THE CURSE OF KUALA KEDAH
(original tittle SUMPAH KUALA KEDAH, Murka Lautan, itbm 2016)
translated by the writer.
Ayub carefully lifted the tray of shrimps that he had put to dry in the sun since morning. He had collected the shrimps from the river behind his house. Shrimps was plentiful especially with the ebbing tide. He brought back the shrimps and soak them in a basin of water to remove mud and sand. A few minutes later he changed the water, churned and shook the basin to remove more mud. He repeated the process several times to make sure there are no more mud and dirt. The clean shrimp were filtered to drain the water and put to dry on a tray. On sunny days the shrimps only take two or three days to be nicely dried and ready for consumption. Dried shrimps will be wrapped in a clean white cloth with one end carefully tied up. The bundle was beaten onto a coconut trunk nearby to remove the skin of the shrimps. The skin will be separated further by use of a sieve or tampi. The shrimps will then be ready to be packaged for sale.
Every morning his cousin Hassan would come to take the shrimps to sell at Pekan Rabu. Hassan came home in the evening to hand over some coins collected from the sale. Usually they will be a few pieces of five cents coins and a few pieces of one cent copper-coloured coin bearing the image of King George V of England. The money was enough to spend on the family. His mother spend money very carefully. Every day mother will make it a point to put a one cent coin into a round tin, well-kept above the closet. When Ayub was admitted to the Sultan Abdul Hamid College, mother opened the tin and brought out enough money to buy his school uniforms, books and other needs.
But since last year they no longer use the copper-coloured coins. Those coins no longer have any value in the country. Ayub was sad everytime he recalled how his mother cried because the coins that she saved have become useless. Now they had to use the Japanese paper money bearing the picture of banana tree.
Ayub knew that If he go a little far down the river he would have caught more, but his mother and father disapproved. They would be angry at him "Do not be too brave. You need do all the work. Take care of yourself. Are you not scared of being caught by the Japanese?". That's what he will hear from his father every time he disappeared from home. Ayub just kept silent, he did not answer back not wanting to argue with his parents. He had been taught that it is a great sin to be rude especially to one’s mother. But sometimes he tried to explain to her."The Japanese are no longer in Kedah mother. Now Japan has handed Kedah to Siam. It’s the Siamese who govern us today.”
Ayub too did not dare to go freely here and there. But he had to find some money to survive. Look as if that was the only work the he could do. He had been doing this since he was unable to go to school anymore. Indeed, he was sad and angry with what had happened. Ayub had just started studying at Maktab Sultan Abdul Hamid. The joy of schooling had been cruelly destroyed when the Japanese invaded his country. The Japanese caused havoc and committed atrocities everywhere. Everyone lived in fear.
In the middle of 1943 Siamese guards and police ware seen patrolling the town of Alor Setar. They heard that Japan had surrendered Kedah to Siam supposedly out of gratitude to the government of Siam for allowing them to walk through to invade Malaya. Ayub felt bitter and sick over this He often grumbled "Who do you think you are. This is too much. How can you turn my state into a gift item. Are we mere slaves who must obey with no right to say anything?”. But he dared not speak out. He swallowed the bitter words. They were stuck in his throat causing more pain in his heart. To Ayub, both Japanese and Siamese were outsiders who had no right to do as they please in his inherited land.
After storing the dried shrimp into a container, Ayub sat down to watch his sisters Lijah and Kamariah and playing in front of the house near the staircase. His pregnant mother was washing tapioca by their well.
For the time being the situation was quite safe. Although the Japanese military police called Kempeitai still exist in Kedah, they did not behave violently as before towards the civilians. People say the Japanese were less ruthless because they respected the Siamese soldiers sent to watch over the state.
With this condition, the villagers could go on with their live although with much struggles and poverty. Lijah and Kamariah could play near the stairs. They collected coconut shells to be used as their pots and plates. They collected leaves imagining they were fishes. They dredged out sand and imagine it was rice. They did what they saw their mother do in the kitchen. They repeated what their mother said with the neighbours. They talked about difficulty of getting rice, about the children with high fever, about neighbouring kids with scabies and sore all over the body.
Suddenly, Ayub heard someone calling. He looked up towards the road and saw a group of men carrying something and walking hurriedly toward their home. When Ayub could see clearer his heart pounded faster for what they were carrying was his grandfather. He shouted to his mother who was washing tapioca by the well. His mother, , ran towards the men carrying her father. 'Dad, dad, dad, why? Minah almost cried.
