Monday, November 23, 2009

Matter of hearts

There was a time when this weather-beaten "ancient mariner" (were I a seaman, that is), was a pretty tough and lean lad complete with the hungry look and all (permission, Mr. Shakespeare) to whom a five-mile cross-country run or more was no big deal even without so much as a familiarization peek at the track. Oh the exuberance of those halcyon days of youth and fun, for though I was not exactly a strapping Malayan hunk, there seemed to be no peak too high nor any physical feat too insurmountable for me to tackle.

Like many other teenagers of my day, I was seldom physically idle. There were simply too many abandoned TOL farms scattered just outside Kluang town along the unassuming Kluang-Renggam road to be ignored, so the little explorer in me and my kind had a whale of a time reaping the bounty, courtesy of the toil of anonymous farmhands of the Malayan Emergency era.

Health-wise, only minor complaints unsettled my rhythm now and then and such setbacks were easily taken care of by the trusty "Aspro" tablets dispensed by who else if not the ubiquitous "sinseh" perennially clad in his "Pagoda" tee and his rather precariously string pajama-like striped bottom.

My late mother though, often complained of little chest pains that again and again saw home administered "Kaki Tiga" and such similar remedies besides getting regular calls from a benevolent and if somewhat well-rounded "bomoh" with his helpful prescription of clean water that had gone through a "tangkal" session and poured out of an odd-shaped green bottle which made me think only of Aladdin or the Arabian Nights.

Gunung Lambak, the highest peak in Kluang did not deter me and my clan of Fourth Formers in our class of '58. All the climbers, our very obliging class master included went through the exercise very lightheartedly. This was not long after Kluang was declared a "white area" (no more communist threats). Many of us were shod only in the famous "Bata Jumper" school shoes but nevertheless merrily reported back to school to school the following Sunday none the worse for our 1000 for ascent or so.

Once, as a temporary teacher my fumbling ways got me my head cracked at a rugby game and to backtrack slightly, was once completely knocked out cold, the foolhardiness of trying to clear a "hurdle" which actually was a rigid structure meant to keep away unwelcome jaywalkers at our humble quarters. I feel headfirst onto the side of a little drain and they thought they had lost me. I was, without doubt, in my most boisterous teen years then.

I participated in about all the rough and tumble activities the life of a typical youth of the time offered. Gifted with such brimming health, could I be faulted for taking things in my stride in the easy-going manner so much like the make-belief cowpokes whose invincibility as exaggerated in my favourite screen Westerns we never questioned.

Though I was no indispensable star, the two-year stint as a trainee teacher at the Malayan Teachers' College at Pantai Valley, gave me the opportunity to thoroughly enjoy the facilities provided for enthusiasts of football, athletics, sepak takraw, and got my adrenalin flowing furiously at the rugby green.

The years piled on. Little nagging chest pains were brushed aside as troublesome "angin" of one kind or another. It's not for nothing that the all-curing "minyak angin" was created. Not that I avoided the doctor altogether. No. In fact I was once asked if I had not been imagining things in view of my otherwise active ways. It was the same with my mother who finally succumbed to old age and other unclear complications. Pain or no, she plodded on, busy raising my siblings and I and often working late into the nights on her hand-operated sewing machine rushing to finish orders for baju melayu and those aromatic Malay goodies especially during the Raya seasons year after year.

I was well into my fifties and moving slowly if a bit rather reluctantly towards retirement when together with a couple of colleagues, we braved the elements for a three-day Endau-Rompin jungle bash just for the experience. We took them all, the uncompromising weather, blood-sucking leeches, long slow trekking and wonderfully drenching (for the most part voluntarily sought) and a near run-out of ration due to poor planning. No one complained.

The pristine park then offered none of the creature comforts enjoyed by later day "campers" snugly cocooned in dry dormitories and even chalets, full board, mind you. No pain, but so much to gain in appreciating God's gift to us the weaklings.

I was my usual self, reasonably fit, a good eater but mindful of my sugar intake. So it came as a big surprise really when it was revealed upon my 62nd year of "lodging" in this uncertain world that all had not been too well with my brave heart for a good number of years already.

Now the haze is cleared somewhat and I am only speaking as a layman at best. The screen at the cardiologist did not lie. Partial blockage, that was it.

