Sunday, August 13, 2006


Kerrenga di dalam buloh,
Serahi berisi air mawar.
Datang hasrat dalam tuboh,
Tuan seorang jadi penawar.
Now I'm the first to post up a Malay poem on this blog!

It is of course a pantun, a form familiar to local readers, but not very well known elsewhere. (I had an American friend who was interested in exploring and using Eastern poetic forms, especially haiku, but had never heard of a pantun.) That's such a pity, because pantuns would work just as beautifully in English, I feel.

Some time ago I posted several of them on my blog and was surprised by the strong reaction from readers they evoked - with several other bloggers linking to them. There is, it seems, a hunger in Malaysia for this form of poetry.

The pantun above was written down in my notebook by poet Salleh ben Joned one lunchtime in an Indian restaurant in Bangsar. We were discussing the difficulties of translating Malay poetry into English.

Salleh said that he is at work on a collection of pantuns, and feels that the pantun above is one of the finest he has come across.

I can't render it into an exquisite English pantun (I leave the challenge to you guys!), but the gist of it is (and please excuse inaccuracies):

Red ants in the bamboo,
Vessel full of rosewater.
Come passion to my body,
You are the only one can satisfy me.

The first two lines of a pantun always contain an image from the natural world. The second couplet tells a human story.

Pantuns, say Salleh, only really work when the natural image reflects in some sense the content of what follows. (This certainly makes sense to me.) He points out that this is not the case of many of the pantuns which have appeared in anthologies.

In the patun above, the ants are drowning in the rainwater that has collected between bamboo stems, turning it as as red as rosewater.

How does this image echo the human story? Red is the colour of passion and rosewater is sprinkled on the bride and groom during the bersanding ceremony of a Malay wedding to bless them. (The word serahi also surely conjures the unspoken word berahi, meaning passion?)

But there's something a little less comfortable in the image. The sting of red ants is particularly painful. Like love, perhaps?

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Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Yes! Finally the first Malay poem up here. May there be many more in the future.

I am very much tempted to try translating this pantun, with a few different words already in mind, but I'll leave the fun to all you readers out there, as I am heading off for a couple of days on a trip down south.

On a short note, the kerengga bit (no pun intended) could suggest the itch and 'sting' of passion, which ne can get over with, until...

9:55 AM, August 14, 2006  
Anonymous aneeta said...

I remember this! Great that you've posted it sharon.


9:17 AM, August 18, 2006  
Blogger Sham said...

Dreamer idiot! I am in total agreement that the kerengga bit evokes the sting of passion ;)

9:43 AM, August 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is it about women that they have to think about _that_ all the time ? :)

8:25 PM, August 22, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...

Talk about feeling antsy! The double entendre in this pantun is so very delightful!

I'm sure that you are aware that there tradition of pantuns called "pantun berkait" or interlaced quatrains is that you would then compose one in reply by repeating the previous lines in a sort of interlaced conversation -- in fact, a large part of the pantun's charm lies in its repetitive chants.

I'm not sure what 'serahi' means... I can't find it in my dictionary. So I'll just assume that it's a container of sorts, and therefore:

Serahi berisi air mawar,
Harumnya hingga menusuk balur.
Saya datang menjadi penawar,
Jadi dapatlah puan nyenyak tidur.

("Balur" is a type of tough hide or skin)

4:58 AM, August 23, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Machinist, Waaah... it's lovely. To be able to think off the cuff and compose something like that, I must say it again: you are a genius. So, are you a ladies man, eh...girls swooning all over you? *wink*.

7:24 PM, August 24, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...

Hehe... thanks DI. I wish I didn't leave the "jadi" on the last line though.

Me, a ladies' man? Ha! I'm as awkward around girls as a penguin in a treehouse!

But I do like to txt pantuns, sporadic SMS wordplays that last for days on end. It is something that I picked up when I used to write letters to my grandma as a kid, when we'd sign off with a little ditty.

A girl who finds a pantun from me in her sms inbox can be sure that I am 110% interested! Though it seems that a young lady who is game for it is a rare find these days.

But pantuns in courtship in this day and age?! Like I said, a penguin in a treehouse.

1:34 AM, August 25, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

long time since i came back here to see what was happening!

the sting of passion ... yes indeed

aneeta - that was a nice lunch wasn't it? i treasure this gift of a pantun from salleh

machinist - "pantun berkait"? yes, i have an english example i might post another time. my american friend calls them "pantooms". they are certainly better known overseas than the four line form. i suspect they are also an older form but could be wrong here (i came across one a couple of hundred years old - now where was it)

salleh said "serahi" was vessel but not what kind

machinist - you impress me once again! a reply! (now where's my dictionary?)

i love the idea of exchanging pantuns by sms ... traditional form meets new technology

why not pantuns for courtship in this day and age? i'd melt!

a penguin in a treehouse? love it!

7:46 PM, August 28, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...

Sharon, I have a translation of the pantun:

Ants blaze in the bamboo tree,
A decanter of rose water.
When desire blights this body,
You are the only cure.

and the reply:

A decanter of rose water,
Its scent pierces the toughest hide.
I come, my love, an elixir;
That you would sleep well tonight.

5:22 AM, August 29, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...

Tracking back the links to this post, I found another blogger, fazu describes a "serahi" as "a container with a narrow mouth, usually used to store liquid".

He offers some interesting views about the pantun too, particularly on the use of the word "tuan", which he contends is gender-neutral -- and I concur.

Also, another translation (author unknown):

A red ant, trapped; it bites like fire,
A sting that only rosewater can ease,
When my whole being is consumed with desire,
In thee and in thee alone, I find release.

and a wistful reply from another blogger in the comments:

Batang buluh berisi santan,
Bunga mawar seri pengantin,
Untung sungguh nasib badan,
Ada penawar zahir batin.

3:18 AM, December 11, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jika tuan mudik ke hulu
Carikan saya bunga kemboja.
Jika tuan mati dahulu
Nantikan saya di pintu surga.

The only pantun I remember from my childhood . . .

9:06 PM, June 17, 2008  

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