Faith and beliefs collide in a tale about adoption in the Malay-Muslim community.
What does family mean? Is it the people we are related by blood to, or is is simply a matter of choice as to who we bond with? The traditional idea of a family is called into question with Rupa co.lab’s latest show, Rindu di Bulan (明月千里寄相思), as they examine the issue of interracial adoption in the Malay community, and the implications it has on the family.
Written by Raimi Safari and directed by Adib Kosnan, Rindu di Bulan primarily focuses on Suraida (Suhaila M Sanif), a Malay-Muslim woman preparing for a mini-pilgrimage to Mecca. However, in her preparation process, she comes to realise that there are several obstacles and complications arising from having adopted Azim (Iskandar Shah Zulkifli), her non-Malay, non-Muslim son.
Rindu di Bulan however, is in no way a straightforward realist drama, and introduces surreal, fantastical elements as well, made clear right from the beginning. As its name suggests, Rindu di Bulan, which translates directly to ‘missing the moon’, not only does the moon itself provoke thought and reflection when gazing out upon it, but it’s quite literally presented in this play, in the form of Chinese goddess Chang’e (Suhaili Safari), who finds herself stranded on the moon. Desperate to get off it, she screams for the gods to no avail, eventually flinging herself to the ground in defeat, and making ‘snow angels’ in exasperation.
But what exactly does a Chinese goddess have to do with an ordinary Malay family? Perhaps the answer lies in the multicultural nature of Singapore, where all children grow up at least vaguely aware of the myths of other cultures, and our identity is no longer considered distinct and chained to our race, but a mixture of all that we’ve grown up with, combining both nature and nurture to produce the people we are today. Even in something as innocuous as learning our mother tongue, we are encouraged to return to our ancestral roots defined by our race, perhaps creating silos that divide us on account of our spoken language that divide us, rather than being explicitly multicultural. In Rindu di Bulan then, Chang’e (and her life-sized rabbit Putih, played by Wan Haddad Salleh), are so present, because they have an almost astrological and spiritual impact on Suraida and Azim on Earth, silently watching over them via telescope, and symbolising Azim as a product of both his birth and his upbringing in a Malay-Muslim household.
Turning our attention to Earth, we see how for the most part, things are stable between Suraida and Azim. Both are aware that he is adopted, and in an early comic scene, they share a light-hearted moment, as Azim helps Suraida find her tudung, strutting about in his singlet and shorts with it while Suraida watches and laughs along. For Suraida, Azim is the only man she needs in her life.
This close relationship however, comes into question when Suraida prepares for her Umrah pilgrimage (an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that can be undertaken at any time of the year). At the mosque, Suraida is joined by fellow makcik Faridah (Suhaili Safari), as they listen to the ustaz (Wan Haddad Salleh) teach them how to perform the tawaf (the ritual of circumambulating the Kaaba seven times as part of the hajj in Mecca). It is clear that respect for tradition is held in high regard, with demonstration done in such a deliberate and patient way, that even we understand the importance, and appreciate the significance of the rituals one takes on an Umrah.
But as tradition decrees, Suraida requires her next-of-kin to write a letter of consent for her Umrah, and as an adopted son, Azim cannot be considered. Even worse is when she realises she’s been doing everything ‘wrong’ this whole time, even when it comes to forgetting to wear the telekung (prayer garment) at home to conceal her body in front of him, a mahram (a member of the family with whom marriage would be considered haram).
What is once considered an ideal, harmonious co-existence between mother and adopted son is shattered when religious laws and rules are enforced, one that Suraida is torn by when choosing between having a happy parental relationship with Azim, or treating him like an outsider for the sake of being closer to God. All this rises to the fore when Suraida returns home and attempts to start practicing the ‘right’ thing to do. Even with light-hearted moments, like how Suraida comes out chatting excitedly with Faridah on her phone, nestling it in her hijab like a makeshift phone holder, the levity dissipates when we see Azim return home, exhausted from work. Mother and son can no longer be as close to each other due to the need to shield herself in front of him with the telekung, and when Azim sees this at home, he becomes frustrated as to why this becomes such a big issue only now.
Raimi Safari’s script doesn’t just stop at the conflict faced by non-Malay adoptees and their Muslim parents, but also, how it was common practice not to officiate these adoptions, where the State’s laws come into play and restrict unofficial adoptees from enjoying the same benefits as official ones. When attempting to apply for a flat at the HDB office with Suraida, Azim receives a rejection as he is not yet of age. The situation becomes dire when it is here that he finds out that he was only ever unofficially adopted, and with no official papers available, their application cannot be fulfilled anyway. Even as Suraida tries her best to convince them with past report books and her status as his guardian, it is to no avail, and Azim walks away dejected.
