Growing Up In Trengganu

Friday, December 17, 2004

Growing Up in Trengganu #12151

Sometimes on loose end days, when adults looked pretty well-disposed towards us, we went up the spiral stairs to the loft of the Masjid Abidin, where the big drum was housed. Actually, we did not need adults' permission at all to go up there as the son of one of the muezzins was a friend of ours, and he had the freedom of the loft because he beat the drum that announced the prayer times when his father did the azan call-out.

I remember the spiral staircase well: it was metal and painted green, and clinging on its winding cork-screw hand-rail on the way up filled me with dread. We walked round and round its central pole as if on a journey to nowhere, then suddenly, before us, lay the well-lit dusty, spacious, drum chamber of the Masjid Abidin, with its elongated drum on props, lying horizontally, its hollow end facing out to the Kuala Trengganu rooftops. Our guide, Dolloh, son of the Bilal or muezzin was a street-toughned lad with a tougher nut to crack. Behind his back he was called Dolloh Ppala Besor (Dolloh with the big head), and he had a forehead that protruded out, straight jet-black hair, and a skull that had probably withstood many knocks. Like many a tough lad I knew, he was a softie when his heart-string got tugged; and he sometimes spoke wistfully to us of a love he'd left behind in Mersing on Johor's east coast.

Mersing was then the El Dorado of Trengganu fisher folk, a place they sought for gals and gold, and Dolloh was there all right, for six months he said. He'd been in many fights and had a side-kick known as Mat whom I never saw in the Masjid. I met him a few times though, in the street, and he indeed had a slight scar in one corner of his mouth, an adornment that gave him the Malay sobriquet of birat. Mat Birat reminded me of those characters in Malay movies who had the attention of the heroine for only a bit, and then spent the rest of the footage being trod upon by P. Ramlee or Ahmad Mahmud.

The mosque stood among a cluster of houses and little shops. My uncle had his house on one side of the mosque perimeter, outside a huge wall that fenced in the graves and the outhouse that was called the marja' where mosque hands adjourned to in between prayers and where the Imam often dropped in for a chat or a nap. The marja', I was told, meant a place for consultations but it always had the smell of left-over food, or the sweet scent of hair pomade that drifted in the air after someone's had a hair cut. Just outside the 'spear' railings behind the Mosque was a photo studio called Lay Sing, run by a stern man with a square jaw and a son who never wore a shirt, whom we knew as Ah Leng. When I was in upper primary at the Sultan Sulaiman School, it was from Ah Leng that I learned the rudiments of photography, from his diagnoses of my under-exposed shots, or those overlapping pictures when I forgot to wind the camera, or those dark ones taken against the light. He hired out cameras to me at, I think, just over a dollar a day, and took in the film to develop. I still have pictures taken in those days with the Lay Sing Rolleiflex — mother sitting on top of the stairs of our house, my old friend C.H.Lim who once told me in earnest while we were being trishawed to school that he once ended a prolonged blackout by singing O Jesus Loves me, and K.K.Soh, who caused much annoyance because, some days, whilst waiting for me to be ready for our early morning journey to school, my father would walk up to him to broach some of my slothful secrets.

Just before I left Kuala Trengganu I heard that my friend K.K.Soh had died in a road accident, and that one day, as Ah Leng was tending to his work in the photo studio, a man walked in and plunged a knife into his shirtless top. He died instantly in his father's shop.

The Masjid Abidin was very much the centre of my life in Kuala Trengganu not only because it was the only place Father went to after work — oftentimes with me tagging along — but also because of my uncle's proximity to it, and an auntie lived just a shouting distance away down the road. I knew the Mosque and its people very well, ate with them during the mosque feasts, listened to their adult talk in between evening prayers, and sometimes, I'd stay there to listen in to the Imams when they gave their long talks.

One day, after an afternoon prayer, while the leading preacher Imam Haji Wan Hassan was giving a discourse on some aspects of a kitab, a slightly unbalanced man sitting in the front row produced a wad of $10.00 notes which, with one mighty burst of strength, he tore to shreds. I was terrified as I feared that he'd soon run amok — which he didn't — but was equally impressed by the Imam who batted not an eye-lid. The police arrived soon afterwards to take the man away in a strait-jacket, leaving a trail of confetti money on the carpet.