For things slowly begin to fall into place. That explains those mild stabbings in the chest - too mild to be of any concern really. Then there were those late evening and early night profuse sweatings way back in the sixties, those oh-so-stubborn coughings that persisted for nearly a month at times and of late, the drastic weight loss that's very obvious just by looking at my shrinking waistline.

Surprisingly, repeated health screenings (a service requirement over the years in my working days), plus the different tests to undergo two accompanying hernia operations gave no indication of any heart ailment ever.

Nicotine effect? Not likely for I gave up those supposedly macho-boosting sticks 20 years ago. Even then I could only be counted on among those "social inhalers".

A bypass looming? I am only familiar with those irritating ones at our PLUS highways.

For now, que sera sera.

Friday, November 20, 2009

My darling grandson got 5As

Alhamdulillah, it's a happy, happy day indeed!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Happy hunting grounds

Our family moved to Kluang circa 1947 when I was about four. Physically, the town had not changed very much when I finally left for the Pantai Valley Malayan Teachers' College in 1962.

It was in Kluang that I first saw the iron horse. She was pulled by a black, dirty and "noisy" head that spat fire, smoke and steam as she thundered along her narrow tracks, so I noted. Little wonder some call her (or should I say him?) a loco.

We children called her the "bubur kacang" train. Close your eyes, try repeating "bubur kacang" at a furious pace and imagine you're that behemoth tearing up the miles of countryside and you'll probably understand why we gave her this tag.

It was also in Kluang that I got acquainted with the motorcar as we called them then. We're lazier now and they are just "cars" and "boats" and worst, "motor" for motorcycles (in Malaysia at least). But that's another story, and going off the path a bit, sorry. Anyway, I picked up the different models of those squalid contraptions through observations and through friends. I was able to get close to many of them, since for some years, I got myself engaged as a ball picker at the all-white tennis cum recreation club at Jalan Renggam.

The club grounds displayed a good collection of mostly made-in-England Morrises and Austins, and Sunbeams and Vauxhalls and Wolseys. Then to spoil the party was one frog-like VW.

Kluang enriched me in other ways too. My interest in books started with Enid Blyton's works. They were prizes I won for doing well in my primary years. In the upper classes I discreetly got hold of some naughty publications mostly loaned to me by cunning but well-meaning seniors. I also learned about the birds and the bees but the formal and no-nonsense way - through the Agama afternoon school. So what's the furor over sex-education now?

The Straits Times provided me with my daily doses of chronicles from the time I was in Form Four. Though he didn't earn much and only on occasions bought himself the Utusan Melayu, my father saw to it that I had access to ample reading materials. I also got a good collection of old books all given away by children of his friends.

The two columns that attracted me in the Straits Times were "Man in the Street" and "The Straits Times Saturday Forum". Both were their readers' contributions. A certain Tuan Djek recorded some interesting jottings from an estate in Kota Tinggi. I looked forward to this Tuan's lively narrations because estate life and a kampung born share much in common.

On occasions I laid my hands on a rival paper, the Singapore Standard. I enjoyed their Sunday comic edition. Drop by at the little Mudaliar corner at the Klauang Railway Station and a surprisingly good selection of books and periodicals from the staid to the saucy await the patient browser. One I especially looked forward to was the "Wide World", a monthly adventure magazine, so fulfilling to an armchair roamer like yours sincerely.

Weatherwise, Kluang was not too hot a place. At least, relatives staying for a night or two with us dreaded the cold but rather mandatory morning baths they had to endure. The twin peaks of Gunung Lambak served as an early warning system to impending rain over the town. We would see the hills obliterated by rain clouds first, and folks, better rescue your wash from the lines pronto or else!

Floods were almost regular annual occurrences . From our house up the government office hill we could see the depression by the railway track dangerously waterlogged, resulting from the overflowing Sungai Mengkibol. Kampung Yap Tan Sah, Kampung Melayu, parts of Jalan Mersing and the villages around suffered the indignity of the dunking. The Chung Hwa primary school, also on low-lying grounds was likewise not spared and the water took quite a while to recede.

We had no clock tower but time was kept by someone at the Kluang police station thrashing mightily on a kind of round metal gong hung up above the corridor each hour. The resultant reverberation served a considerable coverage. Rubbish collection and removal fell onto the Town Board, conveniently called "tong bod" by us Malays probably owing to the role the "tong" (bin) had upon the overall setup of the service provided.

