It was about midnight when the train dragged to a halt at Kluang Station, Johore. It was like any other railway stations that dotted the railway route from Tanjong Pagar to Kuala Lumpur. Wooden benches painted yellow to match the wooden administrative offices of the Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM). There was a ticket booth and a canteen that served Hainanese style kopitiam food - steamed or grilled white toasts cut two inches thick and splattered with margarine and kaya, half-boiled eggs splashed with soya sauce and kopi kau (thick, black coffee) served in porcelain cups and saucers on round, marble top tables with trunk-like, wooden legs and chairs to match.
We had disembarked at this station two years ago to spend our December school holidays at Bapak's paddy field in Kahang, about 40 miles away. Mak had bundled me, Yat and Jamal to spend a week or so at the tiny hut in the middle of the paddy field that Bapak had worked on with the help of his adopted sons, Razali (a mualaf or Chinese convert) and a few others with unusual Javanese or Boyanese names. We thoroughly enjoyed the simple, rustic life, waking up to even plots of yellowing paddy stalks separated by narrow irrigation drains, filled with sepat, keli and haruan, fresh-water fish that Razali caught and Mak cleaned and cooked in an earthen pot with tamarind juice, or coconut milk, or simply fried or grilled and dipped in soy sauce and cut chillis. In the mornings after breakfast, we would follow Razali to the river to bathe. We had to walk through some thickets to get to the rickety wooden stairs that led down to the cool waters of the river. It was deep on our side and Razali would build a rakit, a flat raft made up of even bamboo poles tied firmly together, to take us to the other side, where there was a swathe of white, sandy bank. Once we reached the shallow side, we would wade in the water and splash on each other. Mak would wash our clothes and Razali would swim after pieces of clothings carried away by the currents. Once we saw a snake in a hollowed space on the other side and heard a tiger's growl.
There was no electricity or water supply in Kahang and tales of Sang Kelembai (local Bigfoot) and Bunians (fairies) were rife. One evening when we were taken around the village, our local guide stopped by a grassy clearing, and told us,
“Inilah tapak kampong Bunian. Dia orang macam kita juga, cuma kita tak boleh nampak dia orang tapi dia orang boleh nampak kita.” (This is the spot of the Bunian's village. They’re just like us, only we can’t see them but they can see us.)
All of a sudden, I sensed a strange, sweet fragrant that enveloped the air around us.
“Baik-baik jangan jalan sorang-sorang atau waktu senja. Ada budak kampong yang dicolek dek Bunian.” (Careful not to walk alone or at twilight. There had been village kids kidnapped by Bunians).
Stories of village simpletons being abducted by the fairy community and married off to their womenfolk were rife. It occurred to me now that it was rather odd that beautiful fairy creatures would want to wed and breed with village retards.
Our adventure in Kahang soon ended when we had to return to a new school year. A few months later, we received the sad news from Razali that Bapak had to give up the venture because he did not have enough help during the harvesting season and the ripe paddy stalks quickly turned bad. Bapak returned home dour-faced and we all had to tread ever so carefully, especially on the planks of the main house, which was his domain.
The main house was bare except for a couple of worn out hideous green vinyl arm chairs, a round wooden table with a glass top and a couple of pandanus mats on the floor of the spacious living room. In the two bedrooms, there were bug-infested kapok mattresses, faded mosquito nets and rickety closets for our clothes. I usually slept in the main bedroom with Mak when Bapak was not around, my sisters in the smaller bedroom and my brothers in the living room.
Spartan as it was, the living room had welcomed many fascinating guests, from endearing male cousins - Abang Aim, Abang Razak, Abang Omar - to Kak Aida’s gallery of suitors – Ariff, Hamdan, Yusuf - and Bapak’s rowdy Indonesian ‘hantus’ (informants). I used to gape at the sleek scooters and shiny metal contraptions that they parked in front of our compound.
Fair-skinned, well-built and dashing, Abang Aim normally turned up grinning in his gleaming Triumph Trophy, either to drop off or pick Abang Hatta up. Even though he was a second cousin, Abang Aim and Abang Hatta were the best of buddies, serenading innocent love songs like Jeanie Come Lately to Kak Aida’s friend Jenny (Zainab) from the veranda, or gallivanting at Central (the closest rows of shops with restaurants, photo studios and a cinema) or picnic-ing at Ponggol, Katong or the many beautiful beaches on their off days. Abang Razak (Wak Som’s second son) was tall, lanky and funny. He would usually arrive on foot but would entertain us for hours with his hilarious gags about family scandals and skeletons in the closets. Abang Omar (Wak Enah’s youngest son) was medium built and subdued, and usually arrived on a modest Vespa, which matched his amiable personality. He was close to both Abang Hatta and Kak Aida and, once in a while, would show up with Kak Pet (Wak Nyok’s daughter) riding pillion.
Ariff, Kak Aida’s ardent admirer, was lean, tall and sweet in both demeanour and character, like most decent Javanese boys. He used to pick up and drop Kak Aida off in a Norton motorbike until his marriage proposal was flatly turned down. He was heartbroken when he confided to Mak what Bapak had told him:
“Kalau kail panjang sejengkal, lautan dalam jangan diduga’ (If the hook is short, don’t try the deep sea”).
