By A Jessie Michael
I am Busun, born in one world and living in two.
Excitement crawls like insects in my veins and explodes. My friends and I are distracted and hyperactive, packing meagre clothes into haversacks and scheming haphazardly about what we will do during the holidays.
The smells of the forest hit my senses as soon as our convoy of three 4WD SUVs leaves the highway and veers into a small tarred road which quickly morphs into a muddy track. These are odours we grew up with and missed so much – of earth, trees, vegetation, water, dankness, raw animal smells. My lungs expel the city smog and I breathe easier. The canopy rising from either side of the track and meeting over it cocoons us in its green coolness.
Once a year we change worlds and this other world draws us magnetically away from where we spend ten months a year — in a Christian hostel on the outskirts of the city, from where we are ferried to a government school to learn English, Malay, Geography, History, science and Maths. The towns near our Orang Asli community have no residential facilities, so when our elders heard the pastor offering to house and school the children for free, they thought it was a good opportunity for us to learn of the outside world. We get school every weekday, three meals daily, a structured life of learning and a regular input of Bible study. For two months a year we return to our Orang Asli community in the jungle. We call ourselves Temiar, foreigners call us aborigines, the government calls us Orang Asli and rude people call us sakai.
The ride becomes bumpy and suddenly it is bright and the green is gone. The heat hits us hard and the air is smoggy brown. Tree stumps stick out on a vast field of red on either side. Last year there was thick jungle here. Now the trees are gone. Our drivers try avoiding the deep wet ruts left by weighty lorries and trucks. Four times our vehicles sink in turn into the muddy tracks. We spend an hour each time maneuvering the vehicles out of the churning mud. There are streams to cross in the upper reaches where the tracks will virtually disappear. Then hopefully it will be jungle again.
Seven hours after setting out, we roll into an opening in deep jungle with a cluster of bamboo shacks. We ecstatically leap out whooping and racing like puppies let loose. Our parents and elders stand around grinning; they are not a demonstrative tribe. A look of gratitude and a laden table is plenty enough.
Our volunteer drivers and chaperons are ushered to the rickety bamboo table piled with food especially prepared for them and for us — yam and rice rolled in leaves and roasted in bamboo, a variety of boiled herbs and greens, roasted wild boar meat and venison — a rare feast for an auspicious day. Everyone digs in with fingers. We eat greedily, having missed this basic diet for months. The food reorients me. The empty vehicles leave soon after in order to exit the jungle before dark.
As we mingle with friends, I notice my father observing me closely. I am surprised to see that I have grown a head taller than him. He approaches me that evening before the night ceremonies begin.
“Busun,” he calls. “How is school?”
He spoke in our Temiar dialect and I quickly swing back into this mode of abrupt, brief speech.
“I don’t understand school….”
“The things we learn…. we can’t use.”
“What do you learn?”
“About past events in places we don’t know…. about cities and countries we never see…. they even tell us about the jungle….but they don’t know the jungle….I know the jungle. They can’t climb trees….no trees to climb, can’t kill animals or use a blowpipe….”
“Nice, clean. There is electricity but we can’t use much. It is expensive. A lot of food but not our food……I don’t like it much.”
“You don’t like the city? …. not happy?”
“No. They change us…”
“We cannot speak Temiar in school…. must speak English and Malay. The other children laugh at us…. they call us ‘sakai” …. They don’t know us. In school they talk of Islam…. At hostel …. they teach about Jesus Christ….no meaning. How are the fruit orchards?”
“The rains have been unseasonal,” my father complains. “The fruit blossoms have been blown down in the storms. The fruit season will be poor this year.”
Juicy pulasan, langsat, medicinal petai and jering and wild long thorned durians are our specialty. Our people foray out in season to sell these to locals for a pittance, who in turn make a hefty profit in market towns further away.
My father speaks to me differently than before. Perhaps he sees I have grown up and that I see things as my elders do. How will the children survive in the jungle? The other children and I have lost muscle and gained more flab. Bigger, fatter is a disadvantage in the jungle which needs agile skills. We have to relearn our forest skills every time we return from school. We forget much or rather our bodies forget.
