Seeing Beyond 3D

ANOORA'S STEPFATHER Rasid Aus, a quiet, thoughtful chap in his early forties who seems as comfortable with the past as he is with the present, often sees apparitions. He would describe, almost casually, the assorted hideous forms he encountered the night before while doing his rounds as a security guard in a nearby youth training centre. Other times Rasid would warn me about the vampire spirits (pontianak) that occasionally popped up in the area. But he was also sensitive to benign spirits. Soon after my son Ahau was born, Rasid told me he had seen two ethereal female forms guarding the infant boy in his sleep. It was a lovely image, and I supposed at first that it was Rasid's way of communicating his feelings about Ahau being an honoured guest of his tribe.

A few days later, Anoora's uncle Utat told me he had seen two beautiful women in a dream, watching lovingly over Ahau. I asked Utat if he had heard Rasid's report, and he looked even more pleased. "See, Rasid also saw them! That's very good!" Utat grinned. I wasn't surprised to learn, subsequently, that Utat is reputed to be fairly chummy with the Orang Halus (elves) of Bukit Secocol.

The word halus means gentle, refined, or noble. Once upon a time, the Orang Halus were regarded as angels, or at least "good fairies." When Manusia (humankind) became more and more kasar (coarse or ignoble) and began desecrating nature, the Halus felt offended, as they had to keep moving into the subtler dimensions. These days the Temuan are generally afraid of the mischief a bunch of disgruntled Halus can do. They tell stories about people who suffer terrible mishaps or die suddenly of incurable jungle fevers soon after they did something offensive to the Halus. (Many years ago, a public works department worker ignored warnings about a huge yellow rock in the Selangor River. He proceeded to carry out some engineering operation on the rock. Within minutes he was feeling delirious with fever, and within hours he was dead. The yellow rock, apparently, was a popular Halus hangout. No one has dared disturb it since.)

When I was looking for a possible site to build Anoora her own little hut, Utat gravely suggested that I pick another spot. Why? "Jangan marah," he began, sounding very humble. "Don't be angry, but that is part of an Halus processional pathway." I thanked him for the information. I realised I had in fact been drawn to that particular spot because of its magical feel. Privately I felt that the elves and fairies wouldn't mind the three-dimensional presence of a small hut inhabited by friendly humans. However, I could understand the Temuan's fear of offending their bi'hiang (unseen) neighbours. I haven't found an equally attractive spot and Anoora's private hut remains an unfinished project.

A few months later, Utat and his second cousin Selindar Babot were forced to abandon their forest dwelling when a punai (pink-collared green pigeon) flew into their sleeping quarters. For more than three months Utat and Selindar had to bunk down with Indah and Rasid. I asked Utat what it was all about, and all he would say was, "The punai is a very ill omen." He seemed very shaken by the whole thing. I found it hard to accept that all it took to scare them was for a pigeon to fly into their hut. "Surely," I probed, "this sort of thing happens quite often?"

Utat's reply was terse: "It was no ordinary pigeon."

AFTER A CERTAIN PERIOD of pantang (taboo) had elapsed, Utat and Selindar quietly moved back into their home. Only quite recently, about a year after the incident, did I manage to extract from Utat what exactly it was that had spooked him and Selindar. It was a hantu seburu (spirit hunter), disguised as a pigeon. Or perhaps the poor bird was only seeking refuge from the invisible predator. The best thing that arose from this incident was that it forced Utat - who is extremely shy, almost to the point of being a recluse - to stay within chatting distance for a few months, so that I could tap him for esoteric information.

"Sounds like the jungle is full of unseen dangers," I commented.

"It gets worse," Utat said without elaboration.

"Do you mean the spirits were much friendlier in the old days?"

Utat nodded.

"Is this because we have been encroaching on their world with our bulldozers and military exercises and so on?" I ventured.

Utat favoured me with a thin smile, as if to say, "Clever boy!"

I felt an important point had been established. "Well, so many hills have been levelled, so much forest felled, and now all we see are residential estates, factories, new townships... does this mean the spirits have had to flee? Or are they still around somewhere?"

Even as I asked the question, the answer was already forming in my thoughts. What the Orang Asli call "spirits" others call "magnetic field disturbances." When someone is stricken with sakit hutan (jungle fever), the Orang Asli say he must have done something to offend some guardian spirit. Allopathic doctors would say a mystery virus got him. It was suddenly clear to me that no matter what terminology one preferred,  Nature had her own way of resolving ecosystemic imbalances caused by human greed and insensitivity - whether through inclement climatic changes, pestilent diseases spread by unknown viral strains, or simply letting us drive one another berserk to the point of full-scale biological or nuclear warfare.

 Antares © 1998
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