It was Tuk Heja, the chatty midwife, who received me on the morning of my birth. Though I cried violently, no floorboards cracked. The verandah didn't crumble. Everything was normal. As I poked my head out, Tuk Heja received me with a bismillah and quickly cut through the slightly twisted umbilical cord with a piece of sharpened bamboo. She wiped away the blood and mucus, wrapped me in a white cloth the length of two outstretched arms, and turned me over to Father, who had been anxiously awaiting my arrival.
While Father prayed, Tuk Heja washed Mother. The next morning, Tuk Heja asked Father to bury the placenta behind the house, near our paddy field. Everyone in the house was peaceful except Father, who looked worried as he paced about, smoking nipah-leaf cigarettes that were filled with Javanese tobacco. He scrapped his plans to go to the forest and trap cuckoo doves, because Mother wasn't feeling well; she had been in labor, feeling my kicks in her belly, since Thursday. Since Father couldn't run off to the forest to catch doves, he hung his bird trap from the edge of our house's roof. Inside was Father's little cuckoo, a live decoy named Jebat, whose call attracted other doves. Father left Jebat there to enjoy the fresh air, and every so often he'd snap his fingers, to encourage the bird to respond with his kuku, kuku.
The morning of my birth, Father blew a buffalo horn and the sound echoed across the whole village, letting all the inhabitants know about its most recent arrival: me. Soon enough everyone crowded around: Pak Lang, Mak Lang, Pak Da, Mak Da, Pak Ngah, Mak Ngah, Pak Cik, Mak Cik, Pak Long, Mak Long, Pak Ndak, Mak Ndak, Pak Enjang, Mak Enjang, and Pak Su and Mak Su. They all came to see the latest addition to the village. I was the guest of honor, a newborn boy. That Friday morning, the visitors filled our house with noise and chatter as they ate kapai biscuits and drank black coffee.
Kak Esah, my stepsister, was busy cooking, because it's not proper if guests come and they aren't offered rice with dry herring and genuak pickles. Mother had Kak Esah with her previous husband, who died in Patani in southern Thailand; a Siamese man killed him, though I'm not sure why. Maybe it was over a stolen buffalo, because back then, Mother said, there were many livestock raids across the Kedah-Thai border.
After Mother became a young widow, she married Father, who is from Paya Pasir in northern Sumatra. Later, Mother gave birth to Abang Noh, my elder brother, and then, on that Friday morning, to me. I don't remember much about Abang Noh from that time, and Mother never told me any stories about what my birth was like for him. He was just a kid then, and hadn't even learned to read. This is how it was on the morning of my birth, when Tuk Heja received me, Father blessed me with a prayer, and Mak Lang and Pak Lang (and all the other mothers) gathered round and pinched my cheeks.
Our house was small: six cylindrical stilts holding up the rumah ibu, the main building, and two more stilts for the verandah. The stairs leading up to the front door were just two logs of wood with steps in between them. A hollowed-out coconut shell, the rim a little cracked, sat at the head of the stairs, so that anyone coming up could wash their feet. In front of our house flowed the Ceper River. Back then the water was clear, and filled with fish. Father built a dock with big logs of merbau wood. I'm not sure how he transported those logs to our house—maybe he floated them along the river during a flood. The logs are still around, even though the dock is no longer there; the river's been swallowed up by waste, plastic, and all kinds of pollutants I can't bear to list. Anyway, that was our home. When the windows were open, I could see the bamboo spread out along the edge of the river.
Behind our house, there was a vast paddy, and like everyone else, we made our living growing rice. Our part of the field didn't amount to much. A plot made up of about five squares' worth of planted paddy, though those were pretty big squares. Three squares were baruh or low fields, which are the muddy parts of the paddy field that are always wet, and easy to dig up, whether by hand or hoe, or by crisscrossing it with a water buffalo–drawn plow. Near our house were two squares of darat or raised fields, where the earth is always hard, especially during the dry season. There we had to use a plow to break up the soil.
The part of the paddy we worked didn't actually belong to Father. It belonged to Mother; she inherited the land. Her grandparents were Malays of Siamese birth just like Pataeng Sagalas and his wife Sippit. They lived in the village of Mata Rusa, in Patani, southern Thailand. Mother's father was a brilliant warrior. The Siamese feared him because of his skill with weapons, especially the candung, a type of long knife, and the keris, the Malay dagger. Eventually, the Siamese chased Grandfather away.
Mother's family moved farther and farther south, until at last they crossed the border between Thailand and Malaysia. Then they moved from village to village, eking out a living as best they could, until they finally reached Banggul Derdap, the village in the Malaysian state of Kedah where I was born. Back then Banggul Derdap was a wild place where tigers roamed. Its merbau and meranti trees reached the sky, but in the end the forest was cleared, prepared for construction, and turned into a village. So Mother said.
