On Trengganuspeak and the Spirit of Trengganu

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

My Teacher Mr Nair

There were tall cengal trees in the school ground, and a canopy of green in the far corner of the playground, lush with creepers that hid deep shadows and winding tunnels under the twines and the flowers. Beyond that were the teachers' quarters, wooden houses on short stilts, looking out to Jalan Batas Baru.

It wasn't much of a school, but it did for us things that our fathers never knew. We read books about Old Lob on an English farm, and Percy the bad chick and Dobbins the shire horse and Mr Grunt who was fond of crunchy apples. It was all a million miles away from the padi fields and the swamplands of Paya Bunga, the knitted raft of swampy growth that covered the still water for as far as the eyes could see. There was water hyacinth with flowers of deep blue, and water lilies and broad heart-shaped leaves that spread out for frogs to sit and look out dewy eyed at flying gnats, sometimes dragonflies buzzed above as dragonflies were wont to do.

In the morning, in the trishaw on the way to school, I looked out most days to the soft light that brought out this beautiful magic, of butterfly wings and translucent colours; my classmate Fatimah coming into the light from the shades of kampung trees, as she walked the ridges of the padi fields to the road to school. On rainy days I hid behind the hood listening to the prattle of rainwater, while poor Pak Mat paddled us on to school. For once the distant water buffalo had its hide the same colour as the grey tone of the sky.

Our headmaster was Mr Wee Biau Leng, a bluff man dressed in white shirt and shorts, his trade mark knee-length socks, and a referee's whistle that he blew and blew to keep us from going astray. Tweeeeeet! he'd say, "Saklierd'yu?" It took me a long time to decipher those words, "Is that clear to you?" "Is that clear to you?" And then Tweeeeet, tweeeeet!" he'd go. He was a local man and a good teacher who was as adept in English as he was in Jawi. He once pulled me aside for having abruptly crossed in front of the car of a local Datuk who was speeding out under the cengal trees. "You must say sorry to the Datuk," he said, "Saklierd'yu?" Another time I was called was when I wrote to a national newspaper to ask if what a teacher taught us was true. I can't remember what it was now, but my head still carries the newspaper columnist's answer: "The likelihood of that being true is like snow falling in Kota Baru." I was told that by my doing so I was downgrading the standard of education in Trengganu. So you see, even at that young age I was already a threat to the local order.

I was reminded of these the other day when I received an email from Pok Ku telling me of the sad passing of Mr Ravindran Nair. Mr Nair was a local lad who one day came riding to our primary school on his bicycle. This meant a lot to us, in a school where West-coast born teachers sometimes let slip their view of us as country yokels. Many orang luar children, whose fathers were state surveyors and engineers and panjandrums in the local order were taken under the wings of those out-of-state teachers, who sniffed their air of disdain on all of us down below, and even sometimes criticised the ways of our lingo. Not so Mr Nair who gave us our confidence and taught us that we too could be as clever as they.

Mr Nair taught me the power of the English language, and how to use it in debates and how to use it as a tool. One day, to my great surprise, he went out to the shops and, with his meagre teacher's salary, bought me a Kodak 127 camera and inscribed it in his own handwriting on the box that it was in recognition of my 'contributions' to the school's debating society. I walked tall to the stage to receive that, a big recognition for meagre skills. But Mr Ravindran was like that, he was nothing short of inspirational.

Sadly I never saw him again after I left Kuala Trengganu, which was many years ago. I shall always remember him as a kind man, and a good teacher. And I shall always be grateful to him for that, my proudest day, to be a child in Kuala Trengganu. Thank you Sir, Mr Nair!

See also: Passing of a Friend

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Growing Up in Trengganu, #194,756

On the mound at the river mouth the lady lit her lamp and sat on the sand, eyes peering out to sea, payang bobbing in the waves, penambang plying the waters, and tongkang pulled close to shore. There were skeletal remains of boats that were once afloat but now long dead, sticking out curved ribs of decaying wood in the mud among scurrying little crabs and the mud skippers of Pantai Teluk, ikang belukang beneath the ripples, w'ed stepped on them too many times and hollered home with their sting burning through our soles. With just their masts now standing proud, the perahu besar of Wang Kamang (father of Wang Kaleh) stood in its own mists of memory, of Senggora visits for terracota tiles, to other coastal towns for bags of salt, gunis of fragrant Thai rice, some seaweeds we called the kerabu sereh that looked like tangled sandy coloured hair, from the tangled heads of some terrible ghosts. We did not know how Wang Kamang returned the favours of these Thais, with bags of dried keropok pieces perhaps, varieties of Trengganu bananas (I got twenty at the last count) or maybe just karongs of flat fish dried out in the Trengganu heat.

As the light began to turn grey and the breeze blew gently into the ggarek, a light appeared in the distant line where the waves lapped into the sky and the clouds came down to drink the sea, then another shone brightly from a mast.I can't remember now if it was the Hong Ho or the Rawang, but the lady knew that it was her sailor come ashore, she took her lamp and waved it and waved it and waved. "I'll just place it there for now," she said, as she hooked the lamp to a tall pole, and looked out to sea to lights that were gleaming from the boat. It was then time for us to go, for the geduk drums were belting out from the surau and Imam Pak Leh was just re-tying the knot in his Haji's turban before leading the ggarek prayer. We walked home past the house of Alias Songkok, past the stalls now all deserted, into the flourescent lights of the Tamil shops and their arrays of the Zam Zam hair pomade and the sticky green of Gul Bahar in tall bottles that held the gleaming pompadours of our ever hopeful belles and beaus.

We walked past the wakaf where folk were still hearty-voiced in the shadows, playing the last moves in the game of dam, aiming for the quick finale of the buah ggarek. Wakafs always smelt of goats this time of day, the sweaty hamis of the kambing neruk, the long-bearded, thick-horned billy goat that sometimes peered into the mixing cauldrons of market vendors of the apam balik. Billy goats always had something to say this time of day, something that sounded like the muffled sound of suppressed laughter. Sometimes we fed them leaves from the pohon bbaru that gave the wakaf its noon-time shade. Pohon bbaru was also God's gift to our over-fed goats whose day had hardly ended of course for they — both Billy and nanny — were just at their penultimate stop at the wakaf, to sit and eat the bbaru leaves from proferring strangers. They were just waiting for their final move later in the night, to lie in the oozing warmth of our Kuala Trengganu roads, in front of the kedai kopi of Pök Löh and Wang Wook.

Tanjong never ended abruptly, the market was locked shut behind its mata punai wire-mesh, but vendors soon came out as it grew dark, processions of lads and lasses bearing trays of mee goreng and various concoctions of lauk, the putri mandi princess basking their sweetness in a bath of shredded coconut, and all the belebak and the akök and something I don't see much of these days, called perut ayam, circular pieces of flour rolled and cooked into flat white discs, then basted in a pure white sauce that was neither savoury nor sweet.

I liked the mee halus (thin rice noodles) of Mök Söng, that stood in a tall mound in a tray, under the flickering lights of her pelita ayang. Walking further down towards the bay, along the multi-coloured rows of cooked food under the flickering lights of the kerosene pelita, you walked out from the smell of diced chilli, and the home-made condiments and the head of steam from the hot juices of creamed coconut, into the sour smell of long bamboos stewing in the still water, and the deep dwellings of the skippers in the mud of the teluk. Here they stored bamboos tied up into rafts, waiting to be split and woven into tall fencing that kept secure the compounds of many Trengganu houses. This was the work of Wang Kamang, when he was not plying the coastal waters, he mended fences when he wasn't out sailing boats.

On the coast the houses were mostly fenceless because our Tanjong was mostly like that. You walked to the well of the surau and entered the gates of Wang Mamat, then walked out again through the open border on the other side. Fencing were bits of fanciful thinking, to keep Wang Kamang busy with his bamboo rafts. You could walk in and out of people's compounds and talk to them as they sat on their verandahs or their stairs. But sometimes there was picket fencing of waist-length stakes, to keep stray children from stepping on the kerepok that were drying out in the compound. Thin goats still squeezed through them to tread on things and eat the leaves and munch on bits of paper for dessert. Which brings us to the question outsiders are wont to ask about urban Trengganu goats: why do they wear a horizontal stick around their necks?

