Monday, December 17, 2007
The Mysterious Mamak
Just watch him tarik the teh to cool it for his customers. The tea-stall Mamak is a pretty cool customer himself. He could 'pull' tea in free fall without spilling a drop - while balancing a beedi on his lower lip and making a statement on Economic Determinism.
Without the Mamak there would be no teh tarik. And without teh tarik life would be impossible in Malaysia.
Why do people call him 'Mamak'? The most plausible explanation is that 'Mamak' is a corruption of 'Mohammed.' Among Indian Muslims there is a high incidence of names that begin with Mohammed - or Mohd. for short. Mohd This and Mohd That. Hence the generic nickname 'Mamak' (sometimes rendered as 'Mama').
One of the mysterious things about the Mamak is how he's managed to corner the market in teh tarik and roti canai. Now he's a real champ when it comes to making roti canai (called parotha in some regions). Chances are the Mamak invented these greasy wheatmeal pancakes that have become an absolute staple in the Malaysian diet. The roti making process itself is a marvel worthy of video documentation, with a visual fascination that's equal to glass blowing or fine pottery.
The Mamak lives for work. His idea of a holiday is going off to help an uncle start a beriani restaurant in Sabak Bernam or Subang Jaya. If he feels it's time for a change of scene he might work out a transfer arrangement with a cousin who owns a chain of coffeeshops in Fiji. A two-year stint in a provision shop on Christmas Island is his idea of a long rest. Yes, the Mamak is essentially a multinational mini-corporation. During the extraordinarily long hours he works the Mamak's only respite is when he takes a few moments off to update his accounts - meticulously kept in a series of 555 notebooks stashed away in a secret drawer.
The Mamak's mysterious vanishing act could also mean he's gone back to India to see his wives and kids and to keep an eye on some property over there. Over here, most Mamaks apparently have no real homes. Often, half a dozen Mamaks team up and rent a cheap room in some shophouse. No problem with congestion: they sleep in shifts.
Another subspecies of Mamak can be found along the five-foot-ways imperturbably manning their own 'hole-in-the-wall' drugstores-cum-newsstands where an unimaginable range of everyday necessities - from salted pumpkin seeds and preserved plums to anti-dandruff shampoo, prickly heat talc, flashlight batteries, condoms, toothpicks, and the latest issue of Movie News - can be obtained without fuss or embarrassment. No way will these indispensable sidewalk institutions ever be put out of business by the 24-hour 7-Elevens. Why, in an emergency, the Mamak will gladly accept foreign currency - since he has a couple of nephews who are licensed money changers.
Then you have the upmarket Mamaks. They don't have stalls - they own respectable stores - usually expanded, air-conditioned versions of the downmarket 'hole-in-the-wall' operations; but textiles, textbooks, and tapestries are also favoured items of trade. The upmarket Mamak is usually well-established enough to have bought a house or two in the suburbs - which means he's probably married and has school-going kids - but he's likely to have retained an instinctive distrust of banks (unless owned by him), preferring bullion instead.
What does the Mamak do for entertainment? He doesn't drink, doesn't womanise, is rarely seen at the racetrack or at the movies, doesn't dance, doesn't socialise much, so what does he do? No mystery: he gathers his loose change and sorts it into piles of different denominations which he neatly wraps in paper and takes to the bank to be converted into paper money. Then he goes home and plots world domination.
Occasionally you will meet a Supermamak or two. But don't you dare call them Mamaks. In their presence the endearing term 'Mamak' sounds like an insult. Preferred items of trade amongst Supermamaks: jewellery, armaments, scholarship, and political influence. Ordinary Mamaks send their earnings to India. Supermamaks operate numbered bank accounts in Zurich.
beedi - aromatic miniature cheroot sold in bundles.
teh tarik - literally, 'stretched tea'; cooled by pouring from one mug to another, an authentic art-form.
roti canai - pronounced 'cha-nai'; tasty wheatmeal pancake (see the Gourmet's Glossary in the chapter called 'The Cari Makan Ethic').
beriani - rice prepared with saffron and various spices.