Sunday 29 June 2008

The Debut of Dang Sarat in Liverpool

…on 21st June 2008, to be exact.

Some said she had a very good singing voice and that she was a fine perfomer. Some said she was just very good at what she was doing; delegating work, a mine of information and a shrewd leader of those under her wings. But most agree that she was not much to look at and in fact lived up to her name – the over laden maiden. And to make it worse, she suffered a kind of skin condition that made her look quite unsightly. Bidasari she certainly wasn’t.

However, the former employee of the Singapore ruler knew how to transform herself into a real beauty - if only in the eyes of those who mattered. And this she did by befriending those dark forces from the other world and summoning their help during the bleakest nights when she yearned for the warmth of his body next to hers. On nights like this the owlet would appear on his rooftop, as if calling out his name and to beckon him over and leave his unsuspecting wife in their comfortable boudoir.

Once the king fell victim to her black magic, he could see no wrong in anything she did. Not with her blotched skin, nor her demands for an oversized chastity belt.

That is Dang Sarat or Dayang Dang Sarat, although some had suggested she is Dang Sirat or Serat, depending on how you read the old Jawi text in the early 19th century manuscript. But it matters not as the lady in question, the femme fatale and monstrous feminine is the same one that not only destroyed the union of a loving couple but also that of two nations; Patani and Johor.

I was introduced to Dang Sarat, the eponymous character of this early 19th century syair in 2005. The manuscript, bought from John Crawfurd in 1824, has been in the safekeeping of the British Library and is still in pristine condition, in beautiful handwritten Jawi script by one or possibly more scribes from the days gone by. Trawling through the Syair was to say the least a most painstaking experience, especially for one who was not competent in the reading of Jawi scripts. But one had to learn the hard way, and throughout the journey on the number 7 to and from the uni, the character and the story of Dang Sarat unfolded before my eyes, but of course not without a lot of help from the likes of Wilkinson and Winstedt and my Sifu.

To say that I was consumed by Dang Sarat and the beauty that lies in between the finely composed verses, was an understatement. I ate, slept, talked and thought in syair . I was overwhelmed by what my professor described as Keindahan erti dan erti keindahan – the meaning of which came through vividly in many scenes; especially the one of the king wooing his new bride, the longing for the beauty he had never set his eyes on, the shy young princess battling with understandable insecurities and apprehension and more.

Last weekend, at a conference in Liverpool. I finally introduced Dang Sarat to my audience of mostly scholars from the world of Traditional Malay Literature who came from far and wide. The experience was not unlike delivering a baby long overdue and all this while had waited for this moment within the chapters of my dissertation. The post conference euphoria was akin to post natal bliss – what pain?

I leave you this little beauty:

“Setelah jauh malamlah hari - tirai pelaminan dilabuhkan beri
duduklah baginda raja pis[t]ari - teralu suka membujuk isteri
dipeluk dicium seraya berkata - ‘Tuanku nyawaku emas juwita
Tuanku jadi cahaya mahkota - sudah termeterai di dalam cita

Berbagailah bujuk raja bangsawan - dipeluk dicium di dalam pangkuan
Peracau pun tunduk malu-maluan - sedap manis barang kelakuan

ayam berkokok pungguk merindu - baginda kedua masuk beradu
di dalam tirai kelambu beledu - ditunggui kanda Dang Raya Dadu
Setelah selang sudahlah hari - bangunlah baginda dua laki isteri
keluar dari peraduan memimpin jari - keduanya manis tiada berperi.

Alas, it has a very ugly ending. More later.

Monday 23 June 2008

Signs of Hard Times

I was on the 1518 from Liverpool to Euston when I got a call from my husband. He said he was walking back with 10kg of rice from our local grocer when he was stopped by the police. Oh no! I interjected. Then he proceeded to explain. Apparently there had been a fight down the road and police had sealed off the area. People were asked to turn back. A man was so angry with his girlfriend that he doused her with petrol and set her alight.

Thank God, I said, before I could bite my tongue. I thought the police had confiscated our rice!

I repeated the story to our son who met me at the station. He said: What a shame! What a waste of valuable petrol.

Yes, these are certainly signs that times are hard.