Genies, gin and ghost stories

Ghosts don’t haunt us. That’s not how it works. They’re present among us because we won’t let go of them.

— Sue Grafton, American writer

I come from a family who believes in ghosts.

We’ve seen them, spoken to them and even chased them away.

Hard to believe, but ghosts are not a figment of imagination because to some people, they are real.

So, it was not surprising when I learn that even the Muslims believe in jin and mahluk — ogres or giants of some sort.

In the Malay world there are a variety of hantu and depending where you come from they have different names. The first jin I learnt about, at the age of 11, was the Hantu Raya.

Malay boys my age who lived at Kampung Krian Seberang Jalan Kereta Api — a village across the railway at Maxwell Road in Alor Star — swore they were not just jin and ghosts were not fairy tales!

Chot, Pee-Ee and Kiri who came from the families of poor farmers described the tree ghost as a wizened old man with long testicles.

Zain, the bomoh’s son said: “My father said if anyone was brave enough to climb to the highest tip of the Pokok Ru (casuarina tree), grab his dangling genitals and put the ‘man’ in a bottle, you would be rich for life.”

Which little boy was foolish enough to do just that?

As I spent much of my time in the kampung, I often joined the boys as we raided the fruit gardens of the richer Chinese farmers. Needless to say, ghosts or no ghosts, I got a whipping from my mother Lily when word got out that the police chief’s son was in the party of roving scamps!

Lily, who was somewhat of a psychic-cum spiritualist, must have inherited the genes of her Malay mother because she seemed to attract strange ghouls wherever she went.

Our brush with the spirits started when we were living at Pringgit Hill in Malacca where an old Indian lady would visit my older sister Cynthia in her room in the old colonial bungalow.

Each night the lady, who wore a Malay sarong kebaya, would sit at the edge of Cynthia’s bed and would look at my sister lovingly as if watching over her child.

It reached a point where Cynthia had little sleep and was always late for school. My mother then coached Cynthia to tell the old lady: “Auntie, can you please stop bothering me because I want to sleep.”

And the spirit disappeared.

Even as I write this at 4am, I get goosepimples thinking that the auntie could be standing behind me. In one close encounter in Alor Star late one night, my mother stopped in the middle of a back lane apparently to allow a pretty Malay lady to cross the road.

When the lady got to the opposite side of the road, she smiled and suddenly shot off into the sky like a rocket.

Mum asked: “Did you see she was walking six inches above the ground?’ and when I said “No” I got a backhand! They call this kind of ghost a langsuir, a well-known vampire type, which is related to the infamous pontianak, a pretty lady who died while giving birth and could change her form into a witch to take her revenge on her lover.

In 1968 when I was 18, my Malay girlfriend and I did see a ghost at the old Brooke-era Chinese cemetery which has been dug up to make way for the new Kuching amphitheatre.

We were sitting on a mat next to an old tombstone when a ball of light appeared about 200 yards away at the Jalan Budaya roundabout, next to classmate Edgar Ong’s family house.

It was a Hantu Galah (a tall bamboo ghost) because shortly after, it gave an interesting exhibition — the ball of light turned into a 20-foot pillar of shimmering white before taking the form of a dog and galloping away.

We left after that.

It could not have been a figment of my imagination, because two people saw it. The best ghost story happened to a dear old Eurasian friend who had an encounter with an Iban ghost at the old government quarters in Simanggang in the early 1950s.

According to Adam, this lady with long black hair visited him every night for three months after his posting to Simanggang as a junior agricultural officer.

Initially, she appeared in the middle of the night and in the candlelight, chatted and tried to woo the handsome man.

It reached a point when the “lady in black” was getting too serious, forcing my friend to tell his fiancée about it and inviting her to the house to see for herself.

True to his story, the lady lover turned up that night. But instead of frightening off Adam’s beau, it was reprinded. The ghost never appeared after that.

My friend’s Iban wife said: “True … I met her. It was dark … she had long black hair and I couldn’t see her face. I pleaded to her to stop bothering the man I was going to marry and she just disappeared.”

Today, the 80-year-old couple are now happy grandparents, while my friend has grown a Santa Claus beard.

Christmas and jin aside, I am going for a gin and tonic to celebrate.

In case you didn’t know, gin tonic saved Sir Charles Brooke’s life several times, thanks to the tonic’s quinine which is an anti-malaria medicine. Later tonight, I’ll catch up with Sir Charles ‘Santa Claus’ and Rudolph as they take off into the starry sky!

The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune.