Friday, June 24, 2005

Makcik Kantin

She was the best possible language teacher. She loved to gossip and wasn't going to let a small thing like not having much language in common stand in her way.

My Malay was just about good enough for buying things in the market and ordering food at the stalls (thanks to Edward S. King's book which I'd dilligently worked my way through)

but really didn't take me any further than that. I spoke in a stilted textbookish way, sounding every bit the awkward mat salleh.

Until Makcik Kantin took me in hand.

If I had no classes at the end of the morning, I'd slip down to the canteen to sit with her while she shaped the doughnuts for the boys' end of school snack.

Makcik was an expert in the matters of the heart. I found myself telling her in my very limited vocabulary about the comings and goings of various boyfriends in my life and about what I wanted from love. About how I wanted to marry. About the kids I wanted to have. When I was stuck for how to say something, she'd patiently fill in the gaps for me while I noted down the new phrases and slid them into my own response.

And of course, in the process, I picked up something of the back-of-the-throat- gutterality of the Perak dialect.

Makcik knew the secrets happy marriage. I must cari orang yang baik hati. She had definitely found hers. She and her husband were still very much in love after many years of marriage and bringing up three children. Her sons helped to run the canteen and were grinning in the background as she told me this.

Most of all though, Makcik loved to talk about ghosts, and I was simply amazed at the variety and ingenuity of Malay ghosts. And I listened with rapt attention as Makcik introduced me to pontianaks, langsuyars and toyols, and the djinns (a better class of spirit for royalty) who lived in the Sultan's palace. She saw the ghosts as fellow kampong dwellers, part of the natural order of things, and seemed to be on speaking terms with many of them. Why, only the previous night she had seen a hantu kumkum stitting on a neighbour's roof.

The only stories about British ghosts I could offer in return seemed remarkably feeble in comparison.

Sometimes I often brought along Berita Harian and we'd go through some of the stories together. There was always an amusing tale of the would-you believe-it kind on the front page of the newspaper (or "suratkaboor" as Makcik called it.

How we howled with laughter when we read about the poor bridegroom sitting in state on the wedding dais when along came a tebuan and stung him on his kemaluan.

With stories like this who could resist learning Malay?


Kak Teh said...

sharon, funny and wonderful story - but that's the best way to learn lah!!
I said funny because of Edward S. King..there's a passage: Ali, bawa kereta keluar. Mam hendak pergi kedai!!
I thought it's high time he updates it.

bibliobibuli said...

Yes, I'm sure the book does need updating. But I think it's one of the best teacch-yourself-a-languange-books ever written and it certainly got me off the ground.

adriene said...

what lovely memories :)