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Thursday, April 1, 2021

Reconstructing the Tale of The Princess of Mount Ledang

The story of the Princess of Mount Ledang holds an enduring fascination among Malaysian writers and there have been a number of retellings and reimaginings of her story in the last decade or so. Writers who have published stories about the Princess of Mount Ledang, each added their own perspective. 

From the single tale about the attempt by the Sultan of Malacca to woo her, we now have a 
plethora of sources to reconstruct the story of her life, beginning with her parents (and even 
her grandfather) and that of the only man she ever loved, Nakhoda Ragam. This is not surprising
because when it comes to Malaysian folklore, the most celebrated love story revolves around 
the Fairy Princess of Mount Ledang.  

Readers might want to explore the subject further by revisiting the following short stories: 
The Princess of Mount Ledang by Leela Chakrabarty and Girl on the Mountain by 
Preeta Samarasan, both stories appeared in The Principal Girl, Edited by Sharifah Aishah 
Osman and Tutu Dutta; and also Princess, by Daphne Lee which appeared in her collection 
of short stories, Bright Landscapes.

1. The Principal Girl - Edited by Sharifah A Osman and Tutu Dutta

The Principal Girl is an anthology of mostly folklore based tales written by Malaysian and Singaporean writers. We learn about the origin of this mysterious princess in Leela Chakraborty's story, entitled, The Princess of Mount Ledang. Told in straightforward old school style, it appears that her mother is the daughter of a hunter-gatherer who lived in Mount Ledang. an accident brought them to the attention of a clan of were-tigers (harimau jadian) who lived in a hidden vale on the mystical mountain. The daughter of the hunter was given in marriage to the prince of the clan of were-tigers and their only child was Puteri Embong, who later became known as the Princess of Mount Ledang.

A second story in the collection, Girl on a Mountain, by Preeta Samarasan draws a very different picture of the Princess from what we imagine her to be, from folklore.  Instead of a mysterious magical princess living in a rarefied world, Samarasan depicts her as a fiercely independent wild child; a young woman who holds sway over people by the force of her personality (and not by magic) and her power over nature (which is of course, magical, even if the narrator claims otherwise.) The story proved to be one of the most popular in the anthology. In a way, Samarasan's story tally with Chakraborty's story of a wild carefree princess raised by a clan a shapeshifting weretigers.

2. Bright Landscapes by Daphne Lee

After her childhood, is a coming of age story. According to legend, the Princess met the love of her life as a young woman, on her first trip downriver on a magical skiff which carried her to the sea. The eagle-eyed Nakhoda Ragam spotted her from his perahu and fell in love with her. They were married soon after and spent their honeymoon sailing on the Straits of Melaka. But tragedy struck, the Princess accidentally stabbed him with her  golden needle and he died in her arms. She had not known, he was cursed to die from the prick of a needle...

Daphne Lee's collection of folklore based tales has two stories about the Princess of Mount Ledang. the first one, Princess, is an overwhelmingly sensuous reimagining of the story with a shocking ending, told in the style of a folktale crossed with a steamy romance novel. Although I was shocked at the fate which befell Nakhoda Ragam, my favourite character in all of Malay folklore, the story was intriguing and seemed to be another piece of the puzzle in the story of the legendary Princess of Mount Ledang. In fact, in this tale the narative acknowledged and expanded on the Princess' link with the clan of weretigers in Chakraborty's story.

3. Eight Jewels of the Phoenix retold by Tutu Dutta

The final chapter in the saga of the Princess of Mount Ledang is retold in Eight Jewels of the Phoenix. This story is based on the famous legend, where the Sultan of Malacca, tries to win her hand in marriage in order to acquire "a wife who would outshine all the wives of the princes of the world" took place centuries after the death of Nakhoda Ragam. We all know that the Sultan failed miserably to win over the morose beauty. 

As for the princess, according to legend, "To this day, the princess is said to reside in a magical cave in Gunung Ledang, where she transforms from a beautiful young girl in the morning to an old hag at night." (parts in quotation came from an article by Joane le Roux, In pursuit of a were-tiger, which appeared in the Nov 2, 2014 issue of the New Sunday Times.)


Friday, November 27, 2020

Bright Landscapes by Daphne Lee - A Commentary


(This is a commentary and not a review because I'm analysing the stories as a writer as well as a reader.)

Bright Landscapes by Daphne Lee. This is a collection of short stories by the celebrated former columnist for The Star. Lee is widely regarded as an authority on Children's Literature in English in the region; however this collection is adult fiction. Although Lee has published two other books as an Editor, this is her first book as an author. This slim volume of 150 pages contain 10 dark tales, most of which were entertaining but a few not quite fleshed out. What she succeeded in doing was to create contemporary stories with  the hybrid/fusion of culture and folklore which is Malaysia. 