At sundown the traditional cleansing ceremony begins. We shed our city clothes and don our minimal traditional woven bark garbs and headgear of bamboo leaves and feathers. Wooden and bamboo musical instruments are taken off the walls. The Halaa or medium arrives to lead the community in removing any malevolent spirit and influences that may have followed us children from the city to upset the balance of our lives with the jungle spirits. Accompanied by crude drum, zephyrs, flutes, rattles and poles keeping beat against each other. The community in chorus echoes the chants of the Halaa as he sings and dances himself into a trance as he performs to our polyphonically sung music — melodies that live under our skin, and that we subconsciously draw out. The cleansing over, the musicians, especially the young ones continue long into the night reproducing magical sounds of birdsong, crickets chirping and animal calls, water flowing, wind whistling.
I fall asleep under the stars feeling strange – sans walls, windows, doors and pillows. The symphony of the sounds of the night sing loud in my ears – insects whirring, frogs in a croaking chorus, animal howls and grunts — so different from the roar of vehicles on the city highway. I strain to identify separately these almost foreign sounds. Still, I awake refreshed, the unfamiliarity gone. I am one with the elements again, dew on my face, dappled light overhead casting shadows that dance on my skin.
I make my way to the river ten minutes away. My unpracticed bare feet stumbling over huge tree roots, vines, thicket and bamboo and slipping on slopes and ledges where once I romped like a deer. The younger children are already there, cutting through the water like little otters. They have not swum for ten months. However, my anticipated pleasure is short lived. The once pristine waters of the river now runs red — bleeding.
I return from the river a little while later to find all the village men gathered at the open area, with machetes and poles.
“We are going to Doso’s village,” my father announces to me.
I ask one of the other young men, “What’s happening?”
“Loggers. Trying to go through Doso’s village. They are cutting the jungle upriver. Already begun. And the loose earth is already clogging the river. The water is dirty. Doso’s village is short of food. The animals are moving out or dying. The loggers want the village to move. There is nowhere to go anymore. We help them and some people from outside are helping us to stop the loggers. From upriver the loggers will move down to our village. We too have nowhere to go…”
I listen in silence. Inside confusion stirs. As we walk to Doso’s village, I recall the vast red field with tree stumps on the way home yesterday. I had not even thought of the dangers it posed. Where will animals and birds go if there is no jungle? Where would I go? Whenever I am home I become one with the jungle. There are no timetables, deadlines, learning of unpragmatic knowledge, no competitions, exams or pride from dubious achievements. Here we all flow with the pulse of nature, living off its bosom and never yearning for more.
Emerging from the trees with the men and some women, we come upon a broad track denuded of trees. The blazing sun and the breeze raise a haze of red dust. Our people have constructed a crude barricade of logs to stop the trailers and tractors from driving further in.
We have hardly ever had confrontations. Violence is alien to us; passive resistance is our way. Even the assumed weapons we carry is to rebuild the stockade which has been bulldozed several times by the loggers. Yet here we are walking straight into a conflict. I hear a rare anger in my father’s voice. He speaks more than I have ever heard him speak before.
“We have been here forever with the spirits of our ancestors….Now the government says we do not own the land because we have no ownership papers. How can we have ownership papers when we always move our village when someone dies or we need more space? If they take the jungle, we die. It is beyond our understanding… it is beyond their understanding. No one owns anything. We only live, one with the earth, sky, water, animals and plants. We get food, medicine and life here. It is enough.”
Suddenly I remember that yesterday after lunch I had climbed to the mountain top and seen large swathes of red, like blood, and small patches of green. I had not thought about it then but now realise that the skin of the earth was peeled off, showing flesh. The spirits of the trees and stones were homeless.
Today we all squat in the shade of the jungle fringe till we see a convoy of vehicle arriving — visitors from the authorities. That usually means officers from the department of Orang Asli and the Forest Department. Following the vehicles are young men on motorcycles. I recognise them as teenagers who have been lured out of the jungle into settlements prepared especially for them.
A few individuals standing away from the officials approach us and begin to speak in Malay. Those Orang Asli who can understand Malay translate for the others. I too join to translate what is said as I speak fluent Malay and Temiar.
“We support you; some of us are lawyers and we all fight for people’s rights. We will fight for you in court to stop the logging and allow you to stay here.”
Men with cameras move around taking photographs of the stockade and of the other Orang Asli who stand back passively.
The group of officials gather in front of the stockade and one man bellows out through a megaphone in Malay. His voice goes far and wide into the trees. After every few sentences one of the motorcycle riding boys in jeans and smart batik shirts translates the sentences into Temiar.
