Freedom means "I prefer not too" when dispute resolution fails
among the Semai
Date: Sat, 08 May 1999 11:04:08 -0500
To: Duen Hsi
CC: Robarchek <email@example.com>
Subject: Re: bood site
Duen Hsi: It might be easier for you to go from this message (sorry it's
so long) to the web site than to keyboard it in. Sorry about the pix.
Are they usable? If so, it'd be ok to use them, with a note asking
people not to use them without permission.
I'm sending a copy of this article to Clay Robarchek, who is concerned
with many of the same issues that you and I are; who is an expert on
Semai nonviolence (and the violence of the Waorani, a South American
people); and who is working on a book comparing Waorani and Semai.
The multiple addresses should serve to introduce each of you to the
FREEDOM MEANS "I PREFER NOT TO:
WHEN DISPUTE RESOLUTION FAILS
*****Not for citation or quotation without author's permission******
R. K. Dentan
Shaman. Let me give one answer to your question [about why Semai
traditionally commit so little violence]. When someone does
something wrong, like stealing, we don,t beat them up badly or
kill them. We bring them to judgement under our laws. We are
one family, one people. Maybe we fine them, but only a little.
And we bawl them out, urge them to change their ways, not to set a
bad example for the kids. We don,t want to kill people. We would
be ashamed. And, number two, we would be like the beasts that
Old man. Right. What we think is, if we hit them, we lose out,
we lose a friend. So, in our withdrawal and silent suffering
[kra,di,] we feel bad. But we need help in clearing swiddens, in
feeding ourselves. We realize, if we kill our friend, we lose.
Bei, Nudiy and Jnang Pu,, Teew Waar (16 October 1991)
A new commandment gave I unto you, that ye love one another.,
Yes, this it was that saved me. Aside from higher considerations,
charity often operates as a vastly wise and prudent principle--a
great safe-guard to its possessor. Men have committed murder for
jealousy,s sake, and anger,s sake, and spiritual pride,s sake; but
no man, that ever I heard of, ever committed a diabolical murder
for sweet charity,s sake. Mere self-interest, then, if no better
motive can be enlisted, should, especially with high-tempered men,
prompt all beings to charity and philanthropy.
Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener (1974:924)
[Besides conflict resolution there may be] a different sort of
involvement by third parties, who may help relieve the deleterious
effects of conflict by consoling or reassuring one or both of the
opponents. Such consolation may not end the state of conflict per
se, but it may relieve the stress associated with such a state.
Marina Cords and Melanie Killen, Conflict Resolution in
Human and Nonhuman Primates (1998:204)
This paper concerns (1) the principle of bood, i.e. rejection of
coercion and (2) the bicaraa, , a dispute-resolving mechanism among the
western Senoi Semai. Semai, about 30,000 Austroasiatic-speaking
indigenes of west Malaysia, are among the least violent people known.
Their rulers are the linguistically unrelated Malays, who used to
enslave them. Robarchek,s excellent general accounts (e.g., 1979, 1988,
1995) of the bicaraa' scant the "nuts and bolts and elide the
institution,s failures, as all general accounts must. This article seeks
to compensate for these minor flaws. Nagata,s description of Lanoh
dispute resolution (1995) recalls similarly informal east Semai practice
along the Tluup river in northeast Pahang state in 1962.
Since readers of this web page are probably unfamiliar with Semai but
familiar in abstract terms with the sort of mechanism discussed, this
article is in narrative form. It is important, I think, that readers
understand that Semai, though culturally distinct, are people much like
themselves. Although I have rearranged the details so that the
participants cannot be identified, I have heard all the conversations
and observed the ethnographic minutiae. This style of presentation
takes more space than more orthodox ones. It also, I hope, is more
readable and brings the events to life, so that they do not seem exotica
irrelevent to our own experiences.
There is no authority here but shame (Bah Cong, 1962)1
[A]daptation is a blessing when it isn,t a curse.
Kathe Koja, Kink (1996:201).
When disputes among Semai become serious and begin to affect community
peace, local leaders set a time for a town meeting, a bicaraa, , in
hopes that, under community pressure, the disputants would arrive at a
compromise and restore peace. The centerpiece of the resolution is the
acceptance by the parties involved of a fine or set of fines. There is
an elaborate schedule of fines for various offenses, but in fact the
people who agree to pay often delay payment, sometimes indefinitely.
Love and the need to foster each other are recurrent themes in
speeches that community leaders make at bicaraa,. I use the word "love
here in the broad sense, as Semai do. In the old days, when the world
outside Semai society was just a threat, loving each other was easier,
perhaps. People made the things they needed, and few people had
anything that other people did not have. Men would exchange blowpipes
with each other, for example, not in hopes of getting a better blowpipe,
but just as a sign of male friendship. Most exchanges worked that way.
But love itself is dangerous. You yearn for your beloved person or
home. And places and people are vulnerable. Developers may destroy
your home, government officials "regroup you to a place you,ve never
been. Slavers may steal your children, your parents may die, the one
you love may not love you. Semai see frustration in love, like
frustration in anything else, as dangerous, particularly to the one who
loves. Unrequited love is a form of punan, unsatisfied desire, called
rnyaak. In rnyaak, you feel your loss swelling just behind and below
your eyes, trying to burst out in the tears which private people like
Semai try not to shed (What,s the use? they ask). You feel its silent
echoes in the wet empty sinuses that coil through your skull below your
Later, when rnyaak settles in, you feel your grief hollow out your
stomach just in front of your solar plexus, almost like nausea, almost
like the hollowness that precedes blnuul bhiib or demonic possession, a
sign of spiritual distress far more dangerous than mere sorrow. Your
consciousness drowns in obsessive images of what you,ve lost, broken
hopes and chances wasted; becomes so painful that all you want to do is
sleep. But the sleep is not restful. The deep depression is a
spiritual hurt that leaves you with no appetite or capacity for
pleasure, always tired, so tired, as children are tired when demons
seize their soft little ruwaay head-souls, and turn pale and listless,
and die. Why move? What,s the use? Why not die? Just for the relief
of it? And, Semai say clearly, there is no help. No one can feel your
grief, your loss, your rnyaak. What would the point of that be? Two
people grieving instead of one? When the people you love are gone, your
consciousness become a burden, you are utterly alone. This is love, but
you can die of it. Ng-ryaak, you say, inconsolably, I miss them--my
lover, my mother, my child. Years later you weep, remembering how your
child used to go down the house ladder to play in the yard, the faint
curve of your lover,s lips below her wet brown eyes. Your aloneness and
grief are absolute. Ng-ryaak.
People are always aware of the immanence of rnyaak. Wherever my
family and I stayed among Semai for more than a few weeks, people would
begin to talk to us about how they would -ryaak when we were gone. It
seemed almost funny to us then, how often they talked about it. It does
not seem funny to me now, now that I too have felt it. Talking about it
beforehand, obsessively, may be a way to moderate it a little. But
anyone who loves someone else thoughtlessly and unconditionally, as
Semai often love each other, risks rnyaak. And rnyaak hurts so much
that you may kill yourself or simply die.
So love may also lead to violence. Among people who live as
traditional Semai did, "band-level societies, disputes over love are
the commonest precursors of violence and killing. Semai see frustration
in love, like frustration in anything else, as punan , supernaturally
dangerous, particularly to the one who loves. Unrequited love is a form
of punan. The commonest form of violence that stems from such punan is
suicide, nowadays typically by drinking the pesticides or herbicides
which the proliferation of golf courses and plantations has made widely
available. In the cases I,ve collected, baffled love is by far the
commonest reason people kill themselves. Bah Johan says that the people
who commit suicide (or murder) are mostly litaw and mnaleh, young men
and women, who always take the short view [pikir patee,]. Mature people
pikir cruuk , take the long view: "This man has a wife and children
who,ll suffer if one kills him. Also, you,ll be arrested by the
police. And you,ll get a bad name, muh hi, nineec. In the old days
the few cases of murder I could find out about--not many--all involved a
man,s killing his rival or the kidnapper of a woman he loved.
Still, the predatory capitalism that has overtaken Semai requires greed
and envy. Semai have responded appropriately. They have committed
murders, two or three that I know of. The modern murders are not about
sex. Disputes over commercial property, especially fruit trees, are
becoming commoner. The bounties the British paid motivated some murders
during the Communist insurrection. Still, in the last half century or
so I know of no cases of murder by a Semai of other Semai without the
protection and encouragement of their non-Semai masters. The gospel of
greed and glut so far has not penetrated the community that fatally,
though the bonds of love are attentuated and dying.
Although I have changed several details to protect the participants,
the following story rests on a series of incidents that occurred during
my last long stay with Semai, in the early 1990s. My characterization
of the people involved, however, is entirely fictitious. Their motives
and thoughts, Ngah Hari would agree, are unknowable to us observers.
For us, as he would say, it must be like a movie.
JUST ANOTHER WORD FOR NOTHIN, LEFT TO LOSE
Freedom,s just another word for nothin, left to lose.
Nothin, left is all she left for me.
From Kris Kristofferson,
"Me and Bobby Magee
Flight and Harangue (a Monday noon, in February)
Klii, sat in the shade under the house with her younger brother,s wife
Longsmother, among piles of dark green dwarf-palm leaves laid parallel
with each other. Just looking at Klii,, the first thing you noticed was
her mouth, a little larger than the mouths of most Semai women, a short
upper lip and a full, slightly everted lower one, so that her lips
seemed always slightly parted, both usually moist. Longsmother was
older, plumper, a vertical furrow between her eyebrows. The two women,
both wearing only sarongs wrapped around their waists, were weaving
attap shingles. The sky was a flat grey color, nacreous shiny grey,
through which hot solar radiation rained down on the flattened adobe of
the yard. Even the chickens and dogs were hiding under the houses from
"It,s hot, Longsmother said.
