Rawa, the title of one of Isa Kamari’s novels, is “the name of the land” where the sea gypsies once lived, between the north coast of Singapore and the mainland of the Malaysian peninsula, and also of the main character himself. The book as a whole describes how Rawa and his family (his daughter, Kuntum, her husband, Lamit, and their son, Hassan) are steadily caught up in the relentless modernisation of the Republic, including their settlement in the confines of an government apartment block. Besides the opportunity to live their life in a huge multi-tenanted but anonymous building, modern Singapore offers them the conveniences of “a car, a big television and fridge, air-conditioning in every room, and expensive furniture”. It offers the parents steady, although somewhat insecure, work, and it offers the grandson a good education and the chance to follow a highly regarded profession of naval architect.
Despite these advantages, they no longer have the freedom that the original inhabitants had. With this relentless rationality of human existence, comes a loss of the links with the environment, and indeed with the simplicity and purity of human nature itself. They are also increasingly assimilated into the opaque ethnic category of “Malay”. And the Malay community’s position in Singapore, Isa suggests, is one of severe disadvantage. “The Malays now are not what they used to be,” Rawa muses, watching the television in his daughter’s flat. The newscast confirms his worst fears: “Divorce is highest among Malays. The number of Malay addicts in rehab centres is not decreasing. There is a rise in gangsterism, and births out of wedlock. And there is no shortage of ‘forums’ to address these issues”. Rawa is a story of the difficult transitions of the Malay community in a wider society that is indifferent to their special needs. The community has no clear leaders; Rawa represents increasingly anachronistic values in the midst of vast and amorphous changes. The task for Malays is to learn to be proud citizens of a complex multi-racial society and still keep “in touch with their essence, the spirit”.
The passage below was translated by the Malay-English group at the recent Literary Translation Boot Camp 2014, held at the Arts House, Singapore, and organised in partnership with the British Centre for Literary Translation. It describes a journey by the young Rawa, with his wife Temah and daughter Kuntum, into the pure natural environment that once characterised the lives of the sea-gypsies (“orang Seletar”) and a related community, the Orang Asli. Two principles govern the translation presented below. Firstly, we wanted to translate the text into an educated Singapore-based English, rather than an unmarked international English. Secondly, the group wanted to ensure that the polished final translation was short enough to present to an audience at the final session of the camp. That presentation included a brief introduction to the group’s work, followed by a reading of the original Malay and the final translation. The original author, Isa Kamari, who was also present during the early days of the camp, was deeply moved by the group’s final achievement.
It was late afternoon. Soon after, the pau kajang, a thatched-roofed boat, arrived at the mouth of Sungai Pulai. Rawa decided to tie his boat to a mangrove branch on the left side of the bank where the water ran calmly. He awakened Temah and Kuntum. They woke up and looked at their surroundings. The atmosphere in the estuary was incredibly fresh and fertile. Temah smiled happily. Once more, her body felt refreshed. Kuntum started to chatter again.
Pulau Merambong was visible from the estuary. The seabed between the island and the estuary of Sungai Pulai formed the biggest and most fertile field of seaweed in the country. Dugong, sea horses, turtles and all kinds of fish inhabited the coral reef.
To Temah’s surprise, Rawa jumped into the chest-deep water and began to swim for a while. He felt refreshed and relaxed. Both Temah and Kuntum seemed very happy looking at Rawa as he dived and swam there. Several tembakol fish swam away from Rawa out of fear.
Shortly after, Rawa approached the boat and asked Temah to give Kuntum to him. She was reluctant at first, but after much cajoling from Rawa, she finally surrendered her precious naked daughter to her husband.
Slowly, Rawa immersed his daughter in the water. Kuntum shivered momentarily from the cold but soon she stopped shaking. A broad smile played upon her lips. Kuntum began to babble excitedly and stared deeply and intently at her father’s face. At that moment, Rawa could feel that his soul and Kuntum’s had yielded to a union of deep trust and love. Rawa then embraced Kuntum and was delighted when she stroked his hair in return. He kissed her cheek tenderly. Temah observed all this from the boat. Rawa waved to Temah and she waved back happily. Her eyes started to glisten with tears. Filled with warm and gentle intimacy, their three souls were entwined.
Overjoyed, Kuntum moved her arms and legs excitedly as if signalling to her father that she too wanted to swim. Rawa released Kuntum so that she could float by herself but he ensured her head remained above water. And that was how father and daughter played while being watched by the mother who giggled at their antics.
Suddenly, Rawa sensed that something was about to happen. Immediately after, he heard a sound he knew very well. The muffled call and response came from the riverbed. He smiled with joy.
Rawa turned to the left as if welcoming the bearer of the sensation. He caught sight of a herd of dugong swimming swiftly at the bottom of the river. The local Orang Asli also called these creatures gajah laut or sea elephants. Altogether there were eight dugong including an adorable calf. The water was clear enough to let them see the vivid spectacle. Rawa noticed Temah smiling. Once more Kuntum babbled happily and wriggled within Rawa’s embrace, as though wanting to swim with the dugong. Rawa then lowered Kuntum again and let her swim as if she was one of them but still ensuring he had a hold on her.
That magical experience of nature happened momentarily but its significance etched itself in their hearts forever. Nature is capable of evoking calmness and happiness to souls that are willing to be part of it. Such a blessing never stops presenting itself.
The gentle breeze added to their tranquillity.
While they ate, Rawa glanced at a small group of Orang Asli nearing the bank. Some shouldered spears and others carried blowpipes. Rawa raised his hand and waved in their direction. Noticing Rawa’s pau kajang, the Orang Asli waved back. Without any hesitation, they drank from the river and continued walking.
Indeed, Rawa felt very close to the Orang Asli, who preferred to live on land. To Rawa, they all shared the same roots and lived on the fruits of the forest and the river. Though the Selat Tebrau physically separated Singapore and Johor, the straits actually connected their spiritual and cultural lives.
Translated from Malay by Azyanti binte Mohammad Mudakim, Hamidah Osman, Kamini Ramachandran, Nur El-Hudaa Jaffar, Nur Isyana Isaman, Roslan bin Solihin, Sufiyan Hanafi and Zuraidah Ihsan, with workshop leader Harry Aveling and author Isa Kamari.