The Bride by Austin Bukenya


thebrideby Susan Abraham

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This afternoon, I read an East African play, The Bride sketched to meticulous poetic detail and hoarded by serious social innuendoes, befitting an  era that spelt complexities for a nation’s sharp pursuit of a Woodstock freedom in the 60s and 70s.

It was a time, stresses Austin Bukenya (Mwalimu) in his introduction, that African plays were viewed an an entertaining form of  exotica for the West. He doesn’t say so in as many words – one is immediately aware of Bukenya’s carefully measured tact in all he writes – but I rather got the picture.

The Bride was first presented as a public performance by the Ngoma Players, under the direction of Nuwa Sentongo, at the Nile Hotel, Kampala in January 1973.

 The Uganda-born playwright, Austin Bukenya, a longtime novelist, poet, critic, accomplished stage actor and sportsman and  who has in the past also taught Literature and Languages at universities in Nairobi and Kenya, is fastidious about the creative performances of The Bride, should anyone decide to stage the play.

I first picked up this small book at an old Tanzanian bookshop  in Dar-es-Salaam, two years ago.

The Bride was originally based on a short story, Two Husbands One Night by L.M. Kimaro, vol.1 of Darlite, a literary journal published in Kenya in 1966. Bukenya would reclaim his own version  of a play sketched to 4 movements, as a ‘broad experiment in creativity’ and serving as a yardstick for an East African society, determined to find itself.

In the first movement, the story opens up to drums, music and a fervent dance by Lekindo and his merry band of friends. They  skip around for the moon and attempt to conduct an initiation ceremony. Lekindo who’s projected as sensible and clever, is in love with the virginal Namvua.  She is late and he is anxious. His tension reveberates through the scene. Namvua possesses a tidy role as principal dancer, in the initiation ceremony, under the big bright moon.

The tragedy here is that the young maiden is held in prejudice as a ‘foreigner.’ Her father  Merio, was one; a man who sprouting up from a different tribe and region, had longed for acceptance, but been appropriately shunned by the village folk.

Namvua found herself treated in equal terms as a pariah. She was not allowed circumcision  with the other girls.  Later, the rest of the  womenfolk would declare her to be not yet reborn into womanhood. They would turn toffee-nosed, considering themselves higher mortals. In fact, it is her long delay now, that causes a group of girls to spit insults  in the meantime and demand the spotlight as principal dancer. The girls, refer to Namvua as a she-goat or cow.

Lekindo and his loyal friends will have none of this.  Arguments break out between the young men and women. Through his defence of Namvua in poetic if not heroic speeches, Lekindo  stoutly holds his ground. When Namvua arrives, it is clear from her excuse, that she has had to sneak her way, through another route, dodging two elders – elderly men considered wise men & decision-makers –  chatting and blocking the foothpath.

 The girls continue to fight as Namvua dances. Later, the group disperses and there is a moment of tender conversation between Namvua and Lekindo, before he takes her home. The conversations highlight Namvua’s difficulties with regards to  social status in her rural African community and Lekindo’s struggle to command his village’s as yet, impalpable compassion.  This is not helped by Lekindo’s father, Shundu, who marches in angrily and thunders a lecture. Lekindo stays a true friend to Namvua, even at the risk of greatly angering his father.

 The second movement is terribly comical. This scene highlights a temple and a shrine of the idol, Wanga whom the local folk worship.  In Movement Two,  the priest, a  colourful character and longsuffering husband to his sly wife, Mkumbu, is busy buttering a rich villager, Lesijore. He offers blessings in the hope of receiving a fat donation.

Later Mkumbu turns up and Lemera plunges into what a reader suspects; a habitual groan of moaning for an heir.   The temple’s wealth has to be passed down. Mkumbu insists they already have a son.  The son turns out be an old skull  –  the relic of Mkumbu’s dead son – whom Mkumbu still calls Lettie and carries with her everywhere. She cares for the skull with the same tenacity and tenderness as any mother would employ for a living child.  She appears as a woman seemingly either cast by a spell or locked in terrible denial.  It is clear to the reader that Lemera holds no sentiment for the  old skull but is eager to pacify Mkumbu. The couple hatch a plan together.  Why not marry Namvua to the decaying object called Lettie, where  the old Lemera would then  conspire to sleep with her to get his heir.  The promise made to Namvua’s father, Merio is an effective one. The village would accept him and his family as one of theirs, thereafter. I found great humour in the dialogue, that despite tradition, ancestry or belief, a marriage would hold similar problems.