++You fold the palm frond lengthwise and weave the stiff leaflets
together, like weaving two lives together over under, over under, the
stiff right hand leaf over its mate opposite, then under the next one,
the over, hands moving swiftly, until the two sides of the leaf are one
thing, a lozenge-patterned rectangular shingle, so different from the
fronds that waved and rattled in the wind, now a tightly bound flat
thing that shuts the cool air out. Then the sun and rain beat on it,
beat on it, and the dry dark green leaves turn tan and brittle, flaking
away, motes floating in the brilliant unrelenting light. Then the palm
roaches come, slipping between the shingles and feasting on the leaf,
mingling their black-dot feces with the dead-leaf dust floating in the
shafts of sunlight; and the fragile huge yellow-and-brown tarantulas
come to snatch the cockroaches and suck them dry, and the huge-eyed
melacholy pale chichak geckoes come to gulp down the spiders, and
finally the skinny venomous tree snakes to swallow the little lizards
and the little rats and mice that live there too. And the cold rain
starts to drip through gaps in the roof, and the shingled walls rot and
gap, until finally red-eyed invisible nyanii, demons come to gibber and
squeak and rustle in the ruined thatch , where the light from the little
kerosene candles called plita, cannot penetrate the blackness beneath
the steep pitched roof but only makes the darkness deeper. Then you
have to move, you get out, you leave your house, you don,t live there
like crazy people do, you leave it to the nyanii, or burn it down.++
"Hot hot hot, said Longsmother.
Klii, stood up and stretched, languorously, extending one arm high over
her head, fist loosely clenched. "My husband is coming today, she said
offhandedly. "I pounded some rice for him. He can winnow it. I left
it with my older brother, my tnee,. I,m going upriver to my little
"With that Malay girl?
"She,s not a Malay, really. Her father became a Muslim and she married
a Malay, that,s all. And she,s pretty and she has nice things and she
knows how to be modern. Klii, smiled.
"You,ll take the kids?
"Two of them. I,ve leaving the oldest with my mnaay.
Yeop braked his Honda 70 motorbike before the last hairpin bend in the
all-weather road that led to Cba, Dnnaan Noos, which Malays called
Kuala Denan Dam. Down the steep slopes behind him the road twisted
intestinally, as if the engineers had eviscerated the mountains and wet
black tarmac had spilled out of the slash they cut. He paused for a
moment, right foot on the ground, and looked over at the houses on the
far side of the valley. These mountains, still covered with forest,
were not like the denuded lowlands where you could see the squall lines
of rain advancing from afar, curtain after curtain of rain; here you
could only hear it buckshotting the enormous rainforest leaves as it
swept through the mountain, the rolling thunder behind it; then feel the
cold wind, rising, before the roar of the arriving rain overwhelmed
every other sound.
Unlike traditional west Semai settlements, where temporary houses were
scattered each in or near its own field for fear of slavers, Dnnaan was
a hard tan and red jewel of desert tucked into the lush doomed green
rainforest, a lesion of slick lateritic clay baked to adobe by the
unshielded hard brilliance of the hostile sun. Close together, cheap
Malay-style houses lined the road that took jungle produce down to the
valleys and city goods back up. The husks of city goods lined the road:
Tiger beer bottles, bright plastic wrap, broken styrofoam containers
scattered among the parched weeds. At the foot of the road, 20 miles
downslope, dark red-purple coleus patches flourished where the German
engineers had slashed into the precipitous hillsides, breaking the cool
shade of the forest; but at this altitude the weeds were not pretty.
The hills were so steep here that even old men like the local
headman Rmpah had the hard muscular thighs and calves of litaw from
climbing up and down or walking with feet aslant on the canted land. The
monsoon rains that washed parts of the road away half a dozen times a
year were also eroding the precipitous slopes to which the people,s
houses clung. The soil which had covered the roots of papaya trees
planted just a few years ago had washed away into the river along with
all the soluble waste the settlement bought or generated, flowing
downstream to pollute the water of the peoples who benefited from the
electricity the dam generated. The trees that survived now stood on
awkward root stilts, like mangrove trees or strangler figs just
beginning to root.
Yeop, still in the shadows, felt chilly and damp. White wet mist
swathed this place morning and evening. The people here were as
different from his people in the lowlands as the weeds were from lowland
weeds, he thought. People back in his home settlement of Teew Srngloo,
used the phrase "American vines for aggressive thorny foul-smelling
plants that Malays called "chickenshit flowers. But up here "American
vines were a different plant, a fast-growing vine that killed fruit
trees by wrapping itself around them the way a loincloth wraps around
your waist. The only thing the vines had in common, he thought, was
that they were new to Semai and now were spreading everywhere, covering
everything and killing it. The people up here were still too isolated
He would see Klii, in a few minutes, he thought, thinking of the the
first time he saw her, her long sleek hair a black flame against the
bloody setting sun. He remembered the slightly sway-back stance that
thrust her soft buttocks backward and thrust her firm belly forward in a
long sinuous curve, like the slow curves of a lowland river. He would
speak gently and reasonably with her, show her that she would be happier
back with him, even though they,d gone through a bicaraa,. He loved
her, and she had loved him.
She,d slept with him before they were married, her musky fragrance
mingling with his own, the first time less than six days after her older
sister had died, while she was still supposed to be in mourning and not
having sex at all. They,d offended the dead, and had to agree to pay
the waris, the kinsmen who guaranteed their marriage, a fine of $300
each if they got divorced. She didn,t want to pay that now, he knew,
though she,d lied about that at the bicaraa, and said she would.
He would hold his children while they talked, the little ones on his
lap, their four year old sister clinging to his shoulder. In memory
his children were pale, soft, insubstantial. He could remember how
their presence felt but not how their faces looked. They hadn,t wanted
to come with him. Who can understand children? He shuddered slightly
with a spasm of rnyaak , longing for people you love who are far away.
Not long now. But his heart was uneasy. He revved up the bike into a
Memories of Years Before
As Klii, and her children make their way up the narrow path upriver
among the precipitous slopes, she remembers: it,s how he looks at her
that starts it, as if he were seeing something he had never seen before,
something wonderful that makes his eyes widen slightly, the knglook
mad, the pupils which show the klook soul, black and moist, a
bottomless drowned world. He swallows once, clearing his throat, before
+Mong edn,+ he says in his throaty flatland purr. "It's me."
+Mong he',+ she answers, with a little sidelong smile. "There you
He smiles back. It,s not that Klii' has never been with a man before.
She,s from the highlands, she,s had sex with a couple of nervous
inadequate litaw. Yeop is poised, she thinks, sophisticated. Not a kid
whose penis would shrink when first he saw a vagina, not like highland
She takes a Dunhill when he offers it, thinking of the frilled and
painted homemade cigarillos the litaw in the mountains made for her to
indicate their desire for her body. In the highlands, taking the
cigarette meant accepting the proposition; refusing it, "I don't feel
like smoking right now," let you reject the offer without rejecting
person who made it and hurting his or her feelings, creating punan.
She isn't sure what taking the smooth white foreign cigarette means to
the flatlander. I don,t care, she thinks. She has heard that
flatlanders were as prudish as Malays about sex, not even allowing
friendly sex between joking kin, mnaay, whom one might have to marry
later on. But she remembers the soft play of ember-light and shadow on
the supple muscular curves of Yeop,s body at the funeral feast the night
before, and thinks that he doesn't seem prudish at all.
They meet by agreement that evening, in a tapioca garden in the hills
behind the settlement, luxuriating in the sweet darkness and smell of
leaves, in the feel and fragrance of each other's bodies, she remembers:
how intently he looks on her when she lies back and raises her knees,
how astonished he looks when he enters her, how his tough long-muscled
body spasms like a trancinglitaw 's as she locks her ankles behind his
neck, pulling him fiercely towards her, deeper and deeper into her
warmth, desire for each other coursing through their bodies like blood,
nourishing greater desire. AH AH he cries out, AH AH. She has never
heard a man cry out like that, though like all hill people she had from
her earliest childhood heard the creaking bamboo slats and stifled gasps
of adults having sex in the longhouse. But this much loss of control
would get you teased in the highlands. She looks at him, at his slack
wet mouth, half closed eyes, pure surrender on his face. He truly loves
her body, she thinks, inhaling their mingled fragrances, and she loves
In that moment all desire melts in fulfilment, all color simplifies to
blackness, all consciousness sinks into joy. Afterwards, walking
downhill with him in the cool evening, she feelssnang, comforted,
serene, happy. As he goes up the housestairs she grabs the hard ball of
muscle in his behind, laughing, making him smile.
None of that ever happened again, not that way, not once.
Yeop stood alone on the black tarred road in the hot hysterical light,
a tall thin black-clad man in the heat shimmer, his mind awash in fear
and grief and rage and despair and shame, and he spoke out his emotions
as Semai rarely do, in a harsh loud lecturing voice, the wrongs Klii,
had done him, her flight from him, his love for her and his children,
his need, his need, so that all could hear him. +Ki-lees,+ people said
glancing at him sidelong, he,s making an angry harangue. No one came to
listen, though they heard, and would tell the people who weren,t there
everything Yeop had said. People went on with what they were doing,
registering his harangue but showing no reaction, except for naked
little Bah Gndak, 4, and his littler sister, black cloth amulet still
around her neck, her head shaven except for a single tuft of hair. The
children stood under a house twenty feet away, one of Gndak,s arms
around his sister,s skinny shoulder, his middle and fourth fingers in
his mouth, both children gazing wide-eyed at Yeop,s despair as Semai
children do, a little fearful, alert, learning. Beside them a rangy
grey-skinned dog, almost hairless with mange, stirred listlessly in the
little pit it had dug in the shade under the house to keep cool in.
Except for the harangue, only the monotonous cheeping of the little
flocks of chicks broke the silence.
The Appeal (Tuesday afternoon, February)
In the rhythm of pounding rice in the yard of her mother,s younger
brother, Klii, remembers: After their marriage, the flatlands had been
a shock. The towns had been as wonderful as she had heard they were,
rows and rows of two-story stucco buildings with bright unintelligible
things in the dark shops on the first floors, each open onto the
sidewalks, looking like caves in the mountains. In the evenings, flocks
of swallows and swifts swept the town skies, chittering and squeaking,
like the flights of bats that swept out of caverns in the cave-riddled
limestone tors that dotted the foothills.
