Sunday, September 21, 2014

Getting to Know the Soul of the Nation

The language is the soul of the nation

Sekolah Menengah Aminuddin Baki
was named after the champion of Malay education 

I felt like a poseur
When we had to use Jenny’s rich relatives’ address
A posh, two-storey residence
With a well-tended lawn
And wrought iron fence
On a street which sounded clever
Up on the rolling hill with the clean, fresh air
On the other side of the thoroughfare

Jenny was a distant neighbour from Singapore
Who moved to KL at the end of ‘64
Indeed, her relatives were kind
To allow us to use their home address
To keep in touch with the Singaporeans
And correspond with the Department of Education 

In mid February ‘66
Ma waved three brown window envelopes in our faces
Which Mal opened gently
While Yat and I waited breathlessly
Finally, news about our school placements
From the Selangor Education Department

Mal was to enrol at once
For his secondary two class
At Sekolah Menengah Aminuddin Baki in Kampung Pandan
A distinguished Malay school, we were told
While Yat was to commence
Her secondary education
At the Ampang Road Secondary Girls School
Notorious for its wayward students, it was soon revealed   
And I was accepted into Primary Four F
At Gurney Road Primary School (1)
That seemed like a promotion from 3H
At my previous school

Mal had to leave early before seven
To take two buses to Kampong Pandan
And since my school session was also in the morning
I had to be up before sun rise and start walking
Lucky Yat had the afternoon session
So a little after noon
Ma would walk her to the narrow, wooden bridge
To see her cross the shallow river with strong currents
That carried the assorted rubbish discarded
Behind the maladorous Keramat market

Making new friends in school
And the neighbourhood
Was awkward when you’re the new student
With the strange accent
From an island that had just been ejected
Out of the Federation 

We were swamped by new words
That flew above our heads
We had to train our ears to spot the differences
In the choices of words, meanings and pronunciations
So we learned to hold our tongues
To avoid embarrassing moments
But never tired of privately making fun
Of the words used for different body parts
Countless hours were spent
Imitating the way “they” –
The landlord, neighbours, teachers and schoolmates -
Spoke with such finesse
Which made "us" feel like savages
Such great pains to properly phrase their sentences
Or even questions -
“Dah berkelamin?” (Are you married?)
Asked with a shy smile
Unlike the straightforward Singapore style –
“Dah kahwin ke belum?” (Married or not?)
Gradually we learned to substitute cultured words
Such as the refined “suami” (husband) for the crude “laki”
The polite “orang rumah” (lady of the house) for the coarse “bini” (wife)
And the proper “lelaki” (male) for the vulgar “jantan”
And that was how we learned to dive into the soul of the nation             

Sunday, September 14, 2014

There is no patron saint of literary spree

To commemorate Roald Dahl's Day, Bet fancied herself as Matilda
Photo taken from AMightyGirl
It wasn’t til February
When we got our placements in schools
In the period in-between
We unpacked the boxes of story books
Prizes we won from doing well in final exams
Or tomes tossed aside by wealthier cousins  
They were all eager to leave the confines of their prison
And share their content
Adventures to faraway lands and ancient kingdoms
A handy escape from our humdrum existence

I flipped the pages of the glossy, hard-cover, full-colour book
That I had won for being third in class at Teluk Kurau West
A Sword in the Stone recounted the trials and tribulations
Of young Arthur who was destined to be the King of old England
With the help of Merlin the Magician
He freed Excalibur from a hideous stone
And led the Knights of the Round Table

From Camelot to Sherwood Forest
I snooped into the exploits of Robin Hood
And his band of Merry Men
Who robbed the Sheriff of Nottingham
And hurled his gold to the peasants

Farewell to Medieval England
Off to a life as a cast away on a tropical island
Marking the long, lonely days
With my chums Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday

Another shipwreck, another tropical isle
To marvel at how the Swiss Family Robinson built their tree house
In their frocks and breeches
And used their rifles and explosives to fight the natives

From the West Indies to Wonderland
Sitting by the riverbank
With Alice and the Principles of Logical Calculus
Walking away from that "horrible place"
Trailing a talking white rabbit
Wearing a waistcoat and a pocket watch
Falling deep into his rabbit hole
To open a tiny door leading to a race
Where a small snail beat the other animals
Odd characters like the Duchess and her Cheshire Cat
The March Hare at the Mad Hatter’s tea party
The Queen of Hearts and her game of croquet
And the Knave of Hearts accused of stealing the tarts

I had to escape the wrath of the Red Queen
To follow Philaes Fogg on his bet with his friends
In Around the World in Eighty Days
Along with Passepartout, his French valet
And Aoda whom he saved from the funeral pyre

