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Sunday, June 10, 2018

In nature's embrace

An illustration of the writer's ancestral home in Batu Berendam, Melaka

In Nature’s embrace
Star 2
February 26, 2016

By Wan Chwee Seng

They paused to listen, ears straining. From somewhere in the distance came the unsettling sound – the ominous and relentless drone of approaching planes.

Two black specks that suddenly appeared above a line of tree tops sparked a flurry of excitement and frenzied activity. The bigger children were hurriedly rounded up, the little ones scooped into adults’ arms and the babies snatched from their cradles.

Like startled rats, they scurried towards the air-raid shelter, a long rectangular trench, sited at the right side of the house and obscured from view by a clump of banana trees.

Moments later, loud explosions were heard and they learned that the nearby railway godown and the Batu Berendam airport had been bombed by B-52 bombers.

I cannot remember much about the whole incident which was related by Mother, but I recall seeing the planes, perhaps my earliest childhood recollection of the war when we stayed at our grandpa’s kampung house in Batu Berendam, Malacca.
Before the outbreak of World War II, Father was working as a clerk in Kuala Pilah, but when news of the impending Japanese invasion filtered down to him, we were all hurriedly despatched to our grandpa’s house.

The house was a wooden structure with palm-thatched roof and a floor of hard-beaten earth that gleamed like polished cement. A dirt track flanked by towering coconut trees, fruit trees and lallang ran from the house to the main road. To the left of the track, just before the main road, was a pond: the remains of an old abandoned tin mine.

The village where we stayed was a Peranakan enclave and most of the families were closely related.

When the war ended, we moved back to Kuala Pilah and it was only during the long school holidays that we returned for brief visits. In the mid-fifties, Father passed away suddenly, and we had to move back to Malacca. While waiting to move into our own house which was still under construction, we stayed at our grandpa’s house. After the relatively easy life in Kuala Pilah where we had electricity and tap water, adjusting to kampung life was quite an experience for us.

We had to learn to draw water from the well and carry it to the house. My siblings and I found out that with the aid of a long pole, it required two of us to carry a single water-filled kerosene tin and a fair amount of water would spill out long before we even reached the house. The lush grass that grew along the path bore testimony to our generous contribution.

Meanwhile, we watched enviously as our more experienced country cousins single-handedly carried, effortlessly, two huge pails attached to each end of a pole without spilling much water. We eventually learned from them that to prevent spillage, all we had to do was to place a yam leaf on the surface of the water.
In spite of the little inconveniences and shortcomings, we found that life in the kampung was carefree, full of fun and there were lots of things waiting to be discovered.

I remember following my cousin, Eng Kim, to the woodlots behind Grandpa’s house where we searched for edible berries such as buah pelanduk and buah kemunting. Once we stumbled upon some eggs under a wild rhododendron bush (senduduk) and my savvy country cousin said they were the eggs of the nightjars. The find became a jealously guarded secret for the two of us.

A gentle flapping of wings and the faint rustle of leaves caught our attention and I watched in awe as a flock of birds alighted on the branch of a tree.

“Those are green pigeons. To snare the birds, the hunters would apply glue on the branches where the pigeons roost,” Eng Kim explained.

As we picked our way through the dense vegetation, we found ourselves at the edge of a pond and Eng Kim pointed out to me the nesting holes of the kingfishers among the grassy bank.
The pond was the place where my cousins, Alan, Fook and Swee learned to swim. A guava tree with drooping, springy branch at the edge of the pond, provided them with a natural diving board. I was told Swee nearly drowned while learning to swim in the deceptively placid water.

I used to follow my cousins when they went fishing for carps and catfish at the nearby pond. I learned from them how to dig for earthworms and how to thread the earthworm to the hook. At night when there was a downpour, the kampung would resonate with the confused chorus of belching croaks. However, for my cousins, the raucous sound was music to their ears. At the first light of dawn, they would head to the pond and hunt for the frogs among the tall grass, which they used as live baits to fish for the snakehead (ikan haruan).

Without electricity, night descended fast over the kampung; only the pale glow of flickering oil lamps from within wooden houses punctuated the deep gloom. However, when there was a full moon, the countryside would be bathed in its reflected light and drawn by its magical spell, Grandpa would sit at the front porch and regaled us with tales of his strange encounters during his travel as an ox-cart driver.

From a nearby heap of smouldering embers and hot ash, the fragrance of roasted tapioca wafted across the night air and our mouths drooled at the thought of the tapioca that would be dipped in sambal.

I remember one moonlit night, we even played rounders under the pallid light of the moon. Our bat was a branch of a tree; the ball an unripe pomelo. Only the staccato calls of the nightjars broke the stillness and tranquility of the night, but their churring were soon drowned and silenced by our boisterous shouts and spontaneous laughter.

Today, years on, as I drive along the road of a housing estate leading to our ancestral home, it brings back fond memories of my childhood days in the kampung, as the road was once the playground of my youth. I pause at the road shoulder to relive the magic moments of those simple and carefree days.

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