COVID Companions is a series of creative pieces featuring snippets of life during COVID-19, with a special focus on the other individuals or creatures who are keeping us company during quarantine, lockdown, ‘circuit breaker’, or whatever your equivalent might be. 

It was the first day of Hari Raya Aidilfitri, marking the end of Ramadan in the Islamic calendar; an occasion to celebrate the end of a month of fasting, as well as the introspection, self-awareness, and self-discipline that hopefully came along with it. In this succeeding month of Syawal, Malay Muslims in Singapore typically visit family and friends decked out in varying styles and renditions of traditional wear, feast on home-cooked dishes borne out of recipes passed down through the generations, and seek forgiveness from one another – all in the spirit of strengthening kinship ties.

An empty playground on a public holiday.

But Ramadan and Syawal this year were unlike any other in the past. There were no mass prayers in mosques and void decks that would have normally been packed to the brim by devotees young and old. Colourful lights hung above the streets in Geylang, unusually devoid of the usual crowds combing through the annual Ramadan bazaar. Grandparents had to make do with seeing the faces of their children and grandchildren on a screen in place of family gatherings. In the midst of a global pandemic, Hari Raya took on a quieter turn as jalan raya took place at home over Zoom calls. Yet, my Instagram and Facebook feeds were flooded with family portraits, screenshots of video calls, and TikTok videos, with people smiling and dancing away in their colourful outfits. Deep down, I felt a sense of pride and gratitude for being part of a community who didn’t wallow in self-pity while being stuck at home on a special occasion; but instead who knew how to have fun while reclaiming what the Circuit Breaker could have easily taken away – social connections.

After trying out this hopscotch court, I’m certain it is meant for tall people.

My parents woke me and my brother up for congregational morning prayers in our living room, during which my dad delivered the khutbah raya that he found on the MUIS website. Shortly after, was a scheduled Zoom call with the maternal side of our extended family, including members living in Brunei and California. Some were dressed in their raya outfits from top to toe, others from the waist up, and a handful still lay on their beds in pyjamas. In between the occasional awkward silences, people talking over each other, and screams of “Where’s <insert a baby/toddler’s name>?” were exchanges of festive greetings. Selamat hari raya, maaf zahir dan batin.

Flavoured drinks, especially fizzy ones, are usually served to guests during Hari Raya. I wonder if the shelves in our neighbourhood mama shop were this full in previous years.

In the afternoon, my parents, my brother, and I got ready to take our yearly family portrait in our baju kurung. My and my mother’s two-piece baju kurung Pahang were made of similiar kain songket of differing colours and patterns. The baju kurung telok blangah top that my father wore shared the same maroon colour as my brother’s baju kurung cekak musang top. As in past years, the absence of a tripod in our household meant that we had to find other means of setting up our camera. Instead of the ladder, this time round, we decided to stack four big cushions on top of one another – and thankfully, it worked. Family tradition dictated that the customary act of seeking forgiveness follow our photo-taking session. Each family member sought forgiveness for any (or rather, every) misdeed done to the others on a one-to-one basis. This was typically also the time when working adults would hand out duit raya to children, youths, and the elderly. While I fall under the category of ‘working adult,’ my status as the youngest in the family warranted the green packet I received from my brother.

A bird we don’t see every day pseudo-camouflaged in with the trees and colours of the multi-story carpark in the background.

Soon after, as I was about to change back into my T-shirt, my brother poked his head into my room. “We’re dressed nicely… What a waste to change now. Do you want to follow me, walk around the neighbourhood? We can take pictures.” He asked. I took my camera out of my dry box before donning a face mask, and off we went.

“We bond over the weirdest things,” my brother uttered underneath his mask as we walked to the mama shop three blocks away from ours. “What do you mean?” I asked. “If people didn’t know us, they’d think we’re worlds apart from each other. But ultimately, we like the same things, like doing what we’re doing now. We’re very alike.”

The grass has grown considerably longer during the Circuit Breaker, accompanied by an abundance of wildflowers.

I couldn’t agree more with him. From our educational paths to our current jobs, from our friend groups to how we spend our time on weekends, there appears to hardly be any overlap between my brother and me. Yet, there is almost nothing we don’t feel comfortable confiding in each other. Conversations at home can last for hours without feeling like time has passed. Since the Circuit Breaker started, our minds have been occupied with topics surrounding hip-hop (of which we are both big fans), as well as the Black Lives Matter movement, skincare routines (with which we both face difficulties), and insects. My brother recently started a new job at pest management company, which requires him to deep dive into the insect kingdom. In these past few weeks, stories of clearing up cockroach infestations, rectifying mosquito breeding grounds in private gardens, and ending work later than usual to remove a beehive from a public area often echo through the walls of our flat. During this time, we also started taking notice of six-legged creatures that inhabit our home, like the small moth that often makes an appearance in our bathroom, and the lizards that prey on the ants, leaving their faeces in the most indiscrete of places. Though I unfortunately flinch at the sight of creepy crawlies, my brother has taught me that these small critters we encounter every day, along with the social systems that enable their survival, are truly an impressive lot.

The fat and fluffy cat that lives in our void deck.

Perhaps many of life’s daily mundanities contain a world of imagination and unexpected joy to be unveiled. This was especially true during the Circuit Breaker, when it was common to spend hours on end staring at a screen instead of our surroundings. So when my brother and I had our little jalan raya photoshoot around our estate, the fallen trees, overgrown flowers, and closed playgrounds were indeed sights to behold, bearing witness to our zeitgeist.

With a background in Anthropology, Ilya Katrinnada‘s geeky interests lie in the intersections of creativity, community, and education. She is particularly keen to learn more about cultural hybridities and post-disaster arts. An arts programmer by day and amateur ukulele player by night, she enjoys expressing her thoughts through writing and photography.