Later in life, when we were all suited for adult talk, Father shared with us his observation from a life-time of mosque-going. It's a place, he said, that attracts many types: the devout, the wayward, the scrounger and the desperate.

December 17th, 2004

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Growing Up in Trengganu #12150

The Grand White Mosque of Sultan Zainal Abidin dominated the centre of Kuala Trengganu by its size and height and by the reach of the calls of its muezzin. The locals knew it as the Masjid Putih for its gleaming whiteness, but I remember it as a Mosque of many colours.

A child remembers its cavernous interior, the massive pillars that reached great heights, and the depth of its mihrab in the inner reaches of its west facing front that was out of the reach to a young novice. This square forward position that jutted out from the vast rectangular body of the Mosque was the sanctuary of the Imam who led the prayer, The new Masjid Sultan Zainal Abidin, Kuala Terengganu. So different from the old one that I knew.Source: Muzium Terengganu.local dignitaries when they graced us with their presence, and of men with flowing cloaks and heads wrapped in dangly-tailed white turbans, and a local learned with a head-gear that looked like it'd been made from reeds, a man we called Ku Haji So-and-So of the serban bakul, the headgear of woven basket; a Ku by title he was, scion of the local royalty. When he passed on, his eldest son came to the Mosque in similar headgear, so we took it to be the regalia of office of some esoteric order of local dignitaries.

In the quiet after the Friday congregational prayer I often wandered to the front of the Mosque, to the mihrab niche where the Imam led the prayer. It was a confined quarter without the wide ambience of the main back chamber, and in this limited space one could presumably focus better on meditation and prayer. From this forward position which projected out of the main body I could see — not through windws, but portholes — the tips of tall tombstones outside in the burial ground of members of the royal household.

The Masjid Abidin as I remember it was a 'living' mosque that attracted people of many miens and disposition, and these were just those of my age. There was Ku Teng, who was reputedly born in a bottle ("beranok ddlang botol"), there was Pe'ee, who lived in Kampung Dalam Bata, and Cik Wa, whose father had one of the early motor cars in Kuala Terengganu. Some of the people I knew actually stayed the night there after the last 'Isha prayer, to be awoken again at the crack of dawn by the resounding beat of the Mosque drum or geduk as we called it, and the gentle lilt of the pre-dawn tarhim that was followed by the thunderous azan that bellowed out of speakers in the four minarets. There were people who worked in the mosque, people who slept in the mosque, and a brave, lone man who stayed the night behind a closed door in the annexe that housed the mausoleums of past Sultans and their close family members. His job was to tend to those tombs and offer daily supplications for the souls of the departed. Once in daylight, I saw the door slightly ajar and peeked inside to see him fallen among the pallisade of tombstones of the royal dead, fast asleep. Those supplications in the dead of night must've made him quite tired.

The muezzins were known to locals by volume and name. Bilal Sa'id, a handsome man with a mellifluous tone, lived in the vicinity of the Mosque; another, Bilal Haji Deraman, lived in the middle of a padi field not far from a romantic place called Paya Bunga, the pond of flowers. He was a bluff man with a gruff though not unpleasant voice that reached parts that other Bilals couldn't, even with benefit of the mike. Once on a Radio Malaysia play, I was listening to the nattering of Raffles' scribe, Abdullah, when Bilal Deraman's unmistakable voice boomed out in the background just as Abdullah reached the shores of 18th century East Coast Malay States. Father told me he remembered seeing the man from the Radio at the Mosque, recording Bilal Deraman for posterity.

My father set his daybreak routine by the sound of the tarhim in the morning when he rose for his ablutions, then, by the sound of the geduk he'd be dressed in his sarung and baju, to start his brisk walk to arrive just in time for the end of the azan. Regulars to the Mosque knew this routine very well, and timed their journey to the movements of the bilal, taking the gap between the sounding of the geduk and the azan to be roughly 8 - 10 minutes — the time the bilal took to walk from the loft of the Mosque, where the geduk was housed, to the foot of the stairs, where the microphone was placed. It worked out very well for Father unless it was Bilal Deraman's turn, for then he'd rush out muttering something about Bilal Deraman being at the helm. The reason was that Bilal Deraman had a muscle-rippling, silat practising son called Dolloh who did the geduk for him as he waited patiently at the foot of the stairs. As soon as the beatings of the geduk ended, Bilal Deraman went straight to the azan without pause, sending many a faithful scurrying and jumping down the stairs of their homes.

