Ramadan Reflections #1 – Past and Present

I was doing the dishes after buka (breaking of fast meal; I can’t bring myself to use the word iftar because it just seems pretentious to me) several nights ago and it crossed my mind that if I ever have children, two is a good number, because right at that moment, I was cleaning up for a 4-member family consisting of 2 parents and 2 children. And I was quite happy to do it, as opposed to when I had to clean up after a 7-member family.

And then, my thoughts went to a comparison between how it was then, and how it is now. Yes, if you think that that’s quite a number of thoughts to have while doing the dishes, let me admit here that dishwashing time is the time when I daydream. Or duskdream, to be more time-appropriate.

Growing up, Ramadan was all about the food. During buka, the table would be filled with food. My mom’s bubur lemak – rice porridge made with coconut milk, spices, garlic and ginger, small pieces of meat and garnished with spring onion, celery and fried shallots, and strips of telur dadar (egg fried like an omelette, without any filling) – would be the staple dish we have every single day. That would be accompanied by the staple drink, teh susu (hot tea with sweetened condensed milk). 

Of course, that was not all that we had for buka. There was always at least 2 to 3 other food items on the table such as roti john, roti kirai gulung, kuih jongkongmurtabak, epok-epokapam balik pulau pinang, ayam percik, kacang pool, laksa, etc, all bought from Ramadan bazaars or my dad’s favourite coffeeshop, Afghanistan. Sometimes there would be a random burger ramlee, or two, for the child or two who went along and could not resist buying. At others, my mom would cook something extra in addition to the bubur lemak, usually some form of noodle.

It didn’t occur to us, or at least myself at that time, that breaking fast with such excessiveness went against the spirit of Ramadan and the concept of moderation that Islam taught us. Due to there being so much food, it was not uncommon for leftovers to end up in the dustbin as some spent too long a time in the fridge, overlooked because there was simply too much of other leftovers to reheat and eat, or forgotten because nobody wanted to eat leftovers so soon after first eating the food.

Anyway, you can imagine all the bowls, plates, mugs, spoons and forks used for all that food, for a family of seven. I can hardly remember who did the cleaning up after such feast-like meals when I was a kid, although I believe that that task would fall to my mom and my oldest sister by six years. Out of us three sisters, I would say she is the most obedient; the model daughter (and niece).

Being that young and distanced that much in age from her, I can’t recall her grumbling about or showing unwillingness to do it. I was too busy being a child, oblivious to such things that did not concern me. I would not be surprised if she never did; as I said she is the model daughter who played the role of (most) responsible oldest daughter to a T, without much questioning or rebelling as a teenager (at least that’s as much as I remember when she was a teenager). She probably saw that her younger siblings were much too young to be relied on to do such things then.

In contrast, my second sister who is 1.5 years older than me, and myself, can be said to be more self-centred. We dragged our feet when the task eventually fell to us to do the cleaning up. Being the youngest children, cleaning up after the whole family of seven, when they were all older than us and quite capable of picking up after themselves or pitching in to help, just felt a tad unfair. This is especially so when the task of helping my parents prepare for the meal also fell on us.

The older siblings, busy young adults at 21 upwards while we were teenagers, had their own busy schedules and seemingly only needed to come home to a full newspaper-laid table, all bowls and plates filled with hot food, ready to eat once it was Maghrib (evening prayer time). Correct that – my oldest sister, ever the model child, would a lot of times be home earlier to help out. It was my brothers whom I observed not doing much for the family during Ramadan. When they were done eating, they would leave the table and go pray and get ready to go to the mosque. The table would then magically clear itself. Sometimes, they would pick up their used utensils and place them in the sink. The utensils would then magically wash themselves.

Being a relatively slow eater, I took a bit more time to finish eating all the different food. In fact, my second sister and I would usually be the last ones at the table as the others took leave in an almost hierarchical manner – my parents first, followed by my older siblings.

While I understood that the others leaving earlier only made sense as they had to take turns using the toilets, what I could not understand, and stand, was their refusal to just pick up and clean up after themselves. Granted, my parents, being old and needing more time to use the toilets, would have a good reason to leave earlier. Besides, they would have already done their ‘share’, my mom having slept late or woken up much earlier to cook food for sahur (the pre dawn meal), my dad to prepare hot drinks and then going around waking us all up. Both of them, for buka, making hot teh susu, scooping bubur lemak into bowls, and reheating various food. Of course it is only right that us children took care of the rest.

