Saturday, 24 December 2011

Pök Téng Rises to the Occasion

Diary of Pök Téng II (as faithfully recorded by Tuang Wingsteak).

24th December, 1951

Monsoonal coast courtesy of Ajidul

Viewed this way Kuala Trengganu appears to be quite vast. From Tanjong towards Ladang you can see ppisang* trees rising tall, belinjau** trees dancing in the wind. You can see the surau*** of Tok Sheikh, Surau Besör, Surau Haji Mat Litör, the house of the schoolmaster, Mr Khalid, near the green public toilets.

Tanjong actually looks flat, I have to look properly to discern Bukit Besar in the distance, on the other side of the White Mosque. I can see Kampong Petani in Kolam, the cemetery extending towards the Paya Bunga school. And then on this side once again I see Tanjong Kapor, Tanjong at the first milestone - quite a big place is Tanjong - and then I can see a little of Ladang beyond the bend of the first mile.

Towards Kedai Payang I can see the market, and beyond it, Kampong China. There is Mat Ppala Kerah gadding towards Mat Ming's cinema. There are so many trees, so many people walking back and forth. I feel a little dizzy, my vison is becoming blurry, but I have to do the job properly because if the machete drops to the ground it'll be a bad day for whoever catches it in the head.

Today I feel a troubled enough to consider not taking this job at all. My boy Awang is unemployed yet he has got marriage on his mind. I simply ignore him, but he appears to be mad keen these couple of days, he's been circling Mèk Jènak's house like a mother cat looking for its litter, he is moving hither and thither, trying to get a peek of that hussy. There he is, standing in front of the veranda of her house, grinning from ear to ear, God knows what they are nattering about, giggling away as they are, what can I say. Our Awang is now preening himself daily, over-doing his hair and so on, it shines like a light from the surplus of oil. Need I talk about his clothes? He's been ironing night and day, starching his wear to make those razor sharp creases. He hasn't two coins to rub together, by what means is he going to get married?

Nowadays I am a bit wary of heights. But in blustery weather people are pleading for me to help, fearing coconut drops on their roof. Yesterday Mök Song had a close call with a coconut frond, it nearly hit her in the head, but she was lucky, otherwise she'd have one very swollen head to nurse. She's aware of course that I am now perched in this tree, so why does she keep coming and going into the enclosure below to answer the call of nature? I am tired of averting my eyes, not that I do want to see her in the act, but as they say, such improprieties can make a stye in the eye!

It is hard to earn money for food in this season. Last week I got a couple of half dollars for doing market errands, even then that's all gone now as yesterday we ran out of sugar, and today we're down to our last grains of rice. Even broken rice is so pricey these days, what can I do, a couple of measuring cans of that and you'll be set back more than a dollar.

That Mamat's been begging me to do the work, please come and chop down our coconut tree as I don't want it to fall on the house in the middle of the night. That is why I am now up here, hacking at it with this machete that I had honed earlier on the stone near the surau. I have also brought my badik**** fearing that snake would emerge from among the leaves. It is now in the fold of my sarong. If a snake pops out I shall have to be swift with my act. I don't want it to be there, glaring at me, and me at him, and that really gives me the chills.

It is not that I am good at chopping down coconut trees, but I have seen the man Bachök do it, and it looks easy. You cannot be afraid in this job, you have to be tough, but occasionally you have to look down below too. I did recite my prayers before climbing this tree, plus a couple of salutations to the Prophet. Another thing, if you climb this high you'll have to be wearing your shorts and wrap your working sarong over it, tying it securely. And you need a wrap around your head, just like those Kelantanese people do when they come to deal in the market. It is just as well that I thought to borrow my Awang's underwear before I came out here today, otherwise, someone looking up will be seeing an eyeful.

From this height you can see the wild behaviour of those boys, running in the kampong, taunting the mad woman who sleeps in the surau. They're throwing stones at her, they're pulling faces at that poor woman. Why does she let those kids bother her? But she's mad, right, we cannot just pander to her beck and call, she's walking on air. We who walk on firmer ground are the ones who should not be paying her any mind. True, I myself am not treading on firm ground at the moment, but I am doing a job in a coconut tree, I'm not just doing this for no reason at all.

It has been a long time since I ate the heart of the coconut palm, the wife will be disappointed if I do not take it home for her. Young coconut leaves can be used for wrapping rice cake, the fronds can be used for baking akök. It has been a long time now since I had my last akök, probably at the wedding of Kalsom's daughter. That's what I have in my mind constantly now: if our boy Awang gets to be married, how shall I produce so many aköks? Other people's children would think of looking for work, as a pedicab operator, lifting sacks of rice, to accumulate the money for the marriage. No such thing for our boy, he's just relying on his father and mother. There he is grinning away like a monkey smitten with belacan in front of the house of his belle.

Looking at him from here now I feel like going over to thump him one on the head, but I can't just go there now when I have work to do among these coconuts.

It sure is tough work chopping down this coconut tree, look at my hands, completely calloused, my thighs are lacerated as I had to wrap them around the coconut tree. That's how I see Bacök do it, he wraps his legs tightly around the tree, one hand grabs at the trunk while the other hacks away at it, one foot length at a time, he throws them to the ground one after another. And then he slides further down, he hacks some more, until he lands on the ground among what's left among the roots of the tree.

I get lacerations from doing that, but no matter, I'm used to this kind of work, pulling my muscles taut when I lift Wan Ngah's bamboo fencing panels on the shore. That's what my work is like, I have to be a Jack of all trades, not like those office workers sitting proud in their chairs, making book entries.

Luckily for me I am wearing my Awang's underwear today as a couple of red weaver ants found their way into my shorts. I managed to crush them before they could do their work in there. You tell me, it's not exactly a place where you can rub Tiger Balm, is it?

*Mempisang? A hefty fruit tree that is now becoming rare in Trengganu.
**Gnetum gnemon, a tall, supple tree bearing bullet-shaped fruit (strobilus) consisting of a nut encased in a bright red soft outer skin.
***The surau is a junior prayer house, not in the same league as those where Friday congregational prayers are done. Every village has one or two suraus that act as useful community centres.
****A broad, straight-bladed, double-edged Malay knife.

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Thursday, 22 December 2011

Diary of Pök Téng

December 20th, 1951

The roaring of the sea gave me an appetite, I had a craving for stuffed fish. But nowadays, when the rivermouth is hardly navigable, with those giant waves, no one goes to sea. I shall be home bound, that's it, sitting here eating ubi török*. If I choose to eat a banana I shall have to be very careful, one wrong choice and my tummy will twist and turn, my fever shall come back. The wife says that pisang bakorang* is good for someone who's just recovered from a fever. She threw one into the fire just now, and I ate it while it was steaming hot. It took away my pangs of hunger, now I feel like dancing the rödat.

In this season when the water rushes downstream, the sea roars day and night, sounding like a tiger wedged between bamboos. Yesterday one of those lads from the market fell into the drink when the shore caved in, but he was lucky to have grabbed a branch of the bbaru tree just in time. He could've been swept by the waves to Pulau Rèdang to cavort with the sirens, it'll be song and dance for him every night. But I feel sorry for him, his thighs lacerated to the knees. He was hanging on to the branch until people in a dugout came and brought him back to the shore.

I am wary of going to the beach these days because the strong winds have brought all sorts of debris onshore. Squat in the wrong place on the shore and you'll come into contact with the fruit of the rengas [Gluta malayana], and then you'll be scratching your bum all day long. It looks like there's little choice but to do your job in the undergrowth because it really is scary when the shore keeps dropping into the sea. Furthermore the wind's much too strong and it may lift your sarong in an unguarded moment, putting your underwear into full view.

There's hardly any kerepok lèkör in times like these, for, as you know, nobody goes out to fish when the waves are roaring, and Mök Song doesn't roll her kerepok. Only the dried ones are available, but there's not a drop of coconut oil in the house, that Sèmèk girl has used it all on her hair. It looks like a trip for me to the shore then, to collect two or three tins of fine sand to put into the wok. When the sand's hot enough you can 'fry' kerepok in it. But not yet, it is raining now, and the sand is soaked.

It's nice to be home on an afternoon like this, if luck holds there may be tapioca with shredded coconut. After a glass of coffee you'll soon doze off into the sunset.

* * *

The sound jolted me, my head fell from the coconut head rest. I thought I heard the rumble of thunder from the sea. When I opened my eyes there was darkness everywhere, the beacon on distant Bukit Puteri was flashing, it was the sound from the Haji Mat Kerinci prayer house that gave me the jolt. Nowadays those market lads are all sitting idle because the fish doesn't come ashore, so they gather in the prayer house, and they beat the mosque drum. They hit that hide so hard that the sound carries to distant places.

As I was walking home I chanced upon Mèk Munöh gathering firewood on the shore. I remembered to tell her that the kerepok that I recently bought from her was no good. The fish made you itch but she misheard what I was saying in the strong wind. She gave me a big whack with an oar.

"I'm not saying that you've got the itch, Mèk, but I was talking about your kerepok." She was a very sullen person then so she cared little for what I said.

How shall I explain this to the wife, what with my head all swollen, it is throbbing too like I've been stung by the catfish. "Why is your face so swollen, Yaténg?" the wife asked me as she sifted some tapioca flour to bake a cake.

"What's with me," I said. "As I was walking on the shore earlier on I tripped on Wan Man's anchor rope and fell on the edge of the wakaf**."

"That's because you don't go to prayers," she said. "When people were going to the prayer house you were busy loitering on the beach!"

*A variety of Trengganu cooking banana with a soothing disposition, favoured by the sick.
** A yam found in Trengganu and Kelantan. Rainy day food.
***An open shelter dedicated to public use. Often found on the shore in Trengganu

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