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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Cast From The Herd Excerpt #58 A Safe Return

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 58:  A Safe Return

A few months later, my grandparents left for their Hajj. In Islamic theology there is great merit in sending off as well as receiving pilgrims, with the burkat (blessings) rubbing off on all. They took the train to Singapore where they would board the steamer. My father accompanied them to Singapore. Earlier he had charted a bus to the train station at Tampin for the send-off. It was a Friday, a holiday for my parents but a school day for me, but my parents let me skip it. That was the only time I missed school other than when I had chickenpox. To my parents, attending school was almost a religious obligation; only with wars, illnesses, funerals, or sending off Hajj pilgrims would we be excused. 

That morning as the bus passed by my school, I felt strange in not being with my classmates. I imagined what they were doing at that particular moment. It was nine o’clock; they must be doing math. 

The train station was packed. For every pilgrim there was the entire village in attendance. My grandparents’ party was the smallest. The crowd was subdued, the piety palpable. Soon someone recited a du’a over the public address system and all was quiet. After the final “Amen!” the train blew its whistle and inched its way forward amidst the waving and sobbing crowd. 

The return trip to the village was quiet; everyone was exhausted, physically and emotionally. That afternoon as I passed by my grandparent’s now empty house, a sudden fear struck me. Only the night before I was sleeping there with them; now that the house was empty, it frightened me. I assumed it was haunted, the ghosts moving in as soon as my grandparents had left. 

When my father returned from Singapore, my mother was anxious to know the details of the ship, but he was not keen to reveal any. After much pestering, he relented. 

“It was a rusty steamer,” he lamented, “and dirty too!” furrowing his forehead. The third-class cabin was nothing but a vast empty deck and everyone had to scramble for space. “I got one for your parents near a pillar so they could hold on to something.” He described the horrible passageway to the communal toilet:  wet, messy, and slippery. He hoped the passengers would not slip and hurt themselves as he was not sure what medical care was available on board. Those details heightened my mother’s anxiety. 

            “We should have spent more for second class,” rued my mother. That was not a realistic option as the family could barely afford third class. 

Years later I read Conrad’s Lord Jim. So that was my grandparents’ experience! Thank God theirs was a safe journey. 

They returned home over a month later, disembarking at Port Swettenham (now Port Klang). My uncles Idrus, Nasir and Tahir met them; there was no delegation from the village as it was too far away. 

When they arrived at the village there was already a large crowd waiting. My grandfather looked regal in his long flowing white robe and oversized turban, with its trailing end down his back like a stallion’s tail. My grandmother was covered in her black hijab, exposing only her face. They looked dazed and tired. My grandfather managed to recite a prayer as he stepped out of the car; he struggled to finish as tears flowed freely. Then the crowd rushed to kiss his hand. As for my grandmother, it was not so much a handshake as the tapping of her palms from underneath her hijab. 

There is great merit in sending off pilgrims as well as in welcoming them home. This is greatest just before the returning pilgrim steps back into his house and rapidly declines thereafter; hence the large throng welcoming my grandparents. Everyone was caught up in the religiosity of the moment. Even the taxi driver initially refused our trying to double his fare; the borkat of driving my grandparents home safely was reward enough, he said! After the obligatory third offer to pay, he accepted. 

During the next few weeks my grandparents were invited by one relative after another to attend their thanksgiving kenduri. At every event my grandfather related his experience, inspiring his listeners to undertake their own Hajj. Everyone now addressed him as Haji Sallam bin Tachik, and my grandmother, Hajjah Kalimah binte Yahya. My mother too re-wrote her name, “Jauhariah binte Haji Sallam.”

Next:  Excerpt # 59:  My First Religious Instructions


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