I've noticed that Malaysian writers who write stories set in Malaysia tend to stick to their own cultural milieu, i.e. Chinese Malaysian writers tend to write stories set within Chinese community and culture, Malay Malaysians write about characters in their own community, Indian Malaysian writers write stories based on Indian culture, with Sri Lankans narrowing this down even further and so forth. When characters of different races appear in the stories, they tend to be token representations. Well Lee has actually broken this mold - her contemporary stories feature characters from the diverse communities which make up our country who take on the cultural tropes from different cultural traditions to produce their own unique hybrid culture.

Common threads which run through these stories include children and family, marriage, births and deaths, and oddly enough tigers.

My favourites were: After The Funeral, All Was Still and On Jugra Hill. After The Funeral is a chilling tale of abuse and abandonment perpetuated by the patriarch of a traditional Chinese family, told from the point of view of the teenaged granddaughter. The supernatural entity, created by the grandfather, who 'gave away' a severely  handicapped child, is from Malay folklore. After the death of the grandfather, the creature is set lose and starts to haunt the family. The granddaughter searches for a way to put the creature ton rest and finds it in her own Chinese traditions. It should be noted that the story is so indirect and subtle, one has to connect the dots. But this is a matter of style.

All Was Still is an evocative and haunting tale, again featuring a female protagonist from a Chinese family (I think;) however the story draws on Malay folklore. It features at least three tiger spirits, and I felt grief and outrage at the acts of human cruelty which created them.  It is beautifully written and I love the descriptions of the little girl in the story. As with After The Funeral, one has to connect the dots to piece the narrative together; the story also has an ambiguous ending which nevertheless will leave you feeling bereft. 

On Jugra Hill is a hair-raising black comedy which has the potential to be developed into a lock door murder mystery. Fans of detective fiction will recognise the setting - a group of people stranded in a posh house in the middle of nowhere with a storm brewing in the horizon - although there is no dead body in this story. The characters have oddly familiar names of people in real life; I only wish they were more likeable. As for the plot, for some reason, I completely missed the clues the writer dropped and had a 'what just happened here?' jaw dropping moment! Still the story will carry you along on a wild ride and was hair raising fun!

The stories which didn't work for me were: Orang Minyak - can a woman be more lacking in agency and commonsense? I would have expected her maternal or survival instinct to kick in if only to save herself. Perhaps She is another story which I failed to understand, it seemed to be about a woman who abandoned her family and life in general, and had nightmares of being buried or being reborn by the earth. The third story called The Dead, was a woman who presumably died during childbirth and could not accept her fate; which was understandable enough. 

The stories which could have done with a bit of tweaking were: The Pontianak, Princess, and The Tiger Bridegroom. In Pontianak, the narrator tells her two dinner guests the story of her uncle who married a pontianak. One gathers that the uncle had an affair with a bar maid, who may have died in childbirth.  Two things bothered me about the story - one is the fact that the dinner guests, a gay couple, were so unlikeable but more importantly did not seem to serve any real purpose in the story. In settings like this, usually one or both guests knew something the narrator wanted to unearth, or trap them into admitting.  

The second thing which bothered me were the errors in folklore. In the story, the uncle trapped the pontianak with a needle and red thread, in the purple heart of a banana tree. In traditional folklore, the pontianak is associated with the sundal harum malam (possibly the champaca or the pala tree) and not the banana grove; it is the orang minyak who haunts the banana grove. Also, traditionally, the pontianak does not feed on the body parts of men, she looks for the placenta of the newborn and also the fresh blood spilled during childbirth. The story would have been a lot more suspenseful, with more 'showing' and less 'telling.' 

Princess is told in the style of a folktale crossed with a steamy romance novel. Although I was shocked at the fate which befell Nakhoda Ragam, my favourite character in all of Malay folklore, the story was intriguing and seemed to be another piece of the puzzle in the story of the legendary Princess of Mount Ledang. If you are interested in following the journey of the Princess, The Principal Girl has two tales relating to her: Girl on a Mountain by Preeta Samarasan and The Princess of Mount Ledang by Leela Chakrabarty. You can follow the trials and tribulation of Nakhoda Ragam in these three books of mine: Eight Treasures of the Dragon, Eight Fortunes of the Qilin and Eight Jewels of the Phoenix.

The Tiger Bridegroom is also told in the style of a folktale, and is quite an amusing and entertaining story. My only complaint is that the characters appeared to be caricatures, but that is a matter of personal preference. 

The last story, Endless Night, is a story I've read before. And it is still as powerful and evocative as ever, on rereading.   

Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Blood Prince of Langkasuka - Background and Synopsis

I'm super excited to announce the publication of my 10th book 
The Blood Prince of Langkasuka, by Penguin RandomHouse SEA! This is a reimagining of the Raja Bersiong (the Fanged King) legend from Malaysia. Buy the book from


Raja Ong Maha Perita Deria was a historical personage from 12th Century Kedah, who could have been the world’s first vampire.  His story first appeared in the Hikayat Merong Mahawangsaalso known as the Kedah Annals. This is a Malay literary work recounting the founding, history and fantastical tales of Kedah, a state in north of the Malay Peninsula. The work thought to have been written in the late 18th century or early 19th century, contained details of the Kedah royal geneology. Interestingly, it mentioned that Raja Perita Deria was also known as Raja Bersiong

The story is based on the Bujang Valley civilisation, which recent studies indicate could be the oldest archeological site in Southeast Asia. The setting is the Kingdom of Langkasuka, which was under the suzerainty of the Sri Vijayan Empire. Historians speculated on the existence of Sri Vijaya for a long time, but could not pin down its exact location. This was because Sri Vijaya was a thalassocracy - an empire at sea, and it was difficult to ascertain where its capital was. 

However, by 1993, historian, Pierre-Yves Manguin had proven that the epicentre of Sri Vijaya was along the banks of the Musi River, in what is now Palembang on the island of Sumatra. Between late 7th Century to early 11th Century, Sri Vijaya rose to become a hegemonic maritime power in Southeast Asia. They had a fleet of perahu, probably manned by the Orang Laut - Sea Gypsies who exist till today. In a sensational discovery by National Geographic, it has been proven that these people are able to stay under water for up to 15 minutes due to genetic mutation. 

Apart from the Wikipedia, The History Channel and National Geographic, my other source of information include eavesdropping on speculative posts among history buffs in groups such as the Malaysian Heritage and History Club on Facebook. The choice of Langkasuka for the setting of this story was based on their recommendation, although Tambralinga was also mentioned as a possibility. One of the tantalising information which emerged was the Vidyadhara Torana of Sri Vijaya (Faerie Gate of Sri Vijaya) - a legendary gateway to the city made of solid gold.

A Sri Vijayan perahu depicted on the walls of Borobudur. Source: Wikipedia

Map showing location of Sri Vijaya and Langkasuka. Source: Wikipedia

The Rational:

The Blood Prince of Langkasuka is Young Adult fiction. It is a dark fantasy/folklore coming of age story, featuring a protagonist who is a vampire, wrapped in a murder mystery.

This book would make an interesting addition to books written as part of the diverse storytelling movement and the right of young people to see themselves (and their culture) in books. Being a folklore-based fantasy, with cultural and supernatural elements from Malay, Orang Asli, Chinese and Indian sources, The Blood Prince is also in line with current YA trends. There is interest in this part of the world and Malaysian folklore is seen as new/unexplored territory as opposed to so many books which have been written, based on Western folklore. I also incorporate elements from the local folklore of flowers and plants, in the story. 

As the story is based on a historical personage, Raja Bersiong, widely known in Malay folklore,  the book should generate interest in Malaysia and Singapore, especially among readers who favour dark tales. The fact that it incorporates ancient Langkasuka myths and fierce supernatural entities from Indian and Orang Asli folklore, including a Queen who is half Yakshi (faerie-like being from Indian folklore,) should also generate interest in other English-speaking countries - India, the UK, US, Canada and Australia.  I have also researched the subject of vampires in folklore and literature in some detail, so there are many fascinating things to write and talk about. 

The two Beta Readers (one is a young adult in her twenties, while the other is an anonymous Editor) who read the manuscript have described it as 'quite chilling,' but 'well paced and plotted, with well developed characters... and written with near native speaker fluency;' and 'the writer has breathed life into the story and given it an original twist.' 

Dancers from the period could have dressed like this. Illustration from Pinterest.

The Synopsis:

Raja Perita Deria, is a carefree and arrogant seventeen-year-old; and his story begins with a seemingly ordinary night out with his close friends - Chula, Yala and Satra - three highborn young noblemen, a close knit group of friends who were fiercely loyal to the prince. That night they dined at an elegant Chinese tea house on the outskirts of Kota Aur, the royal city of Langkasuka. However, later in the night, a chance encounter with a dark beauty in an abandoned temple, almost ends Raja Perita's life and changes him irrevocably. 

Ruins of temples such as this, are found all over the Bujang Valley and also in Sumatra. Source: Wikipedia
The prince is carried back to the palace by his friends but remains close to death for a long time. After an incident involving the cook and a dish of bayam tainted with blood, which was served to the prince, his mother the Queen, discovered that he needed blood to heal and for sustenance. This is the most well known incident in the Raja Bersiong folklore, but it should be noted that the famous gulai bayam incident is only a single chapter in the book. If you are unfamiliar with the story, you can read it here:
As heir to the throne of Langkasuka, the prince is also caught in the larger political struggle surrounding the kingdom which is being watched by the two powers of 12th Century Southeast Asia – the Sri Vijayan Empire and the Khmer Kingdom. To show its loyalty, Langkasuka sends Sri Vijaya a fabulous flowering plant made of beaten gold. And in a surprising turn of event, Sri Vijaya courts Langkasuka by offering the prince the hand of a Sri Vijayan princess, while the Khmer Empire seems curiously aloof. To everyone’s surprise, Raja Perita, who previously had not seem particularly interested in women, is drawn to Princess Chaya of Sri Vijaya. However, a spate of violent deaths in the palace of Langkasuka implicated the prince and his close friends,who watched helplessly as Raja Perita is slowly driven over the edge. 