Lijah and Kamariah instantly threw away the coconut shells and the leaves. "What's wrong with Tok Wan. Is Tok Wan dead?” They both broke into tears.
Ayub’s grand father, Darus was lifted and placed on the platform in front of the stairs. Grand children felt a bit relieved when Darus waved his hand and coughed. Darus made some signs and asked to be laid by his side. He moaned that his back hurt terribly. Minah lifted Darus shirt revealing bruises on his back. Everyone shook their heads .
More neighbours came to the house when they noticed the commotion. The concerned neighbours ask what had happened to Darus "Ah the wicked Siamese police ...." said Ahmad one of the men who brought Darus home . He was still holding Darus head, and breathing fast out of sheer anger.
"Why? What's wrong? More questions asked
"The Siamese police kicked him and he fell on his face to the ground. They kicked him several time and we thought he was dead” explained Dolah with angry voice. They happened to be on the scene.
Uda Leman ran to scoop water from the well with a bucket. He poured water onto his palms and dabbed on Darus face. Minah rushed to the kitchen and returned with a glass of water for Darus to drink. Darus tried to sip and his cough subsided a bit. Saidin reached for medicated oil bottle placed near the front door of the house and started massaging Darus’s chest.
Someone helped to massage Darus’s shoulder to relieve his pain.Two or three neighbours were massaging his arms and legs.
The neighbours were really sad with what happened. Everyone knew how fierce and harsh the Siamese police and soldiers were as they patrol the streets of Alor Setar.
"Well, Pak Darus was cycling in front of the police station. At that time they were raising the Siames flag and the national anthem was being played. As usual everyone is expected to stand upright. Darus did not stop. So this is the terrible things that happened to him. He was stopped and beatened by the bastard police.
Minah was almost in tears when she ask her father "Why didnt you stop? You know very well that we have to stop and stand straight to show our respect everytime they raise the flag. We hate to do such thing but we have no choice because they can shoot us to death. “
Darus rubbed his chest and finally he could utter a few words "How could I stop when I could not hear the anthem being played. As you know, my ears are not good anymore” Darus broke into a long uncontrollable cough that tore through his chest and alarmed everyone present.
When the coughing subsided ,Minah spoke while still massaging Darus’s chest, "Poor Dad. He cannot hear properly nowadays. He can hear a bit if we talk near him but if we go a bit far he cannot make up anything. "
"That is why we are worried and did not like father to cycle to town. It is very dangerous when he hardly hear the cars. "
Minah knew that his father was cycling to Tengku Sulaiman’s house. The Tengku was their regular customer. He always bought their shrimp. “Actually we did not allow father to go anywhere alone. He is old and not feeling well. But my father is a stubborn man. He said he need to go out and sweat a bit. If he stay at home he will feel weaker. Oh how can the police treat my father like this. He is so old and weak” Minah spoke almost in tears.
Darus was carried into the house and placed on his bed. He moaned and groaned in pain. He hardly swallow his food and became weaker. He never recovered from the atrocities of the Siamese. Three days later Darus breathed his last. Minah came back from the burial ground and immediately had labour pain. She gave birth to a premature baby. Coincidently that day was Ayub’s birthday. His new brother was named Hamid.
Since the incidence of his grandfather being kicked by Siamese police, Ayub did not talk much. He was often silent and pensive. He spent time looking outside the window. A stretch of swampy land extended to the row of hills. He became more sad and remorse when the sun set and the hills disappeared in darkness. The anger was seething in his chest. His head felt like a smoky heat. He was frustrated that foreigners can come to their country and do whatever they like. They treated the natives very badly. They were cruel to elderly people who were weak and helpless like his grandfather Darus.
Kuala Kedah 2003
It was a tranquil evening in Kuala Kedah when Datuk Ayub walked into a restaurant with his brother Hamid and Hamid’s sons Kamal and Hisham. People who recognized Ayub stood up in respect. Ayub returned their smiles and greeting even though he did not recognize most of them. Hamid walked beside him feeling proud of his brother’s position. Kamal and Hisham too were equally proud to be walking with their uncle, a man with important position and quiet well known in the country.
