It all seems so simple now...

INTO THE GREAT dining hall, the children came. The guards at the gates do their best to keep as many of them out as possible, but they are too few, and the children have become many, and they have become good at pushing their way in.

They gather eagerly despite feeling unwelcomed because this hall is opened only once every five years for the grand dinner. And everyone can talk that day. Over time, the children have learned that if they are precise in their language, and if they speak in unison, their voices can actually echo nicely and fill the room.

They tend to assemble in several big groups.There are those who rush to come close to the head of the table where the food is served first and where the favours of the master of ceremony are dispensed most freely. Then there are those who sit slightly to the side, sulky but hopeful of some attention from the main table. At the far end of the room gather those who have given up on ever getting to the main table, and they mix in uncomfortably with those farthest away who prefer the fresher air closest to the tall windows.

There are always some who prefer to hang around outside the swinging doors that lead into the kitchen, not caring that being close to where the food is being prepared does not mean that they get served first, or at all. But they are hopeful. And every now and then, one of them manages to sneak in to satiate himself unnoticed.

It is otherwise all meant to be rather formal and ritualistic, like a sun-worshipping ceremony that starts with the sun rising and that ends when the sun goes behind the first clouds, and whose real significance few remember any longer, least of all the masters of ceremony.

It is all often more reminiscent of mealtimes at some Dickensian orphanage, where one gets one’s share, and often less – and any request for more is rewarded with a sharp slap, or with detention.

But this year, 2018, on May 9, the often oppressive and unhappy atmosphere in Malaysia Hall feels strangely different. Perhaps it is because the windows over time no longer shut very well and more fresh air than normal now fills the room. The children had always been told that too much fresh air is bad for them. Or it may be that more and more of them children have grown up and are talking less in whispers than normal, as if they have forgotten that some guard may be among them, sinisterly hidden among them, out of uniform.

They do well to remember though, for some of them have been punished before, and a few just the day earlier. In fact, one of the elder ones is still locked away in the cellar with a bad back, on long-term detention. On the last two occasions, this growing group sitting far from the main table had been a little too loud for the comfort of those at the main table, and some of them had had to suffer the consequences. Less food than ever was passed down.

But perhaps the change in the atmosphere is because the children notice that the old and retired master of ceremony, whose voice for many years once resonated so sharply and scarily within these walls demanding order, is sitting with them by the windows and as far away from the main table as he can get. To everyone’s surprise, he seems to agree with them that the arrangement of the furniture in Malaysia Hall needs to change so that more food can be brought in faster and served more quickly to all ends of the room.

And so, knowing better than anyone else what things look like from the main table, he is telling them to synchronise their voices better than ever and to shout down the groups gathered around the more succulent dishes.

They now know that if they do that well, those at the fringes will join in, and together their voices will be strong and there may be enough of them to rearrange the furniture themselves in such a way that each will have a better chance of getting some good bits from the best dishes, and so that the food can be passed around more happily and generously. And with everyone pushing, they may even be able to get the windows opened wide. More fresh air will be let in then to invigorate everyone.

Furthermore, the separate groups will no longer be able to sit so far away from each other.

The whole of Malaysia Hall can be transformed, and the voices of even the littlest ones heard.

And so, with synchronised effort, they push the windows open, letting out stale air and letting the breeze and the cheers of the outside world in. And they begin rearranging the tables and chairs, singing as they do so. All that will take some time to get into place, but it all seems so simple now…

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