by Susan Abraham
Just over a year ago, I purchased PADDYLANDS A Story of Malaya, written by Grace P. Garnier and illustrated by Nora Hamerton. I picked this title up from the Kinokuniya Bookstore at the Suria KLCC in Kuala Lumpur.
There stood the tall book, still fashioned after an endearing flavour. What with its fragile, tarnished jacket sheltering a green book laden attractive colour-pencil drawings…
Perhaps then, I viewed my magic, seen through an excitable group of enthusiastic children from a kampung, ferrying their school slates alongside towering plantations, a little like a faded bride that icily rejects the hand of mortality.
I paid RM790, about €185, for my original version. Of course, there are far more reasonably priced ones packaged as reprinted editions and generously displayed online.
Some months ago, I had purchased a rare book called Haji’s Book of Malayan Nursery Rhymes also from the same bookstore, that never seems to disappoint with its stock of magic finds. Now in my PADDYLANDS published by George G. Harrap and Company Ltd. in London; lay an affectionate inscription scribbled with a fountain pen and addressed to an English boy called David Porter. It was a present by Christopher and dated 1954.
It was obvious to me that Porter treasured his gift greatly as the storybook is so well-preserved. Were they friends, classmates, cousins, brothers or a father-and-son? I like to think that both Porter and Christopher may have been pleased by my purchase. Hopefully, wherever these gentlemen may be today since several decades have now long passed; may they be reassured of this treasured find having fallen into the right hands. No doubt, PADDYLANDS would follow me gallantly back to Ireland and seek its resting place on a library shelf.
I often feel drawn to such books from the memory of a Malaysian childhood. Still, this 56-pp book was published in 1947 a good while before I was born and with a second reprint conducted in 1952 in England.
Garnier’s childrens’ literature of olden *kampong life seems valuable. She writes with the kind of bliss, that one could only expect from a woman who must have happily regaled in noisy bands of children.
Through this work of juvenile literature, Garnier painstakingly weaves the simple tale of a Malay family. The plot is made up of a little hero in Hussain, his dad called Mat, his mother Habibah and his baby brother, Sap.
The close-knit family live in a nipah palm hut, that has been built on steady poles, above the padi fields. A stream runs past their doors and the family also command their own rowing boat and buffalo stock.
Some of Hussain’s more adventurous antics are reserved for the wide spaces in between the coconut trees, where all the children play and once, he even gets into a tussle with an angry money, greedy for a prized seasonal fruit in the *durian.
Garnier ensures that there is never a bored moment. She uses Hussain’s enthusiasm for mischief on all counts, so as to offer a detailed educational study on Malay kampong life. In fact, Garnier’s descriptions lend to that sense of a vibrant atmosphere. She pens her tales from an insider’s view. I suspect the author has spent much time in kampongs, talking to families.
For one, Garnier outlines Hussain’s many pastimes with happy familiarity. Now, these included kicking balls of plaited grass about and playing the wild-bull game. Here one boy would pretend to be a bull, while the others brushed past, teasing him but careful all the same, to steer well clear.
One very interesting game appeared to be that of the ‘fighting fish.’ The children kidnapped guppies and bottled them securely in glass jars. The fun happened when two glasses of jars would be deliberately placed next to each other. How the ticklish children roared with laughter as they watched the fish while intent on a fierce struggle, try miserably to pounce on each other through the thick glass.
Garnier also made serious fruitful attempts in her industrious show of storytelling in which to draw cultures together. She appeared to push for a philosophy that variation reigned and no one culture could be compared as being better or worse than the other. Here then, lay her universal hope for peace and understanding. Through her amusing whimsical tales, she held the graceful art of being careful never to patronize a reader.
For instance, the author was quick to add that Hussain’s cockleshell games with his mates, were very similar to another one of knucklestones often played by children in England. Knucklestones was of course, played by many of my Malaysian classmates as well.
Then there was Blind-Man’s Buff, she suggested although in Hussain’s case it was Blind Chinaman. Here I am gently reminded of the legendary Malay comedian and actor P. Ramlee’s(March 22, 1929 – May 28, 1973) famous film, Bujang Lapok Ali Baba – Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves – where a trembling Chinese tailor was led blindfolded to a strange house while uttering a fearful song. It turned out that the tailor was summoned to the grim task of having to stitch corpses back up together again. The mutilated victims had been killed after having been caught by Ali Baba, sneaking into his cave.
Garnier also painstakingly lists down all of the energetic Hussain’s chores. These included babysitting which appeared to be the responsibility of the older children. Other chores included working in the rice fields, cutting and drying grasses and bamboos and then later, weaving mats, bird-cages and baskets. One of Hussain’s memorable occupations was in following his father, Mat, to the market while riding the bullock-cart.
Hussain often tried to show off to one of his best friends, the perplexed little Minah, how clever he was. Now and then, he’d display an exaggerated show of bravery. Be prepared for the shivers, he’d warn Minah.
Hussain was of course, referring to the common sight of the scarecrow in the paddy field! Of course, Minah had her own set of errands to worry about. One of her duties was to wash, clean and polish an array of pots belonging to her mother, Fatimah. She mustered this attempt faithfully and with care, scrubbing them on the river-bank, until the pots shone.
Sometimes, the children liked to tease old Awang’s buffaloes. They persisted with their mischief until the angry man feebly chased them off.
Garnier also goes on to describe other lively and colourful scenes that include a market day, a gripping episode with robbers and an exciting show featuring an exhibition of buffalo fights. Here, she would recall with the same fervour, memories of an English football match.
I would definitely describe PADDYLANDS as an essential record marking an aspect of Malaya’s multi-layered cultural heritage. There are four colour plates… illustrations that feature groups of women heading for the shops, Hussain hurrying off to school, Habibah sitting enthusiastically on the doorstep awaiting the arrival of the men folk and a trip to market on the *sampan.
Various b/w line drawings by Hamerton also include little boys up a decorative tree-house, Minah’s mother, Fatimah bargaining at the market-place, old Awang carving out walking sticks and two ladies chatting in the middle of the paddy field.
*Durian. Derived from the bombax family in South-East Asia. It commands a tough, prickly rind that shells large oval fruits and what many locals consider, a deliciously flavoured pulpy flesh. Often enjoyed as feasts for the family table or at community gatherings while in high season. The fruit also claims an overpowering smell, that might be counted as terribly unpleasant or not at all. The popularity of the fruit thrives on an individual’s personal taste and the common result often being that one either embraces its sweetness without question or rejects it without hesitation.
*Sampan – Name of a small boat in the Far East, propelled by a single scull over the stern and prodded to movement by the use of oars.
*Kampong – A small village or rural hinterland in Malay-speaking territories.