Time taken : ~10mins
Food is an important part of our lives. It not only gives us sustenance, but also brings joy. Shared meals draw us closer to our loved ones. However, food can also make us greedy and selfish. In this popular folktale from the Malay world, Batu Belah, Batu Bertangkup, we learn about how one person’s greed for food turns into a tragedy, and the importance of sharing our blessings and respecting our parents.
Did you know that this tale was made into a film? Read the story and download the activity sheets at the end to find out more about Singapore's cinema history!
Once upon a time, there lived a woman Mak Tanjung, in a rural village. She had two children, Melur and Pekan, whom she raised alone after her husband passed away. They had made a living through weaving and catching river fish, which she continued to do after her husband passed.
However, as she was the sole breadwinner for the family, it was hard for Mak Tanjung to earn enough for her and her children, so they lived very frugally and ate whatever they could catch. Not a day goes by that she did not feel the loss of her husband, but for her children’s sakes, she swallowed her grief and continued working day in and day out, back aching and stomach grumbling.
Mak Tanjung greatly enjoyed ikan tembakul, the giant mudskipper. However, this fish was rare and quite difficult to catch. One lucky day, while fishing in the mangrove river near her home, she managed to catch the fish with her basket.
“Finally!” she cried out loud with joy, “I have been dreaming about eating this fish for so long.”
Feeling grateful, she took her fish and brought it home to share with her children.
Upon arriving home, Mak Tanjung began to prepare it for cooking. To her delight, she discovered that the mudskipper had eggs inside—this was her favourite part of the fish and a rare treat.
I cannot wait to share this with my children, Mak Tanjung thought to herself as she cooked the fish and its creamy delicious eggs in a simmering broth, which bubbled and danced as the fragrance of the spices wafted through the air. This was going to be the best meal she would have had since the day her husband passed. What a blessing it was! Her stomach croaked in agreement.
After she had finished cooking, Mak Tanjung called out to her daughter Melur, who was the older of both siblings.
“I have cut the fish and the eggs into three portions,” she told her, “Keep one for yourself, and feed the other to your younger brother. Leave the last portion for me. Take more fish if you want to but leave some of the fish roe for me.”
After instructing her daughter, Mak Tanjung then went to clean up and shower, leaving her children alone with the food.
Both children were very hungry and immediately started feasting on the food. The younger brother, Pekan, was so hungry that he ate both his fish and eggs in a flash. However, he was still hungry and wanted to eat more.
He started wailing. “I’m still hungry! I want more fish eggs, give me more fish eggs!”
Melur, in an attempt to satisfy him, reluctantly handed over her portion of the fish eggs which she had yet to eat. Pekan finished her portion quickly too, but still wanted more and threw a tantrum, rolling around on the floor and asking for more. Desperate to calm him down, Melur handed him their mother’s portion of the food.
When Mak Tanjung came back to enjoy her meal, she was devastated to discover that her children had eaten all the fish eggs, leaving none for her.
“You... ate all the food? There’s none left for me?” She asked quietly, as her daughter and son looked away from her.
“I’m sorry…” her daughter whispered, “he kept asking for more. I did not know what to do, Ibu.”
While Mak Tanjung understood why her daughter had given her son the fish eggs, nothing could quiet the disappointment she felt deep in her heart. She fought back tears but her eyes betrayed her as they welled up in sadness. She had worked hard to provide for them and was looking forward to eating this dish that she had craved for so long. Without so much of a word to her children, Mak Tanjung turned away and went to bed with her belly still rumbling.
A unique part of the village they lived in was a mysterious rock that would open up to reveal a dark and deep cave. However, it was said that this rock would only open its mouth to those who are overwhelmed with sadness. It often lured people in distress by calling out to them, opening its entrance for people to wander in before closing, never to be seen again.
Tossing and turning in bed, Mak Tanjung kept recalling the incident that happened earlier. Deeply hurt by her children’s actions, she started to hear the rock call out to her. She resisted and resisted, but after dwelling on her children’s actions, Mak Tanjung got up in the middle of the night and wandered into the forest towards the devouring rock.
She arrived at the rock, its dark and ominous entrance beckoning to her. The rock yawned opened its mouth for her. Mak Tanjung walked in as if she was hypnotised, not noticing that her shawl had unravelled and fallen outside the cave’s entrance. The rock closed its entrance shut with no trace of Mak Tanjung, leaving behind only her footprints and shawl.
A while later, Melur woke up with a feeling of dread, sensing that something was wrong. She turned over in their small hut only to realise that their mother had left. She called out to her, hoping that she was still somewhere around, but received no response despite straining her ears.
She quickly shook Pekan awake, “Wake up, Ibu has disappeared!” Pekan opened his eyes, looking around in surprise. The two siblings quickly left their hut, wandering around and calling out for their mother. They moved closer and closer to the forest, before Pekan looked down on the ground to see their mother’s footsteps, leading towards the dreaded rock. He grabbed Melur’s hand and began following the trail.
The two children finally reached the rock, only to find their mother’s shawl left in the dirt, the rock’s entrance long closed. They wailed and wailed, pounding their hands on the smooth surface of the rock that did not open, clutching onto the shawl. By morning, the children were exhausted and had accepted their fates as orphans, forever regretting their selfish actions.
Learn more about Singapore's cinema history, draw your own set piece and craft your own mudskipper with our activity sheets below!
Illustrations by: Nisha Menon