for Eric Mottram
"Nur wenn das Herz erschlossen,
Dann ist die Erde schön."
An important thing in living
Is to know when to go;
He who does not know this
Has not far to go,
Though death may come and go
When you do not know.
Come, give me your hand,
Together shoulder and cheek to shoulder
We'll go, sour kana in cheeks
And in the mornings cherry sticks
To gum: the infectious chilli smiles
Over touch-me-not thorns, crushing snails
From banana leaves, past
Clawing outstretched arms of the bougainvillea
To stone the salt-bite mangoes.
Tread carefully through this durian kampong
For the ripe season has pricked many a sole.
la la la tham'-pong
Let's go running intermittent
To the spitting, clucking rubber fruit
And bamboo lashes through the silent graves,
Fresh sod, red mounds, knee stuck, incensing joss sticks
All night long burning, exhuming, expelling the spirit.
Let's scour, hiding behind the lowing boughs of the hibiscus
Skirting the school-green parapet thorny fields.
Let us now squawk, piercing the sultry, humid blanket
In the shrill wakeful tarzan tones,
Paddle high on.the swings
Naked thighs, testicles dry.
Let us now vanish panting on the climbing slopes
Bare breasted, steaming rolling with perspiration,
Biting with lalang burn.
Let us now go and stand under the school
Water tap, thrashing water to and fro.
Then steal through the towkay's
Barbed compound to pluck the hairy
Eyeing rambutans, blood red, parang in hand,
And caoutchouc pungent with peeling.
Now scurrying through the estate glades
Crunching, kicking autumnal rubber leavings,
Kneading, rolling milky latex balls,
Now standing to water by the corner garden post.
This is the land of the convectional rains
Which vie on the monsoon back scrubbing streets
This is the land at half-past four
The rainbow rubs the chilli face of the afternoon
And an evening-morning pervades the dripping, weeping
Rain tree, and gushing, tumbling, sewerless rain drains
Sub-cutaneously eddy sampan fed, muddy, fingerless rivers
Down with crocodile logs to the Malacca Sea.
This is the land of stately dipterocarp, casuarina
And coco-palms reeding north easterly over ancient rites
Of turtle bound breeding sands.
This is the land of the chignoned swaying bottoms
Of sarong-kebaya, sari and cheongsam.
The residual perch of promises
That threw the meek in within
The legs of the over-eager fledgelings.
The land since the Carnatic conquerors
Shovelling at the bottom of the offering mountains
The bounceable verdure brought to its bowers
The three adventurers.
A land frozen in a thousand
Climatic, communal ages
Wags its primordial bushy tail to the Himalayas
Within a three cornered monsoon sea -
In reincarnate churches
And cracker carousels.
The stranglehold of boasting strutting pedigrees
And infidel hordes of marauding thieves,
Where pullulant ideals
Long rocketed in other climes
Ride flat-foot on flat tyres.
Let us go then, hurrying by
Second show nights and jogget parks
Listening to the distant whinings of wayangs
Down the sidewalk frying stalls on Campbell Road
Cheong-Kee mee and queh teow plates
Sateh, rojak and kachang puteh
(rediffusion vigil plates)
Let us then dash to the Madras stalls
To the five cent lye chee slakes.
la la la step stepping
Each in his own inordinate step
Shuffling the terang bulan.
Blindly buzzes the bee
Weep, rain tree, weep
The grass untrampled with laughter
In the noonday sobering shade.
Go Cheena-becha Kling-qui Sakai
Has it not occurred to you how I sat with you
dear sister, counting the chicking back of the
evening train by the window sill and then
got up to wind my way down the snake infested rail
to shoo shoo the cows home to brood
while you gee geaed the chicks to coop
and did we not then plan of a farm
a green milking farm to warm the palm
then turned to scratch the itch over in our minds
lay down on the floors, mat aside
our thoughts to cushion heads
whilst dug tapioca roots heaped the dream
and we lay scrapping the kernel-less
fiber shelled coconuts
O Bhama, my goatless daughter kid
how I nursed you with the callow calves
those mutual moments forced in these common lives
and then, that day when they sold you
the blistering shirtless sun never flinching
an eye, defiant I stood caressing your creamy coat
and all you could say was a hopeless baaa..a..aa
and then, then, that day as we came over the mountains
two kids you led to the thorny brush, business bent
the eye-balling bharata natyam
O masters of my fading August dream
For should you take this life from me
Know you any better
Than when children we have joyously romped
Down and deep in the August river
Washing on the mountain tin.