But flatland light was different, blaring, harsh, hot, intolerable,
omnipresent. Everything was bleached, glittering, or opaque with
reflected shininess. The air rising visibly from the paved roads was
rancid, acrid. The roadside plants were brown, withered, draped in
bright shreds of plastic wrapping. Even the sky was different, roiled
sagging featureless pearl-grey cloud cover, not like the massed darkness
of mountain thunderheads. On the deforested plains everything was a
trick of light, queasy pale insubstantial shadows, hinting at pale
tepid insubstantial demons, not like the intimate alien dark of the
triple-tiered forests, not like the coolness of the clearings in the
Flatland Semai said that special spirits controlled particular places.
They were different from demons, never taking deceptive material form,
more like invisible humans. They lived in and under the land as dragons
lived in and under the rivers. As tin mines and plantations forced the
Humans to move away from the places they used to live in, they could no
longer perform the traditional harvest ceremonies to placate the
spirits. The special shamans, pahwook, who used to perform the
ceremonies were dying out. The spirits were dying out too, in the
epidemic of toxic heat and light. Young people no longer believed in
them. The spirits became angry, hot with resentment, and the poisonous
heat spread everywhere. Or, other people said, maybe it was because
the mines and the clear-cutting were heating the ruwaay, the head soul,
of the earth itself. The skin of the world was diseased, poisoned with
pesticides, drying up and dying. The world itself was shrivelling in
the heat, heating up and dying, and there were no pahwyyk to make it
cool again. Even the water in the depleted little creek which gave the
settlement its name was toxic with tin mine run-off and warm as drool.
And flatland Humans were different in other ways from mountain people,
not just in their half-swallowed speech, but in their actions. Yeop
didn't seem as sophisticated he had, not compared with the sharp
featured Malay men with their tidy little mustaches and friendly, joking
attitude, men who had been to Kuala Lumpur many times, who wore
sunglasses and thin white shirts with ball point pens in the breast
pocket, who let the nails on their thumbs or little fingers grow long to
show they didn't do manual labor, men who owned cars. Their look, when
they looked at Yeop, was not a look between two men; more the way they
looked at the bedraggled macaques cavorting in the little municipal
They looked at her with frank sexual evaluation. Their gaze wasn,t
playful and chummy, a little awkward, the way litaw look at mnaleeh.
It didn,t suggest erotic horseplay. It was impersonal, like the way
they looked at chickens trussed up head downward in the market, the
fowls upside down, twisting their heads around to try to reorient
+We know what you like,+ their gaze said. +We know what you are.+
Yet she knew that they talked contemptuously about bohsia, using the
Hokkien Chinese word for "silence, referring to women who submitted
sexual advances without protest. It was hard to know how to react. It
scared her, so she never left the Human settlement except in a group
with other women.
Yeop did occasional labor, as a night watchman for a few months, on a
road crew for a lumber company, in the plantations of the Cameron
Highlands. He spent a lot of time away, leaving her alone among
strangers. The sight of gigantic white thunderheads piling up behind
the eastern mountains made her think of her family in the cool hills,
left her prey to rnyaak. She had a baby, then another, and another.
The promise of the lowlands was still there. She remembers the sight
of her husband coming home in the glare, after being gone for weeks, a
backlit radiant featureless shape, full of the shifting promise of
transformation. But, once he was home, sitting cross-legged in his
sarong on the battered linoleum mat, he was demanding in a way he had
not been in the hills, telling her +Gaap teh,+ "Boil tea," nothing
else. She had to stay in the kitchen with the women and girls when his
men friends came visiting, making tea or cooking for them, serving them
separately, Malay style, listening to the intrusive male noises,
smelling the intrusive male smells. Yeop became stingy with his money,
though the children meant she needed more money than before.
He seemed less tender, too, and she began to suspect that he was having
sex with other women. He had never asked her about her pleasure, they
would have both been embarassed if he had, but now he seemed rough and
perfunctory. Maybe, she thought, it hadn't been love for her that made
him cry out back then, maybe it was something inside him, something
knotted up hard in his sngii', by being less of a manchild than the
Malay men, released in that AH AH, a "bad wind" as the Malays
For a long time, he seemed unaware of her suspicions, her distress, her
growing resentment. She began to take more pleasure in the company of
her children than in being with him, relishing their readiness to
cherish her, their clinging. One morning when she was bathing her three
year old daughter in water from a shiny red plastic bucket, the little
girl,s skin slick and gleaming with the silvery water, child and mother
luxuriating in the coolness and physical contact, that morning was when
a neighbor woman, thin malicious Dadii,, told her about the affair Yeop
had been having, just as she had suspected, with a flatland widow in
Shock dropped on Klii, like a tiger,s paw, talons extending, ripping
her sngii,, making her stomach lurch. She covered her mouth with both
hands when she heard, gagging, holding something in, something dangerous
wanting to burst from her mouth. She half rose to flee the betrayal and
abandonment, but there was no forest to flee to, just the indifferent
flat hot light, the overgrown fields dotted with magenta-flowered
Straits rhododendron bushes, the wet puzzled child recognizing her
mother,s distress but not understanding it. Klii, felt dizzy:
unsteady, balance lost, footing uncertain, stumbling, like when the
slick smooth wet stepping-stone in the dark river begins to wobble, the
black undertow pulling at it, your foot slipping.
"Tough, said Dadii,, watching Klii, closely.
"What can you do? responded Klii, in a low voice, shrugging, not
looking at Dadii,.
Her suspicions had knotted her sngii, , her sense of the world, but
not prepared her for the hollowness Yeop,s treatment tore open inside
her. She had had no idea, no idea at all, how bad really knowing could
be. Around the hollowness, her life melted, became as formless as the
mudflats left by the monsoonal floods. There were quarrels, the thin
huddled children staring wide-eyed at their parents grown harsh and
shrill, sharp triangular shoulder blades flinching away from the hot
hurtful words. Children were so little, their bodies and ruwaay so
soft and harmless.
Although Klii' would never say so, what would be the use? her susah
sngii', unhappiness and resentment, grew and grew. Many nights,
despairing in her hurt and anger, she lay sleepless in the stifling dead
air of the day locked into the house when they shut the shutters,
Malay-style, against the dangers of the cool dark. She wept then,
tears she would not show, not even to the children, tears that brought
no comfort. And the shutters didn,t keep demons from swooping in out of
the hot humid darkness, into her dozing consciousness, sudden goads of
hot emotion; for comfort only her sleeping children cocooned in their
sarongs on both sides of her, their damp warm little bodies more
consolong than his large one.
Nothing for her or the children here. Just flat hot dying and, miles
away, much farther away than a human being should be able to see,
invisible through the shutters and the night mists, the cool bluegray
mountains which now and then you could glimpse through the hot bright
haze. At times in the clammy dark the susah sngii', the insomniac
replay of resentment, the heat of her anger radiating out of her heart,
was so painful that she thought of seeking relief, surrender, in death.
In the mountains you just left when a relationship went bad, just left,
not explaining, not even saying goodbye, letting the other person
gradually come to realize that you were really gone, gone for good. No
fight, no fuss, no fine, no jabber-jabber. Flatlanders killed
themselves, she knew. They were famous for it.
Yeop, both hands squeezed together into a fist between his thighs,
knuckles white with effort, is sitting crosslegged on the floor of the
headman,s house, trying to explain to Rmpah, the canny tough old headman
of Cba, Dnnaan. Beside him is a shiny plastic bag holding two large
tins of cookies, which he bought from the licensed Malay trader, to give
his children. Rmpah has already heard the story from the wife of the
Sten, the assistant headman; among Perak Semai the Sten does the day to
day negotiations in an attempt to resolve conflicts, so that the
bicaraa, will simply express community sentiments already agreed
upon. But Klii,s going to be a problem, Rmpah thinks, sitting, also
cross-legged, facing Yeop. Rempah has a clever face, lined, mobile
without being informative.
"I,ve been here for four days, trying to see her. I didn,t bring my
waris, the people who guaranteed the marriage. I didn,t want to make
any trouble, any fuss. I brought my big brother, but she won,t see him
either. He,s angry at her because she won,t pay back the bridewealth.
"What kind of goofiness is this? asks Rmpah irritably.
"I said to her, Listen, don,t hide, don,t run away,, and she took off
like a bat out of hell. So I,m going home. The Sten here is my dad,s
older brother, my k,nuuny. I want another bicaraa,, but I don,t want to
come back here. She humiliates me, she makes me ashamed. I think about
suicide a lot. I don,t want a divorce. I love her, you know? I love
them. I miss them. I think of them all the time. I dream about them,
you know? Every night, I dream about them. I don,t sleep, I just toss
The old man, tubercular, coughs and spits a wad of reddish phlegm
through a knothole in the floorboards, leaving a little puddle of mucus
around the hole. He thinks briefly of the old days, when traditional
Semai floors were of smooth flexible inch-wide bamboo slats, laid an
inch apart. It was easy to spit and dump cooking water through the
floor then. The government-supplied headman,s house is Malay-style,
painted, built with planks and shutters, hot and awkward but prestigious
and permanent. The Malay officials of the Department of Orang Asli
Affairs thought such housing fitting for a headman, and hoped that by
enhancing his prestige this way they could get a responsible and
sympathetic party who would transmit government policies without going
through the inefficient egalitarian participatory democracy of Semai
bicaraa,. Instead, it had led to backlash of covert backbiting in the
settlement, about people who thought themselves better than others. As
he listens and thinks, he absentmindedly wipes the puddle of pink spit
into a faint smear with his finger. The boy,s right, he thinks, even
though he dresses like a Malay rocker and speaks with a grunting
valley-person accent, uh uh uh uh. Why didn,t Klii, want to stay with
"Okay, he says, "Your k,nuuny will talk to her. She probably has
reasons. Don,t get angry. We,ll br-miting , have a meeting. We,ll
work it out, if it,s okay with him, we,ll have another bicaraa,, he
says. "You go home for now. We,ll work on it.
