The curious case along the Rajang River


“CURIOUSER and curiouser!” cried Alice as she was befuddled by the strange shapes and happenings in Wonderland. According to author    Lewis Carroll, so much surprised was Alice that for a moment she quite forgot how to speak good English. True enough, my computer grammar and spell check programme kept on screaming at the word ‘curiouser’. (Its way of screaming is to change the offending word into red.)

Well, the happenings        in the Upper Rajang over the last few weeks do justifiably elicit such a curious exclamation. First, the mighty Rajang, the longest river in Malaysia, was choked by a massive logjam. Oh! I mean driftwood and debris. Flotsam of such scale    (50km long across nearly 1km of water) is a phenomenon without precedent. Curious!

Within days someone made a declaration this      was caused by Mother Nature (by way of heavy rainfall) thereby absolving human activities as the reason of that destructive incident. Curiouser! One wonders where did the driftwood and debris come from?

Now to cap it all, it was announced that a massive miring ceremony would be held at Muara Sg Meratai, Balleh (Ulu Meratai has   been identified as the place where the logjam originated) in early December to appease the spirits whose anger is believed to have caused the logjam along the river.

This is curious because     in Malaysia we don’t do anything until an official report has been made.      And it was announced by no less a person than the   Second Minister of   Planning and Resource Management himself that the government is waiting for a comprehensive report on the recent debris phenomenon along the Balleh and Rajang rivers.

“There are so many factors that caused the logjam. Based on our preliminary report it         was caused by the landslide and it happened in the      area where there is no    active logging. But we have instructed the relevant agencies to give a very comprehensive report          as to what really caused      the problem,” said the Minister.

Thus, it appears that the organising of this mother     of all miring ceremonies, which will involve all the 200 longhouse chiefs along Sg Balleh, is like jumping the gun. However, this miring is like a stone that seeks to kill two birds. As the proposer of the event said, it is to appease the   gods as well as to calm the people living along Sg Balleh.

“The ritual of appeasement to the gods called Muja Menua will not only pacify the gods but    will also cool down some angry Ibans from Sg Balleh and Sg Rejang,” said the Minister of Land Development Dato Sri Dr James Masing, who is also Baleh assemblyman.

And it is going to be a massive ceremony. It will involve 50 longboats to transport more than 200 village chiefs, community leaders and invited guests    to the site at Muara Sg Meratai.

“In our meeting last Thursday night, it has     been proposed that the ceremony will need at least 10 live pigs, 50 sets of    piring (small plates) and food as well as logistics for the travellers who will   spend the night at the     site,” said one of the organisers.

The miring meant to be the stone that kills two birds could possibly be a loose cannon as well. In the first place it pre-empts the comprehensive report that is being prepared.

The authorities are saying that the jury is still out as far the cause of the log/driftwood/debris jam is concerned. In trying to appease the angry gods, we are admitting that our acts have incurred their wrath in the first place. Indeed, it is saying “mia culpa” (Latin term meaning “it’s my fault”).

At the same time, the more sensitive among us may feel resorting to appealing to the supernatural implies that we are not ready, or worse, not capable of understanding logic and science. The assigning of a perfectly scientifically explainable incident to the temperament of the gods is rather ‘so yesterday’.

Some may even go as far as saying that this is just superstition. Before anyone casts a stone at me for offending them or their culture, let me just say this.    I take the view that superstition has an important function in all societies. Far from being    ‘so yesterday’, superstition  is alive and ‘so now’. It is abound in many places.     Let me just give some examples from sports and theatre.

There is a former world champion in tennis who    just refused to step on the lines when she got in and   out of the court. Another former tennis great used to don a red shirt whenever he had to play a deciding set. Though he did lose quite a number of matches, the fact that he is the only Asian male ever to rank among the top 10 in the world does say something about the effectiveness of his idiosyncrasy, well, at least psychologically.

In theatre, superstitious practices are plenty.    Among them is the quaint belief that one should not wish a performer “good luck” before a show but    one should say “break a leg”.

Yes, paranormal, superstitious and magical beliefs have been found        in a wide range of cultures for thousands of years. Through the years superstition has given comfort and courage to people, bewildered and made fearful by the unknown. It gives them     the illusion of control over the uncertainties of their world.

When I was young, for some years my family    stayed with our Malay aunty and uncle. In those days we had no electricity. So, after dinner we used to gather around a kerosene lamp, listening to stories from our elders.

The kampung house was set in the woods. Beyond the reach of the radiance of the lamp, the world was just darkness. Sometimes we would hear strange sounds and our imagination would run wild, and usually in     the direction we didn’t want to go. We visualised evil spirits and vampires lurking in the dark. And fear descended upon us like a black cloud.

In that moment of distress, we would turn to my     Uncle Jemat for solace. Invariably he would have a counter to the frightening situation. He would take a few lumps of incense and burn them. Apparently,     the pungent smell was enough to drive away the evil spirits. Of course, it    was a mere old wives’ tale that incense has such power and in later years I learned from one of those numerous nature programmes on television that those weird noises were merely made by birds or animals.

In the recent eruption       of Mount Merapi in Indonesia, among the dead was an 83-year-old man. Maridjan was the keeper      of Mount Merapi and entrusted with communicating with the volcano’s spirits. For 30 years, he was able to    appease the volcano and prevent any violent eruption, or so the villagers believed. In fact, they   placed more trust in this spiritual keeper than the seismologists or government officials. Even when    Merapi was spewing fiery ashes, Maridjan refused to leave his station believing that he could placate the volcano. Well, his body was found in a prayer position and caked in heavy white soot.

Despite this mishap, the villagers still yearn for a quick replacement keeper for the volcano. As one elder said, “We all have to die sometime but the keeper helps us to live without fear in the shadow of the mountain.”

So, it is about allaying fear in the face of incomprehensible calamity. As far as the strange phenomenon of the 300,000 tons of logs, driftwood and debris is concerned, if the authorities are unable to provide a satisfactory explanation of the event, fear and speculation will remain.

With the state elections looming over the horizon, the powers-that-be       cannot take any chances. Fear can drive people to do drastic things. The effort to mount a big miring ceremony and the slaughter of a number of pigs is but a small sacrifice.

The writer can be contacted at [email protected].