On Trengganuspeak and the Spirit of Trengganu

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Distant Gongs

A million thanks to John Roberts who sent me the photo below where two pith-helmeted colonial enforcement officers are rummaging through the belongings of some natives to impose the "gong tax". John originally suggested to me that they could be searching for Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), and those round objects with a bulge in the middle do look to me like massive landmines. But gongs are my best bet, as the Brits imposed a tax on land in Kuala Brang (that led to uprisings known as the perang ulu), so why not a tax on gongs too for good measure to keep them lively and hopping mad during their post-harvest ronggeng?
Gongs in the countryside

This photo could have been taken in Besut in the 1920s. There's reason for my saying that, as it came from the collection of a lady who was married to a colonial officer who served as District Officer (DO) in Besut around that time. His name was Mr (later Sir) Patrick McKerron, who you can see below standing in front of the DO's residence in Kampung Raja, Besut. If you've driven along Jalan Tengku Long in Kampung Raja you will have noticed this impressive house with, perhaps, the ghost of Sir Patrick lingering in the foreground; but my informant tells me that a tennis court has been drawn into that bit of lawn where he is standing.
DO in front of Residence, Kampung Raja, Besut

I mentioned the perang ulu above in my spurious whimsy about the gong, but McKerron being the man on the spot and moment, did go to Kuala Brang to look into this small matter of the unrest. John gave me an amusing insight into the conduct of colonial diplomacy between McKerron and a rebel leader from Kuala Brang, but I'd like to do a bit more research in the Archives to shed more light on the man (and maybe the despatches of) McKerron. So I shall hold my blog on that for another time.

Looking again at the gong picture, I am impressed by the smart attire of the villagers and especially the well-turned out youth with the neat Haji's turban sitting in the foreground. So I believe they must have been waylaid while travelling to some special occasion, and I don't think, as John alternatively suggests, that the Tuans were each buying a gong to take home as a souvenir to their Blighty land. But then again John tells me that a Malayan gong was indeed found among the possessions of the late Mrs McKerron.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Hot on the Bus

Recently, when I mentioned to Atok the glory of the old Bah Net (the North Eastern Transport buses) that daily trundled down our roads in Kuala Trengganu on their Kota Baru - Kuala Lumpur journey, I could see tears welling in his eyes.The Net bus Company was the showpiece of our East Coast travel culture, their buses had bodywork that stood like jet engines before our locally crafted wooden-frame-on-a-chassis vehicles, and even their sprinting kijang (barking deer) logo seemed to be cocking a snook at our bah bberer* that was pushing it to Manir.

But we were proud of our very own Trengganu buses though sometimes we carried this celebration a bit too far. As when we hurled stones and fistfuls of other objects (mostly hard) [see, Hurlers in the Night] at the sprinting kijang on the bus's mud splattered green body, but this was all done in good spirit or to chase away the bad, as we were convinced as we did it that those self-satisfied passengers — especially those semuta-wearing ones — and their so-called soccer players, had won the match against Trengganu by the injudicious use of their Kelantan bomohs (black magic practitioners).

In a town where traffic was sparse, minor reverberations came on our roads mostly from the mini lorries that bore the name of Murtuja (bin Mohammad Salim, God rest his soul), and then by the tarpaulin covered lorries of the Pahang Mail that tipped our daily Richter; but Trengganu moved and shook mostly by the transport of our Trengganu Bus Company. These were charabancs of red and yellow with four parallel aluminium tubes fixed by screws across the outside of our windows, which, as Kookabooras remembers, were push-up pull-down frames that were bolted from within by the passengers. The bars were, I think, to keep our passengers’ jollity and their heads from sticking out of the windows.

One feature of our buses, if they had one at all, was that of being irregular. You waited paitently under a tembusu tree or on the wakaf, and then you waved and waved as soon as a white topped apparition appeared mirage-like in the shimmering heat of Kuala Ibai. Needless to say, the bus just wheezed past with this disconcerting feature of driver and conductor and all the passengers looking at you as if you’d fallen from a nut tree.

