It was back in 1977. The Sultan of Terengganu was Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah, grandfather of the current (year 2009) Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Tuanku Sultan Mizan. The Agong was Sultan Yahya Petra of Kelantan. The Prime Minister of Malaysia was Tun Hussein Onn. The movie Star Wars opened in cinemas and subsequently became the then-highest grossing film of all time. Malaysia Airlines Flight 653, a Boeing 737-200 from Penang to Kuala Lumpur was hijacked and crashed in Tanjung Kupang, Johor, killing all 100 passengers and crew on board. Abba’s Dancing Queen was one of the world’s top hit songs. The movie Saturday Night Fever came to the world the year after in 1978.
Me – I was a 17-year teenager in Form 4 secondary school at Sekolah Menengah Sains Terengganu (SMS Terengganu) at Gong Badak, Kuala Terengganu. It was a stressful year. When the school year opened in January I was placed in a Form 4 Science class at Sekolah Menengah Sultan Sulaiman (SMSS) where I had studied for the previous four years. Shortly later I, together with nearly a classful of comrades was sent to continue Form 4 at SMS Terengganu. I went there with mixed feelings – very sad to leave many friends behind, and very apprehensive of the new place.
Most probably to pacify myself, I started looking for someone who, I assured myself, could become a friend that I could write to and practise my English. Looking through lists from local magazines did not flag any names that interest me. I was ready to give up when I saw a prospect, a girl in Japan named Keiko Miyajima. The name sounded pleasant, so I wrote to her. But no reply. Ah.
My SMSS school friend Zulkonain Awang from Kampung Besut in Kemaman, Terengganu, who heard of my plight, gave me a name and address of another girl, this time a Malaysian, who was a student at the all-girls boarding school Tunku Kurshiah College in Seremban. According to Zulkonain the girl, Zasmida Abu Samah, could speak and write very good English.
Well, I got nothing to lose. I wrote to her. And I got a reply ! And her written English was awesome. We exchanged many more letters after that. In all her letters, Zasmida always ended them by signing “Hasta la Vista”. I was curious what the words meant because I never came across them before Zasmida. I looked into several English dictionaries, dead end.
Internet was only to be invented 14 years in the future by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which developed HyperText Markup Language (HTML) and the the World Wide Web (WWW). In Malaysia internet only started four years later in 1995. So I could not *Altavista the words (*an early search engine, my favorite, several years before Google came into being). In one of my letters I asked Zasmida, but she did not answer that question.
Time went on. Late in 1978 in one of her letters, Zasmida sent me her photograph. And I, being the kampung boy I was, got cold feet (hehe). I could not make myself brave enough to send her my photo.
This was the photo she sent me.
And this was what she penned at the back…
Scary stuff ha, the “eternal” word ….
Then late in 1978, I was instructed by JPA, Jabatan Perkhidmatan Awam, the Malaysian Public Services Department to go to MRSM Seremban, a boarding school, to attend a briefing and orientation camp for students who had succeeded being selected to go for pre-university studies in Australia the following year 1979.
After I returned to Terengganu from the camp, I wrote to Zasmida that I was in MRSM Seremban for the orientation camp. She wrote back saying that her school was nearby and we could have met had I informed her earlier. Well, mobile phones or internet had not yet been invented then. So no phone call, or SMS (texting), or emails. The only means of communications was the snail mail. So we did not meet. We never met. And she never knew how I looked.
In early February 1979 I left Malaysia for Perth, Australia. I continued writing to her. And in September 1979 I received news that she had left Malaysia to pursue her studies, if my memory serves me right, in Indiana, USA.
After that we were overtaken by events and drifted away our separate ways.
Then on 24th May 2007, I was at Cyberview Lodge, a hotel in Cyberjaya, for a business lunch with executives from two Australian communications firms. At the inner grass courtyard of the hotel, a shiny golden brass plaque set on a small rock at the foot of a tree caught my attention.
If the Zasmida Abu Samah whose name was engraved on the plaque was the same Zasmida Abu Samah my pen-friend, then it could only mean that she had left this world.
If that is so, I could only offer her an al-Fatihah and doa to Allah that she found peace and forgiveness upon her return to Allah. “Return” in Malaysia language is “kembali”, the name I especially selected for my domain kembali.net
In retrospect, the “eternal” word that she chose to pen at the back of the photograph was not so scary at all. Quite the reverse. I now think because of that photo and word my memory of her letters are still strong, and I make “doa” (prayers) for her whenever I could. I am forever indebted to her, for her awesome English letters. In that sense she had chosen one of the best words there was, to write at the back of the picture.
Hasta la Vista Zasmida.
Epilogue: Prior to publishing this article, I did an internet search for my friend Zulkonain I mentioned above. I found a name similar to him and wrote him a message. On 19th June 2009, I got a response affirming that he was him, and on 20th June I phoned him.
He told me that he was informed by trusted sources that Zasmida had indeed passed away, of cancer. Innalillahi wainna ilaihi rajiun (From Allah we came, and to Him shall we be returned – this is a phrase Muslims utter when we hear people had died or when we hear a calamity has befallen on someone)