On Trengganuspeak and the Spirit of Trengganu

Thursday, August 24, 2006

A Trengganu Man in Kelantan

In 1838, a meddlesome man known to us only by his title of the Panglima Besar, approached Abdullah Munshi and asked him quietly if he could tell him how to make gunpowder.

The meeting took place in the throes of the Kelantan civil war. The man is also now known to us by his other title of ‘Haji’, that is, someone who had made the journey to Makkah. I have called him meddlesome because he was actually a Trengganu man who had no business to stick his neck into the domestic affairs of a feuding neighbouring state.

An account of this meeting between Abdullah and the Haji is found in the Pelayaran, of Abdullah, a sea journey that also took him to Trengganu. He was on his way to Kelantan, on an errand for the Governor of Singapore on whose behalf he was carrying a letter, addressed to the feuding parties in Kelantan for the release of goods belonging to Singapore merchants. The man Haji who visited Abdullah on his boat was also on an errand for a disputant in the Kelantan war, the Raja Bendahara. The latter seemed to be having the upper hand at the time of Abdullah’s visit; he had had his enemies beseiged in their stockade and that was as far as things went for the time being.

By saying that Abdullah found the state in the ‘throes’ of war I may be guilty of an exaggeration. Things were actually at a standstill. For the Raja Bendahara in fact, and for his opponent in the stockade, the idea of war was quite a leisurely one. ‘This isn’t war,’ Abdullah declared in typically magisterial fashion, ‘it’s playing at war.’ He wrote:
”They fire four or five shots, and then both sides stop to eat and drink; and then they fire again. By their methods no decision can be reached — no not in ten years; each side sits in its stockade, and even if there were ten koyans of gunpowder it would not be finished.”
What fascinates me about the meeting of those two men is the different kind of worlds that they seemed to inhabit. Abdullah was a ‘cultural’ Malay with one foot on the subcontinent and another in the tumult of the Malay world, and a keen and fascinated observer of the European mind. The Panglima Besar and Raja Bendahara were from a quieter rural tradition, men who were in no hurry for things to conclude for commerce to flow and the world made safe for wealth accumulation. Life for them was set in a pattern, and they themselves were parts of the pattern, not painters of the design.

“This business would be finished in a day if it were a European war,” Abdullah mused. “Men who go to war should not be afraid of death and dig holes in the ground to live in.”

The Panglima Besar did admit to having experimented with concoctions that, said Abdullah, ‘didn’t turn out too well.’ He probably did find some saltpetre and a bit of belerang (sulphur) but it probably did not produce a loud enough bang. Or he probably got his fingers burnt. But even if he were successful would he have used the stuff on his opponents?

Abdullah wasn’t much help with the gunpowder ingredients, saying that he had it all in a book (which also contained secrets of metal-plating, the eye-lotion, and loaf-sugar making) but which, alas, he had left in Melaka. But for the Panglima he devised a simple plan of burrowing a tunnel in the ground till they reached the area beneath the opponent Raja’s house. There Abdullah advised him to place ‘four or five barrels of gunpowder’ , run a long fuse, and then run as fast as they could to their own stockade to wait. And here Abdullah’s plan took a sinister turn:
”Then when they are all gathered together for food or whatnot, light the fuse. In an instant they will all fly skywards.”
To his credit, the Raja Bendahara found the idea interesting but not attractive. When the Haji came back he told Abdullah that the Raja was delighted by the idea but “averred that he did not like to carry it out, as it would cause the deaths of so many of his own people; if only the other Raja were killed, it wouldn’t matter.”

As the Haji had earlier told Abdullah, past invitations made by one side to hand-to-hand fighting was simply ignored by the other, and then ignored in turn by the issuing side when — presumably after a decent interval — it was hurled back at them by the former recipient. But like my fellow Trengganu man that was sent as emissary to Abdullah, I am rather fond of the Raja Bendahara for his lack of thirst for blood, and for his relaxed approach to warfare.

The Raja Bendahara’s reaction to Abdullah’s gunpowder plan seemed to be totally in character. He himself had made challenges to the other for open combat that were happily ignored, and when he himself received the same, he too was reluctant. As he explained to the Haji (and reported by Abdullah):
”[T]he Raja Bendahara said that he did not wish to harm his subjects, and that kind of warfare would harm many of them, and so he preferred to besiege the enemy and prevent food from reaching them; in the long run they were bound to give up and come out.”