"You,ll call me if my kids get sick, won,t you? You,ll let me know?
"Sure, says the headman. +Plank floors are hard on old behinds,+ he
The day Klii, fled back home from the lowlands she stopped for a
moment on the wooden door sill under the sharp-toothed fishhead that
hung there to protect her and her children from the bird demons that
flock to the scent of childbirth, her resentment fanged and agape like
the amulet,s jawbones, to tear at him if he tried to touch her or her
children. That pause and spasm of anger was all the farewell she
wanted. She took the children with her, their soprano voices and soft
touch her protection against the empty subducting silence of her life.
She had left Yeop no message. She could no longer bear to look at him,
let alone to talk with him. During the first bicaraa' she had held
her oldest child, Wa' Long, 7, on her lap, so that, if Klii' lowered her
head a little, Wa' Long's head broke the line of sight between Klii' and
Yeop. And Klii' had only looked down, never at Yeop, not even taking
the chance of glimpsing him out of the corners of her eyes, and had
never addressed him directly, murmuring to Wa, Long instead. The sight
of him hurt her sngii', left her wanting only to get away, to forget he
even existed. Whatever he wanted she hated, wanting from him only food
for her children. She would never swelter under that flat heavy
meaningless lowland sky again.
After supper, Longsmother and her younger sisters are sitting in the
kitchen. Outside, a mistlike inaudible invisible mild rain is falling.
Longsmother is weaving a little rice basket; Julia, one of her sisters,
crosslegged, is suckling a chubby baby; the other, Teh, is combing the
hair of Wa, Ngah, her eldest sister,s beautiful big-eyed nine-year-old
daughter. Ngah is listening carefully.
Teh. The men say Klii, ran away because she didn,t want to give the
Longsmother. They say that because they,re her waris. If that,s why
she ran away, they won,t have to help her pay it back.
Julia. So why,d Klii, run away? She tell you?
Longsmother. She ran away because she,s afraid her husband would give
her a hard time or take her children away.
Julia. I heard she wants a new husband but she hasn,t found a new man
Teh . [lowering her voice slightly]. I heard she has a boyfriend in
Kem [the barracks of the Senoi Praak, a parapolice group made up of
indigenous people with mostly Malay officers].
Julia. She wants to marry somebody rich. [Giggles]
Teh . [grinning, quizzical]. Maybe she wants to marry a soldier [in
the Senoi Praak].
Longsmother . But they,re not really rich. They,re poor people like
Teh. They,re richer than I am. [Laughs].
Half in Love with Easeful Death (early March)
+musuh dalam selimut+
an enemy in your bedroll
Malay metaphor for disloyal spouse
Yeop sat up shivering in his sarong, afraid and running a fever.
Outside, the pale green moonlight made the dew luminous on the broad
banana leaves by the house. Thin cobwebby clouds were beginning to
accumulate, drawing a diaphanous film between the bright dead planetoid
and the steaming earth. +It,s love, but you can die of it,+ he
thought, +like the love of nyanii,.+ He felt exhausted, disabled.
When the gap began growing between them, though he did not recognize it
at the time, he had tried yelling at her, yelling at her for going out
to Saturday market with the other young women, for not bothering to cook
if she wasn,t hungry, for going off with the children to her village in
the mountains and leaving him alone; but she had just said, "I,m not
listening to you, and turned away; not arguing, not caring,
"Mountain women don,t cook if they don,t feel like it, she would
say. "Cook for yourself. Her sullen mouth smoother than oil.
He had talked with her mother,s younger brother about her growing
indifference, the way a good husband is supposed to, talked with her
waris, her people, instead of griping to his own kinsmen. He had tried
to fill up the spaces opening between them: with a garish
carnelian-colored lipstick, a fancy blue paisley sarong. He had
sacrificed the money he earned from tapping rubber the way Maay Jknuuk
sacrificed stolen Semai children in the old days to their god of bronze,
but the bond between them did not harden like Jknuuk bronze, just
stretched thinner and thinner, became more and more brittle.
Loneliness and despair swept over him like floodwaters, sharp dangerous
memories surfacing briefly like black wet great tree snags whirled along
in the swollen river, memories jabbing to the surface just long enough
to hurt, then whirled away sinking into the overwhelming dark flood of
loss. He remembers, sees: her every movement had a casual sensual
grace, even the commonest clumsiest ones, picking up a child, for
example, or bending almost double from the waste to spread out a mat for
winnowing rice. The way she stood, rounded right hip swung out to
support the child she held in the crook of her right arm, the rest of
her supple body curving the other way to balance the weight. He recalls
the first time he saw her, pounding rice in a big old grey splintery
three-hole wooden mortar with her sister. Her lower lip protruded a
little, moistly, like that of a suckling toddler. She had taken off her
blouse and the muscles in her bare shoulders rippled with the rhythmic
thump-thump-thump-thump-thump, slim biceps swelling and elongating
smoothly, the muscles of her arms as lithe and powerful as snakes
beneath the smooth brown skin. And the skin of her forearms silky with
fine hairs, faintly dry. He remembers her tight slender calves, the
rounded long chevron of her tan back, how the crease below her buttocks
formed and smoothed, creased and smoothed, concave, convex, concave,
convex, flesh and muscles moving pliantly under her thin sarong. Her
hands holding the thick pale four-foot long pestle: her hands obsessed
him; they were so strong, sturdy stubby fingers almost like a boy,s but
small and fine-boned so that he could enfold them in his own hands as
easily as he could hold a chick, feeling the little bones beneath the
skin. Her hands grasping and exploring his body as if she were a blind
person trying to find out what sort of creature he was, her hunger
throbbing through the tips of her short tender fingers. Lost, lost.
He sat against the wall of his house, fumbling with his sarong, then
hugging himself as Semai do when hearing upsetting news. You cling to
love even after it,s dead, it,s so hard to get and give, even when its
toxic byproducts begin to poison everything. You hold on to a dying
marriage, horrified, not wanting to believe, like a mother with a dying
baby or a little child snatched away for sale to child abusers. He felt
like one of those children now; bereaved; abandoned, abandoned; all
alone among strangers; never to go home again, never; nothing familiar
or loved left; everything dead, poisoned, rotted out. No love. No
He had dreamt that she had come to him, in his dream waking him from
his sleep, lying back with her knees raised, smiling her faint shallow
smile, languorously, ready to put her feet on his shoulders as he came
to sit between her soft strong thighs, showing him her syrupy vagina,
its thick dark pink lips opening for him, all her juices flowing, her
nipples hardening, becoming pointy and sharp, showing him her soft
little tongue, looking at him between her thighs with eyes turned dead
white, claws appearing between her fingers. "Don,t you want to know
what the mouths of nyanii, taste like? she asked, opening her
carnelian mouth, showing her black icy fangs. He woke screaming, the
thin blanket twisted around him, unable to breathe, chilly, his sarong
wet with cooling semen.
"Send him back where he came from. Don,t let him come here. If he
comes here I,ll whack him with a machete. He scares me. He gets angry
and yells at me." Her lower lip jutted out slightly.
"He gets angry and yells but he doesn't stay angry. A few hours later
and he loves you again," said the Sten, whose job it was to smooth
disagreements. Last night he had dreamed that Yeop was living in the
rainforest all alone: a bad dream, a dream of a tabu soul, a ruwaay
pnalii,, suggesting that Yeop might die.
She folded her arms tightly across her chest, just under her breasts,
the sinews taut under the smooth skin of her forearm. +She doesn't say
"I'm not listening,"+ thought Itam +but she might as well. Most
people would if they were so angry they rejected everything you say, but
not her. She just shuts up, as if she'd lost the argument, but she
doesn't think she's lost, she just doesn't care. Dumb, dumb.+
"Did he ever hit you?" At the very edge of consciousness he was
of how mobile and moist her mouth was.
She stared at him, full lips now pressed together in a straight line,
and tossed her head. +Her shoulders are like a young litaw's, smooth
and rounded and hairless but square and strong.+ A pang of sexual
desire, more mental than physical, crossed his consciousness, making him
mildly ashamed. She was watching him carefully now, her lips relaxing
slightly, almost smiling.
+Thinks he can persuade me to do anything, but I know what he wants.+
"No, he doesn't hit you. Does he bring rice home?"
"He gets drunk and talks rawooc," she said, wrinkling her nose
using the Tluup word her mother used for irrational and unpredictable
behavior or incoherent speech, for being lost and astray, for cooking or
eating at one meal foods from categories which pnalii' rules specified
that people should keep separate. "He talks rawooc and yells, and I
don't know what he's going to do."
"But he doesn't hit you, and he always brings rice home. Is he stingy
Silence. He was aware again of her mouth. Buzzing furiously, a big
black carpenter bee looped through the conversation, then disappeared
into the day,s bright glare, following its random pointless path.
"He doesn't hit you, he always brings rice home, he isn't stingy with
money. Does he sleep with other women?"
"Who knows?" She tossed her head. "I don't care. It,s hal
"He's done what a husband should do. He hasn't done what a husband
shouldn't do. If you divorce him, it will be your fault and all your
kinsmen who were involved in the marriage, your waris, will have to
help pay the fine."
"I,m giving the bridewealth back and paying the fine.
"You,re lying. We sent two men down there to check it out, and you
didn,t pay anything. You abandoned him, and now you want to lie about
"I didn,t abandon him, and I,m not lying.
"Your thinking on this matter isn,t good. You owe the fines and the
return of the bridewealth.
"So I won't divorce him." Her voice was low, flat, off-handed,
none of the conversation interested her, though her eyes flicked back
and forth like the eyes of a wild deer tied to a post.
"You'll go back to him?"
"You'll let him see his children?"
"So you'll divorce him?"
+This is difficult,+ he thought, looking at the others in the meeting:
the headman and Klii,,s mother,s sister, who lived with Klii,.
"Yeop is unhappy, said Rmpah, "because it,s like you,re divorcing
all by yourself, nuw mum, just one person. That,s why he,s unhappy. He
wants an official divorce, if you want to throw him out. He wants the
headmen and stens in both places to decide who,s to blame for what,
where the salah is, the fault, that,s our saraa,, the way we do
things. And he wants the bridewealth back.
