On Trengganuspeak and the Spirit of Trengganu

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

16. How to...Beratang

When your plate's full and hunger's panging, beratang is the word to avoid especially in a crowd. Beratang is a gregarious act that is often done for mutual benefit but sometimes it is directed towards something or someone in common, with or without benefit – jointly or severally - to the persons involved. Yet in spite of beratang’s seemingly charitable pose, its participants can still be accused of neglect, as in the popular phrase, “Orang-orang tu dok beratang tèngök je, keliik-keliik!” In other words, they just watched, without as much as a finger raised - a fist fight, a stealing act, or someone disgracing himself. It is the word beratang here that gives the poignancy to the act for all its claims of togetherness.

Beratang in its passive or active form is the staff of life in the East Coast because we were led to it very young, by the posture of ggedik, a source of division in this world between those who have food on their plates and those who have not a wee bit. In a punny way, ggedik in itself embraces the two aspects of the divide: the ggedik person so rich in life’s possessions that all s/he has to do in a working day is to just shake the legs (ggedik kaki), or the imploring boy who keeps cadging for a bite of his friend’s belebat (banana pud). There will be an old lady here somewhere, looking down from the top: “Beratanglah denge dia tu Che Awang pong!” Go on, share it with him son!

Now that I’ve come this far I’ve just realised that there’s no proper word for ‘them’ in Trengganuspeak, and there’s no word for beratang in standard language. You can say that mereka (standardspeak, ‘they’) is a word that you recognise, but how often have you used it in Trengganuspeak to refer to a crowd? In Kedah they have dèpa, in Kelantanspeak there’s dèmö tu, but in Trengganuspeak we ignore the crowd. In the sentence above I have resorted to Orang-orang tu as an artificial construct because orang (‘people’, ‘persons’) is a known word and used in Trengganuspeak, but even then that’s not how we describe ‘others’. To call them mereka in this case, would put in a very strange sense indeed. There are no innocent bystanders (mereka, they) in our crowd, we’d prefer them to be ‘you lot’, mu, mung), Mung dok beratang tengok just stood there watching, you lot.

But the curioser thing is that whilst beratang is widely known in Eastern life, there’s no equivalent for it in Standardspeak. In fact they do not have a word at all for it out West where they use kongsi, a Chinese loan-word. Whilst kongsi gives a sense of ‘sharing’ and goes further to embrace ‘partnerships’, it is still not the same as beratang because while we can share all the other things, we can still, in all our goodness, beratang tumbok, i.e. to get together and shower thumps on someone else. Put kongsi in there instead of our ‘b’ word and the phrase is as good as dead, and the victim-lad will want his punches gift-wrapped to take home in a box.

In less bositerous times there’s camaraderie and beratang expresses itself mostly in food. ”Mari kita beratang makang!”, let’s all eat together now; but you can also beratang your griefs, your joys, your prayers, your hopes. And then atishoooo! comes a sneeze on the bread, “Excuse me, my cold!” and that’s the end of beratang for reasons of health and finis too, definitely, for your ggedik.

Labels: ,

Monday, June 18, 2007

Public Water

A lady called me last Saturday to ask if I have ever urinated in a public place. It was part of a survey, I think, to gauge civic responsibility and compliance with the law.

Have you? I asked her. I think she was in faraway Bombay.

She laughed and asked me more questions in rapid fire. Have you ever smoked in a forbidden place, or spoken on the handphone while driving a car?

I don’t smoke, don’t have a handphone and don’t own a car, I told her. And besides, why would I want to smoke in a forbidden place in Bombay when I am ensconsced here in another corner? Yes, but you’ll be forbidden from smoking in public places in your corner of the world from the 1st of July, reminded the belle from the Bombay call centre.

And then I remembered pacör ca.

Manneken PisPacör ca is when you stand up and wet the floor, and as what you do in the privacy of your own place is your own affair, it will really have to be standing up in a public place and using it as a pissoire. But then it can be cute too if you’re Manneken Pis, but we’re not all little boys in a big square in Bruxelles.

Now you’ll have to have a nose for Trengganuspeak to be able to say pacör ca properly as the ‘a’ in ca is raised to the nasal. It’s like cokelat ra as the feel and sound of ra is one that gets up your nose, like good wasabe. Both ca and ra are onomatopoeia words, as the former is the sound of well, your water hitting cigarette packets, cobblestones and the feet of passing strangers; and in the latter, well, there’s a slight problem here: it is Trengganuspeak (and Kelantanspeak) translation of the ‘sound’ of mint going up the nasal, which makes it really a minty feely word. Is there a word here to replace onomatopoeia for your description of not what you hear but what you feel?

There is something I think, in the Sejarah Melayu (the Malay Annals) about the Emperor of China boasting about the number of his subjects by saying that they could all stand and pacör ca and drown all in the neighbouring state. And there’s another, in more recent times, that the lady from Bombay reminded me of, as it involved Kennedy and Nehru which is, without doubt, apocryphal. Kennedy in Delhi saw men doing it - pacör ca that is - in the street and mentioned it to Nehru-Ji. The latter, wanting to get even, promised Ken that he’d find similar offenders in Washington too. Fast forward to Nehru in the White House, on a visit to America. There, he said, looking over the White House balcony, there’s the man I promised you. Kennedy looked out and saw a man hosing out his pacör in the far end of Pennsylvania Avenue. When the Secret Service men sent out by Kenendy came back to whisper in the President’s ear, Nehru turned blue with glee, and the President turned a pale colour.