Still on services, I often wondered why someone would walk the drains carrying a kind of back-pack while squirting some liquid downwards. It was only in school that I learned about malaria eradication. Medical teams visited the school regularly but we children tried to shy away from any treatment whatever especially the bitter cough syrup and the stinging lotion for cuts and abrasions. Then of course there was the fearsome needle.

A place would be nothing without her memorable characters. One who caught my fancy was the smartly attired but non-smiling railway station master. I was so impressed by the power he seemingly wielded that I professed to be assuming his powerful position some day; stiffly starched uniform, upright collar, scowling face and all.

His equal was a cashier at the central Electricity Board office a mere five minute walk from our house. There sat a very glum and non-speaking zombie for whom I cooked up all sorts of excuses to avoid our inevitable monthly encounter.

Walking the dos is fine, but along Jalan Ibrahim, I occasionally ran into an old man towing a swine on a leash. I presumed the over-sized squealer was condemned for the slaughterhouse somewhere, not that the poor pink snorter was any wiser. H1N1? Have no fear. It was unheard of yet, for man and beast moved jauntily without any care.

On the lighter side, there was the ancient trishaw rider to whom life aboard his rickety three-wheeler drive was an ever uphill task. Kluang and more than her fair share of undulating terrain, that's why. Try the Jalan Hospital route or climb the killer government office incline and you'll get the idea. Any request this way incurred extra charges naturally. On one occasion, to rub salt to the wound, a passenger was asked to disembark for the difficult part. No choice presumably for his well-endowed better half chose to stay put. The best part was his willingness to volunteer with the heave-ho of the uncooperative antiquity. Talk about chivalry today!

10 cents a trip

The nearest block of shophouses was merely a five to fifteen minute walk away from our quarters. For the womenfolk, running out of sundries would mean a much time-consuming hassle, what with dressing-up, a smack or two of the age-old AAA (Amoy) face powder and the never-ending search for that blessed but often misplaced rattan shopping basket and slippers and a woefully wet child to be attended to, before one could even step out of the house.

So they did the most obvious and convenient, for a minimal tip - engage the services of the young children of their neighbours, me included. Jalan Mengkibol then was a paradise in terms of traffic volume and our parents harboured no fear of us making a quick dash from the quarters in Jalan Ibrahim to the shops nearby.

We the service providers range in ages from eight to our early teens. The 10 cent "service charge" for the errand run was always gratefully accepted by us the all-boy ensemble. It was enough to get us an apple (a luxury to me), ice ball, or a toy pistol. The same amount could get us a fistful of sweets, oh all right, candies, since you love the yankees so much!

I seemed to be the most sought after errand boy simply because I would happily take even a five-cent trip and also according to my elder sister, because I provided faster service even if I hadn't the luxury of that paddle-powered two-wheeler.

I took it as a duty entrusted upon me, so the quick trip meant just that. It was straight to the designated shop, transaction over and back I rushed. The distance was covered in a much shorter time because for me it was a combination of playful skips and jumps at times. A brisk walk was the norm if I was supplied a longer list.

Mission accomplished, I would just as happily rush home, pocket lined with sweets or simply on a fuller stomach.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Outside and Off-side

I was in Standard Two of the Malay school Kluang and was slowly learning to take better care of myself at school. My mentor friend and protector, who was then in Standard Five, I think, had already taught me quite a number of survival tactics such as how to request for a lift from kindly old Sikh bullock-cart owner on a hot afternoon home; or walk slightly longer but cooler route through a shady path under huge, leafy if somewhat intimidating (in the late evening) "angsana" and “kayu ara” trees. From him too, I learned about football and how to play the game using rags, paper and even worn tennis balls salvaged from the tennis courts in town or at the club at Jalan Renggam. He himself was a school star player.