"You want to be smart about this, says Rmpah. "You know what
lowlanders are like. If you don,t pay up, maybe Yeop,ll turn to black
magic, get a sorceror to say some spells against you, bury the tadpole.
You,d be smart not to risk that. But she looks away and says nothing,
not giving up, just not speaking. He too falls silent, defeated. +I
wonder what burying the tadpole is about,+ he wonders.
At the foot of the hill to which the settlement clings a small grey
tadiit bird, a storm-sandpiper, a bride of the stupid brutal sexually
incontinent thunder god, is picking its way carefully over the gleaming
rounded pebbles along the stream bed, long legs moving precisely, sharp
"Sometimes I think married people are worse than litaw and mnaleh,
said Saad, the lowland headman, chopping up his betelnut. "We,ve got
stabbed-by-the-handle case, br-truu, ha mool. You know Ngahsfather?
He was playing around with Wa, Nah. They went sliding down a mudbank on
a piece of bark the way litaw and mnaleh do. Saad paused to pop the
wad of lime, betel nut and betel leaf between his gums and cheek, an
image of laughter and bare intertwined limbs passing through his mind.
"Afterward they went back to his house and were fooling around, and
wife caught them. What do you think you,re doing, screwing around?,
They said they wanted to get married. So the wife gathered all the
family jewelry and took it to Alangsfather, her waris, as evidence.
Alangsfather went to his Sten, and the Sten went and got all
Ngahsfather,swaris. Longsfather,s one of them.
He paused to make sure Rmpah was getting all the names right. +These
hill people were sometimes pretty dumb,+ he thought. "Longsfather wants
your Sten to be a waris. If that,s okay, they,ll all go to her place
for a bicaraa, .
"They,re going to have to wait to get married, said Rmpah. "He
fooling around with a juleey, an unmarried person, he was fooling around
with the feelings of someone who had a family, who had a husband. What
are the fines like up there?
"Who knows? Something like $25 from the girl to the wife, and another
$25 or $30 from him, and then $165 to the headman [for the scandal and
breaking the marriage covenant]. But I don,t think they,re going to get
married unless he gets a divorce first. His big brother says no way
Ngahsfather can support two wives. Anyway, the big brother interrogated
her, and the juleey doesn,t want to marry him. Besides, the wife
-hooy , threatened him. He smiled faintly, thinking of the scene.
"She hit him, and she threatened him. Said she was going to whack him
with a machete, and threw him out of the house. She,s going to have to
pay a fine too, I guess about $60.
"His mnah is going to need to get some of the fine, about $6.25 said
Rmpah, knowing that one,s parent,s younger sibling is more likely to be
willing to instruct one in how to behave properly if he,s officially
involved in the fining system. "And the Sten can go. Thing is, we have
some problems here. You remember Wa, Biyeek? The other day she slept
with Bah Laas.
"Again? I thought they shacked up when they were both working together
on the rubber plantation near us. Saad leaned forward, grinning,
waiting to hear more, the wad of betel bulging out his cheek.
"Bah Eic came and told me. Then her father got angry, -bl,aal, and
said he didn,t want her to marry Bah Laas, because there were already
two of Bah Laas, older brothers in his family. So he -roo, Bah Laas,
really chewed him out. What good does it do you if all your in-laws are
from one family? Then Laas, brother Cabid went and -roo, him. Rmpah
chuckled. "So then her father,s headman sends a hakim [intermediary]
to ask me to go upstream to meet with him and her father. He wanted to
know if it was okay for her to marry Bah Laas after all. So we sent
somebody to get them and interrogated them, and we all chewed them out
again, and they agreed to get married.
"You can,t have people just shacking up. Litaw and mnaleh are good
"If they hadn,t agreed to get married, we,d have told them to get out
[of town]. But they want to get married. Her father said okay, it was
up to her.
"So you really don,t have a problem there, said Saad.
"No. I just wanted you to know we can handle problems here. He
glanced sidelong at Saad,s attentive, sardonic face. +These valley
people think like Malays, think we can,t handle our own affairs.+ "Of
course we do have that problem with Wa, Klii,. You,re her husband,s
headman. We were wondering if you could talk with her. She won,t come
to a bicaraa,. We,ve had three. She came to the first, but now she
just doesn,t come.
"Well, my Sten and your Sten talked about it, and I,ve talked with
waris, and we think maybe this would work. First, Yeop comes up here
all the time. We can,t tell him not to, but he shouldn,t sleep in her
house. He,s got kinsmen here. He should sleep in their house. Second,
there,s no point in having another bicaraa, about this. She doesn,t
come. Third, the bridewealth goes back to Yeop, divorce or no divorce.
Fourth, Yeop is responsible for supporting his children but not his
wife. The kids live up here until they become litaw and mnaleh and
then they can decide where to live for themselves. Of course, they,ve
already pretty much done that, looks like. Fifth, if she won,t pay any
fines, how about all she does is pay us a blanjaa, salah , say $60 plus,
because she really is in the wrong here?
"That,d go to you and your Sten, right? You didn,t have to like Saad.
Few people did. But you had to admire someone who could present an
argument pranuu, pranuu,, topic by topic, from the base to the tip,
ju pangkal ha myyl.
"Yes, said Saad, slowly, as if speaking to someone dimwitted, "but
that,s not the point, is it? It,s not a lot of money. We,ve had to pay
for the gas to go up and down the road three times, right? The point
is, in my opinion, she,s in the wrong.
"Right, murmured Rmpah, suppressing his irritation at Saad,s tone.
"So she has to make some sort of payment for doing wrong, a blanjaa,
"Agreed: it,s not a lot of money for what she,s done, and she is in
wrong. But I don,t know if the problem,s the money or even if she
thinks she,s in the wrong. Her thinking on this matter isn,t good.
Hot day, loud rzk rzk rzk rzk of cicadas, cool wet breezes spilling
down the steep mountain slopes through the wounded rainforest. Across
the precipitous valley thin sheets of water spilling down a
perpendicular black rock face gleam like mercury in slanting shafts of
sunlight. At the foot of the cliff is the little river, most of it
dark and cool in the shadows of the great trees that still grow along
its banks. The water is almost transparent so that you can see the
pebbles on the bottom, and the little fish swimming there, except where,
swirling around a bend, the stream has created cauldrons of deep water
in whose black depths who knows what lives: water demons or maay krom
tei,, subterranean folk, reptilian, enormous and cold.
"I,m not listening to you, she said. "You have no authority over
Malays have authority here, not you. You can,t make me go with him, and
you can,t make me divorce him, and you can,t make me let him see my
+They are old men from the olden times,+ she thought. Saad,s neck was
red, she noticed, maybe from shaving, stringy like the necks of the
naked red ducks that hang by their feet in Chinese shops. If they
treated her badly, she would just leave and go to Ipoh. There in the
city she could find a Malay man who would give her food and pretty
things. She had a nice body, she knew that. Malays would say sedap!
tasty! when she walked by, or use the equivalent Cantonese word, ngam!
She,d heard of other girls who,d gone to Ipoh, even a couple of boys
from Srngloo, who liked to dress up as girls, what the Malays called
pondan. +Who knows what they do there?+ she thought, letting her mind
drift away from the yattering old men. She sat placidly in the
screaming sunlight, her left index finger bent across her lips, the
other fingers curled loosely, shielding any expression of her feelings
from the elders, knowing that she,d never run off to Ipoh, not with
three children, thinking +even if you,re willing not to be who you are,
what you are , even if you want to be different, what can you do?+
hearing the silence that meant the old men were waiting for her to say
"No, she said, and they began again.
+Nowadays men think they can boss women around,+ she thought. Yeop
wasn,t a bad man, but he yelled at her and scared her, and once
threatened to hit her. "I,m not a water buffalo to be beaten, she had
said, and come back to Dnnaan Noos for a while, though he had not
actually hit her. He was stupid. His penis was long and skinny with
bulgy veins, not unlike the man himself, she thought, smiling faintly to
herself. He had thought at first that this was a problem to be solved
in the sticky space where their pubic hairs twisted together, but it
wasn,t. After she,d left him she,d said to her mnaay, "What do you
expect of men? A penis has a mouth, but no eyes or brains. I don,t know
why women put up with them. I,m not putting up with him any more. Her
mnaay, her older brother,s wife, had giggled and covered her mouth so
as not to show her teeth.
+All she had wanted,+ Klii, thought, +was a reasonably good time, to be
"senang as the Malays said, safe and content. She was willing to
work. No one had ever said she was lazy. But she wanted attention and
a good time, not a tense bossy awkward selfish housemate. Looking at
him, sweating and breathing hard between her raised legs, she felt
unanchored, unstable. He had nagged her to shave her pubic hair, a
Malay men,s thing, and she finally did, but the shaving was
uncomfortable and itchy, and the smooth infantile pubes gave her no
pleasure. What did he want, a little girl? Men had a fantasy, she
knew, about adopting a little girl and raising her to adulthood, then
marrying her so that she would love them like a daughter as well as a
wife. That was taboo, all sorts of taboo, incest, trlaac , pnalii,,
just a disgusting idea. Imagine sleeping with your father! She
shuddered faintly. You couldn,t even marry strangers if they weren,t
in your generation.+
+The sex had not become better, duller and duller in fact, and he did
not become more generous with her, just yelled at her. Men from these
flatlands wanted a sexual monopoly, that was their problem, they thought
they could control their wives, lives. Yeop had even told her not to
sleep with his younger brother, her mnaay . She would not mention any
of that, of course. It would scandalize the older people, though the
mnaleh and litaw there would know what she meant, and giggle. Maybe
she would mention it. What did she care? You don,t talk about sex or
having a good time to old people.+
She wondered vaguely about who she had been when she decided to marry
him so long ago. +Who was that casual compliant mnaleh who,d just gone
along with everyone else,s desires? Had she thought that letting so
many people down was punan ? And who had she thought he was? Whatever,
now we are who we are now, she thought. She felt nothing, not really,
not any more. He has no power over me, I do what I choose, and am not
ashamed, so no one has power over me. I,m not listening to you. I am
who I am, and you old men are nothing to me.+
The old men stopped talking at her for a moment, giving her a space in
which to respond.
