An than Boy: Reminiscences of My Childhood.
In An Iban Boy: Reminiscences of My Childhood, Janang anak Ensiring journeys in time back to the mid-twentieth century. The disparity between then and now gives the impression of being much longer than the 70 or so years involved. In this autobiography the writer muses on his childhood for the first 25 chapters but in the epilogue, he skips to the 21 st century.
Janang was born in 1949 in a small village (longhouse) then known as Temuda Ulak, Disso, Saratok, Sarawak. When he was seven he began his formal education at St. Peter's School in Saratok and continued through secondary school in the same small town. He obtained a Diploma in Education from Rajang Teachers' Training College, Binatang, and afterwards embarked on a career in education that spanned 33 and a half years. In addition to his Diploma, he earned a BA (in Linguistics and Geography) from Indiana University in the USA and an MBA (in Human Resource Management) from Melbourne University, Australia. Upon retirement, Janang joined the Tun Jugah Foundation as a research officer.
The Tun Jugah Foundation was established to promote Iban culture, arts, and language and to conduct research and publish material for scholars and future Iban generations. It also aims to perpetuate the memory of the late Tun Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Temenggong Jugah anak Barieng (1903-1981), an innovative leader who was instrumental in the formation of Malaysia (Sutlive 1992: xix).
Janang writes as though a child with simple sentences and an extensive use of the past simple, but with the adult self very close to the surface, appearing with additional information and in-depth knowledge of traditional Iban beliefs. This combination of styles in highly effective; imbedded in a personal narrative written with the innocence and open-eyed wonder of children, is the necessary knowledge to make sense of the actions of Janang's parents and grandparents. Despite this, the degree of personalization makes accessing the book difficult at times for readers who are not familiar with Sarawak.
The autobiography was started when Janang was studying in the US and it begins with a sense of longing for his childhood and a recognition of its bittersweet memories. And it begins with food. As a young child, Janang and his friends are often left in the care of the elderly while their parents worked their farms and so the young friends must hunt with blowpipes and catch much of their own food. This is a way of life that very few children today, Iban or otherwise, are likely to experience. In the next chapters, Janang's memories are "bittersweet (1)' (Janang 2013: I). Janang's grandfather, Gara, a ritual expert and an active, vigorous man in his late seventies, is goaded into burning his rice field against his intuition. The fire spreads, whipped by the wind, into Pengulu Nibung's hill rice and rubber garden. This disaster leads to simmering bad feelings, breaks up the longhouse, and contributes ultimately to deaths and near deaths. Janang's family and their longhouse relatives attribute their run of bad luck to failing to follow prohibitions associated with traditional Iban religion. These prohibitions and the consequences of failing to observe them are a major focus of Chapters 2 to 8.
Janang (2013: 90) comments in Chapter 11 that taboos or prohibitions formerly ruled the lives of a traditional Iban community. This point he further stresses when he (2013:90) writes that "[Tjhere is nothing which is not taboo." The control that prohibitions have over the lives of the community in which Janang grew up underlies much of the autobiography and the breaking of these prohibitions can, and often does, result in disasters, including death. According to traditional Iban belief, birds, reptiles and other augural animals do not appear without a reason. Janang's Aunt Sindun died in 1956 because she failed to heed a serious bad omen. One morning the community awoke to find clots of blood on the veranda. It was decided that the longhouse would be abandoned and community members would stay in their farm huts for the day. His Aunt was asked by Janang's uncle and Sindun's husband to leave the farm hut in order to purchase some tobacco. On the way back from the local shop in the tiny bazaar of Kaba she saw some leaves on a small hill and decided to gather some. Here, she was bitten by a king cobra, but made it back home with her son, before dying. The tragedy of her death was attributed to breaking the prohibition. On a happier note, Janang also recounts in Chapter 10, how a child kidnapped by forest goblins was returned after prayers and offering. Religious beliefs and traditions were inexplicitly intertwined with life during Janang's childhood and this theme is present in most of the chapters.
Janang, as mentioned, started primary school when he was seven and the hardships this caused himself and his family are recorded in Chapters 17 and 18. His parents were poor, with limited funds for their children's education. In the end Janang's father had no option but to slaughter and sell the family's one and only boar, despite Gara (Janang's grandfather) view that education was not important. Another problem was cleanliness, but their cousins assisted, including showing them how to get their teeth white. Then as day scholars Janang and his brother had to get up before daylight in order to make a long daily walk from their longhouse to the school. Janang found his feet and successfully passed his Primary 4 and 6 examinations and so was able to go onto secondary school.
Janang, despite his difficult start to formal education, greatly succeeded in the academic world as a student, teacher, and researcher. Education fundamentally changed his way of life, but, in the end, it also connected him back to his childhood through his work in the Tun Jugah Foundation.
The final two chapters, 24 and 25, were written after Janang and his wife Jelawat's daughter, Iona, became critically ill. However, these chapters, despite being out of sync with the general chronological progression of the book flash back to powerful childhood memories of a regatta and circumcision.
The epilogue is written from an adult's point of view, adding to the contrast with the previous chapters. It honors the memory of his daughter, who was instrumental in motivating its writing, but sadly, was struck down at a young age so that she did not live to see this book published. Loss and grief radiate from these pages and the reader despite being unlikely to know Janang's family, feels the hurt, which at the point of writing, time had not yet healed. The book is dedicated Iona and Janang's late grandparents; their influence can be felt throughout the book.
This is a personal account with few references to the world beyond even though Janang studied in the US and Australia. The contrast between Janang's childhood and today, if contextualized, could be used to compare 21st century life with that of about 70 years ago. In this way, his book might be used in the classroom to enable students to glimpse the pass.
Janang refers to this book as a "novel" and, indeed, sections are structured as narratives with an exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. But, especially in the final chapters, his recollections seem almost random. With editing the book could become a narrative similar to Roald Dahl's Boy. (1) An enticing idea.
Dahl, R. 1984 Boy: Tales of Childhood, United Kingdom: Puffin.
Sutlive, V. 1992 Tun Jugah of Sarawak: Colonialism and lhan Response, Kuala Lumpur: Penerbit Fajar Bakti Sdn. Bhd.
(MM Ann Armstrong, Kuching, Sarawak)
(1) Roald Dahl (1916-1990) incorporated his chi ldhood memories into his stories and novels for young readers. His books were loved and read by children (and adults) around the world (The Roald Dahl Story Company Limited / Quentin Blake 2018). from https://www.roalddahl.com/home/teachers.