On Trengganuspeak and the Spirit of Trengganu

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Growing Up In Trengganu #197,325

Ah Chin had a pact with Father: to benchmark all his work to an accepted style. He carried the measuring tape like the stethoscope of a doctor, his eyes peering over the lenses of his nose-tip reading glasses, the thickness of the base of a bottle. He stood maybe five feet tall, with a few inches more to spare, and he was probably the thinnest man in Trengganu. He smiled broadly as he wrote into his order book, all jotted down in cipher, and into the box for each customer, he placed a snip of the desired material. And he had this one-liner, "Tak boleh yankee-la!" that he whispered through his toothy smile. And that was the pact he'd made with Father.

Our school trousers were all cut on Ah Chin's table, perhaps because, of all the tailors in Trengganu, he was the most compliant to Father's style. The Ah Chin easy payment plan must've been another that persuaded Father to take us to the bespoke house of this bean-pole. Father had his own ideas about how long our shorts should be, and the accepted width of flares that Ah Chin executed with alacrity and a smile. No yankee-lah, about summed it all.

Yankee was the Trengganu term for the figure hugging style, the drain-pipe girth or shorts that exposed half the thighs, and hugged the bums so the wallet bulged from the back-pocket like a table mountain high. A yankee inclination showed a person of frivolous mien, and a tendency to whistle at passing gals. The antithesis of this was the dress code of the mata-mata, if you remember the policemen of old: skirt like shorts with double pleats, shorts dropping from a line just above the waist, reaching down to the knees and well below.

I have a photo of Father standing proudly in his Ah Chin tailored twills, hands in pockets that bulged out to show the width of the material. And I was standing to his left, in my school uniform whites, shirt perhaps from Globe Silk Store, and shorts in full spread to the cut of Ah Chin our smiling tailor. Sandwiched by us — in sartorial contrast — was a relative I never knew we had, who was a veritable townie, in a contented pose and standing smart, like a true man-about-town yankee.

This was in the KL of old, with the dredging companies dragging up the earth in mining pools, and rubber estates spanning the edge of town with orderly rows of canopied pillars, and there was the Islamic Restaurant in Batu Road and the Stadiums Negara and Merdeka. In fact it was in the Stadium Meredeka that we were now standing, on a day when I was a truant from School to be with Father on his job-promotion interview. The Stadium made me gasp in awe, having seen nothing so cavernous in Kuala Trengganu, and as the Petronas Towers are to present-day gawpers, the Stadium Merdeka was to Kuala Lumpur then and there.

Father was set in his views on trouser width and how far shorts should hang below the knees, but he was a mischievous man in many ways. In days when he'd run me to school soon as he'd returned from the mosque in the morning, he'd jibe and make silly remarks of things he saw along the way, as I sat sideways on his tall gentleman's Raleigh, perched on a kain ssahang wrapped around the horizontal bar between him and the bike's handle bars. I knew then that it was against the law to be travelling thus — because Father told me so — but he told me he'd made a pact with the mata-mata. He made many pacts like that within the confines of Kuala Trengganu, including one that enabled him to send me to the Sekolah Ladang some two years before my schooling years. Soon as I got off the bike at the Primary School (run by a man called Mr Wee Biau Leng, whose headmasterly white shorts was of a width that Father would have approved) he'd make a parting joke as I reached into the rear bag of his bike for a roti paung or two that he'd bought on his way home from dawn prayers. One day a classmate who caught us in our shared glee gave me a puzzled look, "Who's that man who dropped you here?" he asked. When I told him that that was my father, he came back in astonishment, "What did you both find so funny?"

On night Father told us of Ah Chin's weakness for the smoke, that he'd been visited earlier in the day as he was sitting in his darkened room at the top of his stairs — the loteng as we called it in Trengganu — puffing on his exotic pipe, and floating with the smoke that made him drowsy and pulled him to higher fantasia. There were things thrown out of the window, Father said, the sound of shattering glass and the rush of enforcement officers, all that he heard as he passed by on his way to prayers. We held our breaths for our bean-pole of a smiling tailor. But in the Ramadhan that came after that, father took us back to Kampung Daik, to be kitted-up for Hari Raya; and I was happy to see that our tailor man was still there to measure us and keep his pact with Father, looking as he always did, like he'd just emerged from a crack in the door. As he pulled out his tape measure and jotted notes into his book, he gave Father a knowing smile.

Just a pip's throw from Ah Chin, over the bridge opposite the red fire engines of Kampung Daik was a shop known as Kedai Bbunga, which was Trengganuspeak for 'the flowered shop'. It could have been its wallpaper that gave the shop its name, but I can't say for sure. In it was a man who seldom wore a shirt, but stood in what was the precursor to the boxer shorts, with thin dark stripes running vertically, and held around his waist by a string that ran through the waist-band, that was knotted in a bow just above the button of his belly.

Father had a little book there, which the man — who was known to Mother as Awang — kept in a fair-sized tin that he hung to his ceiling, and which he pulled down when needed, by the device of a little pulley. On the cover of the note-book were the figures '555', a standard note-book kept by many shops to record the credit purchases of their customers.

The kedai bbunga had the smell of apples and pears, and the buah lai, which was the Chinese pear. There were biscuits made by Thye Hong, and little balls of crunchy biscuit, topped with little twirls of coloured sugar. There were preserves from the land of Awang's ancestors, Chinese dates that we in Trengganu knew as buah kerecut, and the rugby-ball shaped Chinese olives, or buah kana. In sacks came preserves of an unknown fruit, with seeds that you spat out once you'd its fleshy parts, sweet and red, with flies scrambling away from it as Awang scooped out your ten cents' worth into the page of a newspaper. There was buah ssemak in a clear glass jar, flat and dried and coated with a layer of white fungus or maybe sugar. It was many years before I saw the fruit in its fresh, uncompressed shape, going by the name of the Japanese kaki.

Awang also kept many things that were invented to make a child's mouth water — Cadbury's fruit and nut chocolate bars, Smarties to throw in the air and swallow, and biscuits called 'Reading' and 'Marie'. The assorted Huntley & Palmer came in tins, though we'd be lucky to take one home in a year. And there were grapes and canned lychees, and the buah bidara, the size of a large marble; its thin dried skin brown and brittle. Rattling inside, as you shook it, was the once succulent flesh of the fruit, now dark and shrivelled, and clinging tightly to its shiny dark stone, the size of a small glass marble. I pushed one up my nose one day for reasons that are now obscure, and was immediately taken to the hospital.

There was indeed a record of the beginning of this medical case, in a round can tied to the ceiling with a string, in a little notebook with 5-5-5 on its cover.

