Monday, February 11, 2008

The Early Years - Part 2

Meaning no disrespect to her, there was this funny bespectacled Chinese lady teacher who was fond of asking us for waste paper every time she went out of the class. It was only much later that I knew why. There was no such thing as toilet paper in the school's toilet then, more so in a Malay school like SK Galing.

I did not remember much about the school's Standard one curriculum. There was an incident, however, that would always make me burst into laughter whenever my mother reminded me about it. It happened duringan an arithmetic lesson. The teacher asked us all to bring along counting aid like ice cream sticks and rubber seeds to school. Contrary to her request, I never brought any of that to school. The teacher asked me how then I would do my arithmetic exercises. I told her that I would use all my fingers.

"What if you have used up all your ten fingers?" she then teasingly asked me again.

"Then I will use all my toes".

"Then what?"

"Then I will use my stomach!"She laughed at my frank but honest answer.

Of course what I really meant then was the gray matter of my brain. I did not know anything about human anatomy at that age! It was true. I was blessed with avery good arithmetics prowess and memory power. She believed me, and I was among a few whom she excused from bringing those basic counting paraphernalia to school.

Coming back to my animal friends, nothing could come close to the story of 'Johnny', my pet common mynah and I. The story began one rainy night. It was raining furiously all through the night. Suddenly there was this sudden extra strong gust of wind and I heard some thing falling in front of the door. I opened the door and saw a heap of rubbish in front of the house. Then I heard it - the sound of birds chirping. It came from somewhere in the rubbish made by the fallen fronds and other debris from the coconut tree.

I rushed to the sounds and saw two helpless mynah chicks. They were still in their downs and smartly hiding under the coconut leaves. They were completely soaked.Their parents were nowhere to be seen. With them safely in my hands, I brought them inside, wrapped them in a
towel, and placed them in a cozy little box close to my bed.

That was the beginning of a relationship that taught me a lot about tender loving care towards other creatures. With a constant supply ofhigh-protein grasshoppers that my friends and I diligently chased after and caught from nearby vegetable gardens and fruit orchards, the two chicks grew amazingly fast. It was just wonderful to see thebaby-birds busily swallowing one grasshopper after another as I fed them. They most probably thought that I was their very own mother.

One day while I was busy preparing the grasshoppers, a neighbour's kinky-tailed tomcat walked into my room unnoticed and without warning, pounced onto one of the baby-birds and ran away with the chirping baby mynah in its mouth. I gave chase, but it was too late. The baby mynahwas already dead by the time I caught up with the cat. I buried it in a shallow but nicely decorated grave by the side of the mango tree.The other chick grew faster now that it had no competition for the food and my love.

In no time he began his maiden flight. The constant falls did not in any way deter him. With the passing days he perfected his flying skill and soon he fell no more. Not long after that he began flying with his wild friends. Johnny was never in the cage whenI was around. I spent most of my free afternoons playing with him.Wherever I went, he would always be close to me, either on my shoulder or flying with friends nearby. When he was happily playing with his friends, I just had to catch a grasshopper or pretend that I had caught one and called his name and then he would for sure come flying straight onto my shoulder.

I called him Johnny from my favourite Western hero Johnny Ringgo.One morning before going to school, like always, I peeked into Johnny's cage. Johnny was not there! I panicked and began lookingo.One morning before going to school, like always, I peeked into Johnny's cage. Johnny was not there! I panicked and began looking all over for him. Then I realized that Johnny was lost.

I began to cry, momentarily forgetting about school. I just could not bear the thoughtof living without Johnny around. Only the consoling words of my mother managed to pacify me. She said that Johnny was no more with us and it might be better for Johnny to be free among his many wild free-flyingfriends.

I missed my bus to school. My father had to carry me on hisbicycle to school that morning. After school, I continued my searchfor Johnny, on his favourite trees, in the playing fields, everywhere,but Johnny was still no where to be found. Then I realized that I had probably lost Johnny for good.A few days later I found Johnny. He was in someone else's cage! Despite my incessant pleas to have Johnny back, that boy refused.

I could not believe my ears when he boldly declared that Johnny was his! I just felt like running to him and grabbed hold of him and squeezed his throat for that. My mother also tried her best to get Johnny back, but he was far too stubborn to listen to reasons. Finally, it dawned on me that I could never get Johnny back from thatboy's family.