All quotations from “The Voyage of Abdullah”, English translation by A.E.Coope.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

3. How to...Serengeng

Serengeng became a confusible word because of the advent of “Srengenge”, a novel by Shahnon Ahmad who went on to write such gems as “S*h*t”. But Serengeng is an equally vehement word — if srengenge is indeed a word, because serengeng is a gale-force wind that is just a step beyond serabè but below your usual jereköh. Now serabè is a culinary word that somehow got into the local idiom as the serabè cook took a runny solution of flour and projected it through a funnel of banana leaf, as she whirled and she whirled and she whirled it until she got a heap of bready string that wouldn’t have gone amiss with a plate of hot curry. A serabè monger is someone who prattles on and on with what’s wrong with the world, but more often, with what's wrong with the person to whom the serabè is directed; whilst the jereköher projects a terrifying sound from the pit of his internal fire much as the kiai is meant to do to your opponent's spirit in the pursuit of the bushido.

There is a sharp distinction between jereköh and serengeng as there is between a full stop and the elipsis, and this is because even though both jereköh and serengeng are forms of harsh rebuke, the latter has more to say beyond the harsh decibel. Jereköh is your boot down on the wooden floor with a sharp report, to instil fear and flight in the hearer, like the Oooooiii! hurled at the stranger lurking beneath the house in the middle of the night. Serengeng has more of the Ancient Mariner quality about it, the will to detain the listener and broil him or her in the tedium of your words spoken in anger. There is also another important difference between jereköh and serengeng in terms of crowd dispersal: for whilst the jereköh effect is accelerated movement in a manner centrifugal (or what is known in Trengganuspeak as the lari cerida), you do not bolt from a serengeng for fear of inducing more of the same or to prevent it from degenerating into a full-blown jereköh that may require you to change into a fresh (and dry) underwear. You try, as best you can, to sidle away from a serengeng, at the moment the serengenger is momentarily distracted by the sound of the muezzin’s call, or when the strain of his work prompts him into a fit of coughing. The use of the male pronoun here for the serengenger is deliberate as it is, nine times out of ten, a male pursuit, the female of the species preferring the more elaborate beleber that goes on and on through — and till after — dinner.

Serengeng is the comeuppance for daring to ask for something ridiculous or impossible, or just the hard side of bothering someone when he is already in a bad mood. A good serengeng is nowadays in a moribund state because of the ambient sound of the permanently switched on television and the young’s proclivity for plugging competing sound systems into their earholes. But a good serengeng can still be heard in the kampung when townsfolk go home to meet elderly family members, and the sound of the serengeng still ringing in the ears is a major contributor to road accidents on the journey back to city centres.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Flower of Trengganu

Looking towards Padang Malaya in the haze of early morning I’d sometimes see the past coming down with a limp. He wore a polo necked shirt — if memory serves — and a pomponed woollen hat sat jauntily on his head.

He was ninety father said, perhaps a bit more to be safe. Looking now at the geanealogy of Trengganu sultans I see that that would have placed his birth somewhere at the tail-end of the reign of Sultan Omar Shah Baginda, 1839-1876. He would have been around 11 when Sultan Zainal Abidin III, posthumously, Marhum Haji, acceeded to the throne in 1881, and about 48 at the end of his reign in 1918. These dates are important because the pompon hatted man was probably the last link Trengganu had with the bunga mas the golden flower — but which was actually a tree with flowers of gold — that was sent in tribute to the King of Siam as the price for being in the shadow of this tetchy and troublesome giant. Delegations from Trengganu arrived every three years to the Siamese royal court with these golden flowers, right until 1909 when Britain and Thailand drew a line dividing the northern Malay States between them, the states of Patani to be absorbed into Thailand, and the rest to come under British wings.

Sultan Zain al Abidin refused to recognise the Bangkok Agreement, rejected a British ‘adviser’ but grudgingly accepted a British agent. The gesture did not save him from the stranglehold of this western colonial power, but it saved him until his death in 1919 from having to scrape his state coffers for three more orders to his goldsmiths for the troublesome Bunga Mas.