"No, she said. +Do you think this is something I planned? Have you
ever wanted to die? Do you think I planned the desire? the
revulsion? When has what you planned ever happened to you, with all
your long bicaraa,, all your compromises, your endless talk like
chicks cheeping? When has that ever happened to anyone? It,s all
fate, just like the Malays say, "nasip lah,fate. Things happen to
us. That,s all. We all just -rc-rooc, wander blindly in the light,
deceiving each other, breaking our promises, all of us, hurting each
other. We are who we are, and it makes no difference, not now. What
can you do about it? What can anyone do? Nothing , and nothing.+
"No, she said.
"That,s just great, said Saad when they were back in the headman,s
house. "Why bother having headmen and Stens? Everybody just do
whatever the hell they want to, and don,t pay for it. Great.
"There,s nothing we can do. She deserves to pay a fine. We all know
she,s wrong. I,m her headman, and even I know she,s wrong. All her
waris know she,s wrong. Everybody knows she,s wrong. Everybody,s told
her that. She just ignores us. What we,d like to do is -prnyuump this
case, make it vanish. But we can,t okay a divorce or fix the fines
without talking it over, and she isn,t talking. You want us to go to
the Malay narriage registrar?
"O, that,s a great idea. Let,s bring the Malays into it. All we need
is to get our Big Brothers involved. We can all go to the police
station and get beaten up. Terrific. But what do I know? What a
"Suppose we try our bureau [the Bureau of Indigenous People,s Affairs,
"Sure. Our bureau., I call it the Malay bureau., I fought for
them in the Emergency, you know. I was a corporal in their army. I got
medals. I,m supposed to be getting a pension. Supposed to have been
getting it since 1970. You think I,ve seen dime one? You got that money
from the loggers our, department brought in? Any of it? Malay
justice. What a joke.
Klii, gets off the bus in town, smelling the whiff of durians and
garbage in the hot wet market air. +What you see is never all there
is,+ she thinks, looking at the bustle and glitter. +Hill people know
CONCLUSION: AH, KLII,! AH, HUMANITY!
[T]he elders in the old days always thought far ahead about the
welfare of their descendents, not like the people today, most of
whom are short-sighted. Now they are just able to see the \
immediate future and do not want to see further than that.
"We would live in peace for most of our lives if we still
adopted this kind of attitude, said Long Apon [of a flatland
settlement]... [T]he younger generation...are, according to him,
becoming more aggressive and disorganized, and...tend
to devalue Seng-oi [Semai] values (Juli Edo 1998:252-253n).
Love is generous, and pitiful [merciful-RKD]; but Envy is covetous
John Reeve and Ludowick Muggleton (1658:38), Joyful
News from Heaven quoted by Thompson (1993:92)
There would seem little need for proceeding further in this history. I
don,t know how the case on which I modelled the story turned out. It
just went on and on, as most of the bicaraa, that came to my attention
did, without coming to a resolution, for over a year. Bicaraa,
succeed, when they succeed, because everybody benefits. That,s what the
epigraphs to this chapter, from Babylonian elder Herman Melville and his
Semai equivalents, mean, I think. That,s what Bourdieu means by
"investing cultural capital (e.g., 1977:177-192). When people don,t
need that cultural capital, the goodwill of friends and relations, they
don,t need "conflict resolution techniques. Freed of these needs, they
gain nothing by continuing to participate in bicaraa,.
People don,t usually beat each other up or kill each other after a
bicaraa, fails, although Saad remarked that suicide marked the failure
of a bicaraa,. I suspect that the function of a bicaraa, is to defuse
passions rather than reach resolutions. If people will accept that they
were wrong, and pay part of the fine which shows they acknowledge their
misdeed, then the community will heal faster than if things just drag
on. But even without the fine, I suspect that, as Apel of Mncaak said
We,re not like other people. We want to be friends. With other
peoples -- Malays, Chinese -- if you do something wrong, they,re
not your friends any more. With us, we go into our house and
avoid you for a while, but we,ll love you anyway, and after
a few months we,re your friends again [big smile].
The bicaraa, just lets people vent their feelings while waiting for the
equilibrium of love to reassert itself. Relocation and integration into
an economy which runs on invidious striving will, I think, eventually
undercut this generosity of spirit. But it hasn,t done that yet (see,
e.g., Hasan 1993, Nicholas 1993).
Social Exchange Theory: Jnang Puk's Explanation
Once you accept the tacit Semai proposition that treating people badly
is a type of violence, traditional Semai explaining their own
nonviolence sound as reasonable as Melville,s lawyer in the epigraph to
Q: Have you ever hit anybody?
Q: Would you ever hit anybody?
Q: Why not?
A: He,d just hit me back.
Q: Suppose he hit you first?
A: He,d still just hit me back.
Violence just isn,t practical in a small community surrounded by menace.
There,s an academic theory like this commonsensical Melvillean Semai
social exchange theory, which assumes that human interaction is
guided by the pursuit of rewards and the avoidance of punishments
and costs.... All take and no give is not a formula for happy or
continued social interaction unless one of the participants is a
masochist (Gelles and Straus 1988:22).
The problem with social exchange theory in human affairs is that you can
apply it only retrospectively, because people make their decisions on
the basis of their own assessments of their lives and not yours.
That,s the problem the elders faced in trying to persuade Klii, that
everyone would benefit if she yielded to community opinion.
Gelles and Straus go on to talk about how social controls set rewards
and punishments for violence. As Malaysia modernizes and the
oppression of Semai becomes routine and bureaucratic instead of brutal
and personal, economic development brings alternatives to life as
outcasts on the margins of society. Indeed,
The economic planners...envisage the systematic elimination of
the peasant... For short-term political reasons, they do not
use the word elimination but the word modernization.
Modernisation entails the disappearance of the small peasant
(the majority) and the transformation of the remaining
minority into totally different social and economic beings
"Modernization makes the consequences of community disapproval become
avoidable. Retrospectively, social exchange theory explains Kilii,s
behavior. But, without getting inside her head, you couldn,t predict
her choices. So the theory is only a way of sorting events into
Colonial Order Theory: Ngah Hari's explanation
Ngah Hari of Mncaak says that, until Semai learned hukum dnda, , legal
judgement by fines, from the Malays, people settled disputes, especially
about women, by killing each other, "like those savages on the Teiw
Tluup. This theory that Semai peacefulness stems from the colonial
imposition of the rule of fines, is as plausible as social exchange
theory. The midcentury Marxist Adorno says that colonial exercises like
this constitute the kneejerk ideological response of the capitalist
state to the threat of proletarian and peasant unrest, which capitalism
constructs as chaotic violence. The cure is "scientific management"
conflict, coupled with "social engineering" to eliminate the injustices
that feed violence (e.g. , Luke 1990:57-63). Conservatives can embrace
the former, liberals the latter. Who could object? It's all so
+zweckrational,+ purposefully reasonable.
Order is good for rational capitalist development, good for
bureaucratic rationality. Malays and other dominant peoples can see
that "their minorities are developing spiritually and economically
everyone is "clean and orderly" (McElwee 1998), sweltering away
government surveillance in rows of mutually identical tin-roofed
rectangular houses in desolate regroupment schemes. The prevention of
violence, keeping order, becomes a tool of domination.
But, whatever the Malay influence here, I suspect these formalities
are just an intensification of the ubiquitous community surveillance
and of the pervasive Semai practice of seeking material compensation
for emotional distress. Agreeing to pay the fine constitutes a public
admission of responsibility for bad behavior which has disturbed the
group, so that the fine itself is of only symbolic importance. Not many
Semai communities have formal bicaraa, and even fewer a formal
schedule of fines. But community surveillance is inescapable in small
close-knit isolated communities where the notion of privacy is absent
and wanting to be alone seems antisocial and sinister, as it did on the
Tluup in the 1960s.
Burkean Legal Theory
So I don,t really know why the woman whose behavior inspired this
story refused to cooperate in any way with the (male) authorities. She
remains as enigmatic and somehow admirable to me as Herman Melville,s
BartlebIy, from whose story the opening sentence and subtitle of this
section come (e.g., Melville 1974). What she said to them, when they
suggested alternatives to her , was what Bartleby said, N,nyee,, "I
prefer not to. It's a word like bood in its meaning. N,nyee, means
I don,t want to, I don,t feel like it. In Semai custom, there's no
recourse when someone says that, even a child. You would not want to
force them; coercion would damage them, spiritually, mentally, maybe
physically; it,s punan. Even trying to persuade her, as the Sten in the
story does, reveals a certain sort of male arrogance new to Semai. In
the story, that's a mistake. So, in the story, I,ve translated the
phrase as simply "no to preserve its brevity and finality.
Of course, the male elders who reconstructed these conversations for me
said that she was "crazy and "stupid. Freedom is a funny thing,
free people are offensive and hard to deal with. Ngah Hari knows that,
when he sneers at how bebas, "free in a bad sense, Semai were in the
old days and still are on the Tluup. The man who made the remarks I put
in Saad,s mouth knows that too. The Malay authorities know that very
well. That,s why they seek, always, to limit all kinds of freedom among
Semai: freedom of movement, sexual freedom, freedom of religion, freedom
to secure ownership of property. States everywhere hate freedom,
preferring institutional greed and envy. Appeals to love only work
where love is a bond between people.
But Klii,,s freedom is the freedom to say no, not the positive Sadesque
"free market freedom that rationalizes and justifies letting one set
people hurt another. Klii, won,t do as she is told, but she doesn,t
expect others to what she wants. Free people require self-control or
they will extend their freedom to the point that they prsusah maay, as
Semai say, cause problems for other people. Only people who lack self
control need control by others. Edmund Burke knew that.