Movement Three highlights a thrilled Merio, so pleased with the proposal that his family is to be accepted at long last, by the village folk. He indulges in Lemera’s earlier gift of beer heartily and proceeeds to tell his wife, Tutu, a thing or two. Tutu is shocked beyond words that her daughter is to marry a skull  and laments the fact that she will have no happy extended family, with a bunch of grandchildren milling around her.

Much earlier, also in Movement Three, Lekindo had chanced  upon Namvua in the outdoors, while the latter was busy collecting firewood.  There ensured  a bit of a tease and banter.  Their gentle romance is affirmed, nary a bit of wistfulness on her part. However, Lekindo was bent with curiosity as to what sudden affliations, Namvua’s parents had conjured up with Lemera and Mkumbu. Why, he had witnessed just the day before, jolly scenes of the two couples, appearing in jovial episodes together, suggesting an astonishing goodwill and friendship. Namvua swears she knows nothing. Lekindo believes her but is determined to find out more.

The fourth Movement opens with Namvua waiting with apprehension, to marry her husband in the bridal chambers. There is the sound of drums that signal his impending arrival. Crowds start to gather. In conspiratorial whispers, Namvua’s aunt, Sikitu, opts to give Namvua, some lengthy maternal advice about marriage and encourages the nervous girl, to go ahead with the wedding. Namvua is already lonely and can’t believe that she would find herself surrounded by strangers, she’s not quite sure she’ll like. Sikutu laughs it off, remembering her own lusty moments on her first wedding night, where she screamed and wailed for her parents and fought, clawed and scratched everybody with furious intent, until she had to be tied to her bed, to await her husband.

Suddenly Lekindo dashes into the room with his friends and attempts to rescue Namvua. Namvua had no idea that she would in a matter of minutes be betrothed to a skull, awaiting its lively fate in a bowl. She had been given the vague impression of inheriting the wrinkly Lemera for her husband. In the event that Lekindo and his friends would soon confront the surprised audience, they agree to use not spears, sticks or force but words of peace and tolerance to achieve their means.

However, Lekindo cannot resist smashing the doomed ‘Lettie’ to the ground once and for all, and turning the skull to smithereens. The mournful Mkumbu starts wailing as she gathers the pieces together, and Lemera gives way at the end of it all, to allow Lekindo to marry Namvua instead.

Bukenya sketches The Bride with a deft hand, almost showcasing his play as a lengthy narrative poem. In this aspect, he has advised actors to recite conversation in its most ordinary manner, where if recited with poetic imaginings, the play may go a -wandering.  Imagery is spoken in everyday encounters as if it may have been pronounced as the most normal thing to do.

In the First Movement, to warn against waiting for Namvua, one of the jealous girls, Kajiru says to Lekindo, ‘The dance is cooling upon our breasts.’   When Tutu tries to advice Namvua about the birds and bees in the Third Movement, fearing her  bewildered daughter knows nothing, she later discovers to her horror that Namvua has learnt all she needs to know from her best friend, Lekindo.

Tutu mutters with disdain, “Oh, you gods and spirits that bore me, Come here, Namvua, let me look at your eyes and your breasts. Open your breast. Has this Lekindo? Has he…touched you? Tell me Namvua… I have never known a dog that protects meat between its teeth. Tell me and I will tell you all the secrets of the plains.”

And back to the First Movement, which I find most enchanting, Lekindo questions unease and anger, “Is this the age-group of fire, that is going to burn away the dead leaves of stupidity which have accumulated upon the plains since Wanga (deity) fired the sun in the sky…”

I was held riveted to the play. I forgot I was reading dialogue and with the right amount of dramatics amounting to tension, joy, music, excitement, nervousness, shock, fear and a wry humour encased in all the right parts, I could well have been watching a film and never once felt bored.

Further Reading: The Future for Young Writers is Online by Austin Bukenya.

Hawa the Bus Driver by Richard S. Mabala

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hawa1by Susan Abraham

A Dar es Salaam bookshop, one that is owned by local folk and not the expatriate community along noisy streets, may often be viewed as a gloomy scene. Dusty shelves, tall foreboding doors, dour staff and poor lighting for a deliberate storeroom effect may even create that tiresome Halloween mood when you least desire it.

Naturally, in the vein of such despondency, sunny book covers and comic tales often threaten to leap out at you with delightful contrast. Picture a Jack-in-the-box imagery or a trampoline jump in mid-air, if you like.