In essence I gather that we the Orang Asli are in the wrong place. The government has allocated certain areas in the forest reserves where we are allowed to live. The area where we live now is allocated for logging. The loggers have licenses. If we refuse to move, we can be arrested.
The friends of the Orang Asli shout through their own megaphone, “This is a forest reserve. NO logging allowed, NO chasing out Orang Asli.”
The other speaker ignores the protest and continues that these allocated areas are on the edge of the forest near the towns; we will have access to electricity, water, work and education for the children. There are hospitals nearby and mosques; even homes will be built for us. “Look at your friends,” he gestures to the bike boys. “They wear nice clothes and ride motorbikes.”
It is obvious that these people not only want the jungle but also want to change us to be like them — not to be as we really are. The changes have been subtle over time. In previous years, our nakedness had been a problem; our bare breasted women and loinclothed men have been yelled at, called sakai and hounded back into the jungle when they ventured out to sell rattan, seasonal fruits and wild honey or trade them for rice or tools. Now we wear donated clothes and frocks to appease the outsiders. It is the same as going to the far away school where for ten months I become someone else. What will I be after I completely change? A motorbike lay-about boy doing odd jobs for a meal? The motorbikes and their appearance for the day is part of the theater of change.
I hear the man’s voice rise. “Now let us know if you accept this offer.”
My people mutely shake their heads while our supporters shout, “NO! These people were not consulted. We go to court.”
“We are consulting them now. Move away from the barrier,” orders the official.
We do not move away. We close ranks and hope we look pretty menacing with our poles and machetes.
The official gives three more warnings and then there is chaos. Some plainclothes men rush forward. We hear the word police, and most of my people melt into the trees. However, a young man Anjam and I are handcuffed as we are speaking to our supporters. We do not resist and are dragged into a truck while our supporters argue loudly with the police. When this happens, the villagers reappear in alarm. Some outsiders are already breaking the stockade but the lawyers and our supporters pack as many of the Temiar villagers into their own vehicles and follow the truck right to the police station an hour away.
My head is in a whirl. What did we do wrong? A policeman herds Anjam and me into the police station while the others are barred entry. However, a lawyer among them insists on entering with us. We are questioned by a police officer and I answer him in Malay, giving him my name, age and school. I also answer on behalf of Anjam who only speaks Temiar. The officer seems taken aback and his aggressive tone diminishes. He orders that we be put in the only empty cell for the night until the District Police officer shows up the following day.
The next noon we hear an outburst of voices in the compound of the station. I gather from fragments of speech that the District Police Officer has arrived. The activists and the lawyer are protesting to him to release us at least on bail. He agrees and I soon see why. As we exit the station, we see half the village squatting all over the police compound together with our supporters, keeping vigil till our release. I am grateful they have stayed to give us strength. If he does not release us, my people will not budge. Even the ones rehomed into the new settlements behave similarly. When any of them is hospitalised, the whole village follows and sits around the wards or grounds, attempting to feed the patient jungle herbs. The police send all of us prisoners and families back as far as the stockade in a jeep. The stockade has been rammed to the ground.
Two days later Anjam is very ill. Several Halaas perform all-day and all-night trance rituals searching for Anjam’s missing soul but on the third day Anjam is dead. The elders blame it on exposure to outside malevolence but I remember how when we are in the cell Anjam needs to pee. A policeman takes him out but the boy comes back a while later bent double and speechless. In the morning he seems alright but fades into unconsciousness at home. When they bathe his body for burial, the blue bruises and swelling on his middle back are obvious.
The day of the funeral the sky weeps in torrents, drowning out the chants of the Halaa and the keening of the villagers. The grave is already dug on the other side of the river and as we mourners cross via the huge log that bridges the banks, the roiling river, tumbling and rolling wildly, threatens to drown us. We have no way of turning back when the omnipresent Thunder Spirit explodes in anger and releases the mountain to swallow us, making us one with the cosmos, with the earth and keeping us home.
What’s left is upended trees, boulders and mud — a movement of the mountain in apocalyptic proportions spreading at least a kilometer in radius. Giant roots reach for the sky and treetops lay buried — a new unmapped terrain of an unmappable people.
 Sakai: slang, offensive, ethnic slur, used for an Orang Asli or native people.
A. Jessie Michael is a retired Associate Professor of English from Malaysia. She has written short stories for online journals, local magazines and newspapers. She has published an anthology of short stories Snapshots, with two other writers and most recently her own anthology The Madman and Other Stories (2016).
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