Saturday, 5 July 2008

Pay toll to pass

Earlier today, a neighbour of mine held a wedding reception to celebrate the marriage of his eldest daughter. I arrived at the reception at just about the same time as the groom's entourage.

Now for those of you not familiar with the wedding customs of the Malays in Johor, there would normally be some form of human barrier made by the relatives and friends of the bride to hamper the approach of the groom as he makes way to the wedding dais or pelamin for the `bersanding' ceremony. If the reception is self-catered, sometimes even the cook would partake in this ritual by barring the groom's path with his long wooden spatula, akin to guards of old preventing access with a spear.

For the groom to progress, his best-man would need to hand out tiny envelopes containing moolah so that the barrier would disperse and let them pass. If the groom is unlucky, there would be multiple barriers.... perhaps one at the gate and another at the front door. In instances like these, the best-man better be well-prepared with a thick wad of the small envelopes. How much money is put into these envelopes is entirely up to the groom's generosity. Usually a single RM1 note would do, so just 50 of such packets would set the groom back only RM50, and this is more than enough to cover the path-blockers.

Of course the envelopes are not just simply given away... the best-man should exhibit his negotiation skills and attempt to deliver his man-of-the-day to the side of the bride while paying the minimum of toll. A lot of light-hearted jesting and friendly banter goes on in these negotiations. Sometimes when its taking too long for the barriers to make way, a senior member of the bride's family (normally the father) would sound a warning to rescue the groom's party.

`Sudah lah tu... nanti pengantin lelaki patah balik, baru tahu!'. Roughly translated, `That's enough... otherwise the groom may decide to turn back, then you'll know!'

But that's not the end of the story. When the groom reaches the pelamin, there is still the Mak Andam or make-up lady to contend with. The bride would be sitting on one of the two chairs on the pelamin. The Mak Andam would be sitting on the other chair with one hand holding a paper fan that covers the face of the bride. For the beautifully made-up face to be revealed and the seat be given up, the best-man again has to dish out more envelopes but with contents of a higher value than those given out earlier. Only after she's satisfied on the amount of toll she receives, will she vacate the seat and let the groom take his rightful place beside the bride.

Sounds like a complicated process, doesn't it? A friend of mine who's not Johorean, had once remarked that it's really troublesome to marry a Johor girl. Well, perhaps it is, but what's norm in one culture may seem odd in another. When I was still a bachelor, I have accompanied many friends getting married at places outside Johor state such as in Melaka and Perak. There are of course differences in the wedding customs at these places but I find these differences interesting rather than disrupting.

For me, the toll-demand ritual in Johor Malay weddings is not about the amount of money to be paid but rather the gesture. It's all done in the spirit of fun. In Malay, we say, `Setakat bergurau-gurau saja...'
For you non-Johor guys who plan to marry a Johor girl, the best piece of advice that I can give is to have a steady and cool chap to be your best-man. He'll need to have a thick skin to face the barrage of playful mocking and teasing. It wouldn't hurt if he has a good sense of humour plus the skill of quick repartee. Take it from me, I speak from experience.

And today I observed that the best-man of the groom has such skills. The groom, whom I was told is from Kelantan, need not have worried. It was smooth sailing all the way.

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