Here then is another little book I once stumbled on by accident in an ancient bookshop. Hawa the Bus Driver is one of a series of 3 ticklish tales written by the engaging Richard S. Mabala who also sketches out stories bearing unsettling social issues for young adults; one on an exploited servant-girl and another, a misunderstood farmer.

In Hawa, the Bus Ddriver, the author presents an animated childlike story with serious adult themes. Hawa is a forward-thinking Tanzanian woman who lives in a rural slum but works as a bus-driver. Here then is the  unthinkable in a male chauvanistic society. Her hard work combined with an unexpected physical strength and stern moral responsibility, slowly turns male snobbery into devotion and respect.  In solitary fashion, Hawa  battles drunkards and thieves on the night shift and thinks nothing of it.

She becomes fairly famous in the village for her tasty cakes sold with diligent duty each dawn. But often just before climbing up a bus and also for her bravery – she once saved a runaway bus from a crash – her husband turns terribly jealous.

Mabala through humorous dialogue, portrays the beleagured husband’s insecurities. Eventually, Hawa and her friends with careful cunning, help her wriggle out of this problem. Mabala deals with real-life issues in jest but does not hide danger in his plots. He clearly believes in happy-ever-after endings but only after tackling everyday problems that any reader could identify with. Through his comedy, he cleverly shrugs off idealism.

There is a touch of the quaint folklore with songs and poems… “Oh Hawa, Hawa the heroine, Don’t play with her, She has arms like baobab trees, she will squeeze you to death… Oh Hawa’s husband, Beware of your wife, Don’t play with her, She might eat you for breakfast… She might squeeze you to death…”

Richard S.Mabala, P.O. Box 15044, Arusha, Tanzania. ISBN: 9976-920-26-1

Part 1: The third allegory titled Hoorah from The Day I Became A Woman

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by Susan Abraham

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The Day I Became a Woman (dvd) may be purchased from and or several other online sellers.

Re-written as a fable in my own words and dedicated to the award-winning filmmaker, Marzieh Meshkini who originally produced The Day I Became A Woman for her graduation project except that it was to hit the box office by storm. The screenplay also contained important contributions by Meshkini’s husband, veteran filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf.


Once upon a time, there lived a very old Iranian woman called Hoorah.

Hoorah was so old that she was properly bent and ancient. She could have been a 100. She could have been 101. Or she could have been just 90 years old and not a day more.

The bent and very old Iranian woman whose name as Hoorah, was still sprightly. Her senses were still able. She heard and saw everything around her clearly. She spoke loudly and in authority as if she were she were in charge of everything.

For many years, Hoorah lived the hard and simple life of a poor lady. One day, good fortune struck. Hoorah inherited a windfall. The bent old lady made a quick plan to come to Kish to buy all the things that she had dreamed of sadly as a young girl. Being in the money also made Hoorah a little bossy. But she was cheerful when she could have been cantankerous. The idea of wealth put her in a good mood.

One bright and sunny day on Iran’s calendar, Hoorah flew in an aeroplane on a domestic flight to the sunny island of Kish. A kind air stewardess helped a bent Hoorah climb down the aeroplane. One, two, three and buckle my shoe. One two three and Hoorah would be free.

Outside the airport waited a little ebony-skinned boy who had been sunburnt by the island weather. He had short curly hair, thick dry lips and a happy face. He was very helpful. The little boy had many friends who looked just like him, all rallying around and ready to help.

As soon as they saw the aeroplane descend, how they all rushed into the airport with their trolleys as if their lives depended on them. The little boys were ready to earn their wages in hard cash. A few minutes later, a skinny little boy wheeled Hoorah in her stylish and capable wheelchair, out of the airport. Hoorah said to the hardy but skinny little boy that she wanted to go to the market to buy some things.

She suddenly remembered that she had forgotten to feed her rooster as she left home and became upset. Soon, her face would look merry again as she rows of different coloured ribbons that were tied tightly round her fingers. They looked like colourful bows. How she smiled and smiled.

The skinny little ebony-skinned boy wheeled Hoorah up to a big shopping mall. How the old, bent woman’s face lit up like a Christmas tree as she saw all the beautiful things outside the shop windows. She bought so very many things. Hoorah paid for ornaments and furniture, a wedding dress and make up.

How will you carry it all back to your home, asked the puzzled boy. I will manage, replied a pleased Hoorah.

She had bought everything that a young bride would need. The skinny little boy had wheeled her happily about the place. They had spun about, here and there and everywhere. However, Hoorah stayed perplexed that she couldn’t remember what the last ribbon was for. She would never again remember that forgotten item.

