Sunday, February 14, 2016

Salacious Pleasures of 'Pantuns'

LISTEN to this pantun:
Tanam padi di Bukit Jeram
Tanam keduduk atas batu
Macam mana hati tak geram
Menengok tetek menolak baju

And my translation:
Plant the padi with a thrust
Stroke the seedlings with dew
It drives you crazy with lust
To see the tits tilting the baju (blouse)

(Note: The first couplet is a very free rendering of the original.)

The puritan will no doubt dismiss this pantun as “obscene” and therefore unworthy of being part of the treasured heritage of the race. Unfortunately for our friend, the “offensive” pantun is included in Kumpulan Pantun Melayu (A Collection of Malay Pantuns), published by that august body, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. I think this pantun is marvellous. Its very simplicity and directness, directness to the point of possible “vulgarity,” heightens its erotic appeal; paradoxically, there is a kind of subtlety in its stark salaciousness. What’s more, its eroticism is, in my perhaps eccentric reading, not of the limiting kind. Properly read, with the mind alert to the semantic and cultural resonance of the key words, you’ll see more than the surface evocation. In the tetek menolak baju (literally tits pushing at the blouse), much more than a lovely pair of tetek (breast) is revealed. I’d even say a whole world is seen to revolve at the tip of each tetek, on the point of each puting (nipple), or better still, mata susu (the eye of the breast). And a whole world view is suggested by geram (feel excited for, passionate for). The foreshadowing word Jeram (here the name of a hill, but literally “cataracts” or “rapids”) heightens the sense of life as rapids, and thus reminds us that one simply must seize the moment as it flies. Geram! Carpe diem! To see the tetek menolak baju in this pantun is almost like seeing a Blakean “World in a grain of sand,/And a Heaven in a wild flower,/Hold(ing) Infinity in the palm of your hand,/ And Eternity in an hour …” Absurd “Sallehcious” hyperbole? Perhaps.

Malay Girl by Irma Stern
The central word of the pantun, hati (literally liver, but the English equivalent here would be heart), is also the key word in Malay folk physiology. The liver to the Malays is traditionally the seat of the passions. (This was also the case in ancient English belief; you can find it surviving in Shakespeare’s plays and poems.) The hati, the organ that conceals the secret of the Malay as a creature of feeling and passions, is vital to any attempt to understand the race. If you want to know what the hati is to Malay, soak yourself in the pantuns. Only the hati can feel geram the way a Malay feels it, only the hati can generate it. None of the English equivalents for geram can match the fierce ambivalence of the Malay word. Geram is ambivalent because there can be an element of ferocity, even violence in the desire. The rhyming of Jeram and geram in the above pantun not only heightens the sense of carpe diem (Latin for “seize the day”), but also strengthens the ambivalent ferocity of the desire. Menolak (pushing, rejecting), is also seductively ambiguous. You can see the tetek (what’s breast, busts, tits, even bosoms compared to the alliterative disyllabic tetek?) – you see the tetek, and the nipples pushing the kebaya (the baju simply has to be a kebaya), making the tight tighter, the stretched more stretched; and at the same time you have a flashing vision of the kebaya being violently stripped, pushed away, off the body – in other words, rejected. And the first couplet, the part of the pantun known as pembayang (foreshadowing), which in the best pantuns gives you through sound and imagery the foretaste of the meaning stated in the second couplet – well, this particular pembayang, this foreshadowing couplet truly, poetically and concretely enacts the foreplay of the anticipated coupling. What more can you want? The act itself? Well…

Talk of foreshadowing couplet enacting foreplay of the coupling in the concluding couplet, listen to this:

Di mana kuang bertelur
Di atas lata di celah batu
Di mana abang nak tidur
Di celah dada di alur susu

Where does the dove lay its eggs
In the rapids between the rocks
Where may I lay my head, my love
On the chest between the breasts.
(Translation)

(Note: kuang is actually pheasant; I’m sorry to have sacrifice it for reason of poetic necessity.)