They sat at a table with a nice table runner and a small vase of flowers. "Today is uncle and father’s birthday." said Hisham and Kamal. "Oh so you plan this as a surprise?" said Hamid and Ayub almost simultaneously.
Datuk Ayub turned seventy four years old today. He felt grateful to Allah that he could still stand and walk on His earth, though his doctor had made it compulsory for him to be present at the hospital once a month for monitoring. Hamid was fourteen years younger, but he was thinner and with more health problems. Hamid was shorter and smaller than Ayub. People had made remarks about this but he took it in good face. He even joked, "It’s because I was born during the Japanese occupation. My mother only had tapioca to eat when she was pregnant with me, so she did not have much milk”
Datuk Ayub certainly remember that today was his birthday and the birthday of his brother Hamid. Every time he faced this date he would be much disturbed. He remembered very well his grandfather moaning in pain after being kicked by the Siamese guards in front of Alor Setar police station in 1943. He had repeatedly related the incidents to his son and nephews. He repeated the story again and again whenever he was invited to give a lecture or talk at Historical seminar and forums.
After retiring from public service, Ayub spent more time heading the Kedah Historical Society. It was also a way of overcoming his loneliness after his only son decided to live in a foreign country, while his wife was occupied with her activities as the President of National Women's Association. He came back to Kedah regularly to participate in the society’s activities. When in Kedah, he rarely stay in hotels. He preferred to stay with Hamid in a comfortable house built at the site of their original family house. There he felt very close to the past. Hamid was his only surviving brother. Lijah and Kamariah died of beriberi which attacked many children at the time of war and malnutrition.
Ayub was not a History student in the University but he was deeply interested in history particularly the history of Kedah. He read many books and subscribed to Historical journals. In his view, Kedah occupied a unique place in history being the oldest empire in the Peninsular. Since the 13th century Kedah had been a sovereign state with a famous city port in Sungai Bujang. His state history had been written in glorious ink. But the colour of gold began to fade when Siam emerge as a great power. Siam, now known as Thailand adopted an imperialistic policy expanding its colonies and succeeded in forcing the northern states of Malaya including Kedah to send bunga emas or gold flower as a tribute. In 1791 Siam conquered the Malay Sultanate of Patani comprising the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat and renamed it Pattani Changwat.
In the mid 18th century, British and French fleets roamed the native water of Southeast Asia with their policy of expansion. In 1786 the Sultan of Kedah was forced to hand over the island of Penang to the East India Company, headed by Captain Francis Light. Ayub could imagine the pain in the heart of a Sultan having to forgo a part of his land and sovereignty to a foreign power. But the Sultan had no choice because he was in sheer need of protection from the Siamese attack. Not enough with that, the East India Company coveted the strip of territory opposite Penang Island. The Company acquired the land and renamed it Province Wellesley. There was some payment and compensation but it was still a lost of honour.
Penang changed hands, but when Siam attacked Kedah in 1821, the English did not help. Britain had reneged on a small country that cannot fight back. Kedah came under the clutches of Siam.
Not that they did not fight back. The land had recorded names of brave warriors. There were Tunku Kudin who headed a fight to restore the dignity of the country in 1831 and Tunku Mohammad Saad who sacrificed his life in an attempt to repel the attackers. Tunku Mohammad Saad succeeded in chasing away the Siamese as far as Singora or Songkhla. Unfortunately the success did not last long. Siam counter-attacked with more violence. How painful it was when the British sided Siam as they realize that friendship with Siam will be more profitable.
With the support of Britain, Siam was not afraid to do anything. Part of what had happened could be read in the account of Sherard Osborn a naval officer in one of British warships sent to blockade and to suppress upheaval in Kedah. On his arrival Osborn saw and recorded the deeds of unimaginable atrocities and utmost cruelty of Siames soldiers on the poor people of Kedah. Sherard Osborn recorded the the bloody accounts in his book The Blockade of Kedah in 1838 . He described the various methods of torture. One method was cooking people alive. Prisoners were stripped naked and put into a hollow of tree trunks. Then a slow steady fire was maintained round it. excruciating shrieks and howls of pain of the victims was an entertainment to the devilish soldiers.
The tale of Osborn coupled with the memory of his beloved grandfather groaning in pain after being kicked by a Siamese policeman drove to Ayub’s head like fire and smoke. But there was nothing that he could do except thank God that everything was over. He was grateful that his children and grandchildren were spared the horror and panic of living during wartime.
