On Trengganuspeak and the Spirit of Trengganu

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Cat Takes Nap (Holds Page)

Page Tab.

In 'The Haji's Book of Nursery Rhymes'
, a book I last saw, many years ago, in the window of a second-hand bookshop in Charing Cross Road, London, there is a nursery rhyme that translates as
"Dang, dang kong,
Kucing dalam tong...
It's a translation of that familiar nursery rhyme of course, Ding dong bell, Pussy in the well...

I can't recall many nursery rhymes from Trengganu that are spun around cats but there are many feline-centred local beliefs. Bathe a cat for instance, and it will rain; and the hantu kucing wakes up early in the morning from the para, the grate. We did not know what the ghostly cat did, nor why it spent the night sleeping in a bed of ash. But we knew that our cats had knotted tails because an ancestor of theirs once annoyed a tiger, and the tiger tied its tail in a knot and the knot got caught in the genes and that was how it worked to our present day cats. Cats bury their poo in the ground to hide their work from the tiger who'd probably be very annoyed if he trod on some. Wise cats.

There were many cats around us in the fish market, Kucing Koreng, Kucing Belang, Kucing Cicök. There were cats around the kerepok factories around the well of our local surau (prayer house) talking incessantly in cat language to Mök Som and Mök Nab, asking them to throw some fishy scraps, perhaps a freshly severed kembong head.

Köreng was your scruffy cat, with much mileage on the clock, and an epithet adults used for little children with faces tarnished by heat and dust; belang was the striped one, not quite the tiger's coat, but streaks in a prominent colour against a usually darker coat; and then the cicök that's your Tabby that got its name from a textile pattern from Baghdad. But with all those cats in our midst I can't think of a word in Trengganuspeak (or for that matter, Standardspeak) to describe the sound of a purring cat. Perhaps it's because we don't pay them much heed when they are contented cats, but we have the phrase kucing kkarak in Trengganuspeak to describe the dialogue that cats have with other cats before they lock themselves in vicious embrace in the ground or mud. This is the ggömö that's done sometimes by their human counterparts.

Kucing jatuh anök was a phrase Mother used quite often to describe the restless pacing here and there of someone struck by a real or imagined anxiety attack — like a Mother Cat whose kittens have dropped from a higher nesting place, say the top of a cupboard. When the Mother Cat picks up the kitten with her mouth, that's gömbeng which is gentler than the kereköh that we sometimes had to do when the buffalo meat was especially tough in the pot' dök pok (standardspeak, tak empok, not tender). Then of course there's the kucing kurap which is a mangy cat if you're a cat, but a term of abuse if you're not.

And finally, a word of thanks to Tabby (photo, above) who held my book open this morning when I was doing some work (while he caught up with his sleep).


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Conference of Birds

One day, many years ago, our son came home from school with the kuau kepala puteh and kedidi, chiak perut merah and kelichap merah all wrapped in transparent plastic. They were all in a long out-of-print book, 'The Birds of the Malay Peninsula, Singapore & Penang' that looked very delicate for its age. It was published by the Oxford University Press in 1951, and purchased by a lady called Audrey Fairbairn in Singapore in 1954. (I know because she wrote her name and place and date of purchase on the flyleaf). The book was a gift to us from our son's school teacher, and I've kept all the birds in their original wrap since the day our son brought them in, courtesy of Mr Inwood, to whom I now once again express my thanks.

Last week, while looking through a report of proceedings at the Old Bailey in London, I came across the following passage about an indictment in 1830 against one John Pettet. Pettet — who was later found guilty — was accused of stealing one 'live tame fowl'. And it was the nature of the fowl that sent me looking for the book:
Malay cock.
I found little about the 'Malay cock' in the book though I presume that it could have been one of a variety of our ayam hutan or jungle fowl, or even the burung puyuh or quail that in Trengganu was always connected with a gap in the teeth. Ttendang ppuyoh — kicked by the quail — was how adults mocked a child who'd lost one or more teeth. But why the quail? Well, perhaps it was because, as my book puts it, 'the females are very pugnacious during the breeding season'. With a tendency to kick recalcitrant males in the teeth, perhaps.

In our frequent trips to Besut, where our grandparents lived, we were often surrounded by birds. Grandfather kept many merpati (pigeons) in elaborate cages, one of which was hoisted on fine days up a tall pole that he kept near the rumah padi, the granary; another I remember was constantly coo-ing outside the window by Grandfather's reading table, where he kept his kitabs and his correspondence, a corner I remember well as the best place to catch the morning light while trying to make sense of the adult world through news reports in the Utusan Melayu.

There were many birds above our heads 'Birds of the Malay Peninsula' Photohosting:Photobucket.comin Kuala Trengganu though we did not pay them much heed, perhaps because being coastal kids we had many fish to fry. But on some days the murai (magpie) would sit by our well to pour forth a long story and Mother would stop her work to say, "Bawök ssini berita baik, Cik Mura!" ("Magpie, bring us the good news!").

Looking through 'The Birds of the Malay Peninsula' I found another talking bird, called, intriguingly, the Brain-fever Bird. "A frequent visitor to gardens, including mine at Ipoh" the author says engagingly. A hawk-like bird with not an unpleasant voice, but wait:
"The call is a loud, melodious invitation to eat-more-froueet in an ever-ascending scale, repeated so frequently as to become irritating, particularly when it calls at night."
To the Malays it is a constant wailing and clamouring for help. They call the bird, unsurprisingly, burung mati anak, mother of dead chicks.

I am specially pleased though to find in the book the lang kangök (the grey-headed fishing-eagle, Icthyophaga i. ichthyaetus) which I thought was a fabulous bird, especially as we heard and imagined them so often from an adult-spun childhood poem that went:
"Lang, lang kangök;
Lang kangök.......
There are gaps in my memory as you can see. This is because the 'fillers' were ad-libbed to suit the situation of the child, and one ending line that I can remember comes as the adult ad-libber pokes the child-on-the-mat gently in the belly and says, in mock surprise, "Dok ccongök atas tikör!"*

NOTE: For the Malay bird names in the opening paragraph I have retained their old spelling, as in the book.

*"Sitting pat on the mat!"

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Goats Under a Tree

The goats of Kuala Trengganu will appreciate the information I now have about the pohon bbaru. I have mentioned the tree many times a propos wakafs and goats of Kuala Trengganu; and then my friend Wang Ripeng of Kemamang took time off to take a snap of those bbaru leaves that our Trengganu goats find irresistible.

Today, as I was looking through an old issue of The Malaysian Timber Bulletin (April 1997 to be exact), I found this lovely picture of the bbaru leaves and flower.
Bebaru. Photohosting:

The bbaru which was found wherever there were goats and wakafs along the coastal inlets of Kuala Trengganu, is the baru-baru or bebaru in Standardspeak, or Thespesia populnea if you wish to impress your mother-in-law. Now that I know a bit more about this tree of my childhood (thanks to the Timber Bulletin and I have also cleared up many mysteries: the bbaru is an effective wind-breaker (hence its proximity to our wakafs) and is resilient to salt sprays, its heart-shaped leaf is used in many medicinal concoctions, and its fibrous bark was used by seafaring Malays to caulk their boats. It is a plant that thrives in bays and inlets, as we saw in Pantai Teluk. And in Kuala Trengganu, of course, bbaru leaves make a gourmet goat's dinner.

The bbaru, probably of Indian origin, is commonly found in the 'old tropical world'. It is known variously as Pacific Rosewood, as the Milo tree in Hawaii, the Miro in Pitcairn Island, and as Seaside Mahoe in Florida.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A Long Way From Cherong Lanjut

Mr Razali Mutalib taught us history with panache. He took us to Rome and ancient Greece, to Sparta and Troy, in a feast of storytelling that lacked only the growling lion's head in the hoop and the features of Cinemascope. Mr Razali was a rugby player with rugged good looks, muscles rippling beneath his schoolteacher's shirt, a bundle of files in his hand as he walked the school corridors with what I took to be the gladiator's gait. If he had walked into class with his gladius strapped to his cingulum and a broad smile beneath his Roman helmet we wouldn't have batted an eyelid.