Picture Note: The picture of the modern Masjid Abidin (above), is completely different from the one I knew. Additions have been made without regard to the old architecture, and it has been completely modernised, even taking on the 'rocket' minaret of the Masjid Negara in Kuala Lumpur.

December 11th, 2004

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Growing Up in Trengganu #435926

'Eid day or Hari Raya would suddenly come with the pealing of the genta — the big brass Trengganu bell on the hill overlooking the harbour — a sudden shift of tone in the Masjid 'Abidin, from tarawih prayers to the takbeer, then perhaps an announcement on the radio. We had a radio with a lit up dial Tuang-tuang dan Puang-puang, esok Hari Raya di sana sini.that carried the names of many cities of the world. radioA long needle travelled across its face to pick voices that came from distant parts — New Delhi, Ljubljana, Moscow, Warsaw, probably even Gdansk and Timbuctoo. From each stop came sounds like voices of ghosts from afar, but mostly they were just the high-pitched gurglings pouring out across the ether.

Radio Malaysia was the clearest of all, and if the Hari Raya announcement did come on the radio, it would have been based on a sighting of the birth of Shawwal from Teluk Kemang, which was the best place for sighting the burgeoning moon.

But Teluk Kemang and the radio notwithstanding, Hari Raya came in those days much like the rain in those fabled reports on the Malaysian weather. The Trengganu genta may have pealed and clanged so ecstatically for 'Eid, but there'd probably be a state or two that'd be holding on to Ramadhan tenaciously, and push back 'Eid for another day. Hari Raya sometimes came like that — like the rain in those Malaysian weather reports — falling only here and there.

Soon as the news settled in, Mother would hasten to the kitchen to boil a huge pot of rice which she'd leave aside to cool awhile. Then when she'd done all her other work, she'd wrap it in banana leaves, and again in an outer layer of cloth; and then she'd call out to us to come to the kitchen to help her lift the heavy slab of grinding stone — batu giling — which she'd place atop the parcel. And there it'd stay till 'Eid morning when a miracle would unravel before our eyes. Carefully she'd unwrap the rice that had compacted overnight into a huge slab of cake, and cut it into little cubes to eat with her peanut sauce. This was the nasi himpit, or the nasi kapit as we knew it in Trengganu.

The nasi kapit was de rigueur for Hari Raya, as was the ketupat pulut, glutinous rice wrapped in triangle shaped packets of palas leaves, then fried in coconut oil. There was also another ketupat wrapped in little parcels woven from the long shoots of the coconut tree. This was another way of making the nasi kapit, Ketupat pulut in palas leaf ketupat pulutbut instead of resting the cooked rice overnight under a massive slab, raw rice was poured into the woven containers, then sealed and boiled in a pot until the rice fluffed out and pressed itself into a cake under the pressure.

It was the surprise Hari Raya that made it for us, the surprise arrival of a joyous day. But even so, preparations for it would've been made throughout Ramadhan. Cakes were ordered from the specialist makers: putu kacang or the apit-apit made from flour mixed with stuff, then thrown onto a flat, hot round pan, then rolled again when slightly browned and pliant, into cigar shapes with a hole running down the centre. We used them as edible straws for drinking hot Milo. Rokok Arab was my favourite treat, ordered from Mak Nah who lived behind the walls of the palace or istana. Rokok Arab was apit-apit with College education; it was rolled like a cigar and solid like a stick, not hollow like the apit-apit straw. It was greased with Trengganu ghee — our minyak sapi — smothered in Mak Nah's devotion and love, then fried to the right consistency as required to transport a child to another world.

Around mid Ramadhan mother would lay down her ingredients of long pandanus leaves, sugar and agar-agar, magical dyes in little bottles, and the merest hint of essence vanilla. She'd throw them all into a thick brass pot over a wood fire then stir and stir till the agar-agar and the mixture was transformed into the sweetest smelling goo which she poured into a tray with rims about an inch high. Then she'd start again with the same ingredients, but another colour. After iftar and her dusk prayer she'd sit on the floor beside her trays of congealed colours, to cut out crinkly edged, diamond shaped beleda which she'd arrange again into neat rows on many trays.

