A lot like him

A black and white picture of author as a toddler with her father, as they both were sitting on a circular large stool, she grinned to the camera bearing her teeth. Her father watched him endearingly.

My father’s supposedly 64th birthday is tomorrow.

Holed up in the new home that we moved in 5 years ago — shared with my mother — during this Movement Control Order period, I think a lot about what he would react if he is still around. He would probably be like one of those stubborn suburban uncles of Kuala Kedah, still jetting around in his motorcycle to visit his friends and refusing to sanitise the moment he gets home. My father was a reckless, passionate, sometimes gullible Aries — voraciously indulging in his role as a doting father, an annoying husband (he was known to sing out loud in public places, much to my mother’s embarrassment), a funny uncle, a responsible and sometimes too acquiescent son, and strangely, somewhat an intimidating manager at work. He was made humbled by the rigidity and practicality of my Capricorn mother’s incessant ways of keeping him grounded, financials and mood in check. In between them, stands his number one flaky, sometimes too much of an idealist Aquarius fan. Me. The three of us made a solid road-tripping trio, tearing along the roads with ABBA and Fleetwood Mac playing at full volume in the car, stopping briefly for any Ramly burger and air scrap packed in plastic bags from the stalls with questionable hygiene — the privilege we had taken for granted before — along the roadside.

After my father’s death, after way too many conversations, I found out from my mother that he was once offered for a degree abroad after he finished his Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) but he was unable to get any scholarships. I always knew he wanted to become a pilot, but by totting around a pair of glasses as thick as a brick, he knew he wouldn’t pass the eyesight requirements. He read me pages from his books about armed warfare as bedtime stories. He carried dry food everywhere to feed stray cats by the roadside, and almost every morning at least one shameless kitty would follow him home from the wet market and so they stayed with us forever. His laugh was hearty and uncontainable and whenever it happened, the joy it exuded emanated throughout the house. He spent his free time building Tamiya model kits, shoulders hunching at the back of the house as he squinted to glue two pieces smaller than the size of his nails together. Whenever I received a testimonial from clients saying I am one of the most detailed attentive person they have ever worked with, I knew I probably got it from him. The first time I saw him crying was when we found ourselves in front of the Kaaba, where he turned to embrace me and my mother unexpectedly, “I am so happy we are all here.” The last time I saw him crying was when he found out the man he entrusted to take care of me forever decided to leave me. I saw his tears soaking the pillow onto which he pretended to be asleep on, hoping I would not notice. The next day he was gone, and I found myself in a roomful of people, having to wade through empty positivity such as “God loves him more” and “there’s a silver lining behind all of these”, which made me choked with fury, however well-meaning they might be.

I was also always told I’m “a lot like him”, although I often largely believe this to be my unconcealed temper whenever I encounter any reckless drivers on the road, or our shared proclivity to break down every plan into spreadsheets. I never knew, like me, he also had an inclination towards activism and social justice, largely involved in the student activist protests against the AUKU in the 1970s. My mother said he was among those arrested and then bailed by my grandfather (my mother’s father), who was a Penghulu. He’s reckless, my mother said. He doesn’t think of how much he would worry us, she continued. Men are like that sometimes, I answered, fully aware of my lack of experience and refusal of handling men myself. But he did that because he had a point, this I refused to debate with my mother.

There was an article on Al-Jazeera written by illustrator Krish Ragav, where he wrote about discovering his father’s Kraftwerk album collection after he passed away, and in extension, the knowledge of his early life as a Naxalite student activist in 1970s Kolkata. This was a knowledge the author, an activist himself, was unaware of, despite being told that he was “a lot like him”. Ragav wrote, “They say you only begin to understand your parents after they have passed away, but you also begin to understand yourself, their absence like the negative space around your silhouette, suddenly sharp.” Someone also once told me, when your loved one passed away, you found yourself suddenly divided into two clear phases of life — B.C. and A.D. — which she playfully said stands for Before Ceasing and After Death respectively. Like the two epochs, they also represented particular stages in history before and after something (death) takes place, and like the two epochs as well, they affect one’s identity tremendously before and after.

A few days ago, someone from the university sent me an email asking for help on his research, with just that in the content field “Hi, I need to meet you ASAP.” Two years ago, I would have probably shown up at his door, ready to go the extra mile of what it would take to help him, and in extension, for at least for him to credit me for something at the end of the paper he’s writing, doesn’t matter if the font is in the smallest size possible. But two days ago, without any hesitation, I typed up a brief, diplomatic email saying it was not possible to meet up these days, it’s the pandemic after all, but here are the ways I could help you from afar. He only replied OK, just that, and although I haven’t heard anything much from him yet, I have always believed what’s meant for me will never elude me. Two years ago, I would have probably been racking with guilt (for what?) whenever I sent such a forthright email. I am not the person I was two years ago anymore.

In the mind of my relatives, they always thought — in part of my position as an only child — my dad had left me more than enough. They were talking about financial inheritances, and for that I was glad he was financially conscious, to which should also be credited to my mother’s insistent reminders for him to save up as well. But they never knew how he left leaving me with just enough, financial or otherwise — like the bears of whose home invaded by Goldilocks, that white woman — so that I know to live in the safety of love and comfort, but not too indulged, not too deprived. There were two versions of me before and after his death — two completely opposing identities — one too accommodating, another no-nonsense after being dealt with too many fires, but both just as loved, both just as compassionate, both still ever resolute.

Happy 64th birthday, Babah.

A list of possibly nicer things this time:


  • Reading: Chanel Miller’s Know My Name and Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell.
  • Listening: My Ruthless Companion from Kronos Quartet and Persian classical singers, Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat.
  • Viewing: This priest in Italy forgot to turn off his video filters before he started livestreaming, and so hilarity ensues.
  • Food & Drink: Scheduled a Zoom call with a friend today, so gorged on passion fruit tea, affogato, some crisps, and nasi goreng.

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