Black on black stack mangosteens
Pity the kemuning as its flowers fall
My dark-skinned beauty is sweet to behold
A light-skinned woman is no use at all
Hitam-hitam si tampuk manggis
Sayang kemuning luruh bunganya
Hitam-hitam kupandang manis
Putih kuning apa gunanya
A turn to the risque! Although this pantun is hardly, uh, progressive, it is interesting. In modern Malaysia, white skin is overwhelmingly seen as a mark of beauty. There is a huge market for skin whiteners, Malaysians with European heritage are all over the TV, family photos are retouched to bleach everybody out. But in this poem at least, taken from the Malay Civilization pantun database, it is the darker woman who is praised, by comparison to the mangosteen.
Mangosteens, or manggis, are fruits with a hard purplish-black rind and a sweet, juicy flesh that I have written about previously. Kemuning, Murraya paniculata, is a common flowering shrub with small, fragrant, creamy white petals with a yellowish center. Alas, the little flowers bloom for only two or three days before wilting and falling. Thus the light-skinned woman is described as trifling like the fleeting kemuning bloom.
Kemuning shows up in several other pantuns in a similar way, as a symbol for fickle or weak light-skinned women. It’s not fair to the kemuning! It flowers often throughout the year, it is pretty hardy, takes pruning well, and even makes a fine bonsai specimen. Even when the kemuning is not standing in for Si putih-kuning, it rarely comes out of a pantun looking good:
Kemuning wrapped ’round fence’s edge
A garden of tea with a thorny hedge
Boastful talk from scanty knowledge
Is a great big spoon for little porridge
Kemuning melilit di tepi pagar
Pagar berduri di kebun teh
Ilmu sedikit cakap berdegar-degar
Kurang bubur sudu yang lebih!
The pembayang here is less clear in its relation to the pemaksud, but the pairing still doesn’t reflect that well on the Kemuning. Don’t ask me why – I think it’s a lovely shrub. Its close relative is even more famous: the curry tree, Murraya koenigii.
Everybody knows curry the dish. It is practically a staple food for the British, I’ve heard. But Waugh’s Curry Powder contains no M. koenigii. Which is not to put anybody down: Malaysian curry powders are mixes of turmeric, coriander, cardamon, and more… but are also Murraya-free. Curry, like ketchup, has drifted far from its origins. The leaf of the curry (kari) tree is what gives South Indian cooking its special aroma. The leaves are thrown whole into curries and sambars, fresh, fried or pan-roasted. I don’t know that it imparts so much flavor, but the smell is very strong. The plant, shown here in my yard, can grow into a small tree, but I plan to keep mine shrubby. The pungent cloud of scent wafting downwind of a full-size curry tree can knock you over. Curry the tree has inspired no pantuns of record, but curry the dish shows up in a pantun in Sarawakian dialect:
Let’s cook lempah, pass me that pot
Pufferfish curry cooks up fast
I’ve told you before, have I not
Don’t waste time regretting the past
Ambik periuk memasak lempah
Ikan buntal dimasak kari
Agik dolok kamek dah madah
Jangan menyesal belakang belakang hari