The task was set for father for the following blazing Trengganu day. He'd reach out of the window and place the trays one by one to dry in the sun on the only slightly sloping roof of the surau next door. The sun-dried beleda were the tones of our celebration: sugar-coated shapes of green and red and golden yellow, shining translucently like stained-glass on our Hari Raya.

November 14th, 2004

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Growing Up in Trengganu #93756

One day one of our neighbours went to the circus and came back with a man. There was all talk and excitement in the neighbourhood as this was no ordinary man in leotards doing tricks on a trapeeze that she got hitched to, but someone from Circo Brasil, a country which most of us hadn't known. ClownsWe've had many circuses come to town those days, but they were mostly manned by folks from further East, and I hated all of them as circuses weren't my favourite pastime, and all those motor-cycling up and down in a rounded cage and animals doing things at the leg-end of an upturned chair were just irritating distractions that adults insisted in foisting on us. I hated most the clowns, who were just sad, painted men.

But the Circo Brasil man changed all that for, besides my cousin who married an Egyptian, not many from our community were paired up with anyone else from across the oceans. We knew that Brazil was a faraway place and that marriages were made in heaven, but how was she to speak to him and what if he drank our budu neat, thinking it to be a drink? Those were questions that bothered us when we heard about our neighbour's impending marriage. I soon became interested in Circuses and all that went on beneath the tents.

Circuses came to town during the holiday season in those days, so someone in Brazil must've been keeping a close watch on the time-table for our school terms, just as turtles from beyond knew to swim our shores in August, as August was the month when everyone in Rantau Abang stayed up all night to look for them. That was how things worked in Trengganu then, according to motions and time: just when the shopkeepers raised their stocks in algae green paper umbrellas, the December monsoons would come a-lashing down, and it'd rain for weeks and weeks on end.

It rained on us too in our hot enthusiasm for the Brazillian man for, when our neighbour took him home, he turned out to be no Brazillian but a man from Batu Gajah perhaps, and Batu Gajah was just over the hill from us, not across the wide ocean. So we just let them get on with their married life, and the Circus too did the same, for, when they upped tents and headed out of town, our bridegroom from Circo Brasil became a Kuala Trengganu townsman.

Our Brazillian let-down notwithstanding we had quite a cosmopolitan crowd in our town even then. There were folk from over the hills whom we called the orang luar or outsiders who soon became very much like us local folk, eating ikang and walking the jalang. We had Pak Loh Yunang the booksellers, of course, Muslims from the province of Yunnan in China, but they soon adopted our ways right down to the batik sarong. There were of course the local Chinese who'd been in Trengganu more than a hundreed years, and whose best expression to me was Pak Awang.

Pak Awang was a necromancer with a silver tongue who'd walk the streets in his Chinese trousers, and in his hands, a green umbrella and his office-in-a-bag. He spoke Trengganuspeak like a native, and so he was, and appeared most afternoons at Wan Mamat's and spoke and spoke while the kerepoks boiled in the cauldron. Wan Mamat was one of two kerepok makers in our part of town. Each day, after the sound of the late afternoon geduk — the call-to-prayer drum — the fish would arrive in basket loads and Wan Mamat would supervise his wife and daughters in the cleaning of them while he continued to speak on various subjects to Pak Awang. Once I overheard them talk about the dark business of spirits, and Pak Awang, who was also a ghostbuster necromancerman, confided in him that spirits were put off by the bones of pigs, so whenever he did a spot of exorcism he'd prod his patients — some of whom were Muslims — with this handy object which he always carried in his little bag. "Lepah tu aku samoklah pulok,*" he told Wan Mamat who was reassured.

Soon as the kerepok was off the boil and placed in round woven baskets — hence lekor, Trengganuspeak for lingkar, the curling of long kerepoks in a round basket — Pak Awang would take his order and head home to his wife Mak Mek who was a keropok lekor reseller behind a bookshop in Chinatown.

In front of our house were Tamil shopkeepers, who were spice retailers and textile merchants, some hailing from a place called Mappilaikuppam in Nanilam, in the Tanjore district of Southern India. I know because some days I'd be diverted from my walk home from school by some of them who wanted to have addresses written on their envelopes of despatches and postal orders to their native village in Mother India. On Friday, the state holiday, a Nanilam man living in his shop in front of our house would pull out his harmonium and sing his mournful tunes to the empty market.

