Sunday, August 28, 2011

From 15 Jalan Dhoby to Jalan Lumba Kuda - Published in Asili The Journal of Multicultural Heartspeak, Miami Dade Community College, US, 1997

Somewhere between 3 and 4 years of age, in 1953,  my family moved out of my grandparents' house. Kunju Kannan Master had recommended that house. Why did we move? I used to overhear Mum say that my Dad could not get along with her parents. His parents in India and his very close first cousin, Uncle Karunakaran, had advised Dad to move out of 15 Jalan Dhoby. When we grew older, she told us the same story. That was how we moved to a shophouse in Jalan Lumba Kuda, which was still near enough for us to visit our grandparents and uncles in Jalan Dhoby.

Dad, Mum, my brother on the right                         
and I taken outside my grandparents'                      
house. Mum pregnant with my sister,
picture taken in 1953

My son Roy and I taken in Tuan Estate

I still have vague memories and clear pictures in my mind of the time when we lived as a family in one room in a huge house belonging to a Chinese whom I had never ever seen during our entire stay in that huge house, that had no soul. The rooms we rented were on the second floor. The ground floor was a Chinese temple. I do not know who resided on the first floor. We never left the dark staircase to explore that floor during the months that we lived there. And Mum never spoke to us about that floor or the people who lived there. There was one other Indian family and an Indian man who lived on the same floor as us, in that totally Chinese house.

It was while living in that house that Mum made a discovery, that everyone living in that house and around that house, had one common tie that bound them tightly into one group. They were all immigrants in Malaya. They had come in search of a better life and they had no choice but to succeed. Success to my family meant, money to be made and saved by the adults, good grades in school to be achieved by the children and for no one to fall foul of the law in any way.

Therefore, there was no feeling of permanence in that house.  It was a life of transition. In the mornings the men went to work. The ladies cleaned the home, washed the clothes and cooked the meals. The children went to school, came home, did their school work and studied. In the evenings, women, men and childern gathered in different groups, in different places and traded stories, shared their hopes and fears. The adults longed to one day return to their different countries, their homeland, with their children and their money.

In our little room that was our home, every evening, without fail, my mother would light her small brass lamp and a joss stick. She would then place my brother and me on a small, straw mat on the floor. I am sure she sat with us to pray, cross-legged on the floor, palms together, facing our very simple altar that consisted of one framed picture of Sri Raman and Sita, Laxmanan, Sathruganan, Barathan and Hanuman from the Ramayana, and chanted the Hindu Sanskrit prayers that my Mother had taught us, long before we had learned to speak coherently.

My young mother, with an unwavering, patriotic determination, created her own little Mayyanad for her husband and three children, using Malayalam (language), clothes, food, music, prayers, joss sticks, stories and memories of her relatives and friends in Kerala. Everyday the postman brought letters from India - from her friends and her relatives. She would place my brother and me on the floor near her feet. She would sit on the chair and read the letters aloud to us. What we could not understand, she would explain. All letters were read twice. On days when she did not receive any letters, she would take one of the older letters to read aloud. She would also read to us the letters she sent to India. So we knew everyone in India although we had never met any one of them.

Her best friend and classmate, Rukmini, had trained as a teacher and would send my mother pillowcases on which she had embroidered beautiful Forget-Me-Nots and we all so lovingly placed our heads on pillows covered by those pillow cases. My mother would send her things but I do not remember what she sent to Rukmini. Mum did not do any embroidery but she could crochet very well.

Into that Little India of my mother's, crept in new smells and sounds that fascinated me - that of the migrant Chinese who like us had brought with them their language, clothes, food, music, prayers, joss sticks, stories and memories of a motherland. Without me realising it, I began to understand their language. Chinese rituals mesmerised me - their colour, sounds, smells, sights and the people themselves who were so different from us.

Mum was very traditional in many ways. She dressed in a mundu, a plain white unstitched cloth, which she wrapped around her waist like a sarong, and a long blouse that came down to her hips, no collar, buttoned down the front with sleeves that came to just above her elbow. She had long straight hair that came to below her waist. During the day, she would twist it into a kind of knot at the base of her neck.  In the evening after her bath, she would put on a sari, plait her long hair into one long plait that came down to her hips. Dad wore trousers and shirts when he went to work or out to town, and a mundu and singlet when at home.

My brother and I were not dressed in Indian clothes. We wore western-style clothes, that were either bought from Chinese shops or they were tailor made. Sathasivam was the well-known Malayalee tailor who stitched pants and shirts. My clothes were made by Chinese tailors.

The Chinese ladies who lived there wore plain, cotton samfoos most of the time. The Chinese men wore short, cotton pants which had a string at the waist. It was mostly blue in colour. They sometimes wore a singlet which they would pull up above their chest and I remember them constantly rubbing their stomachs and stating that it was too hot. Most of time the men were bare chested. I cannot recall any of them in trousers and shirts. Their favourite footwear was the clog which made a lot of noise when they walked around.

There were days when my brother and I never left the room. I could sit for hours, or so it seems now, at the tall, Malayan shophouse window of the solitary room that was home to us, and watch life moving on outside. It must have started then, this restless yearning within me to break free from this place where I do not belong. It must have also started then, my contentment of staying in one place alone and comfortable with my thoughts. 

Mum was an avid reader and every month, Dad bought Malayalam books from Peter's shop, for her to read. She would tell us stories from the books that she read. The two books that I remember are 'Ramanan' and 'Neela Kuyil'. My mother was a very emotional person and had no problem crying as well as laughing, whether she was talking to someone or reading a book!  Mum always told us stories from the Ramayana and therefore when we prayed in the evening, facing the picture of Rama, his brothers, his wife Sita and his faithful devotee Hanuman, there was a meaning to my prayers. There still is, the meaning and the tie to my childhood days.

It was always evening, about five I reckon, when the certain lady that I was waiting for would come walking down the main road in her elegant cheongsam holding a walking stick in one hand and the hand of a tall, slim European man, with her other hand. The tan and black Alsatian on a leash walked a few paces ahead.  I so badly wanted to be that woman who could walk so freely on the road holding a man's hand. I wanted that dog. The man I cannot remember.

"Ma! Ma! She is coming," I would call out and my Mum would come to the window.
"That is Han Suyin," Mum would say, as we watched the couple and their dog.

A few months later I developed a skin disorder on my feet. It would not clear up and everyone was afraid that I would have the skin disease for life. My uncle Karunakaran had Singapore Foot? My Mum took me to the General Hospital in Johore Bahru and my doctor turned out to be the lady who walked her dog in the evening. So she was a doctor, we discovered. My Mother asked the nurse and the nurse told her, that her name was Dr Elizabeth Comber. I vaguely remember her touching me and speaking to my mother. When there was no change in my skin condition, my grandfather took over and treated me with Ayurvedic medicines.

On some days, Father would come home and tell Mother, "They are going to kill a pig today. Don't let the children go out of the room." As I said earlier, the ground floor was a temple of some sort. I believe there was a ritual when a pig was slaughtered. Our parents did not want us to witness it and they never talked to us about it. But, somehow from their conversations my brother and I were able to gather some information. We never talked about it either. It was to us, something that the Chinese did, that we did not do, and when they did it, we would keep away and not see or say anything.

We were good children, my brother and I. But, how come I remember seeing basins of coagulated pig's blood? Then there would be the burning of joss-sticks and the smell of scented smoke twirling all over the place on the ground floor, which was never brightly lit.  I can never forget or feel anything but nostalgia when I see and smell Chinese joss sticks anywhere.

Once in a while my mother would allow my brother and me to go out in the evening and play by the roadside of Jalan Lumba Kuda, with stones and rubber bands. She would watch with my younger sister in her arms. Mother would buy ocassionally buy for us some coloured rolls which had bits of 'gun-poweder' embeded in them in little circular mounds. We would use a stone and hit the mound and there would be a safe but not so loud explosive sound, which gave us such a thrill. For 5 cents we would get 3 coloured rolls. Each roll, we could fire perhaps 15 times.

When my Father went out at night alone, one of us would go down and inform the temple caretaker or whoever was in charge, so that the main door would not be locked. On one ocassion I was assigned to inform the caretaker. I remember walking bravely down the stairs while my mother stood at the top of the stairs. I  came upstairs after my job was done, and Mum put us in bed. My younger sister always slept in the cot.

I do not remember what woke me that night. The bedroom was dark with the moonlight coming in through the open window, or perhaps it was the streetlight. There was a strong wind blowing the curtain and the wind that comes before the rain brings with it the smell of rain. I watched the candlelight flickering on the table. Mum was a lonely figure at the table, with her back to the window, facing the door, writing a letter, in the light of the candle.

I lay there watching my mother and the candle. I longed to write but a Hindu child had to go through the 'rice-writing' ceremony first and to do that I had to be four years old. I could not wait to grow up.

"Baby, come here," softly, Mum called out to me when she realised that I was awake. I got up and went up to her chair and stood close to her and watched her writing a letter to India - I felt sad for my mother - I did not realise then that she was so young, about 22 years old, but I knew that she missed India, her old family home, her friends and the kind of life she had led there. She always told us happy stories of her life in Mayyanad, how she would run from one end of Mayyanad to the other with her friends.

In Malaya, we lived in Johore Bahru town, and the town was made up of Chinese. There were very few Malays and the Indians came from all over India, with their different languages. The Chinese amongst whom we lived, frightened her.  I stood by her chair loving her and loving the sensation of the cold wind blowing on my face - I still do - love her, love the wind and feel sad for her.

My mother was gentle and till today, there is a child-like quality about her. She and her family always made us feel that we children were special and destined for great things. I have no recollection of my brother and I ever quarelling and we shared everything. He was the ideal older brother and I hero-worshipped him as I constantly followed him around.

Mother and Father would take us to town very regularly after Dad came back from work. We walked everywhere and rarely took a trishaw. We patronised all visiting circuses from India, China and Russia, watched all shows that were staged in the town padang whether Malay, Chinese or Indian, enjoyed fun fairs, and played in the playground next to the railway station. Mum would watch over us. Dad would cross the road and go to the stalls in front of the station, and buy banana fritters or fried noodles from a certain Malayalee Muslim vendor, for us to eat.

My brother and I enjoyed playing on the swings, the see-saw and the slides. On the way back home, we had to walk past Cathay Cinema. It would be dark and there would be the sound of cicadas. I would most times be tired, scared and too lazy to walk.

"I cannot walk. My legs are tired," and I would squat on the road and wait for my father to carry me.
He would, bless his soul, lift me in his arms and carry me home. Sometimes he would walk on and leave me on the road, telling me, "If you don't walk you can sit there. I am going," but I would wait for him. I knew he would never leave me and he never did. Mum carried my sister. My brother walked without any complaints. My brother never complained as a child, and he was always so well mannered and accommodating.

Whenever Father took us to the fair, he bought for us helium filled balloons. They fascinate me to this day. My brother and I would get a balloon each. We had to hold fast to the string or it would really fly up, up and away into the sky. When we reached home, tired, we would let the balloons go and they would go and park themselves on the ceiling. We would be so tired that our eyes would be closing even as we entered the room. Mum would quickly wash our feet, change us and put us in bed. We would fall asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillow - and today, as I sit with my memories of a bygone era, sleep eludes me.

 I remember one balloon incident so clearly. I often wonder if my brother remembers it. I have never asked him.  We had all gone to the fair and were on the way back with our balloons when his balloon burst. He was very upset but we did not walk back to the fair to get another balloon. I did not offer him my balloon.

