Yesterday, I went to Batu Caves to see the Thaipusam celebration. This is the second time in my life I joined the actual Thaipusam celebration. The first time was in 1997.
For those of you who have never seen it before, Thaipusam celebration is quite a sight: men and women shaving their heads completely and anointing their heads with yellow powder (turmeric? henna?), peacock feathers and coconut shells everywhere, scores of tourists from around the world (white people are naturally attracted to this type of exotic celebration), veggie food stalls (I just learned that Ramly Burger also produces veggie burgers), colorful dresses (with bright pastel-colored tops mismatched with bright pastel-colored trousers / long skirts; you have to give it to the Indians for the their daring “color coordination”, hehe), holy men in their saffron colored robes, and of course who can forget the kavadi.
It is one thing to see kavadis in TV or newspapers but to see it in real life is a fascinating experience indeed. Amid shouts of “vel vel” from the devout, really strong (and stoned?) guys carry meticulously decorated portable altars on their shoulders, supported by metal rods which are pierced through their chests and backs. Some of the most spectecular kavadis have bells and chimes, which would jingle as the kavadi carriers dance and whirl to the tune of music from the accompanying percussionists. The carriers would then carry the kavadi all the way up to the cave (about 300 steps) and then back down to the congregation. I don’t know how they managed to do that, but they have my respect.
I usually do not bother going to Batu Caves, let alone during Thaipusam, but yesterday two friends were visiting from overseas, and they insisted I bring them to see the Thaipusam celebration. We arrived after lunch, so the congregation were less crowded (most of the events took place during the eve and the morning). My friends wanted to go upstairs to the entrance of the cave. I told them go ahead, I’ll wait for you down here. Takde kerja aku nak naik, buat tercabut lutut aku je. Baik aku duduk bawah minum air kelapa, keh keh keh.
Although the number of people present were estimated at about half a million, the whole affair was quite civil and orderly. People on the ground treated me with respect, and would bend over backwards to make non-Hindus and tourists feel at home. The presence of police, ambulance, bomba, RELA, and PBSM kept untoward incidents to a minimum, although I saw one men got carted off by uniformed policemen, presumably for disturbing the peace. Some shopowners thought I am an Indonesian tourist. Rather than letting them rip me off (which ought to happen to tourists), I told them I am from Taman Greenwood which is just 5 minutes from Batu Caves, and I am a good friend of ADUN Batu Caves. Lama pulak tak contact si Amir nih, mentang-mentang dah sebok jadi wakil rakyat. We used to hang out until very late in the morning discussing politics and religious issues. Nanti lah aku call tanya khabar si YB ni.
What I learn from my trip to Batu Caves:
1. Malaysian Indians are a peaceful bunch, who, like other people, desire equal rights and rights to self-determination. I know many Malay and Chinese who do not like the “kelings”, but that should be kept as a private matter, and should not matter an iota when it comes to policy or governance.
The common stereotype is that Malaysian Indians are loud and uncouth, but that should be seen in context; Malaysian Indians by and large grow up in unfavorable economic conditions, with limited help from the government or institutions claiming to represent Indian interests, and were kept down due to racism and to a certain extent, their social structure (*cough* kasta *cough*). Many Indians excel in professional fields like medicine and law, but in general the Indian community are left far behind in economic and human development. I see my fellow Indians as loyal Malaysians — most of them won’t survive one month in India — but here they have it worse than the Malays (who are protected by government) and the Chinese (who are rich).
Many people have warned me about Indians (don’t do business with them, don’t go to their areas at night, don’t trust them with anything), I see these “warnings” as mere racism, pure and simple. Although nothing bad can come with being cautious. I almost learned this the hard way one day when I was alone in Sentul at about 2am. Suddenly a group of Indian youths walked passed me, swaggering like gangsters, and a couple of them gave me the stink eye, and made comments about me to each other in Tamil. Fortunately, they just walked passed me and nothing bad happened.
I am not a racist; I do not say all Indian youths or all Sentul residences are gangsters. There are dangerous Chinese neighborhoods (e.g. Jinjang @ Xinjiang), and dangerous Malay neighborhoods (e.g. parts of Kg. Baru) as well. Common sense dictates that you should not be at dangerous places, especially at night, and definitely not alone.
Racists stereotypes are demeaning, and when one race is automatically demonized as potential troublemakers, then something is not right.
2. Almost all the Indians I saw at Batu Caves are those with dark completions. Where are the fair-skinned Indians? Are most of them Muslims and Christians? The reason I asked this is mere curiosity — I am interested to know the social dynamics of the Indian community in Malaysia.
My friend Shahabudeen Jalil, whose family hailed from Tamil Nadu, has schooled me on different types of Indians: mamak, lebai, khan, rowther, Aryans, Dravidians, etc. What I’d like to know why most devout Hindus (i.e. people who actually showed up at Batu Caves), are among the darker-skinned types.
3. Indians are still throwing their lot with the ruling party. In Batu Caves, I saw giant posters of the Prime Minister wearing garlands, shaking hands with Indian leaders (although I did not see Samy Vellu’s pictures, I wonder why). The short-lived HINDRAF phenomenon has lost steam completely; the splinter groups are actually pro-government. The Indians were angry with MIC and Samy Vellu in 2008 and voted opposition, but after a few years, the tide seems to be reversing. The Indian community in Malaysia, due to limited numbers and limited economic pull, inevitably come crawling back to the ruling party. In history, the Malaysian Indian community were never successful in pursuing sustained opposition to the government of the day. Some Indians became respectable opposition leaders and commanded a big number of followers, but these are more likely the exception than the norm.
Why is this state of affairs? I have no idea, I am no political analyst. But if I may venture a guess, I’d say it is because no opposition party is truly connected to the grassroot Indian community. PAS have fielded an Indian candidate in the last election, but their relationship to the grassroot Indian community is not there yet. DAP have several high-ranking Indians and claims to fight for a socialist ideal, which SHOULD appeal to the underprivileged grassroot Indians. However, in reality, Indians view DAP as just another Chinese party (like MCA), and the Kg. Buah Pala imbroglio certainly doesn’t help matters. Anwar parlayed his rhetorical skills to attract Indians to PKR (“anak india anak saya, anak cina anak saya, anak melayu anak saya”) and made alliances with HINDRAF, but PKR is a political newbie (relatively speaking) and their track record in improving the lives of Indians is at best questionable, at worst nonexistent. Ask the residence and temple committee at Batu Caves, what good have their PKR ADUN did for the area? There were other fringe parties like the old PRM (yang logonya kepala lembu — bukan pijak kepala lembu) and Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM), who are/were fighting for the socialist ethos of power to the underprivileged classes. These parties by right should appeal to the poor Indians, but these small parties have limited funding, thus limited following. Also, calling for class warfare has never been popular in Malaysia.