On Trengganuspeak and the Spirit of Trengganu

Friday, April 27, 2007

Singing for the Sultan

Cik Gu Muhammad Hashim bin Abu Bakar standing before the Istana Kolam in its glory days, leading a group of schoolchildren in the first performance of what was later to be the Trengganu state anthem before Sultan Sulaiman Badrul Alam Shah on his birthday [see, Music in the Rubble]. Some of the children, I am told, were from Sekolah Paya Bunga, a school that must have stood close to a pond with pretty flowers, but not in the days when Father was there. And I don’t think Father was among the young people who stayed back after school to do the solfeggio in preparation for the big song on the big day.

If as Peter Newmark* says, imagination has two main faculties: sonorisation and visualtion, then we’ve all been there and there. I’ve replayed in my head many times our hot mornings in Padang Paya Bunga (which is some distance away from the Sekolah), us parading schoolchildren, songkoks on heads and probably flags in hands, listening to speeches and more speeches and then singing. In sonorisation, says Newmark, you normally hear voices in your mind, of people dead and living, and you hear your own voice too. It's all part of memory.

My sonorised memory of those days on Padang Paya Bunga consists of some distinguished voices, of Buya Hamka, the Indonesian writer and religious scholar speaking and wiping tears as he narrated the story of what I now think was most certainly the Qasida Burda, the Poem of the Prophet’s Mantle. Father took us there one evening, and all I could hear were hypnotic words (Hamka was a formidable speaker) that I could not relate to any everyday thing, but I remember him saying selendang (a cloak, veil or scarf) as he wiped his eyes. There were many dignitaries who spoke there, and once we heard the voice of a lanky man with thick glasses who was known widely by his pen name of Misbaha, the distinguished amateur historian of Trengganu.

I began sonorising yesterday when a Trengganuspeaking friend sent me an email to say that he felt ssebök when he saw on television the installation ceremony of the Sultan of Trengganu as the thirteenth Yang di Pertaun Agong of Malaysia and the third Agong from Trengganu. Ssebök is the more evocative Trengganuspeak version of the standardspeak tersebak, that welling up of the emotion, that swelling in the chest and that tissue moment for the eye, in sadness or happiness or a mixture of both.

And of course I remember the state anthem of Trengganu, but only in my sonorised way that went, for a long time, like this:
"Allah peliharakang rajakang mi,
Memerintah Trengganu negeri...**
That was probably how I (we) sang it on the Padang, and looking back now on that first line, how wonderfully alliterative it falls in its Tregganuspeaking way, what sonorous memory!

We were taught that at school, not from a song sheet, but from listening to the words as poured from the mouth of our teacher. Mine was in Sekolah Melayu Ladang, built on colonies of Cik Ru on sandy Ladang soil. Traffic went past our front gate, the red and yellow of the Trengganu Bus Company, the tarpaulin covered lorries of the Pahang Mail Transport Company, the Tok Peraih middlemen with their cone-shaped terendak hats cycling at speed from one fish market to another, with their trade mark fish baskets in the back-rack of their bicycles. Fish odour and diesel fumes and dust wafted into our grounds at playtime, and the occasional Arabic noises from the Madrasah Sultan Zainal Abidin next door. Walking home via the footpath through the village in the back of the school, we met the putrid smell of dried shrimps pounded, with sea salt and the sweat of labour, into grainy looking dark brown paste that now lay in slabs on the belacan racks that were put out to dry in the sun and air.

"Allah peliharakang rajakang mi..." how wonderfully apt the sound, how evocative the rhythm of Trengganu.


* Professor Peter Newmark, occasional lecturer in translation studies, University of Surrey, in The Linguist magazine, Feb/March 2007.

** Allah peliharakan Raja Kami, God save our King.

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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Growing up in Trengganu #373,123

In the space between our house and Pök Wè’s and the surau is the tall green belinjau tree that is speckled red in the fruiting months when it no longer swayed in the monsoon’s blow. The front, or the surung of our house looked down on the wide span of the market but in the back it gave us a different view, of houses huddled in the kampung style: the surau’s roof was an arm’s length from our window, and on humid days when I looked beyond the shade of the belinjau to the exposed part of Pök Wè’s house I’d see him sitting on the floor, stretching out from the waist till his head rested on hands that reached out on the open deck that we in Trengganu called the lambor. In this prostrate position Pök Wè found relief from his frequent attacks of asthma.
About Birds
Pök Wè’s was the old Trengganu house of chiselled bas-relief and cut-through panels that shaped the sunlight filtering through into curly patterns on the floor, cengal and hard wood now left to grey and crack into rivulets as woods do from long exposure to the exterior and the salt spray that blew in from the shore. The serambi gantung, the hanging verandah, was just the floor now exposed to the air, with pillars and lintels now like a mini Stonehenge of timber, supporting the air where once — if it did — it would have borne the weight of the roof of singora tiles. In the self-built way of Trengganu houses, things could suddenly come to a halt, and the project put on hold until the money flowed again, but often work carried on to the next generation as in the case of Pök Wè who lived with his family in the completed main part of the house then spent his time under the sky in the other half, reeling crippled by a bad attack of asthma.

