A NIGHT WITH MY GREAT GRANDMOTHER

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My great grandmother Murjilah was a small size woman, very energetic, always alert and was never quite appearing old enough to justify her early nineties when I last visited her in 1967. She lived in a moderate Malay kampung house about four miles away from mine. Although biologically she was my great grandmother, I have always treated her as my grandmother because I was raised by her eldest daughter, my grandmother. Hence I called her Tok instead of Nek as by all my other cousins and she had always treated me as her grandson.

Married to a prominent Malay teacher in a village of Parit Bakar and of a Bugis descent named Hj.Andak bin Jamak, they were blessed with nine children. My grandmother was their second child and was treated as their eldest child because their first child Fatimah died during infancy. Tok was a frequent visitor to our house in Muar town and she would sometime spent about a night or two with us. Grandma would be very happy everytime when Tok came to stay with us and she would cooked many special dishes for her dear mother. Both mother and daughter would sit together at the ambin and they would spent their time talking about many things related to their lives. Everytime when Tok came to visit us, grandma’s younger sister whom I called Mak Kintan would likewise come along and they would spend together enjoying their moments.

Tok lived in a moderate Malay kampung house situated at Parit Bakar, a small village inhabited by a small population of mostly Malays of the Bugis descent and some Javanese. Approximately half a kilometer away was the junction where stood rows of shophouses built perhaps in the early forties or even earlier. During the days when I used to go to these shops for some sweets or chocolates, there were not many shops that offered varieties of items usable for our household needs. There was only one sundry shop, a small kopitiam, a motor-repairing shop and other smaller shops selling cooking ingredients and groceries. Some other shops were mostly closed. That was sometime in the late fifties.

The house in question was situated about few yards away from the main road linked by a small wooden bridge passable by a small car like the Morris Minor. Immediately after the main road was the compound and Tok’s compound was big enough to plant many fruit trees. Like most Malay houses of Muar town, a concrete stairs would occupy the front portion leading to the entrance of the house. The living room was quite spacious and next to it on the right side were two bedrooms. There was a wooden staircase that would lead to the kitchen which was very spacious and this was the place where most of the daily activities would be held. Tok’s kitchen was always full of activities because she herself liked to cook and she was obviously a pretty good cook. Grandma inherited most of her cooking skills from Tok.

Much as I can remember, Tok adopted a Chinese lad named Chen and she named him Hussein and so we all called him Pak Hussein. She also adopted an Indian girl whom she named as Fatimah, and we all called her Timah Keling. Staying with Tok were also two of her granddaughters named Esah and Ramlah. Esah’s mother Binti Dalilah died when she was very small and Tok took and raised her until she got married. To Esah, Tok was her mother just like me and grandma. Ramlah on the other hand was grandma’s daughter but when she was small she always liked to stay with Tok and eventually spent most of her growing days with Tok.

When Tok’s son Taib (Tan Sri) left for London to study Law, some of his children stayed with Tok and I can remember the most frequent and familiar face was his daughter Noni. Uncle Taib’s eldest daughter Chom was also a frequent visitor. Everyday, Tok’s house would be filled with visitors mostly close relatives of my great grandfather Hj.Andak. I remember Pak Jamak and his family, Mak Not and her sons and few others. Tok’s daughter Mak Kintan was another frequent visitor and she would come along with her good husband Ungku Abdullah and their children mostly of my age group.

Not many in the family today knew that Tok was a fine pianist. She learned the piano by hearing and she could play some old Malay songs.

Tok outlived some of her children and she used to tell me stories of those whom I had never met. One of her sons named Hamidon died a fatal death. This is the story as told to me by grandma.

About three or four days before that fatal day, Hamidon together with his brother-in-law Ali (Mak Kintan’s first husband) came to our house inviting grandpa to go to Bukit Kepong to buy some food-stuff. Grandpa agreed to come along and they were to fetch him before proceeding to Bukit Kepong when that day arrived. The night before they were to go to Bukit Kepong, an Englishman from the government’s office came to our house looking for grandpa. It seemed that he required grandpa to be at the office tomorrow morning for some urgent matters. Grandpa was a Clerk at the Land Office. With this new development, grandpa had to cancel his trip to Bukit Kepong. Since communication those days was very poor, he could only inform his brother-in-law Hamidon the next morning.

That day arrived, and grandpa was waiting for them at the front portion of the house. When Hamidon and his brother-in-law Ali arrived, grandpa approached them and apologized that he could not make it as there was an urgent matter that need his presence at the office. The two of them then proceeded to Bukit Kepong leaving behind grandpa. Apparently grandma’s younger sister whom we called Mak Chah Usop was at home with grandma. Many years later when I met Mak Chah Usop, she told me the same story but there was something unusual she observed when her brother and brother-in-law left with their car. She said she saw someone with a white turban sitting at the rear seat. She did not inform anyone thinking that it could be another friend accompanying them.

Hours later, they received news that Hamidon and his brother-in-law Ali were shot by the communists when they almost arrived at Bukit Kepong. Both of them died instantly. Grandma said she cried like a baby upon hearing this fatal news because she loved her brother Hamidon so much as well as her brother-in-law Ali who was very close to her. It took her days to recover but at the same time she was extremely happy that her husband escaped that fatal incident because of some urgent matters in the office. As for Mak Chah’s observation of a man with a white turban sitting at the rear seat thus became a mistery because there were only two deaths reported. Who could he be? It remain a mistery and none can verify its truth because she was a lone and single observer.

Another daughter passed away after giving birth was grandma’s younger sister Binti Dahlilah. She left her husband Ahmad Hj.Ariffin and three children, two boys and a girl. The two boys, Alias and Abdul Razak stayed with their grandparents in Johore Bahru while the girl Esah, was raised by Tok.

Another of her sons passed away at a very young age was Jaafar whom grandma called Chik. He left behind two sons.

Tok was always a very strong hearted woman and she always find ways to fight every emotional onslaught passing her way but when grandma her eldest daughter passed away in 1966, she could not take it. She expressed her grieviences openly and cried unashamedly brushing aside every comforting efforts made by others near to her. “Why must God take my daughter away from me, why not take me instead,” cried Tok ferociously exhibiting her most frustrating manner how cruel destiny had been created for her. She felt like her world was no longer the right place for her and she saw no more reason to live. When grandma’s body was about to be sent for burial, they had to chaperone her slowly up the stairs to where grandma’s body was laid. As she she sat besides grandma, with her tears flowing freely onto her cheek, she held grandma’s head slowly and said, “Ara my daughter, must you go first before me? Wait for me my daughter, I will be with you very soon”.

That night when we had our prayers for grandma, Tok called me to her side and said, “Din, your mother (grandma) has left us. Come and visit me often, stay with me for a night or two. Don’t you forget that.

A week after grandma had left the world, suddenly I thought of Tok and remembered what she said to me. I decided that I should pay her a visit and maybe stayed a night with her. Since then, I would always try to find time to visit Tok and sometime I would spend the night with her. She would tell me stories of my great grandfather Hj.Andak whom I never met. According to Tok, he was a very strict person and very religious too.

It was sometime in 1967, after my Form Five examination had ended and grandpa too had passed away that I thought it was time for me to leave for Kuala Lumpur. I was like a lost sheep without a shepard. The house that was once so vibrant with endless activities was suddenly a gloomy place to live in. Every corner of the house was filled with memories that were too hard for me to grasp and live with. Glimpses of grandpa and grandma walking around the house kept displaying very cruelly into my mind. Halim my close friend was already in Johor Bahru and Yem would be leaving for Kuala Lumpur too in a couple of months later. I thought it would be best that I leave Muar town and maybe stay with few of my uncles who were in Kuala Lumpur and would decide my fate later. My father was still overseas serving as a diplomat in Morocco. I needed someone to talk to and it was then that I thought of Tok.

