Monday, January 29, 2007

Flesh of the Ancestors


I can relate to the French painter Gauguin who took a libidinal shine to the native girls of Tahiti. There is something irresistible about bronze, rubbery, supple, brown skin - and the edenic innocence that flashes in their shy smiles. Pagan eyes that turn prudish at puberty, because their mothers keep yelling "Malu!" ("Shame!") when they skinny-dip with ripening bosoms and pubes. Contact with "civilization" taught them to feel ashamed of their own simplicity, made them into "primitives" living below the poverty line.

And yet, seeing a bunch of Orang Asli kids play like otters in the river is nothing less than a glimpse of paradise. You can't stay cynical or depressed in such an environment. The verdant landscape itself is balm for the eyes, as much as the sparkling waters are a treat for the senses. The Orang Asli soul is bonded with the land, the living earth, nature itself. In mythic terms they regard their wild habitats as the petrified flesh of their ancestors. Just as Native Americans once revered the buffalo as a benevolent manifestation of Wakan Tanka (Great Spirit), a parental sacrifice to feed the children, the Temuan view each species of flora and fauna as a gift from heaven, as food, medicine, friend, or shelter.

The younger ones have all but forgotten, born as they were into homes with TV sets bombarding all and sundry with images of a Brave New World, where ancient wisdom and traditional ways are dismissed as irrelevancies or mere superstition. But the older ones know there is no separation between the land and life itself. To destroy nature is to murder the Life Force that sustains all existence - and therefore it is viewed as the ultimate wrongdoing, akin to forgetting one's roots and turning one's back on all that is considered divine.

Well, that's a very general overview of the Temuan mythos, which applies to just about every indigenous culture you can name - at least the ones that haven't been completely assimilated and subsumed by industrial society. However, admiring their resilience of spirit, their innocence, and their wealth of hand-me-down knowledge is one thing. Living with them at close quarters is quite another. They can certainly drive an essentially middle-class, former urbanite like myself round the bend with exasperation.

There seems to be a testosterone-related problem with the males: as soon as they turn 18, a sullen surliness bordering on xenophobia grips them. The modest wages they earn cutting grass on road verges or gathering bamboo for the Chinese towkays are mostly spent getting totally pissed at the local bar; and then they fall off their motorbikes and the rest of their hard-earned pay goes into repairing them. If they happen to be married with kids, their wives quickly turn into nags - because it's not uncommon that their husbands will stagger home late at night stinking of cheap plonk, without any food for the family. Apparently, this happens wherever indigenous "dreamtime" cultures collide with industrial "machinetime" societies. Anthropologists generally agree that the trauma of "culture shock" so disorientates the tribal folk they become dispirited - and therefore attempt to regain their spirits by imbibing vast amounts of the bottled variety.


But as long as our tribal folk have the forest to return to, they have a chance of eventually regaining their psychic equilibrium. My chief contractor on the Bamboo Palace project, Yam Kokok, really enjoyed the process of gathering about 3,000 bertam leaves to weave into roofing material for Anoora's hut. First he built a cozy lean-to while his wife began lining bamboo tubes with fragrant leaves, before stuffing them with rice to boil on a woodfire. The widow Lumoh had packed some salted fish and bottles of clear spring water. They were all set for a long day's work, cutting the thorny bertam leaves and carefully weaving them into attap. Yam Kokok's grandson and nephews all came along to help and I could see that the six days they spent "camping out" in the forest reminded them of the good old days - even though every evening I'd pick them up in my van and chauffeur them back to the village and some home comforts.

The forest is the Orang Asli's briar patch; their racial memory of being sustained by Mother Nature goes back thousands of generations. Chop down the trees and replant the land with cash crops like rubber and oil palm - and the Orang Asli become rootless, disconnected from their own past, insecure about their future and therefore apathetic. True, some of the younger generation have adapted quite well to video games and factory jobs; a handful of Semai and Semelai have even made it all the way through university, and have become academics and doctors (though I know of no such examples from the Temuan tribe).

It's easy to demonize the Jabatan Orang Asli (Aboriginal Affairs Department) but it's really just a case of horribly misaligned worldviews. JOA officers, mostly urbanized Malays, scorn their own humble ancestry and sincerely believe they can persuade the Orang Asli to join the mainstream Malay community. Their strategy is two-pronged: first, systematically convert the jungle into plantations, so the Orang Asli can't hide in the past; and then convert these diehard animists into pious little Muslims. I've long advocated that the JOA (instituted in 1954 during the Emergency years) be dismantled, as it serves little real purpose today except to breed the most loathsome varieties of bureaucratic ineptitude and corruption. Think about it: how would you like being treated as a minor all your life and have some government agency manage your affairs as if you were severely retarded? If everybody else who enjoys Malaysian citizenship is free to live without an official guardian, why must our first peoples endure such an ignominy?