Soon, Hoorah tells her new friend of how a potential suitor had cheated her with the betrayal of marriage. She asks the little boy if she could adopt him now that she was rich. The skinny little boy answers with a big grin that he already has a mother. Oh dear!

Hoorah says again to the little boy if she could find a place to put up her feet as they aren’t what they used to be. The little boy and his band of merry friends who are all pushing trolleys of many, many big boxes march in solemn procession to the beach. What a gay picture they looked, marching to the beach in a long straight line, next to a busy highway.

There they go if you can see them. A bent, ancient Hoorah leading the parade in her stylish and capable armchair, the little ebony-skinned boy as the commander-in-charge and his friends trailing after him with the trolleys and very big boxes indeed. Soon, they all reach the beach and the little boys set up house for Hoorah.

There goes the fridge, here goes the ironing board, add on the cupboards, fix a mirror, hang the saucepans…. All that is missing are the walls and ceiling. Hoorah sits on her bright red settee and ask if the ebony-skinned boy would make her a cup of tea. She also warns the other boys not to mess with her make-up kit.

The skinny little boy who now fancies himself a butler, fetches a brand new transparent percolator rather importantly from the box and begins to make tea. He is happy to be Hoorah’s tiny butler. “Oh, look at that naked teapot, why did you buy me such a vulgar thing,” Hoorah suddenly starts to chide him.dvd2 This was the only teapot being sold in the whole of the big wide market, says the little boy sadly, He looks askance. “I feel great shame to use that teapot,” nags a severe looking Hoorah. “Let us go back to the market and and buy a new teapot somewhere else.” “Okay,” shouts the little boy gladly and off they go.

Soon the skinny little boys’ friends all rejoice because “the old lady has gone.” They make up their minds to have a little party. One boy opens the fridge and in the way that it has been mysteriously filled to the brim with coke, juices, milk, vegetable and fruit, starts to raid it. He swallows a ripe yellow banana as far down his skinny gullet as it can go.

Another experiments with a lip and eye pencil. He tries to shape his eyebrows, carefully touch up his long lashes and spreads on as much lipstick on his thick lips, as he dares. He splashes perfumes on his nipples and the spray makes them look as white as snow. He experiments with deodorant under his armpits. It is a serious, elaborate affair. The cosmetics are meticulously and vigorously applied so that the little boy may appear as beautiful as a bride. Another boy wears the wedding dress and slips on the veil.

One of his friends come to wrestle with him. The boy wrestles with his friend on the bed, the long wedding dress and veil rolling round and round together with them. One little boy in an Afghan costume busily hoovers the carpet of beach-sand. He loves his chore.

Another grabs the new bathtub and takes it out to sea. His friend starts to bathe him while he sits in the bathtub. Soon the boys gather to beat on the hanging saucepans and playact a wedding march. The boy with the wedding dress dances on and the rest follow, waving colourful umbrellas high above them. To the drumbeat of the saucepans, they sashay to a festive dance….

Round and round a big wide circle they caterpillar together, the guest-of-honour being the little boy dressed in the wedding veil and gown. After a while, one little boy alerts the rest that Hoorah has returned in her wheelchair. Now, the little boys run helter-skelter to keep everything back in its place.

Hoorah notices nothing.

The little boys volunteer to help build floats so that Hoorah and all her processions can be transferred to ships sailing by in the distance. Hoorah asks the cute little boy in the Afghan costume to stay behind and make her tea. He doesn’t appear to know how to make the tea although he stays willing and cheerful. “Why did I buy all these kitchen things for if you can’t even make a cup of tea?” she scolds.


Hoorah begins to stare at him without flinching and finally asks if she could adopt him as he is so handsome. She likes his white, pink colour, she says. He suggests that she consider his pals instead. Oh no, protests Hoorah. They are too brown whereas he is a handsome little boy, all white and pink to look at. The white and pink boy in his Afghan costume looks sad and says no because he already has a mother and father. He is worried that Hoorah will take him away with her.

Two pretty Iranian girls park their bicycles and come to talk to Hoorah. They have just cycled in a race and tell her stories. The old lady listens amicably. The girls hint that if only they had her possessions; if Hoorah would be so kind as to give everything away, then they could get married and start a new life. Hoorah refuses apologetically and explains that the possessions are gems from a life of waiting. She cannot part with them now.

