A tsunami of greetings in Malay washed over us and we almost fell backwards in surprise. We had come home – home to Jamilah Binti Yasin, a 62-year-old Malay lady with a warm broken-toothed smile.
She ushered us into her spacious residence, nodding and smiling, speaking volumes – again in Malay. We were in the village of Seri Tanjung village, 24 km away from the historic city of Melaka in Malaysia, and our English-speaking guide had already sped away after the initial introductions. We padded in barefoot, reluctant to unwittingly break any ground rules. Her ancestral home was spotless, a largely wooden tiered structure with sloping tiled roofs and the interior had been expanded and enhanced so the feel was that of a grand mansion. We sat on a sofa amidst a profusion of flowers, throw rugs and portraits of family members as Jamilah swept in with a tray of tea and goodies.
Till then we had been desperately communicating in sign language as she knew only a few words of English and we did not know a word of Malay. And that’s when it happened! She began to pour black tea into porcelain cups, and we never have black tea. Sadly we did not know the Malay equivalent for milk. Aware of the fact that we were staying in a conservative Muslim household (Jamilah wore a head scarf of sorts at all times of the day), we tried to communicate with due respect our need to add some milk to our tea. She looked uncomprehending and we got frantic – and started to zestfully enact a baby sucking on a milk bottle. (We briefly considered acting out a scenario of a mother suckling her babe but decided against it.)
Suddenly bewilderment was replaced by triumph and she cried: “Su su su!” We recoiled in horror imagining that the word could mean only one thing in any language! “No, no, not that,” we exclaimed regretting the fact that we had not memorized a few words of Malay. We then began to have black tea with exaggerated relish to reassure her. A lovely smile spread across her face; she was content in the knowledge that her guests were happy and had finally ceased to make bizarre gestures.
Later she showed us to our room – a comfortable lived in one with a double bed, wardrobe and dresser. Later in the evening we met Mohammad Akhir Bin Ab Wahab, the suave secretary of the local home stay association who had stopped by. He told us that the word su su in Malay meant milk! When we in turn explained to him that su su in Hindi meant “urine”, he conveyed it to her and she rocked with laughter.
The secretary took us around the immaculate village which has twice won the National Beautiful Village competition. Here wooden houses on stilts with sloping tiered roofs cluster together (there are 150 in all) and are immaculately maintained. Lace curtains fluttered behind the many beautifully carved windows, wood was polished to a high gloss, and modern amenities added without compromising the vintage façade… love and care seemed to have been lavished on virtually every dwelling. There were a couple of wooden homes that had been abandoned because the children had migrated to distant lands.
At one time emerald-green paddy fields flared like green skirts around the village. But with people preferring to work in offices rather than fields, nature had re-claimed the area except for a few patches planted with banana and other fruit trees. Yet the feeling of being sequestered in the country, away from other tourists, one feels compelled to slow down one’s pace.
Suddenly a cow mooed and a cock crowed and we felt an ineffable sense of peace far away from the high rises of Kuala Lumpur glittering with profit and a modern buzz. We ambled back to our temporary home, brimming with ambience and where our colourful hosts had added personality to the traditional bed and breakfast experience. One of the neighbours had popped in to show us how she whiled away the hours dexterously weaving rattan baskets while Jamilah and another lady played a quaint local game called congkak which women generally enjoy after harvesting paddy. (Men prefer to fly kites.)
In Seri Tanjung village which is populated by Malays, neighbourly harmony reigns – each one shares the other’s joys and heartaches; the loss of a dear one; the painful pangs of having a child living far away, a wedding in the family, a returning son… Here anybody’s business is everybody’s affair. If a homeowner cannot come up with the expenses of maintaining his vintage abode, there have been instances where other villagers have offered to help out in cash and kind.
In the meantime Jamilah rustled up dinner – a fabulous fish curry; fried chicken Melaka style and sweet mangoes grown locally. Cooking was obviously a grand passion in the household. From her daughter and her husband whom we met later that evening, we learnt that it is common for the husband to stay with the wife’s family as that minimizes tension. Mother and daughter share household tasks equitably and happily and in Jamilah’s case, her two sons live away from her and she has 10 grandchildren!
We slept that night deeply and dreamlessly, to be woken up by a cock crowing just outside our window. We shut our eyes briefly to prolong the moment, enjoying a rare sense of pastoral peace.
Jamilah had breakfast ready for us – hot milky tea, chicken curry, roti canai (a type of paratha) and tuna sandwiches. We were too satiated from the night before to eat anything and gulped the tea gratefully. By then we had become such good friends that we could communicate with our hostess at an almost mystical level – she spoke in Malay and we, in English, and somehow we developed a deep bond of understanding; learning to read each other’s expressions, the light in her eyes, the twitch of her smile, and wallow in her boundless human warmth…
As we were leaving, Jamilah hugged us and bid goodbye, cooing in Malay what we imagined were endearments. Till the previous night, she had been a stranger but had metamorphosed into a friend, extended family almost!