It was almost 7.00pm when we saw Mak Jah Taring walking towards us. She was fondly known by that nickname because two sides of her upper teeth resembled a mini fang. A lovable and wonderful woman, she lived some walking distance across the road where I lived. Widowed in 1959 after her husband passed away, Mak Jah Taring stayed with his two sons, Ismail and Adon and an elderly daughter along Jalan Ibrahim. Beside her house was a football field where many boys would show their tackling skill and behind the house was a small playground where boys and girls my age would spend our evening playing together. There was a see-saw, a slide and a pair of swings. Every time when we were absorbed with our little adventures on the playground, it was Mak Jah Taring who would always remind us to return home when the dusk azan could be heard from the Tanjung mosque. Sometime she would offer us cold drinks of rose syrup to quench our thirst. A wonderful woman indeed Mak Jah Taring was.
All her children were close to my family and her elder children were buddies of my uncles/aunties. The younger son Adon was a year older than me and together we always fought over minor issues. No matter how serious our resentment towards each other, we never bore grudges. We would be friends today, enemies tomorrow and friends again the following day. After all we knew each other since we were as small as five years old.
Above Adon was a son named Ismail who was a gay and he was famously known in Muar town as Ma’il Pondan. A fantastic cook, Ismail could produce outstanding dishes of his own creations and would proudly invite us to taste the products of his own menu. He loved dancing too, and every time he served us his outstanding delights, he would dance around us just like in any Hindustani movies and we would all laugh out loud. Apparently I had a cousin named Jaafar who was also a gay and they both happened to be close friends. Muar town of my time produced quite a number of outstanding gays each with their own special talents.
My cousins and I were sitting on the tembok of our house when we observed something unusual about Mak Jah Taring. She was a frequent visitor to our house and would spend chitchatting with grandma while enjoying their sireh on the ambin. But this time she looked very nervous and as she neared us, we stood up and asked her what was wrong?
Almost panting, she asked us, “Have you seen my grandson Tetet?
Mohd. Nasir Ali was born in 1956 and that made him seven years my junior. He was in a pram together with another baby boy when I first saw him. His adopted father would push the pram in the evening and would sometime stopped by our house. All of us would carry baby Nasir around the compound and cuddled him as well as the other baby boy said to be his first cousin. Nasir’s father was the son of Mak Jah Taring and married to a woman we called Cikgu Tom. He was known in Muar town as ‘Pak Ali Kastam’, so obviously he must have had been working with the custom department. Pak Ali had a sister we called Mak Bedah whose husband was called Atan Cik. They were married for quite some time but unfortunately they had no children of their own. As Pak Ali was fruitful, his sister Mak Bedah pleaded with him to let her adopt his coming new baby his wife was carrying to which he agreed only if it was a baby girl because all his children at that time were girls. When the baby arrived, it was a baby boy and since the baby was Pak Ali’s first son, Mak Bedah had to wait for the next baby to arrive, and Mohd. Nasir was this baby. As Nasir grew older, he developed some unusual trait that eventually resulted in him being a mentally-challenge boy. Nasir had a nickname, most common among Muarians of my time. He was known as Tetet, in fact not many of our neighbours knew his real name. They all knew him as Tetet.
Tetet practically grew before our eyes as he spent most of his time playing with us. In spite of being mentally-challenged, we all loved him and treated him like our own. He would have breakfast with us, lunch and tea but he must be back to his parents before dusk and the following morning Tetet would reappear to spend another day with us. So when Tetet did not return home that evening, it was only obvious for Mak Jah Taring to come over to our house.
He was a ‘wanderer’ who would wander in every corner of the neighbourhood. What was worrying was his speech impediment and could not pronounce even a simple word properly. One needed to be truly close to him to understand every word he spoke and I was one of them because maybe he always found comfort in me and if anyone in the neighbourhood was to bully him, he would complain to me with the language known to me. I almost got myself into a big fight with a neighbour my age because of Tetet.
