Sunday, September 26, 2010


The recently concluded Philippine International Book Fair, an annual holiday for the family during which we transform ourselves—Eireen, Lara, Lilac, and I—into pilgrims yielded, again, for me an extraordinary harvest.

Lara, the eldest, has been addicted to books since I brought her to her first book fair 14 years ago, at the Megamall, when the land on which the SMX exhibition hall stands by the shores of Manila Bay was still rugged and swampy. She was a baby then, sleeping mostly all the time in her ‘stroller crib’ while I rummaged through stacks of books, jostling for space with other fair visitors.

I recall that at the end of that first visit, the books I had bought competed for space in Lara’s small crib. Times were easier then, so I could afford to splurge on books. She practically inhaled the smell of book paper and ink as we trudged along towards the taxi stand.

I think she liked that first visit. I brought her again the next year, and the next after that so that by the time she would go to school, she already knew how to read.

In later years, when she had already learned how to read and write, Lara would often fish out from her memory those annual pilgrimages to the book fair, saying she remembers this and that author other kids her age only read about in magazines and see on television.

She has a vivid recollection of the late Rene Villanueva, who autographed several copies of children’s books she had bought. She was delighted when I introduced her to my idol Rio Alma, a.k.a. Virgilio Almario, the national artist and a friend, the poet and writer Vim Nadera. She had met many other writers at the fair that I think she would ask me one of these days if I had read all the books they have written.

The same was true with Lilac. She learned how to read by joining her sister at the book fair.

In her own right, Lilac the youngest can also boast of her own book fair experiences. She, too, began with picture books; graduated to children’s literary tales; and now, I see her reading multiple volumes at a time and can sit still for hours not noticing anything, including me, when she is absorbed by what she is reading.

Every year, the family looks forward to September not because it’s the gateway to Christmas but because it is the month when the book fair happens. It is also the month when we allow ourselves a little luxury by staying in modest hotels near where the book fair is held so that we will not waste precious time traveling back and forth to our home in Batangas—and allow us more time to read what we bought.

Two days of eating fast food and enjoying the quiet of a hotel room by reading are to us both a relief and a release. A relief because we turn off our phones so no one can reach us and a relief because we get the chance to get lost in the world of books.

This September of 2010 is no exception. For two days, from September 18-19, we were at the book fair at the SMX, going there before the fair opens and leaving only when our feet could no longer endure the walking from one book booth to another. This year, we stayed at the Bayview Hotel in front of the US Embassy because some bar examinee had beaten us to the draw in reserving our favorite room at the Orchid Garden on Vito Cruz Street.

This year’s book fair was again spectacular, but I noticed fewer visitors than last year’s. I also noticed that one book seller, Eireen’s favorite, did not participate.

This, of course, did not diminish our enthusiasm for the written word, for at the end of the first day, Lara and Lilac had almost over-spent for their acquisitions.

You see, the two had already imbibed the habit of saving part of their school allowance for this annual date with the book sellers. Months before every book fair, they already prepare their respective lists of probable books to buy by consulting Mr. Google. The items on their list depend on how much money they have saved. If they splurge and go beyond their lists, then the mother goes to the rescue and that’s the time I say the budget be damned!

This year, my acquisitions were modest compared to my daughters’. I gifted myself with the large 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary to complement my old Webster’s Universal Dictionary and Thesaurus, Chamber’s Pocket Dictionary, and a slimmer version of Scribner’s.

I also picked up F. Sionil Jose’s compilation of essays he had written for various newspapers, the red-covered paper back, Why We are Hungry and another compilation of newspaper pieces by the irreverent poet Alfred A. Yuson, The Word on Paradise.

When 2008 Nobel Prize winner J.M.G. Le Clezio, the French novelist, published his debut novel in 1963, the year I was born, the Paris Express headlined that the 23-year old sensation had rocked Paris’ literary circles. That debut novel was The Interrogation and I bought a copy, intrigued as I was what it could be all about. I will soon find out.

