An unexpected meeting of old neighbours

Former Straits Times deputy editor Alan John met an old neighbour from Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday after more than 25 years.
Former Straits Times deputy editor Alan John met an old neighbour from Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday after more than 25 years. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Best-selling Singaporean author Alan John was surprised to find his neighbour from boyhood, housewife Kamachie Ramanathan, among the 80 readers who turned up for his talk at The Big Read Meet on Wednesday.

Mr John, 62, released his memoir Good Grief! here on Jan 31 and its initial print run of 1,500 copies sold out within a week. Its second run is now in bookstores.

Mrs Ramanathan, 87, had lived next to the former Straits Times deputy editor and his family in United Garden, off Old Klang Road, in Kuala Lumpur from the late 1960s. Wednesday evening was the first time they had met in almost 30 years.

Mr John said on Thursday: "It was a big surprise to see Mrs Rama again after more than 25 years. She was always the lovely, gentle aunty with the sunniest smile.

"She told me she was visiting her son Jairaj here and when he told her I had a new book and The Big Read session was on, she wanted to come, get the book and see me again."

Mr Ramanathan, 56, who is a Singaporean mechanical engineer, said he had taken the afternoon off work to ensure he and his mother would be at the meet on time.

The third of four brothers said: "I was too young to be Alan's playmate, but my mother and my elder brother Balraj remember him as down-to-earth, outgoing and easygoing. He would help his elder sister Barbara bake cakes. I think they got that from their mother, who was a terrific cook."

In a wide-ranging chat with readers for more than 75 minutes, Mr John revealed that he had originally wanted to title his book A Part Of My Life, but his publisher Susan Long of Straits Times Press suggested that he gave the book a title "that sounded like me".

"One expression I used when reporters debriefed me was 'Good grief!' because of all the crazy situations they told me about," he said. "So this book could have been titled Don't Be Ridiculous!'" he quipped.

Amid a flurry of questions from readers, he was most stymied by one on how being a journalist for 39 years had affected him and how being the person he was had shaped the work he had done.

He said on Thursday: "I'm still thinking about that question."

He added: "I'd never given either much thought because I was just doing journalism and living my life. Put on the spot, I'd say being a newsman turns you into a person who expects the unexpected, you know there's no such thing as a routine day and you realise human beings are capable of surprising you in ways you never imagined possible."

For him, the epitome of how a day at work can go belly-up was Sept 11, 2001.

He told his rapt audience: "It was a calm and quiet night in Singapore and the then ST editor Leslie Fong had left after checking the next day's line-up of stories with me. "Then he called me later and said, 'Check on this story about a small plane crashing into a building in New York.'"

Like so many "life-changing" stories, he added, the 9/11 story started small and ballooned into big news.

"As for how being me affected the paper," he said, "some of the most personally satisfying journalism I did came out of my own interests in issues such as HIV/Aids and hospice care as I was able to assign and oversee special reports that The Straits Times did well and devoted space to."

He would be meeting Mrs Rama- nathan again next Saturday.

• Good Grief! by Alan John is available in bookstores at $22.01 with GST. His reissued first book Unholy Trinity, is $22.47 with GST.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2016, with the headline 'An unexpected meeting of old neighbours'. Print Edition | Subscribe