We reached the house and after a while I offered him my balloon. He did not want to play with it. I no longer liked my balloon nor did I want it. The next day, my balloon was still there and he would not play with it. As I looked at that balloon, I became very lonely and I found peace only when I reached out over the rail of the window and let the balloon float away from the room. My agitation left me, there was no balloon between us.

I think the main Indian tenant in that house, was a man called Kunju Kannan Master. He was called Master because he had been a French teacher in India and teachers were called Master in India. He stayed there with his wife and his two sons, Narendran and Chandrahasan. He was a brown skinned man, with slightly curly hair, thick features and he was shorter and fatter than my Dad. His wife was more tanned, slim, had curly hair parted in the centre and she had two plaits. She always wore a sari and her sari blouses had puffed sleeves, unlike my Mother's. She also wore long dangling ear-rings, again unlike my Mother, and like my Mother, she smiled all the time. She was taller than my Mum.

My brother and Narendran attended the Public School which was down the road from where we lived. They would walk to school. Since the Master family had the corner, main room they had two windows. One window gave them the same view that we got from our window and the other window gave them a view of the road leading to the public school. Our one window gave us a view of the main road, Jalan Lumba Kuda, which ran in front of the house, and there was a workshop in front of our window.

The two mothers would watch their two sons walk to school in the morning and walk back before noon, from the window in Mrs Master's room.

Mrs Master, I don't know her real name, would all the time compare Narendran and my brother. My mother would smile and most times just nod her head. She would say, "Narendran is taller. Narendran is fairer. Narendran is cleverer." When Mother visited our grandparents, she would tell my grandfather how upset she was by the negative comparisons.

Grandfather would tell Mum, "Let Mrs Master say what she wants. We know our Son is good." Mum would be pacified for a while. However, the two ladies from India remained friends until Mrs Master passed away in December 1969. My Mum had studied English as a second language in Mayyanad and the Mrs Master had studied French!

We rented two rooms in the huge dilapidated, dark, gloomy, dank house. One room was our bedroom. Let me describe the house. It was by the road side, what we would today call a link house. It was a middle unit. There was a cemented five-foot path that ran the length of the single row of houses. Then there was a sandy-stony area that was about ten feet wide and beyond that was the road. There were so few cars on the road then.

The road, the path and the stony area where we played were all very bright and lively, and often windy. Lots of people used to walk along the path way. Everyone was so friendly and I do not recall any fights or quarrels. Two doors away lived a Chinese tailor who sewed beautiful clothes. Nearly every month Mother made a new dress for me. Mum and I would spend long moments going through her pile of pattern books. That was where I saw my first Lana Lobell pattern book. Mum would choose patterns for my clothes from those pattern books. She would buy the material for the dress from Toko Sumatra in Jalan Trus.

Every evening, a satay man would come and park himself outside the tailor's house. He too lived nearby in  a room, with his wife. He did some regular job in the day time and in the evenings he sold satay. I enjoyed watching him take out his stool, perch himself on it and begin to light the charcoal in his little, oblong tin barbecue set, in order to cook his satay. He was newly married and his wife was an actress. She had long beautiful hair and had just acted some small parts in a number of movies. One of which was Anak Pontianak.

1958, Chinese Flyer for Anak Pontianak
1958 Chinese flyer for the movie ‘Anak Pontianak’ by Ramon Estella

The satay man's wife was my mother's friend. She had come with her parents from some place in Sumatra. Her marriage had been arranged for her just like my mother's. She showed Mum photos of her family in Sumatra and spoke of going back one day, when they had made enough money to live comfortably. Like Mum, she too missed her home.

I do not remember if Mother bought satay for us when we lived in that house. But we used to hang around him and watch him fan the burning charcoal until it became a glowing orange. Then he would brush the tops of the satay sticks and some things would drip on to the glowing coal, and that would produce a sizzling sound, smoke and the most mouth-watering aroma imaginable.

Let me describe what I remember of our home. When you entered the house from the main road, the first thing that hit you was the darkness, the quietness and the coldness of the house. There was a big brass urn against the wall on the right, it was filled with sand I think and joss sticks would be continuously burning. There were some statues and pictures. A few stools lay scattered. I don't know what was on the left. I don't recall looking left. Next to the urn was the staircase that went up. The staircase was dark. We climbed up and came to a landing, turned right and right again to climb another flight of stairs to the third floor. At the top of the landing we turned right. There were a number of doors leading to the different rooms. Our two rooms were nearest to the top of the staircase.

Our room was very bright and to my eyes quite large. The door was in the centre. You opened the door and entered the room. Shut the door, and on the right, against the wall, was a double bed. Facing the door was a window. The window faced a workshop and the main road in front of the house. On the left of the door was a table, placed in the middle with a few stools or chairs, I do not remember. We used this as a dining table and it was my Mother's writing desk as well. I don't remember my father writing any letters.

I do not have clear images of the other room. But there was a stove there and a table. Mum never cooked. Food was brought in a tiffin from Purushotaman's shop and it was placed on the table. On Friday's we would get payasam. Mum would hand feed both of us. I think Mum used the other room to wash up. I am not sure. But I do know that we all slept in this one room.

Bath time was a torture for my mother I am sure. We never entered the bathroom. There was a big ceramic container with carvings of dragons on it. A leaky kind of pipe was all the time turned on and water would be flowing into the huge jar, but I had never seen the jar overflowing!

Mum had a bucket. She would boil some water in an aluminium kettle and mix it with cold water from the jar so that I would have a warm bath. Once the water was ready, she would come and pick me up from the bedroom and carry me to the little stool and make me stand on it.  She would wear clogs.

Mum would then proceed to pour water over my head, using a tumbler. She would then scrub me from head to toe and pour water all over me again. Once she was satisfied that I was relatively clean, she would wrap me in a towel, pick me up and carry me back to the room. She would then dry my hair vigourously with the towel, plaster me with ample talcum powder, dress me up, comb my hair and look for a teaspoon.

The best part of my bath - a spoonful of Woodwards Gripe Water. Then she would place me on the bed and tell me to go to sleep and I would. I am not sure who took a bath first, my brother or I. Most likely it was him.

I remember my fourth birthday in bits and pieces. That was the only birthday when I had a cake with icing. I remember it was hard and sugary and therefore I believe it was royal icing. We never had iced cake after that. I remember eating the cake all the time, especially the icing. Then my uncle Prakash came. My mother cut him a big piece of cake. I wanted another piece and she told me that I would get a stomach ache. But Prakash gave me a slice. Then we had another visitor. My Uncle Karunakaran from Singapore. My Dad's first cousin and a very close uncle to all of us. He too had a slice of cake. To this day, I love cake with Royal Icing and my two uncles who passed away in 1975.

I am not sure how long we stayed in that place. There was one frightening incident and my mother insisted that we move from that place. One day my mother saw a huge centipede fall from the ceiling on to the floor. She screamed and grabbed us from the bed and placed us on the table. She told us not to move. The centipede went under our bed. Our neighbour came and she told him what had happened. Soon Mr and Mrs Master came and then my Dad came home. The bed was moved but the centipede could not be found.

Those who came to look for the creature, had their horror stories of being bitten by those poisonous creatures. The bed was moved away from the walls and the lights were left on that night. Dad began to look for a house and he found one within days. The Chinese lady who sold eggs in the market told him about the new row of brick houses that had been built in Jalan Lumba Kuda Lama. We took the first house and she took the second house.

We moved when I was about 5 years old.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Reflections and Moments by S Prasanna Chandra - Star / Nestle Short Story Awards - Eighth Prize, Tuesday, October 28 1986

Teacher and another problem teenage student!

Her head is bent and she refuses to talk. She looks up and various emotions intermingle briefly on her face before she bends down once again. She is a pretty 16 year old girl, with lovely straight hair.

I touch her hand and she flinches. "We are here to help," I try to say in a firm, gentle and slightly indifferent tone, even as I wonder why  they keep breaking school and even social rules. She is one of the thousand odd students crammed into each dual-session-co-educational-rural secondary school. In most cases, she would be the most educated person in her family and looked upon with pride by the family for having reached Upper Secondary School. And the teachers in school, look upon people like her and wonder how on earth we can make them pass simple tests.

Can we really reach out and help another person? We may have walked the same path in the spring of our life, but does that mean that we can help them now? Can we really walk in each other's shoes? I am weary of trying to teach rural children the rudimentary rules of English Grammar. And when I am tired I always feel so alone. We came here all alone. Can anyone of us remember, where we came from? We make transit stops and we meet others when our paths cross.

"I was in the ditch with the boy," she says and she startles me because I was going miles away along my lonely path.

"You will not understand, will you?" she asks. "You are a teacher," she says in a matter of fact manner. I shake my head and retreat further and further into my Convent days.

"Baby! Baby! Are you up there?"
There was no reply. The person  in question appeared to be fast asleep. Into the silence crept the rustling sound of papers in her hand. This was followed immediately by, "Baby, are you writing letters again? I shall tell Father!"

"No, Ma. I'm not. I have to go to the Blind School now."
"When will you be back? You know Father does not like you to go out and ..."
"I know but it is my duty."
"Your duty is to be a good girl - remember that none of of our Malayalee girls do what you do. Don't talk about duty. This is all Evie's fault.  these Chinese girls, you do not know what they are ..."

"Evon is good.  If anyone is bad, i am bad. What do you kow about Chinese girls, Ma? You don't have a single Chinese friend and yet ..."
"Shut up!
Don't you ever talk back to me! I will strangle you before you ..."

She waits to hear no more. She jumps down from the bed and rushes into the bathroom. Why do these fights on on? Why didn't good Malayalee parents stay in good old Kerala? What is the mother scared of? Losing an ethnic identity? What is the daughter upset about? Being in limbo ... torn between different worlds and peoples?

As I run down the slope in Jalan Nong Chik, I see our dear old Ah Bee, as usual in his 'blue underwear', tending to his shop in the corner.

My long straight hiar comes undone from the confining rubber band. How I love the wind in my hair and how shocked my poor Ma will be ! Well, no decent Malayalee girl should ever let her hair down, should she? No, no, no.  But with the wind in my hair and my heart racing towards the boy, I  am no Malayalee, i am the 'Universal Girl'.

"Chiku! Where are you?" I sing out even as I see him walking towards me. His walk is absoulutely amazing in its stride and confidence.
"Mini, you are late. Any trouble at home?"
"None. Don't worry. I never have any trouble at home."
"Sure," he says  with a funny smile. I wonder if he meant it as a quesion or a statement. I am too happy to waste a second. It is a hot day and soon the tide will be coming in. I pull him by the hand and for once my sure-footed Chiku trips as we walk back to the library.

"Come on, Slow Coach. Let us finish this fast. We can make it to the beach and I can send you back and run home before my ..."
"Mini, why are you scared?"
"No. Whatever gave you that idea?"
"Your tone, I guess. Does your mother know about your trips to the beach?"
"Yes. She knows that I love the sea."
"Sure," and once again I begin to think - question or statement?

The next one and half hours is spent doing what Sister Xavier has told us is 'divine'. It is our divine duty to share our eyes so that the blind may see. Our school has the distinction of being the first school to take in blind children as day scholars. Every morning with all our hearts we sing, "In virtue simple in duty strong, is the motto for us all..."

Sister told us to talk to them, walk with them and read to them so that they may type out their books. She did not tell us not to go to the beach or not to talk too much. She told us to be natural at all times and natural I was, as I shed all inhibitions and followed the dictates of my heart.

Chiku and I slowly stroll along the beach. I kick the stones as I walk and he talks as correctly as ever. I keep on talking and he listens and nods. I place him under our favourite coconut tree in front of Han Suyin's picturesque house. I throw the newspapers to him and this is followed by my shoes. I walk out to the water and I wish that he would at least once come to the water, but he never has.