Friday, May 27, 2005

A Short Break

Tuang-Tuang dang Puang-Puang sekeliang!

I'm enjoying your comments so much on the kaing ssahang (and Maya's version of it too) that I've decided to put on my own, and go jerenggeng awhile, and read some bok and kitab-kitab lama. I've laughed so much at your inputs about your own ssahang, the history of it, and everything, that I realise now that you're upholders of the ssahang all.

Our Megat Panji Alang's negligent use of his ssahang is a lesson to us all. Never use it to wipe people you don't know, or treat it with neglect, or cast it aside when you rush for the ferry. I mourn for his descendants who are ssahang-less now.

If you're now lying on your back after a bit of you has been snipped off, I urge you to be patient. One day, that cloth you're wearing will be your ssahang forever. You will never have a friend so dear. And don't keep your thing propped up beneath your ssahang-to-be with that rattan contraption; women will laugh at you all year.

Some words of caution though, from all those wonderful ssahang people who've made known to us their practise of this ancient art —

Never, never stand in your ssahang against the light, at whatever hour;

Never jump into the river in your kaing kkembang (for women) or you'll puff up like a ball in the water. Your kaing will catch the wind in descent, and it'll gelembong, and the deep-water swimmers will have a happy hour (never mind the ikang sekila);

Never kilah your ssahang or girls will point at you. The ssahang is an open plan material to be warpped around your lower half, but keep the lower hem above your ankle, preferably just below the knee. The free end of the ssahang, when thus wrapped, is tucked (selitinto the waist-end to keep your ssahang there and secure. Never, never wear a belt (not even a tali guni) and never, especially, a keleper, even if you're a twenty-a-day rokok daung smoker.

Never wear a pelikat for ssahang, it's a sign of moral depravity, and lack of taste in chosen material. Be brave, take the ssahang even if it's jarang and go out into the water. Cryptic conversation between two ssahang wearers. A: Mung paka ssahang? B: Jarang.

Never, never iron your kaing ssahang even if you live near the laundry. The ssahang is worn, made wet, then dried on the pagar or slung over the bannister of the stairs or the verendah. An ironed ssahang is a sign of misspent youth, a domineering mother-in-law, and of someone who's lacking in moral fibre. Even the Menteri Besar of Trengganu has to stand up in his ssahang some day, and his is as rumpled as yours are.

And finally, never wear a white ssahang if you can help it. As our own Megat said it in the Sejaroh Teganung, "Biar putih mata, jangang putih ssahang!"

Go placidly now, to your own well in your own way...

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The Art Of Ssahang

Ssahang, which comes from the standardspeak basahan, is an everyday wear and word. ”Nak gi duane ni paka lawor sangak tu?” (“Where are you going in such beautiful attire?”) a person would ask of another. ”Lawor guane,” the person would reply dismissively, “ni baju paka wak ssahang je!”(“Not really, this is just my everyday wear.”) And so the word is transformed, from the piece of cloth wrapped around your waist (if you’re male), or wrapped at armpit level to cover the body, with arms and shoulders laid bare (if you’re female), into an everyday word to denote rough wear, something that is worn at play, for everyday use, not for any particular ceremony.

The word ssahang or basahan comes from basah, wet. It is the cloth that protects you, as you pour water from the well over your body. Protect? From what? Why, prying eyes, most definitely.

The female style of wrapping the ssahang is also also known as kkembang (berkemban in standardspeak), and some do that all day at home, as some people nowadays strut around in their pyjamas. And some men wore the ssahang all day long as they went about their daily work. I knew many men in Tanjong who wore nothing but the ssahang in the days that I knew them; and then, on a Friday, you saw them in a new songkok and the kain pelikat,topped in a freshly laundered baju, and you thought you’d won the first prize in the Social Welfare Lottery. So you rushed to them to do the salang which was the Trengganu form of the handshake, which had something Masonic in its quality.

Women had little choice in their ssahang material, just any faded sarong would do. But as for men, the world was really their sarongster.

When I saw those dastardly Khmer Rouge emerge from the wild in those Pol Pot days, I noted that they carried with them a length of checked material. The world called it the Khmer Rouge scarf, but that was the ssahang for sure, given an ideological world-view. The Chams — who were Nusantara people — also carried those ssahang cloth, and they ruled Cambodia for more than a thousand years.

The male ssahang came in many shapes, and as many colours. As d’arkampo has pointed out in his comments to The Spaghetti Tree it’s a rare and expensive material now. In my day, we had mini ssahangs for little people, and light blue was our favoured colour. It had black stripes, and was about a yard and a bit in length, and perhaps a yard again from waist to ankle. The ssahang mentioned by d’arkampo was red with black stripes, and would have attracted wild buffaloes. But I believe our d’arkampo was a town child who bathed at the community well of his surau, and not in some bucolic surroundings where wild buffaloes grew.

In the early days of the stock market, when share prices were quoted on the radio, Trengganu folk were delighted to know that their ssahang floated daily on the ether. When it was time for sahang jatuh they rushed home very quickly as not to be caught unawares. Durians were also then falling from their trees.

In old prints drawn by the Dutch of the Orang Malayo, many wore nothing but waist-cloths to while away the day. That was no doubt the heyday of the ssahang in our glorious history.

When fashion took over, and the Sultans made it a habit to give away the persalinan (change of gear) to all and sundry, the ssahang still remained, but as a band of cloth worn as a sash, or as a cummerbund around the waist. You will still see the practise of this art in cultural dances put up by the Culture Ministry, of young people prancing around in their baju and loose trousers, and the selimpang (i.e. glorified ssahang) across their chest or waist.

The ssahang was a useful cloth which should be revived for our glory. Let’s make the ssahang forever, and not just for the mandi.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The Spaghetti Tree

On supply days Ayah Wang had bulging sacks delivered to his door. These were special sacks, woven from mengkuang leaves, in them were a starch-like, off-white powder.

In 1298, Marco Polo, in prison in Genoa, dictated his 'travels' to a fellow prisoner, one Rusticello of Pisa. To him he narrated tales of his epic travel, to the East, and finally his stay with the Great Khan of China. What's of interest to me, especially in the light of all those bags of white powder delivered to our Trengganu neighbour, was Marco Polo's stop at a 'Fanfur' where he saw a tree "from which, by a singular process, they obtain a kind of meal." I'm referring now to the translation by Marsden, where the Great Polo also said that the meal was used to make cakes and various kinds of pastry "which resembles barley bread in appearance and taste," some of which Marco Polo took back to Genoa.

