Tuan Tata: Song of Uda - I

by T. Wignesan

Some dogs bark to warn men
of dangers that await them ;
Others look on in wonder
at those struck by thunder.

Anjang now says my Semai blood stains
the tall Temiar strains
out of the ruwai
wherefrom my stricken gunig strays

Akob now roves in search of the stiffest bamboo pole
high on fuzzy blue mountain tops
the eight-foot blowpipe
the buloh seworr of Gunung Swettenham
four times the length of Akob’s right arm
the rightful arm.

You cannot imagine
No, you cannot know

How my gunig prodded me on :

’Once to the right – step back
Take a turn and bend your back
Cup your hands : thus to the mouth
And Watch ! No spirit slips your breath !

Tohat na med : saka senoi selamat !

If only you had come to take notes
And weave our dance to applause at the Musée de l’Homme
Or sat high on a consecrated Cambridge Chair

I, Uda, would have no cause to despair
over the shameful hush
closing in on our saka

For who will know how decrepit
I’ve become in Busu’s eyes
I, the only rising halak of the tribe !

Listening to you sniggering – awake nights
on the creaking longhouse bamboo floor
No coughing tiger kept me up so !

Did not Busu knock your firing-arm
down with his stout rokap stave
Nor Anjang eye me as a knave :
‘You Shaman, shame, sham-Shaman !’

And if you think I didn’t see
When my breath caught up with me
The tense vein-wracked hands
clutch your poisoned skull
And the blurred frenzy of a jealous dart
burst from your bleeding eye
into your pallid palms

In that instant, the straps of the
White
Man’s
Burden
snapped
and let itself go on my head

And had I not heard too
in that stand-still instant
The growling groaning thunder
in the bowels of our ladang
And the shameful hush
cloak over our stricken saka

During those long dreamless nights
at Anjang’s side
my flanks quivering
while Busu tossed brooding
Would you not wonder then
Why I took the rear of the hunting trail from then on

Tohat na med : saka senoi selamat !

No more the gunig rose in my sleep
To show me my ritual steps in the chinchem

Even the familiar tigers avoided our saka
Where a lowly fever stealing from Sankal’s Armpit
Up the hedges of constricting bamboo clutches
Bent them till they drooped in the mud of our lies
for Little Tata’s ears

And again, not till the halak Bintang
Fear convulsing his accessory guilt
had your remains interred
and owned you as one of us

did we dare whisper again
and then only to ourselves

shrinking you again within our ruwai
though always fearing, always cringeing at the thought
of the day
when his brothers would come in numbers
bearing fire-spitting engines
over the sodden earth
in search of you

« My people… my PEOPLE…
Will avenge this dastardly deed…
This foul and bloody deed ! »

I have not slept these past years
And Anjang heaves murmuring in a strange tongue
I cannot understand

« But then, do not forget you murdered too
for someone else’s cause
down from 5th Corps at Lasah !»

« Remember what you wrote your parents :

‘Now if I become a Temiar
by marriage
there would be no barriers.

I would be party then to their most intimate secrets.

TOHAT NA MED: SAKA SENOI SELAMAT !’ »

NOTES

Patrick Noone, a British anthropologist, discovered the Ple-Temiar tribe living isolated in the jungle highlands in the State of Perak on the west coast of the Malayan peninsula in the early nineteen-thirties. The tribe was so cut away from civilization that the notion of crime did not exist in their society. The shaman leader of the tribe welcomed « Pat » and gave him his sixteen-year old daughter Anjang in mariage. She was betrothed to Uda, a young Temiar. Unable to bear the separation, Uda murdered Pat - the very first crime in their history. This poem – one of the cantos – celebrates this event.

Glossary of Ple-Temiar terms

ruwai : group protective soul of the Temiar community.

gunig : the guiding soul of the Temiar shaman which often takes the shape of a tiger.

buloh seworr : (Malay) the best of the blow-pipe bamboo to be found on the slopes of the high mountains in Ulu Perak.

Tohat na med : saka senoi selamat ! : Our Master is well : the Senoi country is safe !

saka : each Temiar community’s agricultural domain.

halak : shaman

rokap : a tree whose branches are especially tough.

ladang : the land on which shifting cultivation is practised.

chinchem : the Temiar shaman’s dance learnt in a dream from his gunig (cf.).

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About T. Wignesan

Biography
If I might be allowed to say so, I think my "first" love was poetry. Unfortunately for me, the British curricula at school did not put me in touch with the Metaphysical Poets, nor with the post-Georgian school. Almost all the school texts after World War II contained invariably Victorian narrative poems and some popular examples of Romantic poetry. I chanced upon a selection of T. S. Eliot's and Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and a little later on Pope's An Essay on Man and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. That did the trick. Yet, I regret not having taken to prose in earnest earlier than the publication of my first collection: Tracks of a Tramp (1961). There's nothing like trying your hand at all kinds of prose exercises to come to grips with poetry. Or rather to see how poetry makes for the essence of speech/Speech and makes you realise how it can communicate what prose cannot easily convey. I have managed to put together several collections of poems, but never actually sought to find homes for them in magazines, periodicals or anthologies. Apart from the one published book, some of my sporadic efforts may be sampled at http://www.stateless.freehosting.net/menupage.htm