We could've had a Brazillian man pull out his Friday instrument to put a little Samba in our midst; but then as it turned out, he wasn't and he didn't, and he turned out to be just one of us.

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*"I do the [Muslim] ritual cleansing afterwards, of course."

November 3rd, 2004

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Growing Up in Trengganu #43275

Our cousin Dah was one day knocked sideways by a Tok Peraih travelling at speed from Kedai Payang to a place in Ladang.

Kedai Payang — if you know Trengganu — is almost in the town centre, and Ladang some fifteen minutes away, maybe faster, seeing as how the Tok Peraih flew. Tok Peraihs were sinewy men often found under a conical terendak hat, and they rode Home are the fishermen, home from the sea. Payang fishing boats moored in Kampung Batin, Kuala Trengganu. The town of KT faintly visible in the background. Source:Dr Mat bin Zakaria, with thanks.sturdy bikes with a rack in the back on which was placed a rectangular cane basket filled with the latest fruits of the sea. We'd all skated or slipped in the fishmarkets of Kuala Trengganu, but cousin Dah was the only family member I knew who'd had the fish market come crashing on her.

The peraihs were middlemen who waited all day in the coffee shops then sprang to life in late afternoon when the payang boats came back to shore. They were tough cookies and hard bargainers, and wore baggy khaki shorts with draped over batik sarongs, rolled up to the knee, with the seams pulled up and tucked into the wiastband. On cooler days they'd discard the terendak and wrap their heads in a band of long material quite in the way of the Kelantanese semutar. By five o'clock, at peraih speed, the fish would be in the Ladang market opposite my old Malay school — the kembong, and selar kuning, and ikan keras ekor, ikan jebong and the occasional ttuke, probably cousin to the skate or pari — the sea smell wafting to the roundabout later made famous by the Trengganu turtle.

As it happened, cousin Dah was crossing the road when the Tok Peraih came at breakneck speed on his way to an important customer. She fell to the road in shock, but was otherwise unhurt, and her pride smelt of fish that day. The Tok Peraih merely shook his head in disbelief and continued on his urgent journey, while his one free hand pressed even more agitatedly on the rubber bulb of his handle-bar horn that went phat-phat! all the way.

Late afternoon was peraih time in the streets of coastal Kuala Trengganu, when these fish couriers pedalled fast and furious to their customer-retailers in Ladang, Pasir Panjang or Chabang Tiga, that bustling market at the intersection of roads that took us to deeper parts of Trengganu.

This occasion of cousin Dah and the middleman was one that I savoured with much hilarity — only after discovering that she was physically unscathed, of course — because the peraihs were busy and sturdy men who were only visible at speed, and there wasn't one that I knew. You only saw them dismounted among the market stallholders, and that was after their business was done, as they walked about with their sarong skirts lifted like stage curtains half-drawn when the show was nearly over. And then they'd disperse and disappear till the butt end of the following business day, with their bicycle horns going phat-phat! phat-phat! warning people like Dah of their pace of travel.

Home are the fishermen, home from the sea.I remember Ladang not only because Dah came to grief with a basket of fish near there on that fateful day. At peraih speed, it was a good few minutes still from Ladang that she met the flying wheel: Payang fishing boats moored in Kampung Batin, Kuala Trengganu. The town of KT faintly visible in the background. Source:Dr Mat bin Zakaria, with thanks.">a place near the bend known to us as Tanjong Mengabang, in a landscape of coastal shacks and smart houses, and coconut trees all the way to the sea. Tanjong Mengabang had a peculiar hum about it, and a funny breeze that blew in a certain chill.

When Mother told me stories of Trengganu past, she often spoke of Pak Mat Mengamok, who one day went berserk after some matrimonial crisis and went on a killing spree. Pak Mat was buried there she said, among the coconut trees of Tanjung Mengabang, and funnily enough, it was near the house of another Pak Mat, a telecoms linesman in his daytime job, who was often at our house during weekends for some bits of carpentry. My father was a telephone operator at the Kuala Trengganu exchange in those days, and Pak Mat was the man who put those copper lines on poles that went for as long as you could see; so they shared a certain camaraderie.