“He was having a big meal all by himself this afternoon”, I told Mak Jah Taring. I asked everyone around whether they had spotted Tetet anywhere around the house of which I receive negative replies. Everyone was now very worried as he was only five years old. I ran into the house to ask grandma and when she heard Tetet was missing, she came out of the house to comfort Mak Jah Taring who was now on the verge of crying.
“Yes I served him lunch because he was complaining of an empty stomach as he showed me his stomach with his two hands”, grandma told Mak Jah Taring. “In fact, he had a second helping as much as the first one”, continued grandma.
As we were now planning to look for him, his adopted father Atan Cik arrived riding his Lambretta. He was equally worried upon hearing the news at home. We started looking for him around the house and around the neighbouring areas. We looked everywhere but there was no sign of Tetet. It was now almost 7.30pm and the day began to slowly turn to darkness. At twelve years old, I used to skip my prayer and so I cycled to the other corner of our neighbourhood in search of Tetet.
Whenever kids his age played around the house, he would like to join in the fun but the kids refused to let him because sometime he could be a nuisance. He would then come crying to me and every time he did that, I felt truly sad. He was what he was not because of his own wish; he was born to be mentally-challenge submitting to God’s grand design. He was a special child, a test from God to those near him. I would be delightful whenever seeing him licking the tip of the ice-cream, enjoying every moment of it. Sometime he would talk to himself, to the trees, to the birds and the bees and would even dance happily all by himself. Nature was perhaps his closest companion for he always found solace among them. And when he felt hungry, he knew where to go and grandma would happily serve him.
When I reached home after the frantic search, there was a small crowd at the tembok. Mak Jah Taring had returned home and Atan Cik had gone to the Police station to lodge a report. Everyone was speechless and suddenly we all felt something special about Tetet. We began to imagine the worst; he could have drown himself in the big monsoon drain at the back of our house or he could have been knocked down on a hit-and-run, or he could still be well and alive walking alone in some remote areas of town.
We returned home to have our dinner as it was almost 9.00pm and still very worried over Tetet. I was thinking of going over to Mak Jah Taring’s house to find out if there had been some progress over the other side.
“This was the chair he sat while having his lunch”, grandma said to me. Neighbours of my time were closely-knitted and we could just enter each other’s house without needing any reason. Besides our house, Tetet would be with the family of Uncle Lamdin who lived just across the road and they too treated Tetet like their own.
After having washed my hands, I immediately looked for a torch light to assist me to continue my search. Right beside my bedroom was the room of our former maid-servant. Since she left us, the room had been empty and it was only used when some of my uncles returned home over the weekend. I remembered putting the torch light somewhere inside this room. The door was always open and as I entered the room, I switched on the light. I was dumbfounded but extremely happy to find Tetet sleeping so soundly on the bed. The whole household was immediately informed and I wasted no time to cycle to Mak Jah Taring’s house to inform her of the good news. She was too happy to say a word but just sat and wiped her face that had been filled with tears. I told her to let him stay overnight and promised to bring him home for his morning bath. Atan Cik had t0 go to the Police station again only this time with a good news. That night Tetet slept in our house and that was his first and the last time he spent the night with us. We did not want to wake him up and let him slumber throughout the night in peace.
A year or two later, we were informed that Tetet had left Muar town for Johor Bahru. Since then I have not heard of any news of my cute little ‘kid brother’.
Approximately seven years go, I was introduced to an ex-Major of the Armed Forces who was one of the organizers planning for a musical reunion for Johoreans. From that moment, Major Mustaffa Ali became among my many close friends. It was on one evening in Bangsar when we both had our tea when Mus (as I call him) told me of his Muar connections. How surprised was I to learn that Mus is the elder brother of Tetet and I grieved to receive the sad news that Tetet had since passed away in Johor Bahru.
Tetet will always find space in my heart and dwell with all the many fond memories of my growing days. Even to this day, whenever I reminisce, I cannot exclude the few moments I had gladly spent with him. How could I forget? A special boy like him will surely be written in some pages from my past.