Man at His Best

A Thousand Words On Our Culture: What It Means (Or Doesn't Mean) To Be A Pencil

All grown up now, Kuah Jenhan revisits the primary school essay about pencils.

BY kuah jenhan | May 2, 2016 | Culture

A few months ago, I caught Jagat, a film set in the early ’90s that director Shanjhey Kumar Perumal describes as being about an “ignored chapter of Indian Malaysians”. It’s a great film—watch it if films are your thing. However, I’m not here to talk about Jagat, but rather something that it reminded me of. In the film, there is a scene between Appoy, a primary school student, and his father, Maniam, in which they discuss Appoy’s essay assignment, “Saya sebatang pensel” (I am a pencil in Malay). Appoy decides to write about being a flying pencil, but is chided by Maniam because he believes the idea is so ridiculous it won’t score highly with the realists (read: teachers). Yuck! Appoy, if you’re reading this, you can be whatever pencil you want to be! I had the same assignment too, and I wish that I could find my essay again. Nevertheless, I remember being the less popular HB pencil, and my big pencil dilemma was if I was meant to be or not 2B. Get it? I hope I didn’t actually write, “Get it?” in the essay, but you get my point, pardon the pun. You can probably guess what kind of primary school pencil I was, and still am, and I’m glad my dad never asked to read the essay.

I also remember really loving pencils to irrational depths. Whenever I heard my 2B pencil bounce on the ground, my heart would break like the graphite inside. Side-track-fun-fact: there is actually no lead in a pencil. We call it pencil lead out of familiarity, much like saying, “Hang up the phone”, when we don’t have phone receivers to hang up anymore. Anyway, back to my story. When that happened, I’d have this sickening thought that I wasn’t careful enough, and that reflected a lack of love and care for my pencil, which, in turn, caused it to break inside. To this day, it is a sad thought that I try my best to bury—until my pencil becomes blunt, and I have to sharpen it and be forced to face the truth that I’ve repressed.

Most of my friends who attended government schools in ’90's Malaysia vividly remember their pencil autobiography. One pencil friend started off as a tree with her mum, but they become separated, when she’s turned into a pencil used by a schoolboy to write the essay. Another pencil boy helped a poet pen poems that made girls swoon. Then there was a friend who didn’t get to be a pencil, but an umbrella that was aware of others growing up as pencils. A friend of mine who studied in Canada, however, remembers being assigned, “If I was a bird” at the age of seven, and then “If I was prime minister” at the age of 15. Were pencils mostly Malaysians?

Watch: A Phoenix Film Festival entry by Gooi Films:

Another side-track-fun-fact: In Japan, the stationery du jour isn’t pencils but pens. However, “This is a pen” is one of the first English sentences formed by junior high students. But isn’t that just the most useless sentence to learn? “My name is Hiro. This is a pen.” Thanks Hiro, I wouldn’t have known otherwise. But as silly as the sentence seems, I absolutely love it. It is highly customisable, and with the addition of a simple word, becomes a different story: “This is a green pen.” What? Green? No one uses green pens, Hiro! Hey guys, Hiro is a loser!

Now, at least two decades out of primary school, I am reminded of a time when I was a pencil, and it just seems a lot bleaker now. I realise that I am just a pencil that has all sorts of feelings and sick puns, but ultimately, is owned by someone else. Doesn’t a pencil only work if a hand guides it? Even my pencil-pusher friends who have contributed to the placement of great artworks and the displacement of panties are but mere instruments in someone else’s game. Was this seemingly innocent essay topic intentional? That we are meant to all grow up pencils, and not rulers? Even my umbrella of a friend hasn’t been spared. Umbrellas only shield an important figure. Isn’t Jagat about an ignored chapter of Indian Malaysian pencils? Are we all just Hiro(s)? But after years of pencil sharpening, I became aware of different pencils, such as really sharp ones like my favourite artist pencil, René Magritte, a surrealist who thrived on realism. My favourite piece of his is called "The Treachery of Images." It is a painting of a pipe with “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” penned in cursive below it. The sentence is French for “This is not a pipe.” “What was Magritte smoking?” the world asked. I love it because his painting pointed out that the text refers to the portrait, a representation of the pipe, rather than the image of a pipe. In a very sophisticated French way, Magritte was saying, “Look at the bigger picture, macha.”

Taking a cue from his work, I seek closure in my being a pencil. Could “Saya sebatang pensel” be seen as a Magritte-esque work? What if the autobiographies on pencils that we wrote were not meant to make us feel like mere pencils, but to challenge us into realising that with a pencil, the staple writing instrument of primary school students, we are really the hands that guide a projection of us? That we really are the hands that hold our fates, and that it is with pencils that we write our destinies. For me, one of the joys of owning a pencil was a game that I would play. It was sharpening my pencil so that the wood shaving remained in one piece. I actually wanted to collect an entire bouquet of wood-shaving flowers. This game, is to me, how I want to see myself as a pencil today: occasionally dull, but always having fun sharpening. So are you a pencil, or the handwriting about a pencil? Side-track-fun-fact: Crayon is French for “pencil”.

First published in Esquire Malaysia, the April 2016 Issue.