A Sri Vijayan Princess could have dressed like this. Pin from Pinterest.

Despite the fact that the cook and Raja Perita's friends have been sworn to secrecy by his mother, news of the prince's strange appetite slowly leaks into the countryside and create mistrust among the people towards the palace. Could the killer be one of the prince’s beloved friends or perhaps Raja Perita himself?

Friday, April 17, 2020

The Blood Prince of Langkasuka

A manuscript I started researching while in Zagreb, Croatia in 2013 may have found a home at last. Huge sigh of relief after a writing journey which involved six revisions and five rejections πŸ˜«  There is even an advance! πŸ˜œ I'm so grateful the manuscript will now be a published book πŸ˜Š 

The story was first written for the Calistro Prize, when I came across the call for submissions on the Malaysian Writers Community page on Facebook. Living in Croatia, a central European country where vampire myths are rife (Rumania is just a few hundred kilometers away) I decided to write a story based on the legend of Raja Bersiong, Malaysia's very own vampire.

As the rules were fairly vague, asking for manuscripts which were 6,000+ words, I submitted a 12,000 words  manuscript. Sadly, it was not even shortlisted. I later revised it and added another 20,000 words and submitted this to MPH Publishing and Hachette India, but this was also rejected. Another round of revision and an additional 5,000 words later, a submission to Gerakbudaya resulted in a positive preliminary review! I was under the impression that they would publish the manuscript but the trial went cold... But still the review assured me that I was not barking up the wrong tree, so another round of revision followed. I understand the reluctance of Gerakbudaya to publish this book since they are known mainly for non-fiction and I am grateful to them and to the anonymous Editor who did the preliminary review, otherwise I might have abandoned the manuscript at that stage. It should be apparent by now, that I'm a short story writer and my novellas are usually short stories which have been stretched a lot, with sub-plots added!

After the last revision, I made a submission to, the publisher famous for all things Science Fiction & Fantasy. Sadly (in hindsight, fortunately) The Blood Prince of Langkasuka was rejected. I wasn't all that devastated because they usually publish digital books and I still prefer physical books. I mean, you can't show people a Kindle and proclaim, 'This is my new book!' Meanwhile, Nights of the Dark Moon, a collection of dark folktales from Asia and Africawas published by Marshall Cavendish in November 2017. And in 2019, Gerakbudaya published The Principal Girl, an anthology of feminist tales from Asia, edited by Sharifah Aishah Osman and I. We were delighted that The Principal Girl turned out to be quite a hit with Malaysians readers.

In 2018, there was a lot of publicity around Penguin Random House setting up an office in Southeast Asia and the fact that they were looking for manuscripts. So, it seemed logical to make a submission in 2019. It took eight months for them to reply, but I'm delighted! Many thanks to Nora Abu Bakar, the Associate Publisher, for picking up the manuscript.

Image may contain: possible text that says 'The Blood Prince of Langkasuka- Raja Bersiong reimagined. To be released in 2020'

Nov 2019 Reimagining the legendary Raja Bersiong (the Fanged King) - as an angst ridden 12th Century Sri Vijayan prince. Perhaps the first vampire in recorded history, as the name is mentioned in ancient Kedah genealogy. The Blood Prince of Langkasuka is dark folklore fantasy and a chilling crime story... and yes, I'm writing as the 'other'  #asianvampires #asianfolklore #thebloodprince #vampires

Image may contain: 1 person, possible text that says 'The Blood Prince of Langkasuka will be published by'

Cracking the emoticon code: The Blood Prince of Langkasuka will be published by Penguin Random House SEA. For me, an achievement unlocked πŸ˜…. Many thanks to the publisher for accepting the manuscript and to Singapore children's writer, Don Bosco, for pointing us in the right direction. #asianvampires #asianfolklore #vampires #thebloodprince 

Someone on Twitter asked for the reason behind the title of our books. So the reasons for choosing this particularly long winded title were:

1. Refers to the term Prince du Sang/Prince of the Blood - a person legitimately descended in dynastic line from a realm's hereditary rulers. The term has a slightly different meaning in French, but I'm using it as meaning 'a prince from a royal bloodline.'

