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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Puteri Gunung Ledang: The fairy princess and the spiritual healer

Puteri Gunung Ledang: The fairy princess and the spiritual healer
by C S Wan

As I flipped through the morning papers a picture caught my eyes. It was a picture   of a young beauty bedecked with jewellery and clad in regal splendour.
Puteri Gunung Ledang: The Movie
 The caption below the picture read  Puteri Gunung Ledang: The Movie. According to the movie version , Putteri Gunung Ledang or Gusti Putri was a Javanese Hindu princess, a mortal, who hailed from the kingdom of Majapahit.  However, I remember reading a story which depicted  her as a legendary fairy princess who resides on the mist-shrouded peak of  Gunung Ledang. What I remember most about the story is the tale of a Malaccan Sultan who  upon learning about the beauty of the fairy princess had  despatched his most gallant warrior, Hang Tuah,  to ask for her hand in marriage. The princess, however, set seven ridiculous and unattainable conditions before she would consent to the Sultan’s marriage proposal. 
A long time ago, as a teenager, I knew of another ‘Puteri Gunung Ledang'. She was neither young nor garbed in  resplendent attire.  She was a simple  elderly lady dressed in a  sarong and a baju panjang( a long tunic that reached to the ankles). She was my grand aunt who lived in Bukit Rambai, Melaka. My grand aunt or chimpoh as she was known to us was a spiritual healer who had the ability to invoke the spirit of Puteri Gunung Ledang to assist her with her healing and was fondly addressed as ‘Datuk Puteri Gunung Ledang’. She was not only renown for her spiritual healing  but much sought by the women folks for her advice on marriage and domestic problems. 
Our kampung house
I still remember that day, many years ago, when our grand aunt, accompanied by her granddaughter, arrived at our kampung   house in Batu Berendam, Melaka. Mother wanted to consult her about  father’s poor health and others wanted her advice on their personal problems.
The evening sun had just dipped behind the clump of rubber trees in front of our house when she arrived at our doorsteps. Following prior instructions from grand aunt, the moment she stepped into the house  mother hurriedly latched the door behind them. Mother was about to close one of the front windows when a murky shape in the shadowed woods caught her attention. Was the  shifting shadows of the setting sun playing  tricks with her eyes? She paused to watch and finally convinced with what she had seen she  quickly closed the window.     
A lighted candle
Once the door was shut  grand aunt began to sing a syair or poetry in her soft and melodious voice. Once  in a trance, possessed by the spirit of Puteri Gunung Ledang, she seated herself on a mat while we sat round her. We followed her every move, intrigue by the small drama that was slowly unfolding before our eyes. A large bowl filled with  water was placed in front of her.  Holding a lighted candle, she carefully tilted the candle to let a few  hot, melted wax drip and fall into the cool water.
 The petal-shaped wax began to swirl slowly round the bowl and finally settled to form some kind of patterns. Lips quivering in prayer, she paused to study the wax formation and in a soft and calm voice began to interpret what she had seen. I remember that night she told mother the exact number of people working in  father’s office, and pointed out the seating arrangement in the office and the exact location of father‘s table.
We were all clearly intrigue, as she had never been to father’s working place. 
Finally, after all her clients had consulted her and satisfied that there were no further questions she prepared to take her leave. She lowered herself onto the mat and soon drifted into a deep sleep.
A dish of water and a hard-boiled egg meanwhile were placed at the entrance of the front door. Grand aunt first ate the egg and then going  down on her hands and knees, and  raising one of her hand she began to wipe her face in imitation of a cat grooming itself. Then using only the tip of her tongue she began to lap the water in the dish.
The water, we were told, was for Puteri Gunung Ledang’s pet cat which accompanied her wherever she went while the egg was for her rimau kramat (spirit tiger) which ferried her from her abode on top of Gunung Ledang to her desired  destination. 
 We were not sure if she rode her spirit tiger to our house that evening, but mother was certain  a tiger accompanied her.
“You remember that evening when I was about to close the window,” she told us the next day.
Rimau Kramat( spirit tiger)
“I noticed a movement among the rubber trees, At first I thought it was a dog. But the animal was too large for a dog. So, I paused to watch and  I saw a big tiger prowling among the woods.”
Mother realised why grand aunt had advised her to close the door immediately after she had stepped into the house.  Pandemonium would have broken loose if the tiger had strayed into the house and settled next to us. That night after ensuring that  no tiger was lurking in the vicinity, mother slowly opened the door. She watched as the neighbours  dispersed contentedly into the darkness, oblivious of what she had seen that night. While the spirit tiger transported the Princess swiftly back to Gunung Ledang, grand aunt and her granddaughter had to make the long and slow journey back home aboard a rickety bus.
Last Chinese New Year, my niece made arrangement to meet up with my cousin as I wanted to seek certain clarifications about her grandma who had since passed away.
“ Can you still remember the verses of the syair?” I asked her.
“I can only remember some of the verses,” she replied, “and even if I know the whole syair, I don’t want to recite it,” she continued.
“You know I’m a Christian now and I don’t want to go into a trance,” she said with a faint chuckle.
I then asked her why she always accompanied her grandma on her visits.
“Well, once my grandma went to visit her client, unaccompanied.”
“We waited for her the whole night, but she did not return.”
“The next day we went to her client’s house and we found her sleeping soundly. The family did not know that someone had to wake her up. Since that incident I had to accompany her on her visits.”
“Did anyone learn the arts from her?” I inquired.
“Someone was keen to learn from her, but was unsuccessful and was subsequently informed that only a person who was descended from the same lineage could inherit her spiritual power.”
That afternoon as my cousin and her family bade us farewell, she left us with some unanswered questions.
‘Who was grand aunt ancestral lineage?’
‘Where did they come from?’

