Thursday, 19 October 2006

Memories of Pak this Ramadan

Everyone is talking about it. In fact some blogs, they have links to it. I have seen it, minus the sound because there is something wrong with my speaker. But even without the sound and the conversation, the message came loud and clear through the actions - and I had to stop watching it as my vision was getting a bit blurred for the tears that came trickling fast. Yes, living with an ageing person is not the easiest thing to do. The one person who used to be strong and dependable, is suddenly a child that you need to look after with tantrums and behaviour that test your patience and iman. This is certainly not a new topic here nor in other blogs.

[Iklan raya by Petronas]

The thought provoking conscience pricking video clip certainly brought back memories of life with my own father the last few years before he left us. Pak was an easy going person who gave in to the demands of his children. We were thoroughly spoilt. He would do the chores that Mak assigned us while he signalled that we leave the kitchen and go back to our books. He checked our grammar and tenses in our letters to him when we were away and saw to it that our favourite food remained on the table during our home coming. But to our young minds – that was never enough because Pak never took us to the cinema nor to the parks. But he waited up for us when we went to late night parties, and waited with us when we watched horror movies at night. He came into our rooms regularly to check that our blankets didn’t slip away onto to the burning mosquito coil. He told and retold to us stories of what he did during the Japanese occupation. All that he did.

Pak’s geniality slowly began to ebb. I was away during my adult years but coming home during the breaks, I noticed his impatience, his quiet anger that was unexplained. Sitting around the table during the meals was never easy. We never touched the food until he did. That was the rule. We didn’t talk unnecessarily. He never scattered his food like the father in the video clip, but he made unnecessary noise that was a bit irritating. For someone who reminded us time and time again never to talk with our mouth full and to eat quietly, this was a bit unnerving. Mak would sit quietly pushing her food on her plate.

Sometimes, he would sit in his favourite chair near the pillar facing the roadside. Pak never left the house because of the injuries he had during an accident. So that chair facing the door was his window to the outside world. He’d beckon the mamak mee goreng, the budak kueh from there. Even the peminta sedekah who came a knocking would come in and share his food.

He’d sit there and entertain his own thoughts. What he thought about appeared in a conversation, which to us, was with no one in particular. We knew Pak was losing it. But we didn’t admit it.

He took to sleeping in the single bedroom upstairs, where he stored everything – fruits that had gone rotten, rambutans that had gone black. In his pockets were our birth certificates that went into pieces at a touch, and many other bits and pieces that must have been there for years. In his books near his bedside, to our delight, were some crisp notes. It was while he was in this room entertaining his thoughts that we saw the great change in him. If we were washing up and if there was any noise at all, he’d appear at the top of the stairs and bellow at us. He thought we were angry with him. Any exaggerated actions, noise were translated as anger directed towards him. We never replied back, we never showed our anger but we were sad because sometimes we didn’t recognise this father who used to be so loving. We didn’t understand that old age for him was taking a different course.

But if anything, I am thankful that it was only those little things that made him different and we still remember him fondly as the one who told jokes about the Japanese, the one who made up children’s stories and songs and the one who let us off the hook when Mak showed her claws.

For we were fortunate he didn’t go wandering around the neighbourhood without a stitch on his body, like an old uncle of ours. Unlike another uncle who didn’t recognise his children, Pak on his death bed was still discussing the course I was taking at college.

This Ramadan, like other Ramadans, I remember Pak. When I watch the way my husband wake the children up for Sahur, I see my Pak in him. How he would repeatedly and patiently wake them up, just like Pak woke us up. And yes, the last Ramadan with Pak, he could still organise the Itik golek, the way he liked it. Our rayas are never without the itik golek the way he liked it.

Let us look after our parents for, among other things, we never know how we would be when we get to that age.

PS I watched this iklan raya clip again with the sound on at work and I just couldn't stop my tears. "Aku ingin Pulang", says the song in the background. And I remember my Mak as she flew home yesterday to her own home in Alor Star.

Tuesday, 17 October 2006

Of buah ulu (bahulu) and such likes

Why Mak insisted on keeping the geese I never understood. They were noisy, they left their droppings everywhere in the back yard and worst of all, they were vicious! I was sitting on the doorsteps, minding my own business when out of nowhere, one of these creatures made a beeline with its outstretched long neck and aimed for my tushy!!! It was painful!

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Picture from

But I guess, geese have their functions.They make a hell of a noise should intruders enter the compound in the middle of the night. And come raya time, their eggs were most sought after.

So, whose job was it to go searching for their eggs? Being shoved into the geese pen was not unlike being thrown into a hungry tiger’s cage. I had to keep looking back in case the attack came from the back while I wasn’t looking. After collecting the precious eggs, just like Jack in the Beanstalk story, I scrambled back into the house, hopefully with my tushy intact!

