When I found father's resting place, I could only say sorry

All I had with me was his last postal address and a death certificate issued from Kota Marudu, a remote area in Kota Belud, Sabah, East Malaysia.

By Nazeem Beegum

Published: Wed 17 Feb 2016, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Thu 18 Feb 2016, 1:00 AM

I watched the deep blue sky kissing the mountains as the plane made its descent into Kota Kinabalu airport in Malaysia. The tranquil landscape put me at ease. I was guided by a sense of purpose - to walk the paths trod by my father many years ago and find his final resting place.
All I had with me was his last postal address and a death certificate issued from Kota Marudu, a remote area in Kota Belud, Sabah, East Malaysia.
There were no excited faces at the airport; no snaking queues like in Dubai or airports in India. People were busy on their phones using the airport Wifi service. When the immigration officer asked the reason for my visit I was lost for words. I had lived in the country till age six. I choked and could not answer when he asked if I had returned in search of my roots.
On the way to the hotel, with a heavy heart, I tried to visualise the place, where my father had made it big - I was told he was a man of repute. I vaguely remembered life with my parents here 'once upon a time'. One incident, however, is clear as day - I locked my sister (by mistake) in a room when my mother went for her bath. I heard the voices of people breaking the window of the room to get us out. Some memories are vague, others are clear, but I knew for sure that this was where my father lived and died 31 years ago.
I am one unlucky child who got to know her father from others after his untimely death in early the 1980s. My childhood memories of him are hazy. I gleaned information, including from domestic help in our household. I now wanted to be close to him.
Before I began this emotional, soul-searching journey, people asked me what I remembered of Malaysia. I only had three things to say - the smell of that final flight I took to return home to India; a beverage (I haven't experienced that taste again), and a fruit, the name of which I cannot recollect. I also shared with them what I heard from mother that air hostesses "shook hands" with passengers back then.
Even though I was swept by a flood of thought, there was an inner peace, someone, something was guiding me in this search. Looking back, it seemed from the day the visa application was moved in Dubai, the world around was helping me complete my dream journey. In Malaysia, I felt it immensely. Wherever I went, help poured in from all quarters. I didn't even ask for it. It happened. People were as natural as nature there.
I didn't know a word of Malay, but managed to reach Papar, en route to Kota Belud. I was told father suffered a fatal heart attack here. This could be it. This could be the place where I once lived with my family. I had a photograph of me sitting at a bus station. The station was gone. My driver and guide could not identify the place from the picture and concluded that the bus had become a museum piece. I believed him.
When we stopped at a local market, nostalia overwhelmed me and I furiously started taking pictures. This was indeed the place where I lived with my parents, and where my father ran a shop before moving to Kota Belud.
It was an adventurous day as the trip ended in Kumpong Kaiduan, an untouched forest criss-crossed by streams. The roads were bumpy. Something was happening. I was being led.
The next day, at the Kota Belud Post Office, I realised my heart was pounding. Anxiety soared as I stepped into the room. The post office box number was critical in my quest. I was wary of encountering trouble with the bureaucracy, but civil servants are not the same everywhere.
The woman postmaster general didn't waste time and asked a postman to check the address. To my surprise, she said the post box number was still in use and then drew a map to the location. Tears of joy filled my eyes when the man who had been handling my father's post box number for years approached and asked who I was.
He took me to my father's old shop and house which had stood the test of time and also made arrangements to visit his grave. All the childhood stories about father, who sent sacks of sugar and other foodstuff home at a time when India was going through a severe food crisis, and how he influenced and improved the lives of others came to mind. I wondered why my mother never lauded his generosity or spoke of it to her children.
One of father's aides accompanied me to his grave. Much to my surprise, the grave was in good condition. His name was carved on the stone. He was here. I lost my breath for a moment. What came out was a big ''sorry'' and many questions that he would never answer.
I felt he had been waiting here all these years for me. I could be by his side now, at least for a short while.
Life was never the same after he left for his heavenly abode thirty years ago. It will never be the same for me after getting to know him again.

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