Chik never felt more nervous in his life. The worst part about it? It felt like the most normal day he had ever had. The sun was beating down on the five-acre property as it always had. His kids, Amira and Aman, were fighting over who was the best in their family, tussling like real kampung kids. His mother sat on the papan floor above, chewing obsessively on her sirih leaves. Putri, his beautiful wife, making a little snack in the kitchen. Yet, something in Chik knew there was a sense of…wrongness in the air. Maybe it was the ominous gathering of clouds over the horizon. The undertone of a wretched scent invading his nostrils. It felt familiar. So familiar that his steady hands began to quiver like shreds of frail paper in the wind.
“MAK!!!! AIR DAH MASUK!”
His sister’s screams were the worst sound he had heard in his thirteen years of life. Nothing could beat it. Not the sound of the woodland creatures at night that howl and laugh at some invisible “mak kau hijau”. Not even the sound of another dying chicken getting put down by his father, its final shrieks almost too heart-wrenching to even think of. This scream was one of pure, raw fear. They all knew exactly what that fear was.
“AMBIK APA YANG KAU BOLEH ANGKAT! YANG LAIN TINGGAL JE! KITA KENA PERGI SEKARANG!”
His mother’s screams cut through whatever fog was clouding his gut instincts and his whole body shifted into high gear. All around Chik, the panicked blur of his family members passed him by. Grabbing some of his shirts from his drawers, he nearly slipped as the water level steadily rose past the soles of his feet. It always has flooded in Kelantan for as long as he can remember but he agreed with his mother when she, too, cursed her lungs out from nearly falling herself.
“Ya Allah! Why did you have to curse us with such rain??!??!??!??” she bellowed with all her might. Glaring at Chik’s sister, she said, “Kau lupa ka nak bagitau kita pasal ni?”
“Mak, sumpah Aisyah tak bohong!” she protested. “I saw it on YouTube that the floods wouldn’t come until next month. Eh, bulan ni bulan December kan?”
“Hari ini, Aisyah memang betul, mak,” I added. “I don’t know why the floods are coming now.”
She turned dramatically to the now rising water and sighed before continuing her frenzy. “Ok, jangan tunggu sampai tenggelam pulak. CEPAT CE—”
“—pat, cepat! Masuk rumah!” Chik’s wife, Putri, shouted from the porch. “Sayang, oi sayang!”
Chik awoke from his day terror, his hands quivering ever so slightly. His wife gave him a quick flash of concern before waving him over to the stairs that led to his rumah panjang. As he jogged up the wooden steps, he heard the distant wailing sound of the siren at the ketua’s house. It set him on edge, but he steeled his nerves as he faced the worried expressions of his family. Floods may be common within the region but that didn’t make them any less of a burden on families across Kelantan. Especially with how unpredictably bad they could get.
“Mak, make sure the animals and whatever crops we have are all secure in their rooms,” he said to his mother. “We don’t want them to drown.”
Turning to his beloved wife, he instructed, “Make sure the air tanks are full and, if not, we better get a head start now.”
“Aman, check the power system and make sure it is ready to keep us going. And my sweet Amira, make sure you check the stilts are working well.”
They all simply nodded at him and went to complete their tasks. Chik may not have been aware of it, but they all knew how he acted when the floods came. He started to pace back and forth around his living room — be it smaller than he would have liked — as words flew from his brain out of his mouth. “I don’t know if we are going to make it through this flood.”
“Sayang,” his wife said, “I just opened up the air tanks. I think we will be just fine.”
But he was not listening to Putri’s consoling as he stared out his living room window. His eyes were transfixed on the heavy sheets of rain as the memory bubbled out of the darkest corner of his mind.
The rain always made Chik nervous. But this rain…it kept coming. He had never seen it this relentless before. In fact, he could barely register his surroundings. So, as Chik stood on the roof with whatever clothes he could carry, shivering and cold, he barely heard his mother and sister begin to shout. He almost thought they were calling for their neighbors who lived not so far away. Their shouts for help seem to fall on deaf ears, though, as he didn’t seem to hear any response. Yet, he kept thinking, “Why would they call for the neighbors when they are probably facing the same problem too?”
That’s when he registered why they were really shouting.
“ABANG!! Cepatlah, abang,” his mother cried.
“Abah, ambillah tangan Aisyah!”
Chik didn’t know why he had not noticed his father barely hanging on for his life. The water had halfway reached the top of the house’s entrance, forming strong currents that pushed around whatever it could find: trees, cars, and his father who was bravely swimming towards them. Even such a strong man like him was struggling to maintain his direction towards them. Yet, he was persistent and oh so close to them.
Chik could make out his father’s hopeful features as he began to reach for the edge of the long gone door. He felt the house creak as the stilts resisted the power of the swirling tides that grew by the minute. Lightning flashed, momentarily blinding all of them. He even felt his hair singe from how close it was. He remembered the sounds of what happened next before his eyes took in the scene and the gasp came spilling out of his mouth.
“CHIK! AISYAH! SAYA—” His father’s words were abruptly cut off as the tree hit by lightning fell and he sank beneath the murky water. Just like that.