In Underground London there used to be a long-running series of posters put up by a man called Benny who owned a strange restaurant in sunny Knightsbridge called Borscht-n-Tears. His pleasure was in loading his Underground advertisements with corny jokes, much in the way of Maoists in the turmoil days of China when they filled the days with Wall Newspapers. I saw a sign saying ‘Wet Paint’ said Benny in one of his fun-packed poster advertisements and soon as I did, I got arrested. I used to stand on the station paltform perplexed by this image of Benny doing his pacör ca and London Bobbies rushing in, clad in their waterproof regulation Macs to arrest the restaurateur offender.

I don’t know what’s happened to Benny since, or to the Borscht-n-Tears now, but what was it that the Secret Service man was whispering to Kennedy before his honoured guest Nehru?

Kennedy to Nehru: “Mr Prime Minister, the man doing the pacör ca is your ambassador.”

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, June 02, 2007

This Trengganu

Looking into my friend Shahril Talib’s book, “After Its Own Image”, I find that between 1830 and 1941 we had quite a bit of excitement in Trengganu: Tengku Long, a member of the royal family and a man ‘noted for his prowess with the kris’ was lured to Losong then ambushed and killed in in 1885, and a Hari Raya was cancelled by Tengku Muhammad, heir to the throne, in 1913 because something made him very angry. Now, how did he do that, I wonder? Did he continue fasting for another day, or did he just say to his subjects you people just go ahead, celebrate without me? What did the ulama and the people have to say about that? He was, after all, only the heir, not yet the Person Royal.

During the distinguished reign of Sultan Baginda Omar (1839-1876), a court noble Dato Kaya Biji Diraja snapped under the burden of office and went amok; Hugh Clifford’s account of this can be read in ‘The Further Side of Silence’ (Doubleday, Page & Company, New York, 1927). This must have ranked as the most famous amok in 19th century Trengganu; in the next century we had another, this time a commoner who got miffed by some turns in his domestic life, and he became known as Pök Mat Ngammök, shot and buried by some accounts, not far from the bend in the road in Tanjong Mengabang, aka Tanjong Batu Satu.

We had the great flood in Kuala Trengganu in 1926 [see The East Was Red], and the perang (battle) in the Ulu (upriver), in 1928 [see, A Journey Upstream; and Yesterday, Today]. Then as now, judges were torn between two forces, to be just or to bow to the whims of the powerful. Cases that affected the powerful adversely were delayed for as long as was possible in the hope that the petitioners would just drop out from sheer exhaustion. Many succumbed to temptations for personal gain. One judge became well known for being very wealthy and for being merciless to the poor and weak but uninhibited in his favours to the rich and powerful. The British Agent (W.L.Conlay?) wrote in his monthly journal:
“[A]nd when decisions had to be given against the rich and more powerful parties, decisions were made nugatory by not entering the orders of the court or by making a further order altering the first decision.”
As justice sometimes turns full circle, the judge found himself in prison after conviction, and worse. He had to share a cell with former victims of his injustice who proceeded to manhandle him in his incarceration that after a few months he had to make a plea to the Sultan for help. This was Muhammad Shah II, well-known for his bad disposition towards the British, and the man who cancelled Hari Raya when he was an up and coming guy.

Tengku Muhammad wasn’t at all like his father, Sultan Zain al ‘Abidin III, a wihdrawn man who immersed himself in Arabic tomes and texts, and a sincere man in his religious duties. But even under Zain al ‘Abidin the administration of justice had already been usurped by powerful royal elders who much preferred the adat law to the shariah as interpreted by the learned ulama. In 1912 W.D.Scott reported to the office of the High Commissioner that “none dared to bring to his notice misdeeds of his officials and if they did, His Highness had not the courage to put things right.”

Shahril who read a report of the State Secretary’s Office of the tawarikh dahulu zaman (history of yesteryear) summarises his findings thus:
”There were no fixed places for a hearing. Cases were dealt with in houses, boats, mosques or indeed wherever a complaint was made. In addition there was no machinery for enforcing the decisions except force employed by the favour of some chiefs.”
Looking at this broadly, Trengganu was then in a difficult state: the British were applying pressure on Zain al ‘Abidin to accept an ‘adviser’. “I hope I will not live to see a British ‘adviser’ in Trengganu,” Zain al ‘Abidin reputedly said. He died while preparations were on-going in 1918.

The following year, acting under pressure, his son Sultan Muhammad was summoned to Singapore to sign a new agreement accepting an Adviser in Trengganu. [see, Man of Oob] In those circumstances, enemies of enemies became friends and judgments became clouded by ulterior motives. When the British asked Tengku Muhammad to dismiss a corrupt judge, for instance, the Tengku took him into his pay as legal adviser. So, not surprisingly, when the plea came from inside for the Sultan (as he later became) to deal with the manhandling cell-mates, the Sultan ordered the corrupt judge released from gaol and sent on a pilgrimage to Makkah, from where presumably, to work on his repentance and pray for the Sultan to be delivered from perfidy.

It is difficult to judge Sultan Muhammad bin Sultan Zain al 'Abidin from a distance now without also bearing in mind that he was quite anathema to the British in their most power hungry days. He was variously described as ‘illiterate’, ‘haughty’ and ‘short tempered’; while one official, E.A.Dickson, said he was “presumptuous with a good conceit of himself and full, too full perhaps, of confidence in his own powers.” [My italics].

Reading through the Merdeka papers in the National Archive in Kew recently I found much the same comments made about the charismatic Dato Onn Jaafar (arrogant, quick-tempered, etc) by colonial officers in comparison to the Tunku. But this is not to demean the Tunku's contributions in the negotiations. He was a man much underrated, a skilled negotiator in his own way.

As for Sultan Muhammad, he abdicated the throne after just over a year and was exiled to Singapore on 20 May, 1920.

Shahril Talib, 'After Its Own Image: The Trengganu Experience 1881 - 1941', Oxford University Press, 1984. ISBN 0 19 5825683.

Labels: , ,