Subject: stale male chauvinist sex
Date: Wed., 3 Jun 1998 08:45:54-0400
From: Bob <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Thanks again for your comments on the chapter. You needn't worry that
I'll resent honesty. It's hard to come by.
Obviously Yeop's erotic response to Klii' draws on my erotic response
to women in general, but I'm not Yeop. Not much. I hope. I became a
litaw at the beginning of the 1950s, arguably the most acutely
patriarchal period in America this century. Since then, beginning in
the 1970s, a number of women have reeducated me. Looking back, I'm
astonished at their patience and kindness. I'm not a feminist--I don't
know that men can be that--but I'm sympathetic to feminist issues; I'm
what people in the 1950s might have called a "femsymp," if postwar
reaction had not so effectively crushed the feminist movement. So I
hope that I have a more complex response than Yeop does.
I learned most of what I know about traditional Semai sex from people a
few years older than myself, on the Telom (Semai: Tluup) in 1962. Semai
men were a little reticent about sex when talking with me, but several
women brought up the topic in a jocular way, wanting to trade recipes. I
was completely taken aback and intimidated, the women were so much freer
than the girls I,d hung around with earlier. Patriarchy wounds men too,
Sex was quite casual on the Telom then. The joking relationships
between opposite sexed mnaay, elder sibling's spouse and spouse's
younger sibling, were often quite explicitly ribald. In olden times,
what Semai call manah ntum, say before World War II, mnaleh would sleep
with any male visitor, to make sure that his desires were assuaged.
Unsatisfied desire, for Semai, is the root of all evil. In the 1960s,
some married Telom women slept for trinkets with the Malay and Chinese
traders who visited the settlement every month or so. The impression I
got, though, was that the people who talked with me thought that sort of
sex, unlike sex for fun between strangers or mnaay, was a little tacky.
Because of this casualness, there wasn't a big vocabulary for talking
about sex. The Semai phrase for physical attraction is "to desire the
body," -hood brook. You didn't usually talk about the sexual organs,
it'd be tolah, taboo, but if you did, Semai weren't nervous enough to
use euphemisms or pet words, unlike Malays or Babylonians.
Mostly sexual relations were either so much of a problem that it was
tolah to talk about them at all, or not enough of a problem to be worth
talking about. A lot of times, describing unusual sexual acts, fucking
chickens for example, people had to resort to pantomime, blowing
imaginary tailfeathers out of the way. And you don't talk much about
sexual or emotional problems, because "there's no use in it."
did say that they were anxious enough about sex that the first encounter
with a vagina was traumatic: "It looked like a house to me, a BIG
house." They were often impotent for a while before some kindly older
woman would succeed in seducing them, eager though they were to try.
Now that I'm elderly few Semai will talk to me about sex. It'd be
tolah. Even in the 1960s, lowland Perak people were much more
close-mouthed about sex.
In the 1990s it's a American truism that sex between equals should
involve concern that one's partner also enjoys the sex. It's a mutual
responsibility to provide enjoyment. But that's a recent development for
Babylonian men, and it's a long way from what anthropologists call a
"culture universal" (cf. Bloch 1997). A couple of times, back
1960s when I was young enough to talk about sex with litaw, I asked a
couple of young men whether women experienced something like orgasm.
"Oh," they said in effect. "Sure. They must." It was
clear that the
thought was new to them. People do what they want to do, in Semai
thinking. You never really know what's going on inside them. So Klii''s
interest in her partner's sexual response is about the externals, and
her irritation with his failure to give her pleasure is about the lack
of pleasure, not about any dereliction of duty on his part.
But punan, the Semai taboo on frustrating someone else's desires,
applies to sexual desire, too. On the Tluup in the 1960s, people
therefore had to be cautious about expressing their sexual desires, for
fear of putting themselves or their beloved into punan. You had to
careful about accepting cigarettes, because taking a cigarette,
especially an ornamented one, indicated you were interested in a sexual
relationship with the donor. My reason for not asking women about
their sexual pleasure was that I worried about the consequences of
raising the question with a woman. The Semai sense that frustration has
physical effects is not just a sort of rule that means you shouldn't
frustrate people. It reflects the observed results of doing so.
In the 1990s, in Perak, Semai attitudes seem much more like those of
Malays or Chinese, attitudes which I associate with the patriarchal
desire to control women's sexuality. Attitudes which I learned in the
1950s. The level of sexual frustration seems much higher now too. So
I,ve phrased the conflict as initially between hill/Pahang and
valley/Perak Semai values, and, as Klii, matures, between traditional
and modern ones. In Perak, madness and suicide over sexual rebuffs seem
to have become common. The next chapter is a pastiche of cases Perak
people told me about.
But the sex in the story is only a token anyway. The topic is
love, betrayal, resentment, the emotions that pose problems for any
ETHNOGRAPHIC AND LINGUISTIC DETAILS
The following notes are arranged in the same sequence as the foregoing
text, to which they refer.
Ngah Hari of Mncaak is an "organic intellectual, a talented oral
ethnographer who has supplied much of our understanding of traditional
Perak Semai society (for a clumsy attempt at an appreciation, see Dentan
1993:12-13). Since he is the person who suggested most strongly that
the extension of Malay control and the hukum dnda', penalty by fining,
underlies Semai peacefulness, it seems most appropriate to give his
account of how Malay control reached Semai. But there are several other
versions of this history (e.g., Gomes 1986:44-47; Juli Edo 1991:123 and
1997). Since Ngah Hari,s account might interest historians, I have
broken my usual rule and given the Malay equivalent of some Semai place
In the olden days a Human [Semai] from Teew Kampar went to Gool
[Tapah] for pleasure. He heard the sound of voices but
didn't meet anyone. He visited seven households. He came across
a little boy, no little girls, just one child. The little boy was
small enough to suckle. He saw the stranger and ran away to his
mother. But she had died two nights before. He hugged his
mother. The Human from Kampar sat on the house ladder, because it
would have been improper for him to enter without being invited.
He sat there on the ladder and waited and waited for the woman to
ask him in. But she was dead.
After a long long time he entered the house. He saw that her
eyes were shut.
+O,+ he thought, +she's asleep.+ But after another night he
realized she was dead. He put the little boy into a sling and
carried him back to Kampar. It took seven days to make
that trip in the old days.
He took the boy into his home and -gaar him, tried to wipe
the sickness from him with a shamanic whisk. He said Malay spells
over him. After the boy was a little older,maybe ten, he took him
back up the Teiw Gool [Batang Padang River], maybe seven or
eight miles, to where there were some people. He met with them
and gave back the boy, whose name was Balang Alii'.
There were three households at that place. The others had
fled because someone died, as was the custom in the old days after
a death [cf. Williams-Hunt1952:73]. They were swiddeners there.
After a long time the boy became headman of that settlement. The
settlement itself kept getting bigger, swelling like a flower.
In those days there were no upriver chiefs [Malay penghulu,
from ulu, "upriver"].
Then the [Bugis Malay] Sultan of Perak appointed the Gool
chieftan head of Batang Padang District and another person head
of Gnta' [Kinta] District. Balang Alii' became head of
the district which included Kampar, Gopeng, Sahom, as far as Bekau
[in Pahang?] and Praah [Pria?], with the title Tok Sang [two Malay
honorifics]. He was the first Semai penghulu.
Time passed. Tok Sang asked the Rajah [Sultan] for a Sten
[Assistant] to run Gopeng, with the title Tok Lila P[r]kasa, [from
there northward to] Teew Snyu' [Sinju] and Dook [Ipoh]; then Tok
Sri' Bunga' [Flower] to run Gool; Tok Sri' Mas Dikrajv' [Gold
?Ennobled] over Teiw Galas, Ayer Denak, Krikal [Kelubi], Teew Paay
Tuut [Buta], Gunung Batu [whence the British exiled the people to
Mncaak in the Emergency]; Tok Sri [Lela] Wangsa over Temiar
territory. Authority over those areas was devolved by the Sultan
[Kuasa' ajeeh bi-crluuh ya Sultan].
In those days we were bebas [see discussion]. The Sultan
feared us and appointedthese officials to organize our
territories. He forbade anyone to enter them. He ruled
the Malays, and these four officials ruled us. He gave each a
baleey, a palace to which the forest people brought rice, jungle
produce and other tribute whenever the Sultan visited. When he
left after a week, he would give money [to the officials]. In
those days, any Malay who used the word "Sakai" [roughly, "jungle
nigger"] was tied up for two weeks. They didn't start using the
term "Sakai" again until the British came [but cf. Endicott
1981:9; Juli Edo 1991:123]
The word for "household" in Ngah Hari,s story is dnuuk, from
duuk, "house." A flower pahpuuh, opens, unfolds. The afternoon
this story, Ngah Hari corrected himself after consulting with some
elders from R'eeis. There weren't any baleey, he said, just a spot in
Kuala Kangsar where people came to bring things. Despite this checking
of details, typical of Ngah Hari,s oral ethnography, Gomes, account
(1986:44-47), which dates the expansion to the 1920s, after the
abolition of slaving actually began to have an effect, and relates it to
the increasing integration of maay Gyyl, the Batang Padang Semai, into
the Malaysian economy, seems more plausible on the face of it. Like
most Semai stories, the Mncaak version puts Mncaak at the center of the
action, although, because of the Cameron Highlands Road, which
facilitated economic integration, Gyyl seems a more plausible center for
the expansion of Malay influence. It is still the center of Semai
political activity (e.g., Gomes 1990:23). Moreover, the bicaraa, seems
more formalized along the Gyyl, as Robarchek,s work attests. Finally,
Ngah Hari,s version contains folkloric elements, notably the abandoned
boy child, which play a part in most Semai accounts of the origin of
government but are of questionable historic reliability (e.g., Dentan
In principle, the current system of fines is pretty complex. The
highest is $62.25, about $25 US, for an errant headman. The word for
fine, like the word bicaraa, itself, is of Sanskrit origin, so the whole
elaborate system found on the Waar and along the Cameron Highlands Road
may be of extrapeninsular origin, though it reaches Semai via Malays.