Back to Victorian London
I tried to outwit Dr Watson
In the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes          
And solve the mystery of Jack the Ripper
Who disappeared in the foggy winter
Along with the split personality
Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

On to the Arabian Gulf
I boarded the dhow with Sinbad
To the banks of the Euphrates
And witness the splendour of old Baghdad

Onto the magic carpet with Aladdin
Transported to a secret cave with treasure chests
Overflowing with rubies, sapphires and emeralds

And held my breath as Sheherazade kept her head
By captivating the Sultan with her enchanting tales
Of A Thousand and One Nights
My voyage took me to the land of the Minangkabaus
I shed silent tears for Siti Noerbaya
Who was married against her will to the cruel Datuk Maringgeh
My lips uttered every word in the letters written by Syamsul Bahri
To his lady love in Tenggelamnya Kapal Van de Wyck

My mind trekked the steps taken by the ill-fated protagonist
Who sought his fortune in Merantau ke Deli 
From Deli to Padang and Bukit Tinggi
Where myths of princesses who turned into fish with golden scales
Flourished in famous Sumatran folktales
Which Mak had collected from her days at the highlands      

To all the trees I've climbed before

Nothing beats climbing, hanging on to or simply lying on tree trunks

Long after you've forgotten about the doll who cried 
When you pressed the round button between her shoulder blades
Who blinked her glassy blue eyes when you bent her golden head
Or your new dress with its fancy pleats
Or even your first glittery shoes with the diamante 
You'd still have the scabs on your limbs to remind you of the times you climbed to the highest branch of the guava tree
Or the fun you had playing 'bus conductor' on the old tapioca plant
Or just hiding between the trunks of the banyan

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A New Place To Call Home

The KL Railway Station in December '65

The National Mosque was unveiled on August 27, 1965,
about four months before our arrival

In the pitch black night
The shapes of trees, bushes and railway quarters blurred
As the train whooshed by
Speeding through straight stretches
And slowing down at dangerous bends
Going over iron bridges
Crossing over streams and rivers

As it skipped obscure stations
And stopped briefly at smaller ones
The darkness gradually retreated
As day light spread
Silhouettes of domes and minarets appeared  
The locomotive reduced speed
And put on its brakes
To let us know that we've arrived at KL Station
A mosque like edifice with a cavern
Where the night train finally heaved, stopped and spit out
Its bedraggled passengers who had survived the 10 hour ride

We straightened ourselves
Hauled our bags
Trudged towards the exit
Held on to the hand rail
Gingerly stepped out
Of the carriage
And onto the concrete
A giant billboard with a sketch of a woman
In kebaya standing in front of a winding train
Smiled and welcomed us to this new location

Cries of porters eager to relieve travellers
Of their baggage, shattered our reverie
Ma found two that she fancied
We handed over our heavy cases
Which the men carried to the curb
Where they hailed a black and yellow cab

Mal sat next to the driver
As Ma, Yat and I plopped onto the back seat
Ma told the driver: 
“Can you take us to Lorong Keramat 2?”
“Sure, I can!”
He nodded, glanced and smiled at us  
Revved up the engine
And steered the old taxi towards the main road
Followed the round-a-bout onto the other side
Where there was another structure in the shape of a mosque
Grey and barefaced
Trust Ma to blurt out what was on our mind:
“The train station and this other building have domes and arches,
But the national mosque has opened and closed umbrellas!”    

As the cab rattled along the broad boulevard
We got to know the landmarks
Federal House – that tall building on the left
Held the offices and studios of Radio and Television Malaysia  
The Selangor Padang was where the Malaysian flag was raised
On the eve of Merdeka Day
Globe Silk Store and Chortimall on Batu Road
Odeon cinema on the corner of Campbell Road
Kampung Baru’s Sunday Market on Perkins Road
The Chief Minister’s house on Princess Road
Circular Road was the longest road
And Gurney Road which turned into Kampong Datok Keramat

If the national mosque had no domes and minarets
This village named after a grand saint
Had no markers
Unlike the tomb of Habib Noh
Up on the mound by East Coast Road
Or the grave of Raden Mas
On the edge of a hill
Looking out to a healing stream 

The cab driver signalled and crossed over
Pulled up by the side of a long wooden house
A thin lady looked out of the door and smiled
We got off and claimed our bags
As Ma paid our taxi fare
The landlady invited us in
There were soda biscuits and black coffee
Then she handed Ma the key to the rented unit
The last one on that row of units stuck to the main house
The pale blue door opened to a vinyl-carpeted living room
A single bedroom, a small kitchen and an indoor bathroom
The outdoor lavatory was a shack at the end of the lane