I have one-and-a-half hours all to myself. One-and-a-half hours to be ME and to be with him. Perhaps I should run away with him. No, that will never do. People will talk. And where will we go? And i am too scared. He is so quiet. He never is quiet.  I walk back and pick up the papers and try to get him to snap out of his silence.

"Chiku, when do you perform again?"
"Not sure."
"I love to hear you play. I think you're fantastic. When I first saw you on stage, I told Deepa that I was going to talk to you. You remember how Brother sang and then ..."
"Mini, why don't you stop talking for a while. I would like to listen to the sea. "

I throw the paper at him and run away. Whey does he hurt me? I hate him suddenly. I walk on but  I turn around to make sure that he is all right. He is coming is coming towards me and the sea.
"Mini , I am sorry."
"It's okay. My fault really," I jabber too much. But I really do love to talk to you. If only you will see that I ..."

"Exactly! I will not see and you keep on telling me to see. I never will, you know." His voice goes very soft. I feel treacherous tears stinging my eyes.

"Mini, what do I look like?"
"Now let me see, we must not let you get too vain you know. You are fair, with brownish hair and quite handsome really."

"Mini, what is fair? What is brown? We all learn that the sky is blue and the grass is green and tea is brown. Tell me what colour is. Show it to me, Mini."

I cannot speak. I don't ever want to lose my sight. I used to have nighmares that i was going blind. He manages to read my feelings. He touches my wet face and says softly, "It's raining, is it?" I nod my head.

"Come on, I will show you the colours of the rainbow. He sings Over the Rainbow and tells me the fairy tale about the pot of gold at the end of every rainbow.

"We all have a rainbow over our lives Mini, and God has reserved a pot of gold for each one of us. We have to find the rainbows of our lives, follow them and get our gold. So hold fast to dreams for when your dreams die then ..."

"Chiku, you are poetic as well! Do you write too?"
"Mini, I want to go back."
"What? It is only five. I don't want to go back. Why?" There is only silence. "Why? Damn you, tell me why!"

"Please don't swear. It is ugly and anyway Convent girls never do."
"How many Convent girls do you know, Chiku? Many?" I really don't want to be jealous.

"Sure, sure."
"Don't you 'sure' me! You have been 'suring' me the whole day. I will not see you again. Go and ask one of the many to help you."

"Come on Mini. You are the only one who comes and reads to me. You are like so many peopl,e and when you have gone I always feel as though I was with many people.  You are so chatty and noisy and also so peaceful. Long, long afer you have gone, I still feel and hear you and that is bad. I want peace and not turmoil. Now listen, I am going to touch you. May I touch you Mini?"

I am scared. I look around and there are people. No, Chiku will never hurt me but why? - A million thoughts creep into my mind. I see and hear faces and people and I hear my mother and the nuns and slowly Chiku's voice reaches me. "Are you there?"

"Why, what?"
"Why touch?"
"To see you. I have never seen you, you know."

I laugh with relief. For one moment I had forgotten how the blind see. Now I feel shy - no boy has ever touched me and there is a queer sensation all over me and it is not unpleasant.

"Hmm, chubby soft cheeks. Eyes...?
"Dunno." I pause and then, "Well what is the verdict?"
"Beautiful. I see what I can feel - love, happiness, laughter - don't ever lose the ability to laugh, Mini - also the sadness. Why the sadness, Mini?"

"I'm not sad.  I love being with you. I can't seem to stay away from you. Do you think we will always be together? I can cook, you know, and I love beautiful things and we will have a beautiful house just like what you see in the books. I will have a good job and I can look after you and we will be happy."

"Mini, stop it! If and when I get married, I will look after my wife. I am not an invalid and not a pet. I am certainly not a beautiful object either!"

Once again I feel that dread. Why are these Malays so intense? Even Fauziah is like that sometimes but she always snaps out of it.

"Chiku, is it because I am an Indian?"

"No, and I really do want to go back, so please do take me back."

We walk back in silnece but it is an uneasy silence. I must have upset him and I really do not know how or when I did it. As we walk through the gates he pulls my hands as he always does and races me to the hibiscus plants. We flop down and Chiku appears to have got over his mood.

"Mini, listen to me very carefully and do not interrupt me. Don't ever come back to this school. Don't ever choose a boy to read to. We are lonely people. You made me see a million things - some of which I should never have seen. You talked your way into my heart but you are wrong for me. Tomorrow I am leaving for Kuala Lumpur. I will not see you for a long time and maybe never. You will always be in  my heart. A part of you will always be with me - I will see you, hear you and sometimes even long for you but ..."

"Chiku, no! Why?"
"It is wrong, that is why."
What did I do wrong?"
"It is not you."
"Then tell me why and stop acting like a machine!"

"A machine indeed! Do you know how many times I rehearsed this speech? I don't like to go and yet I would love to go. I wanted to just go off but Brother told me to tell you first that ..."

"Brother! What did he say? He must have told you wicked things about me. You know what these teachers are like - they are so old and dumb and they do not understand us. How can you listen to them and treat me like this? Wait till I see him. I shall ..."

"No, Mini," he says softly. His softness stops me more effectively than if he had shouted at me.  "Mini, goodbye.  You are wrong about Brother. He really likes you and  ... why are you crying?"
"To stop you."
"No. I have to go now. Thanks and so long." I stay put and he walks off. Then he stumbles. In a flash I am with him.

"Chiku, I am coming with you. I am not a child. I am sixteen and I ..." roughly, he pushes away my hand.
"Don't you know when you are not wanted? I have already said goodbye."

"Chiku, I hate you.. I am glad you are going. I hate Malays." He comes and touches my cheeks and says, "I was always scared that one day you would say that to me and that I would not be able to take it. Now you have said it and i guess I can take it after all. You hate Malays, do you, my Mini?
"Yes, I do. It is because I am an Indian. If i were a Malay girl, you would not be so hateful."

"Mini," he says softly and I strain to hear every word. "I have always wanted to see. I may be blind but I do see what you will never see. You are not blind but you are blinded by your eyes. You see me as a Malay, but I see you as a person. I see the nature of a person but you see the race. I hear the voice oflove and the hand of kindness. You hear the voice of a Malay and see the hand of a Chinese, perhaps. Can you see people Mini, or can you only see the Cinese, the Indians and the Malays?"

"Your eyes blind you, Mini. After you have seen the face, the skin and the clothes, you can see no deeper, so you miss seeing the fellow human being. There is only one race - the human race and they are divided into two groups - male and female. That race that you talk about is an accident of birth. Not one of us chooses our our race. Can you judge a man for what he did not choose to be? Your duty is to overcome it."
"I am not racist!"
"Aren't you?" I start to protest when he continues, "Mini, I will give anything in the world to be able to see. Tell me the difference between Fauziah and you..."

"We look different and ..."
"Do not talk about colour and not about features either. Tell me the difference that I can see with my fingers, my nose and ears. Any difference?"
"I don't know." I am so confused. Why are we talking about race now?
"No, you are the same. You both feel the cold, the heat, hunger, joy, sadness. Both of you can walk, talk and eat."
"Yes, we are the same," I agree.

"No, you are not the same. She does not come and spend her afternoons reading to the blind. She does not giggle and go to the beach. She does not get your grades in school. She does not touch my heart. You understand?"

I try to but I cannot seem to get what he is getting at.

"You may think about this much later and I hope you will understand. You are the same and yet so different. Your differences set you apart - that is your individuality. Your sameness unites you and that is your humanity. Each one is an individual and for us, in our world, there is no race.

"God reserved it especially for those who see. He gave to some 'sight' and to some He gave 'insight'. If you do not see the face, then maybe you will not see the race."  He paused for a while.

"Mini, can you see your face? No - only by reflection. It is the face that reveals to you the race. Why then didn't God reveal your own face to you? Because it is not important. It plays no part in your dealing with people. You react to their nature not their faces my dear. A face does no service for humanity but a kind heart does. "

I am alone.
"Mini, come on, get up. Your parents will worry. If you are to become a part of him, he will come and look for you. Now go home and remember that your parents love you." Brother walked with me to the gates.  He squeezed my hand and gave me something. I looked at it. It was in Braille.
"Brother, I cannot read it. "
"Shame on you. . You have come here for two years and you cannot read it. You will just have to learn. Now off you go. "

My name is not Mini and his name is not Chiku. The Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, Johore Bahru, had staged The Sound of Music and the 'Braille Dots', a band from Princess Elizabeth School for the Blind, provided live music.  I first saw his face as I fell at his feet and looked up.  He had put out his foot as he played the guitar, and I had tripped and bruised my knee. Before I could stop myself, I had said, "Can't you see where your foot is?"
"No, Madam! As a matter of fact, I cannot. Will it help if I say sorry?"

"Teacher, are you shocked? I was in the ditch with the boy," and there is a kind of silent defiance in her voice.

"Go home. I'll see you  tomorrow." There is relief written all over her face. She smiles nervously and walks off. I drive home from my school in Baling. On my dressing table, framed up, is an old sheet of hard paper and typed on it in Braille are the words:

When twilight drops her curtain down
And pins it with a star
Remember that you have a friend
Though he may wander far..."

Friday, August 26, 2011

Echigoya The Japanese Fabric Store in Singapore

 Echigoya and I

My Youngest Uncle Prakash bought me two pieces of lovely material to make dresses. The first one was bought in 1964 when I was fourteen. It was brown and had some kind of bamboo design. The material was soft to the touch and did not crease. He told me that he had paid a lot for it. Mum took me to our Chinese tailor in Jalan Lumba Kuda who sewed a pretty dress for me. Two years later he got me a blue piece. Blue is my favourite colour.

Everyone admired the dress which the tailor once again made for me. It had a sailor collar and white piping. It had two pleats in front and a kind of tie. I loved the dress and wore it for many years. It never lost its colour and the soft touch. He told me that it was from Echigoya.

By the time, I had started to work, and had the money to shop, I could not locate it.
Today, 26 August 2011, I googled and found a history of that shop which I have printed below but without the permission of the writer. I am not claiming that to be my writing.


By Nor-Afidah Abd Rahman written on 09-Sep-2005
National Library Board Singapore
Comments on article: InfopediaTalk

Echigoya was a Japanese fabric store in Middle Road set up in 1908, famous for its fine fabrics and garments, and tailoring of Japanese fashionwear. It closed down when Japan lost the war in 1945, but returned to Singapore to resume business in 1955 and closed permanently in 1977.


Echigoya Gofukuten (Draper), a Japanese store that sold textiles and garments, was located at 23 Middle Road in Little Japan when it first opened in 1908. Little Japan started with the karayuki-san (Japanese prostitutes) whose services in numerous Japanese brothels in Malay, Malabar and Hiram streets from 1877 to 1920 made Little Japan famous as the Japanese red-light district.  The presence of the karayuki-san in fact helped the Echigoya store to flourish in its early years.  Japanese drapers stores were indispensable in the red-light area because the karayuki-san usually wore kimono.  Before WWI, other drapers that served the prostitutes apart from Echigoya included Koyama Shinnosukes Shin-Koyama Shoten also in Middle Road, Koyama Yoshimatsus Koyama Shoten in Malabar Street, Shriono Shozos Nihon Shokai in North Bridge Road, and Ishii Inosukes Maruju Gofukuten. Echigoya though was the most successful.

