"Wonder and awe have gone out of your religions. You are prepared to accept the irrational, but not the transcendent."
Alif the Unseen (2012) by G. Willow Wilson
On the night after the Chinese Zhongqiu or Mid-Autumn Festival, I was doing the 3 to 11 PM shift in Emergency and Trauma. We just completed our 9 o'clock handover round and the torrent of the poorly were slackening to a trickle so I could catch my breath. I wandered from my post in the Yellow Zone into the Green where I ran into a familiar face, a Pakistani doctor who was one of my supervising officers when I was doing time in the Medical Department. He was there doing what we call locum and no matter what it means in Latin, we medicos read it as a contraction for "LOads of side inCOME". He is a short, dark moustached and bespectacled man who always greets me warmly with a huge smile and a raised open palm. That night, he greeted me in the same way he had always greeted me and since we were both stuck in a pocket of dead time, conversation was struck.
"Yesterday night, we saw many people in the Friendship Park after dark," he told me. "They were playing lanterns there and were releasing large floating ones into the air. I brought my family there to watch. It was quite a scene."
Lanterns, I learned as a child, is an inseparable part of growing up Chinese in Malaysia. It's the closest thing we have to the Western celebration of Halloween but instead of dressing up, venturing out at night and going door to door asking for candy, we scions of the Middle Kingdom patrol our neighborhoods carrying lanterns. Even after battery-powered imitations were invented, I remember that as a kid, I still insisted on getting the genuine articles with real lit candles in them. There are few joys of childhood comparable to playing with fire - real fire - and staying out after dark, and that is what Zhongqiu Jie always meant to me and I suspect, to most Chinese children. I always ritualistically set my own lanterns ablaze at the end of every Mid-Autumn night and make them look like accidents.
"Did your kids enjoy themselves?" I asked. I could not help but wonder how a Muslim man such as he feel about participating in a kuffar festival.
"Oh yes! I was wondering what the festival was all about though..." he said.
"I'm not really sure but it's probably some sort of harvest festival held every year on the 15th of the 8th month of the Chinese lunar calendar," I answered.
The conversation then drifted to his time working in the Maldives and true to the fashion of most conversations held between gents - as sure as water running downhill - the subject turned to politics.
"We just had an election in Pakistan and the term of our very corrupted President ended," he told me. "We call him Mr Ten Percent, you know. If you need anything at all in Pakistan, contracts, tenders or purchases - just give him 10% of the profit and its yours."
"We just had our Malaysian general election too earlier this year too," I said. "However, we are still stuck with the same regime being led by the same guy."
Politics is not my thing at all. Most things which most people found to be very important eludes my attention and priorities. It's not that I do not realise their import, but I just find them incredibly boring. Naturally, I changed the subject. I asked about the school that his children attend. He told me the name of a famous private school here in Kuching. I had learned from the reactions I see from Kuchingites whenever that school is mentioned that it is a really posh - and costly - outfit.
"Must be expensive," I remarked faux-knowingly.
"Their tuition costs me half my salary every month!" he told me. He also laughed as he did, as if it was a really funny joke. "But we want the best for our children, don't we?"
"Yeah." I suppose I do want the best for Darwin too but how does one know what's best for anyone anyway? I went to public school and in spite of that, I turned out okay. I had a vague plan to emulate my own approach to education for Darwin (minus all the unhelpful stuff I experienced like rote learning and repetitive exercises) and it involves teaching him to read and introducing the internet to him at as early an age as possible. He's only a little more than 2 weeks old at the moment so my plan, as you can see, isn't quite fleshed out or even properly thought through yet.
"So, did you go back to Pakistan for Eid this year?" I asked.
"No," he said. "Too expensive. For my whole family? That is going to cost me half my year's salary!" He laughed again. This was a joke to him too.
"I flew to India on my last backpacking trip. It cost me less a thousand flying there and back again," I said.
He told me that Malaysia's most popular budget airline flies to India, but that recourse is not available to anyone heading to India's uneasy neighbor to the west.
"Isn't it possible to cross from India to Pakistan by bus or train?" I asked. "If so, you can fly there first to save on the cost of travel."
"Yes," he answered. "But India and Pakistan aren't very friendly to one another, you see. A Pakistani like me flying to India from Malaysia and then crossing the border on land to Pakistan? I am afraid that they might hold me for questioning on suspicions of spying."
Water ran downhill. We came full circle back to politics again, that perennial favourite subject of men with zero political power.
"Pakistan," he mused. "I pray that things will improve, insha'Allah. All our troubles came from those meddling Americans."
"How so?" I asked, wondering at the answers I might receive.
"Afghanistan," he said simply.
"Afghanistan. After the American invaded Afghanistan, the terrorists - they ran to to Pakistan. Even Osama bin Laden," he said, all traces of laughter gone from his voice and eyes. "The terrorists that now infest Pakistan, they bomb anything and anyone, Muslims and non-Muslims alike."
"Why do you think they do what they do? Why do they attack people of their own faith?"
"I don't know. I think they just want to destabilise everything and take power when there is chaos," he said, a little faraway. "But then again, there have always been terrorists in Pakistan. And they hurt Muslims more than they hurt anyone else in the world, physically and by reputation. When I was a medical student, I learned anatomy dissecting charred bomb victims. They are usually unidentified and so, were given to medical schools."
At this point, a phone rang. One of my colleagues picked it up and called for him, thus punctuating our conversation right there and then. It was 11 PM so I punched out and went home to my son and wife. My Pakistani friend would soon go back to his family as well.
k0k s3n w4i