On Trengganuspeak and the Spirit of Trengganu

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

O What A Lovely War!

The only link I have with mmaing karut is Pök Mang who lived outside the fence of the late lamented Istana Kolam beneath the great tamarind tree. Pök Mang travelled widely in his youth, sometimes to Pahang where, he said, he sometimes took part in a baffling ritual of make-believe war. Two teams assembled in an open field, the one opposite the other, and from what I understand, they wore a form of fancy dress which, a propos our grandfathers and their fathers I find hard to imagine, but probably a dastar on the head and a sash on one shoulder, and a loose Malay baju and the broad trousers with a layer of knee-length kain cindai wrapped around the waist and over the seluar.

This is how I imagine the gear for mmaing karut or nonsensical play would be that climaxed in those two groups rushing towards each other as if in war. I do not know if they were armed for this game of war, or what they did once they came to close quarters. Or, as I’m now inclined to believe, were they in a trance-like stupor? And if so, what was the purpose of it all?

And then I heard of bergayong ota-ota (ggayong ota-ota in Trengganuspeak) which involved a sword and a small shield and two grown-up men doing this danse macabre in some joyous ceremony, a wedding party perhaps or to amuse a visiting dignitary (these were days before the advent of VIPs and before their more elevated cousins the VVIPs came to the fore). Bergayong Ota-OtaI recently found a man doing the Ota-Ota in a nice looking neighbourhood in Trengganu (thanks to my informant Pak Cik Fazli), and here he is (the Ota-Ota man, I mean, not Pak Cik Fazli who is now too busy with their new-born child), from the book by Wavell [see A Distant Cry below]. What interests me, besides the tasselled sword, decorated shield and intense look on the Ota-Otaist is the cummerbund around his waist, a kaing lepas Barat no doubt, which is, nowadays, a rarity.

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Meetings With Famous People #3,562

You will find this hard to believe, but I once stood in front of Radovan Karadzic, recording his plans for Bosnian Muslims once Bosnia-Herzegovina came under Serb rule. This was the man who was to re-emerge into the world, years later, as the soothing alternative health practitioner Dragan Dabic, administrator of gentle Reiki and energy transfer through the ether. When I stood in front of him then, feeling both alarmed and bemused by his mane of hair, Karadzic was of course just a psychiatrist and poet who’d taken time off to hold Sarajevo under siege and soothe it with his home-made ethnic cleansing brew. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” the poet Auden once said with English self-deprecation, but sad to reflect now that the man who brought in the brew to touch the Croats and Bosniaks of Sarajevo (and the rest of Bosnia Herzegovina) was a poet too.

What he was saying (and nearly made me laugh) when I met him in London was that once this question of Bosnia was settled under the superior force of the Serbs, the Muslims would be given mortgages to help them re-settle. This was especially poignant, coming as it did when I was receiving handwritten fax messages almost daily from my friend Hasan Rončević telling me how many Imams were dead when the Muslim academy was shelled, and how many people had been killed under sniper fire, and spilling doom and gloom about his besieged city. Hasan was a refugee from the town of Brçko where he had been an English teacher, and where a former female student of his became known to the world as a slitter of local Muslim throats using glass from broken bottles. Karadzic with his mortgage offer sounded to me like Genghis Khan offering yurts on easy-payment plans to people whose families he’d massacred and whose homes he’d overturned with his merciless horde. Karadzic under his flowing mane gave not a hint of a smile when he said what he had to say, and I was soon asking myself, sitting under his gaze, that if he’d known I was Muslim he’d probably invite me to the town of Srebrenica where Dutch peacekeeping force personnel clinked champagne glasses with the invading Serb army and then withdrew to allow the Serbs to continue with their orgy. It was thirteen years ago, this month, when 1,500 members of the Bosnian Serb army entered the town of Srebrenica and massacred thousands of Muslim men and children and made up to 30,000 more refugees.

Now that the man Karadizc has emerged, beard, alternative healing and all, I am beginning to think again of my friend Hasan, but I do not know where he is now. When I met him briefly in London many years ago, he was a sad figure, ruined by the ravages of war. He did not say much about his hometown Brçko and spoke only of his son in whom he’d put his last hopes for his beloved country.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Distant Cry