The pioneer of Echigoya was Chubei Takahashi (b. 1870, Kashiwazaki, Niigata, Japan d. 1933) who adopted the old name of his birthplace (Echigo is the old name of Niigata) for his store in Singapore.  Chubei and wife Sawa left Japan in 1896 and started a trading business in Shanghai, Taiwan and Hong Kong prior to his move to Singapore.  In Hong Kong, Chubei set up a drapers shop in the Japanese red-light district in 1904 but the lack of success led to his move to Singapore.

When the Japanese Consulate General in Singapore banned Japanese brothels in 1920, Echigoya diversified and successfully attracted the Europeans. This helped to ensure the longevity of its business in pre-war times.

From a two-storey shophouse in Middle Road, Echigoya sold kimono and related goods to Japanese prostitutes in cash.  Chubei's staff were all taken from his hometown of Kashiwazaki, fresh graduates from the school of commerce. The store's fortune hit a brief snag when licensed Japanese prostitution was banned in 1920, but craftily Chubei steered his business towards catering to Caucasian customers' apparel needs though not without some difficulties initially.  One well-known European who raved about Echigoya was Roland Braddell, of the famous Braddell family, who served as Municipal Commissioner from 1914 to 1929.  In his book that was first published in 1934, The lights of Singapore (1982), he wrote: 
Round Middle Road, Hailam Street, and Malay Street, you will find a very gay little Japanese quarter. And speaking of buying things, the most fascinating of our shops to me is the Echigoya in Middle Road, a real Japanese shop, where you can get a proper Japanese kimono tailored to measure, and have your pick of the latest Japanese fashions which change with the seasons as do ours (pp. 87-88).
Indeed, Chubei became a very wealthy man.  He built a luxurious mansion in his hometown of Kashiwazaki and donated to the building of the town's City Hall.  In 1916, a 13-year old Fukuda Kurahachi (b. 1903, Gunma, Japan) who later became Chubei's successor, had just completed primary school when he was brought by Chubei to Singapore to work in Echigoya.  After Chubei's death in 1933, his wife Sawa reorganised the store into a company, Echigoya & Co. Limited, with Fukuda as the general manager.  She maintained 50 per cent of the company's shares while the rest was owned by the staff of Echigoya including Fukuda.  Under Fukuda's management, business prospered and the store expanded and relocated to a three-storey shophouse at 131 Middle Road in 1937. The store had a lift, then the only place in Singapore with one installed. The new store operated from this location until 1945.

Post-war and closure
Echigoya had to wind up its business in 1945 when the Japanese was defeated in the war. The British sequestered the company's assets.  But the chance to revive its business came in 1954 when a Singapore resident, Mr Hu, called on Fukuda to help him import silk goods, piece goods, sundry goods and other products from Japan.  The Colonial Administration in Singapore then did not permit the entry of any Japanese who had resided in Singapore during the Japanese Occupation.  But with the help of a certain Briton who was once Echigoya's loyal customer prior to the war and who worked in the Immigration Department, a special arrangement was made for Fukuda's return to Singapore.

Fukuda was among the earliest Japanese to come back to Singapore, which had numbered 20 when Fukuda returned in late 1954. In July 1955, a step nearer to reviving Echigoya, Fukuda obtained permission from the Singapore government to re-open the store.  With capital subscribed by Lai En Ho, an overseas Chinese of British nationality, and arranged by Lim Chong Geok of the Badminton Association, the sum of $150,000 was raised and a retail store was re-established.  On 9 November 1955, a new chapter began for Echigoya & Co. when it resumed its retail business at Coleman Street with Fukuda as the general manager. The occasion was favourably reported in the local Chinese newspaper

Echigoya was the first Japanese company to be registered in post-war Singapore and its return marked the enduring ties it had cultivated with the country. In subsequent years, Fukuda was key to bringing back Japanese business to Singapore when anti-Japanese feelings were riding high. His contributions earned him a Fifth Class Order of the Sacred Treasure in 1974, an award given by Emperor Hirohito for his service to the Japanese community in Singapore.

In 1971, Echigoya shifted to Neil Road where it continued its business of importing and selling textiles until 1977.  In the same year, Fukuda returned to Japan, ending his 65 years of living and working in Singapore.


Nor-Afidah Abd Rahman


Braddell, R. (1982). The lights of Singapore (pp. 87-88). Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.75 BRA-[HIS])

Hiroshi, S, & Hitoshi, H. (1999). Japan and Singapore in the world economy: Japan's economic advance into Singapore, 1870-1965 (pp. 37-39, 127, 167-169, 178-179). London: New York: Routledge.
(Call no.: RSING 337.5205957 SHI)

Hirayama, M. (2003, January). Alumni in Singapore have a great time: Singapore-Niigata ties. IUJ Alumni News, 6. Retrieved September 9, 2005, from

Kajita, T. (2005, June 18). Singapore's Japanese prostitute era paved over.
The Japan Times online. Retrieved August 10, 2005, from Japanese community in Singapore: picture and record (pp. 36-41, 64-65, 82-91). (1998). Singapore: Japanese Association.

(Call no.: RSING 305.895605957 PRE)

Tsu, Y. H. (n.d). Japanese in Singapore and Japan's southward expansionism, 1860-1945: Historical notes for under another sun. Retrieved September 9, 2005, from Asian Educational Media Service  website:

Further Readings

Makan Time. (1995 - 2004). The representative Singaporean chicken rice restaurant. Retrieved September 9, 2005, from 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

15 Jalan Dhoby, Johore Bahru - Unforgetable memories of People who have left the stage

Today is the 10th of August 2011
This is the month of the Hungry Ghosts according to the Chinese almanac ...
The Tamils call it Aadhi Masam in the Hindu Almanac - not an auspicious month to plan anything ...
Today Sulo Chandran told me that in Malayalam it's called Karkada Masam - not an auspicious month but a month when people trek to the temples to appease the Gods ...

I'm taking a look at the 6th of August. An ordinary day that opened up unusually extraordinary dimensions, on two separate 6th of August days, that are 36 years apart, 6 X 6 years really,  juxtaposing dimensions that perplex me...

36 years ago, two days before the 6th of August, i was in Johore Bahru. My childhood friend and uncle, Prakash was in GH JB. He had been discharged and had gone to his home, to 15 Jalan Dhoby, a run down shop house in the middle of post war JB town-centre. The home where i was born and where i had lived until i was almost four, with my parents, my older brother Prabha , and later my younger sister Sheela.

My husband Chandra, and I went to 15 Jalan Dhoby. Chandra had parked the car close to the edge of the road, Jalan Pahang, just outside the green wooden door that led to the upstairs of the shophouse, my grandparents' home. The road was quite deserted at that time of the day when the shutters of the shops came down and people had no reason to hang around closed shops.

I did not look at the old Kaka shop across the road, where Chellapan used to go so frequently to buy our paper balloons for us. A kind of sadness always descended on the town and me in the evening, when the roads became deserted. Those were the days when families rarely ventured out in the evenings to have dinner. The exception, perhaps was China Town, but most of the patrons were young men and women, seldom families. Chandra remained in the car. I went to meet my family.

There was a faint musty smell in the air as my worried Mum and I trudged up the dark stairs and then suddenly, the musty smell became a smell of decay.

My mother called him Omana. We called him Prakash. My grand parents called him Shashidharan. My Uncle Prasad called him Oman. They were all the different names for my youngest Uncle. We have names that are registered in the birth certificates which the family does not use. Instead they call us by other names. My older brother is Prabha but he is called Valsan. My grandfather and Prakash called him Prabha but my parents and grandma called him Valsan. His friends call him Siva.

My name is Prasanna. My grandfather and Prakash called me Prasanna but the rest call me Baby.
My younger sister is Sree and again grandfather and Prakash called her Shree the rest call her Sheela.
Sobha, Harish and Suresh have no other names but their given names, so there is less confusion.

"Omana, eat or drink something," my mother fussed.
He looked up at her and waved her outstretched hand away.
"Akachi, I'm not hungry."
My Mum always comforted distressed people with food and drinks, her remedy for all things that upset set rhythms.

Prakash was of medium height and build. He had a flat abdomen and thick straight hair. Nose was a bit thick and so were his lips. Eyes were piercing but always filled with mischievous laughter. The best part of him was his voice and his diction. He spoke so well, whether in English or in Malayalam. I have never heard anger in his voice or seen it in any of his actions. His skin was a light brown and his finger nails were always so well kept. But on that day, there was no laughter. There was no hardness nor any sort of feeling in his eyes. I thought the hospitals had done it to him.

"Shashidhara, your bad times are ending," came grandfather's voice, filling in the silence.  Slowly his gaze shifted from the Hindu almanac he was scrutinizing to his son's face. He saw his son's hand go up yet again, in a gesture to silence him. Grandfather did not speak again.

He looked at his son, closed the thick book, his seventy five year old face inscrutable as he slowly got up to put the book away. Everybody seemed to be moving in slow motion. That was the first time, I had ever seen my uncle, or anyone in my mother's family, stop my grandfather from saying anything.

"Acha, put that away. I don't want to hear it," Prakash said to his departing father without any rudeness. There was a feeling of tiredness in his voice.  He moved his gaze slowly away from his father's back and focused on the old dark brown wooden floor of the pre-war shop house. Both his hands resting on his knees.

My mother looked hurt, confused and slightly agitated. She was not sure what to say or do, but felt that she had to do something. Mother was not the typical Indian mother but neither was she anything like the more liberal Chinese and Malay mothers of our friends. She did not look very Indian for a start. If she had donned a Baju Kurung (traditional Malay attire worn by Malay women), she would have passed off as a bona fide Penang Malay!

I loved to look at her feet and often told her that when she stood barefooted, her feet looked like two Chinese fans with all the toes spread out evenly. She would smile and look at her feet. She was not quite four feet ten inches tall, with straight hair and a slightly flat nose. Her striking feature was her dimpled smile and she smiled often. A good conversationalist, her Malayalam humour was a in a class of its own.

Grandma's face did not change at all. Uncle Samy, balled hands in his pockets, walked purposefully up and down from the end of the corridor to the balcony, looking straight ahead, carefully avoiding looking at anyone or touching anything. I felt pain for my grandfather as I watched his two sons.

I looked at my Grandma. Almost immobile after a stroke, she lay still on the cheap green, plastic worn-out settee. She would have heard every word. Her once beautiful face, that looked so Chinese, was bloated and greasy, her hair grey and untidy and strewn over her face and the settee. Her arms and legs stick thin, stuck out of the settee like two fragile bamboo rods. Her eyes almost opaque, were fixed on her youngest son's face in an unblinking blank stare. Her masked face hid her thoughts, her emotions, her hopes and fears, if any. Her mundu was smudged, stained and was no longer white. It was dirty. "Why hadn't someone changed her?" I wondered.

This was the same grandmother, who when she came from India, soon after the war with her children, had had no idea how to become a housewife. She had never cooked a meal before, and she never cooked a meal in Malaya for herself or her family thereafter, because she had no idea how to cook, and that is why my memories of life with her in her house in JB are so unique and endearing. My grandfather never badgered her to do any housework and kept her in comfort but, in a house that was soon to become her prison.

She simply did not have a clue about housework either. She was the pampered only daughter of a lower middle-class family in her village in Kerala. And the extended family members and her mother did all the housework. My mother would often say that my grandma only had to rise early, take a bath, change into clean fresh clothes, say her prayers and relax. She would sit and read or lie down or chat with her friends.

My Grandma lived in her family home, Kavinda Thekathu, in Mayyanad with her four children and her widowed mother. Her only brother lived on another property nearby. My mother often spoke about her maternal uncle, Grandma's only brother, older than her, Paramoot. His son Yashodharan came to Malaya and stayed in close touch with us for many many years.

