One of the few factors rendered some places unforgettable is the people who reside in these places. They are instrumental in gravitating us through a strong magnetic force that can easily unsettle our mind and the only antidote is to pay them a visit. Like a young lad falling in love in my small town, just passing by her house without even seeing her would make his day. In some cases of remembering places is the unforgettable character of certain individuals whose natural behaviour make your memory impossible to erase. Muar town is no exception. During the days when I grew up in this fascinating town, many unforgettable characters still dwell in my memory, people whose personal testimonial make them different from others especially a noticeable or eccentric one.
My life story focuses on the life of a young lad who lived in the early fifties in a small town but of an urban upbringing. I missed the wonderful opportunity of growing up in remote areas where life without electricity could produce not only quality individuals but of high integrity. That is why I love reading blogs written by people whose early lives seemed to forbid them to excel. Their mental strength in brushing aside any impediment coming their way is itself experiences most worthy of learning.
I may have missed many eventful memories of those who walked to school by the miles but I did walk home from school of four miles at the age of nine quite frequently by default. I may not be able to comprehend doing homework at night without electricity but I have some little experiences of having dinner or reading my ‘muqadam’ lighted by kerosene lamp in my uncle’s house when electrical grid was not warranted for extension. These little experiences many not match the reality of having to experience the real suffering and hardship of living by my village contemporaries. The successful among them surely deserve my utmost respect.
In the course of passing through these passages of time, I encountered few individuals whose characters, behaviours and ways of life amazed and intrigued me. Many have left this world with each leaving behind a legacy of deeds worth remembering. I have great pleasure to introduce some of these wonderful people.
MAK ARA UDA, MY QURAN-READING TEACHER
I was six years old when grandma brought me to Mak Ara Uda’s house. Hers was six houses away equivalent to about three minutes of walking. I began learning the Arabic alphabet first and later the ability to read. Mak Ara Uda was a short lady, hunchback and very strict in her way of teaching. She was so proficient in the Quran recitation and could recite every Surahs (Chapters) by heart. When I was able to read the Quran, she would just do her normal housework like cooking or sweeping while I did the reading. And if you thought that she wasn’t listening and tried to jump few pages hoping to end your lesson fast, your wishful thinking was surely wrong. In fact just one word pronounced wrongly, she would stop her work and stared at you like a fierce Rottweiller.
Muarian Malays of my time learned their Quran-reading lesson as early as five years old. At six years old, I was considered a late comer. All housing areas would surely have one or two Quran-reading teachers and in my area, Mak Ara Uda was the most prominent. Not far from my house there was another male teacher whose name we all called ‘Pak Sheikh’.
A few weeks before I left for Kuala Lumpur for good, I paid her a visit. I was almost eighteen years old and she could not remember me. When I told her my name and who I was, she smiled and held my hand saying, “Amboi, dah besar panjang budak ni. Ingat, jangan sekali kali tinggalkan Quran” (You have grown. Remember, don’t you ever desert the Quran). That was the last time I met her.
MAK TIPAH THE TRADITIONAL MID-WIFE
She must be an extraordinary woman of my time. Practically every Malay baby born in Muar town was delivered by her, including me. She was the town’s most famous Malay traditional mid-wife. At times she would deliver three babies in a day or maybe more. I would be the one cycling to her house whenever my younger cousins were to be born.
Most women of my time somehow preferred the services of traditional mid-wives instead of going to the hospital. One month before the baby would be born, Mak Tipah would surely have it recorded in her registration book. And like a lightning, she would be at your door step when the moment arrived and at the first cry of the new born, she would sometime be on her way to another in labour and returned later to complete some of her unfinished duties.
Indeed, she chose the right profession at the right time and the right place. Hers was one profession that would always keep her busy. She could always ‘count her chicken before they were hatched’ whenever wedding bells started to ring.
PAK ADAM THE SINGING CHEF
In my opinion, no one can ever match Pak Adam’s authentic Briyani Gam. Pak Adam would be the most sought in almost every Malay wedding in Muar town. From the moment he began his cooking, he would be singing and mostly Hindustani songs and he would be dancing as well. With a small white towel that had turned grey hanging over his shoulder, Pak Adam would simply throw in the ingredients into the huge cooking pot while singing and dancing and would only stop when the cooking was over.
I had the opportunity of watching him preparing the necessary steps to make the Johor Briyani Gam. The present Briyani Gam we find in some outlets today are a far cry from Pak Adam’s. You will soon find some of these stories in many of my anecdotes to come.
Pak Adam left behind a number of students who continued the legacy of his cooking and there are some of them still living.
MAK ANGGOR THE ‘MAK ANDAM’
Mak Anggor was one amazing woman Muar town had ever produced. Married at the age of thirteen to a young army Captain from the Johor Military Forces, she gave birth to twenty one children, one of whom was my late father. She was widowed after giving birth to her last child. Having to support twenty one children with most in their teens was one amazing task a woman could take. She was unfortunately illiterate and was believed to have been conned by her relatives of her properties. To survive, she took some odd jobs and ended being a full time ‘Mak Andam’. Her two eldest sons had to stop schooling to assist their mother to feed and care for their younger siblings.
