When Datuk (Grandfather in Melayu) left, I felt as if a great void had opened in my chest. I came home one day, opened the door, and I saw him reclined in that moth-eaten rattan chair, cigarette dribbling ash, and I knew he was gone. The paramedics pronounced him dead on arrival, but it was only a formality. Only a shell, an empty husk remained.

I did not cry for him–he was only a memory now, and his soul at peace. The stroke was God’s blessing to him, a painless passing; for though he suffered much hardship, he, like the long-suffering Job, took his trials in stride and faithfully attended his duties. I cried for myself, selfishly, because now even the aloof Datuk was taken from me.

My relationship with Datuk was complicated, to say the least. I had always lived with him, but really we were never close. We lived alone, us two; my own father incarcerated and my mother, I never knew her. Datuk was a man of few words, a strange man of uncomfortable shyness.

Ours was a love formal in all aspects; he, the provider, I, the beneficiary. I do not even remember him holding a job, but even so, he provided for me–clothed me, fed me, put a roof over my head and sent me to school. He wordlessly kept vigil by my side when I was ill, and beat me impassively when I was wayward. He was simultaneously dutiful and mechanical in child-rearing, for which I am grateful and bewildered in equal parts.

Datuk was a smart, talented man, but also a man most peculiar and haunted. I was told Datuk never received formal schooling, but was he ever gifted with his hands! I spent much of my childhood watching him work in silence on his beloved, equally ancient cherry-red Yamaha, save for the clinking of tools. He fashioned several of my childhood toys out of random scraps of wood and metal scrounged from the local bin centre, given that we were never rich, and it was from his mechanical inclinations, I believe, that I developed mine own fascinations with engines and dreams toward aerospace engineering.

Yet for all his brilliance, Datuk had such a complex personality, both secretive and awkward. Every morning, I would see him hoist up his helmet, and putter off on his beat-up motorcycle to an unknown destination. He would only return late in the evening, and I would never know whence he came–I do not think that he deliberately concealed that information, rather that he was infinitely taciturn in all things.

He also had a bad case of nerves, both exacerbated and soothed by heavy chain-smoking. Datuk was bedevilled by a constant uneasiness, which ranged from mere restlessness to vigorous shaking and silent whimpers, albeit hidden from me. His wispy frame was frequently wracked with hacking coughs, veins convulsing wildly over his wizened forehead. He was also a terrible insomniac, for I never once caught him sleeping, often sitting as he did by the window, scarcely visible in the half light, staring grimly with keen, reddish eyes past the equally stony façade of the ground floor playground, almost as if he were a Seraph, standing between the world and our home, the sanctuary he guarded unflaggingly. It makes my heart twinge, when I know I never again will see him; shakily sucking in long, onerous drags, breathing out warm wet smoke between yellowed teeth and inflamed, receding gums, accompanied only by dying cigarettes in the overflowing ashtray and a pack or two of Marlboro Reds, waiting for daybreak. He will never again see daybreak.

The funeral was a bittersweet affair. Datuk was an intensely private individual, so during the preparation for burial I bathed his body alone, as quickly as I could, before wrapping him in the white cloth. It was meant to be simple and modest, as was the custom, and also to reflect him, or at least what I knew of him. And so I was veritably astonished, as were the few neighbours who turned up, when I heard thunder and roaring equal to the heavens, and saw to my great amazement a prodigious convocation of motorbikes rolling up to the cemetery. Rough looking men, men for whom the word thug was invented, arrived at an alarming rate. We hurriedly moved to accommodate the burgeoning crowd, who unspeakingly arranged themselves, for there were so many of them, I wondered how there was enough space to move the body into the grave.

The supplications were performed, and when they were finished, I touched my cheeks, and they were wet. The crowd watched gravely as the body was lowered in and I bade my final farewell. Then the planks were laid and soil shovelled over. And it was done.

The men left as quickly as they had come, hopping on their motorbikes and disappearing over the horizon, but before they were all gone, I asked one privately, “Who are you? Where did you come from?” He regarded me not unkindly and hesitated, before brusquely saying, “If he did not confide in you, even the one he loves most, then it’s not necessary for you to know.” He paused, and added more genially, “But you should at least know that your Datuk saved many of us, and helped countless others and stopped a lot of blood being shed over worthless things. He was a great man.” Then the man became tight-lipped, wrapped his kerchief about his face and mounted his bike, and left with the rest of them.

“Respect few, fear none” was the code these men lived by, and somehow, Datuk must have been one of the few these men held in high regard. It took me a long time to work through the loss, for I lost my closest kin, and even though the mourning period was three days, I would mourn him for far longer and forever miss his presence. But once in a while, I might see a group of men nearby, undoubtedly men familiar with the violent underworld, yet of strangely similar demeanour to Datuk and I remember him. Surely, somehow, I am not alone.


This essay was originally written for the question: “Recount an incident when you lost something or someone important to you.”