A friend arrived from London two days ago, enduring more than 13 hours of non-stop flight, painfully adjusting his body clock for the seven-hour time difference. He was on a car a few hours later heading for Kota Baru. It took him and his family almost 15 hours to reach “home”, more than the time spent on the plane.
Replicate the story all over the country. It is not surprising a two-and-a-half hour trip to Ipoh becomes a nightmarish eight-hour crawl. The trip to the Tangkak interchange from KL normally is a two-hour journey , but it will take at least five hours on a bad day.
Yet Malaysians still go back home, “balik kampung" – the exodus happens in all festive seasons. We complain a lot about the horrendous jams but perhaps we have perfected the art of enduring it.
I have no reason to go back to my kampung in Muar. My children are all here in KL and one is working in Australia. It is a trip we can do without. My parents’ home is still standing but my sister-in-law is staying there with her family. Once a year the house is filled to the brim. There is no space left to sleep. Every space is occupied when my siblings and their sons and grandchildren descend upon the house on the eve of Hari Raya.
There is one surviving uncle in the village whom we will visit the second day. Then we will decide what to do next. Some will go back to KL. Others make their own plans. The two nights together matter to us. It is about keluarga berkumpul (family gathering together) more than anything else. It is bonding among the cousins and nieces and rebuilding ties among the siblings.
My children find it perplexing that after 44 years of leaving the village that is not registered in most maps, I am still obsessed about going home. When they were small I has a better excuse. At least an opportunity for them to see real rubber trees or palm-oil trees. Or get the feel of a real village where I used to live. But they are all grown-ups. Only this time, when my interest to go back home is waning, they are the ones insisting to balik kampung.
It has been a long, arduous and challenging journey for people of my generation from the villages to where we are now. Not many in the villages in 60s and the 70s had the opportunity to pursue higher education. Those who did were uprooted from the village and facing new realities in a handful of institutions of higher learning available at the time. Many of us left the villages for good. We domiciled mostly in Lembah Klang or in Penang. So naturally balik kampung became a ritual for many of us.
Things have changed a lot over the years. The surau in my village reflects that change. It used to more alive during the puasa months. After the terawikh, boys would be playing obak or main galah, traditional Javanese games of getting through a guarded barrier without having to be slapped on the back or worse. Religion and cultural festivities mixed well back then. Every 27th of the month there will be the Khatam Quran (completion of reading the Quran). It is a big social event involving every member of the khariah (congregation).
The village is losing many of the young who have gone out seeking better jobs. There are even a few abandoned homes now. The elders have all gone. I can only reflect on the interesting people I encountered growing up in the enclave. They were hard working individuals trying to make a living. Life was tough, but they played equally hard. Religious rituals were observed diligently. But cultural rituals were respected too. They hailed mostly from the area of Ponorogo, in the Javanese heartland in Java, thus they bring along their cultural expressions and performances. My village was known to have kuda kepang, ketoprak, wayang wong, cempuling and at the same time the berzanji, marhaban and even ghazal flourished. In fact my love for culture and the arts were nourished experiencing and watching the rich cultural heritage of the people in my village.
There used to be three car owners in my kampung back in the 60s. There are now probably about 30. During Hari Raya there will be at least 300 cars meandering through the narrow village roads. It is ironic to see cars bumper to bumper trying to pass through the bridge near my house. I thought I will not encounter a traffic jam here in Sungai Balang Besar.
What does balik kampung means to the Malays? Or Malaysians as the whole? Almost everything it seems. Perhaps the younger generation is grappling with the notion of wading through hours of jams to be where their parents were born and raised as ridiculous. But more importantly it is the tradition that matters. The city-born children will never understand the lure of balik kampung fully.
Balik kampung is still the Malaysian thing, at least for many more years to come.
To all my Muslim readers, Selamat Hari Raya, maaf zahir batin.
Johan Jaaffar’s love for the arts has not faltered despite his years in the media and the corporate world. He has just published a book, Jejak Seni: Dari Pentas Bangsawan ke Media Prima Berhad which chronicles his 50-year journey as a stage actor, playwright and director.