Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/July 1899/Malay Literature

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THE Malay has a literature peculiarly his own, and in it comes to light all that subtle appreciation of Nature which marks him as a Naturmensch, but not a savage. This lore of his race he carries mostly in his memory, for to reduce it to writing has been, until recently, a task at once laborious and scholarly, and the ordinary Malay, living in the ease of perpetual summer, is neither. Still, there are dog-eared old manuscripts which circulate from one village or campong to another, and these are often read aloud in the evenings to eager companies. And it makes a scene never to be forgotten, to see a dozen people seated in the shadows around some old man and to listen to the mellow cadences of his voice as he reads to them a tale of the olden time, of the great days of his race, before the foreigner's ships had scared the fish from the bays or turned them into noisy harbors; the sparkling stars peep through the ragged, whispering fronds of the palm trees, the yellow light of the damar torch shines on eager faces, crickets chirp in the grass, and from afar comes the booming of the sea borne on the soft breath of the night wind.

Malay literature, like most literatures, has had an ancient and a modern period. In the former we behold a primitive people dominated by Sanskrit life and civilization, and naturally enough the literature of this time is mostly translations of Sanskrit poems and romances, or at least productions inspired by such, and full of allusions to Hindu mythology. Probably to this early time may be traced such works as Sri Rama, a free translation of the Ramayana; the Hikayat Pancha Tantra, an adaptation of the Hitaspodêsa; Radin Mantri, a history of the love affairs of a Javan royal prince; the Shaïr Bidasari, an epic; and several other such epics and romances.

One must not think that the language of these works is old-fashioned or obsolete, as Beowulf and Chaucer are to us, or the Niebelungen Lied in German. On the contrary, they are full of Arabic words and many other marks of recent composition; but it is the matter, the conditions of life described, the evident antiquity of the very feeling of the productions, that lead one to refer them to the early period.

There are also some works that are genuinely Malay in origin and inspiration, and probably of a date that would put them between the ancient and modern periods. Of such is Hong Tuah, a story of a prince of Malacca who was a kind of King Arthur of his day. This work exists in several manuscripts, some of which are in England, one in Leyden, and one or two in the East Indies, and the date of the oldest is not before 1172 of the Hegira. Considering the fact that the year 1317 of the Mohammedan era does not commence till May 12, 1899, we thus see that many of the manuscripts of Malay literature are of no great antiquity. Another of these intermediate works is the Sejarat Malayu, or Malay Annals, which narrates the history of the Malays of Malacca, and their heroic defense against the Portuguese in the year 1511. It is divided into chapters, and is about the only notable historical composition in the language.

The modern period is that period which marks the domination of Islam in the far East, the period in which the Malay mind has adjusted itself to a new faith and a new education. It is hard to tell when Mohammedanism first obtained a real foothold among the Malays, but probably not much before the fourteenth century. However, the conquest when once effected was complete, and to-day the people of Tanah Malayu are among the strictest followers of the Prophet.

In a certain sense this period of the literature has been fruitful, but not so fruitful as the former one. Originality has been checked and imagination deadened, and the result is seen in a loss of sprightliness and vivacity. Works of morals and philosophy and compilations of Mohammedan law, have flourished. Still, we find some prose works of this period which are commendable; they even have some of the spirit of the earlier writings by which, no doubt, they were inspired; among these may be mentioned the Tadju Elsalathin, or Crown of Kings, by a mendicant monk, and the Hikayat Sultan Ibrahim, a religious romance of some beauty and pathos.

Within the last seventy-five years the prose literature has received some notable additions through the writings of Abdulla bin Abdulkadir, a famous moonshi of Singapore, who atained to some distinction under the Straits Government, being sent once or twice on missions to native states. He was born in Malacca toward the close of the last century, of Arab-Malay parentage, and received the ordinary education of a Malay lad of good family. After Singapore was founded, in 1819, he moved thither, where he thenceforth spent most of his life. His most important works are the Hikayat Abdulla, an autobiography, the Pelayaran Abdulla, an account of his trip for the government to Kelantan, and a narrative of his pilgrimage to Mecca made in the year 1854.

