When I was a little girl, there was a man who lived opposite our place. He was as old as my grandpa so I referred to him as ‘Tok’. Tok never talked much to anyone. He was always busy.
Every morning, he would ride his old bicycle to the marketplace where he sold Indian spices or ‘masala’ as we knew it. At noon, he returned home for a quick shower, lunch and prayers before returning to work. Later in the afternoon, he would get groceries on his way back home. This was his routine every day.
Tok had seven children – four boys and three girls. They were all grown ups and had their own families, yet they always stayed over at Tok’s house. Most of the time Tok and his wife took care of their grandchildren while their own parents, i.e. Tok’s children, were away working.
As I grew older, so did Tok. His forehead became wider and his hair became whiter – even the ones on his chest. I remember sitting by the street in front of my house, enjoying some cream crackers soaked into a cup of hot ginger tea, watching him cycle home. Over the years, his paddling became slower and slower.
Tok’s family grew bigger in size as the years passed. He had more grandchildren and in-laws. And their small house became more and more crowded with people and filled with much more laughter. I used to envy them because there was so much more going on in their house compared to my quiet home.
When I moved out came to the city some fifteen years ago, mom kept me updated about Tok and his family. From time to time she would tell me how they were doing. I learned that his wife had become ill, most of his children had moved out and his health had deteriorated.
A few years ago, Tok’s wife passed away at the age of 85. Tok was devastated. After spending all his life with the woman he loved, he was now alone although he still had his children and family. At the age of almost 90, he was forced to stop working. He had to stay home.
There were a few times when Tok took his old bicycle and disappeared. According to mom, whenever this happened the entire family would embark on a search mission to find him. Once, after searching all night for him, they finally found him a few kilometres away from where his masala shop used to be, laying by the roadside, shivering. He had gotten lost and couldn’t find his way home.
That was when the entire family decided that it was in his best interest that he moved in with one of them. They did not think he could be left alone in his old house. But the question was, who would take care of him? Apparently, it wasn’t easy for seven children to take care of one ailing father. Thus, Tok was sent to a home for the elderly.
The last time mom and I spoke about Tok, she told me that Tok had celebrated Hari Raya with his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Mom who visited him said he looked happy and at peace until it was time to return to the home for the elderly, Tok cried and hugged a pillar of the house. He refused to let go.
Just a while ago, I received a text message from mom – Tok has passed away. He closed his eyes at the home for the elderly, surrounded by strangers, far from those he loved his entire life.
I realise this column is usually used as a platform to talk about politics, current issues and matters of our country, however, I decided to write something different today as I feel that our society desparately needs to get re-connected with its lost soul.
Every day we indulge in talk about corruption, racism and bigotry. We criticise those whom we feel are contributing to the illness that is creeping under our skins. Yet we ignore the fact that our values as a society are deteriorating by the day.
Family ties, brotherhood, friendship and a common sense of respect and understanding are becoming such a rarity in our society. Everyone is talking about togetherness and a sense of belonging but fewer and fewer people are practising it.
Perhaps Tok is in a better place now…
Al-Fatihah. May you rest in peace, Tok.