It was one very beautiful and sunny Friday morning sometimes in 1958, on a lonely dirt road leading to a stretch of white sandy beach. Though it was a bit blurred, I could still see a group of children chasing each other merrily towards the glistening white sandy beach. We were racing our hearts out trying to be the first one to reach the sea.
"Be careful son, you'll fall…"
True enough; before my mother even finished her cautioning words, I tumbled down, skinning my knees, elbows and palms along the way on the jagged surface of the road. The pain was excruciating, but I was just too proud to cry aloud in front of my girl cousins.
Instead, tears just trickled down my boyish cheeks. Blood started seeping out of the raw areas of my knees, palms and elbows. Soon blood was everywhere.
My grandmother, whom I called Tok Wan, instinctively reacted in the best way she knew to help. She quickly gathered spider webs from the overhanging branches of cashew nut trees and meticulously cleaned them of leftover insects' parts and other debris.
She then gently covered my wounds with the gauze-like spider webs and the bleeding, miraculously stopped. She taught me a lot about natural sciences, traditional medicine in particular.
Some were jealous of our close relationship. They said that she favoured me over her other grandchildren. I knew that I was her favourite grandson, but never for once took advantage of it. I tried my best to make her share her love with my other cousins.
She used to bring back a variety of presents from the wild for me, things like giant pitcher plants, weaverbird nests, strange creatures like the stick insect, giant millipedes and even baby birds. Even then she was well aware of my great love for natural sciences.
One evening, after coming back from visiting her sick neighbour, she told me about a pair of young Yellow-vented bulbuls sleeping on a twig of a small coffee tree by the side of the well. So, the following dusk the two of us tiptoed towards the coffee tree with a piece of batik cloth to catch the birds.
The birds got away just before we could completely cover the tree with the cloth. An old rusted Milo tin warned them of our sinister intention. I stepped on it as we were spreading the cloth to blanket the tree.
I waited for the birds to come back many dusks after that. But the birds, they were just a lot smarter that I gave them credit. They never again came back to spend the night on that coffee tree.
Being very close to nature, she knew a lot about herbal medicine.There was this one of her many concoctions that I remember well. Itwas made up of Cassia alata leaves, roots of a tuba and mata ayam plants, and sulphur.
Briefly, the leaves, the roots, and sulphur were grounded into a paste. The paste was then boiled over a slow fire inher self-prepared 100% pure coconut oil. Though the mixture smelled horrible, it was superb in healing scabies, especially those that defied modern medicine that I often had when I was young.
One thing about the skin disease that amazed me a lot then was her ability to actually see the parasites, Sarcoptes scabiei, with her naked eyes. Using the sharp end of a safety pin, she would masterly pick the parasites out of their burrows in the skin of my palm, making sure that the pustule was not ruptured and the oozing exudate did not sweep them away.
She then placed the tiny white dust-like particles ona piece of mirror. The little things then started crawling, thus dispelling any of my remaining doubts that she could actually see the mites with her naked eyes. I was always amazed at her excellent eyesight even at her age.
Besides her excellent eyesight, she was also blessed with very good health despite of her health. Once when she was in the hospital, she became the centre of attraction with the nurses, young and old. Attracted to her youthful skin, the nurses went all out trying to befriend her, probably coaxing her into divulging her secrets of maintaining her skin and general health.
She gladly told them all they needed to know. Her secrets - a balanced diet consisting of lots of fresh green vegetables and herbs like pegaga, young cashew nut and papaya shoots; a happy life and regular facial wetting with her daily ablution.
Her special every morning traditional exercise also helped her a lot in staying fresh, fit and supple despite of her advancing age. Once the two of us competed in a kind of telematch. We had to preparea patch of land for planting vegetables. Being young, I was overconfident in beating her. I started using the hoe fast and hard,trying to finish the job as soon as possible. She, on the other hand, kept her cool and went on cleaning her part of the land at her own pace, slow but steady.
Then, barely half an hour later, I began to feel the effects of my youthful over-zealousness. I began to tire. Blisters started forming at the base of my fingers. Then I threw inthe towel. I had lost the match.