She invites the girls to tea and they all sit down together on the lounge chairs. It starts to get dark and the little boys rush back to say that the floats are ready and everything has to be transported at once or the ships will sail away, never to be seen again. The tide would soon get lower. Hoorah readily agrees.

Now I can go home to feed my rooster, she says happily. What about our tea, wail the girls? They are disappointed. They find Hoorah fascinating and had hoped to chat longer. Hoorah comforts them for such is the call of destiny, she smiles.

She is eager to get home and feed her rooster. Soon each item is tied together onto a different float.

The boys complete the whole project in the wink of an eye as if by magic. Hoorah herself sits high on her bed as it balances gingerly on one float. It is a strange surreal scene as the army of boys push Hoorah and all her possessions out to sea.

There she sits as a tall and aristocratic as a grand dame in the middle of it all. As the boys push her and all her treasured possessions out to sea, she fades further and further away until soon there is nothing left but a speck on the distant horizon. An unreal freedom is left behind to beguile the minds and visions of shocked watchful observers on the coastline.

Film’s Website. The second still shows a grand Hoorah poised majestically while sitting on a bed tied to a float and stretching out to sea.  (Film review to follow shortly).


Pictures courtesy of Makhmalbaf and AllMovie.

Five Sisters by Kit Anderson

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DSC01562by Susan Abraham

Quick Thoughts:

Five Sisters: A Modern Novel of Kurdish Women is a fascinating account of Kurdish life that exhibits its harsh odds with Turkey. Kit Anderson has cut out a careful and riveting narrative of her beloved West Asian mountain people while lending her sympathetic ear to excessive hardships. This is an extraordinary ancient culture, not often told.

The story of Five Sisters revolves around an obscure old-fashioned village that features a large community of siblings and relatives. It is intense. Almost all of the main characters are finally separated either by life’s tragic circumstances or courageous choices, resulting in a tender and moving tale.  The past is resurrected only when Ruya, now a successful emigrant and businesswoman in America, looks back to her young years, once wrapped tightly in a war-torn Kurdish mountain village and still held close to the heart.

The narration evolves smoothly as each sister’s girlish temperament rises to the fore. A few are headstrong, the rest dreamy but far from a stereotyped version, Anderson has allowed for true-to-life episodes and near-gripping encounters made up of dark secrets, chaotic scenes and even a spot of jealousy resulting from sibling rivalry.

When one of the sisters Aliye resorts to all the painful workings of a sullen, daydreaming and overly-sensitive personality, her no-nonsense sister Sakina and their sister-in-law, Hatice carry on with their kitchen jobs and talk around Aliye, ignoring her tantrums.  When Ruya and another sister, Songul sneak off to the mountains to be trained as guerrillas, Ruya becomes terribly jealous on observing Songul’s closeness with a new-found friend.

Each personality in relation to her environment, lifestyle and choices is finely sketched. The plot that meanders along like a slow river both through festive celebration comprising engagements, weddings and gatherings and also tragedies encompassing brutal seasons of a harsh geographical climate, ill-fated gangster runs and guerrilla fighting with the Turks; may be seen as a meditative contemplation.

I find that through her many short, neat chapters, Anderson prefers to ‘tell’ instead of ‘show’ and has skillfully developed this quality with which to command her writing strength. Village communal living composed with excruciating, meticulous detail, plods along. So much so that as a reader, I often felt caught up in a series of lingering dreamlike and extremely picturesque valley scenes. For the impatient reader, these sections may quickly drum up exhaustion. However, the plot does command a swifter pace about mid-way through. I watched rather wistfully from the outside instead of feeling too passionately for any particular character. But that’s not a bad thing at all. It’s simply the way the determined tone of the novel would choose to maneuvere my sentiments.

I might have been a passenger on a slow train ride through a time tunnel gaping at the many colourful episodes flashing past. Or I might have been seated inside a cinema hall, focussing on a film in close detail, adept at my role as silent witness. The closest visual image would lie in comparing this novel to a lengthy modern-day drama-documentary. As such, the novel portrays an excellent sense of place.

There are also vital details into the subject of honour-killing which sadly enough, lay as an ancient custom dutifully practiced by the men folk. For instance, when one of the sisters Ruya is raped one night in a barn, she daren’t scream. Her cries alone would have acted as consent for her father and uncles to kill her so as to rid their family pride of shame. Killings might be deliberately carried out or slyly woven into an unexpected hour as an ‘unfortunate accident’. Women often reluctantly supported such a decision. I like it that Anderson refuses to play on sensationalism but cuts to the bone with her ‘plain speaking’ descriptions in this area.