When Grandma's brother visited her in their home in Mayyanad, Grandma would go inside her room and speak to him from her room. Her mother would sit with him and chat but Grandma never sat and faced him when she spoke. He would reply and both never made eye contact. I am not sure of the reason for this. I wish I had asked my mother or grandmother about it. They told me that he was a tough man with an iron-strong body who feared nobody. He was soft-spoken and respected by the community.

Before the war, Grandma's brother left for Ceylon and he never ever returned to Mayannad. Mum spoke about rumours that he had married a Sinhalese lady and had another family. His family in Mayyanad suffered much hardship after he left and during the war. His wife and daughters had to go to work, making coir rope, from coconut husk. It was very humiliating and difficult. When I visited Mayyanad with my parents in 1997, we went to their home and met some of them.

People who stayed in 15 Jalan Dhoby

Grandma would sometimes go down the stairs after breakfast, and sit on the bottom stair and look out on to the road. The road sweepers and the drain sweepers employed by the Public Works Department were from South India. Many of them were too ignorant to have a small family and too poor to send their big brood of children to school. Workers from estates, mainly Indians from South India, often kept their children away from school but took them into the fields to tap rubber or do some other coolie work. But there were the odd fathers who would come trudging to JB town in search of  townsfolk who would take in their boys and educate them in return for work that their boys would do in the house. Nearly every morning, some worker would stop by the front door.

One name that remains in my memory is Pakiri. I remember an ebony skinned thin man of medium height. He used to have a towel or some sort of material wrapped around his head like a mini turban. He wore khaki shorts and I do not recall any form of footwear. When I try to get a clear picture of his face, I get a composite picture of all the Indian PWD workers of that era - fifties Malaya. They invariably had thin hands and legs unlike their Chinese and Malay counterparts. And they chewed betel leaves that left their mouths stained red. They had very dark skin and they never answered back or stood up for themselves when they were scolded. The one thing they had in common with my grandmother was India. They had no hopes of going back and she was full of hopes and plans about going back.

Grandma would offer them water. She would talk to them about educating their children. Slowly, 15 Jalan Dhoby became a home for a number of boys who lived there, studied in the local English schools and helped around the house. Each had a mat and a place to sleep. They were given food and had to do their homework and their share of the housework - sweep, clean, go out and buy food. Home clothes were washed in the house or by the Indian dhoby who would come and collect them every morning and return them, ironed and folded, in the evening or the next day. Clothes that we wore when we went out, were sent to the Chinese dhoby who was seen as a cut above the Indian dhoby.

Grandfather, was an Ayurvedic Vadhyar. He had studied in a college in Aaluva or a place that sounded like Aaluva. His certificate was displayed on the wall of his consultation room. There was a picture of him in long pants and shirt, also on the wall. But I have only seen him dressed in a white veshti, a white long sleeve cotton shirt with a singlet underneath, a nayriathu and black sandals. He carried a black umbrella wherever he went. His hair was straight and parted almost in the middle. His skin was brown and his features were not really sharp. His outstanding feature was his gentleness. It was his income from his patients that ran the house. The only paying tenant there was Chellapan who came from Layang Layang Estate.

Grandmother was very light skinned with flat features and a flat nose, thick lips and plump cheeks and a plump figure. Put together, she was lovely to look at.  She was very dramatic and carried out all sorts of antics with the broom and sometimes spoke to herself  because there was no other lady in that house to converse with her. She placed top priority on cleanliness and looking pretty. She would make us wash our faces a number of times every day, apply Hazeline Snow and powder, avoid direct sunlinght and insisted that we walked elegantly from one place to another. No running around inside the house.

Once a year before Onam, she and the boys would wall paper her bedroom and whitewash the entire house. That was the only job I have ever seen her do. She always dressed in a white cotton mundu and sleeveless blouses when in the house. Some years later, when I was in Secondary School, I began to sew her blouses for her!

She would wear a sari when going out. Her hair, which was wavy would be put up in a bun.  And as the years passed and when her hair began to thin, she would use a thirupan, a hairpiece, to give it bulk. Once when I asked her why her hairpiece was so rough, she said that it was made of monkey hair! I never touched it after that. 

Uncle Samy was not his real name. He was our Eldest Uncle. His real name was Siva Das. He stopped working as a draughtsman one day in the fifties and never worked again. My mum said that a lady had broken his heart. My Dad said that he was plain lazy. My grandfather said that his time was bad and grandma said that her son did not have to work. We children were never allowed to say anything. He was the only grumpy person in that house. He had some weird habits like standing behind a door for hours and staring at the wall or entering the only bathroom and not coming out again for hours. My dad then christened him Samy. And the name stuck.

My mother, was the only daughter in her family. She was a very bright student in India and her studies were interrupted by the war. She had led a very carefree life there as the pampered only daughter who was the great love of her father. When her grandmother died after the war had ended, grandfather who was in Malaya then, decided to bring his family out to JB where he lived and operated his Ayurvedic Clinic. So they all sailed on the SS Rajula and landed in Singapore in 1946, for what they thought was going to be a temporary stay.

In Malaya, it soon became apparent that my mother was to be married to a young man, distantly related, who also resided in 15 Jalan Dhoby. She did not want to get married. She was 15, she wanted to go to school, study and become a teacher. Her brothers were enrolled in the Union School at first, but she was not. She rebelled but for once, no one listened to her as they had when they were living in Mayyanad. She was a child whose mother still bathed and dressed her! Mum had a most unusual name. Her name was Prasadini. We have not met another Prasadini yet. And yes, grandfather was the official name giver in our family.

Mum got married and stayed with her parents in 15 Jalan Dhoby until I was four. Mum and Dad lived upstairs, using one room while another couple used the other room upstairs. Grandparents and the uncles lived downstairs. My uncles called my mother, "Akachi" which means older sister. My brother and I called our mother Akachi until we moved out of our grandparents' house. We called our father Achan, which means father. The uncles called my grandfather Achan as well. To differentiate the two Achans, we called our grandfather Matayachan. Matay meaning the other. Soon it was shortened to Mataychan.

My Father is P Krishnan / Krishnan s/o Palmanabhan. He is called Kunju Krishnan. Dad is a very silent person with a hot temper and most times we kept out of his way. He and my mother are like chalk and cheese. Dad is very light skinned, slim, has curly hair and light coloured eyes. He is a very kind person and I do believe that his family meant a lot to him. I have memories of my Mum and Dad sitting on the floor and Dad teaching my mother mathematics. Yes, mathematics for he was doing a correspondence course in engineering. He did not complete the course and Mum stopped studying Maths.

Uncle Prasad, our Second Uncle, was about 9 or 10 when he came from India. He was the third in his family and he was quiet, kind, friendly and most helpful. He was a most unique uncle. He never spoke to us in baby language at all. He taught us to love books and reading. He taught us to play draughts, chess, ludo, snakes and ladders and carom at a young age. He was never violent in any way, so we felt safe. He answered all our questions all the time, and helped build our self-esteem. He never used any bad words, never exaggerated or told tall stories, never raised his voice and always made us feel very special.

He made us think, reason and develop our intellect. He was a Mathematics and English Language teacher. He took us to see shows like The Greatest Show on Earth, Samson and Delilah and Professor and got us books by the Bronte sisters, Dickens and the other great classics. The house was full of books. That is how we all developed our love for books and learning.

Uncle Prakash, the Youngest Uncle, was fun. There was excitement when he was around. In the middle of JB runs the Sungei Segget, a dirty smelly river. After school and before coming home, he would jump into the river and swim with the rubbish, not fish for no fish could survive in such filth, my grandfather said. One day, it was said, that my grandfather took a cane and caned him and that stopped his swimming sprees.

He was a good speaker and told stories with so much of drama, to his mother, his sister and to us. He studied in Naval Base Singapore, in English College and later in the University of Singapore before going off to England. We remember his Hawaian shirts, his Arrow shirts and his sense of dressing and speech. He taught at the Johor Tutorial College in Jalan Wong Ah Fook, run by a Mr Pannicker, to help pay his university fees. His best friends at one time were Wong Vee Han and Gabriel Lee. He introduced us to the world of Front Page Detective and other police stories and the Japanese store Echigoya in Singapore.

There were also many adults who stayed there. Those who came to Malaya from Mayyanad or Paravur in Kerala, came there first once they had disembarked, and stayed in Jalan Dhoby until they got a job and moved on, mainly to Bukit Timah in Singapore. Where did they all stay in that small house. I remember them all getting up in the morning and leaving the house in search of jobs. They came back at night to sleep. This went on until immigration laws became more stringent in the early fifties.

Among the adults I remember Yashodharan, the son of my grandmother's only brother. He came using the passport of one Sukumaran, so outside our family, he was Sukumaran. The other was my Dad's older brother Gnaneswaran, who became a tailor and opened up a lucrative tailoring shop in the army barracks making uniforms for soldiers, first in Majiddee in JB and later in Pulau Belakang Mati in Singapore. Then there was Karutha Kamalan who was a great joker and had filled the house with laughter. He was also a close relative and brother of Bhasy.


Grandmother would first ask all of us what we wanted. My brother loved his bratha, I liked my rava dhosa. One of the boys would get the food which would come wrapped in banana leaf and newspaper. We would take our bath first, say our prayers and then eat our breakfast.

Ten thirty in the morning:

Grandma would ask us what we wanted for mid-morning break. I loved the cup cakes sold in Chinese coffee shops with a spot of sugar icing shaped like a flower, perched on top of the cake. We were given 20 cents for mid morning break. The cake from Kheng's shop cost ten cents and I would use the other ten cents to get two colourful paper balls to play with.

Then the icecream man would come most days and ring his bell. Grandma would sometimes give us some coins to buy icecream. The man would tell us to pull a stick from a tin. If it was our lucky day, we would get an extra icecream. He called it 'tikam'. And we loved 'tikam'.

At times another vendor would come screaming out what sounded to our ears like, "oat oh, oat oh!" In later years we discovered it to be chendol. It was sold by a Chinese vendor and I have never tasted such delicious chendol since the time of that man. We would go down with a tumbler and twenty cents and he would fill it up with ice shavings, coconut milk, brown sugar syrup and the green jelly-like bits. Each of us would get a bit in a cup and we savoured every sacred drop of it.  How I used to tilt my head up and shake the cup to get the last drop into my mouth!

 I am glad my grandma could not cook. The lovable vendors who plied their trade along Jalan Dhoby knew us and gave us that extra bit of food and toothless smiles in exchange for our coins. Living there was nirvana. And having to share the small amount of food with everyone in the house, made the food that much more enjoyable and precious.

12 noon, lunch:

Grandma would ask us to make our choice of curry. Rice was cooked in the house by someone. We would make our choices and mind you we had to stick by our choice.  One of the boys would bring lunch from Kerala Restaurant, along Jalan Ibrahim. We had to use our own plate. We stood with our plate at the dining table. Grandma would open the package. She would put the food on the plate, crush the wrapper, put it aside and open the next package.

Grandfather would sit at the head of the table, with his back to the door of the main bedroom. I seem to remember him alternating between chicken curry and fish curry. After lunch we washed our hands, placed the plates in the sink and someone would wash up for us.

Then we walked around or sat quietly and read some books or just looked out of the window and watched life pass by. We were smack in the middle of JB town.

2 p.m.: 

Grandma would shut the windows and a very comfortable dark coolness would envelope the entire house. Our moods would change to one of calmness and restfulness. We children would go to the main bedroom. There was a big old four poster bed on the left when you entered the room. Against the wall facing the door was an old, big black dressing table.

