From haplessness to feat of wealth

Valentine Tawie

Many readers responded positively to my two articles on ‘pemali’ (ancestral ban) in the last two weeks.

A few told me they also observe and practise injunctions of their own inherited from their forebears. All are in favour of more tales on these prohibitions which relate Iban world of old to the present.

All these bans started many generations ago with some having lasted unbroken for centuries. One of the various tales pertains to five male siblings whose parents died due to illness when the youngest boy was only two years old.

Their eldest brother Alau was 16 and the only one who could do all the daily chores – fish, hunt and tap wild rubber ‘nyelutung’. He did everything to enable their survival while their longhouse mates made no effort to help. This left Alau and his four young brothers to fend for themselves.

“We need to look for new places to tap ‘nyelutung’ as others have prevented us from tapping at places nearby (the longhouse),” he told his brothers. All agreed as his word was their law; after all he was the one doing all the work for their survival.

So, Alau led his brothers in an excursion farther away from their longhouse. They made sure to bring some salt. After a day or two in the jungle, they were still unsuccessful in finding any wild rubber to tap.

Alau built a crude shelter for them to rest at night and subsequently wandered around alone, hoping for a good change of luck. He went too far and it was becoming dark but he noticed a light on the tree top and heard a voice calling him to go up – a special ladder was laid down for his use.

Soon he was up and exchanged pleasantries with the family comprising a teenage girl and her parents. They served him a sumptuous dinner, a great change from his typical meal. Alau was too tired and fell asleep. By the time he woke up all the three inhabitants had left. He was alone for a while as they came back shortly afterwards.

“We are not human – we are monkeys,” the girl’s father told Alau. “We know you and your brothers are suffering after your parents departed. But don’t worry; just a short distance away from here, there are hundreds of ‘nyelutung’ trees waiting to be tapped. Good luck to you and brothers.”

At that moment, all three of them were transformed and became monkeys and they were among tree branches, no longer staying on a floored ‘home’ as the night before. The monkey patriarch brought him down and led him back to his brothers. It disappeared when they reached the temporary shade housing his siblings who were elated to see him back.

He told them about his experience and rendezvous at the tree top with the monkey family but most of all about them telling him about hundreds of ‘nyelutung’ trees nearby their present location.

Their fishing trip in the afternoon resulted in a good catch. At the same time they managed to find the location of the ‘nyelutung’ trees and Alau planned their next move – to start tapping the wild rubber. He was so tired and fell asleep. This was when he dreamt of meeting the monkey patriarch Apai Kera, the one who earlier led him back to his siblings.

In his dream, the monkey was in human form. He gave Alau some vital advice on tapping the wild rubber trees and wished him luck.

“From now onwards you, your brothers and future descendants are forbidden to catch, keep in captive, kill and take monkey meat.

“On our part we will always try our best to protect your wellbeing. We wish you prosperity and good health,” he told Alau.

When he woke up, he told his brothers about the message that they were ‘mali kera’.

They finally found ‘gold’ from among the trees and succeeded in recording the largest sales in countless consecutive months. By a year, they managed to amass so much wealth far beyond their age.

Others were wondering from where they obtained so much ‘nyelutung’ latex. After some years, they invited a few trusted longhouse mates to join them in tapping the trees. By then Alau was a revered wealthy leader but he maintained his humility.

His marriage to a fellow longhouse girl added more to the number of people under the ‘mali kera’ injunction. By the time his youngest brother won a girl’s hand in marriage, the siblings were the wealthiest household heads in the region that comprised scores of longhouses.

· Karambir Singh is indisposed, and this article replaces his weekly Coffee Table Viewpoint.

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