Memories of old Rosales: The writing of Tree

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - November 16, 2020 - 12:00am

During the liberation in 1945, several American Army units were based in the Rosales area. An empty warehouse near the town market was made into a USO Center, manned by a couple of hefty American women. They served doughnuts, coffee and Coke, and they also had stacks of free paperbacks printed for the GIs. I got so many, some of which I had rebound, among them, The Wayward Bus, a novel by John Steinbeck about a bus that stalls in a small town. It is the inspiration for Tree, the second novel in chronological time in the five-novel Rosales Saga. At that time, I had already written a couple or so stories based on my hometown – all I had to do was add more and arrange them as linear narratives, starting the forward movement with light that dims into darkness at the end. The Filipino poet and critic Ricaredo Demetillo calls it the least dramatic in the saga, but my Japanese translator, Matsuyo Yamamoto, calls it the best, quietly elegant and elegiac. What I did was to ennoble simple rural life with fidelity to place and time.

*      *      *

Last week, I got a bag of tupig from a distant relative, Susan Casareno, who is now the mayor of my hometown. It’s not often that I get this rice cake; it is not well known in the country like our other rice delicacies, puto, suman, etc.

Tupig is ground gelatinous rice mixed with grated young coconut and sweetened with raw cane sugar. It is then wrapped in banana leaf and broiled over charcoal until the leaves are burnt. Travelers going north – if they stop in Carmen, which is a barrio of Rosales – are soon surrounded by vendors selling tupig. What is sold in Carmen is really not as good as the tupig that is prepared especially as gifts.

Susan’s pasalubong was brought by INC Minister Adriel Meimban, also a distant relation. As a boy, I had assisted my mother in preparing them. She also cooked Ukoy – grated green papaya molded into patties with ground rice and a couple or more shrimps then deep fried. In that village where I grew up, its dull social life was brightened with simple feasting and music during baptisms or weddings. The entire neighborhood was invited to dine on pinapaitan and dinardaraan – traditional Ilokano meat dishes now available in Manila restos. These are rare; village fare consists mostly of vegetables and broiled freshwater fish – dinengdeng. For all the simplicity and harshness of peasant life, the color of green and sunshine laved everything. I have watched the rice fields brown and fallow in the dry season, then suddenly greening with first rains of May, grasshoppers on the wing, the edible weeds for everyone, particularly papait – a creeper with dark tiny leaves, bitter and served blanched with diced tomatoes and salted fish sauce; only Ilokanos appreciate it. I saw a patch in the field and uprooted all of it; whereupon, my mother admonished me, I should have left a portion for it to grow for the next hungry farmer to harvest. Again, during harvest time, the reapers purposely left some stalks uncut – these are for the gleaners, the very poor to harvest. Verily, compassion resided warmly in the peasantry.

Then, the green fields turned yellowish and gold at harvest time. How many young people today have raced carabaos, know how to plow a field or call a stray calf home? Only those who have lived in the village can appreciate the wonderful aroma exuded by a newly harvested field as well as the scent and taste of freshly cooked rice.

Mornings came to Rosales quietly, the sun slowly flooding the fields and the town itself with light. It was this light in varying degrees of brightness that has been emphasized by Fernando Amorsolo. The shapes of the farm houses, the gladsome faces of women doing their washing by the streams.

The sounds of morning were clear, the rackling of poultry, the intermittent barking of dogs and the mooing of water buffalos. In the old days, the seasons were clearly defined. After November, the rains had paused; festivities brightened our humdrum lives, the celebration of the Holy Week. Quiet was imposed on us children, the Pasyon was brought out from the wooden chests, and in the most prominent street corner in the village, a small chapel was set up where the Pasyon was chanted, mostly by the women who took turns narrating the story of Christ. Then, the Holy Week procession moved through the town, the ornate images of the saints illuminated by candles in their carriages and we the children making a racket with our bamboo clappers at the front.

Christmas was the brightest season. Each classroom had a Christmas tree, usually a sapling that we decorated with paper buntings. My neighborhood friends and I, with my harmonica, would go around the village and the town singing Christmas carols. And finally, Christmas Day. We exchanged gifts. It was usually a Sunkist orange or an apple which appeared only in the Christmas season. I remember one memorable gift from my teacher, Soledad Oriel. It wasn’t round. It was a book, my first secondhand dictionary.

Then the New Year, how on that cool evening we usually stayed awake and made so much noise beating tin cans. Firecrackers were expensive, but somehow, I always managed to have a few. My real noise maker in the New Year was a bamboo cannon I shaped, loaded with kerosene which, when heated and ignited, emitted a growl and then, BOOM!

The dry season was blessed with wind, and it was time for us to fly the kites we made. It was time, too, to hear a clump of bamboo creak in the wind, a sound I have not heard in a long long time.

Dusk came swiftly, and the kerosene lamps were lit. It was in the barrios where we looked up at the boundless arch of the sky. The distant stars twinkled, and the moon when it is full cast a pale light that enabled us to play at night.

*      *      *

These are some of the memories and images of my boyhood, of the old Rosales that are ever vivid and alive in the mind. Every so often, I would meet a townmate and we would reminisce; of course, the town has changed. With the new expressway, you can drive to Rosales in two hours. A new SM Mall has risen from what was a rice field. There are no houses that are roofed with grass or with bamboo posts – not even in the barrios. No more calesas, too. And no more barefoot school children. Jeepneys, motorcycles, Jollibee – progress! But the land, planted to rice, the Balungao mountain – they still define the landscape. And the people – I know, are still the same. Rosales is actually replicated in almost all Filipino towns, but if we look deeply, each has its own uniqueness and identity – each has its own history, too, and each can very well be a novel like Tree.

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