On good days he’d be atop the stairs in the front anjung that extruded into the communal hub, to exchange banter with the regulars before the time came for noonday or late afternoon prayers at the surau. The daily life of the village was there before his eyes, the brass workers and women cleaning fish by the drain that carried waste water from the well and discarded remnants from the shed of kerepok makers. Pök Wè had varicose veins the size of rhinoceros beetles, and rib bones that stood through his slender flesh and made ridges in his thin white Pagoda shirt. ”Wak ape Pök Wè!” we’d call out from our window, “What are you doing Pök Wè?”

”Ya!” he’d say in stock reply.

I was of wök age then; we played wök in the space beneath the sea-facing windows of Pök Wè’s main house, the rumah ibu.There were broad rectangular racks out there, woven from bamboo strips and placed on tall stilts to dry sliced kerepok lekor. The taller of us would reach up to pick and feed, normally on the end-bits that were thicker than the regular slices before they became dried and dead and then made to fluff out again when thrown into hot oil. This was the kerepok keping the fish crackers that served as edible spoons for scooping out mee goreng from the plate, or dipped in a concoction of pounded chilli and natural vinegar from the coconut nira, and dollops of gula pasir (lit. ‘sand sugar’) to give a satisfying taste of fat and fish in an ambience of the sweet and sour, and then all overwhelmed again by the bite of the hot chilli that was described not simply as pedas (hot) but as pedas nnaha that took your breath away.

I looked up sometimes to Pök Wè’s windows that were rarely open, and imagined the sheltered coolness within that living quarter behind the greying panels and weather-beaten frames under the great canopy of singora. There were probably antique sarongs there in old chests that brooded quietly in a dark corner, and mengkuang mats that curled in the edges with criss-crossed patterns of vegetable colours made aglow in the fretworked sunlight patterns that came through the ventilation panels above the windows; and a thick pad of calendar on the wall from which the days were ripped out daily. It was an old house with unsettled matters, a corner box was in there too perhaps with ancient tools laid to rest when the last dowel (for the time being) was driven home years ago.

One day as I was walking in the shade of the belinjau, Pök Wè was standing there spade in hand, his eyes looking deep into a hole. It was filled with old papers, burning now in one edge and grey and blue smoke billowing around his varicose veins and reaching out to parts in Pök Wè’s sarong pelikat with hem rolled up to the knees.

“Wak apa Pök Wè?” I asked as he lifted another pile.

“Oh, I’m just burning some paper,” he said
Kitab Barzanji
I looked and recognised the cursive flow of handwritten Jawi, some with diacritical marks in the style that I was familiar with from the Qur’an class. “Oh nobody will walk here,” Pök Wè said quickly when I pointed out that some of those words spelt “Allah”.

Old writing on old paper, that really fascinated me. “Can I have them?” I asked.

The pile that I took home were copied out from old kitabs, Father said, and some were just bits of family history. They were written in kemkoma Father said, and kemkoma was from the Sanskrit kumkuma, saffron, and hence its reddish-brownish colour. Pök Wè was clearing out his past, smoking out the silverfish and the termites from his family history.

God knows now what has has happened to that pile of old paper. I kept them in a locker with some school books and memorabilia, and then our family moved to Kuala Lumpur, and I myself even further. I never saw the inside of that unfinished house and Pök Wè’s asthma got worse with each monsoon weather. But after that smoky day I think I saw not just ghosts of old men, workers who have not quite downed tools, scribes and men in skullcaps stained yellow at the rims that stuck to their brows by the sweat of toil, hunched they were over paper sheets, drawing letters from left to right with bamboo nibs dipped in kumkuma

After I uploaded the words above, my brother sent me an email with the following message:
"The drying rack for the kerepok is called the rang. And if I’m not mistaken, the rectangular racks are called acak.

