Next week, I'm looking to do a good job as an emcee at the sumptuous wedding reception for the daughter of a major industrialist. The groom is European, so the proceedings will be conducted in three languages. I found several old pantuns to match the occasion, and had taken the liberty to translate them into English for the benefit of guests who do not speak Malay. Hopefully, I did them justice.
Tinggi bukit gilang gemilang
Air laut tenang-tenangan
Budi sedikit tidak kan hilang
Itu menjadi kenang-kenangan
Lo behold the shining hill
Blue calm waters lap the shore
Time shall not fade your goodwill
It'll be treasured forevermore
Buah langsat di tepi busut
Mari diletak di dalam peti
Besar hajat kami menjemput
Besar niat di dalam hati
Beside the anthill the langsats lay
The fruits then placed inside a coffer
With this invite we hope to say
What's in our hearts we'd like to offer
Dua tiga kucing berlari
Mana kan sama si kucing belang
Dua tiga boleh ku cari
Mana kan sama tuan seorang.
In two and threes the cats may race
But none can peer the calico kitten
There could be many whom I may chase
By only you my heart is smitten
Dari mana punai melayang
Dari sawah turun ke kali
Dari mana datangnya sayang
Dari mata turun ke hati
From whence flies the dove
From the fields and down the brook
From whence flows the love
To the heart from just one look
Dari mana hendak ke mana
Tinggi rumput dari padi
Tahun mana bulan mana
Hendak kita berjumpa lagi
Tell me where you go from here
The grass grows taller than the padi grain
Tell me the month, tell me the year
When you and I shall meet again
My children are the only ones in their class who would not be doing the balik kampung trip this year. As a matter of fact, the kids have spent every single Raya right here in the Klang Valley, save for the two Syawals that we were in Jakarta, when we spent Eid celebrations freeloading at people's houses before returning home to dip our fat bellies in the pool.
It's always the same thing every year. On Eid morning, we'd do the usual rushed tango: wake up bleary eyed from one long night of cooking, haul the kids out of bed, get them dressed and stuff them into the car so that we'd have enough time to catch Eid prayers at the mosque in Kelana Jaya. Then we'd have breakfast with my parents at my mom's house, do the usual salam-salam and bit of photo-taking, then drive to Tanah Perkuburan Jalan Ampang to recite the Yaasin and ziarah the graves of my deceased parents-in-law, before ending up at my sister in-law's house in Setapak. By the time we get to her house, it'd be almost three or four in the afternoon, and the kids would have wilted, done in by the heat and their stifling festive clothes. Saiffuddin would be drenched in sweat and would fall asleep clad only in his Baju Melayu pants. For the past eighteen years, that's Eid for me: a mad dash across town and the pronounced smell of my husband's armpits.
I'd complain that there's no fun celebrating Raya in the city, but Saiffuddin would shame me and put my grouses in perspective. It's a religious event, he'd say, and the only things that matter are the Eid prayers and forgiveness from your parents. Your parents live in the city, he'd remind me, so what to do?
To me, these are mere technicalities. I could always transport my parents to any suitable rural location.
My husband, KL-born and bred, do not have memories of celebrating Hari Raya in the kampung. When he was small, he had only one surviving grandparent who lived in Malacca town and even then, he hardly knew her. Those pastoral Raya commercials showing old people rushing out of stilt homes to greet their grandchildren do not resonate with him. His tenuous link to any semblance of Malay heartland is his small clutch of relatives in Jalan Khatib Koyan, which is like, right there in the shadows of KLCC. He has been deprived of the true-blue Malaysian Raya experience, and has unfairly passed on this dysfunction to my children.
My poor children. If only I could give them the Hari Raya that I had as a child in Terengganu, so that they, too could do the stuff that my killjoy puritan husband might dismiss as bid'aah.
Celebrations would begin as early as Malam Tujuh Likur (the twenty-seventh night of Ramadhan) when my grandmother's house in Merang would be ablaze with the light of kerosene lamps set atop her fence posts. I remember going round the village with my sisters and our friends with Chinese lanterns in hand on Malam Tujuh Likur, just as one would during Moon Cake Festival. I don't know if this was a real tradition, or just an excuse for us kids to roam at night.