Like all other women of my time, she would always prefer the traditional curing instead of going to the hospital. Once she had a terrible tooth ache and was advised to go to the dentist. To this she said, “Biar aku sakit beranak daripada sakit cabut gigi” (I would rather suffer the pain of giving birth than to suffer the pain of pulling my tooth). She really meant what she said. Had her husband lived for a few more years, she could have possibly produced more babies and I would have more uncles and aunties.
Mak Anggor during my time was so famous that a letter from Kuala Lumpur addressed to my cousin Aziz bearing her name reached him safely. The cover of the envelope was simply written: ‘Aziz Bakar, Cucu Mak Anggor, Muar, Johor. He should have kept that envelope and have it framed.
WAK CHAD THE WHISTLER
Nobody in Muar town that I can think of could whistle as loud as Wak Chad. His whistling would begin immediately after peddling his bicycle. During the night when the crickets began their shrill chirping sound, Wak Chad’s solo whistling would come in handy producing a well-balance sound-track of his favourite “Bungawan Solo”. From afar we could easily detect the coming of Wak Chad the whistler.
Wak Chad apparently was my uncle, younger brother to my father. They belonged to siblings most hilarious in their own individual characteristic. When he passed away at a young age of thirty six of diabetic, his elder brother Wak Kochah announced by saying, “Arshad passed away today of diabetic. He was in a comma for few days and thank God he had finally come to a full stop.” But Wak Kochah himself was not spared of being toyed with by his elder brother Wak Mok.
When Wak Kochah came home on his wedding night, many were puzzled. Wak Mok asked his younger brother the reason for his return when he should be with his newly-wed wife. Wak Kochah answered by saying that his wife was dark-skin and he couldn’t see her when their bedroom lights went off. To this his elder brother Wak Mok replied, “Why don’t you paint your wife white?”
These are some of the names of the people whom my memory can never erase and they will dwell in my mind for as long as I can breathe. However, the list does not stop here, there are numerous other characters whose behaviour to a certain extent keep find its way to the lips of every conversing Muarians of my time whenever they flock together. Names like ‘Kamal Mata Lembu’ and ‘Usop Sepuloh Sen’ are certainly a rare “nom de plume”.
The ‘titles’ bestowed upon these individuals carry their own history. It was during one talent time show that Ishak Hamzah used his father’s overcoat to go on stage. His father apparently was the first Malay Doctor in the State of Johor and hence Ishak was conferred a ‘medical title’ of his own but on the other side of his name, ‘Sahak Doktor’. Because there was another Ishak in our fraternity and he was younger that Sahak Doktor, we called him ‘Sahak Dresser’.
There were two men who had short necks namely Othman and Mustaffa. And short necks depict that of a tortoise and so Othman got the title ‘Othman Tortoise’. But we cannot have two tortoises in the same town and so Mustaffa was conferred the title ‘Mustaffa Kura-kura’, the Malay translation of tortoise. Both are still living till this day.
The late Tan Sri Noah (father of Tun Raha) was known in Muar town as Hj.Noah Berut not because there was anything ‘berut’ about him, just that he was once studying in Beirut. There was an Imam known as Imam Tronoh. His real name was Abdul Rahman. During his pilgrimage by sea, the ship wrecked and Abdul Rahman survived by floating on a wooden plank for almost a week. The name of the ship was ‘Tronoh’.
Western stars had their shares in Muar’s unofficial bestowment of titles. We had Mustaffa Cliff Richard, Hassan Kit Carson and even Jaafar Beatle. And there was one who liked reading cartoon comics and so we called him ‘Mat Kartun’.
Women were not spared and many still carry their ‘titles’ with pride. Yam Tetek Besar (surely with a big bosom) is still living to testify. When she was younger, she worked at the pin-ball outlet inside the Grand Paradise. Call her by that name in public and she will acknowledge you with pleasure. Hamidah’s eyes are very Chinese and it was only right for her to be known as ‘Midah Mata Sepet’.
These are some of the names that will be mentioned in some of my anecdotes to come and it is only proper for me to introduce them to you now. Of course my Chinese and Indian contemporaries have their own ‘role models’ to relate, and that should be done by them.
Fifty years have gone by and events that took place have taken their flight into oblivion to be buried by time. As time keeps moving ahead waiting for no man, these events will be left behind even further to be finally locked into the closet of ancient histories that can only be unlocked by those participants who are still living.
I still hold the key to my past but with very little time left. My memory has not failed me this far but a mortal being like me will one day succumb to the predetermined destiny designed for all mankind. Until that time reaches me, a small determination to unleash memories of my golden days is still firmly gripped within my desire. There is nothing great or significant about life in my early days. One day, there will come a time when a devoted historian wishing to dig histories of my home town and will need some materials to compliment certain facts. And when that time comes, perhaps he can turn to the pages from my past.