The original version of the Travels has been lost, but there are translations extant, said to total more than a hundred and thirty, in Latin, French, Tuscan, Venetian and so on, with varying degrees of reliability. The Tuscan version is said to be the most truthful to the original, where this tree was described as having a thin bark and is full of a kind of flour inside. It is this flour that gave birth to the myth of the spaghetti as a food of Chinese origin. But more of that later.

I could not find this in the version that I have, translated by Marsden, but I have the good authority of Australian writer Peter Robb (whose book, Midnight in Sicily I commend heartily) that in the Tuscan version, the land where the powder trees grew was the Kingdom of Fanfur in Baros. Baros, on the west coast of Sumatra, is a place well-known in the Malay world, especially by those who are enamoured of its Sufi literature, for it was the home of Hamzah Fansuri, the sufi-poet who was credited with having written the first Malay form of the syair. And 'Fanfur' or 'Fansur' was of course, Pancur, which was Arabised into Fansur, hence, Fansuri, man of Fansur.

I recognise now that the white powder that so intrigued Marco Polo, and which (according to Robb), had the Latinate versions drooling so ecstatically over lasagna and other delights of the pasta, was indeed our sagu, or, as the world knows it now, sago. Sagu was what Ayah Wang received in those fat mengkuang bags that we in Trengganu called karung, and which he despatched hastily to the semi-darkness of the store-room beneath his house. On sunny days when the fishermen landed on-shore with baskets of fish, the tambang, and the parang and the butir nangka, his wife Mak Som (Mak Song, if you're from Trengganu) would sit on her haunches as would the other girls, near the place where the water flowed, and they'd clean the fish, and lopped off their heads and tails, and threw bits of that occasionally to the cats, now miaowing a chorus of "gimme that, now."

Ayah Wang, in the meantime, his lower half draped in batik sarong, his head-gear, a coil of kaing ssahang material, would be stooped in a corner, measuring out the correct proportion of the sagu which would be turned into the mush of fish that had been pounded in the wooden mortar with a long, round, wooden pestle. There'd be two workers then, the stronger of his daughters, who'd be pounding the mortars, one in time with the other, with the thump-tee-thump sounds that made passers-by walk with a distinct sway, enraptured by the rhythmic beats of the day. Next door, Mak Nab and her children would be doing much the same too, in their own door-step manufactory. And the rhythms beat on till the braziers were hot, and the cauldrons brimming, with the coiled-up, protein-rich, sago-reinforced kerepok lekor.

It was the sagu that gave Europeans a false picture of the spaghetti.Gathering Camphor Marco Polo, as some contend, never went to China. (see, for instance, Frances Wood's, Did Marco Polo Go To China? Secker & Warburg, London, 1995) and spaghetti never came from there. It was the Arabs in fact, who invented the spaghetti, when they ruled in Sicily, bringing with them not only their skills in food technology, but also the necessary durum wheat for its manufacture.

But besides the sago, our interest in Baros also lies in another, in the substance called camphor, which is a form of kapur to the Malays. And the kapur that came from there is none other than our kapur barus a funerary material and a medicinal.

The sago, by the the way, is not a palm, but a cycad, one of the oldest plants on earth, being unchanged for millions of years

Glossary (by order of appearance):
syair: [Ar.] Quatrain of four lines, with one rhyme. [Winstedt]
tambang: Known as tamban in standardspeak. It is a variety of pilchard.
parang: A species of Malaysian herring, Chirocentrus dorab.
butir nangka: The red mullet. Upeneus spp.
batik sarong: A wrap hand-painted with the batik pattern. Kuala Trengganu is a major batik centre in Malaysia. In the East coast of the peninsula, sarongs with the batik pattern are worn by both men and women.
kaing ssahang: Kain basahan in standardspeak. This is a sarong, or an open-ended piece of material for men, longer than it is wide, that is worn when bathing at the well. Men normally carry this with them as an all-purpose material, slung over their shoulders, wrapped around their heads, or as a sash.
kerepok lekor:It is now generally accepted as such, though in standardspeak it should be kerepok lingkar. It is made from a mixture of fish, sago and salt, pounded and rolled to a diameter of about an inch, then boiled in the cauldron. When fished out, piping hot, they are coiled (lingkar) and stacked in round cane baskets. They are eaten with chilli sauce, as is, or fried; or cut into thin slices and sun-dried, then sold as kerepok keping, which is fried in fat and eaten as crackers.

Illustration: The Nasnas, seen here gathering camphor in the Persian version of the ‘Aja'ib al-makhluqat wa-ghara'ib al-mawjudat (Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing) by Zakariya' ibn Muhammad al-Qazwini (d. 1283/682). The Nasnas were said to be half human, half demon.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Led By The Pencil

One day, while sitting in the Library, awaiting the arrival of a book I'd ordered, I had nothing to look at but a notebook and a pencil. This was one of those places that forbade all other writing instruments before they'd even allow you to sit there. And as I sat, contemplating my HB, the mind drifted to my early days in Trengganu when the pencil was known as the kalam, which came, of course, from the Arabic qalam, the pen. In Trengganu, the pencil — also sometimes known as the pensel — was not just a kalam, but a kalam raksa. This is as strange as its English appellation, the lead pencil, because the pencil contains not lead, but graphite, which is nothing more than carbon, an ordinary, workaday material.

In Trengganuspeak, the raksa in the kalam is also another misnomer, as raksa is mercury or quicksilver. Why should the humble pencil, in English and Trengganuspeak, be connected to poisonous metals, lead and quicksilver respectively? Was there a hint in there about the common proclivities of all those pencil wielders? Father took home two magazines in those days to read in his spare hours, the Qalam and the Mastika, and although they were too advanced for us in our tender years, we looked through them nevertheless to improve our knowledge of the Jawi.
Image hosted by Photobucket.comThe Mastika was then a decent-sized monthly, and nothing like the dwelling place that it is now, of bodies popping out at dusk from graves and banshees a-screaming in the early hours. It had regular stories then, penned by a man who later became a government minister in Singapore, and pictures of young ladies in the sarong kebaya, and Malay poetry by people like Tongkat Warrant, and Masuri S.N., who wrote good poetry before poetry became very kabur. But the Qalam was a different ball-game altogether, it was acerbic in its political content, though solemn in its religious lectures. One day in class in Sekolah Ladang, the teacher asked for names of magazines we knew to keep the conversation flowing, when I immediately said Qalam, only to be riposted by a look of absolute horror. "No, No," he said, as if it was made of raksa.