My only problem with that was that it was always the girls who were doing so; the boys could get away with hardly doing anything to help. In my mind, if only all 5 of us washed and cleaned our own used utensils, plus our parents’ (keeping in mind that some of us would still be eating and the sink area would be empty for those who were done earlier to start doing some dishes first, since they had to wait for their turns to use the toilet anyway), and then everyone pitched in to put away any remainder food properly, gather and throw away the newspapers, and wipe the table, the whole chore would be done so much faster. Nobody would be left behind feeling like she was / they were the maid(s) who has / have to clean up after everyone else, while everyone else retired  to their rooms to rest and stroke their full stomachs. (Ok, maybe they didn’t do that part about stroking their stomachs and it’s all in my imagination, but I’m pretty sure they rested.)

Back then, as teenagers we were also guilt-tripped by our parents felt obliged to perform Tarawih prayers (additional prayers only performed in Ramadan) every night throughout Ramadan (with the exlusion of the ladies when they were having their periods). This could be either at home as a family or at the mosque. As we got older, the latter became increasingly preferred as the parents believed there was greater reward in praying at the mosque.

Imagine the situation: Having fasted for about 14 hours or so, helping to prepare the table for buka, eating, cleaning up while others rested, rushing to pray Maghrib because time was running out, then rushing to get ready to go out to the mosque , then briskwalking to the mosque in order to arrive in time to join the Isyak congregationary prayer. All that, without 5 minutes of rest in between because there was no teamwork.

Despite my resentment of the whole situation, it never occurred to me to bring this up with the family. It was just simply assumed that it was the girls’ duty, and I had a feeling that if I were to bring this up, I would be shot down as ‘dengki, buat kerja nak berkira‘ i.e., being calculative about helping out and being vindictive in pointing out how others are slacking. Or worse still, be told that ‘itu kerja perempuan‘ (that is women’s work).

In retrospect, perhaps we (my sister and I) were indeed being selfish in feeling resentful that we were tasked with the job of cleaning up after the whole family post buka. Perhaps my brothers, besides my oldest sister, did do their fair share of helping out when both my sister and I were young children too short to reach the kitchen sink and too young to be aware or remember about domestic chores and who did them.

Having done the above, perhaps they did deserve to pass on the ‘torch’, and have their rest while we take over doing the cleaning. (If that was true, however, my oldest sister shouldn’t have to help out too and should have taken that privilege as part of the older sibling set to relax after the meal but she always naturally assumed that duty throughout her time living under my parents’ roof.)

Perhaps there were other things they did for me when I was younger – I was the little vomit queen when I was growing up, after all, and it was my oldest brother who was tasked to clean up after me – and maybe I should have returned the favour sincerely without such resentment.

Perhaps it was just us being self-centred, selfish, angsty teenagers at that time.

Whatever it is, it was different then. Now that I am older (and hopefully wiser, and kinder) and are witnessing how age is catching up with my parents, I try to help out as much as I can (or to whatever extent that I am able to fight my lazy bones, which is a daily struggle).

Over the years, to counter the resentment, I developed an enjoyment and sense of accomplishment in seeing the kitchen cleared of dirty dishes and leftovers, the table wiped clean, sink cleared, clean dishes arranged on the dish drainer… not to mention the intellectually and creatively stimulating act of duskdreaming while dishwashing. (Oh, I could probably write a sappy romance novel or two out of the inspiration that came in those moments a few years back, if I only bothered to write them down). Oh, and I also remember that if I wasn’t duskdreaming I would be singing my heart out just for fun while doing the dishes.

Nevertheless, if I do – decide to – have children in the future, I hope I remember to instil in each one of them (out of my ideal two or three) that being a family is being a team, and all chores in the house are to be tackled together as a team. Each child is capable of doing some form or part of a chore, and younger siblings growing older simply means that they can now better help out in the team, so the older sibling(s) should be thankful for their help, rather than seeing it as a chance to exercise ‘older sibling authority’ and dump all duties upon the younger ones. You could say my experience with my family is the main influence that drives my belief that no one person (person = wife or mother or daughter or sister) should bear the sole responsibility for all domestic chores.

Anyway, the other thing that has changed, besides my attitude towards cleaning up for the whole family, is also our approach to breaking fast. As the number of family members under one roof decreased with the older siblings moving out one by one, so has the size and variety of our buka meals. In fact, this time round we told my mom that we don’t mind eating only the staple bubur lemak every day for buka, without it being accompanied by anything else. My father, whose hobby is eating, however, would always buy some Malay kuih (savoury snack), or bring home leftover food from the mosque. This way, my mom only has to think of one main dish plus vegetables to cook for sahur while for buka she just has to throw all the ingredients for the bubur lemak into the rice cum porridge cooker and season accordingly.