As a matter of personal taste, I prefer an investment into lengthy character study with my fiction rather than elaborate descriptions of scenery or a rich, rambling display of cultural habits, that tend to create a detachment for my emotions. I really enjoyed the narration overall. Kit Anderson’s Five Sisters would be brilliant as an informal, comprehensive study guide into the workings of Kurdish mountain-life, as the first point of reference before other challenging storylines may be attempted.

Further Reading:

Texts on Kurdish Studies

Paddylands: A Story of Malaya

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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.

  UmbrellaGarnier 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.

One Night by Niki Karimi – World Cinema

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by Susan Abraham

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One of the main hallmarks of Iranian cinema, is the row of noted pregnant silences, that puncture important episodes and how such an extraordinary tool, courtesy of the film-maker, masquerades intrigue by stringing the viewer along the reins of a script and all the while, parading mystery and allure.

There is hardly if ever, any sort of a thematic musical overture – so reminiscent of popular American and European films that would be relied on to conjure the mood and tone of a film or otherwise, signalled out to dog a heightened dramatic pace.

Instead, the viewer of serious Iranian dramas bent on conveying important social messages, may be treated to illuminating shades of transparent colour and light within vast background landscapes or steady quiet character movements and various subdued expressions that prophetically conjure up the next scene to hint at an actor’s possible thoughts and actions.

It is almost the watchful conjecture in mime as the reader fields through the silent scenes to predict what happens next.

In fact, the silence is so monumental you could hear a pin drop when you think that something as trivial as footfalls along a hushed hallway could kill the moment.

Without doubt, in such films, actions are meticulously designed to speak louder than words. It was with such expectation that I watched Yek Shab meaning One Night (2005) so thoughtfully and lovingly made by Niki Karimi , an award-winning Iranian actress who has herself starred in more than 20 films before turning to directing for the display of a rightful, elegant passion. One Night which received its desired international applause in Rome, would place Karimi at the forefront of important Middle-Eastern women in cinema.

The film starred the remarkable and highly-talented Hanieh Tavassoli as its main heroine, Shahzad.

In the screenplay, Tavassoli acts out the role of a melancholic misunderstood artist who has to deal with a single mother bent on sly motives with her wiles on the seduction of a married man, a boyfriend who doesn’t care enough to be around when she needs him and the fortitude to question injustices of a woman’s foreberance subtly portrayed throughout the scenes. This she does with a rather brave if not foolish attempt to wander a main street in Tehran at night.

She walks alone, trying without success to hail a taxi. With her mother shooing her out of the way for the night Shahzad decides to go to her boyfriend. The mother is never seen and only her voice is heard. She is loving but insensitive to her daughter’s tired day at college.

Shahzad grumbles with exceptional fury.

Still, she does as her mother wishes and when she arrives at the cafe run by her boyfriend’s father, her sweetheart is nowhere to be found. There are some late night diners but Shahzad is reluctant to dine even as the boy’s parent invites her to do so. He tries to ring his son but to no avail.

Shahzad later makes her escape when a noisy scene outside the restaurant ensures that everyone runs out to delightfully view the kerfuffle.

Before arriving at the cafe, Shahzad had with some reluctance, accepted a lift from a persistent middle-aged married man who vows concern for her safety but who reveals a playboy personality and makes a pass even as he kindly drops her where she wants to go. In his mind, Shahzad could just be a lady of the night. He insists on waiting for Shahzad as she steps into the cafe, hoping for a one-night stand before returning to his wife.

She has to enlist the help of a friend to ward him off.

This is rather brave of the character to have accepted the lift in the first place, considering that there are police everywhere and women in Tehran are not allowed to be seen with a man alone unless he turns out to be a spouse or family.

But she will attempt two more lifts by two different men on the quiet streets of Tehran, stopping once to desperately call her boyfriend from a public phone. He doesn’t answer. She will sit and lament her fate with the sad broken heart of every wounded woman, on a deserted park bench, surrounded and shadowed by a canopy of trees. In her turmoil, she will also walk a highway. On the whole, the artist will have her fair share of adventure and episodes.

The film was especially riveting and convincing as the viewer is compelled to feel protective of the lone artist and chilled to the bone as the character thoughtlessly places herself in the face of danger.

Taviassoli is wonderful with her ironic comic scenes and taut, acerbic advice that shows the artist through her difficult lifestyle, to act in a manner far older than her years and mature in her thoughts with psychological insights if not fruitless actions.

