Normally, these corridors would permit young relatives to run, jump, chase each other, play hide and seek. Occasionally they wonder about the portraits on the walls and the trinkets in crammed cabinets: memorabilia of ancestors who once played in the same hallways. This year, the planks stayed uncreaked, sweat-free.
Normally, this sitting room would be a hive of activity, as parents strain to hear the TV over the din of young adults playing board games, teenagers on mobile devices, and kids comparing duit raya. The only punctuation is provided by the arrival of another family or the inevitable emergence of more food. This year, the cushions sat perfectly fluffed, and no more Es disappeared from the Scrabble set.
Normally, this lobby would see a full assembly of staff, ready to receive gifts of appreciation and exchange Raya greetings. Some have worked in the same institution for decades, and the interactions provide assurance and recognition. This year, representatives of each team were able to receive gifts on colleagues’ behalf in a pared-down, socially distanced ceremony.
Normally, this moonless night sky would be set alight by the pops and whistles of fireworks, reverberating across the valley in a syncopated fashion. They follow the ceremonial booms of the cannon, a juxtaposed echo of artillery flushing out communists from nearby hills during the Emergency. This year … well, there were still impressive displays of pyrotechnics dotted across the area. We still haven’t worked out how so many people got hold of some rather grand fireworks.
Normally, this rural mosque would be unable to fit the congregation of newly-returned urbanites eager to fulfil their Aidilfitri prayers. Spilling onto the verandah, the rows of prayer mats provide a visualisation of the balik kampung that has overtaken merantau as the primary mover of our people. This year, 12 of us prayed a metre apart (‘Jangan rapatkan saf’, I quipped, modifying the usual reminder for worshippers to stand close in formation), as kittens freely rolled around on the expanse of carpet behind.
Normally, this graveyard would be full of poignant colour, as families bedecked in new baju remember their departed with flowers. With young children in tow, adults educate the next generation about how they are related to people who rest under tombstones. This year, these graves sat tranquilly, though caretakers tended the site still with utmost respect.
Normally, the perimeter of this field would resemble a thriving food market, as lemang grillers, rendang chefs, satay fanners, roast lamb carvers, cendol crushers, and apam balik wizards purvey their foods. The epitome of small businesses, they have prepared for this day for weeks, sourcing ingredients, electrifying supply chains, generating employment, and powering the halal economy. This year, they did their best to adjust, offering takeaways and deliveries, but presumably more lambs than usual are still bleating (since their consumption requires volume).
Normally, the centre of this field would be covered by a massive tent, ready for 10,000 people to visit from near and far to fill their post-Ramadan tummies. They arrive with their families, but reconnect with their neighbours, acquaint with suku mates, make new friends and maybe get duit raya from me. This year, the grass was grateful to be undisturbed.
Normally, this mobile phone would be buzzing incessantly from a torrent of messages conveying peace and blessings, hope, and forgiveness. From thoughtful mini-essays to creatively choreographed videos from family groups, finding the time to meaningfully reply to each is always a challenge. This year, the same has remained true.
Normally, this calendar would be full of upcoming open houses. Behind the scenes, schedules, and intentions are exchanged between networks of PAs and secretaries to ensure that the biggest ones do not clash with one another, while wheelers and dealers plan who to ambush at targeted events to seal a deal, secure a contract, put a good word in for someone, pass a CV or a letter of recommendation. This year, the calendar is empty.
Normally, I would take for granted that all the above would happen, and that all the above would happen again next year. This year, I am grateful for the lesson of not taking that normality for granted, but aware too that many do not have this luxury, for their lives have suffered immensely and they need public policy solutions.
Normally, I would say that public policy solutions should address the needs of the people in a responsive yet democratic manner. This year, with parliamentary scrutiny at an abnormal low, and questions over the positions and appointments of many politicians at an abnormal high, more abnormalities may be exploited for abnormal reasons.
Eh, that one is normal lah.
Selamat Hari Raya, Maaf Zahir Batin.
Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.