There was a large drain by the kitchen
Beyond that, tall grass grew wild by a shallow stream
Across the stream, a football field led to a school building
And across the road, the wet market which stank to high heavens

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Across the Causeway II




     Stops Along the Tracks

It was around midnight
When the train groaned to a halt
At Kluang Station
Written in bold black
On a stark white board 

Rows of yellow wooden benches
Matched the wooden offices
Next to the ticket booth
Was a Chinese coffee shop
With its round, marble table tops
And curved wooden chairs

The kopitiams was run by Hainanese operators
Who served thick white loaves, steamed or toasted 
Generously splattered with Planta margarine
And thick layers of golden kaya spread
Half-boiled eggs splashed with dark soya sauce
And strong, black coffee in chipped porcelain cups

It seemed like yesterday
When we got off here
To spend our school holidays
In Kahang, about 40 miles away

We arrived at the tiny hut
In the middle of the paddy field
Which was ripe for harvesting
Pa had cleared the land and planted the grain
With help from his adopted sons
Razali, a mualaf, and a couple more young men
With unusual Javanese names which slipped my mind
Jobless youths whom Pa had befriended
While at Outram 
Or the tea shop at Central
The simple, country life was a new experience
We woke up to the sounds of birds chirping
The sight of golden paddy fields was refreshing
A splash of cold water from the pump
Boiled tapioca and sweet potatoes for breakfast
Boiled rice for lunch, withulam and fish from the parit
Narrow waterways in between the paddy plots

The boys brought home sepat, keli and haruan
Which Mak cleaned with lots of tamarind
And boiled with santan in earthen pots
Or fried and grilled them with tumeric
Dipped in soy sauce with cut chillis and garlics

Sometimes after our morning meal
Razali took us up the trail
Which led to the winding river 
As we passed the bamboo thickets
We took a deep breath
At the top of the rickety stairs
The clear water which flowed below
Lured us to brave the steep descent
To the jetty by the deep end
Where Razali left his rakit
A flat bamboo raft
Tied firmly with vines
Which ferried us across to the shallow, sandy bank

There we waded and splashed
Ma had our laundry washed
And Razali swam after small items
Swept away by the currents

We couldn't believe our eyes
When we spotted a snake with its ornaments
In a hollowed cavern
On the opposite bank
And heard a tiger's distant roar
Which made us quickly leave that shore

The kampong folks were full of tales
Of Sang Kelembai, the Fierce Ogre
Who felled the tall trees with both his arms
And Bunians, the sprites and nymphs
With their hidden communities

While on a walking tour one evening
The local guide pointed to a grass clearing
He whispered: 
“This is the site of the Bunian hamlet
They’re just like humans
But they inhabit a different dimension”
As if to welcome us
A sweet fragrant filled the air
“Be careful not to walk alone  
There had been cases of young men
Taken by the Bunians
These creatures, it seemed
Had lured loners and simpletons
To be wedded to their women
Which sounded like the infatuation
Between Titania and Nick Bottom

Not long after our adventure in Kahang
We heard from Razali that the paddy project had bombed
They failed to harvest the ripened stalks before they wilted
And were out of funds to pay the workers' wages
When Pa returned home depressed
We were careful not to ruffle his feathers

It was the middle of the night
When suddenly everyone stirred
As the train approached the interchange
At Gemas, Negri Sembilan
Unlike Kluang and other smaller stations
Gemas had another set of railway tracks
Which branched off to the East Coast states -
Pahang, Terengganu and Kelantan
And passengers bound for those destinations
Got off and boarded another set of wagons

The stop was longer than at other stations
Indeed it was a chance to stretch our legs
Sip hot coffee or drop in at the public toilets
Since very few ventured beyond our seats
To reach the dining car and stinky WCs

During such long stops
Food peddlers got on board
To sell curry puffs, nuts and sweetened drinks
Ma made up her mind
We should refresh ourselves
And refuel at the kopitiam
With a clean Good Morning towel
Rinsed at the nearby sink
She scrubbed our faces of oil and grime
And ordered warm steamed buns
With cups of hot Ovaltine

My new belted dress
With its short, puffed sleeves
Was not exactly travel friendly
But Ma thought our friends and family
Should remember us at our most trendy

As the youngest
I was doted upon
Much to Mal's chagrin
Who revelled in horror stories
About me being a Changeling
And about Ma keeping a toyol
A chubby imp who stole money when he was told
And a pelesit, an evil spirit unleashed to wreak revenge
To be passed on to the last offspring