Father was born poor, he says so himself. He is from Paya Pasir, which is in Deli, a state in Sumatra, Indonesia. After trying to launch a rebellion against the Dutch occupiers, he had to flee. He stole a small boat in Belawan, a port city on the Deli River, and sailed across the Malacca Straits until he reached a small fishing village near Remis Beach, in the state of Perak. There he hid in the forest for two weeks until he found a temporary home with an elderly woman whose son had died. To support himself he gathered wood from the forest and sold it cheaply. That was what he told Mother, and that was what Mother told me. I never heard the story directly from Father; I was afraid to even look into his eyes.
Illustration by Amir Shahlan AmiruddinAfter being accused of impropriety with a widow who had three children, Father fled from Remis Beach to Kedah. There, he lived in the town of Sungai Petani and worked as a land surveyor. Father traveled all over the state of Kedah as part of his job, going to Teloi Tua, and Batu Lima, and then to Banggul Derdap, where he met Mother, who was already a widow. It was a comical meeting, Mother said. When she met Father, Mother was picking chestnuts. She had picked a whole basketful when suddenly she saw three uniformed men surveying the land. She was so startled that she ran away, leaving her basket of chestnuts behind.
Father and his friends laughed, but that evening, he brought the basket of chestnuts to Mother's house. He looked into her eyes. To cut a long story short: he wooed her, Mother welcomed his attentions, and they got married. They'd both been married before they found each other. Mother had two children with her previous husband: one died, and the other was Kak Esah; it was rumored that Father had two children in Deli, though to this day I don't know who they are. After he married my mother, Father stopped working as a surveyor. Thanks to the intervention of the old folks in the village, he got a new job as a mailman, and then I was born.
That's a bit of detail about the origins of Mother and Father, and their Siamese and Indonesian ancestry. These family stories are part of my own history now. I grew up in a village that could boast of nothing more than peace, quiet, and friendly neighbors. Father's love didn't just extend to Mother and his children, but also to his cuckoo doves. Truly, sometimes I felt as though Father's love for his birds exceeded everything else. The moment he finished his work delivering letters, he would set up his bird trap outside. Jebat would be in in his cage with a net in front of it, and Father would snap his fingers, over and over, to encourage Jebat to respond with his kuku call.
I still remember one Friday morning, when Father released Jebat in the front yard, so he could sun himself. Jebat lifted his wings and fluffed his tail, enjoying the morning rays. I saw a cat—I have no idea where it came from—hiding behind a pestle, waiting to snatch the bird. Father didn't see the cat because he was busy watching Jebat, a decoy who truly earned his name. Father snapped his fingers, but the bird made no sound—instead he kept jerking his neck as if he were frightened. Father kept snapping his fingers, but Jebat remained silent and continued jerking his neck, and finally he began making a loud noise.
All of a sudden Father spotted the cat hiding behind the pestle. Shouting, he grabbed a stick and went after the cat. It ran off, but Father kept running, not realizing his sarong had fallen down. Mother, who was sitting on the verandah and searching for lice in her hair, shouted loudly and closed her eyes when she saw that Father was naked. Father didn't notice his nakedness at first, but then he quickly turned around and went looking for his fallen sarong. When at last he spotted it, he glanced up and down and side to side. Luckily, neither Mak Lang nor Mak Ngah nor any of the other mothers were about at the time. If they had been, Ah! What a noise they would have made in Banggul Derdap!
There are many stories involving Father and his beloved doves. Let me save them for now, to be reintroduced at the proper moment.
I've no idea why my name is Shahnon. This name existed neither in my village, nor in the state of Kedah, nor indeed in all of Peninsular Malaysia, I think. Father never told me the story of my name, and neither did Mother. The name is so strange that as a child, I was teased because of it. Most of the villagers in Banggul Derdap were named after prophets, or the friends of prophets. Names are blessings, people said. So why my name is Shahnon, I don't know. Permit me to mourn my ill luck. Even now I feel as if I'm the only one with such a name.
Once I tried to find out the secret behind the name. I tried to mix and match Father's name and Mother's, or Father's name with the names of his Sumatran clan, to see if I could come up with "Shahnon." Father was named Ahmad Hasanuddin and he was Saragih, a Batak people. Which means I'm also Batak, as I'm half of Father. Though I'm not the kind of Batak who would eat anything he encounters. Oh No! But I'm Batak all right.
I've searched among my extended Saragih clan for the name "Shahnon" or names similar to it, but there aren't any other "Shahnons." Mother was called Siti Kalthum, a beautiful name, but in our village, where people spoke with accents that were half Patani and half Kelantanese, her name became "Keghesong." A portmanteau of Keghesong and Ahmad Hasanuddin wouldn't create the name Shahnon.
But never mind my distress over my name. What's a name, anyway! The stranger and more unusual, the easier it is for people to remember. And my name is easy to say, and difficult to forget. Only in my village it was pronounced differently, as might be expected given our accents: Sanong. Our villagers couldn't stop at the "n" when a word ended with "n," so instead of "hujan" [rain] they'd say "hujang," and when they pronounced the name "Osman" they'd say "Osmang," and they'd turn "makan" [eat] into "makang." But what does it matter. The meaning is understood. And that's enough to get by, I think.