Those who hemmed and nudged and gave knowing looks after reading my account of being chased by a shoal of kerepok lèkor off Batu Burok (See Goneng’s bio-data in the sidebar) should read this man’s account of his light repast in Kuala Trengganu:
”We were persuaded to stop at a coffee shop and eat some doughy sea creature which looked like a monstrous sausage.”
That was, no doubt, kerepok lèkor, the fast-swimming, sausage-like, doughy textured ancient sea creature that lurks in the warm waters of our Trengganu coast, ever the scourge of shoreline swimmers, but delicious once incapacitated and decapitated and thrown into a cauldron of boiling water.Ssiang ikang on the shore The man was Stewart Wavell, a Cantabrigian on an expedition with his university mates in the East Coast of peninsular Malaysia in search of old wives and hoary tales, when he stumbled on Pulau Redang, about which he waxed lyrical:
“I have seen beaches in many parts of the world as far apart as Florida in the United States and Ramree Island off the Arakan coast of Burma, but none have the innocent loveliness of Redang. Before it is too late, and certainly before this book has been too widely read, I pray that the Trengganu Government will preserve Redang forever as the last island of our dreams. Let it be sacrosanct. Let no one land upon its shores. Let it grow in legend like the Greek islands where the sirens sang. When all the beauties of Trengganu have been unveiled before the searching eyes of tourists up from Singapore, let this one beauty remain. For Redang is to Trengganu as the semangat is to the paddy, or the soul to the religious man.”
This was 1963, of course, and strong winds have blown many things off course in many directions since then, Monsoon Cup and all.

But the enchanted Redang that so captured the imagination of Wavell was where he and his team went in search of two old characters, one from behind the misty legends of old Trengganu, named Awang Kayak Semerah Muda; and another, Che Tahir bin Seman. The former came through the latter, an old storyteller who lived in the nearby island of Pulau Pinang, “in the lee of the Redang”, sheltered from the strong waves lashing ashore during the bleak monsoonal weather.

Awang Kayak was a picaresque character who fell in love with Mèk Hitam but caught the eye of Dayang Sri Jawa, a princess from Java who came asailing to Trengganu on a boat named Beliong Panjang. Awang of course married them both and still found time to cavort with seven Siamese princesses, one of whom bore him a child.

The story ended inconclusively as many old tales did, but before leaving, Wavell asked Che Tahir if he knew who the seven princesses of Siam were. “Ah,” replied the sage, “you will be wise to leave them alone in the past. Bring them back to life and they will use their charms and snares upon you and you will never again return to your loved ones in England.”

Five years earlier (in another book), Wavell was pottering about on the shore of Lake Bera (in Pahang) with his recording instrument when something moved him to turn back for the camera. It was then, he claimed, that he heard the bellow of the Naga (dragon) of Bera. He described the wail of this monster thus: “It was a snort: more like a bellow — shrill and strident like a ship's horn, an elephant trumpet, and sea lion's bark all at once.” Regaining his composure, he switched on his tape recorder (a Uher?) and held up the microphone in the air, but alas, unlike the seven princesses of Siam who (as Wavell was to find out years later) used their hair to bind Awang Merah Muda hand and foot and then forced him to make love to them all in one afternoon, the Lake Bera inhabitant proved to be very shy. Wavell waited vainly with his tape recorder for a reprise of the wail.

Small recompense: he discovered, as we've seen above, another creature in the water, the kerepok lèkor, when, gripped by forlorn hope, Wavell arrived in Trengganu and saw light at the end of the tunnel. “Trengganu is a woman whose beauty is veiled,” he wrote. “She is poor with shabby clothes, but let a breeze lightly lift a corner of that veil, and the stranger finds himself victim of a curious restlessness — an urge to explore enchantments customarily concealed.”

Photo: Women cleaning fish (ssiang ikang) on Trengganu shore.
Wavell, S, The Naga King’s Daughter; George Alen & Unwin Ltd, 1964.
Wavell, S, The Lost World of the East; London: Souvenir Press, 1958.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Old GUiT Discovery Shock Horror

The first print of GUiT Old Man Reading - St Jeromeis no longer available in the shops but we keep getting enquiries from book-collectors who are keen to get hold of a copy or two. Regrettably, we’re unable to help, but we’ve just been told by Probsthain, the Oriental & African bookseller in London (they are in the same street as the British Museum and also in the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, University of London) that they still have a few copies of the collector’s GUiT. Please contact them directly at the shop or through the internet if you wish to obtain a copy.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

19. How to...Kerejöng

Kerejöng was our very first human straitjacket, used on an aberrant child, or in play or when the light was dim on a Trengganu day and rain was splattering about outside. On such a day a potential victim was sought and kerejönged and maybe even subjected to the gelètèk*. This was before Friends or Pooped Idols, before some such American pap became the mental straitjacket on the airwaves and our young still had enough sense to think it far better to hold someone down to tickle so we could all laugh like real people and not the sheeple who chorused every canned laughter of the idiot box. Those mentally besieged producers of our present day TV may perhaps learn from this and drop their aping activities for a day, or a month or a year perhaps and just kerejöng whoever happens to be around and subject him or her to an intense activity of gelètèk. And we may even hope that some day some chance will come down our way so we can hold those producers in kerejöng and subject them to gelètèk to make them laugh and be laughed at.

