“Kuching, for me is, and always will be home.”
There was uproarious applause.
“Sarawak is home. This is your home! Fight for her!”
From the front to the back of the highly-enthused, racially-unbiased 40-strong gathering one could observe from this vantage point a wave-like movement that gave the peoples’ flailing arms and heads bobbing in near-tandem a glossy sheen; what with their reflective hats and jackets on, of the same make and colour no doubt meant to show a striking stand of solidarity.
Exciting, I thought somberly to myself as I lapped up the remaining contents of my bowl. This, however was of an unexciting design and equally mundane material: The bowl, not the Laksa. The delectably soupy, stringy food it was carrying was anything but. Heck, if it could satiate the appetite of internationally-renowned chefs, who am I to say anything?
Not enough santan, though.
I sat by the glass facade of a bustling café perched some 60 feet above the raucous spectacle, in a mall overlooking the grandiose view of Padang Merdeka and its surroundings: the Sarawak Anthropological Museum in the distance, the Sikh Temple to my right, and across, St. Thomas’ Cathedral. All were significant architectural works in their own right; testament to the ideologically-similar beliefs that had been celebrated in peace and within close proximity of one another for decades.
The vast green expanse was dotted today not only by the usual bunch of Frisbee-enthusiasts, but blanketed also with the pastel, off-white leavings of a century-old, hundred-foot-tall tree just opposite the majesty of Merdeka Palace.
Cotton. It’s that time of year already? Dad would’ve loved this.
Even from the third story the blaring of the megaphone was clear enough that it would draw the attention of many a passers-by, causing more people to come closer to the glass wall. Overwhelmed by body odour, I left my table, appropriating the amount for my Wheatgrass C and Laksa Sarawak Special to the chirpy Bidayuh busgirl who came to collect the bill, bowl and beverage. I insisted that she keep the change.
“Sama-sama,” I responded with a smile.
I exited the building’s front entrance to find that a breeze had blown some cotton flowers to its sliding doors. Warm, fresh air awaited – a welcome change from the overcompensating cold inside. By now I would routinely carry on by foot to continue with work ten minutes from Plaza Merdeka.
A proud pedestrian, I always look forward to traversing the city by foot; it had become a tradition since I was young to wander from point A to B on my own two feet whenever I could, most times on my trusty skateboard, while soaking in the invigorating air that pours from the many tree repositories pockmarking spaces about the city – a refreshing sight and smell foreign to most burgeoning metropolises.
Just over the low skyline I spot the sun creep toward the horizon, and hastily make my way towards Carpenter Street, eagerly anticipating a Kuching-exclusive: a cappuccino of Sarawak Liberica and Robusta blend – dad’s favourite.
Imagine my surprise when my anticipated calm is interrupted by the sensation blaring from my right.
“Hullo, you! Long hair, backpack, yellow sneakers!”
Oh dear. I’ve been described.
“Come over and join our cause, won’t you?”
An eager attendant nudged his way from behind large placards toward me, clipboard in hand. They’d been gathering signatures to petition against the pains of growing deforestation. Tree huggers?
“Also, natives are being displaced,” summarized the attendant. Ah. I signed the petition to relieve the pen-bearer of his duty.
“Before you go, dek,” Boomed the megaphone, “What is Kuching for you?”
As if collecting my John Hancock wasn’t enough, the man was asking for sentiment! The nerve. To brush off the onlookers’ stares I answered dismissively, “What can I say? Kuching’s home,” shrugging.
Unabashedly underwhelmed, he jumped off of the makeshift platform and, like Moses, parted the sea of people to face me before I, like one famously-discoloured panther, could exit, stage left.
Gee. Mr. Charismatic had turned into Mr. Dramatic-Persistent.
“Boy – tell us something your parents taught you, growing up here.”
Ouch. That struck a chord. I hadn’t been on speaking terms with my folks for a year – not, at least, since I’d gotten wind of their divorce.
I reflected, and something inside me shattered.
To my own surprise, I teared up in front of the growing assembly which fell quiet. I gazed sheepishly at my shoes, and for the first time in a long period of emotional absence, I felt. I took a half-minute, which seemed like two, to compose myself. I steadied my breathing and looked my inquirer dead in his left eye, snatching his amplifier.
My parents taught me to greet everyone with a smile; to give salam regardless of their creed, and to trust in the good that’s to be found in all people. When I was little I would follow Dad to the morning markets by the Sarawak River, where I would observe these lessons in practice, witnessing Dad’s unprejudiced philanthropy and a grounded, mutual sense of respect evident in the frequent handshakes he gave, and was offered.”
My words began tentatively, testing the span of the crowd’s attention.
“Later on I would realise that these characteristics weren’t exclusive to their teachings. These seemingly trivial acts were a norm among the people here – commoner or otherwise. I would only learn to appreciate this once I’d left town to study in large, fully-inhabited yet alienating cities harbouring cold- hearted folks that hadn’t the slightest regard for one another.”
With each emphasis my grip on them tightened.
“That’s what Kuching is for me – a city that caters, a city that cares! Kuching is a city of selfless folk that understand what it is to be one and the same. We stand united on level ground here, you and me.”
I was near-hysterical before I finished resolutely. The congregation betrayed a myriad of reactions – some sympathetic, mostly curious, all dumbfounded. Great, I’ve caused a scene. Exiting the display, I was a mess – I looked like the saltwater fish that got spat out of a shiny, freshwater ravine.
It was, however, a show of appreciation that had come too late.
I’m sorry, Dad.
What the smitten assembly did not know as I dragged my feet up, down, and around the hill hugging the Archbishop’s residence was that I had finally given the eulogy that I could not bring myself to vocalise the day my father met his demise not two months before.
I had felt.
Kuching died with you.