On the eve of Aidil Fitri, we'd have one final iftar at my grandmother's house, with coconut juice and Terengganu delicacies like nekbat or ikang golek. After Maghrib prayers my father would light firecrackers and sparklers, and the acrid smell of sulfur will mingle with the aroma of my grandmother's nasi minyok hujang panah, cooking on the wooden stove in her kitchen. When my grandfather was still alive, he would bring us to town during the day to buy the firecrackers from vendors along the five-foot way outside Kedai Payang, and I would always pick the mercung ayang 'telor, chicken-shaped squibs that would produce egg-like sparks when fired.
On Eid morning, we'd be in our Raya clothes, bright baju kurungs sewn by my mother, and if my grandmother was in a good mood, she'd loan us her jewelery. The table would be laden with nasi minyok, kurma daging, ayam masak merah and my grandmother's signature jelly of frothy egg-white, green and pink, that she would have prepared in the dead of night to avoid others from discovering her recipe. There would always be ketupat daun palas and sweet tapai pulut wrapped in the leaves of the jambu laut tree, and fizzy orange drinks in dainty gold-rimmed glasses.
We would also celebrate Eid at my maternal grandparents' house in Besut, about 40 minutes away from Merang. The journey itself was a joy, a drive through brush land, across rivers with brackish brown water, and along white beaches edging the brilliant blue sea. My mother has a large family and during Hari Raya, the ample house in Alor Lintang will be filled with the sounds of grandchildren running across the wooden floors, and younger siblings playfully arguing with each other. My favorite auntie, Che' Nor would have stayed up all night to complete the blouse she wore that day. My uncles would indulge us by giving away a generous sum of duit raya, which my cousins would stick in their songkoks. Then it would be time to take the Raya photograph, and we would all line up on the steps of the house and pose as my father snapped pictures for posterity.
At night, the children would light up more fire-crackers, and fall asleep on kapok-filled mattresses laid out on the floor in the front of the house.
I miss visiting relatives with my parents during Hari Raya, and I fear my ties with them will soon fade because I can't remember them any longer, or I don't know the children of those who have passed away. I love going to the home of my mother's uncle, Tok Su Wae Su, and admire his wood carvings. He'd bring us to his workshop, or he'd show us what he's been working on-- an intricately cut wayang kulit figurine, the awan larat of a door frame, a sumptuous wooden cabinet. I used to play with his grandchildren during school-holidays and we used to catch fish and hunt for kemunting together, but sadly, I can no longer recall their names or faces.
We call Tok Su's wife Do Mek or "younger mother", and each time we visit them my uncle will always joke that we're seeing a door-mat. Of course, Do Mek was anything but.
On some occasions, we would visit my grandmother's relatives in Kota Bharu and rural Kelantan. One of her uncles lived in a house fringed by rubber trees, and I remember walking up to the place in the dappled sunlight as the fruits popped overhead.
I know less of my father's relatives, save for a garrulous grand-uncle who lives in a house perpetually in construction. He is a repository of memories and even though I keep reminding myself that I should write it all down, I never got round to it. Despite his age, he is still amazingly healthy, and I wish I could go home to Terengganu this Hari Raya and speak to him again.
Alas, this is not to be.
My wet blanket husband insists that we spend it here, at a time when even rats abandon the city. Ah, he would say as we drive through deserted streets, it's good to have Kuala Lumpur to yourself again. That's his idea of Aidil Fitri: the lack of traffic.
This year, I have a mind to go back to bed after Eid prayers. My mother is celebrating Raya with my sister in Seattle, and my father will be with my stepmother and Mimi this time around, which is fair, because he had spent most Eid mornings with us in Kelana Jaya. With the absence of my mother as anchor, all my other siblings will be taking off to their in-laws in Melaka and Perak. I had planned to make nasi dagang again this year, but the lack of kemeriahan has deflated my enthusiasm for any cooking.