There is a real danger here of course that the novitiate may be misled into thinking that kerejöng and gelètèk are in some ways connected, which they are not. You can gelètèk anyone without subjecting him or her to kerejöng provided that the context is right, but kerejöng on its own has been used outside the realm of play, as when a Sikh plainclothes policeman once crept into the Masjid Abidin to grab hold of a ranting madman from the back just as he was about to distract the Imam when he was about to reach a high theological note. PC Singh grabbed the unhinged person from the back and pinned him to the ground for them to apply the straitjacket, and this was kerejöng at its high-end as applied in police work. Some say that this is akin to berkah (standardspeak, berkas) which immobilises a person like kerejöng, but berkah I must say, requires the added ingredient of a rope.

As kerejöng is, by and large, a pointless activity outside its serious purpose such as in PC Singh’s work, it often reaches its own end when the helpless victim pleads for mercy or grapples pointlessly while those around him fall about in mirth. Sometimes, when the game of dang(draughts) comes to an end on the wakah and the rain pours down and there’s little else to do but wait, an adult in the group suddenly remembers an ancient rite and subjects the smallest boy in the group to the kerejöng to see kalu mung döh ssunak ke dök**. Needless to say, this is a rite of passage act done only in the company of the same sex.

Seeing as how kerejöng is a ticklish activity, especially where the gelètèk is involved, some ground rules need to be spelt out. Firstly, it is always better to stick to the best practise of kerejöng and keep it within the confines of the same sex. Secondly, for the kerejöng to be successful it must, of necessity, stir some community spirit and be kept where it is, i.e. as a spectator sport (very much like the Monsoon Cup). Lastly, for that extra ingredient, put into it some element of gelètèk.

* Tickle.
** = “to see if you’ve been circumcised or not.”

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

Far Away From the Village

Pök Kör grew up in the small Indian village of Mappilaikuppam, two kilometres from the town of Nannilam. He was a tallish man born inside a sarong pelikat, and he never left it in the days that I saw him walk in our Tanjong Market. He wore a Pagoda shirt, round-necked like your ordinary T-shirt but buttoned down to a point midway down the chest. He coughed whenever he talked, and he had a peculiar way of inhaling his smoke: with his cigarette between his index and middle finger, he’d wrap his fingers into a fist, and sucked in the smoke from the embouchure shaped by his curled index finger and thumb.

He had a round metal fez-shaped thing that was the exact size of his head. When the Trengganu rain had fallen too many times on his head, on occasions when he wore his hat, he’d wash it till it gleamed white in the Trengganu sun, then inserted it over his metal fez. This was a Tamil Indian hat, made with embossed hoops or floral shapes. Pök Kör boiled water in a small aluminium pot, poured it over some starch powder when scaldingly hot, then stirred the mixture till the consistency was right. What memories this must have brought him of sunny days in his village of Mapalaikuppam in Nannilam in the Tanjore district, but it was a long time since Pök Kör had last seen his native village. He’d scoop the starch in his palm, when done, and smeared it on the outer surface of his hat that was now wrapped tight around his metallic fez. And then back it went into the sun as Pök Kör repaired to his shade.

On Fridays, in his white buttoned-down Indian shirt and his freshly starched Indian hat, Pök Kör walked the gait of an elderly man to the mosque, in his fresh kain pelikat held by a belt around his wait, the type that was broad and green, with zipped pockets and handy hooks for the keys to the doors in his life. He had mats to roll out and mouths to feed so after prayers he’d rush back to dish out his morning’s work. He made rasam and fish curry from the local bawal fish and he made tea the Indian way with leaves and sugar all brought to the boil in a large cauldron of cow’s milk. Pök Kör’s was not just a kampung house by the road: this was a place of chatter and the daily platter for the Nannilam traders of the Tanjong market. He packed food in tiffin carriers — the tènöng of our Trengganuspeak — to send out to those who couldn’t leave their shops. And sometimes when Mother wanted to take a break, I’d be sent out with our tènöng to this Mappilaikuppam of our Tanjong district.

