My children are somewhat bemused that I am speaking with a different kind of Malay over the last few weeks, if not months. They hear me on the phone speaking to someone and give each other looks, that say: Why on earth is she speaking like that?
And Nicholas Saputra has nothing to do with this!
About three months ago, I acquired two Indonesian friends and although it was through work that I found them, I believe they will remain my friends for a long time. And it was with great sadness that I said goodbye to one of them last week. But before she went Ewok and I put on our tourist guide caps and showed her London and took pictures to show to families back home.
Anyway, knowing them has increased my Indonesian vocabulary tremendously and I realised how easily we slipped in and out of the Malay way of speaking to that of Indonesian and then back again. In fact we do that quite naturally when we are speaking to a Chinese tauke sayur or mamak mee goreng. I prefer to look at it this way – that we adapt ourselves quite easily, don’t you think?
During my childhood days in Yan, I got to know a lot of Indonesians whose small settlement in Kampung Aceh I used to visit quite often, especially during the durian season. In my mind’s eyes, I see an enclave so green and cool, under the protective shelter of the Jerai. And I befriended the community whose language I became quite intrigue with as a child. My Acehnese classmate, once in her own territory, would speak a totally different lingo, one that I found very hard to understand. A trip to Kampung Aceh was to me then, like a trip to another foreign land. Much, much later, I came to understand better the reasons they were there. Even from as far back as the Acehnese Sultanate, there were already movements of people from across the straits but that gained momentum in the late 1800’s when conflict with the Dutch drove the Acehnese to migrate and settle in Kedah and other northern states of Malaya. When Aceh was incorporated into the nation state of Indonesia, more left .
I remember quite, quite well how these mild mannered people took to the streets of Yan during the Konfrantasi days. The sleepy town of Yan would echo with the cries of ganyang Sukarno, and fiery and powerful speeches would culminate with the burning of effigies of the leader. Indonesians, I must say, are natural born orators.
One corner of Yan, just by the smelly river leading up to an even smellier market, was the venue for some of the most vocal and influential Indonesian orators – medicine men- selling all kinds of ointments which promised to do wonders to parts of the body that we didn’t even know exist. There used to be large crowds surrounding the medicine man, crowds of men who would leave clutching the miracle in the bottle and hope in their minds.
Anyway, it was not surprising that some of these medicine men were also some of the fiercest orators leading the protest marches along the sleepy town of Yan, under the watchful eyes of Jerai.
These scenes came back to haunt me recently in the story of Gie, brilliantly acted by Nicholas Saputra. Gie, a student activist, an idealist and a romantist, grew up during these turbulent times, witnessing and later participating in street demonstrations against Sukarno. He wrote stirring articles and gave rousing speeches, the likes of which I heard giving fiery speeches at the square by the smelly river.
The Konfrantasi came to an end soon enough and like any sibling rivalries, Indonesia and Malaysia made up and we fell in love with Sofan Sufian, Ratno Timoer and Broery Marantika as their songs and movies flooded our market. The dulcet tones of Broery never failed to stir our deepest emotions – for he was a Batak, wasn’t he? If I am not mistaken, the Bataks do have mesmerising voice.
I was fortunate to work with some very good Indonesian broadcasters during my broadcasting days. Some of them were Bataks with wonderful deep baritone voice. It never ceased to impress me how they could handle even a minute talk without any prepared scripts. It took me years to be able to “talk to the clock” confidently when I ran out of news bulletins to read. But then again , that’s my failure.
Anyway, it was during my stint with the BBC that I met Broery who was then accompanying his wife, Anita Sarawak when she perfomed at the South Bank in the late eighties. I could have sworn that my knees turned into jellies when he opened his mouth to just say hello during the interview. It was also then that I was given the honour to interview the founder and editor of Pujangga Baru and one of Indonesia’s most respected literary figures – Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana, author of books like Layar Terkembang , Kalah dan Menang, to name a few. It was indeed a humbling experience to be able to talk to someone whose influence on literature and language still continues long after his death.
I did my bit of Indonesian broadcast, but my gentle Malay lenggang lengguk (sway) was such a contrast to the more stoccato sounds of the Indonesian diction.
So, the screening of several Indonesian films in the past week did a lot to bring back things Indonesian to me and thus this entry. I did a five day whirlwind duty tour of Indonesia in the late 80’s and I think I am ready for another visit.