Next year, my sister Elisa might be back in Malaysia for Aidil-Fitri, after years of celebrating the occasion in dry Arab Saudi. Reading her post, I sense her nostalgia for the Ramadhan and Syawal of our childhood, so I'm hoping to conspire with her to steam roll our husbands into taking us home in the Hegira year of 1430.
You may have noticed that I often repeat the first consonant of consecutive words in my writing: I can't help it, I do it subconsciously. We imbibe alliteration as children--indeed, it's a useful tool for learning the alphabet, just ask Dr Seuss and his Zizzer-Zazzer Zuzz--so I suppose I never grew out of the delight of reading a well-structured alliterative verse.
However, alliteration is not always as simple as ABC, and in literature what qualifies as alliteration can include assonance and consonance, or similar sounds repeated to a meter. It's complicated to explain, I don't have a degree in English, but I know what I like.
At the top of my list of favorite books with clever turns of alliterative verse must be Nabokov's Lolita, which opens with:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.And then to describe his final moments with his first paramour, the lovely Annabel:
I was on my knees, and on the point of possessing my darling, when two bearded bathers, the old man of the sea and his brother, came out of the sea with exclamations of ribald encouragement, and four months later she died of typhus in Corfu.If I could choose to be bestowed with the talents of a dead author, Nabokov is the name.
One more example, and then I promise my next post will not have an alliterative title. I found this on the internet, from a poem by William Blake called 'The Tiger asks Blake for A Bedtime Story", which I suppose is his little joke on his most famous work. I love this line:
Soon I saw my health decline,Now I should get up and go, 'cos my husband calls me so.
And I knew the fault was mine,
Only William Blake can tell,
Tales to make a tiger well.
These arrests trouble me deeply. There have been ominous signs, but I was still praying that there would still be some sanity and humanity left in the powers that be.
Whatever happens, remember this: protect your neighbors, no matter that they are Malay, Chinese, Indian or Murut.
We have a scar that is almost forty years old that they won't let us forget. Let's not wound ourselves any further.
My life has begun to assume some kind of normalcy now that boxes occupy only a few corners of my house. Things are still missing, and we still need to fish the odd spatula or undergarment from sealed cartons, but at least I can walk from my front door to the kitchen without having to clamber across cargo. My kids are adjusting to school and my husband has settled into a 9 to 5 routine. I'm halfway between housewife and Saiffuddin's girl friday--and not getting paid for either role--but I'm not complaining just yet. The one thing I miss more than money is my wife, Ti.
For some reason, it is taking longer than usual for Ti to sort out her working permit, and her absence is making my life miserable. I find myself whispering her name whenever I see piles of laundry. We desperately needed a temporary maid, and when Mba Wati was offered to us, we jumped the gun and gratefully said yes.
We knew this woman could not replace the uber-efficient Ti, but we thought we could rely on her to keep the house in order. We had no idea.
Mba Wati is a frail woman who claims she's forty and hails from East Java. I had my doubts about her age, because she later tells me that she's post-menopausal, and has grandchildren. She does not understand Javanese, and worse, has a poor grasp of Bahasa Indonesia as well. I also found that she's woefully illiterate. She cannot read labels: she used ironing liquid in the washing machine, Johnson & Johnson Peach Baby Bath to wash the dishes, and stored the girls' toothpaste in the refrigerator (because it had pictures of strawberries and mint). I spent days rummaging through my kitchen cabinet looking for two boxes of kuah pecal, and finally found them among my books--she had no idea they were not reading material. She only eats fried tofu and soybean cakes, and therefore does not know how to cook anything else. She was a planter back in her boondocks, and one morning I found my lawn completely devoid of weed, as well as of grass.
Worst of all, she can't keep house. My home works on a fragile system of storage, and with Ti, everything is in its proper place, and she knows exactly where every little item would be. Mba Wati on the other hand, probably did not own cupboards in her own house. Aiysha has lost countless textbooks and writing books, only to discover them at the back of the kitchen, together with the pile to be recycled. The woman stores clothes arbitrarily, even though we have tallboys and armoires designated for them. We'd find clothes stuffed into bookshelves and underneath the TV cabinet, if we could find them at all. We keep wearing the same outfit, because the rest of our clothes are in some hitherto undiscovered hiding place, or worse, out there in a mound at a jumble sale.
