Growing up in Trengganu
This book has been written by a veteran Malaysian journalist Wam Hulaimi who initially wrote it as a blog under the name Awang Goneng. I had seen a review of this book in one of the newsletters here, but it was only when I got my hands to the book that I realized what a gem it is.
The blog is here: http://kecek-kecek.blogspot.com/
The writer was born and brought up in Terengganu, a state in the eastern Coast of Malaysia. Even today it is known for its laid back atmosphere, the lovely beaches and the Islamic fervor of the population. Incidentally their football term recently won the Federal Cup just across the road from where I live at the Bukit Jalil stadium. I have visited Kuala Terengganu, the capital sometime back. I wrote about it as well, you can check it out here.
This book is something else. Written as series of small essays, it covers all aspects of the Terengganu of the author’s childhood, reminding us of the people, the food, the language and the culture, all of which are (were?) unique and it s evocative of a way of life that has probably passed away, never to return.
The author is a foodie. His loving descriptions of the food that he enjoyed during his Terengganu days will evoke the taste buds of every reader and for a Bengali the descriptions of the fish and their myriad preparations are a particular delight. The book starts with a description of his Mother’s lempok, a cake made from durian. I must admit that I am not enamoured of the durian, it reminds me of our ripe jackfruit, something that I can leave severely alone, though I do know many who would kill to get it. Durian enjoys a similar status here in Malaysia where it has been crowned the King of fruits. Anyway, the lempok, “made from fresh durians thrown in a thick mass in a Terengganu brass pot and stirred and stirred with bonding and sweetening ingredients- and coconut milk perhaps-to a beautiful crust”. This lempok was hung from the rafters of the house and there it stayed, waiting perhaps for a suitable occasion for celebration. I remember vessels, (haris we used to call them in Bengali) wedged among the rafters in my grandparents’ home. They usually used to contain grains and vegetables kept there for future use.
There were Bais in Terengganu, the local lingo for “Bhais”, from UP, no less. This particular man was the man who sold breads and rotis to the families in Terengganu. His name was Abdul Kadir, “He had a thick moustache that wagged even as he spoke. His rotund body he squeezed through the frame of our front gate as he bent his knees slightly to avoid toppling his head basket at the overhanging bar.” The description is so perfect that I can clearly see him, a man perhaps originally from the Agra region, now exiled to Terengganu where he had found a better life.
I loved the name given to express trains in Terengganu; they called it, in Malay, “the proud train” the reason being that it would not stop at every station to collect the waiting passengers. A more apt description would be hard to find.
There are marvelous descriptions of the Id festival, the high point of the life of the people of Terengganu. One description of how is father used to buy severely practical new clothes for him during Id reminded me how we used to get new shoes for the Pujas, just as the Bata advertisement said, but they used to be the Naughty Boy shoes that we wore to school every morning. Life was the same everywhere.
In one particularly lovely essay, he points out that the essence of Malay life was the kampong, the village, which contained their memories, their culture, their way of life and their songs and prayers. When oil money came to Terengganu, the kampongs in Kuala Terengganu were swept away to create the shop lots that are today’s new town, and with it was lost the way of life that made Terengganu special. A nostalgia for that never never land is present throughout his writing and it leaves a bittersweet taste of longing that pervades this book.
I recommend it wholeheartedly, please read it.