Talking to Abah
He was not a perfect man, his duty as a father — or a husband — wouldn’t even come close to being adequate. But he was, as always, the only one in my broken family, — a family spilt into two before it had become three and too many — who encouraged me to think, critically, beyond tradition, beyond religion.
It was at night, i remember talking to my father. In a year of my childhood, and then my youth, i spoke to him less than a couple of times. Every conversation was special, and memorable. Either he was screaming at me, beating me for learning too slow, or we have a decent annual conversation that often challenged our minds.
As his second child, perhaps, his favourite if he had not married another woman and fathered younger sisters of mine (the last time i met him and heard of him was in 2004, he had 2 daughters with my step mother), i admired him, always, secretly, angrily. Yet I’m pretty sure i love my dad the same as i was before my parents separated. No matter what he means the world to me.
“Abah,” i spoke, “Adek ada teori tentang yang paling kecil, dengan benda yang paling besar. I think they were the same thing.”
He clasped his hands, covered his mouth with the benign fist he just made, slightly to his left, paused before he asked, “Teori apa? Cerita la.”
I took a pencil from his desk, and started to doodle the sun, the planets around it, the other stars, the Milky Way and the Andromeda, and formed many other galaxies and made what seemed the universe, and told, “benda yang paling besar kan Abah, i think is the smallest thing too. The universe and the subatomic particles are two same thing.”
He looked puzzled. I drew him the Rutherford model of an atom, and told although Bohr and quantum mechanics had modeled the atom to what may have been accepted as scientifically more ‘convincing’, the planetary model of that Rutherford had me think that perhaps, if electrons were planets, there were no smallest things in this world.
Electrons are actually planets, and the nucleus is the sun! What a tiny world!
“Imagine kan Abah, if i were a bacterium, the size of an E. coli, so small and so tiny, and let’s pretend that i can walk too. So, i’m walking on a human skin, for an example, on your arm. I’m walking there, on your arm. When asked by another bacterium, ‘What is the biggest thing in this world?’ i might answer, ‘Oh look, the biggest thing in this world is that thing’, and point to actually a drop of sweat, just a tiny drop of water. As a bacterium the size of an E. coli, i have never seen the sea, let alone knowing there’s vast sea on this planet. I have never seen our own planet, or even the bright sun every macro living beings can see, i can’t. I’m too small and too tiny and too microscopic, that for me to travel from your head to toe, by foot takes me at least more than 10 generations. And after 10 generations, our bacterial greatest discovery is a complete head to toe journey and we call it, ‘The Universe’. And ‘The Universe’ is just your whole human body, in actual reality. We’ve completed our journey, we do not know that you exist as a human being — we thought you’re “The Universe’ –, we sleep like a baby at nights — satisfied, nothing more to discover — until one day we’re transfered to another human body and we say, ‘Our universe has changed, it was darker yesterday’ and puzzled at ‘the new universe’, if i may, a person whose skin tone is much lighter than where we were before, on your skin.”
Abah looked a little disagreed. But being him, he never really spoke it and i secretly believed this was his way of telling me to sharpen my thoughts, before i actually speak something.
I took a few seconds to reflect and said, “We keep discovering ‘the biggest’ and ‘the smallest’ things because we are in this size, in this human size. We compare things within our human capability of comparing sizes. Nothing beyond that. It’s restricted to what we can see, and perceive. Dulu-dulu, kita kata bumi paling besar, lepas tu kata matahari pulak, lepas tu kata semua bintang-bintang dengan matahari campur bumi adalah yang paling besar. That, before we discovered other galaxies, other stars and cosmic dust outside the Milky Way. Lepas learnt about other galaxies, kita cakap semua berjuta-juta galaxies ni duduk dalam the universe, so the universe must be the biggest thing. But is the universe, in actual reality, the biggest thing in this world?”
He gave me the stare, and i understood it. “The same goes with the smallest thing. First, we said the smallest thing is actually the size of a dust — nothing smaller than a speck of that. Then we learnt chemistry, we said, ‘Oh, the smallest things are the molecules. Then a few more years after that, we said ‘Oh, the smallest things are the atoms who when joined can form a molecule’. Then we learnt about the chemical bonds, about covalent and ionic and we talked about electric charges and we split the single atoms into subatomic particles, and then we said subatomic particles are the smallest things. We once said, — during the years when we believed an atom is consist of electrons, protons, and neutrons –, that neutrons and protons were the smallest things and couldn’t possibly be divided anymore, we now say that protons and neutrons are composed of smaller particles we call quarks.”
When my father showed interest to what i told him, i continued, “We keep discovering the smallest things (and then recently, science breaks elementary particles into strings and gives extra dimensions to space-time continuum and calls them string theory) and what if one day we discover that inside the smallest thing, there’s a big thing, a universe — or maybe even more than just a single universe — inside a particle. Imagine if we have a microscope that is so powerful, when we look at our fingers, we see cells and within the cells, there are DNAs, within the DNAs, there are nucleotides, within the nucleotides, there are atoms, within the atoms, there are particles, but within a single ‘elementary particle’, there’s another universe.”
A whole universe the size of an elementary particle.
“Adek, don’t tell this to any of your friends.” He told, but he listened to my ridiculous theory and told me his theory about God, something that he read from a book. He was of course, a pious muslim but with a broader mind who when allowed, or when he was alone or with me, challenged the idea of God itself. He told me he didn’t believe what the writer had written, that it was absurd not to believe in Allah, yet he said and agreed with some of the views, that it was possible that God, other than Allah, was initially a man’s muse about his existence, made possible by our sentience and abstract thinking, that any other Gods other than Allah, were only philosophical and not necessarily real, not as real as the almighty God, Allah.
Somehow, along the way into adulthood, Abah gave up being my father, and i gave up my faith in God, in either biblical or Quranic or the universal or even the personal definition of God, i gave up believing. God to me, — even Allah — is only philosophical, nothing is so real about his existence — is not the actual divine being –, the same way i gave up believing my own theory about the smallest thing and biggest thing in this world. And it was my own theory.
I became cynical. I tell people that God is, theoretical. That someone told you about Him. Either it was from Jesus, or Muhammad, or any other prophets or philosophers, someone projected the idea of how a divine being should be, and after much thoughts, — gave Him His divine attributes and features that were often human-like, and behaviour that was often human-like –, made Him a deity.
If i become young again, and meet Abah again, i’d tell us to embrace what we do not know much, or doubt much, but we stick together as a father and son, and we tell each other, it’s okay to believe.
It’s okay to believe.