Melaka – Museums and Food

It’s impossible to visit Melaka without stumbling into a museum. There’s a Museum of Literature, Museum of Architecture, Museum of History, Museum of Ethnography, Museum of Chinese Jewellery, Museum of the Democratic Government, Museum of Toys, Museum of Stamps, Museum of Islam, Museum of Prisons, you name a human endeavour, they’ve built a museum for it in Melaka. Now I’m no museum person and my first inclination when I pass one by is to keep walking but I found a couple of the ones dedicated to specific ethnic groups somewhat interesting.

The Chitty Museum, dedicated to the Tamil trading community that had settled down in Malaysia in the 16th century, was housed in a remarkably well preserved old Chitty house. They were ethnically similar to the Tamil Chettiars, a gloriously wealthy trading community in Tamil Nadu whose business acumen was much envied. The Chitty’s, though, had assimilated Chinese, Malay, Portuguese and Dutch influences in their religious iconography, clothing and food, making them a distinctly different ethnic group culturally with faint echoes of the Chettiar past, and the artifacts, photographs and illustrations in this museum illuminated their lives and their culture beautifully.

The Cheng Ho Cultural Museum , on the other hand, has to be the most elaborate museum dedicated to the life of a single person, that I have ever been to. Here, spread across a number of Chinese shophouses, lie the antiques and the treasures and the miniaturized ships that belonged to the legendary Chinese mariner Zhang He. Immortalized in the accounts of explorers as diverse as Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta and Niccolo De Conti, Zheng He commanded a massive fleet that undertook treasure voyages into South-east Asia, India, Africa and Arabia and was among the most influential figures in Chinese history. The museum is built on what is believed to be the site of an old warehouse that Zheng used to stash his treasures.

It would be a pity to finish talking about my time in Melaka without talking about its food because every meal I had here was excellent. But there were two that are particularly memorable 7 years on. The first was a place called Pak Putra, run by two brothers from Gujranwalla in Pakistan. Big, hulking tandoors manned by bustling chefs in aprons suggested a joint that meant business. Tables and chairs filled with a mix of largely regular Malaccan patrons and a scattering of tourists meant the Pakistani brothers delivered what they promised. The tandoori chicken was supremely tender and succulent, marinated to perfection while the naan was utterly delectable, subtly garnished with fragrant spices. After the meal, I sought one of the brothers out and when I told him how much I loved the food, he gave me a big hug saying he always found it deeply heartening when someone from across the border loved his food.

The other meal that I remember from back in 2012 is a busy and popular satay celup place whose name I have tried to remember for years on end but can’t (yeah I know it’s useless to talk about a restaurant on a travel blog if you don’t know its name but anyone who’s actually paying attention would know that this blog isn’t particularly useful anyway and usefulness was never its principal objective). It was small, redolent with the aroma of fragrant gravies and choc-a-bloc with people (mostly Chinese/Malay Chinese), all of whom appeared to be families sitting on big round tables dipping their meaty sticks into big bowls of steaming and bubbling satay liquid.

So I thought maybe I should come back on a slower day or seek another satay place out to quench my satay hunger but as I was leaving, this dude ran right up to me, pulled up a chair and asked me to sit on a table packed with 5 people. He pointed to a refrigerator full of sticks with dozens of unnamed varieties of seafood, vegetables and meat and asked me to get whatever I wanted and dip it in the steaming pot of satay gravy that was bubbling in the center of the table.

I learnt that none of the people who were sharing my table knew each other from before. It was a beautiful communal eating experience where the 75-year old Chinese gentleman from Guangdong and the Malay girl sitting next to me were holding my hand through the mystical process of getting a well-cooked stick of satay. When they saw that I was hopeless at this feat despite their elaborate instructions and had been either undercooking or overcooking the sticks, they took over my plate of assorted meats and started doing my satays for me. I don’t know what they were doing differently (the instructions were to dip the meats in the hot gravy for a few minutes and eat) but it transformed my food from thick chewy inedible flesh to soft, tender, scrumptious skewers. Every few minutes the waiters would come to add bits of soup or stir the gravy or offer some special meats like tiger prawns or varieties of shellfish.

At the end of this gargantuan meal, I was filled to bursting but the old Chinese man coaxed the entire group to get some dessert at a place he knew nearby. While slurping my bowl of cendol, I learnt that the Malay girl worked at a mobile phone store in Kuala Lumpur. It was her first time in Melaka as well despite the fact that she had spent all her life in and around KL and it was only 3 hours away by road from the city. She preferred more natural settings, she said, and travelled frequently to the Cameron Highlands and Taman Negara. She was quite a traveller herself and had once lived in a camper van while driving from Melbourne to Darwin.

When I told her that I was on my way to Kuala Lumpur the day after, she tried her best to dissuade me from going there. “Why would you want to go to Kuala Lumpur?” she said, “It’s just a big concrete jungle. I wouldn’t live there myself if I didn’t have to work to save for my next trip! You should go to the Perhentian Islands, Taman Negara, Sarawak, even Penang! There’s nothing in Kuala Lumpur. Just big buildings and malls and expensive hotels.”