Now on the growing granite's precipitous face
In our vigilant wassail
Remember the children downstream playing
Where your own little voices are speechless lingering
Let it not be simply said that a river flows
to flourish a land
More than that he who is high at the source
For a river putrid in the cradle is worse
than the plunging flooding rain.
And the eclectic monsoons may have come
Have gathered and may have gone
While the senses still within torrid membranes
Glossary of Vernacular Terms
Notes to « Who dares to take this life from me, knows no better »
I – line: 9 – sour kana: dried, salted seed of local fruit, taken as a ‘sweet’.
10 – cherry sticks: finely chopped end of the thin branch of the cherry tree, used as tooth-brush.
12 – touch-me-not-thorns: commonly growing thorn brush, hugging the ground, with leaves highly sensitive to the touch.
14 – bougainvillea: flowering tropical plant with large bright-coloured bracts covered with thorns.
15. – mangoes: fleshy fruit with big seed, yellowish-red skin colour, eaten either ripe or green with salt.
16. – durian: towering East-Indian tree bearing a large heavily-spiked oval fruit containing pulp notable for its fetid smell.
16. – kampong: native Malay village.
II – line:
1. – la la la tham’-pong: form of ceremonious uttering employed by children when choosing sides to a game.
5. – joss sticks: Chinese incense sticks, of fragrant tinder mixed with clay, plentiful at a funeral.
7. – hibiscus: shrub cultivated as hedge or fence at schools, etc., and flower of a blood- red hue, the Malayan national flower.
15. – lalang: (imperata cyclindrica) aggressive weed flourishes by means of its underground runners, a sword-like posture, pricks the skin, found almost everywhere in Malaya.
18. – towkay: Chinese form of address for proprietor or landed gentry in Malaya.
20. – rambutan: amongst the finest fruits of the East, is a widely cultivated Malayan fruit, with varieties dark red in appearance and covered with hair-like growths– like a Gorgon-head.
20. – parang: heavy Malay sheath-knife.
24.- latex: sticky milky fluid of rubber plant.
III – line:
7. – sampan: a small rowing-boat of Chinese origin, a common feature of Malayan rivers.
9. – dipterocarp: biggest and tallest tree of the Malayan jungle variety.
9. – casuarinas: quick-growing Australian and East-Indian tree found mostly on Malayan beaches, with jointed leafless branches resembling gigantic horse-tails.
13. – sarong-kebaya: Malay women’s two-piece national costume.
– sari: Indian women’s main garment of wear.
– cheongsam: Chinese one-piece dress with high slits up the sides of thighs.
IV – line:
2. – jogget: modern Malay dance of Latin variety.
3. – wayang: Malay word for show; here referring to Chinese opera.
4. – Campbell Road: popular street in Kuala Lumpur, famous for Chinese food stalls,
open deep into the night.
5. – Cheong-Kee: name of famous Chinese caterer.
– mee, queh teow: varieties of Chinese-Malayan fried noodle dishes.
6. – sateh, rojak: two popular highly spiced Malay varieties of food.
– kachang puteh: Malay for fried ground nuts.
7. – rediffusion: radio station offering ceaseless music in all the vernacular for the better part of the day and night in the capital Kuala Lumpur.
8. – Madras stall: Chinese food and drink stalls in the capital’s Chinatown.
9. – lye chee: popular Chinese cool sobering drink, served with the flesh of the fruit of the same name and its juice.
12. – terang bulan: popular lilting Malay melody, now the theme of the national anthem of the newly-formed independent Federation of Malaya.
15. rain tree: (enterolobium saman, mimosacene) whose Malay name is ‘Hujan-hujan’, though not a native tree is now widely grown along streets and in gardens, characteristic tree of Malaya today.
18. – Cheena-becha – derogative reference to the Chinese.
– K’ling-qui: derogative reference to the Indians.
– Sakai: derogative reference to the Malays.
V – line:
12. – tapioca: (cassava) quick-growing plant with edible tuberous roots. Staple diet of Malayans during the Second World War.
15. – Bhama: name of one of the spouses of Krishna, the Hindu God; here refers to an orphaned kid I raised as a pet in my childhood.
VI – line:
1. – August dream: Independence granted to the Federation of Malaya on 30th August 1957.
20. – thap-pong, etc.: rhythmic sound of the Malay indigenous drum in slow tempo, spaced out deliberately, and to which beat the Malays perform their national dance, the Ronggeng.
© T. Wignesan 1948 – 1961 Kuala Lumpur-Singapore
T. Wignesan – Paris, 1957 (from Tracks of a Tramp. Kuala Lumpur-Singapore: Rayirath Publications, 1961.)