Description: The soundscape of a typical morning in a Malaysian kampung (village), populated by the hooting of birds, the cry of roosters and the buzz of insects.
"Sorry, not sure I have change for this." Uncle Cheong says, rummaging through his pockets, first the shirt, then the trousers.
"It's OK lah Cheong, no problem. Your rezeki, I have mine." Mak—my mother—smiled at Uncle Cheong, gesturing to the fish swaddled in newspaper, cradled in her arms like a newborn.
"Thank you ah. In the past, this would go into Buku 555." Uncle Cheong chuckled.
Economic relations were balanced on a gilded scale of material and monetary flows. Accounting values no notion of rezeki, of morality, of generosity, not unless they can be (ac)counted in the ledger, contorted into numbers. Debit or credit?
Sitting at the kitchen table, observing Mak's banter with Uncle Cheong—sans masks, sans physical distancing—my mind flits. I think of the primordial promise of kinship. Just look out for one another. #KitaJagaKita somehow ushered us through the pandemic; the one Arundhati Roy calls a 'portal'.
Where has this portal taken us?
"Your Uncle Cheong asked when you'd come down to his jetty." Mak relays his message as the fisherman ambles out of our compound, turning the corner. He is part of a fishery collective alongside the indigenous community—the Orang Asli—that has dwelled intimately with this land.
Once, Mak recalls her grandfather, the penghulu (village head), and his friendship with Yak from a neighbouring Orang Asli community. Yak would often visit the penghulu to barter his forest finds for tobacco, t-shirts, or rice. When the season for yellow, sour rambutan circled around, Yak arrived promptly to climb the rambutan trees dotting the lawn.
"It's Yak's rezeki," he says, watching the trees rustle as Yak manoeuvres them deftly. To climb trees one must have a slender build, not too much weight. "There is an art to knowing which branches will not let you down." He lights up his pipe in the afternoon shade, admiring Yak from afar.
The wild boars around here often dig through our fortified fences, trample over our neat plant beds. "Call on Yak; his family may well feast tonight!"
In his ailing days, Mak's grandfather laments, "Tell me where are the kampung (village) folk now? I don't see their noses..." He goes on wistfully, "but Yak always stops by, though he owes me nothing!"
Together, Uncle Cheong and the Orang Asli community have slowly been mending inter-species relationships, focusing on controlled fishing, environmental rest and rejuvenation. It sounds poetic, but on the other side of the portal, poetry is essential for survival.
Still, other choices brew upriver. Faint whispers of rare earth mining and rampant logging flow downstream, carrying sand and silt.
"Maybe on Thursday I can bring the kids for field day. Science, geography…and economics?" I try to recount the students' old timetable. We do not use those categories anymore, but my mind reverts when I let it. "Uncle Cheong can take them off my hands."
"So lucky, your students." Mak responds brightly. "Remember how you were back then, exams, exams, exams? I had to force you to leave the house for some air!" She is teasing me, her eyes sparkle mischievously as she hands me the fish.
Description: Teachers and students banter and exchange muffled remarks and laughter as they learn outdoors by the flowing river
Schools have changed dramatically since I was a student. Walled outside of schools for a few years in the blur of the pandemic, we came to learn that education could bloom right here within the fabric of the kampung. It took the possibility of death—of losing the air outside the classroom—for us to untie ourselves, reversing the knots which were weaved at scale.
Kampung folk like Uncle Cheong and the Orang Asli elders teach alongside me. "We are all here now, our bodies leaning and resting, one on the other in an unbroken weave. Look out for one another." Every time, it is repeated like a jampi, an incantation.
Other kinds of jampi circulate in the school:
I want to make a life right here, instead of uprooting
Teachers remind us, "jangan berkira" (don't be pernickety)
We can explore ways to reuse all this (single-use) plastic
You can play games on your phone and also go down to the river!
Still, I wrestle with the tendency to measure, to quantify, to rank the students. To learn anew, I must unlearn. Break down the bureaucrat! Liberate the plantation!
I do not always succeed. Old habits…
"Eh, now where are you off to?" I ask Mak as she heads outside once again; the fish now nestled in my hands as I stand up. "What time is Abah coming back?"
"I need chilli from the garden, my flowers need watering too." She does not respond to the query about my father's whereabouts; it hangs in the air.
A minute or so later, her answer came languidly around the bend. Abah walks into the compound, chatting animatedly with Uncle Cheong who accompanies him. I meet them on the patio, the fish still in my arms.
"It's nice to stretch my legs, chat with your Uncle Cheong like this." Abah catches his breath. His left hand drapes over the fisherman's shoulders. I move closer to them, my eyes on Abah, the shadows of his breath. My hands still cradle the fish.
The shadows of his breath.
Inside the pandemic's enclosure we found ourselves shut-in, mistrusting each other for fear of infection. Keep your (social) distance!
The virtual attempts to replace the social. "I yearn to see my cucu," Abah blurts out one afternoon as we sat on the patio. He was referring to his grandchildren. In the capital city, they were holed up with their families in high-rise homes, the vista of other high-rise homes dotting the distance.
Abah's sparse, greying hair appeared translucent as the sun began to decline. I suggested video-call.
