Monday, July 13, 2009

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.

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