They screamed and wailed as they waited for a miracle. Hoping that the man of the house would resurface, unharmed. Yet, all Chik could think about was how the water was seeping into the house just like his own anxiety and the crushing feeling came back and—
“Sayang, we have a problem. Are you okay?”
Chik snapped out of himself as the word problem danced around his anxiety. He gave his wife a quick nod before he asked her what went wrong.
“Well, Amira came back from checking out the stilts and…well…they are not moving like how they should be.”
“A-Are you sure?” he stammered. “I swear on Allah that I checked yesterday, and they were fine.”
“Your daughter may be ten, Chik, but she is not dumb. She knows when the stilts aren’t able to raise.”, his wife scolded, pinching the bridge of her nose.
“W-Well what about everything else?”
“Her twin brother checked, and the roof is good to go. Both air tanks are full now and your mother has made sure that our animals are fine. But you know what this means.”
“No, we have never tested it. What if it doesn’t work? Apa kalau rumah ni jadi kubur kita?”, Chik mutters, his whole body feeling set on fire with panic.
“Sayang, it will work,” his wife assured him.
“Well, the stilts didn’t work!” he shouted back at her. Putting his head between his hands, he regretted acting out when his wife was trying to help.
Being the kind, compassionate, loving woman she was, she simply rubbed his back and said, “Don’t worry, Chik. I will be there to hold your hand. We have to do it now.”
And so, with his wife at his side, they moved into the control room only to be met with the rest of the family. They all appeared worried for him. He knew that he felt the same towards himself. But he also knew his family depended on him now to make this decision. Taking in a wavering breath, he held it in his chest as he flipped the switch. His body started shivering as he heard the hiss and pop of the stilts dismounting. And he waited. He dreaded the moment when he would feel his feet dampening from the water seeping through the floor…
“We are…floating?” he cautiously asked his wife.
“Yes,” she said. “I told you we would be fine.”
“What about our power?” he said before moving to check the roof.
Putri merely chuckled and, as he looked back, pointed towards the glowing fluorescent blue pipes that ran around the frame of the house. He still marveled at the ingenious nature of it all. The roof outside collected rainwater through the gutters and curves of the Minangkabau design which generated power through the water’s high-speed movement.
The static was enough to power certain devices within the house while a pair of propellers helped to steer the house. Though all rumah panjang came with an anchor if the owners felt like they wanted to stay in one place. There were also some railings around the side of the house that acted as decoration for the porch and fishing nets that could be used to catch fish in case of emergencies.
Staring at the roof brought back another memory but Amira interrupted him before his mind took over.
“Why are you staring at the roof, abah?” she asked innocently.
“Sayang,” he said while looking at his mother, “I don’t want to talk about that.”
“Are you sure you’re okay, abah?”
He took a deep rattling breath before he said, “When I was about your age, we didn’t have all these fancy things to help us. We had to wait for help on our roof, hoping the water would not reach. Luckily, the bomba found us but some people…were not as lucky.” He paused as he felt his mother’s firm hand grip his shoulder.
“Nak, itu dah cerita lamalah. Kenapa Chik nak bawak balik sengsara zaman itu?”
“Ye, sayang. Betul kata Mak,” Putri agreed. “Perhaps it is time you faced that fear of yours. We are all going to be just fine.”
Being surrounded by the ones he loved did make Chik feel better. But, in his heart, he knew. The danger he kept an eye out for was always around the corner. Yet, his family was right about one thing: they were better prepared. As he continued to stare out the window, he saw other houses floating across the waterlogged forest. The tops of the trees were barely visible at this point and yet, he smiled.
It was not for humanity, as they had been the ones who started this mess. It was definitely not a smile of pride. It was of gratefulness. For today. And, secretly, the hope that things would get better.
About the Work
“Banjir” traces its inspirations from the devastating monsoon floods that states like Kelantan and Terengganu face which have gotten worse from climate change. Chik, our main character, is a victim of this. Throughout the story, he flashes from the past into the present and how his experiences wildly differ. The story shows the level of his anxiety and PTSD when he realizes the bright day he was enjoying was darkening. The story is also supposed to show how we are meant to be responding to climate change. By 2055, Chik and his family finally have a home they do not have to abandon to the fury of the thunderstorm. It reflects a more climate-prepared Malaysia, especially in areas like his. It also uses more tradition and culture through the Minangkabau architecture and typical rumah kampung structure, reflecting Kelantan’s more old fashioned and culture-rich background. Most of all, it is a story that I feel a lot of people now can relate to and hope to see happen in the future in terms of being ready to face worsening climate events.
Main illustration by Teo Sheng Li | @sheilidify on Instagram and YouTube
See related references for this work:
Unique eco-friendly floating homes, ReTalk Asia
Culture for Climate Action, UNESCO
INTERACTIVE: Brace for worsening floods, The Star
Preserving Malaysia’s traditional houses, one pillar at a time
About the Creative
Ackash Kumar is a Malaysian-Punjabi writer of short stories and poems. His interests in Malaysian culture, people, nature and the occult inspire his work, among other sources. Currently, a portion of his unpublished book, Sagittarius, has been published by Rejected Manuscripts. Two of his poems can also be found in the first edition of MISI:Bawang’s e-magazine.
To contact him for future projects, you can check out his website.
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