When the war ended, Ayub was able to continue schooling. He gained admission to the University of Malaya then situated in Singapore. He took a train with a transit at Bukit Mertajam. The journey from Alor Setar to Singapore took at least two days.
"Were you studying with Dr. Mahathir uncle? " His nephew Kamal asked
Ayub graduated and served as a government officer. Hamid became a contractor and did some business. Hamid’s footsteps was followed by his son Hisham while another son Kamal lived quite comfortably as a bank officer. The place where they were having dinner that night was one of Hisham’s Seafood restaurants.
Ayub incessantly advised his children, nephews and the younger generation to take the opportunity provided by the government. Ayub often said to Kamal and Hisham, "You are both lucky being born when the country is no longer under invasion and suppression. You can go to school and do business freely. Your father and I had suffered a lot”
"But now we face other forms of difficulties especially in doing business. Not like those who live on a fixed salary like Kamal” Said Hisham
"The most complicated problem for contractors is managing employees. We are very dependent on labour force. Sometimes we have ample manpower failed to get any contract. Sometimes we manage to obtain a job but but did have not enough workers”
Hamid, who had been listening their conversation attentively chipped in, "The main problem of businessmen everywhere in this country is keeping reliable workforce. We have to depend on foreign workers when our own youths prefer to be unemployed rather than do a laborous job. Last year our cousin, Salma, pleaded me to give a job to his son, Mokhtar. Well I thought why not . I was more than happy to give money to my own relative. But see what happen, Mokhtar only work for less than three months. He said I make him do all sort of things and make up untrue stories against me. Salma believed his words and did not speak to me. We are not on good term anymore "
"I know that Mokhtar. I used to see him playing truant. I found him wandering in supermarkets during school times. He had no pity for his mother who work hard to get him money for schooling. He spent money at the game stations”. Kamal added.
They eat their dinner while talking and observing the surrounding. From the table they could clearly see the road, the estuary and the pier jutting out into the open sea. Unfortunately the beautiful evening view by the seaside was disrupted by irritating sound of screeching tires of motocycles being driven fast on the road. It was a common sight of street racing by the youths, mostly local. Hisham who understood what was lingering in his uncle’s mind said. “ Look at them, what a show off, causing public disturbance. They are not afraid to die. The government widen and improved roads but the youths misuse it to race for cheap thrills. Even the police fail to control. Yesterday Uncle Halim, our former chef came here crying because his son met with an accident. His son go racing all the time despite his mother’s plea and persuasions to stop. The accident was bad and his leg has to be amputated. Now he is causing more hardship and misery to his parents”
Ayub took a deep breath and sigh. He heard such news many times before. He felt very old and tired of hearing such news of youngsters wasting their live away, getting killed in road accidents due to ruthless driving and racing. Many more die or leading a useless live as drug addicts. Besides these there were also news of unmarried mothers abandoning their babies in garbage bins and everywhere. So many Malay schoolboys were wasting their time at game stations in the shopping complexes. With this situation, what is going to happen to his race and his mother land? Is his race heading for a defeat while other races are improving themselves and strengthening their position even sharpening their weapons.
Ayub eyes fixed on the fort of Kuala Kedah across the river. The fort was still standing like a lonely monument, overlooking the estuary where blood had splashed and thousands of his predecessors tortured and killed. There was a scar that cannot be erased. But how many people passing by it had stop to recall the history and read the massage? Ayub recalled the words of George Santayana "People who do not learn from history will be cursed by history to repeat their mistakes." The words are often quoted by Dr.Mahahtir in his speeches.
The straits was calm and the wave was low. The estuary was beautiful. There was no more alien enemies to be seen terrorizing his people like what Sherard Osborn had written in his book. Unfortunately his people are inflicting injuries and hardship on themselves.
Before returning home Datuk Ayub took pictures of the fort of Kuala Kedah with his hand phone camera. That night Datuk Ayub typed and send a new entry into his blog. He uploaded the image of the fort Kuala Kedah and wrote a poem underneath,
The Fort of Kuala Kedah
Still stand strong
But I wont be here for long
But I wont be here for long
Before I go I leave this message to remind
What history have left behind
Now that we are free of foreign enemies
Let us not inflict our own injury
Let us not inflict our own injury
Oh you my grand children
See what history has written
At the fort of Kuala Kedah, read it
or you will be cursed to repeat.