Malaysia’s Guardian of Mak Yong, the Goddess Zamzuriah Zahari by Sukhbir Cheema
The alarm broke the silence of the dusk. She slipped from her bed, careful not to disturb her sister who was sleeping and cousins who were staying here for a week.
Tiptoeing her way out of the sardine-can room, she walked slowly down the stairway into the kitchen to start the morning routine she had established a couple of months ago; something she hoped would become a permanent habit. Her fingers clumsily tore the new packet of ground Arabica beans and dispensed it into the espresso machine. Then she took out her favourite sparkly pink unicorn mug which had the words, ‘Have a Magical Day!’
While waiting for the espresso to be ready, she pulled out the full cream milk from the fridge and frothed half of the cup until it bubbled up and became creamy. Then she poured the black liquid into the mug, followed by the hot milk and drew some latte art on it. After tapping the mug twice to ensure no air bubbles were trapped inside, she smiled looking at the result. Her time working for the American coffee franchised down the road had not been wasted.
With the mug in one hand, she unlocked the door to the porch and sank onto the settee, basking in the sunshine. The sparrows were chirping, the hummingbirds were buzzing and Uncle Pancha’s bell was ringing as he performed his morning namaskar. “Ah, what a beautiful day!” she whispered the gratitude in her heart.
“Hello Aci, good morning! Are your knees okay?” she called.
“I am fine, dear. Thank you for asking.”
One of the things she had always been grateful for is the fact that her parents chose this town to raise her and siblings and to have Uncle Pancha and Aci on her left and Uncle Heng’s family on her right. She had reaped more benefits of being born and bred in this multicultural community than her cousins who lived in a small town. Because of this, her uniqueness shone in everything she did.
“Angelica! Where are you? Are you practicing your hatha yoga again?” Her mom, Auntie Rose’s pitchy voice jolted her from her short silent retreat.
“No, Mom, no; I am on the outside. I’ll come in,” she replied while shaking her head.
As the extended family members were on a brief visit, she had been appointed as the tour guide of the week. Plus, she was on semester break and today, she was free for the whole day. Her mom hoped that she could use this time to do some bonding activities with her paternal cousins because this would delight her Dad and eased her Mom’s extra responsibilities. A burden shared will not be a burden at all, her mom’s life motto echoed in her head.
She walked into the kitchen pondering on what to cook for breakfast. Two of her cousins are early risers so she couldn’t dillydally with her preparations.
“Surely they are up. Mom’s voice is like thunder, even Zeus would be up!” she mumbled to herself. She broke four farm eggs into a big bowl, stirred it up, sprinkled some salt and added a dollop of cream into it. She pulled out six slices of white bread and soaked them in the luscious egg mixture. Once the bread was cooked on the buttery hot pan, she sandwiched them with turkey ham and cheddar cheese between two of the slices. They would be having croque-monsieur for their first meal of the day. “Easy-peasy recipe for me, the queen of lazy.” she sang while cleaning the stove.
“Breakfast is ready, kings and queens!” she shouted before running upstairs and knocking on the bedroom door. Then she jumped into the shower. As usual, she would be spending at least half an hour in there, as she loved her morning karaoke session while doing her hair.
Farrah woke up after a long deep sleep. She was in a different bedroom than her own house in Kota Bharu. This eight feet by twelve feet area, looked more chic compared to hers. The soft apricot colour wall matched the green emerald desk and cabinet. The two tall wardrobes and bedsteads made from solid teak wood nicely balanced the room, giving a touch of masculinity to such a girly room. The room that she shared with her sister, Frieda was similar to this, but it had no special character or unique personality. It was somehow quite plain and predictable; almost very reserved like her. The only thing she loved in her sweet space was the fact that she had plenty of books. She had nearly 500 books, kept neatly in boxes under her bed; hidden from everyone else. Those precious boxes were her treasure, and those books were her life.
She shook Frieda to wake her up. They were 462km away from home in what it felt like a foreign land, although she was still in Malaysia. Maybe she was already missing her home, or maybe this was the first time she had traveled so far from her books.
Farrah recalled the past two days’ journey while waiting for her turn to use the bathroom.
