Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Early Years


It was one very beautiful sunny Friday morning sometimes in 1958, on a lonely dirt road leading to a stretch of white sandy beach. Though a bit hazy, I could still see a group of children chasing each other merrily towards the beach. We were racing our hearts out trying to be the first to reach the sea.

“Be careful son, you’ll fall….”

True enough before she even finished her cautioning words, there I was, tumbling down skinning my knees, elbows and palms along the jagged surface of the road. The pain was excruciating, but I was just too proud to cry aloud. Only tears trickled down my boyish cheeks. Blood started seeping out of the raw areas of my knees, elbows and palms. My grandmother, whom I called Tok Wan, instinctively reacted in the best way she knew to help. She quickly gathered spider webs from the overhanging branches of cashew nut trees and meticulously cleaned them of leftover insect parts and other debris. She then gently covered the wounds with the gauze-like spider webs and the bleeding miraculously stopped.

She taught me a lot about natural sciences, traditional medicine in particular. Some of my cousins were jealous of our close relationship. They said that she favoured me over her other grandchildren. I knew that I was her favourite grandson, but never for once took advantage of it. I tried my best to make her share her love with my cousins too. It was not unusual for her to bring back a variety of presents from the wild for me, things like pitcher plants (periuk kera), weaverbird’s nests, strange creatures like stick insects (belalang Mekah), giant millipedes (pinang kote) and even baby birds. Even then she was aware of my great love for nature.

One evening after visiting her sick neighbour, she told me about a pair of juvenile yellow-vented bulbuls (merbah kapur) sleeping on a coffes tree by the side of the well. So, the following dusk the two of us tiptoed towards the tree with a batik sarong. The birds got away just before we could cover the tree with the sarong. An old rusted Milo tin warned them of our sinister intention. I stepped on it as we were spreading the sarong to blanket the tree. I waited for the birds to come back many dusks after that, but they were just a lot smarter than I thought. They never again came back to spend the night on that coffee tree.

Being very close to nature, she knew a lot about herbal medicine. There was this one of her many concoctions that I remembered well. It was made up of Cassia alata (gelenggang) leaves, roots of tuba and mata ayam plants and sulphur. Briefly, the leaves, the roots and sulphur were grounded into a paste. The paste was then boiled over a slow fire in her self-prepared 100% pure coconut oil. Despite of its terrible smell, it was superb in healing scabies, especially those that defied modern medicines I used to have.

One thing about the skin disease that never failed to amaze me was her special ability to actually see the burrowing mites, Sarcoptes scabiei with her naked eyes. Using the sharp end of a safety pin, she would then masterly pick up the mites from their burrows in the skin of my palm, making sure that the pustules were not ruptured and the oozing exudates did not sweep them away. She then placed the tiny white dust-like particles on a piece of mirror. The little things then started crawling, thus dispelling any of my remaining doubts of her ability to see the microscopic organisms with her naked eyes.

I was always amazed at her excellent eyesight even at her age. Besides that, she was also blessed with very good health. Once in the hospital ward she became the center of attraction with the nurses, young and old. Attracted to her youthful skin, the nurses were always surrounding her, probably busy coaxing her into divulging her secrets. She gladly told them all they wanted to know.

“Make sure you all have a balanced diet. You need something that’s bitter, pungent and sour, not just sweet and salty only. Always include lots of fresh green vegetables and herbs like pegaga, shoots of cashew nut, papaya, and cemperai.”

“What else, Tok Wan?”

“Have a happy life, wash your face regularly with five-times-daily ablution and never forget to do the traditional exercise as soon as you wake up!”

Once, overconfident and proud of my strength, I challenged her to a duel.
It was a competition to see who could prepare a ten-by-two bund faster. I started using the hoe fast and hard. She, on the other hand, kept her cool and went on with the task at her own pace. Barely half an hour later, I began to feel the effects of my youthful over-zealousness. I began to tire. There were blisters at the base of my fingers. Realizing that I could never beat her, I then threw in the towel. I had lost the game. She just smiled at me and continued her work until three neat bunds were ready.

She was like that, very friendly to her grandchildren and always hardworking. Once Rohana, my little sister asked her:

“Tok Wan, when you were small what games did you play in your free time?”