Why, to keep them from squeezing thorugh the gaps in the pickets, of course.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Al-Yunani All Together

First generation al-Yunanis

Another snapshot from inside the famous Abdullah al-Yunani bookshop that we knew and loved in Kuala Trengganu. This is a rare picture of the Pök Löh Yunang (Abdullah al-Yunani) family elders and first generation Trengganu al-Yunanis, taken on a happy occasion in the early 1930s when Pök Löh's eldest daughter Zubaidah (standing 4th from left) was married to Muhammad Yusuf (standing, 3rd left), eldest son of another famous al-Yunani, Pök Ali.

This sambut menantu ("welcoming the son-in-law") photo was taken in the living quarter behind the shop 2 days after the wedding.

Pök Ali is the man standing to the right of his new son-in-law, while Pök Löh stands to the left of his beloved daughter. The lady in white sitting in front of him is his wife Khatijah, the bride's mother. All the Kuala Trengganu al-Yunani are here:

[standing, l to r]:Hassan (Pök Ali's son);Pök Ali; Muhammad Ali (Pök Ali's son); Zubaidah (Pök Löh's daughter);Pök Löh; Pök Daud (carrying his son Muhammad Yusof); Mustafa (Pök Löh's son); Mahmud (Pök Musa's son); Pök Musa; Yaakob and Noordin (Pök Löh's sons).
[sitting, l to r]: Muhammad Nor (Pök Löh's son);Sa'adiah (Pök Ali's daughter, holding daughter Maimunah);Halimah (Pök Ali's wife); Khatijah (Pök Löh's wife);Siti Maryam (Pök Ali's mother-in-law); Fatimah (Pök Daud's wife, carrying son Muhammad Salleh).
[sitting on floor, l to r]:Mariam, Shamsiah, Mariah (Pök Daud's children); Solihah (Sa'adiah's daughter).

I am grateful to Encik Yahaya (whose father sits 1st left, above) who very kindly gave me permission to reproduce this photo. To see an enlarged version, click HERE.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Hex in a Top Hat

It's been awhile now since my distinguished fellow blogger Pok Ku wrote his classic piece on mujo. I was thinking of this today while explaining to an English lady how Malays can embrace fatalism and yet still be optimistic. A cut at the edge of an eye? Luckily it's not a poke in one. Lost the sight in one eye? Luckily it's one, not both. There's an endless supply of good fortune that can be delved from mishaps like that if one's prepared for a perspective shift.

It reminds me also of my late friend Pak Awang who didn't want to apply to be keeper of the royal mausoleum in Trengganu — work that required his presence in the mausoleum, sometimes into the middle of the night — for fear that he might land the job.

But in Trengganu, though you don't go looking for disaster, it's disaster that lurks behind tall trees and hard objects, and in the corner by the roadside. And that's geröh. Geröh comes hurtling at speed and falls into your lap, or onto your head, or like the man who retired to his room and was hit by a lorry that swerved into his bed. That's geröh for him alright, dah nök wak guane? Whattudu if it's like that?

I knew many children who changed their names as they grew older because they and their names were mismatched, dök sekung (tak sekun). So, a Mbong at birth became Deramang to his schoolmates; or Semek became Minöh in her marriage certificate. In this day and age the problem comes when someone's name resembles an email address, Semek@Minoh, for that's the way our registrar of names are wont to relegate aliases or names born of an afterthought. But still, it's better to be an an alias than to meet headlong with a geröh.

If name changing doesn't work and the person is still accident-prone, some families take to extraordinary means to keep him or her intact. One way is by the upor, done by a man or woman aided by a leafy branch. I don't know if there's any specially preferred tree or stick, or if one genus of leaf is preferred over the rest, but as the stick is shaken and dragged slowly over the supine person from head to foot, the susurrating leaves give a weird and wonderful effect. This while the exorciser lets loose something sibilant and occult from his mouth. The combined effect must be a mighty din in the spirit world as to overcome the jinx with a sudden urge to move house, leaving, normally, via the supine person's big toe in the left foot. But you are urged not to try this unaided at home for fear of anything untoward.

