Samad was ten when he left Padang Sebang to live with his father’s new family in Jasin. He had just lost his beloved mother.
An easy, carefree life awaited him. No more rising at dawn to pedal curry puffs made by his mother. No strict grandfather to cane or tie him to a tree for the slightest offense. And no scary body floating in a well. He spent his time after school happily playing with the other boys of the village.
The boys were left to their own devices. Their playground was Nature and they had a prodigious capacity for fun and games. They raced around on palm fronds, sat astride buffaloes, climbed trees to eat rambutans and guavas, hit squirrels, which devoured their fruits, with a slingshot, and flew kites they made using bamboo strips and kite paper. They attached their kites to the popular Anchor brand string. When the spirit moved them, they glued powdered glass to their string. Many an opponent’s kite was thus mercilessly grounded.
They amassed colorful rubber bands to play a game in which they targeted other players’ rubber bands to win, thus enhancing their collection.
“Tick-Tock” was slightly akin to Rounders, played, not with a bat and ball, but with two sticks, the shorter of which is driven firmly into the ground. Samad became adept at hitting it with the longer stick causing it to spiral upwards. He would then hit it hard and send it flying into the distance enabling him to touch “base” several times.
A favourite game that invariably left them out of breath, required using a stick to vigorously trundle a bicycle wheel, bereft of spokes and rubber tyre, for long distances over the fields.
Boys wouldn’t be boys without resorting to a game that was an approximation of war. They shot each other using bamboo guns. Samad swiftly learned the trick of carefully selecting the correct size of seed from a tree, the name of which now escapes him. When the gun is shot, the seed, compressed by the pumping of the gun handle, will pop before shooting out and hitting the opponent.
It was always with great joy that Samad splashed about in the cool, clear waters of the Jasin river. His dog-stroke improved and he was gradually able to move faster and cover longer distances. He was happily paddling along one day when a powerful current swept him away, taking him completely by surprise. He struggled violently to stay afloat but found himself hurtling down the river at great speed. Lungs bursting, he gasped for air, swallowed a ton of water, and flailed his arms wildly, but to no avail. Just when he thought all was over, he was hurled against the river bank. He threw out his hands, grasped an overhanging plant and clung to it with all his might. He yelled out in pain when a swarm of fire ants bit his hands but he gritted his teeth and held on. He regained his breath and slowly dragged himself up the bank, heaving a huge sigh of relief to find he was alive, and safe!
Not long after his near-drowning experience, back to the river he went. It was as if he couldn’t stay away from it. He learned to dive into the water from a Nipah palm frond, just like his friends. Nipah palm trees grew in abundance along the river banks. Samad would clamber up a tree, stand firmly on a frond, and leap into the river with a big splash. Soon he was having the time of his life, making spectacular dives and impressing his friends. Until one unfortunate day when he slipped and tumbled down, severely scratching his back on the sharp leaves of a low lying frond.
He returned home, got out of his wet clothes, wrapped himself with a towel and was painfully making his way to the bathroom when his father stopped him to ask why he was walking in a most peculiar manner. He was forced to lower his towel. His father’s face turned red when he saw the gash on Samad’s back and, after letting loose a vituperative tirade about boys who behaved irresponsibly, got out his cane and whacked Samad with it.
So Samad went from the frying pan into the fire, or as the Malays would say it, “jatuh tangga, di-timpa tangga” – you fall off a ladder and it lands on you.
From that day on, with his father’s words ringing in his ears, his days were decidedly less wild and carefree.
(All illustrations are photos taken of exhibits at a museum in Melaka)