Tales Of Rabiah
By Noor Hasnah Adam
I love to tell stories. To the trees, to the flowers, to the butterflies, to the rain. I really like it when there are people who can appreciate my storytelling. I know and remember many tales. But today I want to tell you the Tale of Rabiah. Maybe Sop has not heard this tale before. Because I have never told it to Sop.
Why don't you visit me, Sop? Listen to my stories. You can't? Too many problems? Never mind, Sop, I understand. You cannot tell how heavy the burden someone bears is just by looking. I know you have your own difficulties to face. Always ill. No time to look in on me. I understand, Usop, if you are not able to visit me. You have difficulty moving; how can you look in on me in this home? I know you have a lot of work to do; many responsibilities. That is all important, Sop. It is beneficial work. Do not neglect your duties. Do not let them go to waste. I truly understand and I am not angry. I do not mind, Sop.
In this home, I do not feel so lonely. I have many friends. They are all nice. I don't even mind the ones who aren't. Because I understand why some grow fussy. Why some are always angry. I think some of my friends are sad. They feel lost. Neglected. Forgotten. Lonely people are indeed to be pitied, Sop. Yes, I have many friends here. But they do not make up for the loneliness I feel inside. It hurts the spirit, Sop. But I understand, some of my friends feel a great longing. Or regret makes them resentful. But I don't mind, Sop. I just want my heart to be at peace. So I pay little heed to everything else. If none of my friends will chat with me, I can talk to the trees. To the flowers. To the butterflies. To the rain. They are more understanding, Sop. More appreciative. I do not mind.
Besides, for a few years now, schoolchildren always come to visit my friends and me. All of them want to put on a show. Sometimes it's good. Sometimes I don't understand a single bit of it. But never mind; I entertain them all the same. When they visit, my heart is lifted. There are eyes to look in on me. There are ears to listen to my stories. Hehehe. I like it, Sop. I like to tell stories.
These schoolchildren like to visit my friends and me and feed us our meals. Entertain our hearts. I do not mind. I know some of them like it. Some of them are good children. Some just follow their friends. Some are forced to be here. But I truly do not mind. I still enjoy telling them stories. Sometimes, I tell them funny stories that I used to tell Usop when Usop was young. Stories like the tale of Pak Kaduk, who won a cockfight, but lost his village in the process. The tale of Si Luncai, who escaped the Sultan's punishment by jumping into the river with his squashes. The tale of the doves and the mouse. Sometimes I tell them why the crow is black. Or why the chicken cannot fly. The children laugh wildly. But there are those who get bored. They get up and leave. I truly do not mind. I am used to it. I continue to tell my stories. Some of the children call me crazy, because I like to talk to myself. Just like I used to do at Geylang Market, at Block 2. Where I used to spend my time while waiting for Usop to visit me. While waiting for Usop, I used to wander the market, telling my stories. Told my stories to the wall, to the flowers, to the ants, to the rain. But Usop never came to visit me. People started calling me crazy. The children mocked me. The women glared at me with disgust. I do not mind, Usop. Let people say what they want. I do not mind.
When the schoolchildren call me crazy, the teacher would usually scold them in hushed tones. That is good, Sop. The young must be educated. Character-building starts during childhood. Sometimes they do not know when to jest, when to treat a person with respect. If they do not know how to show respect now, what will happen when they grow up? How will they raise children of their own? How will they learn to lead? I hope you teach your children and grandchildren to show respect to others. To be like Usop. Know how to respect others. And be respected in turn. Respect is important. Not just to people. To trees as well, to flowers, to ants, to butterflies, to the rain. We must respect all that as well, Usop. It's very important, lest ill fortune befalls us. There are many taboos we should be mindful of. As long as we accord someone or something the proper respect, we will be safe, Sop. To put it simply, Sop, we must know our place. If we go to someone's home, we have to give the salam, Sop. We cannot just enter someone's home. We must seek his permission. We should treat the trees, flowers, butterflies, ants, and the rain the same way. We must respect Nature.
But the young these days find that hard to understand, Sop. When they see me telling my stories to the flowers, to the trees, to the ants, to the butterflies, to the rain, they always laugh. They always mock me, but I do not mind. I always call out to those children to ask them if they would like to listen to my stories. When I have told the schoolchildren many funny stories, many old tales, without realising it, I sometimes end up telling them my story. My history. Without knowing, I end up telling the Tale of Rabiah. I do enjoy telling the Tale of Rabiah. It's just like the Tale of Panji[i] Semirang. Panji Semirang lost his mother, who was poisoned by Paduka Liku. Or the Tale of Inderaputera, with the barren queen. A woman who is barren is most unfortunate. I know, Sop. I know the sadness felt by Raja Syahian's queen.
But that is an old tale. The Tale of Rabiah is far more tragic. Just like the tale of Si Miskin, the pauper. Si Miskin and his wife were cast out of Heaven by Indra, down to Earth. Theirs was a poor, rootless existence; until they had their sons, Marakarma and Nila Kesuma. From then on, Si Miskin gained in wealth and soon possessed a kingdom of his own. But Si Miskin forgot where he came from. At the incitement of others, Si Miskin drove his sons away. Si Miskin was convinced that his sons would bring ruin to his kingdom. In the end, Si Miskin lost all his wealth. A pauper again. Hai... The Tale of Rabiah is more tragic still, Sop. I started off poor, too. Father was just a fisherman. My mother died of a distended abdomen while my siblings were still young. There were eight of us. As the eldest, I felt like I had to take up her responsibilities. I took care of my sibling's meals and their clothings. I looked out for my siblings. That is why people say I am fierce. Whoever disturbed my siblings, I would fight. I was not afraid to get involved in a scuffle. I was like Siti Zubaidah who went to war to save her husband. Like Srikandi protecting her family. Or like Bujang Selamat who could deflect any assault on his person. I did not mind people thinking of me as a troublemaker, as long as nobody dared to lay a finger on my younger siblings. I was happy to see my brothers going to school. Getting an education. Gaining knowledge. There was no need for my sisters to go to school, but I made sure to teach them how to take care of the family. Cooking, cleaning and taking care of themselves. I did not mind being called a spinster. When I couldn't stand it anymore, I'd just smack the mouths of those who mocked me like that. I thought, better for me to sacrifice for my family. For my siblings. Our life as a family was truly difficult, Sop. Difficult.
But people say we can never be sure of God's plans for us. Like the tale of the Chinese princess falling in love with a Roman prince; even the mighty Garuda could do nothing to hinder God's will. Sop, though I was called a spinster, there was still someone willing to take my hand in marriage and he was not just any ordinary man. A rich man, Sop, and a Tuan Haji at that. He owned a large tract of land and a big house with a yard. Everyone respected Tuan Haji. Although Tuan Haji was an old widower, I agreed to the marriage, Sop. I did not mind. I obeyed my father's wishes. All for the sake of my family, Sop. My gain would benefit my siblings as well.
Tuan Haji was a good man, Sop. Tuan Haji treated me well. Tuan Haji taught me about religion, a great part of which I previously did not understand. Did not practise. Because my mother never taught my siblings and me. Father was often at sea. I regretted not having been able to educate my siblings with religious knowledge, Sop. But it was not too late, Sop. I felt like Tuan Haji was my saviour. Like Malim Dewa. He married his wife in order to save her. His soul was most pure. Tuan Haji led me down the righteous path. I led my siblings down the same path in turn. Even then, fate was not on my side. Wealth alone could not ensure happiness. I could not bear a child, Sop. I don't know which of us was infertile, but I did not have the chance to become a mother. I cried every night. Tuan Haji was truly a good man. He told me not to lose hope. We could still be happy with adopted children. At that point, I resolved that, wherever the child came from, I was going to take good care of it. To raise it to great success and renown. And when I got the chance to take care of an orphan like you, Usop, I was most happy. My world felt completely blissful. I felt like my family and my very being were complete. I adopted another few orphan children. I loved them all. I told stories to all of them. Moral tales. I feel like I have imparted sufficient advice and life's guidance to my children through my stories. Tales I had learned from my grandfather.
People say, our past sins will always return to haunt us. People say one good turn deserves another. An ill deed will be returned in kind. Yes, I have done wrong, too. I am human after all, Sop. I have greatly wronged my sister-in-law, Mak Ilah. I abused her verbally. I cursed her. I smacked her across the face with a slipper. Because my sister-in-law was poor, from a foreign village. I thought she had ill intentions. I thought she was taking advantage of your Uncle Hisam. I thought she was hoarding all of Uncle Hisam's money and sending it home to her village. After all my effort to raise Uncle Hisam, I could not allow someone to siphon all of Uncle Hisam's money away to her village so easily, could I? Use it to buy land in the village. Buy a house in the village. Yet when my other siblings approached Uncle Hisam for help, he did not have any money. Why? Because all the money had been sent to his wife's village. Of course I was angry. Because I believed siblings should help one another. They should not be selfish when they have grown wealthy themselves.
In my anger, it wasn't just my sister-in-law who had to bear the brunt of it. I cursed her children as well. My own nieces. I told her that her many daughters would just end up whoring themselves. Selling their dignity. Because their own mother lacked the dignity not to steal Uncle Hisam's wealth. Her husband's money. Though tears ran from Mak Ilah's eyes, she did nothing, Sop. She just took the verbal abuse and resigned herself to being hit with a slipper. I felt like Sang Boma. Remember the Tale of Sang Boma which I used to tell you? Sang Boma was cruel and wanted to own everything. Sang Boma thought power was everything. I could not put myself in Mak Ilah's place at that time. I could not empathise with Mak Ilah's sadness. Because I did not have children of my own, Sop. I did not know how difficult raising daughters could be. I had never felt the pain of labour. I had never felt a mother's nurturing instinct. I was jealous of Mak Ilah because she could bear children of her own. I felt like God was being cruel. Actually, Sop, I was the cruel one; I had maligned the innocent.
In actual fact, I was wrong, Sop. I thought they were rich. I thought Uncle Hisam had drawn a large pension. It turns out they were also struggling to make ends meet. Their children's education required large amounts of money. They had to close their food stall. After that, Uncle Hisam and his wife had to work as cleaners for the HDB. Their children also ended up as cleaners, or delivered newspapers. It was with the money they earned as cleaners that they bought two acres of land. They were able to buy a single-storey terrace house. When I found that out, I was really ashamed. Because I had accused them of so many things. But I was too embarrassed to apologise. Because I thought my position was far superior in comparison. I lived in a big house with a yard. Everyone respected me. I did not have to apologise; surely, they would have understood.
My grandfather used to say: life is like a point on a wheel; sometimes we are at the bottom, sometimes we are at the top. Sometimes we go back to the bottom. I did not understand it then. Now I truly do. The old have the benefit of age; we should heed their advice. Let it guide our lives and we will prosper, Sop. But while my life was on a high, I forgot where I came from, Sop. I felt as if I had everything I ever wanted. But do you remember, Sop, when Tuan Haji passed away? I felt a huge loss. I longed for a companion, a confidant and a husband who loved me. I cried day and night, while everyone else said I was going to grab all of Tuan Haji's wealth for myself. In fact, they were the ones who wanted his wealth. Tuan Haji did not have any children from his first marriage. He did not have any children of his own with me either. Based on Islamic inheritance law, since I had not borne him a son there was no way for me to prevent his family members from dividing the wealth between themselves.