The pencil's link with poison or poisonous doings — in Trengganuspeak — is almost persistent. Sharpening a pencil with a pen-knife, in Trengganuspeak, is meracun kalam (racong kalang), and racun's other meaning is, of course, poison. But if you use the special sharpener — penggorek — that is carried by every schoolboy, then it becomes ggorek, a less noxious activity.

Perhaps we should all be thankful that the pencil was just graphite in a stick, and not a mish-mash of poisonous materials. Otherwise, we'd all have been long dead by now, from a childhood of nibbling into stubs of leaded pencil, or from a surfeit of mercury in our blood. But the mercury, as I remember, had not always been regarded as a noxious thing by some of our elders. There existed a school, not of thought maybe, but of derring-do — the last survivors being in Trengganu — whose aficionados thought nothing of a quick dose of the quicksilver rubbed into their sinewy parts until it disappeared through their pores. I actually saw an itinerant medicine peddler do this once around a circle of men in the market who were attracted to him by his beating drums and his hoarse-voiced exhortations of the virtues of his snake-oil. He took a handful of mercury with the silvery glint into his palm and rubbed it until it vanished into the region of his kidneys. I hope he went home hale and hearty that afternoon, and got whatever he was craving for. When I asked an older friend, an exponent of the silat pulut, he said that he knew many people who'd received this magic rub for that extra oomph in their art, or to give a little boost to their body. But it slowed you down as you aged, he said, when you began to feel the weight of mercury. And then you'd have to go to a mercury specialist who'd take it out from your body.

In Londra when I arrived as a young apprentice, my Master, remembering that he owed me a treat, took me to an oyster bar. Take these, he said, winking conspiratorially, they'll put lead in your pencil.

"No, no," I said, "I'll just settle for those tuna sarnies. Pencils and I have a long and poisonous memory."

Picture Credit: "Black & White Warbler On Pencil" by Vazalt. By kind permission.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Facial Expressions

Looking at the Letters page of my regular daily the other day I was fascinated by some tongue-in-cheek discussion about what is purportedly a favourite game of the idle classes, the naming of favourite biscuits or cakes by mere resort to labial display. It worked like facial rebus: a pout in a certain manner, for instance, would signify the Jaffa cake; lips pursed in another way, to resemble a tuber and a round shape, the ginger nut. It was, I thought, a nutty way to spend the hour, and was tempted to devise some means of expressing our own Trengganu cakes myself, the apam for instance, by this labial means, until I read a caveat from another letter writer. Do not be tempted to try this game unguided by an experienced person, it said, or a great calamity will befall you when you try something like the Battenberg cake, which is beyond the reach of the beginner.

I think I can confidently say that we do not have a similar game in Trengganu, though we do express many thoughts by facial means. The cerlong for instance, pierced a child in many ways. It'd have stopped him short in whatever he did, for nothing expressed disapproval more than a mother's glare. And then the wink, of course, which is pretty universal: for flirtatious intent, as an invitation to connive, and to signal a conspiracy to pull the wool over another's eye.

A worker in a hotel in Londra told me the other day how annoyed he was by an important looking Malaysian guest who indicated his choice of food from a platter by using the pout as his pointer. I remember having seen this mode of expression before, and it struck me as very strange too, as it was often accompanied by some hmmmmphing sound. Is this what we call the jueh in Trengganu, of the bibir? I can understand how it could have irritated him so, as it expresses a certain cavalier regard for the person signalled to, and a certain air of superiority on the part of the pointer.

Be careful when you do it, an English person would've said, for the wind may change direction, and you'd be held in that expression forever. In Trengganu, we'd probably say it another way: "Buat bbaik Cik Awang, kalu lekak ggitu sokmo, ko'or lah wei!" ("Be very careful mister, you may be stuck in that expression, for evermore!")

What games do we play with the face? Well, we have the mmaing mata (main mata in standardspeak), which is a game of the eye, especially for young lovers. (The old are too myopic to do the same without the aid of bottle-base spectacles.) Then children have the game of tonyer which is the art of pulling a face to make fun of another, normally a smaller child hiding behind his or her mother. And then, as a child, often you had adults come to you with their face hidden under their palm, then saying something silly like, "Cak cilaaaak, cccuk!" before looking straight at you in the eye. If you can unravel the meaning behind that arcane sound, there's a future for you in philology.

* * *

My unending gratitude to you for writing in with your own comments and memory on our Trengganu bananas. I have since discovered that the banana had its origin in Malaysia, from where it travelled to India, China and Madagascar. From there it spread to other parts of Africa, until the year 1516 when a Portuguese Franciscan monk Thomas de Berlanga, took it to the Caribbean islands. Alexander the Great enjoyed it, it is said, but I hope it wasn't one of Pok Ku's pisang putor that he tried. (see Comments below).

Since then I've remembered a few more of Trengganu bananas: pisang kelat siam, pisang abu, and the pisang embun. And pisang kelat keling is of course also known as pisang rastali by the cognoscenti outside Trengganu. I do not, by the way, regard keling as a pejorative word. It derived from the ancient Kingdom of Kalinga, a major seafaring power, part of which was Orissa. We in Southeast Asia were, for a long time, colonies of Orissa, of the empire of Kalinga. So our name for these conquerors from there, orang keling was uttered not in contempt, but in awe.

The pokok pisang is not a tree or a shrub as far as I know, but is perhaps the biggest herb you'll ever see.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Thought For Food

There's precious little in the old texts about food, beyond the occasional pekasam and the jeruk, two kinds of preserves. The Malays seem to me to have been far too busy with other business in their hikayats to make a big do of what they ate, which strikes me as odd, seeing as how dedicated we are now to our dining table. The Hikayat Awang Sulung Merah Muda, which, according to Pawang Ana of Perak, took place in the land of Pati Talak Trengganu, was full of form and functions as far as the kenduri was concerned, but only as regards the preparatory bustle: the skin-diseased carrying bamboo on their backs, the blind blowing into the mortar, and the deaf firing the celebratory cannon ball. But not so much as a hint as to what was on the table, whether it was the singgang or the rendang, the sambal or the ccolek.

Flipping through the Sejarah Melayu — the Malay Annals — in search of its mouth-watering parts, I found only an oblique reference to ayam suapan and the nasi kunyit. Nasi kunyit, is of course glutinous rice, coloured with turmeric, but there isn't as much as a hint as to what ayam suapan was, perhaps they were bite-sized chicken morsels. Even the Sultan, when he was pleased with someone, only deigned to send sirih leaves from his puan, no, not from his missus, but out of his silver caddy royal.

