If I were a color wheel, 1964 was the year I learned that I could use all the colors I wanted. I mixed and matched all the primary and secondary colors, hues, shades , tints and all that. It was a vibrant year bursting with life. It was my earliest memory of living at grandmother's house in Batu Maung, Penang. It was the year my father was on tour of duty in Sibu, Sarawak or perhaps Simanggang, a year after he returned from Congo .
It was the year I learned to fly the kite, spun my first gasing-spinning top and had my first sling shot . It was the year I mastered the congkak game (mancala) and the year Lee taught me to flick the marble -the shooter, straight into a ring and knocks a marble out of the ring and the shooter stays inside the ring.
There were eight of us, a bunch of odd mixture, aged between six to ten. I was the youngest and the only girl in the group. Lee was ten and the oldest in the group. He had small frame with potruding belly. I never saw him with a shirt on except once, on Hari Raya. Lee was one of the kids that rejected from his age group for reasons god knows why. He never had shoes on except when he went to school. He seldom walked. He ran everywhere.
So when he saw me and my two younger siblings and a couple of kids from next door playing rounders on grandmother's spacious front yard, he made a proposition. He could bring more kids with him and we could make two teams.
Without a second thought I agreed because grandmother's rule (and she had plenty) was, she didn't care how many kids running around on her property as long we didn't venture out too far.
Lee disappeared in flash. When he returned a few minutes later, he had five boys with him. I saw all them at school but I never spoke with them. They were a little hesitant first but once we passed the awkward stage we didn't look back. From then on, Lee officially became our leader. He knew most of the games and the rules.
I didn't have much opportunity to experience kampung life when I was a kid, but I've always grateful for grandmother and my mother for not discriminated Lee. My mother always made a big pot of tea for us the kids. We sat a on the lowest and widest part of the cement step dunking biscuit lutut in our teas.
Years later I learned that Lee came from an interesting family.
His father and big brothers were a well known petty thieves. One of his brothers was a transvestite who lived in the city. Lee father always had dark glasses on no matter how dark the day was. Once I asked my mother why Lee's father always wore dark glasses even at night? Oh......one of his eyes was blind", responded my mother.
She quickly changed the topic. When your parents quickly changed the topic you knew it there's more to it. So, one day I asked Kakngah.
She said back in his wild day, Lee's father who was also known as *Mat Buta (Blind Mat) was a peeping Tom. A woman was having her bath at the well, told my sister. She turned around and startled when she saw an eye staring at her through a hole. She screamed and the eye disappeared. The next time she was ready. She had a lidi (coconut leaf spine) with her. When she saw the eye staring at her instead of screaming she poked the lidi right into the eye. And that was why Mat Buta wore the dark shades night and day.
I've always wondered what happened to Lee. Did he become his father's apprentice? Did he make it at school. I remember Lee had a hard time to read and write. Sometimes when he saw me reading on grandmother's front steps, he would asked to read for him. I told him I could lend him the book when I finish. He said he didn't read well. So, I read out loud for him. Half way he said he had to go because somebody sent him to the store to get something.
By the end of the year when my family moved to Kelantan, my life was back to living in totally different world, the world that I had always familiar with. Another friends, another adventure, but Lee was the friend I always cherished that I had known him.
I have a very fond memory of Monkey Pot plants. When I saw the plants two Saturday ago at the Flea Market in Raynham hanging from the back of station wagon at the market, I rushed over to the plants and looked at them at they were my long lost friends.
If those monkey pots could talk, they would've said, "Ohhhh yeah...I know you. My ancestors watched you and your siblings jumping up and down like little monkeys when the first time your mother introduced them to you."
How could I forget? First we were in awe to see a magnificent plants that reminded us of a terracotta pitcher at home. And when Mak told us that monkeys drank the water from the pitchers, we were more than impressed.
And when Mak reminded us to gently hold the pitcher, the excitement was too much to bear. We almost stopped breathing while we took turn to peek inside the pitcher. We didn't want to spill the water from the pitchers. Where would the monkeys go if we spill the water from their pitchers?
