Read time: 12 mins

The Testament of Professor Roolvink

by Wan Nor Azriq
17 June 2021

Translated from Malay to English by Ali Aiman Mazwin 

Translator’s note

When I was asked by the author to choose one of his short stories to be translated, I decided to pick “Amanah Profesor Roolvin” for several reasons. Firstly, I enjoy this story and secondly, I feel it is fitting as an introduction to Azriq’s world of fiction for international readers. Another reason is because of the melding of real and fiction in the story, giving it an academic or scholarly feel at certain points. I realize that this story can also be seen as the culmination of the author’s previous stint as a history researcher.

As a writer who works in both Malay and English, I recognize my tendencies in writing. My day job is a health writer and I usually write in English, while I prefer to write in Malay for my creative works. Thus, I notice that whenever I write in English, I tend to sound more academic, formal or ‘dry’, whereas in Malay, I am more at ease being playful and poetic. This could just be my own biased perception or shortcomings, but it somehow influenced my decision in selecting this story as I feel it is more suited to my writing style in English, especially since I haven’t had the opportunity to translate many Malay creative works into English.

Nevertheless, I wasn’t consciously trying to sound academic while translating this work. My priority was to avoid the loss of any specificity or subtext in the process of translation and ensure that the final result flows smoothly when read. I also acknowledge my inclination to stay loyal to the original text when translating, either from Malay to English or vice versa. Though I also admit that a totally perfect transformation is impossible; there are bound to be some additions and eliminations of meaning from the text. I simply hope that this translation will pique the interest of more people to read more of Azriq’s works.

The Testament of Professor Roolvink

My dear friend,

All this while, I’ve been keeping myself updated with the latest bibliography of Hikayat Nakhoda Ragam, which has claimed the lives of more than ten transcribers. If you still remember, my friend, ten years ago in Penang you showed me the news of the death of a Jawi Peranakan man named Mohamed Naina Marikan. He was 89 years old. Found dead on the second floor of No. 29 Bishop Street. His body was reported to be totally charred, like burnt rice husks.

At the time, I only saw it as a piece of pulp fiction that didn’t deserve to be on the news, except as bait to capture the interest of simple-minded kampong folks. My friend, I hope you are not offended by the words of a ‘radical leftist’ and ‘die-hard liberal’ like me. Our friends are telling me that I’ve been going down to Kuala Jerlus a little too frequently. Wasting my time, walking and drinking with the Indian labourers at the wharf. They say that Professor Roolvink is befriending ghosts. That I keep the skull of Hayy ibn Yaqzan under my pillow every night. Our friends are really a mischievous bunch. God is my witness, my dear friend, that my frequent wanderings around the old city are nothing more than an obsession of a historian with his subject of study.

I have read Ian Proudfoot’s note, which mentioned that between the years 1885 and 1920, Hikayat Nakhoda Ragam had been printed 14 times in Singapore and Kuala Jerlus. Our friend, Professor Pinto, thought that the second edition was printed via the lithographic process by Mercantile Press in Penang. But we all know that Mercantile Press Penang was only a branch of Mercantile Press Kuala Jerlus. Why would they print the manuscript simultaneously? Most reprints were published in Jawi letters. There were four reprints in Latin letters, in 1905, 1908, 1916 and 1918. One of the Latin versions, I believe, was the one used later for republication by the Sinaran Bros company in the 1960s, edited by Mr. Mansur Sanusi. In the end, it was their edition that fell into my hands when I was doing research at the university’s library. I was looking for an al-Attas work, if I’m not mistaken, but it was destined for me to find Hikayat Nakhoda Ragam instead. My apologies, dear Prof. Sayid!

I prefer to call the 1885 edition the Hussein edition as he was the one who made the copy from the original manuscript. You are, of course, familiar with the name Hussein since he was also the one who transcribed Hikayat Abdullah for Alfred North. Professor Pinto and I both agreed that this manuscript was originally stored in the scriptorium of an affluent Bugis lady named Hajjah Fatimah in Kampung Gelam, Singapore. It is possible that the lady had commissioned Hussein as a transcriber. So, how did the manuscript get lost? Maybe it was sold; maybe someone had escaped with it to Malacca when the village was ravaged by fire. Malacca at the time was the collection centre of Malay manuscripts. It was believed that the fire had started from Hussein’s house, where the body was found later.