After lunch, grandfather would lie on the bed. Between the foot of the bed and the window, next to the dressing table, there was some space for us to lay our mats. Prakash would lie on the mat closest to the wall on the left, next to him would be my brother, next to my brother was my mat and next to mine was my grandmother's, which would touch the wall on the right. The room was the width of four mats. We lay with our feet facing the window and our heads the door of the room. Can you now picture the room?

Often we would not sleep but she would tell us to rest. Sometimes we dozed off. I am not sure if she slept. I am not sure if my grandfather slept. But i am sure everyone was quiet and the house rested too.
At four she would wake us up and tell us to take another shower. We would then change our clothes once again and get ready for the evening programme.

Tea Time

Someone would make tea. We would have a bit of tea in small white porcelain cups with saucers. Grandma would dress in her sari and lead my brother and me down Jalan Pahang towards Jalan Ibrahim and the sea side. It was a very short journey that took about five minutes. She would stop at a shop just after the Jalan Tan Hock Nee junction, on the right. The shop belonged to a man called Peter, from Kerala. She would pick up a book.

Peter's wife dressed in a long skirt and a matching blouse. I think her favourite colour was yellow for most of her clothes were different shades of yellow. She was light-skinned and wore her hair in a long plait that came almost to her waist. Not a thick plait and her hair was quite curly. She would chat with my grandma for a few minutes and hand her a book or a magazine. Manorama or Madhra Bhumi. Grandma would now take us by the hand and walk to the end of Jalan Pahang and cross Jalan Ibrahim and move on to the grass by the seaside. There were so few cars on the road then.

There were lots of tall big trees. Around each tree there was a circular red brick wall that came up from the ground to below her waist in height. We would sit on the top of the wall. There were also concrete seats. Grandma would get one of those seats and settle down to read her book. My brother and I enjoyed running around, picking up stones to throw into the sea. I never went too close to the edge of the sea because the sea frightened me.

By seven the sun would start to set. The sky would be filled with colour. Each sunset produced a different pallette of colours. If we were lucky, we would see the sun as a round luminous, orange ball of fire, and we would watch it disappear into the sea. Grandma would put her book down because it was too dark to read and look out to sea very quietly. Her home in Kerala was near the sea.

She never revealed much about her thoughts. Sometimes we sat there until the sun had truly set. Once dark, the street lights would come on but the sea terrified me. I would see Singapore across the sea. The lights on the other side often cast a shadow into the water. I was sure that they were sea monsters. Grandma told me that they were lights, reflections. But i never believed her. I would then begin to bug her to go back.

We would cross Jalan Ibrahim and go past Amy's Bar to Kerala Restaurant next door. I would squat down near the front of Amy's bar. I desperately wanted to go in because there was a kind of excitement there. My grandma said that the  people inside were bad people. The men were European, many in their white or khaki uniforms. The girls were Chinese or Malay. There was music coming from a box which in later years I recognized as a juke box. The half swing door blocked out my view. I was fascinated by the legs that were all over the place and inter-twined. My grandma would tell me to get up.

The proprietor of Kerala Restaurant was a friend of my grandfather. He was Francis Mandor. Mandor due to the nature of the job he had once done in the estate. His wife would sometimes be at the till. A very fair, short pretty, plump lady whose face and smile I still see so clearly in my mind. Always dressed smartly in a sari with not a hair out of place.

I would order a rava dhosa. My brother always had a chapati and so did my grandfather. My grandma would have a plain dhosa. The boys in the house would order their food when they went to pick up our food.  Mrs Francis would give me broken bits of ladu which are very sweet. She never gave me a whole ladu and I always wanted a big round one. We would then walk back, stop at Peter's shop, return the borrowed book or magazine and pick up a Malayalam newspaper for my grandfather. One of the boys would pick up our dinner for us.

On reaching home, we would wash our feet and go to the Consultation room. There was an altar and grandfather would be at the altar. He would have lit the oil lamps. There was a big picture of Lord Krishna. My brother and I would chant the prayers that our mother had taught us from the day when we could mumble. I do not remember the exact day when I first learned to chant. I still remember some of the prayers my mother first taught me in Jalan Dhoby.

Once prayers were over we would have our dinner, almost always before half past seven. Grandfather would take his place at the head of the table and have two slices of Sunshine brown bread with some butter and a hot drink. Sometimes he had a piece of fish or chicken. But he never had more than the two slices of bread.

After dinner

We would walk around the house slowly and then find a place to sit and read. Most times I stood on the balcony and watched cars and people. In town, most of the shops closed by five or half past five and the town would become quiet. There were very few people on the road after six. I would wait for the green bus to come down the road, past Govindsamy's sari shop, Salahudin's Bakery, Chau Wah Sing's tailor shop, Mun Dhen's (Mun Fatt's) carpentry shop, Koh Beng Hiang's house, my grandmother's house, Bharat Store, Keng's coffee house and disappear from my view towards the old wet market and murah market.

There were people in the bus and I wondered where they were going to and where they were coming from. A few years later in 1960, when my parents bought a house in Jalan Abdul Samad and we moved there, we used the same Green Buses from the Alec Bus Company, number 46 and number 47 to travel to town and back. It was then that I uncovered the mystery of where they came from. There was no mystery. The buses just went in circles from morning till night. They started from the depot, near my grandma's house, next to the old market,  went  to Jalan Dhoby, past the Government Office, past the prison, into Jalan Yahya Awal, Jalan Tarom, Jalan Abdul Samad, Jalan Nong Chik, made a U-Turn and went back to the depot, stopped for a while and then went round again. Everything went in circles.

The Mariamman Temple - to be written

The Iron Trunk Under the Dressing Table

Before I tell you about going to bed, I have to tell you about my Grandma's green iron trunk that she kept under her dressing table. Grandma filled it with all sorts of stuff - saris, veshtis, material, biscuits, gold, slippers, skirts, dresses, chocolate, plates - to take to India. It was a green trunk. Every morning at around eleven, she would sit on the floor and pull it out towards her and open it to check the contents and tell us the identity of the recipient of each item. They were our unseen but much-heard-about relatives in India.

In all her life after coming to Malaya, she never once returned home to Mayyanad. The trunk under her dressing table never left the room and it never over-flowed. Why? Every time, someone came to her with a sad story, she would take out something from that box and hand over to that person for his use, or his wife's or child's. That box was a transit stop for all the things she had bought to take to India, or her sons had bought for her to take to India. My mother and grandfather were the only ones who visited India after leaving in 1946. Grandfather went in 1953. Dad took us all to India in 1963, they visited again in 1982, 1985 and I took them for the last time in 1997

8.00 in the evening, bed-time

The mats would be laid out. The tall shophouse windows with its shutters would be closed. One by one we would get to our mats and lie down. Grandma would lay out Prakash's mat. Prakash's mat would wait for him to come. Grandfather would lie on his bed. Uncle Prasad and Uncle Samy used the room with the balcony. Chellapan and the boys used Grandfather's consultation room.

From the ceiling of the corridor hung a long thin wire. At the end of the wire was a round Philip's bulb that was dim when lit. It was a sad light that lighted up the dark staircase with it chain-link kind of door.  The rest of the house was never dark for the street lights would push their way in through every crevice and crack in the wooden windows to light up the room in bits of designs and lines of light. The lights that pushed their way inside the house from the streets, were happy lights.

A Bed-Time Story

Grandfather would speak to us from his bed, and tell us to say our prayers before sleeping. Grandma would pray aloud. I would ask her to tell me a story, when she had finished her prayers. She always told me the same story. It was not an exciting story but it was a very comfortable one. It gave permanence to my spirit.

"There was an old man and an old woman. They were very poor  and had no children but they had a hen that laid an egg a day. They prayed for a child. The old man liked to eat boiled eggs but the old woman would not give him eggs to eat. She sold the egg in the market. One day the old man told the old woman to go to a certain place and meet a holy man who would give her a child. The old woman went there. She saw a man whose face was covered. He told her that she would have a child but she had to give him a boiled egg every day. She did so for a while and then she grew suspicious.

One day when she went there, she pulled off the cloth covering his face and found that it was her husband, the old man. She was very angry and she went home and packed all her clothes into a bundle and decided to leave the house. The old man tried to stop her but she would not listen. She picked up the bundle, placed it on her head and took a few steps. The bundle was very heavy. She tripped and fell.

The old man took the bundle of clothes and went back to the house. The old lady followed and they continued to live together and they never had any children anyway until the end."  End of the story. My grandmother unlike my mother, had only this one story that she told me, most nights.

The Magic Ceiling

I would lie waiting for the 9 0'clock Green Bus to come. Most nights my sleepy eyes would close and I would miss the bus. But when I managed to stay awake, I would hear it in the distance. The noise would get louder and louder and my heart would pound to its beat. That was the moment!

I open my eyes. It is approaching the corner leaving The National Electricity Board building, coming round the corner, reaching Govindasamy's sari shop, reaches Salahuddin's Bakery, the noise is really loud, I look at the ceiling, I see the ceiling light up with the light from the bus, the pattern moves from one end of the ceiling to another, the bus moves past our window. The pattern leaves our ceiling and moves away to light up other windows and ceilings along the road. The ceiling is dark once again and I close my eyes and go to sleep, very contented.

Love, Mother and Son

Grandma moves and I wake up. She slowly gets up and goes to the bench in front of the staircase. I hear her switch on the light in the tiny kitchen. She strikes a match, to heat up the rice and curry. I get the smell of kerosene and smoke. I don't move. I wait for the footsteps on the road outside the window. They get louder as they pass under our window, get softer as the walker turns to Jalan Pahang and the front door. Then I hear the footsteps on the stairs. Grandma opens the door. Prakash enters.

They talk in whispers. Then there is the sound of water running in the bathroom, the sound of porcelain plates and glasses.  Then he eats. After what seems to be a long while, they enter the room. He is in his white mundu.  He lies down on his mat and pulls up a thin sheet to cover his body. My brother would wake up. They talk. They sleep. I always ask him to tell me a story. He would tell me a very short story in Malayalam.

"Katha katha kanyarothil ambalathil thee pidichu pottipoyi." I never understood it. But it was a story. When he was not so tired he would tell us wonderful stories from Aesops in Malayalam. With Prkash on the mat, the family was complete and the house could go to sleep. I never knew fear, sorrow or pain in that house.

On some ocassions, he would wake Chellapan up and ask him to get us fried keow teow from Chinatown, 30 cents a packet. I would try to eat, but often could not. I wanted to eat for the company. We would eat from the paper and then there was no washing up to do. Grandfather would not eat but tell us about bad eating habits. We would agree with him even as we ate.

5 in the morning

"Narayana, Narayana, Narayana!" It was to the sound of Narayana spilling from my grandmother's mouth that we would all wake up. One by one and bit by bit, the house would come alive as mats were rolled up and placed on the table for mats. There were footsteps of people moving around from room to room. Windows would be opened. The boys would begin to sweep the living room, the consultation room and the room with the balcony. Grandma's room would be the last to be swept. Then someone would open the door and sweep the staircase.

One by one we would go to the bathroom to take our bath. Grandmother always made sure we took a bath in the morning and wore fresh clothes. We girls had to powder our faces and comb our hair neatly. Like her, we did not have to do any work.

As the house came alive, so did the town. Trucks would come and break the silence of the early morning. Cars would hoot, cyclists would ring their bells. Shops, especially Kheng's coffee shop and Salahudiin's bakery would come alive with the smell of freshly baked bread permeating the entire road and houses. Voices would come streaming upstairs, a blend of Chinese, Tamil, Malay, Punjabi and English.

