On Trengganuspeak and the Spirit of Trengganu

Friday, September 30, 2005

Cannon Fire, Bell And Drums

In Sumatra, the practice passed down for generations was that boys never slept at home, preferring the camaraderie and the life of instruction in the local surau or langgar that were not really mosques but just the village prayer house. It was an arrangement that shaped the early life of Hamka (Haji Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah), a writer who was loved both here and there. So his early life in Sumatra went thus:
"In the month of Ramadhan, the boys broke fast in the surau with the elders. The adults did the the tarawih prayer in a group, then the children sat in a circle for the tadarrus i.e. the reading of the Qur'an, each reciting a portion. We stayed up till 1 a.m. returning home to awake our mothers and grandmothers to prepare the early morning meal (before the fast). While waiting for the rice to cook we snatched a moment of sleep, and were not awoken until the meal was all ready and laid out. We ate while still half asleep. Sometimes, as soon as we finished eating there were already voices in the front yard calling us out to the surau again."
In Kuala Trengganu our house was cheek by jowl with our local surau Sheikh Abdul Kadir that called out the prayer times by drum and voice. The drum of cow hide, or geduk as we called it in Trengganuspeak, was beaten to a rhythm that started in quick short bursts, then lingered at peak in four or five well-thumped, well-spaced out beats, then dropping again in short bursts that soon faded out. Each burst that reverberated to our rafters, also shook the crockery in our house; once bringing down a trayful of agar-agar that mother had put out to dry in the sun.

in Kuala Trengganu people slept in our suaru during or outside the fasting month, but they were not local boys but mostly old folk who could not be bothered to go home, or fishmongers' assistants and urchins who saw more of the streets than the inside of a house. When the oldies awoke with the reddening of the sky by the shuffling of the muezzin preparing for his early morning call, the fish tenders continued their dreams of the deep while the urchins merely stirred beneath their sheets of flimsy batik and rolled back to sleep on their other side. This was in the wide verandah in the back of the surau; past them the muezzin walked, past the bundles of human shapes, then on cue he raised the hitter of the geduk.

In Ramadhan, if anyone was minded to make the short walk to the suaru there was an additional hitting of the geduk just before dawn painted the sky red with its brush. This marked the end of the sahur, when plates were collected by ladies of the house and late eaters took their last gulp of the coffee down to the residues at the bottom of the glass, and when everyone who was up resisted sleep to await the dawn prayer of subuh. It went well until one morning an elderly neighbour woke up in a stupor and made straight for the geduk. Needless to say it sent everyone reeling in panic; and when I looked out of our window I saw him standing by the geduk scratching his head, trying to explain his erratic beats to another neighbour who came rushing out from his house.

In addition to the geduks that sounded out their beats in local suraus and madrasahs Ramadhan was a time in Kuala Trengganu for cannon blasts from distant hills that marked out the times for the beginning and ending of the fast, and when the wind was blowing right we'd hear the pealing genta from the beacon hill of Bukit Putri that was perhaps a quarter of a mile from our house. The genta was the Trengganu bell, cast in the ground of the Istana Maziah at the foot of the hill and then taken to the hilltop to ring out good news and sad. My memory of it was just of the Hari Raya ('Eid Days) and the constant ringing out to mark out the times in Ramadhan from when the sun began to set.

Not a hundred years before that — I am told — the genta pealed out not just for joy but also at times when an amok was at large, when people in the streets would be scrambling to the genta sound, for somewhere safe from whoever it was on the rampage.

Above extract translated from 'Renungan Tasauf' ('Reflections on Sufism') by Hamka, Penerbit Pustaka, Panjimas, Jakarta, 1995.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Growing Up In Trengganu, #192,212

On days when our granary got lean I stood in trepidation at the bottom of our wooden kitchen stairs and stared at those legs wound taut by varicose veins as they placed weight on the treads. It was the billhook man, with his apron of batik wrapped around his khaki shorts, a cape fashioned from a batik print around his back, and on it, in a bundle of back-breaking weight, a picul of rice in a sack of burlap.

A picul must've been a word derived from the act, pikul, the carrying of a heavy load on one's shoulders or back. In Trengganu in those days — as was in the other states — a picul was a lot of weight, almost 61 kilograms in present day measure, or 133 and a third pounds if you're still the avoirdupois type.

Avoirdupois was a word that was imprinted on the dacing (weighing scale) of our rice merchant Wan Deramang, and that got stuck in my head. There were sixteen ounces to the pound, and there were nine treads to our kitchen stairs that stood inclined at a steep angle, with treads worn out by years of rain and sun, and by folk who sat and threw their gaze to the teeming market that lay beyond our front gate.