With the prized eggs, Mak made kueh buah ulu. And what a preparation it was to make buah ulu! (or is it bahulu? baulu?) Mak fried the flour first and then in one big tub we took turns to whisk the eggs and sugar. And before the days of blenders and magimix, it took the entire household to whisk the mixture before it was ready. I was told that some people would use the 'penyapu lidi' for that purpose. A clean one, of course. Then, be ready for the tearful bit of the cooking process. The mixture was poured into the moulds – some simple small, round or oval ones, some big gold fish ones – before putting in a big pot on a charcoal stove, preferably outside. The lid was filled with hot sand or burning coconut husks. That’s the conventional oven! Neighbours all around you would know that you have embarked on the buah ulu making mission, with the smoke going sky high.

Mak in her present condition, is always forgetful. But a few days ago, I received an SMS from my sis in law telling me that Mak suddenly said – “Kueh raya kat Kak Teh tak hantark lagi?” Hmm, that's another tearful bit.

Well, tell her anything, tell her a lie that I do have kueh rayas but never tell her that Kak Teh is making her own kueh raya because, even in her present state of mind, she will never believe that.

With just a few days to go, and not one buah ulu in sight, I suddenly thought of making some kueh raya. In my 26 years away, I have never attempted any. Kueh rayas came from Pasar Seni – mainly jam tarts and biskut suji. The rest I can live without. Now with the customs at Heathrow getting fussier with foods from our part of the world, I have resorted to ordering from friends, looking up recipes on the internet and I even consulted Mak Andeh, who like me did her baking only in Domestic Science classes yonks ago.

This week will be a real test – if i manage to make some jam tarts or biskut badam London – that will be my achievement this century.

To those of you still whipping out delights from your oven, “Bila makan tu, ingatlah Kak Teh di London!”
err anyone can put me out of my misery - buah ulu, baulu, bahulu?

Wednesday, 11 October 2006

One Iftar, one Ramadan

I never forget a face.

The young girl who came out of the surau and gave me a cheerful salam looked so familiar that for a while I was somewhat distracted from performing my asar prayers. She had that sweet and engaging smile. But something was missing from that smile, something that could be the clue that I needed to pinpoint her identity.

I forgot about her briefly as I rushed to the refectory for iftar but as I was queuing for my date, I was greeted by the same familiar smile. And from that moment and before the call for maghrib, I wrecked my brain trying to put the face to a name. Usually I am very good with names. I have a knack for recognising voices, faces and mannerisms. This one mysterious smile defied me and I needed to find a way to ask her without being so obvious.

I remember the time when I was queuing up for my registration at the university, and was drawing imaginary motifs with my foot when I noticed a pair of fine slender legs firmly planted in a pair of shoes most students can’t afford to buy. I followed those legs right up to her face and almost immediately, I was able to place the famous face, which usually graced the gossip columns of tabloids and Hello magazine on account of being the estranged wife of a certain party leader and then gf of a certain dashing film star. But I had to be sure. The only way to do it was to start a conversation.

Feigning ignorance, I asked her whether we were in the right queue. She had a very posh accent and that nearly confirmed my suspicion. She said, “Yes, if you are a returning student, we are in the right queue.” I proceeded to introduce myself and she said, “I’m Jem*m*” and I continued looking as blur as sotong, as some would say, discussing the courses we were taking, in spite of the fact that the people at the registration desk were nudging each other, passing notes and eyeing her from top to bottom.

I could try that trick again with this mysterious girl but I had to act fast and direct. So I said, “You look familiar,” to which she replied with a question,”Are you from Malaysia, because my mother is from Malaysia.” Now, that offer of information was all I needed. But I continued and said “I am so and so” to which she replied, I am F”.

It could have been the effect of fasting, and it could have been the date, but I looked straight into her eyes and said, “No, you are not F, you are S,” The sweet smile still lingered at the corner of her mouth as she insisted that she was F. I stood my grounds and insisted that she was S. My children would have strangled me with their bare hands if they were around to witness such display of audacity. Finally her face fell and she said, “Alright, I am S”.

And with that we performed our maghrib, during which I thanked God that I had at last found her. I had known this sweet young girl since she was 12. We had both changed. I was of course very much older. She had grown to be a very beautiful young lady. We had both donned the hijab since we last saw each other.
She wouldn't have guessed I'd be back at university. She only knew me as a hack hounding for news of her whereabouts. And I would never have guessed that she'd come to my uni to do another degree. She didnt need it, or so I thought.
S was catapulted to fame because she was a gifted child who was accepted by Oxford Uni at an age when most children were still giggly and silly. She didn’t invite publicity but the press, including me, were at her doorsteps all the time. I spent a day with the unusually gifted family and came home and appreciated my children even more because at 12 they still had their childhood. S on the other hand didn’t have any friends except for children older than her that she tutored in Maths or those she played tennis with. She didn’t know any pop stars or pop groups and didnt play with pokemon. Even at uni, she couldn’t really adjust with life at campus, she couldn’t go to students gig or do’s like the rest of the students who were older than her. She was chaperoned everywhere.

