Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Sweet Smell of Heaven

The Rehal (Quran Stand)

Over the weekend, we were invited by our adopted son to dinner at his girlfriend's pad in Pantai Hillpark, where I spied two obviously well-fed cats sprawled contentedly on the wooden floor of her plant-filled, kerchief-sized balcony.

The duo, one a local breed with orange and white markings and the other greyish white peculiar to Siamese stock, eyed me with interest as I advanced to give them a pat each. As soon as I reached them however, both bolted. But not for long.

The orange cat proved friendlier than the two, for she later waddled over to the well-scratched, cream-coloured sofa where I sat, and rubbed her body against my leg. The Siamese at first kept his distance but later cautiously approached and started sniffing at my handbag on the floor by the sofa side.

That was when the girlfriend said "Uh oh!". I looked up enquiringly, and she explained that the cat had bad breath. No, make that awfully, incredibly foul breath. "Habislah your handbag!" She added for good measure.

Obviously she didn't know me well. My love for these furry felines is such that I could, and would, endure anything just so I could have them near, for a touch or a cuddle. Also, I have had numerous cats with unbelieveably rancid breath before, so it was no issue.

She said she had taken the cat to the vet, who had told her that the poor thing had gum problems. At nine years of age (63 in human years) there was nothing much that could be done except to put him on prescription. And he has been taking medication regularly ever since.

The cat's rotten breath somehow rekindled bittersweet memories long dormant when I got home that night, and I resolved to write about it when the time was right. Well, here it is. By the way, it is not just another story. It is a lesson well-learned.

Unlike many children, I started learning the Quran later than most. I finished the Muqadam (a collection of must-learn verses, the minor Quran as they call it) at the age of 10 and started on the Holy Book proper only at 13.

At that time my grandfather had just retired from his clerical job at the Bukit Besi iron mine. He bought a piece of land in Dungun, 22 miles southwards by the sea. It was a prime acre by the main road not far from Dungun General Hospital.

There he built a two-storey building, turned the ground floor into a sundry shop and the top floor into our living quarters. He also built a single-storey shoplot next to the building, and two units of kampung houses behind the main building. All three were then rented out.

The single-storey shoplot saw many tenants over the years during my childhood but none as memorable as imperious Mok Ku Teh, the blue-blooded baulu maker.

For the uninitiated, baulu is a a traditional kueh (sweetmeat), a kind of spongy cake made of lots and lots of eggs and sugar, and good as a teatime treat. Kampung people usually eat it dunked in black coffee.

Fair-skinned Mok Ku must have been a real beauty in her youth; she was still comely in her 50s. I am not privy to how Mok Ku and Grandma came to know each other, but they were the best of friends. Now, Mok Ku Teh's baulu was famous throughout Dungun and that I can vouch for.

My best friend Hamidah (daughter of the family maid/helper, Mok Cik Selema), whom my grandparents adopted to keep me company, and I sometimes would go over to Mok Ku Teh's little shop next door and watch her at work. She wouldn't allow us to help, though.

At around 3pm on certain schooldays and most weekends, Hamidah and I, dressed in baju kurung, with a selendang covering our hair and a copy of the Quran under our arms, would trudge along the criss-crossing kampung path, walking past tall, swaying coconut trees, clumps of kemunting (purple berry) bushes, and attap-thatched huts, to a wooden house on stilts belonging to Tok Ku, our Quran teacher.

Upon arrival, our first task would be to draw water from a nearby well and fill the two humongous tempayan (water jars) flanking the wooden stairs leading up to her house. Then we would wash our feet using a gayung (a kind of ladle) made of coconut shell, before entering the house for our daily lessons.

We would sit in a complete circle around her, our Quran in place on a carved wooden rehal (special Quran stand, pix above) and begin reciting. The number of students at any one time varied, usually 10 to 15, boys as well as girls.

The birdlike old lady was Mok Ku Teh's mother. While not imperious as the daughter, Tok Ku was nonetheless one fierce teacher who taught with a cane in hand. She would make us recite the verses over and over again until she was satisfied with our pronunciation.

Now, Tok Ku had one major problem. Her breath was a real stinker. Even now, I feel like a snitch telling this story, but you have to hear me out. For a good reason.

Of course, now that I am almost as old as Tok Ku then, I know she was probably suffering from halitosis. Whatever the case, Hamidah and I almost always nearly gagged when she peered into our faces to correct our recitation.

It wasn't long before Tok Ku's predicament came to my grandmother's knowledge, no thanks to my blabbering. I didn't realise Grandma overheard my bellyaching, and asked me about it. My woes came pouring out - how we couldn't stand the foul smell and didn't feel like continuing our lessons with her.

When I finished griping, Grandma took a deep breath, looked me in the eye and said evenly: "What you smell is not stench, it is the sweet smell of heaven, from the mouth of an old woman who teaches the verses of the Holy Quran to an ignoramus like you."

I was speechless. And properly chastised. Truth be told, in the months to come, her bad breath became tolerable to the point where it ceased to be a problem because, somehow, we were no longer aware of it. Thanks to that blessed woman, Hamidah and I completed the entire Quran almost two years later...


17 comments:

Kak Teh said...