This was history on an epic scale, with clanking armour and charging steed and a swift arrow plunging into the vulnerable heel undipped in the Styx. It was silver screen stuff that lifted us from our workaday world of the padi field and marshland in Jalan Polis and the boredom of Geography and Arithmetic. And then Mr Razali threw his arms out and pulled the air back to his chest, and we knew that the hero’s journey had ended in the warm embrace of his awaiting wife. We felt so glad for Ulysses.

Once, as the teachers were in deep conversation allocating subjects among themselves, Mr Razali turned to us in mock appeal, "Who do you want to teach you history?"

"Sir!" we cried out without hesitation. "Sir!" But our voices fell on stony ground and on parched earth as the battlements smouldered and hope had died. We lost the battle to have history lessons again the way we did, and Mr Razali never came back to us.

One day, finding myself in Catania in Sicily, I caught the bus to Siracusa and arrived there late afternoon, in the middle of rows of shophouses in the centre of a town that was busily trying to walk abreast with time.
Necropolis in Sicily.
I took a short walk into the yellowing light of late summer, and then realised that this was ancient light painted on limestone as old as time itself; there were, below me, footpaths shaded by canopies of trees with long roots in deep earth, myriads of caves in the rockface, deep and dark, concealing ancient ashes, ancient dusts.

As I stood there in shock, gaping in this eerie light at those tombs in this necropilis, I thought of the characters and time and space in its vastness that was the vastness of life itself in our little schoolchildren’s heads during those lessons that Mr Razali taught. And of that naked-in-the-street Archimedes who was allegedly there among the dead. Looking at this was looking at history itself, and this is how history comes to life, even among the dead.

The Phoenicians were in Sicily as well as the Greeks and the Normans, and between the Greeks and the Normans came the Arabs who stayed for two hundred years, transforming Sicilian culture, agriculture, irrigation and food. It was through here that noodles (spaghetti) came to Italy from the Persians via the Arabs.

Still giddy in thought I turned to the man standing behind a little stall by the roadside and thanked him for directions to the sight. "Ma’a salam!" he said, looking bored behind the baubles and the trinkets that laid before him for the tourists. (As I was the only one that afternoon, and as I didn’t buy anything from him, I hope he has forgiven me that.)

"Ma'aa salam!" I said to Husam, the Arab bauble-peddling man in front of the tomb of Archimedes. Thanks for showing me the way.

Thank you Mr Razali for taking me there.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

7. How to...Gamök

Gamök is the measure in your mind when you don't have a handy yardstick, or when your global satellite positioning puts you permanently fixed in Gong Tok Nasik. It is better to admit to gamök when you've succeeded than when you've gone wide of the mark. Say in a feast for a large crowd, when all the guests are fed and sated, then you can emerge with your gravy-soaked sarong to say with self-satisfaction, "Aku paka gamök je tadi!" Or when you've built a Roman road and managed to merge east with west in a straight line, then you're well justified to say, "I only guessed it to be so!"

Nobody owns up to having done the gamök when the hunky isn't so dory and the house that's being built is tilting precariously towards Pisa. Here your resort is not in some shade around Lake Kenyir but atop your head where you begin to scratch and scratch and mutter something grounded in science like: "Aku kira mmolek döh tadi, döh nak wak guane?" Kira is the antithesis of gamök which lacks its mathematical precision and exactitude, therefore it is a better shock absorber to take the blame as failure after doing the kira is put on the doorstep of faulty science, not on your goodself's head. But to admit a mistake with the further admission that it was due to your doing the gamök is like waving the red batik in front of the keruba balör (standardspeak, kerbau balar, the albino water buffalo) and the keruba is never one to miss when it does do the segök because the water buffalo, unlike people, would rather not gamök when you are already locked between the tips of those horns on its head.

