number of citizens class themselves as startup entrepreneurs or creative business folk, exploiting the current state of economic uncertainty with high hopes and for the fortunate and well-connected, bigger support, and yet those surrender to failure and give up (as the collective Resistance loves them to) are sadly forgotten.
It’s getting tougher for a simple working class citizen to even purchase the necessities of life. There are alternatives, but ultimately, they are merely running on the fumes of their employer’s dubious promises. Now try to re-imagine an artist in this sort of ‘dog-eat-dog’ environment.
What is an artist? An individual who craves for the momentary bliss where his/her inner visions are materialized through their bestowed/acquired skills. Often many of these creative folks fall short on plans to monetize their products of expression. Whether it’s the Malaysian mentality of, “it’s my own personal thing la, no one will buy wan“, or the lack of knowledge to market their product properly or perhaps even just bad luck, many of these Malaysian novelties are hidden and lost in a sea of insecurity.
Some forget their creative dreams and try to live a normal life; other continue pursuing them and make it work, while yet others don’t. Some try to remain true to themselves but unconsciously deny and sabotage themselves of the big opportunities.
Whatever their reasons are, a handful of the homeless people I’ve encountered either have or have had some sort of creative juice in them.
‘Pada hakikinya, Jiwa Seni tidak bersifat kapitalis’
(At the core of it, the Artistic Soul is Non-Capitalistic.)
I’ve been fortunate to sit down with a couple of them recently, to better understand how some really creative minds end up at the bottom of the social ladder. Many of them have amazing stories to tell – some a little hard to believe, and some plainly incoherent – but we should treasure all of these stories regardless of their validity.
Here are selected keepsakes from some of the conversations that I remembered with whose, due to respect, identities as artist-without-a-home will be kept anonymous.
“I don’t blame anyone for my situation but myself. I was a dreamer. I was naive. Nak jadi rockstar macam Rahim Maarof and the rest. But I was stupid la. I did it for the passion but I had no business skills and the rock & roll culture screwed me up real good. The only thing I wish for right now is for my fingers to touch guitar strings once again.”
“I used to be a painter but that wasn’t my job. I was a wealthy professor but somehow wasn’t intelligent enough to face and navigate the cruel hand of life. I wished I had pursued my interest in painting back then; at least I would have left something that was beautiful rather than all the pain I’ve caused.”
“Artist? Yeah everyone’s an artist what. Jual nasi lemak is also an art. Unfortunately for me and I think, for previous generations, we didn’t have the privellege of your Internet. To make a living as an artist back then was way tougher. Sekarang also tough. Tapi dulu lebih susah. Many did other work not related to their seni. I don’t think much has changed but at least you guys are all motivated with your Facebook likes and what not. But that also can be deceiving. Kat social media nampak gempak tapi duit takda.”
“Immigrants taking our jobs? Sure, ada banyak yang rasa macam tu. But I don’t blame them. It is not their fault for going out of their way to find a job that is more rewarding to support their family back home. The ones to be blamed are the businesses for taking in cheap labour, and also the locals for thinking these jobs are below their standards. I’ve talked to them la. They are nice people and selalu bagi makan kat kita orang. Ada banyak jugak immigrants yangjiwa seni.”
These are the crushing stories hidden beneath those heavy eyes. Sad stories I could never tell. Of unfulfilled dreams and crushed ambitions, and of deep disappointment masked by angry, unsavoury tones (some have called this bitterness). These are the daily reminders of the very real endings that come true if we don’t pursue our own dreams. We will be a disposable asset for others; forever helping others, build their dreams.
You and I know that chasing any dream is scary. And it’s even harder if you’re in it for the artistic pleasure rather than financial benefits. But I believe that our generation could be the ones who takes the necessary precautions to redefine modicums of success, and accomplish, and achieve accordingly, at the least a grounded stability to preserve and sustain the passions to be asserted into the world long into life.
Hopefully we’ll also be the ones to remember those who walked among the rats; those who were once young dreamers just like us who only needed a helping hand here and there because after all, no artist really makes it all alone, no matter how they take credit for it later on once they ‘make it’.
Now Ramadhan is just around the corner. We often complain about having to fast for a day but to these skyless stars, it’s hardly even a choice. Do yourself a favour – seek out when you can, and sit down with these lost and misunderstood souls.
They just want company and an open ear to tell their tales for you to take in as wisdom. They will remind you that youth is wasted on the young. Remind yourself that the reason you’re puasa-ing, is because of them. And if you do break bread with them, I’m positive that Buddha, Krishna, Jesus and Muhammad would all smile upon your deeds.
(And, please, leave your phones in your pockets. Unless you’re making art with them.)
*Photography by Natasha Azlan.
First Published on The Daily Seni.