On Trengganuspeak and the Spirit of Trengganu

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Ramadhan Village

Ramadhan was always a cold month and the belly-aching pink mixture of sirap and condensed milk and crushed ice in a jug streaming with condensation beads. We sat and drank glasses of that to push down the nekbat or akök and sometimes both of them together, and then there was nasi ulam with herbs and leaves cut into fine shreds and mixed in rice with dollops of sambal and budu in discreet drops. Slabs of dates, from folk in Izmir, perhaps after they'd sat on them till they became compacted and ready to be wrapped and sent to be piled high in the front seat of Nana Yusof's Ramadhan shop. There were dates in bags as big as the rice guni, woven from leaves of exotic palms and filled with fruits unstoned and stalks steeped in the nectar of over-ripe fruit. Portions of agar-agar wrapped in newspapers, light as a maiden's touch, to be taken home and dropped in pots of boiling water, coloured and flavoured with pandan leaves and then set aside in moulds till they gelled in the colours of Eid.

Saws rasping on blocks of ice that came on the pedicabs, smaller blocks wrapped in newspapers lined with sawdust and rushed home for the iftar table to douse the heat of the day-long wait, and the chill it gave was the belly-aching feel of buka puasa, the breaking of fast. Puasa wasn't puasa without the kiddie entrepreneurs selling ice blocks from their roadside stalls. Stalls was perhaps a fancy Ramadhan word for children standing over mats of guni sacks lying on the tarmac's edge that had five and maybe a couple more blocks of ice sweating quietly in their coats of sawdust in the afternoon light.

Iftar started long before the actual time when the genta chimed and the cannon roared from distant hills. We sat — us under-aged fasters — in what must have been the longest half hour in the history of time around the low table in our dining room that looked out to the green leaves of the supple mminjas of Pök Wè and our local surau that punctuated the rhythm of our daily lives with the beats of the geduk. Our neighbour Ayöh Löh once woke up in his early Ramadhan morning stupor to beat the beats when dawn herself was still asleep and people were still at their sahur mats to eat their last meal before daybreak. When we looked out of the window we saw a comic tableau enacted in the half light of the surau steps: our Pök Wè with arms rolling back and forth in friendly banter and Ayöh Löh, scratching his tufted crown and mumbling something apologetic.

Even though children were exempted from the fast or allowed to do only a half day's worth, we were early fasters in our house and I remember tummy rumbling days in primary school and waiting hours in the playground shade thinking rocks of floating ice in a pink sea of condensed milk and sirap. We made our own sirap concentrate in our house, in a thin aluminium pot that Mother pulled out of the cupboard on Ramadhan's eve; and we watched as she poured sugar into boiling water, and red from out of a small bottle and then something called air èséng that gave us a whiff of other worlds and distant parts. In the blood-red sirap that was set aside to cool was always a coil of pandan leaf, heat-shrivelled and dead.

Èséng is 'essence' in Trengganuspeak, and it was of vanilla that Mother would have poured into her pot. And then, when all her work was done, she'd sit and pour the concoction into recycled Del Monte ketchup bottles, and stand them in a tray of water like palisades against the marauding semut*.

* Ants

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Growing Up in Trengganu #790,227

In the afternoons came the smell of ripe bananas. There were varieties that came in with the boats, pisang bunga, putar, kelat siam, kelat abu. Little bite-sized bananas, sweet and creamy to the taste, the size of two fingers of a child — the lemak manis; and adult bananas ripped open piping hot and split along its length to reveal dark stain remnants of seeds of primeval years. These were the raja embong, or more likely the pisang bakaran pulled from the wood fire before their skin turned to charcoal, eaten as an anti-pyretic for the ailing child suffering from the ague.

Pök Su sat with his family under the spread of plastic sheet pulled taut by strings attached to four upright corner poles, but in the all embracing shade of the afternoon it was not the sun that they were sheltering from but the possibility of a sudden downpour, rain, as they used to say, hambak orang tua, that sent old folk scurrying for cover.

Pök Su's head was wrapped in a head coil, of cloth that had mopped the sweat from his brow on many a bazaar day, that Mother would describe as something potent as would poison all the fish had it fallen into the water. The lady Pök Su was there too: we never knew the respectful form of address for her, but she must've been a Mök Jöh from the way she sat there with an eye for the Musa. She pulled over-ripe fingers from banana hands and threw them into the cut-price bin for jjeput makers. Some members of the family were also there, this throng of the Su household, a daughter and a couple of brothers, under a short curtain of banana 'combs' as we called them, arranged in one long, yellow, fingery row on a bar laid horizontal: from the top of one corner pole to the front other. For effect he'd hang a full bunch in one corner, and one more for balance on the opposite number. These were mostly green bananas, unready for the plucking, and roasting till well past midnight in the fume and fire of his kerosene powered pelita.

There were other banana vendors too further up the road that stretched its dusty way to the pantai but Pök Su and his tribe were the only ones who stayed there well past the midday hour to join the market in life again when the cake makers and the mee friers and rice sellers came out once the dusk azan call had faded into the ether. Pök Su was a glum man, thin as he was tall, who watched the world with rheumy eyes from over the bunches and combs laid out on the floor, yellowing fingers curving and pointing accusingly at passers by.

The main market was a vast fenced-in space that was locked in — salted fish, fruit and vegetables — at the end of morning market hours after midday, and traders who had energy left from the heat and haggling of the morning moved on to the other end of town in Kedai Payang for the rest of the pasar day. One day while looking out from our front window I saw a man slip in through a dip in the ground below the chain-link fencing to run free into the deserted inner sanctums of Tanjong Pasar. I rushed to the other side of the fencing to warn Pök Su that someone was in the market innards about to finger his precious bananas, a signal that he and his family took with alacrity and they were soon pinning the hapless offender to the market floor. Pök Su gave me not a sausage for my trouble, not a bag of bruised bananas.

Sometimes when we yearned for a touch of the jjeput of ripe bananas mixed in with flour and sugar it was not to Pök Su & Co. that we went to but to a lady named Mök Song whom we found to be a more amenable banana vendor. Jjeputs were in the ripe end of the banana food chain and probably got its name from the fingering act of shaping the dough into little balls before they were dropped into sizzling coconut oil. Sometimes bananas were fried in the raw in cooking oil and eaten dipped in sugar on the veranda, but to us kids, bananas dipped in batter before the frying tasted crispier and even better. Unlike other cultures where bananas are often associated with the unhinged and looked upon with so much glee, the banana does go bad or sad, but never mad, in our community. The humble fruit was often the saver of our day, as on the first night of bereavement, when folk from the neighbourhood appeared on the doorstep to join the grieving family in prayer. This was the ratib that went on for seven successive nights, but for the preliminary night, catering went by this rule of thumb for all: Malang yang mula-mula, goreng pisang dengang gula.

This was a handy saying that also put one in punningspeak for the mood nocturnal or sombre, as 'malang' is both 'misfortune' and 'night' in Trengganuspeak. So, it's “fried bananas and sugar for the first night”, or “on the first night of misfortune, its fried bananas dipped in sugar for one and all”.

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