On Trengganuspeak and the Spirit of Trengganu

Sunday, July 31, 2005

The Best Detective Agency In Trengganu VI

Previous episodes: I, II,III, IV, V

Mat Sprong, Trengganu's extraordinary sleuth, decided to take a closer look at his client in the dark but something hit him on the head. By a hair's breadth he escaped being on the wrong end of an ancient, twin-edged badik. Now back in his office to lick his wound, he was disturbed by noises outside his aching head. He decided to go for a walk. Now read on...

Balik dari rumah Song ppala ambe bekok nnotong, sakit ddenyuk macang nak pecoh lepah kene puko ddamo denge ulu cok. Song nak demoh ppala ambe denge sebutir peluru panas hak anok dia buak keluor dari dapor ambe cepak-cepak kata tak soh, dak ape sakit ssikik ambe buleh ok.

Ambe tidor ppata dua hari baru suruk sikik lepah kena anging lauk. Bila balek ke opeh ada biru lagi sikik-sikik, tapi bila orang ccamek wak tanye ambe buak dok. Orang-orang Teganung kita dak pahang susah dak susah nak jjadi mmata gelak, sebak kerja ggining bukang macang polis ada banyak alak, ada senapang denge kayu ggandeng, boleh takap orang macang-macang. Kerja ambe ning kerja ngitta, solor dari jauh, dengor orang ccakak ggitu ggining. Malang tu ambe ssilak kira sebak gi dekak sangak, tapi nasib baik jugok sebak dak kena rodok denge badik.

Ambe rasa macang nak dok ssandor di pejabak sekejak, mmikir sikik, tapi sebak dah dua tiga hari dak balik, tikus ddalang setor Muda making galok dok ccerek sambil kerik beras. Dua tiga kali ambe nak ddegang dinding denge tangang tapi lepah kena pepah denge ulu cok ddalang gelak tu ambe rasa macang reng ambe dah abih tupoh atah tanah bbawah rumoh Song. Tapi hati ambe masih gagoh nak cari jugok budok Mbong tu sapa dapak, wala pong le ning pikirang ambe tengah gelibuk jjadi gamang pulok sebak serabuk dengor tikus dok ccerek.

Ambe ita ppitu napok hari ceroh lagi, ambe paka sokok terus keluar ikut tangga belakang nak ngellik takut orang tengok. Maklong sajalah orang-orang ssitu, dak leh tengok orang ppala bicuk nak tahu selalu guana gamok. Ambe dah mmalah nak jawak, mmalah nak nnawok.

Bila jjalang lluor tu baru hati rasa lega sikik, ppala pong rengang macang kkabu sekarong wala pong dok bbunying keruk-kerak bbawoh tali pinggang. Dah sariyang ambe dok mmikir sapa lupa nak lapik perut. Lepah cekok jalang belakang kelak Umno di Jalang Batah Baru, ambe singgah tepak keda jjujuk ddepang berek polis, gi kkeda Babu beli ssagong ddalang kertah ggulong. Ambe jjalang teruh sapa habis kapong sebak ambe nak tengok cahaya matahari petang ssinor atas paya, kemudiang seberang jalang mmacor atah sawoh padi sebeloh kiri pulok.

Padi baru habis, keruba dua ekor dok makang jerami, ada sorang dok ssadak ruput, dak napok muka sebak dia paka terendok. Bila bbunying ccelu' ddalang air ambe tengok balik sebelah kanan air ggerak bulak-bulak ttepat kkatok baru lopak dari daung terate, cahaya kuning bbayang atah air macang mah. Ambe lenggak ppala nak tuang ssagong ddalang mulok, dari jauh napok satu lagi Mah pulok, Mah Bibi naik basika dok tengoh laju turong bukit.

Ambe tengoh sapu mulok bila bbunying berek basika kereeeek! Mah Bibi tiba-tiba dudok ccokoh ddepang ambe, kaki sebelah dok jjuta atah jalang, sebelah lagi dok bereti atah peda basika Rudge. Hari tu dia paka skirk bbitik sapa bbawoh lutuk, rambok dia keriting molek, bicu bbibir dia meroh nnyale macang kereta paya briged. Memang dia orang jangok, leher dia panjang molek hhiah pulok denge ikat tali beldu warna hitang denge mmata warna biru dok ccotek tengoh-tengoh. Bila ambe dok tengoh tilek batu sebutir tu dengor suara Mah Bibi serak-serak.

"Guane Mak ppale mung bicuk, dak soh cakak, dok soh cakak, mung teratok."

Mah Bibi ambe kana masa ambe tulong cari basika dia hilang tepi basa orang mmaing rodak. Keh tu ambe selesa sekejak je sebak kalu musing ccuri basika ambe tahu sangak sape dia Pak Sauk. Mah jarang senyung, jadi susoh nak tahu dia ngayyor ke dak, tapi bila ambe jawak rasa-rasa macang napok dia ssengeh sikik.

"Ggitulah Mah, kalu jjalang ddalang gelak tu teratok sokmo lah weh."

Bila dia tanya pasa ape ambe jjalang jauh sapa Bbatah Baru ambe pong ceritalah sebab ambe nak cari ilhang, ppala dok mmusing nak selesa keh Song Janda Kaya hak laki dia tembor lesak. Ambe cerita habih sape dia Song, laki dia nama Mbong, tapi sapa ssudoh ambe dak cerita pasa kena pepah denge cok.

"Aku tengok mung ning panda Mak, tapi panda saja dak cukok, mung kena bijok sebak kadang-kadang benda hak mung tengok tu dak macang tu setabok," kata Mah.

"Ni sebak dok panda lah sapa ppala pong bicuk," ambe jawak.

"Ha, Mak, mung tengok kawang baik ambe tu, dia paka serbang kang, tapi dia Tok Aji ke dok?"

"Kawang Mah tu kalu nak kata Tok Aji dak lah sebak dia orang Ggali Sikh, serema orang tahu ggitu."