"Coming back to Pök Wè, May Allah rest his soul, I have with me bits of old kitabs of his that I took from our house in Tanjong. One is a page from a handwritten book of berzanji that has been part-eaten by termites, and two pages from a book on the nature of birds. If I am not mistaken, these kitabs were left to him [Pök Wè] by his mother. They were wrapped in cloth and kept in the serambi [verandah] of his house. When repair works were done to the serambi after Pök Wè’s mother passed away it was found that the kitabs had suffered from a bad attack of termites. And that’s how [your story above] started."
I reproduce them above: the Kitab Perihal Burung ['A Book of Birds'], top, and the Kitab Berzanji ['The Book of Barzanji'], bottom, with thanks to my brother for the additional information and the images. [Added: 22nd April, 2007]

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

14. How to...Ndér pöténg

In this day of our age, ndér pöténg could result from sunspot activity or an extreme condition that knocks men senseless and sans navigation via satellite. The combination of sounds in this phrase gives it adequate description, forward and backwards and confined in area but moving straight up and sideways. But ndér pöténg is truly a biped activity, a pedestrian's rather than a motorised excursion. No ndér can be said to be genuinely pöténg if the actor is driving a souped up Jeep.

It’s anyone’s guess how the beginnings of ndér pöténg came about or when it turned into what it is now, i.e. an art. In the 19th century when Abdullah the Munshi came to Kuala Trengganu and looked in at Kampung Laut that was a stone’s throw from our Kampung Tanjong, he poked in his Singapura nose and sniffed at the men who were walking from one end of the market place and then turning back again once they got to the other side. These were days when stones were plentiful and men were not averse to throwing some in self-expression; and if context has to be placed in Dollah’s sniff it must be said that his derision was aimed at a rowdy band who were armed, well, to the teeth.

With covered drains and shopping malls there’s no better time than now to ndér pöténg. In urban streets you’ll have to be well prepared: with strong legs perhaps and proper shoes, and a strong voice to cuss the motorcyclists and urban authorities for not providing proper pavements for you to walk. In Trengganu you’d probably be able to get away with it in your kaing ssahang which is an all purpose rag that keeps your parts protected and out of the purview of the crowd. In the streets of Kuala Trengganu there were many ndér pöténgers so apparelled, going up and down the streets with no intent or purpose, moving hither and thither into lanes and crowds, and they were nearly all completely out of their heads. Which brings us to the first rule for the serious practitioners of the ndér pöténg art, and that is: it helps if you’re slightly mad.

The other is that you cannot have a purpose and ndér pöténg, and this applies to civilians as to the uniformed crowd. A man going round and round in an errand for his wife is not, for instance, a doer, nor is a policeman in plainclothes or in uniform if his movements are in the course of work, say to catch someone ndér pöténging in a prohibited place. And this raises a technical point: if, on arrest, a person is charged with doing it for a purpose, i.e. he is accused of loitering, say, with intent, then it could not later be argued in court that he or she was doing the ndér pöténg act. It is a rule well enshrined in — I think — the Trengganu Stone that whomsoever goes out for a walk whilst knowing where he was going to in the first place i.e. having an a priori aim, then his walk cannot be so construed as being in the nature of the act.

The mist of time has built a haze over the origins of this almost onomatopoeic phrase. Some say that the standardspeak mundar mandir [“Go up and down stream, move to and fro” — Winstedt’s Malay-English] may have been contracted in the first word ndér, and then pöténg does sound suspiciously like the standardspeak ponteng, to be AWOL.

Philology would have been better served if the Munshi had approached the band of Kampung Laut men to ascertain if this was the case, but they were all grinning oh so intently at him, and then there was also this matter of those arms that were stuck in their teeth...

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Music in the Rubble

Late one afternoon in Jugra, in the soft light of fading memory, we walked to the skeletal remains of a house that hid behind a bank of trees. It was no ordinary place; its bones were the decaying remains of the istana of Sultan Abdul Samad, a colourful figure in the royal Bugis lineage of Selangor.

Time had been harsh on this historic pile, columns wrapped in the descending gloom and tiles and wood carvings that had seen better days, now exposed to the elements and worse. In the shadows were hands that were plucking and hacking at bits and parts of the past: we caught two men in the act of stealing Selangor’s history.

I wrote about that incident and connected it to a shadow in my own past in Kuala Trengganu [see Dah Nak Wak Guane] the Istana Kolam that sat in an area of some ambiguity, between Kampung Kolam and Kampung Petani. It too was an old istana, grander than the old ‘palace’ of Jugra, but wrapped likewise in sad decay and the hazy light of melancholy.