She just smiled at me and continued her work until three short and properly made rows were completed and ready for planting.
She was like that, very friendly to her grandchildren and hardworking. Once Rohana, my younger sister asked her:"Tok Wan, when you were small, what games did you play in your sparetimes?" "Games? What games? The only games that I ever played were helping my mother with normal day-to-day household chores like collecting and chopping firewood and cooking". Her candid and honest answer made us all burst into laughter.
That was the earliest moment of my life that I could still remember. To go further down the history, I was born on the 22 July 1954, in a modest rented wooden house a stone's throw from the historic mosque inKampong Tuan.
My arrival into this beautiful world was as modest as well. There was no fancy baby shower or expensive maternity ward waiting for me. I had no qualms over this matter for I knew my father was only a police constable then, and of course at that point in time and place, there was no such thing as a private maternity hospital!
In fact it happened so soon that I was delivered right smack onto an old mengkuang mat that my mother was sitting on while she was busy processing nipah shoot for making nipah cigarette wrappers.
The late Mak Yam, the village midwife was ten minutes late. When she arrived, she found very little to do as everything was all over by then.
The all-wooden mosque was believed to be one of the oldest in the state. It was said that for some inexplicable reasons, unlike the other mosques in the state, the marauding Japanese soldiers did not touch it.
The afterbirth (my own sibling, so they believed those days) was properly cleansed, sprinkled with a few grains of salt, covered with a piece of white cloth and elaborately buried under the minaret of the mosque.
By doing so, they hoped that one day I would become a pious and righteous man! For others, it was more elaborately done. A few even went to thecextent of placing day-to-day paraphernalia like a comb and a mirror ifthe child was a girl, and a pencil and a book in the case of a boy.
Why did they did that? They wanted their daughters to be beautiful and good looking, and their sons hardworking and excellent in academics. Whenever the child cried continuously at night, some people would build a fire on the ground where the placenta was buried. They believed that the warmth of the fire would sooth and make the child.
According to my mother, during my early childhood days, I was an abnormally quiet little boy. I did not utter a word, even babyish words like those of other little ones of similar age. Only my big bright dark brown eyes and meaningful facial expressions did all thenecessary communications between the two of us.
Many people thenthought that I was a mute. Many would come near me; stroke my head and said, "It is a pity that a handsome boy like you being a mute." However, my mother never for once thought so. To her, there was this special thing with my eyes and facial expressions that told her otherwise, and I was not a dumb boy that many preferred to believe.
Many years later her friends told me that she would always defend me in front of her relatives and friends whenever they said that I was a mute. Instead, she insisted that I would grow up as an intelligent boy whom she could be proud of later in life.
Like they said, a mother'swords were in reality prayers in front of God. She was right after all. As soon as my younger sister, Rohani, was born, there I was, saying my first word - mama. Her prayers had been answered. I was nota mute after all.
It was a picnic organized by my aunts as a farewell party for us. The beach was in Geliga, not far from the present day Kuala Kemaman, a famous place for many fish delicacies.
My father was soon to be transferred to Kuantan. Despite that little mishap, the picnic turned out to be a joyous occasion for us all. The mouth-watering cookies and finger-licking fried chickens made me forget the pains of the tumble.
By the way, the chickens were real village chickens. They were not some crossbred chickens made to believe as village chickens like those reared by a few of the present day unscrupulous poultry farmers, and of course they were free from antibiotics and other chemical residues. Also, it was not too frequent that we had chickens those days.
Back then parents would rather sell their village chickens for other daily essentials than having them for their own family's routine day-to-day meals. Ah Chong was one such village chicken buyer. He went around villages on his old bicycle equipped with a big rattan basket on his bicycle's carrier. He told me that chickens with bright yellowlegs would fetch a much better price that the black legged ones. He also told me that chickens fed with generous amount of corn would have more intense yellow coloured legs.
Parents would only slaughter their chickens when some relatives came a-calling or their own family members returned home from school hostels during school holidays, and also during special occasions like weddings and pre-circumcision ceremony!