"Ha, tulah aku nak kata," Mah jawak. "Mung tengok tapi mung kena pahang benda hak mung tengok."

Bila habih dia ccakak, Mah Bibi gateh basikal pegi selalu dari situ. Sebelong dia konar masuk ddalang kapong tepak rumoh dia, dia ppaling sekejak, suara dia kuak tapi serak:

"Mung bang dengor Mak, mung bang dengor bbaik!"

Friday, July 29, 2005

Kucing Belekor

"Kucing kkarak kkeda Koheng."

Koheng was a lanky man, real name, Koh Heng, probably, who ran a coffee shop in Pantai Teluk. He rode to work on his Raleigh bike, in his knee-length shorts when the sun shone, and in his pleated trousers on a rainy day. Which was the best day to meet Koheng, when the rain was lashing down and the chilly wind was blowing in from the sea.

There in his shop, when bums were glued steadfastly on stools and the banana leaf kelosong unfurled one after another to show the sodden nasi dagangthat had lain wrapped there since early morn, rain prattled down on his zinc-roofed shed, and the air was filled with the aroma of condensed milk and boiling water breaking out the flavour from his orange pekoe tea.

Then, as you sat, and left your Japanese slippers by the legs of your stool, you'd probably feel the gentle brush of fur on your bare heel. Kissinger_the_KatThis would have been Koheng's cat, one of many that came to him from some warm places where cats dreamt and slept, just as he was zanging the zinc frames around his shop to open up for the day.

There were many cats roaming about in Kuala Trengganu in nooks and crannies and places where cats were wont to go. There were the mangy kucing kurap much abhorred and quite pathetic to look at, there were the kucing koreng the striped cat, gamboling about with grasshoppers and the odd mice. Then there were the market cats, sitting by the passing rats, pretending to look another way.

We do not know where those cats came from, perhaps from a nook of the forest where cats grew whiskers and tuned their engines to the right purr. Then they left with their cat belongings in a knotted handkerchief on a stick, to the seaside where there was fish aplenty. There were mosque cats that took to the bubur lambuk and drank from the water pool. There were cats just lounging by the road-side, giving a wide berth to passing dogs, then walking about aimlessly. But you could not fool a cat because they mostly knew the time of day. After asar, which was around four o'clock, they made their way to the shed of Wang Mamat as he awaited the arrival of his baskets of fish for his cauldron-fresh kerepok lekor.

Sometimes they made a mighty din with their high-pitched and long-winded plaints directed at another cat that happened to come across their way. Cats are the only animals I know who engage in debate before rolling about paws in the air, claws unfurled and cat mouths baring nail-sharp teeth, until a house lady pours water on them to go away.

For a community so rich in cats we were yet so deficient in our cat lore. Our cats had stubby little tails because an ancestor cat pulled a prank on some mightier beasts who punished him by tying a knot in his ancient tail. Even our black cats were looked upon quite benignly, give or take a few kicks from a passing unruly child. When we pulled out from Kuala Trengganu to a small village outside Kuala Lumpur, a black cat came to live with us and took the name of Encik Yahya. He was just an ordinary cat with only one peculiarity: he had a weakness for the kangkong with belacan and kicap and some other condments fried in Labour brand peanut oil.

There were vicious looking cats who gave you a mighty glare; there was one kucing cicak with bloated cheeks who pranced silently in the darkness below stairs. He was an egg-eating cat who had perfected the art of sucking out the yolk and white from a hole he'd punch in the shell with dexterity. There was a cat with a reputaion for attacking young chicks and eating them whole before thier ma, but he never came across my way.

Our cats were mostly benign creatures, even the black ones I dare say. I knew of none that had worked as a witch's familiar, or had made a passing acquaintance with Mak Sang Kelembai. Cheshire CatAnd even this Earth Mum — who reputedly lived in the forests of Kuala Brang — was no witch at all, just an unfortunate crone cursed with some awesome, unspeakable power. There was talk though of the hantu kucing who slept in the hearth of certain homes, and could be seen if you ventured out too early to the dapur. But even this ash-covered phantom cat was found wanting in his role, for we did not know what he did or what we had to do if we caught him purring by the para.

That probably summed up the sad phantoms of our state, who were not very inventive when looking for a role. We had a hantu kangkang at the gatehouse of the Istana Maziah in Padang Malaya who was more hilarious than he was feared, for all he did as the clock struck twelve was to straddle his legs from one side of the gate to the other. There was a spirit princess who lived on Bukit Putri, but she was a benefactor ghost who lent silver plates and ladles and cooking pots to those in need for a kenduri (banquet). And all she did when someone defaulted and went overdue on his lending card, was to spirit herself quietly away.

But we have still, I imagine, on our street, cats that roam about so merrily. Those mosque cats, and kerepok makers' cats and hospital cats who are the only creatures I know who are partial to hospital fare. There are, for sure, as used to be, the kucing cicak and the kucing koreng who are actually Tabby Cats, and tabby, as I've just found out, came from al-Attabiyah in Baghdad where they produced silk with stripes modelled on our dear pussy.

And Baghdad's a long way to come to meow at the heels of Wang Mamat the maker of our kerepok lekor who probably modelled a type of kerepok on our cat, the kerepok kulit made from fish skin that showed striped patterns on its side, just like our little tabby.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Fruit Of A Faraway Tree

Yesterday, as I took my first bite of this summer's cherry, my mind suddenly turned deep purple. It came from the stain of the jambu arang from long ago, carried in a conical pouch shaped from the pages of a newspaper that were already crumbling in the juice of over-ripe fruit crushed beneath the weight of their fresher, sturdier mates. Jambu arang was the size of an adult thumb-print, round like dark marbles and black like its namesake coal. They came in heaps and were sold by the cetong, which was the condensed milk-can standard of Trengganu measure. You could, if you had more heads to feed, opt for a scoop from the cupak which would have required two centre-spreads of the Utusan Melayu.

