Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Way We Were (#2)

As a kid, I used to sneak around the opium house. I would go to the back and poke a hole in the rusty zinc wall and peeped through the hole. I would see 2 or 3 guys, leaning heavily on the couch or even lying around, with droopy and reddish eyes, getting stoned on opium (just a bit like me in an Amsterdam “coffeeshop”, I must say)! I know 2 of them. Pak Su Salleh (“pak su” is a variant of pakcik, or “uncle” in English. I guess “Su” comes from the word “bongsu” which simply means “the youngest”). Pak Su Salleh is a handicapped man with a bent right arm and lacking some fingers. Despite that, he earned his living by plucking and un-husking coconuts for the folks in exchange for a few sen. The other guy would be Pak Ani, a tall and strong man who did odd jobs in the kampung. He used to give me a ride home on his bicycle when I arrived by bus from school (which was in Alor Star) at the main road. He earned his living by carrying gunny sacks of padi onto the lorries, ploughing the padi lands during planting season and “memukul”. No, he wasn’t a kaki pukul (a thug). “Memukul” (pounding) is a process of separating the padi seeds from the husk. When the husk is cut, it would be bundled together using a towel or piece of cloth and this bundle would be pounded on a wooden contraption to separate the padi seeds from the husk. It is a tiring job especially under the hot sun. Pak Ani used to do that to earn a living. He is still around now. Older and weaker. And with eyes full of stories to tell.

What struck me about these 2 guys is, firstly, the fact that they worked hard for their money. They didn’t beg or steal. Granted, their addiction was not a good thing, but they did it without harming other people. And speaking of other people, I guessed society then was more forgiving, or even, tolerant. Society did not isolate these 2 guys. They in fact embraced them. And accepted them for what they were, and not for what they should be. These 2 guys would go to the mosque, attend khenduris and do odd jobs for the folks. They were treated as equals. And they behaved like equals. I guess time has changed a lot. But why must we change for the worst?

I digressed. Did I mention about Eng Hui’s daughters? Well, when I was in a boarding school I used to cycle to Eng Hui’s shop during school holidays whenever I had to use a phone. Yes, Eng Hui had a phone in his shop. There, the 2 lovely daughters, who were about the same age as myself, would sit around (I guess, like me, they also spent their school holidays in the kampung) in their tight hot pants and t-shirt. Gosh, I remember both of them had nice legs! I would tell them I need to borrow the phone and they would gladly oblige. How they manage to trust me was beyond me. It was much later in life that one of them, over a cup of coffee in Alor Star, told me that she knew me because, in her words, I was the only boy who could be seen with a guitar by my side waiting for a bus by the roadside! Well, she must have 8 kids too by now!

I remember there were only 2 shops operated by the Malays. They were along the main road. One was a small sundry shop in front of which a public telephone booth stood. Beside that shop was a small shack owned by one of my best friend’s father, who sells kuihs, sweets and stuffs like that. When I was in primary school, I studied in Alor Star and there was only 1 bus which plied that road every morning. The bus would arrive at around 5.50am and if I missed it, I would not be going to school that day. I would wake up at 5am and got ready for school while my grandparents would perform the subuh prayer. My grandpa would carry me on a bicycle from my house, which was about half a mile away from the main road, to the main road. We would wait for the bus at this little shack. I would sit on a wooden bench beside my grandpa. Most of the time I would gaze at the morning sky, watching the bright stars and the moon (the stars and the moon seem to be brighter those days, or is it just me looking at my past with a photo-shopped memory?). Sometimes, I would fall asleep on my grandpa’s lap on that bench. Come rain or shine, my grandpa would cycle me everyday to the main road for the 6 years I was in primary school.

Walking along the small dirt road past the centre of the kampung, one would past some Malay houses. Then one would past by the Muslim grave, which used to scare me shitless at night during puasa month! Well, until now, that grave still gives me the creep! No thanks to my grandpa’s story about seeing balls of fire on top of the trees on the graveyard. They called it “hantu raya”. After that, there was a big house belonging to Haji Saidin and wife, or Chu Din and Chu Siah, as they were widely known to the folks. Chu Siah was my “tok guru”. She taught me how to mengaji Quran. When I was about 6, my grandma cooked some pulut kuning and chicken curry. She brought me and the food to Chu Siah’s house and said to her, take this boy as your student and treat him as your own. With that, and the pulut kuning and the chicken curry passing hands, I became Chu Siah’s student.

Every afternoon, after school, I would go to her house. I would be asked to water the plant, carry some water from the “telaga” up to the house, wash the buffaloes (yes, we washed them!), bring the cows to a grazing site and stuffs. Then I would be called up to the house and Chu Siah would teach me how to read the muqaddam and later, the Quran. I was a good student. I finished reading the Quran (“khatam al-Quran”) twice.

Sadly, both Chu Din and Chu Siah have passed away. I owe both of them a lot. And I owe one of their son, my life. Yes, he saved me from a near certain death one day!

…and the saga will continue…

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