When I was a small boy, ages ago of course, I was told not to
- Sit on a pillow or I will get a boil on my butt
- Whistle in the house or a snake will come
- Eat the crispy fish head or I will be stupid
- Point a finger at the rainbow or my finger will be crooked
- Cut my fingernails at night or the ghosts will use the clippings as boats and come and get me.
- Pour a lot of budu (anchovy sauce) on my rice as if it were gravy or it will rain and flood on my wedding day
- etcetera etcetera
I am sure you have similar pantang larang (taboos) in your house too. Some of the taboos are just plain common sense clothed in threats to dispense with tedious explanation. Olden Malays did not have scatter cushions. Those things came later with women's magazines. Pillows are for sleeping, not for sitting. The idea of burrowing your face into a pillow that came into contact with a butt (odourless or otherwise) is not too savoury. It might not be sanitary too. Hence the taboo. Reasonable enough.
Whistling is not encouraged anywhere. I don't know why. Probably the whistler's mother have good ear for tunes and could not stand to hear good songs being murdered. Better stop it with the threat of a slithery snake. Of course, at that time, we didn't know that snakes are generally deaf. The snake charmer has to move his flute to get the snake's attention.
Some of the taboos are for the protection of the young. You know how they are. They would never just accept "No!" They have to have a reason. They won't accept that eating fish head might result in the scale or bone getting stuck in tender throats. Scaring them with the prospect of being stupid did the job. They were stupid alright for not asking how come the parents enjoy the crispy fish head so much. Variations of the same excuse is used for chicken giblet, chicken neck and other delicacies.
It is the same with cutting fingernails at night. The prospect of some malevolent spirits coming to shorten your life was enough to discourage impatient vain pots to postpone their manicure until tomorrow's daylight. The underlying reason behind this taboo is simple enough. You must remember that when this taboo was formulated, Tenaga Nasional wasn't around yet and houses were pretty dimly lit with just pelita ayam (oil lamps). Nail clippers too were scarce then. So, cutting finger nails with sharp objects like parangs or kitchen knives in poor light can cause nasty accidents. Flying fingernail clippings too can cause much pain when stepped on.
Taboos too serve as moulders and shapers of social etiquette. It is rude to point, whatever culture you are in. There no better time to teach the young how to point than when admiring a beautiful natural phenomenon like the rainbow. As for the budu, Terengganu table manners dictate that it is taken sparingly with a fingerful of ikang panggang (grilled fish). Using it as gravy will deplete it faster, leaving none for the rest.
Of course, if you believe in taboos, you might want to make them work FOR you. Young girls with a penchant for father figures might try singing while frying fish in the kitchen. You are promised an old man as a husband. His financial status however wasn't mentioned at all. Neither was the choice of songs. Singing Hindustani songs might not get Amithabh Bachan as your husband.
Young men dreaming of a harem might do well to change seats many times during dinner. It is predicted that you will marry many times, preferably not to the same person.
Now, for the sake of cultural exchanges and global understanding you tell me the taboos in your neck of the wood.
(Photo from FreeFoto)