Anyway, during her uni years, we left her alone at the request of the university but as if meticulously planned, after her final papers she disappeared and hit the headlines again. We were back on her doorsteps searching for answers for her disappearance. I even wrote her several emails to no avail. She only replied to the Daily Mail exposing a family drama no one suspected before. She explained her reasons for leaving in a manner so uncharacteristic of an obedient and faithful child. But the year she stayed away, she rediscovered her childhood, she discovered friends and she found love.

I remember my meeting with S that fateful day in Ramadan two years ago, as I broke my fast at the uni again today. It was a very matured and confident S who I met on the way to the surau that day. One who had chosen to go back and reclaim her childhood. It was that confident smile that threw me off my tracks.

You see, I never forget a face.

Thursday, 5 October 2006

The crying has stopped. For now.

For now, she has something to look forward to. For now, she will busy herself with packing, unpacking and repacking her small bag, rearranging her neatly ironed clothes before the promised flight home.The crying and the sulking have stopped. For now.

These last few years have not been easy – not for Mak and not for those looking after her. But my siblings, my sisters and brothers in law soldiered on, sometimes with excuses but sometimes with necessary white lies. And most of the time, by pretending not to hear.

That Mak has been whining and fretting to go home to her house that Pak built for her, has been the topic of our phone conversations, ym’s and sms’es. I had never heard Kak Cik sounding so exasperated the last time I spoke to her. Mak had tried everything; crying, sulking and even refusing to eat as a protest. She feels unsettled, a nomad, even in the homes of her own children who dote on her day and night.
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That Mak can no longer be on her own is something we had all decided a long time ago; since she fell in the bath room, since she put a burning mosquito coil under her bed, since we caught her trying to tie her plants together in the garden, since a chest of drawers fell on her when she pulled it to get up from the floor. And more importantly, since she was diagnosed with the big C. And lately, Nisa informed me, she would eat, sleep and wake up thinking she is still fasting. Her forgetfulness is worrying.

We got her a maid but the maid ate earlier than Mak, slept earlier than Mak and woke up later then Mak. So, we packed her off home. We have decided that we cannot trust anyone outside the family to look after her.

Mak wants to be with her chickens, ducks and geese – she has forgotten that they are no longer there. She wants to water her orchids and plants and the melur garden that Tok left her. Kak Cik, in her effort to make Mak feel at home away from home, had taken some of her orchid plants and planted them in the gardens of every house in Kajang and Bangi that she lives in, so that she can see a bit of her garden wherever she goes. But that is still not enough. Her strongest argument remains: Pak never wanted me to leave the house that he built for me. With this, they had to pretend not to hear.
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Listening to all these, I am left with this feeling of helplessness so much so that in conversations that I usually have with myself in the kitchen, while preparing for berbuka, I argued the possibility of just leaving everything and everyone here and spend the time with her, the last few years of her life, and make her happy in that house that Pak built for her. If I have tons of money in the bank and not have to run around earning a living and worry about bills and children’s schooling, yes I’d do that. With a PC and an internet connection in that part of the world, I can still earn a living. But while having a supportive husband who will not say no to such a noble intention, what about being absent during the most important year in my son’s schooling? And even if I can stand the pangs of separation from my loved ones here, can I cope with looking after an ageing Mak who has lost most of her faculties?

I remember spending time with her in her hospital room. I just looked on like a bystander, as everyone fussed over her, Even young Eena knew how to cope while I looked on. As an excuse, I filmed her on my video camera, only to let my emotions go in the privacy of my own home when I watched it again, and again and again.

There was this time, I took her to the toilet. I had to turn away as she undressed. My Mak has become a child who needs looking after. So, I shouldn’t really be looking away, but I did. And during the night, when I slept with her, this child, rolled off the bed and fell. My siblings looked after her for years and she never fell off her bed, and that one night I slept with her, she fell and hurt her head. And I could only cradle her in my lap, as she had cradled me when I small. And look at the time I was left on my own to change her nappies. I am quite hopeless.

Mak sleeps a lot these days, I was told. Which is good as she has less time thinking about the house that Pak built for her. I remember looking at her while she slept, and at times I was tempted to put my finger near her nostrils to check her breathing, like I used to when I was small. I was so scared that she might just stop breathing if I took my finger away. I am still scared.

Yes, for now, Mak is happy and looking forward to that journey home. Everyone will be back celebrating raya in the house that Pak built for Mak. The front of the house will be filled with cars again, the house will be filled with laughter and the front room, with assortments of sleeping bags and suitcases. The kitchen will be full of activities. Mak will be looking forward to see the new table we bought her last year. And she will be looking forward to visit Pak and Tok again.
So, the crying has stopped. For now.