It was almost 9.00pm when Halim came to my house. The night was bright with twinkling stars high up on the high heavens and the moon’s crescent could be seen vaguely as the twilight had by now disappeared at the western horizon. Yem would be joining us soon as promised and it was not until 9.30pm when we could see his bicycle’s light at the junction of Jalan Omri/Jalan Ibrahim. We could notice he was approaching nearer as indicated by the dim street lights. We had not decided our place of rendezvous tonight and we thought it would be good to decide when Yem arrived.
During the fasting month, we would meet during the night only on Thursdays and Fridays as the state of Johore observed its weekend on Friday and Saturday. Muar town would be quiet during the first two weeks of the fasting month and it would only become lively as Hari Raya approached. The stretch along Jalan Abdullah would be the busiest road but until that day arrived, we would spend most of our time talking at the tembok of my house. We would talked about the same subject we had talked during our short meeting in the evening and sometime the same subject would be repeated over and over until the subject would be too stale to even think about it. It was coming to the first week of Ramadan and we thought it would be fun to spend the night cycling along Tanjung to enjoy the splendored serenity of this enchanted piece of land.
1965 was another good year of my growing days with so many thrilling new happenings coming our way. The Beatles had themselves firmly established throughout the globe and James Bond had new exciting adventures fighting the world’s villains with their sophisticated weapons. Cliff Richard kept on singing with soothing melodies to captivate many lonely hearts. And the three of us tried our best to keep up with the growing trend.
Few cyclists were seen heading home after performing their terawih at the town mosque and as the night began to grow older, their numbers began to decrease by the minute. One or two dimmed lights could be seen from afar and most houses had by now slumbered through the night including our neighbourhood except for the house of my uncle Pak Mat Rippin (Ahmad Hj. Ariffin) who lived next door. He would still be at his drawing board drawing some plans for his customers and he would normally sleep at around 12.3oam and sometime as late as 3.00am in the morning. A man very dedicated to his work, Pak Mat tolerated no nonsense and would have no qualms to disparage those corrupted in their line of duty. Having to support nine schooling children, he needed to burn the midnight candles almost every night. Every time when I returned home after my midnight rendezvous, Pat Mat would still be at his drawing board adjusting some diagrams to perfection. He would then stare at me and make sure that I reached my room door safely. Such a good man my uncle Pak Mat was. Although a draughtsman, Muarians of my time referred him Pak Mat architect.
“Let’s cycle to Tanjung”, Halim suggested. It was almost 10.00pm and the night was silent except for the chirping sound of crickets nearby. It was very still as the tree branches seemed motionless and very stationery. Yem agreed and I thought it would be good to have some leg exercises for the night. I still had some homework to be done but I could always do it during the day. After all, it would be good to stay home during the day on this fasting month.
“Ok, let’s cycle along Jalan Petri towards Tanjung”, I said as the three of us began to peddle. Jalan Petri was a long stretch adjacent to the Muar river where stood the government building. Next to it was the Istana Hinggap of the Johore royal family and across it was the town library, a single-storey building sitting on a vast vacant land. The town library during my time was not only for those looking for books to read but it was a secret beacon for young lovers to meet. As we reached the junction of Jalan Omri/Jalan Petri, we turned left towards Tanjung but we had to pass the town mosque first. Traffic was almost nil and we cycled three abreast without having to worry of any passing vehicle. If there was one, the driver would have honked us first even though we were two hundred meters away. As we cycled through the night, we could see some fishing boats passing by the river with their running engines breaking the silence of the night.
The town mosque was lighted with small twinkling bulbs of various colours brightening some parts of the big compound and we noticed a man wearing a white robe walking towards the exit gate. He could be one of the mosque’s officials returning home after having checked the security including the interior section of the building.
“When will the results be made known?” asked Yem as the three of us cycled in front the road leading towards Tanjung. The three went to different schools but we sat for the Lower Certificate of Eduction (LCE) examination recently. Some had speculated that the results would be out soon.