“Farrah take care of Frieda ya! Don’t be naughty at your Uncle, Pak Lee’s house; don’t ask for anything from Auntie Rose; don’t walk alone and don’t go out at night until late. Remember my advice!” Farrah recalled her Mak’s instruction before she boarded the Ekspres Rakyat Timuran at KTM Wakaf Baru Station.
She was only 18 and her sister had just finished her PMR examination. This would be her first time taking a train to Kuala Lumpur, if not for her sister, Frieda who insisted on following her. Anyhow, she was kind of glad she could have her sister around to share this experience with. Once a close cousin, Farrah had somehow lost the touch with Angelica who was 5 years her senior. They had not spoken or written to each other for more than 7 years.
It had taken them nearly 13 hours to reach KTM KL Sentral Station. This train had to travel from Kelantan to Pahang and Negeri Sembilan before entering Selangor. They had both chosen the lower bunk beds, complete with a curtain to protect their privacy. Although the trip was at night, she had been thrilled as she could see the dark jungle from the outside as the train passed through the Banjaran Titiwangsa. Once they arrived, they had freshened up and had a light meal. From there, she had pulled their luggage from KTM intercity train to transit to KTM Port Klang line. After about 40 minutes, they had stepped out of the train and were greeted by their uncle.
“Oh, sampa jugok oghe Kelate ke sini, deh. Lamo ko dale tren?” (Finally, you both have arrived here. How long was the journey?) Pak Lee had asked cheerily as he hadn’t seen his nieces for about a year since last Aidilfitri. Every time he met a Kelantanese, he would spontaneously speak in the slang that is also his mother tongue.
“Tok lamo la, Pok Lee. Dale 13 je ja. Pok Li sihat? Auntie Rose sihat? Mok Pok kighim sale.” (It wasn’t long, Pak Lee. About 13 hours only. How are you? What about Auntie Rose? My parents sent their regards to you both.) They had continued their conversation as they were walking to the car while Frieda shyly remained silent. Pak Lee then brought them home for a rest after nearly 15 hours of adventure.
That night, Pak Lee had reserved a table for the whole family and his nieces as a welcome dinner for them. Although he had been living in Kuala Lumpur for nearly 40 years, his taste buds had not altered; he still had the same palette as most Kelantanese. He had taken them out to his favourite Thai-Malay restaurant in Shah Alam. As Kelantan is one of the states of Malaysia bordering Thailand, many of the traditional dishes are heavily influenced by Thai flavours such as the famous tom yam.
“Jange sege. Make banyok-banyok. Nanti kuruh, Mok Pok bising.” (Don’t be shy. Eat all this. If not, you will be skinny and your parents will scold me.) Pak Lee had said as he scooped out some of the fat butter prawns and fresh steamed sea bass into their plates. Farrah glanced at Angelica who hadn’t talked to her since she put her luggage in Angelica’s room. She wondered if she was disrupting Angelica’s fancy life. “Now Angelica is studying in that famous college. She must not want to do anything with me,” her heart had murmured.
“Farrah, you can take your shower first! I am going to sleep for another 30 minutes,” Frieda interrupted her ponderings. She lazily pulled herself up and took out the towel from their luggage.
“Are you girls ready? I am Angelica Knowles aka Beyonce’s lost Asian younger sister. I am your FOC tour guide, sponsored by FaMa. Today, we will go to KL! Hoorayyy!” Angelica announced to Farrah and Frieda. She was decked up in her black skinny jeans, modern graphic tee with the constructed blazer, leather handbag on her arm, colourful headscarf on her head and 3 inch espadrille wedges on her feet.
“Wow, you’re like the Devil Wears Prada!” Frieda said admiringly her cousin. Farrah just looked down at her sombre assemble; big baggy pants, black long-sleeved shirt with earth tones headscarf. She wished she had a pair of jeans in her luggage so she could change into one. She felt like an ah soh next to Angelica. The three of them couldn’t be more different.
“We will go to KLCC, have lunch at Chili’s then shopping! There are so many stores. H&M, Uniqlo, M&S, Zara. Oh, I have to bring you to DvF and Coach for their new Autumn / Winter collection. And Tiffany & Co! Then we will chill at Starbucks! How’s that? KLCC, here we come!” informed Angelica. Frieda giggled, anticipating the excitement. Farrah sighed with heaviness.