My dear friend, for someone as learned as you are in philology, you must be losing your patience reading my lengthy ramblings. When am I going to start talking about the content of the original manuscript? I hope you will bear with me a little longer, because the reality is not as simple as you think. According to the 1885 edition, Nakhoda Ragam hailed from Siak; his ancestors were said to be the descendants of Gatotkaca, the king of a celestial city called Hiranyapura. Nakhoda Ragam’s voyage described in the 1885 edition was only from Kedah to Lingga. But you will soon find out for yourself how these different versions of the manuscript inevitably began to exhibit signs of the transcribers’ recklessness. There were those who added to, and those who subtracted from the facts. There were also those who removed some parts, and those who elaborated the stories. In fact, there were those who were willing to manipulate the language so it would suit their own personal agenda. Very bold, yet how despicable! But one noteworthy aspect of the copy made by Hussein is the part in which Nakhoda Ragam made a stop at Temong, Perak. There, he married a white-blooded princess (a Perakian Mahsuri?). The legend was supported by R.O. Winstedt in his book, A History of Perak.

My confusion began when I found a record of Nakhoda Ragam in the Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia published in 1891. My friend, do you still remember James Low? That imprudent fool who disappeared with the manuscript of Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa belonging to Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin. We can ignore his fantastic story of how he was hunted by the henchmen of the governor of Ligor and how he sought the protection of Puteri Lindungan Bulan in Pekan Lama. If you’re still interested, yes, please refer to the research written by my best friend, Dr. Salgari. Our attention now should be focused on the lines claiming that Siam was established by Nakhoda Ragam together with a Kedahan prince and that even the Siamese kings were descended from the kings of Kedah. My friend, you will not find this mentioned in any other versions. The source of James Low’s reference was the version of Hikayat Nakhoda Ragam that was transcribed, according to him, by a Jawi Peranakan merchant. Yes, my friend, the name Mohamed Naina Marikan did cross my mind when I first read it. Maybe it was entrusted to him by an acquaintance or a member of the Marikan family. But my luck had run out as James didn’t mention the name of the transcriber. I couldn’t stop cursing when I realised it.

But I managed to move on, my dear friend. I continued with my work as usual at the university. I couldn’t ignore my students, could I? Why do I have to care about the voyage of a sea captain from an imaginary country? There are too many mythical and superstitious elements for it to be considered seriously as a historical text. Months had passed, and the name of Nakhoda Ragam began to fade away from my mind. But one night, his name came upon me like a corpse resurrected from the grave. I had just attended a colloquium about an archaeological finding of prehistoric human remains near Seberang Perai. The fossil was more than 5,000 years old, and it was believed that the city of Sardath used to stand at the location of the discovery with its bloody red fort. On my way home to Tanjung, I received a call from Mr. Dibab Salleh, the owner of the United Press printing company. He told me that the book Hikayat Kehidupan Percintaan that I ordered earlier had been reprinted, finally. Like a young man who is about to receive a gift from his lover, I sped off in my car to Datuk Keramat Road. It was raining heavily that night. I almost hit a signboard which I thought was an apparition of a Malay warrior. Imagine how excited I was to receive a new book! Mr. Dibab was waiting for me behind the warehouse in his sarong with a cup of coffee and a roll of nipah leaf cigarette slid behind his ear. United Press has been established since 1928, so Mr. Dibab wanted to show me the collection of newspapers, magazines and books that they have published ever since. Suddenly, among the heaps of old books, I saw the name of Nakhoda Ragam in Jawi. I had to immediately lean against the wall. My body was shaking. Mr. Dibab might have thought that I had gone crazy. I managed to calm down only after taking a sip of cenderawasih tea prepared by Mr. Dibab .

The book was published in 1880 and transcribed by Habib Marikan. Five years earlier than the 1885 edition of Hikayat Nakhoda Ragam.

If you have the chance to pore over the Habib edition, you will find that the book is thinner, only around 84 pages, compared to the 150-page Hussein edition. It was reprinted by United Press in 1930 based on a copy from Semarang. There were so many spelling errors, especially in the names of places, as if the transcriber was rushing to finish his work. In this edition, Nakhoda Ragam was mentioned as the son of Sultan Suleiman of Brunei. He had sailed up to the Indian west coast and there, Nakhoda Ragam and Hang Tuah joined hands to rob a Portuguese warship. Hang Tuah working together with Nakhoda Ragam? I laughed as I read that. Especially when Nakhoda Ragam was described as having saved Hang Tuah when he was surrounded by ten Portuguese soldiers. Hang Tuah gawked as his hands pressed on the bullet wound in his stomach. Pity Hang Tuah!

The next day, I called the university to postpone my lectures and drove right away to Alor Setar. I wanted to meet Pinto, who might be able to help me find the original copy of the Habib edition, as he had done more research in Indonesia compared to me. Along the way, I tried to call Pinto, but no one answered. He had just moved to the old house of his late wife at Lorong Tunku Muhammad. A month before that, this best friend of ours did give me a call when I was preparing the paperwork for a seminar on Hikayat Perintah Negeri Benggala. I thought he just wanted to talk since he was the type who wouldn’t be able to sleep before any seminars. Plus, this seminar was important to Pinto because he would be able to argue about the contribution of Ahmad Rijaluddin while trampling on my stance regarding Abdullah Munsyi. Sigh, how mean.

