Friday, October 17, 2008

Among Vegetables by Muhammad Haji Salleh

“My poetry is ‘communally-centered in as much as I write about myself, a Malay and the community I know best, my own” (2003, p.15). It is Muhammad Haji Salleh who uttered this sentence when he was criticized for being too “communally-centered”. His latest anthology Rowing Down Two Rivers (2000) has included a poem titled “among vegetable” which reveals local setting in the form of local fruits and vegetation. This poem tells us about a market that has been a place where varieties of local vegetables are found. The author does not only highlighting the vegetable sold, but he also represents the cultural values of Malaysian. In this twelve stanzas poem, the persona is walking all over the market and describes what he saw in his own thought. The vegetables he is talking about can be categorized as Malaysian flavor. Some of them originate from swamp area, jungle, and orchard from the village. He even linked the vegetables with delicious traditional cuisines which he akin to keep in mind. Regarding this poem, we can deduce that the persona is celebrating the Malaysian culture via the food, tradition, and reverence value of Malaysian people.

Generally, kerdas, petai, jering, and mengkudu are local vegetables that have been eaten since thousands years ago. Some country might found these vegetables on their land but only Malaysian eat them as traditional appetizer. These vegetables are visualized in specific imagery; kerdas is illustrated as brown and smooth while petai is in gamelan cymbal’s size. In the third stanza, cabbages are lightly green and whitish while in the seventh stanza, sweet potatoes are seen copper red. Other than that, similes are often used to illustrate those local vegetables. Cabbages are portrayed as white as coconut milk, whereas ginger is coiled as a cold baby like stated in the second line of the sixth stanza. Moreover, the smell of ginger is later on personifies as ‘creeping’, just like human. In the next stanza, sweet potatoes are also given the personification imagery which is surrendered. This means that the potatoes are like ‘giving in’ and they accept the fate, for what will happen next is being eaten.

Next, we have come to notice that traditional foods are also being mention in the poem. In the seventh stanza, there are cucur badak with shrimps and cucur keria with holes, made up to be served during breakfast. Not to forget, vegetables in coconut soup, and deep fried Kedah sweetmeat. Although these are obviously Malay traditional food, almost all Malaysian are familiar with it. Rarely found in other country, it makes these foods unique and it is indeed to show the identity of Malaysian flavor.

In addition, compared to western country, they usually use drugs to treat illness. In the eleventh stanza, the persona has simply informed us that scarlet jerangau; sold by a gentleman from Sarawak can be use as remedies. Local people use its root to cure diabetes and also act as antidote for alcohol. There are many other vegetables or part of plants that have been trust by locals to cure illness.
In conjunction with Malaysian tradition being exposed in the poem, the first example is in the fourth stanza; grandma runduk tadau is ingesting her sweet betel mix. Betel is a kind of leaf being chewed with betel-nut, and commonly seen to be taken by older generation, at rural area generally. Other than that, a gentleman from Sarawak do reveal the next tradition; having proud ears. To be brief, this is a kind of ethnicity identity which can normally found in Malaysia. This ethnic have their ears pierced and something heavy will be hanged to make their ears longer downward.

Now we have come to the second issue which is celebrating Malaysian culture by including reverence value of Malaysian people. These can be seen as the persona use to address older people with appropriate title. An adult woman and man are usually called aunt and uncle, respectively. For example, in the third stanza, there is a woman called aunt inai while in the next stanza the persona had address an old woman as grandma runduk tadau. Is it the women are the persona’s real aunt or grandma? No. Its being called as it is because in Malaysia, we did not call someone older with their name. We have the sense of respecting the elders and giving such title show courtesy. In fact, if we did not do so, we will be considered as rude.

To sum up, the persona is portraying Malaysian customs in three ways; the vegetation and its cooking, traditional practice, and venerability among Malaysian people. All in all, we can say that food can be one of identity that portrays the country. Traditional practice, on the other hand will be a symbolic of distinctiveness among society. To live together in a multicultural country, we should respect people, and addressing others with appropriate title will help a lot. Obviously, the author had made the poem more comprehend as he had described the vegetable with sufficient imagery. This can always help people who are not familiar with Malaysian culture to understand better.