A few months before my father retired from the army, we moved to our new home in Pokok Asam, Taiping. It was a brand new house, three bedrooms, huge kitchen and dining room, living room and plenty of spaces on the back (the kids standard) and front yard.
I didn't understand then the magnificence of the move, but an eleven year old girl who was closed to her mother, I felt a contentment vibrated from my mother as I stood next to her. Until now I still could see her glowing expression under late afternoon sky when the last piece of our furniture was unloaded down from a moving truck. She stood in front of the house and said, "Alhamdulillah, we have our own place now."
Another thing that I was particularly aware of was the time of the year. It was April 1968, the last week of school break. And the next year (my final year of elementary school) I could return to the same school and see the same faces of my classmates which I never had experienced in the past.
If I were a mother I would have told the same tale to my child about red ruby the way my grandmother told me forty six years ago. It was 1963, I had just turned six, sitting on a faded red cement front steps at grandmother's house in Batu Uban, Penang. My two younger brothers sat on each side of me with ripe pomegranate in their hands.
I set aside the pomegranate in my hand. I laced my fingers of my both hands. The laced fingers form a solid foundation. I told my youngest brother M to place his pomegranate in a cradle of my laced fingers.
I leaned forward with each of my elbows rested on my knees. Slowly but firmly I pressed the pomegranate between my palms. The pomegranates grew in Malaysia weren't as big as we get here. The seeds were faded red, but they were as good as we got.
The skin of the fruit started to crack. I dug my right thumb into a tiny slit of the skin and ran my thumb as precisely as a six year old kid could be. I had my two younger siblings who thought I was the smartest and the best big sister because I ran fast, I could climb any trees like a monkey, I could fly the kite as high as any kid could, I could use a sling shot with a slick movement. I couldn't fail them by not able to crack open the pomegranate.
M squealed and clapped his hands when the pomegranate finally broke into two halves. A few of red ruby slipped between my fingers and fell on the stairs near my feet.
"Pick them up, pick them up and put them back in my hands." I ordered M who was now drooling and couldn't wait to grab the fruit from my hand. "Don't let even one seed fall on the ground, not even one."
"Mak said not pick up the food off the ground."
"This is different. Pomegranate is ruby in disguise."
"Like pomegranate wearing a mask? And what is ruby"?
"Something like that."
"Like a Batman's mask?"
"Something like that. I'll tell you later."
As I handed over T's split opened pomegranate I repeated the tale about a girl who bit a red ruby while eating pomegranate. Grandmother told me this tale when had just moved back to her house . The year my father was shipped to Congo.
Four years ago when I wrote an entry about a pomegranate I was in full blown against some tales the old folks told us when we were kids. Along those years until now, I've shifted a little here and there. And the tale of pomegranate I've seen in different light.
Perhaps there were reasons when the old folks came up with some stories that now we view as myth/tales.
As we grow older our sense of wonder turn into skeptical. If we are not careful we will turn into an old bitter fart. And I don't want to turn into an old bitter fart. I want to hold to some sense of wonder, I want to feel my lung bursting with happiness and my heart explode into million pieces of contentment just when I step on the wet grass on Sunday morning.
I'm glad I believed with all my heart that I would bit into a ruby when ever I age pomegranate when I was a little girl.
When I was a little girl, one thing I wanted so much and did not get it was a grandfather. I saw other kids around me had their grandfathers visited them from time to time. Some of the kids had two grandfathers and I had none.
I noticed that these kids were spoiled rotten by their grandfathers. This kid who lived next door when we lived in Kelantan had two grandfathers visited him within a year. Every morning I heard him whining and crying, refused to eat his breakfast until his grandfather took him for a walk.
And when they got home he whined again, refused to take a bath unless his grandfather gave him a bath. What a lucky little devil, I thought.
One thing that made me mad was these kids acted a little cocky when their grandfathers were around. They stopped playing with us. When they were with their grandfathers, they looked at us with a smirk on their faces, which I interpreted as: Look at you, where is your grandpa? A couple of these kids stopped talking to us when their grandfathers were around, as having their grandfathers was the best thing in the world. I envied them .
