Friday, August 5, 2011

The Last Days of 15 Jalan Dhoby, Johore Bahru

Today is the 5th of August 2011

It is another day for everyone but what a day it may be for some. I have been searching deep within my conscious mind for words that do not come to my finger tips as they hit the keys of this keyboard.

i was born on the 18th of July 1950 early in the morning, or so i was told by my then very young mother who was not quite nineteen when i was born as her second child. my parents lived with my maternal grandparents in 15 Jalan Dhoby Johore Bahru, which is a shop house. My parents lived upstairs and my grandparents lived downstairs.

i had a very peaceful childhood growing up with people who never raised their voices or their hands against any of us children.

my earliest memories of that house are vivid and yet vague. they have changed very little over the years.

My Doll
My dad got me a doll that could cry. i carried that doll everywhere and from then perhaps grew my love for children. one day, her arm came off and i saw the hollowness of the doll and she lost her magic. my dad fixed her arm but she was no longer real. i was three and my mum was pregnant with my younger sister sheela.

Ante Natal Checkup
My mother was going to the hospital for her checkups. I wanted to go with her. My grandfather took me in his arms and offered me an apple. i went to him and got the apple. when i turned around my mum had gone. i went to the stairs and cried for her but the door was closed and my grandfather in his gentleness told me that she would be back. i was so afraid that one day she would leave and not come back. it was also my first encounter with deceit. why did my gentle grandfather lie to me?

My sister arrives
My father took my mother to the hospital and he took me and my brother with him. my grandma was also there. we stayed in the garden while he went with  my mother to the ward. i remember his returning with her sari. i watched silently and wondered what she was wearing. the sari was not folded. why? it was rolled into a ball. it was yellowish orange in colour with some design. it was stuffed into a bag. we walked back to Jln Dhoby along the sea front. the sea front makes all journeys seem too short.

I cannot sleep
i remember not being able to sleep. my sister is in the cot. i am on the ground on a mat with my mother. my brother is asleep. i pick up my pillow and tell my mother that i want to go to my grandmother. she opens the door and sets me outside the door and closes the door. i walk to my grandma's room. my uncle prakash leads me in. i lie on the floor between my grandma and my uncle. soon i am fast asleep. now when sleep eludes me, i picture that wooden floor, the straw mat and my mind slowly relaxes into sleep.

it is afternoon. my uncle prasad is on the floor with his art block, paint and water. he uses the saucer to mix the colours. i watch as he paints some pictures and i think what a great artist he is.  he offers me the brush and allows me to dabble a bit. I am overjoyed and feel every so smart and important. he always treated us with respect. he was gentle and soft spoken, not very tall but well built. he had curly hair and a mole on his nose. he always laughed as he spoke to his mother, his father, my mother and to all of us.

i wanted to go to school. he was in form five in 1955 the year i was five.  his cousin joined the navy but my grandmother was so afraid that he would drown if the ship would sink. he joined the teachers training college and trained to become a teacher.

he was a teacher in Temenggong Abdul Rahman School in Johore Bahru. he had loads of friends and they would all come to grandmas house. years later in 1960 when we moved to our present house in Jalan Abdul Samad he would bring his friends home to our place for meals. My mother was a great cook and he enjoyed showing off her cooking skills to his friends.

1958 ill with a fever
i was in standard 2 and all of us caught a fever. one by one the others got better. we knew we were well when mother gave us a head bath and allowed us to walk around. i was given a head bath twice but immediately afterwards was confined to my bed with a high fever. Dr Yeoh of the People's Dispensary was our family doctor. after the second bath and when the fever went up, it was decided that i had to be taken to the hospital.

mother waited for father to come. we were staying in Bukit Chagar and it was really very rural and no cars could come to the front of the house. when my father came home, he carried me in his arms and took me to the main road. from there he caught a taxi and took me to hosp. i was warded. he left me there and went home. i was too ill to cry and went to sleep.

somewhere in the night, close to midnight i believe, a gentle hand touched my cheeks. it was my uncle prasad.  i am not sure how he heard about me. he was then teaching in Kota Tinggi. he spoke for a while and told me not to worry. i would be fine. he then went back.

last week on the 30th when i visited him in hospital, that night kept playing in my mind. i told him about it and he appeared to remember. role reversal.

playing football
there was a big field next to our house in bukit chagar. prakash and prasad were there one evening and they were playing football. how far they could kick the ball. they were so close to each other. prakash was in form six in english college. prasad was a teacher in jb again.

the quarrel
we all heard about the big quarrel. what caused it, we do not know. but what we do know is that the two brothers were never so friendly ever again, until prakash died in 1975. we never saw them fight or quarrel. but the easy friendship was gone. in 1964 prakash left for uk and we never saw much of him for a number of years.

the rambutan tree
my uncle had a friend Mr Chak Ho Yen who lived in scudai. they together with my father got two rambutan trees for our garden. the red variety died. the yellow one survived. it is there, minus its heyday glory. those were happy days when we all gathered in our house during the weekend and trade stories outside near the gate until the wee hours of the morning.we would put mats on the cement and watch the stars. my uncles and mum would have endless stories of relatives in india and there was so much of laughter. dad never joined in.

my mathematics teacher
my uncle was a mathematics teacher in pontian the town he moved to just before he got married. he never came back to jb again to work. with his marriage, we lost the closeness and the friendship. we never saw much of him or his family. but i do believe the love was always there. he would help me with my maths when i was in form two. he never had a temper.

angry mother
my mother would get really cross with him for not visiting and would be scolding him. but the moment she saw him, she would smile and say, "How can anyone get angry with him? he is such a poor thing. "

war time and hunger
during the war, food was scarce and money from malaya from grandfather did not come for nearly three years. my great grandma would tell the children, my mother, uncle prasad and prakash not to come home for lunch for there would be no lunch.

my mother and prakash could stand the hunger but not my uncle prasad. he would walk to the house and when he saw the face of his grandma he would turn around and go back to school and play with his friends, thus forgetting his hunger.

after schoool at four the three of them would return from school. there would be porridge but no rice. he would look at the plates of the others and if his plate looked less full he would push his plate away and his grandmother would take her food and give him. he had a good appetite. i regret not taking him to India when i visited with my parents in 1997.

my brother called me this morning after ten to tell me that he is really in a critical state. why do i not feel the devastation that i should be feeling. he is the last surviving member of his family. they were such a close knit family. i would like to believe that they are waiting for him to enfold him in their warm embrace. there cannot be two more loving souls than my mother and grandmother and my great grandmother i am told. i get the feeling that he is going home.

i shall pack my bags and go home to jb tomorrow. tomorrow is another day. our family moved into jalan dhoby in the 1920s - my grandfather and his two brothers. his older brother was the very wealthy one. my grandfather was the ayurvedic medicine man and his younger brother opened the first photo studio in johore bahru. my father was brought from india by my grandfathers older brothers wife. she was his aunt. and my dad was about ten. before the war everyone except my grandfather and my father sailed back to the safety of india.

if my uncle should pass away, the tie with 15 jalan dhoby which lasted for close to 80 odd years will be severed. so today as i write it is truly the last days of 15 jalan dhoby for us.....................

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