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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Rantau Panjang-Sungai Golok: Memories of a Small Town

The Star


Memories of a small town
Story and illustration by WAN CHWEE SENG

Back in the 1960s, Rantau Panjang in Kelantan was only accessible by rail. But life in this remote town has its moments too.

RANTAU PANJANG January 1962: It was the beginning of another new year, with new resolutions. At the start of each school year, the teachers would be issued with new record books. The moment we received the books we would savour the feel of the crisp, smooth papers between our fingers and take in the freshness of new paper.
Having been rejuvenated after the long school break, we silently pledged to tackle the laborious task of writing lesson plans and notes with a renewed sense of purpose and vigour. Rulers were brought out from unlikely places and old pencils sharpened to a point. Margins were drawn to measured precision; lesson plans and notes were written in minute details and in our best handwriting.
Night would find us peering and squinting at the writings under the pale and flickering light of oil lamps, for electricity had yet to make its appearance in this far-flung corner of the country. However, like the wicks of the oil lamps which grew shorter with each passing day, our writings too decreased in length. The flourish of the handwritings became mere scrawls and by year-end, most of the record books displayed blank pages. Barring the shortcomings, we carried on our work diligently and the class lessons proceeded smoothly.
The town of Rantau Panjang had little to offer in terms of entertainment, except for the occasional performance of dikir barat and wayang kulit by visiting troupes. So much of our time was occupied in playing games, coaching the pupils and providing extra classes on certain weekends.
We received few visitors, as the town was only accessible by rail. The few who braved the long and uncomfortable journey usually made a brief stopover before proceeding to the border town of Sungai Golok. Newspapers and mail, too, arrived in the late afternoon, and often on the last train.
Every evening when the last train pulled into the station, slowly rolled out and vanished into the gathering darkness, an eerie gloom descended upon the place. We felt as if our only physical link with the outside world had been severed. We were gripped by a deepening sense of despair, a feeling of being forgotten and forsaken.
One morning, the headmaster burst excitedly into my classroom and asked me to see him in his office. I wondered about the cause of the excitement. The moment I stepped into his office, he said: “Wan, I want you to collect all the teachers’ record books.”
“Why?” I inquired, puzzled by the sudden decision.
“The inspectors of schools are going to visit the school,” said the headmaster.
“But, we have not written for some time,” I said.
Seeing the look of concern on my face, he said: “Don’t worry, lah. Just collect the books.”
The teachers were duly informed of the headmaster’s instruction. The record books were quickly hunted and retrieved from their hidden “archives”. The fine dust that had blanketed the covers was quickly brushed off and the books were stacked high on the headmaster’s table.
We waited, and waited for the anticipated visit. The appointed day came and went. Yet, there was no sign of the inspectors. Our wait was in vain. Then one day the headmaster informed us that the inspectors of schools would not be coming. Somehow they had missed the obscure town of Rantau Panjang and landed in the brightly-lit Siamese town of Sungai Golok, either by accident or design.
Sometime later, I happened to be in the headmaster’s office and noticed the pile of record books was no longer in sight. I casually asked him: “HM, how were you going to explain to the inspectors had they asked you about the record books?”
A slight smile played on his lips.
“Easy lah, I would tell them there was a big flood and all the record books were swept away.”
During my five years in Rantau Panjang, there was neither any official visits from the inspectors of schools nor any major flood. However, a year after I left Rantau Panjang for Malacca, I was informed that the town of Rantau Panjang and the neighbouring villages were hit by a major flood. Water rose shoulder-high; houses and property were damaged, and belongings were swept away by the floodwater. I presumed any evidence of the uncompleted record books too would have been swept away by the floodwaters.
Conscience eventually had the last laugh. The lingering guilt of uncompleted record books still comes to haunt me in my dreams.

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