Football and rounders were about the only games I knew then but through the sheer size of the regulation football was to me quite daunting relative to my poor build, that did not stop me from taking great interest in the game. The inter-school matches always garnered massive support and interest from the local populace and such spectacles drew sizable crowds to the small school field. Other visiting school teams with fanciful names to me then included Pintas Puding, Bandar Penggaram and Kota Raja (from Singapore, I think). The most important personality in any team it seemed was not the coach or manager but a colourful slightly built man, usually with a bushy moustache who sat quietly, cross-legged at a choice spot (his choice), sometimes seen chanting and mumbling. He was the all-powerful “pawang” or shaman and one was engaged by each team. We all believed the more potent of the pawangs held sway as to which way the game went. There was even talk of these practitioners burying swine bones at a strategically magic spot to the detriment of the opposing team. If black magic is still a thriving and much sought after art now, what more in 1950?

From the mid-fifties onwards, football in Kluang town was given much boost by the appearance of teams from the various units in the British army camp at Jalan Hospital for the Kluang District League. I can remember vaguely teams from the R.E.M.E (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers), R.E. (Royal Engineers), R.A. (Royal Artillery), R.A.S.C (Royal Army Services Corps), to be later joined by the Gurkha Rifles, and a local unit, the Malay Regiment, from Jalan Mersing. There were many more. Some of these British army teams had local players who worked as members of their units, naturally.

The Kluang civilians put up teams from the Medical Services, Kluang Malays, Chinese and Indians besides others. There were also teams from the estates, notably Pamol Estate, Elias and Kahang Estate and these valiant fighters were fondly remembered for their sportsmanship and love for the game despite returning home with huge deficits of goal scores that did not dent their spirits. Blackwood was a name that struck fear into the robust hearts of opposing defenders as was an amiable, cheerful Gurung. The former was from an army unit called the Scottish Borderers or something to that effect, whilst you don’t have to guess it, the latter, from the Gurkhas.

Football games were entertaining. Besides the thrills, spills and colours lent by the different attire and personalities, some army units brought along their regimental bands to play before the game and during the half-time. The bagpipes provided the more moving and at times melancholy moments of the dazzling presentations. The locals learned English the fun way including some unprintable, inevitably from the white supporters. I suggest a title “English at play” for anyone who contemplates dwelling on writing about language learning in this situation. It took me sometime to differentiate between outside and offside and at first I thought the captain of any team, was always the centre-forward. The centre-forwards are obsolete now, are they? Not to be outdone, the foreigners could be heard yelling “curi ayam” for offsides committed by the opposing teams. Not bad for cultural exchanges and linguistic diplomacy. Miraculously there were no fights during the inter-racial team games despite the name callings bordering on the obscene. Such tolerance!

Whilst most army ‘chaps’ were noisy and boisterous, the Gurkhas gained my respect for discipline and decorum even then! Supporters from the army units always came to the padang in their green trucks but the similarities ended there. The Gurkhas were always trim and proper with white long-sleeved shirts, ties, grey pants neatly pressed, and shiny black shoes. They quietly dropped off their vehicles in turn and immediately lined up to buy their twenty-cent tickets for the seats. Their cheerings, and applause were measured and disciplined, nothing bawdy or instigating. They left the grounds in a single file and the motion was reversed for their orderly return journey.

The padang had gunny sacks strung up the fencing to encourage more paying fans into the arena. Estate supporters merely stood on their convertible open lorries for an unobstructed view of the game. Young boys, me not exuded, were often let into the field for free by sympathetic guards stationed at gaping holes over uneven ground or large drains. The ten cents saved for the free standing tickets could be better-off used for a valid packet of “kacang putih”.

Legendary players like Awang baker, Dol Fattah, Rahim Omar from across the causeway graced the lips of all football buffs then. Homegrowns who kept the crowds enraptured were Mohd. Noor Khamis, Cheng Kok and much later Ungku Ismail (there were two of them), and Ali Radin of Batu Pahat. Ali’s placed kicks were deadly and despite his petite build was a tireless and menacing weaver who harassed poor exasperated backliners to the final whistle. We enjoyed many inter-district and inter-state games too, Kluang probably given the honour of being the venue due to her central location in the Johor state. Visiting teams included those from Hong Kong and India, who played barefooted yet gave our home team a tough time. The Kluang District team was a formidable one and the players, all amateurs, got their rewards simply through the love of the game and being the toast of the town.

I particularly looked forward to the games during the fasting month of Ramadhan for it somehow erased the thought of breaking fast time. As soon as the game ended, I who was always entrusted to buy the ice block (at ten cents, naturally) for chilling our drinks, rushed straight to the ice stall. I had ample time to reach home and a good bath before breaking fast. I was then in my early teens.

