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We are pre-publishing features on Covid-19 slated for our May 2020 issue.
A 300KM RIDE back home along the east-west coast highway connecting Penang to Kelantan usually involves three phone calls to be made: the first, an early morning call to confirm the day’s itinerary, followed by the second ring an hour later for a breaking-fast special delivery order for mamak fish curry, and the third, to check in on my current location.
On the couch in front of the TV, my mum is sitting, phone in hand, anxiously waiting for her son to arrive back home. Hari Raya is just around the corner, and Muslims from all over Malaysia will soon begin their balik kampung journeys. I, too, will be spending six long hours in the car, driving into the mists of the Titiwangsa Range and braving the horrendous traffic to celebrate Hari Raya with family and friends and of course, to sample the festive dishes of nasi himpit, ketupat and tapai.
But in the time of a global pandemic, when social distancing is required to flatten the cursed curve, what does the ritual of balik kampung now mean to us Muslims? Will Hari Raya be the same as in years before?
I write this article midway through the extended MCO period; Penang has been at its quietest for a while now. At every road turning, one is greeted by the police or army personnel advising the public to not make any unnecessary short distance travel; and for the homesick Malaysians, to forget about the inter-state balik kampung journeys. To curb the spread of Covid-19, staying home is now mandatory.
The ritual of balik kampung transcends ethnic and religious boundaries, and more importantly, it helps us to rediscover our bearings – after all, home is where the heart is. In Thailand the Thais would lop ban rau to meet their family during the Songkran Festival. A Filipino who is visiting or returning to the Philippines after years of living abroad is known as balikbayan. Every year in Indonesia, people overwhelm the train stations and airports, clogging the Trans-Java toll road for mudik lebaran. Regardless of the occasion, it is the act of returning or balik to something or somewhere that serves as the ritual’s core value.
But times are changing, and so are our perceptions and responses toward our surroundings. Balik kampung in the time of crisis, therefore, requires an interpretation beyond the mere tradition of massive exodus during the festive season. Perhaps, the ritual is best described now as the return of human beings to nature; maybe we are in search of the many things lost in modern society, the ability to sit down and listen to each other in conversation is one particular example.
For that reason, home may not necessarily be a physical place anymore, but a connection to those who remind us of home through different means. Whatever upheavals caused by the pandemic, we are now given the opportunity for self-reflection. For me at least, it has allowed for ruminations about the long drives back home that I had previously taken for granted.
In modern capitalistic life, when attention becomes the resource that people quest for, listening has turned into an expensive trade. Instead of listening and attending to someone, many of us find ourselves in constant battle to be listened and paid attention to. Intimate conversations with friends and relatives have now become scarce.
In encapsulating its spiritual meaning, balik kampung thus urges one to take a break from instantaneity, and instead embrace the slowness of life we were once familiar with. The English word “compound”, i.e. the immediate space outside the house that is enclosed by a fence, was in fact derived from our very own kampung. Except that in a kampung, one experiences the heightened sense of being in a spacious, balanced, sustainable and harmonious domain – characteristics that are hardly found in city life.
Active social interactions are an intrinsic part of the kampung life. Stepping into a compound or kampung is synonymous to entering an ungated public arena in which conversations and other social activities take place. It is the fluidity of culture and the loose geographical border of the kampung that cultivate a sense of love, care and togetherness.
Factoring in work and travel distance, driving back to the land of Che Siti Wan Kembang is hardly ever on my monthly schedule now. For more than a decade, I have called Penang my home, and it has offered me a host of opportunities while doubling as a laboratory for many experimentations, with countless successful and failed attempts. But then again, my relationship with Penang has always been reciprocal in nature. You enjoy everything it has to offer, but more often than not, it also drains you of many things.
But Kelantan, the wonder of Malay heritage, would always open its doors for me to take a brief respite. It’s a pilgrimage back to the place where I grew up, with that all too familiar scent of petrichor, the rain quenching the paddy fields after long spells of dry weather. Some things remain as they were when I left Kampung Kuchelong 12 years ago. Young men still play sepak raga in front of my mum’s house, and the old folks occupy themselves with a game of dam haji at the hut, while waiting to break fast. In the kitchens, preparation for the berbuka dishes is underway, and always with extra portions to share with the neighbours. Three days before Raya, my seventy-year-old grandmother busies herself making the tapai and ketupat. I keep her company with my stories, or to just lend her my ear. These traditions have withstood the test of time, and will still be there the next time I visit.
Beyond the bumper-to-bumper traffic and P. Ramlee’s famous Dendang Perantau, balik kampung is one’s journey towards understanding the Self, others and nature. But even though most of us this year are unable to leave behind the hustle and bustle of city life, to stow away the electronic gadgets, and to reconnect with those we have not seen in months or years, the spirit of pulang must nevertheless be preserved. We may miss the tradition of “bersalam” for forgiveness; but as the heart longs for those it can’t see, maybe Raya this time around will teach us to be more sincere in forgiving without the presence of others.
Izzuddin Ramli is a Kelantanese-born analyst at Penang Institute. He is a writer who seeks refuge in Penang, and agrees with Rumi that the Earth is not our home, we are just passing through.