Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Princess Play, by Barbara Ismail

Dancers (Study 1)
by Mohammad Yazid Kamal Baharin
Princess Play is the literal (too literal for my taste) translation of the Malay term, main puteri.  Not really a play at all in the western sense, the main puteri is a traditional healing ceremony practised in the northern Malaysian state of Kelantan.

Barbara Ismail is an American anthropologist who researched her PhD thesis in Kelantan in the 1970s.  Princess Play is the second novel in her Kain Songket Mysteries series, featuring the indefatigable Mak Cik Maryam, who, when not selling woven songket fabric in the Kota Bharu market, is solving murder cases. 

I recorded this book for the Malaysian Association for the Blind. The Inspector Singh mysteries by Shamini Flint have been very popular with the members, but it's lovely to find a sleuth from our own side of the causeway (Inspector Singh is Singaporean).  I think both Mak Cik Maryam and life in her 1970s Kelantanese kampong will resonate beautifully with these readers.

I found a reasonable description of the main puteri on (of all places!) the web site of the Library of the National Institute of Health in the US :
Main puteri: an indigenous Kelantanese form of psychotherapy
The permainan puteri (usually abbreviated to main puteri) is an indigenous Kelantanese healing ceremony in which the bomoh (traditional medicine-man), the sick individual and other participants become spirit-medium through whom puteri (spirits) are able to enact a permainan ('play'). It has been successfully used as a psychotherapy for depression. The bomoh assisted by his minduk (master of spirits) and a troupe of musicians, is able to provide a conceptual framework around which the sick individual can organize his vague, mysterious and chaotic symptoms so that they become comprehensible and orderly. At the same time the bomoh is able to draw the sick individual out of his state of morbid self-absorption and heighten his feelings of self-worth. The involvement of his family, relatives and friends tends to enhance group solidarity and reintegrate the sick individual into his immediate social group.

The story opens with the preparations for the main puteri to be held for Mak Cik Jamillah, who just hasn't been herself recently.  The ceremony is a stunning success: Deep in trance, Jamillah rises and dances with a supernatural passion, collapsing exhausted at the end.  Everyone in the kampong rejoices, knowing that her malaise is cured, and they all make their way home to bed.  Jamillah, however, fails to wake up in the morning.

The young, new Kota Bharu police chief, Osman, feels that his arrival at the victim's house would be so much more impressive if it involved high speed, screaming sirens and the screeching of tires as the cruiser skidded to a halt, but the rutted dirt road leading  into Kampong Penambang does not permit such theatrics. He himself has failed to impress the locals, as he is from Ipoh, Perak and cannot even understand the Kelantanese dialect.  So once again, he turns to the trusty and clever Mak Cik Maryam to help him sort matters out.

With her cousin Rubiah at her side, Maryam begins to pay not-entirely-social calls to various folks who may be able to shed light on Jamillah's death. In a delightful bit of detail, the two middle-aged sleuths discuss how much and what quality jewelry they should wear when visiting a matron in the neighbouring kampong so as to create the correct impression. Ms. Ismail also pays very keen attention -- as any Kelantanese would do -- to the types and quantities of cakes served whenever guests drop in for coffee.

Although she doesn't skimp on light-hearted whimsy and local colour, Ms. Ismail doesn't go overboard with it, either.  Princess Play is at bottom a book about murder, and even a sleepy, small village in Kelantan contains its share of passion, madness, jealousy and violence simmering away beneath the niceties and songkok. It's not long before Maryam and Rubiah are looking at a dismayingly long list of murder suspects, none less plausible than the others. The bomoh, Pak Nik Lah, is a wise man, and he knows his limits. There are some ill-natured spirits that a main puteri can address, but sometimes greed, vengeance and rage drive people to murder, and that, he's happy to concede, is a matter for the police.  And, of course, Mak Cik Maryam.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a lovely story, especially for those of us who remember "main puteri" being conducted in villages in our distant past!


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