MAK GAYAH can't remember the exact date she was born. The one stated on her MyKad is wrong.
Her younger sister who died last year was seven years older on record. Her children believed she's in her early 90s although officially, she is 85.
It doesn't matter. In an enclave known as Parit Gantung, in the village of Sungai Balang Besar, Muar, she is the oldest person alive. She's remarkably healthy though, very alert and still walking around the village alone.
Ask her about the pre-Merdeka days; she has a lot to tell. She was born "somewhere in Batu Pahat" of Javanese descent, married to Dayat when she was hardly 17.
Dayat, who went to Mecca and changed his name to Haji Abdul Rahman (a normal practice at the time), died almost 30 years ago. They had eight children, many of them my childhood friends.
I remember Dayat well, for he was a frequent visitor to my house. He came for borak-borak (chatting) sessions, sometimes until the wee hours of the morning. The one thing I remember most about him is that he took a lot of ubat cap kaki tiga, the famous Haw Par product (in powder form). I imagine him puffing his Signal cigarette while my father had his Rough Rider.
Mahbob, their fourth child, left school before Standard Six. It was my father who taught him to tap rubber and until today, he still works for the family, taking charge of our oil palm plots.
We grew up with him and his siblings, going mengaji (learning the Quran) together. Mahbob and Masri were my companions for berkubang (splashing) in the river next to my house. Masri joined the army and came back to the village. He's now cook extraordinaire to my congregation.
Mak Gayah saw it all -- how her husband, my father and the pioneers of the village felled trees to build huts. Tigers were still roaring, pythons were terrorising the livestock and the myth of mawas (bigfoot) abounded.
Mak Gayah survived all her friends, including my mother who died 10 years ago, even those younger than her, and three of her own children. She was devastated a week before Hari Raya when her youngest daughter, Milah, 43, broke her back.
She was preparing for mengunjung, a Javanese society ritual of sending ketupat and rendang to in-laws and neighbours a week before Raya. She was lifting a pot-full of lodeh when she just collapsed and was unable to stand up. She was hospitalised but allowed to go home for Raya.
A spinal cord injury (SCI) is a serious matter. She felt numb and lost her sensation. She wanted to believe her condition is temporary. Her husband drives a lorry and is a noja (assistant imam) at my surau. They have three children, the eldest is 10 and the youngest, 7.
In the course of baraan (or marhaban) I met Kak Safiah. Her husband, nicknamed Hassan Bai, was one of the best footballers in the village. She was one of the village beauties back then. Five years ago, she had a stroke. She opted to live in Kuala Lumpur with one of her children.
Two years ago, I was surprised to see her condition. She had lost her exuberance, her signature laugh and her normal immaculate dressing. I could sense her anguish and feeling of hopelessness.
I told her how I felt about her when I was young. I even had a crush on her. She laughed and we talked about other things.
This time, I saw a different Kak Safiah. She was very much her former self. She was in her late sixties but she doesn't look her age. She had difficulty moving her right hand but she looked dignified, with her red dress, traces of lipstick and all. She had moved back to her home in the village.
"I belong here," she said. I am happy for her.
Every Raya brings back memories of the days I grew up in the village. Many of the old people I knew have gone, others are in their seventies and eighties. The young have all gone elsewhere.
But in a Javanese village like mine, baraan is one ritual everyone must join in. Visiting all the 28 houses in the enclave is no easy feat, but for many anak perantauan like myself, it is about taking stock of your past and to go down memory lane. And to meet the ever tenacious Mak Gayah and the charming Kak Safiah, not to mention wishing Milah well.
Memories are made of these.
By JOHAN JAAFFAR | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter @Johan_Jaaffar Source: New Straits Times Columnist 25 August 2012