Johnny's memory lingered on for years and even till nowI would always narrate the story of Johnny and me to my children. Syazwan was never tired of hearing the story being told over and over again. He really admired me, a seven-year old boy successfully rearing a mynah, from a featherless chick to an adult bird, almost singlehandedly. He knew that most children of similar age or even older nowadays could not even look after an adult caged bird well, let alone an almost featherless baby bird!

Unlike now, much of Kuantan then was still under dense virgin jungle full of floras and faunas. Trapping mousedeer was another favouritepast time of mine. Together with uncle Mat Saman, my father's
under dense virgin jungle full of floras and faunas. Trapping mouse deer was another favourite past time of mine. Together with uncle Mat Saman, my father's close friend, we set traps for catching the animal. We used shoots of a particular plant asthe bait for the mousedeer. I had forgotten the local name of the plant, but its shoots were bright red and had a peculiar pungent smell that had never failed to attract any passing mousedeer. Even reports of frequent sightings of a three-legged tiger roaming that particular part of the jungle did not in any way dampen my spirit as a hunter.The sight of us bringing home a few heads of mousedeer for dinner was nothing new for my mother.

Once I caught a mousedeer doe with her young one and brought them back with the intention of keeping them as pets. It was a pity that I was not allowed to do so (it was the rule of the camp). Instead, sadly both of them ended up as mousedeer curry for our dinner that night. For your information, those days mousedeer was still not a protected animal. They were still abundant till the late sixties and early seventies when I lived in Kampong Bukit Kuang.Those days I could easily get a mousedeer from the village boys for just a ringgit!

Besides mousedeer, trapping bulbuls was another hobby, which uncle MatSaman and I never failed to pursue in our leisure time. We used a type of locally prepared glue to catch the birds. Basically the glue was made from a mixture of plant saps like the jackfruit tree. The glue was pasted onto long bamboo sticks. The sticks were then placed near water holes that were frequently visited by these birds to bathe. If we were lucky, we would catch plenty of birds that way.

After each successful hunting trip, I was given the responsibility of defeathering and degutting the slaughtered bulbuls. The reward afterwards was worth all the trouble of getting them cleaned. The deepfried birds' meat was both tasty and crunchy.

According to my mother, I was also quite a helpful son at home. I just
baking cakes, the traditional method, was one of my favourites. She used to tell my children how helpful I was to her back then. A few days before Hari Raya Aidilfitri I usually went around coconut plantations in Alor Akar searching and collecting coconut husks for my mother. She used the coconut husks to bake her famous baulu. The huskswere burned and placed on the covering lid of the baulu copper mouldthat she used to bake the cake in. She said that the baulu baked that way was far superior in texture and taste than those baked in modern ovens.During baulu preparation, I was assigned the job of beating the eggs. Normally about twenty duck eggs were beaten with sugar in a big porcelain pot using a manual spring-like eggbeater. There were no electrical gadgets like the present-day eggbeater for performing sucha task then. It was quite a tough job for a kid like me, but I enjoyed it very much especially when I saw that the beaten eggs had risenwell. After the beaten eggs had risen to the level approved by my mother, I passed the porcelain pot to her who then took over beating the mixture. She then scooped up the mixture into a small bowl and mixed it with flour. Then the eggs, sugar and flour mixture was then placed in the mould and baked.

Looking after the baked baulu then became my next duty. It normally involved looking after the burning coconut husk on the lid and making sure that the fire was under control and the baulu was not charred. The baulu came in various shapes like a fish, a cockle, a shrimp and so on. I loved the freshly baked baulu so much that I could easily finish a dozen baulu in one sitting.

Besides baking cakes, I was also extremely good at cleaning big fishlike red snappers, tunas, mackerels, etc. I had the special surgeon's ability to remove the guts and internal organs of fish without turning the fish flesh into fish paste. I wished you could see how well I debone fish by using a sharp parang. I was also good in cleaning chickens. Usually whenever there were chickens to be processed, I was given the task of defeathering, degutting and cutting the chickens into small pieces for my mother to cook. My mother was always amazed at the way I removed the chicken's liver intact, from the abdominal cavity, without rupturing the gall bladder or macerating the delicate organ.

To be continued...

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