It happened three days before the Chinese, just as the school was buzzing with excitement for the coming holidays. In three days time, the Chinese will usher in the year of the golden boar – an auspicious year meant to bring prosperity. Which doubly took everyone as a surprise when, on the last day of school, just before the holidays began, the inseparable Ali and Chun Kia, turned away from each other once and for all.
Even to this day, Ali’s parents forbid him from having anything to do with his best friend in school. A shamefully unfortunate event as Ali and Chun Kia have been like two peas in a pod since the day they discovered on their first day at school in primary one, a mutual love for spying on the mynah birds perched high amongst the thick foliage of the towering semarak api trees in the school compound, and mimicking their funny whistling each morning. Five years on, the two were virtually inseparable at school. They did everything together. They had lunch together, they played together, they hang out together and they were even sent to the headmaster’s office together once.
The crack in their friendship was caused by the subtlest, most well-meaning intentions. It began the day Cikgu Rosmah, their History teacher, chided Ali for eating his fried mee hoon with a pair of chopsticks. It was a blistering Tuesday afternoon and they were sitting at the school canteen’s wooden bench and table at recess, about to enjoy their lunch. Chun Kia offered to teach Ali how to eat using a pair of chopsticks when Cikgu Rosmah passed by.
“Ali,” she paused by their table, “… you’re using chopsticks?” she looked at him perplexed, her square, thick-rimmed glasses low on the bridge of her flat, rounded nose.
Ali scratched his head, “Why not?”
Cikgu Rosmah glanced uncertainly at Chun Kia who was holding the chopsticks mid-air, waiting and looking at her innocently, “Well err… you know, usually it’s the Chinese that use the chopsticks,” she hesitated before continuing, wiping beads of perspiration that had gathered just above her upper lips, “… and you know what they eat.”
Chun Kia turned to look at Ali, lowering his chopsticks, a guilty look spreading across his face.
Ali frowned, “But they use the forks and spoons too Cikgu...” he pointed out quietly, his voice trailing off.
At this harmless statement, Cikgu Rosmah was stumped. It must have just occurred to her that this was true, Ali thought. All the school children used the same forks and spoons. A terrible blush rushed upon Cikgu Rosmah’s face. She flustered for a moment before she recovered again and said, “Yes, but they use chopsticks more often than any other children.”
Then she raised her hand as though to brush off the topic, and walked quickly away as though she was late for an appointment.
Confused, Ali watched Cikgu Rosmah as her bulk shrank smaller in the distance, heading towards the teacher’s room. He stared at the chopsticks in his hand. The two slim, lacquered bamboo sticks matched neither in colour nor size, but for the practical purpose it was made for, the pair worked just fine.
It didn’t make sense to Ali. He knew pork was haram, but it didn’t occur to him before that he should also worry about using the same forks, spoons or chopsticks that the Chinese students there used as well. And if he wasn’t supposed to, then why hadn’t anyone said anything about it before?
The more he thought about pork, the more uncomfortable he felt. Suddenly, he began to feel a tiny repulsion to the chopsticks, which began as a tingling in the base of his throat and crept slowly to mingle with the saliva in his mouth. He felt his throat expanding. Quickly, he placed the chopsticks back on the table next to his green plastic plate of mee hoon, picked up a fork from the bouquet of cutlery in a rusty metal koleh on the table, and turned to look at Chun Kia.
But Chun Kia, who had been excited to teach him how to eat with a pair of chopsticks just a few moments ago, now just looked down at his own plate of fried mee hoon, looking as though he’d done something wrong. Ali felt a little guilty. So he nudged Chun Kia playfully, over and over, till Chun Kia smiled again. Then they both ate their plates of mee hoon with forks.
Now, this whole incident with Cikgu Ros would have simply slipped Ali’s mind if only he hadn’t brought it up at dinner time that night at home. It bothered him greatly that he didn’t know for certain whether or not it was okay for him to use the chopsticks or even the spoons and forks at school. Cikgu Ros’ point - vague as it was - stuck under his skin like the tiniest wood splinters and he had to clear the air about it once and for all. So he asked Abah about it.
“Why in God’s name do must you use chopsticks? Why can’t you just use the spoon like everyone else?” Abah growled in response.
For a brief moment, Ali considered letting it drop. But his curiosity got the better of him. So he asked, “But the Chinese students use the spoons and forks too…”
Mak looked at Abah, as though waiting for an explanation herself. But Abah was silent for a few moments. Then he gave Ali a threatening look, “You ask too many questions.”
“Just don’t use the chopsticks, sayang.” Mak patted Ali’s hand, “Now finish your rice.” Mak was always reminding him to be mindful of what Abah tells him. Mak almost never argued with Abah. She said that for her, the path to heaven lies under Abah’s feet and that Ali would do well to listen to his Abah and do as he was told. Ali once took a close look at Abah’s feet when he was asleep on the bamboo settee in the lounge, but he found nothing there but dirt and dust lodged in between the whorls of his footprint.