Now, as for the person who goes out looking for trouble, this act is widely described as percong, he is sometimes said to be ccari na'ah. And na'ah comes from the Arabic nahs, meaning bad luck. As percong is a deliberate act, it is beyond upor, and many will wash their hands of that. Percong nye gi tu, sapa jatoh jerebak!" He deliberately chose to go there, now he's fallen flat on his face!

There are, however, people who cannot avert trouble even if it's standing before them dressed in red. This is not just sia (standardspeak, sial, bad luck), but one with bells and things and a top hat. That's sia maja and I pray for miles between you and that.

A Song In My Head

Could anyone help me with this incomplete stanza that's singing in my head? What does it relate to?
"Patendung patending,
Lalat kumang beng,
Bulu ketang masing,
Maliking ccongak..."

Monday, February 06, 2006

Gong With the Wind

Fast as the wind blows, it's the sick wind that makes you ill.

In Trengganu, as in many other Asian cultures, it's an ill-wind that jams your limbs, causes upheavels in your interior, and makes your head feel heavy. I was sitting on the top of the stairs one day listening in to adult conversation when I heard what caused an illness called medu. It's difficult to define this medu which, if my ears heard right, afflicted its ills on many people, the womenfolk especially. Like many other afflictions on our body in the catalogue of Trengganu ills, the medu had many attributes, perhaps a nagging pressure in the interior, a proneness to belching maybe, and a general feeling of being under the weather. The medu that presses in the region of the heart, according to Winstedt, is dyspepsia.

Sitting on the stairs, a lady whose name I've forgotten, gave Mother the aetiology of the medu:
"Hei, medu medu,
Aku tahu asalmu,
Asalmu dari angin samsaring...*
And there the track goes cold. I have never been, and am still unable to, trace the source of the samsaring, this wind of ill.

I am, perhaps, as the saying goes, barking up the wrong tree. This angin that is understood to be the origin of some ailments in the body is perhaps not a real 'wind' at all as blows the sails, but a component of the four notional elements that touch on the 'humours' of classical medicine; but I never heard our elders speak of the 'fire' element, or the 'earth' that made someone's complexion appear muddy, or anyone laid low by his 'water-logged' body. So the 'angin' remains for me, the power that bends the meninjau (Trengganuspeak, mminja, nninja) tree, an ill-wind blowing hot and cold.

But the wind bends more than just a tree. A child who is getting out of hand, is suffering from naik angin, a rising wind that, like rising damp, is doing him damage. Angin dök mölek is the general verdict, a bad wind, as his mother glares (cerlöng) dark and bright and grandma shakes her head. A bad wind has caused him to be unhinged, and he has gone beyond nanör.

There are varieties of angin as there are types of people. Angin generally is said of someone who acts in an ostentatious manner, attracting attention unnecessarily, and probably living beyond his means. This is probably a kepala angin, his head is overcome by a 'wind' that is whispering many troublesome things into his ears. But kepala angin can also be the main instigator, a sort of kepala haliang with that extra oomph. This is another variety of angin dök molek that we saw in the child, a de luxe version that blows above our usual göng, and a göng, as we all know, is a part of the land that rises above the other, someone who shows off so obtrusively.

But poor is the man who's been afflicted by the wind, kena angin, for he's just suffered a stroke and needs urgent looking after. In everyday ailments, just as biscuits can go soft when exposed to the air, our bodily parts too can be made less dextrous by the wind that's crept into your arm or leg or some parts of your nether areas. This is masuk angin for which you'll need concoctions to make them go, or seek the help of a gifted masseur who can channel the wind through his own body and belch it out again and again for you to hear.

* "O medu, medu,
I know whence you came,
You came from the wind of samsaring...

DISCLAIMER:The information given above is for your information only and has never been verified by the FDA. If you suffer from any of the above ailments, please seek the advice of your own bomoh or medical practitioner.