Every time when the Muslim month of Ramadan draws nearer, I will always remember the many wonderful memories of my younger days when observing the fast was more connected to the cultures of my Malay communities rather than the significance of this religious decree. Boys and girls of my age will always remember the month of Ramadan the way we reminisce it. It was part of our growing period. We were still young to understand a lot of things but nevertheless we understood the importance of having to complete the whole month of fasting.
It was only after I reached the age of fourteen that the fasting month of Ramadan became more colourful when I was old enough to take over many responsibilities from my uncle Wak Jis. After receiving his Form Five results, he got himself a job at the Lembaga Letrik Negara (now TNB) in Pontian and since then I became the eldest boy in the family. There were only four of us left, living in such a big house considered quite big those days. Grandpa, grandma, my little cousin sister Raha who was still a todler and me. Luckily we had our cousins staying just a few steps away and they were practically everyday at the house. In fact, the house was their second home and we were never lonely.
The early sixties was a transitional period of global changes that would set a new era of transformation in many fields. It was a breathtaking era of change, new knowledge, new opportunities, an unrelenting rush of technology and the need to change even our attitudes. Back home, from Malaya we became known as Malaysia and suddenly the mechanics of living evolved. The fabrics of the Malay society too began to alter slowly and the changes are nothing short of a transformation. The spirit was already apparent in the early years of the sixties and like all others, I belonged to an exciting new generations.
It was hardly six years when the British gave us our independence and whatever faults they may have had, they created a number of significant benefits for us. The roads they built, the railway lines they constructed, the buildings of old majestic façade and the system they set. They bequeathed to our country so many of the things we now use and we would be foolish to regard them as irrelevant museum pieces. My contemporaries would surely agree of these benefits that we enjoyed, the hospitals they built, the schools, the postal system, the cinemas and many other wonderful monuments. Credits however should also be extended to our forefathers who executed their responsibilities with diligence providing a smooth continuity of good governance.
When I reached the age of fourteen, it was in 1963 and our country was already adapting itself towards the need to excel to greater heights. Technology began to creep into our society and many modern inventions began to take place and they kept on improving. The old Morris Minors began to slowly disappear and the Volkswagen tried very hard to maintain its status. The Ford versions showed off their new face lifts with some modern cosmetics and the Japanese cars were still alien. Everything around us began to change, even the music industry developed rapidly with the Beatles taking the lead. Back home in Muar town, we tried to follow the steps and although it took us slightly longer to keep up with the pace, somehow we did it. Everybody played their role including me. Everything around me began to change and I succumbed to these changes but one thing refused to change…the spirit of Ramadan.
Spending my years of Ramadan in Muar town was so precious that it will never be erased from my memory bank. Muslims throughout the world welcome the month of Ramadan according to their cultural roots more than the significance of this religious decree and the spirit differs from one country to another. Even in the same cultural root of the vast Malay Archipelago where hundreds of ethnic Malays of different cultural background and their spoken dialect of various accent welcome the month of Ramadan according to their own cultural ways. Muar town of my time was no exception. We had our ways and we refused to change because the spirit of Ramadan brought down by our ancestors was too precious to be given a face lift.
By the mere mention of the Muslim month of Syaaban gave us an early excitement on the approach of Ramadan and it became even more exciting when the 15th night of Syaaban was observed. On this night, Muslims have different interpretation on the significance of observing it. Many will spend their time in the mosque reciting some verses of the Holy Quran while few others will seclude themselves at home praying to God for mercy. Some even suggest that this will be the night when all our bad and good deeds will be accounted for the year. Whatever the significance of this night stands for, I do not wish to enter into any form of debate as this is not my blog is all about.
Three days before Ramadan, the excitement would begin and many plans were already in place. The first week was a little sluggish having to fast after months of good food during some hot weathers. The state of Johore began the first day of fast with a holiday and that would certainly gave us a good encouragement to begin our fast. I have this habit of waking up very early in the morning but that would be good during the normal days when I would cycle to town to have a nice satay and lodeh. Waking up early during the Ramadan would be most boring but somehow because of the habit, I still got out of bed early and would normally take my bath. To pass the time, I would cycle slowly to town but I would use a longer route and passed by Tanjung and then straight to town. The population of my area was predominantly Malays and the morning scene of Ramadan was so lacking energy. In town, I would stop at the Manaf Book Store and browse through some magazines and comics, not books because that would make me sleepy. When I walked passed some restaurants, the non-Malays would be having their breakfast and seeing them enjoying their food made my stomach suffered tremendously. Somehow by now I was quite discipline and I could sustain my hunger. Thanks to the early practice I had during my younger days when I fasted every alternate days and sometimes half a day. Sometimes I would I spend an hour or two at the town library.
By lunch time I would be back home except this time there won’t be lunch and would be ready for my noon prayer. Somehow, during the fasting days, I liked to pray in the mosque maybe it was cooler inside the mosque and more refreshing. At times I would take a short nap and I would not be alone.