She pronounces the modest ability to counsel older men far more privileged than her. She doesn’t say much but her looks and gestures speak a thousand words.

The film is somewhat atmospheric and successfully conveys the idea of aloneness and the subject of loneliness masked in various disguises.

However, towards the end, the pregnant pauses created to reveal horrifying declarations by one of the characters, were simply too long and it is feared that this eager experiment by Karimi, may have weakened what might have otherwise proved an enthralling Hitchcock thriller-type conclusion.

In Cathleen Roundtree’s interesting interview with Niki Karimi on One Night, Karimi had labelled this screenplay a ‘personal cinema.’

“The film is about things that are happening in society to women my age.,” she had said. “I felt that there were few films about the experiences of women. I call this ‘personal cinema,’ not cinema from the commercial film industry. I wanted to show a woman trying to earn money, be on her own, and how many problems can surround her. I wanted to show the distance that she has from society. Because of that, she’s living out of the city. And each day she travels on the road and looks at the city and asks herself, ‘What is this place I’m going to?’”

These were some of the enlightening quotes amongst others. Thank you Cathleen for the tremendous insight.

Credit: Top picture of Niki Karimi (b/w) is from Niki Karimi Photos. Below is of Iranian actress Hanieh Tavassoli.

Haji’s Book of Malayan Nursery Rhymes


hajiby Susan Abraham

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About my Find

Not too long ago when I stopped in Kuala Lumpur and visited the splendid Kinokuniya Bookstore, this quaint treasure of a children’s poetry book, beckoned to me shyly, from a locked glass showcase. There it waited…a handsome Malaysian antiquarian item… regally poised in all of its ancient glory. The beautifully preserved First-hand edition titled Haji’s Book of Malayan Nursery Rhymes, stood silently with several other sterner out-of-print hardback editions; all determined to feature tales and essays of an older Malaya, still laden with her sharp aristocratic flavour. Never you mind that in the same fashion which may have just as well befitted a toffee-nosed mannequin marvellously holding every strand in place, neither too would any page or content be held amiss.

With a gasp, I was thrown from adulthood into the enthrallment of a child’s simple joys, than apparent in Klang town’s famous Caxton Bookshop on Rembau Street. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the groundfloor that made for a row of rambling old shophouses, ran riot with jigsaw puzzles and picture books.

My thoughts fell instantly into a cache of abundant memories, so gracefully matched with the wonder of the moment.

I felt ironically blessed for a birthday that had now stumbled into the late summer of my life. While happily encased in the present New Age digital world, I had once tasted the fading influences of British colonalism in the Far East, also. This, not to be imagined from novels but the real thing. How richly then had the literary influences of England been stirred into a potpourri of multicultural Malay, Chinese, Indian, Sikh and Eurasian communities with nary a complication, at least not that was offered to a child’s visible notions. This of course, combined with varied enchanting storytelling elements that each culture so liberally allowed for its leisurely moments.

Without hesitation, I purchased the only edition that appeared to be present.

It set me back RM690 (about 150 euros). Of course, there were vital reasons for this. Book-collecting of somewhat rare and personal gems had turned into a passionate hobby and here was an opportunity too good to miss. Besides, I was seduced by the vault of memories that had so quickly engulfed me…that familar seduction of late, that demanded I write a novel on my childhood.

Caption: A little Malay girl in her sandals, stares anxiously at the heavy pelts of tropical rain being blown about by the wind while being kept dry by a hardy umbrella.

About the Author

Sadly, I know scant about A.W. Hamilton although I did receive a strong impression of his dedication to the Malay Language and I am familiar with his selection of pantuns. The trouble is as children we recite the poems, ballads, tales and songs with whoops of relish and later, mentally store away renditions with an equal fervour, but at such a tender age, spare little thought for the person who wrote them. Among a few of his works, I would discover Hamilton’s Malay Pantuns, Malay Proverbs – Bidal Melayu and Malay Made Easy – Covering the Dutch East Indies and Malaya.

About the Book

Mine’s a densely speckled and yellowed version of a 1956 reprint, published by the then Donald Moore Ltd, at MacDonald House on Orchard Road, Singapore. Haji’s Book of Malayan Nursery Rhymes had been treated to its first publication in 1939, three years before the start of the Japanese Occupation as a result of World War II, in the Malayan Peninsular, Borneo and Singapore. The second reprint would be later published in Australia in 1947. I get the clear impression before feeling subsequently thrilled that the copy now lining my library shelf, had surely passed through several appreciative hands once upon a time, in the forgotten past.

