Growing Up In Trengganu #391752
In his shop, Pak sat beneath coils of ropes of nylon, twines of hemp and raffia, shrouding himself in vinegar that wafted in the air. He kept it in a tempayan in the back of his shop, down two steps on the storage floor. He had corrugated zinc for roofing in his backyard, and bits of wood for minor repairs, and lengths of bamboo sticks, and fish-hooks, and nails for both concrete and wood, and some sharp enough to give the pontianak a funny tingling in the shoulder. But we didn't have too many pontianaks in Trengganu then, so the demand for nails came mostly from local builders and DIY-ers, not bomohs on the look-out for ghostly high-jinks in the air. Pak sold the nails by weight, and judged them by hun, which was a measure of the depth of nails for the houses of Trengganu.
Pak wore gold teeth and a soft skull-cap called the ppiyoh lembek, and underneath it he wore a perpetual smile. He was a belt and braces man who wore the sarong pelikat, underneath which he wore his working trousers. When he was sat behind his hardware display, pickled in the wafting aroma of vinegar in the deep claypot, he rolled up his sarong maybe a foot or two to signal that he was at work; then at 5 o'clock he'd lower it again to his ankles, then he'd roll the long haji's wrap around his cap before closing the shop and cycle in the direction of the muezzin's call.
I could judge the time of day by Pak's routine in his hardware shop, or by the blaring voice of Radio Malaya that came out of a giant foghorn-shaped hardware jutting out from Bhiku's first floor window. This was public information radio that made Bhiku's customers stir their cups with a tra-la-lee, and sit up on the alert with the constant tooting of the time-signals. I can't remember any of the news items that followed, try as I may, but I remember still the lyrics of R.Azmi coming from there that opened up a young mind to the delights of a faraway place and the charms of a sassy lady. I knew she waddled like a duck, in the afternoon light, with waist so trim and fastened tight. "Itu dia, Nona Singapura...itu dia, Nona Singapura." Ah, the delightful Singapore lady!
That was the sound as Pak cycled past the punters by Bhiku's shop on his way to the house of prayer, when market traders were just letting down their hair in there over steaming cups of milky tea and trading insults or homilies while waiting for the man in the back to shout over the din, "Roti kaya!" The "roti kaya" was, and still is, a slice taken from the long white loaf called roti bata (pillow bread), then toasted over a charcoal fire, then smeared with Planta margarine and topped with the shop's own specialty of kaya, a local spread made from egg-yolk, with pandan leaf for flavouring, and then thickened and sweetened with sugar and flour.
Sometimes Pak would stop at a coffee shop if he chose to close early, but he wouldn't go to Bhiku's but to another one next-door to his that had a more conducive clientele. Bhiku's had a more diverse company of fish traders and wayfarers, and strangers freshly arrived on shore. There was a man in a stiff round cap who lived in the top floor of Bhiku's shop right behind the fog-horn shaped radio speaker. He'd been there for years and years and walked with an A3-sized flat display box that was always wrapped in a sleeve of thick material when he was out on his early morning calls. I never knew what he had, but I guessed that it contained stones like akik and zamrud and delima; agate, and emerald and ruby. He was known to us as orang Kabul, the man from a land far away.
As the light faded, and the ladies of the village were out at the community well, vans and lorries arrived in the wide space between Bhiku's and the general market, carrying vegetables and fruits, sugar canes tied up in tall bundles, bananas from the groves of smallholders and onions in baskets called jok, from China perhaps, or maybe India. Occasional traders from the ulu sometimes arrived on trishaws hailed at the jetty, with forest fruits like ngekke, salak, pulasan, perah, and sometimes those mini, yellow, soft-skinned fruit called simply buah ssakkor. Bhiku's busy waiters would then take in another pile of cups to wash, or unwrap another loaf of roti for these hungry deliverers of goods for the market of the morrow. Just in time they came for the procession of ladies with young helpers with smaller sized baskets in hand, or tall kerosene lamps — the pelita ayam — already lit to guide the way of deep basins of house-cooked food carried by lady traders for their evening food stalls that traded long after Pak's done his last solat of the day and hung his clothes that bore just a little whiff still of the back-room vinegar.
"Bathing in Trengganu" by the very talented Malaysian artist Anuar Dan; reproduced by kind permission.