Apart from a mix of fantasy and horror verbal recollection of stories from my grandmother, I know very little of my ancestry. From the bits and piece that I could gather, I am the 6th generation in a bloodline that traces back to the 16th century, a product of civil war around 1596 that forced the 3 brothers to fled their homeland to Tanah Melayu, where they gave up their claim to the throne and removed all inherited titles from our names. She told me the names of the 3 brothers once, though I could not recall them now and she is too old to be able to remember her own name these days. According to her we were from the original ancestry, where the religion had been Hindu before they converted into Islam which corroborated her story that we came from the first wave, rather than the 3rd wave of migration during the Dutch occupation. The 3 Ramas, she told me, converted into Islam, pledged allegiance to the (then) Sultan that succeeded the throne (their cousin), and by doing so gave up royal blood, and then sailed to Tanah Melayu as part of the civil war agreement – those who lost were banished from the land.
We do not have any family heirlooms so I don’t know how true this story is. I was told the heirlooms are kept by others, distant cousins four or five times removed, because when the brothers gave up their titles they gave up all the riches and all proof that could tie them back to the lineage. What we had were certain rituals; strange rites of do’s and don’ts that both sets of grandparents were very strict about. With my grandmother the last survivor of the distant old world, and her failing memory, these rituals are now forgotten and lost to us. They are relics, something frivolously ancient and unnecessary and were done because my grandparents were adamant about them – the moment they passed away these rituals, too, passed with them.
The first brother became a merchant, comfortably rich in his own rights, riches that had lasted generations. My grandmother was brought up like a spoilt, pampered princess – this by her own admission. She recalls the silk gowns, diamond jewelry and afternoon scones and teas fondly; of her standing on the deck of the ship that plied the Sungai Perak, which was then the main mode of transportation, with her lace umbrella and gloves and wind in her hair. By contrast, the ancestors on my father’s side lived a hard life. They were settlers, venturing into new, untamed areas and opened up villages and lands for agriculture. But their descendants had something in common. Both of my great grandfathers died fighting communist insurgents in 1945-48, both in unmarked graves, the exact dates of their passings unknown. Both were betrayed by friends, or so we were told. Of the third brother, no one knows. My grandmother’s eyes then glazed and she cried saying that they had never been able to trace the family of the youngest of the 3 brothers, and that it had always been her great grandfather’s greatest regret.
When she told me this story, we were sitting near the kitchen door, and I was weaving ketupat. Were we pirates? I asked her jokingly. No, she said, your ancestors were prince warriors, banished from home in a bloodbath to secure the throne. She said when my parents marry, it was then they discovered that the two families were related, that we were offsprings of the original 3 brothers. It was the rituals that clued them in, as these were allegedly royal rituals closely guarded by the families and only known to the descendants.
My parents could still speak the old language fluently. Sadly, none of my siblings could, which is a shame because we grew up listening to a mix of languages in our household. I could still understand bits and pieces of it, but I cannot speak it. The 7th generation would probably think English is our first language (or Japanese, depending on which family you’re talking about). We don’t concern ourselves with our ancestry. I don’t find any particular pride and joy in the bloodline – we’re humans and we’re Malaysians, period – and though there is a strong, loyal and active movement for the ethnic group, complete with AGMs and all that jazz, none of my family members, as far as I know, participate. It is not a denial of who we are, we knew about our ancestry since we were little, but they were just stories in the passing, in fact I think they were told so that we know our role and place in society – that we are no different than anyone else despite what or who our history says we are.
Love the land. Since I was little I was told to live bravely and to give back to the society that I live in. You have guardians, my grandmother said, in the form of history and bloodline that you inherit. Like I said, I don’t know how much truth there is in these stories. But I know this. My great grandfathers died protecting this land. It is the only home that they had ever known. And that, would be the story that I choose to pass to the next generation.
Ijah’s note: Photos below do not belong to me, I found them online and reposted them here coz they remind me of my childhood. When we were little, we saw and used items similar to these in our (late) grandfather’s house though back then we did not know its significance – to us they were playthings. I don’t know where they are now but my grandmother used to display them in cabinets and on tabletops.
The house also had old architecture and ornate carvings, I was told it was 1/4 of the original house that my grandmother grew up in. When her siblings got married, the house was disassembled and reassembled wherever they settled with their families. Unfortunately I do not have a photo of the house and it was long gone after my grandparents moved to the current address.