On the usual days in the middle of the year – no festivals, no foofaraw, no nothing – you can tell that the average build of the people in Sungai Sepi is quite lithe. Barring the sweet plump old neneks and the gaunt yet paunchy pakciks, the general populace here are strong women and men. Bodies built of hard work and hot sweat. Clean clothes and simple practical adornments reveal near-tactless honesty and lack of pretension beaming from the good, hardworking locals.
So when Raya rolls around, and the holiday exodus brings in the pale-skinned, soft-framed bodies of the city people, wrapped in allegedly fashionable, neon colour-coordinated dressings of the season, one can’t help but take notice of the stark contrast.
Despite this peaceful juxtaposition of lifestyles, there is still a century-strong commonality held close to the hearts of the people of Sungai Sepi: The love for durian.
This passionate embrace of the much-exalted stinkfruit reached its peak one day in June, Syawal of 1438 hijriah.
Too obviously an idea by one of the enterprising bandar boys, an eating competition was scarcely what anyone in the kampung would have thought of. Given that this year’s bounty was more substantial than predicted, due to happy accidents of nature, it was decided through unanimous vote that Sungai Sepi would have its first ever Durian Eating competition.
Standing and overlooking the blend of unequally bodied, yet equally enthusiastic masses, are five brave souls volunteering to honour their families this year by doing something other than setting off monkey-scattering fireworks, for once.
Umar is the clear underdog in this race. Stocky and small-statured with even smaller manners, he smiles shyly at his adoring cousins in the crowd. Boasted about by close family as the most unassuming big eater of the clan, Umar is understandably apprehensive. His cold steely glare pierces the mountain of unshelled durians in front of him.
Tan Chong stands next to him, hopping up and down, a lanky bundle of jittery energy, fueled by coffee and a desperate ambition to be admired by the flashy city girls. His insistence on suspenders being a superior fashion choice to belts, however, assuredly guarantees they will never want him.
Natasha “Rakshasha” Pillai is to his left, slowly rocking back and forth. Her generous build makes her a strong favourite to win, but her slack expression betrays a shallow well of confidence. More encouraged by the prospect of free durian than of emerging as victor, she manages a grin and waves to her little sisters on the grounds.
Khairul is here also, more out of the habit of always wanting the spotlight than anything else. He combs his hair while fingerpistoling the ladies and makciks in the crowd. By their collective reaction, one starts to feel very sorry for Chong.
Lastly is Pak Li. His white hair speckled with stray greys, he is a lifelong carpenter whose body, if one squints enough, resembles a wizened old orangutan. He even smiles like one.
Ketua Kampung Kapten Hadi tucks a whistle into one side of his mouth, and holds one hand high in the air, his fingers close together as if to karate chop, ready to give the go-ahead. He clears his throat, cocking his head to a flashy purple-tudunged bandar lady in his line of sight. He yells in broken English around the whistle.
“Gentlemen, start your ready…”
The five participants limber up and focus on their individual bowls.
With a whip of his hand, our durian warriors dive in with commendable gusto.
An analytical eye would slowly begin to notice some clear techniques being employed by our heroes. Natasha uses a double fisting stance, where one hand is always at the ready with one biji while another manipulates the seed around her mouth.
Umar tackles his one by one, achieving a respectable rate of consumption by chewing like a squirrel with a parang to its head. Chong’s approach is shockingly less graceful, choosing to mash his face into the bowl and maul everything within gobbling reach. On more than one occasion, some may claim witness to seeing him chew straight through durian seeds.
Pak Li eats his with an almost deliberate, too-polite slowness, a careful unraveling of the flesh and a clean finish of the seeds. Khairul, meanwhile, seems wholly uninterested in properly competing, deciding instead to treat it as a chance for him to loudly joke and flirt with his fans as they watch him leisurely picnic on free fruit.
It’s difficult not to be affected by the smell of ripe durian wafting across the entire kampung, the sight of the five valiant contenders, and the chattering masses of people. Some chanting their champions on, others loudly heckling, and others still shilling drinks and packs of dried munchies to the huddled masses enjoying the spectacle.
As the halfway mark approaches, signs of fatigue begin to show on our competitors’ faces. Chong is suffering a sprained jaw from some seeds ago and is struggling to get back his rhythm, all his focus drained into the bowl in front of him. He’s oblivious to his admiree who has already left to join the throng of groupies escorting Khairul, the one grinning competitor who left his spot with a sizable mountain of seeds still in his bowl.
To his side is Natasha, visible streaks of crushed pride shining down her cheeks as she lumbers off the stage. Her once devoured chunks of durian lie limp in a wet splooge under her table. On the other hand, Umar’s pace is still steady, the only signs of progress being his dripping shirt and the growing pile of clean seeds to his right. Amazingly, compared to the others who still have half a bowl ahead of them, Pak Li is blazing forth in the game with only four or five seeds left in his bowl. His measured tempo from the early onsets did not budge a tick, a look of otherworldly concentration stuck to his brow.
Umar doubles over, his head smashing against the table. Kak Pah, the designated medical technician shrieks before waddling over sweatily, flapping her kain batik over his face.
Umar is officially out of the game.
Pak Li and Chong never look up from their bowls.
It is at this point that Chong’s haphazard lack of technique becomes his undoing. His shivering arms struggle to hold his weight against the table, and his red face becomes dangerously close to exploding in a pillow of steam. Chong raises his hand in forfeit, the one wise thing he does in this entire competition.
The crowd of shiny-batiked city folk and the modest kicap of the kampung alike fall into hushed mumbles. The rules dictate that the bowl must be completely polished off for there to be declared a winner.
And with Pak Li being the only one left, a flash of palpable excitement washes across the spectators. People began to chant their support for Pak Li. Though his face is busy working through the task at hand, it’s hard not to imagine some extra gleam in his eyes as he pops into his mouth the last durian in his bowl.
Pak Li raises his arms, triumphant.
What happens in the moments following has been subject to much discussion up to this day. Kak Pah’s panicked siren shriek, the six burly men (including Khairul) carrying Pak Li, the collapse of the stage and the collective gasp from a hundred mouths heard round the kampung.
While most of the city yuppies snort at the officials’ lax attention to the rules, enabling a man to verifiably cheat his way through an eating contest with a modified ileostomy bag, Pak Li’s immediate family and the rest of his neighbours fondly remember him as a crafty old man playing one last harmless prank.
What everybody does agree on however, is on that warm June day in the early weeks of Syawal, an old man managed to eat double his body weight in durians, beating young city whippersnappers half his age, with a smile on his face. What a way to go.
Feature image by Melissa Toh.