Where jambu arang came from was occult knowledge beyond the reach of a child, except that they appeared in heaps on mats placed on the floor before the vendor lady. They were probably from the forest orchard of the Sang Kelembai, like the buah ngekke which was a confounding fruit even for the climate of Kuala Trengganu, not least because of the surreal wild bird sound in its name. I've tried to look without much success for the ngekke in the light of the present day, this fruit with tough brown skin that split open to the slightest pressure between your palms, leaving its skin in an array of boat-shaped sections with whitish interior. The white flesh of the ngekke clung steadfastly to the stones, and were meant to be swallowed in one gulp, nature's way of propagation through the movements of a little child. The ngekke was sweet with a hint of the acidic, while the jambu arang, if over-indulged all in a day, would have made a child an even faster propagator. I never saw the jambu arang ripening on their sagging branch, if that was truly what they did, for they could have sprouted from the stem of a hefty tree for all I knew. And as for the ngekke I imagine they dangled from a very tall tree very much like their near look-alike, the seto (Standardspeak: sentul) or its cousin with smoother skin, the setia.

They all came in baskets by boat from the hinterland ulu, laid out on mats to pass the night beneath dried palm fronds (kajang) to await the dawn of another market day. There were mini fruits like the keradeh with black shells so thin, or the ssakkor with its thin skin of golden colour, covering a flesh so sweet and juicy, so its name must've come from the Arabic sukkar that gave our Trengganuspak sakor for sugar.

Then in urban orchards were the ubiquitous jambu batu, which take the form, in Trengganuspeak, of the jambu butir banyok, the many seeded guava. There was a curiosity that hung among them from the branches of the back gardens, that kept the kids at bay. This was some old rusty can painted over with white lime in shapes of noughts or crosses, or an old metal timba that was no longer used to bail water from the well, also decorated with the magic of those talismanic shapes. This was known as the paca which was a supernaturally charged guardian of the orchard that made even eager pluckers keep their hands steadfastly in their pockets as they walked past, without giving as much as a glance at the laden tree.

The paca made the tree bear forbidden fruit, that would bloat into a big pot the tummy of anyone who ate it without permission of its owner. The paca tree was, without doubt, a joke played by adults on any would be transgressor child, and there was one in a back garden not far from where we lived. It was the sweetest, the fullest, the most fruit laden jambu tree that I ever saw.

And all they did was pass it by.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

A Well Known Calligraphy Man

Calligraphy by Hassan Massoudy

I have just heard of the passing of Ustaz Imbab, a man whose many calligraphic works adorn many public buildings in Kuala Trengganu. Ustaz Imbab was a teacher at the Madrasah Sultan Zainal Abidin in Kuala Trengganu, and will be remembered by those who passed through there as a friendly, lanky man who loved the arts and who started the cinema club in the school on Saturday mornings.

For a long time Ustaz Imbab, whose sibling was another famous Trengganu figure, Allah Yarham Che Mat Riau, was the most visible exponent of his art in Kuala Trengganu by the public display of his work. There are still many Jawi sign boards in Trengganu that bear the simple signature "Imbab" at the base of the flowing thuluth script.

In his own way Ustaz Imbab added to the life of Trengganu, to the development of its learning, and to the delight of its calligraphic art.

May Allah accept him in Jannah.

"Toward another land, in the land where only light reigns." — Jalaluddin Rumi; Calligraphy by Hassan Massoudy, with thanks.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Best Detective Agency In Trengganu V

Earlier episodes: I, II,III, IV

Continuing the investigations of Trengganu's leading private-eye, Mat Sprong, whose fierce client, Song Janda Kaya, has charged him with the task of looking for her lost husband Mbong. In his quest for the truth, Mat leaves the trodden path, and takes a leap into the dark, sideways. Now read on...

Malang bulang ceroh nnerang, basar jjujok ttepi pata. Orang darak suka gelekek mmandi anging, budok-budok gguling galok atah pasir. Bila cahaya turong, serema napok molek belaka, Batu Burok napok kkilak ssinor macang perok besor jjalar ddalang air. Orang kuala pong turong jugok mmaing pata, naik teksi, jjalang kaki, gohek basika, dudok sama orang darak ttepi lauk, ada jjalang nder-poteng, nder-poteng, ada duduk ssaja, ada dua tiga orang dok nnyanying lagu olek mayang, tupang suka sebak dah abih musing nnua. Padi dah jjadi.

Ppala ambe tengoh mmusing sebak dak tahu nak gi duana cari Mbong. Mbong hak tingga Song Janda Kaya, kaki tonjeng, mulok cepat, duduk derumoh atah paya. Ambe dah putuh aka sebak ambe tanye macang-macang orang pasa Mbong, takdok setabok hak kena dia. Hak buak mmusing lagi tu, Cik Kaleh gohek teksi pong dak kena nama Song bining dia, padaha Cik Kaleh tu lambak napok orang serema dia tahu belaka, orang llaki serema dia kena, orang ppuang apa lagi. Tapi nama Song takdok ddalang bok dia. Lepah tu ambe tanye Mamak Ppala Kerah, sorang lagi hak tahu nama-nama orang di Teganung kita, dia pong pening ppala. Mbong jua ikang, Wang Mbong tok peraih, Mbong Ppadang Cicor, Mbong Ikang Sekila, serema Mbong dia tahu, tapi ssorang pong dak sama denge Mbong hak Song kata laki dia tu. Ambe goreh serema nama tu dari bok hak ambe sipang ddalang opeh atah loteng keda.

"Betol ke Song ni ada, Mak?" Mamak tanye ambe sambe garu ppala. "Mung pernoh jjupe dia?"

"Takdak ba'ape pulok Mamak, mung ning macang-macang. Dia mari opeh aku ggarek ari, ddiri ccokoh depang pitu."

"Mung jjupe Song ning ddalang gelak, Mak?"

"Opeh aku gelak gguguk masa tu, bel LLN aku dak bayor, masa tu basak ttereh," ambe jawak.