Sayur kangkung was the nearest that the Sejarah got to a recipe, but that's only as a ruse by Tun Perpateh Putih to take a peek at the forbidden face of the Chinese Emperor. As they were brought before the Emperor, who was presumably sitting on a very high pedestal, the delegation threw their heads back, dropped the full-length kangkung (a species of water convolvulus)down their gullets, while also keeping their eyes wide open for the monarch on high. An old Melakan custom, they explained to Court officials. The Chinese people became great kangkung eaters after that, said the Sejarah Melayu magisterially.

All this talk about foods of yore came about when a friend wondered how Megat Panji Alam would've munched his time away on his long walks to Pahang to meet his belle Tun Teja. And that brought the lament, how deficient was our old literature on the subject of comestibles. The Hikayat Petani had much about genealogy and court women and their magical spell, but little about what was served to all those hungry players once they were seated around the tikar. Why, even when there was any mention of food at all, it didn't prove very useful, I ventured to say, drawing on my attempt once in the British Library to study an ancient tract. Take this instruction, I said, from an old recipe: "Sepuluh sen daun kesum." (Ten cents' worth of daun kesum). Now, how much daun kesum is that in today's measure? And that's from something written in the 1950s, which was pretty ancient to me.

But coming back to the dining tikar of the Megat, or even the Telanai for that matter, what did they eat? I imagine it'd have been food that were really rooted in the peninsula, if not just Trengganu, I volunteered. The Megat would have munched on ssagong en route to the Kijal ferry, though the coconut shreds wouldn't have been packed in a thin tube of old newspaper with frivolous strips of coloured paper attached to it, but packed, maybe, in a mengkuang container, or in a henchman's keleper (pouch). At home he'd have eaten all the foods of old Trengganu — the ulam dish of daun bola, pucuk ubi, cekor manis, maybe. There was most certanly fish from the river or sea, baked in a packet of banana leaf, and stuffed maybe with coconut and turmeric and lengkuas (galangal) or ginger. There'd probably be pelanduk or ayam hutan, or the battle-hardened meat of the water buffalo, grilled in the panggang over a wood fire; and maybe a dip or two, belara or budu. And sayur from the clay pot, of ubi setela with shoots and turmeric and ginger thrown in, and boiled in the santan of nyiur (coconut milk).

And maybe, my friend said, now getting into the mood and a little whimsical, they probably had dessert of buah ulu, baked, appropriately, by the Ulu people.

No, I said, quite confident that the buah didn't come from the Ulu but from the hands of another. For you see, soon after Melaka had fallen, and once they'd plundered the stones from the graves and the mosques of the city to build the Famosa, the time was right for a fiesta. So they cooked and baked the bolo which was Portuguese for cake, and which most certainly gave us the baulu, or the buah ulu of Trengganu people.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Banana Fritters

A lady from father's childhood days — Mak Cik Yah I think it was — once reached into her rice storage jar in the semi-darkness of a Besut night. She wanted to feel how her bananas were faring which she'd placed in there to ripen quietly. When she squeezed the fruit a little and got back a sound, she knew there was something untoward coiled up in there, for fruits did not normally hiss, not especially Trengganu bananas.

That was father's favourite banana story that raised a chill in us and probably a bit of the Freudian in some of you. There were snakes in grass in those days, and pythons (the ular sawo as they were called in Besut) thought nothing of coming into the house to look for places to recoil after having uncoiled themselves for most of the day. You don't see snakes seeking warmth in pots of rice these high-rise days, and alas for bananas, I have to say, some names we used to know are no longer around for us to peel.

For a long time I was in correspondence with my friend Kura-Kura about the state of Trengganu bananas. Was there still the pisang Raja Embong? I would ask, so on his next trip to Trengganu he'd make the relevant enquiry of the state agricultural officer (he's a very well-connected man, you see) and come back with the assurance that there were seeds still of that type, languishing in some dark drawers in some Trengganu repository. I'm using 'seeds' in a loose way here, you understand, as I do not know how bananas are kept and saved for posterity. Then, for a while I was in intense debate with another friend in some outpost in Brazil, also on the subject of bananas, if they came from a shrub or a tree.

I remember from my Trengganu days the many bananas that came our way. When any of us was down with the ague, mother would throw a pisang bakaran or three into the wood fire that was burning underneath her pot of gruel. The pisang bakaran which was green if I remember correctly, was food for the ailing, it being neither heaty nor cold. This was the way she saw it, applying the accepted wisdom from nature's pharmacopoeia. Food were divided into three types those days, the heaty, the cold and the neutral. The heaty was to be taken in moderation, the neutral whenever possible, and the cold to be avoided at all times, especially when you were ill. The prickly durian would've been a heaty fruit in this categorisation, hence its sarong-raising proclivities; the cucumber, in turn, a cold vegetable. And peanuts, and rice, and the roti canai are, as I understand it, all safely neutral.

But the bananas — our pisang — remained a mixed-bag of 'temperatures'. The bakaran, as Mother believed, was in the class of neutrals, but it was a cooking banana, delicious when cooked, unfriendly when plucked from the tree. Another one that she served with relish, piping hot from a pot of boiling water or with skin charred as she pulled it from the wood fire, was the Raja Embong. Embong was a popular Trengganu name, and was sansculotte if you ask me, so I can't explain how he became a Raja. But the taste of the fruit would've clinched it for him, a tribute to the cultivator of this variety for all, a pisang that was neither hot nor cold.

There were bananas too for a quick bite, for someone in a hurry, anxious for a quick-fix of energy. I would put on top of this the lemak manis, a puny fruit with a burst of many colours. It had sweetness in it, and lemak which cannot be expressed in English satisfactorily, and it had the wonderful taste of happy hours and birds singing in the trees. There was the pisang bunga and the berangan, and the kelat jambi, bananas all. Of the kelat jambi I must tell you as it was not kelat, a taste that you'd generally associate with unripe fruit, and, as far as I know, not connected to Jambi in Indonesia. It was another of my favourites, an eating banana with seeds the size of peppercorn, and a taste that lingered for more than a while.

There was also the pisang berangan of which I know very little, and the pisang bunga which retained its greenness even when ripe, and was a delightful fruit after a meal. And there was the pisang jelai which Mother avoided for its unmentionable qualities. We never had it in the house, and never gave it the time of day. These are bananas of old Trengganu, I wonder where they are now.

There is now a world banana revival. It's the fastest selling fruit in British supermarkets, and the Japanese have a yen for it aplenty, except that they've broken all banana lore and made strenuous demands of our Malaysian growers to grow their bananas straight, not curved, and to make them all blemish free. And I wish them all hissing snakes for their lack of banana savvy, because, as you know it, bananas don't just grow straight from trees.

