Growing up, I believed that families only had one set of parents; the main breadwinner (usually the father) and a mother, the stay at home parent. I do not remember having grandparents around until we moved to Penang Island. That was when it hit me that some people were raised by their grandparents. Well, as the years rolled by I come to realized that for many their grandparents were their parents because of the sacrifices and commitment put by these care-givers. Which made me think, how often do you hear stories about your grandparents? How did they survive the Japanese invasion and World War 2? Or what were they doing when Malaya was declared independent?
This is a of story of my Iban ancestors. My great-grandparents to be exact. They became man and wife, deep in the jungle of Borneo before World War 2 in the 1920's. Wait a minute! Was it that simple? Obviously not.
A quick history lesson: The Iban or Sea Dayaks were known for their excellent hunting skills and territorial expansions. More importantly, they were feared for their (past) practice of headhunting which was outlawed long before WW2, some said during the time of Rajah Brooke. (My family comes from a line of headhunters. But more about this in another post.) They (the Ibans) lived off the fertile land by planting crops, collecting jungle produce, hunting wild animals and fishing in the river. They occasionally moved to other territories when there was a need but most of the time, they simply extended their territory by means of clearing out the jungle and claiming their land. This calls for the men to travel or bejalai and seek out their fortunes.
My great-grandfather or Aki Puti was around 16 or 17 years old when he went bejalai. He came from the Skrang area and was an excellent hunter, was hardworking, brave and strong. Great husband and son-in-law material since people lived in the jungle surrounded by wild animals and possible invaders. It also didn't hurt that Aki Puti was also very good looking (tall, masculine with beautiful traditional warrior's tattoo markings, says my mom). At that time people didn't date. They were "recommended" or "suggested", something like an arranged marriage but with more freedom. Aki Puti was at the perfect age for marriage but to whom?
While on of his journey, Aki Puti stopped at Kampung Entanggor at the Simunjan area. There he met my great-grandmother's family. They were four daughters in that house between the ages of 13 - 18. All of them were taken by his quiet gentle demeanor. My great-great-grandmother immediately suggested that Aki Puti would be a perfect match for their youngest daughter. She was beautiful, skilled at fine traditional Iban handicraft and at 13 years old a perfect age for marriage. Upon the insistent of the elders and agreement between the two parties, they were married and immediately set up home in Kampung Entanggor.
Sadly, Aki Puti's young bride did not see past her 14th birthday. She passed away exactly one month after getting married due to a mysterious illness. The whole rumah panjai mourn for their loss. They were especially sorry for Aki Puti who was now all alone mourning the loss of his dear wife. As per tradition, Aki Puti who has lost his wife must immediately return to his own village. He no longer has family connections there, therefore was not obligated to stay. His in-laws (even though still in mourning) started making plans for his departure because he refused to talk about leaving. He insisted on staying, claiming that his heart belonged here. They were touched at first but finally decided that a man his age must leave for a fresh start. They repeatedly reminded him to leave. He refused. Their patience grew thin.
Finally, my great-great-grandmother had enough. With rage she started throwing his things out the ruai demanding him to leave. She said that he was breaking adat and that her family cannot be happy again if he does not follow tradition. Aki Puti was begging her to let him stay. He wanted to be with his love. This was when my great-great-grandmother realized that her second daughter, Mila was also crying and begging her to let him stay. You see, Aki Puti and his sister-in-law had fallen in love. They found comfort in each other when he lost his wife and she lost her sister. Mila was never considered a suitable wife for Aki Puti because she was older at 16 years old and was considered less beautiful.
The family was furious. They felt it it was disrespectful to the dead and on top of that an unconventional relationship. What happened next was a blur. Not many people can recall who said what and to who, but according to my mother and other elders in the family, Aki Puti and Mila were finally allowed to be together; on the condition that they lived away from the longhouse. They choose to build a house in the village and it was only a few years later that they were accepted back into the family. They lived a long and happy life with many children and grandchildren.
And that was how Mila became my Ine Mila. My great-grandmother.
|These are the only pictures we have of our great-grandparents. |
Right-Ine Mila, Left-Aki Puti.
Puti - my great-grandfather's name
Mila - my great-grandmother's name
aki - grandfather
ine - grandmother
bejalai - travel
ruai - balcony
rumah panjai - traditional Iban longhouse
Kampung (village) Entanggor - my mother's village
Skrang - my great-grandfather's area of origin
adat - tradition