I did not make the school team in my secondary school years because there were simply too many better ones around who virtually camped on the school field every evening and for long hours during the weekends. Tuition classes were unknown then nor were there such electronic gadgetry as prevailing commonly now and “lepak” is a very recent phenomenon coined to welcome the affluent generation.

Perhaps our only other distraction then was the jukebox spinning songs by Presley, Cliff Richards, Russ Hamilton and Anneke Gronloh. Even then our idols with their football wizardry continued to inspire us and they came in the form of giants like Abdul Ghani Minhat, Edwin Dutton, Stanly Gabriel, Sexton Lourdes and Arthur Koh of the swinging sixties.

Twice upon a time...

During my schooldays in the 5os, especially in the earlier years, our class readers were filled with didactic tales or what is now fashionably called stories with moral values. Understandably, at a time when the nouveau riche were as yet but a distant dream and "the middle class" was a rather alien term, those with money were black and the poor, to put it very simply white and pure. It was in the second group the less fortunate, that the great majority of Malayans then belonged.

Two such stories I would like to share illustrate the theme common amongst the stories of the period. One involved a poor woodcutter (they have always been) who tore the expensive silk sleeve of a wealthy man as they passed each other on a very narrow kampong path (why the rich man for all his worth wanted to grace the God-forsaken countryside was never explained by the writer though). Of course I forgot to add that the poor hardworking peasant was carrying a huge load of unevenly cut wood on his shoulder. Hence the accident.

Anyway, there was a hearing in front of the Penghulu. The aggrieved party went with great length as to his loss, demanding a hefty compensation over the woodcutter's rash act. The plaintiff even demonstrated in great detail the brief encounter he had with the woodcutter who it seemed did not bother to take evasive action, resulting in his loss of a very new suit.

Finished with the aggrieved one, the Penghulu turned to the poor man for his version. But he only used sign language which to the all present was quite difficult to comprehend. They did not call for or perhaps did not have sign-language experts then. The more the Penghulu tried to extract information from him, the wilder became the poor man's body language. Finally he asked the accused, "Are you dumb, my man?"

Seeing this, the rich man got very agitated, "No!" he screamed. The Penghulu was not a modern-day judge however. So he could not come down on the man's unjustified behaviour with a contempt of court ruling. All he said, patiently was, "You mean he can speak?"

"Yes," thundered the great man arrogantly. "I heard him say something when we met on that little path. He can talk! He is only pretending to gain your sympathy!"

"And just what did he say then?" asked the Penghulu.

"He said, 'Please give way! Take care! I'm carrying thorny stumps!'" answered the rich man angrily.

Yet another tale I am fond of re-telling children under any charge in school involved another judge, this one had real tail. No pranks here, and I am not disrespectful to the decorum and sanctity of the august courtroom where his lordship had decreed many a wise decision. The title is "A Monkey's Judgement".

It seemed that two friends tilled a common land. Amongst the shared crop was the banana. One unusually luxuriant plant caught their attention and they eagerly awaited the bananas to mature. Come harvesting time, they, being the meticulous and peace-caring citizens that they were with the added virtue of knowing their legal rights, counted their ripened bunch fruit by fruit to determine their exact share. The bananas were equally shared according to number, size and weight, and point of ripeness, to their fullest satisfaction. There remained one odd banana out, nevertheless. This was the most succulent, the largest, the best-looking and certainly the prized one.

Neither would part with the banana of bananas. They agreed on arbitration. The villagers advised the two friends to hand over the banana to the poorest man in the kampung. It could well feed his family of five for a day, in view of the enormity. The plan was rejected.

Finally the village elders decided to let the case be in the hands of a banana expert. It was a wise old monkey, who of course in that time of history understand human language. More importantly, he was a very fair judge who had on numerous occasions settled village disputes to the satisfaction of the parties concerned. The two friends (they swore they were still friends) agreed.

Having heard the pleas from both sides on judgement day, the learned judge gave the verdict that the banana be cut into two equal halves. He did just that, cutting the banana cleanly and precisely into two. He was after all, the wise one. However, one of the friends complained that his piece was a wee-bit smaller, to which His Lordship merely took off a slice from the other piece with his courtly knife, peeled off the skin and popped it into his mouth. Then it was the turn of the other complainant to claim dissatisfaction and the patient arbitrator repeated his act with the same firmness. Neither of the two would accept his share at any time in the solemn proceedings that followed and the process of reducing the size of the banana went on with each little piece finally ending in the judge's little chamber to be further processed.