“It should be out in a few days’ time”, I replied to Yem’s question, still cycling as we passed the exit gate of the mosque. I was quite confident of passing the examination as I remembered the papers I sat were quite easy except for mathematics. I had always hated the subject and would be happy if I could just pass the border line. Grandma knew I was not at all good in mathematics and would say to those near to her, “Din ni dia lemah ilmu hisab”.
While Yem and I were talking, Halim was silent and when we passed the mosque, he suddenly said in a frightening tone:
“Hey you two, didn’t you notice that the lone figure we saw just now suddenly disappeared?” At that juncture we began to feel uneasy and the three of us turned around to see whether what Halim had just said was true. We stopped our bicycles and gazed at the exit entrance and indeed there wasn’t anyone around.
“Don’t worry, there won’t be any ghosts tonight, remember, it’s the fasting month. Yem immediately quipped.
We were taught by our elders and the religious teachers that every time the fasting month of Ramadan came, the devil Satan and all the ghosts and evil spirits would be chained or tied to their necks. They would be guarded by the forces of God in a special cell. We were too naive to ask the reason why and just followed blindly whatever being taught to us. Although the belief was a comforting factor for the night, we were still skeptical of such teachings. We were fifteen years old and although we began to question some of our early senseless indoctrination, nevertheless we always followed the rules as we did not want to take chances.
“While both of you were talking, my eyes were focused on the lone figure and out of the blue he just disappeared”, Halim said with a convincing tone. Halim Bond as he was known among our fraternity was always alert when it came to this kind of ‘adventure’. As we kept on gazing at the spot, we were convinced that what Halim said was true. This was very strange as the distant from the town mosque to the next nearest building was not near for the figure to just disappear instantly.
“Let’s cycle back to the spot and see for ourselves”, I suggested and as both my friends agreed, we turned back and cycled towards the mosque. It was quite frightening but because we had done this kind of ‘silly adventures’ before, we were quite used to it. It was almost 10.30pm and the area surrounding us was very silent and the night could only be felt with the chirping sound of the crickets.
The Sultan Ibrahim town mosque was built in 1925 and was officially opened in 1930 by the then Tengku Mahkota, witnessed by the Menteri Mesar of Johore, Dato Mustafa Jabbar. Its facade is unique with the Moorish touch blended with the colonial design of English architecture. During the fasting month of Ramadan, the mosque would be filled with worshipers performing their terawih prayers and was the gathering point for the elders asking each other how they all had been faring. Youths would flock in the night to continue their conversation on the same subject they had been talking about during the day. The womenfolk too would be around to perform alongside their menfolk. The nights of Ramadan at the Muar town mosque would be the many nights to be remembered for a long time. By 10.30pm. the mosque would be quiet again as the worshipers returned home. The famous Imam Tronoh was obviously the one leading the prayers.
It was on a journey to Mecca that Abdul Rahman’s ship almost sunk into the ocean but he managed to stay alive by holding on a wooden plank. The name of the ship was “Tronoh” and since then Imam Abdul Rahman became known as Imam Tronoh. My Muar town contemporaries would surely remember this famous name.
When we reached the front gate of the mosque, there wasn’t anybody at sight and this caused puzzlement. The three of us did see a lone figure in white robes walking towards the gate just minutes ago and now it had simply disappeared. The three of us descended from our bicycles, parked the bicycles and started walking towards the gate to check for ourselves.
We tiptoed towards the inner part of the gate and very silently with our eyes focused on the spot where we thought we saw the figure. As we were absorbed with our silly investigation, suddenly without noticing earlier, two policemen came to the scene and shouted at us:
“Hey budak budak, apa buat tu?” (Hey boys, what are you doing?).