“Games? What games? The only game that I ever played was helping my mother with day-to-day household chores.” Her candid and honest answer made us all burst into laughter.
That was the earliest moment of my life that I could still remember. My mother confirmed that I was almost four then. Going further down the history, I was born on 22 July 1954, in a modest rented wooden house a stone’s throw from the historic mosque in Kampong Tuan. My arrival into this beautiful world was as modest. There was no fancy baby shower or expensive maternity ward waiting for me. It happened so fast that I was delivered right smack onto an old mengkuang mat that my mother was sitting on while busy processing nipah shoot for making nipah cigarette wrappers. The late Mak Yam Johor, the village midwife arrived ten minutes late.

The afterbirth (my own sibling, so they believed those days) was elaborately cleansed, sprinkled with a few grains of salt, covered with white clot and buried under the minaret of the mosque. By doing so they hoped that when I grew up I would become a pious and righteous man!

For others, it was far more elaborate. A few even went as far as placing day-to-day paraphernalia like a comb and mirror in the case of a girl, and a pencil and a book for a boy. Why did they do that? They wanted their daughters to be beautiful and good looking and their sons hardworking and intelligent. Whenever a child cried continuously at night, some people would build a fire on the ground where the placenta was buried. The warmth would sooth the crying baby, so they believed.

According to my mother I was abnormally quiet during my early childhood days. I did not utter a word, not even babyish sounds like other babies of similar age. Only my big bright dark brown eyes and meaningful facial expression did all the necessary communications between the two of us. Many people then thought that I was a mute. Many would come near me, stroke my head and said,” What a pity a handsome boy like you a mute.” However, my mother never for once thought so. To her, there was this special thing with my eyes and facial expressions that told her otherwise.
Many years later her friends told me that she would always defended me in front of her relatives and friends whenever they said that I was a mute. Instead, she insisted that I would grow up as an intelligent boy whom she could be proud of later in life. Like they said, a mother’s words were prayers in front of god. She was right. As soon as Rohani was born, there I was, saying my first word – mama. I was not a mute after all.

It was a picnic organized by my aunts as a farewell party for us. The beach was in Geliga. My father was to be transferred to Kuantan. Despite of that little mishap, the picnic turned out to be a joyous occasion for us all. The mouth-watering cookies and finger-licking fried chickens made me forget the pains of the tumble. By the way, the chickens were real village chickens. It was not too frequent that we had fried chickens those days.

Back then parents would rather sell their village chickens for other daily essentials than having them for their own family’s routine meals. Ah Chong was one such village chicken buyer. He went around the village on his old bicycle equipped with a big rattan basket on the carrier. He told me that chickens with bright yellow legs fetch better price than those blacklegged ones. He also asked me to give the birds with more corn in order to get that intense yellow colour.

Parents would only slaughter their chickens when some relatives came a- calling or their own family members returned home from school hostels during holidays and also during special occasions like weddings and pre-circumcision ceremony!

I was often very jealous to see more fortunate boys enjoying their chickens in front of me, and hated them for not inviting me to have a bite. My mouth turned to water in no time just by looking at the juicy chickens. Not knowing that I was destined to become a Veterinarian, I once made a vow to Tok Wan that I would have chickens every day when I grew up!

Sadly, she was no more with me to see that I had fulfilled my childhood vow. She passed away a few days before I received my appointment later as a Veterinary Officer. I missed her a lot. She was a grandmother that I thought all boys and girls would wish they could have for their own. What saddened me most was that I missed the chance of trying to pay back for all her kindness that she gave me. Knowing that she loved traveling so much, it had always been my dream to invite her into my first car and bring her to all the places that she had never been. I knew she had lived a full life. She had traveled a fair bit, mostly following us around to Pahang, Negeri Sembilan and Perak.

You must be wondering why there was so much fuss over our short distance transfer. Actually, those days Kuantan was considered far by many of us in Kemaman and vise versa. Ordinary people did not normally travel over the distance unless it was really necessary. The only public transport was the old creaking Thong Aik bus.

In Kuantan my father was attached to the Police Filed Force Camp in Alor Akar. I could not recall much about life in Kuantan except that it was there that I experienced a few firsts in my childhood years. It was in Kuantan that I first went to school and started getting acquainted with animals. The school was Sekolah Kebangsaan Galing. Now all the wooden school buildings have been demolished and replaced by the monotonous all-common Public Works Department’s school buildings. Believe it or not, it was in Sekolah Kebangsaan Galing that had the experience of using the slate board for the first couple of weeks of school. I had to use the bulbous stems of wild orchids collected from coconut trees to clean the board during weekends and my free times.

My best friend was one Sheik Raziff, whom I later shared the same boarding school in Tanjung Malim, and my favourite teacher was the late Tuan Haji Tajuddin.....

(to be continued)

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