We are asked to guess sometimes about the state of play, as when the parts of your car are littered on the floor with Humpty Dumpty prospects of you and your spanner wielding friend ever putting them back. This would be an appropriate spot to down tools and throw in the rhetorical bit, "Guane gamök!?" What now, mate? Your friend, if he had any sense and more grease on his hands than in his head, would mutter something about how late it was getting in the night, and how his wife was waiting for him at home with the badik* and how propitious it would be to start afresh in the morning of the following day as soon as the ground became light, or ceröh tanöh as they say among the early risers. You'll be seeing much light on earth in days to come before your friend will make another appearance near your make-shift garage. This is the state of play that is known in many circles as the lesak patat, the state of having sunk without trace.

"Guane gamök?" like "How are you?" is actually a 'hello' I should add, though there's a question at its end, without the added emphasis of an exclamation mark. This is the greeting of friends and acquaintances, sometimes eliciting the crisp reply, "Ggitulah!" ("So so") or with the balefully extended vowel, "Ggituuuuulah!" ("Well, what do you expect!"). On good days it may be "Adalah sikik-sikik!" Not too bad, mate!

So there's gamök between the precise and the bahang rambang, which is a wild, wild way to act. Bahang rambang is the pot shot recklessly spluttering in all directions, missing all or missing some. It is better for you to accept responsibility for an imperfect work by saying that, under severe constraints, you had to gamök. If, under some pangs of guilt you admit that you had bahang rambang as your benchmark, the tools of work will soon be flying again, and mostly towards your head.

*A double-edged dagger with a broad, straight blade.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Return To Sender

Before the internet blunted our pens and access to our addresses was via the letterbox, letter-writing held more for us than present day emails. There were pillar-boxes and postmen on their bikes, and human contact between deliverer and recipient that makes me ache for that beautiful film Il Postino.Escher's hands.
In Kuala Trengganu our postman (we had one living next door to us named Awang Cek, but he never delivered our letters) left our daily mail at the bottom of the stairs, inserted between the electrical wiring and the wood panelling. They were mostly bills, and occasionally, a postcard, but Eid al-Fitr brought a bigger bulk from all over.

Malay letter-writing is an intricate art, not least by the forms of address that we have to muster. "Kehadapan Ayahanda yang dikasihi..." when writing to your beloved Dad, "Bonda yang diingati serta dikasihi...", to your dear Mum, followed by a series of good-wishes with the most minimalist formulation being "semoga berada di dalam keadaan sihat walafiat sentiasa". But we cherish the contents of penned letters though nowadays we hardly remember the contents of emails. Part of the enjoyment of letter-writing is the personal contact we have with the sender of the letter, the writer’s cursive hand, thoughts collected in a moment of joy, emotion, sadness. It is as if the person is speaking to us personally. Indeed, in films, whenever a letter appears in close up, the voice of the sender will soon fill the air, reading the letter as if in conversation with the recipient.

Other joys also come with the letter,Perahu Besar stamp. its tactile pleasure, the scent of perfume that some love-crazed paramour sometimes sprinkled on its page, and sometimes they come registered and hefty in weight, to be signed-for by the recipient with trembling hands. Is this the final note, a job offer, a postal order? That which plops out of an envelope is forever remembered, its memory sometimes shared, and with it, perhaps, laughter. Often at another’s expense.

Father never tired of telling about our neighbour — his schoolmate — Ayöh Wang Mamat. Wang Mamat once fell a bit under the Trengganu weather, so he penned a letter to his teacher to explain his absence. At the end of the note, he wrote, in impeccable Jawi, "Harap Cikgu pahang." Pahang if you’re not au fait with Trengganuspeak, is a state of understanding, and not, in this context, our neighbouring state made famous by the joget.

