Growing Up In Trengganu

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

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