“Farrah, why are you so quiet? Are you all right?” asked Angelica.
“I am good. I feel a bit out of place. I am just a kampung kid.”
“Eh, don’t say that. I am a kampung kid, too,” Frieda interrupted the conversation.
“Yes, don’t say that. We will get you both some new clothes, okay. Covering your aurat doesn’t have to make you look old and sad.”
“No, you don’t have to splurge on us. We have our own money,” Farrah interjected.
“This is on me! As you both have come here to visit us, so this is my treat, not from FaMa.”
After a scrumptious lunch of crispy honey chipotle chicken and southwestern quesadillas, they walked like a sloth to some of the fashion stores. Farrah tried a couple of new outfits while Frieda and Angelica sat down on the couch. They played a Project Runway game whereby Farrah would come out dressed in an outfit and Angelica would give her some marks and fashion tips. Frieda acted as the official photographer of the session. Farrah settled for a loose pink colour shirt and denim jacket. “Change into that now, we have a play to watch tonight,” urged Angelica.
“Play!? Yeah, yeah! I have never watched a play before!” gasped Frieda.
“But Mak will not let us out at night,” Farrah reminded her sister.
“It is all right, girls. Auntie Rose will pick us up from KLCC at around 7.30pm. And you will not want to miss this show. It is about Mak Yong! I am sure you have not watched anything like this. The show is only for five limited days. It will be so good, I bet you!”
Farrah was quite surprised that her cousin knew about Mak Yong. Although she stayed in Kelantan, even she herself had not watched any kind or form of Mak Yong. This traditional cultural show had been banned in that state as it has some roots from other religions. However, she now recalled that Angelica had been far more inversed into the cultural aspect of Kelantan since she was younger, more than any other cousin she knew. Angelica had put in those activities in her bucket list as a way to get to know herself and their heritage. “Angelica stays in KL, yet she appreciates all these more than me. Why is that?” thought Farrah.
“Girls, we will be watching Usikan Rebab. It is a story about a Mak Yong prima donna and her three daughters. So, this show will click a lot with all of you, as it showcases the relationship between mother and daughter, with Mak Yong as the centre piece or the glue of the whole show,” explained Auntie Rose in detail.
Angelica told them that the show venue, Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (klpac) was situated at West Sentul in Kuala Lumpur. Somehow, Farrah was more intrigued by this than any other aspect of the trip to KL. She knows it is from home because it is Mak Yong. Somehow, she could understand why Angelica was so excited by this kind of art. Perhaps this would connect them both together, again.
They fell asleep in the car as the traffic was quite congested, although the journey only took about 35-minutes. Once they arrived, Farrah couldn’t take her eyes off the architectural beauty of klpac. The bare wall with no paint and the glass walls surrounded by greenery; it was something different compared to the other buildings in the concrete jungle of KL. Her eyes took it all in, hoping she could come here again in future to watch more traditional shows, especially those related to her roots.
“Let’s go, girls! The show is about to start,” called Auntie Rose. They walked slowly into the Pentas 2 hall and took their seats. They were sitting in the middle, front row; the best view in the house. The light was dim, there were not many props in the room; only a small stage for the instruments with a musician and various spot-lit traditional Malay trays hung with strings from the ceiling with little trinkets on it.
The Mak Yong theatre began with beats from the rebab and some other traditional instruments. A woman came out from the back stage. She sat down in the middle of the room. All eyes zoomed into her, all hearts opened. The sad, old mother, Kak Nab who had once upon a time been a beautiful prima donna who championed the art of Mak Yong began telling her story. She cried when she contemplated her legacy and life. Alone as a widow, she was ostracized by her own three daughters. She gave her all to the art yet none of them wanted to learn it from her. Two of her daughters were blessed with her talent but they refused to continue practising any art form of Mak Yong.