2. The 'Blood Prince' also implies that the Prince in the story is a vampire. 

Image may contain: possible text that says '1st round of revisions completed after Editors' (Development) feedback re: The Blood Prince of Langkasuka'

Apologies to a few old friends for cancelling lunch and failing to follow up. Revisions were completed at 6pm on 30 Jan 2020 and emailed on the same day. 

Image may contain: possible text that says 'Update on Blood Prince of Langkasuka: Development Editor has handed over mss to Copy Editor mpss'

Feb 2020 Update: The Blood Prince of Langkasuka. The manuscript went through two revisions with the Development Editor - including expansion of critical moments in the story i.e. slowing down the pace to create more tension; restructuring one chapter and an entirely new ending! I probably added another 4,000 words to the manuscript; now in the hands of the Copy Editor who will look at grammar and syntax πŸ€” #bloodprince #bloodprinceoflangkasuka #asianvampires #asianfolklore #langkasuka

Image may contain: possible text that says 'Blood Prince of Langkasuka Copy Editing completed March 2020. Penguin SEA uses single inverted commas' not "double inverted commas."'

The secong stage, Copy Editing, was completed in March 2020. Apart from fixing a minor plot hole, most of the changes at this stage involved getting the manuscript publishing ready in the #penguinsea house style. Apparently, Penguin uses single inverted commas and not double inverted commas, which I thought was the standard. however, according to Editor/writers such as Martin Bradley and Leon Wing (find them on Facebook!), single inverted commas are actually the British standard. 

I was also impressed by the fact that both the Development Editor and the Copy Editor were unfazed by the many Malay words such as gulai bayam and Tok Batin, and a sprinkling of Sanskrit words used in the manuscript. In fact, the Copy Editor corrected the spelling of Vidhyadhara Torana, which I hadn't realised was misspelt!

#bloodprinceoflangkasuka #bloodprince #asianvampires #asianfolklore #malayfolklore — in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Folktale Prompt: The Craving

Cover illustration by Tan Vay Fern, showing 
a Bobohizan called Dayang Sulong aka the 
Witch of Moon Lake.

I've been asked by Bijit Sinha to provide a prompt for a story, based on myth. Since I'm more familiar with folklore, I chose a story from Kadazan-Dusun folklore. This is the majority ethnic group from the state of Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo.

The Craving
By Tutu Dutta

A retelling of a dark folktale from Kadazan-Dusun folklore.

Tears pooled in her dark eyes. Her heart ached with the disappointment. Then she clenched her hands over the black fabric of her tapi and twisted the material, knuckles protruding against her tanned skin. How could he do that to her? He had no right!

The events of that afternoon played out in her mind.

He had summoned her to the family hall. As the chief, he was entitled to the largest and most ornate living quarter in the longhouse, a large, vacant space partitioned off from the rest of their quarters by woven wall tapestries. Her soft-spoken, doting, middle-aged widowed aunt, who had raised her in her late mother’s stead, was sitting beside him, face lowered.

The chief cleared his throat. “My daughter, we have wonderful news! We have received an offer for your hand in marriage and I have agreed to it. The young man in question is most suitable.”

Kinambura’s face lit up. Her full, soft lips curved into a smile. But she suppressed it; it was inappropriate to show too much happiness at a wedding proposal. She assumed modesty. “I’m happy if you and Aunt are happy with this proposal, father.”

“Indeed, we are! The young man concerned is well-mannered, wealthy and has blood ties with us, as well.” he said, a look of satisfaction on his face.

Surprised, Kinambara smiled wider. “I didn’t know that Montuk was related to us.”

“Montuk? Why do you mention his name?” A deep frown took over the pleased look on her father’s face. Her aunt looked up sharply and scrutinized Kinambura’s face.

Kinambura remained silent, her heart sinking while her father continued, “I’m referring to Tingoran, of course.”

Kinambura gasped, turning ashen. What possessed them to think that she would ever be interested in marrying Tingoran? While it was true that they had known each other since childhood, she regarded the other more as a brother than anything else. In fact, they were distantly related. She said, warily at first, “I thought it would be Montuk.” Then, she tilted her chin up. “I’m in love with him, Father.”

Her aunt entreated, “Kinambura, please be reasonable. Tingoran is the son of a wealthy chieftain and is known to be good natured and kind. Montuk is not a good match for you. He is known to be harsh man and there are rumours about him practicing dark magic.”

“Aunt, you can’t believe what people say! They are jealous of him! Montuk is a wonderful man. And he loves me!” Her dark eyes flashed, and her lips thinned with indignation. “You can’t force me to marry Tingoran! I will not spend the rest of my life with such a boring person!”

Her father dropped all semblance of patience and snapped, “Please return to your bed and calm down! You are not to leave the longhouse to see Montuk ever again. Do you understand, Kinambura?”