In those days before the Telanais and the Megats, when the carvers were still debating the spelling of 'Mandalika' on the Batu Bersurat of the Ulu, I imagine the bananas to be there, with the ubi kayu and the kerepok lekor in the food pantry of old Taring Anu. There were bananas then of many types, dangling from their many broad-leaved trees, flopping and waving in the breeze like some demented, many-armed ladies. They were burnt and boiled and mashed, fried and dried and cut into thin slices; and a green species called the pisang benggala was pickled in jars and served to discerning guests in a meal on the verendah on a sunny day.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Growing Up In Trengganu #351,161

We had people come to our house each day to chat away the hours, or to do little errands in the shops. There was a frail lady called Tok Mek who appeared early in the morning, just as the fresh vegetables were being laid out in the market, and the fishmongers had just finished hosing down their fish display in the pasar, and the orang daging were just beginning to hone their broad pointed butcher's blades, pulled out from short scabbards tucked in their backs under their sarong waistbands of many colours. Tok Mek would walk her unsteady steps, with lips trembling for reasons I couldn't be sure if she was quietly chanting the zikr or it was a tic that came with her growing years. She'd leave with the shopping list twirling in her head, then come back about an hour later with the list items in her basket, minus one or two that evaded her. It fell on Pak Su then, another daily itinerant who stopped almost daily at our house, to do the follow-up shopping chores, that missed out kati bag of Indian shallots, or sugar wrapped up in newspapers.

Pak Su came back and sat himself at the top of the steep stairs that led into the kitchen part of our house. He had a batik sarong worn as a sash across his chest, and anchored to one of his shoulders. This was the old selepang, of kampung Malays, a standby material that served as pouch for carrying fruit, as a head-wrap on sunny or rainy days, or as emergency bandage in street battle. His top was the Malay baju that had two pockets for his dried-leaf cigarette skins and for his pouch of dark thin strands of tobacco; and beneath it, a batik sarong which he replaced with the pelikat one day a week, as a concession to Friday.

Both Tok Mek and Pak Su made regular stops at our house, sometimes simultaneously, in a day, pausing for a glass of sweet black coffee. Tok Mek was the quieter of the two, thinking much and saying little. I remember her stopping to talk to me once on her way to the shops, to lament the number of wicked people who were taken each day to the blazing furnace down below. Then she held a faraway look with rheumy eyes. Pak Su had more worldly stories: he told us of his walk to Pahang on some urgent business and how he had to perch overnight on a tall tree when the water level around him began to rise very suddenly somewhere near the border. Then he once said that in his youth he used to play the game of buah gomok somewhere in Indochina on Hari Raya. He didn't tell us where specifically, but it must've been among the Cham-Muslim community in Cambodia.

The buah gomok as I've mentioned in an earlier blog, was a flat seed with tough, ebony-coloured outer shell. They were washed ashore from some distant place (probably Cambodia) in the monsoon tides, and was much-prized as a kor.

Another man who also regularly visited us had the gait of a warrior, with his legs astride as he walked with slightly bended knees. Whether this was due to his earlier life in martial arts, or it owed more to his arthritic knees, I couldn't be sure, but for some reason, we called him Pak M*** bodoh, the simpleton, a touchy man who once told us off for talking too loudly too near to him as it interfered with his concentration while cleaning a brass pot with some asam jawa (tamarind). The word he used was gamang which, in Trengganuspeak, meant uncertainty or nervousness after being driven to utter distraction.

However, when the mood took him, he used to tell us his life-story, one of which stands out to me now as quite odd as it gave a glimpse into the oddities of life in the East Coast that carried on until his youth, at the beginning of the last century. He told us how he and a group of other men used to travel to Kuantan to play what was known as mmaing karut, — a game of nonsensical horseplay — and you'll see why. It involved masses of grown-up men, dressed in fancy dress, charging at one another as if in war in an open field.

Mmaing karut, could have been a celebration, or the culmination of a reception party, or a way for the hosts and guests to show how pleased they were to see each other. Some no doubt got hurt in it, and others again, driven to frenzy. It could have been on one of these excursions that Megat Panji Alam got a glimpse of his fair lady Tun Teja to whom he was later betrothed, then lost his love and life in a play of real weaponry with a group who went to Pahang to wrest her from him, for Sultan Mahmud of Melaka. Now, there was no mmaing karut there I can tell you.

As I've not been able to find anything about this mmaing karutmain karut in standardspeak — anywhere, perhaps someone out there who's heard about this most bizarre game can shed some light on it for me?

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Understanding Pahang

Our days in Kuantan were relatively few as I wrote yesterday in Growing Away from Trengganu, though I was old enough then to go to school. I can't remember much of that except for the line of oil palm trees and the early morning gardening work, and that I was called there budak pakai songkok hijau (boy with the green songkok) by my Cik Gu. So I can't be sure if it was the same school as mentioned by Pak Idrus( Comments, below). If so, then it's a shame they've pulled it down, and with that perhaps the cold tea place too. But I'm most grateful to Pak Idrus for bringing back Kuantan to us, and I'm especially pleased that he's confirmed those words on that strange banner that said "sajalah begitu incek incek dan tuan tuan ..." a slight variation from what I said yesterday. How our lives have touched, first the school, Datuk Keramat, then Kampung Tengah. As I've said, the past is another country where you know many people.

My younger brother, who was not yet of school age then, remembers even more of the Kuantan that we saw. There was an Indian gentleman on the Padang that terrified him, he says, by his long matted hair that looked like the precursor to the modern day Rastafarai, and he remembers even our neighbourhood cow-herd Nadesan who stopped in front of our house every day, probably to water the cows in the parit where I stood in my shirt. But don't worry folks, it was a long shirt, and I'm grateful to d'arkampo who came in stalwartly to defend my honour. I'm also comforted by Maya's husband who made it de rigeur.

And thanks Maya for that great story. I laughed so much this morning reading that, and was induced to it even more by Anonymous's impertinent query: "Matter of curiosity, is your hubby Long?" If only they knew, Maya, if only...