We knew both our grandfathers came from Yongchun, China and had married the local women or nyonyas, but somehow not much is known about their wives ancestral lineage. I once asked mother about my own grandma’s root and she said grandma told her she only know her ancestors had lived in Melaka for a very long time. Perhaps, like Puteri Gunung Ledang whose origin is shrouded in mystery,  the origin of the nyonyas too will remain a mystery and a subject of conjecture.

Friday, May 4, 2012

My father_as I remember him

My father_ as I remember him 

 By C S Wan

 Sitting in the warmth of our ancestral house's living room, my siblings and I, reminisce about our childhood days_those happy and carefree days when we knew no boredom. The weekend's mornings were spent in playing games and roaming the quiet neighborhood while nights would find us playing with our home-made toys. Mother either sewed or knitted while father read.
 “Do you mean  grandpa can read and write?” my niece who had been listening intently to our conversation asked, with a surprise look on her face. I realised then that   my children,  nephews, nieces and grandchildren hardly know about their grandpa or their great grandpa. Maybe, all that is familiar to them  is  the  portrait of him that hangs from the wooden wall of our ancestral home.
 This piece is specially written for them while others are welcome to share the story. 
Our childhood home

 Our childhood home in Kuala Pilah where we stayed in the late forties and early fifties was a typical colonial- styled semi-detached wooden house which stood on concrete stilts. It overlooked a playing field and beyond the field, on a slight gradient, stood the Ulu Muar Club. It was here that my father would spend his weekend’s nights, playing billiard and enjoying his usual setengah, with his friends. Most evenings and weekend’s mornings, he would sit in his low rattan chair at his customary place beside the main door with a newspaper or magazine in his hands. Now and then he would pause to pick up a glass filled with Key brandy diluted with water.
 “JB(short for Jim Bong),” a voice boomed from the side lane of the house.
 From the  veranda we watched as the portly figure of Mr. Ponniah, one of his many friends from the Residential Area, lumbered passed the house and headed towards the Ulu Muar Club. The curt call was a signal for father to get ready. He quickly downed his drink, slipped on his  trousers, picked up his billiard cue from behind the door and made his way towards the Club. At night as we all lay awake on the mengkuang mat, the night wind would carry father’s loud and hearty laughter from across the field and knowing that he was fine and enjoying himself we composed ourselves to sleep. 
 The weekend’s afternoons were usually reserved for his siesta. Lying on a mengkuang mat spread out on the wooden floor he would ask one of us, kids, to pick the few grey hair from his crop of virtually jet black hair. For each single strand of grey hair we were paid a cent and although it does not seem much today, the ten or twenty cents we managed to get then, was sufficient for us to buy a plate of mee and a glass of cold drink from the school canteen. The feel of our gentle fingers ploughing through his hair would lull him to sleep. But, there were days when it would take him time to drift off to sleep. Those were the days when he would tell us about his childhood days.
 “You’re all lucky to have parents to look after you,” he told us one afternoon with a doleful look in his eyes. 
“I hardly know my mother and would give anything to have a glimpse of her image,” he added.
 Father grew up in the small village of Bukit Rambai which is about nine kilometres from Melaka town. His mother passed away when he was still a toddler and so he could not remember much about her . Third sister ( whom we address as Makko kechik) was left with the task of looking after him. Every morning father woke up to the sound of the first cock crow and got ready for school. After a quick wash he would put on a plain cotton Qing fashion clothing and plait his shoulder length hair into a single queue. In the dimly-lit room, he waited, ears straining for the tinkle of cow bells. The moment the sound became audible, he rushed out and waited outside in the pre-dawn darkness. Through the veil of low -hanging mist he watched as a ghostly glow moved closer towards him and the murky shape of an ox-cart loomed through the gloom. The creak and squeak of the the rickety ox- cart were soon joined by the rhythmic pounding of bare feet on the still sodden ground. His bare feet now soled with thick calluses were impervious to the sharp edges of the pebbles that littered the laterite road. Sometimes an ox would give a wicked flick of its tail to ward off the irritating cow flies. Bits of grime and dung would land on his hand and shirt, but he was unperturbed by the little inconvenience as the ox-cart driver provided a welcome companion on the dark and lonely road. On days when the cart was empty, the kind driver would give him a lift to the lumber yard on the outskirts of Malacca Town. From there he would proceed alone to St. Francis Institution at Bandar Hilir.