Ani, the first daughter had stopped speaking to Kak Nab after she left Kelantan and migrated to Kuala Lumpur. She was now a dangdut dancer, adored by many middle-aged men at a dangdut club. She also did a sideline job as product promoter. Kak Nab’s second daughter had become a pious, strict religious teacher, Ustazah Idah Though she did not harbour any hatred towards her mom, she still couldn’t accept the fact that her mother lived and breathed Mak Yong, not just as a performer but also as an art practitioner. To her, anything secular or anti-Islamic should be prohibited, including Mak Yong as it has elements of animism. Kak Nab’s last daughter, Yam was a dance choreographer and instructor. In her eyes, there was no space for any traditional, old-fashioned form of dance such as Mak Yong. She saw no art in it and regarded it as backward and pointless. She preferred her modern and contemporary dance.
While Farrah, Frieda, Angelica and Auntie Rose were watching the one woman show, Farrah heard someone crying. She searched for the source of the sound. It did not come from her sister, Frieda as Frieda was fighting the urge to not fall asleep. Maybe she was tired from the whole day outing. Then she looked at Auntie Rose on her left. Auntie was squinting her eyes, concentrating fully on the show. Farrah paused her search and continued to watch the show.
All alone by herself, Kak Nab began to miss her late husband tremendously. Longing for his companionship, she whined and cried and screamed. How could daughters leave their mother this way, she puzzled over their ruthless actions. In the echo of the silence, she was haunted by the sound of rebab which was normally played by her husband. She danced and sang as the true prima donna of Mak Yong in the dark by herself, with only memories as her company. She couldn’t help it, as her soul was Mak Yong and Mak Yong was her. Her love of the art was embedded in her at the spiritual level. For her to erase the passion was for her to die.
The whole crowd cheered and clapped once the show ended. Some even gave a standing ovation. The actress had successfully evoked the souls of each character, with as little as one or two props. Her monologues had seeped into everyone’s minds like the first gulp of cold water after a long hot day of fasting; how simple yet it quenched the thirst of the lost soul who wanted to know more about their culture and heritage.
The 90-minute piece had left a permanent mark in the girls’ hearts, particularly Angelica’s. She sobbed until her eyes turned red. Although she was a half Kelantanese, this Mak Yong art was very dear to her. In her family, she was known as Pak Lee’s proud jewel, often called daddy’s girl or anak butir Pok Lee. They shared such a special bond as she was the one who loved to go back to Kelantan, to breathe the fresh air of Pasir Puteh, to eat plates and plates of laksam, to visit the extended families, dressed in sarong; and to learn the traditional way of making and weaving the ketupat palas. Behind her modern attire, she was a Kelantanese girl through and through. The character of Kak Nab reminded her of her grandmother, Che who had been a proud Kelantanese woman, too. Never during her lifetime had she seen Che raise her voice or scold her grandchildren. The demure, soft-spoken and beautiful woman had been her ideal when she was younger. Oh, how she adored her!
She went to the ladies room straight away after the show ended and took out some concealer from her make-up pouch to touch up her under eyes to lessen the puffiness. Farrah barged in to use the cubicle and was shocked to see how red Angelica’s eyes were.
“So, it was you who cried like a baby just now,” Farrah guessed.
“Yes, I miss Che, Mak Yong and Kelantan very much. I haven’t been back to Kelantan since she have passed away. When she was alive, I would drive to Pasir Puteh every month with my father. Now, it just feels empty. What is a big wooden house, without our beloved living in it?” explained Angelica in detail.
Then, they both rushed to the car after receiving a text from Auntie Rose. Auntie wanted to go for a supper at a mamak restaurant nearby their house, so they had to hurry.
While in the car, Frieda began yawning like a little baby. She then fell asleep in the passenger seat, reclined for her comfort. Auntie was listening to the 70s Malay songs which she had saved into her 16GB pen drive. Those songs reminded her of her younger days. Behind the driver’s seat, Angelica logged into Facebook to post about the Mak Yong theatre show she had watched less than 30 minutes ago. She always recorded her daily activities on her social media accounts, one of her ways to immortalize the memories.
“You know what I loved about the theatre show just now?” Angelica asked Farrah. “Mak Yong is like Che; an old beautiful cultural art that has been overlooked day by day by us Kardashian-Jenner worshipping western-world-loving generation. And the four daughters are like us! We have been white-washed to the core until we have forgotten who we are. We praise Macbeth but we hate Mak Yong. We deny the elements that shaped us. We forget that without the old heritage, it is impossible to pave a new layer of us. We have forgone our history! In every blood of the Kelantanese, there is a cell derived from Mak Yong!”
Farrah smiled and her eyes teared up a little. A 90-minute show had given much more to Angelica than to her. “I get what you mean. It is as if we have no culture or art until we have to keep on reviving cultures and arts from other countries. Even to sell the baju Melayu or baju kurung for Aidilfitri, the fashion designers have to use white models.”
“Yes, indeed. Hmm, it is not that I am a total traditionalist. I only wish that people knew more about Mak Yong. It would be a shame if we let this heritage die. Then our kids would no longer know who they are as their identities will be gone with the death of this custom. You know, I have a friend whose parents both hailed from the southwest coast of the Peninsular, but she prefers to dance salsa. What is that? Why did she become like that? She rejects everything that she is, the culture, the custom, the art, the heritage –impersonating someone she isn’t. How would you feel, if your kid were like that? Isn’t that white-washing worse than the animism we fear so much in Mak Yong? Isn’t that scarier? One day, Malaysia might become like a mini USA with our own Miley Cyrus grinding on the pole.”
Farrah was appalled at the imagery Angelica’s words created in her mind. “That is beyond terrifying. It is as if we are selling ourselves, slowly; one part by one part. One day, there will be no us. No Mak Yong, no wayang kulit, no wau bulan, no gasing leper. No more us.”
Hearing that last sentence from Farrah, Angelica stopped talking. She looked out of the window at the full moon, bright in a cloudless sky. How perfect was the shape of the moon, she thought, closing her eyes for a good minute. She remembered how she had loved looking at the moon from Che’s house compound as the sky was always much clearer there. Since she had been in kindergarten, she would stare at the moon every time they returned to Pasir Puteh. She had always been amazed by the pure beauty of it and how she had been given the opportunity to have such a great childhood of having a kampung.
Now, she seldom looked out for the moon. She couldn’t remember the last time she had gazed at it this long. Che used to say to her, “Muko Adek bulat mace bule penuh!” (Your face is as round as the full moon!). Suddenly, beads of hot tears escaped her big brown eyes. She wished Che could see how proud she was to be her granddaughter. She wished she had told Che that. Oh, how she wished! The stream of tears couldn’t be stopped anymore. She tried to silence her convulsive gasps by covering her face with her hands. Witnessing the sudden outburst from Angelica, Farrah hugged her cousin. She cried together with her.
“Girls, don’t cry. I am sure there are many people like both of you. You have to find them. You have to build a stronger network with them and educate society. We can’t lose what we have learnt. Remember that! Now, wipe the tears. We are going to have some hot drinks and snacks in 5 more minutes. You don’t want me to look like a crazy mother who scolded her kids in the car, do you?” Auntie Rose made a silly expression.
The two of them laughed at Auntie Rose. They helped each other to fix their tilted headscarves. Then, Angelica took out her concealer. Luckily she had used waterproof mascara; if not, she resembled a panda.
“Look here, Farrah. Let me dab the puffiness away.” Farrah turned to Angelica and she blotted her face with tissue, then pressed the concealer gently under the eyes. She could feel that their bond was getting stronger. The gap had closed as the night’s curtain drawn down.
“Angelica, if there are more shows like this, can I come with you to watch them?”
“Are you sure? It will be great! I would love to have someone to watch it with. Thank you, Farrah!”
Both cousins walked hand in hand to the mamak restaurant after Auntie Rose parked the car and locked the doors. They had re-affirmed their childhood relationship and they recognised that both of them were a Mak Yong in their own ways, on their own journey of life.
A social media marketeer by profession, Atiqah Nik Ghazali revels in fusion cooking and writing short stories or poems. Always carrying one or two books in hand, she read 85 of them last year and wish to advocate more people to love our own culture, heritage and history.
*** This short story was inspired by Zamzuriah Zahari’s magnum opus, Usikan Rebab. It was staged at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre in 2012 and restaged in 2014. Zamzuriah is among the few Mak Yong practitioners around in Malaysia. Her next show is Mek Mulung Lakhon Dewa Muda. Click here to find out more.
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