I wrote this story in 1997/1998 and was included in Cronically Donut. It was about my beloved grandfather. We love him. I ‘m not that good in writing short story and this is a very rare example. Simple, raw, edited here and there but it still represent the younger me. I just want to keep some of the sweetness for myself. Al-fatihah.
The bus terminal was beginning to be flooded with commuters. Boys and girls, young and old in various shapes and sizes walking through and along path of people. Minding their own business and glancing to others with an unspeakable sign of approval whenever they accidentally bumped to each other’s. It was 1.30 in the afternoon. The sun was shining brightly just above us. It was humid.
The air was thick with overwhelming feeling of canned excitement and boredom. It was crowded but unlike Hari Raya, not too many smiling faces are visible. That was the time when people walked with one hand holding to their ticket like their life depends on it. Then again, maybe it is. It was probably the weather that has been so unpredictable these past few days that have been affecting people’s mood.
One last look outside the window confirms the bus have started moving. Three minute past two and for a Malay, that can be considered on time. The driver puts on a steady speed and stopped at a corner before turning right. It moved to second gear before stopping again at a traffic light. The traffic was normal but the number of express busses seems to be doubled than on normal day.
Going back to my grandfather’s house is like a pilgrimage for me. A sort of going back to nature and a place I feel most unique, then and still is. Listening and looking at familiar voices and faces. The sound of birds and crickets bring me back to where Mother Nature is the purest. The sound of chicken has long gone but the sound of lorries and busses passing in front of the old house still shook us at night.
But among the sound, the smell, the sound from the nearby mosque are what I really miss about the house. It wasn’t just the sound of the Azan or the people reciting the Yassin every Friday night but something else; something more intimate. It just isn’t the same. Something has changed. Sometimes, at the break of dawn, from the bedroom where my mother and father always sleep in whenever we were at the old house, I could see the sun, casting it brilliant light. Spreading it all around like an artist putting on his last touch on his masterpiece. But today, I can’t feel it dept and intensity anymore. There were no details. It’s like the color were all wrong or didn’t match with the picture at all.
Eventually, as the journey began to get older, time took it toll on me. The thing that has been haunting for the past few weeks begin to dance in my head again. The past rose to mind. I can’t really recalled when was the last time we made our own dodol, a traditional Hari Raya dish made with coconut milk and sugar. My second eldest brother was the one that usually steered the dodol and took turns with my eldest brother. It was a long process and the fire have to be controlled or else it would not turn up right. From liquid, it will turn into a thick, dark mixture. One way to check whether it is ready or not, is to put in a small piece of banana leaf. If the leaf did not stick to the dodol, then, it is done. So, it was the ghost of Hari Raya that has been haunting me all this time. Those were the good old time, when there was no such thing as Raya without our own home made bamboo canon. The sound of thunderclaps was long gone even though the old Chinese shop that sells it (illegally, I supposed) still exists. Memory endures, no matter if it’s beautiful or not. Age are just a bunch of numbers that I’ve found later can’t be altered mathematically but with today medical wonders, nothing is impossible. Then again, that is cheating. It will not last. Time is man made, just to make sure nothing will happened at the same time. Not even Hari Raya Puasa and Chinese New Year.
The vibration from the bus gave a relaxing massaging effect on my lower back. It was an old bus. Maybe a Volvo. I don’t have a Walkman’s on and beginning to regret not buying any reading material before boarding the bus. No radio, no television. There wasn’t any kind of entertainment whatsoever. It was dead silent. The bus was only half full with passengers. I can almost hear my heartbeat. All I can hear is the beautiful sound of the V8 engine.
The journey will probably took two hours. It had been half an hour since the bus left Larkin Terminal and for the last twenty minutes or so, I had been closing my eyes really tight ignoring the sun that have been shining into my face. I 've been trying to catch a quick nape, but to no avail. I opened my eyes and adjust the curtain to shield my face from the sunlight that was successful in poking my lazy eyes. In front of me, a small child, a girl was standing looking at me. Smooth skin and short ponytails. Her cute and innocent face would cheer anyone’s mundane afternoon. What time will tell and do to the child. Maybe I just miss my grandmother.
The idea of holding to old memories is to accompany me through journey like this. It works, but not all the time. Like the time my cousins and me were caught swimming in the mosque’s pond where people use the water to clean themselves before performing the prayer. Or the parit way back there nears the banana trees owned by a Chinese family. My grandfather gave us a good scolding, and made us promised not to do it again. It wasn’t the first time that we were caught swimming there but that was surely the last. He made sure of that. We went to far, sometime, not knowing that our behavior is just too much for his fragile body. It was memory like that, that really make me miss my kampung. It wasn’t something that I am proud of but sure is a good story to tell when all of us meet again, especially during holiday and festive seasons. Something that makes us smile, a smile tat shows gratitude, appreciation of a good intention, sadness and love. I love the time, the attention and the intuition.
I’ve not been visiting my grandfather ‘s house as often as I used to. Since I was small, every holiday were spent there. I live and went to school there for 2 years, when my mother was working in Kluang. And at 13, I was already a season traveler, going back and forth between Ulu Tiram and the old house every chance that I have. Over the years, the trip became less frequent and now I am lucky if I can find the time to go there once every two months.
