Wong Phui Nam examines spirituality in new additions to 'The Hidden Papyrus Of Hen-taui'

  • Books
  • Sunday, 08 Sep 2019

She knew it was blasphemous. If her writings were discovered, it would be deemed treasonous. After all, as an Egyptian priestess, it was expected of Hen-taui to follow the religious rituals as ordained by the gods.

But she knew, in spite of all the tradition passed down in the priesthood over centuries, there was something amiss. Something insincere, dubious and untruthful.

She couldn’t tell anyone about it, lest she be labelled an apostate and executed. Her trusted friends were the papyrus scrolls on which she poured out her discontent about the organised religious system of ancient Egypt.

That was more than 4,000 years ago.

Hen-taui’s fears and misgivings about religious orders are still as valid today as they were millennia ago, reckons senior Malaysian poet Wong Phui Nam, who underlines them in The Hidden Papyrus Of Hen-taui.

The 65-page book, published by Blublack Productions, contains 53 sonnets dealing with the search for spiritual freedom amidst religious bigotry.

“Hen-taui criticises the mummification of the Pharaohs and the storing up of treasures in the pyramid ... in a sense, all the wrong religious practices during her time.

“So it is an implied reference to what’s happening now in our country. It is an implied criticism of religious practices and it looks at the false beliefs of some of these religions,” explains the 84-year-old Wong during a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur.

“What I’m trying to show is that the core thing about human beings does not change, even over centuries. And what is it? The fear of death. We all have a deep instinct for survival. The corollary of the need for survival is the fear of death.”

Hidden Papyrus was first published back in 2012 by Singaporean publisher Ethos Books but Wong, an economics graduate from the National University of Singapore (called University of Malaya during his time), was not entirely satisfied with it.

“The theme of spiritual freedom and transcending one’s self did not appear quite clearly in the earlier edition and it was not well structured.

“I left it alone for some years and suddenly thought about it again and I wrote a few more (sonnets).

“I started with one sonnet and then two and then more. I couldn’t stop myself and ended up writing 21 new sonnets,” shares Wong, whose publishing credits include An Acre Of Day’s Glass: Collected Poems (2006), Against The Wilderness (2000) and How The Hills Are Distant (1968).

While Wong’s collection of sonnets in the republished Hidden Papyrus delicately deals with death, love, consciousness and all things spiritual, the elder poet confesses to not being a spiritual person himself.

“By no means!” the cheery grandfather of 11 says, laughing.

However, spirituality permeates Wong’s thoughts and philosophy, beginning with when he started writing while he was a university student. Who knows, it might even have influenced his work if he had followed his first desire when he was a teenager, to be a classical music composer.

“With many of my poems, what I wanted to explore was the lack of spirituality in this country, true spirituality.

“Even in my own family, I have seen how inadequate (family members’) responses were when they realised that they were dying.

“They lived their lives here in total ignorance of all these things and when the time came to face death, they were terrified, which need not be,” says Wong.

But the father of four is quick to note that his poems are by no means a direct attack on any religion: “I treat my subjects with some distance. So if you find any form of criticism in my sonnets, it is only implied and people should not take offense,” Wong points out.

In the end, Wong sees poetry as something that enriches the inner self: “Poetry gives you the capacity to examine yourself, a self-reflection of sorts. I think it’s important that people don’t go through life blindly,” he concludes.

The Hidden Papyrus Of Hen-taui can be purchased at the University Book Store Malaysia (Jaya One shopping centre, Petaling Jaya; contact: jayaone@ubsm.com.my or 03-7931 2426) and Silverfish Books (Bangsar Village shopping centre, Kuala Lumpur; contact: silverfishbooks.com, info@silverfishbooks.com or 03-2284 4837).

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