I was resigned to my fate, Sop. Your siblings and you had grown up by then. You had all completed your education and had families of your own. Although I tried to hang on to what little I had left that reminded me of Tuan Haji, I eventually had to sell the big house and the land. I fell sick, Sop. Someone had cast an evil spell on me. Though I don't know who had done so. Maybe there were people who were angry at me for not wanting to sell the house and the land and dividing up the profits. I sold the house and the land reluctantly. The money was divided up. I even gave my share to my adopted children. I wanted everyone to be pleased... Everyone to be happy. I grew slightly healthier. I did not mind, Sop. Have I not always shared my happiness with others?
With what little money I had left, I bought a flat in Block 2, Geylang Serai. My youngest sibling, Uncle Halim, told me to do it. I lived alone in the two-room flat. I lost all sense of grandeur I had developed living in a house with a yard. I felt totally alone. Too lonely, Sop. It was those hours of solitude that made me want to talk; to tell whatever tale I could. And I spent a lot of time at the Geylang Market. Next to the red brick wall. Next to the piles of goods. Or, sometimes, I would walk to Joo Chiat. Look at textiles. Speak to the cloth. Talk to passers-by. It was the only way I had to keep myself occupied, Sop. Like Puteri Bongsu who, resentful of Malim Deman for tricking her, sang and entertained herself before sulking off back to Heaven. But I could not buy Heaven, Sop. I could only have a two-room flat in Geylang Serai.
The most sorrowful day for me was the day Uncle Halim sold my flat. Uncle Halim sold the flat without my knowledge. I am stupid, Sop. I never went to school. I did not know that the flat in Geylang was never bought under my name. I only found out when I was told to move out, to pack my clothes; Uncle Halim was throwing me out. My own brother! Where was I to go, Sop? Where could I go? I did not expect my own brother to drive his elder sister out of her home. All for the sake of money. For the proceeds of the sale, your Uncle Halim was willing to drive away his own sister, who had taken care of him since childhood. I felt just like Lebai Malang, who was beset by one misfortune after another. But I knew I still had other siblings. I went to stay with one sibling after another, moving from house to house. I became a prince of the road. Wandering with no set destination in mind. In the stories, princes went exploring with their eye on a particular destination or goal. To seek a wife, to seek healing, to regain his palace and kingdom. All the tales ended happily. But in the Tale of Rabiah, I knew that I could not regain my big house, or my land. I could not regain Tuan Haji's property that I had lost. I could not buy the love of my adopted children. I had nothing left, Sop.
I thought that I still had family to support me. But I was mistaken, Sop. From the home of one sibling to the home of another, I never felt comfortable. Their children did not like me being there. They said I was dirty. Peed all over the house. Played with excrement. My mouth did not know how to stop yapping. Noisy. Their homes were always in a commotion. Always arguing. I felt like I had caused it all. Everyone was angry and resentful. I was always ill. Always having fainting spells. Once, I lost eight of my teeth falling on my face. At Mak Andak's house, I broke my arm in a fall. At Misah's, I fell in the bathroom and hit my head, knocking me out cold. In the end, Mak Ilah asked me to stay with her. I had to swallow my pride. Although I had quarrelled with Mak Ilah, Mak Ilah was kind to me. She did not bear a grudge. Mak Ilah always massaged my body and provided me with nutritious food. She listened to my stories. I felt like Mak Ilah was like Princess Gonda Gentasari who took good care of Anggun Che Tunggal. I was like Anggun Che Tunggal, alone; I had neither husband nor children. But I did not stay long with Mak Ilah, Sop. Just two years. My other siblings did not like me staying there. They said Mak Ilah wanted to rob me of the rest of my money. That was why Mak Ilah was being nice to me. I did not have any more money then, Sop. Just a handful of jewellery that I was saving for my old age. My other siblings forced me to go stay with them. Once again, I found myself at another low point in my life. I could feel myself being alienated; ignored even though I was living under the same roof as my relatives.