‘Do you believe there’s another world beyond this world?’

I am not lying, my friend, that was the first thing Pinto asked when I answered the phone. His voice echoed, as if he was talking from a dark, empty place. I don’t remember what I replied; maybe I stayed silent because I was too afraid when a question as serious as that was suddenly posed to me.

‘You are looking for something from a world beyond comprehension. You are mere shadows among shadows, and shadows among other shadows.’

Once again, his voice became unclear. I ran outside to search for a signal. I was worried about Pinto’s well-being. But then the line disconnected. The next day, in the seminar hall, Pinto presented his work as usual, and we didn’t talk about what had happened the night before. But deep inside, I was already suspicious.

When I arrived at Lorong Tunku Muhammad, firemen were still trying to put out the flames at Pinto’s house. Neighbours said they were awakened by a howl that sounded like it was coming from a wild beast. And a motorcyclist who was just passing through claimed that he saw Pinto’s burning body jumping out of the second-floor window before crawling towards the ravine. Not a single piece of bone was found on his charred remains. I explained to the police about my relationship with Professor Pinto and they brought me to his bedroom to help with the investigation. How perplexing, my friend, all of Pinto’s books, papers and manuscripts managed to survive the fire. Whereas his bed, cupboard and walls all burnt to a crisp. On his writing desk, there were all those copies of Hikayat Nakhoda Ragam.

To be honest, my friend, I was disappointed with what I found. Pinto had been hiding all these different editions of the Hikayat for his own benefit. Did he think that I wasn’t worthy or passionate enough about my research? No wonder he left Penang: he didn’t want me to find out about his precious little secret. Then, I rented a room at Hotel Samila. You should try the food there. The building may seem old, but the meals were five-star. I went back and forth to the police station to examine every single edition. Firstly, there was a French edition translated by Edouard Dulaurier that was reprinted in 1943 (I hope one day you will have the chance to retranslate this text into the original language). Several photos of the original Jawi source were included in the last few pages. Inscribed on each photo was the name of Lebai Mamat, probably the transcriber and author. Based on the footnote by Pinto, the Lebai Mamat edition is now stored at University of Leiden as part of the collection of H. C. Klinkert (Kl. 59). The size of the manuscript is 22cm x 17cm and black ink was used. The author also drew multicoloured and flowery frames on every page. Pinto thought this copy was made at the same time as the Hussein edition, maybe even from the same source, since there were only little differences in terms of Nakhoda Ragam’s stops along his voyage. There was also the Raja Ali Haji edition which indicated that Nakhoda Ragam was of the Bugis lineage. Too bad, the paper had turned yellow and the pages were so badly torn that it was impossible to read.

The edition that was most praised by Pinto was actually the English translated edition by Jonas Daniel Vaughan titled The Legend of Nakhoda Ragam. Limited copies were printed with a green hard cover by Royal Printing Work, Kuala Jerlus, in 1857. Vaughan referred to a copy authored by a Penang native named Haji Mohamed Salleh. Pinto believed this is the oldest manuscript of Hikayat Nakhoda Ragam, probably compiled from oral sources by the author. Pinto himself had analysed the manuscript and he listed more than 45 influences from foreign languages within the text. Pinto had received the manuscript as a ‘will’ from a gentleman in Kuala Jerlus named Salgari. The Vaughan edition chronicled the story of Nakhoda Ragam, beginning from the glorious days of the cities of Langka, Uttaku and Sardath, until the marriage of Nakhoda Ragam to Puteri Gunung Ledang. In the end, he passed away after he was pricked by a needle used by Puteri Gunung Ledang to mend clothes.

In the following years, I begrudgingly observed the many studies conducted on Hikayat Nakhoda Ragam, realising that the original manuscript was in someone’s hands. Until one day, God finally answered my prayer, and I found it in a package on my office desk. I stood for a long time holding the grand tome, which felt like it had just descended from the seventh heaven! For the whole year, I shut myself off to make more and more transcriptions of it. That was the only truth I know, the only truth of life I ever desired.

My task is finally done, my dear friend. But the tale of Nakhoda Ragam’s voyage must continue. This is the most noble bequest and responsibility in the history of human civilisation. Thus, with this I bid you farewell. I now entrust the manuscript of Hikayat Nakhoda Ragam to you, my most loyal companion and reader. Amen.

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Illustration by Isma Gul Hasan


About the Author

Wan Nor Azriq

Wan Nor Azriq was born in Alor Setar, Kedah, Malaysia. He is the author of six novels, D.U.B.L.I.N., Boneka Rusia Guido, Soneta Roda Basikal, 86, Dompet Kulit Buaya, Di Kala Bulan Bermain Biola and one short story collection, Mana Dadu Darjeeling? His first novel won First Prize in the ITBM-PENA-BH Writing Competition in 2014 and he is the […]