I looked longingly at a large wrinkle hand wrapped around a little hand when they walked side by side. I looked in awe when a grandfather and a kid came out from the store, stopped near a trash can, the grandfather unwrapped the ice cream cone, threw the wrapper in a trash can and gave the ice cream to his grandkid. The kid licked the ice cream, looked up at the grandfather with a huge smile. He held out the ice cream to the grandfather. The grandfather held the kid's hand, licked the ice cream and they smiled at each other. All of sudden my ice cream didn't taste that good anymore.
"Wait until your grandfather goes home, and you'll be crawling and begging us to let you back in our team. And you will learn a lesson." My head was busy scheming a plan. Of course it didn't happen because we wanted to hear what they did with their grandfathers.
One day I asked my mother if I any of my grandfathers would visit us even I knew the answer.
"You know that none of your grandfathers is still around. They were all dead long time ago."
"I wish TokWan* is still alive."
"I will show off to them how good my grandfather is."
"That is not a good reason to have a grandfather."
"Because you want to show off to them, not because you want to Tok Wan for yourself."
"But I want to have TokWan for myself."
"Then say it."
"I want to have TokWan for myself so I can show him my drawings and my slingshot."
Between the age of 4 to 8 my family lived on and off in Kelantan. I don't remember much when I was four, but I remember we lived in a wooden family army quarters in Pengkalan Chepa. Between these years my family moved into three different quarters . And this was a tricky part, I remember the early years my parent lived on a row house near the beach, which I remember vividly as Sabak Beach.
I remember my mother used to take me and my baby brother to the beach around noon. She spread the blanket under a shade of two cashewnut trees that joined on top and fed me lunch: white rice, roasted mackerel and steamed spinach.
I remember the warm sea breeze, the sound of waves crushed a sandy beach and a salty air. Later, I fell asleep on the blanket lulled by seagulls songs.
Then my father took my mother, me and my little brother back to grandmother's house in Penang before he went away. When he returned 6 months later he picked us up from grandmother's house and we rode another long train ride back to Kelantan. This time we moved into a front row of family quarters in Pengkalan Chepa. It was 1961, my baby brother was over a year old. By the end of 1961 my mother had another baby brother.
When my father went to Congo in 1962 until end of 1963, we went back to live with grandmother again. We returned to Pengkalan Chepa by the end of 1964. The following year I started my second grade at Sekolah Kebangsaan Merbau, Kota Bharu. Besides me, there was another girl who went to the same school. The rest of the kids from the base went to a couple of English medium schools in Kota Bharu.
I went to this school for a year but the funny thing was I couldn't remember even one name of 24 girls in my class. I remember the girl who sat next to me had a jet black short curly hair. Everyday she came to the school with $2.00 pocket money. She told me her stepmother gave her and her two older sisters the money. Sort of bribery, I guess.
Many years later, I tried to understand why I never made any connections to any of the girls in my class. Some of the girls were nice and friendly, but I felt like an outsider, well I was on outsider (I was the only non-Kelantanese girl in the school). When I talked I used a mixture of Kelantan and northern dialect which confused a lot of people most of the time except my parents.
Our class teacher CikGu Rugayah was a stunner. She had a long curly hair past her back and she liked to wear kebaya liku.
One of my theories was the school didn't have any extra curriculum activities, no sports, no culture activities. Nothing. Nada. The school had morning and evening session.
The first week I was at the school, something struck me as unusual. The school was built four feet above the ground. During the recess the students played hopscotch and chongkak underneath the school building with their heads bent down. Some students scattered here and there on the drive way playing skipping, but the field opposite the school building was left empty.
Every day, during the recess, I sat on the step with my lunch box, facing the field, and wondered why didn't anybody played in the field? I was itching to run on the field . What is wrong with these girls? But then I noticed when the sun was high, a glistening white and shining little objects on the field. What were they? I didn't ask anybody about it.
After three days of watching the empty field, I decided to investigate. I put away my lunch box in my desk and walked down to the field. As soon as I stepped on the edge of the field, I understood the reason behind the empty field. The field was littered with etak shells. Everywhere. I couldn't move one step without stepping on etak shells.
