Home TA Online Usman Awang’s poem Ke Makam Bonda (At Mother’s Grave) and Covid-19

Usman Awang’s poem Ke Makam Bonda (At Mother’s Grave) and Covid-19

Honouring the dead - DR WONG SOAK KOON/ALIRAN

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Wong Soak Koon translates Usman Awang’s poem Ke Makam Bonda because it speaks to all of us, regardless of race or religion, by depicting loss and longing – feelings which can assail each of us.

For many Chinese worldwide, this season of Covid-19 meant changes to traditional practices.

I recall reading about a Malaysian gentleman, 78, who had never missed going to the cemetery at Ching Ming to pay his respects to departed ancestors since he was a child. This year he had no choice but to break this long-held tradition.

With Hari Raya not too far away many of our Malay-Muslim friends may be wondering if it will be possible to visit the graves of loved ones in remembrance and love, a traditional family event often carried out come Hari Raya.

Sketch by Wong Soak Koon

I take down once again from my shelf the collection of Usman Awang’s poems to relook at his unforgettable poem Ke Makam Bonda (At Mother’s Grave). I translate the title with the preposition “at” and not “to” because this journey to the cemetery is not only a physical journey. It is a journey back in time to recall a mother’s nurturing love.

Such moments are what the Romantic poet Wordsworth names “spots of time”, those illuminations which light our path in Life’s journey even in seasons of “dark” challenges. This season of corona ,which tests our capacity for love and hope, is just such a dark season.

I translate Usman Awang’s poem Ke Makam Bonda because it speaks to all of us, regardless of race or religion, by depicting loss and longing, feelings which can assail each of us. In addition, this poem records a sense of gratitude to a departed loved one. A new cognisance of gratitude is what we need in this season of corona.

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Reflecting on this poem and translating it, I say a prayer for all those who lost loved ones in this Covid-19 pandemic, especially for those who could not even say goodbye in person. May we be reassured that love transcends time and space.

Ke Makam Bonda

Kami mengunjungi pusara bonda,

Sunyi pagi disinari suria,

Wangi berseri pushpa kemboja,

Menyambut kami mewakili bonda.


Tegak kami di makam sepi,

Lalang-lalang tinggi berdiri,

Dua nisan terkapar mati,

Hanya papan dimakan bumi.


Dalam kenangan kami melihat

Mesra kasih bonda menatap,

Sedang lena dalam rahap,

Dua tangan kaku derdakap.


Bibir bonda bersih lesu,

Pernah dulu mengucupi dahiku,

Kini kurasakan kasihnya lagi,

Meski jauh dibatasi bumi.


Nisan batu kami tegakkan,

Tiada lagi lalang memanjang,

Ada doa kami pohonkan,

Air mawar kami siramkan.


Senyum kemboja menghantar kami,

Meninggalkan makam sepi sendiri,

Damailah bonda dalam pengabdian,

Insan kerdil manghadap Tuhan.


Begitu bakti kami berikan,

Tiada sama bonda melahirkan,

Kasih bonda tiada sempadan,

Kemuncak murni kemuliaan insan.

– Usman Awang


At Mother’s Grave

We visit mother’s grave,

A quiet morning of sunlight,

Fresh fragrance of frangipanni,

Welcome us like mother would.

Straight-backed we stand at the quiet grave,

The lalang stands tall,

Two grave stones lay strewn,

Only the planks are earth-consumed.


In memory we contemplate,

The deep love in mother’s eyes,

Now asleep in her grave cloth,

Two arms in stiff embrace.


Mother’s lips in lifeless silence,

Once kissed my forehead,

Now I feel her love again,

Though the earth separates us.


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We straighten the grave stone,

Lalang no longer grows high,

A prayer we ask for,

And rose water we sprinkle.


The frangipanni bids us farewell,

As we leave the silent grave,

May mother rest in the peace of worship,

A mere mortal before the Almighty.


This is our act of loving devotion,

Far less than what mother birthed,

A mother loves without limits,

The purest and greatest of mortal love.

– translated by Wong Soak Koon

Usman Awang’s use of words like “makam” and “bonda” – instead of kubur and emak – captures the high respect he had for his mother as these words, often formalised for use with royalty, adds to his mother’s stature regardless of her social class.

Maternal love gives focus to this poem and the children reciprocate in the traditional custom of visiting her grave. Far more significant than outward acts is that inward devotion and deep love which memory poignantly re-evokes.

By contrast with the poem’s depiction of familal affection, an alarming increase in domestic violence cases has been reported after the movement control order was imposed. It saddens me, and once again, I say a prayer.

In no way do I dismiss the horror of domestic violence but as an incorrigible romantic, I fervently hope that good too can come out of this enforced daily proximity of husbands and wives , of parents and children, under the movement control order.

Many men, as fathers, love boundlessly too. I am the last person to divide people by stereotypes of gender. From male friends’ behaviour under the movement control order, I see the devotion and care fathers and grandfathers shower on children in this season of Covid-19. They take on even more child-caring duties than some of them did before the moverment control order.

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Sketch by Aliran member Wong Soak Koon

In an oft-quoted line, British novelist Virginia Woolf, who had her own share of pain, tells us to continue believing in small “illuminations”. She calls them “matches struck in the dark”.

May we all be blessed with these lights, however small or transient, and may the community memory of this season of corona be a balanced record of both the good and the bad.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
  1. Tegakkan maruah serta kualiti kehidupan rakyat
  2. Galakkan pembangunan saksama, lestari serta tangani krisis alam sekitar
  3. Raikan kerencaman dan keterangkuman
  4. Selamatkan demokrasi dan angkatkan keluhuran undang-undang
  5. Lawan rasuah dan kronisme
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Dr Wong Soak Koon is a longtime member and former executive committee member of Aliran. She gained a first-class honours BA degree and a masters in English literature from the University of Malaya and a doctorate in English Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where she studied under a Harvard-Yenching fellowship
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