The next day, Ali sat on the red plastic chair, broken in one corner when Abah accidentally ran it over with his battered Honda cup a week ago, while trying to avoid hitting Ali who’d rushed out of the front door after his soccer ball. In his small tanned hands, he turned his favourite bright blue miniature Hotwheels car. He pretended to be absorbed with the toy, although all the while his ears picked up on the men’s conversation.
“Yeah, but you forget. This comes from a man who agrees that women ought to go around wearing chastity belts to prevent rape,” Tok Lang points out.
Abah nods his head non-committal. Ali didn’t know what a chastity belt was and wondered how it could prevent rape, which he knew, from his mother’s remarks as she read news about such incidents in the papers, was a very bad thing that happened to women who wore too much lipstick, sexy clothes and walked alone in the dark.
“He may know some things. But he doesn’t now everything,” Tok Lang added sounding exasperated, the way he sounded at the end of the day teaching his older sister, Sarah, how to recite the Quran.
“But he’s the Imam at the masjid. He’s very knowledgeable in matters of faith and religion.” Abah argues half-heartedly.
“Yes I know he is the Imam. But even the prophet Mohamed makes mistakes. He’s only human. Sometimes, when you hear someone say something, you can’t just take his word for it. Use your own reason. Read about it. There are plenty of books out in the stores. You have a computer at home, and internet. They’re not just for looking at pictures.”
Abah scowled at the mention of pictures. Ali wondered if Tok Lang meant the pictures of women he saw Abah looking at late one night when he woke up because he had to go to the bathroom. Abah slapped him hard that night, saying Ali given him a fright by creeping up behind him. Ali went back to his bed crying. It was so unfair. He hadn’t creeping at all that night. He didn’t get to go to the bathroom!
“Ali!” Abah’s voice boomed suddenly, causing Ali to jump in his red plastic seat. Abah glared at him, “Have you done your homework?”
Ali looked up at him and shook his head fearfully.
“So what are you waiting for?” Abah said, his voice masking a controlled rage.
Ali stood up quickly, his heart stammering in his small ribcage. He threw a fleeting glance Tok Lang’s way as he walked into the house. Tok Lang smiled sympathetically. It was so unfair. Abah was always telling him to listen to his teachers at school and to do as he’s told and not to ask too many questions. He said it was the only way Ali would learn anything at school. But now Tok Long was saying something different and Ali wanted to hear more. But Abah wouldn’t let him.
In dimness of the living room, no bigger than a field, Ali pulled out his brown exercise book and his thick, dog-eared and plastic bound Ilmu Hisab book. He hated the subject but hated his mathematics teacher, Mr. Ng, even more. More often than not, he got more than five out of ten exercises wrong. For this, Mr. Ng would direct the students to stand on their chairs and put out their right hand. Then he would walk down the aisle between the student desks and give a quick, sharp flick of his flexible yellow bamboo cane on their palms. Ali hated this period at school with a vengeance.
Ali gnawed at his 2B pencil, flipping the pages of his Ilmu Hisab book trying to solve the first exercise question. He stared at the words and numbers, but could not comprehend the question. He suddenly wished Chun Kia was there. Chun Kia always had the highest score in their class for Mathematics and although Chun Kia said Ali could get high scores too if he did more exercises, Ali refused to believe on account that Abah once said that the Chinese are just better at Mathematics because they do business. Chun Kia had offered to help Ali with some of the math problems in their homework every now and then at school, but Ali found it too hard to follow and always managed to persuade Chun Kia to go outside and play instead. And more often than not, Chun Kia would happily follow Ali, playing tag out under the searing sun on the dusty field with yellowing grass and bare patches of dry mud. They’d play until their shirts were sweat-soaked, having the time of their lives. Other times, they would play galah panjang using the evenly spaced, rusted steel pillars along the walkways that connected one building to the next as markers. And once the bells rang, with a groan of disappointment, they’d all filed back into the classroom where Chun Kia would share his plastic 7-Up bottle, filled with boiled water, with Ali. The water always tasted good after a good romp outside.
“Let him be!” Tok Lang’s raspy voice suddenly rose, drifted into the living room from outside. “What’s the harm in having that Chinese kid as his best friend?”
At the mention of his best friend’s name, Ali cocked his head up and the math problem before him ceased to be of any importance. He could hear Abah snort derisively,
“There’s plenty of Malay boys at school, but he doesn’t do anything much with them. They think Ali feels he’s better than them just because he’s in Kelas Biru with all those Chinese kids and they’re in Kelas Merah.”
“So? Why do you care about what those kids think?” Tok Lang asked. Ali can imagine the amused look on Tok Lang’s face. The old man, long past 80 years old, was Abah’s great uncle. Abah had the highest respect for the man, as did Mak. They said Tok Lang used to live in Mekah and that he used to attend the Al-Azhar University, the only one in his family who’d studied past high school.
“I don’t want him to become arrogant, that’s all.” Abah interjected. “And I’m not sure if I like him going around to that Chinese boy’s house on Chinese New Year.”
“He did?” Tok Lang asked, surprised, “Did he get a lot of ang pow money?” Ali could hear the smile in Tok Lang’s voice.
Ali did in fact receive a red ang pow packet from Mrs. Liew last year when he went to Chun Kia’s house which was near their school. She also gave him a red plastic bag filled with Mandarin oranges which he brought home with him.