In his adult life Ayöh Wang found work in kerepok and brass, and from the number of times I stumbled on earthen jars hidden in the darkness beneath his house during games of to I came to know that he was also a practitioner of the dark art of budu.

Father moved on to the Post Office.

Those were days when telephones Buah Perah stamp, Malaysia. Photohosting:Photobucket.comand telegrams were under the same roof of the Pejabat Pos. I knew from stories that Father told that he was once a telephone operator. These were days when calls had to go through the exchange through the operator, and the stories he told were harmless ones meant purely to amuse. One, I remember, involved a hilarious telephonic conversation between a very important man in Trengganu with his counterpart in a neighbouring state. He told us stories about his work too and about a curious room called the "Dead Letter Office". Then he donned headphones and became a Morse code operator in the Telegraphic wing of the Post Office. I don’t think he ever sold stamps over the counter though he was an avid collector with a small leather bag full of Empire stamps and First Day Covers that came through the post from a man named Dawood in South Africa.

I don’t know where "dead letters" went to, but I know that the "live" ones that reached their addressees were often treasured and remembered. I have in my possession still many letters from Father, mostly in sombre mood, written in beautiful Jawi over many pages of his writing pad. Father once told us about his father (our grandfather Tok Wan) who gave A.E.Coope a hedgehog as a present before he left Trengganu, and then, a bit later (after the man Coope, the compiler of the English-Malay dictionary) had had the animal well and truly stuffed, he wrote to Grandfather in his handwritten Jawi. The landak (hedgehog) he said, kohor sari kohor baik.

Kitab Canai Bacaan. Photohosting: PhotobucketThe charm of letters will not die even — especially — the old ones that bring back many scenarios and emotions to the reader. Recently, while looking through an old copy of the Kitab Canai Bacaan a Malay Reader compiled by the scholar Za’ba (first edition printed 1925; 3000 copies), an old Jawi note fell out from its pages, and it said:
"Sangat saya dukacita sebab saya tiada dapat datang pukul enam tetapi saya boleh datang pukul tujuh kerana saya hendak pergi mesyuarat wassalam."
The sender of the note was one Abdul Rahman bin Haji Othman, a man who must have been of some importance from the mesyuarat that he had to keep. Also, he was an English-speaking sort of chap. As a subtitle to his Jawi note he also wrote in English: "I shall come at 7 pm this evening."

I know from the note Letter to Mr Guest. Photohosting:Photobucket who the book (that we picked up from an antiquarian bookshop) once belonged to, as the note was addressed: "Ila hadhrat al-akram al-muhtarim al-‘aziz al-fadhil Tuan Guest, dengan selamatnya." This would’ve been 1932 or later (the edition I have was reprinted in Singapore in 1932, 20,000 copies), and it was sold by the secondhand bookseller "Persama Store" for 60 cts (sen). The note was still intact when the book was finally bought by us, so I’d like to guess that it was Mr Guest who spent the 60 sen at Persama all those years ago, kept the book handy on his writing desk in Malaya (and into which he inserted the note from Encik Abdul Rahman). On Mr Guest’s passing, the book, I guess, was consigned once again, with the inserted note, to the second-hand bookshop.

Song Request postcard to RTM. Photohosting:Photobucket
But thanks to another note from the past and to a lady from Kuala Besut, we are able to end this with a cheerful tune. I was looking through e-bay one day when this postcard [see above] leapt through time and space (and the radiowaves), and the dial of my steam-powered radio lit up once again with some joyful old song.
Song Request Postcard. Photohosting:Photobucket
Front, Song Request Postcard from Kuala Besut to the youth programme 'Teruna Dara' of Radio Malaysia, Penang.

Who nowadays goes to the Post Office to drop a postcard to hear a song? "Niza Bt Mohammad of Kuala Besut, what's cooking today? I'm sorry we can't play the song Senyum Dalam Tangisan that you requested, but here's something to keep you humming, Cinta Sejati. Keep smiling!" [See Producer's note written over the request card.]