Yesterday I attended a street demonstration for the first time in my life (the only one that anyone ever talks about, naturally). It was a spur-of-the-moment decision; I had actually been told to sit this one out because my mother was one of the medical volunteers and my brother was participating in the rally, so in case the police decided to go on an arrest spree like they did at all the previous Bersih rallies, I had to be able to bail them out.
But after they came home on the morning of the second day of the rally, and when Farhan asked if I were going, I decided it couldn’t hurt to go. Dani was preoccupied with his own domestic troubles and had left me to my own devices for a couple of weeks, so I figured going to the rally would be a better use of my time than moping around the house.
So in a mixture of excitement and trepidation, I met Farhan at the Nu Sentral mall from which we would take the LRT downtown, to the center of all the activity. It was the second time in my life that I was taking the LRT — the first being when I participated in the Standard Chartered Marathon — and my claustrophobia and OCD survived the two stops it took to arrive at the Masjid Jamek station.
I had never seen so many people in one place in my entire life. Not even SINGfest 2008, the Jason Mraz concert in 2009 or the Backstreet Boys’ concert in 2013 looked or felt anywhere near this crowded. But the atmosphere and energy were really quite electrifying, punctuated only by the extremely irritating cacophony of vuvuzelas that many people were rude enough to blow continuously, despite the Bersih organizers’ pleas to do away with them.
I don’t know how many people attended the rally; reports on Twitter and other news websites varied between 20,000 to 300,000, and aerial photos of Dataran Merdeka showed a convincingly high number. It made me think of the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the designated site for peace talks between King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France in 1520. This aerial view makes the city look quite literally covered in a cloth of gold, and indeed, everyone was there in the name of peace.
But whatever the true number was, the effect of it was a weirdly overwhelming mix of emotions: incredulity at the gigantic turnout, awe at the almost single-minded solidarity with which everyone had come out to stand — and sleep — in the streets for a cause they believed in, irritation at the stifling heat and ceaseless bleating of the vuvuzelas, and a sudden, almost alien, rush of love and patriotism for a country that is currently in a economic and social freefall.
Later, a few people asked me why I went, given the rally’s history with the authorities and the risk of literally running into danger. Admittedly, I was so caught up with trying to work out the logistics of getting there that I didn’t really think of the perils of being in the midst of tens of thousands of people. But I was also curious, after having read about all the previous Bersih rallies, to experience it for myself, because despite the plans I am making to move away next year, this is still my own country, and I want to be able to return to a country that does as much for its people as they do for it. And, relapsing fleetingly into my current state of mental upheaval, I realized that for someone who has nothing left to lose, any cause is worth fighting for.
The 1520 summit between the two Renaissance kings didn’t come to much fruition, but here’s hoping that this past weekend marked the beginning of — or at least renewed the people’s dwindling hopes for — a new Renaissance of sorts.
And now I leave you with this. If anyone was unsure how to feel about the entire rally, this might help take away some of the uncertainty: