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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