The three of us felt a sudden gust of fear as getting caught unnecessarily by policemen would be the last thing we would want to get involved with. We had never got ourselves into the hands of the law and to get mixed up with the authority during the fasting was even unthinkable. Now we had to get some good reasons to convince these policemen. Telling them about looking for a “supposed ghost” was ludicrous and even laughable. “Now what shall we tell the policemen?” I said to both Halim and Yem.
The two cops came closer to us while the three of us just stood still still thinking what would be our best excuse to be at the town mosque during this hour of the night. At almost 11.00pm, Muar town of my days was a quiet town and we could hardly find cyclists roaming around Tanjung. Obviously the two cops were anxious to know what these three young lads were doing at this odd hour. As they reached us, one of them descended and shone his torch light towards my face and immediately asked for our identification papers. I was trembling to the bone and so were my two other friends. We were more scared of the two cops than seeing a real ghost. Just as I was about to take my identity card, we heard a voice coming from behind the gate.
“Tak pe Encik, budak budak ni teman saya” (No worries Sir, these boys are just accompanying me). The voice came from a man who was wearing a white robe similar to the one we saw who had just disappeared. The three of us were speechless but at the same time we were quite pleased that we would soon be off the hook with the law.
“Oh, Encik ni Imam mesjid ke?” (Oh, you must be the mosque’s Imam), one of the cops said to the man and he acknowledged with a smile.
Then the two policemen told the three of us to return home immediately as the night was becoming late and they proceeded cycling towards town.
As I looked at the face of the man, I knew he was not Imam Tronoh because most of us staying around Tanjung area knew Imam Tronoh very well. He could well be an Imam but certainly not from this mosque. The three of us stared at the man with puzzlement but nevertheless we all thanked him and began peddling towards Tanjung to continue our night rendezvous, in spite of being warned by the two cops earlier. The man smiled at us and waved us goodbye.
Hardly few yards away as we peddled our way towards Tanjung, Halim looked back to see whether the man was still around? Then Yem and I heard Halim gave a surprising remark telling us the man was not at sight. The three of us stopped and looked back and sure enough not a soul was at sight. He was gone and this caused great bewilderment as there was no way he could just disappear out of thin air in a very short time.
At this juncture the three of us decided not to proceed to Tanjung and instead we decided to return home. We dared not cycle any further and we took a short cut and cycled towards Jalan Majidee passing the house of Dr. Hamzah, the famous Malay doctor of that period.
As the three of us passed along Jalan Majidee, we began to question whether the man we saw was for real or was he a ghost. “No, it can’t be a ghost, this is the fasting month”, quipped Yem even more adamantly.
Although the sky was not lighted with the full moon, it was a bright night with twinkling stars adorning the high heavens complementing the typical silent night of Muar town. We then reached the junction of Jalan Abdul Rahman and proceeded towards Jalan Ibrahim where Yem’s house was.
We were still puzzled with our recent encounter and were even adamant that what we saw was not a ghost. We reached Yem’s house and bade him goodnight and next to Yem’s house was Halim’s and as he too returned home, I had to cycle alone to my house along Jalan Omri, a distant of about three lampposts away. As I cycled home alone, my eyes were wandering just in case a white ghostly figure might be sitting quietly on one of the tree branches. As I reached the house of my buddy Maniam which was three houses away from mine, I saw some light coming from the window of my uncle Pak Mat Rippin. He was still on his drawing board and my fear subsided immediately.
Back in my room, as I was about to doze off, I imagined many things most unpleasant to the eyes. I imagined the many faces of evil spirits and ghosts in spite of never having seen any of them. Then I remembered the face of the man we encountered at the town mosque. Although he wasn’t a bad looking fellow, there was something unusual about him that would cause me not to look at him a second time.
Fearing the sight of ghosts at an early age was the result of my childhood indoctrination, ideologies and the numerous beliefs that have no basis to substantiate. It should not have been taught in the first place, but it was fun though. How I wish I could cycle back in time and revisit those places where memories began.