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Raffique Shah


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Gifts that last a lifetime

By Raffique Shah
Dec 25, 2011

A Christmas Day column could be a writer’s dream, or his worst nightmare. Many among those who revel in the spirit of the season would reason that it’s the best platform from which to extend greetings to a large number of people, thanks to the wide readership that the Sunday Express commands. Others might ask, in between “hics” and “burps”, “Who the hell reads anything on C’wismas Day?”

Based on my experience, I can say that both arguments have merit. There are the compulsive newspaper readers who must check out the news and views, whatever the day. I count myself among this lot. Nowadays, thanks to advances in communications technology, when I switch on my computer on mornings, the first thing I do is scan all the local newspapers. I then browse through the main English-language publications globally to read of any major developments that may have occurred while I slept the night away.

In my case, it does not matter whether it’s Christmas or Carnival or Eid. Interestingly, I developed this news-reading habit from my late father, Haniff, who, semi-literate though he was, would have me fetch the Sunday newspapers from as far back as I can recall. I must have been three years old when he would hand me a six cents coin and say, “Go buy the ‘Mutt and Jeff’, betah (son).”

“Mutt and Jeff”, for those too young to remember, was a popular comic strip that formed part of the “comics” section of whatever newspaper Haniff bought. I guess by then he would have managed to read some news items, thanks to my mother Khairun, who tutored him, she having attended primary school, albeit not to completion. I suspect that my father—and mother—enjoyed the “comics” more than the news, although I know they kept abreast of events.

Many parents of that era, and those of a generation or two later, inculcated the reading habit in their children. Since universal primary school education would take root as late as the 1960s, there were “dropouts” from the system who had not learnt to read, not properly anyway. But you know what? “Comic books”, which were not all comical, but which told exciting stories, prompted many “dropouts” to learn to read long after they would have abandoned formal schooling. In fact, these late-learners became better informed, if not better educated, than a large body of today’s primary-secondary-schools graduates who simply do not read.

Admittedly, in today’s world there are so many technological distractions, children (and adults) find reading a boring option. Television is the main culprit in this regard, although the Internet, and more recently, the many hand-held I-devices, are competing for their attention. Most people you encounter nowadays are glued to their cell phones, “notebooks” or other devices that transport them into cyberspace.

I admit that we must embrace technology, especially the modern marvels that science churns out on a regular basis. However, I think it is criminal for parents or adults to use television or the Internet or electronic games as palliatives for children who are in their formative years. Nothing that man can invent could serve as a substitute for good books or newspapers, whatever their inadequacies.

A few years ago, I wrote a Christmas column titled “Give a book for Christmas”. I was not joking, although I knew the risks donors ran if they heeded my call. Most of today’s children, victims of peer pressure and overwhelming consumerism, would likely burn a book or otherwise protest if they do not get the latest gizmos as presents. So you see destitute children with hardly a morsel to eat playing with expensive electronic toys, most of which will expire, quite literally, before the ten days of Christmas are over.

It’s really sad to see what the “spirit of the season” does to so many people. I am no killjoy. Time was when I indulged as much as most people do, except I was no “drinkah”. I ate generous servings from the Christmas fare, devoured black cake and other sweets, and counted the additional weight after the holidays.

When I crossed the age of 40, though, I discovered new ways to enjoy the special days. By then I had become mainly vegetarian (I still eat fish and shrimps). My new Christmas fare was pigeon peas and rice, with emphasis on the peas and vegetables in the mix. I would also isolate myself from the din of celebration and enjoy a good read. Then late afternoon, I would go for a run—five to eight miles, pure bliss.

Only those who have experienced the “runner’s high” would understand the joy of running on the roads on Christmas or New Year’s Day. Little or no traffic. The wind in your face. You get onto a stretch fringed by sugar cane fields, listen to the rustle of the leaves, focus the mind on whatever you choose to, and just run. Return home bathed in sweat, feeling on top of the world—that’s Christmas joy.

It has been ten years since I last marked the holiday that way. A bad bicycle fall (five ribs fractured) during my first workout day in 2001 put paid to my running. But I have since kept on walking, in similar tradition, although the joy is far less than one experiences while running. Still, I am thankful for small mercies.

Running and reading, gifts that last a lifetime. Reading, a legacy my parents gifted me. And running (now walking), a most beneficial and natural gift anyone can enjoy, for free.

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