Before he could say more, she jumped to her feet, ran out of the room and climbed up the ladder that led to her bed, high above in the loft, just below the thatched roof of the longhouse. She pretended to fall asleep.

The afternoon warmed. When the sun set and enveloped the peaceful valley in a warm glow, her aunt brought her a plate of food: rice with chicken roasted with bamboo shoot. As the heat of the day gave way to cool evening air, she heard members of the longhouse gather in the long open space along the verandah to sing and tell each other tales and jokes. It was a convivial time enjoyed by all—except Kinambura.  

When their quarters were finally empty, she tossed aside her blanket. She climbed down the ladder to the main room below, and crept to the back door of the longhouse. Once her feet touched the bare earth, she ran through the tapioca and melon farm to the edge of the luxuriant bamboo grove behind the longhouse. As night descended, the air cooled and a slight breeze blew through the bamboo leaves. She waited impatiently. Then her  heart missed a beat. Montuk appeared a few feet away, looking more wickedly handsome than usual in the dim light. She ran to him and they embraced.

She laid her head on his shoulder, tears running down her cheeks. “They’ve arranged for me to marry Tingoran!”

“Who? What are you talking about?” He held her by the shoulders. His eyes bore into her.

“My father has arranged for me to marry Tingoran! He will be coming with his men in a few weeks’ time. They will be bringing the bridal gifts and we will be married on the same day!” Kinambura’s finely etched eyebrows drew together in anxiety. “What am I going to do?

“Tell me more about this. Exactly when are they expected to arrive and which route will Tingoran and his men be taking?” His rough voice surprised her.  

“I don’t know. I suppose if they start in the morning, they will arrive before sunset. I think my aunt and the maids are preparing to cook a feast for their arrival.”

“There are a few routes from the village of Tambunan to here. Which route are they most likely to take?”

She frowned, then laughed. “Of course Tingoran will probably take the route through the hill side. He always did hate to get his feet wet. He will have to wade through the stream in the route through the valley. Why?” She teased, “Are you planning to scare him away?”

“I will give him the scare of his life.”  He laughed, twisting his lips. She saw a strange expression as he said, “Tingoran will never ask you to marry him again!”

He pulled her to him and looked closely into her eyes. His dark eyes gleamed with resolve. “You are mine, Kinambura! You will always be mine, no one can take you away from me.”

Kinambura felt dizzy with excitement at being so close to him. What was it about him that set her heart racing? Was it the musky smell or the smooth handsome features which look like they had been carved out of wood and polished to perfection?

Kinambura sighed and pulled away from Montuk. The night was wearing on, and she had to sneak back into the longhouse. She could not risk being seen by anyone.

In the weeks that ensued, Kinambura willingly participated in her wedding preparations. She kept her face from showing her relief that this affair was not never going to come to fruition.

On the day of the wedding, her father and relatives waited expectantly, but Tingoran and the wedding party from Tambunan never showed up. Kinambura felt relieved but, at the same time, a strange sense of apprehension crept over her. Her father’s and Aunt’s increasing consternation as time passed almost made her regret ever scheming with Montuk.

It was dark when members of bride’s entourage who had been tasked to greet the groom appeared. Their shocked expression and pale faces told everyone it was going to be dreadful news. The leader said in a shaken voice, “They’re dead, they are all dead! We dare not even… their heads were hacked off… and Tingoran… his head is missing!”

Kinambura felt a wave of nausea. She blinked. Tingoran’s disembodied head materialized, inches from her face, blood oozing from its severed neck. The apparition looked at her with anguished, accusing eyes. She heard a piercing shriek. She realized, shocked, that it came from her own mouth. Her knees gave away and she collapsed onto the bamboo floor. When she woke up, she was resting on a mat on the floor, covered with a blanket.

Her aunt gazed at her anxiously, wiped her brow with a damp cloth and whispered, “Don’t take it too hard. We know you are devastated but these things happen. According to Montuk, it was a group of headhunters from across the mountains. There has been bad blood between them and the village of Tambunan for a long time.”

Kinambura turned her head. She didn’t want her aunt to see the look of anguish and fear in her eyes. It was Montuk, of course. She knew that with certainty. He had tricked her into giving him the information about the wedding entourage, and had lied to her. Tears sprang into her eyes. She had never meant any harm to come to Tingoran. She had not wanted to marry him, but had never wished this gruesome death upon him. She knew a missing head meant that his spirit would never be at peace, not without a Bobohizan to calm and tame his restless spirit. Montuk was just supposed to scare him away.

Weeks passed and Kinambura lived in seclusion. She only left the longhouse in the company of her aunt and a few of the other ladies. She was careful to avoid Montuk, who tried in vain to see her. She told her aunt that she was devastated by her fiancΓ©’s death. Everyone had no doubt that she was unwell; she had grown thin and wan. Gone were her flashing eyes, uninhibited laughter, and most of all the vitality which had previously attracted so many admirers.