Puteri, re:love of cats.
My AG had just changed the duvet cover, washed the duvet because Kissinger is acting very strangely these days and sprayed all over the duvet. Still, no anger, nothing. Kalau kucing tidur di tengah katil puntak apa - we just try to accomodate around them, yes them.

Kama At-Tarawis said...

Kak Teh - you and I, two peas in a pod :)

Pp said...

puteri kama :-)

a lesson i will pass on to my children for sure!

That 'mandatory' filling up of the tempayan before ascending the steps to start the Quran lesson - was also practiced in Kelantan where I belonged. And being an examplary student that I was - I was always early and contributed the most. hehehe So I wanted to believe.

Kama At-Tarawis said...

PP - such quaint practice, eh pp, but we actually enjoyed doing it :) It was no obligation. how about payment? In my case, it was in kind; usually a bag of kitchen necessities like sugar, flour, cooking oil etc (since we ran a sundry shop). I know some pupils paid with coconuts..

bergen said...

Can't get enough of Qur'an. Now a student at UIA.

Kama At-Tarawis said...

Bergen - good for you. I am VERY ashamed to say my Quran reading and reciting is spotty at best. perhap it's time to start again before it's too late.

Queen Of The House said...

Cats are certainly like humans. They even share the same 'diseases'! Didn't know cats can have halitosis, too. I am allergic to cats, fortunately not to any human ;)

Anonymous said...

Komen Pak Malim, kucing ray yg alim.

Malang sungguh nasib Pak Kadok
Ayamnya menang, kampung tergadai
Jangan diharap kucing bersongkok
Suruh mengaji, dia tak pandai.

Cantik rehal itu, kata Pak Malim sambil menggaru kutu. Ooooh, tapi saya tak tau mengaji, kata Pak Malim sambil memegang mata gergaji.

mamasita said...

Your cerita is so very sedap..patutlah many people love your writings!National Geographic Channel from Astro should have made a documentary of your life long ago..patutnya ada drama Melayu adopted from your beautiful life potrayals and experiences!
Talk about the scratchy sofa,my daughter dulu pestered us to buy her a new sofa if we can spare the budget.Now with Hiro around,she is so glad we did not buy one.Kiri kanan sofa ada 'scratching posts' for the adorable 'baby'!

Kama At-Tarawis said...

hehehe mamasita - you are far too kind. as for the sofa, we cat lovers know too well that cats always take precedence over sofa baru!

Kama At-Tarawis said...

Queen - kesianya u're allergic to cats.they make such loveable companions.

wahai pak malim kucing ray yg alim
kama lagi tak pandai mengaji
baca Quran macam start kreta pagi2
terhenggut2 mcm tertelan biji..

lenzaidi said...

Pak malim kuching ray yang alim
Kama puteri bijak bermadah kalam
Sungguh kedua ini penglipur lara
di zaman moden mengalah segala.

Maaf, im scared of cats!
cheers.

Typhoon Sue said...

As I'm writing this, my 10 months old kitty Blanket, is on my lap, complaining bcoz i'm cuddling her too tight. Soon, she will get angry and start hissing. That's when her ever so wonderfully bad breath will hit me right in the face and give me a momentary nausea. Happens every time... Luckily, Blanket's other 2 sisters do not have such condition. Thank God!

and oh, not many people know this, but cats fart too... My Blanket used to hv a very bad case of flatulence. It's silent, but very deadly. Thankfully, it ceased after i got her spayed.

Even org yg tak de halitosis pun akan ada nafas berbau in the morning bila bgn tido, and kalau berpuasa, from afternoon onwards. That's bcoz the esofagus are not washed down for hours so the flora in there flourished. But for org yg berpuasa, the bad breath is, like u said, the smell of heaven. It stinks now, but it will be harum semerbak in the hereafter. My Mom keeps reminding me that, but i don't care. Puasa-puasa pun i pakai listerine..... "Makruh tuh..!!!" my Mom marah. hehe

what can i say, i budak tak reti bahasa

kay_leeda said...

Kak Puteri,

My developments with Manis..she has started to gesel-gesel against my feet and I'm no longer squeamish. And Manis has been coming into my bedroom every morning too. Guess her next lepak place will be the sofa.

Oh...my nose is extra sensitive to all foul odor. I once sprayed the entire meeting room with air freshener after meeting with a group of folks from the Middle East. BO nyer....fuhhhh....

Kama At-Tarawis said...

len - oh dear, takut kat kucing la pulak!

sue - memang during posa month we feel so self-conscious abt our breath.. i berkumur dengan listerine tu tk la, but would tenyeh my gigi bagai nak rak while brushing as though can hilangkan all the bau..

kay - eww, reminds me so much of mat salleh punya body odour masa bergantung kat bawah ketiak depa dlm Tube..LOL

MyWAM said...

Thank you for dropping over and yes, we will be visiting you guys sometime this week, with a 24 hours notice beforehand.

Melly's (short for Smelly) breath sure stinks but he's such a darl' and his early morning rantings is my wake-up call to get ready for work. Can't rely on the alarm clock nowadays, what more the alarms in the handphone. It lullabies you to sleep, even more. Lol.
Take care and be seeing you all very soon, insyaallah.

MrsNordin said...

Budin, my cat, has the same problem ~ holitosis. He has even had a tooth pulled out! But bad breath or not, I still love him!