Some time ago I had the privilege of being invited to a jolly Chinese Malaysian’s house. He was a big noise in the bar and offered to prepare sashimi. One Saturday evening, some friends and I pulled up outside his palatial gates and were ushered in. Everything was grandiose, like a three storey wedding cake with columns and pediments. We English-teaching peasants entered with dopey grins, trying not to look like we were in awe. Personally, I was amazed. I learned that the bigger the house, the harder it was to furnish.
No one lived downstairs. Downstairs was an unlit storage area crammed with very expensive knickknacks which wouldn’t have looked right anywhere else: six foot urns, ostentatious desks, wardrobes the size of mausoleums, discarded three piece suits and then boxes and ornaments filling the spaces between. And hidden away in the centre of this temple of heirlooms, was the fish. It looked downcast, which is impressive for a fish. Fortunately, its tank was a good metre and a half long, so it had space to open and close its mouth. And through this jungle of discarded brick-a-brack we cut our way to the stairs.
Once up top, it was the same; an expanse of deposited curios with a low-lit kitchenette and a table to sit around. But there was life here, of sorts. Family members young and ancient resided alone in en-suite rooms around the periphery. Doors would occasionally open and spill light, and someone would try to call to an occupant of another room, and then give up and text them. Our host admitted with his jolly laugh that his family, living under one roof, mostly communicated by phone. It was a wonderful evening of drink, sashimi, easy laughter, boggling at where good money went, and trying not to think about what the denizens of the sprawling kampung outside might make of it. The long story shorter, through various similar experiences and serious social documentaries like sinetron, I’ve come to realize that smaller is better, perhaps even for where I live.
I live on a dishevelled gated complex in a house based on the same blueprint as my dad’s garage. A previous occupant messed with the layout, meaning our kitchen area is now what Luxemburg is to Europe, and our toilet is a suburb of Luxemburg City. We have stairs to a second floor, but no second floor, just a water feature in rainy season, which we can’t turn off. Our kitchen drain is irreparably blocked, so when it’s not rainy season, we still have a permanent stagnant pond feature. And myself, wife, two daughters, her younger sister, sister’s friend and two brothers-in-law do very well out of it. It’s an overpopulated rabbit hutch, but a happy home. And it is a happy home because there is evidence of ‘humans being’.
• The unsellable kitsch hanging on my walls I actually paint and make myself – evidence of a hobby or interest.
• The food smells in my house are not from takeout, but not that fresh either unfortunately – evidence of culinary interest and competence.
• The bicycle, mini gym and kick bag taking up the entrance are well-used – evidence of… actually not much if I’m honest about my appearance.
• The humble furniture we’ve gathered is arranged for regular social use and maximum comfort – evidence the whole house is used (though not hard in our case).
• There are tended plants inside and out in the doormat-sized garden – evidence of attempted daily maintenance and harmony with our surroundings.
• There is a bookshelf with real books that are really read – evidence of worldly interests beyond our selves.
The point being, although my present home is hideous in many ways, you can get an immediate, unabashed idea about who lives there, and feel at ease.
And then there’s where my dear wife’s family live: shacks on a cement factory, a stilted lean-to in the jungles of Korolama, poorly constructed urban developments out of town, all of which I find utterly charming: roving chickens, opportunist cats, swarms of flies, sultry heat, fans, kampung food, family gossip, togetherness and happiness. Every time I pay a visit I fall asleep on a pillow that could predate agriculture, lulled by the kindness and tranquillity found in syrupy tea and endless dry cakes. I’d almost envy them if I didn’t have to keep paying for their medical emergencies and financial misjudgements.
From such observations, I can say I’d much rather be living in my architectural prank of a house than a millionaire’s creamy coloured cake-castle with Greek pediments, Ionic columns and unused space. The interesting thing is that real Indo living from back in the days, real life anywhere, extends beyond walls. My mother-in-law is always taking a twenty-hour bus ride to and from the city to be with us (yeh!) for any family emergency, whereas in my jolly host’s house from the second paragraph, they only knew each other by phone. Looking around, Mr. and Mrs. Yusuf Public in the cartoon do alright. As a final thought, maybe it’s not the poor that need rescuing. They have their kitsch and they treasure it, and I love that. The other ninety ninth in complexes like mine and cake-castles have quantity, but quality?