As Malaysians celebrate Hari Raya this week, the balik kampung tradition will have to be given a miss again. However, our thoughts can still carry us home.
FOR the second year running, Sungai Balang Besar village in Muar district will be quiet this Hari Raya.
A former village head used to joke that on normal days there are probably about 30 cars in the village. During the festive occasion the number swells to 400.
There would be traffic jams in many places as the small road in the village could only accommodate one car passing through at a time.
Like most villages during the celebration, anak-anak perantau (literally wanderers) will come back braving the traffic on the highways just to be with their loved ones. The balik kampung exodus is a very Malaysian thing.
Sungai Balang Besar, 27km from the nearest town of Muar is an integral corner of my universe.
It has many little enclaves, mine is known as Parit Gantung and it consisted of about 30 houses.
The original inhabitants were mostly of Javanese descent. Many of them were related for they came from the same village, Desa Plosojenar, Kecamatan Kauman, Kabupaten Ponorogo in East Java.
When I was a little boy, everyone spoke Javanese. Sadly many among the third generation could hardly speak the language.
The society is a close-knit one, replete with rituals and tradition. Traditional Javanese theatres survived until of late – kuda kepang, wayang kulit, ketoprak and wayang wong. Javanese art forms and performing arts flourished.
However, “air dan minyak tak bercampur” (water and oil don’t mix). Religiosity has yet to rear its ugly head. They believed in the demarcation of religion and culture.
Back then the esprit de corps was strong. Values that bind a society are observed dutifully.
It is only recently that at weddings and other social functions, food is catered.
The fasting month was always special. Other than the sembahyang terawih (prayers) there was also the main obak, a game played by adults and the young alike, trying to pass through human guards arranged in lines of six or seven, horizontally and vertically.
The Hari Raya rituals are normally very elaborate. Back then the congregation will have to visit every home.
After the marhaban (songs of praises for the Prophet), the representative will be facing the host seeking forgiveness, speaking in Jawa halus (refined Javanese) for quite a bit of time.
It took us almost a week to complete visiting all 30 houses.
But things have changed. The marhaban troupe is still there, albeit less time consuming, but since the MCO last year, not possible to execute.
The older generation have all gone. My generation has gone from “kang” (brother) to “lek” (uncle) and now “mbah” (grandfather).
There are fewer of us now outside the village, fewer still alive in the enclave. Old perantau like me have made our living elsewhere, many have no one in the kampung to come back to.
I do that almost my entire life, except when I was abroad or because of the MCO.
I made it a point to stay at least a night in my ancestral home now occupied by my sister-in-law. My siblings and their children would also be there.
We would visit our uncles and aunties when they were still around on the second day. And then we will go back to our abodes, cherishing the time we were able to meet together in the kampung where we started our lives.
For our children who grew up in the towns and cities, it is certainly quite an experience for them.
Perhaps they resented the idea of having to sacrifice their comfort and Wifi.
We dragged them along to remind them of where we all started, year after year, until last year.
I have no more “orang tua” (elderly) to visit for I am now one of them.
Tough village life has made many of my friends aged considerably faster than me I guess.
There are fewer Chinese friends who lived among the row of shophouses that make up the “pekan” (town). Every year we were betting on whether we will still be around the next year.
I will miss the enclave again this year, the second year in the row. I am going to miss my friend Mahbub again. He has never left the village. He learned to tap rubber from my father after he left school at the age of 12.
I texted Mahbub to inquire how he was getting on. He ignored my question and instead he shot a message, “Balik tak?” (Coming back?)
He knew the answer. We were close to each other since we were toddlers. Now, we can’t even see each other once a year.
Now I am speaking like a true perantau!
To all our Muslim friends, Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri.
Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. And a diehard rugby fan. The views expressed here are entirely his own.