April 2021

Pak Uning Laut whatsapps me photos of his catch, day after day.

                      Ikan merah, red snapper
                      Ikan cencaru, torpedo scad
                      Ikan tenggiri, king mackerel
                      Ikan bawal putih, silver pomfret
                      Ikan bawal hitam, black pomfret
                      Ikan pari, sting ray
                      Ikan parang, dorab wolf herring
                      Ikan ketarap, parrot fish,
                      Ikan kerapu, grouper



(Later, a list of names for ikan merah, the red snapper, merah bambangan - merah tompok, after the spot at the tail of the fish,  merah sulit, a name for the smaller bambangan)


When it should be dry season, it’s rainy season. Where the rainy season was, there is dry season. Warming seas, less fish, less cuttlefish. 

[And what if Pak Uning Laut really was a pawang? What kind of conjuring tool is rumah ikan?
No it’s not a trap, he reiterates.
Is it a lure? A machine, a museum?]

But there’s a pantang larang, a taboo, the names aren’t used at sea. The fish have other names there. Names shift across alam, a hunting technique, a mark of respect, a silence, a trick. Like what, I ask Pak Uning. He gives the example of Pak Itam, a pseudonym for the Ibu Gelama, or locally, Eron (Croaker, Sciaenidae). We call it Pak Itam because its body turns black after death, says Pak Uning. Nothing to do with Nakoda Itam, I ask? No, and nothing to do with Pak Uning Laut either, he laughs. 

I’d read an old newspaper article that said red snapper were hard to catch - some fishermen off the coast of Sarawak employed the help of a pawang, a shaman specialising in animals, weather patterns and spirits, to break ikan merah’s spell before a fishing trip. True or not?

I am the pawang lah 🤣 , he shoots back. Tidak tahu lah, maybe a long long time ago….

But a long long time ago, there were also more fish. Pak Uning’s father, his grandfather, neither of them used rumah ikan, there was no need. Rumah ikan is only Pak Uning’s, an experiment to harness and interrupt the erratic rhythms of a shifting climate.