Many years ago when Abu Bakar bade farewell to his wife Asia Amma to board the good ship Rajula or Madras or perhaps the Chidambaram, he probably thought that Malaya was just a very short trip. But he came to Kuala Trengganu and became our Pök Kör (Uncle Kör) and met his fellow Nannilamers: Alla Puchai the spice vendor and the two Abdul Hamids, Rowther and Nater; and the brothers Abdul Hamid and Ishak the general traders and Tokki Bböbök in the textile shop. The last was a grumpy old guy who was ever telling us not to do this or that and when he spoke he couldn’t stop. So our cousins Yöh and Dah called him that because bböbök in Trengganuspeak was for the cooking pot when it boiled over or an excessive outflow of unwelcome words. In the Muslim month of Jamadil-akhir, Pök Kör would transfer his massive aluminium pot to the ground between our community well and the steps of our Surau Tok Sheikh Abdul Qadir and there he’d cook lentil rice and goat curry for a night of thanksgiving to comemmorate the life of their local saint Meeran Sahib Abdul Qadir Shahul Hamid in the district of Nagore in Naggapattinam near their home village. The following morning, before we left for school, we’d have breakfast of lentil-rice and ladoo, suji and vadai wrapped in newspapers lined with banana leaf, courtesy of Pök Kör and delivered to our house by his son Yusof.

I couldn’t remember when Pök Kör arrived on our shore but when I became aware of our town, he was already stirring his pot in his canteen house for the keepers of our Tanjong shops. He never returned to Mappilaikuppam even for the short breaks that his fellow villagers often did, but Mappilaikuppam came to him in the shape of his sons Ismail and Yusof who opened a spice shop just by our gate, and much later they were joined by their younger brother Ishaq.

“Eesakay!” Pök Kör would call him from the distance as he walked, cigarette sticking out from smoking fist, towards his children’s little shop.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Boy Under A Tree

Budök Bbawöh Pohong

DreamerThe kampung idyll shattered by sounds of feet rustling on the dry carpet of leaves. The susurration of a supple branch pulled down low, then released in a swish. An object drops to the ground with the thudding weight of a heavy missile, then the plop! plop! plop! of guavas falling to earth, still-born in their greenness and stone-hard to the core of the fruit.

This was the jambu batu (stone guava) or known simply as jambu butir banyök, the one with many seeds. And then quiet again underneath the tree, until the sound of wooden clogs in garish red, strapped to heavy feet – cracked at heels – by a band of strap in translucent orange plastic. klip-klop! klip-klop! on the metal edge of the road, and then changing to the muffled drumming tone of the earth beneath the clogged feet of Mdme Busybody (Mökcik Ccamèk) now waving an umbrella, as yet unfurled, at a little boy sitting in the jambu shade.

”Ba’ape yang mung dok ketèk jambu tu?” came the first question. Why are you stealing the jambus?

The boy looked at him askance but took another bite from the jambu that he quickly consigned to the shrubs, or rök, as the locals called it.

"Tengok pé’él, ba’pe yang mung dok kereköh jambu putik tu?”. Why are you biting into the unripe fruit? And then, as if in chorus, she came back –

“Kereköh-kereköh, tohok buang. Kereköh-kereköh, tohok buang!” You could put it to song; and dance to it.

The boy sat in the shade and looked at the umbrella lady. Her face glistening in the sunlight filtering through the leaves, her brow sweating from the long walk and the exertion of a one-sided chat.

“Mung jangang ketèk jambu orang tu dök baik. Döh lah mung getuh hök putik, pah tu mung tohok pulök.” Thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not pluck unripe fruit and throw them into the rök.

She unfurled her umbrella, not of the usual green-waxed paper and bamboo stick type, but of a merrier disposition, printed on technicolored fabric, of flowers, stretched over a downward curving radii of metal fingers, more schoolgirl chic than Mökcik.

And then a parting shot, in dire words. “Mung makanglah lagi jambu paca ning, èsök batu mung bekök baru mung serék!” You eat these fruits of a paca tree your testicles will soon swell and drop. [Well, I’ve exaggerated this a bit for effect.]

Now paca was a black adjunct to the horticultural art whose strength lay more in its threats than fact. It was a dangle of empty cans, hung upside down on fruit tree branches, with inscriptions on them that looked like noughts and crosses, most probably written in the lime paste that old ladies rubbed on their siréh (betel-quid) before masticating it in their göbèk. Paca (ritualistic mumbo-jumbo and puff) was used to thwart evil spirits, or the pelèköng forces of kids from the fruits. And pelèköng is not a stone’s throw from a hurled object.

As the grand lady of the payong and clackety-clack clogs (teröpöh) prepared to leave, light shone through leaves and landed and made merry on her umbrella, topped with flowers, as we noted. Mökcik Ccamèk on the underside stood, sweat glistening on her face now lit through a filter so bright, looking radiant and galök.

“If only,” — the boy now thought in his head — “If only I weren’t such a deaf mute I’d be able to tell this lady that she looks almost like the great good fairy of the fruits.”

Illustration: "Dreamer" from the Alexander Kozik Artwork Index. By kind permission.

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