The two farmers ended with nothing. They moved to have the wise judge disqualify himself but the case had ended and so had the succulent banana. Any further action even with the benefit of counsel would be deemed irrelevant anyway.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Road Taken

On looking back, I must readily admit how kind life had been to my contemporaries and I in our schooldays. At the risk of being branded a misplaced romantic may I be allowed space to plead my case?

Parental and peer pressure in our pursuit of that much sought-after Cambridge School Certificate was not totally absent. It was minimal though. Not enough to drive the desperate to tragic consequences like what we have been hearing of late, anyway. We took things as they came, not too leisurely, though, for failure had its grounding effect too.

While in form four, my friends and I formed a small study group which we hoped could help safely see us through the-all important examination at the end of our school years. English and Mathematics were subjects we were asked to "pay special attention to" though the significance of the other disciplines were never belittled.

Tuition centres were as yet unknown. Out teacher occasionally held extra classes especially for the "slow coaches", as one enlightened teacher labelled us. He meant well of course and though attendance was voluntary, we had full classes almost always. Seeing such dedication, could we not just reciprocate by turning up on any Friday or Saturday? I am not being redundant here by saying that our teachers provided voluntary service when tuition classes or centres sprouting up uncontrollably nowadays were light years away from incubation.

I was once down with flu or mumps and had to be away from school for two weeks, one in hospital. Hospitals those days were crying for "guests" and a schoolboy would be gladly welcomed to the second class ward. To many, this place was taboo (suay) as some said since it was always associated with death and decay.

Upon returning to class, my Mathematics teacher informed me that I was two weeks behind and was to report to his place daily every afternoon till he was happy with my performance. I did dutifully. Complimentary tea came with the personal tuition. Talk about a noble profession now!

In our class, examination guide books floated around freely, courtesy of some well-heeled towkay's understanding offsprings. The "ten-years' series" was the much-sought after publication then. They were past-years' questions with the suggested answers, I think.

As far as I could remember the school saw a hub of activities almost all year round. The first term brought us to the football field. The second was mainly affiliated to athletics and the third rugby and hockey.

We gladly turned up for the activities, those of the uniformed units were given due weightage too. Some debated were held in the school hall during the nights as were inter-school badminton matches.

My years in the Government English School Kluang, later named the Secondary English School, enabled me to quite easily pick out the sportsman from the military cadet or any member of any uniformed unit or even the school debater who could mesmerize the audience with their fiery rhetoric. The Bard's plays were acted out and they helped in our preparation for the English Literature paper in our final year.

The school certificate as some would prefer to refer to it, opened doors to Form Six, the Technical or Agricultural College, Teacher's colleges, RIDA or later MARA college, and for the loaded, medical colleges, local or abroad. The hurdle was that all-important-ship awarded by the feared Syndicate. This word conjured visions of some secretive and dubious dealings which to my interpretation then must have been made in some dark dark cells in a medieval castle in faraway Cambridge.

Anyway, nearer home ground, as proven by some seniors, the least were some government positions as clerks, technicians, or such similar jobs. The Vespas or Lambrettas whizzing by in the otherwise sleepy hollow (according to one city slick) or the trustworthy Morris Minor marked one's position accordingly.

Workouts? Yes, we had our fair share of them. Many, including the teachers, simply walked to school. Some of our top sportsmen excelled academically too and ended as doctors, engineers or army officers. The "padangs" were one open gymnasiums and rarely did we hear of schoolmates succumbing to physical pursuits.

Save for those who left for one reason or other, my class of Form Two of '56 remained as a cohesive unit right up till the end of our schooldays. It was school life as it should be with debates and excursions, sketches and plays culminating with the staging of Julius Caeser one glittering night.

While in Form Four our ascent of Gunung Lambak not long after the jungle-covered highland was declared a "white area" (free from communist threat) must surely be fondly remembered by our class members for a long time. The anti-climax was to discover that there were evidence of earlier civilization beating us to any claim to fame whatsoever.

