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Exercise 10 - The Soul of Malaya

Exercise 10 – The Soul of Malaya
Murai gila jadi tekukur
ajaib hairan hati tefekur
“The Tuan is not in,” said Smail.
“Where is he?”
“Gone. He often goes off into the forest, quite alone…”
I lay down on a mat. After a bath, a siesta is pleasant in this shady retreat. The jungle
also rests at this time of day; I can hear its gentle breathing.
Smail comes back.
"Would the Tuan wish to drink?"
"No, later on."
What have I been dreaming about? The dreams of afternoon are so vague and swift....
Some young people were kissing in the shade, and I had hidden myself to watch them. Why has
Smail awakened me?
Chuk! Chuk! Chuk!... That was the noise of kissing I heard; the homely little lizards
chasing each other across the walls. I like to observe the lively tricky little creatures. The males
are smaller, but move faster because they do not wriggle so much. When a female is caught
and bitten on the neck, there is no more sound of kissing. They stiffen into a tortuous embrace.
Other males gather round to watch them, and then go hunting in their turn. There are some, too,
who only chase flies. They advance straight upon their victim but stop to hypnotise it before the
final leap.
Smail kept coming in and out. He closed the wire shutters to prevent the mosquitoes
coming in with the evening breeze; he lingered to put a book in its place; he asked me the time.
A strange question for a Malay! He had certainly something to say. But I guessed that he would
say nothing if we did not first talk of something else.
"Smail, do you know why the chichak stops before he jumps on the fly?"
"To leave him time to say his prayers to Allah," he answered without hesitation.
"Do the animals pray to Allah?"
He seemed shocked at my ignorance.
"How should they not?"
"And the rice that you are going to cook, does that pray too?"
"The Tuan is laughing at me."
"No, Smail, I want to know what the Malays think. Doesn't the Tuan Rolain ask you
questions too?"
"White men," said Smail, "ask the sort of questions that little children ask." And he
added: "We eat the rice, but we do not eat the rice's soul."
This, to me, meant nothing. I ought to ask if the soul of the fly is eaten. But the word that
I render "soul" is a very awkward word. An animal soul, a vegetable and even a mineral soul—
how are these notions to be understood? Though my logic is at a loss, I dare not assume that
Smail is a fool. What he says may contain a truth, and must in any case possess a meaning. My
instinctive logic tells me so. Thus when I was a child I reverenced the absurd. At church, during
the litany, I repeated with everybody "petit piano, petit piano", until the day when my mother
revealed to me that I ought to say "priez pour nous". Was the answer really incoherent? I was
not sure. How should I find out? I did not talk Malay well enough to press the point. In this
country I was a child of three years old.
Malay is the easiest language. Everyone says so. It is also one of the most difficult.
Rolain says so. When he talks to Smail, I lose myself after the first few words. Many of them I
recognise, but they are so oddly arranged, and seem to emerge by chance like the numbers in a
lottery.... Smail knew how to adapt his language to my ignorance. He used the pidgin Malay of
the white man, and what he was able to tell me made me wish that he could tell me more.
Murai gila jadi tekukur
ajaib hairan hati tefekur
The Murai Gila is calling
My heart is full of miraculous wonder
petit piano – small piano
priez pour nous – pray for us
Henri Fauconnier