When she finally recovered, her father asked to see her again. “I cannot bear to see you suffering like this. Montuk has asked for your hand in marriage and I have agreed, in spite of my reservations. I remember that you expressed your love for him, some months ago.”

Her aunt nodded and smiled at Kinambura, but Kinambura felt all the blood drain from her face, and she thought that she would faint. How could she tell her father that she no longer wanted to marry a cold blooded murderer, without implicating herself? When she finally found her voice, she said, “Of course, father. If you really think this is for the best. Maybe this is what I deserve.” She tried her best but she could not stop her voice from wavering slightly. Her aunt look at her in surprise.

There was nothing she could do; they were married within weeks. On the wedding night, she had a hysterical fit and had to be taken to her father’s quarters again. During which time, Kinambura developed a strange, inexplicable craving which could not be assuaged by either food or drink.

Her aunt attended to her. “Only a few months ago, you wanted to marry Montuk more than anything in the world. So what has changed?”

Kinambura was silent for a long time. She could not face her aunt when she said, haltingly, “It was my fault… that Tingoran is dead. I told Montuk when the wedding party was coming.”

“What? But we all know that Tingoran was killed by headhunters from across the mountains.  It would be impossible for Montuk to kill seven men all by himself,” she said, disbelief in her eyes.

“I know it was Montuk. He asked me a lot of questions about Tingoran’s route to our village and the day he was expected to arrive. And I have no doubt he can kill seven men by himself. He once he told me that he could make himself invisible,”  Kinabura’s voice trailed off.

Her aunt looked disturbed but she tried to calm her niece down. “You are upsetting yourself for no reason, Kinambura. A few other people knew about Tingoran’s route.”  

“But they were all a part of the marriage party… and… and I know where Tingoran’s head is hidden.” Her voice dropped to a fearful whisper. “His spirit spoke to me and told me where Montuk had hidden his head.”

Her aunt turned pale and was too shocked to speak.

“I can’t return to him, and you can’t tell anyone what I told you, otherwise we will both die!”

Her aunt believed her. She told everyone that a strange wasting illness had gripped her niece and she had to be confined to her father’s quarters. This was quite true because Kinambura felt ill all the time, the insatiable craving only intensifying. Her father grew worried about her steadily deteriorating health. The chief told his sister-in-law, “I fear for my daughter’s life. Please save her because she is all I have.”

She nodded but decided not to tell him what Kinambura had confided to her about Montuk. Instead she said, “Kinambura craves the rare mushrooms which only grows on the other side of the mountain. Perhaps you could ask Montuk to collect some for her? I can make her a special dish which might cure her hunger.”

The chief instructed Montuk to gather those mushrooms as soon as possible. Early the next morning, after Montuk had set out on his errand, Kinambura and her aunt surreptitiously entered his quarters. Kinambura climbed up to the loft and located the rattan basket where he kept Tingoran’s head preserved in layers of dried leaves.  She carefully lowered it to her aunt, and the two of them quietly left the longhouse, unnoticed by anyone. With both women bearing the weight of the basket and its macabre contents, the two walked the entire day until they finally came to the Tambunan longhouse, the deceased’s family home. They were greeted by the chieftain and the Bobohizan of Tambunan. Kinambura sorrowfully handed them Tingoran’s head, and the old chieftain wept over his dead son.

The two women were given a room at the farthest end of the longhouse. Before everyone retired for the night, the Bobohizan walked around the longhouse and placed a protective spell over the place. Kinambura was exhausted and retreated into a recess in the room to rest for the night. She slept on a thick mat on the floor while her aunt took the loft. Before going to sleep, she lighted the hearth and placed a pot of water over it and added some rice to the pot. The night would get chilly and it would be nice to have food ready in the morning.

In the middle of the night, Kinambura was roused by a soft, scuttling sound. She opened her eyes and sat up soundlessly. There was a large rat on the floor, sniffing around unawares. Kinambura sank silently to the floor and crawled forwards on all fours, like a giant reptilian feline, her black eyes fixed on the rat. When the rat finally sensed her presence, it was riveted to the spot, unable to move in sheer terror. Kinambura caught the rat in her clawed fingers and ate it greedily, leaving behind only hair, nails and bones. Sated at last, the young woman then crawled backed to her bed and fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

The next morning she was awakened by her aunt and the Bobohizan. Her aunt said, "It's late morning and we overslept! Did anything happen last night? I had a strange dream but I just could not wake up."

Kinambura shook her head, she could not remember anything. Her aunt went to prepare the morning meal and called out to the Bobohizan, "Look, elder sister! There are animal bones in the fireplace."

The Bobohizan walked towards her looking puzzled. She stretched out her hands; the aunt placed the bits of fur and bones in her hands. She gasped out loud and almost dropped the bones, her face had turned pale. The Bobohizan called out, “Kinambura come here! Did you eat anything, last night?"