A friend recently wrote to say that he once saw bits of the Istana Kolam laid out in a car boot sale.
Istana Kolam
The Istana Kolam in its prime was at the heart of Trengganu’s history. It was there that the Trengganu gamelan was born and reborn, and there the Trengganu dissident-scholar Haji Abdul Rahman Limbong was called to meet the Sultan for a rebellion that he was allegedly fomenting in the Ulu. When a rabble-rouser named Garieb Rauf came to revive the Parti Negara after the death of Datuk Onn Jaafar, it was at this Istana that he first hung his shirt, before coming to live in our midst in Tanjong Pasar. He made much of his being in the Istana of course, but he was no Onn Jaafar, so the Istana Kolam outlived him and soon saw him fade away.

Unknown to me then the Istana had a hidden aspect, a wide living quarter under a roof of Senggora tiles, with porte-cochère, and raised on stilts. All I could see from the gap in the wall between the bend in the road and the old tamarind tree each time I walked past that way was the Balai Besar where many royal ceremonies would have taken place in the Istana’s heyday, where Cikgu Muhammad Hashim bin Abu Bakar, a teacher from the nearby Sekolah Paya Bunga stood with a group of school children from the Boy Scouts group of Kuala Trengganu to sing a song that he’d composed for Sultan Sulaiman’s birthday in 1927. The song later became the state anthem of Trengganu.

Istana Kolam became the centre of gamelan music in Trengganu during the reign of Sultan Sulaiman, but as to how the gamelan came to Trengganu is a contentious area. One version has it that like the older nobat, it came to Trengganu from Riau — in 1813 says one version of the story — before it moved on to the istana of Pahang. What can be said with certainty is that the gamelan as palace music flourished in Trengganu under the reign of Sultan Sulaiman Badrul Alam Syah, after his marriage to Tengku Ampuan Mariam, daughter of Sultan Ahmad of Pahang. The Tengku Ampuan, helped by her mother Che Zubedah, developed dances for the first time to be accompanied by the gamelan. It is said that it was Sultan Sulaiman who turned the Joget Pahang into the Joget Gamelan Trengganu (Trengganu Gamelan Dance).

After Sultan Sulaiman’s death in 1942, the Trengganu gamelan moved completely from the ceremonial Istana Maziah to Istana Kolam, the official residence of Tengku Ampuan Mariam. There it stayed until the music faded completely away with the passing of the Tengku Ampuan and the decline of the Istana.

One sad day in Trengganu the municipal workers came with their lorries and their sturdy workers, and without as much as a passing thought for the glory of better days, they pulled down the Istana.

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Saturday, April 07, 2007

13. How to...lök

Some things are best left alone. Lök is the crystallisation of that mood: that things shouldn’t be fixed if they ain’t broke.

Centuries of practise has attested to lök’s results. You lök a scratch and it heals pretty quick, and if you can bear the flies buzzing around your wound for a bit, you’ll wake up one morning to find that it’s healed. So if nature cures, why heal with foul poultice? There is a whole school of thought behind this: vis medicatrix naturae say wise men since when men got their first scratch, why heal when nature will come to your aid? Lök je, dök payöh dok usek, let it be and it’ll be all right.

When lök touches other areas of life the result can be deep and dark. In days when fish was kept in salt for rainy days and procrastination was a way of obtaining results, lök could, if left too long, result in the hasudöh! Hasudöh! the lady of the house would say — “O dearie me, o my goodness!” — looking into the potted layers of fish and salt that have all turned into mush and stuff. And that was how the first budu was made.

It is said that lök and dök are running mates, but as dök is often expressed as wak dök, ‘to do the dök, it has in it an element of the deliberate act, i.e. to studiously ignore your subject. You wak dök if you’re a lady and the construction workers are giving you the wolf whistle, but if he follows you and slips on the muddy patch into the monsoon drain, you’d probably want to ratchet up your schadenfreude thing and just let him lay there as you lök.

It may be cool to lök but at other times, say when a brick or fist is flying into your face it may be more advantageous to duck than to let it meet you with a smack. Baik lik pada lök they’ll tell you as you lie in your hospital bed masked in thick bandage; “It is better to evade than not.” Needless to say you can overdo your deliberate act of neglect and draw criticism for your failure to act. Latchkey types and home alone kids may slide down the greasy road after years and years of neglect, and then it’ll be too late to act. Dok lök tu, ddepang mata lek-lek will be the the alliterative reproach that you’ll probably get from the presiding beak in a Trengganu juvenile court. “You’ve been neglecting them right before your very eyes.”