Ambe dak kate lah pulok ambe dah gi rumoh Song, sebak ddalang kerja ning yang mustohoknya butir-butir pasa pelanggang tu dak leh beritahu sanagak kat orang. Cerita pasa keh Song ning pong ambe dah masuk ddalang fail di pejabak. Atah fail tu ambe tuleh, "SULEK. JANGANG BUKA."

"Mung ingak Song ning orang ke...." Mamak gostang sikik bila dia tanya soalang tu, mata dia tengok dak kkelik kak ambe, ppala dia napok bulak ddalang sinor matahari. Ambe jjupe dia masa tu di Padang Malaya.

"Apa maksud mung, Mamak?"

"Daklah, waktu ggarek tu kadang-kadang ada macang-macang cubaang. Mung tengok kaki dia ssettoh dak denge lata?"

Masa tu ambe tengoh minung teh ddalang cetong, baru beli dari keda Rojok Pak Kadir. BIla dengor kata Mamak Ppala Kerah pasa Song pijok tanoh ke dok, ambe dak tahang, habih ssembor keluar teh dari mulok. Nasib baik Mamak Ppala Kerah ada sokmo kaing ssahang atah bahu dia. Bila dia habih lak muka dia, ambe pong kata:

"Mamak, mung ning memang panda. Song tu jjalang memang dak pijok pasir."

"Hor, kang aku kata doh kat mung, dia ning bukang orang macang kita?"

"Memang betol Mamak oh, " ambe jawak sambil suka gelekek. "Kaki dia tonjeng, dia kecok, dak macang kita."

Tiba-tiba ttengoh ingak pasa Mamak tu ambe dengor orang darak ttepi pata dok nnyanying lagu Wa Bulang. Sebeloh kiri ambe ada orang ppuang dok ulek anok dia denge lagu Ulek Mayang, Cik Kaleh tengoh makang puluk lepa. Ppala ambe making pening, kaki pulok dah jjalang dak betol. Orang jjalang turong naik, turong naik ttepi pata, tapi kaki ambe entoh macang mana, bukang nak gi sterek, tapi nak gi sebeloh tepi. Ambe ingak ketang hak jjalang ttepi pata hari tu, ttepi wakah tepak ambe tidor.

"Kalu otok dak leh mmikir, baik kita ikut kaki," ambe kata sorang diri. Ambe paka balik sokok, lepah tu, bila Cik Kaleh dok ralek tengok orang, ambe ngellik ttepi, terus naik atah ruput, sapa jjalang raya. Ambe jjalang dalang setengoh jang sapa ttepi paya, ddepang rumoh hak ambe tengok hari tu. Kali ning ambe dak gi ddepang, tapi lalu kot sebeloh, macang ketang, lalu ddalang gelak bawah rumoh, ambe nak ita sapa tahu: sape Song ni, sape Mbong, ba'ape dia tingga bining kaya.

Bila ambe tengoh raba-raba ddalang gelak, tiba-tiba ambe dengor orang ppuang jjerik, ppala ambe rasa macang nak pecoh, habih serema jadi gelak gelemak.

Bila ambe sedor balik atah tanoh, ppala ambe rasa macang nak pecoh, tapi ambe napok budak ppuang paka kkembang, dok suloh muka ambe denge lapu picit. Ddalang tangang sebeloh lagi dia pegang ulu cok, kayu baka besor lengang, muka dia macang takut ccapor marah. Lepah tu mari pulok sorang lagi, lebih besar dari dia, ambe kena sangak badang tu, tak laing dari Song, sebab kaki dia hak dak pijok tanoh tu dekat denge ppale ambe. Di tangang dia pegang satu benda hak dia dok kuor ddepang muka ambe.

Bila dia napok muka ambe ddalang cahaya lapu picik, dia pong berhenti. "Hisy, mung Mak! Mung buak apa ddalang gelak malang nnari ning?"

Ambe buak selambe je, "Dah nak wak guane?"

"Nasib baik aku dak rodok mung denge badik ning," dia kata lagi, sambil ppaling ke anok ppuang dia hak dok jjerik kohor-kohor.

"Baru padang muka mung , Mak, anok aku puko mung bedamor denge ulu cok. Mung dok ngitta dia ke?"

"Sarong balik badik tu baru kita ccakak. Bukang ambe ngitta," ambe kata cepak-cepak bila boleh ssandor sikik ttepi tiang. "Nati ambe cerita."

Bila ambe tengok balik anok Song tu baru ambe sedor, rupa-rupanya ambe ganggu dia dok gi ssunga bawoh rumah lepah dia gali lubang denge cok. Ambe tengok Song dok cerlong kat ambe, mata dia sama tajang denge mata badik hak dok ttangang dia. Baru ambe sedor, ini bukang cara dia. Ketang dak buleh selesa masaaloh dunia.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Hurlers In The Night

In the quiet when the night is beginning to settle as hands are rinsed with the gayong after the evening meal, after a banana or two have been torn off the comb and eaten, nothing can be more unsettling than something coming at speed, hitting a window, leaving it in a shattered heap. Then another, hanging on the coat-tail of that previous thud, impacting on the wall, or the closed door, or even the tiled rooftop, causing everything to shake and rattle and rock.

Then come footsteps, disappearing into the night, the winding, dodging escape route of practitioners of tagor, a dark and ancient art.

Tagor is a jagged piece of rock in its trajectory of rage. And because the hurler craves anonymity yet still wishing, by his act, to shock, it is practised mostly under the cover of night. People do the tagor for a variety of reasons: unrequited love, unfulfilled rage, revenge for humiliation, loss of earning, yearning or face. It is designed mainly to cause anger, but with the loudest of report. Tagor at its best, causes the maximum jolt, brings out the loudest voice from the receiving house. Bang! comes the tagor like the firing of a shot, hooooooi! comes the voice that follows it back, to its presumed source. The source of the stone is probably sitting contentedly now, on a bangsal on the other side, of the other side of another house, quietly enjoying a cigarette, feigning a lack of interest in the noises that come in the wake of his work.

The custom for the house that receives the hit is to light up all the lamps, or, if a modern house, to switch on all the lights. The main man of the abode will open the main door with a burst, overspilling light reaching out into the dark, then he jumps three steps at a time, maybe, downwards, as he hollers the battle cry that tells the tagor-er that he can rise to the call in good voice, and is ready for a fight. Oooooooiiiiiiiihhhhh!

Very few tagors end up in fisticuffs; if so it loses its real purpose. A true tagor is a dire warning, a bolt that is designed to shock that comes hurtling in the dark. A tagor in the daytime is like whistling in a bus, a work of art lost in the ambient noise.

It is not known when or where tagor first showed its speedy face. In Trengganu, the shame of being tagored is almost equal to the shame of being caught. A man who hurls a stone but is unable to hide his hand is in for heavy damage. A swollen face, a damaged name, a reputation for being a failed practitioner of this nefarious art. Shame comes to the household that is the object of the stone because tagor is more than a shot in the dark, it is defamation by stealth. Why have they been stoned? Have they done something really baaad?

The nearest noise to the Trengganuspeak tagor is tagar which is the rumbling of distant thunder, but the true cousin of tagor is petong,
which is the simple throwing act. Tagor is petong writ large, and is normally aimed at a house. Both tagor and petong are invariably aimed at an object, the latter the smaller, though you can still, if you wish, petong a house. Pelekong, is another word for the act of hurling a stone or a handy object, a slipper, a bunch of keys, a piece of hard, three-day old bread.

There is a noise that sometimes comes out fom the dark, that is always taken to be a warning to take heed, or to draw attention to someone preparing a mischievous act. Kids often scramble when it is uttered, signalling that they've been foiled in their act. It has to be cried out loud, with its terminal elevated. If a person about to tagor the house of some dame who's had him jilted, or the dwelling place of the manufacturer of some unsatisfactory batch of kerepok, then a shrill, sudden noise comes hurtling from behind him in the dark, in the unmistakable shape of Lah lerrrrk! then the stone is quickly dropped, as the sarong is pulled over the head. It is better to run than to be caught.

But try as I may I still cannot figure out what it is that is roused by the odd sound of lah then the lerk. Is it an old battle-cry, or just a plaintive call for help?

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Nice Ice Day

On a hot day the man with no name came trundling down the street, with his wooden tub sitting in the back of his bicycle. He looked out for children walking home from school, or people sheltering in the shade, then he'd stop when called, and he'd scoop out with his table-spoon the best white water ice in the whole wide world.

He was a man who said little, but the tub he had was of hefty wood, fashioned into a tall round shape, with two ears jutting from its top-side rim . There was a hint of coconut in his ice sorbet, and a hint of the ubiquitous vanilla, and the sweetness that slid so easily down the throat on a hot, steamy, perspiry day. He sold his ice in cornets, he sold it in your own cup, he scooped it out to anyone with any shape of container. He charged fifteen cents, I think, for a dollop of the regular.

There was another man on another bike, with an urn made out from copper. He had tumblers stacked in the left compartment, and clean dipping water in another, and in the central chamber he had blocks of ice swimming in a sea of rose-coloured water. When an order came from a customer thirsting by the road-side, he'd jump off his bike and put it on the parking frame that raised his back-wheel a little. Then he'd take out a hollow mace-like contraption from the clean water chamber of his urn, this he'd dip it into the main chamber, pushing aside the floating ice and creating a ripple in the colour. The mace was raised, and then before your very eyes, he'd release with a sleight of thumb, a stream of air batu bandung into your tumbler. This cooling concoction was probably made up of rose syrup, and condensed milk, and a barrelful of white sugar. And maybe a soupçon or two of the essence of vanilla.

There was a man in Padang Malaya who became connected to his drink, and he was known as Ku Awang Air Serebat who ran a squatting stall for passers-by. They sat on their haunches around him under the poinciana tree, and he also sold a strange concoction of Ovaltine and Milo. Serebat was a loan word that meant a 'cool drink', and it came via the Arabic sharba to drink, and then sharab, a fruit juice or syrup, that gave the plural ashriba that gave sherbet to the world.

Then there was another drink by the name of seterup that adults used to tell. It stirred images of sweetness and places far away, and of people waving at us from the shade of some distant trees. Looking up Winstedt I found that seterup was from the Dutch for a drink made from syrup. I never knew the seterup but it must have been very lovely.

There were drinks too made in the pail, or in a jug, or in a yellow enamelled koleh. The pail came in at half-time, at Padang Paya Bunga, before the stadium was even a glint in some contractor's eager eyes. They drank fom cups scooped in buckets of lime-flavoured tap water and gula pasir. There were matches there most afternoons, school players, or some other amateurs, or the state team coming out against players from the Taman Sekebun Bunga. They booed them out, then waited for them in Kampong Buluh to hurl stones at their bus on their way home, as a gesture of our traditional farewell.

At home we looked in the kitchen for the biji selaseh (basil seeds) to soak in water till they fluffed out and gleamed like frog spawns, then mixed them into ice-cold and milky sirap water. Later some creative souls poured air sirap into plastic tubes, then left them in the freezer compartment overnight, to sell as red or green or yellow rods of Air Batu Malaysia.

Those were hot days when boys and girls (and drakes and ducks) took readily to the water. From the drinks they emerged with upper lips shaded in red or some other primary colours, but those were the boys and girls, but ducks and drakes what did they do on those hot days? Why they just waddled beneath houses and shoved their bills into a deep puddle of nourishing and black air cor.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Growing Up In Trengganu #134,621

As night fell, and the light turned ever deeper into the colour of our songkok, there was never complete quiet. The drone of lorries coming in at irregular intervals, occasional patter by the well of the surau as women scrubbed pots and cleared ashes and half burnt wood from the cooking place, and the kerepok lekor were all coiled up in the deep, round baskets. Lights flickered from distant houses, the last drop of kerosene burning in the chamber of the pelita ayam fading slowly into the night.