She showed Kinambura the remains. Kinambura gasped and then blushed with embarrassment, "I was so hungry last night that I may have eaten something!"

The Bobohizan remained silent. She searched through the dust and carefully collecting every tiny bit of bone and fur that she could find, she heaved a sigh of relief when she found the tiny head. She said under her breath, "He turned himself into a tiny animal to bypass my spell and enter this bilik.”

The aunt said, "What? Who are you talking about? I don't see anyone here."

The Bobohizan replied grimly, “These bones in my hands, I think it is Montuk.”

The aunt gasped and Kinambura turned pale but she was not surprised; it was almost as if she knew this at the back of her mind. The memory of what happened last night came back to her. She felt sick and wanted to throw up; but her illness and nameless craving were gone. She said, "Yes, I think it's him. But I couldn't help it, he meant to harm me. Montuk is not a man; he is a shaman, an evil shaman." 

She also remembered what Montuk had told her on their wedding night. “You have no idea how much I wanted to marry you. It’s not just because of your beauty but you have magic in your veins. I sensed it the first time I met you. I just couldn’t let any other man marry you… ever. We belong together, I need you!”

Later that day, the three women buried the remains of the rat in a tiny grave beside that of Tingoran.

Tutu Dutta has a B. Sc from Universiti Putra Malaysia and an M.Phil from the University of Malaya. She is the author of nine books, ranging from the picture book, Phoenix Song, published by UK-based Lantana Publishing; to a collection of dark folktales, Nights of the Dark Moon, published by Singapore-based Marshall Cavendish Editions. She draws inspiration from Asian folklore, for her books.

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Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Malaysian Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Goose Girl

Just finished reading Bidasari and the Djinn by Ninot Aziz; a retelling of the classic Malay epic. Hikayat Badasari is not a folktale, it is an epic poem, authored by someone from the past, but it may have been based on a Malay folktale.

Anyway, according to the blurb, Bidasari is the Malay 'Sleeping Beauty.' I was suitably impressed, I need to know more about the Malay Sleeping Beauty. However, after reading the story, I realised that clearly Bidasari is the Malay 'Snow White.' The theme of the jealous Queen (older woman) hell bent on destroying a fairer and younger woman, is too obvious. Thanks to the Queen, who is also skilled in arcane magic, Bidasari goes into a deathlike sleep during the day and wakes up at night.  Snow White for sure...

For good measure, I decided to read the original translation of Bidasari as well (all in one afternoon!) I liked Ninot's version better, at least it explains the creation of the Horcrux (yes, Potterheads, Bidasari has a Horcrux!) This beautifully illustrated book is a must have for collectors of fairy tales. Both books are available at SilverfishBooks. #MalaysianChildrenBooks #Bidasari #Horcrux #SnowWhite

So who is the Malaysian Sleeping Beauty? There is a candidate - Puteri Tupai or The Tree Shrew Princess. This story is retold as The Unnamed Princess, in Timeless Tales of Malaysia (unfortunately, out of print) and also The Magic Urn and Other Timeless Tales of Malaysia. Here the innocent princess is cursed by a Nenek Kebayan (a Baba Yaga like old crone with shamanic powers i.e. a witch) during her naming ceremony, which is a coming-of-age rite. The princess is cursed, all because of the fact that her parents had offended Nenek Kebayan, probably betrayed the witch, as we see what happened in Maleficient. In this case, the princess does not sleep for a 100 years, she is turned into an animal. But this animal-like state is a form of sleep, in the sense that she lost self-awareness and was lived outside of human society. To break the spell, someone has to say her true name out loud; by someone who loves her...

And yes, I know. Princess Tupai is also the Malay Beauty and the Beast...

So who is the Malay Goose Girl? In the Grimm's fairytale, The Goose Girl is the unfortunate young princess, on her way to meet her prince. She must be very poor indeed because she is only accompanied by a maid, who takes over her place and pretends to be the princess when they reach the palace. The princess ends up caring for the geese in the royal keep. In the story of Princess Trailing Hairknot, also from The Magic Urn and Other Timeless Tales of Malaysia, a princess loses her station in life and her inheritance when her parents pass away suddenly. Although she is regarded as plain, her hair is extraordinarily long, thick and unruly. She ends up living in a cottage in the forest and having to fend for herself. One day she had to journey upriver to escape a menacing man, and she lends a helping hand to a young woman who ends up accompanying her. They are eventually stopped by soldiers and brought to the palace of a neighbouring kingdom, because the prince had a dream about about a princess with long hair. However, as in the case of the Goose Girl, the maid claims to be the princess and the real princess has to work as a bird chaser in the royal rice fields...

Read these stories and more in The Magic Urn!

The Magic Urn can be ordered from Kinokuniya Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

And also from these links: