I went to many weddings as a little girl when I lived with my grandparents in their village town of Muar. My grandma and I would first arrive at the house of the bride well ahead of the actual date. There, we would join the army of ladies sitting cross-legged on a wooden work platform, an extension of the kitchen area behind the house. I had a tiny hand in the making of several batches of fruit chutney and specially seasoned rice. When on duty for the preparation of the latter, my little fingers would expertly pick out specks of black grit in the tubs of rice to be cooked. The white grains were then rinsed repeatedly til the water was clear of the chalky residue. Many years later, I would amaze my housemates by being able to measure out the exact amount of water needed for the perfect pot of rice by merely marking the level on my index finger.
I learned the myriad physiology of onions. That if you start with wet fingers, you’ll peel slower than your grandma. That although onions look purple, after a few batches it will stain your hands black. I learned that my eyes would sting badly, and that there was a point of no return where the wells turn into waterfalls, cascading down the side of my nose. Then I learned that my great-grandmother secretly kept the tears at bay by sticking an onion to the pointy end of her peeling knife.
On the day of the wedding, we would enter through the front gates, my hand gripped tightly in my gran’s. Back at home, I had been given a flowy baju kurung to wear, and had been allowed to apply the nice powder to my face – the one with the magical water in the bottle, which made my cheeks feel light and cool. Occasionally, Tok Mak would take out a tiny tub of rouge and a small brush for my lips. Most of this would soon melt off my face, even with the parasol that Tok Mak would carry to shield us from the sun. “Deras, deras!” she would shout, as we crossed a busy street. I would take a seat under the canopy where all the guests were served the food we had been preparing. The rice would taste delicious, although I’d pick out any onions if I saw them on my plate. I would get to take home a bunga telur, a hard boiled egg wrapped decoratively as a souvenir. I can’t say I ever really paid attention to the bride and groom, aside from my favorite part of the day, when they threw fistfuls of sweets and coins into the crowd, whipping us kids into a frenzy of catching and snatching.
At the very end of May this year, I went back to Muar for a chance at another village style wedding, and this time I had S in tow. It may have been a while since my last one, but for S, it was his very first. Mel was getting married in our mothers’ hometown, 9 months after she had been champion designer of our own colorful wedding in Kuala Lumpur. Behind the scenes of almost every single wedding ornament and bridal decoration were Mel’s sleepless nights and renegade glue gun.
Tok Mak and my youngest aunt are the keepers of the family home in Muar, where the rest of us come to visit periodically. The new house has just been completed on arwah Tok Bah’s old plot. The house we knew as children had crumbled over the years, and was cleared to make room for the new family home. The orchid patch has been converted into shelter for cats, and the fabled ditch running in front of the houses on the street has now been fenced off. But the red earth porch, the rambutan trees and the overgrown bamboo on the periphery of the plot remain the same.
Time to get busy! A series of tents need to be erected in the lawn of the house, leading up to the main road. Underneath, tables and chairs for the seating and enthusiastic dining of the bride and groom, entourage, family, friends and neighbors from here to the Muar bridge. To mark the wedding venue, we needed to make a couple of bunga manggar – long poles with multicolored fronds like a palm tree on acid. For this, we sacrifice 2 unripe papayas. The kids gather curiously as Mel brandishes a cleaver and cuts off the tops of the fruits, but they soon loose interest and disperse, with the exception of Alipatiya, who hangs around and faithfully hands S the colorful fronds one by one.
At the back of the house, the womenfolk engage in a flurry of activity. Every once in a while, one of the guys is called to the side door to help carry large vats of food to another part of the house. The floor quickly becomes sticky, and we move about on tiptoe; there’s no time for a quick mop.
The interior is beautified, and every detail is important. There is a sweet fragrance as you enter the house, the unmistakable floral scent of a marriage about to take place. It is the result of the women slicing folded pandanus leaves into curled up strips, then mixing it together with rose petals, packaged into little balls of muslin and hidden in all the corners of the house.
A spokesperson is to be chosen to represent the house in this solemn occasion. For the honor, we approached Cikgu Tahir, who is not only Uca’s father-in-law, but also Tok Bah’s closest friend when he was alive. For that, we all loved him by extension, and he would come dressed in his best, and speak in the kind of soft timbre that makes people lean in closer to catch his words.
In the final exhausting hours, there are fraying nerves to contend with, usually belonging to the mother of the bride. The incredulity of the requests begin to mount, and the sulking commences, against which everyone else is helpless.
As the day arrives, the sight of several things in their rightful place assuages the waves of impending doom. The house is standing, the monkeys have not had their way with the tent decorations, the kids’ scattered toys have been kicked aside into an invisible corner, and most importantly, the bride is calmly being adorned in the corner room. Family members trickle into the living space and sit reverently on the floor, facing into the middle of the room where a row of gifts are laid side by side, from one heart to another. Ali, who is to be our new cousin, is given a cushion to balance himself on as he reads the solemnization vows, and adjusts himself a few times before he is given the first glimpse of his bride.
When the proceedings were through, and the joining of a man and his wife happens in the gentlest of manners. With the exchange of rings, the woman holds her husbands hands and inclines her head towards them in a kiss, and the man in turn touches his lips to his wife’s forehead. As soft as pillows and as innocent as meadow violets.
It is only later in the afternoon that everyone lets their hair down. The midday sun is unmercifully low, and the tents were filling up with warm-bodied guests. S, Mama and I make a quick escape and spend the hottest hours telling stories over bowls of delicious ice floss. We return in time for the wardrobe change, and another set of traditions that unite the bride and groom.
Ali and his family start a short procession at the gates, accompanied by young boys beating the kompang. He is the King of the Day, and looks the part, with tanjak and keris and a suit of navy blue. When they reach the door of the house, a barricade of commoners meet him unfazed. He may not enter to look upon the Queen until an adequate toll is paid. Little appeasing packets are handed out and negotiations are made until we see that the young King has sweated enough. Mel the Queen snickers as Ali is finally allowed to join her on the throne.
And so we have a party. Johor style, where the couple throw out goodies and the kids and adults alike scramble like headless chickens for the loot. Kampung style, where there are tons and tons of food for everyone who wishes to come through the gates and partake, and where later, we bring around packs for those who couldn’t make it. And Mel style, where the bride and groom where mismatching outfits, and no one can say a thing about it!
I am so proud of my S, who 9 months ago, in a ceremony like this one, came into our family. As older brother, big uncle, son-in-law, and grandson in this family event, he was a team player and lifesaver all the way. Helping to put up the structures before the wedding, hoovering for England, holding fort in the kitchen with a dish cloth after the busy morning refreshments, jungle gym to the rowdy kids who all wanted a turn at being Superman, riding in the back of Acik’s car delivering food to the kampung folk, rinsing out Tok Mak’s big cooking pots by the ditch at midnight til she had to yell at him to come in and sit down.
And when the work was done, sitting down at the dining table, eating acar buah, ikan masin, sambal belacan and rendang tok like a pro.