Written by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published in The Malay Mail on 24 July 2015

AS the first day of Syawal 1436 fell on a Friday – the day of the weekly congregational prayer – some adjustments were made to the established Raya itinerary. To maximise time for the open house, we visited the family mausoleum the evening before, instead of in the morning following the Aidilfitri prayers.

A gorgeous dusk light provided a serenely spiritual setting for the pouring of water and sprinkling of fresh flower petals on the graves of relatives etched in memories of childhood, or whose stories have long been passed down in oral family histories.

Takbir on Raya eve took place in the wooden surau beside the Istana Besar, and after that a crowd gathered on the Padang to witness the now-famous Seri Menanti fireworks display.

In the morning, the Masjid DiRaja Tuanku Munawir overflowed with returning emigres: members of ancient clans showing their children a spiritual homeland they should never forget. Inside the mosque, the takbir went up a semitone every time a new tenor took the solo lead.

Unfortunately the khutbah was less resonant than in previous years, with its narrow emphasis on prescribing the right clothes to wear for the celebration, and little on intent and behaviour.

The Istano Terbuko lasted two and a half hours, and within that time 7,000 people feasted on the menu packed with local favourites: roast lambs were stripped to slippery skeletons, tubes of lemang were emptied of every grain, and every Ayam Goreng Stano was devoured to the last breadcrumb.

Every demographic was represented and everyone was smiling, except for one boy, around seven years old, who I will remember: towards the end of the session, I had to tell this chap that regrettably there was no more duit raya, and without skipping a heartbeat he retracted his offer of salam, veered the other way, and declaimed “kedekut!”. I thought back to when I was seven, and while I certainly hoped for wads of duit raya, I don’t recall refusing to offer my hand if there wasn’t any: I understood any such generosity as a bonus to buy Super Nintendo games, not an expectation.

There was unfortunately no sign of his parents, but to my relief another child nearby was wide-eyed at the outburst – I suspect that upbringing and education will determine whether, as adult citizens, they will have opposing views on handouts.

The rest of the long weekend was spent in the royal town, yielding new discoveries. On a slow exploratory drive past diverse fauna, several new cottage industries and tourist enterprises were spotted – catering no doubt to the consistent stream of homestay visitors to the area – while on the little stretch of old shops, the Chinese-run shops were faithfully open as usual, catering to a steady stream of Malay customers.

During a dawn jog on the second day of Raya, I encountered a significant mural at SMK Tunku Besar Burhanuddin, depicting the Istana Lama surrounded by a morning mist, the Petronas Twin Towers in daylight, with the national monument dividing the two scenes – a visual explanation that the present has only been made possible by sacrifices that hark back to our initial foundations.

The present was much discussed throughout the several gatherings of relatives and friends.

As with many large family units up and down the country, mine includes people from diverse backgrounds with a myriad of different life experiences and political opinions.

When everybody sits down together in random configurations to eat mangosteens or Ah Meng’s legendary Hainanese chicken chop, there are some predictable conversations: explaining connections with the host, chit-chat about each other’s Raya schedules, boasting about children and so forth. But the real test of mutual comfort is when the topic of politics can safely be broached; when the interlocutors know that even if they disagree vehemently, they will still be able to eat mangosteens or Ah Meng’s legendary Hainanese chicken chop together.

That is the beauty of the great Malaysian institution of the open house: to be able to invert the divisiveness of politics into a bridge for communication. If this Ramadan sometimes seemed like a desert in terms of national unity, then open houses are welcome oases.

Of course at these events hundreds of photos are taken, and later as I looked through the camera roll I realised the diversity in the sartorial preferences of my female cousins, and perhaps some of them might have fallen foul of the criteria listed in the khutbah of Raya morning. No one at the open house cared: what counted was the shared act of celebration, the intent of goodwill, and for some of course, the doling out of duit raya. Thank God.

Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is the Founding President of IDEAS

freedom in tradition

A version of this article was also published on The Borneo Post Online

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