My life changed again after the accident, Sop. I fell in the bathroom again. I was admitted to the hospital. Ended up in a coma. My hospitalisation fees were high. Uncle Hisam and Mak Ilah were the ones who helped. They wanted to take me in, but could not provide the care I required. Uncle Hisam and Mak Ilah were moving abroad. Their children were all grown up and had families of their own. They wanted to spend their old age abroad. Much more peaceful, they said. When I had gotten better, they asked me to come along. But I refused. I did not want to leave. I wanted to remain here. There is more than enough peace for me here. Mak Ilah's children said they could not take me with them, because I require medical care that I could only receive here. After discussing it together, they made the decision to send me to this home. Because I require round-the-clock care. There are doctors here; nurses, too. My welfare would be taken care of. They would bear the cost of my stay in the home. And they promised to visit me regularly.
At first I felt really sad. Life is indeed like a wheel. I would never have expected to end up in this home. Rabiah, who rose from poverty to a wealthy life, would end up a resident of an eldercare home. Rabiah, who used to be so fierce and able to stand up for herself, is now like a leaf blowing in the wind. But my heart now feels at peace, Sop. Mak Ilah's children still come to visit me. Uncle Hisam and Mak Ilah, too, whenever they are in town. I only feel sad when I think about your siblings and you. Usop, why don't you look in on me? I miss telling Usop stories. I miss running my fingers through Usop's hair. Why don't you visit, Sop? Why?
I do not mind. I truly do not mind. It is alright if you cannot put me up. It is alright if you do not acknowledge me as your mother. I know you have responsibilities, Sop. You have children, a wife, even grandchildren now. You have a career. I heard Usop's name is now well-known. Cikgu[ii] Yusof. A most outstanding individual. Who has gathered a lot of knowledge. Who has given a lot of himself. Like Awang Sulung Merah Muda. Though orphaned, Awang knew how to make something of himself. Quick to learn. But I am not like Batin Alam who ill-treated Awang Sulung while he was in her care. I loved Usop like I would a child of my own. I showered you with attention and took good care of you. Like Awang, you have gained success and renown. It soothes my heart. It gives me a slight sense of pride for having a part in making a great man out of Usop. I don't mind Usop not remembering me; who am I to you, Sop. But I do not mind, Sop. I am pleased you are happy. I am glad for Usop's success. Your siblings are equally successful, Sop. Alhamdulillah, Sop.
I know I have nobody else. Who else will take me in? I am an old woman. Very forgetful. I make a lot of noise. Always ill. I talk too much. Always peeing all over myself, not able to control my bowels. Needing constant care. Requiring regular medication. Who will take an old woman like me in? Even now, my ankle is always cold. Sometimes it feels like electricity is running through it. Srupp... Sruppp... Up my calf, to my thigh. Sometimes my leg feels shaky. I don't know why. Now I even feel it in my tummy. A pain that I cannot describe. My chest hurts too, as if it is being pricked over and over. Maybe this is the same kind of pain felt when stabbed by the poison-tipped spear of Tuan Puteri Dayang Nuramah. People say the venom would creep up to the neck. Then to the crown of the head. By that point, I would no longer be here in the land of the living. Hopefully I would be on my way to Heaven. To paradise. A place of great beauty.
The tales of the storyteller can ease a troubled heart. A sad heart. That is why the tales all end happily. Maybe I will finish telling tales soon. Maybe the Tale of Rabiah will end here. However... However, wouldn't it be nice if the Tale of Rabiah had a happy ending? Usop, come visit, Sop. I would like to be held by you just like how I held you when you were sick. I want to hear you sing me the song I used sing to you as a child to put you to sleep. Usop, come visit, Sop. Cradle me. I want to sleep, Sop. I would like to go to sleep in your arms, Sop. The Tale of Rabiah is coming to an end, Sop... Come visit, Sop...
Cikgu Yusuf stopped the cassette player. Clear drops glistened in his eyes before rolling down his cheeks. Tears dripped onto the assignment prepared by his student. The note attached to the cassette read:
Translated from Malay by Muhammad Ridzal Abdul HamidQLRS Vol. 10 No. 4 Oct 2011