Lök is good if it brings useful results, but lik is best if you want to preserve your head. Lek-lek is the glaringly obvious that you’d be very neglectful not to sight or to be oblivious of its offending act. So that’s the first and only rule of lök: Don’t lök (ignore) something that is ddepang mata lek-lek (before your very eyes), but if it's coming straight into your path, then it’s best for you to lik. Lök like most everything else, does therefore carry a little caveat: if after days of lök you still walk with a kècök (limp), then it'll do you good to heed the advise of Mök Cöh to go to the hospital and not just ignore it, "Kena gi sepita tu, dök léh dok lök!"

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Kids these days

Spots in your eyes, the ustaz looking younger by the day, and blots appearing in your landscape: a crowd of budök- budök le ning. These — they tell me — are the hallmarks of senior citizenry.

“Budök-budök le ning!” says Mök Möh, shaking her head slightly. “The kids these days!”

Budök le ning are just probably kids on the tiles, doing their contemporary fandango in the eyes of disapproving adults. It implies in some ways a deviation from the accepted norms of decorum and respect, a wayward act like kicking the cats, or scaring the goats or walking in front of some senior folk without going into that hunched gait. A little into the söngö it may be, but söngö is a part of growing up.

Winstedt in his Malay-English says there is songar in Javanese which brings an act into the arrogant and the haughty, but the Trengganu söngö is merely a child’s play of showing off to draw the attention of the agitated Mök Möh, though it can go a bit over the top.

These acts are acceptable as long as they have not transgressed into the two (or three) döks that are violations of proper conduct or senönöh. Dök cakne then is the path to ruin, the opening of the doorway of neglect. Cakne in fact is the opposite of that, i.e. taking heed and paying due regard. "Cakne gök sikik cakak orang ni!” Listen please to what I am saying, or you’ll fall into the mini abyss of dök cakne and that’s just next door to dök jjuruh — improperly behaved — and who knows where that will take you next?

It's difficult to place the starting point of this budök-budök le ning act as there’s a wide possibilty that the present admonisher was himself the budök of his day, and his then chider the budök of the years before that. But savvy adults always draw the starting line to this general decline of youthful behaviour to a convenient date that is sometimes fixed by giving a sideway glance to another disapproving adult. ”Kita dulu dök ggitu pong!”, or, with more emphasis still, ”Kita dulu dök ggitu setabok!” Pong is the associative or the emphatic word (standardspeak pun), I was not at all like that, but setabok is probably from the longer standardspeak seketil habok, not in the least: “I was not one teeny bit close to that!”

Now, the fellow adult standing close and giving a supporting nod to all those disapproving words thus far may have stalled a bit when it came to the kita dulu (“in our day”) part. Well, he was the chider’s schoolmate, you see, so he’s turned his head momentarily to the side to cough or give a smirk. Useful now to look again at that standardspeak word seketil: it is, after all, ‘a pinch’, and a pinch of salt it is perhaps.

So what do you do with the wayward child? You may want to snub him in the hope that he’d just fade away. This is the buat dök treatment that is often translated into local Englishspeak as “make donno” or the more colourful hybrid, buat donno. Often this neglect will produce a bigger and louder act of söngö, so as more fat of the buat dök is thrown into the fire, the more söngör the act becomes and on and on in this chain of counteracting doses until it reaches a breaking point. A kuté (standardspeak kutil, a word sharing the same origin with ketil) may be called for if the offender is of primary school age. If slightly bigger, Mök Mök may call for outside help, “Mari kita beratang kerejöng!” Kerejong is the physical equivalent of the strait-jacket, when a person is pinned to the ground with hands and legs restrained, sometimes by parents, sometimes by complete strangers; and beratang is a joint-venture word. Come, Mök Möh seems to be saying: “Let’s hold him still to the spot!”

From the above it is clear that from budök-budök le ning to dök jjuruh haröh is indeed a slippery road. The latter is beyond kuté, beyond kerejong, and beyond debök even, which is sad. Debök is the sound of heavy fruit falling on the ground, or of a fist or open palm meeting someone’s back at great speed.

There was a place somewhere in Kuala Trengganu that became known as the ‘bad school’ (seköh jahat), not because the school was bad but because it was a transferred epithet. A reform school is what some folk called it, a centre for the seriously bad, and there they’d place all the dök jjuruh haröh kids that they could catch, and all who’d graduated from söngör to levels above.

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