There’s a charm about small towns that I love. Suburbs that lie outside swarming cities; away from the humdrum of the metropolis I call home. Sungai Petani or “Farmer’s River” is one such small town, with its paddy fields that change color year-round and a natural affinity for its people to grow their own fruits and vegetables. Its weather hits extremes of heat and intense rain but settles itself to be quite reasonable for most of the year. The town has a slow and patient energy, one that will never call on its inhabitants for more than they’re willing to offer. And those with bigger dreams would find themselves restless, for the contentment so easily derived here would derange anyone with even the slightest hint of ambition.
It was in this town that I spent some of my childhood. My family and I lived here with my grandparents in a pretty terrace house, before ma and pa decided this town couldn’t hold their dreams. We were out of here by the time the Petronas Twin Towers were inaugurated, and we never really looked back. I’m a city-girl by whatever that term implies, and though the city can be a brutal place of expectations and needless competition, I would never forsake the opportunities that it bestows. So, while we chased our dreams with a determination that decided that good was never good enough, my grandparents stayed behind, ever content with their little house and garden in this little town.
As time went on, we made occasional visits back here to see them. And in the steady change that time forces on us all, they had picked up a new hobby that involved experiments of dirt, grass, soggy vegetable skins and quite unfortunately the occasional manure. My grandfather in particular seemed to enjoy this — what was to a city-girl like me — unnecessary hobby. Things were instant now and ploughing in the ground getting your hands dirty and waiting for something to grow was like…waiting for the grass to grow. But as I watch my grandfather walk around his garden, and peer over the budding mango trees, look up toward the fully grown ones, or pluck the fruiting limes and fragrant curry leaves, I start to gain a fuller appreciation of who he is and why gardening seems to bring out the best in him.
About the time I was born, my parents — to whom I owe my insatiable ambition for adventure and success — set up a kindergarten that they hoped would grow into a very nice chain of schools that would serve the people of the town and beyond. My sister and I had attended this kindergarten ourselves and it is with fond memories that we remember it. Running around with our little feet to what was then a very big piece of land; landscaped perfectly with a mini waterfall and a one-foot high concrete bridge of about two-feet long. Living right next door to the school, we’d spend after hours still in our peach uniform, playing on an old white swing my grandfather bought. At the top of our lungs, we’d sing the tune of “You are my sunshine” as my grandfather pushed the swing back and forth, ignoring my grandmother’s request to be careful.
Those days were short-lived because we moved out soon after my parents saw greater horizons and the ownership of the school and all its potentials and virtue were given to my grandparents. And so, till today, that old swing, now painted a glistening red still sways back and forth in the middle of the school under a most fruitful mango tree. It sways for other children now and when I return to visit the old folks, I see my grandfather ever with his bright smile, patiently telling the children to be careful.
Like all things that grow — little children or plants — my grandfather approached them far differently than he would with grown children or adults as we call them. Upon a social invitation he would often bring up his “allergy” to crowds and if he did decide to bear with it, we would soon find him scurrying home to be with plants. And there we’d find him pottering about his garden, shooing away bugs as he might’ve done to people too.
As they get older, we still try with great persistence to arrange for their living here in Kuala Lumpur where the rest of their children and grandchildren reside. It is a futile effort for their beings never seem to adjust to the bustle of city life. They lament after a short stay here for their students, small home and of course their beloved garden. And they point out the cost of living compared to Sungai Petani, as if by money alone this city could never compare to their town.
Development to them was fruitless if all you did was chase after things. What about the roots of your existence? They’d ask us to ponder. What about the time you spend pruning yourselves to be better people? Chase as you might for the sun and glory, but if your soil is left untended then how can you be rid of the weeds that are sure to grow and slowly take your life?
Vigilance, they said. To remain ever mindful that even though it serves well to sit in a pretty pot, you wilt away if you’re not watered.
And so, their analogies for a purposeful life they draw from their time tilling the earth and it’s always helped to keep me grounded, and not be carried away by the winds of greed. For we work hard and strive in buildings that come so close to the sun. And we nurture our wealth painstakingly to have surpluses we have no need for. We pass by those with less and feel thankful for our stock, but those with less remain those with less. The real challenge I learned from my grandfather, which he overcame so easily, is when it comes time for harvest and growth is in abundance, will we share our fruits? That those with less may have more, and that we may all partake in things being enough. Contentment then, I see, is derived from anywhere-whether in a steady town or hasty city.
My grandfather I know will remain the same till the end of his days. And the garden he’s grown will hold treasures and lessons, and delicious fruits. For him, it is the quiet. The frequent pauses throughout the day where you will have no demands, nor will you be demanded. For him it is only the busy mornings of the children at school, and the quiet of the evenings in their verdant garden, flourishing with life even as they age.