24 Feb 2009

Folk Tales

The story of Putri Gunung Ledang is one story that most Malaysian kids know - either from their parents or grandparents. Tiara Jacquelina however has changed it so much - made it so different that it has become almost another story completely. I'll always remember this lovely story of the Princess who lived on top of a mountain and when proposed by a king for her hand in marriage, demanded that he presented her with 7 trays of the hearts of mosquitoes, a bridge made of gold connecting the palace to her mountain home and 7 bottles of the tears of maidens. The king managed to get all these except her last request, which was the blood of the 7 year old crown prince. Even this the crazy king almost gave her but she came to him in a dream and told him that she would never marry a man willing to kill his own son for a woman. It was just a test for him, she said.
Malaysia is actually quite rich in folk tales but not many of them are documented. Some have been passed on orally from grandmother to grandchild. My own grandma was never really a story teller but her younger sister, Nenek Nyah (grand aunt) was. I remember rainy nights when we kids would curl up under the blanket and pester her for stories. She would always obligh. One story I'll always remember is the one she called "Hantu paku". A 'hantu' when used on its own is actually a ghost. But a hantu paku in Malay is a proverb meaning someone who takes somebody's possession and then claims it as hers. What we would say - a thief! This is the story of "The False Princess" and this story can be found in many other cultures. One that I know of is The Goose Girl, a German folk tale. A story very similar to this one can be found in Japan and China as well as India. There are other stories - of fairies and monsters too. Nek Nyah was a great story teller. And like most story tellers she would modulate her voice to suit the story ,whispering sometimes and even sing. I can see us kids in her room... crowded around her, listening with rapt attention to the stories she would weave. Holidays with Nek Nyah were always wonderful. But she also made sure we did our chores - sweeping the garden, carrying away fallen twigs and branches and sometimes helping her bury the thrash in the compost pit. Nek Nyah was the typical grandmother. Although she wasn't technically my grandma - she was my grandma's sister - she treated all of us the same. It was she who taught me how to knit though I was never really good at it. She also taught us to be very economical when using the toothpaste - put the paste exactly halfway across your toothbrush she would say - not spread all over it. Then and only then - after chores are done, teeth brushed and all of us in our pyjamas ready for bed - would she start her stories. And all her stories would start with ,"Once in a land far away..."
Now at 50 plus with my own grandchild, I wonder - would I ever have the wisdom and the imagination of this wonderful lady? Would I be able to tell my own grandchild stories too? Stories she would always remember...

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