Saiffuddin and the kids agree that Mba Wati probably didn't turn up on the day God doled out common sense, but I have since discovered that you should never discount the possibility of learning something from even the dullest of dolts.
My husband is in the planning stages of setting up a jatropha plantation, because his company would later be refining and producing biofuel. As he was not trained in agriculture, he had begun to search and devour any jatropha-related information he could get his hands on. He attended a course on it, he scoured the internet, he bought books. While he could academically expound on the virtues and theories of jatropha planting, he had never ever seen the jatropha tree. Recently, we brought Mba Wati along to an agriculture show, where she correctly identified the plant, told us the best way to grow it and recounted its medicinal properties. We brought home jatropha stakes and seeds, and Mba Wati happily planted them. Saiffuddin said she did everything that was prescribed in his books and was greatly impressed.
Our clothes and books are still missing, and we still have to look for toiletry in the fridge, but the jatropha trees are now sprouting leaves.
He will be greatly missed. Especially at a time when courage is a rare commodity.
Coming home had been more traumatic than I expected, partly because I was in denial about leaving Jakarta in the first place. I had refused to acknowledge that I will no longer be living in that maddening city, even when the immigration officers at Soekarno-Hatta stamped the finality of the move on my passport. I still pretended that my address was still Menteng, that is, until the movers arrived.
Reality sank in pretty quickly, and dug her nails in for good measure, just in case I didn't notice. The large bench that sat in an airy spot in my previous house, now dominate the miniscule living room in my (real) home. My two meter dining table is cramped into our dark eating area, jostling for space with a carved wooden sideboard and matching arm chairs. I can almost hear my furniture sniff and turn up their noses. "We left Menteng for this?", said the joglo mirror to the TV cabinet.
My small, two-storey link house -- where I rightfully belong in the social stratum, I must add -- now resembles the cargo hold of a kapal bawang. Boxes are piled to the ceiling in the kitchen and occupy any available space elsewhere. Books, clothes, linens, pillows, lamps, all demand for place in my sorry tongkang pecah. My first impulse is to get a blow torch and start over. Preferably, in Bandung.
Malaysia is home, but in the current circumstances, it is by no means a refuge. (Let's not even go into the surreal political scenes, I refuse to read the papers). There is no running away from mess, in every single aspect of my life at the moment. Apart from the obvious chaos in my abode, I also have to cope with my kids adjusting to the peculiarly regimented schooling system, made worse by teachers who think my children have had an inferior education just because they went to an Indonesian school. One teacher had the gall to ask if I understood English, even when I was conversing to her in the very language.
My wife, Ti (whose name is surely short for Sanity) is still sorting out her work papers and a mother who is very reluctant to let her leave. There is no Ibu Ika to fall back on, or Mas Darno to drive me around, no Pak Tono to open the gates for us or water the garden (what garden?) I have to get used to carrying keys again, and actually getting out of the car to buy newspaper or fried bananas. We don't have a pool in our backyard, we have a septic tank and an overgrown pokok kari. In the old house, I can lie in bed and through the open doors, gaze upon a graceful frangipani tree. In this neighborhood, I'd be lucky if I don't catch my hairy neighbor undressing.
This is turning out to be an unbelievably whiny post. Goodness, my years in Jakarta have made me soft and not a little bratty. Well, time to square the shoulders, draw a deep breath and dive into the clutter. God help me if, among the junk, I find a working lighter.
It's terrible to see the kind of junk I have accumulated in just a couple of years: questionable clothes bought on a whim, unopened jars of fat-loss cream, lipsticks the wrong color, scrunchies that no longer scrunch, handbags with missing handles, vitamins and miracle cures greying away in bottles, toothless combs pasted with pastilles and tangled hair, lonely earrings, pinless pins, namecards for people I can't recall, receipts and unclaimed receipts, bits and pieces and things that amount to a lot and amount to nothing.
A life of flotsam and jetsam. I'm being washed back to shore, but my ship's sailed away.