Should one ask about this reminiscing of early innocence, the answer is that there can still be success without the excessive fear of being a total failure. It had been proven.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

More ghoulish tales

There were ghosts everywhere. To a young mind, stepping out into the dark would only mean that you would be exposing yourself to an unknown terror. Ghosts preferred the night shifts presumably to retain anonymity as well as to avoid forging any kinship with the very humans they were supposed to terrorize.

An unsuspecting gatherer of the jungle produce learned the hard way that even the regular forays into the domains of these "orang halus" (invisible people) were no guarantee of safe passage. Heeding nature's call, he carelessly relieved the full fury of his bursting "spheres" onto a "busut" (hillock) which as many an informed Malay knew harbored its own "penunggu" (guardian).

True to form, the aggrieved party allowed for a cooling-off period of one night before striking back viciously. The penalty for this indiscreet act was a disproportionately excessive enlargements of the intruder's offending member, globe and all the following morning.

The moral of the story is that if you strongly believe that size counts, feel free to give the next "busut" you see a try. You have been warned though.

Steer clear of suspiciously "keras" (hard!) places like strange depressions, unusually shaped rocks and eerily silent creeks while these denizens were to have right of residence. If you must approach their living quarters, observe certain movements and recite some mantras for protection.

The world of Malay magic is never short of these clandestine figures. Take your pick. The "hantu bungkus" may be in shrouds but modesty was certainly one of its laudable characteristics.

The "jerangkung" meanwhile, had a penchant for raiding the kitchen. The "pontianak" after which a place in the Borneo heartland got her name, I presume, and also made famous by a number of films, such as the recent "pontianak" films that made Maria Menado a household name, was the tragic reappearance of one who succumbed to labour complications.

Speak well of others. These "others" include the inanimate for you can never know who or what you could alienate. Friends who turned up in school sporting shades of blue or pink faces or nicely puffed -up oral organs had only themselves to blame for indiscreet remarks thrown around.

On a hunt or two

I strongly suspect that many smart-reading children nowadays will good-naturedly dismiss tales of haunted houses, ghosts and ghoulish giants for what some are meant to be - entertaining at most.

Ghosts, it seems, are fast losing their credibility and functions at a time when almost anything can be assembled by a do-it-yourself buff with an allen key, the oft-unappreciated high-tech ghost included. Thanks to that blessed contraption sometimes quite unjustly labelled as the idiot box, ghosts are as good as making regular house calls now and can be as friendly as your delivery person. Or more.

There was a time when ghost-busting was a deadly serious business though it could not be denied that some ghosts were invented to keep the more boisterous children in cheek.

From a very young age, I had often been warned against reprisals from a list of "hantu"(s?) who were specifically equipped and assigned different duties well-suited to their hidden features. So behave, or else.

Growing up in a small town like Kluang , my contemporaries and I were saturated with many accounts of people sighting frightful figures time and again.

Once, it seemed, developed massive breasts and when she chose to, flapped people out flat with her overdone adornments. The risk was yours should you enroll yourself as the "hantu kopek's" bosom pal because just a playful swing spelt only disaster.

Then there was the blood-draining "polong", our own answer to the celebrated Central European Count Dracula supposedly reared by a certain anti-social outcast. This one was duty-bound to turn away unfortunate victim like a hysterical wreck unless subdued by a powerful "pawang" (shaman).

There's more. It's the "tuju-tuju", a projectile that worked along similar principles as our international policeman's "elective bombings". Only this time, the handiwork wasn't quite as devastating because the missile could be directed at one individual target at a time. Still, it was the work of a friend all the same.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Jalan Station

Just call it Station Road if only to put to rest any uncertainty over its rightful spelling. In the mid-50s of the last dusty century, the road carried about it that extra sting that others in this small railway town could not lay claim to. The road starts from where it meets with Jalan Mersing and takes one to the station.

What set it apart was that attached exclusiveness it carried if a bit brazenly quite similar to what High Street was once to Singapore and Batu Road (now Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman of course) to Kuala Lumpur.

Along the short stretch were a few, just a few select stores if I may still correctly recollect, dishing out some branded and quite fancy merchandise from clothing to crockery to the discerning smokers' needs. These shrewd Indian entrepreneurs, probably Sundhis, Gujeratis and Sikhs too, as were their counterparts scattered at all corners of this once mighty empire from Nairobi to Hong Kong saw and seized the opportunity of a lucrative venture plus the prestige that came with the dealership of such desirable items.