The bill-hook man trod very carefully as the cengal wood groaned and sagged, one false move he'd be reeling backwards with, if he was lucky, the bag of rice landing before him to make his bed, or, if the wood broke, he'd be diving through the stairs with the picul of rice still on his back.

We had uncles and aunties and friends who came to our house on most working days, who, as a mark of their familiarity with us, would sit on top of the stairs to chat and sip tea or coffee from there while we got on with our daily chores in the house. Bai the breadman parked his round bread basket on the apron between stairs and house, as he perched himself on the 7th or 8th tread from the pot below, where he'd probably scooped water to cleanse his feet before he clambered up to our house. There he'd sit, enjoying the blessing of the shade, his coil of rag place mat still on his head, and his hands reaching out into the basket for our orders given from the top of the stairs. From where I sat I could see all that was in the basket, the kaya in his Cow & Gate tin, the round paung and the bata crusty loaf., and the crunchy finger biscuits that we dipped into our hot Ovaltine and transferred to mouth very quickly before it fell into our laps in one soft, moist heap.

Once a week, or twice maybe, a father and son pair would come into our shade, each carrying a shoulder stick loaded on both ends with firewood cut and bound into bundles of eight or ten, each the length of the ruler in my schoolbag. The son would probably park his shoulder stick and load near the well, just three paces from the stairs, and father would rest his load and squat in another part of the shade. They wore shorts, enwrapped in a batik sarong that went down to their feet, but folded back in half to make into a short curtain around their waists. Around their heads was a wrap from a cloth that is no longer seen, longer than it is wide, and hand decorated with flowers or tendrils from an unknown shrub. They spoke with a strange lilt, and came down to our part of town in a boat that would've drifted down the muddy water of the Trengganu at first light. From their conversations I gathered that they came from a place called Telemong, in the Ulu, which was a dark place in those days as it was way upstream and surrounded, perhaps, by thick trees and hobgoblin and spirits.

The father and son pair in fact worked in the forest, going into dense thicket to fell trees while the stronger among them hacked the fallen lumber into short pieces of wood to light the fire beneath our cooking pots. For bundling the wood they used the skin of the bamboo, sharp it was at the edge and strong to hold together the the load. We bought ten or twenty of those bundles to stack beneath our house for kitchen use, but sometimes for special dishes or cakes, mother would burn dried husks of the coconut that burnt with a fierce smoke.

Che Kor was the father's name, a moustachioed man who drank coffee as he spoke about the scarcity of wood for reasons that happened in their upstream place. His son Che Muda I remember to be a handsome lad, who wiped sweat from his face with his headcloth as he spoke, and who told us many stories about the dark forest. They drank their drinks and piled the bundles of wood where they were kept, then they'd go with their shoulder sticks and a lighter load.

One day Che Muda arrived without his dad and placed our order in its place. Then he sat on the stairs and sipped tea and wiped his face, and told us this sad news. He was felling trees as usual in the forest, he said, when a big one fell, then he heard a voice, "Allah!" coming from the direction of his dad. That was how his dad went, he said, taken by the tree that had given him life.

After that Che Muda became an irregular visitor to town with his load and his shoulder stick, then he too faded completely from our lives.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Man With The Pom-Pom Hat

A man once told father his dark secret. He was of great age, walked with the measured gait of a man of silat (though I'm not sure if he was an exponent of it) and he wore the kain pelikat and his baju, and a woolen hat with a little pom-pom atop his head. There was nothing unusual in that, except that he was then maybe a score years or two from a hundred, and he walked the fifteen minute walk from his house to the Mosque when others maybe a little over half his age were ferrying themselves by the local teksi because of a crick in their necks, or were never out in the streets without a walking stick to prop their troublesome gammy legs.

Beneath his pom-pommed hat he had hair that was darker than the night. He called it sirang dalang in Trengganuspeak, which meant watering from the inside, and that, he said, was his secret. Father, as far as I knew, never took this advice to heart for it involved watering the inner parts with a daily glass of milk, a practise that was unknown to the denizens of our house. And oh, we took our daily milk all right, but it came thick and condensed white from a can that carried a picture of the milkmaid. We called it, in Trengganu, cap junjung because the milkmaid carried a little wooden tub on her head, and that was junjung as we saw it done in our own market.

One day Father came back and told us of the Du'a Haikal (the supplication of Sayyidina Haikal) that was another one of the secrets of our Grand Old Lad. Read that daily, he once told Father as they adjourned from their morning prayer and were dispersing into the street. The pom-pom bobbed up and down on his head as he continued his early morning walk, taking the streets with his familiar gait. And then, with a twinkle in his eye he looked at Father and reminded him of the sirang dalang that worked, for him at least, a treat.

I am reminded of Datuk Balai when Ganukite placed his comment on the Bunga Mas, the flowers of gold that were sent to Siam by our Trengganu Sultan in those days before the British signed the Treaty that took the northern Malay States of Trengganu and Kelantan and Kedah under their wings but still did not give Patani to the Thais as much as left it to its own fate. And the rest is history of course as we now know it.

Datuk Balai loomed large in my mind as he was a link with what was then to me our 'ancient' past, when Siamese might came down to Langkawi and burnt their store of rice as punishment for something the Langkawians did or did not do, and when Northern Sultans bore Siamese titles of Phraya this or that, and which the Trengganu Sultan did not, because, as Ganukite points out, Trengganu did not send those Bunga Mas in deference to some Siamese might, but more as a token of thanks for favours done in the past. (See Comments below). I'm grateful too to Atok and Kakteh for adding to our knowledge by their inputs.

Father was always bumping into Datuk Balai, a man he respected greatly, at the mosque, and he was also a close friend of the junior Datuk, an amusing man, I remember, who wore thick glasses and drove one of the few Morris Minors in the street. It was obvious where he got his humour from, the senior man Datuk Balai had his way with words, and was adept in what we Trengganuspeakers called mengayor, i.e. speaking with irony and looking at things with a light heart. When he came home to tell us of his meetings with the Datuk it was always with awe that Father narrated his words, and a little bit of glee too for that. Even in his late years the Datuk Balai was a man of great resource. He once retreated into the sticks to breed a gaggle of ducks, Father once told us.

But the story that most captured my imagination was of his journey up North to deliver the Trengganu Bunga Mas. Whenever the subject came up for discussion in our house, that was what Father would bring up. That the Datuk Balai was a member of the Trengganu royal entourage to Siam that guarded the Bunga Mas with their lives en route to the King of Siam's Court. And with glee the Datuk told Father that in the streets to the Great Palace, the Thais would throw themselves at their feet, to prostrate before the sacred gift to their Royal house.

I shook the Datuk's hand early one morning when I followed Father to the mosque. It was the touch that connected me to our past.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Down Our Way

When Abdullah Munshi arrived in Kuala Trengganu of puddled waste water and lanes of no more than an arm's width, he was irked by the lack of purpose in Trengganu males. This was March 1838, on a Sunday if my calculation's right, and it was a dirty old town he saw with unkempt bushes and coconut husks piled beneath houses, and many, many coconut trees.

He followed the lanes, and what lanes they were, running between houses that stood higgledy piggledy, and they were curved and twisted like snakes knocked senseless into twists and coils. Macam ular kena palu, he said, were the lanes of Kuala Trengganu. Of course, Trengganu town planning left much to be desired, even I knew this from my days there in the latter part of the century after Abdullah's. There were houses that faced the road, there were those that turned their backs to it, there were those that looked at one end of the road from its front door, and the other from its rear. There were bushes and little trees and snakes too Abdullah then observed, living in lanes that snaked through this old Kuala Trengganu.

I didn't meet many snakes in the streets in my days over there. But I did goats, sitting alfresco on the roads, taking in the warmth released by the night time tar. The goats that Abdullah saw were tethered in the market, sold on four legs at the price of one ringgit, cheap, I thought, even for more than a hundred years ago. But then goats were unfussy creatures if I remember them well, mostly left to roam free to chew on odd bits of paper for supper on their tarmac table. There was another defining feature of goats of Kuala Trengganu that I recall, they nearly all had a piece of stick that dangled horizontally from a ring of rope around their necks, that was about the width of their body. Abdullah Munshi didn't mention this in his Journey, maybe he was too busy to notice, because he was too busy measuring the widths of those passages that twisted and turned between the higgledy piggledy houses of Kuala Trengganu. Some of these passages were just wide enough for one man to pass through, he observed, getting ever more irritated by how unkempt and unruly Kuala Trengganu was, compared perhaps, to Singapore.

But please don't misunderstand me, I'm grateful to Abdullah Munshi for having written such an engaging account of Kuala Trengganu in days of yore. I only wish he'd pay a bit more attention to those goats when they were not tethered to their posts in the pasar, because I've often wondered when the idea started when sticks were dangled on their necks. If he did, the idea would have been taken and patented in Singapore to goat-proof the houses of the Tuans Raffles and Farquhar. For in Kuala Trengganu, rice and flour and those delightfully coloured cuts of agar-agar were spread out daily on mats in front of houses, to dry. But goats that tired of their paperfests and were longing for a nibble on some grains of rice or those crystal coloured bits of jelly would have had their ideas thwarted by the sticks, because horizontal sticks wouldn't have let them go through the picket fencing that surrounded those drying houses that sat higgeldy piggeldy in the town of Kuala Trengganu. See?