Hamdan, the son of the shop owner of a textile shop on High Street where Kak Aida worked, was of Yemeni Arab descent, dark-skinned and small frame with bushy hair and thick moustache like a Mexican character in a Western movie. Kak Aida was smitten by his flamboyant style and marketing savvy, and regarded him as her knight in shining armour on his modish Vespa. When his marriage proposal was also rejected by Bapak, they eloped but were intercepted by my cousin's husband, who worked for the Special Branch. Kak Aida was sent to a ‘Girls’ Home’ in one of the streets near Central, where she spent several months sitting on the iron swing and looking miserable.
A few of Bapak’s ‘hantus’ too tried to get Kak Aida’s attention by revving up the engines of their sleek Triumphs and Nortons but they would never fit into Bapak’s idea of a suitable son-in-law. Kak Aida's childhood sweetheart, Yusuf, used to spend his term holidays from his residential college in the northern part of the peninsula at our house but he had left for further studies in the United Kingdom in September last year. They met when Kak Aida was sent to live with our grandparents in Klang when Bapak was detained from late 1956 ‘til the end of 1958 for smuggling contraband fire arms. His father worked in the same Religious Department as our grandfather, so they were neighbours. Kak Aida’s budding beauty caught Yusuf's eye and he started sending love notes through his sister to her. Their romance blossomed and continued even after she escaped to Singapore from the drudgery and daily bullying of our youngest aunt. Mak wondered aloud who these louts were who littered our compound and clambered up our spotless stone stairway onto the narrow veranda and into the main house but Bapak bragged:
“Don’t worry, they’re my hantus! They provide me with information about what’s happening in Indonesia. Sukarno is dead set against this idea of a Malay-sia. Macapagal too supports Maphilindo!”
Being a third generation Javanese-Bugis in Singapore, Mak agreed that it was only natural to return to a pre-colonial notion of Nusantara. And she was simply happy too to have Bapak focusing his energy on this nebulous concept instead of turning his anger towards her or the children. She told us that she was engaged to be married to another young man before the Japanese Occupation but her father was persuaded by his fellow Javanese compatriot, Wak Jalal, who was Siddi’s student and Bapak’s adopted father in Kampong Ubi, to break the engagement and marry her off to Bapak. She was a protected 18 year-old and he was a 25 year-old who had fled Makkah, where he was born, to join the Navy and return home to Tanah Jawi (Malay Peninsula) to be part of the exciting Kaum Muda (Islamic Reformist) movement in the late 1930s. Atok Semawi, my paternal grandfather, was a busy man, holding down two jobs as a proof-reader at Utusan Melayu during the day and a Bangsawan director at night. When Nek Cemplok (maternal grandfather) passed away, Mak was just eight years old and Pak Cik Pom six years old. They then had to live with Wak Hassan and Wak Som, their eldest brother and his wife, at their house in Jalan Taugeh, not far from Central. When Atok Semawi married Nek Sapura, they moved in back with him but their relationship with their step mother was unpleasant.
In 1942, the Japanese Military Administration (JMA) was in power and had re-named Singapore Syonan-to. Girls who were of marriageable age were either hidden in the attics or married off to prevent from being taken away and raped by Japanese soldiers. Less than two years after her marriage, Mak gave birth to Abang Hatta in October 1943. Severe food shortages and the state of famine at that time forced Bapak to pack up his young family to Bukit Tinggi, Sumatra, where he worked as an Arabic-Malay translator. Kak Aida was born there in the middle of 1945 but her birthplace was registered as Ipoh, Perak, where they settled after the JMA surrendered to the Allied Forces.
In Ipoh, along with several nationalist friends, Bapak had invested in Ra’ayat Trading, a printing press located on the row of concrete shop houses facing the Ipoh Padang. The late 40s and early 50s were halcyon days for Mak, when Bapak lived and maintained his family in style. They had a nicely-furnished three-bedroom flat above the printer and the two children played all afternoon at the padang. When she suffered a few miscarriages, she waded across the Kinta River with Kak Aida to see Dr Megat Khas, her gynaecologist at the Ipoh General Hospital. Bapak was immersed in the publishing and printing business, excited about the anti-colonial materials written by comrades like Pak Sako, Rahman Rahim and Jamil Sulong. Naturally, it was a damper to his exuberant nationalist sentiments when the printing press was confiscated by the Brits. They fled to Singapore in 1951 to seek refuge at Wak Jalal’s outhouse in Kampong Ubi. In early 1952, Jamal was born songsang at Wak Aman’s house on Lorong 37 after Mak had been in labor for 36 hours. Yat arrived in late 1953 in Kandang Kerbau Maternity Hospital. By then the family had moved to a rented unit in Lorong K, a few streets away from Central and Wak Som’s house in Jalan Taugeh.
When Bapak was detained and incarcerated in Outram Jail, Mak was seven months pregnant with me and when he was released, I was about 18 months old. There was a photo of me as an infant in a short-sleeve ribbed singlet and cotton short pants, seated on the table in the prison’s visiting area between Mak and Bapak. Mak used to ask me,
And I would point to the sole of my foot, which is ‘tapak’ in Malay. Mak would bring home-cooked food and cigarettes during her weekly visits. Bapak’s court trial and arrest, which made the news in the local dailies, was a public humiliation for Siddi, a conservative ulamak. But Mak stood by his ideals of colonial resistance and a post-Independent construct of ‘Maphilindo’ (Malaya-Philippines-Indonesia), a return to an empowered pre-colonial Nusantara. After his release, his mood swings worsened. He was away most of the time, either in Klang to persuade Sitti to sell off a piece of the 114 acres of land belonging to her and Siddi to start a new business venture or at one of his current projects, like the paddy field in Kahang.