Growing Up In Trengganu

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