There was a brief silence. Then Abah said, quietly, “I don’t think it’s right.”
“Why?” Tok Lang asked, sounding genuinely concerned.
“Well, you don’t know what they give him to eat at their house. The imam said they used their pots and pans to cook that thing. They might use the same pots and pans to cook other foods they serve during Chinese New Year.” Abah argued.
Tok Lang was quiet and for a moment, Ali wondered if he would agree with what the Imam had pointed out. Ali tried to remember what he ate that day at Chun Kia’s house. He remembered shelling a big bowl of peanuts, kuih kapit and plenty of orange Fanta. He didn’t really pay much attention to the food then, too absorbed with Chun Kia’s collection of butterflies and bugs mounted behind glass frames.
Ali hears Tok Lang drawing a great sigh outside. He crawled closer towards the door, for fear he might miss what was being said in case the two men start whispering.
Tok Lang said, “Do you really think it is worth severing the friendship Ali has with his friend? The Imam himself doesn’t even have a single Chinese acquaintance. How can you advise on something you’re not even familiar with?” Tok Lang cut in, “Not all Chinese people eat pork. Some of them don’t even eat meat.”
Abah didn’t say anything, but Ali could sense Abah was not satisfied with Tok Lang’s point.
“You should have become the Imam, Tok Lang. Then you can tell the Imam now what you know about these things.” Abah said, barely masking the cynicism in his voice. Abah could never go against Tok Lang directly. Whenever he disagreed with the old man, he would turn to cynicism instead. It’s the Malay way, Abah once told Ali.
“No.” Tok Lang answered his voice suddenly grave. Ali pressed his head against the wooden wall to hear better. “It’s no small feat to be a leader of man, Din. As much as I know about religion and as well as I know the Quran, I don’t have the courage to be a leader of man. It’s too big a responsibility. One you’ll be questioned on in the next life. I just hope the Imam still realises this.”
A moment’s silence passed between the two men. Then Ali heard Abah sighing deeply. Then he said, “I don’t know. But I don’t think Ali be going for any more Chinese New Year open house. Maybe he shouldn’t be going to that boy’s house at all.”
Ali’s heart felt like it’d been squeezed in his chest. No more visiting Chun Kia’s house. Chun Kia’s had promised to show him how to work out his math homework after school. They’d planned on working on Chun Kia’s butterfly collections after homework. Or play ball outside. But now it seemed, all that planning had been in vain. Ali sat dumbfounded on the floor, uncertain of how to react to this sudden proclamation of veto from his father. All because of pork? He never thought eating at Chun Kia’s house was a bad thing. But it’s just like Cikgu Ros and the chopsticks at school. It was because Chun Kia and his family eats pork, Ali thought to himself. Suddenly, he began to feel a little uneasy about his last visit to Chun Kia’s house for Chinese New Year. Of the glass he drank his orange Fanta from, of the bowl serving the peanuts, and of the home-made kuih kapit that he ate by the dozen. He thought of pork, though he’d never seen a dish made of pork or, in fact, a pig. He only knew they were filthy animals. He struggled to keep down the taste of bile slowly rising in his throat.
At lunch time the next day, as usual, Chun Kia came up to the table and slipped onto the bench next to where Ali sat. He smiled and opened up his blue Tupperware filled, this time, with fragrant, fluffy white rice, green vegetables and some syrupy white tofu squares. But this time, instead of inhaling the mouth-watering fragrance of Chun Kia’s home-made lunch, Ali wrinkled his nose and held his breath. Chun Kia noticed and a huge wave of disappointment crossed his face.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. “You usually like my mom’s cooking.”
Ali didn’t answer. He didn’t know what to say. He watched as his friend slowly turns back to his packed lunch, pushing the rice around with his small fork, wondering if there was something wrong with it. All the while, Ali struggles not to breathe in the aroma of green vegetables and syrupy tofu, his father’s voice echoing in his head about the Chinese eating pork. He felt his chest burn and knew he couldn’t hold his breath much longer.
Chun Kia picked up his blue Tupperware and offered it to Ali, “Do you want to share some rice?”
Ali shook his head, leaning away from the blue Tupperware. Chun Kia giggled, thinking it was funny and pressed his lunch closer to Ali, “Take lah!”
Ali exhales. “No!” he shouted, “Kau makan babi!” He didn’t mean for it to happen, but his arms just went up and knocked the blue Tupperware out of Chun Kia’s hands, and all its contents flew high into the air, spreading out like a fountain of water. They both looked up as rice, fried vegetables and tofu squares rained back down onto them. It happened in the blink of an eye. On the way down, the fork which was in the blue Tupperware fell onto Ali, its tines gouging a deep gash in his right eye, blinding him in that eye forever.
Translation of words:
Mee Hoon vermicelli noodle
Koleh metal container
Galah Panjang a traditional game not unlike ‘tag’
Ilmu Hisab mathematics
Ang Pow red packet filled with money, given to visiting children during Chinese New Year
Kuih Kapit a type of traditional cookie
“Kau makan babi!” ‘You eat pork!”