I decided that I should stay with her for a night before leaving for Kuala Lumpur. I took along some shirts and pants and stuffed them into a bag and I cycled to Parit Bakar. It was almost five in the evening and I cycled moderately along a journey that would take me about half an hour. Traffic was never heavy with few cars passing by and cyclists moving along in both directions. As time moved ahead, so did everything around me. Tok’s house was closed when I arrived. I parked my bicycle and walked to the backyard and greeted with my salam. The closed back door seemed moving and someone opened it. It was Zaharah, the young girl slightly a year older than me who once helped grandma with the household works before her death. Zaharah recognized me immediately and welcomed me in while calling for Tok. As I walked in, I notice Ungku Nai, the youngest daughter of Mak Kintan who had been staying with her grandmother since she was very small. She smiled innocently at me and I patted her head then I saw Tok appearing from the bedroom near the kitchen. She looked very happy noticing my arrival and I approached her and kissed her hand.

It was during dinner that I told Tok of my intention to leave for Kuala Lumpur. She agreed that I should move along and decide the fate of my destiny as time takes its toll. We had ‘asam pedas’ cooked by Zaharah and it tasted the way it should be, obviously acquiring the skill from Tok. Before retiring to bed, Tok and me sat at the living room and talked for almost two hours. It was one night that I will always remember for the rest of my life. It was from this conversation that I learned many things about our family. She told me about grandma when she was a young girl, about his son Hamidon who died a fatal death, about the legendary story of ‘Lembing Awang Pulang Ke Dayang’ as it happened few years before she was born and few other interesting subjects. She was a great conversationalist and it was like a monologue the moment she opened her mouth.

It was almost twelve midnight when we both decided to call it a day. I slept alone in the front bedroom while Tok slept at the next bedroom with Ungku Nai.

It took me quite sometime before I could finally doze off. My mind began to rewind the reminiscient of my younger days, remembering the past and times of my life and of every moment I used to run around in this house. Pak Hussein was no longer around and so was Timah Keling who had by now a family of her own. Pak Jamak, Tok’s nephew would surely be at the kitchen when the day began, Pak Hussein would be at the fruit orchard behind the house, Timah Keling would be very busy at the kitchen, Esah likewise would be at the kitchen and sweeping all over the house and Tok the ‘supervisor’ walking around checking the ‘NKRA’ of every ‘divisional’ works. As my mind kept rolling back, the sound of the woodpecker boring for insects into trees and the hooting sound of owls looking for mating partners provided the midnight environment the right blend.

I woke up very early, washed my face and went straight behind the house where stood many fruit trees. The grasses were still wet covered by the early morning dew and so were the leaves on top of every trees. I kept walking and gazing at the trees I used to climb, passing by the small lanes I used to run and the bushes I used to hide whenever we played the game of ‘hide and seek’ with my cousins of the Andak families. Then I saw a small girl walking towards me and it was Ungku Nai requesting me to return home as breakfast was ready.

After breakfast Tok called me into her room. She gave me a paper and a pencil and told me to write something. It was some ‘talisman’ believed to protect the wearer from evil influences. “I want you to write these down, your Tok Andak had to use the sampan to some other villages to acquire this knowledge and now I am passing them to you, as I have passed down to some of your other cousins”. I wrote them down one by one as she uttered every word that needs to be written. I kept the written texts into my pocket and began packing my things.

Every goodbye is never sweet when parting with your loved ones, it is like a one ton metel being tied to your leg and how you sometime wished that it will remain tightly at your ankle. Tok was sitting quietly on her favourite chair and when I finished packing I approached her. She insisted that I stayed for lunch but I had to refuse for some other reasons. After kissing her hand, Tok held me and kissed me and she followed me as I step down towards the front staircase. Little Ungku Nai followed her from behind, and after I had on my bicycle I waved at her and that was my last view of my great grandmother, my grandmother Tok Jilah.

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