It was not just the 'tuans' and 'mems' from the colonial service, the Kluang military garrison and the surrounding plantations but also the better-offs from among the local populace who graced the scene at these upmarket outlets along the street.

England ruled the waves and pretenders were never wanting. Mufflers and cravats in our stifling weather? And why not? Just speak to the English-speaking gentlemen in attendance and you won't be disappointed. He wouldn't blink an eye and you'd feel like a very relieved Mr. Holmes out on a successful mission. Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary!

Products carrying English labels were deemed superior naturally and they came with an ego-boosting price tag to match too. That was no deterrent, no Sir! Rather, they became more desirable. Mess. Crocket and Jones as were Debenhams and the inevitable Marks and Spencers had every reason to smile all the way to Barclays given such favaourable environment.

To lend some authenticity to the English "feel" about the operations, these establishments held Grand Summer Sales! Summer, indeed! Take your pick, be it Tootal, Viyella, Old Spice (can't help figuring what the Spice Girls would look like at seventy - but pardon the rude digression), John White, Ye Olde English (a tobacco brand, I think), were no strangers to Jalan Station. Not exactly Piccadily. Still, enjoy your Xmas in Kluang, while you may, James! They stuff cotton for snow just so you won't be too homesick. Bless them!

Not to be outdone was a watch dealer along this stretch who offered some luxury timepieces from the land of the world's precision timekeepers. A friend flashes a 400 dollar automatic Swiss beauty that according to him would be a lifetime investment. He had a point there.

Fortunately for the plain Mats like yours truly, retailers of such high-end products weren't the only ones operating along the row. Among the lesser players I can vaguely remember were a harberdasher and a bicycle seller cum repairer. A songkok maker made up the other and together they held their own regardless.

Like the Batu Road of old, there had to be the mere mortals too. But a landmark that stood out in memory and significance to me surely was the one that served us as a watering hole for the poorer revellers of the little town come high noon. Simply billed as the Government Toddy Shop, it was a small building, detached from the rest of the typical two-storeyed prewar (my guess) brick and wooden structure that came with the protective veranda from end to end. There was a cherry tree within its vicinity, a rather big shady plant that could not quite effectively cool the jolly joint come its happiest and most boisterous hours.

It had never pretended to be any sort of a bar much less a pub but what the loyal patrons may lack in the sophistication in their brother establishments that serviced the throats of the upper crust of the Kluang notables, they more than made up with their equal or even better show of spirited light-heartedness.

By three o'clock and almost without fail, some now well-soaked, would spill onto the road to share their wit and wisdom with all and sundry who cared to lend an ear even momentarily. I might be guessing, but I'm quite positive the subject for discourse could range from domestic intrigues to international relations.

As a child I had this fear of being roughed up by these poor stragglers as they trudged away unsteadily. I needn't have worried though for they were more than preoccupied with steadying their moves than even bothering a glance at a little fellow on his errand.

A mere stone's throw away is the railway station and its delighted coffee shop. It has been a long-standing institution - much a part of the town as the Jalan, the fancy shops or the noted fermented juice distribution centre.

Old timers and the occasional drop-in sippers sing praises over the faultless toast, the sinfully sweet "kaya"and the inimitably thick steaming "kopi O" served in the typically robust chunk of massive china that could have easily stood the test of time and trial.

The black powder, some say, gained royal pleasure but you can always check it with the present operator. They are branching out - that's the latest to make the rounds in the Klang Valley as of late- everyone's raving about kopitiams, but they're plain kedai kopi to me. I'm not surprised given the near-legendary standing.

No visit to Kluang would be deemed complete without popping into that unassuming joint (I must admit I was last there in 2003) or packing off a sample of the celebrated stuff (now I can get them at the nearest outlet at Tesco Extra) for though I can quite clearly remember two other noted roasters of Kluang of the time, this one could easily hold its own.

Lest I am dismissed as a die-hard anachronismic, just give that rather rustic place a once-over should you ever pop by the town. Who knows, you might get hooked-up too. And while you are there, look across to the mountain - Gunung Lambak. My grandson believes a certain Mr. Bigfoot (he pronounces it 'bag-fut'') dwells there. That'll be another story of course.