 After school he would often stop at his eldest sister’s house at Tranquerah Road(the house is close to the present Tranquerah police station) where he could seek shelter from the scorching heat of the afternoon sun and have his lunch before proceeding home. His eldest sister had married a wealthy man and was among the first few in Malacca to own a car. The family was known for their kindness and generosity and relatives and friends were always welcomed to share their food. He remembered there were days when he would be late for lunch and find that the table had already been cleared. He would quietly head for the rice pot on the stove. Sometimes all that was left was the hardened browned rice at the bottom of the pot. He would pour a little hot water into the pot to soften the rice and add a bit of sugar  to make it palatable. He was grateful for the small blessing as the rice at least helped to ease the gnawing pain in his stomach.
 Father told us that grandpa was once relatively well off. A jealous farm hand, however, had  made malicious allegation against him and  this had resulted in a long legal tussle. Although he was finally exonerated, the unfortunate  incident  had sapped his energy and left him on the brink of poverty. Though illiterate and poor grandpa placed great importance on education and ensured that all his sons received a good education. Father remembered he was among the nine pupils in his class who got through the Senior Cambridge Examination. Unable to further his studies because of pecuniary difficulty he started work as a clerk in a magistrate court in the remote town of Temerloh, Pahang. After he got married he moved  to Kuala Pilah, where we grew up. 
Mother and father in their peranakan's wedding costume

Having experienced hardship and deprivation during his childhood days, father pampered his children with little luxuries. He lavished them with imported chocolates and biscuits. I remember the day he came back with a wooden crate filled to the brim with local fruits. Mother asked him, “Are you thinking of opening a fruit shop?”
 “I want our children to eat to their hearts content. In time of need I don’t want them to gawk at others eat,” he replied.
 His generosity extended beyond his family circle. Whenever we returned to our maternal grandpa’s house in Melaka during the school holidays father’s loud and infectious laughter never fail to attract our relatives from the neighboring houses. They would crowd round him to listen to his stories and wait for the ‘ang pow’(red packets filled with money) which father dispensed generously. When he heard a relative had been widowed he quickly sent  money for the bereaved family.
 Mother would often tell us, “ Your father thinks he can print money.” 
 I remember the time when the soldiers from either the Australian or British Army who were stationed in Kuala Pilah used to play soccer at the playing field directly in front of our house. During the break, father noticed the soldiers quenching their thirst from the stand pipe at the side of our house. 
 “Can you prepare some orange drinks for them? ” he asked mother. 
After that day, during break time, the soldiers would rush excitedly towards our house knowing that a pail of cold orange drink was ready for them at the stand pipe.
 One weekend father was reading the newspaper at his customary place when he suddenly collapsed. He was rushed back to eldest auntie’s house in Melaka _ the very same house where he used to have his lunch on his way back from school. In my mind's eyes I can still see him lying on a long wooden settee while we watched helplessly with tears brimming in our eyes. We noticed  a faint quiver on his lips.
 “ I think he wants to say something. Bring a pencil and paper,” our auntie instructed.
 A pencil and paper was placed in his hands, but they slipped from his fingers and fell to the floor.
 He fell into a coma and that same night he passed away. Father was just a few months short of his retirement.
 Untitled to any pension and with hardly any savings, mother was left with the daunting task of raising eight children on his meagre gratuity. The family, especially mother, grieved deeply at his passing. But we felt sadder because relatives who used to flock to the house at the sound of father's voice began to distant themselves from us, as if we were suffering from some contagious disease.
 Although father did not leave us much money, he left us a  legacy which cannot be measured in monetary terms. Through his words and deeds he taught us about honesty, kindness, generosity, compassion, empathy and other  important values.