Without a doubt Abdulla was the most cultured Malay who ever wrote. In his capacity as teacher he was often called upon to help missionaries with their translations of the Bible into Malay; though a devout Mohammedan, he was more than ordinarily liberal in belief, and quite willing to see the contest between Christianity and Islam go on fairly and on its merits. He once assisted a Mr. Thompsen, of Malacca, in translating portions of the Scriptures, but it was a thankless task, for the missionary was obstinate, and thought he knew more about the language than the moonshi himself. As a result, such wretched Malay got into the work that Abdulla felt called upon in his autobiography to set himself right before the world. This is what he says:

". . . But let it be known to all gentlemen who read my autobiography that where there are wrong expressions or absurd Malay phrases in Mr. Thompsen's translation they must consider well the restraint put upon me, wherein I could neither add nor subtract a word without the concurrence of Mr. Thompsen. Now, because of all the circumstances mentioned here, let no gentleman rail at my character, for I was merely Mr. Thompsen's moonshi or instructor. I acknowledge I am not destitute of faults, but truly by God's grace I am able to distinguish between right and wrong in all that relates to the idiom of the Malay language, for I have made it my study. I did not attain it by hearing, nor by the way, nor in the bustle of the crowd."

But it is in poetry that we must look for whatever of originality and beauty there is in Malay literature, a fact not to be wondered at if we consider the softness and mellifluence of the language, which lends itself easily to the requirements of rhyme and rhythm. Two chief forms of poetry are recognized—the pantun and the shaïr.

The Pantun.—The pantun in Malay literature corresponds to the lyric verse of Western lands. It consists of one or many quatrains, as the case may be, the lines usually from ten to twelve syllables in length. However, if worse comes to worst, the Malay poet with true poetic license suits himself in preference to others, and frequently employs as few as six or as many as thirteen syllables in a line. The length of a syllable is determined by tonic accent, but penult syllables not ending in a consonant are long, those ending in silent i are short. But here, too, the Malay often departs from theory, and his rhymes, instead of being always exact, are constructed for the eye and not for the ear; and as for the short lines, they have to be drawled out into a legitimate scansion. The lines are not written one below another as with us, but the second opposite the first, the third under the second and opposite the fourth, and so on.

The {pantun} is much employed in improvisation, the stanzas being recited alternately by the two taking part. To the Malayan mind the beauty of this kind of verse lies in the artistic perfection of each quatrain by which it is made to veil some charming metaphor, which in turn serves in the last two lines to point a moral or express some sentiment of love or friendship, depending on the allegory of the preceding. To illustrate:

Tinggih tinggih pokok lamburi
Sayang puchok-nia meniapa awan
Habis teloh puwas kuchari
Bagei punei menchari kawan.

Bulan trang bintang berchaya
Burong gagah bermakan padi
Teka tuan tiada perchaya
Bela dada, melihat hati.

The lamburi tree is tall, tall,
Its branches sweep the sky;
My search is vain, and o'er is all,
Like a mate-lorn dove am I.

Clear is the moon, with stars agleam.
The raven wastes in the padi field;
O my beloved, when false I seem.
Open my breast, my heart is revealed.

The waves are white on the Kataun shore,
And day and night they beat;
The garden has white blossoms o'er,
But only one do I think sweet.

Deeper yet the water grows,
Nor the mountain rain is stilled;
My heart more longing knows,
And its hope is unfulfilled.

In poetry of more pretentious style, and in improvisations also, each stanza contains a key-word or line which becomes the text, so to speak, of the next. As artificial and unnatural as this may seem, it is, nevertheless, an ingenious way of keeping the thread of one's discourse when other inspiration fails. The best results of Malay verse come from it. A beautiful example may be cited from the Asiatic Journal of 1825:

Cold is the wind, the rain falls fast;
I linger, though the hour is past.
Why come you not? Whence this delay?
Have I offended, say?

My heart is sad and sinking too;
O break it not—it loves but you!
Come, then, and end this long delay;
Why keep you thus away?

The wind is cold, fast falls the rain,
Yet weeping, chiding, I remain.
You come not still, you still delay—
O wherefore can you stay?

Adalbert von Chamisso, the German poet, who has another claim to fame, however—his scientific career was charmingly described in the Popular Science Monthly for December, 1890—includes in his published poems three songs, In Malay Form, for which he doubtless obtained inspiration during his voyage to the far East in 1815 to 1818. They are so faithful in spirit and style to their source that we can not forbear quoting one in translation. It is called The Basketmaker, and is in the form of a dialogue, each stanza having the usual "key" line:

The shower's gone by, the sun shines bright.
The weather vanes now gayly swing;
We maidens here in merry plight
Quick beg of you a song to sing.

The weather vanes now gayly swing,
Through fire-red clouds the sun shines fair;
Right gay and quick to you I'll sing
A song that's full of dread despair.

Through fire-red clouds the sun shines fair,
A bird sings sweet and lures the bride;
Pray what concerns your dread despair
To maidens fair and dear beside?

