Sunday, October 24, 2021

Nostalgia and my father’s kebun

For urban children, the endless development only means seeing progress from the perspective of someone that will never know a change in lifestyle.

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When I was quite young and my father still a working man, he bought a piece of land in the most isolated place possible. He did so for just one reason: to “berkebun”.

My father grew up a farmer’s child. My grandmother would bring him to the padi field where the family made a living from the routine of planting and harvesting. The padi field also blessed his family with fish – by the time he was in secondary school, he had mastered the art of netting which, he boasted, was no small feat.

As he grew up, he went on to get a good education. He managed to earn a scholarship and experienced life in the land of the orang putih.

But perhaps as far as people go in life, they will return to the way they were. As an educator, my father taught economics but there was always an element of farming in his study and lessons. He would research the economy of farmers to the economy surrounding the trade of the land’s produce.

The kebun was a way for my father to go back to his roots as an anak petani, although with a hint of modernisation. Then again, “hint” may be an understatement – the kebun is drowned in my father’s ideas for intertwining his roots with current technological advancements. He experiments with hydroponic and plant culture with proper piping, but most of these words just went over my head.

I do not know how to translate the word “kebun” itself. It is certainly not a garden like those you see in the posh landscape of Kuala Lumpur or at buildings which show a pseudo-concern for the environment while themselves being disruptive developments. Perhaps it is more like a “dusun” or orchard. But then, one would probably imagine lush green trees with juicy fruit, and a heat that never touches the ground as the leaves canopy the area.

My father’s kebun is far from that.

The hot and dry land has killed off some of his durian saplings, invasive kerengga or weaver ants abound, the tall grass is filled with unfamiliar flying bugs, and the trees are dusted from the parched ground.

Maybe the word kebun is exclusive to our family. It is both a territory and a concept that my father shared only with us, something that I as a son only understand and see from his intention for the land.

The trees are spaced far apart from each other, giving the illusion that my father’s kebun is a barren land of weeds and perennials. However, lime trees are in abundance. There are a few varieties – limau purut, limau nipis and limau kasturi – but the only one I cherish from the garden is the limau purut because my mother used to make me bathe in the juice to cleanse myself from the syaitan or devil that made me do drugs and become depressed.

I did not mind this because the baths were nice and my whole body smelt like lime for several days after. I was disappointed not to be able to take another bath in limau purut as the trees have since been conquered by nests of kerengga the size of my toe.

Since both my parents are now retired, they are making up for time lost in the city by reliving their old lives in the kampung. The decades far from the kampung did not make it easier for them to adjust to the new routine. Kampung life is waking up way too early, before sunrise, for prayers and breakfast. This is followed by watering and gardening while the heat slowly rises, then lunch while waiting for the sun to edge away from the tops of their heads before they continue with their routine.

Building a life out of greens was an underestimated expectation as they were used to a routine that began when the sun shines the brightest, protected from the heat by the cool of the air conditioner. The only worthwhile thing was the luxury of pension funds so that they don’t starve while waiting for their trees to bear fruit.

Many of my acquaintances from my generation know what they are missing out on. They will never experience running barefoot on the cool dirt or swimming in muddy water when the day is hot. They will never be threatened with canes by old and wrinkly ustaz or taught by ustazah without tudungs. They did not experience the need to feed themselves by the produce of their own hands or the catch of the day. They are very much aware of that.

And I observe how they thirst for the experience in the nostalgia of their parents. They compensate for it by creating their own experience with the progress they own. They dance barefoot in the rain because the pavement is hot under the prolonged heat, and the bodies of water available are an exclusive luxury. They get mad at each other over matters like tudungs but can only do so online because they are too shy to meet and physical threats are a punishable offence by law. They buy non-edible succulents and raise them as tchotchkes. The only feeding they get out of the plants is emotional feeding when the small, overpriced room without windows they live in gets too depressing.

What may we go back to?

My parents were raised in the age of exploring advancements. For the people of their time, they had the luck of going through an experience for the first time when their consciousness had been developed. They tasted the experience of a contrast in lifestyle, from kampung to city, the antique and advanced, and built a preference on the experience they had. They built nostalgia and made a choice to relive it with the kebun.

Dina Zaman has said that nostalgia is no longer relevant in the 21st century. While there are still youngsters that live out in the country, many of us have tasted advancement and were raised without knowing what we advanced from. For us urban children, the endless development only means seeing progress from the perspective of someone that will never know a change in lifestyle. As we age, I wonder if we will have anything to ponder on. Will there be a harsh life for us to remember in reflecting on the good times we had and are having now? A nostalgia that we may recount and live our lives by later?

Maybe I am still too young to reminisce the luxury of the aged. But I do wish for my generation to be spared of any nostalgia and the need to relive an experience that was never ours.

Until then, semoga kita terus berbakti.

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