This morning, I woke up to a Twitter feed full of May 13 posts and 50-year-on commemorations, including some which very explicitly said YOU MUST READ THIS BOOK today, so I did.
The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a heavy book. Not weight-wise, it's light enough, it's short enough--I read it in half a day. But it is weighty.
Melati Ahmad and her friend Safiyah head to the Rex after school to watch a Paul Newman movie. Within the span of the movie, Kuala Lumpur as they know it changes. Stuck in Auntie Bee's house far from home during the curfew, Melati must find a way to reunite with her mother--whilst dealing with the djinn in her head that keeps telling her that her mother is dead, everyone around her will die, and it's all Melati's fault.
What possessed Hanna to write about the weighty matter of dealing with OCD on the same pages as she evokes the terror of the never-talked-about May 13 riots? I don't know, but it makes for one compelling and emotional read. I found myself tearing up at multiple places--Hanna's writing is powerful and evocative, drawing you to feel with Melati instead of standing at a distance. The fear is palpable as is the anxiety, the constant counting and counting and counting acting both as a way to calm Melati as well as a grip upon your heart that asks oh no, what's going to happen next? Maybe if you count along with Melati, nothing else bad will happen.
Is there a right and wrong side to the 1969 riots? Does Hanna give any certainties as to who holds the moral high ground? Who was the worst? Whose fault it all was? We don't talk about May 13 because we don't talk about racial politics, even though its effects are still felt in the everyday lives of ordinary Malaysians. Hanna doesn't seem to side one way or the other--the harshest statement she says is in Jay's one statement:
"Bloody politicians and their bloody stupid rhetoric, speeches, ideologies. You ever hear anyone say words don't matter after this, you tell them about this day, when Malay idiots and Chinese idiots decided to kill one another because they believed what the bloody politicians told them."
Instead, throughout and despite the bloodshed and the terror and the racialised statements that she doesn't shy away from (because it was a politically-charged race riot), Hanna highlights the kindness and grace many had for each other regardless of race; from Uncle Chong and Auntie Bee who rescue Melati and other neighbours; Vince and Jagdev Singh who volunteer with the Red Cross to bring food and supplies to various communities; to Puan Salmah, Melati's mother, who treats the injured of all races; and to Melati herself--who learns to stand up for herself and for others in need.
It's not all dark and grim. Hanna indulges in puns and Malaysiana. Auntie Bee is every Malaysian Auntie you've ever met, who will bully you into acquiescence and ask if you've eaten even if she's about to die. Hanna invokes long distant memories of being in school, with the blue pinafores and the chanted terimakasihcikgus, slipping 10-sen coins into payphones to call home and hoping they'll work. There's air mata kucing in cold steel bowls, the fortune teller at the market and the ghost that haunts the cinema.
What holds together the entirety of The Weight of Our Sky is the Malay proverb "Di mana bumi dipijak, di situ langit dijunjung." Aunty Bee explains it as "where you plant your feet is where you hold up the sky", or to use a familiar English phrase, "when in Rome, do as the Romans do." There's a sense of futility in that phrase when Aunty Bee first says it, when as much as they try to fit in, her family is never seen as one of the community. Yet it evolves through the novel as Melati comes to the realisation that Malaysia is all of theirs, the Malays, the Chinese, the Indians, where the wise words of her history teacher reminds her that Tanah Melayu has always had the influence of the Hindus in ancient Kedah and the Malaccan sultan's Chinese bride, so Melayu, Cina, India, though we live and die by the rules of the land, "this country belongs to all of us."
And you feel the weight of sixteen-year-old Melati learning to hold up the sky as it comes crashing down around her.
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For some context, here's a special news report on the May 13, 1969 riots. I'm obviously too young to have experienced any of it, and most of what happened in KL whilst my family was either in Penang/Ipoh at that time. There was the Penang Hartal, though I don't know that it affected anyone in my family and it wasn't to such a big scale as May 13 (I think? idk, history is not my strong point; we also never talk about the Hartal). But also, everything that happens in KL is a Bigger Deal because that's the capital city, so.
The politics in Malaysia have always been racialised, something we inherited from Britain's colonial meddlings. But it's not all their fault. Policies put into place after May 13 helped keep the physical peace, but it also further stratified society by race and class. For all its relatively low body count, it had long-lasting effects and the threat of May 13 has long been used to keep the Malaysian Chinese quiet (because you know, curfews and bloodshed is bad for business).
At any rate, it's an interesting juxtaposition because just five days ago, Malaysians were celebrating the first anniversary of May 9, where the then-opposition coalition pulled off a surprising win in the 14th General Elections against the incumbent Barisan National--without any bloodshed. It was a similar election win that triggered May 13 fifty years ago, when the Chinese parties won a majority and the Malays were Not Having Any Of It. And maybe that shows how disgruntled everyone has become with BN, or maybe it shows how far we've come as a society since then.
And so maybe there is hope for Malaysia, one where we do not shy away from talking about the hard things, but where even if we do, we also tell of the good things and of all the things that makes us Malaysian. <3
Edited to add: you can get the book here.