I was often very jealous to see more fortunate boys enjoying their chickens in front of me, and hated them for not inviting me to have abite. My mouth turned to water in no time, just by looking at the juicy fried chickens. Not knowing that I was destined to become a Veterinarian, I often told Tok Wan that when I grew up, I would have chickens every day!
Sadly, she was no more with me to see that I had successfully fulfilled my childhood vow. For now, not only that I have chickens everyday, but also, the feathery creatures are the main species I am working with.
She passed away a few days before I received my appointment letter as a Veterinary Officer. I missed her a lot. Shewas a grandmother that I thought all boys and girls would wish they could have for their own.
What saddened me most was that I missed thecchance of trying to pay back for all her kindness that she had givencme. Knowing that she loved travelling so much, it had always been my dream to invite her into my first car and bring her to all the places that she had never been. I knew she had lived a full life.
She had always followed us and be with us, be it in Pahang, Negeri Sembilan or Perak. For those of you who must be wondering why there was so much fuss overour short distance transfer, allow me to explain the situation.
Those days, Kuantan was considered far by many of us in Kemaman. It took an old creaking Thong Aik bus from Chukai town hours to reach Kuantan. The rough and winding road, the ferries and the always-packed non-air-conditioned and headrest-less bus made the journey far from enjoyable, even for an adventurous boy like me.
Besides, back then ordinary people did not normally travel over that distance unless itwas really necessary. Also, nobody that I knew owned a car back then. In Kuantan, my father was attached to the Police Field Force Camp in Alor Akar.
I could not recall much about my life in Kuantan except that it was there that I experienced a few firsts in my childhood years. It was in Kuantan that I first went to school and started getting acquainted with animals.
The school was Sekolah KebangsaanGaling. Now all the old wooden school buildings have been demolished and the all-common monotonous Public Works Department's school buildings have replaced them.
Believe it or not, I had the experienceof using slate board for the first few weeks of school! I had to use the bulbous stems of wild orchids (they grew on the stem of coconut trees) to clean the board during weekends and my free times.
My best friend was one Sheikh Raziff, whom I later shared the same boarding school in Tanjong Malim, and my favourite teacher was the late Tuan Haji Tajuddin, a strict no-nonsense teacher. 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 during an arithmetic lesson. The teacher asked us all to bring along objects like ice cream sticks and rubber seeds to school to help us in arithmetics. 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 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 a very 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 thestory 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 quickly brought them inside, dried them with 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 the baby-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 mynah was 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 when I 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 hisfriends, I just had to catch a grasshopper or pretended 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 intoJohnny's cage. Johnny was not there! I panicked and began looking everywhere for him. I also called his name many times but he never responded.
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-flying friends.
I missed my bus to school. My father had to carry me on his bicycle to school that morning. After school, I continued my search for 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 neck 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 that boy's family. Johnny's memory lingered on for years and even till now I would always narrate the story of Johnny and me to my children.
Syazwan was never tired of hearing the story being told over and overagain. He really admired me, a seven-year old boy successfully rearing a mynah, from a featherless chick to an adult bird, almost single handedly. 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 junglefull of floras and faunas. Trapping mousedeer was another favouritepast time of mine. Together with uncle Mat Saman, my father's colleague, we used to catch many mousedeer in the forest nearby the camp.
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 to the trap. Even reports of frequent sightings of a three-legged tiger roaming that particular part of the jungle did not in any way dampen my spiritas 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 aspets. It was a pity that I was not allowed to do so (it was the ruleof 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 Mat Saman 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 nearwater 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 loved helping my mother with her household chores like 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 coconutplantations in Alor Akar searching and collecting coconut husks for my mother. She used the coconut husks to bake her famous baulu. The husks were burned and placed on the covering lid of the baulu copper mouldt hat she used to bake the cake in.
She said that the baulu baked thatway 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 risen well.
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 fish like red snappers, tunas, mackerels, etc. I had the special surgeon'sability 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 a fish by using only 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...