I knew what etak could do to me. The first time I tried it a few years back I got really sick. I threw up all night. Every time I saw etak at the market, I didn't want to do anything with it, but I was fascinated how skillful the girls ate the etak. Put one etak in their mouths, a few seconds later, they spat out the empty shells. I guess that was how those empty etak shells got their ways into the school field.
Footnote: A special thank to RaY KinZoKu of etak/etok definition.
I was about five years old when I discovered the joy of peeling off the skin of guava trees. It was the year my father went to Congo. And again, all us took a long train ride from Kelantan to Butterworth. Took a ferry to Penang Island.
I think one third of my childhood was spent on the train. I kid you not.
Grandmother lived in a four bedroom two storey house in Batu Uban, Penang then. I don't remember ever being in that house. I liked her big house in Batu Maung where I used to roamed around the big compound.
I didn't have any friends. For the whole year we lived at grandmother's house I hadn't met any little girls around my age. Where were they? Where did they go to play?
Sometimes, from a distance, I saw them walked along a narrow path between tamarind trees and bushes all the way on the back of grandmother's property.
I never failed to wave at them when I saw them. They never returned my wave. They stared at me and talked to each other and they stared at me some more as I had two heads or something. But they didn't wave back. Ever. Not even once. After a continuously failed attempts, I gave up.
"Those girls are mean. They don't wave back at me."I sat down on a wooden stool near the kitchen stairs throwing my marbles aimlessly on the ground.
"They thought you're a boy. You wear short and pants all the time.'' My oldest sister, Kak C said between splitting roasted pumpkin seed between her perfect teeth. I never saw Kak C did anything else except munching pumpkin seeds and checking herself out in front of the mirror since we moved into grandmother's house. I thought one of the screws in her head was loose or went missing because she liked to blink her eyes when she looked herself in the mirror. You know the way you blink your eyes when you got something in one of your eyes? I didn't understand why did she keep checking herself out in the mirror every two or three minutes because she looked the same to me an hour ago or a week ago.
Kak N and Kak C were and still are like earth and sky as we Malay like to make comparison of two opposite characters.
"How could they think I am a boy. I have a long hair." I stood up and turned my head left and right. My long braided hair swung up and down , left and right. Everytime I turned to the left, my right braided hair smacked my face and when I turned my head to the right, my left braided hair smacked my face again. It stung my face but not as much Kak C's words.
"They are not mean. I don't think they think you are a boy." I looked up at Tok Uda. She sat, bersimpuh next to Kak C. Tok Uda was the kindest person in the world. I never saw Tok Uda got upset, angry or annoyed at anybody or at anything. Back then I thought she could even tame a wild beast.
"They.........." Her word trailed off as she turned to look at the door that connecting kitchen and a dining hall. "They are afraid of your grandmother. She doesn't care much for children." The moment the words came out from her mouth, I knew it Tok Uda was in trouble. She had her hand covered her mouth and I dissected her expression like this, "Oh....shit, I'm fucked." She looked at Kak C in horror. We knew it and everybody in the house knew it, even Lizard the cat knew it Kak C was Grandmother's favorite person in the whole world.
Kak C kept splitting the pumpkin seeds as she didn't hear it, but the smirk on her face revealed her intentions. The minutes she finished the pumpkin seeds and checked herself out in front of the mirror, she would spilled every single word Tok Uda had said about grandmother not to mention some salt and pepper she loved to sprinkle on every tale she told grandmother.
So, what's peeling off the guava tree's barks got to do with all of this, you might ask. Well, this was the part the guava trees came in handy to me.
I flew the kites with my brothers under the hot sun, learned to throw gasing on the ground, picked it up and let it spun on my open palm (which took hours and hours of practice), developed my skill to flick a marble straight to my opponent's and scattered the marbles apart and learned a correct way to hold a slingshot. I wanted to do something I didn't need to run, chased, climbed, scrambled or kicked. I wanted to do something where I could think of Abah, because I started to miss him, terribly.
One morning, after I had my breakfast of roti chanai I went outside and wandered on the right side of grandmother's house. There was row of papaya trees, guava trees and ciku. All in one row. I counted the them all. Three papaya trees, five guava trees and two ciku trees. When I got the guava trees I noticed something was different in bark structure.
