Atuk

By Natasya Ismail

Jan 17, 2018 | Articles

In the morning right after dawn, my mother shook me awake by the shoulders and beckoned towards the plain heliotrope baju kurung, whose sleeves were already two inches too short for me, hanging over the wardrobe on a wire hanger. A black chiffon scarf was draped over it, creases streaked across the smooth, almost translucent fabric. I couldn’t even remember when was the last time it was unearthed from the deep caverns of abandonment, dust and scattering baby pink mothballs – it was probably when my paternal grandmother died two years ago. In an instant, I was reminded of the previous night’s events – Atuk was no longer with us.

We were the first ones to arrive at Wak Jin’s (my mother’s younger brother, oldest son in the family) house where Atuk’s body would be returned from the morgue to be bathed and prayed for the last time. A few stray hairs had managed to creep out of my scarf as I sat cross-legged on the straw mat, prompting me to habitually bury them back into the inner cap that was already feeling too tight for my rather bulbous head. I had never been particularly close to any of my cousins, who were years ahead of me and at the point of reaching the prime of adulthood. Their conversations were often limited to how busy their working schedules were, recent disastrous dating experiences and impending engagement or wedding preparations. As to be expected, I was often left out, not that I minded very much. During the funeral, however, things had taken a particularly different turn as they began directing their attention towards me. Perhaps the sobriety of the situation had negated the usual triviality of their conversations.

“So how do you feel about Atuk’s death? You seem to be okay with it,” asked Yazid, Wak Jin’s youngest son, sucking on a Hacks sweet.

I shrugged my shoulders. “I’m alright I guess.”

“How much do you think Atuk left for us in his will?” Khadijah, his older sister, asked in her nasal tone that often annoyed me.

Picking at his stubby nails, Yazid chuckled silently to himself before his lips pressed themselves into a hard, thin line, as though realizing that it wasn’t right to laugh at a funeral. Having been frequently excluded from their company, I had developed a particular tendency to gaze at them with fascination, connecting them to the stories I had eavesdropped from the elders’ conversations. Like how as a child, in the effluvia of two teenaged sisters who shared the cramped space of their bedroom, Yazid had stolen Triumph bras from his sister’s bedroom and wore them over his imitation Chelsea football jerseys, flaunting them playfully in front of his mother who had simply brushed him off. Meanwhile, one of his sisters, Khadijah, who was formerly the pride of the family for being the only granddaughter to study in a madrasah, was forced to drop out of school because she had flunked every subject except for Malay.

Jenazah sudah sampai,” announced a corpulent man, cutting into my thoughts, as he entered the gates in an oversized kurta and a pair of cargo pants overflowing at his bare feet.

An ephemeral silence pervaded the house as we heard the shuffling of shoes being taken off at the corridor, followed by the baritone murmurings of unfamiliar men and the audible swish of washed-out denim brushing against kneecaps as they streamed in from the door with the corpse of my grandfather in their grips. My eyes fell onto his face, leached of colour, his thick lips almost curved into a smile as though he was still alive, greeting me like he always did whenever we arrived at his flat bringing sliced guava dusted with plum powder (the only type of fruit he ate) or dosai drenched in fish currry from his favourite Indian stall.

I couldn’t bear to make eye contact with my mother, who was standing at the kitchen door with her sisters. It would be too painful for me to live with. Paralyzed by the sudden emptiness that traced the footsteps of the funeral bearers, my cousins and I didn’t move as it finally registered in our heads that the body was not Atuk. It was not the man we grew up hating as children, not because he ever scolded us for stealing freshly fried rempeyeks without my grandmother’s permission, but because of the perpetual grimness of his face that fixed terror on our hearts – the same man who sat on his high stool, facing the opened windows of the bedroom with a cigarette in between blackened fingers to wave at us until our figures were simply dots on the road and the man who slipped old, crumpled two-dollars notes from the sixties into our pockets and told us to get some ice cream from the mamak shop. The only thing left to haunt us was the dust of lost evenings, the smell of curry that never quite left our fingers and the image of Atuk as a sturdy man of eighty mounted over his bicycle slowly fading from our minds.