Friday, August 29, 2014

The Sounds of the Battle Drums, mid '64

Courtesy of

Though our wooden house was the one that was drab
On a row of charming stage houses built on posts
But my seven year old heart leapt
When I sighted its facade
From the window of the dusty bus
As it descended down the hill
And when it stopped in front of the house
Where they shot box-office Malay films

I alighted and crossed the busy main road
And turned into the dirt lane on the right
No 38 Peace Street was the third
Its ground was just as bald
Save for the hibiscus hedge
And the tall guava tree on its left
Yet the red concrete steps
Led to the wooden bench
Perched on the narrow veranda
A favourite hang-out to sight passing vendors

As I took off my shoes and socks and washed my feet
With water ladled from the ceramic vessel
The familiar scent of the calamansi wafted
And the sight of the lush, green hill
And its cool, natural spring
Soothed my smarting eyes
And cleared them of prickly sand

I sat at the top of the stairs
And watched the neighbourhood boys
Pushing and shoving and scooping
The spouting water to quench their thirst
A just reward for a friendly football match

After they left
It was so quiet
No one was about
That I just gawked
At the passing bullock cart
No sibling to hitch a ride with on its back
And prompted the cow herder to halt
And chase us with a crooked stick

Just yesterday
We were shaken by a tussle
Between Yat and Mal
Over a taste of her popsicle
Bought from the Sun Sun Ice Cream vendor
With coins retrieved between the floors
A sudden jerk caught her off balanced
She had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance
A hairline crack on her shoulder bone
And a fracture on the elbow joint

Hence Mal was missing in action
Though he had been a rescuer once
On that fateful evening last rainy season
When I slipped and fell into the swollen drain
Its swift currents had me almost drowned
But after I showered and changed
Into a Sam Foo top and pants
I caught a glimpse of the lead actor on his scooter
That cured me of my trauma and set my heart aflutter

On that hushed afternoon
I looked out for Alias and his Ma’s epok-epok
Fried dumplings filled with spicy bean sprouts
Or Mamak the travelling porridge vendor
Balancing two rows of rattan baskets
Filled with tiffins of beans, barley and tuber gruels
On the wooden staff resting on his shoulders

My tummy growled
When I heard the ‘toot, toot’ sound
Of the Bhai Roti’s horn
An invitation to check out his treasure chest
Crammed with all sorts of sweet and savoury breads
The best was the steamed white loaf with thick blobs of kaya spread
But that was nothing like Aunt Mahani’s flying saucer hot baps
Which I helped to sell around the village to earn coins in my pockets

My eyes trailed as his bicycle turned the bend towards the barren knoll
That served as the boundary between the Foot Hills and the Pig Farm
A favourite location for fighting scenes in Malay epic films
Also the setting of the battle drums during the recent turmoil
And the site of the Ruling Party Amity Corps’ camps
To ensure the rival groups laid down their arms

It was like a blood stain on the island’s bleached history
But the turning point for the Malay community’s destiny
From the Silat aficionados’ surge against the agent provocateurs’ taunts
To the raging torrent among the ranks of the Maulid procession
To the state of emergency declared after the fatal clashes, deaths and detentions
To the extended periods of curfew filled with conflicts and doubts
And the final fall-out which led to the departure of intellectuals and patriots  

Courtesy of

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