Another ‘harvest’ was the 50th anniversary edition of Chinhua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Achebe is Nigerian, one of the finest writers the African continent has produced. Nadine Gordimer, herself an African (she is from South Africa) and whose books will now stand side by side with Achebe’s in my modest home library, had heaped accolades upon Achebe by saying he “is gloriously gifted with the magic of an ebullient, generous, great talent”. I intend to devour Things Fall Apart after I have been introduced years ago to Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah.

Ninotchka Rosca’s State of War made it to my list this year after I had bypassed it in book fairs past. I don’t know why, but many say Rosca is controversial. Is she the Philippines’s Erica Jung? I am tempted to ask.

Iranun and Balangingi: Globalization, Maritime Reading and the Birth of Ethnicity by James Francis Warren and Philippine Kinship and Society, a collection of anthropological works edited by Yasushi Kikuchi are old titles but they made it to my book cart this year.

As is my habit, I did not go for new titles. I wait for new books to “fade” a little before I decide to buy them. The reason is obvious: they are very expensive and a salary man like me, with two children going to school, could not afford them. Next year, maybe, when the economy—ballyhooed by the stock exchange to be growing—is kinder to the pocket I will consider adding more to my bargain acquisitions.

See you at the next book fair. Meanwhile, get red with envy at my reading fare.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


Nagtatahor, or ‘respecting’ in the English language and gumagalang in Tagalog, is how I write the complimentary end of my letters in Asi, my original native language. It is the present participle of the action verb ‘respect’.

Nagtatahor is the safest word in my lexicon. Its root word is tahor, pronounced taa-hor, with a very light emphasis on ta and a slow close on hor to distinguish it from tahor, the Asi noun for a cock’s spur, which is pronounced with a heavier, faster accent on ta and still a faster clip on hor.

In Asi society—the society which a hundred thousand or so Romblomanons inhabit—nagtatahor is a revered word, for it not only describes the Asi’s state of being, but also indicates his way of life. Without pagtahor, our society will lack the calm order of behavior that defines our culture. Without it, we will be in shambles.

Perhaps, because pagtahor is an ingrained Asi virtue, I had not paid close attention to this important aspect of our culture since I started to write about the Asi, so much so that when John F. Rufon, an Asi studying for his master’s degree in language at the University of Sto. Tomas, cajoled me into saying something about pagtahor, I was jolted.

John wants to know: “What is the genesis of pagtahor and what are some of its forms—in present-day and past?”

To answer this question, I have to delve deep into my memory—experienced and observed—for in childhood as well as in the formative years of my youth, I breathed the air that supplied the life of the Asi’s natural and cultural environment and drank from the fountain of my forebears from which flew the traditions I now nurture.

In short, my knowledge of pagtahor came not from the walls of the academe, and certainly not from some extant records about which the Asi culture has a scant supply.

I shall begin by recalling the experience of being caught in a conversation between two elders.

An Asi child, if his upbringing is correct, should never interpose, object, suggest, or criticize when two Asi adults are talking to each other. He or she should only listen. To say a word is impolite, the height of impertinence. And the Asi has a word for this behavior, this elder-imposed silence: it is called saligbat.

Thus, “Aya gi saligbat sa bisaya it maguyang,” means don’t you ever interpose or say a word when two elders are conversing. To obey this unwritten rule is pagtahor. To disobey it is to court rebuke.

In Asi, the genesis of this behavior is both biological and generational—two of the inherent principles governing the social kinship structure of Asi society. A child should always look up to older people not only because the elders are expected to have accumulated more knowledge and wisdom, but also because of the order of lineal descent.

The Asi, like many other Filipinos, recognize the hierarchy in the family, with the father and mother belonging to the superior lines of authority, followed by the eldest son or daughter and so on. But this is not only so. The Asi family is patriarchal. It is the father who reigns supreme at home and outside of it when it comes to making family decisions.