There is one well-known saying: ikut hati mati; ikut rasa binasa (to give rein to one’s passion means death; to give rein to one’s feelings means destruction). Here too my manic mind can detect a hidden ambivalence. This saying is usually taken as a stern warning against listening to the dictates of the heart, of the liver. In a sense, and on the surface, yes; but if you listen to the hidden hati of the saying, to the surging of the ancient blood in the subterranean veins of its meaning, you’ll hear ancestral voices prophesying spiritual and metaphorical bodily death to the race if it keeps on denying its instincts for life, freedom and joy. Hang Jebat knew that; he heard the ancestral voices in his hati and did what he felt he had to do. His hati simply refused to mati (die), even at the expense of the body. Tepuk dada tanya selera (tap your chest and ask what your appetite is like.) That’s what Jebat would say, taking the saying in his characteristic individual way.

In my reading, which I imagine Jebat would endorse, the saying doesn’t necessarily mean “look before you leap,” as it is normally taken to mean. This common interpretation is, I believe, another instance of life-avoiding caution insidiously supplanting the original dare in the psyche of the race over the centuries of historical development. The insidiousness of this silent contagion of the spirit was such that the modern Malay can only hear the tone of caution in the saying. The other tone, its opposite, which is “hedonistic” (for this saying is actually ambiguous), is to me much stronger. I can imagine Jebat saying it with a ringing voice, his clenched fist beating against his burning breast. Note that dada, literally breast, can also be a synonym for hati, and selera, literally appetite, can also mean zest for life (selera in the hikayat is sometimes a poetical name for the body).

But then even the most defiant line can be emasculated. The emasculated is someone whose hati has become atrophied. The puritan is an example of a person whose hati has become atrophied; for in order to become a true liver, meaning open to the marvellous possibilities of life, your hati (liver, remember) has to be alive. Always looking before you leap can be dangerous for the spirit. Jebat knew that. And never listening to your hati when it’s sakit (sick), always ignoring the complaints of the liver, can be fatal for the liver. Jebat knew that too. Sakit hati (literally “sickness of the liver”) is always associated with the amok and the lover blighted in love. Remember that. And remember too that the amok is not always a mad zombie who runs amok without rhyme or reason. Don’t ignore your hati when it’s sakit. Don’t repress or betray the cries of your instincts, your body, your spirit. If you do that, you might run amok or, if there’s nothing left in the liver to fuel an amok, you’ll just die in life and become a liver without a living liver.

Only the living liver can feel the kind of passion expressed in this marvellous and powerful pantun:

Kerengga di dalam buluh
Serahi berisi air mawar
Datang hasrat di dalam tubuh
Tuan seorang jadi penawar.

Red ants crawling in bamboo shaft
Vessel brimming with rose water
When my body’s possessed by lust
Only you can be the appeaser.
                                                (Translation)

A race that can produce a pantun so passionately compact as this, coupling the crimson ferocity of sheer lust, embodied by the image of the red ants in the bamboo shaft, with the lovely tenderness of diaphanous desire, suggested by the fluid vowels, the assonance, as well as the imagery of serahi berisi air mawar (serahi, vessel, and berisi, filled) so sensuously, seductively flowing into the unspoken berahi, lust, desire – this race cannot be a stranger to sexual hedonism, however you define that word.

If it is true that hedonism was part of the essential nature of the race, what has happened to it? If in fact it is no longer a determining force in his being, it is still lurking in the subconscious, kept suppressed here by some bigger alien force? By way of suggesting possible answers, I’ll give you a parting pantun:

Ke Teluk sudah, ke Siam sudah
Ke Mekah saja aku yang belum
Berpeluk sudah, bercium sudah
Bernikah saja aku yang belum.

I’ve been to Thailand, to the Gulf too
Only to Mecca I haven’t been
Kissed them I have, and known them too
Without going through the wedding scene.
                                                (Translation)

 29 May 1991


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