A bird sings sweet and lures the bride,
A net for fishes there is spread;
A maiden fair and dear beside,
A sprightly maiden would I wed.

A net for fishes there is spread,
The moth's wings burn in bright flame hot;
A sprightly maiden wouldst thou wed,
But thee the maiden chooseth not.

The Shaïr.—The shaïr is very different from the pantun; the latter is lyric, the former epic in its nature; the shaïr may be heroic or romantic, the pantun never. However, it employs the same measure as the pantun, but all the lines of each stanza rhyme, instead of by pairs, as in the quatrains of the lyric verse. It is to the shaïr that we must look for the really great works of Malay poetry, where some are bold enough to declare we may find passages of Homeric beauty. The most famous works of this nature are Radin Mantri, Kin Tambouhan, and Bidasari. The first two of these tell the story of the love of a prince of the royal house of Nigara for a maiden of his mother's court. It is a beautiful tale, abounding in parts of striking eloquence and pathos, and the characters are strong and well portrayed.

The Bidasari is the longest poem in the language, and typically Malayan. Its author is unknown, likewise the time and place of its composition. The only hint as to the writer is in the opening lines:

"… Listen to this story of the history of a king in a province of Kambayat. A fakir has turned the narrative into a poem."

And again at the conclusion, where it says:

"This poem is weak and faulty because my knowledge is imperfect. My heart was troubled—for that reason have I written it. I have not made it long, because I was sad; but I have finished it and thereby obtained many blessings."

Internal evidence, however, indicates that the poem is old, of a time long before the Europeans first came to the East, possibly before the Mohammedan conquest. It shows plainly the influence of Hindu theology, yet in the customs and scenes described, and the mode of life and the manner of thinking, it is essentially Malay, and so worthy, perhaps, of a somewhat extended notice.

"There was once a king, a sultan, handsome, learned, perfect; he was of the race of noble kings; he caused the land of merchants and strangers to be swallowed up. From what people of his time say of him he was a valorous prince who had never yet been thwarted. But to-morrow and the day after to-morrow are uncertain." Such is the beginning of Canto I, as given in the French translation by Louis de Backer. The king marries, but just as joy and happiness are to be his, a griffinlike garuda sweeps down upon his land and ravages it. Terrified, the monarch deserts his throne, takes his royal consort and flees for his life. On the flight the queen gives birth to a child, which, however, must be deserted, much to the mother's grief.

In Canto II a rich merchant is introduced—a man whose goods and treasures are immense, whose slaves numerous, prosperity constant, but who, alas! is childless. One morning as he and his wife are walking by the side of a stream they discover a boat drifting near them, and in it a child of such radiant beauty that they are moved to adopt it.

The lord of the region is Sultan Mengindra, whose queen is beautiful, but unhappy, through constant looking forward to the day when she shall be displaced by some woman more beautiful than she. At last she has a costly fan made, and sends out spies to offer it for sale in every village and town, but not to tell its price. If they discover a woman of rare beauty they are to return and notify her.

In course of time the spies come to the old merchant's home, and see Bidasari, the handsome adopted child. After some delay she is brought to court, where she has to undergo much studied ill treatment from the jealous queen. By a subterfuge the girl escapes and is then removed by the merchant to a secret place in the desert.

Canto III tells how Sultan Mengindra goes to hunt in the desert, and there finds a sleeping beauty whom he awakens and consoles with the music of a pantun.

In Canto IV the story returns to the King of Kambayat. He and his queen have succeeded in reaching a distant part of their kingdom, but the fate of the young princess whom they so shamefully deserted oppresses them. Finally, the king's son, stirred by his mother's tears, sets out to search for this sister whom he has never seen. In his search he meets with Bidasari's adopted brother, who detects the resemblance between the young prince and his sister. Together they go to obtain audience of the sultan and Bidasari, who is now queen.

Canto V. Convinced that the story of the prince is true, Sultan Mengindra dissuades him from returning, but bids his minister write a missive in letters of gold and dispatch it at once, with presents and jewels, to the King of Kambayat.

In Canto VI we have the last chapter. The King of Kambayat receives the letter, which, however, makes no mention of Bidasari, and at once accompanies the messengers to Sultan Mengindra's court. He makes his entry into the strange capital with becoming splendor, and is received with great honor. The queen now makes herself known to her father, who is moved to tears. Banquets and great tournaments follow, and happiness pervades the court. The king returns after a time to his own land, but continues as long as he lives to send gifts and goods to his daughter and her royal lord.