The kampung was a cluster of houses with light stealing through the cracks, and the air dark enough to show the gleaming stars high above. Stallholder ladies with children helpmates, or husbands reappearing just in time from the coffee shops carried home the leftover foods in baskets or trays, in a procession that melted into the dark, in little lanes between houses now lit by feeble light from shortened wicks. Street urchins and barrow boys were settling in for the night, in boxes that they reached by crawling under the chicken-wire fence that curtained the sheltered market. By first light the following they'd be up again, bantering and stretching under the yellow light of the street, as the bilal came across the morning chill, in melancholy lilts of the tarhim before the azan call to the mosque.

But it was not time yet for that. As the sound of traffic faded, lazily came the goats, preparing for sleep on the warm tarmac, to scamper again when awoken by the bright glare of lights from cars that had no business to be there in a town when there was nothing else to do but sleep, in this bewitching hour of bearded billy goats.

Things that went bump in the night were magnified may times for the young tossing in bed. It could have been spirits, or spirited folk gadding about in the dark. Indian shopkeepers were already asleep in front of their shops, surrounded by drapes sewn together from flour bags. Sometimes chicken squawked, rats scuttled beneath shops, then all was quiet again in the dark. Woe betide a young child caught short in his bed, the journey down the stairs in the pitch black to the little out-house in the back, guided by a dim 'Eveready' torch, was fraught with wild imaginings and everything that came to life from inside his head. Then as he sat, well past midnight, in the little chamber in the back of the house, a hand would grab at his pot, reaching our from a pith helmeted man with an even bigger pot into which he'd pour the waste. The dunny man went as unobtrusively as he arrived, walking behind the miner's lamp that attached to his helmet, moving from house to house, then cycling away with the chamber securely tied to the back of his pedal bike, avoiding goats half awake in streets, to a secret place where the Town Council kept all this aromatic soil of the night.

Night was a long time if you were awake, staring into the melancholy light of the weak night-time bulb that did not show but merely accentuated shadows. You pricked up your ears under the blanket for he slightest sound, for Pak C*** who groped beneath houses to pull chicken form their coops to carry them away in his bag of swag, mother hen, roosters, eggs. He had a way with this as we learnt in the schoolyard at playtime, a silencing way that involved shallots and magic, and away he went with bag and chick, without the slightest cackle or croak.

Then from afar came a murmur, then some barely recognised words that broke into a chorus that gained strength behind houses, between the wide berth between the bamboo fencing of ours and theirs. You jumped out of bed to peer out from the back window, to see the moving light, men and boys in their baju and skullcaps, and the kain pelikat that was worn for serious purpose. It was the band that gave cohesion to the community, that pulled us together in this and that. Father would rise from his tahajjud on the mat, to go back there again after he'd given them a cursory look.

This was a feature of the Tanjong community at times of hardship and need. The group moved from house to house, into the shadows, past lamps still tied to the verandah posts, in their last flicker of light. The sound of the ratib awar chilled the uninitiated and comforted those who knew what it was all about. Ratib is an Arabic word, meaning incantation of the name of God, and awar, the shortened local version of the standardspeak hawar meaning epidemic, of veterinary disease or worse.

It was the sound of my childhood, that grew loud from a murmur in a distant place. It could have been the Ratib Haddad or some other blissful words, but it gave strength to us, and spirituality, and an awareness that we were never alone in the dark.

Friday, July 08, 2005

The Best Detective Agency In Trengganu IV

Earlier episodes: I, II,III.

Continuing the adventures of Mat Sprong, Private Eye...

Hari tu bila lang kangok dok jjunang dari langit denge burung raja udang dok takap anok ikang, ambe kilah kaing mmolek, lepah tu ambe cabuk selipa jepung gi susuk ttepi pagor Kelab Kosmo ppata Batu Burok. Kalu jjalang bbaik dari situ gi Ttanjong lebih kurang setengoh jang, tapi hari tu pagi molek panah lembut, rama orang dok ccakong atah pasir dok buak kerja masing-masing, jadi ambe kena jjalang banyok ngellok macang hurok Z, ambe gamok mungking makang masa lebih sikik. Ttepi pata ombok dok pegi-balik, pegi-balik, bila ambe lalu orang-orang hak dok selimuk semua buak dok, ada tudung ppala denge kaing sarong, ade ppaling tengok llaing, ada dok isak rokok.

Ambe ppusing sebeloh kiri naik atah tebing sikik, takut jjirk benda-benda hak dak molek.

Dua tiga hari ning ppala ambe dok mmusing ligak sebak masaaloh Song Janda Kaya bukang senang nak selesa. Dia janda, tapi laki dia masih hidop. Dia kaya, tapi pitih tu bukang pitih laki dia, pitih tu hak pok dia buat warisang dari ladang getoh. Jadi Song jjadi 'janda' sebak laki dia tembor lesak. Ambe tanye dia ba'ape dak mitok cera sebak lama dak ttemung? Boleh mitok fasakh kalu dah nang bulang, ning dah lebih nang tahung. Dia jawak,"Mung ning mata-mata gelak ke Tok Kodhi, Mak?" Teruh ambe senyak sebak dak leh jawak.

Bila jjalang ssorang dok mmikir ggitu ggining, ambe pikir banyok hak dak masok otok. Guane yang Song tu buleh kata dia saing sekoloh Long Ladang sebak Long tu dulu sekoloh Arak Zainal Abiding masa jamang takdok budok ppuang setabok. Takkang dia ssorang je ttina garek, dak menesaboh pulok. Jadi ambe rasa Long Ladang tu dia dak kena setabok, dia saja buak nnawok. Tapi yang buak nnawok tu ba'ape pulok?

Tengoh ambe mmikir ggining ambe napok ketang sekor keluor dari tanoh pasir, dok lari cceloh buah rengah. Ambe ingak nak ambek buah tu nak pelekong ddalang lauk, bukang apa, saja nak buak. Tapi ambe ingak kata orang tua-tua: kalu pegang buah rengah tu buleh gata tangang. Ambe pong dok ssaja dok tengok ketang tu jjalang sapa takdok. Ssitu ada wakah sebutir, ambe pong pegi duduk belunjor atah lata. Tiba-tiba ambe rasa sakik macang kena tikang denge bende tajang. Bila ambe selok kaing baru lah napok ada tudung boto dok lekak gelondeng ppungong. Sebak asyik dok mmikir pasa Song takdi ambe dak napok banyok tudung boto ssepoh atah lata tu hak budok-budok paka wak mmaing dang. Papang dang tu ada dilukis atas lata wakah, dekak tepak ambe dudok, barangkali dah setahong ssitu sebab lata tu pong habih haoh.

Bila ambe pikir pasa buah dang dok jjalang tu, teringak pulok ke ketang tadi dok jjalang ttepi pata. Ambe tengok dia jjalang bukang stret gi dddepang, tapi dia ngessok ke sebeloh. Baru ambe napok, masaaloh Song cari laki dia ning dak buleh selesa cara lasong: ambe nak buak macang ketang jugok, kena ggerok dari sebeloh.

Bila ambe ingak ke Song takdi baru jelah dak buleh paka apa yang ambe napok, macang tengok wayang kulik, hak napok atah kaing putih tu bukang Pak Dogo, cuma bayang dia je. Ambe dak leh tengok stert, tapi kena jjalang sebeloh pentah masok ikut belakang tengok Pak Dogo hak sunggoh.

Dok tengoh ambe mmikir ggitu pikirang ambe hanyuk. Bila ambe sedor balek bbunying enjing motosika dok kena stat, ambe pusing tengok, napok ekor serbang putih dok terbang making jauh. Ambe kena bunying tu bunying motosika Leba Deramang. Tengok jang dah nak masuk waktu lohor, puko dua belah setengoh, taing waktu. Kalu taing Malaya biasa atah menara Pejabak Jang Besor tetu dah puko satu lebih.

Baru ambe sedor ambe dok belunjo atah wakah dok mmikir pasa Song tu sapa jenera tidor keroh-keroh dekak tiga jang...

[To be continued...]

A Word In Your Ear

Stories weave a thread in the reality that we live and make it whole. By our stories are we ourselves. Our grandparents and our parents told us stories before anything else, and they brought rhythm in our lives before we gave meanings to words. Consider these lines from these nursery rhymes in Trengganuspeak:Wa, wa pepek,
wa pepek udang galah…
Long Lek Long, buah labu buah le’ik; or,
patendu, patendeng,
lala’ kumang beng,
bulu ketang masing,
maliking ccongak.
They were meaningless and nonsensical, but by them we lived. I’ve had them ringing in my head for many years, and it was these that taught us to appreciate the rhythm of words: good prose, good poetry, good speech.

Fabulous historians are as valuable as those who deal in fact. And often, in our daily lives, what’s factual is moot, what’s fantastic may hold a grain of truth. But what we tell each other do tell on us; read the Hikayats and the Sejarahs, which ones are fanciful, which ones fact?

We have, in our lives been so mired in story and history that we have clung to them both. The ancients listened to tales by mouth before going places — on a journey, or to war. Herodotus was perhaps the first historian to have written history as something to be read; those before him wrote them as narratives that were meant to be heard. Stories that were heard carried different schemes, and this was true from ancient times when tales were spun in caves, around a bonfire, or in deep, dark places, right to these times of ours.

Recently, I had the chance to read through again the story of Awang Sulung Merah Muda, a fictitious character born into the noble house of Pati Talak Trengganu, a fictitious place. The stories in this Hikayat were ‘radio’ pieces, words to be taken via the ears rather than assimilated directly in the head. Words arouse, recharge, inspire, or break. Before going to war, our warriors stayed up till late to listen to inspirational words, like the Hikayat Amir Hamzah, read to them from handwritten text before they went out to meet the Portuguese. In the Hikayat Hang Tuah we read that while in Pahang, awaiting the arrival of Megat Panji Alam of Trengganu, he turned to his perpustakaan for comfort.

We are all story-tellers and consumers, always taken by the lure of words, because a word contains ‘truths’ of our perception, and by words do we know, and by its study do we make a link with the world around us. By linking to what we inherit we shall know more than we ever will on our own.

Umberto Eco, in a recent essay, spoke of another connectivity, but its truth can be applied here as there. Besides, he has put it far better than I am able to, so here is Eco, in his own words:
"We often have to explain to young people why study is useful. It’s pointless telling them it’s for the sake of knowledge, if they don’t care about knowledge. Nor is there any point in telling kids that an educated person gets through life better than an ignoramus, because they can always point to some genius who, from their standpoint, leads a wretched life.

And so the only answer is that the exercise of knowledge creates relationships, continuity and emotional attachments. It introduces us to parents other than our biological ones. It allows us to live longer, because we don’t just remember our own life but also those of others. It creates an unbroken thread that runs from our adolescence (and sometimes from infancy) to the present day.

And all this is very beautiful."

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Growing Up In Trengganu #842,391

As the sun beat down into midday, when the sums failed to add up and the alphabets no longer willing to spell, a van pulling a large cylindrical chamber in its rear arrived just in time by the gate of our school. It had large letters written on its green body, a word that we pronounced Mee-lo. We queued up with the teachers and licked our lips and waited and waited for the long, cool sip that came in conical paper cups, as we pondered the correct pronunciation of Nestlé.

And then, if we were lucky, we'd be walking home with a tablespoonful of the chocolaty powder packed in a plastic sachet.

We were not really Milo fans and rarely used the Milo can in our household. We were Ovaltinees, yes we were, even if that wasn't what we were called in our part of the world. Ovaltine had an orangey image, against the deeper green of Milo. But wasn't there a little logo of a man then on the Milo can, all dressed up in animal skin, with a dead animal slung over his shoulder?

Much of the marvel of Ovaltine came from its producer, a company called A. Wander, which made me think of Goosey Gander, ("Whither shall I wander?") as sung by us — and our teacher — at school. She also sang to us about the little doggie that sat in the window, as she played on the piano, but spoilt it all by taking the love-struck girl to a place called Kota Baru where, for me, she remains till today:
"I must take a trip to Kota Baru
And leave my poor sweetheart alone..."
We took trips too in our after-school hours, but not to this garden state (Negeri taman sekebun bunga) of Kota Baru. We scooped Ovaltine into our glass, mixed it in dollops of condensed milk, then poured from a flask of hot water. Sometimes we had finger bread, sold by the bai roti in a round basket the size of the tyre of the Pahang Mail lorry, perhaps bigger. It was a foot deep, and rested on coil of cloth that sat on the bai's head that took the weight of it all. There were rolls baked to a brown crust, and soft white bread stuck together like terraced shop-houses that we called roti bata, and crispy biscuits like mini toasts, and suji that crumbled between your teeth, covering your shirt-front in fine powder. In a little flat-topped can that he prised open with his spreading knife, was a home-made spread, the gungy paste based in flour in which was beaten eggs that gave it the yellow colour. There was sugar in it too, of course, and coconut milk and maybe even sunset yellow. Kaya was creamy sweet and cooled your gullets on a hot day. But most of all when we had the Ovaltine made and bubbling hot in the glass, we waited for bai to come in the noon-day heat, his umbrella, the wide, round basket of comestibles.

Bai was an Uttar Pradesh man with a wild twinkle in his eye; The emperor AkbarI think his name was Abdul Kadir. He had a thick moustache that wagged even as he spoke, his rotund body he squeezed through the frame of our front gate, as he bent his knees slightly to avoid toppling the head-basket on the overhead bar. Then he'd walk up to the kitchen side of our house, wooden stairs creaking under the weight of body and bread, then, placing himself on he topmost stair-plank, he'd lower his basket slowly onto the short apron that lay between the stair-top and our kitchen threshold. He sat, profused in sweat, muttering homilies on the heat of day. We'd buy from him the finger-shaped bread, roti keras and some kaya that he'd scoop into a glass, then off he'd go into the light, casting a wide, round shadow.

From our school-books I'd think of bai roti as Akbar the Mughal, but he'd spoil it by leaving on his head as he rested on the stairs, not the splendid head-dress of the Emperor, but the coiled up old rag that cushioned the weight of the basket he'd been carrying for most part of the day.

We bit off the two ends of the hard roti keras and used the open-ended stick to suck up the hot Ovaltine from the glass, then we'd chew on the moist stick that was already beginning to crumble.

Some days when we couldn't wait for the bai we'd spread a thick layer of condensed milk on a slice of bread, then we'd sprinkle Ovaltine powder on the sticky whole. It was a chocolaty-sweet, doughy treat, that revived you after a whole morning at school.

Even now when I see it done by little kids I'm reminded of sunshiny days.

The Emperor Akbar.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

A Brush With the Law

For the most part of this week, for reasons too long to go into, I was in court, listening to soporific tales and nodding off from the after-effects of some delightful shortbread baked on the premises of a cafe that sat plonk in the middle of the shopping mall, in this pleasant part of suburbia. I am very partial to shortbread, though not to lawyers or the law, though I started life in it. As you know, lawyers aren't interested in justice or seeking out the truth, but their main concern is to sow doubt. Are you sure this man took the handbag? You're sure it wasn't this hand-luggage or maybe another? What do you mean land? Do you mean the house on it too? And so on ad nauseam, de minimis non curat lex my foot, as you know.

However, as I was sitting there in court, eyelids gaining weight each passing minute, I began to think of an uncle, and his friend Maidin Loyar. My uncle was not a man of any special skills, but he would've made a good lawyer. He once told me how he and the man Maidin once out-witted a man who graduated from one of the English Inns by just taking the extra trouble of looking up the law books and finding the right answer. I can't remember now what it was about, but vaguely, it had something to do with the definition of a footpath and the lock to a canal. And I remember how he couldn't contain his glee as he told me about his triumph against a full-fledged, Inns of Court, pocket-in-the-back-of-cloak lawyer. Which goes to prove what they've been saying about lawyers, that they do not know any better, but they just know where to look up the law. And in this case with my uncle and his friend Maidin, the lawyers just didn't know.

Maidin Loyar was no lawyer either, but was one of those informed lay persons who was given a practitioner's licence, so he could set up office as a Pleader. He became more famous than other lawyers in Trengganu, and was more feared than most of the bewigged lads and lasses who trained across the water. There were many men like Maidin Loyar, who started life perhaps as a legal clerk then soaked up voluminous law books in the process, until their minds became an encyclopaedia. Another name that comes to mind is Basheer Malal, a man who started life in a law office in Singapore and became a knowledgable lay person. He started the Malayan Law Journal.

But back to Maidin Loyar; who sat on the Board of Governors in the Sultan Sulaiman School, a man of great presence and always attired, if memory serves, in impeccable white. He became a legendary figure, as famous as Hakim Wan Mahmud who preceded him, a man whose fame stayed long after he'd gone. Hakim Mahmud was the judge who sat on the case of the Ulu revolt against British revenue collection, where Haji Abdul Rahman Limbung was given a special licence to plead and won the day. Many, many years after Hakim Mahmud had died my mother was still pointing out to me the house where he'd lived in his day.

Maidin Loyar had a famous son who represented Malaysia in the Olympics in Rome, as a long jumper, I think; and this son had a sister who was quite a lively character and a school athlete too. I stood back many times to look when Maidin Loyar appeared at our primary school. There was awe perhaps, and even fear, but that was my first brush with local celebrity. Years after that many local boys and girls went out and came back as lawyers, but few reached the heights or became as legendary as Maidin Loyar.