The Malay lady threw a sideway glance at the crowd of Indian women sitting to her right. Her eyebrows furrowed, and her mouth screwed up in distaste. Sitting next to her, I could feel her tension and her mounting anger. I dug myself deeper into the book I had in hand.
Five more minutes to Isya’.
The Masjid, easily filled with office workers for Zuhr prayers, was quiet and still. Everyone had gone home for the day. Everyone except the angry Malay lady and her scrunched up fists, the chatting Indian women with children stepping over trails of saris, and me, that is.
The Malay lady let out a huff, as if all the discontent in her was bubbling, and steam was pushing to get out. I have seen her around, this lady; always ordering the jema’ah around, always nagging at others. I usually kept to the opposite side of the room when I saw her, but tonight, she plopped herself next to me. I couldn’t run.
I could see her turning towards me to speak, but I had no intention to be caught at the receiving end of a tirade. I focused intently on the book in hand, reading nothing but my repetitive thoughts “No no no no no…”.
“Bising kan diorang?” (Aren’t they noisy?)
I forced a polite smile. At least that’s what I intended. But I think I looked like a deer caught in the piercing ray of headlights on a long dark road.
“Budak-budak, cik, biasalah…” (They are just kids, aunty, it’s normal)
“Yelah, tapi mak diorang patut tau ni Masjid, bukan playground. Di Masjid mesti respect orang nak solat, nak beribadah, bukan untuk main-main” (They should know this is a Masjid, not a playground. In the Masjid, they need to respect those who wants to pray, to do ibadah, not to fool around), she started; the bubbling discontent was beginning to spill over. On me. Ouch.
“Dah lah tak pakai selendang betul-betul, jalan sini-sana rambut terkeluar-terkeluar. Kan ganggu jemaah lain?” (They aren’t even wearing their hijab properly! Doesn’t it affect the other jemaah here?)
Does it? Who’s affected? The men? I couldn’t think. All I felt was guilt because at that point of time I wasn’t even a hijabi. Underneath my prayer garments was a pair of skinny jeans (I was skinny once upon a time hurhur) and a T-shirt. I wanted to crawl back into the pages of my book. Help.
Saved by the azan. I politely nodded to the Malay lady, and closed my eyes. Children often close their eyes with the believe that something ceases to exists if they cannot see it. I was wishing they were right.
We began standing up for prayer. The Indian women shuffled to align themselves next to the Malay lady. I could feel her body stiffen against mine.
“Tengok tu! Tak tutup kaki pon! Mana sah solat diorang? Kite kene ajar diorang! Ntah ape-ape je orang India ni.” (Look at that! They’re not covering their feet! How can their prayer be accepted? We need to teach them! These Indians are just confused.)
Her last shot before the prayer begun. The Indian women looked over quizzically. I didn’t know what to answer them, nor the Malay lady. Suddenly the designs on the carpet seemed very interesting.
After the prayer, I made a point to sneak to the back, disrobed my prayer garments as fast as I could, and made a bolt to the exit. Outside, I bent over, tying the laces of my sneakers, relieved to have escaped. I stood up again, breathing the cool night air. My hair danced a little tune to the whistling breeze.
I almost got a heart attack.
The Malay lady was standing at the corridor, watching me. We made eye contact. She shook her head, gave a disappointed, reprimanding scowl, and turned her back.
* * * * *
A year passed. I have since quit from my job, and packed my bags to study in Malaysia. Back home for the holidays, I boarded a bus, and looked for an empty seat.
Then I saw her.
We made eye contact again. Instinctively my body tensed as I prepared for an attack. Instead, the Malay lady smiled. Surprised, I made no reaction. I took the seat behind her, still in shock. She must have forgotten me.
As the bus went on its way, I stopped myself from the itching need to set things right.
“Look, Makcik, I am wearing the hijab now! And those Indian women were from the Hanafi school, which meant that their feet are not part of their aurah! And you really shouldn’t have said all the things you said, it was racist and you didn’t even know what’s right and what’s wrong!”
In my mind, I was on a roll, correcting all the things I have seen the Malay lady did or heard her say. I don’t know why but despite not wanting to hear her opinions a year ago, her opinion of me affected me up until then. I was angry and this was my revenge. Having learnt some new things in school, I now knew more than her; I should teach her, I should correct her.
The bus halted to a stop. An Indian man boarded, scanned the commuters, and smiled. He tapped his payment card – beep – and moved towards the back of the bus.
Before I could register what was happening, he took a seat next to the Malay lady, and she kissed his hands, “Dear, how was work?” “Good, Alhamdulillah.” They started chatting, happily and in bliss.
I sat frozen behind them, my fuming dialogue silenced.
The bus moved again, and my thoughts returned.
It dawned on me that I was just the same as she was a year ago: a person with limited knowledge who thinks she knows everything, a person who feels that the little things she picked up from books or classes made her better than others, a person who judges others and hold grudges.
But the Malay lady had married an Indian man. Her feet were uncovered; perhaps she had taken on the Hanafi fiqh to practice Islam the way he does.
She pressed the bell. The bus slowed down, and the Malay lady and her Indian husband got off, hand in hand.
Perhaps she has learnt her lesson in the past year. Her specific journey has ended.
The bus rumbled and moved again.
My learning journey, on other hand, was just beginning.