This structure of authority is demonstrated by words inherent in the Asi language, starting with titles or honorifics.

The honorific for father in Asi varies. The father is called tatay and the mother is called nanay; an elder brother is manong while an elder sister is manang; and the youngest child is puto. There is no Tagalog word for the next ‘younger brother or sister’, but in Asi, the equivalent is manghor.

The original Asi term, puto, has an equivalent in Tagalog: bunso.

Tatay and nanay may be Tagalog, but their pronunciation in Asi and the contextual uses render them uniquely Asi. Tatay, for example, when used as a form of reference, is pronounced slowly, but when used vocatively as a form of address, such as in “Tatay, ging aayaba ka,” (Father, you are being called.), the pronunciation is fast, with emphasis on the last syllable tah—TAY.

The word maguyang is another example. Maguyang has two meanings in Asi. If the pronunciation is slow, the word means an old person; if the pronunciation is fast, with emphasis on maguh—YANG, the word means the eldest (brother or sister).

The same pronunciation variable is true with the honorifics tatang and nanang. In some places in the Asi community the terms means father and mother, but there are also Asi who refer to their grandfathers and grandmothers as tatang and nanang. Olo and ola are contracted forms of lolo and lola and also refer to grandparents.

The extended Asi family has engendered words of address that indicate pagtahor, most expropriated from the Tagalog language: tiyo (uncle) and tiyohon (the uncle as relation); tiya, tiyahon; pinsan, pinsanon; manugang, panugangan, umagar (son- and daughter-in-law); kinumangkon (niece and nephew); bayaw (brother-in-law); hipag (sister-in-law); bianan (mother- and father-in-law); ninong (godfather); ninang (godmother); pare and kumadre (partners in godparenting); and balaye (honorific address to each other by parents of husbands and wives).

Many of these forms of address did not exist in pre-Spanish Asi society. These were introduced along with Christianity and which the Asi have adapted and grown accustomed to. But some, like manugang, panugangan, and umagar, which means the same, are original Asi terms.

Manugang and panugangan, for example, were derivatives of the Asi word rugang, which means to add. Thus, an Asi may derisively dismiss a son- or daughter-in-law who might have affronted someone with the expression, “Asi, rugang yang ka ara! (Why, you are just an addition to the family!).

And then, there is the other son- or daughter-in-law equivalent: umagar. Umagar is a derivative of the word hagar (to ask), which is what a prospective husband figuratively does when he asks for the permission of the parents of a prospective wife to marry her.

There is one word that denotes relation and which is apparently the sum total of pagtahor within the Asi family. The term is hali, a very useful word which means brother, sister, or relative.

Manggihali (relatives), maghali (brother or sister), maghalihan (group or groups of relatives) are pagtahor terms which are invoked in the socio-economic life of the Asi.

An equivalent phrase, mag-kautoy it pusor, literally ‘joined in the umbilical cord’, also indicate social relations. Other variations that are used to indicate reverence to kin is magkarugo (of the same blood).

I mention these words because in the Asi kinship system, these are major considerations in the display of public and private behavior and determines not only the level of politeness, but also the nature of dealing that an Asi has with his fellow Asi and with those outside his immediate communal circle.

Respect is an important element of Asi behavior. An Asi may show or exhibit anger but still use Asi pagtahor terms and other terms of respect or endearment. He may be offended or may suffer from a verbal or behavioral affront, but still remain deferential and respectful by remaining nagtatahor.

The Asi, ever conscious of his kinship relations and his ‘place’ in the kinship system, see to it that pagtahor is not only an abstract.

For example, even without saying a pagtahor address, an Asi is expected to run to the succor of a hali in distress; avenge a tiyo who has been wronged; mediate in or pacify a maghalihan quarrel; celebrate with a pinsan in his victory; care for a sick olo; or not answer back the reprimand of an umagar.

In any of these instances, his action or behavior—verbal or non-verbal—will be considered a form of pagtahor.