June 23, 2016
Ramadan, Einstein, and a Memory
by Dr. Azly Rahman
Father Time-The Great Leveler and Equalizer, always fair to we The Living
Yes indeed the Muslim kids in Malaysia today have it easy during the fasting month; their conversations with Time is as speedy as the speed of the ‘Internet of Things’ (the IoT). Time is compressed in this global village characterised by the rapidisation of things. Relativity is the key word here as we speak of how the mind, body, spirit, and soul respond to the demands of the worldview of Ramadan.
Technology to ease the suffering of hunger and thirst has today progressed in Einsteinian proportions, as how the advancements have been made since Einstein scribbled his grand theory of everything, of Relativity and Black Holes, Worm Holes, and quasars and pulsars and said, in his broken German-English accent to the world:
“Here it is, my proof of the existence of black holes. One day (yes, about a hundred year later in 2015) and after the release of James Cameron’s movie Interstellar, you’ll have the proper instruments and a couple of great scientists mainly from Columbia University in the NYC to build that machine to see black holes. One day you’ll see my calculations come alive.”
How fast technology has changed and our conversations with modernity and hyper-modernity in this post-post-post Age of Techno-humanism have advanced, too. For Ramadan, today’s Muslim kids can sit in an air-conditioned room the whole day and play video games and check their Internet phones every six minutes and go take a two-hour nap, and next go back to the AC room and next, it’s break fast – or Bukak Posa Time!
Time is compressed. Technology has a life of its own, ‘a technologically-deterministic being’ it has become, as Marx predicted and alluded to in his magnum opus with Friedrich Engels, ‘Das Kapital’.
I remember my childhood days of Ramadan when technology in my house in my gangsta Malay village in Johor Baru was still in its Neanderthal stage. One step backward and it was the Age of No Tech, Low Tech, and one more step behind was the Age of the Perak Man… the age of the early man who got lost trying to decide which way to go: Bota Kanan or Bota Kiri. He went bald thinking hard.
The Original Perak Man in pieces–Harmless
The Perak Man 2 and The Pekan Man still around to entertain and irritate us
He died waiting at the junction, at the crossroad of human evolution. He gave up. Although he was said to be a determined man who lived for hundreds of years (we need to check his birth certificate though), he gave up right there near Changkat Jering, now a dangerous highway. He was a brave man – he walked from Africa alone and didn’t know where he was going and ended up in Perak. Hence the name Perak Man.
But that is another story of why he walked out of Africa. I saw him once in the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur, a few years back. He was lying in an enclosed glass bed, tired from the long walk to freedom. He was all bones. He was bald.
Twelve hours felt like twelve months
I remember my childhood Ramadan of the sixties. It was pure torture. It was a Buddhist experience of samsara. Of a life of suffering. Of denouncing water, food, and other childhood Earthly pleasures. Although the suffering was about twelve hours, it felt like twelve months of dying, of the experience of the Perak man’s marathon solo-walking. Herein lies Einstein’s Relativity.
I had no iPhone nor iPad to play with, no PlayStation Seventeen to play games that have me shoot people. no blasting high-fi air-conditioning machine to ease the cells in my body and to freeze them pleasurably so that they would not wilt like raisins in the sun, as how Langston Hughes said about the self in his poem ‘Dreams’.
And I didn’t have 700 channels of junk on TV to help me escape the reality of suffering and to bring me to this Hollywood or Bollywood nirvana.
None of these I had. Nor was I as a kid fasting the full swing of 30-day delight as strong as our man, the Perak man. Every day of the journey, I felt my body slowly getting weak and turning into that Malay pancake called ‘lempeng’; a sorry state of beingness with the feel that by the Time the bilal hit the ‘kentong’ (sounding ‘tong… tong… tong…) or that bamboo ‘break fast announcement instrument from the kampong masjid yonder’ and next, by the time I heard the imam clearing his throat at the microphone like Matt Monroe or Louis Armstrong, ready to azan or ‘bang’ (not banging people’s head, mind you… but ‘bang’ means calling for the maghrib prayer – signifying the end of suffering,) and lastly… by the time she announced, “Lekas, boleh berbuka kita… orang dah bang tu...” (Let us now break our fast as the imam has called for prayer – by the Time all these happened, I thought I had already died, ready to be reincarnated the next day for another round of the hunger game.
So – it seems like – in Ramadan death cometh daily. The madman Mansur Al-Hallaj said that, too, running around the street yelling, “Ana al Haq… Ana al Haq… I am the Truth… I am the Truth”.And then I would be alive again. Time. Time. Time. Relative is Time.
As the Quranic verses go: “Time. Verily, Man is in a state of Loss and Utter Despair. Except those who do Good and Keeps the faith and remind others to do Good.” In other words: To promote peace and to keep peace and to build peace, after making peace with the self.
So – with no AC, how did I ease the suffering? Here is what I did daily. The tempayan was my friend, I’d go to the bathroom and climb into the huge earthen-ware pot, turn on the tap, water would flow through the mouldy green hose, the tempayan/pot would fill up to the brim, and I’d be sitting in there as cool as the Perak Man in the Pahang River. Cooling myself with water coming to the level of my neck.
“Liiikkk kau buat apa lama lama dalam bilik air tu, nak… Dah dekat sejam.”
My mother would call out after an hour of wondering if I had drowned in the gigantic pot and died and perhaps transported to Africa and walked with the Perak man and get confused like him at the junction of Bota Kanan or Bota Kiri.
“Lik mandi mak… sekejap lagi habis. Nak sabun badan ni. (I am bathing, mother. Now is the soap-ing part…)”
Ultimate goal is the finishing line
I was happy for that Einsteinian hour in that day on the month of extreme test of spiritual endurance. For about twelve hours daily, I was both the Perak man and Siddharta Gautama or the ‘Buddha Matrieya’, wandering like Moses in an exodus for 40 years in the desert of my hyper-consciousness, in this Hunger Game called fasting – a game whose ultimate goal is the finishing line… to still be alive to hear the ‘tong… tong… tong…” sound of the masjid’s kentong. Mind-body-spirit game.
I suppose Einstein would agree. Life is not about finding happiness. It is about evading pain. Not about suffering. But to find victory in the battle within. The jihad within – and only within. And that jihad is Love and nothing else. In memory of the greatest Love – my mother.
Today, sixteen hours of my journey of the Perak man, in the blazing saddle heat of the New York Indian Summer Ramadan… I have felt nothing. I only eat one simple meal a day. A dead simple minimalist meal.
Thank you to the memory of the Perak man. And of course the tempayan, the huge pot in the bathroom. And the sound of the tong tong tong… I could still hear – from more than a thousand miles away!