I would walk to the room with the balcony. The door would be open, and dawn would be breaking but when you looked down at the culvert, the early morning congregation of old Punjabi men would be there. They would talk so loudly and were always dressed in white. They were big, light-skinned, had long beards and turbans and were on the whole very frightening to me. Very foreign too. Like my family, they too were immigrants who had come in search of a better life.

The shutters of the shops downstairs would open, small lorries would bring bags of things which  were hooked on to the backs of Chinese labourers who would often stoop very low, before carrying them into the shops. Prakash would rise and take his shower. Then he would go to the balcony and call out sometimes to a man on a bicycle. Chellapan would go down and pick up something for him.

Char Siew Pau and Chicken Pie - Wato Snack Bar

One day when I was about four, he gave me one small white hot steaming bun. That was the beginning of my love affair with Char Siew pau. Then one day, he took me to Wato Snack Bar and gave me a chicken pie. I was in heaven. It was so nice that I ate every crumb very, very slowly. And he taught me how to use a fork and knife. It was Prakash who introduced me to ice-kachang, to Chinese cakes, Malay cakes and noodles and Chinese noodle soup.

My brother and I would be the last ones to shower before my grandfather. My grandmother would begin the food ritual for the day by asking us what we wanted for breakfast. It was a routine that was never broken.

Grandfather after oiling his body, boiling his clothes and washing them, doing his exercise, taking his bath and saying his prayers, would take his place at the head of the table, under the chiming clock. He would have two half boiled eggs and two slices of Sunshine white bread with Golden Churn butter out of a can.

Grandfather would then go to his consultation room. Patients would come. Sometimes he would call me, "Molay" and introduce me as his grand-daughter. Or he would call my brother, "Monay" and introduce him as the young grandson. There were always people in that house. The door was always open. There was sunshine. There was peace. There was quiet. There was love and safety in that home.

"Omana, eat something. You will be ill."

My mother brought me back from the days of my childhood, back to the midst of the players who had all grown and changed over the last twenty years. There was silence.

"Prakash, you must come to my house. You must stay with me," I broke into the silence of a room that contained Prakash, Chellapan, Grandfather, Grandmother, Uncle Samy, my mother and I - all of us crowding into the tiny living room upstairs.

He looked up and said, "Yes, I will come when I return from KL." He gave me a long, hard look which I could not interpret and place in any familiar pigeon hole. I could not hold his look. I looked away.

He was wearing a white mundu, which is a plain white cotton sarong worn by people of my race, as a traditional attire for both men and women. And no shirt. This was the uncle who always stressed that no man should walk around the house without covering his body.

I heard Chandra hooting and knew I had to leave. I did not want to leave. I wanted to hold on to a bit more time in that house with those people.

Give me a bit more time, please!

But, you cannot hold time, not even when your clock breaks down. Time just moves and moves. You cannot hold in your hands something that is not holdable. You cannot touch it for it is untouchable. You can move with it and keep running with it to keep up with it. But your legs will soon tire, your eyes will soon close, your body will soon go limp and you start to slow down.  But time keeps on moving away from you at a steady pace. It starts slowly at the beginning.

Day after day you race on, until you have no more days left to race. Then, you lie down and close your eyes and realise that time is not your friend, time has no feeling, time is a movement that takes away all your days one day at a time, and on your last day, it leaves you behind as it marches on to a destination no one has seen. Time is unchanging. Time is never ending. You have an end. You change with time. Time does not change. Time, who are you?

Prakash got up from the chair that was next to the chest of drawers. An old radio used to sit on the chest of drawers, I remember, for no apparent reason. Grandma would dress up after her evening bath, and before going to the seaside, she would most reverentially switch on the radio. There would be Malayalam songs from 5 in the evening until 5.30. We would all sit and respectfully listen to the box. We would not make any noise. Everyone enjoyed the songs. My mum would sing along. My grandfather would smile as he read his almanac. Nobody disturbed the sanctity of radio time. I wondered where the radio had gone to.

"Omana, where are you going?" my mother got up to walk behind him. He smiled and walked past the cheap settee on which his mother lay, past the dining table against the wall and turned right to the darkened short corridor that led to the staircase and the kitchen. In front of the door, was a long brown wooden bench. He sat on the bench in front of the door and looked out of the door. My mother sat next to him. The door opened to the darkened staircase that went straight down to the wall in front, then you turned right and took another three steps to reach the door on the left. The door led to Jalan Pahang.

Whenever we visited our grandparents, we would enter the door and before taking the first step would call out, "Matay Acha." We would hear the reply almost instantly. "Molay." By the time we climbed the three steps and turned left to climb the next fifteen steps or more, he would be seated on the bench, with the door open. He would hug us, and lead us to the living room. Sometimes we would call out, "Amama." The reply would be the same.

In later years when she could not walk, it was always grandpa who would come to the door and lead us to grandma. Nearly all the boys had left, got jobs and had lives of their own. They visited ocassionally. Prakash was in England. Uncle Prasad got married and had moved off to a small town called Pontian, 36 miles away. He had his own family and rarely saw us. I believe his new wife did not care for our family.

15 Jalan Dhoby became lonely and quiet but remained peaceful. There were very few consultations. People no longer used Ayurvedic medicines in the way they did in the fifties. But Chellapan still stayed there.

Grandma began to use the single bed in the room with the balcony after she fell ill. I think that room offered her a view of the sky and the tops of the buildings across the road.

My grandparents' favourite drink was Greenspot. Everytime we went to town, we visited them. Every visit was a joyous one with some Greenspot if our luck was in.

A Walk with my Grandfather in JB town

Once in 1971, I remember that I wanted to buy some pottu and bangles to go with my sari. I had with me only about $2. I asked my grandpa if he would come shopping with me. He was 71 years old. He changed his veshti, said a prayer and together we set out. We walked for about two hours and entered all the little Indian shops in JB. As we walked, I began to enjoy my conversation with him and his company. The need for pottu and bangles died. Finally we returned home. Grandma wanted to see the bangles and the pottu. I smiled. Grandpa explained.

"Mollu, only wanted to go for a walk. It was a good walk."

I took a bus and went back home at about 6.30 which by my mother's standard was very late for a girl to be out alone. I can recall so clearly the conversation, the shops, the feelings that I shared that evening with my grandfather.

"Omana, go and take a bath. You will feel better. The train is at 8 0'clock," my mother fussed endlessly as he came back to the living room. He did not answer. She was worried. My father was quiet. My grandfather looked at him. My grandmother stared at him. Chellapan walked around him from time to time.

"Prakash you must come and visit me," I repeated.

He remained silent and just looked at me and walked with me to the door. I walked down the stairs to the car, stopped and then ran back up the stairs. He was still seated on the bench, looking out to the staircase. "Prakash, you must visit me." He looked up and said, "Yes, I will visit you."

"Bye, I will see you," I said and went back to the car. Chandra and I drove back to Landak Estate in  Paloh. Those were the last words he spoke to me.

Prakash was one of the most vibrant, brilliant, and witty persons who has touched my life. He grew up under quite difficult circumstances. He had a lot of good going for him and somehow luck evaded him, his mother and to some extent his father. But they were gentle people, that was their luck. They gave us happiness, peace and a safe haven when we needed to believe in people.

He was a student leader in the University of Singapore. I remember the excitement of the PAP and the election results of 1959 though I never understood it. Today there is a faded copy of a letter from Lee Kuan Yew thanking him and the students for their support, to remind us that it was not a dream.

The 8 0'clock night train on 4th August 1975

That evening, the 4th of August, my mum stayed with him until he left for KL with Chellapan on the 8 0'clock night train. My grandfather was taking 10 0'clock night train to KL. My parents went to the railway station to send him off. They were at the station before he arrived with Chellapan.

When mum saw him, she was most concerned. "Omana, why are you looking so pale? Sit down and have a drink."  He stared at her for a long long and did not say a word.

Dr Vijayan and his wife arrived. Vijayan and Prakash had been classmates since Standard One. He spoke to Prakash for a short while. Vijayan's wife Hema was in tears.

"Why is Omana looking like this?" Mum asked Vijayan.
"Nothing. He is tired. He walked from Jalan Dhoby."

Prakash entered the train and took a seat on the other side and looked out of the window into the darkness away from the people waiting on the platform.

"Omana, why are you not talking?" Mum asked through the open window of the carriage.
"Nothing, Akachi, you go back. I will see you in KL."
"Omana, there is something wrong with you. I know it. Tell me."
"Nothing Akachi.' He turned and looked out of the window into the darkness on the other side of the track once again.

The whistle blew. The train was beginning to move away from the platform. He turned around and looked at his sister and waved. There was intense sadness in his face, Mum told me.  Chellapan and he moved further and further away into the darkness as the train pulled out of the station, and that was the last my mum saw of her youngest brother. Not quite the last but the last.

Grandfather reached KL the next day. He rang my mother very early in the morning from the hospital and told her that Prakash was not well. She should come and visit. Mum and Dad went to KL. I am not sure how they went since their car was with us.

6th of August 1975 Kuala Lumpur General Hospital

They contacted me. Chandra took leave and on the 6th of August 1975, we left Landak Estate at half past six in the morning. As we drove out, there was a thick mist. The mist would come ocassionally and visibility would be hampered. My thoughts kept flitting back to retrace my 25 years.

The uncle who was almost ten years older than me. The uncle who had registered me in school when I was five. The uncle who took me to school on my first day. The uncle who would be in the Convent on certain days to study French and would give me 20 cents if I should see him during my interval.

He took me to get my first Identity Card - it was a red Identity card since my parents were not Malayan citizens. He told me my photograph was good. I told him that I had never signed my name before and did not know how to do it. He told me to relax and just write it. So we waited for a while and spoke. Then he asked me if I was ready to sign. I looked at him. He told me it was easy and that we were in the Government Office and how important it was. He did not rush me. I signed my name. He told me to memorise my IC number. Which I did. Below is a picture of the majestic government office building in JB where I got my first Identity card.

The uncle who told me that he had touched the sky. That the sky came down behind his school, English College. The uncle who gave me the burning desire to study and go to English College. When I did my Form Six in EC I would often walk to the back and remember being five, wanting to go to that school in order to touch the sky. My uncle was magic and my imagination knew no bounds.

I was almost five and we were staying in No. 100 Jalan Lumba Kuda Lama. Our neighbours were all Chinese. The immediate neighbour was Sau Siah, her brothers Sau Meng and Sau Leng, the mother whom we called Sau Siah's mother, and their father whom we called Sau Siah's father. They rented a room to an old Teow Chew couple. That couple would come to our house in the afternoon to talk to each other. The man was hard of hearing and they could not talk in their house for people would hear them.

When I was almost five, Sau Siah was 15 going on 16. Her brothers were younger. Her mother sold eggs in the market and was a friend of my grandfather and my father. She told us to rent the house next to hers. One day, she made a cheongsam for me. I had quite light skin and had inherited the flat features of my maternal grandma.

There was a school concert in English College and my uncle came to our house and told my mother that he wanted to take me along. I was thrilled. Both Sau Siah's mother and mine, dressed me in the cheongsam and I trudged along happily to English College. I do not remember how we went there. Most probably by bus.

I remember my uncle taking me to the hall and telling me to stand there against the wall. He was going to the toilet. He told me not to move. I did not move. When he came back, he told me that only very clever children could attend that school. It was that moment when I decided to go to EC.

Thirteen years later, in January 1968, my father dropped me off at the front gates of EC. I walked in proudly,  through the front gates and was told that all new Lower Six Students had to assemble in the hall. I walked over to the wall where I had waited for my uncle when I was five in a cheongsam.  I was in the jungle green skirt, white shirt and bow string that all Form 6 female students had to wear. That was the happiest day of my life.

