Growing Up In Trengganu

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Growing Up In Trengganu #38952

One day, caught in a mood of merriment, I was thrown into a kolah in our neighbourhood madrasah or surau. A surau is a devotional place, much smaller than a mosque, and in the kampungs of Trengganu it served as more than a prayer hall. It was the centre of activity, the meeting place of young and old, and was, more often than not, built of wood, with a prayer chamber and a narrow ante-chamber in the rear where old folk would sit outside prayer times to doze off, or to chat about the price of fish, or merely to nod and gape at all and sundry. The youth of the village would gather there too for a puff of the rokok daun taken and rolled from the pouches of the old, and the rokok daun, if you must know, is a tough dry leaf, rolled into a long thin smoke after it's been filled with a string of tobacco.

Like most Malay houses, our surau was built on stilts, raised some five feet above the ground, and in the ante-chamber, the floor planks were nailed with gaps in between, about half an inch maybe, so they could spit through them easily. To engage in the solat or Muslim prayer one had to be pure in body and soul, hence the pre-prayer ablution, with plenty of water; and before making supplications to one's Maker, the mouth, like the heart, had to be be pure and true. So there'd be hemming and hoiking in the back chamber just before the start of prayer, by men spitting out impurities from their mouths, of some tiny bits of curried chicken, or the ikan singgang, stuck between their teeth, or a pleasant after-taste lingering still in their throats of the gulai. Before finally going in for prayers, all these sediments were spat out through the gaps in the floor. The ones who chewed betel nuts were the most accomplished in this endeavour, of course, for their spits were of the brightest hue.

I've mentioned the ablution, so I must turn now to the kolah. which every little surau had in those days. It was an open topped water-tank, normally quadrandgular in shape, though they could also be shaped like a square. The four sides, built up to the level of an adult's waist, were of concrete, and from what I remember, the kolah was always placed by the steps of the surau.

Our kolah was medium-sized, about four feet deep, and had interesting mosses and lichens lurking beneath the surface of the water. Worshippers would dip their hands and arms into it, and wash their face, and then scoop the water in a large tin can to wash their feet before finally going up to the surau. My father always warned me about using the kolah, which, he said, contained the remnants of sleep from the eyes of early-morning worshippers. I never could make out if he was saying this in jest or for real, but I always, always religiously avoided the kolah outside a surau.

So it was for my thoughts perhaps that I was one day thrown in there with a great big splash and a lot of joy from bystanders and passers-by. They were two big boys, who threw me in, so there wasn't much I could do but walk home with my clothes thoroughly drenched, and little expectation of similar merriment from my mother or father. But unbeknown to me, my father was watching the proceedings — and my humiliation — from a window which looked down on the surau, and he'd already prepared some encapsulated wisdom for his returning son from the water. "Familiarity breeds contempt," he said to me, from on high. Well, I was a little lad then, and he was looking down at me and talking about those lads who'd chucked me into the kolah of our little surau.

Those words of his jolted me more than my unexpected meeting with the aqua surau, remnants of worshippers' sleep, green moss, and all. I don't hear the expression much any more, but whenever I see it or hear it uttered, I'm reminded of my dear, late father and the surau.

Our surau was a merry place and a lively centre. It had a large communal well where gathered the lads and lasses of the village and their mothers and fathers every day at dusk for the communal shower. In the surau was a grand geduk or beduk, an elongated drum covered taut with cow-hide at its business end, and left open in the other. It was hung horizontally in the back chamber of the prayer hall, by the stairs, and at prayer time, someone would hit the drum so hard in a prescribed rhythm so that the faithful would all come to prayer.

Pak Leh was Imam of our surau, a pious man of quiet authority; who passed on last year at an age that must've been close to ninety. Sometimes, from between the thunderous sounds of the old geduk and of men hoicking and retching through the gaps in the floor, I can still hear the voice of Pak Leh, sending up to our house the lilt of that melancholic tune that he'd perhaps devised himself from inside that old surau. It was a reminder of fleeting time, and our mortality, and it's playing in my head right now —
Ingat, ingat, serta fikir sehari hari
Kamu duduk dalam kubur seorang diri;
Rumah besar, kampung luas, itu ia
Akan tinggal itu juga akan dia...

September 7, 2004


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