Bekeng as Kookabooras [see Comments, below] says, was the endearing characteristic of the company workers. Bekeng is a Trengganu description for dogs that barked at passing strangers, or humans who wouldn’t talk if you asked them the time of day, and then poked you in the eye for your sheer gall. We called the bus conductors kelendang as we did those drivers’ assistants who sat glumly and sometimes fell off the back of our lorries. I thought the word would have originated from the standardspeak kelindan, but as kelindan has more to do with sewing than driving, it is just possible that our kelendang came another way, via attendang from the English attendant of our buses and lorries.

Once Kuala Trengganu had the clock tower and our buses had to turn around a turtle before heading for the town centre, our bus station too moved to a place that Kookabooras says is near the Lorong Bumba (Bombay) and the Kedai Kobo (cowboy). I remember vaguely the former and even more vaguely the latter, but the little plot of burial ground remains clear in memory because if you looked at the luggage laden crowd in the station awaiting their time to go, and then swept your eyes across the road to this little plot of quietude, it brought home clearly what they say about the living being dead people on holiday.

But the bus terminus hasn’t always been there next door to Panggung Cathay. It once stood on muddy ground on the long road that sloped down to the taxi stand in a part of town called Kedai Binjai. I don’t know what stands there now, a bank perhaps or some concrete paens to the modern soul of Trengganu. If so then it is worth remembering that the ground on which they stand was made of a collection of mud and earth and bits and pieces of distant grit that stuck to the wheels and under the soles of the kelendang and derebar of our bah Teganu.

* bberer is an onamatopoeia, from the sounds made by the bus parts that shook and trembled from the force of engine power.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Marital Omnibus

One day in the mid 1990s as I was standing in the open bus terminus in Valetta, taking in diesel fumes and faint whiffs of pastizzi, I began to hear a distant cry of sweet ananas and Japanese pears. All that happened by the association of things before me and things that lay in the depths of mind; and they produced in their meeting, overlapping memories.

There was dust unsettled still in Malta blown in from the heat of the bus station in Kuala Trengganu, and the constant drone of ancient engines that pulled the yellow and red livery of the Trengganu Bus Company. Puffs of black and blue emitting from exhaust pipes that turned rusty from lashings of monsoon rains and splashings of teh tarik from puddles in the muddy road to Jerangau. Some days we stood there among clusters of travelling people and street vendors, for a bus that would take us to Jerteh or Marang. The mellow scent of garden peas (kacang putih), roasted and poured into thin dunce-cap paper funnels, somewhere around the corner the sound and smell of bananas frying, in oil that spat, grumbled and sizzled. These were memories wrapped in time and paper: paper kacang putih cones, and paper stubs from wads of tickets that had been audited and dumped into the big black bin of the Company. We collected them to tear out during our own play, as tickets in our own imaginary mode of travel.

How swiftly we travel in our memory. From the sound of bustling people and ancient internal combusters that pulled travellers into and out again of Valetta central I was transported back to Kuala Lumpur in Jalan Melaka, in a smaller space but with a similar bustle of people, waiting and waiting for their desired numbers. 28 and 30 I think, to Gombak, with the speed and imperfections of the Len Seng Bus Company, no different then than the buses I was seeing now. And then that call again that took me so far away: the throaty cry of a gangly man, hunched by the weight of a metal tray on his head that sometimes dripped ice-cold water to his workaday singlet as he waddled in his knee-length shorts that fanned out into a skirt with bulging pockets. "Bolai, bolai...nanas manis, manis," he said, enquiring eyes on the people who were awaiting their turn to clamber onto their Toong Foongs or Len Bus Co. or the simply red ones that went — I think — to the further reaches of Taman Templar.

We were new then to Kuala Lumpur where the sound of fruits and buses snarling like beasts in the dust soundtracked my after school bus-waiting hours. It took me many more days of standing in Jalan Melaka before I realised that the bolai that preceded the sweet ananas (nanas manis) in the man's peripatetic cry was buah lai the Malay name for the Japanese pear.

Valetta was many thousand miles from Kuala Lumpur, and Kuala Trengganu further than both of them together; it seemed so then, at least in memory. But I knew that there was still something yet to unravel, and then they came — on old buses — the tragi-comic life of that couple that we used to sing about in Kuala Trengganu :
Bas kompeni,
Jatoh ddalang parit;
Kelahi laki bini,
Berebut kaing carek.

Bas Kompeni,
Jatuh ddalang lokang;
Kelahi laki bini,
Berebut ppala ikang.
Would someone be so kind as to translate them for me?

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Back to the Back

In one of the earliest Malay phrasebooks written for the use of Westerners in the 18th century to facilitate the conduct of trade in spice in the Nusantara, the learner is taught how to ask for the whereabouts of so and so, and then to understand the likely answer, "Oh he was here minutes ago, but now I know not where is he." And then, the follow up by the questioner that always gives me the giggles as if it were from a situation comedy that is very much today. "Tell him that I'm here to collect the money that he owes me."

It's the presumed tableau preceding it that fills me with much hilarity. Local trader sees a Bengali Putih* coming ashore; trader makes for the nearest bolt hole after giving his trader friend instructions on how to handle enquiries, while he himself dives behind the bush, or up a tree, or disappears into his kampung by the shore. Lesat patat that’s what we call it in Trengganu, lost without trace, into the bolt hole. Patat is a controversial word that raises eyebrows along the West coast of the peninsula; but along the eastern shore we say it as a matter of course: patat kain, the part of the sarong that we sit on, patat periuk, bottom of the pot. On the West coast — and please say it in a whisper — patat (or its standardspeak version **n***), is the posterior, or, to put it bluntly, the female genitalia.

Well, I have been away, but not exactly to the bottom of the pit, lesat patat, but to sit by the sideline and think awhile. That saintly man of Bihar Sheikh Sharafaddin Maneri, (that's Maner in India, not the one on the Trengganu river) wrote more than six hundred years ago that it was good to "distance yourself from yourself, remove your heart from yourself, and wash your hands of yourself and, like the Cave Dwellers [ashab al-Kahfi], make a cave of your heart, and, entering therein, proclaim four times on your behalf that God is great!"

And so, to borrow from a yet to be written Trengganuspeak phrasebook, the answer to your question "Ambo, gi duane sapa dök napök mata hidong tu?" ("Where have you been, sinking as you did without a trace?") my answer is, "Dök duane, dok nnengung je!" ("Nowhere in particluar, I'm here gazing at my navel.").

That lays otiose the stock of possible accusations in the pages that follow: tembör lari (run away), tembör celubu (bolted off), or accusations that I have been nnusuk (hiding).

For that snippet from Mainari above I’m grateful to that delightfully erudite Battutahphile Tim Mackintosh-Smith, quoted in his book "The Hall of a Thousand Columns".

* White Bengali, a misnomer, as the people mistakenly referred to as Bengalis in Malay are actually Punjabis.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

One in the Eye

One day as I was on an overhead crossing looking at the traffic flowing from the East, an undientified flying object appeared before my eyes. It darted from left to right, a transparent dot in a little hoop that was similarly without colour. And that was how I landed, on a Saturday, at the Moorfield Eye Hospital.

Oh, said the eye-lady, there were hundreds floating around, not in hers, but in the eyes of their beholders. So that was how, on a sunny Saturday, I became an official floater sighter. Floaters are a part of our reality, well yours at least, she said, you can safely ignore it, and then it'll go. If you're lucky.

Floaters appear only in the light of day, never at night. Sometimes I see the letter 'I' in a shop sign, in capital, dotted by my floater. Most times I don't see it at all because I've learnt to ignore it. When I read on the bus, then look up, I see my floater in the sky. Come back when you see more than one, the eye lady said, but I am, praise God, a one floater man. Still.

And this brings me to a peculiar sentence that's been floating in my mind since I began to think about my floater: Ini tentang mata semata-mata. Don't you find it weird?

I thought you'd like to share that while normal operations are suspended. Awhile.