What I found fascinating was Hamilton’s Preface. He wrote that some of the Malayan Nursery Rhymes received their original publication as early as 1922 in pamphlet form, at the time of the Malaya-Borneo exhibition. They were then reprinted the following year, by the Methodist Publishing House in Singapore where the local poems were issued with both cardboard covers and illustrations, as an added attraction.

In his Preface, Hamilton also wrote most humbly that he considered the Malayan poems he so ably translated from a numerous collection of popular English rhymes, to be recognised as a product of Malaya and that he would take no credit for his industry. He dedicated the verses and what may even be viewed as limericks… solely for the indulgence of the little folk.

Caption: In a kampung, an old crooked man labelled as ‘orang bongkok’ takes a slow stroll to his attap home, held deftly by stilts. Next to his hut, lies a coconut tree.

Here are a few examples:

Georgie Porgie

Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie, Kissed the girls and made them cry; When the girls came out to play, Georgie Porgie ran away.

Now, the old Malay version would read:

Awang Bawang

Awang Bawang, kachang kobis, Chium anak dara, nangis; Bila kawan keluar chari, Awang Bawang sudah lari.

– Excerpt taken from Haji’s Book of Malayan Nursery Rhymes.

and for another example,

Hey, Diddle Diddle

Hey! Diddle, diddle, The cat and the fiddle, The cow jumped over the moon; The little dog laughed To see such sport, And the dish ran away with the spoon.

Here, the Malay version would read:

Kuching Dengan Biola

Hai! mula-mula, Kuching dengan biola; Lembu melompat ka-bulan. Anak anjing ketawa, Suka tengok melawak, Dan sendok di-larikan pinggan.

– Excerpt taken from Haji’s Book of Malayan Nursery Rhymes

The book still slightly frail in my hands, is made up of about a 100 pages of a commendable compilation of English rhymes. These are followed simulatenously by translations; each rhyme pairing up with a Malay version, featuring the older Malay vocabulary and spelling. Now, I was familiar with these as we still studied the older version for a while in the classroom, before an overhaul of the language took place a little later.

Several of the couplets are rather short, resulting in quite a few poems scattered together on a solitary page. The book ends with an added seven pages, featuring nothing but a heavy glossary of English-Malay definitions, giving me another distinct impression of how thorough a writer A.W. Hamilton was and of how much pride he placed in his work.

Caption: A merry band of children link hands and dance round a banana tree while singing a Malay rendition of ‘Round the Mulberry Bush’

About the Illustrations

I was really bowled over by the illustrations and I have placed a few here in this post.

In his Introduction, Hamilton also took time out to thank Mrs Nora Hamerton, who I gather was already a well-known illustrator in Malaya, during the time. She is mentioned a few times on the web and I was delighted to read that Badan Warisan Malaysia, had described Hamerton’s early illustrations as a fine piece of work. I wish more accolades had been awarded her and that there would have been an appropriate biographical detail to her artwork, that would have been easily accessible.

Perhaps not even that, but just merely for Nora Hamerton to have been better celebrated for her artistry and talent. I also observed that Hamerton had worked with Hamilton on other childrens’ books too. Once more, the poet and translator mentioned in his Preface that Nora Hamerton had resided in Kapar, Selangor. That drew this book really close to home for me. Although the thoughtful artist graced my patch many many years before I was born, my eyes still shone with excitement to read that the illustrator had lived on the fringes of Klang, where I myself had been raised in the Sixties.

I was tickled by some of the illustrations especially that of an old Tamilian lady who wore her saree with no blouse under the wrap. I remembered with a start that as a little girl, I often saw older ladies like these sauntering on the roadside, where they lived in nearby squatters made up of attap houses or trooped down into town, from the neighbouring palm oil estates. The memory was especially distinct as I remember the sarees in rainbow hues as was the fashion during the time ie. an electrifying pink, a lime green or sky blue etc. Without a doubt, some of the toothless wizened women attracted public attention but seemed oblivious of it. The illustrations envelop all the races and I was touched to see also, a Nyonya mother and her child in their costumed regalia.

What a fine journey into the past from a little book festooned with nostalgic literary delights, still young to the mind after the twilight toil of long and winding roads. – susan abraham 

Further Reading: i) For further reading, you may like to engage in the following essay, published in a French journal and titled: The Poetics of the Pantun. ii) A collection of definitions affliated to the Pantun in English may also be found HERE.
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