Out of curiosity I started to peel a small piece of the thin bark. It came off easily. I pulled another one and another. Two hours later when my mother came out looking for me, I was on the fourth tree.
"What are you doing?"
Then she saw piles of thin layers of barks on the ground.
"Why are you peeling their skins off?"
"I miss Abah."
There was a long pause before Mak responded to my statement.
"But why are you hurting them if you miss Abah?"
"Mak, they are not alive. They are trees. They don't feel anything."
"If they are not alive, how do they grow?"
"Come here. Lets go inside and help me peel the onions instead." Mak's voice was so gentle I could feel the warm seeped through my skin straight to my core.
I brushed the guava tree skins off my arms, t-shirt and short and legs. I followed Mak into the house. Mak's comforting voice was all I needed. Cool as morning breeze.
I love to have this little girl statue in my own garden one day. The little girl lying one her tummy with both legs crossed, engrossed with a book in her hands is a reflection of myself when I was a little girl.
I found this strange looking nuts at a supermarket on Washington Street, Chinatown on Saturday afternoon. The last time I saw and ate them was when I was five years old. Pheww.........is that long? It was the year my father went to Congo and we went to live for a year with grandmother in her big house in Batu Uban, Penang.
I don't remember how and who brought this strange looking nuts home. I remember holding one of them in my palm. "Is this horn belong to midget water buffalo?"
I remember Tok Uda- young grandmother (my grandfather's second wife) chuckled at my question, pulled me into her arm and said I was funny.
I remember Tok, grandmother snorted at my question and said it was a dumb question.
I remember my mother responded in a sharp tone to grandmother that I was smart that's why I asked the question and not to say stupid to her children.
I remember my sister KN roasted them in grandmother's portable charcoal stove in her red tile kitchen.
I remember my sister told me to step away from the stove as the they cracked and popped in the glowing red charcoal. They sound like when you ripped the fabric apart. The little sparks flew high in the air, landed on the floor, turned into black bits.
I remember KN picked them out from the stove with a huge steel tongs. She put them one by one on three layers kitchen rags. When she got them all out, KN held together the four corners of the rags, folded them and pounded them gently with a stone pestle.
When she unfolded the rags, the broken and cracked nuts exposed the white meat.
I remember sitting on the kitchen red steps holding out my right palm as my mother picked the white meat from the shells with a used satay skewer. My mother sat on the door threshold, I sat between her legs, my body twisted to the right so I could see everybody's face, my right elbow rested on my mother's knee.
I remember KN sat next to me, picking out the tiny white nut from her palm while Tok Uda did her share.
I remember my mother's lovely laughter at KN's joke, and Tok Uda's pat on my sister's shoulder when she heard something funny.
I don't remember what they were talking about but I remember the joyous moment surrounded by the special women in my life.
For Jo, you're right, it's something to do with horn, because they're called Horn Nuts. But I have no idea where are they from, or where do they grow or what does a plant looks like. Perhaps we should start Google and find out.
I hope somebody knows a little history of Horn Nuts and share it with us.
And for Nina, I think it is still exotic, isn't it?
So, I bought about a dozen that cost me $0.45 ($1.65/lb).
For Mak, who stood by me even when I was only five years young.
For KN, who is always there to answer my questions. When I got home I uploaded the pictures and e-mailed her. I called her and left her a message to check her e-mail. An hour later, she wrote back and told me how to prepare the horn nuts. Boil them, but don't roast them in the oven. They might pop up and mess up your oven.
For Tok Uda, whose love like flowing river after the rain.
My mother had her ways to get things done around the house. Be it making the bed, washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, hanging the wet clothes on the clotheslines, folded the clean laundry or even peeling the onions.
One of my mother's weekly housework I loved to watch was ironing my father's uniform. After the dining table was cleared, dishes rinsed and put away, my mother turned the dining table into an iron board in our little kitchen.
She layered the top of the dining table with 3-folded army supply green blanket. On top of the blanket she added two-folded of two or three batik sarungs.