LongLadang is right, it's difficult sometimes to know where Trengganu ends and Pahang takes over, a fact that had been noted by Pok Ku in Comments to one of my earlier blogs. In Beserah they speak the Trengganuspeak (we have kith and kin there, my brother reminds me), and in Kuantan they speak a mixture of that and almost standardspeak Malay. Atok probably suffers a similar disorientation when passing through our Jerteh or Besut, (where Pok Ku's uncle was once commissioner, by the way) where they speak almost Kelantanspeak, as my grandfather and grandmother did, in that beautiful, lilting way. Perhaps Atok can also provide an answer to that question by Anonymous1 (Comments) what manner of speak Kuantanese spoke before that impertinent boy stood there in his shirt. :¬)

Trengganu and Pahang co-exist in a mutual mood of love and hate, a common sentiment among close neighbours. So close are we that our neighbour Ayoh Wang, (see: Growing Up In Trengganu #312,728) got his feelings jumbled up, as Father once told us. Taken ill one day, Ayoh Wang penned a letter to his teacher, detailing his ailment and ending it with the plea, "Harap Cik Gu pahang." In its heyday Pahang had dominion over Trengganu, then put the Trengganu Tealani's impertinence in its place when he, the Telanai, went to Melaka to seek the protection of Alauddin Shah. This angered Pahang's Muhammad Shah:
"Maka kedengaran kepada Sultan Muhammad Shah, Raja Pahang, bahawa Telanai Trengganu menghadap ke Melaka tiada memberitahu baginda. Maka Sultan Muhammad pun terlalu murka. Maka Baginda menitahkan Seri Akar Raja ke Trengganu, membunuh Telanai. Telah Seri Akar Raja datang ke Trengganu, maka disuruhnya memanggil Telanai. Maka Telanai tiada mau datang, katanya, 'Tiada adat hulubalang dipanggil samanya hulubalang.' "
What struck me in that was the Telanai's acknowledgement that he was equal to Seri Akar Raja, not Sultan Muhammad Shah, the Pahang ruler.

To know what followed, and to know how they carried on in those days, read the Malay Annals — Sejarah Melayu — where the above extract was taken.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Growing Away From Trengganu

For about six months, we lived in Kuantan, where I went to school with oil palm trees lining its front, and everyone wore a songkok to school. Mine was green, which was apt, because we dug a lot with hands and trowels, and trimmed and watered the plants, and that was how we began the day.

Kuantan wasn't far from Kemamang, and they spoke Trengganuspeak where we lived, near a big canal that constantly overflowed, in a place called Kampung Tengah. When it rained it became Kampung Tengah Air, the village in the middle of the water. Father worked at a Post cum Telegraph office that was far grander than the one in Kuala Trengganu, in the centre of a town that filled me with alienation fever. On Saturday, the weekend had just begun, whilst in Trenggganu it was nearly over, because the week ended there on a Friday. We'd catch a bus to town and gawped at the rubber estates that lined some parts of the journey. Then a strange house loomed ahead of us, with a banner proclaiming something I'm still wondering about even today: "Memang begitu Tuan-Tuan dan Puan-Puan, Sentiasalah Bersabar" ("It's ever thus, Ladies & Gentlemen, just bear it patiently."). They say it was the home of Datuk Keramat, who never made an appearance for us whenever we passed by in a bus, but from his name he must've been very special.

Kuantan was a bewildering town much bigger than Kuala Trengganu. There were wider streets and a posh shop by the Mosque called the Singapore Cold Storage (SCS), and the Post Office, and a copper urn placed in a niche with little tin cups chained to it by some well-meaning benefactors. "Minum teh tidak kena wang" a notice stuck to it said, in Jawi. There were Chinese characters too, saying probably much the same, singing a paean to tea. We stood before it often, wondering who'd placed it there, but were never tempted to sip from the cups that were chained to this strange affair.

In many ways Kuantan was much smaller for me, with its wide roads and vast stretches of rubber trees, and a resident European they called Tuan Gila, the mad squire. At school I had a classmate from Sungai Lembing, and other unreachable parts, but none at all within visiting distance for play. After gardening at school and break times playing with the fibrous, oily seeds of palm, I'd wander home to play by the long stretch of water, longing for the end of week when we'd be able to look again at the strange monument to cold tea. When the day was done and father emerged from his day of Morse-coding in the Post and Telegraphic Office, he'd take us to the Mosque, and he'd sometimes stop briefly at the SCS to pick up a loaf of wholemeal bread, or a flat round can of "Iceberg" butter.

I remember loitering around most afternoons after school by the parit air, wielding a stick and doing nothing in particular. One afternoon, after I'd been ill for nearly a month, I was standing there wearing only a shirt, when someone came down on a bicycle whom I recognised as our Cik Gu. After he'd finished giving his strange look, he asked why I had been staying away from school, to which I gave the honest answer, "Saya demang, Cik Gu." ("I've been down with fever, Sir."). So he just left it at that and continued cycling along the canal-side as I stood there almost wishing I could have been in some other place and not in front of my Cik Gu in that most unsuitable of attire.

Away from the Pantai Teluk and the shops and folk that made the tumult of our daily life by the pasar, big town Kuantan was incommodious to me in many ways. Soon after that the big Telecoms lorry driven by Pak Hussain came for us, and mother packed our belongings in bags and many bundles, and we were back again in Kuala Trengganu. The town had remained unchanged, and the cannons were still buried in earth on Bukit Putri.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Day In A Life

Rumours of my birthday have been grossly exaggerated, of course, but I thank you all for wishing me well, on this day, el cinco de mayo.

I wish I could remember a poem recited by children, a patong as we say it, or a gurindang or seloka to show my gratitude, but, alas, things like that are few. And of those few, I don't know any. But I've been tickled by Lion3ss's wa wa pepek, (or, as Long corrects her, wa wa pek pek,) and all those many other rhyming snippets that you've brought back. If I'm not mistaken, the verse that Lion3ss was trying to remember ended with Cak kerek, kerek, twice, the sound of a creaking door opening.

And poetry opens many doors, and brings wonders. The jampi of old were poetic incantations with curative powers, a delegation from the husband-to-be will not gain admission to the house of the prospective bride until pantuns are traded, and the nobat is poetry in the wind, heard — supposedly — in the whispers of the sea, and reproduced in the istana. Rhythm makes life is the essence of poetry: there's harmony in birdcall, resonance in the waves, sounds in the ether. At school in Trengganu we didn't have much by way of aids to learning, but I remember sitting down once, enthralled in a spooky kind of way, when a teacher told us what Shakespeare wrote. And he — the Bard — wrote that there was music in the spheres. A bomoh (medicine man) once appeared in our house for reasons that I didn't know, but I remember him sitting down after the sun had set, chanting words in Arabic that seemd to rhyme, in stanzas that I can still hear. The waves coming to shore in the monsoon months were fierce and foreboding, but they came rhythmically and persistently, and the winds came whistling and whispering in the night. I slept under a skylight that hung high in the rafters (alang), oftentimes I awoke in the middle of the night, in pitch darkness, to see the ghostly beam of light coming down from the moon, and a patch of sky with stars framed in the pane of glass from high. What music reverberated in the spheres then, I wonder?