I really missed the old house. Last time I went there was two months ago. That was a long time. The old mosque beside the old house, the short terawih prayer, one of the quickest anywhere but still I find it very hard to pass number eight. The fruits trees, of course durians and the small pond behind the mosque. The water was green. There were many flat stones scattered around the pond which origin is still a mystery to me. I used to throw it into the pond and with the right and technique; the stone will bounce on the surface of the water, and fly beautifully. I even tried with a fifty-cent coin once but it went straight to the bottom of the pond. I stared in amazement, how can a big ship floats and a flat fifty-cent coin sinks so quick? In it, I can see my reflection. Round eyes, a little skinny, clean haircut, with a straight face, looking back at me as he was searching for something. The water calms down just to bring with it an image of a family and friends. A smile appears and teeth begin to show.
The pond was filled with fishes. Haruan, Keli, Belukang, Sepat. It was here that we released all the fishes that we caught around the house and nearby paddy field. There were one bathroom and a toilet, and the house was always crowded with people coming in and out, from nowhere. The mosque’s pond were where we had our bath, the water was cold. It was great.
Those were the days. I’m all grown up and the only time I get to meet all of my cousins now are during Raya Puasa. It just isn’t the same. You know, being all grown up. Nothing is the same today. My grandmother is still very strong. She got a small and fragile frame but still able to do housework even teenager will find exhausting. Her eyes are not as clear as it used to be and one has to speak out loud when talking to her. That were some of the price a person have to pay for being old. She still has her humor though and this is what really matters. She teaches Quran to the kind around the kampung when she was younger. The house itself is not as busy as it used to be. It has seemed many visitors, many kind people in the old days. Now, my aunt that works as teacher look after the house and my grandmother.
Things haven’t been the same since my grandfather died. I was in form 3. He loves to tell stories. He was a good storyteller. On a cold, starless night. My cousins and me would sit in front of him for a threat of ghost stories. He told us many kind of stories but this was our favorite. The old tanjung tree never fails to be included in one of the stories. It was a small tree that located between the house and the mosque. It was said, there is a genie looking after the mosque that would punish anyone that would dare to do anything sinful in the mosque. There were also stories about spirits of the fallen Japanese soldiers. War victims, some headless after been beheaded by Japanese solder that still exist and roams around searching for their heads. It was scary. Whenever we had to pass the tree, we would run as fast as we could, or avoid from passing the tree altogether. But when the morning came, the horror ends. The tree and us become friends and friends play together.
My grandfather’s hair was white, silverfish white. And he always keeps it handsomely combed to the back. He was hardworking man. He loves gardening and always keeps the orchids neat and tidy. Maybe that is one way to remember him. Every time the durian season came, we would take turn to collect the durians. It was so close to the mosque that sometime, people that come to pray at the mosque took some of it home. He definitely left us something sweet to remember him by
He used to be a teacher. A headmaster or something. But I’m not sure what subject that he teaches. Maybe history, geography. Maybe language. Maybe the way he speaks or the way he dressed that look quite rigid and conservative, yet never out of date, just like our language. He was fierce teacher, my mother told me. Always expect the best from his children but never pressured them to do anything they didn’t like. He treated his student just like his own, with respect and always tried to discipline them with rattan whenever it was needed. He never hit us though, but we never fails to test his patient with our naughty behavior that was always out of line. On a cold , starless night. Me and my cousins would sat in front of him, listening carefully to every details, anxiously waiting to know what happen next. We know it was true. He was too old, with too many experiences to make up lies. But what I remember the most about him was that he was a very warm and caring grandfather.
Ramadan must be the most exciting month of all. We have to fast, of course it was a challenge then but when the night came, the fun begin. We went to Tarawih together and after that, it was the time for the bamboo canon demonstration. Being too close to the mosque, each pop of the canon equal scolding from my grandfather for not respecting the Quranic verses that were recited by the Imam. Ramadan is a holly month, he said to us. All ghost and demons are chain for a month until Syawal. He kept on telling us that, and sometime his lectures turns to another story that kept us away from the bamboo canon and firecrackers for a while. I think he look nice and very wise with all his hair white. Make him looks more serious.
He didn’t turned old in front of us. He was already old since I can remember. My grandfather would buy kaya bread for us whenever he went to town to hangout at his favorite kopitiam with his friends. Fellow old-timers.
The old mosque has been there for as long as I can remember. Sitting beside my grandfather’s house, it must be ancient. Timeless. It just stood there, how many Raya have it endures and how many marriages have it witnessed. It wasn’t that old, really. In fact it was younger than my grandfather. It have always been with us, sometime it is hard to tell it age.
My sleeps was interrupted when the bus suddenly came to an abrupt halt. My journey isn’t over yet. I have to take another bus before I arrived at the old house. The sound of the Azan, showing that it was time for the Asar prayer. This time, the bus ride will take about 30 minutes. My eyes still feels sore and thirst was starting to creep up to my throat. I boarded the next bus to Muar.
Then, one day, the news came. The time has come to make way for a new mosque.
The parallel of the two was very obvious. They somehow connected to me; to my life. The first memory I ever had. My childhood adventures and all the basic things that I had learned in life all revolve around them. How they have taught me everything I now and how I come to appreciate it more and more every year. How familiar it was to the wonderful people that I will later meet and stumble upon in my life for many years to come.
And when both of them left, there, on the steeps in front of the old house, on the same spot that I have been sitting on since all these years, I looked up at the new mosque. The bus slows down, stopping just right in front of the old house. The familiarity of the pace, the trees, the old house, cars and people sometime lost among the life of a city slicker like me. It was a new experience, in a new place with the same old feeling that I just keep forgetting to appreciate.