It was near Pak Mat's house that cousin Dah had her piscatorial day, but it wasn't something that he remembered clearly. Just over three years ago, when I saw my father for the last time, we were chatting in the front of the house in Kuala Lumpur when a car drove into the driveway and out from the passenger side came a rheumy eyed man so full of smile. This was Pak Mat of years ago, who used to perch on poles among the copper wires, but now he was walking very slowly.

They had a lot to talk about as they'd not seen each other for many years. Then Pak Mat asked about a certain person, my father's friend, who used to be his boss at the Telephone Exchange in Kuala Trengganu. He'd come to Kuala Lumpur with a purpose, he said, because many years ago, the boss gave him 15 ringgit too much in his pay packet, and now he wanted to hand it back before he returned to his Maker.

Like our cousin Dah I had Tanjong Mengabang and the Tok Peraihs come hurtling back to me that day; but most of all, I was close to tears by Pak Mat's honesty.

October 31st, 2004

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Growing Up in Trengganu #39506

If the sound of burping was to be expected at lunch-time during Ramadhan in Kuala Trengganu, it would've come from those cubicles behind the drapes in the rambunctious cafe next door to the Panggung Mat Min. The Panggung was one of our two local cinemas, officially called the Sultana, a shortlived name soon overtaken by the fame of its own doorkeeper, a man named Mat Min, whose name — in the mouths of the public — soon became the cinema proper.

The sleazy cafe by the Panggung Mak Ming (as we called him in Trengganuspeak) had a frontage on the main road on the edge of our Chinatown. Malay Film PosterIt differed from your common and garden coffee shop by dint of the pelayan ladies who ran hither and thither from table to table with coffee as black as sin and sin maybe, for afters. The word pelayan itself is relatively harmless if you look it up in a Malay dictionary, but in Trengganuspeak then, words were never what they seemed to be, and the pelayan was not just your lady server, just as a bujang woman wasn't your dainty spinster. If an orang bujang were to cross your path you'd quickly avert your eyes if you were mosque going people.

Ramadhan was of course a month of abstinence, but not behind those cafe covers. There were straight-backed chairs in the cafe sleaze, facing one another; with backs so tall that two chairs tête-á-tête, lined against the wall, formed a neat cubicle with the eating table in between and the entrance and exit in the broad gangway in the cafe centre. They were lined on opposite walls, as I remember, with the centre area of the cafe filled with round, marble topped tables, taken up by punters who felt no reason to be lying low. I imagine the cafe owner, on the eve of Ramadhan, scurrying to the dusty storeroom for the drapes to hang across the entrance to his Ramadhan tête-á-tête cubicles.

This sleaze cafe came back to me when I was watching an early instalment of Star Wars, when Hans Solo and friends ventured into the cafe at the edge of the universe, filled with shady types and blubbery people. Sleaze cafe by the Panggong Mat Min was a place like that: I don't think I saw anyone in there that I recognised or knew, they were people that sprang out of a Trengganu that I didn't know, with proclivities to make you gawp away the time of day. In Ramadhan they ate behind the drapes, in other months they sowed wild oats in this lively corner.

The Panggong Mat Min wasn't a favourite, but sometimes we'd hang there to look at the cinema posters. They showed Cathay Kris only over there, because Shaw Brothers productions were the privilege of the Capitol next door. One day, while ogling at the shapeliness of Rose Yatimah, maybe, we heard a loud shriek from the woman at cafe sleaze, then saw a man wearing a smirk for a face, hurrying away from her. "Cekor ***** dapat pitis samah!" she said, mocking a short chase that ended in a smile. It was quite a daring thing to say in the open air of Kuala Trengganu, but the pelayan were that kind of people.

Cekor was then — as now — an act of daring, the grabbing of something succulent, like meat, and pitis samah was worth fifty cents in those Trengganu days. I shall spare you the asterisks, dear reader, but I went home that day with my little head thinking of the wonders of nature.

October 20th, 2004

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Growing Up In Trengganu #39472

The ice blocks came a-rasping especially in those parched days when Ramadhan came to visit us. In the Trengganu of those days the fridge wasn't a commonplace of the home, so we stood in the wide space in front of Bhiku's coffee shop as the ice blocks arrived when the shadows were lengthening and the day was coming to a close.