The day began to be more brighter when the wall clock showed 5pm and the kitchen too began to be more lively. Grandma did all the cooking alone because our wonderful Mak Yang was no longer with us and Mak Chu left home to raise her own family in Kluang. Sometime my three ‘sisters’ would help grandma as they were now young girls. They would even have their breaking of fast together with us and slept at Mak Yang’s former room. Our house was their house and they were very free moving around the house. They now had two younger sisters who would take over going to the mamak sundry shop for grandma. Kamariah was younger to Kak Fuzi and later came their first brother Ghani and later Halimah. Their eldest Kak Bulat was not with us as she had gone to the University Malaya to pursue her higher education. Grandma loved all her grandchildren and likewise they all loved their wonderful grandmother.
Those days we never had the ‘pasar ramadan’ but somehow every time when we were about to break our fast, the table would be full of delicacies. We exchanged our cooking with the immediate neighbours. If grandma cooked my favourite bubur pulut hitam, she would always cook extra and in the evening, either Kamal (Kamariah) or Limah (Halimah) would send a plate to the neighbours next door and they would return the same plate with their own cooking. My three ‘sisters’ and I were given a much ‘tougher’ job like buying the ice cubes. I would cycle to the mamak sundry shop and buy the ice covered with saw dusts and I would cycle as fast as I could before the melting got worse. Dates for breaking our fast was compulsory and I would buy the same at the mamak sundry shop. We were oblivious of how the date fruits looked like because what we bought were pasted version. As for our drinks, it would be ‘sirap cincau’ and ‘air mata kucing’ (Some Johoreans refer this as ‘Air Bidara’).
By 6.30pm, almost all of us would be at the tembok waiting for the siren from the town mosque. This time our conversation was more matured and we don’t talked nonsense any longer like we used to during our younger days but we would surely recall those days when we were kids. In spite of being older now, we still ran like an Olympic aspirant when the siren began and we ate our meal like as though we had not eaten for days,
Somehow I was not too keen to perform the solat terawih at the mosque and instead would meet my two good friends every time after our final prayer for the day.
Fasting during school days was quite normal and our P.E teacher would gladly exempt us from going to the field. Our non-Muslims friends were very supportive and they never ate anything in our presence. Racial tolerance during my school days was superb and we never treat each other by the colour of their skin. I remember inviting my schoolmates for the Hari Raya and there were two Indian friends. I told grandma not to cook anything with beef and to substitute it with mutton.
The second week of the fasting period became more lively especially during the night. Muar town would be very busy especially at the Taman Selera. Many after performing their solat terawih would stop by for a cup of coffee. Many shops selling garments and clothing material extended their working hours to serve the Muslim customers. ‘Mary’ the tailor whose shop was inside the Grand Paradise would begin accepting orders for new trousers and always promised they would be ready two or three days before Hari Raya.
By the time the third week approached, the atmosphere became more lively. I would be very busy looking for new bamboos to light up our house compounds and I would check whether some of last year’s supplies were still available. Few others would look for bigger bamboos to make a ‘canon’. I used to make one, using some carbide and water. The bamboo must be quite big and place it onto the ground slanting. Then put some carbide near the bottom hole and mix it with a little bit of water. When the carbide begins to sizzle, light it with a fire and the sound ‘booom’ will be heard. This is not only very dangerous, it is illegal so don’t you ever try it. I remember playing this ‘canon’ one evening and within minutes some policemen came cycling to my house. Immediately I ran as fast as I could and hid under the bed. Grandpa had to do some explanation to the cops and later I had a real ‘lecture’ from grandpa. Since then I never play this dangerous ‘canon’ any more.
During the malam likur, my neighbourhood was like ‘Les Vegas’, in fact the whole of Muar housing areas where Malays were predominant. Every house would light up their compound like we were engaged in a competition. Small children would play the ‘bunga api’ and some elders would play the firecrackers. The most brightest area were the areas around Jalan Temenggong Ahmad and Jalan Daud. The residents of these two areas truly did a fantastic job with their ‘team work’ spirit. The stretch along Jalan Joned was equally bright except the small eerie part along the ‘kebun tuanku’. But we thought all ghosts would be chained during the fasting month and so we were quite brave cycling at night even when cycling alone.
The last week of Ramadan was the most exciting week and Muar town was like ‘New York’. Cyclists could be seen all over Muar town and most of them were busy with their business. The Hussein Store would be very crowded and the ‘Arrow’ shirts for men were always out of stock but new stocks kept coming without fail. The womenfolk were busy preparing for their baju raya and most would be sent to their personal tailors. At home, the smell of newly baked cookies began to fill the air and they were of various taste and style. Grandma was good at baking ‘kuih lapis’ and she would do it just few days before the end of Ramadan.
The Quran competition was held during the second half of Ramadan and the final towards the last week. Those days, the champion was always one guy from Kedah (can’t remember his name) and I insist he was indeed the best and I think he won quite a number of times. In the eighties, I used to buy his tape and would play it before going to bed. I just love listening to his voice.
Ramadan will always cherish me not so much of the religious decree, it cherish me to reminisce those days when the culture of the Malay society during my time was truly wonderful.