Aris still remembers that day. It was the first of Syawal, the day of celebration that came after exiting the fasting month of Ramadan. He woke up very early that morning. Perhaps it was because he was excited to put on his new clothes. Then again, they were not that new. Technically, his two elder brothers had worn those same clothes before they were passed down. Still, they were new to him. Aris has four elder sisters, two elder brothers, and two younger brothers, so he knew that in being the seventh of nine siblings in a poor Malay family, sharing was definitely caring. His mother said that if he promised to keep the clothes in good condition, his two younger brothers might get the chance to wear them too.
His mother worked as a rubber tapper on a small estate behind their kampung house. His father was a retiree and, unlike other men in the neighborhood, he spent the rest of his life sitting at home doing nothing. Aris knew he was too sick to do much. He could hear him coughing every night. His mother said he had asthma, probably from being a hardcore smoker for years. Since they did not have enough money to get him treated in the hospital, his father could only ease his pain with a warm drink and white rice soup.
On the first of Syawal, it is a Malay tradition to cook nice foods and give duit raya or gift money to kids. The evening before he went to bed, Aris made a promise to himself. He vowed to visit every single house in his kampung to make sure that he collected enough duit raya for his father to get treatment. He started recalling all the neighbors that he knew, starting with Pakcik Abu, the head of the kampung. Aris knew Pakcik Abu was quite rich, so he was sure that he would get a ringgit or two extra there compared to other houses. Then he decided he would go to Bidan Limah, the respected midwife of the kampung. Bidan Limah loved children, so there would always be the chance that he would get an extra ringgit or two there as well. The next house would be Tok Janggut. He was a tok mudim, an old man who circumcised young boys when they reached puberty. Despite looking so serious and fierce all the time, Aris heard from the other kids that he always gave them not less than five ringgit each holiday. That was one house he was willing to try. Then, there was Nek Wok, the mak andam–the middle-aged beautician who makes up brides on their wedding days. Nek Wok did not have any kids and never married. She was always lonely, and Aris used his spare some of his time to accompany her on her errands. He hoped that he would get something from her from being so nice at least.
The list of names went on until he reached a total of fifty. Fifty houses to visit–that was quite a lot–but he thought if he managed to visit every one of them, he would get at least fifty ringgit. He never had the chance to hold that much money before. He did not know how the fifty-ringgit note even looked like for that matter.
The day came. He started his first of Syawal quest after prayers in the mosque. As planned, he carried two pieces of paper with him that morning. One was the list of names of the people whose houses he wanted to visit, while the other outlined just how much time that he could spend in each of their houses before needing to move on.
He started with his teacher’s house. It was empty. Then, he quickly ran off to another house about half a kilometer away. From afar, he saw a bunch of kids outside of the house waiting. Aris knew that they would be his competition for getting any money, so he joined them. Those kids did not eat any of the food on offer. They had a sip of water and sat in silence. Aris asked: “Look at the ketupat and rendang. They look so delicious. Don’t you guys want to try any?”
“No, we want to keep some room in our tummies. There are lots more houses to go after this one. We can’t possibly eat everything that we come across,” whispered one of them.
“So what are we supposed to do now? Just drink?”
“No, just sit and wait.”
Aris agreed, so he just leaned back and waited with them.
“Not eating?,” asked Puan Latifah, who came out from the kitchen with more baked goods in her hands.
“No thanks, Makcik. We need to go actually,” said another one.
Puan Latifah smiled, “OK, line up. I haven’t received my monthly salary yet so don’t complain if it isn’t much!”
All the kids were excited and lined up. One by one, they came to her and kissed her hand before pressing it to their foreheads as a sign of respect. Aris was the last one in line. “Nice to see you, Aris. How’s your father?” she asked.
“Not good,” he answered with a sad face.
She rubbed his head and gave him a small, green envelope that contained some money. As a courtesy, Aris would not open the envelope until he had left the house. But as he walked out the doors, one of the other kids had ruined the surprise, grumbling: “Alah, fifty cents only?” He then knew that his first duit raya was not as big as he had expected.
He received less than one ringgit at each of the first ten houses that he visited. Some families did not give him anything at all. In the subsequent twenty houses that he went to, he managed to collect at least one ringgit each. At thirty houses, Aris had collected a total of thirty-five ringgit and twenty cents. Aris thought this was quite an achievement.
He did not stop at that though. There were still another twenty houses to go, and he was aiming for an average of two ringgit from each house now. “Hey guys, let’s go quickly to the next house. It’s getting late!,” he told the other kids.
Pakcik Abu gave him five ringgit. This might have been because Aris spent a little extra time there, eating and drinking, even though his stomach already felt bloated with too much food and drink. The next house was someone that he did not even know. Still, they gave him one ringgit. He did not get the chance to visit Bidan Limah’s house because it looked empty. She probably went out to visit her relatives.
On his way to the next house on his list, house number thirty-four, Aris bumped into one of his elder brothers, who seemed to come out of nowhere. He asked, “Where are you going? I’ve been searching for you all over this kampung!” He was frowning. Aris was not sure whether he was angry or sad.
“I am just collecting duit raya. Why?” He asked him back.
“Ayah,” his father, “he passed away!”
Aris was stunned. He quickly hopped on his brother’s bike, both crying as they cycled back home.
* more stories in Anak Sastra Online Magazine