With a much simpler meal for buka, the amount of used cutlery and utensils has also decreased. Two things happen: Firstly, this makes for not just less cleaning up to do, but also a less full stomach that brings out the ugly lazy bone in me to finish the chore quickly and immediately. A chore is a chore is a chore, no matter the platform for wanderings of the mind it provides; less cutlery and utensils, and less full stomach means I can get it over and done with pretty fast. The faster I get the job done, the earlier I get to rest, which is something I always look forward to. Secondly, a simpler meal at buka means less food wastage – most times not at all – which makes me happy because I don’t have to feel guilty throwing out food.

Aside from the changes to do with food and chores, there is also a change in the emphasis on religious ritual. As we grow older and take on full time day jobs, and as we assert our rights to make our own choices with regards to religious rituals, my parents, specifically my mom, has laid off the guilt tripping has stopped telling or pleading to me to go for Tarawih prayers at the mosque with her.

In my line of work, I am not just constantly on my feet, going up and down the stairs, and using my voice; I am also constantly mentally engaged, be it at creating or checking something. I usually feel exhausted after a long day of fasting while working in the day, and do not have much energy left. I just wish to go home, break my fast and thereafter just rest or zone out.

I quite simply do not want to go for Tarawih after buka just for the sake of going or for shutting my mom(‘s pleas) up, and then going through the motions of praying while mentally ‘sleeping’ or counting down the rakaat (one full standing-then-prostrating cycle in prayer), impatiently waiting for all of it to be over so that I can go home and rest. I don’t see the point in forcing myself to do Tarawih prayers just for the sake of gaining the extra rewards, when in actual fact I don’t feel any spiritual connection with God while doing them and have to think about other things while praying, just to stay awake and alert enough to follow the prayers.

So my mom laying off the guilt trips and treating me like an adult instead of emotionally blackmailing me leaving the choice of going for Tarawih prayers entirely up to me has actually made me feel so much happier and at ease this Ramadan. In fact, I told myself I’d take the effort on weekend nights to go to the mosque – a choice I’m making all on my own, without any influence from my mom – and so far, the one time that I have managed to perform Tarawih at the mosque has been such an uplifting experience as I felt the spiritual connection with God and my heart was at ease and at peace during prayer. I was not counting down rakaat as much as before and the whole set of prayers went by without me really realising it. What a difference true freedom of choice makes!

In short, this Ramadan – my last as a single lady – has proven to be so different than previous Ramadans. The simpler affairs for buka, the quiet contemplation while doing something as menial as cleaning up, going easy on myself and choosing to do something extra on the religious front only when I am physically and mentally prepared to – these make for a much more peaceful and fulfilling Ramadan, as opposed to counting down the days and dragging myself through the month. Alhamdulillah.

I really hope the rest of this Ramadan would play out in the same way, even towards the end when the great task of cleaning the whole house and helping my mom with the cooking in preparation for Raya (or as is popularly referred to now as Eid) awaits.

4 thoughts on “Ramadan Reflections #1 – Past and Present

  1. I cn relate to you…now im treasuring the time I have let with my family even if they want to bully me…I hope fh would want to stay here while we wait for our house to be ready in 2 years time…

    • It’s one thing to do things for your family out of your own free will, because you love them… It’s another to do things because they pressurize or bully you into it..

      To me, my family has never been one to openly express that we love each other, nor are we so close that we miss each other so much when one member is not around (in fact I was so glad when my older siblings got married and moved out because that meant I finally get my own room haha… The downside of being in a ‘large’ family is the lack of personal space and privacy) We actually pretty much keep to ourselves, or one sibling is close to another but not the others. It might seem dysfunctional to some but that’s just how my family is. We show our love by doing things for each other and bonding over food, and celebrating birthdays.

      It’s nice if you and your FH decide to stay with your parents while waiting for your place to be ready, but eventually you’ll have to move out anyway so you’ll still have to face that day when you start living away from your parents…

  2. Totally agree with u on the cleaning up after u eat thingy.. And I’m rather blessed that my htb is the kind that wash his own plate and help with the cleaning up the table. Both of us agree that household chores are not solely a wife/women’s job and it’s gonna be something that we will instill in our future kids…

    • Yes, I think if we become parents, it is truly something we have to consciously instil in our kids. Sometimes girls do have a tendency to be more helpful when it comes to domestic chores, but just because they are, does not mean as parents we keep calling just daughters to help out. Children learn by watching and observing, so if sons are usually let off from doing chores, they may grow up thinking it’s just not their job, and that women are meant to pick up after them.

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