I closed my eyes and said a prayer to St Jude. I remembered that I had kept the promise I had made to myself when I was almost five.

The mist had cleared. Chandra and I drove from Paloh to Yong Peng, the road with the 126 bends. From Yong Peng we drove towards Gemas and then Segamat. We passed Chaah, we kept going north. We reached Seremban after what seemed to be hours. Finally at about 11 or so we reached the General Hospital. We found our way to the doctors' quarters and I found our old family friend, relative? Lal Kumar. He directed me to the ward.

I went to the ward. Prakash was on the bed. His eyes were closed. He had tubes running from his arm and his leg. He had something else to let his urine flow. I looked at his neck, the left side of his neck, and saw a pulse beating. My mother was standing by his side, holding his hand.

"Omana, we are all here. You are going to be all right. You don't worry." She was his older and only sister.

My grandfather was on the other side of the bed. Chellapan was also there. I am not sure where chandra was. I think he found Surey, who was a doctor there at that time.

I watched his face. His eyeballs were moving. He lips were still. Only the pulse kept beating, my eyes were glued to the pulse.

It was beating fast. Did it slow down a bit? Yes, it did. I looked carefully. Yes, it was slowing down.
"Ma, it is slowing down."
"What does it mean?"
"Ma, i don't know. Chandra, call Surey. Tell him the pulse is slowing."

Chandra goes to the counter and calls. Surey is having his lunch. He will come when he finishes. I run to the counter and call Lal.
"His pulse is slowing. I can see his toe nails and fingers, they are turning blue from the base."
"I am coming now," and the phone goes dead.

I rush back to the bed. I hold his hands and look at the blue line that was moving from the base steadily to the end of the nails. The pulse can hardly be seen. I look up and Lal is there. He holds my mother and tells her something. She screams.

"He cannot leave me. He cannot go. I won't believe it. I want to go with him.'
"Ma, don't shout," but she does not hear anyone or see anyone but her brother.

My aunty Wasa's younger sister, Valsa who is a nurse, is there. She is expecting her first baby. My uncle Prasad is there. Why do I notice such things when my life is going to change so much and yet remain the same?

Suddenly, there is a loud sound.
"Is that a bomb?" My mother regains her senses. It is a clear afternoon.

"Come with me to the toilet." I follow my mother to the toilet. The shock was so great that she starts to bleed. I call the nurse. She gets her sanitary pads. My mother goes back to the bed and says, "Take away the cloth from his face. He cannot go to the mortuary." Valsa tells her that they have to cover the face. Lal makes sure that he does not go to the mortuary.

Lal arranges for the ambulance. Chandra calls Ronald Quay and arranges for the obituary. I write it down that he passed away suddenly. I did that in my ignorance. For me it was too sudden. Many people thought he had died in an accident. I did not write that he had passed away peacefully.

My mum follows him in the ambulance with Chellapan. My father comes with Chandra and me. Grandfather travels with us. We begin the journey to JB at about four. He had passed away at 2.25 p.m.

We reach JB by about 7.30 or 8.

6th of August 1975, Jalan Abdul Samad, Johore Bahru

Sobha, Harish and Suresh were left in charge of our home in Jln Abdul Samad.

The story as related by Sobha:

"It was a very gloomy and depressing day. Everyone felt that something not pleasant was happening or going to happen. The boys were in the house and we stayed together and the day seemed to be passing very slowly. There was no news from anyone in Kuala Lumpur.

Nobody had cooked anything. We were hungry and by evening I asked Harish to go to town and get us some noodles. Harish left, leaving Suresh and me in the house. Dr Vijayan came to the house. He asked us how we were. I had a bad feeling and told him: "Don't tell me, my uncle passed away!"

"Who told you?" was his reply.
Nobody had told me. It had been such a bad day. Dr Vijayan left after making sure that we were fine.

Just then Harish came tearing down the road to the gate. He was very scared. He told me that some boys in a group had started to chase him when he got down from the bus. He had brought the food from Chinatown. I told him that we could not eat the food. Prakash had passed away and there should be no non-vegetarian food consumed in the house. We gave the food to the neighbours.

I am not sure who told Uncle Ananthan but he came and soon we had to get the house ready to receive the Body of my uncle. All of us were in a state of shock. It was the first death in the family and the first funeral from our house. We could not do anything but wait for parents to come and tell us what to do. The reality of the situation would not really sink in.

I was nineteen, Harish was sixteen and Suresh was fourteen going on fifteen.
People started to arrive by car and then the ambulance drew up. My mother and Chellapan were in the ambulance with Prakash. Mother had his head on her lap and there were blood stains on her clothes."

Back home in Johore Bahru

Chandra, my father, grandfather and I arrive before the ambulance. We get the hall ready for the Body. From now he is no longer my uncle but the Body. We get white sheets and a pillow, a mat and some other stuff.

My mother arrives. The Body is brought inside the house. That is the first funeral in our house. He is placed on a mat on which a white bedsheet had been spread. His feet are in the direction of the door.

Uncle Ananthan is there. He is given the job of telling my grandmother. The bond between my grandmother and my uncle is one I have never seen before or after. At about five in the morning uncle Ananthan goes to 15 Jalan Dhoby with Uncle Prasad. My grandmother is awake. My uncle Samy is with her.

"Anantha, from morning  I could not sleep. I had a terrible stomach ache. I had an upset stomach. Why are you here at this time Anantha?"

"Amayi, you change your clothes and come. We will go to Prasadini's house."

"Why at this time?"

"No particular reason. Just come."

My grandmother, uncle Samy, Uncle Prasad and Uncle Ananthan came to our house by 5.30 in the morning.

As she was led into the hall, she looked at her son on the floor. There was the oil lamp near his head. She was led to the mat and she sat and looked at her son for a long time.

"Isn't that Shashidaran?" No one answered.
"Why is there an oil lamp near his head?" No one answered.
She reached out and touched him. Then she lay down next to him. "Chellapa" she called.
Chellapan came from our room, took one look at Prakash, cried loudly and went back to the room. All of us cried.

Grandfather spoke to her. "He has gone. We are all going but his time has come earlier," he explained. She remained silent. Then she wailed, "Shashidara, you have left me." That was the only time she cried out aloud.

I walked to the kitchen. My mother was sitting on the floor in the kitchen, leaning against the storage table. Her legs were straight out and she was crying inconsolably.

"Eniki ithu sahikaan vayathila. Avan poyathu eniki orukalavum sahikan okathila." (I cannot take this. Him leaving is something i will never ever be able to accept. Or something to that effect.)

I did not know what to say. I told her not to cry. She just looked at me pitifully. I realised that I was not capable of the kind of intense love that members of her family shared. It was sacred.

I went back and sat next to my grandmother and uncle.
My older brother was not in JB.
My sister Sheela was in UK.
The rest of us were in JB.

My father went to Pakriamma's house to send a telegram to Sheela. He said, Prakash 'expired'. That word 'expired'.
Hours later my sister called Pakriamma's house. I spoke to her. She was crying.

I am not sure who made the funeral arrangements. My grandfather has always been a pillar of calm and strength when we needed strength.

My father said that Prakash should be cremated.
Grandfather said, "Krishna you don't know. He has to be buried." I forget the reasons for it. There was some disagreement. But Prakash is my grandfather's son.

All of us moved from one part of the house to the Body and back to other places. I informed my best friend Selva. Selva is the dearest friend I have ever had. She has a heart of pure gold. She came.

When you grieve, you realise that you are so alone. When you are happy, you feel that you are a part of a crowd.

7 August 1975

It is morning.
I am not sure who offered, but I want to buy red roses for my uncle. I want 34 roses for his 34 years. i get a card. I find the letters of his girlfriend Christina from Sweden. She has sent him a red heart. Whoever went to the florist, told me that they could not get me the red roses. They got me 34 red carnations. I wrote a letter and enclosed Christina's heart and placed the flowers and letter in the coffin.

They take the Body to the back for the traditional bath.
Suresh and Harish rush in and say, that when water was poured the eyes opened.

"Is he alive?' it's my mother's desperate hope.

"I want to cut his hair and keep." My mother looks at me. When she gets very loving with me, she calls me her pearl. She did then and said, "What for?  He is gone. Let him go."

They take the Body out to the porch. My heart breaks. All our hearts break. The house is full of people.The roads are crowded with cars.

My grandfather speaks and there is not a dry eye there. I see my father cry for the first time in my life.

"Son, you go first. We are all coming. You won't be alone. Mother and I will be coming. We will all meet again. Don't cry, let him go happily. We are all going to go." I do not remember much after that. As the hearse leaves the gate, I scream, "I want to go with him to the cemetery." Chandra tells me to stop. It is my uncle. It is my childhood friend. It is a part of my life that is being taken for burial. Selva appears. She holds me.

The hearse leaves. We ladies remain. Many people help to wash the house. We have only one bathroom. We have to take our baths before the others come back from the graveyard.

There is an unreal feeling.
I make up my mind.
Prakash has gone back to England.
He is not dead.
I can deal with my grief.

I go to the kitchen. My mother is in front of the storage table. She is crying not so loudly and speaking to herself.

Selva comes with her sister. She brings food for us - vegetarian food, dhosa and sambar.

My mother's grief led her to a breakdown and an addiction to tranqilizers. For the next ten years she got up, cooked, cleaned and took a pill and slept. Got up, had something to eat and took a pill and slept. Vijayan slowly weaned her away from the pills and her dependence. She took in boarders, and tried to be happy. She never got over the death of Prakash.

On the 16th day, we went to the grave. That was the first and last time I went to his grave. He is the only one in our family who is lying in an unmarked grave in Kebun Teh, JB. That is one last duty to an uncle who deserves to be remembered, that has not been fulfilled.

I move from being 25 to being 61.
I move from 1975 to 2011.

6th August 2011

It is the 6th of August once again.
36 years have passed since Prakash left us.
30 years have passed since my grandmother left us.
24 years have passed since my grandfather left us.
9 years have passed since my mother left us.
4 years have passed since my uncle Samy left us.

My uncle Prasad was taken ill on the 29th of July. He is older than Prakash. He is different but equally good. He was warded in Johore Specialist Hospital.

I drove down on Friday with Vivian and met with my son Roy and my brothers in JB.
I visited my uncle in hospital at night.
On Sunday I went back to Ipoh and to my job.

On the 5th of August my brother called to tell me that uncle was not looking good. I had two more chapters to write to complete the Standard One book that we were putting together for the school. I had completed the work by 3.30 p.m. I went to my Director and told her that I would not come in on Monday. She told me I had to interview someone to teach Malay. I looked at her and told her, "If my uncle dies, I am not coming here on Monday." She looked embarrassed.

Chandra had come to KL. There was a dinner we were going to attend on Saturday night in KL. Chandra had booked a hotel room. I thought I would rest for a while and then drive to KL. I did not have the energy to drive. I told chandra I would drive the following morning. My heart was heavy. Uncle Prasad was my only surviving maternal uncle. My link to 15 Jalan Dhoby was being iretrievably broken.

Like my grandmother, 36 years ago, I could not sleep. At four thirty in the morning I woke up, checked flights, called Joe the taxi driver, woke up my maid, packed my bags and left the house at 6.40 a.m.,
reached Kuala Lumpur International Airport and picked up my ticket. I got my boarding pass. My brother called. My uncle had passed away.

I was waiting to board when my brother told me, "Chechi, he passed away on the 6th of August."

With the departure of Uncle Prasad, the entire C.A. Raghavan family that had come from Mayyanad and Paravur have left the shores of Malaya. Well not quite, remnants of their bones are to be found in the sea off the coast of Johore Bahru.

To be continued.