One morning, when I was up in time to walk with father to the White Mosque (the Masjid Zain al Abidin, as it happened) for the dawn prayer, we met the man in our slow walk home, and father urged me to shake his hand. Father knew the man well as he had a jovial friend who signed himself Awang bin Datuk Balai, and the pompon hatted nonagenarian who was slowly emerging from the haze of the Kuala Trengganu morn was the Datuk Balai himself, the man who hobnobbed with and probably shook the hands of panjandrums in the imperial court and probably caught a glimpse of the Siamese king himself as he peeked through his royal curtains to look with satisfaction at yet another consignment of Trengganu gold.

Datuk Balai in his heyday served in the Royal House of Trengganu, father said, and was part of Sultan Zain al Abidin’s Bunga Mas mission. I was too clueless than to be capable of any intelligent conversation with the Datuk, but I remember him for his gleeful take on life as he saw it, and father, I remember, was always taking home some gleeful anecdotes about the man. He once told father that the head of jet black hair under his woolen hat was largely attributed to his diligent watering of the roots from within, with glasses of milk from local cows. I remember the words that father quoted from him, sirang dalang (standardspeak, siram dalam, watering from within). And then once, father said, he simply disappeared from sight, only to be found in the darat (hinterland), merrily watering a gaggle of ducks, a business idea that soon floundered but which brought him back to the White Mosque of his former master Zain al Abidin.

Once when father asked the venerable Datuk Balai about his trips to Siam with the Bunga Mas he made great comedy of how Siamese men and women in the street made a show of throwing themselves to the ground in prostration on seeing the arrival of this precious gift. Such was their veneration for their king.

The bunga mas itself could not have produced any great mirth in the treasury of Trengganu then and the tri-annual demands of Siam would have exacted a great burden on the state. We learn from letters from Trengganu sultans that Trengganu lived by trade. In the letter from Sultan Mansur to Francis Light in Pulau Pinang in 1792 (that mentioned the ominous rejection by the Siamese king of the Bunga Mas of that season), the Sultan mentioned a cargo of membalau (a hard-wood) and belerang (sulphur) and rattan and cotton on the Trengganu kuci boats destined for the Chinese market, with Francis Light as the contingent target.

One of Sultan Mansur’s trading emissaries, Saudagar Nasruddin, had just died, leaving unfinished business in Pulau Pinang. The Sultan had sought Light’s help in bringing his liquidity back again to an even keel for he was ‘in difficulty’ — sangatlah jadi kesusahaan — for the deceased trader left only unsold stock, not hard rial or cash. As the Sultan put it:
”Seperkara lagi hendaklah anak kita bicarakan rial beri mari kepada suruhan anak kita itu karana saudagar sudah mati itu tiadalah meninggalkan rial hanyalah dagangan sahaja. Sebab itulah kita sangatlah jadi kesusahan.”
Was it a blessing then that the Bunga Mas was turned back?

Monday, August 14, 2006

Looking Out to the Kuala

In 1793, in the last year of his life, Sultan Mansur Shah Ibni Almarhum Sultan Zain al Abidin I of Trengganu wrote a letter to Francis Light, the British agent in Pulau Pinang (Penang), seeking help for, among other things, the purchase of two hundred pikuls of gunpowder. The Sultan had been looking out nervously to sea, for the first sign of Siamese ships in battle regalia as soon as it was time for buka kuala, the calming of the waters and the lifting of our wintry gloom, when the Pulau Kapas was once again visible to the naked eye, and the river-mouth navigable.
Letter from Sultan mansur Shah I of Trengganu to Francis Light
Letter from Sultan Mansur Shah I of Trengganu to Francis Light

There were a hundred katis to one pikul, and a pikul was the size of a large gunny (guni) sack that men carried on their backs to our local rice dealers Wang Wook and Wang Deramang. Two hundred of those sacks filled with gunpowder would have made a mighty bang, but looking at the chronology of Siamese intervention in the region I could see no record of an attack on Kuala Trengganu in 1793 or the year after.