"It is not the same. I will only miss them more seeing them like that," He sulked, like a child. "The distance…how much longer?"
I call my older brother anyways; he hands the phone to his daughter. "Hello!" A girl-cyborg voice from the other side filters through as if underwater, with stunted and dragged out syllables. He…eh…llo…ooo.
Abah peers into my phone, trying to catch the resemblance of his granddaughter's face—cloudy, disfigured. "The connection's bad kot." I offered an excuse.
For a few minutes, they attempted a syncopated conversation. They step on each other's half-shaped sentences, repeating here, shouting there, overlapping over and over. What remains of that distanced language bleed into each other, becoming a thing unfathomable.
Then the connection cuts off.
"Eh?" Abah wonders weakly. I offer to try calling again, or to reach his other grandchildren.
"Nevermind…It's OK lah." He declines. "Can you fetch my inhaler?"
I ask if he is okay as I stood up in front of him, blocking the sun. "OK…OK. Inhaler…inhaler on the counter." He waves me away, his head tilted back for relief.
Now that the virus has dispersed, will we take for granted these rezeki: connection and (uninterrupted) conversation, roaming in nature on our bare feet, climbing trees and navigating branches, looking up at sustenance, the sun like a yellow, sour rambutan?
We would not soon forget.
"Eh Cheong, you're back?" Mak looks up as she fills a pail with rainwater from the tank near the house. She then joins us. "Here, take some chilli home to the family."
"Oh, my rezeki again!" He laughs openly, lifting the bundle wrapped in banana leaves up to the tangerine sky.
Mak, Abah and I stand there quietly with the fish in my arms—five years after the pandemic and the great flood.
We watch as Uncle Cheong takes his leave once again, turning the corner.
Description: The rise and fall of heavy rainfall on concrete
The great flood.
Traces of trauma can be spotted in how Mak begins to fidget when the monsoon season arrives every year. Rainfall persists day and night.
"Help me get these boxes up to the attic!" She calls out to me from the living room. Mak has packed up the low-lying books on the shelves. When December comes around, the packing of items around the house—below the height of one's waist—begins.
"We can't be doing this every year, Mak." I say as she stacks two boxes in my open arms.
"This is why your ancestors built houses on stilts, and even then they didn't encounter floods as frequently as we do now." She looks around, her hands on her hips, and mumbles about things that need packing and moving in the kitchen.
But this year is different. If you close your eyes and concentrate hard enough, you can hear the distant rumble of the waters.
The muddy waters always arrive in the dead of night.
Abah shakes me awake in a whisper, as if offering a secret. Outside, under the shine of a flashlight, the body of water like milk tea has advanced to submerge our lawn, inching closer to the patio.
"I have moved the car onto the bridge. Thank God the neighbours called to wake me!" The sleeves of Abah's trousers were rolled up to his knees.
A while later, as the blue morning arrived, so did Uncle Cheong on his motorboat, bobbing gently as I tie it up to a pillar on the patio. I almost laugh at this absurdity—a motorboat crossing our lawn, water taking over the vast expanse. By this time the flood has overtaken our house, and we stand atop the dining room table waiting for help to arrive.
"Cheong, all your fish! How?" Mak wonders aloud as I guide her onto the motorboat. She looks around one last time at the house—now like an aquarium.
The rising waters not only wash away material possessions, but also flora and fauna. Trees may be uprooted; crops and potted plants collapse, coated with mud. Fish are pushed away downstream as currents shift in dizzying patterns.
"Oh well, gone! Maybe they will find a way home when the waters calm down." He responds, nonchalant. "Not my rezeki maa. At least we are all safe…"
"Surely something better will come to replace what is washed away…what is lost." Abah reflects quietly, as if to himself. Was this a prayer from the Qur'an? He grips tightly to the sides of the fibreglass boat.
At the relief centre on higher ground, Mak relayed stories of great floods from years past. What was before an occurrence every 50 years or so—the stuff of legends—have become increasingly frequent in recent years.
"Because we disrespect our tanah (soil). Pull out trees for logs, dig up gold and minerals…" She muses. "This is our penance."
A few days later, as the great flood receded, a shipwreck from British colonial times surfaced on the riverbanks of a neighbouring kampung. It was littered with pieces of ceramic, fragments of copper plating, gigantic catfish the size of young adults. Pictures of this bizarre incident began circulating online.
The Orang Asli elders cautioned against looting the ship for individual gain. Whispers of magic and mystic wafted in the air. The past has resurfaced to haunt us. This is a sign, a reminder of the mud on our hands…
Eventually the state heritage agency took charge of the wreckage for posterity. Life marches on.
Still, we could not wash the mud off our hands; they seep beneath our fingernails, slowly adding weight to our bodies. An earthy, loamy smell lingers all around. We scrub and scrub but the traces remain. Will we float or sink the next time, as the waters rise and overcome us once more?
 Buku 555_ refers to a small book which was usually kept handy to record debts in day-to-day transactions in Malaysia
 KitaJagaKita was a campaign slogan in Malaysia which translates to "We look out for one another" which circulated to promote grassroots solidarity during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.