My job was to get a bowl of tap water. I filled up half of the green aluminum bowl with water and placed the bowl on my mother's right hand side, slightly away from the hot iron. Then she took a bar of wax from top shelf of kitchen cabinet. I don't remember when was the first time I saw that wax, but the wax went every house we moved into.
My mother went into a bedroom and came out with almost a foot pile of my father's starch army uniforms and my school uniforms- blue skirt and white shirt and a half dozen of wooden hangers
She started with my father's green short sleeve shirt. She spread the shirt wrong side facing her, dipped her right hand into the water and lightly sprinkled the collar, the sleeves and moved to the body of the shirt. She put the shirt aside and picked the second shirt, third and fourth and did the same thing.
When my mother was done with the fourth shirt, she picked the first sprinkled shirt, spread on the table, on the wrong side, ceased the collar a few times, picked up the wax bar, glided it across the collar from left to right a couple of times. The tiny bits white wax scattered at different part of the collar.
She picked up the iron, pressed the pointed side of the iron onto the shirt's collar right corner, her left hand slightly pulled the left corner of the collar-straightened it up. With one quick, smooth move, like a magician my mother ironed out the wrinkled waxed collar.
Next, she ironed both sleeves and moved to the wrong front sides of the shirt, followed by the back of the shirt. Then she ironed on the right side, ceased the front pocket and checked the loose buttons. She then, hung the shirt onto a wooden hanger.
She repeated the process as my father sat at the end of the table reading the newspaper out loud-sharing the news with my mother. From time to time, he dropped the newspaper on his lap to sip his favorite teh tarik. I sat at my father's elbow, my chin rested on my hands, content.
Note: The sketch above I did a few days ago from my memory. After the seventh attempt I got it the way I remember it. It was my grandmother's old iron. I learned to use it when I was seven. It was heavy and hot.
It seems that the most popular topic on every blog I've been reading for the past two weeks is soccer. I used to be a soccer fan. Somehow along the way the soccer chip in my brain lost its magnetism, I think it was right after Mokhtar Dahari died. I had a crush on him once. I had three red jerseys number 10 that I wore simultaneously when I went out running, while my best friend Mas was crazy about Abdullah Ali.
We seldom missed any live games at Stadium Bandar Raya especially when MD and AA were in town. We hardly see any Malay girls sitting among the male fans and we always chose the safest spectators to sit with: Either Indians or Chinese fans. They practically left us alone.
One time we found out the hotel the Selangor team players were staying. We called the front desk and begged for their rooms numbers. The front desk guy gave us four rooms numbers. We choose the last third number. Guess who answered the phone? Santokh Singh.
We heard the noise on the background and asked Santokh who else were in the room. He told us he was in Super Mokh's room. We asked him if we could talk to MD?
"Tak mau cakap dengan saya ke?" Don't you want to talk to me?
"Kita sedang cakap ni kan?" Aren't we talking?
We heard his thunderous laughter.
Then we heard the Super Mokh himself on the other side. "Hello...." Throaty and sexy. Ohh.... my lord, my knees turned into agar-agar lapis - jelly. Mas and I giggled.
"Are you Ana and Mas?"
We gasped. Mas snatched the phone from my hand.
"How do you know?"
"Every month I get two post cards or letters from two girls from Penang, and I figured it must be you."
All those post cards and letters we sent him were congratulations notes or newspaper clips or his pictures.
"You keep all those postcards and letters we've been sending you?"
"Ohh.....yess, I keep them all."
If a girl's chest could burst with honor. That was it. Our chests could have had splattered all over the pay phone booth.
He asked us would we liked to meet him in and the gang at the coffee shop on Transfer Road.
If a girl could die of happiness to meet her hero, Mas and I would have had dropped dead right there in the pay phone booth.
Thirty minutes later we walked into a coffee shop, and there he was my hero Super Mokh, Arumugam and Santokh Singh. Three of them stood up as we approached the table.
Super Mokh extended his hand while R. Arumugam the Spiderman and Santokh pulled two extra chairs for us.
Funny though, I couldn't remember much of our conversation.
We didn't stay long. But one thing I always remember is how respectful he was to both of us. So did Arumugam and Santokh.