And of course birds chirped and woodpeckers hammered out their strange call. Hens, at intervals, clucked out their rumours of the day, as goats in the market bleated out a few. Some mornings the murai came. The murai was black and white, and long-tailed, and was the jauntiest bird that ever flew. It spoke in long syllables, and loudly too, in sounds mimicked in the word berkicau. When the murai spoke, Mother would look up from her daily chores and say, "Berita baik bawak ssinining, Cik Mura, berita buruk jangang sekali." Bring us the good news, Miss Magpie, take the bad away.

For all your good wishes, murai or no, thank you.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Out Of The Ether

I can just imagine Anonymous (Comments below) listening to Muhammad Abdul Wahhab, crooning away from those old "Soutul Kaherah" discs, "Wahiya, Wahiya, matourah, matourah O wahiya..." I used to hear those dulcet tones too, coming out from our steam-powered bakelite GEC radio that had many exotic places in the world printed on its dial: Allahabad, Cairo, London, Warsaw...The needle moved on a waxed piece of string that rolled on one spool on the left, then was rolled back to the spool on the right. Sometimes it broke, and our uncle took out the innards from the bakelite case, to put in another string that he waxed with a candle. There were valves in it, and blocks that looked like compact leather-bound kitabs, and beautiful words and music came out of it when all was calm on the ether.

What fascinated me about those faraway Arabic speaking announcers was not just that they could ride the airwaves from above the pyramids to our room in a distant corner, but their deep intonation, and their deep-voiced certainty in which they enunciated the names of singers. Yes, they were all ustaz in those days, as Anonymous rightly pointed out, but unlike him, I did briefly become one, while walking in a built-up area named Garden City in a suburb of Cairo. This was many years ago, when I'd just finished doing nothing, and seeing as I was still young, decided to do some more. So I went on a trek across North Africa, and ended up meeting a businessman on a train in Cairo who took me to the house of an Egyptian writer named Abbas Al-Aswani. While I was walking from there to my Beit al-Shabbab (Youth Hostel) I was hailed by a man, "Ya ustaz, ya ustaz!" All he wanted to know was if I had any US dollars.

In Londra, in our students' hostel, a man from Aden kept playing his volumes of records by the chanteuse Umm Kalthoum, who sang in an epic way, taking anything up to an hour to finish a song, much to the delight of the assembled company. I can only remember one line from all that, "Ya habibi, kullu shai'in bi qadhaaaaaaaa'" O my love, every little thing has been so fated. So, Abdullah Taher Ali, if you're reading this, I hope you're still listening to Umm Kalthoum, and fate has been kind to you.

What I'm getting from all this is how your life connects, one to another, seamlessly. From the pulsating waves on the ether in the voices of Muhammad Abdel Wahhab and Umm Kalthoum on an old wireless set in Kuala Trengganu, to the recorded music coming from the record player in a students' hostel, from the room of a man who was a refugee from the left-leaning regime of Aden, to the book-laden room of a young erudite Malaysian near Oxford, where, close to tears, I heard him sing a song that had been playing in my head from the Surau Sheikh Abdul Kadir in my childhood memory, the Qasidah Burda of al-Buseiri. (see Songs In My Head.) Does our past seek us out, or are we all whirling in a loop in some corners of destiny?

* * *

In looking at pek pekli, watakollam I said I saw the Arabic fi'li in it, only to be surprised by Anonymous (see Comments below) with something even more breath-taking, perhaps it was "fi fi'li watakallam ("from what is seen and said?"), he said. An erudite person was poring through a kitab, looked up and pondered the fate of a lepek person, then sang:
Pek pek li
Lepek sekali,
Berbulan bulan.
Another Anonymous (you're all so very erudite and modest out there) reminded us of another ditty which had both social commentary and a malady:
Pik pong
Motoka Haji Salleh
Ketok belepong
Tahik nnelleh.
My guess is that this quatrain must've been composed in the late 1950s or early 1960s when Tuan (as was) Haji Salleh bin Awang, a local amateur historian who used the clever pen-name Misbaha (from the Jawi initials of his name, M-S-B-H-A, to form the Arabic word for 'lamp') was one of the early car owners in Kuala Trengganu. He must've used his car-horn frequently to awaken the goats sleeping on the tarmac — pik pong — developing the rhymes to another incident of someone breaking wind and soiling his/her undergarments — as Malay pantuns do drift from one thing (pembayang) to another.

The unfortunate wind-breaker probably had over-indulged in Mak Teh Spring's highly vinegared rojak (see blogs passim)and had suffered accordingly. We also had a way of livening up the town in those days by the device of a purgative called Brooklax, which looked and felt like your ordinary chocolate bar, except that it sent you rushing almost instantly to the lavatory. Some pranksters used to buy these bars from the Indian shop to hand out to the unsuspecting, and the resulting wind that preceded its effects must've been like the blow of Tuan Haji Salleh's car horn.

Another quatrain also came in a similar vein, except that this one involved a curious exploration that was beyond the call of duty:
Long lek Long
Buah labu buah le'ik
Jamah j*bo Sulong
Berasa tahik
This one contained a mystery that led me once to ask if le'ik was not just a nonce word made up to rhyme with Sulong's product, only to be contradicted by someone who very kindly pointed out that perhaps le'ik was the consistency of the labu (pumpkin) that was sometimes mashed and stirred in a pot over the fire until it became gooey (le'ik).

Many couplets or quatrains that children sang had allusions to things that were plucked from our daily lives to make them sound authoritative, or simply because they fit into the rhyming scheme very well. Take these two below:
Di Muhammad
Orang jjudi tak selamat.

Kunfrat Saidina
Mulut birat tepek ina.
Birat is defined by Winstedt as a 'scar on the mouth from yaws', and from what I remember, it wasn't just in any part of the mouth, but it had to be in one or both its corners. And ina is of course the standardspeak inai or your English 'henna' which, in turn, came from the Arabic. So there you are, a remedy from the past for you and yaws.

There is a place just outside Kuala Trengganu called Kuala Ibai (Kuala Iba in Trengganuspeak)where yaws must've been rampant, judging from this children's rhyming jibe that, I'm pleased to say, isn't sung anymore:
Orang darat Kuala Iba
Mulut birat bibir teba.
And I'm not giving this to you as something authoritative, but merely as something that children used to sing at play.