They came wrapped in sawdust and the gunny — guni — sacks made of jute, brought to us, maybe six to eight blocks to a carrier, by a special mode of transport. These were the basikal kaki tiga, pedalled by men, whose three-wheeled transporter worked on the same principle as the rickshaw with the pedaller behind the passenger seat. But on its front the basikal kaki tiga had an open box placed on a low chassis, with the leading side left open, and a metal bar placed on the box edge in front of the pedaller for him to rest his arms as he pedalled, and to turn the vehicle left and right as he journeyed along.

The basikal kaki tiga men were a macho breed with an independent mien, yet to a man they followed an unofficial dress code. They had a batik sarong wrapped around their waist, with the hem raised above the knees; and underneath this flowery delight they wore a pair of khaki shorts. They would be shirtless mostly, or maybe they'd wear a T-shirt top, and then, by dint of some arcane rule, they had a sarong cape draped over their backs, with the two upper corners tied in a knot under their chin. These were batik sarongs of loud patterns, of leaves and flowers and Trengganu made, and there was nothing sissy about that except in the minds of the orang luar of the other coast. When we moved to Kuala Lumpur, much later, my father sometimes slipped out of the house, to the clothesline maybe, wearing the Trengganu batik, and somewhere in our family album there's probably a photograph of him still, doing just that.

But meantime, in front of the Bhiku shop there was already some loud rasping of the saw's teeth, and a sharp thwack! as the ice was sawn and broken into smaller blocks. This is, to me, the sound of Ramadhan in Kuala Trengganu, of an afternoon in the fasting month when crowds began to mill in front of the Bhiku shop for cakes, for rice and sugar to stock up with, and for the mini block or a half of that soothing ice, taken away in a page from some old newspaper, to take home and fracture again into glittery bits that bobbed and floated in a jugful of sweet, milky sirap.

This trade in ice blocks was the business of bigger boys, and the pedal transporter men with their bilhooks for hands. My father told me that those ice blocks came from a factory in Pulau Kambing — Goat's Island — which wasn't an island at all but a semi-industrial linear township on the bank of the Trengganu. A funny place for goats to be, for water to freeze to ice. The little entrepreneurs made their 'fortune' in Ramadhan from those smaller blocks that they bought and resold for a little profit. All you needed was a guni sack and a place in front of the Bhiku shop to lay it out. And then, at the first sound of the rasping and the thwacking of the ice, you rush to grab a block or three to resell on your mat for a small profit.

It was a profitable venture which begot more noise. Profits from the ice trade were used to buy a thing called carbide which, when placed in water in a bamboo cannon and lit, produced a boom that made the old melatah. Melatah is a Malay-Eskimo hysteria triggered by sudden shocks or noise. I know little about the Inuits, but among the Malays, the afflicted seem to be mostly women of a certain age. So boom! went the bamboo cannon, back came a diarrhoea of words from some senior women, taken from their store of unspoken expletives.

Puasa in our household, as in other households, was serious business. My mother would produce a special mould of brass that she'd been keeping in store since Ramadhan last, fill its boat shaped holes with a liquid concoction of flour and sugar and eggs and stuff, and cover them all up with the flat brass lid that's hinged to the top. On the top surface of this lid she'd burn coconut husks dried in the sun for months ahead, and underneath the apparatus she'd light a fire from wood; and the miracle it produced was called akok. Akoks were succulent morsels of golden dreams, moist in the hand and deliciously sweet, with the cloying taste of some distant past, lilting and dancing daintily on tickled taste buds.

There were other delights too in Ramadhan, of course. There was the nekbat, a little something drenched in syrup, and there was my favourite, the hasidah which was stirred and stirred in a cauldron of brass until the ingredients became a sticky, greasy goo of exquisite stuff. The hasidah paste is then placed on a tray or a plate, flattened to a smooth surface, then, using a special pair of tongs with saw-edge teeth, patterns are pinched out on it in ridges and dips. In the dips would be poured crisp flakes of shallots, freshly fried.

Recently we heard the sad news that our cousin Mat Tepek had died. Mat — God rest his soul — was even smaller than us when he had his encounter with the hasidah, which he started to tepek — stick — to the wall of our house. So Tepek he became, and Tepek he died.

October 14th, 2004