Returning to my childhood memories in this village: there are so many I've forgotten. Only when I'm sitting down alone, and trying to unearth long-forgotten events . . . only then do they return to me, even though I know there are many more which have disappeared altogether from my memory. My strongest memories of this time are the ones involving infectious diseases.
I was often ill, and the infection I can't ever forget is the one that gave me boils. The boils grew and grew, most often around my bottom, or on my thighs near my knees. When the boils burst and the pus came out, others would grow elsewhere, until my bottom was covered in them. Every single one took almost ten days to ripen and burst. The pain when they did so was incredible. Sometimes two or three cropped up at the same time. Sometimes in places you wouldn't expect: in my nostrils, in my ears, on my balls, on my kneecaps, on my forehead, and even in my armpits. It was impossible to guess where they would show up. Mother and Father had no other work than to squeeze my ripened boils. They'd squeeze them until all the pus oozed out, and then they would dig around them until the core spurted out. People said once the core is squeezed out there wouldn't be any more swelling. Falsehoods and lies! Many times the core was removed and the boil grew back, like fungus during the rainy season.
Grown-ups said the boils grew because we played in the dirt, amongst well-hidden germs, in dirty water, in mud, in stagnant water. But where in our village could we play that wasn't dirty? The muddy paddy fields became our playground. Dirt was in the river, in the watery bays, in the paddy field—it was everywhere. Especially since we were always naked. Whether crossing the river or in the paddy field, we were always naked.
That's how it was. I wasn't the only one to be plagued by boils. All the other kids were as well. Lose one boil, gain one boil, and sometimes three or four at once, until we were so accustomed to the pain that we no longer felt it. If the boil was ripe and we squeezed it ourselves, it didn't hurt any more. If it burst and left a big hole behind, we'd stick our pinkie fingers in and dig out the core. Pus and blood we just wiped away, and we didn't get sick of doing it, we were used to it. It was just how things were, and we faced it.
Once my bottom grew two at once. And they grew to the left and right of my anus. At first it wasn't too painful, but then they grew and grew and I couldn't walk, I couldn't fart, I couldn't even have a shit. For a long time I had to sleep lying on my stomach with my bottom raised by a pillow, to air it out a little. My friends came to the house to visit me, but I couldn't bear to move the sarong I wore so that they could take a peek at my infection. I only allowed Mother and Father and sometimes Abang Noh to look at it. For almost two weeks I would lie down on the floor and crawl around the house like an insect, until at last the two boils ripened and burst. Father squeezed them and they were so swollen the liquid from them filled about half a dry coconut shell.
It's hard to forget how my body became a playground for boils. Still, whenever I remember this experience, I think about the benefits, too. Because of my history I was never afraid of pus, or mucus, or blood, or the core of a boil, or anything people might consider disgusting. I wasn't disturbed by any of it; in fact I even grew to like it when I saw mucus and blood oozing from my body. I don't know if such experiences truly are beneficial, but that was how I felt. I don't see it as some kind of horrible jinx when I see people bleed or give out mucus—quite the opposite, in fact. When a woman is giving birth and the blood drips through the planks of the floor, onto the earth below, I don't mind going to get the umbilical cord. When somebody slaughters a cow or a buffalo or a deer, I like sitting close to where the animal's neck has been slit. I actually like seeing blood now; I like feeling it coagulate in my hand.
Now that I've grown up, and gotten married, and have had many experiences in life, I realize that the issue of being comfortable around blood and mucus is important. When my wife gave birth I sat next to her, ready to receive the baby all covered in blood, and in fact I liked it.
And here's another story I remember clearly. Pak Ngah Lahuma once suffered a cut from the thorn of a nibung palm while clearing his paddy field. His belly swelled up—it was one of the worst cases our village had ever seen—and the swelling was so bad that pus spurted from the hair follicles on his stomach. Pus and blood began to ooze from his anus, his nose, his ears, and his mouth. When he was about to die I stood by his side, wiping away his secretions. There was no cloth—I used my hands. Other people sat far away; they couldn't bear the smell, and they couldn't bear to see Pak Ngah that way. Pak Ngah died because of this illness. His body was wrapped in white cloth—almost ten layers of it because the blood and pus wouldn't stop flowing. The smell was unbelievable, you felt it in your nose and your mouth and many people lost their appetite for several days. Alhamdulillah! I wasn't disturbed. I could still eat. I had learned to like the smell of blood and pus.
I'm very sorry to have spoken at such length about boils and blood and pus. Maybe it's boring, but for me these experiences left an imprint that can't easily be forgotten. What's more, I've actually grown to miss such fluids. I'm always on the lookout for them, you could say. And people and animals that bleed and suffer are plentiful in this world, because there are those who enjoy the act of killing. Truly, we can never run away from the reality of life—from blood and from pus.