On the Tluup, and perhaps more widely in the old days, fines were
explicitly to relieve the emotional distress and frustration that
resulted from breaches of punan. Perak Semai in the 1930s apparently
would fine people for srngloo,, wilful failure to show up for an
agreed-upon enterprise, in much the same way as Tluup people in the
1960s (Singam 1961:79).
Batek, foraging neighbors of Semai, have a notion similar to
rnyaak, called ha,ip: Lye Tuck Po (1997:13) describes how the
destruction of their world by "developers produces this "inexpressible
The superhuman beings ha,ip the fertile, abundant, and healthy
world that they created for us to enjoy; the Batek ha,ip the past
in which such terrors and images of doom were absent, This
sentiment is not to be dismissed lightly. Ha,ip can put
a person in ritual danger. When we are intensely ha,ip, we lose
the capacity to enjoy life, we refuse sustenance, nothing can pull
us out of our malaise. A comparable situation with the superhuman
beings may be a refusal on their part to heed the shamans, calls
for help, just as when a person becomes ha,ip, because they have
become insensible to the concerns of the social world just as,
when a person becomes ha,ip s/he becomes insensible to what is
happening around her/him. In other words, uncontrolled ha,ip
plunges us into spiralling depression; the next stage is death.
Think what life was like when slavers were routinely stealing Semai
It still strikes me as strange that the case histories I write
should read like short stories and that, as one might say, they
lack the serious stamp of science.
Sigmund Freud  quoted in Licinio 1998:2197
I modelled the basic story on a Teiw Waar case, but some of the
details (and the lowland elder,s sarcastic remarks) come from the
following R,eeis case.
A woman with a new baby sought a divorce from a soldier in the
Senoi Praak, a parapolice unit set up by the British during the
Emergency to recruit Orang Asli to the government side. Malay
Muslim leaders see it as a good locus to Islamize Semai; Semai
Christians describe it as a cesspool of drinking, gambling and
sexual license. The husband, a convert to Islam, had taken
a new wife. For a year and nine months, he,d sent no child
support nor contacted his wife.
Whenever R,eeis people talked about the case, they mentioned
the fact that the deserted baby was "still suckling its mother,s
breast; indeed, they usually mentioned it more than
once. Last I heard, there had been four meetings.none of which
the soldier had attended.
His own headman and waris admitted he was in the wrong; so
was his new wife, who also didn,t attend meetings. People were
talking about going to state court and garnisheeing his wages.
The "flatlanders in the story are maay direh , "down there people,
westernmost Semai, who live on the alluvial plains in Perak state.
Klii, s mother is maay Tluup, a Telom River person from the state of
Pahang. Flatlanders call Telom people "those Temiar, referring to a
related group of people whom Semai regard as uncivilized. Telom people
call flatlanders "those Malays. The trial takes place on the upper
Waar River, in a highland Perak settlement where Klii,s father was
born. A young litaw like Yeop at the beginning of this story has to
wander around, dressed up, looking for a wife from outside his
settlement; there,s a lot of flirting at funerals, as at any other
public ceremony (Juli Edo 1998:121, 147, 163).
Flight and Harangue
The coleus Yeop recalls is Coleus atropurpureus, which Malays call
"hatihati and used medicinally as recently as the 1990s (cf. Muhamad
dan Mustafa 1992:59-60,; Ismail 1930:377, 390,460) . Since it grows
only in wasteland, Semai were just beginning to learn about it in 1990s,
and did not know what the plant was good for. They used a version of
the Malay name, aty, or a gloss, noos , which means "heart, as the
Malay name means "liver, organs the two peoples believe to be the seat
of vitality. In the highlands "American vine is mile-a-minute,
Mikania micrantha, an aggressive twiner which Semai say wraps itself
around fruit trees like a loincloth, and strangles them to death unless
you cut the vine (Polunin 1988:46). You find it, says Lbat, "in every
house, on every field. Most lowland people called the plant sndun and
knew the Malay ethnomedical use (Burkill and Haniff 1930: 220; Ismail
1930:490). Little Bah Pent, 9, used the vine to tie coconut shells
together to make stilts now in the Semai collection at the American
Museum of Natural History, but, except as a temporary tie, it,s not much
use. Lowland Semai used the phrase "American vine, cook
(a)(m)rikaan, for an introduced "ornamental plant now run wild,
Lantana camara, and its cousin L. aculeata, a straggling prickly
wasteland bush from South America; like the wasteland herb Eupatorum
odoratum, which some lowland Semai also call "American vine, the
plants have an unpleasant smell that justifies their Malay name and have
reached "plague proportions in many areas (Cheah et al. 1989; Henderson
1961:40; Lim 1992:394; Polunin 1988:8,47). Straits rhododendron,
Melastoma malabathricum, is a free-flowering shrub with edible berries
The details on flatland life and culture come in part from my brief
fieldwork in Cangkat Pinggan in 1963 and long conversations with
KinSima, who comes from there but lives in Mncaak. The rest is from
Juli Edo,s massive study which discusses the peoples, intellectual and
esthetic response to the physical desolation development has brought to
Perak state (e.g., 1998:198, 216n25, 216n26, 293,-294, 316). The anger
of the local spirits at the loss of ceremonies and ceremonial
specialists (pahwook, from Malay "pawang), the fact of the shrinking
dying earth and the resulting heat are flatland Semai notions (Juli Edo
1998:290-293). Flirting during funeral ceremonies is okay, but sexual
intercourse is not (Juli Edo 1998:293-294, 327n4, 328n5, 343).
Semai is rich in words for flight. In this instance Klii, -du,,
took off to avoid a problem although she didn,t have to. Semai would
say Ki-pra,-duu, i hal i gnsiir; ki-pr-duu i luuy, she cleared out to
avoid the issue with her husband; she made herself go. If she had run
away, she would have -jaar; if she had fled in panic, to escape a
menace, -taw. The issue of definition is important in understanding
people,s response to her flight, because she is responsible for da,nuu,
but Yeop would have been responsible for tunaw (cf. Means and Means
1986:32 s.v. deu, 44 jar, 96 tau). If she fled to avoid returning the
bridewealth, as the (male) officials thought she had, then the flight
relieves her waris kinsmen of the obligation to help out in the
repayment. The custom of bridewealth is fairly recent and does not
extend to all Semai (for discussion, see Juli Edo 1997, 1998).
Harangues are a common way for Malaysian indigenes to express
unhappiness with someone else (e.g., Nagata 1997).
Alone in the Valley.
Tossing and dreaming, muttering in one,s sleep as Yeop does, is to
bra,poo,, to show the effects of an mpoo,, a dream or dream semblance,
often the manifestation of a demon.
When he was talking with Klii, for the first time, the word the
Sten thought for "dumb" was kaloo', cognate with Malay "kelu,"
connoting stupidity, harmlessness and inability to speak (for a
discussion of this complex idea, see Dentan and Nowak 1980:212 or Nowak
and Dentan 1984). Inability to compete in the sort of discussion Sten
and Klii, were having is an expression of being kaloo'. But verbal
facility of the sort that wins arguments is suspect, since glib people
can persuade others to act against their own self interests.
For rawooc, see Dentan (1993:9-10).
Semai would describe this upbraiding this way. The Sten accuses
Klii, of wanting to lie, -tladeeh mee, lnlood. He bawls her out, saying
her intelligence is defective, -roo, ha i akal pe, byr. She replies
Pe, n-wees, pe, n-lnlood , I didn,t abandon (discard) him, I,m not
Dadii, says, Tree,, "difficult, with a connotation of stabbing pain.
Klii, answers with the rhetorical question Ma ha-,uuy, "What (can)
do? Meaning there,s nothing you can do.
Rmpah asks, [Ma]loo, i jnakah? Where,s the joke? The word comes from
Malay jenaka, a variant of Hindi jenika, "double entrendre. I think
what he means is that he can,t understand why Klii, is acting so
irresponsibly. Yeop says she runs away, -tw-taw, and uses the emphatic
infix -gu- to decribe how she "flees, ki,-gu-jaar.
Among Perak Semai, a husband,s waris [kinsmen who act as
guarantors of the marriage] deposit a "body payment, blanjaa, brook
blanjaa, tubuh, with the wife,s waris. They have to return this deposit
if the marriage fails and she,s salah, at fault; so her waris has a
material incentive in trying to stabilize the marriage.
People along the Waar aren,t clear how black magic works. As the notion
of witchcraft along the R,eis seems a Christian introduction, so the
notion of sorcery seems to be of Malay origin: Ilmuu,, Arabic for
"knowledge, connotes black magic (Wilkinson 1901:I,421); for Waar River
people, malib, Arabic for "expert, a neutral term among lowlanders
like those in Mncaak, connotes black magic.
A Perak Semai marriage, jknuk, unites two kindreds, the bride,s and
groom,s waris. You want as many kinsmen as possible, in case some day
you need help, so you want your children to marry people from different
families. The phrase I translate as "shacking up is "dog marriage,
jknuk coo,, one without a wedding or a commitment by waris. The case
Rmpah describes is based on one that didn,t have to go to a bicaraa,.
The phrase br-truu, ha moo,l "stabbed by the handle, refers to the
first wife (the point) and the woman Nyym wanted to take as a second
wife. "Screwing around glosses the word ht-hoont, "wanting. Sexual
intercourse is -ny-nooy. Bringing the things as evidence is ain i
arab ajeh ku i tanda, sa,si,, the last two words being from Malay
tanda saksi. Saad is using the word "tanda, which in ordinary Malay
means "sign, in the sense of "incriminating evidence, as Minangkabau
Malays use the word; the Sanskrit word saksi refers to testimony
(Wilkinson 1901, II:370, 529). "Fooling around with the feelings of
someone who is married -,olu, sngii, maay [br]klamin. The connotation
of -,olu,, from Malay "olok, is of playing the fool, so that one should
feel ashamed, -slsiil. The interrogation is a pri,saa,, from a Malay
word for "examination.
The difference between this gloss of Apel,s cheerful summary of how
Semai handle resentments and an earlier gloss of the same remark
(Dentan 1993:14) comes from my difficulty in glossing the causative verb
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