Like goats, the Kuala Trengganuans of 1838 were afternoon people. On entering the market — the Pasar Kampung Laut, which, I think, was not far from the Kampung Tanjong that I grew up in — Abdullah asked: Where's the market?

"All this before you is the market," replied an idle bystander. "You come back later in the afternoon and you'll have your heart's desire."

The men of Kuala Trengganu, if you can imagine it, were not just bystanding strangers. The local princes and their henchmen hung at every street corner, "each man carrying four or five throwing instruments, and a keris and a long sword; and that's all they do, walking up and down the street carrying their weapons." Now If I were there, just off a ship for a day's recce, I wouldn't have been so brave as to ask Smart Alecky questions of men so armed to the teeth, like "Where's the market?" when I could have seen the market before me, albeit empty. And even if I were so brave as to ask such questions of them, I'd have prepared myself to bolt the other way at the slightest movement, especially of those throwing spears.

But Abdullah Munshi did survive intact, and went home (after visiting Kelantan) to write his story. And in the market, when the womenfolk came out, he saw goats and sheep and poultry, and all the food and vegetables and fish were all cheap and plentiful, but alas, the folk of Kuala Trengganu were not keen eaters of meat or ghee, prefering to feast themselves on fish and and food that were distinctly foul, like tempoyak (fermented durian) and pekasam (fermented fish sauce), and petai and jering, and on herbs that were found everywhere.

No mention by name though, of budu; but the man who missed those goats with their neck sticks would have missed out on this one too.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Eggs In A Net

Coming into town along Jalan Batu Buruk, looking right at the roundabout that once had the penyu (turtle), you'll see on your right, a little wooden house in the middle of a sprawling cemetery. I am told that the turtle is no more now that it has been replaced by a replica of the Trengganu Stone (Batu Bersurat) as the standard bearer for Kuala Trengganu. But the Kubur Tok Pelam (Tok Pelam Cemetery) is still there, still drawing in family members of the deceased, and its ground is still being dug up for burials.

I've been intrigued by the Tok Pelam since I started going to the Sekolah Ladang, which, I'm told, still stands nearby. The cemetery bears the name of a man with a strange title, Tok Pelam, and more than that, among my school going friends it was whispered that in the quaint wooden house built over the cemetery was the egg of an exotic bird, the buraq, a speedy traveller that covers miles and dimensions in a tick, and it was one of life's mysteries to me — at the Sekolah Melayu Ladang — that such an exotic bird chose to lay an egg in a wooden shack in a cemetery on the fringe of a quiet town called Kuala Trengganu.

After we left Kuala Trengganu many years ago, my memory of the cosmic egg faded with the years, until very recently that is, when I went back to the the town and the Tok Pelam in a blog, then I remembered the egg, which may or may not have existed, as I retrieved an old picture that I've kept in that dark attic under my thatch, covered as it is in a patina of dust of passing years. I made a note of it in Burying the Past, then sent the picture back to the mind's deep interior, and thought of it no more.

An egg of the buraq descried from memories of a distant past, could I have said any more than that? A flashback to an urban tale of childhood years, maybe? I wish I 'd ventured into the Wooden House the last time I was in Kuala Trengganu (fifteen years ago?) to say a prayer for the dead within, then to cast a glance around the house for shreds of evidence of a childhood story.

Last week, while I was looking into a beautiful book of words and etchings by Ilse Noor, published fourteen years ago, in the section on 'Terengganu' I read these chilling words:
"The strange coincidence at the end of my journey, of coming upon a small wooden house and coming to know of two huge eggs hanging in nets in two corners of the empty attic, puzzles and troubles me."
This was the mausoleum to Tok Pelam that the artist Ilse Noor was describing, and the eggs of the buraq, they were there! Except that the guardians of the tomb told her that these were the eggs of the cenderawasih, the mythical Bird of Paradise of Malay folk lore. But how could a mythical bird have laid those eggs that dangled in a net in a mausoleum in Kuala Trengganu? I began to hear an old Malay song:
Cenderawasih burung kayangan,
Terbangnya tinggi, tinggi di awan...
But I'm grateful to Ilse Noor not just for confirmation of the existence of those eggs ("The eggs... look like ostrich eggs, hanging there unchanged from time immemorial...") but also for information on the mysterious Tok Pelam.

According to what Ilse was told, Tok Pelam, whose real name was Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, was born in the year 1819 (1235 A.H.) in Hadramaut in Yemen. He was one of three preachers — the other two were Tok Pulau Manis, and Sheikh Ibrahim — who travelled East, landed in the Malay State of Patani (now in Southern Thailand) then travelled further to Trengganu. The Kubur Sheikh Ibrahim, another well-known cemetery in Kuala Trengganu, is just a couple of hundred yards from the Tok Pelam. (see blogs, passim).

According to the narration, Tok Pelam lived in Kampung Ladang (where he was buried) and directed the building of the mausoleum in the last year(s) of his life. The house remains a curiosity in the town of Kuala Trengganu, with its two carved wooden doors (secured by a string), and another feature that is unusual in Trengganu house building: its walls are painted with 'flowering plants growing out of vases' and its ceiling, decorated with geometrical flower motifs. The inscription on the doors say that Tok Pelam died in 1319 Hijrah, at the age of 84.

The only thing that troubles me about this bit of history (as told to Noor) is the Tok Pulau Manis, the distinguished Trengganu saint and scholar whom I've mentioned a few times in my earlier blogs. If this was the same Tok Pulau Manis who gave religious instruction to Sultan Zainal Abidin I, he could not have been a contemporary of Tok Pelam, as he died in 1736, nearly a hundred years before Tok Pelam himself was born. Furthermore, Tok Pulau Manis (whose real name was Sheikh Abdul Malik) was descended not of Yemeni stock, but was a scion of one Sharif Muhammad of Baghdad. He himself though, was born in Kampung Pauh in Hulu Trengganu in 1650.

I'll be grateful for any information on these three Trengganu luminaries.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

The Teh Tarek Chronicles

There are so many good people out there. I've been taken to tea, but sadly, I don't tarek, it disagrees with me. But the company has been tremendous. As I said, so many good people out there: after meeting the trio I mentioned earlier, I met Anedra, OOD, and Maya, who isn't an illusion at all. Thank you kind people!

And one went even beyond the call of duty and snooped into the garbage can of the Pejabat Jang Besor, a government office just next door to the office of Mat Sprong, our intrepid Trengganu Private Eye. In the can our intrepid researcher unearthed a valuable document, an affidavit by one Cik Kaleh, listing the (mis)deeds of one Long Ladang as regards one pony tail:
"1. Nama ambe ialah Kaleh, atau dikenali sebaga Cik Kaleh.
2. Kerja ambe tukang gohek teksi.
3. Umor ambe 28 taung dan ambe berpikirang warah.
4. Pada 5 hb.Mac 1964 ambe sedang gohek teksi hala ke roundabout Piung di LLadang, dari arah Tanjung. Tiba-tiba ambe dengar bising bbangor dan riuh rendoh budok-budok dok ttepik..."
To read the rest of this document, see comment by 'Anonymous' HERE.
This document must rank with the Roswell Footage in importance and must be kept for posterity.

Another Anonymous person sent in the possible etymology of laghor following my blog Rack and Ruin. He (?) very eruditely points out:
"Laghor, I believe originally is an Arabic word, (lam ghin alif) which has the meaning of (1) to talk nonsense and (2)to become null, void, obsolete, outdated, cancelled. Probably it was imparted to Trengganuspeak by Arab Traders a long time ago?"
I think we're on to something here, for which I also invite you to read my earlier blog, Gotta Beg, Steal or Borrow for my earlier comment on the word.

Punoh, rosok, jahannang, various stages of disrepair. Please go to comments at Rack and Ruin below to see what a rich seam we have touched, though I'm not sure if I agree with Atok if it's the situation that's jahannae or the person, but thanks for the source of my quoted stanzas. The man mentioned by Pok Ku there, Pommen Wang Selemang was an important personage in Kuala Trengganu, a motor mechanic par excellence, and a man who, with deft hands, repaired the old grandfather clock in the Masjid Abidin of Kuala Trengganu when all the clockmakers within a mile radius of the mosque wanted to consign it to the dustheap of horological history. I got the story from my father who came home and reported this feat with pride and glee.

In my next blog I shall unravel a bit more about the mystery of the Tok Pelam cemetery which I blogged about some time ago, and about which I found a bit more in a rather serendipitous way just a few days ago while on another trail.

For those who wrote in to ask about Mat Sprong, I can reveal that there are 2 episodes more before he unravels all. Mat is now on his back after a bout of dengue fever, but he's responding to treatment very well and mentions Song occasionally.