It is at this point that Rindu di Bulan asks its most pertinent question – love is love, so why is something so pure constantly coming under threat on all fronts when both faith and the state attempt to police it by implementing restrictive rules, and one is no longer allowed to choose the family they want? In a flashback, Suraida reveals how she’s always struggled with her differences with Azim’s race. Returning to a Mid-Autumn Festival years ago (once again, referencing the moon in Rindu di Bulan’s title), Suraida and Faridah are awkwardly holding lanterns, doing so because Azim wants to play with his Chinese friends. Both makciks wonder if by bringing him up as a Muslim, this celebration of becomes un-Islamic, and would only confuse Azim. Returning to the concept of ‘Husnudzon‘, they take it all with a pinch of salt, and accept the situation for what it is, allowing him to play, and thus mix both his Chinese heritage with his Muslim upbringing.
Their fears are proven correct however, when at one point, Azim becomes so confused, he decides to go find his ‘real parents’ in the neighbourhood. Even so, Suraida presses on – watching a young Azim try to burn dried leaves with his lantern flame, she continues to look out for him and ensures his safety. We come to see how love does not care about race or religion, and comes through in the most unexpected, tender of moments, and perseveres in spite of what society decrees it should otherwise be.
Segueing from this Mid-Autumn memory, we return to Chang’e and Putih as they read the hopes and dreams of celebrants sending their wishes to the moon in the hopes that Chang’e will grant them their wish (as a moon goddess). Wondering aloud, Chang’e asks Putih what his wish is, and he responds that he wants to return to earth. Chang’e begins to wonder if she was the one that brought Putih to the moon, and whether she is the one to blame for putting him in an unfamiliar location, away from home, much like how Suraida wonders if she has managed to give Azim a proper upbringing, despite their racial differences.
When all is said and done, Suraida and Azim’s bonds are not so easily broken, and despite their tension, they remain connected as mother and son. Back on Earth, Suraida serves Azim tea to bridge their divide, and he smiles, happy that she cares for him still, even with all the new rules they must follow in preparation for her Umrah. Offering her some money for her travels, he raises the question of why he was never officially adopted, and she explains that it was out of practicality – with a lack of money, it didn’t seem feasible to go through with official proceedings, and it was simply never a problem. Perhaps then, it is not papers that create a relationship, but memories that forge them.
Still, these are tensions and questions that remain hanging in the air even as our scene shifts to the airport, time for Suraida to go. Here, we watch as Suraida, wearing a bright green lanyard to tag her to her Umrah group and her ustaz amidst the crowd, says her final goodbye to Azim. As the ustaz calls for her to go, even with their evident love for each other, they hesitate, both left to wonder if they are still allowed to give each other a warm embrace on account of their relationship, now strained by the rules of religion and this moment before her pilgrimage.
By the end of the play, as Suraida performs the tawaf, she is left exhausted by the intensity of it. As she remembers that Azim requested for her to send him a selfie while on her pilgrimage, she unlocks her phone to snap a photo, only for her face to immediately switch to an expression of fear and pain, hyperventilating as she reads a lengthy text message. She begins to doubt her choice of prioritising her religion over Azim, reaching this level of faith only to lose her son. Falling to her knees and reading a letter he wrote to her as a child, she breaks down, giving actress Suhaila M Sanif a chance to deliver her most emotional, devastating moment onstage. Her faith and love have both been tested, and her choice ultimately leaves her at a loss, uncertain if all that she’s given up was worth it.
Raimi Safari is perhaps, still finding his own personal voice as a playwright, as Rindu di Bulan still requires tying up of loose ends, such as how the play does not quite manage to resolve the two parallel storylines between Earth and the moon. But what Rindu di Bulan does do successfully is raise the undiscussed topic of unofficial adoption in Singapore, and how there are so many hidden struggles adoptees and their parents face in growing up. Beyond the simple act of caring for a child, there are identity crises to resolve, religious decrees to circumnavigate, and state laws that must be obeyed, and as much love exists between a mother and son, it becomes strained when exposed to so much societal pressure, one we see and feel for by observing the central relationship between Suraida and Azim.
Just as how living in multicultural Singapore encourages a degree of tolerance, open-mindedness and acceptance of an amalgamation of beliefs, why can’t faith and love co-exist, and bypass these religious and state-mandated ‘rules’ set in place? That is the final question we are left with, as we look to the moon, and ponder over how love should transcend all.
Photo Credit: Zaki Zain
Rindu di Bulan played from 19th to 22nd January 2022 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio as part of the 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. More information available here
The 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival: The Helpers ran from 12th to 23rd January 2022. More information available here