The Siamese King was in sulking mood however, turning away the bunga mas that Trengganu had proferred, and making 'unreasonable demands' of the state. The bunga mas was what it says, 'flower of gold', sent annually to appease the mighty King, and in that year, as Sultan mansur Shah wrote to Light:
"...and so concerning Siam this year, we have sent them the Bunga Mas, but they turned it away, making unreasonable demands of us instead. We did not meet these Siamese demands, merely surrendering ourselves to Allah, whatsoever He wills so it shall be.
The Sultan had no firm evidence that Siam was planning an attack, basing his anxiety merely on 'dribs and drabs' that reached his ears in that year, rumours of a planned invasion of Kelantan and Trengganu.
Detail: Request for gunpowder
Detail: Request for two hundred pikuls of gunpowder,

The end of the eighteenth century were busy years for Siam: with its war with Burma (1785-92), rebellion in Patani (1789), and its intervention and annexations of parts of Cambodia (1795). Trengganu and Kelantan had always been sympathetic to the cause of Patani, so the King of Siam's displeasure — and his snubbing of the Bunga Mas — could have been caused by discovery of the presence of Trengganu men in Patani soil during the rebellions, and Siam could have asked for the surrender of these men, as it was to do later in 1808, when Patani rebelled once again and was vanquished, and its Sultanate finally abolished.

The royal house of Trengganu was then Patani as it was Johor: Sultan Mansur's father Zain al Abidin bin Tun Habib Abdul Majid being no stranger to this northern Malay state. Mansur was the first child from his second marriage to the Patani lady Raja Dewi Perachu Nang Chayang who bore him five children.

This letter from Sultan Mansur Shah was among a stash of 'Light letters' discovered recently in the repository of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) by Professor Ulrich Kratz, and I reproduce it here as it appears in The Legacy of the Malay Letter (with an essay on the Light Letters by Kratz), a gem of a book written by my learned friend Annabel Gallop, curator for Indonesian and Malay in the Oriental and India Office collections of the British Library.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Growing Up In Trengganu #749,226

There were puddles beneath houses and running water in the surau. In the remoter parts suraus were known as bala söh, hall of something or other. Söh could have been a corruption of the Arabic sahih, for legitimacy or validity, or the Trengganuspeak compaction of the Arabic solat, for prayer. Arabic played a great part in the daily lives of Trengganu people, visiting them in their vocabulary, their food and, of course, their apparel. A grand man known to us as Ku Haji Ambök went to the mosque on special days with robes flowing, for he had children in tow, like they were sheikhs of Araby; and father once made an Arabic pun from a Trengganu place name, Atas Tol, pronouncing it as 'ala tol, importing into it Arabic instruction as well as ambiguity. 'Ala Tol could have meant 'over the tol' (i.e. the Trengganu Atas Tol), or the Arabic for 'walk straight ahead'. I am not aware, I'm afraid, of any Trengganu use of tol outside of that place name.

But you did not walk straight into the water under those houses, nor did they have associations with Araby. They were known as air cör, and cör is another puzzling word, though Winstedt seems to hint that it may have come from the standardspeak cucur, which is a long and thin trickle, or the drip, drip, drip of rainwater from the edge of the roof woven from leaves of the palm tree. The air cor was harsh water that dripped and splashed from the kitchen into the soil, mixing with the dark earth beneath Trengganu houses to form deep puddles that looked and smelt like our budu. This was in days before public irrigation that came very late to our Kuala Trengganu.

Water also flowed from the surau and bala söh, from the kölöh where men cleansed before prayers, from the cerak that flowed via a culvert from the kölöh into a long-box water catcher that stood chest high above the ground, and also from the community well. The surau was the centre of our community that stretched as far as the eye could see, but from the window in the back of our house we couldn't stretch our sights far enough to Suaru Besar for the imposing height of two mminja (belinjau, gnetum gnemon) trees. There were at least five suraus in our midst that were the hubs of our community, one with the soothing name of Surau Telaga Besör (Big Well). In early morning and when the light dimmed out at dusk most of the village — men and women — converged to the wells of the surau. It was there one day, in a fit of high jinks, that I was thrown into the well (well, not quite, it was our local kölöh actually).

At other times of day water flowed from the surau, from the unplugged funnels of the cerak, or scooped out from the well with a heavy bucket that in our case, was moulded from brass by the hands of our own Wang Mamat, who, when not tending to the well of our community, shaped long sticks from huge boluses of fish with his wife Mök Song and threw them into the cauldron to boil. These were our kerepok getel or kerepok dekor that is now known to the world as kerepok lekor.

The smell of fish, the long drip of the air cerak onto the arms of the faithful and splashings of dish-water into the cör.The clanking of the brass bucket hitting the side of the well, the soothing sound of water hitting hard concrete, wind rustling through the leaves of mminja trees, punctuated by the asthmatic wheezings from the balcony of Pök Wè these were the sights and sounds of our Tanjong, that now, because of changes in the kuala, is close to falling off the edge of Kuala Trengganu.