No accounting for illiterate ‘tali-jera’

The most effective way to do it, is to do it.

— Amelia Earhart, American aviation pioneer and author

In 1962, I was eight and studying in Primary One at Nanga Assam Primary School in Saratok.

That was when my poor dad (Apai) was made “tali jera” (he couldn’t pronounce “treasurer”) of the school committee.

All of us in the family were baffled by the appointment in view that he was illiterate.

For that, I use this week’s column as a tribute to him on his 18th death anniversary.

There was no immediate answer as to why he was made treasurer though in my mind hitherto, number one, he was chosen because of public trust.
Secondly, there was a possibility that during the selection process, nobody was willing to hold the post. Could the third reason be that all the meeting attendees were as illiterate as he was and that he thrived over the others in terms of trust (with cash) and perhaps, good looks?

Then aged 52, Apai was in his prime except that he had no knowledge of arithmetics and only knew how to write numbers 10 and 11 apart from knowing 0 and 1. So there was no accounting done.

I remember he kept some cash in our own cupboard as the school committee had no bank account, and certainly there was no bank in Saratok at that time.

Of course, later he also learnt how to scribble X. I wouldn’t know whether his votes over the years of loyalty to the nation all counted. Or was he ever part of the spoilt votes’ culprits or syndrome as some people would say?

However, in the Iban rituals and oral literary world, Apai was also able to rise up the ranks of the Iban pengap and timang jalung (Gawai Antu) bard. He became a lead bard or “tuai lemambang” for both when he was still in his 40s.

Out of curiosity, I once asked him how he learnt or studied— the various domains and “chapters” in the pengap and timang jalung.

“I learned from a distinguished ‘lemambang’ called Belayung,” he told me, adding that the process took years.

For the timang jalung, performed in sing-song fashion to complete the rituals of Gawai Antu, the festival to commemorate the deceased/dead, the bards need to study the various abodes or domains of the animals, birds, spirits, deceased persons — categorised by the various causes of their deaths — and others by studying the “papan turai” tablet. This tablet shows the sequence of the aforesaid abodes/domains of the various entities.

Apai was also a force to reckon with in oral literature such as the sampi and bebiau chants as well as ensera (storytelling).

Sampi is like a prayer or appeal to the gods and deities for blessing, good harvest and good health during festivals and ceremonies related to farming, wars, marriages and other worldly pursuits.

Bebiau is blessing by the presiding bard for guests during the fest. For the record, Apai was the first to record the sampi in the Radio Sarawak Iban Section in 1955 — thanks to his cousin Gerunsin Lembat (later Tan Sri Datuk and State Secretary) who, at that time, was attached to Radio Sarawak Iban Section.

As lead timang jalung bard, Apai was invited to perform with his charge of four to five bards in many Gawai Antu over the years between 1961 and 1973. At Ulu Rimbas longhouse in Debak, Betong, his amulet batu
tekuyung that was supposed to be his guardian and strength was stolen.

It was named as such as it looked like the river snail (tekuyung) that could withstand the strong river current and would remain stuck to the stone or log in the river. One who owns such amulet would always prevail, no matter how stiff the contest/rivalry is.

Nevertheless, he only called it a day with timang jalung when he was in his early seventies in the 1980s.

As the youngest in the family, I was very attached to Apai and shared his love for Iban oral literature and would have made a good bard — in his own words — if I chose to be one.

He truly lived a long life as promised by Iban legendary folklore war hero Bungai Nuing in his dream circa 1926 as a teenager after encountering a dragon-like creature at a pool known as Letung Naga (Dragon Pool) in upper Melupa, Saratok while tapping rubber.

Despite being 10 years older than mom, he outlived her by 18 years when he died in 2002 aged 92.

His encounters with dragon, giant serpent, cobra and a weird creature were unique and interesting episodes. All ended with peculiar dreams. These made him a special soul.

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