Her points were valid and having spent over 10 ridiculously expensive days just the previous week in Singapore, my enthusiasm for another South-East Asian metropolis was fairly low. Melaka was the perfect change from Singapore, a quiet easy going touristy town with quaint old architecture, a place where nothing was too far or too expensive. Kuala Lumpur was bound to be more hectic and challenging. But it would be a pity to travel across Malaysia without a cursory glance at its capital city. So I ignored the Malay girl’s advice and headed to the Melaka bus station the next morning to go to Malaysia’s biggest metropolis.

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Onwards to Khati

It was a gentle downhill walk from Dhakuri and this gave me the opportunity to learn what an achiever D already was at the age of 23. He was married with two kids, the assistant headman of his village and a vociferous campaigner for the Youth Congress. He had also been working with the Forest Department for environmental conservation and prevention of forest fires and of course, was a registered trekking guide for KMVN and private trekking outfits.

I also learnt that, for a guy his age, he didn’t care a whit for the musical trends of his time. He loved Hindi film music but as far as he was concerned, nothing after the year 2000 was worth listening to. He had particular contempt for A R Rahman because he felt his music sucked the soul out of what made songs by his heroes, Anand-Milind and Jatin-Lalit, great. To prove his point, he made me listen to his favorite song, a torturous ode to gentle objectification, “Kudrat ne banaaya hoga”, a song that literally went “God must have made you when he had a lot of free time on his hands”, on a loop on his phone and if the climb up to Dhakuri was physically gruelling, this made sure the walk down to Khati was no less so.

When we reached the village of Wachcham, we rested in a shed plastered with posters of Mayawati, the leader of Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP), not because we needed to rest our bones or refresh ourselves with more chai, but because D, being an ardent Youth Congress worker had to get into a long debate with the people huddled together at the shed, many of whom were BSP supporters. In the middle of this squabble, an environmentally conscious gentleman pointed out that the Tehri Dam was a catastrophe waiting to happen and that it was the Congress party which was responsible for its existence, a point that didn’t sit too well with D, who reacted with supreme fury by calling the man a communist who had no space in the modern world. D felt that the dam was necessary for the economy of the region and for jobs and livelihoods to flow.

As the conversation meandered on endlessly, Panditji got tired of it and left the scene. I followed him as we walked down the stony trail to Khati. Panditji was highly disappointed at the selfish nature of the people who had been arguing. “They’re only interested in themselves,” he said, “not in the general well-being of humanity. They come to temples when they need something but none of them realise that good things will happen to them only if they consistently respect the rules that God has set for the people of the world. They’re greedy and it is this greed that’s going to destroy the world They might make a lot of money by indulging in corruption but God is going to make sure they pay for their sins in the next birth.”

“If bad things are going to happen to them in the next birth, why worry about it now? They’re going to suffer anyway, right?”, I said.

“That’s not the point. When I grew up, we feared our Gods and respected the rules set by our elders and our ancestors. We were taught not to do or say certain things and we tried our best to be good people out of the fear that doing bad things led to bad consequences. The young people these days don’t have that fear. They do anything they want, laze around all day, do drugs, fall in love with girls not approved by their parents, indulge in politics, don’t care for the rituals and traditions.”

“So what do you think of the Tehri dam?”

“I support the Tehri dam because it provides livelihood to local people. For the longest time, politicians only took money but never did any work. So any work that happens is good.”

“But people say the dam has destroyed the forests and only exists to serve the needs of people living in big cities.”

“People say all kinds of idiotic things. As long as it is beneficial to someone, it’s good. It’s providing work to young people who would be wasting their lives uselessly otherwise. And many young people go from villages to cities for work nowadays, so if the needs of a city increase they have to find resources from somewhere.”

“But how does this fit in with your philosophy that greed is bad? Surely, young people are going to the cities because they aren’t satisfied with the life in the villages and want to make more money?”

“That’s not greed. That’s moving with the times. In the olden days, you could live a satisfied life by tilling your land and taking care of your family without seeing anything of the outside world but that’s no longer possible in this day and age. You need money to survive and you can’t make any money just living in your village. You have to move out and seek work. You’re stupid if you don’t do that. I see many village boys just loitering around doing nothing. That’s not healthy. We never used to loiter when we were young. We always had work to do. Greed is when a wealthy politician promises to build roads and give you electricity and when he gets the money for it, he keeps all the money for himself. At least with the Tehri dam, the government has built something and it’s doing some good to ordinary people somewhere.”

Soon, we reached the cobbled paths winding through the terraced farms on the outskirts of Khati village. D ran up, patted my back patronisingly and said, “Good job! You’ve learnt to walk in the mountains today.” He put me up in a one room house that belonged to one of his friends that was covered with a stony roof and furnished with one desolate wooden cot and a squat toilet in a corner.

The sun was setting over the Himalayan mountains and even though I had walked over 20 km in the day on fairly steep terrain, adrenalin was coursing through my veins and I wanted to explore the village to see what it was like. These desires were put to rest emphatically by D who said, “You’ve walked 20 kms today. You have to walk 20 more tomorrow. So just eat and go to sleep. You’ll need it.” It was good advice as the moment I had finished my simple meal of dal, rice and vegetables, I slipped into a deep slumber.

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