The argument that Orang Asli need a "protector" because they are still largely illiterate and can't cope with the demands of the modern world is a totally spurious one. First of all, after more than fifty years under the JOA's thumb, the Orang Asli have gained little ground in mastering left-brained activities like learning to manipulate alphanumeric symbols. The question is: why not capitalize on their strengths instead? Most Orang Asli are physically agile, imaginative, fun-loving, and possess incredible stamina: in areas like sports and the arts, they would certainly be champs. Well, some descendants of African slaves in America have made their mark as athletes, musicians, actors, and dancers: would you think of Charlie Mingus, Michael Jordan, B.B. King, Eddie Murphy, Tina Turner, Ludacris, or Will and Jada Pinkett Smith as handicapped or backward?

What keeps the Orang Asli insulated from the outside world is the Jabatan Orang Asli's feudal mentality. That and the noxious effects of a patriarchal bias the Orang Asli got infected with along the way. Traditionally, the menfolk have been the hunters and womenfolk, the gatherers and nurturers. In Kampung Pertak, there are quite a few unmarried mothers - girls of 17 who got knocked up after some smooth-talking fellow handed them a Guinness at an all-night wedding party. With so many kids bawling and crawling around the house, 12-year-old girls are often forced to look after their younger siblings while both parents are out working. By the time they reach 15 or 16, many end up as mothers themselves, which gives them little time or opportunity to grow mentally. So we have generation after generation of Orang Asli kids raised by completely ignorant mothers with little on their minds apart from neighborhood gossip and a bleak view of marital life.

All this would change if teenaged dating was accepted as something perfectly natural. When I first asked my mother-in-law if I could take Anoora down to town and buy her a meal, I was told we would have to be engaged before she would allow it. In other words, the relationship between men and women is always a sexual one; post-pubescent boys and girls simply cannot be friends and go out together. They end up getting married very young, prompted by hormonal surges, and never really have the chance to interact with a variety of friends, of different ages and genders, and therefore lack the means of acquiring communication skills and a broader perspective on things.

Most families in the past slept together in one large room with no partitions - or only very thin ones, at best. Obviously, sex was something carried out under cover of darkness, furtively, quietly (so as not to wake the kids), almost involuntarily - and never became an artform, or developed any degree of kinkiness, as it has in the cities. I witnessed what happened when a young friend of mixed parentage from the big city started dating a village beauty from Pertak. On their very first secret rendezvous, she had asked if he was going to marry her (that's what he reported). Soon, the whole village was bristling with resentment at the urban Romeo. Even little children, no more than 8 or 9 years old, would taunt him as he drove past; the men in the village became more and more hostile, sabotaging his vehicle wherever he parked it, glaring at him with hands on their parangs. Posses of grandmothers and babes-in-arm would confront him at his rented lodgings in the village, demanding to know where he was hiding the girl. They gave him no peace until he buckled under the pressure and married the girl in a tribal ceremony.

Now the girl in question has had several lovers, and at 18 gave birth unexpectedly to a baby girl while trying to move her bowels, thinking it was one huge stomach upset she was experiencing. As to be expected, she's a lot more savvy and sophisticated than the other girls in the village. She could certainly learn to cope with life in the city, and has actually expressed a desire to someday get a job in KL. Now, is there any correlation between an active sex life and intellectual curiosity? Remember that biblical myth about the forbidden fruit? Sex, drugs and rock'n'roll (or hip-hop or techno-rave, if you prefer) are definitely evolutionary triggers - that's why the patriarchy everywhere is so determined to outlaw them. What would happen to the Orang Asli if their youth got into sex, drugs and rock'n'roll in a big way?

Soon, they'd become pretty much the same as you and me, don't you think? And maybe that will prompt cityfolks to adopt more of the Orang Asli lifestyle - to reconnect with the earth, with Mother Nature, fresh air and sunshine. Sort of a cultural exchange: they become more experienced like us, and we become more innocent like them. Perhaps that's how things will ultimately balance out, and paradise will be regained on earth.


NEWSFLASH: Tanah Tujuh: Close Encounters with the Temuan Mythos will be launched by Silverfish Books during the Kuala Lumpur International Literary Festival, 28-30 March 2007!