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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, May 08, 2022

Cast From the Herd Excerpt #30: Tales of My Village

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #30:  Tales of My Village

The road to Kuala Pilah crosses the Sri Menanti River at Tanjong Ipoh, a few miles downstream from my village. One January morning our school bus, together with a convoy of other vehicles, was stranded by the flooded bridge. Then a truck decided to brave the churning water. Seizing the opportunity to capitalize on the shallowness of the truck’s wake, our driver decided to be a hero, egged on by the girls. 

He was a young man, perhaps a recent hire upon his discharge from the army. Courage and recklessness go with being a soldier; caution and wisdom, less so, more so in the presence of girls. 

All went well for a while. After our bus crossed the bridge, the truck ahead began sliding sideways ever so slowly, like in a dream or silent movie. Then it flipped over, pushed by the torrent. A sudden gasp, followed by loud shrieks as the girls in our bus went hysterical. 

Our driver jammed into lower gear, gunned his motor, and swerved hard to avoid the side-turned truck, sending the girls (and me too) into shrieks. Steam hissed from the engine and the water swirled around the windows. Heavy sweat trickled down our driver’s brow, incongruous in the cool of the morning. 

His swift turn blunted the broadsided ferocity of the current. Our bus crawled through the flood with an additional soaked passenger, the driver of the flipped truck, hanging by the side. That driver would have to wait for days before he could retrieve his vehicle, if it had not been cemented into the muddy earth dried by the subsequent sun. 

With the girls now cooing, our driver was back to his usual swagger. He had been through worse in the army, I was sure. There is however, a world of difference between driving a bus full of schoolchildren versus a truckload of soldiers. 

Between the two extremes of ravaging floods and dry-season meandering stream, the river looked benign enough for me to laze the hot afternoon on its banks under the shade of the expansive tamarind tree. I would throw a leaf and watch it drift downstream, like a graceful sloop out on a Sunday sail in the bay. I fantasized the idyllic scenes as the leaf floated to the river mouth and then out to open sea. 

At Muar, if the leaf were to arrive at ebb time it would flow northwest towards the Andaman Sea and then the Indian Ocean. At flood time, the current would take it southeast past Singapore and then into the South China Sea and on to the vast Pacific. 

I had never ventured downstream from my village. I had trekked upstream to the headwaters of both the Sri Menanti and Terachi (another tributary of the Muar), the former at Gunung Pasir during that December holiday after I discovered the daunting obstacle that was the sixth-form entrance examination, the latter a few years earlier with our Geographic Society. 

For the Terachi trip, we went by bus to the foothills at Bukit Putus, the ridge separating Kuala Pilah from the capital, Seremban, to the west. The terrain was steeper and the current much swifter than at Gunung Pasir. The trees were also much taller and more majestic. The whole area was a forest reserve; there were no villages or signs of human activity. It was old virgin jungle with the ground free of underbrush, unlike at Gunung Pasir. 

Our teachers had split the time such that the first two thirds would be for going upstream and the last for the return trip. That was sensible as going upstream would be slower. However, the reality of the downward journey did not cooperate with the logic of our teachers’ planning. The steep slope over slippery rocks was hazardous, slowing our trek. By the time we reached our starting point, it was already dark. Twilight in the tropical jungle is precipitous, like somebody had pulled the blinds down. We arrived back in town late and were met by very anxious but not angry parents. It was not the thing to be angry with your children’s teachers. Our parents were just relieved.

That following Monday morning at school assembly, our headmaster announced that field trips would henceforth be canceled for the rest of the school year. I was certain that none of the parents had complained. I was also sure that the teachers were cautious and fully aware of our safety. Dr. Rawcliffe, our headmaster, may be a colonialist but he took his job seriously, and that included the safety of those under his charge. 

As portrayed in Conrad’s many Malay novels, rivers and the waterfronts play a central role in Malay culture. Up until the turn of the twentieth century, rivers were also the main pathways for travel; riverfront properties were thus premium. 

In my matriarchal culture the oldest daughter has the privilege of first choice in inheritance. So my oldest auntie’s house faced and was closest to the river. By the time my grandparents built the house for my mother, the British had built a road. Her house, while furthest from the river, now faced the road. With it now the preferred path for travel, my mother ended up with the choicest lot! 

Again as per Conrad’s novels, as in our lore, the edges of waters are associated with evil, intrigue, and death. Those are sinister places as the hantu darat (land spirits) and hantu laut (sea spirits) battle it out for supremacy. At twilight there would be the additional struggle between hantu malam (night spirits) and hantu senja (twilight spirits). We were well advised to keep out of their way.

It was not by chance that the greatest disaster that befell Malaysia, the Japanese Occupation, came in from the water’s edge, and at night. 

Next:  Excerpt #31: The Japanese Occupation


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